The return of the risk society

The Japanese tsunami and earthquakes were natural disasters. Yet, the Fukushima nuc­lear power station was man-made. It was a monument of scientific “certainty”, a symbol of absolute progress, the triumph of technocracy. Today, it is the opposite: a symbol of fear, uncertainty, unanswered questions and confusion. In short, it is a certificate of risk.

This reminds me of the writings of German sociologist Ulrich Beck, whose “risk society” theory was developed precisely after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Prof. Beck says that today’s modernity is different from an earlier version, which was characterised by scientific certainty, stability, uniformity and security. Today, we are living in unstable and unsure situations.

Unpredicted or unintended consequences become a way of life in today’s modernity. Perils – such as nuclear radiation – have no frontiers. They travel across countries, generations, social classes and time. In this context, “smog is democratic” and “perpetrator and victim soon become identical”.

Prof. Beck adds that “the dream of class society is that everyone wants and ought to have a share of the pie. The utopia of risk society is that everyone should be spared from poisoning”. Hence, anxiety becomes a dominant force in society. This takes place not only in the environmental sphere – which, in any case, is increasingly fused with the social but is also present in other spheres of social life. For example, pensions systems that were supposed to be created to guarantee a decent standard of living become unsustainable, ever-threatened by financial collapse, and, in many instances, actually causing poverty, rather than eradicating it.

His writings present an obscure and almost macabre aspect of progress, in the vein of Mary Shelley’s 19th century writings on Frankenstein. Yet, this sociologist is not a reactionary who would like to return to a “golden age” that probably never existed.

Instead, Prof. Beck observes that risk society is characterised by reflexivity, where people become ever more conscious of the dangers and opportunities in their lives and start being less trustful of technocratic elites who are used to having a monopoly over “truth”. An example of this is when the mad cow disease came to being, where the consumption of beef declined drastically. Similarly, many people did not take heed of recommendations for vaccination against the swine flu a few years ago.

Individualisation becomes a way of life, resulting in increased freedom and increased precariousness at the same time, in all aspects of social life, from family life to employment. People are less bound to tradition and, consequently, freer to construct their own biographies in an autonomous manner. Of course, as existentialists such as Søren Kirkegaard, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, show us, freedom has its own anxieties, as we end up being responsible for our choices, even if we are in the dark.

As another contemporary sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, puts it, we are living in “liquid” modernity, where everything is in flux. For example, we might be on the losing end of someone else’s freedom, for example when one’s love relationship ends because the love of the other partner simply ceases to exist.

Yet, this increased reflexivity and individualisation also means we have opportunities that were unheard of among previous generations.

It would be interesting to apply these concepts to Maltese society, erstwhile dominated by political, commercial and religious elites in the public sphere. For example, the lack of divorce legislation is only increasing risks and insecurity for thousands of people who would like to start a new chapter in their biographies.