Ulrich BECK: Living and coping with world risk society


Living in and coping with world risk society

Ulrich Beck (6/10/2011)


The narrative of global risk is a narrative of irony. This narrative deals with the involuntary satire, the optimistic futility, with which the highly developed institutions of modern society – science, state, business and military – attempt to anticipate what cannot be anticipated. Socrates has left us to make sense of the puzzling sentence: I know, that I know nothing. The fatal irony, into which scientific-technical society plunges us is, as a consequence of its perfection, much more radical: We don’t know, what it is we don’t know – but from this dangers arise, which threaten mankind! The perfect example here is provided by the debate about the cooling agent CFC. In 1974, about 45 years after the discovery of the CFC, the chemists Rowland and Molina put forward the hypothesis, that CFCs destroy the ozone layer of the stratosphere and as a result increased ultraviolet radiation would reach the earth. The chain of unforeseen secondary effects would lead to a significant increase of cancer all over the world. When coolants were invented no one could know or even suspect, that they would create such a danger.

The irony of risk is that rationality, that is, the experience of the past, encourages anticipation of the wrong kind of risk, the one we believe we can calculate and control, whereas the disaster arises from what we don’t know and cannot calculate. The bitter varieties of this risk irony are virtually endless: mad cow decease, 9/11 terror attacks, global financial crises, swine flue virus and latest but not last, volcano ash clouds disrupting air traffic in Europe and elsewhere.

To the extent that risk is experienced as omnipresent, there are only three possible reactions: Denial, apathy, or transformation. The first is largely inscribed in modern culture, the second resembles post-modern nihilism, the third is the ‘cosmopolitan moment’ of world risk society.[1] First, I would like to demonstrate that here in three steps (drawing on empirical research findings of the Munich Research Centre “Reflexive Modernisation”):

(1) Old dangers – new risks: What is new about world risk society?

(2) Ruse of history: To what extent are global risks a global force in present and future world history, controllable by no one, but which also open up new opportunities of action for states, civil society actors etc.?

(3) Consequences and perspectives: In order to understand the manufactured uncertainty, lack of safety and insecurity of world risk society is there a need for a paradigm shift in the social sciences?

1. Old dangers – new risks: What is new about world risk society?

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. That may well be, many will object, but it is indicative rather of a hysteria and politics of fear instigated and aggravated by the mass media. On the contrary, would not someone, looking at European societies from outside have to acknowledge that the risks which get us worked up, are luxury risks, more than anything else? After all, our world appears a lot safer than that, say, of the war-torn regions of Africa, Afghanistan or the Middle East. Are modern societies not distinguished precisely by the fact that to a large extent they have succeeded in bringing under control contingencies and uncertainties, for example with respect to accidents, violence and sickness?

As true as all such observations may be, they miss the most obvious point about risk: that is, the key distinction between risk and catastrophe. Risk does not mean catastrophe. Risk means the anticipation of catastrophe. Risks exist in a permanent state of virtuality, and only become ‘topical’ to the extent that they are anticipated. Without techniques of visualisation, without symbolic forms, without mass media etc. risks are nothing at all. In other words, it is irrelevant, whether we live in a world which is in fact or in some sense ‘objectively’ safer than all other worlds; if destruction and disasters are anticipated, then that produces a compulsion to act.

The theory of world risk society maintains that modern societies are shaped by new kinds of risks, that their foundations are shaken by the global anticipation of global catastrophes. Such perceptions of global risk are characterised by three features:

1 De-localisation: Its causes and consequences are not limited to one geographical location or space, they are in principle omnipresent.

2 Incalculableness: Its consequences are in principle incalculable; at bottom it’s a matter of “hypothetical” risks, which, not least, are based on science-induced not-knowing and normative dissent.

