Incomplete Modernity: Ulrich Beck’s “Risk Society”

Incomplete Modernity: Ulrich Beck’s “Risk Society”

There is good reason to fear that “postmodern” and “postindustrial” currents of thought will sweep away the foundations of existing radical critiques without offering anything very substantial in their place. It is all very well to criticize 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? In the circumstances it is reasonable to hang on to what remains of these frameworks of critical thought on a principle of theoretical economy: don’t abandon an established theory until one appears that offers superior explanations and strategies.

Ulrich Beck’s remarkable book Risk Society (London: Sage, 1992), however, gives one cause to think again about whether a new model might not be available for understanding our times—and in a not unhopeful spirit. Beck’s book, published in Germany in 1986 and successful enough there to have sold more than sixty thousand copies and turned its author into a regular columnist for 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; by the antiproductionist concerns of the Greens, who have acquired in West Germany a unique degree of representa- tion and influence; and by a well-grounded sociology of German society that is highly sensitive to contradiction and disequilibrium.

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Lima