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Incomplete Modernity

Incomplete Modernity:

Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society
Michae/ Rustin
There has been good reason to fear that ‘post-modem’ and
‘post-industrial’ currents of thought have been sweeping
away the foundations of radical critiques without offering to
put anything very substantial in their place. It is all very well
criticising the limitations of social democracy, the welfare
state, trade unionism, and social classes as agents of change,
but what other institutions does the left have to depend on
once these have been thrown into crisis? It has seemed
reasonable in the circumstances to hang on to what remains
of these established frameworks of critical thought on a
principle of theoretical economy: don’t abandon an
established theory until one appears which offers superior
explanations and strategies. I
However, Ulrich Beck’s remarkable book Risk Society*
gives one cause to think again about whether a new model
might not be becoming available for thinking about our
times, in a not unhopeful spirit. Beck’s book, published in
Germany in 1986 and successful enough there to have sold
more than 60,000 copies and turned its author into a regular
columnist in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is
characteristically West German in its formation. It is
informed theoretically by Habermas and his critical account
of modernity (which Beck turns to his own original purpose)~
and by the anti-productionist concerns of the Greens, who
have acquired in West Germany a unique degree of
representation and influence~ and by a well-grounded
sociology of German society which is highly sensitive to
contradiction and disequilibrium. The latter has developed
from the critical assimilation of American systems theory
into post-war German sociology, evident in the writings of
Luhmann, Habermas and Offe. The holistic ambitions and
awareness of causal complexity of American functionalism
have been infused, in these West German assimilations,
with an underlying sense of potential conflict and tragedy.

Rationality, for the West German sociologists, is a
precarious value, threatened by instrumentalisation and
regression to more primitive kinds of association, and
imposing a burden of self-sufficiency and autonomy on
individuals which more conservative writers see as

* Ulrich Beck, Risk Society, Sage, London, 1992. ISBN 0
803983468,260 pp., £12.95, pb. Page references in the text
refer to this edition.

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

unnatural and unsustainable without grounding in more
‘organic’ or sacralised social forms. The legacy of the
Frankfurt School sensitised the German school to the
limitations and tragic potentialities of ‘modernity’. The
Cold War and division of Germany also had its effects on
this tradition. The choice of functionalism rather than
Marxism as an idiom of radical social critique was influenced
by the fact that Marxism had become the official ideology
of the DDR. The somewhat philosophical and abstract
quality of German critical social theory was a strategy of
survival in face of the conformist ideological climate of the
earlier post-war years, as it had been in previous historical
epochs. Beck’s work, whilst still idealistic in its
presuppositions, is a welcome departure from this abstract
mode. It probably owes this more programmatic and concrete
quality to the emergence of an alternative politics with a
popular base – the Green movement – which has provided
the support of a large activist constituency for critical theory
for the first time.

Ulrich Beck’s thesis describes an epochal shift currently
in mid-course from ‘industrial society’ to what he calls ‘risk
society’ .2
We are therefore concerned no longer exclusively
with making nature useful, or with releasing
mankind from traditional constraints, but also and
essentially with problems resulting from technoeconomic development itself. Modernisation is
becoming reflexive~ it is becoming its own theme.

(p. 19)
This argument, which is addressed primarily to a new
radical public of the left, reinterprets what others see as the
development of a ‘post-modem’ order as the next stage of
development of modernity. Whereas most post-modem
theorists are critical of the ideas of directionality, grand
narrative, general theory, or human emancipation, Beck
remains committed to all of these. Where for many
contemporary philosophers, ‘rationality’ has become
synonymous with’ discourse’ , and devoid of absolute norms
or foundations, Beck’s concept of ‘reflexive modernity’

implies the attainability of rational consensus once the
conditions for democratic deliberation throughout civil
society are created. In ‘reflexive modernity’ , which embeds
3

Habermas’s rather abstract idea of critical reason in the
concrete social world, Beck evokes the possibility of a fully
conscious, rational society, able to take full responsibility
for its development and for its relationship to nature. (Beck’s
concept of reflexivity is convergent with that of Anthony
Giddens,3 though more sociologically concrete.)
The ‘risks’ of Beck’s title are in the first instance
ecological: the unforeseeable and barely controllable
consequences for human life of the scientific and
technological revolutions. But more original than Beck’s
somewhat rhetorical discussions of actual risks, ecological
and other, is his re-reading of the process of modernisation
and of the nature of ‘modernity’ itself. Here he offers a
remarkable synthesis of changes taking place in many
spheres – work, science, politics, class, and family – each of
which manifests similar attributes of partially-realised
rationality. Although Beck links some institutions in causal
terms – arguing for example that the subordination of
women in the family in industrial society is a function of
male domination of the work-sphere – it is the idea of an
incompletely realised rationality, manifested across a range
of institutional settings, that holds his historical model
together. Beck presents this as a theory of ‘post-industrial
modernity’ .

Beck summarises his thesis in his preface as follows:

Just as modernisation dissolved the structure of
feudal society in the nineteenth century, and produced
the industrial society, modernisation today is
dissolving industrial society and another modernity
is coming into being. … the counter-modernistic
scenario currently upsetting the world – new social
movements and criticism of science, technology and
progress – does not stand in contradiction of
modernity, but is rather an expression of reflexive
modernisation beyond the outlines of industrial
society. (p. 10)
Beck’s idea, then (he says that the reader might see between
the lines the sparkling of the lake beside which he wrote his
book), is that modernity is still essentially incomplete.

