Anxieties of the Modern World: Assessing the Risk Society Thesis

By Nathanael Chouraqui
2016, Vol. 8 No. 10 | pg. 2/2 |

III. Conclusion and Application

Now that I have clarified what the appropriate assessment framework for the risk society thesis is, I will propose an application of it. As Beck’s work is a speculative one, and as it seeks to unravel the spirit of the era, I will choose to confront it with another speculative piece, also concerned with the zeitgeist: Badiou’s Le Siècle (The Century, originally published in 2005).

The idea of linking Badiou to the risk society argument has first been developed by Coker in War in an Age of Risk (2009). Endeavouring to push his analysis further, I will argue that Badiou’s work on the absence of a “voluntary construction of time” in our societies reveal a lack in Beck’s thesis and should be fully integrated into it. I will claim that our understanding of risk and anxiety would benefit from it, not only in abstract conceptual terms, but also in terms of its capacity to be applied to concrete issues of security and . In a nutshell, my argument is that future has been filled with anxiety only because it has been emptied of project and that one cannot fully understand the dynamics and consequences of the risk society without re-including that aspect in the analysis.

Badiou’s point is that, in our “post-heroic” societies, where , ideals and ideologies have declined and the modernity-led disenchantment of the world have risen (Weber, 1963; Gauchet, 1997), we are left without “long-term historical project” that gives a goal and a meaning to our societies (Badiou, 2005). Reacting to Coker’s piece – which was bridging this element and the risk society– Aradau (2010) called our era “paradoxical,” for being both obsessed with future and lacking a project for it.

What I argue is the exact opposite. There is nothing paradoxical here. It is because we lack a goal for the future that we have been “colonising” it –to use Beck’s word (2002) – with our anxiety and desire to control risks. It is this unknown future, this frightening vacuity that allows it –and partially causes it. Indeed, we no longer project ourselves into a future where we act, but we do represent ourselves into a future where we live; and we therefore want to ensure we’ll live safely in that future. As Badiou puts it “we are left with man as merely an animal species, worried only for its own survival” (2005). This desire forms the basis of the risk society. The risk society is thus inseparable from this disappearance of the “project.” It would not have come about without it. More, these two processes are not two different ones, they are both are parts of a single dialectical one.

Let me try to demonstrate this link. The classic (here summarised) risk society narrative is as follows. Modernity has been generating more and more manufactured risks which, like nuclear and global warming, soon became unbounded (temporally, spatially and socially), uncontrollable, with potentially catastrophic effects for the very survival of our species (Beck, 2002). In addition to that, with the growing complexification of the world caused by globalisation, the future has become more and more unpredictable. We are then let with uncontrollable and unforeseeable risk. But the expression “uncontrollable risk” being a contradiction in terms (the idea of risk implying the idea of control (Beck, 2002)), this dynamic is said to have eventuated in anxiety becoming the central sentiment of our age. A classic corollary version (proposed by scholars like Jarvis or Scott) adds the following idea: despite the promises made by modernity to secure people’s lives, our epoch failed to remove our existential fears; as Jarvis says “we still face the perils of everyday existence, the probabilities of meeting our fate” etc. This broken promise would be another part of the explanation for our collective angst.

These are the classic narratives. What I argue is that the consciousnesses of immeasurable threats, of unpredictable future and of this broken promise are by no mean sufficient to explain anxiety. The logical link is incomplete and the projectless nature of our societies is the missing part. If modern societies were still oriented towards a collective goal (whether religious, ideological, political...), anxiety would have had no place in it. For the future would be full, and possibly full of hope. We would not be anxious because we would be projecting ourselves as actors of the future, not merely passive “inhabitants” of it. The future would be colonised by our positive representations of it, and not left open to negative fears of the unknown. Classic determinants of the risk society are therefore merely half of the story. It has to be noted though, that the “projectless” element is equally partial. Indeed, the lack of project alone arguably causes depression (as claimed by Ehrenberg (2009)), not anxiety, as there is in it no element that warrant to be fearful the future (the future is empty but not full of uncontrollable risks).

Anxiety is then only fully explain by both elements: the classic components of the risk society thesis (the changing nature of the threats and of our perception of them) and the additional societal element drawn from Badiou’s work (the disappearance of life-orienting common goals).

To further prove my point I will try to evidence that not only is this new element a driver of the emergence of the risk society but is an integral part of its functioning. By doing so, I also intend to show the enhanced explanatory power this new dimension gives to the thesis. Through the example of terrorism I will show that it concerns both the threats per se and how risk societies respond to them.

Let us start with the threat, terrorism (i.e. one of the most often cited global risk epitomizing the risk age). How is the concept of projectless society relevant to the terrorist risk? To a certain extent, non-western originated terrorism can be analysed as a rejection of the western projectless world. This is obviously the case of Islamist terrorism, Islamism being, according to many scholars, a value-based rejection of western modernity (Bull,1985; Tibi, 2009). The rejection is of course not framed in terms of “project” but rather in terms struggle against individualism, secularism, moral decline etc. (a good example of those blames can be found in the writings of the founder of radical political theory, Sayyid Qutb’s; Milestones, 1964). As for westerner terrorists, to accounting for the appeal exerted by religious fundamentalism, sociologist Adam advances that it “offers some island of security to people’s rise of anxiety,” which explanation clearly has to go hand in hand with the ideological vacuity of the west (Possamai, 2009). Finally, this approach specifically helps us comprehend why it is so difficult for us westerners to understand suicide attacks. We are no longer able to understand how “the individual can be sacrificed to a historical cause that exceeds him” (Badiou, 2005).

