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Imagining Books 11 August Aug 2017 1100 11 August 2017

The Metamorphosis of the World

The posthumous text of sociologist Ulrich Beck is a tool necessary to understand and address the challenges on the horizon. Let's read together

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“I don’t understand the world any more”. How many times have you heard or said these words? Indeed, today we can really understand very little of the world. The world, our world ‒ as German sociologist Ulrich Beck observed ‒ seeks new instruments to be understood and faced accordingly. It needs a paradigm shift or, perhaps, much more: a metamorphosis.

Beyond the risk

Beck died unexpectedly in January 2015, while he was working on a research project to explore in depth the issues of risk in a context made more and more fragile by exactly what made it stronger: interconnection and exchange, interculturality and globalisation. Beck could not ultimate his studies, but he left the drafts of a very important book that is being published now in Italy, entitled “The Metamorphosis of the World” (translated into Italian by Marco Cupellaro, Laterza, Roma-Bari 2017).

Today, we are all exposed to global risk ‒ climate change, financial crisis ‒ but it is “the traumatic vulnerability of all, and the resulting responsibility for all, including one’s own survival.”

Beck describes a cosmopolitan society and the risk that is forming, slowly, creating solidarity bonds beyond national borders and beyond conventional borders. Walls return, but new stronger bonds ‒ intercultural, intergenerational, inter-state bonds ‒ will go beyond them.

The Challenges of metamorphosis

“We live in a world that is not just changing”, writes Beck, “it is metamorphosing.” There is not just distinction in scale between change in society and metamorphosis of the world, but also in quality and magnitude.

Change in society, social change, is a common way to express something evident: change, explains Beck, brings a characteristic future of modernity into focus, while basic concepts and the certainties that support them remain constant. Seeing the change that we are going through as a metamorphosis means understanding the crucial node: parameters have changed because the certainties upon which our world is based have changed. For this reason, once metamorphosis has been perceived, it triggers a fundamental shock. Metamorphosis in this sense means simply that what was unthinkable yesterday is real and possible today. Putting ourselves in the condition of thinking the unthinkable is, according to Ulrich Beck, an essential condition to seize the positive aspects of change. Prophets of doom flock the streets but their prophecies are of little help.

That is why

“the metamorphosis of the world includes the metamorphosis of the image of the world, which in turn has two dimensions: the metamorphosis of general framing and metamorphosis of practice and taking action.”

According to the researcher of Risikogesellschaft (risk society) we need to go beyond many outdated “zombie institutions” which are still operating although they are no longer suitable for contemporary social needs and economic challenges. These institutions are an obstacle to understanding and action. One of the most encumbering zombie institutions, as Beck wrote some years ago, is that of full employment, which for decades was the guiding principle of economists and was even ‘institutionalised by way of legislation that imposed it as objective politics for most OECD member countries’.

Today, the challenge of metamorphosis makes us rethink everything, even the concept of employment in the light of a new cosmopolitan solidarity.

Risk to the community

The future described by Beck is a future full of risks and, for this reason, full of awareness and space for a new solidarity. This is how in the last part of his work Beck introduces the notion of cosmopolitan communities of risk or communities of destiny. It is an important passage because in the face of the crisis of nation-states and of socialisation agencies there can be a blunt pessimistic answer (“there are no actors or bearers of cosmopolitanism and global solidarity”) or we can watch in the wind of metamorphosis the birth of a new subject, perhaps defined by the union of macro subjects such as world megalopolis (and not surprisingly some talk of the rebirth of city-states).

The value of the generations

Beck, in contrast, proposes a third position, where “world city politics is transformed into translocal world politics, connecting local and global governance – in competition and cooperation with national-international world politics and in cooperation with the global sub-politics of civil society movements.” This third perspective accords central importance to the metamorphosis of urban political space. Cities, therefore, become places where risks are faced, metamorphosis experienced and the future is reshaped according to the emergence of new generations. Beck calls them ‘global risk generations’: youth capable of future, hope, digital cognition and practice, but also aware of the fact that the world is a fractal of growing complexities and the challenges we have to face are such because they are continuously changing.

“Humankind began its adventurous path towards politics in the polis – the city,” explains Beck. “The city was democracy’s pioneer. (…) Today the nation-state is failing in the face of global risks. The cities – in history the social ground for civic liberation movements – might in today’s cosmopolised world of global threats once again become democracy’s best hope”. Hope for democracy, employment and intergenerational relations.