The Age of Side-effects: On the Politicization of Modernity
What does ‘reflexive modernization’ mean?
We hear talk of the end everywhere – the end of the nation state, modernity, democracy, nature, the individual. It is time to inquire into the beginning which is hidden in every end. The perspective of reflexive modernization connects both inquiries; the question of what is breaking up is confronted by the question of what is coming into being, the question of the contours, principles and prospects of a second, non-linear, global modernity in a ‘cosmopolitan intention’ (Kant). Posing this question, of course, by no means implies being able to answer it.
For practically all fields of social activity, a gradual or eruptive collapse of previously applicable basic certainties is being asserted. The striking point is the ambivalence. What seems like decay and crisis to one person is a departure for new shores to the others. This is clearest in foreign policy where the ‘eternal truths’ of the East–West conflict reigned until 1989, but also in domestic policy, as well as in the left–right schematism of the political parties. NATO, the Bundeswehr, the European Union, the CSCE, first world and third world – everywhere empty linguistic formulas, broken coordinate systems and gutted institutions.1
Yet the erosion of industrial modernity, as it developed since the nineteenth century in Europe and later radiated or was proselytized across the world, is not a consequence of 1989. In the beginning was the environmental issue. It called into question basic premises of European thought and activity – the notion of limitless growth, the certainty of progress or the contrasting of nature and society.2
The questioning of industrial modernity has for some time no longer been limited to the alarms from the environmental crisis; it is beginning to gnaw at almost all ordering models of society. In industry and industrial sociology, people are beginning to speak of the end of Fordist mass production and Taylorist hierarchies in the division of labour, even of the end of plants (‘system rationalization’ Bechtle and Lutz 1989; Beckenbach and van Treeck 1994; Lash and Urry 1994). There is turbulence in business, management and trade unions (Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft für Internationalen Dialog 1994). Nuclear family models and the analogous role formulas have lost their grip in view of the very commonplace confusion of marital or non-marital cohabitation and separation in one or several households, the possibilities of formal or informal divorce, on the one hand, and of post-marital parenthood, on the other (Lüscher, Schultheis and Weberspann 1988; Beck-Gernsheim 1994.
New insecurities are infiltrating the secure milieu of the welfare state and erupting there. These may involve the loss of formerly secure benefits, threats to health or life itself from toxins, criminality and violence, or the loss of such certainties as the faith in progress, science and experts. The consequence is a new fragility of social positions and biographies – even behind the façade of established prosperity. How it should be understood, withstood and investigated no one really knows.
This is all the more true as social identities that developed along with industrial society – status-based class cultures or the separation between a man’s world of careers and a woman’s world of the family – are rapidly being disembedded (Beck 1992: part II). Thus the irritations of post-feminism are becoming the new trump card in the battle of the sexes (for instance, cf. Haraway 1993). Of course, such processes of individualization (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1993a, 1994)3
go hand in hand with processes of globalization (Wallerstein 1986; Giddens 1990; Robertson 1992; Lash and Urry 1994: part 4). ‘We are the first generation that is living in a post-traditional order of cosmopolitan dimensions,’ writes Anthony Giddens (1990). That also means that the old boundaries between public and private no longer shield us. New global communication networks and monopolies are coming into existence. Neighbourhood is becoming place-independent and global social movements are becoming a possibility. All this adds up to a fully mature ‘victory crisis’ of the political institutions and legitimations of the West after the end of the Cold War. The European project of democratically enlightened industrialism is disintegrating and losing its foundations.
Anyone who takes a look at the shifts and erosion in the basic structure of European modernity must ask the question of how and where new structures, coordinate systems and orientations will come into being. If the issue of disembedding dominated the stability context of the seventies and eighties, the issue of restructuring is becoming central in the milieu of insecurity after the Cold War. And this is of course a central problem: if people look for new structure formations at all, they tend to do so in the old categories.
People count on the pathos of the nation to undo and unseat individualized society. Marriage, parenthood, love, living together and maintaining a household drift apart; the result of this is none the less squeezed into the comforting little word ‘family’ with all the unabashed ease provided by blindness to history. Economic growth is glorified without simultaneously seeing and recording the growth of hazards connected to it. We mourn the growing unemployment in and despite an economic recovery, but do not dare to ask how a society based on work that is running out of work must change its self-concept, how social identities and security are possible beyond work or can become so. That means that all the changes must start in thinking, with work on concepts. This is the reason why it is necessary to distinguish systematically between a first (simple) and a second (reflexive) modernity.
