WHAT IS WORLD RISK SOCIETY?
World Risk Society (1999) is a book of sociological theory written by German academic Ulrich Beck. Written at the dawn of the new Millennium, it has been an influential text, being regularly referred to by theorists working in environmentalism and ecological philosophy (Morton). I even suspect his language is used by the World Economic Forum. In this seminal text, Beck outlines a strategic hermeneutics (study/interpretation of human behaviour, social institutions and infra-structures), which addresses the problem of risk to social infra-structure. The reason for hyphenating “infrastructure” is to stress the definition of the prefix “infra-“, which suggests the concealment of structures supporting societies, the risk to which is a risk to the well-being of society as a whole. Beck formulates a method of inquiry outlining how existential risk to our social infra-structures is not merely a national problem, but a global one. His method details a mode of thought (hermeneutics), which would enhance the visibility of risks to social life. Beck understood that withdrawnness of risk was due in part to the pressures of organisations that benefit from the non-visibility of risk, thus the reason for hyphenating. This is clearer to us now, as a general-public, than it was before the New Millennium.
The problem Beck highlights is the withdrawnness of risk from everyday visibility, which may include its coverage in news media or other sources, such as the Internet, which is obviously more prevalent now than it was in 1999.
The crux of Beck’s endeavour was to bring to our attention the uncontrollable difficulties in the calculation of risk in a world in metamorphosis, which Beck continued to interrogate. Beck’s final (unfinished) book The Metamorphosis of the World (2016) was an attempt by Beck to answer a question he was unable to answer satisfactorily.
This book represents an attempt to rescue myself, and perhaps others too, from a major embarrassment. Even though I have been teaching sociology and studying the transformation of modern societies for many years, I was at a loss for an answer to the simple but necessary question ‘What is the meaning of the global events unfolding before our eyes on the television?’, and I was forced to declare bankruptcy. There was nothing—neither a concept nor a theory—capable of expressing the turmoil of this world in conceptual terms…(The Metamorphosis of the World, 3)
Beck goes on to explain that a theory of ‘transformation’ or ‘change’ does not deliver a satisfactory answer to the question above. What Beck prescribes is a theory of ‘Metamorphosis’. How come? As Beck explains, “Metamorphosis implies a much more radical transformation in which the old certainties of modern society are falling away and something quite new is emerging” (3).
What Beck means by “old certainties” is the progressive, teleological ideology of industrial capitalism, with its required exponential growth forecasts. Beck recognised that with industrialised modernity’s residuum clinging to a metamorphosing society, a whole host of new problems would need to be manufactured into visibility, if we are to have any hope of finding solutions to them. The old progressive mode of thinking would need to be scrapped if we were to emerge successful from these new risks.
MANUFACTURING POLITICAL INVISIBILITY: ENTER COVID
For the reasons above, Beck develops in The Metamorphosis of the World, a “Politics of Invisibility” (99-114) where he outlines the fundamental problem of relying on government infra-structure to respond adequately to risk. Indicative of this is the woeful response of the Tory government in general. They have tirelessly oscillated back and forth, going back on advice they gave, or trying to establish normality too early.
By developing and communicating a mode of operation, for the everyday, Beck is attempting to put part of the control of a response into the hands of everybody. This is a means of preparation for what may come, as this is the point of metamorphosis: we cannot know for certain, we can only seek out invisible problems, shed light on them and address them collectively. I am not saying we haven’t done this with COVID, people have largely cooperated. But the push-back from certain voices and the fatigue of doing restriction, are indicative of our difficulty coping with risk. Our resilience is thin as normality is so embedded in us.
