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The Big Think

The Sociologist Who Could Save Us From Coronavirus

Ulrich Beck was a prophet of uncertainty—and the most important intellectual for the pandemic and its aftermath.

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We all know the Chernobyl script. A badly designed reactor suffered a meltdown. The decrepit Soviet regime tried to hide the disaster. Millions of citizens were put at risk. And the truth came out. The regime paid the price. Its legitimacy was in tatters. Collapse followed.

For liberals it is a pleasing morality tale. Dictatorship fails when faced with the challenges of modernity. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

When COVID-19 struck, we wondered whether it might be Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Chernobyl. But after initial prevarication driven by Wuhan’s local politics, China’s national leadership reasserted its grip. The worst moment was Feb. 7, when hundreds of millions of Chinese took to the Internet to protest the treatment of whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, who had died of the disease. Since then Beijing has taken control, both of the disease and the media narrative. Far from being a perestroika moment, the noose of party discipline and censorship has tightened.

By the spring it was White House staffers who were likely watching the HBO miniseries Chernobyl and wondering about their own boss. Lately, the historian Harold James has asked whether the United States is living through its late-Soviet moment, with COVID-19 as President Donald Trump’s terminal crisis. But if that turns out to be the case, it will not be because of a botched cover-up; Americans are living neither in late-Soviet Ukraine nor in the era of Watergate, when a sordid exposé could sink a president. Of course, Trump was culpably irresponsible in making light of the disease. But he did so in the full glare of TV cameras. The president reveled in flouting the recommendations of eggheaded public health experts, correctly calculating that a large swath of his base was not concerned with conventional norms of truth or reason.

But the fact that neither Xi’s China nor Trump’s United States are a good match for the late Soviet Union doesn’t mean that Chernobyl is not relevant to our COVID-19 predicament. What should interest us is not so much the downfall of the Soviet Union as the more mundane preoccupations of the Western Europeans who in 1986 found themselves in the path of the Chernobyl radiation cloud. As the news leaked out of the disaster, they faced many of the same questions that have haunted us in 2020. Which tests were to be trusted? Was it safe to go outside? Should children play in sand pits? What types of food were safe? How long would it last? What were the trade-offs? What exactly was a becquerel? How many were safe? Which of the vast array of reports, data, and recommendations should one read? Which should one trust?

There is no HBO series about life under the fallout cloud that summer. (In terms of curies per square kilometer, the radiation was worst in two belts: one stretching northwest across Scandinavia, the other to the south across Slovenia, Austria, and Bavaria.) What we do have is a book, Risk Society, published by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck with exquisite timing in the spring of 1986.

Beck argued that the omnipresence of large-scale threats of global scope, anonymous and invisible, were the common denominator of our new epoch: “A fate of endangerment has arisen in modernity, a sort of counter-modernity, which transcends all our concepts of space, time, and social differentiation. What yesterday was still far away will be found today and in the future ‘at the front door.’” The question, so vividly exposed by the crises such as Chernobyl and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, is how to navigate this world. The relevance of Beck’s answers are even more apparent in our day than they were in his own.

Beck was in many ways an emblematic figure of postwar Germany. Born in 1944 near the Baltic coast in the Pomeranian town of Stolp, now Slupsk in Poland, Beck’s family fled the Red Army to settle in the booming industrial city of Hanover. He studied sociology not in the famously radical Frankfurt, or at the Free University of Berlin, but in Freiburg and Munich. By the early 1980s he was comfortably ensconced as a professor of sociology upriver from Frankfurt, in picturesque Bamberg. Following the success of Risk Society, Ulrich Beck would emerge as perhaps Germany’s most widely recognized social scientist after Jürgen Habermas.

Not for nothing Beck has been dubbed a “zeitgeist sociologist.” The intellectual world he was responding to in the early 1980s in West Germany was one of considerable uncertainty. The reform momentum of the 1960s and 1970s had ebbed. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government had little of the energy of U.S. President Ronald Reagan or British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Habermas characterized the period in intellectual and political terms as die neue Unübersichtlichkeit—the New Obscurity. The most common move was to refer to the period as an age of “post-”—post-industrial, postmodern, postcolonial. But as Beck put it, the use of the term “post-” was a marker of our helplessness, the intellectual equivalent of a blind man’s stick probing in the dark. Facing up to the challenge of providing a positive definition, Beck chose “risk society.”

