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Ulrich Beck and Our ‘Risk Society’


One wonders what Ulrich Beck – the theorist of ‘risk society’ – would say, if he were alive today, given the kinds of ‘risk’ one currently faces on all sides. Yet, with hindsight one can discern adumbrations of the outrageous risks of the present, centred on the aftermath of the Covid-19 ‘pandemic’ in all its ramifications, in his reflections. One could show, however, that despite sharing certain descriptors, such as ‘technological,’ with Beck’s work, compared to the kinds of risk distinguished by him, those associated with the ‘pandemic,’ lockdowns, Covid ‘vaccines,’ and in their wake, scarcity and economic hardship – to mention only some – are of a different, more harmful order altogether. 

According to Beck, in contrast with the society of wealth distribution (through goods), the ‘risk society’ was recognisable by the (by-)production and distribution of threats such as toxic contaminants, pollution, and climate-changing emissions, which were the largely unintended result of modernisation processes themselves. 

Today, however, society is facing something far worse, namely the intentional production of potentially, if not actually, lethal substances and conditions. Moreover, the hazards of risk society were seen as preventable (compared to ‘natural’ perils) because they were socially and technologically produced and exacerbated (or sometimes ameliorated) by economic and cultural practices. 

Is that the case with those risks faced today? This is highly improbable, largely because growing evidence suggests that most of the ‘ultra-risks’ that have emerged recently have been produced by design, and that it is too late to undo most of them, although others may possibly be prevented. 

What Beck argued, namely that the potential for cataclysm was increasing through the systemic production of risks, has been aggravated beyond what could have been expected under ‘normal’ risk conditions. Ironically, under such conditions the uncertainties of science in the face of unpredictable risk, which were foregrounded by Beck, have been replaced by contrasting ideological claims concerning the vaunted certainties of ‘the science’ in relation to combatting Covid-19 through supposedly ‘advanced,’ mRNA-technology-based ‘vaccines.’ Needless to say, in light of a growing body of studies, the latter constitute a risk of as-yet unspecifiable proportions. How can the theorist of risk and ‘risk society’ help one understand this state of affairs? (Previously I have addressed this question at greater length.)

Beck writes in Risk Society – Towards a New Modernity, (1992, p. 10): “The thesis of this book is: we are witnessing not the end but the beginning of modernity – that is, of a modernity beyond its classical industrial design.” Here he is talking about a modernity which is the product of “reflexive modernization” (p. 11), which would be perceptible in what are today familiar phenomena, like the replacement of “…functional differentiation or factory-bound mass production.” This was evident in the general introduction of, and eventual saturation of extant societies with electronic, computerised networks which soon became the basis of all economic (and social) practices, resulting in the so-called (global) “network society” (Castells 2010). The ‘risk society’ makes its appearance when (Beck 1992: 19):  

In advanced modernity the social production of wealth is systematically accompanied by the social production of risks. Accordingly, the problems and conflicts relating to distribution in a society of scarcity overlap with the problems and conflicts that arise from the production, definition and distribution of techno-scientifically produced risks.

How does ‘reflexive modernisation’ operate here? If the production of wealth was a response to scarcity by harnessing technological productive powers for constructing the economic means for survival (industrial modernisation), then the problems arising from the development and use of the technical means of production themselves require a shift of focus: “Modernization is becoming reflexive; it is becoming its own theme” (Beck 1992: 19). 

Why? Because, as the potential hazards proliferate – sometimes manifesting themselves in actual instances of industrial destruction (recall the notorious industrial ‘accident’ in Bhopal, India, in 1985) – so does the need for economically and politically managing the risks associated with these.

What Beck’s theory shows is that one has to be constantly aware, not only of the mutations of ‘risk’ in our increasingly complex and uncertain ‘risk society’ as he understood it, but that the very concept of risk has to be placed under constant scrutiny, lest it hide itself behind commonly held assumptions regarding human benevolence and concern for others. In a later publication – ‘Risk Society Revisited: Theory, Politics and Research Programmes’ (in Adam, B., Beck, U. and Van Loon, J. (Eds), The Risk Society and Beyond – Critical Issues for Social Theory, London: Sage Publications, pp. 211-229, 2000) he provides a handy synopsis of his earlier argument. 