Modernisation within the paths of industrial society
is being replaced by a modernisation o/the principles
of industrial society …. It is this antagonism opening
up between industrial society and modernity which
distorts our attempt at a ‘social mapping’, since we
are so thoroughly accustomed to conceiving of
modernity within the categories of industrial society.

… We are witnessing not the end but the beginning of
modernity – that is of a modernity beyond its
classical industrial design. (p. 10)
Beck develops this model by demonstrating the numerous
presuppositions of the pre-modern world which have
continued as essential structures of industrial society, but
which are now progressively called into question as the
logic of ‘reflexive modernity’ proceeds. He provides a
synoptic reading of a wide range of institutions of industrial
society, seeing these as aspects of an essentially incomplete
4

and arrested process of modernisation. It is his separation of
the industrial from the modern, and his positing of a further
stage of ‘reflexive rationality’ within each of these social
spheres, which makes this book the pathbreaking synthesis
that it is. It is worth looking at each of these institutional
spheres in turn.

Gender
A key case is the position of women in industrial society,
which Beck describes as having been essentially a status of
ascribed feudal dependency, organised by the sacralised
institution of the family which was dedicated to unequal
gender relations. Various changes are undermining
women’s dependent ‘feudal’ status which was linked in the
pre-modern ideology of patriarchy to a wider system of
social subordination. These changes include increasing
life-expectancy – the’ demographic liberation of women’ as
one of Beck’s sources, Imhof, put it; restructured and
intensively capitalised housework; the tendency to
intentional motherhood, via the availability of family
planning and abortion; the equalisation of educational
opportunity for girls and women; the frequency of divorce
and separation freeing women from lifelong support by
husbands, and often threatening them with poverty as a
result; and the increased entry of women into the labour
market, linked to all the above processes. ‘These changes
express the liberation of women from the dictates of their
modern female status fate’ (p. 111).

Class
A second core dimension of this analysis, key to the theory
of individualisation, is the declining significance of class
and status. Beck’s thesis on class has implications for
socialist perspectives which he does not fully draw out. I
shall try to elaborate them within his framework. Beck’s
argument is that both Marx’ s and Weber’s accounts of the
salience of class and status are far more relevant to industrial
than they are to ‘reflexively modern’ societies. Men and
women are being increasingly positioned by modern
economic systems as· individuals, not as class subjects.

Casualisation and flexibilisation ofthe work-process, and a
combination of differentiation and globalisation of
consumption patterns are dissolving the cultural solidarities
of class systems, especially in West Germany and
Scandinavia. (Beck makes an exception which may no
longer be correct for what he sees as the more class-ridden
culture of the United Kingdom. However, class solidarities
seem to have been eroded here too, not least because of the
prolonged and determined attacks on them by the Thatcherite
state.) ‘To put it in Marxist terms,’ he says, ‘we increasingly
confront the phenomenon of a capitalism without classes,
but with individualised social inequality and all the related
social and political problems.’ (This in fact seems to be
more a post-Marxist than a Marxist definition of the
situation. )
The persuasiveness of this argument lies in its
theoretical economy and scope, not in any detailed evidence
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

which Beck provides for it. In the framework of his thesis,
the very existence of class solidarities can be seen to derive
from the survival within industrial societies of the status
hierarchies of feudalism. Class memberships and identities
re-worked pre-existing senses of social difference and
subordination, sometimes giving them a different direction
(relations of opposition rather than submission), but
nevertheless building on what was perceived as the
naturalness of status divisions to construct the class cultures
of industrial society. Not only status inequality, but even the
oppositional and utopian forms of reaction to it – the
socialist idea of equality itself – were thus products of the
pre-bourgeois social order. It was, of course, the truncating
and dispersal of this feudal history which made American
society so different and apparently ‘abnormal’. If the social
world does come to be composed largely of individual and
not of class subjects, then North America may come to seem
to be in the vanguard of modernity, not an aberration from
the European norm, as socialists used to see it. 4
In the light of this thesis, one might say that the process
of normative emancipation involved in ‘modernity’ – the
idea that rights and opportunities should be available to all
individuals, regardless of birth or class position – undermines
the solidarities of class on which the idea of equality has
depended as its collective bearer. Once ‘subordinate class
subjects’ cease to feel subordinate or inferior in their sense
of self-worth – once they have achieved a certain level of
emancipation – class and status memberships are felt to be
demeaning. These identities become perceived as signifiers
of inequality and as stigmas of injustice, no longer as a
collective resource for achieving justice and equality.

Whereas in the earlier post-war period, claims of social
justice were mostly asserted in collectivistic terms, during
the 1980s it has proved politically effective to invoke the
idea of individual rights against existing forms of social
provision – for example the welfare state, trade unions,
political representation – which had earlier seemed their
main guarantors. Thatcher appealed to ‘individuals’

(famously, in the swing -voter categories of skilled industrial
workers) to throw off the chains of their subordination to
trade union bosses and government bureaucrats, to become
house-owners rather than council tenants. This idea of the
individual subject (‘equal’ in freedom but not in distributive
outcome, of course) was counterposed, successfully, to the
former solidaristic identities of class, or, as Sir Keith Joseph
put it, of ‘dependency’. Social altruism diminished as a
consequence, where it politically counted most, in the
willingness to pay taxes for the social good. When asked
their opinions, a majority of voters protested their
commitment to public services. When it came to elections,
they voted (as they thought) for lower taxation. In this sense,
the Thatcherite revolution in Britain, and perhaps the parallel
right-wing ascendancy in the United States, has been an
authentically ‘modernising’ movement, appropriating in
populist and individualist terms universalist claims which
had in their more collectivised version belonged previously
to the political left.

