This year has robbed the world of one of the most influential sociologists of our times – Ulrich Beck. Famous for his risk society thesis, Beck inspired a generation of sociologists, policymakers and politicians by means of concepts such as risk, unintended consequences, reflexivity and sub-politics.
It was after the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl power station in Ukraine in the then Soviet Union that Beck was initially inspired to conceptualise risk society. The German sociologist used this example to explain how, hand in hand with modernisation, contemporary societies constantly manufacture new risks and anxieties, thus bringing into question what was previously deemed as unquestionable truth put forward by unaccountable technocrats.
Hence, nuclear energy was deemed as a beacon of progress but it also started to be considered as an example of human-made risk, with unintended consequences and repercussions across national borders and generations.
On similar lines, the oil industry powered energy across the planet but contributed to the mother of risks of our times – climate change – apart from increasing pollution at unsustainable levels. Indeed, as Beck once famously said, “smog is democratic”.
The welfare state was constructed to move people out of poverty but, at times, became a source of risk in itself, for example through fiscal unsustainability. The pensions challenge is a case in point.
Economic globalisation delivered prosperity but, at the same time, contributed to economic crisis, precariousness and unevenness.
In this global risk scenario, we are also confronting new global risks – such as terrorism – which only add to the anxieties of our times.
Despite the gloomy outlook in Beck’s writings, he was far from a doomsday prophet. Indeed, he believed that the other side of the same coin of risk society was reflexivity.
Modern societies become increasingly individualised, where people are freer than ever to construct their own biographies – for example, in family life – without being necessarily bound by the demands of traditional or authoritarian institutions.
We are also confronting new global risks which only add to the anxieties of our times
Of course, freedom also represents a leap in the dark and we have no choice but to make choices, something which existential philosophers have been reminding us for some time. Besides, freedom is always situated within specific social contexts and individualisation can also reflect a lack of solidarity and common action.
Yet, as stated above, individualisation and reflexivity can help equip individuals and organisations to confront and manage the risks that characterise modern societies.
In this regard, Beck refers to sub-politics, where new political forms confront established institutions and authoritarian technocrats. This is an unintended consequence of decision-making, which lacks transparency and democratic foundations.
Sub-politics can be seen when consumers are increasingly reflexive on the products and voice their concerns, for example on genetically-modified foods through NGOs. Environmental NGOs and greens raise consciousness on a variety of issues, from climate change to development of land, and question the dogmas of big business and their political allies.
In a European context, the electoral victory of Syriza in Greece is, in a way, an unintended consequence of the top-down austerity of the ‘German Europe’ led by ‘Merkiavelli’.
In Greece, the official narrative of the EU powers was that the country needs to recover itself into economic discipline.
In the meantime, it was becoming clear that the conditions for bailing out Greece were going to increase risks in terms of poverty, inequality, unemployment and social disruption.
Greek citizens did not simply accept such conditions as passive dupes but were and are reflexive actors in the political process. In this scenario, Syriza successfully articulated a narrative of hope and won the elections.
It now has to be seen what will come out of the negotiations between the new Greek government and EU powers. Seen from a Beckian perspective, it is important that such an agreement manages risk through democratic foundations. Indeed, Beck, was a firm believer of the European project.
His lessons can also be seen as of relevance to the Maltese context. For example, when the previous Nationalist administration stubbornly refused to acknowledge the individualisation and reflexivity of family life, it simply acted in a way which increased risks for so many persons in situations such as separation and same-sex relationships.
This only inspired increased reflexivity by civil society, which, for example, was translated in successful campaigns on divorce and LGBT rights.
In a more recent context, the environmentalist initiative on the hunting referendum can very much be framed within reflexivity and sub-politics.
Environmentalists and greens took the initiative to raise the required amount of signatures for an abrogative referendum, notwithstanding the major parties’ tacit support for the hunting lobby.
On another note, Labour’s lack of dialogue on various issues does not remove potential risks which they represent. If anything, this unintentionally inspires reflexivity within civil society. For example, on energy, even though there is no such thing as a risk-free policy, many are raising legitimate questions as to whether Malta is making a leap in the dark that will result in excessive dependency on energy oligarchs from Azerbaijan to China.
Beck compared the protagonists of sub-politics to courageous Davids who struggle against the Goliaths of our times. There are so many other issues that can inspire such reflexivity and which can enhance everyday democracy and management of risk.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.