The significant interruption caused by COVID-19, it seems to me, is due in large part to huge swathes of many populations having absolutely no familiarity with collective, metamorphic (as variants of COVID materialise) risk. People in Britain, under the age of 80 would have been a child under the age of 5 during WWII, the last major interruption to social life. There have been in many functioning, western democracies, decades of relative stability and exponential growth. There have been trying times for nations, moments of upheaval, threats from radical terrorists, the odd extreme weather event. However, the affectivity of these events have been disproportionate, significantly affecting some more than others. This is not enough to establish a herd immunity to risk, by which I mean, a shared hermeneutics on what needs to be done, together. I think this evidenced by the existence of a profoundly polarised debate around whether the response needs to be more or less intense. Right wing, conspiratorial world-views fed on, what I am going to term, Mal-information, have been perturbed into visibility. These world-views were previously confined to shadowy, withdrawn crannies of the Internet. They remain there, in places like Brand New Tube and a series of messenger services, which have dominoed beneath them as they have been further and further, de-platformed. And yet I see their Mal-informed hypotheses embedded in the viewpoints huddled at the foot of Youtube videos’, emblazoned in Facebook and Twitter feeds, where they are dress-rehearsed into fact. This is what risk looks like. This conspiratorially-driven worldview is nationalistic, and moreover, operates in the mode of the “old certainties” explained above.
In World Risk Society Beck tells us that “World risk society opens public discourse and social science to the challenges of ecological crisis, which, as we now know, are global, local, and personal at one and the same time (5)”. World risk is not only demonstrable at the national, but importantly, at the global level. Nationalist responses to global threats respond inadequately because a cosmopolitized reaction is required to adequately address such problems. For example, COVID presents us with the dilemma of vaccinating 7.5 million people, especially if global trade and travel are to resume uninterrupted. Even if you ignore the cosmopolitical ramifications of COVID, they don’t go away but continue to exert pressures. You may recall me stating something similar about hyperobjects. Ecological effects are not contained in their affective potential. COVID is an ecological threat. It regards the relationship of body and pathogen, a relationship which is spewing up a massive dilemma in the formation and continuity of relationships to each other. Everything is about relationality and COVID is revealing this fundamental infra-structure of ecological cohesion, in disturbing ways.
Like the unconcealed repercussions of rampant deforestation, cosmopolitized realities do not stop emerging just because we fail to note their existence. The same logic applies to the virus: just because you don’t believe in the it doesn’t mean it won’t kill you. This is why constructing visibility is essential. No where is this more evident than in a shocking video I watched on Brand New Tube (https://brandnewtube.com/watch/hospital-refuses-to-allow-patient-to-leave_dJauVSOvKoQI7cN.html) of a couple who were trying to walk a critical ill family member out of hospital, despite his lungs being supported entirely by oxygen the hospital were giving him. The doctor pointedly explains that without oxygen he will be dead in 30 minutes, to which the sick man hoarily replies “So you keep telling me.” An argument ensues, with the bewildered doctor trying to explain to these coronavirus-deniers that they cannot just walk a dying man out of hospital even if none of them believe in the virus, and even if he wants to go home. These people are so delusional and brainwashed by Mal-informed sources that even though one of their family members is dying and they can see this with their own eyes (as can anyone who watches the video), they believe that his dying is due to the machinery and experts that are actually saving him. The dying man and his family members believe that should he get away from the nasty globalist-loving NHS he will become miraculously well. It is appalling that people are so recklessly indoctrinated they are willing to jeopardise a family-member’s health, as well as their own, because of their absolute certainty that the pandemic is a hoax. This is what invisible risk looks like.
THE INVISIBLE ENEMY
COVID is not only a literal (microscopically) invisible enemy, but in addition the repercussions and affective potential on people’s lives (depending on their social class and access to infra-structures) also remain invisible without the manufacture of their visibility. I am manufacturing the visibility of risks by providing an insight into a worldview informed by a response-enabling interpretation of risk. This is what Metamorphosis does. It is a realisation that sticks to you, like Timothy Morton’s ecological mesh, or hyperobject: wherever you go, whatever you do, you are enmeshed in metamorphosis. This is not to scare you. It is to make you ready to react appropriately, so that we are response-enabled when the time requires it. For example, South Korea, because they have experienced metamorphosis in the form of the first SARS outbreak and the brief hiccup of MERS, they closed the country to foreigners, not wasting energy on a debate about whether a mask can suffocate you, but simply wearing them without question. This may make me very unpopular but I think it warrants remarking that…our encouragement of “openmindedness”, and the indoctrination of the merits (by neoliberals) of individuality hindered the quick response required to curb a highly contagious pathogen. We procrastinated, we paused for thought and while we did, the virus embedded itself.