The first point he makes is that risk is not synonymous with destruction; what has to be added is his remark (2000: 214) about the “…socially very relevant distinction between risk decision-makers and those who have to deal with the consequences of the decisions of others.” He also raises the crucial question of the legitimation of decisions involving hazardous technologies, which presupposes that such legitimation is, in principle, possible. But what about the possibility of decisions in favour of using such technologies and their products which cannot, in principle, be legitimised, where legitimation is inseparable from a process which is demonstrably underpinned by the promotion of public safety? This is all too familiar today. The second point is put succinctly as follows (Beck 2000: 214):

The concept of risk reverses the relationship of past, present and future. The past loses its power to determine the present. Its place as the cause of present-day experience and action is taken by the future, that is to say, something nonexistent, constructed and fictitious. We are discussing and arguing about something which is not the case, but could happen if we were not to change course.

Beck (2000: 214-215) invokes the examples of the discourses on the climate crisis (which was very topical at the time) and on globalisation to illustrate how risk can be dramatised to create a sense of shock sufficient to call certain things into question, or to foreground the prospect of certain horrors unfolding – not innocently, but with a view to optimising certain power relations (of domination). This is clearly highly pertinent to the unfolding events one is witnessing today.

Beck’s third point (2000: 215) relates to the question of the ontological status of risk: is risk to be understood factually, or axiologically? His answer is that risk is neither an exclusively factual statement nor a pure value claim; it is either both simultaneously or a hybrid in-between, ‘virtual’ phenomenon – to use his oxymoron: it is a “mathematicized morality.” This means that its mathematical calculability is related to cultural conceptions of a valuable and tolerable, or intolerable life. Hence his question (2000: 215): “How do we want to live?” Significantly, he further connects the ambivalent ontological status of risk, which nevertheless has the capacity to initiate action in the present, to “political explosiveness,” which, in turn, is related to two grounds – the “universal value of survival,” and the ‘trustworthiness’ of the guardians of society. In his words (2000: 215): 

Thomas Hobbes, the conservative theorist of the state and society, recognized as a citizen the right to resist where the state threatens the life or survival of its citizens (characteristically enough, he uses phrases such as ‘poisoned air and poisoned foodstuffs’ which seem to anticipate ecological issues). The second source is tied to the attribution of dangers to the producers and guarantors of the social order (business, politics, law, science), that is to the suspicion that those who endanger the public well-being and those charged with its protection may well be identical. 

The “suspicion” in question – let alone ‘poisoned air and poisoned foodstuffs’ – has never been more apposite than at the present historical juncture. In the fourth place, Beck avers (2000: 215): “In their (difficult-to-localize) early stage, risks and risk perception are ‘unintended consequences’ of the logic of control which dominates modernity.” The present is witness to a particularly perverse instance of such control, except that it is doubtful whether one is here dealing with ‘unintended consequences’ – on the contrary.

The fifth issue Beck turns to is that the ‘manufactured uncertainty’ of risk, today, is connected to a specific “synthesis of knowledge and unawareness” (2000: 216). This means that one faces a commingling of risk assessment founded on empirical knowledge (of aeroplane crashes, for example) with decisions facing uncertainty and indeterminacy. Furthermore, “science creates new types of risks” by inaugurating new domains of knowledge and action, and here he refers to the very relevant instance of advanced human genetics. Beck therefore comes to the conclusion that, in light of increasing unawareness in the above sense, “…the question of deciding in a context of uncertainty arises in a radical way” (p. 217). Hence the question, followed by a conclusion, both highly pertinent for the present (Beck 2000: 217):

Is inability to know a license for action or basis for decelerating action, for moratoria, perhaps even inaction? How can maxims of action or of being obliged not to act be justified, given the inability to know?

This is how a society based on knowledge and risk opens up a threatening sphere of possibilities.

It follows that, given the experimental nature of the so-called Covid ‘vaccines,’ the attendant uncertainty regarding their effects should arguably, at the very least, entail the recognition of individuals’ right to choose, whether to accept or decline them. Sixth, risks in the risk society undermine the distinction between the global and the local, so that these new sorts of risks are simultaneously global and local, or “glocal.” 

