From 'Goods' to 'Bads'? Revisiting the Political Economy of Risk

by Gabe Mythen
Manchester Metropolitan University

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 3,

Received: 25 May 2005     Accepted: 23 Sep 2005    Published: 30 Sep 2005


German social theorist Ulrich Beck has consistently maintained that the logic of social distribution in western cultures has been reconfigured over the last three decades. Beck believes that, in the first industrial modernity, political and economic energies were directed toward the dissemination of 'social goods', such as healthcare, employment and wealth. By contrast, in the second modernity - or risk society - the positive logic of goods distribution is displaced by a negative logic of 'social bads', exemplified by environmental despoliation, terrorism and nuclear accidents. Critically, whilst the logic of goods is sectoral - some win and some lose, some are protected, some exposed - social bads follow a universalising logic which threatens rich and poor alike. This article interrogates and challenges these core claims by fusing together and developing empirical and theoretical criticisms of the theory of distributional logic. Empirically, it is demonstrated that Beck draws upon a narrow range of examples, is insensitive to continuities in social reproduction and glosses over the intensification of traditional inequalities. Theoretically, the paper asserts that the risk society perspective constructs an unsustainable divide between interconnected modes of distribution, neglects the way in which political discourses can be used to reinforce hegemonic interests and overlooks uneven patterns of risk distribution.

Keywords: Risk Distribution, Social Reproduction, Politics of Risk


1.1 As a number of commentators have observed, processes of globalisation, economic fluctuation and technological transformation are shaping and remaking social structures in western society. At an individual level, increasing portions of everyday life are spent negotiating change, dealing with uncertainty and assessing the impacts of seemingly uncontrollable global situations (see Denney, 2005; Lupton and Tulloch, 2003; Strydom, 2002; Wilkinson, 2001). It would seem that risk and insecurity have become routine and embedded fixtures of modern existence. Locally, issues of uncertainty crop up around personal health, employment prospects, relationships, parenting and crime. Globally, concerns about economic instability, drug trafficking and the spread of AIDS are all underscored by risk. In a media saturated culture, citizens in western nations are constantly inundated with information about potential threats and dangers, from MRSA to Avian Influenza. It is probable that prolific media coverage has led to heightened public sensitivity and contributed towards risk being understood in collective as well as personal terms (Ewald, 1991; Culpitt, 1999: 131). It is now widely recognised that transboundary risks are capable of producing aftershocks that do not fall neatly within the dominion of nation states. Acting in isolation, national governments have little control over global risks and the inefficacy of risk regulating institutions has served to reproduce public uncertainties. Accordingly, within western cultures, risk has become an increasingly prevalent and politically charged issue (see de Lint and Virta, 2004; Lupton, 1999: 68).

1.2 While these observations are no more than sociological commonsense, current geopolitical instabilities do indicate that we are living in troubled times. The 9/11 attacks, the train bombs in Madrid and London and the current 'insurgency' in Iraq have done little to lessen the feeling that the world is becoming a more dangerous place. Situated in this context, it is unsurprising that the risk society perspective has become a well-worn academic currency (see Adam et al., 2000; Caplan, 2000; Mythen, 2005; Strydom, 2002; Wilkinson, 2001). Ulrich Beck's (1992; 1995; 1999) widely discussed thesis acts as a master narrative that allows us to take stock of the hotchpotch of anxieties and uncertainties which have become integral features of the modern age. The risk society thesis posits that the recent transition from industrial modernity to the risk society is marked by a fundamental shift in political economy. Within traditional industrial society, political parties, trade unions and protest groups succeeded in concentrating debate on the distribution of 'social goods'. These goods - such as wealth, income, housing, employment and healthcare - have historically been high on the public agenda and acted as standard planks of political manifestos. However, in the movement into the risk society the issue of goods distribution becomes overwritten by public concerns about the production of 'social bads' (Beck, 1992: 48). In the process of creating and distributing goods, capitalist modernization has simultaneously spawned a rash of bads - from environmental pollution to economic crisis - which have detrimental impacts on the lives of citizens around the globe (Beck, 2002: 4). It is argued that this shift from acquisition to avoidance has wide ranging ramifications for modes of social organisation and regulation, from business practices to the way in which politics is conducted.