As for the response risk societies give to terrorism, both components of anxiety also matter. One cannot fully understand it without both. Whether we are considering 9/11 or the Paris attacks, the classic version of the risk society has very well explained the subsequent desire to securitize society (see Beck 2002), through the Patriot Act in the US for instance. But this approach does not fully capture the dilemmas and the seeming incapacity of our democracies to fight terrorism. Indeed, we are not only facing “uncontrollable” and “global” enemies. We are facing enemies who are willing to destroy our future, without us knowing what we want this future to be about. Liberal democracies are no longer enthusiastic about their present (as suggested by the so-called crisis or representation crisis and growing abstention from voting phenomenain every old democratic country) and no longer have a project for the future.

Then, when it comes to the response to give to those threats, we simply do not know what future we want to defend and protect. And the reflex may be to turn to the past. This, and this only, can account for the rise of reactionary and nationalistic policies frequently witnessed in countries hit by terrorist attacks. The Patriot Act in the US,the Déchéance de Nationalité constitutional amendment proposal and the increased rise of the National Front in consecutively to the attacks are telling examples of that tendency. Returning to the previous (perceived as well defined, pure and stable) identity is a way to retrieve security in the risk age4.

To recap, the question asked to risk societies facing terrorism is the following: what responses are able to help us reduce our anxiety? Securitisation is –that was already obvious– but conservative identity policies are too.

Finally, on a purely conceptual ground, I will add that another contribution of Badiou’s approach consists in better linking the risk society thesis to the dynamics of individualisation. Indeed, Beck claims that his overarching theory includes previous accounts on individualisation (1992) and derives legitimacy from this reliance on widely recognized tendency. But what he actually doesis merely painting this concept with the risk society by saying that in the risk modernity, the individual makes choices and risk assessment for him/herself (Hudson, 2003). Introducing the idea of a risk society being void of collective project gathering people around a common view of the future may allow to better stress the link between the risk society’s anxiety and individualisation. Indeed, the advent of the free individual as the only source of legitimacy and the congruent increasing defiance against collective ideologies (perceived as restrictive of the individual’s agency) is an integral part of the process described by Badiou.

Thus, Badiou’s concepts powerfully complete several areas of the risk society thesis, such as the determinants of anxiety, the origin of and our responses to threats, and the theoretical relationship with other societal dynamics. I argue this lens should be added to the risk society general framework.

This essay aimed at drawing a basic assessment of the risk society theory.

I first tried to clarify the nature of the risk society thesis and to devise the appropriate assessment ground (parts I and II) and then, on this basis, proposed a critical analysis of it (part III).

Having found that analyzing it as a social science theory revealed serious shortcomings, I showed it was better defined as a philosophical commentary on the zeitgeist, which commentary I then contrasted with another compatible one: Badiou’s Century.

Two things can thus be taken out from this analysis.

First, the risk society should not be taken as a purely analytical theory and confidently applied to the empirics as such, nor should it be blindly taken as a source of policy recommendations. One should rather see it as an interpretation of our times, a powerful lens which sees only what its premises allows to see but has proved to be an original and perceptive one.

Second, as this thesis aims at capturing the spirit of our age and thus seeks comprehensiveness, I argue that it would benefit from being completed by a compatible work of a similar nature, i.e. Badiou’s one, which would expand its scope and better highlight the importance of the (non-)ideological dimension of the risk age.


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Endnotes

  1. “Risk is not only a social construct it’s a social reality” he enigmatically said.
  2. I am aware that numerous are those who will argue that there is between history as a social science and philosophy of history nothing but a difference of degree, not of nature (see for example, on international history, Wight, 1960). Broaching this debate would be beyond the scope of that essay, which is written under the assumption that that the traditional distinction is at least substantive enough to be used as valid analytical categories.
  3. It by no means implies that we should refrain from trying to devise such broad theories, nor does it mean social scientist should not pay attention to them. On the contrary, some of the most influential pieces of social sciences have drawn on previous philosophical works. For instance, Doyle theory of democratic peace (which, regardless of the validity of the theory is commonly regarded as a systematic scientific work) is directly derived from Kant’s writings on perpetual peace (Doyle, 1983). For “the historian has to be a philosopher” as Raymond Aron told us (1967).
  4. In a sense, the question posed by terrorism to risk/democratic societies is an existential one. When David Cameron said that ISIS constituted “an existential threat” for the UK, many were those who said he was overstating the actual security threat posed by the Islamic State organisation. But the alternative way of reading his statement was to see it as a reference to the existential question asked to the West by islamists (who are you, or more precisely, what, if anything, do you want to be?).

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