Francis Russell reviews Liquid Evil, discussing economics, politics and truth itself, ultimately considering the possibility of a resistance to late-capitalist subjectivity.

Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis, Liquid Evil (Polity, 2016) 192pp.

Developed as a sequel to their 2013 dialogue—published as Moral Blindness (Polity)— Liquid Evil (Polity 2016) finds the venerable sociologist and political theorist Zygmunt Bauman and the esteemed philosopher, political theorist and former member of the European Parliament Leonidas Donskis returning to the crisis of late-capitalism and neoliberal rationality. Weaving through a plethora of topics—such as, but certainly not limited to: central and eastern European literature, the legacy of Orwell and Huxley, twentieth-century cinema, the 90s political and economic crisis in the Baltic states, and the metaphysical problems offered by manichaeism—Bauman and Donskis unpack a series of interlinked contemporary crises relating to truth, economics, and politics.


For both figures, our contemporary situation and its crises must be understood as being marked by the absence of centralised forms of power and hegemony, and should instead be approached in terms of the radically decentralised power after which the text is named. “Liquid evil” is, on Bauman and Donskis’s account, the appearance of a destructive interlinked financial, political, and military system that offers politics without a concern for any particular polis and that functions strategically—i.e., sophisticatedly—without any sense of telos. Such a system is without a hegemon and without reliance on what Louis Althusser would have called ISAs—or Ideological State Apparatuses—but manifests itself  instead in extreme individualism coupled with a sense of fatalism, the sense that there is no alternative to the status quo[1]. “There Is No Alternative” or TINA, a campaigning slogan used by the British Conservative party under the leadership of Margret Thatcher, is taken by Bauman and Donskis as emblematic of liquid evil, insofar as the destruction and instability inherent in our situation is no longer understood as a form of radical alterity that must be overcome or struggled against, but is, instead, merely part of the broader functioning of the situation itself, and, accordingly, something to be simply tolerated and acquiesced. Whereas previous periods saw the rise of competing ideologies and radical alternatives, our own time, so Bauman and Donskis argue, is circumscribed by the logic of liquid evil, one that functions to produce the double bind of an injunction to take personal responsibility for the malignancies of the world whilst accepting the intractable nature of crisis.

Bauman and Donskis’s analysis of the disempowering effect of the dominance of a subjectivity that sees individuals internalise systemic crisis as being a product of personal failure, whilst simultaneously mistrusting all forms of solidarity and collectivity as antiquated—if not dangerous—is, perhaps, one of the most powerful themes that runs throughout Liquid Evil. Such a line of argument echoes the work of Jean Baudrillard, especially his text The Transparency of Evil (Verso), in which the effacement of alterity qua evil is posited as leading to the profusion, rather than the stemming, of violence and destruction. For Baudrillard, like Bauman and Donskis, the impossibility for radical alterity—even frightening or traumatic alterity—gives rise to the terrible push and pull of virulence and prophylaxis. While few could take serious the notion that evil truly exists in the world—as such a view must surely strike one as pre-modern and mystical—today the fear of cancer-causing free radicals in the body, youths at risk of radicalisation, and mental illnesses waiting to onset, terrorise the imagination and produce an unquenchable demand for security. In this sense then, evil has become transparent or liquid, without substantial existence and yet utterly and destructively insistent. Importantly, such a thinking challenges the neo-conservative notion that a clash of civilisations is upon us. Again echoing Baudrillard—though this time his late work, published as The Agony of Power (Semiotext(e))—Bauman and Donskis outline a far more significant threat that must be reckoned with, a dominant functionality that is at war with itself and that presents no alternative. Rather than opposing Western civilisation to Islamic fundamentalism, or technological nihilism to conservation, Bauman and Donskis argue that the present offers us the challenge of thinking beyond the search for a pure doctrine or mode of being, and towards the possibility of a radical alternative to the interlinked economic, political, and ecological crises that threaten us today.

While at times eclectic, Liquid Evil affirms a pluralism that resists the fluidity of late-capitalist subjectivity. At the level of argument this excellent text resists both the TINA narrative of neoliberalism that states that nothing can change, and the reactionary narratives of neo-conservatism that state the past is our only refuge. Against both these forms of thought Bauman and Donskis call for a truly progressive critical approach that can open the space for radical alternatives. Furthermore, at the level of style, by way of their capacity to coherently weave together such a broad range of figures, disciplines, and cultural traditions, Bauman and Donskis perform an affirmation of intellectual pluralism that never melts into senselessness or conceptual diaspora.

[1] The ethos of such individualism finds expression in the song “Whatever You Want” by the aptly named classic-rock (or dad-rock) band “Status Quo.” The song’s opening lyrics “whatever you want/whatever you like/whatever you say/you pay your money/you take your choice” embodies the banal consumerism and voluntarism that are such dominant characteristics of entrepreneurial subjectivity. Interestingly enough, the band worked with the Coles supermarket chain in Australia in 2013 performing an altered version of “Whatever You Want”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLGJttfhht4

Francis Russell is a sessional academic at Curtin University where he teaches art theory and cultural studies. He has published texts in Deleuze Studies, Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy, and for a host of non-academic publications. His current research investigates the relationship between ambient aesthetics and the discourses that surround global warming and eco-crisis.

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