1.3 Amidst widespread acceptance of the notion that we inhabiting a risk society, there is a need to properly grasp what this actually means in practice and to think through some of the material effects of this supposed shift on politics, culture and the economy. Is the universality of threats such as terrorism and global warming effectively dissolving established understandings of human security? Does the motion into risk society lead to the democratisation of danger? Are the differentiated winners and losers of industrial modernity merging into a global pool of risk citizens? Responding to these questions, here we dispute the explanatory potential of the risk society perspective, and, in particular, the assumption that a fundamental shift has occurred within the political economies of western capitalist cultures. As we shall see, although the sheen of the risk society argument is inviting, underlying patterns of social reproduction have remained relatively constant in recent years. Similarly, at the level of political economy, the logic of social distribution has been reinforced rather than radically reconfigured by risk.

1.4 It is worth stressing at the outset that this article does not seek to provide a detailed overview of Beck's thesis.[1] Rather, we shall be explicitly concerned with unpacking and scrutinising the contention that a detectable transition in distributional logic has taken place within western society. This task invites a capsule account of the key tenets of the risk society perspective, followed by a brief synopsis of the theory of distributional change. Having unpacked Beck's argument, we go on to expose the intrinsic flaws by assembling presently disparate strands of critique. This review provides the basis for a more targeted discussion of the wider implications of the ascendance of a 'politics of risk' for public policy and modes of social regulation. In the final section, the impacts of discourses of risk on contemporary global politics are surveyed and the limitations of the politics of risk for human security recorded. Prior to assessing the overall validity of the theory of distributional logic, it is first necessary to fix this aspect of Beck's thesis within the broader trajectory of the risk society narrative.

Sketching the Timelines of Risk

2.1 The risk society thesis employs a three phase historical typology to describe transitions in the constitution, cognition and impacts of risk. In précis, Beck's argument is predicated upon differences between the types of hazards which affect 'pre-industrial', 'industrial' and 'risk' societies (Beck, 1995: 78). To distinguish between these periods, two paradigmatic forms of danger are used. A primitive set of 'natural hazards' are cast as unavoidable disasters visited on society by nature - for example, drought, earthquakes and hurricanes. In later epochs, natural hazards are augmented by a concatenation of threats which are endogenously produced. For Beck, these 'manufactured risks' are exemplified by nuclear technology, chemical accidents and environmental pollution. In Risk Society (1992) a bunch of qualitative features are operationalised in order to differentiate between manufactured risks and natural hazards. Natural hazards are localised by time and geography, with deleterious effects being mitigated through institutional mechanisms and procedures. In contrast, manufactured risks are global entities which are temporarily mobile and defy institutional regulation. Building on a somewhat patchy historical appraisal, Beck indexes the effects of paradigmatic types of danger to public understandings of risk. In the pre-industrial era, natural hazards engender corporeal effects that 'assault the nose and eyes' (Beck, 1992: 21). During this epoch, natural disasters are not cognitively linked to human actions, being commonly attributed to external forces, such as gods, demons or nature. In the first modernity (industrial society) which emerges from the early to the mid-late twentieth century, natural hazards are complemented by a growing set of anthropogenic dangers, such as smoking, alcohol consumption and occupational injury. At this stage, greater knowledge about the social causes of risk exists and regulatory institutions function to alleviate threats to public health.

2.2 In the second modernity (risk society) - from the mid 1970s onwards - institutionally produced manufactured risks supplant preceding dangers. In contrast to natural hazards, manufactured risks are 'side effects' of the goal of progress within business, science, technology and medicine. For example, in pursuit of the good life, the capitalist system of mass production and mass consumption has caused environmental disequilibrium through the exhaustion of finite resources, industrial pollution and consumer waste. More starkly, techno-scientific development has yielded nuclear, chemical and biological technologies that are capable of annihilating human life. Beck has it that through the modernization process, capitalism has become its own gravedigger, although not in the fashion envisaged by Marx. As the risky side effects of economic development continue to explode in the public domain, the inherent conflict created harbours, 'the possibility of a creative (self) destruction for an entire epoch ... the 'subject' of this creative destruction is not the revolution, not the crisis, but the victory of western modernisation' (Beck, 1994: 2). For expert systems bound up with capitalist development, the net result is a lack of institutional control and a subsequent decline in public confidence (Beck, 2002: 4). In effect, the biters get bit. In the first instance, manufactured risks are increasingly unpredictable, diverse and volatile. As demonstrated by the BSE imbroglio, scientific uncertainty places risk-regulating institutions in an uncomfortable position in terms of decision-making, public communication and risk management (see Mythen, 2002). Essentially, institutional power holders find themselves responsible for making 'choices' in a situation of imperfect knowledge:

The ultimate deadlock of risk society ... resides in the gap between knowledge and decision: there is no one who really knows the global outcome - at the level of positive knowledge, the situation is radically 'undecidable' - but we none the less have to decide ... risk society is provoking an obscene gamble, a kind of ironic reversal of predestination: I am accountable for decisions which I was forced to make without proper knowledge of the situation. (Beck, 1999: 78)

2.3 Secondly, the antiquated nature of legal, political and welfare systems in the West means that experts are not effectively resourced to manage risk. Both the mandates and structures of western institutions were developed in the nineteenth century and have become outmoded in relation to current public demands (Beck, 1995: 107). As a consequence, defence capacities, insurance systems, economies and health systems are woefully ill equipped to manage unpredictable and incalculable risks, offering only 'empty formulas and non-solutions' (Beck, 1994: 8).

Shifting Logics: Transforming the Politico-Economic Landscape

3.1 In order to elaborate on the economic and political differences between industrial and risk society, Beck focuses on changes in patterns of social distribution. As a means of setting risk society apart from industrial society, the acute modes of existence in each epoch are contrasted:
The driving force in the (industrial) class society can be summarized in the phrase: I am hungry! The movement set in motion by the risk society, on the other hand, is expressed in the statement: I am afraid! The commonality of anxiety takes the place of the commonality of need. (Beck, 1992: 49)

3.2 Accordingly, in world risk society, the balance of political emphasis shifts from a positive logic based on the acquisition of goods to a negative logic predicated upon avoidance of bads. This transformation means that that the principal social problems in contemporary risk societies do not stem from a dearth of goods, but are instead borne out of a glut of bads. Such a sea change in social logic has important ramifications for previously entrenched configurations of safety. In contrast to the sectoral patterns of security common to class society, the types of risks generated in the second modernity are theoretically egalitarian. Given that we all breathe, eat and drink, everyone and anyone can be exposed: 'reduced to a formula: poverty is hierarchic, smog is democratic' (Beck, 1992: 36). Insofar as wealth and risk distribution have historically been married, in the risk society the logics become divorced. Consequently, previously protected affluent countries become prey to the consequences of risk via 'boomerang effects'. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the case of the production of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD):

Blindly produced and conveniently legitimated during the cold war ... techno-industrial achievements have diffused beyond the laboratories and states that did the initial pioneering work. Now these states are dealing with a boomerang effect as their own soldiers face enemy states suspected of having stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons their own scientists invented and their own corporations helped build. (O' Tuathail, 1998: 7)

3.3 Beck believes that radical shifts in the political economy of western nations have been clumsily dealt with by power-holders within dominant institutions. Despite evident mutations in distributional logic, formal democratic systems have continued to function according to the principles of industrial modernity. The burgeoning profile of bads has not been met with appropriate counter measures at the level of public policy. Political parties have failed to develop coherent policies to cope with the pervasiveness and mobility of social bads. Each year the number of reported cases of AIDS continues to rise, the ozone layer becomes thinner and an increasing number of food-related illnesses are identified. For Beck (1995: 65), the dominant institutional response to such manufactured risks is one of 'organised irresponsibility', with the multiplication of social bads being met by a mixture of denial, obfuscation and feigned assurances.

