Renowned sociologist and social thinker Ulrich Beck has died. Professor Beck held appointments at the University of Munich and LSE, and he has become one of the world’s most eminent intellectuals and most quoted social scientists in recent decades.
Beck’s book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1986/1992) is a scholarly and political bestseller which was translated into 35 languages, with about
24,000 49,000 academic citations. While firm in criticizing those who claim Western societies are “postmodern”, Beck offered an immanent critique of modernity’s failed promises. Due to its own successes, modern society now faces failure: while in the past experiments were conducted in a lab, now the whole world is a test bed. Whether nuclear plants, genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology – if any of these experiments went wrong, the consequences would have a global impact and would be irreversible. In his own words: “A fate of endangerment has arisen in modernity, a sort of counter-modernity, which transcends all our concepts of space, time, and social differentiation. What yesterday was still far away will be found today and in the future ‘at the front door.’” (Beck 1995: 65).
Ulrich Beck claimed that contemporary society is at the cusp of a transition between “industrial society” and “risk society”. Risk society, explained Beck, is “an inescapable structural condition of advanced industrialization” and “Modern society has become a risk society in the sense that it is increasingly occupied with debating, preventing and managing risks that it itself has produced.” Beck contended that the changing nature of society’s relation to production and distribution is related to the environmental impact as a totalizing, globalizing economy based on scientific and technical knowledge becomes more central to social organization and social conflict. Whereas in earlier class-based societies only the proletariat was victimized, in the emerging worldwide risk society all groups – even the rich – are threatened. Beck made the important point stressing that risk and class positions overlap on national and international scales.
In this striking book Beck also provided a framework within which environmental politics can be understood, explained and developed. Beck recommended ignoring the mathematical morality of experts, which seek to identify the level of a given risk by calculating the probability of its occurrence. In risk society, knowledge is not neatly tailored in the form of clearly noticeable truth, but in “admixtures” and “amalgams”; and it is conveyed by “agents of knowledge in their combination and opposition, their foundations, their claims, their mistakes, their irrationalities” (Beck 1992: 55). But while people react and struggle to reassert control, in these circumstances they have no option but to “become small, private alternative experts in risks of modernization” (p. 61).
So while for survival in the old industrial society, the focus of action and thought with the collective goal of ‘class solidarity’, education, and career planning have been crucial, in the risk society, stresses Beck, additional skills become vitally necessary: “the ability to anticipate and endure dangers, to deal with them biographically and politically acquires importance. In place of fears of losing status, class consciousness and orientation to upward mobility, which we have more or less learned to handle, other central questions appear. How do we handle ascribed outcomes of danger and the fears and insecurities residing in them? How can we cope with the fear, if we cannot overcome the causes of the fear? How can we live on the volcano of civilization without deliberately forgetting about it, but also without suffocating on the fears – and not just on the vapors that the volcano exudes?” (p. 76) Moreover, urged Beck, people’s fear of collapse should offer an opportunity for international cooperation and a cosmopolitan turn in social sciences.
Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society was not just a compelling sociological analysis of amorphous and pervasive threats on personal, public and historical levels, but it also was a powerful manifesto proposing a novel attitude and politics for contemporary complex reality.
Drawing upon ideas developed in Risk Society, in Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk (1995), Beck established the foundations of an original and far-reaching analysis of modern politics. Instead of posing ‘good’ social movements against ‘bad’ institutions, he proposed a transformation of the institutions themselves, of science, and of business, so that organized irresponsibility can be changed into a sort of democratic accountability.
Ulrich Beck’s other numerous and highly influential works have focused on topics like globalization, cosmopolitanism, labour and social inequalities.
“After all, the ecological issue, considered politically and sociologically, focuses at heart on a systematic, legalized violation of fundamental civil rights – the citizen’s right to life and freedom from bodily harm… In the ecological crisis we are dealing with a breach of fundamental rights that is cushioned and disguised during prosperity but that has socially destabilizing long-term effects that can scarcely be overestimated.”
(from: Beck, Ulrich. 1995. Ecological Enlightenment: Essays on the Politics of the Risk Society. Humanities Press. P. 8)