The Metamorphosis of the World, by Ulrich Beck, Polity Press, 200 pages, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0745690216
In 2004, when the boom was still boomier, Martin Wolf, the authoritative and influential Financial Times economics correspondent, wrote a bestselling book, Why Globalisation Works, where he made a persuasive case for globalisation as a force for good which had transformed the lives of millions by transporting them from poverty to middle class security. Twelve years on, Wolf is gloomier. He still believes in the transformative power of globalisation but his recent FT columns suggest that something isn’t working; “ What we’re seeing is an end to facile optimism about the future” (July 13th this year); “Capitalism is now finding it more difficult to produce enough goodies for all” (August 31st); “Globalisation depends on better management ‑ will that happen? ‑ alas I cannot be optimistic” (September 9th).
But even when globalisation was working there were critics who pointed out that there were unfortunate side-effects which needed to be taken into account. German sociologist Ulrich Beck argued in The Risk Society (1992), that globalisation was creating a new level of anxiety and fear. Sure there had been risks in the past: famine, fire, floods, but these were caused by the gods and therefore outside our control. Now we were faced with man-made problems like the environment and increasing insecurity caused by triumphant free-market capitalism, whose global business corporations were eroding the authority of traditional power structures. Now in the aftermath of the great recession, which still hasn’t gone away, Beck presents a more apocalyptic vision of our future; The Metamorphosis of the World (2016). Unfortunately Beck died last year while in the process of correcting the final proofs of this book but the task was completed by his wife, a regular academic collaborator, and some of his colleagues. The end result is a little uneven but the core thesis represents a valuable insight into our present discontent. If you want to understand why so many dubious, dangerous and downright irresponsible politicians around the world are attracting increasing support you will find some of the answers here.
Beck believes that what we are witnessing at present is not merely a transformation but a metamorphosis which is ‘”triggering a fundamental shock, a sea change which explodes the anthropological constraints of our previous existence and understanding of the world”. As a result we are at the beginning of a different way of being in the world and of seeing the world. These are huge claims and we must always be wary of attaching too much significance to our own little speck of time on this earth but Beck goes on to make a convincing case for his thesis.
Some of our current ailments are familiar; the recession which began in 2008 and is not responding to either austerity or stimulus, the insecurity and unsatisfactory nature of many of the new jobs which are being created which offer little in the way of identity, community or self-worth and the resulting dangerous level of inequality which, combined with the lack of economic growth, raises serious questions about social order. There is also the looming environmental catastrophe which Beck refers to as the “poisoning of the planet”. Unfortunately economic growth and climate change are inextricably connected. We are still wedded to a world view that holds that science and technology will solve all problems, together with a belief in limitless economic growth and the inexhaustibility of natural resources, but increasingly these assumptions are simply not valid.
The book also highlights two additional developments that are contributing to a sense of bewilderment and disorientation; advances in reproductive medicine which are changing the nature of motherhood and fatherhood and the extraordinary speed and implications of the digital revolution. Under the first heading Beck discusses the emerging concepts of fertility tourism, transnational motherhood and commodity children and suggests that if the act of procreation no longer requires the presence of two people at the same time in the same place but can be “displaced to a laboratory somewhere in the world in any random rented womb at any arbitrary time” then our fundamental understanding of humanity is in doubt. The effects of the digital revolution have received much more attention but Beck brings fresh insight to the subject, pointing out that we are only just becoming aware of “digital risk”, which interferes with something we have always taken for granted; our capacity to control personal information and protect our private lives. Echoing Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) thesis, he argues that we are all being lured into control by an anonymous digital central power; which doesn’t rely on violence but which “exercises extensive and intensive profound and far-reaching control that ultimately pushes any individual preference and deficit into the open—we are all becoming transparent”. He also notes the unsettling effects of the divide between the “Neanderthals”; the elderly, who were born human beings but who woke up as “digitally illiterate” and the young “Homo Cosmopoliticus” at ease in the new world but in danger of drowning in an ocean of “fragmented, unorganised, context-free knowledge”.
The political reaction to this unprecedented level of disorientation has been one of outrage rather than any coherent attempt to alleviate the problem. The immediate reaction on the right is to circle the wagons and build a wall; against Mexico, Europe, whatever; and on the left to “occupy” Wall Street, any street, whatever. Both reactions allow people to let off steam but are intellectually bankrupt in terms of a solution. Beck’s untimely death didn’t allow him to make any proposals and one of his most depressing conclusions is that the metamorphosis is “occurring almost inexorably with an enormous acceleration that constantly outstrips existing possibilities of thought and action”.
But perhaps we need to go beyond “existing possibilities of thought and action” and come up with new possibilities for a new world. Beck suggests that the end of the Second World War led to the creation of a number of cosmopolitan institutions; the IMF, UN, World Bank and the start of the EU, which, whatever their faults, were responsible for introducing some level of civilising influence and humane values into the world. Now, as the worst are all too evidently full of passionate intensity, if the best are to regain their conviction they need a thorough understanding of our present condition. This book makes a useful contribution to that understanding and hopefully “new possibilities of thought and action” may follow.
John Fanning is a former managing director and chairman of McConnell’s Advertising.