Ulrich Beck: globalisation meets its limits
Ulrich Beck, who invented the concept of the ‘risk society’ more than a decade ago is consistently interesting on the way societies are responding to rapid social change. In an article in today’s Guardian he offers a neologism to describe the shape of the world to come: “cosmopolitics”. Globalisation, he suggests, is reaching its limits.
He cites Russia and Latin America as evidence that “untrammelled market capitalism” is generating a level of fear and uncertainty not seen since 1989 and the end of the Cold Wa:
Resistance is growing as the middle sections of global society begin to realise that they gain no share in the benefits generated by the current period of economic growth – indeed, that their slice of the cake may even be getting smaller. Ordinary middle-class workers – whether they live in Manchester, the American midwest, the deindustrialised Ruhr area of Germany, Latin America or eastern Europe – find themselves left out. The phenomenon is similar wherever you look: the rates of growth of average family incomes are far lower than productivity growth rates, and have been so for years. Economic globalisation is giving rise to new forms of inequality which, increasingly, will have to be tackled transnationally.
And there is a second theme as well; if globalisation brings global injustice, so does climate change:
Like the Titanic, the climate catastrophe knows no democracy. The majority of the victims are trapped in the cheap lower decks, from which there is no escape. Those who are driving climate change are simultaneously attacking the poorest of the poor and threatening their own means of survival. Those who seek to protect their citizens and properties in Britain, the US and Japan from the flooding that will occur when rivers burst their banks and sea levels rise are falling prey to the illusion that the social and political consequences of climate change can be addressed by a solo effort. This is merely another way of dodging the key issue of global justice.
Two thoughts on this: one is that the idea that the ‘globalisation project could fail’ – rather than being inevitable – which has been on the fringe of politics for a while may be moving to the mainstream (pace Tony Blair’s ridiculous assertion last year that ‘globalisation is a fact‘). The argument is that it may fail because in democracies it created more winners than losers.
The second is the idea that if climate change affects us all the rich may eventually be sufficiently concerned about it; as the 19th century Rothschilds were about public health, at least apocryphally, after one of their children died of cholera or some similar public health related disease.
Suddenly, and for the first time in history, every population, culture, ethnic group, religion and region in the world faces a future that threatens one and all. In other words, if we want to survive, we have to include those who have been excluded. The politics of climate change is necessarily inclusive and global – it is cosmopolitics.
Beck suggests that one consequence is that if progressive politics is to survive, it needs to move from a national perspective to an international one. This is because the serious problems we face are international – “from climate change, global economic interdependence and migratory movements through to issues of regional and global peacekeeping”, but that paradoxically, perhaps, most of the issues which have fuelled nationalism in Europe, such as the transfer of jobs to other countries, refugee flows, wars, terrorism, are international issues.
I think there’s a link here with Beyond Terror by Chris Abbott, which I blogged about a couple of months ago, which essentially argued that the only effective security agenda was onewhich addressed issues of global justice. And there are signs that this type of thinking has been understood by the new Brown government: Douglas Alexander, the new Secretary of State for International Development and long-standing Brown ally, took the game to the opposition by making a speech in Washington this week which argued that global problems needed an internationalist solution.
Related post: Globalisation and the power of the executive