In the early 1980s, the theme of risk was in the air. The escalation of Cold War tension created a pervasive sense of threat. The campaign against DDT, given huge prominence by Rachel Carson’s bestselling Silent Spring, had heightened awareness of invisible chemical pollution. The Three Mile Island incident of 1979 brought home the danger of nuclear accidents. In the United States in 1982, Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky had outlined their cultural theory of risk, elaborating on Douglas’s earlier anthropological work. Charles Perrow warned that in living with massive complex systems such as air traffic control systems, dams, and nuclear reactors, accidents must be accepted as normal.

Beck’s contribution in Risk Society was to offer a compelling sociological interpretation of this pervasive sense of undefined but omnipresent threat, both as a matter of personal and collective experience and as a historical epoch. But more than that, Risk Society is a manifesto of sorts, proposing a novel attitude toward and politics for contemporary reality.

The West’s first wave of modernization had been carried forward by an enthusiastic overcoming of tradition and a confident subordination of nature by science and technology. The disorienting realization of the late 20th century was that those very same energies, those same tools were now the source not only of our emancipation but also of our self-endangerment. To retreat would be to put the gains of modernization at risk. We could not deny the benefits of modern medicine. But nor could we deny its risks and side effects, intended and unintended. What was required was, for want of a better description, a “scientific approach to science.” In this age, which Beck dubbed second or reflexive modernity, the challenge was to find ways to employ the tools of modernity—of science, technology and democratic debate—without succumbing to the ever-present temptations of glancing backward to a more familiar age or engaging in denial.

This is not easy to do. There is no familiar liberal formula for coping with the contemporary risks created by modern technological development. It was not a matter of denouncing dictatorship or know-nothing populism. Indeed, there is every reason to think that the problems of risk society will be most acute precisely for those who fancy ourselves as particularly reasonable and modern, because they cannot evade the dilemmas and paradoxes that it generates.

Beck shared with the environmental movement of the 1970s and 1980s the dawning awareness of the gigantic risks produced by modern economic development. It was the nuclear question that catapulted risk society into public consciousness. But the 1980s also saw the emergence of widespread awareness both of climate change and the “emerging diseases paradigm.” If climate change was the result of carbon emissions, the emergence of viruses such as HIV, and the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 could be traced to the intrusion of humans into delicate forest ecosystems and the vast animal incubators of the agro-industrial complex. As citizens of successful modernizing societies, we face all-pervasive risks that fundamentally blur the distinction between the social and the natural. Beck could rightly claim to be one of the first thinkers of what we know today as the Anthropocene.

But Beck goes a step further. If it is true that we are now faced with pervasive risks generated and brought upon us by the forces of modernity and yet not accessible to our immediate senses, how do we cope? Until you start suffering from radiation poisoning, until your fetus suffers a horrific mutation, until you find your lungs flooding with pneumonia, the threat of the radiation or a mystery bug is unreal, inaccessible to the naked eye or immediate perception.

In risk society, we become radically dependent on specialized scientific knowledge to define what is and what is not dangerous in advance of encountering the dangers themselves. We become, as Beck puts it, “incompetent in matters” of our “own affliction.” Alienated from our faculties of assessment, we lose an essential part of our “cognitive sovereignty.” The harmful, the threatening, the inimical lies in wait everywhere, but whether it is inimical or friendly is “beyond one’s own power of judgment.” We thus face a double shock: a threat to our health and survival and a threat to our autonomy in gauging those threats. As we react and struggle to reassert control, we have no option but to “become small, private alternative experts in risks of modernization.” We take a crash course in epidemiology and educate ourselves about “R zero.” But that effort only sucks us deeper into the labyrinth.

The normal experiential logic of everyday thought is reversed. Rather than starting from immediate experience and abstracting from there to general claims about the world, the news of the day starts by reference to mathematical formula, chemical tests, and medical judgements. The more we rely on science, the more we find ourselves distanced from immediate reality. Every encounter with our fellow citizens as we go about our normal business is shadowed by a calculation of virtual risks and the probability of contamination. The result is paradoxical. The path of science leads us into a realm in which hidden forces, like the gods and demons of old, threaten our earthly lives. A strange mixture of fear and calculation pursues us into our “very dreams.” Whereas animistic religion once endowed nature with spirits, we now view the world through the lens of omnipresent, latent causalities. “Dangerous, hostile substances lie concealed behind the harmless façades. Everything must be viewed with a double gaze, and can only be correctly understood and judged through this doubling. The world of the visible must be investigated, relativized and evaluated with respect to a second reality, only existent in thought and yet concealed in the world.” 

As we have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the main functions of a face mask is to remind oneself of invisible dangers and to signal to others that one is taking those risks seriously. In the United States they have become something like an article of faith, a way of indicating publicly that one belongs to those who take “the science” seriously.

