Interview with Professor Ulrich Beck

Having been granted a scholarship by the D.A.A.D. in order to attend the Legal Summer School of the University of Munich I thought it would be an excellent idea if I could get an interview with Prof. Ulrich Beck, chair of the Department of Sociology of L.M.U. and author, inter alia, of the famous books “The Risk Society” (1986) and “The Invention of Politic” (1993)1. Ulrich Beck‘s work became universally known not only because he analyzed with clarity and innovation the risks of our post-modern society but primarily because his influential work gave answers to questions such as: a) Why do we face thorny issues and unforeseen risks regarding the economy, the environment, the new technologies, the genetic science? b) Which are the obstacles and difficulties preventing us from dealing adequately with such risks? c) What should the role of politics be in this high-risk society?


Probably the most eminent Greek philosopher of our contemporary era, Cornelius Kastoriades, stated, “whoever believes that history has died will be refuted, because history will be waiting for him, smiling cunningly, in the corner of the road”2. Can we say that events such as 11th September and the first formal announcement of human cloning on the 26th November 2001 prove this point beyond the shadow of any doubt?

There is nothing ‘beyond the shadow of any doubt’ but it is very certain.

Until very recently most people were seriously concerned about unforeseen technological risks, the environmental risks, the risks of the genetic science etc. Could one support the view that the tragic event of 11th September merely depicts the old risk of abuse of political power in the dominant world?

The 11th of September stands for the complete collapse of language. Ever since that moment, we’ve been living, thinking and acting using concepts that are incapable of grasping those events. The terrorist attack was not a war, not a crime, and not even terrorism in the familiar sense. It was not a little bit of each of them and it was not all of them at the same time. No one has yet offered a satisfying answer to the simple question of what really happened. An explosion of silence has followed the implosion of the Twin Towers. If we don’t have the right concepts it might seem that silence is appropriate. But it isn’t. Because silence won’t stop the self-fulfilling prophecies of false ideas and concepts, for example war. This is my thesis: the collapse of language that occurred on the 11th of September expresses our fundamental situation in the 21st century, of living in what I call “World Risk Society.”

Could we also say that the events of 11th September was a risk that was taken vis-a-vis a grave danger and that the politicians ignored it because the danger was great and close by? Why do people tend to ignore totally the great dangers that are close to them? What does lead them to this state of ignorance?

I don’t think people are ignoring the danger; politicians are using them for their purpose.

What are the main differences between the sociological effects caused to the people by the “new terrorism”3 and by the “traditional risks”?

Ecological and financial conflicts fit the model of modernity’s self-endangerment. They both clearly result from the accumulation and distribution of “bads” that were tied up with the production of goods. They result from society’s central decisions, but as unintentional side effects of those decisions. Terrorist activity, on the other hand, is intentionally bad. It aims to produce the effects that the other crises produce unintentionally. Thus the principle of intention replaces the principle of accident, especially in the field of economics. Much of the literature on risk in economics treats risk as a positive element within investment decisions and risk-taking, as a dynamic aspect linked to the essence of markets. But investing in the face of risk presupposes trust. Trust, in turn, is about the binding of time and space, because trust implies committing to a person, group or institution over time.

This prerequisite of active trust, in the field of economics as well as in everyday life and democracy, is dissolving. The perception of terrorist threats replaces active trust with active mistrust. It therefore undermines the trust in fellow citizens, foreigners and governments all over the world. Since the dissolution of trust multiplies risks, the terrorist threat triggers a self-multiplication of risks by the de-bounding of risk perceptions and fantasies.

George Bush stated again recently that communism is not a threat anymore but that terrorism is the new enemy. Can we say that this statement has a certain sociological impact on the people, especially the citizens of the United States, and if the answer is positive, how can we analyze its consequences?

The main question is: Who defines the identity of a ‘transnational terrorist’? Neither judges, nor international courts, but powerful governments and states. They empower themselves by defining who is their terrorist enemy, their Bin Laden. The fundamental distinctions between war and peace, attack and self-defence collapse. Terrorist enemy images are de-territorialized, denationalised and flexible state constructions that legitimise the global intervention of military powers as “self-defence”. President George W. Bush painted a frightening picture of “tens of thousands” of al-Qaida-trained terrorists “in at least a dozen countries”. Bush uses the most expansive interpretation: “They are to be destroyed.” Bush’s alarmism has a paradox effect: It gives Islamic terrorists what they want most – a recognition of their power. Bush has encouraged the terrorists to believe that the United States really can be badly hurt by terrorist actions like these. So there is a hidden mutual enforcement between Bush’s empowerment and the empowerment of the terrorists.

US-intelligence agencies are increasingly concerned that future attempts by terrorists to attack the United States may involve Asian or African al-Qaida members, a tactic intended to elude the racial profiles developed by US-security personnel. Thus the internal law enforcement and the external counter-threat of US-intervention do not only focus on an Arab face, but possibly on an Indonesian, Filipino, Malaysian or even African face. In order to broaden terrorist enemy images, which, to a large extent, are a one-sided construction of the powerful US-state, expanded parameters are being developed so as to include networks and individuals who may be connected to Asian and African terrorist organisations. This way Washington constructs the threat as immense. Bush insists that permanent mobilization of the American Nation is required that the military budget be vastly increased, that civil liberties be restricted, and that critics be chided as unpatriotic.

So there is another difference: The pluralization of experts and expert rationalities, which characterises ecological and financial risks, is then replaced by the gross simplification of enemy images, constructed by governments and intelligence agencies without and beyond public discourse and democratic participation.

1. More recently in English were published: “World Risk Society”, Polity Press, Cambridge 1999; “Individualisation”, Sage, London 2000.

2. In 1989 Francis Fukuyama endorsed the view that after the collapse of communism mankind reached the end of history, in the sense that the progress of mankind over the centuries towards modernity, characterized by institutions like liberal democracy and capitalism, seemed nowadays to be leading ever larger parts of the world towards this end. Thus, Fukuyama believed that there was nothing else towards which we could expect evolution to occur apart from liberal democracy and markets and that was the reason why according to his reasoning the era of “the end of history” had somewhat triumphantly emerged. Amongst those that expressed ideas and opinions opposite to Fukuyama’s conclusion, albeit defending different theoretical forts, were Samuel Huntington with his “clash of civilizations” theory and Ulrich Beck, but probably more eloquently and in a more sophisticated way than his counterpart’s famous approach.

3. While the tenability of the term itself is being disputed and there is not even unanimity on what does the term ‘new terrorism” exactly denotes, it seems that it is mainly used to depict those terrorist attacks which are aimed against innocent civilians and not against the “blameworthy” state and its public servants.

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