Ulrich Beck

"Muslim Societies and the Western World Can No Longer Be Considered to Be Separate Entities"

Ulrich Beck is one of the world's most renowned social scientists. In this interview, Beck talks about globalisation, cultural dialogue, cosmopolitan identity, and Muslim societies in the Western world

photo: Infoamerica.org
Ulrich Beck

​​When it comes to the subject of globalization, you are considered the "first expert" on this trend, someone who is viewed very critically in Germany not only by people on the left, but also by conservatives. To what extent are we already living in a globalized world here in Germany?

Ulrich Beck: You could say that we are living in an internally globalized country. In many respects, globalization is frequently understood to be something that takes place "outside," that is considered an additional dimension to be taken into account. The question I find interesting, however, is: how far are we globalizing ourselves internally? In Germany, one in six weddings now lead to binational marriages. And more and more babies are not living under homogeneous parenthood conditions, but have binational parents. These are indicators of the fact that we now have world cultures present in our own house. That means we are already globalized or live in a transnational way to a much greater extent than we admit in public discussion.

Accordingly, globalization is not only something that will concern and threaten us in the future, but something that is taking place in the present and to which we must first open our eyes. We must become accustomed to the idea that the reality we are dealing with is a transnational or a cosmopolitan reality, in which cultures are recombining and in which the boundaries we still assume to exist have already been at least partially swept away. Globality means that everyday life is permeated by the perception of global problems. In their daily lives, people can see they are affected by questions that do not only relate to one location, but affect civilization as a whole. We do not yet have the solutions to these questions, but the awareness that we live in an endangered world is present in more and more life situations.

We understand a globalized world to mean an economically globalized world or a politically globalized world. However, one suspicion comes to the fore – especially in this time of war against terror – namely, the suspicion that the word "globalization" might just be a more agreeable way of denoting the global supremacy of the superpower United States. What do you get when you think the idea of globalization through to its logical conclusion? Don't you end up with the domination of the world by the most powerful?

Ulrich Beck: No, you don't. Global conditions are far too complex to be able to imagine that they could ever be really controlled by one power. We are dealing with an overcomplex and thoroughly contingent world – contingent in the sense that we make decisions that have consequences which no one can know in advance. In the final analysis, terror is also another proof of the fact that the superpower is not really a superpower. It was vulnerable. This experience actually means the very opposite: the largest military power was unable to stop such a sensitive attack and will be unable to rule out such a possibility in the future. Precisely this is the background to the United States' military interventions.

And the terror itself is an example of the world's uncontrollability. The idea that we can filter out and exclude the terrorists by upgrading our equipment, installing radar screens, implementing total controls – not only at airports, but eventually also in supermarkets and in all institutions – is an example of how an ideal vision of control probably achieves the very opposite. Although implementing such measures will undermine – and possibly even stifle – our liberties, these measures will not lead to the security we seek to achieve. The world has become so complex that the idea of a power in which everything comes together and can be controlled in a centralized way is now erroneous.

Would you say that the attacks of September 11th have promoted this cosmopolitan view? Don't we now all devote a little more attention to the wider world than we did in the past?

Ulrich Beck: This is partly so, and partly not. Initially, the horrific images of September 11th triggered an enormous wave of solidarity. In foreign policy terms, the world began to move. And for a while it was said that the military option was just one among many. You have to seek dialogue, you have to seek agreement. Western countries in particular can today no longer be separated from Muslim societies, because they have them within themselves. They are themselves internally globalized. And therefore we must seek dialogue in this networked world. We must ask which voice was actually attempting to make itself heard and saw no other possibility of gaining a hearing. To that extent, for a while this also represented a forced opening of a cosmopolitan view.

But it then very soon became clear that the response of a war against terrorism, initially conceived of in a metaphorical sense, began to be taken increasingly seriously and came to entail waging a real war. However, at the beginning, it did not involve a war in the usual sense at all. You cannot make peace with terrorists. The normal dividing lines between war and peace do not apply.

At the same time there were no identifiable opponents in uniform. They were to be found everywhere. Precisely this is what globalization implies: this network-like web of terrorism. That was what was so frightening. In the first instance, therefore, global terrorism created a kind of global community sharing a common fate, something we had previously considered impossible. But this represented a "moment of decision," an occasion to take decisions that could be applied in very diverse ways. Incidently, I regret the fact that the European position, which can indeed be summed up in the maxim "make law, not war," was not more clearly expressed, also in geopolitical terms.

