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Home / Resources / News / Ulrich Beck: The necessity of a cosmopolitan outlook

Ulrich Beck: The necessity of a cosmopolitan outlook

Ulrich Beck died on the 1st January 2015. As a tribute to his cosmopolitan thinking and utopianism for Europe, we here republish an interview he gave to European Alternatives in 2010, which seems all the more pertinent today with the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany, an the ongoing evolutions of the euro-crisis.

UBIn this interview Ulrich Beck claims the necessity for an inclusive, cosmopolitan outlook capable of breaking “with the seductive insularity of national consciousness” and to recognize the productiveness of the post-national era’s paradoxical principle: the principle of self-empowerment through self-deprivation of power, according to which “national sovereignty does not make cooperation possible; rather, it is transnational cooperation that makes national sovereignty possible”.

Giuliano Battiston: I would like to begin from globalization, “the most widely used – and misused – keyword in disputes of recent as well as coming years; but [..] also one of the most rarely defined, the most nebulous and misunderstood, as well as the most politically effective”, as you write in What is Globalization? Would you explain what you mean when you state, in Conversations with Ulrich Beck, that “globalization should be chiefly conceived of as globalization from within, as internalized globalization”? And why according to your perspective is it important to contest the equation between the depoliticizing but highly political spell of globalism – the economic monodimensional interpretation of it – and the multidimensionality of globalization?

Ulrich Beck: Until some years ago I used to speak about globalization from within or internalized globalization, but then I switched to cosmopolitization (not cosmopolitanism). In order to explain what I mean by that, let’s just pick up a few examples. In a German middle-class town with twenty thousand inhabitants, in basic schools you find children from a background of twenty languages. It’s amazing and it’s happening, but it has not been internalized. People still think there is and that we need just a normal educational system: the teachers are left alone, and they have to do their job without having being educated for this new situation. While at the political level we are talking, like in Italy, about the possibility (somebody would say the necessity) of excluding foreigners. But this is not talking about reality; the reality is that in the inside all kind of globalization happens.

And the same if you look at the family structures, in European countries but in many other non-European countries as well, where bi-national families are increasing. While Asian families, for example, know how to use this globalization from within as a resource for organizing family life beyond borders, planning transnationalized structures for family networks. So far we just look at the family as a national face-to-face relationship, but now we see it is going to be cosmopolitanized in many ways. And you can take all other issues, for example work-education, where there is a new split between those who are able or competent and have resources to interact beyond borders and those who don’t have those resources and feel frightened by competition from other countries. The first kind react “openly” and the second with nationalism, but both are reacting to what I would say is a cosmopolitization of work. Those are elements of globalization from within.

Until now, the consolation of the national view was about excluding the national others, thinking that everything which is relevant for politics is only within the national context. But now we are living in a situation where this does not work anymore – like it nor not, the nationally excluded other is part of our own living, working and family condition. This is what I mean by cosmopolitization. This is why I don’t talk only about globalization from within but of cosmopolitization, which means that the other is in us.

As for what regards the economic dimension of globalization, I think the term globalization – as it is commonly used – is not really giving meaning to the important subject we are involved in. And this is the human condition of un-excludability; it means you cannot exclude the nationally constructed other anymore. Politically, as sociologically, this is the issue we are confronted with, and this has a lot of very different meanings. One of them is what I would call now the globalization of strangeness. People suddenly experience themselves living in a very strange world and being confronted with all kind of strangeness. They don’t recognize anymore the city they are living in, maybe even the street because of all kind of globalizations happening in those areas; people feel to have no place in this new context, and feel frightened by this new situation of un-excludability of the strange-other. On the other hand, there’s an enlightenment function, as people are opening up, realizing they necessarily have to deal with each other in order to find solutions to the big problems. So, both things are happening, in an ambivalent dynamic.

GB: One of the main thematic frameworks of your research is the concept of world risk society, a concept that, as you write in World at Risk, according to some scholars “encourages a kind of neo-Splengerism and hinders political action”. Precisely the opposite is the case, you argue, because “as world risk society, society becomes reflexive”, and because, as for the concept of unexcludability, “risk conflicts do indeed have an enlightening function. They destabilize the existing order but can also be seen as a vital step towards the construction of new institutions”. Would you explain what you mean saying that “global risks unexpectedly liberate a world-historical ‘cosmopolitan moment’”?

