In Memoriam Ulrich Beck 1944-2015


 
 

And now, my boys, I shall praise Socrates in a figure which will appear to him to be a caricature, and yet I speak, not to make fun of him, but only for the truth's sake. I say, that he is . . . like Marsyas the satyr. You yourself will not deny, Socrates, that your face is like that of a satyr. Aye, and there is a resemblance in other points too. For example, you are a bully, as I can prove by witnesses, if you will not confess. And are you not a flute-player? That you are, and a performer far more wonderful than Marsyas. He indeed with instruments used to charm the souls of men by the powers of his breath, and the players of his music do so still . . . But you produce the same effect with your words only, and do not require the flute; that is the difference between you and him. When we hear any other speaker, even very good one, he produces absolutely no effect upon us, or not much, whereas the mere fragments of you and your words, even at second-hand, and however imperfectly repeated, amaze and possess the souls of every man, woman, and child who comes within hearing of them. And if I were not afraid that you would think me hopelessly drunk, I would have sworn to the influence which they have always had and still have over me. For my heart leaps within me more than that of any Corybantian reveller, and my eyes rain tears when I hear them. And I observe that many others are affected in the same manner. I have heard Pericles and other great orators, and I thought that they spoke well, but I never had any similar feeling. My soul was not stirred by them, nor was I angry at the thought of my own slavish state Ulrich Beck arguably transformed twenty-first century thought more than any sociologist. It was a shock when, on New Year’s Day 2015, he died. It was a shock for me personally and for all his friends, but also a shock to the system of sociology. We need his frameworks more than ever. Perhaps then the best memoriam is to lay out his ideas in as close to his words as possible, in the hope that they will live on in us. Ulrich Beck’s central concepts grew out of his engagement with classical sociological theory. His nearly 30 year quest since the 1986 publication of Risikogesellschaft has been to set sociological theory on a new foundation, one that would parallel that laid by the original founders, but turned upside down, as the world has been. There were two ways in which Beck’s project paralleled the work of his forebears. The first was that he focused on the emergent properties of society. He saw this as very much a return to the true approach of the classics. What we now call normal sociology was in their time the description of emergent properties. There were very few members of the working class in Marx’s time (and 90% were in 4 countries), but he said it was the leading edge of the future that was coming fast. There were very few democratic republics in Durkheim’s time, but he said it was an essential part of what would hold capitalist societies together. And there was very little rational modern bureaucracy on earth in Weber’s time. But they focused on what they thought was essential and examined its ramifications in order to provide a framework to make the coming world clear. And they were right. This combination of things was the coming world, and their frameworks became indispensable to understanding it. In fact they became part of it. Through the social sciences, and their institutionalization in data collection agencies, those frameworks became our world’s institutionalized self-understanding. But, said Beck, brilliant and powerful as this foundation was, it was historically conditioned. It was not an accident their frameworks converged and were synthesizable. They were all formulating different aspects of an underlying social reality: the emergence of modern nationstates out of the dissolution of empires. For Marx, Durkheim and Weber, and the normal sociology that synthesized them into a whole, the nation state became the unasked question, the obvious ultimate denotatum of the concept of society. Beck said we now face a different, and in some ways opposite reality: the emergence of transnational society out of the internal metamorphosis of nation states. This transnationalization is the foundation of Beck’s central organizing concepts: Cosmopolitanization, Risk Society, and, perhaps most of all, but least appreciated, his very novel and distinctive theory of Individualization. Let’s start with that first. In my humble opinion, Beck’s concept of social individualization is the clearest and ultimate development of the ideas of Georg Simmel. He developed this idea together with his wife Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim. Their first premise is: you can’t individualize alone. If you want to change your life goals from those that were once assigned you by traditional role sets, you have to change how your immediate social life is organized — which means also the layer after that. If we are all doing that simultaneously — and we are — the inescapable result is a constant ongoing negotiation and social experimentation. And then on top of that is an ongoing social dialogue about these attempts to improve how life is organized, and an ongoing sharing and diffusing of them. This constant improvisation inevitably has unintended effects, which then feed back into the discussion and social experimentation process. This is entirely different than the monadic individual of