3 Non-compensatibility: The security dream of first modernity was based on the scientific utopia of making the unsafe consequences and dangers of decisions ever more controllable; accidents could occur, as long and because they were considered compensatible. If the climate has changed irreversibly, if progress in human genetics makes irreversible interventions in human existence possible, if terrorist groups already have weapons of mass destruction available to them, then it’s too late. Given this new quality of “threats to humanity” – argues Francois Ewald – the logic of compensation breaks down and is replaced by the principle of precaution through prevention. Not only is prevention taking precedence over compensation, we are also trying to anticipate and prevent risks whose existence has not been proven. Let me explain these points – de-localisation, incalculableness, non-compensatibility – in greater detail.

The de-localisation of incalculable interdependency risks takes place at three levels:

1 spatial: The new risks (e.g. climate change) do not respect nation state or any other borders;

2 temporal: The new risks have a long latency period (e.g. nuclear waste), so that their effect over time cannot be reliably determined and limited.

3 Social: Thanks to the complexity of the problems and the length of chains of effect, assignment of causes and consequences is no longer possible with any degree of reliability (e.g. financial crises).

The discovery of the incalculability of risk is closely connected to the discovery of the importance of not-knowing to risk calculation, and it’s part of another kind of irony, that surprisingly this discovery of not-knowing occurred in a scholarly discipline, which today no longer wants to have anything to do with it: economics. It was Knight and Keynes, who early on insisted on a distinction between predictable and non-predictable or calculable and non-calculable forms of contingency. In a famous article in The Quarterly Journal of Economics (February 1937: 213-14) Keynes writes: “…by ‘uncertain knowledge’, let me explain, I do not mean merely to distinguish what is known from what is merely probable. The sense in which I am using the term is that in which the price of copper and the rate of interest twenty years hence, all the obsolescence of a new invention are uncertain. About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know…” However, Keynes’ admonition to open up the field of economic decision-making to the unknown unknowns was entirely neglected in the subsequent development of mainstream economics (including mainstream Keynesian economics); and this denial of non-knowing has become a causal condition for the emergence of the global financial crisis in 2009.

The crucial point, however, is not only the discovery of the importance of non-knowing, but that simultaneously the knowledge, control and security claim of state and society was, indeed had to be, renewed, deepened, and expanded. The irony lies in the institutionalised security claim, to have to control something, even if one does not know, whether it exists! It are precisely unknown unknowns which provoke far-reaching conflicts over the definition and construction of political rules and responsibilities with the aim of preventing the worst. For the time being the last and most striking example of that are the volcano ash clouds in spring 2010: flights are back – ash is too!

If catastrophes are anticipated whose potential for destruction ultimately threatens everyone, then a risk calculation based on experience and rationality breaks down. Now all possible, more or less improbable scenarios have to be taken into consideration; to knowledge, therefore, drawn from experience and science there now also has to be added imagination, suspicion, fiction, fear.[2] The boundary between rationality and hysteria becomes blurred. Given the right invested in them to avert dangers politicians, in particular, may easily be forced to proclaim a security, which they cannot honour. Because the political costs of omission are much higher than the political costs of overreaction. In future, therefore, it is not going to be easy, in the context of state promises of security and a mass media hungry for catastrophes, to actively limit and prevent a diabolical power game with the hysteria of not-knowing. I don’t even dare think about deliberate attempts to instrumentalise this situation.

2.  The ruse of risk: Global risk is an unpredictable and impersonal force in the contemporary world

There is no better way than to start with an example: in 2004 Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans. This was a horrifying act of nature, but one which simultaneously, as a global media event, involuntarily and unexpectedly developed an enlightenment function which broke all resistance. What no social movement, no political party, and certainly no sociological analysis (no matter how well grounded and brilliantly written)  would have been able to achieve, happened within a few days: America and the world were confronted by global media pictures of the repressed other America, the largely racialised face of poverty. How can this relationship between risk and the creation of a global public be understood? In his 1927 book The Public and its Problems, John Dewey explained that not actions but consequences lie at the heart of politics. Although Dewey was certainly not thinking of global warming, BSE or terrorist attacks, his idea is perfectly applicable to world risk society. A global public discourse does not grow out of a consensus on decisions, but out of dissent over the consequences of decisions. Modern risk crises are constituted by just such controversies over consequences. Where some may see an overreaction to risk, it is also possible to see grounds for hope. Because such risk conflicts do indeed have an enlightenment function. They destabilise the existing order, but the same events can also look like a vital step towards the building of new institutions. Global risk has the power to tear away the facades of organised irresponsibility.