Just as the family is viewed in this perspective of
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

‘reflexive modernity’ as a ‘feudal’ survival, so the institutions
of the welfare compromise (and those of State socialism in
the East) have been revealed by their recent crises to be
deeply compromised by inegalitarian, bureaucratic and
indeed authoritarian attributes. Whilst these institutions
were claimed to be instruments of social justice, they also
unavoidably continued to be distributors of unequal
advantage to middle class consumers. 5 Whilst ostensibly
devoted to ideals of public service, they also advanced the
interests of their professional functionaries. The populist
right was thus able to appeal successfully to the people over
the heads of the elected or appointed defenders of its
interests.

‘Socialism’, as a project of universal emancipation and
equality, is thus being pushed out of its former institutional
cradle. Certainly, there is evidence that class identifications
and class-based voter alignments are diminishing
everywhere in the West. Although in Germany amalgamation
with the former DDR is providing a major assimilation
problem, as the ‘other’ of a nation ideologically constituted
as a society of the working class is incorporated into the
bourgeois ethos of the Federal German Republic in
conditions of mass unemployment and economic disruption.

If we want to retain some conception of a possible socialism,
it would have to be, in the light of Beck’s argument, a
‘socialism without class’.

Science
A third sphere in which Beck develops his thesis of
‘incomplete modernisation’ is that of· scientific and
technological transformation. This is given particular
emphasis by his ecological, risk-informed perspective.

Beck’s central antithesis between ‘classical’ and ‘reflexive’

modernisation (the initial modernisation of tradition and the
subsequent modernisation of industrial society) is worked
out in the domain of science as the contrast between wealth
production and risk production. The argument is that
while in classical industrial society the ‘logic’ of
wealth production dominates the ‘logic’ of risk
production, in the risk society this relationship is
reversed. The productive forces have lost their
innocence in the reflexivity of modernisation
processes. The gain in power from techno-economic
progress is being increasingly overshadowed by the
production of risks.

Beck argues that these now amount to ‘non-class-specific
global hazards’ , the product of a situation where the whole
of nature, and the spheres of both production and
reproduction, are constituted through science-based
interventions.

The most fundamental argument here asserts’ the end of
the antithesis between nature and society’, viewed in
industrial society as spheres which are external to one
another. Whereas the control of nature was seen in the
Enlightenment as a means of human liberation, Beck now
argues that this control has become a source of potential

5

catastrophe. Because of this we need to move ‘from the
solidarity of need to solidarity motivated by anxiety’, a
potentially classless solidarity since all are equally threatened
by the new kinds of risk. There is now no ‘nature’ that is not
deeply affected by scientific intervention, and no ‘society’

that is not being transformed by the outcomes of science’s
conquest of nature.

It is not merely the so-called ‘natural world’ of forests,
climate, species, which is affected by technological
interventions, but the social world too. Work is being
transformed by electronics. The family is threatened by the
potential of in vitro fertilisation and genetic engineering.

And of course, technology applied to warfare threatens total
destruction. ‘Risk society is a catastrophic society,’ argues
Beck, ‘in it the exceptional condition threatens to become
the norm’ (p. 24). At an earlier stage of industrial society,
science and technology sometimes did limited damage, and
piecemeal remedies could be sought when such damage
occurred. Now, the cumulative effects of scientific
interventions provide the agenda for .whole scientific
industries. Beck thinks we should be looking holistic ally at
causes, and not symptoms: for example, at the environmental
causes of diseases, and not drugs to control them; at
containing the role of the automobile, not merely cleaning
up its engines; at reducing demand for energy, not finding
more ways of generating it.

Cumulatively, the litany of ‘risks’ cited by Beck- global
warming, chemical toxicity, the extinction of species,
radiation, genetic engineering – becomes compelling, though
Beck is less sensiti ve to the cultural and even quasi-religious
shaping of this ‘risk agenda’ than he might be. 6 But more
compelling than Beck’s rather random enumeration of
actual risks is the application of his ‘incomplete modernity’

idea to the whole sphere of scientific discourse. He points
out that science’s legitimation claims depend on the fallibility
of its findings, and on their constant reference to rational
argument and empirical evidence. Yet, he points out,
scientific institutions have normally operated in a two-fold
manner, exploiting the unquestioned authority of experts in
their dealings with the public sphere even whilst basing this
authority on the provisional and falsifiable nature of science
in contrast to pre-modern forms of knowledge. What is now
happening, argues Beck, is that this bluff is being called.

The claims of rational critique asserted in classical modernist
mode against pre-modern beliefs is now being made in a
spirit of reflexive modernity against science itself.

Faced with ‘scientific evidence’ for or against some
project or process, citizens now routinely locate their own
sources of qualified advice. Whether the issue be the state
of the ozone layer, the population of whales, or toxins in
food, there is now invariably more than one informed and
articulate side to each debate. These contests have also
made evident that what underlies the arguments between
scientists are ethical and social commitments, which set
many research agendas in the first place. Furthermore the
‘problems’ which are now the subject of scientific and
political controversy (for example the implications of nuclear
power generation or tropical deforestation) are themselves
6

the outcome of earlier science-based programmes of
economic and technical development. ‘Reflexive
modernisation’ brings this entire system and its legitimating
ideologies into the sphere of critical debate. This process,
Beck suggests, is now so far advanced that science can no
longer advance its authority claims in particular spheres
without these claims being inevitably challenged. Beck
quotes Feyerabend’s observation that now, in the field of
arguments about scientific truth, ‘anything goes’.