Hence the experience that ecological hazards “know no boundaries” insofar as they are spread globally “by the air, the wind, the water and food chains” (Beck 2000: 218). (In light of recent local and global events, he might have added “air travel.”) Because returning to an earlier modernity’s “logic of control” is no longer an option, contemporary risk societies can (and should) “become self-critical societies” (p. 218). Hardly anyone would disagree with this sentiment, unless, of course, it is in one’s interest not to encourage (self-)criticism of any kind. It stands in the way of optimal social control. 

The seventh point – again highly pertinent to contemporary events – relates to “…the distinction between knowledge, latent impact and symptomatic effect,” given that the place of provenance and that of impact are not obviously connected, and that (2000: 219): 

… the transmissions and movements of hazards are often latent and immanent, that is, invisible and untrackable to everyday perceptions. This social invisibility means that, unlike many other political issues, risks must clearly be brought to consciousness, only then can it be said that they constitute an actual threat, and this includes cultural values and symbols…as well as scientific arguments. At the same time we know at least in principle, that the impacts of risks grow precisely because nobody knows or wants to know about them.  

The last sentence in this excerpt is a reminder of the power of cultural values such as, at the present time, a widespread (albeit waning) trust in ‘the science’ (that is, the ideological valorisation of a specific notion of science, as opposed to science as such) and technology. This could act as restraint (manifesting itself as censorship) regarding the legitimate expression of concern pertaining to what may be seen as being a risk, for example when experimental substances are promoted as a solution to a ‘health crisis.’ In situations like these, cultural values such as freedom of speech, that would ordinarily promote the chances of risks being brought to consciousness, may be trumped by the (misguided) value attached to ‘the science’ and technology.     

The eighth issue raised by Beck (2000: 221) concerns the fact that, in the risk society, one can no longer make a cogent or clear distinction “between nature and culture.” To talk about nature is to talk about culture, and vice versa; the modernist notion of a separation of culture/society and nature is no longer tenable. Everything we do in society has an impact on nature, and everything that occurs in the latter has effects in the former. 

Although Beck (who died in 2015) did not live to experience the advent of Covid-19, he would probably have regarded the emergence of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) as catastrophic confirmation of his own thinking about risk, danger, and destruction, whether the virus originated via zoonotic shedding from an animal to humans, or whether it was of techno-scientific provenance in a laboratory. In either case it would be a demonstration of the inseparability of nature and human (scientific) culture.

To be more specific regarding the heuristic value of Beck’s conceptualisation of the ‘risk society’ for the present historical juncture, humanity faces several clearly identifiable risks, albeit not necessarily in Beck’s sense of ‘risk,’ given the abundant evidence that intention was involved in the creation of risk on a colossal scale. His distinction between risk and destruction enables one to perceive the relatively low mortality risk of Covid-19 for people worldwide – judging by the deaths per million of the world population; see Coronavirus World-O-Meter – on the one hand, and the colossal economic destruction brought about by government ‘lockdowns’ globally, on the other hand. During the latter millions of people worldwide lost their income and as a result their and their dependants’ chances of economic survival were dealt a severe blow. 

Shifting the focus to the controversial Covid-19 ‘vaccines,’ the distinction between risk and (danger of) destruction or death is just as clear, but with the rider that the risks involved are to a certain degree ‘virtual’ in Beck’s sense of being somewhere between possible and real – no longer completely secure but not yet (fully) actualised (Beck 2000: 212-213) – while their destructiveness has already been amply demonstrated in actuality

Recall that the ‘vaccines’ are not true vaccines, given that a vaccine supposedly prevents infection by a pathogen (and dying of it), as well as secondary infection of others by the vaccinated person, while the Covid injections do neither of these. As several researchers have indicated, these ‘jabs’ are purely experimental, and in that sense they entail a huge risk insofar as the precise effects on their recipients are not fully known, although some have been brought to light. 

On the other hand, since the commencement of administering these ‘shots’ to people, it has become apparent that their destructiveness (in the sense of deleterious side effects and deaths) is even greater. Emphasising the (probably deliberate) destructiveness involved here, Rhoda Wilson (2022) refers to the research of Dr David Martin on the reasons for administering the Covid jabs, revealing that there is probably a significant financial motive behind the ‘vaccination’ drive: 

David Martin, PhD, presents evidence that Covid-19 injections are not vaccines, but bioweapons that are being used as a form of genocide across the global population.