3.4 In the political arena, the risk society thesis depicts democratically elected governments following established tracks of goods distribution, whilst reactively tending to the omnipresent spectre of bads (Beck, 1998: 9). However, the leaks, accidents and controversies which stick to social bads ensure that the risk society is latently political (Beck, 2000: 220). The generalised diffusion of bads promotes risk consciousness amongst the general public and stimulates political reflexivity. In addition to raising issues of safety and security, the diffusion of manufactured risks throws up a host of moral and ethical issues about social futures. As such, risks function as the vehicle through which society confronts itself in political terms, with the reflexivity that characterises the second modernity stimulating the 'reinvention of politics' (Beck, 1997). In the risk society, the inability of traditional structures to deal with social bads seriously undermines the credibility of national governments, who are unable to honour the pledges they remain duty bound to offer. Thus, the spread of manufactured risks does not simply stimulate public reflection. At a more fundamental level, modernization becomes a problem for itself (Beck, 1997: 5). As the public become more aware that the principles of equality, safety and security cannot be guaranteed, political discord emerges. Given that the risks sparked by capitalist development evade the harnessing capacities of dominant institutions, western societies move inexorably toward a period of self-confrontation and political reflexivity, with social orientation being a ubiquitous topic of public debate (Beck, 1994: 6; Goldblatt, 1995: 163). This in turn challenges the validity of institutions, with expert knowledge being perpetually scrutinised and disputed. Because modernization dissolves the certainties of industrial society - such as permanent employment, the nuclear family and class identities - new political questions emerge as issues of contestation (Goldblatt, 1995: 163). At a wider level, the globalization of risk forces the locus of political decision-making to mutate. Local actions produce global impacts; petition signing, local campaigning, protest marching and boycotting products all serve as contemporary methods of 'direct balloting' (Beck, 1999: 42). These various forms of 'subpolitics' emerge in conflictual spaces, where members of the public employ oppositional political values as a basis for active debate and protest. For Beck, the continued emergence of subpolitical movements which extend beyond left and right raises forth the possibility of a more deliberative and inclusive form of democracy.

From Good Times to Bad Times? Slips, Gaps and Caveats

4.1 Thus far, we have unpacked the chronology of the risk society perspective and floated the Beckian notion that western cultures have experienced a transformation in the logic of social distribution. In order to assess the validity and applicability of Beck's thesis, it is now necessary to move from a descriptive to an analytical plane. To this end, in the following sections the theory of distributional logic will be compared with contemporary political, cultural and economic trends, drawing upon empirical studies and theoretical critique. In addition to coalescing assorted objections to the theory of distributional logic, we seek to breath new life into the debate by reflecting on the extent to which current geopolitical instabilities are indicative of an underlying shift in political economy.

4.2 Theorists of many different persuasions have disputed the alleged realignment from social goods to social bads (see Cottle, 1998; Draper, 1993; Goldblatt, 1995; Scott, 2000). By far the most common criticism of Beck's theory of distributional logic is that sweeping assumptions are made about public perceptions of risk without recourse to empirical data (McMylor, 1996; Hajer and Kesselring, 1999: 3). Instead of engaging in the process of empirical investigation, a stock set of 'icons of destruction' are taken as indicative of the risk producing tendencies of contemporary western cultures (Mythen, 2004: 181). As a result, the theory of distributional logic is fundamentally reliant on the replication of a well-worn set of examples. Of course, utilising the most catastrophic of risks as a basis for constructing a general argument is an unsound sociological strategy for at least three reasons. Firstly, the commonly employed markers of the risk society - nuclear accidents, genetic technology and environmental disequilibrium - are crudely amalgamated. In reeling off this trio of shocks as a form of shorthand, Beck fails to adequately account for the diverse impacts and consequences of different hazards. Secondly, this very lack of differentiation leads to distinct slippage in the argument between calculable risks and hypothetical dangers. All too often, catastrophic threats are thrown in as an ensemble and taken to represent the social reality of risk per se. As Bromley (2000: 83) notes, whilst certain risks are relatively predictable and quantifiable, others are less easily calibrated. In the risk society perspective, 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns' are collapsed inwards and treated as homogeneous entities. In regarding apocalyptic dangers as analogous with the totality of risk, disparate effects are unhelpfully compacted. As a result, gradations of risk become subsumed 'under the umbrella of total catastrophe, under the nuclear mushroom as it were' (Scott, 2000: 36). Third, the higher order positioning of social bads in the consciousness of individuals is imputed without evidential corroboration. Due to the meta-theoretical bent of the risk society thesis, 'fragments from the empirical world intrude only as illustration or example' (Leiss, 2000: 7). As we shall see, as far as public understandings are concerned, empirical research does provide some grist for the risk society mill. Nevertheless, the qualitative distinction between scarcity and risk still hangs precariously on the assumption that worst imaginable accidents are the paradigmatic form of contemporary risk.