Politics
Finally, Beck brings the political sphere within the scope of
his ‘incomplete modernity’ thesis. Elective government
makes only a small concession, he points out, to the idea of
full democratic responsibility. His arguments have some
similarities with those of radical constitutional reformers in
Britain. 7 Ultimately, he says,
the monopolisation of democratically constituted
decision-making rights is founded on the contradictory
image of a democratic monarchy. The rules of
constitutional democracy are limited to the
(infrequent) choice of political representatives and to
(minority) participation in forming political
programmes. Once in office, it is not only the ‘monarch
for a term’ who develops dictatorial leadership
qualities and enforces his decisions in authoritarian
fashion from the top down: the agencies, interest
groups and citizens’ groups affected by the decisions
also forget their rights and become ‘democratic
subjects’ who accept without question the state’s
claims to dominance. (p. 191)
Beck sees this situation as unstable for two opposite reasons.

On the one hand, the most important decisions which affect
human lives are made not by politicians, but in the dispersed
scientific and corporate centres in which technological
innovations are planned. It is the development of new forms
of production – whether of drugs, electronics, bioengineering, or machinery – which shape man’s future. The
role of the state in relation to these is merely that of an
ineffecti ve, post-facto regulator. The declining significance
of party politics to citizens is in part a recognition of the
irrelevance of centralised national state structures to these
processes of technically-based change which are both
dispersed and global in their effects.

On the other side, the reflexive practices which are
morally most significant are also decentralised and
specialised, usually taking place within social movements
outside the sphere of political parties. The guarantors of a
genuinely democratic process are legal rights upholding
freedom of expression, mass communications systems
providing access to the public sphere, and educational
resources which give citizens some cognitive resource for
acting upon their situation. We could add that these
‘guarantors’ are themselves incomplete and frail. Although
they assign some rights of democratic participation and
deliberation to citizens, they do so in radically unequal

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

ways. In Beck’s view, not the redistribution of material
resources (he assumes that the welfare state has become
somewhat obsolete through its success in guaranteeing
standards oflife) but safeguards against ‘risk’ have become
the central issues.

To respond to these problems, a more dispersed and
differentiated kind of politics is called for, not the nowfutile attempt to orchestrate interests into a centralised party
system. The institutions which thus become crucial are the
judiciary, with its potential for protecting citizens and their
rights to know; the mass media, with their power of publicity;
a private sphere, arising from the ‘detraditionalisation of
life-worlds’ allowing space for a ‘personal politics’; and
new citizens’ initiatives and social movements, such as
those which have been developed in response to ecological
dangers. Beck envisages a dispersed and ubiquitous form of
participation, pressing the claims of ‘modernity’ to the
point where all claims can be questioned and in which
choices based on rational deliberation take the place of
habitual conformity.

Society is seen as evolving towards the form of a variety
of networks, linked laterally as well as vertically, rather
than as hierarchical chains of command. Beck’s argument
has affinities with the theses of ‘Post-Fordism’ and of

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

‘Disorganised Capitalism’.8 He argues in an interesting
practical conclusion for the importance of information
disclosure and of deliberation and critique at an institutional
level: ‘The right to criticism within professions and
organisations, like the right to strike, ought to be fought for
and protected in the public interest.’ One reason for this is
that risks cannot be detected, let alone methods found to
avoid them, without technical expertise. He argues for
example that there needs to be a ‘medical parliament’, to
debate the ethics of medical technologies.

Reflexive Modernity

How valuable is Beck’s theory of ‘reflexive modernity’? I
shall argue in the last section of this article that Beck’s thesis
provides a valid defence of the idea of a ‘rational’ society
against post-modem critics who have attacked this view as
inherently elitist ifnot tyrannical. Beck sees ‘modernity’ as
the goal of an immanent process by which both natural and
social worlds may be brought within the spheres of
understanding and choice. It is consistent with his view to
see the culture and ideology of ‘high modernism’ as itself a
merely transitional moment. Just as science asserted the
claims of reason but then insisted on its unquestioned
authority over uninformed publics, so the technocratic
elitists of modernism sought to ‘legislate’ (to use Bauman’s
term9 ) for mankind on the grounds of their superior cultural
understanding. Beck makes the claim, through his advocacy
of an active, devolved civil society, that reason, and thus
modernity, is inherently democratic. The post-modern
critique of the ‘authoritarianism’ of mode.rnist culture is
based, on this view, on a mistaken generalisation from what
was in fact merely a transitional phase.

Beck’s central argument is that the condition imagined
as ‘modernity’ has not yet arrived, and that the institutions
of ‘industrial society’ represent only a partial assertion of
the claims of rational self-determination as a universal
principle. The superseding of the typical institutions of
‘industrialism’ – full-time work, women’s subordination
within the family, the elitist authority claims of scientific
knowledge, restricted constitutional democracy – are in
principle, Beck suggests, to be welcomed, in so far as they
open the way to a more fully democratic and self-created
social order. Beck’s argument transposes the Marxian model
of historical transition. It identifies the continuing legacies
of ‘arbitrary’ feudal authority and traditionalism within
industrial capitalism, and looks forward to the continuing
working-out of the emancipatory potential of the norms of
rationality and freedom. One might say that Beck proposes
the full elaboration of the potentials of the bourgeois
revolution, as a precondition for a situation that he still
seems to think of as socialism.