Egoism, autonomy, autopoesis, self-isolation, improbability of translation – these are key terms which, in sociological theory, but also in public and political debates, distinguish modern society. The communicative logic of global risk can be understood as the exact opposite principle. Risk is the involuntary, unintended compulsory medium of communication in a world of irreconcilable differences, in which everyone revolves around themselves. Hence a publicly perceived risk compels communication between those, who do not want to have anything to do with one another. It assigns obligations and costs to those who refuse them – and who often even have current law on their side. In other words: Risks cut through the self-absorption of cultures, languages, religions and systems as well as the national and international agenda of politics, they overturn their priorities and create contexts for action between camps, parties and quarrelling nations, which ignore and oppose one another.

I propose that a clear distinction be made between the philosophical and normative ideas of cosmopolitanism on the one hand and the “impure” actual cosmopolitanisation in the sociological sense on the other. The crucial point about this distinction is that cosmopolitanism cannot, for example, only become real deductively in a translation of the sublime principles of philosophy, but also and above all through the back doors of global risks, unseen, unintended, enforced. Down through history cosmopolitanism bore the taint of being elitist, idealistic, imperialist, capitalist; today, however, we see, that reality itself has become cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitanism does not mean – as it did for Immanuel Kant – an asset, a task, that is to order the world. Cosmopolitanism in world risk society opens our eyes to the uncontrollable liabilities, to something that happens to us, befalls us, but at the same time stimulates us to make border-transcending new beginnings. The insight, that in the dynamic of world risk society we are dealing with a cosmopolitanisation under duress, robs “impure” cosmopolitanism of much of its ethical attractiveness. If the cosmopolitan moment of world risk society is both at once: deformed and inevitable, then seemingly it is not an appropriate object for sociological and political reflections. But precisely that would be a serious mistake.

As important as all these arguments are, the decisive question is a different one: To what extent does the threat and shock of world risk society open up the horizon to historic alternatives of political action?  For an answer see my book Power in the Global Age (2005). Here I can only outline the basic idea.

Two premises: (1) World risk society brings a new, historic key logic to the fore: No nation can cope with its problems alone. (2) A realistic political alternative in the global age is possible, which counteracts the loss to globalised capital of the commanding power of state politics. The condition is, that globalisation must be decoded not as economic fate, but as a strategic game for world power. A new global domestic politics that is already at work here and now, beyond the national-international distinction, has become a meta-power game, whose outcome is completely open-ended. It is a game in which boundaries, basic rules and basic distinctions are renegotiated – not only those between the national and the international spheres, but also those between global business and the state, transnational civil society movements, supra-national organisations and national governments and societies.

The strategies of action, which global risks open up, overthrow the order of power, which has formed in the neo-liberal capital-state coalition: global risks empower states and civil society movements, because they reveal new sources of legitimation and options for action for these groups of actors; they disempower globalised capital on the other hand, because the consequences of investment decisions and externalizing risks in financial markets contribute to creating global risks, destabilising markets, globally operating banks, and activating the power of the state as well as of that sleeping giant the consumer. Conversely, the goal of global civil society and its actors is to achieve a connection between civil society and the state, that is, to bring about a cosmopolitan form of statehood. The forms of alliances entered into by the neo-liberal state instrumentalise the state (and state-theory) in order to optimise and legitimise the interests of capital world wide. Conversely the idea of a cosmopolitan state in civil society form aims at imagining and realising a robust diversity and a post-national order. The neo-liberal agenda surrounds itself with an aura of self-regulation and self-legitimation. Civil society’s agenda, on the other hand, surrounds itself with the aura of human rights, global justice and struggles for a new grand narrative of radical-democratic globalisation.