UB: I believe that global risks are producing global reflexivity of risks, and that talking about risk and reflecting upon risk on a global scale is the same process. Therefore risk is a basic condition of reflexive modernization, because suddenly the basic institutions and principles of modernity are being questioned: who would have believed that the basic principles of market economy could be questioned? But it happened; maybe they already forgot about it, but still, for a moment, it happened, and it happened because of the global reflexivity of risks. I believe this is what the enlightenment function of risk means: there’s a specific moment, there’s a time, a window of opportunity; I don’t know for how long it lasts, it depends on the staging of the issue, on all kind of conditions, but suddenly people move, and institutions who nobody thought could be questioned become part of the political debate, and new kind of power relations are constructed and so on. And suddenly the powerless became to some extent powerful. We saw this kind of process in Copenhagen, where the countries that are mostly affected by climate change and don’t have a chance to actually react and respond to it, suddenly got a voice, and not only a voice. Thanks to this process of reflexivity, in Copenhagen, for the first time, those “underdevelopment” countries themselves realized the situation: they do have an element of power, because everybody knows that if they are not included then all idea of consensus on future strategy would collapse, and we would face a fragmentation of the world (what we are experienced to some extent now). So, this is what I mean: the basic relations of power, institutional structures, and social inequality become part of the public reflectivity in different counties. And on a world level as well.

GB: As regarding Copenhagen: since your first book, you have always paid attention to the environmental crises. In Conversation with Ulrich Beck for instance you state that “the first modernity rests on a clear distinction between society and nature. Nature is conceived as the ‘outside” of society, and as a functionally infinite resource and sink”. Would you say that the activists for climate justice in Copenhagen have shown a global consciousness that we should not consider “problems of the environment in the sense of the surrounding world (Umwelt), but as problems affecting the inner world (Innenwelt) of society” (World at Risk)? And that it is finally emerging what you have called “a utopian ecological democracy”, “which would open our eyes and our institutions to the immaturity of the first industrial civilization and the dangers it posed to itself” (What is Globalization)?

UB: This is my position: if you look at the environment as environment, you are not only missing the point of the environmental movement, but you are threatening your own political capacity to find any answer. Only if you see there is a combination between nature and society, you can have a political answer to it; that’s why I believe that even environment as a concept is misleading sociology and politics. Whether there is going to be an ecological democracy, that is still an open question, of course. I really like the idea of Bruno Latour, who is talking about the Parliament of things, with the ideas that all kind of things are part of the networks we are all involved in and they must have their voices in the public domain. He probably would say climate change is a way of articulating the voice of things and animals and people in this combination. This is an interesting idea, but so far you don’t see much material bases for this kind of participation. In fact, even the opposite is coming up. If you look at climate scientists who are very much engaged in this climate issue, they think something has to be done now, quite urgently, otherwise there’s no answer anymore. So, they are now more and more questioning democracy, saying we need a kind of technocratic political system. I must confess I am a bit skeptical about this technocratic reaction. From the beginning of my thinking I know that the danger and the perception of danger produce this kind of technocratic response. That’s why I think it is important to show how democracy is the condition for finding solutions even to climate change. But this is not easy, as all the technocratic visions which are now coming up underestimate that they do need consensus. However, without democracy there would be no consciousness about the environmental problem; this did not come up because of scientists or governments; it came up because civil society movements had the chance to raise their voice in the public. It came up under democratic conditions. There are no solutions without a consensus, and the consensus will only be constructed by democratic institutions.

GB: Let’s go back to your concept of cosmopolitanism. In Power in the Global Age, you introduce an extremely interesting idea, saying that the Enlightenment concept of cosmopolitanism, freed from its origins in imperial universalism, could contribute to “the developments of politics towards what we might call a ‘cosmopolitan state’”. Would you say something more about your idea of an “an organizational model of deterritorialized democracy”? 