Beck’s argument is of value in identifying many
contradictions between the normative claims generated
within industrial society and the limits which its institutions
impose on these claims. Beck’s view of industrial society as
a merely partial modernisation proves able to bring many
different fields of social action within its theoretical scope.

7

He enables us to see the crisis of several of the institutions
of industrial society in a positive way, as their unequal and
undemocratic forms become exposed to critique from the
point of view of their own immanent norms.

Beck’s approach, following Habermas and a long German
tradition, is, however, essentially idealist in its assumptions.

The shaping force in his account of change is the rationalising
mode of thought itself. This has achieved its first partial
transformation of the world through the forms of ‘industrial
society’. Industrialism is seen as only a partial step towards
the idea of a world shaped by human reason, the condition
of ‘reflexive rationality’ which Beck upholds as his central
value and social goal. Marshal Berman’ s epigraph from The
Communist Manifesto, ‘All that is solid melts into air’,
could be the epigraph to Beck’s book as well. Many of the
changes that Beck draws attention to, especially from an
ecological point of view, are deeply threatening. Beck
conceives the remedy for, as well as the diagnosis of, this
condition in idealist terms. The problems are caused by the
effects of partial and incomplete rationality, embodied in
certain forms of arbitrary social power. Prospective solutions
to these problems lie in reflexive rationality, which is
envisaged as dispersed in a variety of citizen communities
with access to legal and cultural resources. It is this form of
deliberative, critical social action – clearly related to the
arguments and campaigning of the ‘new social movements’

such as feminism and the Greens – which is offered as the
necessary response to a world of ‘risk’.

Some things can be said in defence of Beck’s immanent
rationalism, before some problems in his argument are
considered. The first is that the grounding of political
programmes in universal norms to which historical destiny
is attributed has long been a normal and perhaps
indispensable resource of radical and socialist politics.

There are few options available for the justification of
ethical and political commitments which do not depend, in
the last resort, on some foundational norms of the kind Beck
postulates. Whilst Marxism grounds its conceptions of the
potentiality of self-determining, creative human existence
in a materialist historical account, the motive-spring of the
development Marx describes is, nevertheless, the capacity
of human actors to choose rational solutions to the problems
posed for them by scarcity, oppression, and alienation.

The attempt by Althusser and his followers to construct
a Marxist theory of change which eliminated rational agency,
and which attempted to characterise merely philosophical
arguments as innately ‘bourgeois’ in their form, failed.

Objective analysis of causal chains and explanations, even
including the explanation of social norms and beliefs
themselves, cannot escape the necessity to find a normative
grounding for political action, even if this is posed in
Marxist mode in relation to historical ends rather than to
absolute and timeless principles. It is characteristic of the
socialist, and the more historicist parts of the liberal
tradition,1O that such norms are both assigned validity and
grounded in theories which explain their own historical
emergence.

It is a particular meri t of Beck’s work that he grounds his
normative conceptions and programmes in substantive
models of social change. When Beck discusses modernity
and reflexivity one is not left in any doubt about what
concrete social institutions and practices he might actually
be talking. His synoptic sketches of the contemporary social
totality are illuminating and informative, in both historical
and systemic terms. Beck’s argument has some serious
limitations, but these are not consequences of its normative
core.

Norms and Power
What is much more problematic in a model of this kind is the
causal weight that is implicitly assigned to norms and ideas
and their innate logic of development, rather than to other
agencies and powers. As a programme, Beck’s emphasis on
the normative, on reflexive, responsible action by citizens,
makes sense. Most radicals are obliged to appeal to conscious
agency, and contrast the essence of shared ideals and
principles with their compromised existence in actuality.

Beck thus defends ‘modernity’ as a still incomplete form of
emancipation. He imagines democratic, participative
communities taking conscious responsibility for their
relations with nature and for the social world. His
programmatic aim might be said to be provide citizens with
a map of the social world and its dangers which shows them
where, historically, they are, and where they can find scope
for action. This is not very different from what socialist

8

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

I
writers have always sought to do, though the collective
subject invoked by Beck is no longer primarily a class
subject.

But it is one thing to urge that such norms ought to be or
could be acted upon by subjects, that is to invoke them
prescriptively, and another to assume their primacy at the
level of explanation of the social order we actually have.

Beck states that institutions have made only partial
concessions to the norms of rationality and democracy, but
he does not offer any explanation of what it is in them which
has resisted these pressures, or what forms of power continue
to be deployed against democratic subjects. The kind of
explanation most consistent with this idealistic account
would refer only to other, antithetical normative principles,
and this is the crux of the methodological problem in Beck’s
argument. The fact is that norms and ideas are only one
source of power in society, not the sole or even main source
of power. 11 Emancipatory rationalists prefer this source of
power, and seek to enlarge its scope. Revolutionary upheaval,
as Furet has demonstrated for the French Revolution, 12 may
dramatically transform the conditions within which
deliberative power can be exercised, giving it a moment of
temporary omnipotence. But this is not to be equated with
the normal condition of society, in which coercion, scarcity,
and sUbjection to the taken-for-granted also have a large
part in the maintenance of social order. Each of these modes
of micro-social compliance has its equivalent institutional
agency – armies, churches, corporations, etc. Beck’s model
of rule by norms privileges the discursive form of power
with which emancipatory radicals feel most at home. It does
not accurately describe societies as they are.

