My First and Last Meeting with Ulrich Beck

Last year I met Ulrich Beck for the first and last time. An eminent German sociologist, his sudden passing this year has been felt and written about by many. As speakers gather today at the LSE to discuss his work and influence, I’ve been thinking about the crucial lessons his ideas might offer for our collective future.

Sitting across from Beck at a cafe in the London School for Economics one chilly February afternoon, I’d come prepared to contemplate similarities and differences, inevitabilities and evolutions. Corresponding before our meeting we had noted resemblances between our work – our shared appreciation for the interconnected nature of the modern world, and our mutual scepticism of the thinking that keep us from understanding it.

As a sociologist, Beck positioned himself in contrast to the ‘methodologically nationalist’ tendencies of the social sciences. By this he meant the presumption of the nation-state as the prism through which to view social and political life. In a globalised world where ecological, economic and terrorist threats transcend national borders, Beck saw that a discipline taking the nation-state as its frame of reference was bound to be flawed. For him, a world transformed by globalisation instead requires it’s observers to occupy a globalised, ‘cosmopolitan’ vision in order to understand it.

As a campaigner for solutions to global problems I have spent the past decade challenging the similarly severe limitations of ‘nation-centric’ thinking, witnessed at all levels of political and social life. This nation-centrism remains strong even among those who campaign for global change. From wealth inequality to climate change, many campaigners mobilise protest on the belief that global problems can be solved if only there is adequate “political will”. But this perspective fails to understand the global economic context that today severely constrains national policymaking. In a world where the race for economic competitiveness is paramount, leaders remain reluctant to make decisions on social or environmental policy which might make their national economy uncompetitive.

This is not to downplay the importance of protest, but to highlight how nation-centric thinking can limit the scope and understanding of global problems and what to do about them. As it stands, the global justice movement lacks the world-centric understanding crucial to addressing the real problem at hand. Recognising this requires moving beyond a nation-centric understanding to seeing the global nature of the competitiveness constraints that political leaders are subject to – and must be released from. Failure to see this is to remain an unwitting prisoner of an inadequate nation-centric worldview: still subject to the same severe limitations as Beck’s “methodologically nationalist” sociologists.

With political leaders nation-centrism goes deeper. A nation, after all, exists primarily to perpetuate itself: the protection of the national interest is paramount. Here, nation-centrism presents itself in the belief that the pursuit of national competitiveness can only be a good thing. “Become more competitive, and you’ll become richer.” For decades this has been the neoliberal mantra used to justify on-going cuts in public services, tax cuts for the rich and for corporations, rising inequality, etc.

Far from being the ‘road to riches’, the pursuit of economic competitiveness is a temporary and ultimately self-defeating strategy for all nations – but it requires a world-centric perspective to see that. The nation-centric mind sees cuts in corporation tax, for example, as a way of attracting inward investment, and thus as a good thing. But the world-centric mind sees the broader and more damaging implications: as one nation cuts its corporate taxes, other nations have no choice but to follow. Far from being the ‘road to riches’, then, the pursuit of international competitiveness is a race that all nations must ultimately lose. The only gainers, of course, are the transnational corporations, tax avoiders and global investors.

Like Beck’s sociologists, political leaders and activists still remain subject to a way of thinking that is inadequate to the challenges of a globalised world. The actions that follow from nation-centric or methodologically nationalist perspectives carry the limitations of their perspective forward. Whether misdirected protests or self-harming national economic policy, both national leaders and those who campaign against them are undermined when their perspective isn’t global in scope. The legacy of Beck’s thinking is that only with a global/cosmopolitan perspective can genuine methodologies for global cooperation be decided.

Despite similarities in our understanding, Beck and I found much to differ on when it came to organising around an emergent global worldview. Beck insisted he saw promise in the European Union as a regional model for a more cosmopolitan world. I myself remain unconvinced. Europe is undoubtedly a wonderful example of transnational governmental cooperation. But its failure to decisively manage the Euro crisis is evidence of too-limited scope. The EU, as a group of nation-states, is still far less than global; too small to withstand the forces of global markets – a disturbing reality likely to resurface as Greece seeks to renegotiate its bail-out agreement. Euro-centrism, in other words, fares little better than nation-centrism in a world that is already global. To reflect that, we need to organise a form of governance that matches the global context we already inhabit; a form of governance that really does include everyone. This need not mean a world state, but a system in which all nations coordinate their policies to ensure global coverage.

For me, that progression to a more ‘cosmopolitan’ global governance is inevitable. From small tribes to large nation states, human history is testament to a story of increasing scales of governance. Whenever we reach a mismatch between the way the world works and the way we organise ourselves, we are forced to work out a new way to govern. And each level is always larger than the last. Beck, however, told me he was sceptical; he was reticent to prescribe a sense of ‘progress’ to the history of human development, even less likely to conclude that a system of global governance would definitely happen, even if it was needed.

Yet there are scholars in the field of International Relations who are making a convincing case for the inevitability of binding global governance. Had we the chance to continue our discussion, I might have discussed with Beck the work of Alexander Wendt, the political scientist who offers a teleological account of human development from anarchy to world governance. For him, the disequilibrium experienced in a globalised world will prove intolerable until a form of binding global governance is achieved.

Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. As our meeting drew to a close I pondered Beck’s position. As a thinker, he put himself in opposition to the dominant nation-centric paradigm in order to bring about a deeper world-centric understanding. Yet, for him, this thinking against the grain had not been without cost – he had marked himself as a lone figure; an outlier impatiently waiting for his peers to see what was, for him as for me, self-evident.

Yet Beck is not the only one to have thought, and fought, for a more global world-view. Over the years I’ve encountered a number of remarkable individuals working within their disciplines to change the way we think about the world. Whether they be other cosmopolitan sociologists like Garrett Wallace Brown, mathematicians and behavioural scientists like Martin Nowak and David Rand, economists and scholars like Scott Barrett, or influencers and writers like Ken Wilber, Simon Anholt or John Stewart.

Each of these individuals is developing new perspectives for working globally and cooperatively. If there are any lessons to be taken from Beck’s work, it will be the challenge to recognise and forge connections between these great campaigners for global cooperation, to bring their work, and Beck’s, into our conversations and plans for a better future. How we govern ourselves in an increasingly globalised world starts with them. But it will also rely on us. For only when we citizens move from a limiting nation-centric worldview and start to support campaigns that express the world-centric worldview that Beck and others espoused, will our leaders eventually follow.

A tribute to Ulrich Beck, ‘What Future For World Society’ takes place at the London School for Economics on Tuesday 24 February.

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