However, you yourself have also experienced how difficult it can be to achieve understanding between cultures. I’m referring to the time, before September 11th, when you opened an international conference on cosmopolitanism in Helsinki.

Ulrich Beck: That was the first major social sciences conference at which social scientists from all cultures wanted to reach a consensus on whether we can continue to pursue a national course in the social sciences or whether we need a cosmopolitan path that also connects us in a new way. I was therefore totally surprised at the controversy it provoked and the dramatic opposition I met with from intellectuals from South America, the Arab countries, and other regions of the South. In the course of our debate it became clear that these researchers based their arguments on two experiences. The first is that all our talk of globalization and open borders does not apply to them.

When they come to Europe, they are confronted by still closed borders. Thus, the concept of open borders is a very selective concept, one that is not taken seriously at all in the experience of non-Europeans. And the second thing is that they see themselves as the losers of globalization. They see themselves as those who are forced to bear all the risks of globalization. For example, European countries have still not yet really opened up their borders to products from these countries, something that is fundamental.

Therefore, double standards prevail. And then there was a third point that demonstrated that these scholars no longer wish to submit to new interpretations from the centre. In their view, cosmopolitanism seems to be a renewed attempt by western imperialism, which now ingeniously promotes the idea of difference but ultimately only represents a variation of what they have always experienced in the past, namely that the latest ideas of the modern era are developed in European centres while they are the ones who have to implement them. And it also became clear that these conditions of inequality and historical injustice have given rise to a feeling of hate in the world – a deeply felt hate that cannot easily be overcome with a few good words.

What do you need to cope with globalization?

Ulrich Beck: You need education. You need subsistence protection. We need jobs and social security. These are preconditions under which it will perhaps be possible to deal with these complex circumstances. If they are also under threat, however, things become difficult. That was the experience in the 20th century when, for example, the great depression of the 1930s cut the ground from under people’s feet. I believe that we are once again facing a development of this kind and are unable to say with any precision when people can continue to cope with this complexity and contingency.

It is not the case that they are returning to the old certainties and that renationalization or reethnicization will become responses to the challenge of globalization. Another political alternative would be the recognition of the true value of international cooperation. Relinquishing apparent national sovereignty does not have to entail a loss of national sovereignty, but can actually be a benefit.

Environmental problems, unemployment – all these issues cannot be resolved alone. They require at least European, possibly even broader, solutions. The idea that you surrender your identity when you relinquish national powers is unhelpful. No, indeed, precisely the opposite is the case: if done in an intelligent way, you attain the sovereignty to better solve national problems in cooperation with others.

A diversity of cultures, an element of provinciality, is what characterizes the identity of Europe. What will happen if this diversity disappears as a result of the globalization process? For example, it is easier to eat Arabic, Asian or even fast food in Paris than French cuisine. Does it matter if Europe's diversity fades away under the dictate of globalization?

Ulrich Beck: Let me give you an example. I love retsina, a resin-flavoured wine from Greece. It’s a wine, however, that doesn’t meet European standards precisely because of the resins it contains. The resin content has to be reduced so that it can be sold and therefore consumed on the European market. This is a terrible development. "Save retsina!" should be our reply to Europe. Save diversity, save difference! Save the niche we have, provinciality! That is what makes Europe. That is also the foundation of a cosmopolitan Europe.

Nonetheless, we continue to be obsessed with finding or inventing a European nation which, as in the nation state, guarantees homogeneity and thus an appropriate form of democracy and centralized government. I believe that this is not only wrong, not only impossible, but that it is also undesirable. Europe itself is an embodiment of this diversity.

Nevertheless, there are strong tendencies to achieve homogeneity – not only in the political realm, but also on the market: it now doesn't matter whether you go shopping in Paris, Munich or London, you'll always find the same shops and the same products. Strong ties with a particular place, the fact that something flourishes there and has a special smell or taste – all this is being lost. I believe that represents a danger. We are at a crossroads. That’s why it’s important to revive the tradition of cosmopolitanism.

Interview: Brigitte Neumann

© Deutschland Journal 2003

Ulrich Beck teaches as professor of sociology at Munich University and is one of the world's most renowned social scientists. He became known outside specialist circles as a result of his book "Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity." Ulrich Beck has been focusing on the subject of globalization for many years.

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