Europe's Times and Unknown Waters #1
e-revistă culturală de filosofie şi literatură aplicată
lansată în Aprilie 2009
ISSN 2066 - 3323


The society of risk? (Ulrich Beck, Risikogesellshaft. Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1986)

by Andrei Marga

         In the context of the proliferation of fragmentary reflections upon life in today's society Ulrich Beck boldly assumes to speak about its character. This is a rare enterprise in the age of “intellectual adjustment” to contexts. The thesis he accomplished is worth to be cited from a book that had not been previously taken into account enough at the time of the first edition: it is Risikogesellshaft. Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1986). We live in a society - so the thesis states - that needs to be researched, factually, of course, which cannot be understood but as “the theory of society”. From the perspective of this theory, cultivated by German, American and French authors, “we are eye witnesses-subject and object- of a rupture within modernity, that detaches from the classical industrial society's shapes and takes a new form - that of …”the society of risk”…It pretends a difficult equilibrium between the contradictions of continuity and of censorship in the modern world, that mirror themselves one more time in the contradiction between the modern and the industrial society, between the industrial society and that of risk”(p.13). Better said, in modern society we are no longer rigorous characters, but we live the change of modernity itself in a significant manner that demands new optics and concepts.

         It is worth to emphasize on Ulrich Becks' diagnosis (even though the explanation of the used methods is deliberately postponed for later) not just because of the professor's from Munchen University rare productivity. In reality, some of his books for example Was ist Globalisierung Irrtumer des Globalismus-Antworten auf Globalisierung (1997), are international bestsellers. As I was saying it is worth the emphasis, first of all due to the accuracy of the diagnosis: that we live in a “society of risk”! In fact, Ulrich Beck has captured in more concluding terms than his predecessors the passing of the today's people's lives from under the governing of “the need (Not)” to that of “anguish (Angst)” or possibly, under both. According to the thesis we reach on the summit of modernity to a “modern middle age of danger” (p.8), meaning, to a society where danger is generated not accidently, but structurally, and it is lived at every step. “It is not the omission that creates a catastrophe, but the systems that transform the humanness of mistake in incomprehensible forces of destruction”.(p.8)

         What has really happened? Ulrich Beck commences his analysis from the Chernobyl nuclear explosion that he interprets as clue to the endangering of everything: the differences among people under the aspect of risks disappear, it is formed the “new force of danger that surpasses any zone of projection and the modern world's differences”. On the other hand, “the dangers become blind passengers of normal consumerism. They travel by wind and water, hide in everything and transmit themselves along with the most necessary things for life - the air that we breath, food, clothing, the construction of dwellings - all being rigorously controlled areas of the modern world”(p.10). Even worst, “the social production of wealth goes hand in hand with social production of risks”(p.25). “Destructive forces” are released by people today in conformity with performances. The risks are not only personal, but have risen to the status “of global endangering”. Not long ago the risk in life was connected to courage and adventure, from now on, the risk is life's self destruction. “We don't inhabit a society of risk, not yet anyway, but we neither live just in the conflicts of distribution in the society of privation. Regarding the extent to which this transition happens, we may say that it effectively occurs a change of society, that exits beyond the up to the present categories of thought and action”(p.27).

         From the four hundred pages of Risikogesellschaft, one may note the rich connotation of “the society of risk”. I linger here over five thesis concerning the present humanity's “potential of self-endangerment”, that make as intelligible as possible this connotation. Here they are formulated as succinctly as possible: a) risks are often “irreversible damages”, “unnoticeable in nucleus”; they depend on “knowledge” and they are thus “opened for processes of social definition”; b) “risks” take to “social endangering”, and their processing has “a boomerang effect” (“the enhancement of international inequality”, “the undermining of the national states competences” and so on ); c) “risks” do not “interrupt the logic of capitalist development”, but amplify it (they always make room for big business); d) “the knowledge of the risks becomes today a political matter; e) that which until now was considered “un-political” in society, becomes now politic, as whatever refers to the elimination of “causes”, and the “catastrophes receives political potential”. “The risk society is a catastrophe society. Within it, the exceptional state threatens to become a daily state” (p.31).

         In the last decades, nobody has managed to formulate in a more impressive manner than Ulrich Beck, the “risk” within the very organization of today's society. His conceptual system leaves room for improvement, but surely the Munchean sociologist has thrust a deep probe in realities' soil and extracted a relevant conception. The only objection that can be formulated here is that the very “risk” risks to become, within the theory of the “risk society”, an omnipresent reality, an all comprising one. It is well known, however, that nobody can ever say that he is not surrounded by risks on an ever increasing scale. Risks have become perceptible. Only that besides risks, that occupy of course large portions of our existence, there are also certainties - family, friendship, the need of veracity, the need of truth and so on - on which we can build with trust. These do not reduce, of course, the area of the risk, but offer a support to approach it differently, in a comprehensive conceptual frame.


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