UB: I think that the European Union could be a model, at least to some extent. The fact is that there are so many misunderstandings about the European Union. In my view, because of a “nation-state understanding” of modernity, even social scientists largely don’t understand what they talk about when they analyze the European Union. Indeed, in a nation-state perspective there can be only either a big nation (a European nation, or a federal State, or a super-State), or there can be no Europe, and only national States. So, there is an either/or situation between national States and the European stage. I believe this is the biggest problem in the self-understanding in Europe. At the same time, we have to understand that, for example, the European bureaucracy, which is a widespread negative image of Europe, is actually very small, smaller than the bureaucracy of Berlin, or London, or Paris, even if not as well-organized. In any case, the model of the European Union is that the laws and the norms which European institutions pass are being implemented by the nation-state: it’s a combination of national sovereignty and cooperation between nation-states, and it is something different from the functioning of a big nation. This cooperation means that there is no decrease in sovereignty, but shift and increase of sovereignty on the national level as well. Let me give you an example: maybe you remember the Polish president who, a few years ago, was very much opposed to Europe, and he was making all kinds of objections. If we consider his situation, we find out that he was empowered as a member of the European Union to be powerful against the European Union. If Poland would not be a member of European Union, nobody would care about what its president says. So, only the European Union empowers all kind of States, even the smaller ones, with a combined sovereignty that is even stronger than if they were not part of European Union. I think the European Union is something which goes in the direction of the cosmopolitization of the States, which means that there has to be a cooperation. This is – as we see in Europe – quite complicated, because people misunderstand their own national identity, their own national sovereignty. Now this is the case with Greece: is Greece part of Germany? Is Germany part of Greece? Nobody believes it, but this is the case because both are part of Europe; there’s no Greece and Germany as different countries, there’s a Europeanized Greece and a Europeanized Germany. And because that’s the case, what happened in Greece is very important to Germany and to all other European countries. The European Union is a political architecture that goes in the direction of the cosmopolitization of States, and it is complicated because the national States don’t disappear, but have to learn to combine and interact with each other.

GB: Despite the cosmopolitization of States, most of the scholars – not to speak of politicians – are still inclined to adopt what you call “methodological nationalism”, the insistence that the meta-game of global politics is and always will be a national game. You have written that this nationalism functions as an “unrecognized mental block”, thanks to which “many writers see the global age as spelling the end of the national state and therefore of democracy”. Instead, you argue that “the ideas of statehood and state sovereignty have not become superfluous”, but must “be redefined and extended in a cosmopolitan direction” (Cosmopolitan Vision). Would you explain what you mean when you state that, in order to avoid the national trap, it is necessary to distinguish “between autonomy and sovereignty”?

UB: This distinction is really crucial, because you can lose autonomy by for example being part of the European Union, or being dependent on let’s say the International Monetary Fund, but at the same time, under specific conditions, in loosing your autonomy you can increase your sovereignty. For instance, you could solve problems of migration on a transnational level, you can solve problems related to the transnational and cosmopolitan criminal networks, which know how to exploit differences of legal systems like transnational corporations do, and use these differences in order to increase the power of their criminal structure. So, in pooling the sovereignty by cooperation between different States, you can produce solutions to those problems, while on the national level we have all kind of discussions which actually cannot solve any problem. That’s why, regardless of whoever gets elected, after one or two years we find out that they are not really able to solve the problems. The different contradictions on the national level arise because at that level you don’t have the adequate resources anymore. In this sense, the idea of sovereignty is getting fictitious. It is not a real political practice anymore; rather, it is just in the heads of the people. Therefore, a new combination and new cooperation is necessary. One of the basic issues is, again, climate change, but you can pick the one you prefer.

For example, everybody is discussing the current crisis of the Euro, and it’s not very difficult to say that if we stick to the national perspective for the first time there’s going to be a real crisis of the Euro, because we don’t have any European answer to the Europeanized financial system. So, again the nations seem to be sovereign but they are not able to handle these problems which are really part of a more articulated political system, and this is always the same. Under specific conditions, loosing autonomy can mean pooling sovereignty, and this pooling of sovereignty in turns produces an increase in sovereignty to a level capable of solving all those problems that are not national anymore. In other words, it is the paradoxical principle I write about in World at Risk: national sovereignty does not make cooperation possible; rather, it is transnational cooperation that makes that makes national sovereignty possible.