4.3 Insofar as Beck has been justly reproved for shying away from empirical engagement, different strands of social science research do point up public concerns about social bads. Exponents of the psychometric approach have consistently reported that uncontrollable dangers - such as nuclear technology, chemical warfare and AIDS - are classified as highly dangerous and anxiety provoking (Slovic, 1987; 1992, 2000). Whereas global dangers are universally feared, hazardous but more mundane local risks such as smoking and alcohol consumption are more easily tolerated. Of course, there a number of flaws in the psychometric method, including the vacuous laboratory setting in which participants are asked to engage with risk issues (see Lupton, 1999: 21, Mythen, 2004: 104). This said, a more context sensitive batch of cultural studies also indicates that manufactured risks figure highly as sources of public disquiet. In this oeuvre, case studies of discrete risks, such as BSE (Reilly, 1999), environmental pollution (Macnaghten, 2003) and genetically modified food (Grove White et al., 1999) illustrate that the markers of the risk society do correspond with public concerns. Nevertheless, these studies only act as general pointers and cannot be read off as concrete evidence of an underlying shift in political logic. Although it would be unreasonable to expect Beck to provide primary data to demonstrate a political logic in transition in any general sense, some attempt to turn up supportive secondary material would enhance the credibility of the risk society thesis. After all, any theory worth its salt needs to marshal more than a mixture of repetitive examples and anecdotal evidence.

4.4 The second objection to the theory of distributional logic revolves around the issue of perceptual unanimity. As discussed earlier, the risk society perspective attaches the industrial goods producing period to motivations relating to material needs and the bads producing risk society to feelings of insecurity and anxiety. However, in binding insecurity to risk, Beck obscures both the mobility and diversity of public understandings of risk. As Scott (2000: 36) elucidates, meaningful distinction between the effects of the two logics is unsustainable when it comes down to the untidiness of everyday social realities. It needs to be recognised that feelings of anxiety will arise out of scarcity situations and are not exclusively attributable to risk. For instance, the uncertainties which surround the labour market are frequently employed as evidence of the move towards the bads distributing logic of the risk society (Beck, 1992: 144; Beck and Willms, 2004). However, given the link between unemployment and scarcity, the uneven distribution of work serves equally well as an illustration of the misfiring logic of the class society (Mythen, 2005). Of course, such interpretive issues are eminently debatable. Nevertheless, there is more than a sneaking suspicion that Beck's vista is obscured by his fixation with risk. The degree of theoretical slack present in the argument turns up a further set of questions about the extent of the movement from a political logic of class to one of risk. The risk society thesis rests upon the premise that risks are becoming increasingly universal, enveloping rich and poor alike. Whilst the democratic curve of the 'boomerang effect' may tap into the egalitarian principles of western academics, the boomerang is thrown out in such a way that it rarely returns to the pitcher.[2] Ultimately, the risk society narrative demands that the effects of goods and bads are separated out and that risk subsumes class as the defining marker of the age. In practice, exposure to risk bleeds into exposure to scarcity, even in the select batch of examples recounted by Beck.[3] By and large, material resources still govern lifestyle choices and the scope of risk reduction strategies available to the individual, indicating that the social distribution of risk remains tightly fastened to the poles of wealth and poverty (see Culpitt, 1999: 21; Draper, 1993; Dryzek, 1995). It must be remembered that affluent and powerful groups are still able to buy their way out of risk situations, whilst the poor have no such option (Bromley, 2000: 97; Mythen, 2004: 181). Nowhere is this more vividly illustrated than in the case of New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina. The urban poor - predominantly African-Americans - living below the poverty line simply did not have access to the means of transport that would have enabled them to evacuate the city. Seen in this light, the oft-quoted maxim, 'poverty is hierarchic, whilst smog is democratic' (Beck, 1992: 36) becomes denuded. As they are currently mapped, patterns of global risk distribution indicate that risks have uneven geographical impacts, with certain countries, regions and groups being more vulnerable to exposure. Boomerang effects are more often the exception than the rule in matters of risk distribution (Goldblatt, 1995: 178). Thus, although globalization has freed up the flow of risks, social bads are universal only in the hypothetical sense. In both class and risk societies the wealthy can only aspire to relative rather than absolute security: 'smog is just as hierarchical as poverty so long as some places are less smoggy than others' (Scott, 2000: 36).