‘Reflexive modernization’ is initially a keyword in group formation, comparable to such keywords as ‘Dadaism’ or ‘Expressionism’ in art, a concept which does not pin much down but does indicate a tendency and permit distinctions. This community of opposition is seen first in the pronounced aversion to all varieties of an automatic, action-free and thus ultimately unpolitical ‘modernization as usual’ in society and sociology. These conceptions of simple modernization may feud with one another (as functionalism and Marxism did for a long time). They are accused and convicted of intellectual slovenliness. A modernization that makes an exception for itself, that does not subject its own premises and social forms to the law of disembedding and re-embedding of modernization, is no modernization at all. These linear modernization theories, positing themselves as absolutes and refusing to apply and relativize themselves to themselves, are struck by the fate that modernity keeps in store for everything it encounters and over-runs: they become antiquated and ossified, the ideological relic of their own pretensions.
A second delimitation and restriction concerns the cognitive rituals of post
Many of its theorists and theories are certainly exciting, even productively stimulating for a theory of modernized modernity, because they (often involuntarily) conceive of it or anticipate it. Most, however, peter out on the sand of arbitrariness on which they consider modern industrial democracy to be founded. There is one contrast, however, which always defines their perspective. Postmodernism renounces what the theory of reflexive modernization recalls: the demand of the Enlightenment, especially when it is turned on itself.
The third delimitation is perhaps clearest in the case of the anti-moderns, now raising their voices provocatively everywhere. Theories of reflexive modernization develop a critique of industrial modernity which definitely gets down to the fundamentals; more precisely, they follow the self-criticism which is self-created and publicized in the conflict between functional subrationalities, or, most clearly, in the scientifically illuminated ecological crisis in society. In that sense their criticism is aimed at further development, not refusal, of modernity, at opening it to the challenges of a world of ‘global homogeneity’,5
which has lost the security of its foundations and oppositions. Theories of reflexive modernization try to capture the new savagery of reality with a conceptualization and theory formation that have learned from the idea of the radicalization of modernity. In that sense there is little in common with types of counter-modernization that attempt to turn back the wheel of modernity in theory and politics, no matter what the political camp to which they may belong. Theories of reflexive modernization are not nostalgic. They are permeated with the knowledge that the future cannot be understood and withstood in the conceptual framework of the past.
The competition among theories of reflexive modernization is thus the expression of an avant-garde demand. The institutionalized boredom of the ingrained routines in both science and politics is to be broken open and broken through, in the self-confrontation of modernity as stagnated in the model of nation state, capitalist and democratic industrial society with its own origins, claims and self-generated challenges. This is also an incitement to a struggle against prejudices in people’s heads. Sociology should never be innocuous – particularly not when it calls its own foundations into question along with the foundations of modern society.
‘Inside the West,’ writes Gottfried Benn in his famous Berlin letter of 1948,
the same group of intellectuals has been discussing the same group of problems with the same group of arguments relying on the same group of causal and conditional clauses and has been reaching the same group of results, which they call syntheses, or of non-results, which they call crises – the whole thing seems a bit tired, like a popular libretto. It seems rigid and scholastic, it seems like a genre play relying on painted backdrops and papier-maché. (Benn 1986: 45)
Theories of reflexive modernization attempt to break out of these intellectual backdrops and arouse awareness of the excluded middle. This is tantamount to a reversal of the Feuerbach–Marx controversy: thinking must be changed so that the world of modernity can be renewed with its own origins and demands. The space for political reforms, even a reform of the Western, only apparently eternal symbiosis of capitalism and democracy, must first be earned and opened up by the power of the concept. We must learn to see that the fatalisms that dominate our thinking are antiquated, that they cannot stand up to the test of a decisive self-confrontation of modernity.
The discontent of Western culture with the consequences of its own dynamism is old, and at the latest in the seventies it took on a new drama, even a dominance, due to public awareness of the globality of the challenges. The theory of reflexive modernization takes this consciousness of self-endangerment seriously. Indeed it is the decisive attempt to make this challenge itself the compass and the historical validity criterion of social theory and research. Reflexive modernization is the attempt to regain a voice and thus the ability to act, the attempt to regain reality in view of developments that are the consequences of the successes of modernization. These developments call the concepts and formulas of classical industrial society fundamentally into question from the inside, not from crisis, disintegration, revolution or conspiracy, but from the repercussions of very ordinary ‘progress’ on its own foundations. To many, Western modernity appears unreformable. Is this not a confusion of thought with action? Does unreformability not point to limits and orientations of thought that can and must be broken up?
‘Reflexive modernization’ is supposed to mean self-transformation of industrial society (which is not identical to the self-reflection of this self-transformation), the disembedding and re-embedding of its dichotomies, basic certainties, indeed its anthropologies; that is, the changing of the social foundations of industrial society modernization by industrial society modernization.