“Like the gaze of the exorcist, the gaze of the pollution-plagued contemporary is directed at something invisible.” “Omnipresent pollutants and toxins” take the role of spirits. In our effort to cope we develop our “own evasion rituals, incantations, intuition, suspicions and certainties.” Of course, we insist, this isn’t exorcism. This is about science, medicine, engineering, technology. But references to those authorities don’t actually solve our problem. Because on most matters we care about, it turns out that science speaks with many voices. Science is, at best, a rowdy, self-willed choir with many people with different ideas of the tune they should be singing. As we have discovered to our horror in 2020, anyone who professes to believe that medicine, science, and public health expertise will by themselves tell us how to act is either naive or in bad faith. Though overwhelmed and underinformed, we cannot escape the responsibility of both personal and collective political judgment.

Furthermore, the more we know, the more we realize that we are not the only ones judging. Every interested party is picking and choosing its sources. It is an enlightening but also shocking exposure to how the sausage of modern knowledge is truly made. And as Beck reminds us, it “would not be so dramatic and could be easily ignored if only one were not dealing with very real and personal hazards.”

This is clearly a deeply modern world, saturated with technology and expertise. But it is not a cookie-cutter image of modernity in which scientific reason marches to victory over superstition and censorship. Would that it were so clear-cut. Instead we find ourselves in a world in which rationalism and skepticism are turning on themselves. Knowledge comes not neatly packaged in the form of clearly recognizable truth but in “admixtures” and “amalgams.” It is transported by “agents of knowledge in their combination and opposition, their foundations, their claims, their mistakes, their irrationalities,” all of which all too obviously go into defining the possibility of their knowing the things they claim to know.

As Beck remarks, “this is a development of great ambivalence. It contains the opportunity to emancipate social practice from science through science.” We gain a far more realistic understanding of how scientific results are generated and vaccines are produced. But the resulting disillusionment and skepticism also has the potential to immunize “prevailing ideologies and interested standpoints against enlightened scientific claims, and throws the door open to a feudalization of scientific knowledge practice through economic and political interests and ‘new dogmas.’”

So, not only is technological progress churning up nature and generating massive and dangerous blowback, but at the moment when we need it most to orient ourselves, science and the government’s decisions based on it forfeit their basis of legitimacy. And as the full extent of this shock sinks in, it unleashes a third process of destabilization: We begin to wonder about the broader narratives of progress and history within which we understand our present.

It is Beck’s openness to the ambiguity and complexity of global development, his insistence on the multiplicity and surprising quality of potential reactions to risk society, that helps to keep his book relevant as a map for reading our current situation. If we go back to 1986, Beck anticipated three ways in which societies might deal with the risks he identified.

What Beck himself hoped for was what he called a cosmopolitan micropolitics. This was a logical extension of his model of reflexive modernity, in which not just science has been dethroned, but also the previously demarcated sphere of national politics, dominated by parliaments, sovereign governments, and territorial states. What Europe witnessed starting in the 1980s was a double movement which, on the one hand, dramatically reduced the intensity of  political conflict between parties in the parliamentary sphere and, at the same time, politicized previously unpolitical realms such as gender relations, family life, and the environment, spheres which he dubbed “sub-politics” or “micropolitics.” For Beck this was no cause for lament. The challenge was to invigorate subpolitics at whatever scale they operated. This could be intensely local, as in struggles over road projects or airport runways. But it could also be global in scope.

When SARS was revealed in China in 2003, it was for Beck a demonstration of a global micropolitics in action. New networks of “risk actors” led by doctors, researchers, and independent public health experts overcame the initial efforts at secrecy by the Chinese state. If the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has had a Chernobyl moment, this was it. Bottom-up environmental politics and social-justice activism was for Beck the model of a new mode of politics. But one might also think of the remarkable effort involved in stabilizing an institution such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a global authority in mapping the climate emergency. It involves a tireless and massive effort of scientific politics. Again and again climate scientists from all over the world, using different models, starting from different assumptions, paid for by governments with oppposing interests have struggled to reconcile their differences and define reasonable bands of agreement. The reality of this kind of science is more like the workings of a complex system of legal arbitration than the pristine image of the lab bench.

