Ulrich Beck and developing the art of co-existence and constitutional tolerance…

Towards the end of the last millennium, an intellectual fad infected the Anglo-American academy, whose ivory towers can be vulnerable to fast-spreading exotica. Against the backdrop of the fall of the Wall in Germany and the cul-de-sac into which French ‘structuralist’ philosophies had fallen, ‘post-modernism’ announced the end of the ‘grand narratives’ of modernity, deriving from the enlightenment tradition and associated with its emancipating doctrines of liberalism and socialism. Everything was now just perspective, its breathless advocates declared, leading to a rudderless relativism lampooned by Francis Wheen in How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World. It was an unmindfully contradictory affectation—why should others accept the perspective which this grandest of all narratives represented?—and it could not, and did not, last.

Meantime, from the always reflective world of post-war German social thought, a much more persuasive—and useful—body of work was emerging. A key figure was Ulrich Beck, who has tragically just died at the age of 70, his reputation in the English-speaking world assisted by the translation of his works by Polity Press, the Cambridge publisher founded by its greatest sociological son, Anthony Giddens. Like his great compatriot Jürgen Habermas (also translated by Polity), now a ripe old 85, Beck came out of the intellectual tradition of the land of Marx, seared by the Nazi nightmare and generative of the post-war Marxist ‘Frankfurt school’. It’s a tradition of sober rigour and a not-unrealistic ‘pessimism of the intelligence’, as Antonio Gramsci would have put it.

What comes after post-modernism? Beck might well have asked with a raised eyebrow, given his rather more profound grasp of the sweep of history. Working with the same raw material of a society which seemed to have lost its post-war moorings, particularly in western Europe—of steady growth, technological advance, organised labour and so on—he made a more insightful diagnosis. For Beck, if modernity could be understood as a reaction against tradition—in the well-worn counterposition by Tönnies of Gesellschaft (society) and Gemeinschaft (community)—then what he understood as ‘reflexive modernisation’ was the reaction of modernity against itself. And this was the world of ‘side effects’, which provided the title of the book that made him famous: Risk Society (Risikogesellschaft).

So, for example, how to explain the huge controversy in Germany over nuclear power and the emergence of the Greens and a wider social movement to challenge it? This was a typical example for Beck of how out of the modern era of industrial capitalism troubling phenomena were developing, engendering new social risks which merely modern mechanisms, such as the welfare states dealing with risk in the labour market, could not adequately assuage.

Indeed in this new world the experience of labour itself was being transformed. Gone was the male-breadwinner model of a secure career for men—think of those serried ranks of men in dungarees, against a backdrop of planes and ships, comprising the mosaic façade of the mausoleum in High Street in Belfast that is Transport House, the former regional headquarters of the once-powerful Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union (now dissolved into Unite). In came a feminised labour market, in which women sought to juggle work and domestic burdens, with many migrant workers, insecure work and frequent job changes.Now the individual worker was author of their own biography, with much more risk falling on their shoulders—and many ‘side effects’ to fear.

None more so than the tsunami of human misery which followed the 2007 collapse, in a deregulated, runaway economy, of the financial behemoth which had grown parasitically upon it—Goldman Sachs was famously characterised in Rolling Stone as a ‘great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity’. In that very year, Beck had published the German version of his World Risk Society, addressing how in this globalised context vertiginous challenges, like the threat of climate change, changed the nature of politics on a world scale.

So how to cope with this often frightening new world? In his Cosmopolitan Vision, Beck elaborated the concept of ‘cosmopolitanism’ as the appropriate disposition for a progressive, 21st-century politics, where classes could no longer be conceived (if ever they could) as unmediated political actors in an individualised society but where a capacity for empathy among individuals, each (if in each case uniquely) at risk, could engender new solidarities. For Beck, therefore, cosmopolitanism was not ‘the class consciousness of frequent fliers’, as the American thinker Craig Calhoun dismissively harrumphed, but a capacity on the part of the individual, in this world demanding constant self-evaluation, to stand back from him/herself and revalorise the self and other in that context.

Abstract? Exactly—that’s why it works across boundaries of nationality and ethnicity in an online world in which space and time are massively compressed. The fastest-growing social movement of recent years, Avaaz, and the way Greenpeace, Amnesty and similar international NGOs nowadays campaign, would be inconceivable without it—as would the very idea of the ’99 per cent’ or of a Pakistani teenage girl winning the Nobel peace prize for her struggle for education. In these times, as Beck accurately put it, politics now devolves into a struggle for control of the state (and transnational institutions) between the NGOs and the corporations.

The corporations still have the power—as Gramsci would say, they dominate but are no longer ‘hegemonic’—but the NGOs have the trust. That was a moral the corporate International which convenes every year at the World Economic Forum in Davos had to draw from survey evidence at one of its recent gatherings. And last year it had to focus on the inevitable corollary—that inequality is now the top item on the global political agenda. Marx’s famous internationalist slogan now sounds a bit hackneyed but ‘Cosmopolitans of the World Unite’ has something of a ring about it.