4.5 In addition to highlighting continuities in social distribution, several theorists have raised ethical objections against a risk-centric 'reinvention of politics'. Questioning Beck's preference for a politics of risk, both Rose (2000) and Dickens (1996) have countered the suggestion that bads should supersede goods on the political agenda:

Getting the whole of Europe back to work, reducing the high levels of male violence and xenophobia, responding more effectively to the re-emergence of genocide are arguably as big problems as managing risk to the environment, and, so far as the new genetics are concerned, to 'us'. (Rose, 2000: 64)
Insofar as Rose's sentiments are intuitive rather than empirically evidenced, the general point retains value. Beck does assume that a radical shift from the politics of class to the politics of risk is both desired and desirable. While problems of scarcity have not evaporated, of late they have been shoulder-charged off the agenda by matters of risk. Of course, spectacular one-off risk incidents - such as the terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid and London - are eminently more reportable for the media than ongoing global problems of grinding poverty and inequality (Anderson, 2000; Boyne, 2003: 33). Indeed, it is quite possible that imbalanced media coverage has in part contributed towards the skewing of public concerns, with extensive reporting of new terrorism, MRSA and Avian Flu catapulting risk forward as a politically hot issue (see Furedi, 2002; Ungar, 2001). As Rose (2000: 65) argues, it is likely that such an unstinting focus on risk has served to cloud the continuance of traditional inequalities.

4.6 While Beck is keen to collect up political issues with a net of risk, the complex reality of many global situations cautions against simple classification. Current tensions between the East and the West are the result of an admixture of conflicting religious beliefs, ethnic identities, conflicting values and differential resource distribution. Other high profile struggles - for example, in Spain, Canada and Ireland - are rooted in matters of cultural identity rather than risk. As such, we have to question the assumption that the locus of politics has changed as a direct response to social bads. Ultimately, it is probable that the formation of oppositional politics is a reflection of public disenchantment with existing political structures:

The rise of protest parties, extremist right-wing parties and regional and secessionist parties in many western countries suggests that mainstream politics has become less capable of commanding allegiance. However, whether this decline can be accounted for in terms of the state's decreasing capacity to meet safety and security pledges in the face of new risks and hazards is less certain. One could probably make a more convincing case for attributing the decline in legitimacy to the failure of governments in the West to arrest the rise in structural unemployment, and to the accompanying process of social and geographical polarization. (Goldblatt, 1995: 187)

4.7 Beyond the West, dangers to public health are both more rudimentary and more pressing than those illuminated in the risk society thesis (Bujra, 2000). In this sense, Beck devotes insufficient attention to the cultural geography of risk. There is perhaps something perverse about the post-scarcity politics of risk when positioned against the backdrop of persistent and marked global inequalities. In many regions, the disenfranchised have little option but to continue to exhaust natural resources and literally swallow the environmental consequences. For the poor in continents such as Africa, Asia and South America, prioritising the political management of technological risks may smack of decadence. The global political failure to meet fundamental human needs serves as a sharp reminder to those absorbed with the possibilities of a high-tech risky future:

1.3 billion persons, that is 22 percent of the world's population, live below the poverty line. As a consequence of such severe poverty, 841 million persons are today malnourished; 880 million are without access to health services, one billion are without adequate shelter, 1.3 billion are without access to safe drinking water; two billion are without electricity; and 2.6 billion are without access to sanitation. (Pogge, 1999: 27)

4.8 All of this suggests that public concerns about the universal distribution of bads have not displaced concerns about the sectoral distribution of goods. The traditional determinants of goods stratification - of class, gender, ethnicity, age and geography - are still key indicators of life chances in western society and will remain so into the foreseeable future. Social bads have been superimposed upon issues of class, poverty, health and education, rather than supplanted by them.