But, as Beck acknowledged, there were also at least two other possibilities. One was a retro politics of going back to the future. This would be a politics that aimed to restore the certainty of social development and the rule of organized politics and scientific reason that had guided the first modernity. The United States’ “war on terror” was one such attempt. It turned a 21st century security risk into a conventional war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. It was a disaster. The most successful effort to control risk society within the framework of a classic industrial modernity is China. Its response to the COVID-19 crisis has put that on full display. COVID-19 was contained and CCP rule ensured by a full-bore mobilization of societal discipline, targeted deployment of medical spending, and state power, all of it clad in the guise of what the regime calls 21st-century Marxism, a self-confident narrative of modernization and progress. There is no room for questioning the modern epic of the China dream. The lack of a positive attitude is enough to trigger suspicion.

Another response with which we have become all too familiar in the contemporary United States is a retreat from the vertiginous whirl of self-reflexive rationality toward new taboos, superstition, rigidification, and denial. This for Beck was not to be understood as a hangover from traditional folkways, but as a new superstition raised in response to new threats. Given the spiraling uncertainty of risk society, it was hardly surprising that some might react this way. During the response to COVID-19, it was all too easy to find oneself torn between two camps described by Beck in his article on Chernobyl: “Some refuse to perceive the dangers at all, while others energetically insist on blanket condemnations in the name of ‘self-protection’ or the preservation of ‘life on this earth.’” How was one to decide between these positions? The polarization of views in the eddying arguments of risk society could easily extend to science itself. If, by an honest fallibilistic account, “science is only a disguised mistake in abeyance … then where does anyone derive the right to believe only in certain risks?” A realistic skepticism about scientific authority all too easily shaded into a general obfuscation of risks. It was, Beck admitted in Risk Society, a “knife’s edge,” in which debates about invisible risks mutated into “sort of modern seance” with the dial on the Ouija board being moved by rival scientific and counterscientific analyses.

Once the invisible has been let in,” Beck wrote, “it will soon not be just the spirits of pollutants that determine the thought and the life of people. This can all be disputed, it can polarize, or it can fuse together. New communities and alternative communities arise, whose world views, norms and certainties are grouped around the center of invisible threats.” How can one not think of our ongoing struggle over face masks?

And then there is denial. Outside a totalitarian setting, a social problem such as a labor dispute cannot easily be settled by denial. But perceived risks “can always be interpreted away (as long they have not already occurred).” Barring the actual disaster, mounting anxiety may be relieved simply by pushing the danger out of mind. Risk is a matter of perception; therefore, it originates “in knowledge and norms, and they can thus be enlarged or reduced in knowledge and norms, or simply displaced from the screen of consciousness.” The awareness of modern risks was not a one-way street. It was reversible. “Troubled times and generations can be succeeded by others for which fear, tamed by interpretations, is a basic element of thought and experience. Here the threats are held captive in the cognitive cage of their always unstable ‘non-existence.’” Later generations would look back and mock the fears that had once “so upset the ‘old folks.’” A recurring refrain in the response to COVID-19, notably from the populists of the Americas, whether in the United States, Mexico, or Brazil, has been essentially this: We will just have to get used to it. After all, we live with flu. It will blow over.

As Beck warned more than 30 years ago, we may be “at the beginning of a historical process of habituation. It may be that the next generation, or the one after that, will no longer be upset at pictures of birth defects, like those of tumor-covered fish and birds that now circulate around the world, just as we are no longer upset today by violated values, the new poverty and a constant high level of mass unemployment.” The word out of the White House in the summer of 2020 is that Trump’s strategists are looking forward to the day when news of tens of thousands of new cases per day no longer ruffles the headlines.

Beck was at heart a sociologist more than a critical theorist or normative political theoretician. He did not denounce the development of denial or unreason so much as chart and explain it. In dealing with risk society, one had to reckon with its basic motive force: the powerful emotion of fear. This was the basic question it posed:

“How can we cope with the fear, if we cannot overcome the causes of the fear? How can we live on the volcano of civilization without deliberately forgetting about it, but also without suffocating on the fears—and not just on the vapors that the volcano exudes?”  

In 2020, that question is even more pressing than it was in 1986.

German writer Ulrich Beck in Milano, Italy, on Sept. 18, 2014.

German writer Ulrich Beck in Milano, Italy, on Sept. 18, 2014. Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images

Beck is no longer with us to help us with the answer. He died suddenly of a heart attack on New Year’s Day in 2015 while walking home from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

Risk Society had made him into one of the emblematic figures of European social science of his day. It had been translated into 35 languages. There are no fewer than 8,000 articles in Chinese academic journals that refer to Beck’s work. Somewhat surprisingly, Risk Society did not appear in English until 1992 and, relative to his standing in Europe and Asia, Beck’s impact on the academic scene in the United States was slight. For the United States’ social-scientific mainstream, he lacked rigor. Starting in the 1980s, behavioral economics and experimental social science came ever more to the fore as ways of accounting for how people form judgments under uncertainty. For intellectual entrepreneurs of the American left, who trade in exotic continental imports, Beck was not radical enough. They preferred their theory French. In political terms, Beck, like his friend and collaborator Anthony Giddens, was associated during the 1990s and 2000s with the Third Way of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the red-green coalition in Germany.