Beck discusses a range of institutions, but he is reluctant
to acknowledge that some of them in fact hold much more
power than others. It is one thing to recommend that power
and rationality be dispersed throughout society; it is quite
another to demonstrate that this dispersal has already
occurred. Beck’s critique, especially in chapters I and 2, is
directed towards ‘techno-scientific rationality’, not to the
institutional power of capital, as if he thinks that it is the
mode of scientific thinking itself rather than its sponsoring
corporate agencies which is the decisive agent of change.

The economic sphere is often referred to in Risk Society as
a ‘techno-economic system’, in contrast to the ‘politicoeconomic’ realm in which democratic decision-making is
the supposed norm (e.g. p. 183).

Beck points to the similarities of a number of key social
institutions, in so far as a sort of achieved partial democracy
or rationality is concerned. Economy, family, polity, culture,
he implicitly says, have all been affected by the forces of
rationalisation and democratisation, although dominant
powers within them have also been able to stand out against
them, preserving a large degree of essentially arbitrary
power. This is an illuminating description, as far as it goes.

But this analysis of the similarities of social institutions, and
of their common normative origins, is at the expense of a
consideration of their causal relations with each other. We
might say that the functionalist tradition which has so
shaped West German sociology has led Beck to assume that
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

social institutions are arranged as the complementary levels
of a unified social system, governed by common norms (in
this case the norms of incomplete rationality), rather than
organised in dependent hierarchies dominated by specific
sources of material and physical power. Constitutional
democracy is partial democracy in part because of the
power of property; scientific development is inflected by
the corporations who pay for it; social classes are dispersed
and dissolved partly because it has been the strategy of
capital to disperse them. Of course, these relations are
interactive and complex, but a central organising principle
of our world is missed if such causal connections and loci
of power are not examined.

The centre of power which seems above all to need this
attention, all the more clearly after its triumph over
Communist Eastern Europe in 1989, is the system of
corporate capitalism. Beck consistently avoids the
conventional socialist attribution of power to the forces of
corporate capital, describing these as powerful largely in
their capacity to direct technical change, but he does still
refer to the desirability and feasibility of a ‘socialism of
everyday life’ (p. 221).

Beck has realised, correctly, that the forms of agency by
which socialists sought to confront capitalism and oligarchy
have changed to such a degree that they cannot now
themselves sustain a transformative programme. But, whilst
this oppositional agency may have· changed, in part as a
result of its emancipation by capitalist democracy itself, this
is not to say that capitalism itself has changed to the same
degree. To destroy one’s enemy is not necessarily to
transform oneself, though no doubt to do so must have some
reflexive consequences.

There seems in Beck’s argument a tendency, in part
politically driven, to gloss over the actual concentrations
and dynamics of power in modem capitalism. The need to
identify and speak to collective subjects broader than the
working class agency of old, now that this seems to have
been largely incorporated or defeated, leads to the
displacement of traditional ‘socialist’ forms of argument.

Explanation of this may lie in the difficulties of explicit
reference to the Marxist tradition in the political
circumstances of West Germany. The search for new
‘uni versal’ social subjects may make sense at a proRTammatic
level, but it has a price if it leads to a misrepresentation or
underestimation of the major dynamic forces which drive
and hold together the actually existing social system.

Risk and Subjectivity
A similar point can be made about Beck’s emphasis on
‘risk’ as the unifying category which defines the central
social crisis. What Beck does with this concept is to replace
traditional radical concerns over the prevalence of oppression
and scarcity with a more generic idea of systemic crisis, and
especially ecological crisis. This is held to have emerged
because of the imbalance between technological power
(deployed to transform our biological conditions of life, the
natural environment and the social world) and human
9

I

capacities to reflect upon and make deliberative choices
about its use. Here, critique is both of the unequal access of
citizens to knowledge and decision-making procedures,
and of the fact that in conditions where debate about
alternatives is restricted, optimal decisions are unlikely to
be made.

Whilst one of the worst aspects of the state of generalised
‘risk’ Beck describes is that it potentially threatens all
citizens, this may also seem to be a hopeful feature of this
analysis from the point of view of prospective social arousal.

The ‘positive’ side of the concept of risk is that it appears to
make it possible to construct a universal subject whose
members are equally menaced by such phenomena as
global warming or nuclear toxification. This situation is, in
part, a real one, both in regard to immediate biological
dangers, and in respect of a more general social condition of
interdependency and exposure, sometimes summarised as
the effects of globalisation. If social agents are constructed
by their experience of common life situations and the
possession of common interests, then liability to impending
ecological catastrophe does seem to provide the basis for a
universal idea of human citizenship. The idea that knowledge
– whether oflegal rights or nuclear waste – should be widely
shared and deployed to further the interests of citizens
worldwide is one that few on the left could disagree with. It
also reflects the social practice of many new kinds of social
agencies, including environmental campaigns, human rights
organisations, and the international aid charities.

