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Re-examining nationalism in the wake of global threats – Beck’s ‘World Risk Society’

March 5, 2013

Describing what he termed ‘the World Risk Society’ in 2002, Ulrich Beck explains that  the speeding up of modernisation has resulted in a gap between the creation of new (potential) threats and the ability to understand those threats sufficiently to assess their use in terms of risk… It’s a really interesting discussion

Beck insists that “world risk society does not arise from the fact that everyday life has generally become more dangerous. It is not a matter of the increase, but rather of the de-bounding of uncontrollable risks. This de-bounding is three-dimensional: spatial, temporal and social. In the spatial dimension we see ourselves confronted with risks that do not take nation-state boundaries, or any other boundaries for that matter, into account: climate change, air pollution and the ozone hole affect everyone (if not all in the same way). Similarly, in the temporal dimension, the long latency period of dangers, such as, for example, in the elimination of nuclear waste or the consequences of genetically manipulated food, escapes the prevailing procedures used when dealing with industrial dangers. Finally, in the social dimension, the incorporation of both jeopardizing potentials and the related liability question lead to a problem, namely that it is difficult to determine, in a legally relevant manner, who ‘causes’ environmental pollution or a financial crisis and who is responsible, since these are mainly due to the combined effects of the actions of many individuals.” (p.41)

“We can differentiate between at least three different axes of conflict in world risk society. The first axis is that of ecological conflicts, which are by their very essence global. The second is global financial crises, which, in a first stage, can be individualized and nationalized. And the third, which suddenly broke upon us on September 11th, is the threat of global terror networks, which empower governments and states.” (p.41)

According to Beck: “in an age where trust and faith in God, class, nation and progress have largely disappeared, humanity’s common fear has proved the last – ambivalent – resource for making new bonds.” (p.46)

Furthermore, “…if the world is to survive this century, it must find a way to civilize world risk society. A new big idea is wanted. I suggest the idea of the cosmopolitan state, founded upon the recognition of the otherness of the other (Beck, 2002b).
National states present a threat to the inner complexity, the multiple loyalties, the social flows and fluids of risks and people that world risk society has caused to slosh across national borders. Conversely, nation states cannot but see such a fuzzing of borders as a threat to their existence. Cosmopolitan states, by contrast, emphasize the necessity of solidarity with foreigners both inside and outside the national borders. They do this by connecting self-determination with responsibility for (national and nonnational) Others. It is not a matter of limiting or negating self-determination. On the contrary, it is a matter of freeing self-determination from its national cyclopean vision and connecting it to the world’s concerns. Cosmopolitan states struggle not only against terror, but against the causes of terror. They seek to regain and renew the power of politics to shape and persuade, and they do this by seeking the solution of global problems that are even now burning humanity’s fingertips but which cannot be solved by individual nations on their own. When we set out to revitalize and transform the state in a cosmopolitan state, we are laying the groundwork for international cooperation on the basis of human rights and global justice.” (p.50)

Beck concludes: “Previously, the national cosmos could be decomposed into a clear distinction between inside and outside. Between the two, the nation-state governed and order was established. In the inner experiential space, the central themes of work, politics, law, social inequality, justice, cultural identity were negotiated against the background of the nation, which was the guarantor of a collective unity of action. In the international realm, that is, in the outer experiential field, the [-p.53] corresponding concept of ‘multiculturalism’ developed. Multiculturalism, by delimiting and defining the foreign, mirrored and crystallized national self-image. Thus, the national/international distinction always represented more than a distinction, it actually functioned as a permanent self-affirming prophecy.

Against the background of cosmopolitan social science it becomes suddenly obvious that it is neither possible to distinguish clearly between the national and the international, nor, in a similar way, convincingly to contrast homogeneous units. National spaces have become de-nationalized, so that the national is no longer national, just as the international is no longer international. This entails that the foundations of the power of the nation-state are collapsing both from the inside and the outside, and that new realities are arising, a new mapping of space and time, new coordinates for the social and the political, coordinates which have to be theoretically and empirically researched and elaborated. However, the paradigmatic opposition between (inter)nationalism and cosmopolitanism does not establish a logical or temporal exclusivity, but an ambivalent transitional coexistence, a new concurrence of non-concurrents.

Thus world risk society makes heavy demands on social science. Social science must be re-established as a transnational science of the reality of de-nationalization, transnationalization and ‘re-ethnification’ in a global age – and this on the levels of concepts, theories and methodologies as well as organizationally. This entails that the fundamental concepts of [-p.54] ‘modern society’ must be re-examined. Household, family, class, social inequality, democracy, power, state, commerce, public, community, justice, law, history, politics must be released from the fetters of methodological nationalism and must be reconceptualized and empirically established within the framework of a cosmopolitan social and political science which remains to be developed. So this is quite a list of understatements. Nevertheless, it has to be handled and managed if the social sciences are to avoid becoming a museum of antiquated ideas.” (pp.52-54)

I really enjoyed Beck’s discussion here – and especially his vision of how terrorism (like the attacks of 9/11) shapes states and global communities. like!

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Ulrich Beck (2002) The Terrorist Threat : World Risk Society Revisited Theory, Culture & Society 19: 39-55


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