Risk Society

EPUB EBook by Ulrich Beck

EBook Description

This is a remarkable book – but not least because it is so incredibly famous, even though I’ve only started hearing about it over the last couple of years. Risk Society EPUB EBookAs it says in the Introduction, this book sold 60,000 copies in its first five years.That is pretty remarkable given it is a book on social theory.But I’ve found it quoted everywhere.I had to read this because I was starting to feel like the woman who was asked what she though of seeing Hamlet for their first time who said, “It was alright, but I’d heard a lot of it before.”

A lot of the Bauman stuff I’ve been reading lately comes more or less directly from this book.You are probably going to have to read this and not just rely on my review, I’m afraid, as there were large chunks that would require me to do a much closer reading to summarise properly.

So, why risk?Well, we tend to think of society as being divided by wealth.And that wealth is able to use money to purchase security to protect them from the dispossessed.Gated communities, private schools – you know the drill.

But risk is a very strange thing.The first thing to notice about it is that it works in the inverse to wealth – the poor get to have more than their fair share of risk in all senses.The problem is that if that was the end of the story there would be no story.We would just have a wealth society and risk would be one more add on or natural consequence.

However, the world we live in can’t be ‘fixed’ to make sure that all the risks can be the problem of the poor.Risk is more the like plague was at the end of the middle ages.The poor might get the worst part of it, but no one is actually safe.Polluted air, water and beaches are not restricted to the poor.We all get to breath in, we all get to drink.Even nation states can avoid risks or legislate them away.As Beck points out, Scandinavia can pass the most stringent anti- EPUBpollution laws it likes, but acid rain is still going to kill their trees, because this rain comes from the sulphates belching out of factories in other countries.Nuclear war (funny how the fear of that one seems to have disappeared despite none of the bombs actually going anywhere) would kill everyone, not just the poor.

That’s the thing about risks – they have become global.Global warming even has ‘global’ as the adjective just in case you forget.The risks from there being no more bees is something for everyone to share, not just poor people.And even manufactured risks – like the risk from global terrorism – are likewise presented as indiscriminate.

What is really interesting here is that the more these risks move into the global sphere (a sphere without a legislative body where citizens could impose their will) the more people are asked to respond to these risks by applications of their biographies.By this he means something like what Marx meant when he spoke about the main contradiction of capitalism.For Marx capitalism would eventually fail because production was becoming increasingly social and the product of production was being held increasingly in fewer hands.Production is social in the sense that no single person really produces any complete thing anymore – to produce anything you need the whole world helping you.That is, the stuff we produce today is only possible if the whole of society exists and works together to make it.The contradiction Marx was worried about was this social nature of production seemed to be opposed to the private means of gathering the wealth that was produced from this production process. Eventually Marx believed this contradiction would kill off capitalism.But what I’ve always fond interesting about this is that the more social our lives have become – you know, the more we depend on others to provide us with sewers and paved streets and to ship food to us and to keep out water clean and to design and build planes or cars or god – please – stop me now…The more social our lives become, the more we like to think of ourselves as individuals.It is terribly strange.Well, risk suffers from the same fate.The more global our risks become the more we are expected to address them as individuals.That is, the more risks are beyond our capacity to have any impact on at all as individuals, the more the consequences of those risks as they are played out in our lives are presented back to us as the manifestation of our own personal choices and decisions.Like I said, it is all terribly strange.

I have to come back to Marx again, sorry.Marx felt that one of the things that kept capitalism going was that it produced what he called ‘a reserve army of the unemployed’.And these people served a purpose.They were always ready and willing to take the jobs of those who were employed.As such, they helped to keep the price of labour down.The capitalist wanted to suck as much value out of the labour they employed as they could – and so they sought to increase the rate of exploitation by increasing the hours that labour worked and thereby increasing the intensity of that employment.

But today we are witnessing quite the opposite of this in many ways.We don't have a ‘reserve army’ of unemployed – rather, we have an underclass of people who will never work.Worse still, rather than capitalism increasing the time that people work, there has been an odd reduction taking place.Both of my parents, as a case in point, started work at 14.They worked six days a week.They were required to work overtime.When I started fulltime work I was about 20 and worked five days a week and rarely any overtime.My children are in their mid-20s and still have not got a fulltime job.They have worked in a series of part-time, temporary or casual jobs.Sometimes they work 11 hour shifts, but between times they hardly work at all.They both have undergraduate degrees.One of them is doing her PhD.They are anything but unusual – as you will see if you read The Unfinished Revolution, for instance.Large sections of the workforce today can also expect to be unemployed at some stage of their working lives.People are constantly being made redundant as companies downsize.And then people are also often expected to ‘retire’ early – often in their mid 50s.The time spent actively in the workforce is diminishing rather than expanding.