Classic Liberal Theory. Like Durkheim before him, Ulrich was concerned with a moral individualism, which is both transcendental and of this world. Moral individualism is social and manifests itself in the plurality of human beings. The religion of humanity manifests itself not in the idea of humanity, but in the practice of the same. In the last few years of this life, he stopped talking about “social change” and began using instead the German concept of “Verwandlung” to describe this process. It means literally metamorphosis (as in the title of the Kafka story), but it also contains the meanings of magical transformation and Gestalt shift. It doesn’t describe a static state, which then “changes,” but rather a constant shimmering in-between-ness. It is a structural process but at the same time the ever-changing result of interactive creative desire. One can conceptually imagine this happening without transnationalization. The epochal transformation in the social position of women over the last half century, from a semi-caste to full citizens, would be enough by itself to set a lot of it off; the family is a central sites of this accelerating social experimentation in everyday life. But when you combine individualization with transnationalization, you get the defining social dynamic of our era: cosmopolitanization. The key to cosmopolitanization is that it is always cosmopolitanization from within. There are socially significant borders, and there always will be; society will always create and recreate them. But sociologically speaking, none of these borders can be conceived of as containers. They are always permeable. And from now on, whenever we, as sociologists try to understand any border between countries or identities or social groups, our methodological first principle has to be that the social reality beneath it is one of mixing, and through it, of metamorphosis. Our first empirical goal is to find where the mixing is happening, estimate its relative importance, and describe the dynamic relation between the mixed reality and the socially-real border. Our theoretical program has to be: What are the multiple, including opposite, possibilities that could develop out of this? Comparatively, what other types of mixing is it connected to or similar to? Are they causally connected? Do they shed light on each other? And our political touchstone has to be, given what we know about individualization as social structure, how can the downsides of cosmopolitanization and individualization — aka the global risks of global risk society — be best prepared for collectively? Beck spoke continually about how it is part of the nature of second modern risks that they lurk around the corner. The anticipation of catastrophe is socially more important than the catastrophe itself. It is how second modern society becomes reflexive. It should be our highest goal. He believed the first modern idea that intellectuals can the masters of the universe has collapsed. So it would be violence to his ideas to paint him as a master of the sociological universe. For him, our movement towards the future modernization is not towards progress or apocalypse, but rather something constitutively and forever in between. This idea of individualization as resulting from crosscutting social circles — and the notion that the central essence of (second) modernity is that all social circles cross cut— is pure Simmel. We might say it is Simmel raised to the next degree, since every previous follower tacitly assumed that the ultimate social circle was the nation state. The Becks extended this analysis to its ultimate conclusion in order to grasp a world that has changed its foundations since Simmel’s time through this very same process. You can also see Simmel in Beck’s drive to connect the largest conceivable social structures to the smallest details of everyday life. But Simmel is not actually the thinker for whom that was most central. That, surprisingly enough, was Marx, who Beck explicitly cites as a model. For Marx, the central mechanism that binds society together is the economic division of labor. Every commodity we consume is the embodied result of almost unimaginably complex global cooperation. For Beck, this was the original “banal cosmopolitanism.” He was simply expanding on it. And just as, for Marx, class society was simultaneously society’s conceptual description, and the unveiling of the central motor of its transformation, so cosmopolitanism was for Beck the signature feature of modern society and the dynamic that is revolutionizing (or metamorphosing) it. Lastly but not leastly, where for Marx the central political question was how classes in-themselves could become classes for-themselves, for Beck the most important question of our time is how we can restructure society so that cosmopolitanization-in-itself — the banal cosmopolitanism of virtually everything we consume and experience — can become cosmopolitanization for-itself: a society that no longer thinks of its people as contained by physical spaces and cultural nations. This brings us to Max Weber. The first and most obvious thing they share is the concept of sociology as world sociology. They both thought that to fully understand any society you have to study lots of societies, because only then can you compare and see how they are producing different solutions to the same problem — and only then can you really grasp the problem. They also both combined this world ambition with a complementary modesty, the