Manufacturing invisibility of affective potentials has been the mode of operation of some organisationally assembled agents in the world. The post-truth dilemma has been caused by efforts to manufacture invisibilities. Doing so perpetuates a narrative that contributes to ambiguity, which makes decision making difficult. How can we make a clear choice, if certain powerful agents actively work to ensure blind spots blind us from beneficial insights that reorient how we think about something that needs rethinking? We can’t, can we. Well no, not really.
If agents manufacture the invisibility of something, amply resourced (or deluded enough) to do so, then even if we challenge it, the challenge remains a challenge so long as there is a tension existing between the manufacturer of the object’s invisibility and the visibility that is actually, opaquely there. An example we are currently seeing is the push back against vaccination at a time when vaccination is being hailed as our road map out of the COVID health crisis.
Near to me in a town call Totnes, this is manifesting in the form of a village group actively protesting against the vaccination (Marsh: The Guardian) Surprisingly, these are not a group of rebellious 20-something students, but people in the age bracket at risk from the virus. While these responses are not the predominant narrative, this is not the point. The problem is that they have transitioned from a state of collectively manufactured invisibility—agreed upon because they were not visible in mainstream media—into a manufactured visibility because of a newly found media presence outside of 4/8Chan, Reddit and Youtube. This sort of visibility makes them public discourse and this wouldn’t be problematic if the public trusted elected officials and experts. However, populist politics and the criticism of experts by elected officials (yes, I mean you Mr Gove), have contributed to the potential ambiguity people may feel on being introduced to Mal-informed narratives about vaccines, 5G and other conspiratorial world-views. Under different circumstances these narratives would remain invisible, however, and ironically, these viruses of the mind have been encouraged into visibility by the invisible enemy currently interrupting our sense of normalcy.
For this reason Beck advocates “methodological cosmopolitanism” rather than “methodological nationalism”. What this mode of thinking encourages is a world-view which recognises the metamorphic impacts the world is currently going through, and may potentially experience in a future, without inveterate contingent thinking. As Beck outlines in The Metamorphosis of the World (2016), what a theory embedded in world risk should calculate in tandem with, is the potential for imminent metamorphosis. This establishes a new-normalcy based on contingent thinking about our individual actions in a metamorphic world of risk at the local level, which is understood to be potentially shared by “locals” across the globe. This facilitates an intimate relationship around the central problem of a shared risk to our way of life. This is not to impinge on the relevancy of cultural and behavioural differences. Because we recognise shared risk, does not mean we must abandon our cultural identities. If anything, if we want to preserve these identities they only stand to benefit from cooperation with cultures different to ours. Isn’t the difference merely uncanny anyway? Our differences, culturally, seem relatively small when we encounter—together—a threat as significant as ecological destruction or a pandemic, which will likely become endemic.
So rather than committing hindsight over and over, again and again, maybe acknowledging risk (at the same time as, yes, actually getting on with life) and acting collectively to evade risk, realistically and incrementally by making society function more in line with an ecological worldview, isn’t such a ridiculous idea after all, even if it does sound oxymoronic—or impossible. But “impossible” as I have hopefully hinted, is subjectively informed by a lack of imagination and concern for others.
If you found this insightful would you please like and share. I am asking this as I recently de-platformed myself from Facebook and Instagram. My own fault, I know—however, if you are kind and think what I have written above is informative, then share it on your WordPress, Twitter, Facebook or whatever means you have. I would really appreciate it. Also, please feel free to ask questions below. I will answer promptly, as I am locked-down currently thinking about my potential doctoral work.
Beck, Ulrich. World Risk Society. Polity Press, 1999.
Beck, Ulrich. The Metamorphosis of the World. Polity Press, 2016.
Marsh, Sarah. “Covid: Totnes concerns reflect UK-wide rise in conspiracy theories.” The Guardian, 11 Nov 2020.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/11/totnes-covid-concerns-reflect-uk-wide-rise-in-conspiracy-theories
For a whole chapter on sticky meshes and a full treatment of what hyperobjects are, see Morton, Timothy. Hyperobject: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Minnesota UP, 2013.