And this brings other risks – not just poverty, but social, cultural and emotional alienation.

What is interesting about risks is that they have become a force to drive production.You see, capitalism really needs growing markets – capitalism is expansion.But there is only so much stuff we can consume.Capitalism might be able to convince you to eat a couple of times more than you really need, but there are limits to how much people can eat – even with the best will in the world.But that certainly isn’t true about risks.You can always get people to consume more on the basis of overcoming perceived risks.There is no end to the risks that can be invented and no end to the ways of addressing them.As such, risks present the perfect solution to the need for endless expansion.Ramp up the fear and watch the new markets create themselves – perfect.And when things turn to crap you can blame everything on the bad decisions of the suckers you sold your product to.If this wasn’t all so terrifying and so familiar it would almost be funny.

The best of this book is his attack on scientific rationalism.We like to think that scientific rationalism is our best hope of getting us out of this mess (ignoring for the moment that scientific rationalism has created many of the problems that we are now hoping it will now ‘fix’).The problem is that the scientific method is fundamentally flawed and this is because science simply isn’t the ‘pure’ thing we are often told it is – but rather a social activity conducted by less than perfect humans.

Science isn’t something that happens in the pure mountain air at the top of Mount Olympus, but rather it happens down here in the fast and dirty world of real life.Science is paid for by people – and often those people aren’t really people, but corporations.Beck gives the wonderful example of the scientists working to determine the safe levels of pollution in the air we breathe.What do they do?Well, first they test the toxin they want to release on you on mice.They run a swag of tests and decide that, for mice, a concentration of whatever doesn’t seem to present too many problems.Let’s say the concentration is 10 (parts per whatever, you know).Ok, but everyone knows that people aren’t mice.The only real way to see the impact on people is to run the experiment on them and see what happens.Except scientists don’t do this – what they do is say that a concentration of 10 is safe and they leave it at that.They don’t check to see if this proved to be right – they say, we tested this on mice and everything was fine.If you are getting sick YOU will need to prove there is a causal relationship between the poisons we are pumping into the air and your illness.And, by the way, we are the experts and you are nobodies – so, don’t expect us to take anything you say all that seriously.

And this concentration of 10 is an average concentration – so, scientific rationalism can say, “We have tested the air and the average concentration is 10” – but some areas might have five times that concentration.All the same, scientific rationalism has averaged this and is only interested in this average ‘safe’ concentration – not the real concentration you might be breathing.

And this is ‘scientific rationalism’.

Or take the medical version.We now live to what were once considered to be ‘Biblical’ ages – three score and ten was once ‘the very best it could get’, now people feel ripped off if that is all they live to.But that means that a lot of the stuff that used to kill us now don’t.But we still have to die.The point being that a lot of us now die slowly and after prolonged illnesses – that is, we now take a long time to die.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no hurry myself.But what is interesting here is how these questions are being decided by increasingly small groups.Questions such as: when does life start, when does life end, how should conception happen?A lot of people didn’t like the idea of IVF, for instance.But rather than us discussing this as a society, medicine was able to decide what would happen next on the basis of their ‘expert’ status.But that means that medical science gets to both come up with the procedure and to evaluate the ethics of applying the procedure.There is no outside review and even if there is the only ones capable of conducting that review are other medical scientists.The potential for conflicts of interest is clear.To question (or even mention there might be a problem) is presented as a kind of luddite-ism.

Australia now has lower immunisation rates than many developing nations – Rwanda has a higher rate of immunisation…But this is symptomatic of a culture where people are cynical towards an elitist establishment that hides information behind jargon, treats outsiders as fools and expects unquestioning devotion, even in the face of failures.Again, the myth and the reality of scientific rationalism come into conflict.

I found this book powerfully thought-provoking.Like I said, it is quoted and requoted everywhere, from Ball on Education Policy through to Bauman on Liquid Modernity.There is no escaping this work – it is quite literally seminal.You can avoid the risk of appearing ignorant of this book by the easy expedient of reading the damn thing.Trust me, it is no real hardship.
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