Why is this not wishful thinking, why is it an expression of a cosmopolitan realpolitik? The cosmopolitan perspective suggests that there is a hidden link between global risk and Immanuel Kant. It is precisely the stark realism of the cosmopolitan imperative: either Kant or catastrophe! either cooperate or fail! which is also cause for hope.

3. Consequences and perspectives

It is evident, that the taken-for-granted nation-state frame of reference – what I call ‘methodological nationalism’ – prevents the social and political science from understanding and analysing the dynamics and conflicts, ambivalences and ironies of world risk society. This is also true – at least in part – of the two major theoretical approaches and empirical schools of research, which deal with risk, on the one hand in the tradition of Mary Douglas, on the other in that of Michel Foucault. These traditions of thought and research have undoubtedly raised key questions and produced extremely interesting detailed results as far as understanding definitions of risk and risk policies is concerned, work which no one can dispense with and which will always remain an essential component of social science risk research. Their achievement and their evidence is to open up risk as a battle for the redefinition of state and scientific power.

An initial defect lies in regarding risk more or less or even exclusively as an ally, but failing to perceive it as an unreliable ally and not at all as a potential antagonist, as a force hostile both to nation state power as well as to global capital. Surprisingly the research traditions of Douglas and Foucault define their problem in such a way, that the battle over risk always comes down to the reproduction of the social and state order of power. Because the nation state, which attempts to deal with global risks in isolation, resembles a drunk man, who on a dark night is trying to find his lost wallet in the cone of light of a street lamp. To the question: Did you actually lose your wallet here, he replies, no, but in the light of the street lamp I can at least look for it.

In other words, global risks are producing ‘failed or bankrupt states’ – even in the West (last example Greece, but maybe in the near future also Italy or Great Britain or even USA).  The state-structure evolving under the conditions of world risk society could be characterised in terms of both inefficiency and post-democratic authority. A clear distinction, therefore, has to be made between rule and inefficiency. It is quite possible, that the end-result could be the gloomy perspective, that we have totally ineffective and authoritarian state-regimes (even in the context of the Western democracies). The irony here is this: manufactured uncertainty (knowledge), insecurity (welfare state) and lack of safety (violence) undermine and reaffirm state power beyond democratic legitimacy. Given the maddening conditions of world risk society, the older critical theory of  Foucault is in danger of becoming simultaneously affirmative and antiquated, along with large areas of sociology, which have concentrated on class dynamics in the welfare state. It underestimates and castrates the communicative cosmopolitan logic and irony of global risks; consequently the historic question, where politics has lost its wallet, that is, the question of an alternative modernity, is analytically excluded by the vain searching in the cone of light of the nation state street light.

Cosmopolitan social sciences, which face up to the challenges of global risks, must also, however, shed its political quietism: Society and its institutions are incapable of adequately conceptualising risks, because they are caught up in the concepts of first nation state modernity, believing in scientific certainty and linear progress, which by now have become inappropriate. And it has to face the question: How can non-Western risk societies be understood by a sociology, which so far has taken it for granted, that its object – Western modernity – is at once both historically unique and universally valid?[3] How is it possible to decipher the internal link between risk and race, risk and enemy image, risk and exclusion?

[1] See U. Beck: Risk Society (1986, 1992), World at Risk (2007; 2009), Polity Press.

[2] F. Ewald (2002): The Return of Descates’ Sociology Malicious Demon: An Outline of a Philosophy of Precaution, in T. Baker and J. Simon (eds.): Embracing Risk, Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 273-301.

[3] See British Journal of Sociology (BJS), special issue on ‚Varieties of Second Modernity: Extra-European and European Perspectives, September 2010 (in print).

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