Sadly, Ulrich Beck will no longer be around to advise us on how to turn that slogan into reality. But in the era of what he called ‘really existing cosmopolitanisation’ (older readers will appreciate here the dig at the Stalinist USSR), he did provide a salutary explanation of why progressive politics can fail and a key pointer towards how to avoid disaster. Both are absolutely germane to Northern Ireland, where politics often operates in wilful, thrashing ignorance of the world around.

The civil-rights movement that could have launched Northern Ireland into that new world did, ultimately, succeed in ending bourgeois-Protestant domination of the region carved out from partition a century ago. But it initially failed at huge human cost, in engendering a side effect—brutal, large-scale violence—which its activist initiators (I interviewed some of them) never imagined in their wildest dreams. One reaction to reflexive modernisation, in which society is forced to face itself, is what Beck called resort to ‘constructed certitudes’—the kind of populist fundamentalisms and nationalisms which the hammer and anvil of Paisley and the Provos were to inflict on the citizenry of Northern Ireland for decades at huge human cost.

We are not out of that long, dark tunnel yet—and not only because the surviving victims and bereaved can be forgiven for failing to respond to the insensitive invocation to ‘move on’. We have yet to escape because the heir to Paisley and a now white-haired Gerry Adams still lock horns over nationalist symbolism—going back to when Paisley demanded the RUC remove a Tricolour from the headquarters of the republican movement on the Falls Road during the 1964 Westminster election, which Adams later recalled that as his first stimulus to political engagement. And we will not emerge, blinking, into the 21st century until we learn that in a state in which individuals of different nationalities must co-exist—and in what state in the world of migration and refugees is that not true today?—governance arrangements must enshrine what Beck called ‘constitutional tolerance’.

This is not ‘parity of esteem’ between political Protestants (aka ‘unionists’) and political Catholics {‘nationalists’)—a relic of the stereotyping ‘multiculturalism’, originating in Britain’s colonial gaze in India, which has only served in Northern Ireland to hoover up the self-activating individuals of the new modernity into polarised, frustrated communities of fate, regardless of their will. It is the simple notion that, just as religious tolerance has for centuries required neutrality between believers in multi-faith societies to guarantee freedom of conscience for all, so only if the state is neutral between individuals of different national identities can the citizens of today’s diverse societies live together as equals in dignity.

Crazy idea? Ask yourself why, outside of the sub-cultural world of ‘dissident republicans’, no one now believes that equality for Catholics in Northern Ireland requires an end to partition. And why, beyond the Groundhog Day of the ‘loyalist’ flag-wavers at Twadell Avenue, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, with its smorgasbord of unintelligible symbolism, has become generally accepted as the impartial arbiter of the rule of law.

Robin Wilson is lead editor of openSecurity. He advises the Council of Europe on intercultural issues and is an active participant in the debate among European progressives on the ‘good society’ sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

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  • sean treacy

    So a former member of a political party accurately described as” the biggest lie in the history of Irish politics” lectures us on politics “that operates in wilful thrashing ignorance”.Brass neck or what?

  • Croiteir

    Is this not just a call for the adoption of catholic social teaching?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “So only if the state is neutral between individuals of different national identities can the citizens of today,s diverse societies live together as equal in dignity”. What happens if the state has achieved such governing neutrally for all its citizens but one national identity still insists on exterminating the national identity of the other ? Like you say within your article the result will be frustrated polarised communities but not of fate as you state but which has been politically enginerred and created. There my friend lies your problem to such co-existence tolerance.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Interesting article, I learned something from that. The last couple of paragraphs chime with my ‘post-unionist’ view: that the argument over NI sovereignty, if it exists at all beyond sectarian head counts, is simply one of which wider country is the best container in which the peoples of Northern Ireland can sit together in the least divisive way. I think the UK state can be fairly neutral in Northern Ireland between the different identities here – and it largely has been for decades.

    But the Republic as a state containing Northern Ireland could never be as neutral or distanced as it needs to be. It has too much skin in the game, in particular because of the sense of ethnic community between the southern population and the Irish Catholic population in Northern Ireland and the traditional partisan role Dublin has taken both formally and informally over decades. For me, that makes anything approaching neutrality here impossible for them. An Irish state would face much bigger challenges in holding the ring in NI than even the UK state has. The divide lives in NI and neither Westminster nor Dublin can cure it; if we realise that, we can then make sensible decisions about sorting the place out without endlessly deferring action until the arrival of some putative future Dublin or London deus ex machina. It is a crippling fantasy that holds the whole of NI society back. The good news is that it seems most people no longer believe more input from either London or Dublin is any kind of answer.

    I’m not in agreement over seeing parity of esteem as a non-issue though. I think it’s vital, in that the health of the province’s politics – and any ability to move beyond tribal politics – depends upon an equilibrium in how the two communities feel valued and feel their needs are treated.