The Politics of Risk and the Risks of Politics

5.1 Having highlighted some of the empirical and theoretical shortcomings in the theory of distributional logic, in this section we move on to assess the impact of high profile situations on both the language of risk and strategic political practices. To provide balance, evidence of a movement towards a global politics of risk will be measured against the possibility that risk is being employed as an instrument of geopolitical control. In recent times, global events do appear to have accentuated the contours of risk and this has been reflected in the political language circulating within supranational bodies, such as the United Nations. As discussed earlier, ongoing world conflicts are underscored by the continuing uncertainty surrounding the production of nuclear and chemical weapons. Heads of State in Western countries have expressed concern about the possible deployment of WMD by nation states, such as Iran and North Korea. Meanwhile, fears abound about the possible use of biochemical weapons by terrorist groups. On the back of intense media coverage, dirty bombs, ricin and sarin have crept into the public vocabulary. Travelling with Beck (2003: 5), the uncertainty generated by 'transnational terror networks' is in many senses general rather than specific. Given the global geographic within which terrorist cells operate, the risk of harm is theoretically universal: 'there are no bystanders anymore' (Beck, 1996: 32). Naturally, we should be concerned that the current climate of uncertainty does not degenerate into a permanent spiral of unease:
There is fear of other kinds of terrorism, the prospect that biological and chemical weapons will contaminate the air we breathe and the water we drink. This time we are trying to name the future, not in our normally hopeful way, but guided by dread. (DeLillo, 2001: 2)

5.2 Some would argue that this is nothing more than an overblown expression of post 9/11 anxiety. Yet fear of the future has become a standard feature of the rhetoric espoused by senior politicians. In the international arena, world leaders talk about a 'post-secure' world in which an 'axis of evil' threatens to spread 'global terror'. It would seem that political visions promoting the good life have been superseded by offers to protect us against the bad life. Something fundamental has changed in relation to the way in which policy makers understand and present the concepts of safety and danger. The balance of the status quo in advanced western nations is described according to colour coded security levels. Times which would once have been described as safe and orderly become nothing more than periods 'between attacks'. [4]

5.3 It would seem therefore, that previously celebratory discourses of neo-liberal globalization, techno-scientific development and informationalization are being tempered. Tales of the largesse of capitalism have given way to flashes of the dark underbelly of risk. Belatedly, it is being acknowledged that globalization opens up windows not only for entrepreneurs and jetsetters, but also for criminals, drug traffickers and agent provocateurs. It is apparent too, that global bads can produce domino effects. Stock markets around the world tumble in the wake of risky incidents, with sensitive industries - such as insurance, agriculture and airlines - being hit hard. In stark contrast to creative notions of the good which characterised industrial society, the language of politics has become more restrained and defensive. It is probable that the increased visibility of global bads has encouraged the consolidation of a political discourse of global danger, crystallised in the formation of 'activist' American and British foreign policy. The socio-political construction of danger has undoubtedly escalated post 9/11, with the idiom of risk infusing the political speeches of Tony Blair and George W. Bush. In terms of discursive formations of risk, a subtle twist is at play, with 'What if?' scenarios being employed to demonstrate that inaction (non violence) rather than action (State violence) is itself a dangerous option. The following two quotations are apposite examples of 'What if?' thinking:

America must not ignore the threat gathering against us ... we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud (Bush, 2002).
We are in mortal danger of mistaking the nature of the new world in which we live. This is not a time to err on the side of caution, not a time to weigh the risks to an infinite balance (Blair, 2003: 7).

5.4 In these kinds of pronouncements, the risk is constructed as one of inaction (non violence), which is cast as analogous to passively awaiting an inevitable strike. Beneath the top level construction of a politics of risk, risk continues to act as a lever for public involvement and direct action. The subpolitical activity which Beck attaches to bads is aptly demonstrated by the protest marches of millions of anti-war campaigners around the globe. Layered over the top of everyday risk negotiations - around work, relationships and health - unease about global warfare, economic depression and terrorism have added to the general mood of apprehension. As Jasanoff comments:

Just, as a century ago, the idea of progress helped to name an optimistic era, so today risk, by its very pervasiveness, seems to be the defining marker of our own less sanguine historical moment. (Jasanoff, 1999: 136)

