Last week the influential social thinker Ulrich Beck died at the age of seventy. His work follows the tradition of the Frankfurt School. Robin Wilson wrote an appreciation of him in the January issue of Open Democracy. This is an extract.
In his Cosmopolitan Vision, Beck elaborated the concept of “cosmopolitanism” as the appropriate disposition for a progressive, 21st-century politics, where classes could no longer be conceived (if ever they could) as unmediated political actors in an individualised society but [in a society] where a capacity for empathy among individuals, each uniquely at risk, could engender new solidarities.
For Beck, cosmopolitanism was not “the class consciousness of frequent fliers,” as the American thinker Craig Calhoun dismissively harrumphed, but a capacity on the part of the individual, in this world demanding constant self-evaluation, to stand back from him/herself and revalorise the self and other in that context.
Too abstract? Exactly – that’s why it works across boundaries of nationality and ethnicity in an online world in which space and time are massively compressed. The fastest-growing social movement of recent years, Avaaz, and the way Greenpeace, Amnesty and similar international NGOs nowadays campaign, would be inconceivable without it – as would the very idea of the “99 per cent” or of a Pakistani teenage girl winning the Nobel peace prize for her struggle for education. In these times, as Beck accurately put it, politics now devolves into a struggle for control of the state (and transnational institutions) between the NGOs and the corporations.
The corporations still have the power – as Gramsci would say, they dominate but are no longer “hegemonic” – but the NGOs have the trust. That was a moral the corporate International which convenes every year at the World Economic Forum in Davos had to draw from survey evidence at one of its recent gatherings. And last year it had to focus on the inevitable corollary – that inequality is now the top item on the global political agenda. Marx’s famous internationalist slogan now sounds a bit hackneyed but “Cosmopolitans of the World Unite” has something of a ring about it.