The phrase ‘self-transformation of industrial society’ throws characteristic light on the global situation. The overwhelming majority of countries are now running more or less hopelessly after the goals of simple industrial modernity, at the same time as those goals are becoming dubious in the centres of developed modernity and entering into political flux as they become the objects of decision-making (Menzel 1994; Senghaas 1994; Zürn 1994). To many societies the institutions of the first modernity appear as enticing as they are unattainable. They have neither a guaranteed control of the military and police nor a government of laws, and thus not the combination of those two items, a constitutional state. Moreover, they do not have a functioning economy. Large parts of their population can neither read nor write and thus live below subsistence level. At the same time (the contradiction of different epochs existing side by side) the foundations and objectives of industrial modernity are becoming dubious even in the centres of the modern world. On the one hand, this exponentially raises the uncertainties and intensifies the dependencies. On the other, the West’s monopoly on rationality and development is also collapsing and the cultures of the world are now able for the first time to open themselves to the global dialogue. A global exchange is necessary on what ‘development’ can and should mean for the future – not just in the so-called ‘underdeveloped’ but in the ‘highly developed’ countries as well (Menzel 1994).
At the turn of the third millennium, civilization finds itself in a chaotic simultaneity of the non-synchronous: the transition into simple modernity now shaking the post-communist world and the countries of the South has its foundations and goals snatched away by self-transformations of industrial society.
The actual core of the development dilemma lies in the non-synchronism of the modernization processes from one country to another, the out-of-phase development of competence and power in individual countries and the resulting pressure on less successful societies. … The established world of the old West thus faces pressure from a variety of problems. … Competition to survive and migration are … only two sides of the same coin, extremes in the effects of the non-synchronism of successful, failed and so far unsuccessful modernization processes, as sketched out above. (Menzel 1994: 92)
To this we must add: ‘and of reflexive modernization processes calling themselves into question’.
Reflexive modernization therefore means a change in the foundations of industrial modernity which occurs in the wake of normal, autonomized modernization, unplanned and gradually, and, with an unchanged, possibly intact political and economic order, aims at three things: a radicalization of modernity which breaks up the premises and contours of industrial society and opens paths to new modernities or counter-modernities.
Reflexive modernization therefore asserts exactly what is considered out of the question in unanimous antagonism by the two main authorities of simple modernization, Marxists and functionalists, namely that there will be no revolution but there will be a new society. The taboo that we are breaking in this way is the tacit equation of latency and immanence in social change. The idea that the transition from one social epoch to another could take place unintended and unpolitically, bypassing all the forums for political decisions, the lines of conflict and the partisan controversies, contradicts the democratic self-understanding of this society just as much as it does the fundamental convictions of its sociology.
In plainer terms, reflexive modernization means a heightened modernization of society-changing scope. In the conventional view, it is, above all, collapses and bitter experiences which signal social upheavals. That need not be the case, however. The new society is not always born in pain. Not just growing poverty, but growing wealth as well, and the loss of an Eastern rival, produce a fundamental change in the types of problems, the scope of relevance and the quality of politics.
More participation by women in work outside the home, for instance, is welcomed and encouraged by all political parties, at least on the level of lip service, but it also leads to an upheaval at a snail’s pace in the conventional occupational, political and private order of things. Temporal and contractual flexibilization of wage labour is striven for and advanced broadly in view of horrendous unemployment figures, but in sum it breaks up the industrial boundary lines drawn between work and non-work. After the security of the welfare state, we now appear to be threatened by the insecurity of widespread underemployment; poverty and the hazards of early capitalism in new forms are being ‘modernized’ under the catchword of ‘flexibility’. Precisely because such small measures with large cumulative effects do not arrive with fanfares, controversial votes in parliament, programmatic political antagonisms or under the flag of revolutionary change, that is, because they do not make use of ‘illegitimate’ or spectacular means, the reflexive modernization of industrial society occurs on cats’ paws, as it were, unnoticed, even by sociologists, who unquestioningly continue gathering data in the old categories. The insignificance, familiarity, and often the desirability of the changes conceals their society-changing scope. More of the same, so people believe, cannot produce anything qualitatively new. The desired + the familiar = new modernity. This formula sounds and seems paradoxical and suspicious.
The talk of reflexive modernization refers to changes of social and sociological foundations, the foundations of institutional action or of sociological thought and research. The two levels cannot be imaged in one another or derived from one another. In terms of an example, the ecological reform of society need not lead to or be matched by any ecological reform of the sociological conceptualization and theories of industrial society. Sociology can become an antiquary’s shop specializing in industrial society, in other words. Conversely, however, a reflexive modernization of the premises of sociology must proceed reconstructively, that is, it must indicate the way to a transformation of the fundamentals in the institutions.
What is at stake everywhere in the phase of reflexive modernization is the continued existence of premises – conventional way...