But it is not just academic politics that accounts for Beck’s muted reception in the United States. One must also ask how far Beck’s sketch of the contemporary cultural condition actually extended across the Atlantic. Beck himself clearly drew inspiration from the American environmental politics of the 1960s and 1970s, which led the world in turning scientific research to critical purposes. Silicon Valley’s hybrid of tech and New Age religion could be cited as a classic instance of Beck’s second modernity—immensely wealthy tech wizards unafraid to seek enlightenment wherever they might find it, whether in yoga, outlandish diets, or shamanic outings to Burning Man. But the United States’ national politics presented a very different picture. What was one to make of a political system convulsed by arguments over the  interpretation of an 18th-century constitution, the merits of teaching the biblical version of creation, and the veracity of climate science? There was plenty of opposition to climate politics from self-interested fossil fuel businesses in Europe, but few if any mainstream voices questioning the laboriously established scientific consensus. And in the United States all this came cloaked in a quasi-theological nationalism, embodied in the country’s sacrosanct way of life.

In the United States of 2020, faced with the confluence of evangelical religion, the Trump presidency, and conspiracy theories such as QAnon, it is tempting to conclude that Beck’s announcement of a second modernity was premature. It is tempting to rally the liberal troops and to announce that in the United States today it is not the struggles of reflexive modernity—the self-generation of uncertainty and risk—that need to be fought so much as the battles of the first modernity, against superstition, atavism, and obscurantism.

This may be appealing. But it ignores the obvious fact that the vortex of televangelism, a reality-TV presidency, and viral Internet memes is itself a product of our high-tech capitalism, unimaginable in an earlier era. To answer them with a retreat to rationalism is to indulge in what the British sociologist Will Davies has recently termed “Enlightenment kitsch.” What we are living through is indeed Beck’s second modernity, just in a more conflicted and catastrophic version than he ever imagined. Hence, perhaps, the attraction of the Chernobyl scenario. How pleasant to imagine that our problems are those of the late Soviet regime and that what we need is simply a dose of liberty and perestroika, when the real path of progress is both more ambiguous and more sweeping, because it implicates the country as a whole.

If Beck’s readership in the United States was thin, the same was not true in East Asia, where since the 1980s the German sociologist cultivated a devoted following. Beck was attractive notably for progressive Korean social scientists dedicated to the critique of their national model of authoritarian modernity. For Beck, the eagerness with which his concept of second modernity was adapted by Asian social scientists was living proof of the dynamic open-endedness of the reality he was trying to describe. In such collaborations a process was set in motion that provincialized European concepts and history without consigning them to irrelevance. Japan, South Korea, and China were undergoing an industrial revolution more rapid than anything  experienced in the West. They were huge laboratories of the Anthropocene and the churning appropriation of nature.

In July 2014, Beck visited Seoul and laid out the implications of his model of risk society for thinking about crises such as the Japanese nuclear accident at Fukushima in 2011, the Sewol Ferry Tragedy in Korea in 2014, and China’s plague of air pollution. Beck was particularly keen to suggest ways in which East Asia might creatively overcome the bitter legacy of 20th-century history, if not at the level of national politics, then through the subpolitics of cooperation between the megacities of the region that were fast emerging as global hubs. The progressive administration of the city of Seoul launched a city lab to incorporate Beck’s ideas into their urban planning. Shocked by his sudden death in the spring of 2015, his South Korean collaborators staged a Buddhist commemorative service at which the mayor of Seoul, at the time one of the leading lights of the Korean opposition, gave a funeral oration.

Beck would no doubt have appreciated the syncretic gesture. Five years later, he would have been even more pleased to see the entire world taking lessons from a progressive South Korean government on how to handle the COVID-19 crisis. In the face of bitter opposition from medical interest groups, the South Korean government effectively mobilized coalitions of businesses and scientists to deliver fast and effective testing and tracing. Rather than relying on clichés about Confucian conformity to collective norms, they set out to build trust through transparency and effective delivery. Not only did the Democratic Party government contain the epidemic, but it even managed to hold a national election in the midst of the crisis and win it handsomely. The country offers an example, in what remains of this pandemic, of how to get risk society right.