conviction that no person can possibly understand it all, so the only course is to do as much as you can. For Weber this ambition and modesty combined into the idea of craft, of sociology as a vocation. For Beck, the obvious solution to the problem was to cosmopolitanize sociology: to institutionalize cooperation among sociologists all over the world so they could share their ideas. He lived his entire life serving that ideal. Bruno Latour, one of his most many collaborators, spoke recently of how, when he last visited Beck, he took him to see Weber’s house. It was a felt connection. But for me, the two ways in which Beck is most profoundly the heir of Weber is in his openendedness towards the future and in the correct use of ideal types. Marx and Durkheim were hard boiled developmentalists. They thought history had laws and it was leading to a place they could predict. Weber stood foursquare against that idea. History certainly displays development in the sense that one thing causes another, and we can retrospectively chart their course. But the future is inherently uncertain. Weber’s most famous argument sums this up, in its most famous line, in sociology’s most famous aside: “Today the spirit of religious asceticism — whether finally, who knows? —has escaped from the cage.” Ulrich Beck was always centrally concerned with the future as the horizon of the present. He once seriously posed the question: if we could know the future with certainty, would there be any room for hope? And his answer was no. For hope is only needed when you don’t know what the future will be. It was via Bloch’s “principle of hope” that Beck wanted to connect his ideas to Critical Theory. He wanted their hope but not their despair. He believed what is at issue is nothing less than the renewal of the much-maligned concept of humanity. He was suspicious of the popular post-structuralist critique that almost gleefully declares the concepts of the human, humanity, freedom and individuality to be Western mechanisms of repression, while leaving essentially unquestioned the idea that we are all encased in a stable economic-technical civilisation and society. For him, such “radical” cultural critiques are more like caricatures of the catastrophic potential of developed modernity. Indeed he went one significant step further. Against the background of the second modern, which starts with the negation of the fundamental principles of modernity, such purely cultural critique struck him as not merely antiquated, but downright idyllic. Blind to its own conditions of existence when not actively affirming them, it seems to him more like optimism with a sombre wash. And even if cosmopolitanism was guilty, as its critics charge, of attempting to conceal its claim to power through an “inflation of norms,” we would still be talking about a cosmopolitan definition of power, more pluralist than pluralism, that was setting itself against totalitarian definitions of the state and the totalitarian politics founded on those discourses. It was not an historical accident that the first concrete attempts to institutionalize cosmopolitan ideas arose in the aftermath of the madness of National Socialism and also of Stalinism. Cosmopolitanization was born where the predictability of the past was coupled with the unpredictability of the future. For Beck as for Weber, the unpredictability of the future flowed naturally from the global comparative perspective. How can you survey human social inventiveness and not wonder what we’ll come up with next? For Weber, what also emerged from this perspective was the key to his comparative method, the ideal type. Weber once perfectly described the ideal type as the extraction of a few essential qualities that he grew into a “utopia:” something much clearer than it ever grew in reality. But the point of the ideal type was to bring out the detail of social reality. The flipside of these “utopias” was that every real example was always a mixture of more than one type. By clarifying the types, we could clarify the mixture. And by examining the mixture, we could refine the types. That is precisely how Ulrich used his central concepts. That was methodological cosmopolitanism in a nutshell. For Ulrich, methodological cosmopolitanism was not simply sociological, it was also political. He thought institutionalized sociology was always already entangled with society’s transformation (or resistance); it wasn’t a natural science that stood outside and put society in a test tube. He made no secret of his preference for a more cosmopolitan society, and for the collective social buffering that would ease its stresses on individuals, and help us to help society create solutions. And this is also how he worked with his colleagues. Unlike the classic authors, who each studied and thought as a lone pillar, Beck was part of a community of scholars, all over the world, with whom he collaborated, learnt from, enriching both himself and them. He would be the first to say that his ideas are also in this sense a collective achievement. At the end of his life, he was beginning work on a cosmopolitan ethics that would provide a foundation for this view that most of us already hold. Beck’s cosmopolitan theory always shared with the Classics their concern with transcendental horizons, as well as especially Durkheim’s concern with the profane and the holy and the sacred character of existence. Ulrich Beck was from sociological theory untimely ripped. He will be missed.

Natan Sznaider