The spike protein that the Covid-19 shots manufacture is a known biological agent of concern.

Martin believes the number that may die may have been revealed back in 2011 when the World Health Organisation announced their ‘decade of vaccination.’

The objective for the decade of vaccination was a population reduction of 15% globally, which would be about 700 million people dead; in the US, this may amount to between 75 million and 100 million people dying from Covid-19 shots.

When asked what timeframe these people may die in, Martin suggested ‘there’s a lot of economic reasons why people hope that it’s between now and 2028.’

The projected illiquidity of the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs by 2028 suggests the ‘fewer people who are recipients of these programs, the better;’ Martin believes this may be why people 65 and over were targeted with Covid-19 shots first.

It is redundant to dwell on the utter unscrupulousness that must be assumed on the part of those who have planned this programme of unadulterated democide, which is not limited to destruction by ‘vaccination,’ but includes what was mentioned earlier too, such as global economic collapse and food destruction. The long-term risk (as distinct from destruction) involved here is that the New World Order (or globalist cabal) behind this programme could easily set in motion the extinction of the human race, given the complex, unpredictable relations entailed here, which include the systematic subversion of fertility on the part of people who have taken the jab, as well as the decimation of children and young people who have received it. 

Turning to the question of what Beck (2000: 214) refers to as the ‘rationality or irrationality’ of risk, one can legitimately ask whether the risk of death on the part of recipients of the Covid jabs – the worrisome initial trial results of which were not fully disclosed (Kennedy 2021: 168; 170-177) – was an instance of irrational risk, or rather the expression of careful, instrumental-rational concealment, in light of evidence that the Pfizer pharmaceutical corporation was aware of the dangers that their ‘vaccine’ posed for recipients. 

Related to the ‘logic of control,’ recall that Beck sees a “synthesis of knowledge and unawareness” (2000: 216) as being constitutive of risk, insofar as uncertainty (or lack of knowledge) and complexity operate in advanced technological processes. This phrase is subject to a fundamental change of meaning in the context of the present, illegitimate constellation of power comprising (largely) Western states under the leadership of the WEF, an unelected group of technocratic billionaires whose financial resources enable them to exercise unheard-of power. Therefore, in contrast to the sense in which Beck employs the phrase, at present it applies to the amalgam of conscious unawareness concerning the precise effects of particularly the experimental mRNA injections on their recipients (Kennedy 2021: 54).

Against this backdrop one should remind oneself of the difference between two states of affairs. On the one hand there is ‘reflexive modernity’ in Beck’s sense of the term, which presupposes ethical and moral underpinnings, albeit critically interrogated, on the basis of which questions regarding the ‘modernisation of modernity’ can be approached without abandoning the broader civilisational orientation of social history. On the other hand, there is the hyper-technocratic, ‘transhumanist’ trans-modernity, represented by the World Economic Forum, which has arguably abandoned any semblance of ethical and moral questioning, let alone justification, of action. The only justification of action that seems to remain to these neo-fascists, judging by the available evidence, is the perceived need to move towards a technocratic, AI-oriented, financially fully digitalised and controlled society, on the ashes of extant society. 

Given the uncertainty of being able to escape this horrifying prospect, as well as, on the other hand, the uncertainty of the technocrats being able to pull it off in the face of mounting resistance, we stand before the most serious risk of the present. Ironically, in the precise Beckian sense of ‘the persuasive perception of the prodigious danger of possibly losing humanity’s political and social freedom, and possibly its very existence,’ this risk amounts to the fact that too few people will perceive this risk. Succinctly put: The real risk is to be blind to the mega-risk of losing our humanity, in more than one sense.    

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  • Bert Olivier

    Bert Olivier works at the Department of Philosophy, University of the Free State. Bert does research in Psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, ecological philosophy and the philosophy of technology, Literature, cinema, architecture and Aesthetics. His current project is 'Understanding the subject in relation to the hegemony of neoliberalism.'

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