But the imperatives of political mobilisation do not
necessarily lead to the most searching kinds of social
analysis. There is a danger that the theory of ‘risk’ is being
unduly driven by its immanent concept of agency; that is, by
the hope of the universal social subject that it promises to
construct. ‘Reflexive modernity’ is here ushered into
existence before its time, because if it can be imagined, it
may generate active, discursive, participatory citizens as its
natural concomitants. It is, I think, indicative of this drift in
Beck’s argument – its Gver-determination by the experience
and hopes of the German Greens – that his writing on
current ecological dangers is emotive and diffuse in a way
that his historical and theoretical analysis is not. He seems
inclined in places to ‘talk up’ these risks because of what
might follow if people take them seriously. Socialists (unlike
Beck) have sometimes become involved in the environmental
movement not because they themselves believe
environmental issues to be paramount, but because they
wish to be part of and have access to what appears to be a
rising social force, not be wholly tied to a declining and
defeated one.

Should ‘reflexive modernity’ and its collective subjects
be understood as a diagnosis or a programme? Beck’s
argument is to a degree utopian in its attributions of capability
and agency to whole hosts of dispersed social groups and
micro-institutions, in a world which is dominated by
immense concentrations of power. The fact, for example,
that corporate economic power has largely escaped the
constraints of the nation-state reduces rather than increases
its accessibility to the demands of citizens. Beck evokes
10

new individual and collective subjects, as replacements for
the sites of resistance within industrial society – the working
class, socialist parties, one could even add, the family. The
present inadequacy of these new agencies for the tasks
which Beck assigns to them reveals some weaknesses in his
method of analysis.

This analysis points to the potentials of a fully-realised
modernity, seen as a condition of universal access to a
process of rational decision-making. (This vision plainly
draws on the Habermasian ‘ideal speech situation’ and its
imagined social embodiments). But it is possible to interpret
some of these tendencies in a less hopeful spirit. Whilst
Beck defends a vision of ‘modernity’ against the
fragmentation and incoherence of a ‘post-modern’ view of
the world, it is not clear that the alternatives he evokes to the
existing forms of ‘industrial’ organisation are viable ones,
or even necessarily improvements on it.

A particular problem arises from the centrality given to
the individual, ‘post-class’ subject, and the extent to which
rational self-determination is located in such subjects and in
whatever associations they choose freely to enter. The
dissolution of all pre-given and imposed social ties and
relationships might inaugurate an era of individual and
social fulfilment. It might also amount mainly to a state of
competiti ve and conflictual anomie. It is not after all so clear
that the reflexive subject of Beck’s account is so distinct
from the individualist subject of capitalism.

More concretely, will individuals released from the
unquestioned roles and obligations of families, and free to
negotiate their own fundamental relationships, escape
loneliness and expendability? Is the serial’ or· multiple
choice of partners by individuals who may deploy very
different bargaining resources necessarily an improvement
on conventional monogamy, which demands at least some
formal reciprocity of obligation? Does the flexibilisation of
employment mean that material existence and employment
will be structurally separated from each other (for example,
via a basic income entitlement), or merely that large
minorities will once again be forced into economic
uncertainty and intermittent poverty? Isn’t the present erosion
of ‘Fordist work patterns’ in the West leading mainly to
social polarisation and the expulsion of a significant part of
the population from any economic role whatsoever? How is
the ethos of ‘flexibilisation’ not to lead merely to the
casualisation and atomisation of a previously more
solidaristic and mutually-supported workforce?

Beck suggests that challenges to scientific authority
mean that reason is becoming generalised, and society more
actively responsible for its future. An alternative possibility
is that ‘knowledge’ is becoming more exclusively the
property of the particular interests it serves – less a source
of objective insight and more a means of advancing particular
interests. Something similar might be said of the law,
despite all attempts to democratise access to its procedures.

Nor is it clear that the dispersal of political life to Beck’s
preferred sites of legal contest, media debate, and citizens’

networks, is going to compensate for the decline of the more
concentrated’ countervailing powers’ 13 of parties and labour
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

unions, as defenders of the majority interest.

Another interpretation can be offered of this whole
development. According to this, it is not abstract rationality
which is its driving force, but rather the instrumental
rationality of capital. It is the commodification of everything
which is transforming the world, desacralising what was
formerly sacred (the family, the natural world), breaking up
those institutions (welfare states, trade unions, entrenched
employment rights) which offered resistance to capital
accumulation, instrumentalising even knowledge itself.

The fundamental right on which this system is based, which
Beck hardly refers to, is therighttoproperty.ltis ‘shareholder
democracy’ – one share one vote – not citizen democracy’one person one vote’ – which rules our world, and reason
and science are deployed mainly as its instruments.

Most of the institutional changes which Beck describes
– to the family, work, and politics – may thus be the effects
of the pervasive intervention of markets into hitherto
unpenetrated or resistant spheres. Even ‘globalisation’ is
driven not merely by technology in the abstract, but by the
deployment of technology for corporate purposes. It does
follow from the fact that the earlier institutions of resistance
– mass political parties, trade unions, churches or even
national governments – can no longer resist these processes
effectively that some better form of ‘resistance’ in the form
of dispersed critique within civil society, is waiting round
the corner to take their place. The forms of mobilisation
which Beck proposes are undoubtedly positive, but whether
they are a match for the unending capitalist transformation
of the world is another matter.

Conclusion
The problem posed by Ulrich Beck’s thesis is how to relate
his powerful normative critique of the incomplete realisation
of the ideal of the rational subject, across a variety of
institutions, to analysis of the material forms of power
which obstruct its fulfilment. There may be good scientific
as well as tactical reasons for Beck to have avoided this
second form of discourse. A rigorous and unifying analysis
of the contradiction between immanent rationality and its
arrested realisation in many institutional spheres is certainly
a major contribution in itself. Risk Society, despite its
idealist foundations, displays a real sociological imagination.

However, suppose one holds that this process of
‘modernisation’ is being driven largely not by its own
internal logic, but by the system of capital accumulation. 14
Can one locate, within the evolution of capitalism itself, the
kind of contradiction between norm and realisation which
Beck sees as the basis of progress elsewhere? If one could,
then it might be possible to bring these two levels of
argument, the normative and the explanatory, together. One
might then also find some way of re-connecting the agencies
which resisted and mitigated the consequences of the
capitalism of Beck’s ‘industrial society’, with those which
Beck points to as the sites of critical rationality in postindustrial society.

What is probably fundamental to this is the concept of
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

capital itself, largely ignored in Beck’s account. It is the
contradiction between the development of capital, as a
(necessary) force for material production and transformation,
and the human purposes which this process is supposed to
serve, which needs to be identified and opened up. Only if
capital, property, the rights of ownership, are brought
within the sphere of rational critique, is there any prospect
of bringing this juggernaut of transformative power under
human control. It is the unchallenged identification of the
power of capital with the good of mankind which remains
the ideological key to many of the problems, including
those of ecological ‘risk’, which Beck evokes.

To say that the category of capital needs to be brought
within the sphere of critique, and its own immanent potentials
and contradictions explored, does not necessarily mean
reiterating conventional socialist theories about it. We have
all learned too much about the failings of institutions
intended to deliver democracy, justice, and emancipation,
merely to repeat the arguments for them. It is not any longer
even clear what it would mean to bring the system of
material production under rational control, or what role
markets, different forms of ownership (both individual and
collective), political regulation, and the associations of civil
society should have in this.

What is quite clear is that an analysis which evades this
issue fails to recognise the major source of power of our
society. Risk Society can be criticised for its silences and
glosses in this sphere. Even the transition from ‘industrial’

to ‘post-industrial’ society, an essential foundation of Beck ‘ s
theory, cannot be understood without recognising this key
dimension of economic agency. But it may be that by
subjecting the sphere of capital to the kinds of critique
which Beck deploys in regard to other institutions of
‘blocked’ or incomplete rationality, this major limitation of
his argument can be addressed.

Notes

2

3

4

I found myself criticising ‘post-socialist’ positions for this
reason in ‘The Politics of Post-Fordism, or The Trouble with
“New Times”, New Left Review 175, June-JUly 1989; and in
more abstract terms in ‘Absolute Voluntarism: Critique of a
Post-Marxist Concept of Hegemony , ,New German Critique 42,
Winter 1988.

The idea of risk as a distinctive product of modernity is also
discussed by Niklas Luhmann, Trust and Power, Wiley,
Chichester, 1979; and in ‘Familiarity, Confidence, Trust:

Problems and Alternatives’ ,inD. Gambetta (ed.) Trust: Making
and Breaking Cooperative Relations, Blackwell, Oxford, 1988.

Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, Polity,
Cambridge, 1990; and Modernity and Self-Identity, Polity,
Cambridge, 1991.

Beck’s argument about the origins of inequality in the inheritance of pre-industrial society, drawn from Marx and Weber,
leaves implicit the origins of socialism as a reaction to this same
social order. Beck, however, is clear that the ideals of egalitarian
solidarity have now lost most of their appeal. The values of
individuality and difference, products of the dissolution of class
society, are proposed in their place. This might signify a final
emancipation from feudal preoccupations with status inequality. But it might also be taken to indicate no more than the
triumph of a fully bourgeois world-view.

11

5

An influential British critique of the ‘middle class privileges’

conferred by welfare state provision was Julian Le Grand’s The
Strategy of Equality, Allen and Unwin, London, 1982.

10

Notably Ernest Gellner, in numerous works.

11

Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, Vols. 1 and 2,
Cambridge University Press, 1989 and 1993.

6

See Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky’s Risk and Culture,
University of California Press, Berkeley, 1982, for a more
sceptical treatment of ecological concerns.

12

Fran~ois

7

I am thinking of the British campaign ‘Charter 88’ and its
leading writers on the constitution. For example, Neal Ascherson,
Games with Shadows, Radius, London, 1988; and Tom Nairn,
The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy, Radius, London, 1988.

13

The phrase is from J. K. Galbraith, American Capitalism: The
Concept of Countervailing Power, Hamish Hamilton, London,
1957.

14

Beck’s view of ‘modernisation’ as a process driven by its own
immanent logic places him in the tradition of Hegel, via its
assimilation by the Frankfurt School and Habermas, though
with a sociological substance derived from systems theory. The
relative neglect of material powers in this account reflects the
continuing distance between both idealist and sociological traditions, and Marxism. This theoretical divide and the silences it
involves limits the scope of Beck’s argument.

8

M. J. Pi ore and C. F. Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide, Basic
Books, New York, 1984; S. Lash and J. Urry, The End of
Organised Capitalism, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1987. Scott
Lash provided the introduction to Beck’s English edition.

9

Z. Bauman, Legislators and Interpreters, Polity Press, London,
1987.

Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, Cambridge
University Press, 1981.

I(IIN(I as (IJIIIJRI
SaC 19 (1994) Includes:

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(Megan Stern)
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Academic research cultures in collision (Stephen Hili & Tlm Turpln)
Modelling technologies of control (Chunglin K wa)
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