5.5 On the basis of impressionistic indicators, it would appear that issues of risk have indeed moved up the political agenda. However, although there is some justification for flagging the comparative prevalence of risk in contemporary political debates, the impact of risk on public participation remains opaque. Where Beck maintains that social bads act as a conductor for political reflexivity and collective action, risk can also be used to dissipate opposition and reinforce political control (see Castel, 1991; Culpitt, 1999; Dean 1999; Mythen and Walklate, 2005). Social bads may operate as a political catalyst for some, but they are equally powerful as a mechanism through which unequal power relations are legitimised and reproduced (Lupton, 1993: 431; Wales and Mythen, 2002). The events of 9/11 and the subsequent heavily mythologised fear about Iraq's WMD have been employed by the United States Government as a justification for all manner of misdemeanours, ranging from the repressive law and order policies fixed through the PATRIOT Act to an acceleration of the arms race (Kellner, 2002: 24). Prisoners of war held at Guantanemo Bay became conveniently rebranded as 'enemy combatants' to validate the removal of basic human rights. Rather than being seized as an opportunity to engage in dialogue and confront embedded differences, the bad of terrorism has been coded as a heroic struggle between good and evil and deployed as a foil for cultural and economic imperialism.[5] Meanwhile, in the UK, the prime minister has publicly referred to the Iraq conflict as a 'test case'. The message transmitted to other countries and regimes which make up the 'axis of evil' hardly needs deciphering. Mimicking the US administration, the UK government is currently riding the legislative ripples of risk, most notably in its proposals to curb terrorism. Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary has recently floated the idea that phone, internet and email records should be archived by service providers for at least a year to create databases of information. So far as European Law is concerned, there is no legal basis for such legislation to be passed. Even more problematic is the announcement that arcane Treason laws may be resurrected to charge those sympathetic to terrorist groups. Though politically convenient, it is not sensible - nor ethically appropriate - to push through draconian law and order measures in a time of raised tension and high anxiety. Amidst the legitimate concern about the terrorist risk, there is a need to ensure that legislative responses are commensurate with the level of threat.

5.6 What is being stitched together at a political level in the UK is much more than simply concern about possible terrorist attacks. The discursive construction of the terrorist threat brings to the surface the relationship between social bads and ideological stigmatisation. Clearly, the individualization of blame can be utilised as a strategy to conceal institutional responsibility for risk. The social construction of 'new terrorism' is melded to and subsumes existing 'problem groups'. In this way, fears about terrorism become linked to contemporary folk devils: religious zealots, bogus asylum seekers and dole scroungers. The pervasive use of cultural stereotypes by dominant groups indicates that a distrust of 'otherness' can easily escalate into the attribution of blame (Lash, 2000: 51, Woodward, 1997: 15). In effect, subordinated groups can act as a convenient sink for depositing risk. As Dean (1999: 131) points out, 'the significance of risk does not lie with the risk itself, but what risk gets attached to'.

5.7 By loading the process of risk definition, political elites in power bound spaces are able to close down political possibilities and present preferred paths of action as inevitabilities. In this way, discourses of danger are being utilised for hegemonic purposes, with the anxiety of the risk society functioning as an expedient political tool (see Furedi, 2005; O'Malley, 2004). To this end, Kellner (2002: 21) identifies the emergence of a 'new barbarism', in which violent and reactive behaviour is being dressed up and sold off as a fight to maintain the free world. Given the current mix of political turmoil and military violence, Beck's clarion call for transnational cooperation seems to be ringing on deaf ears. In stark contrast, the darker politics of economic imperialism and cultural binarism appear to be in the ascendance. Rather than generating a drive towards urgently needed democratic debate, the threat of 'global terrorism' has instead resulted in accusation, vilification and ethnic reductionism. Some distance from a utopic brand of cosmopolitanism, self-proclaimed superpowers have instead resorted to a form of absolutism in which:

The global problems of risk society (are reduced) to an 'either/or' logic of representing risks as enemies, drawing boundaries against this enemy, and then applying instrumental rationality to 'solve' the threat ... 'global dangers' are configured in practice as a parade of enemies, like 'terrorists', 'rogue states' and 'nuclear outlaws' that need to be isolated, contained and defeated. (O' Tuathail, 1998: 9).

Conclusion: Questioning the Reinvention of Politics

6.1 In melding together the various criticisms of Beck's theory of distributional logic, it has become apparent that the relationship between risk and politics is more intricate than the risk society narrative implies. The decidedly grainy picture of political participation is crystallised by the ambiguous responses to social bads which have emerged amongst different groups and across different cultures. In many western countries, there does appear to be growing public disenchantment with Byzantine systems of formal politics and a broader trend of scepticism toward expert systems. In some countries, the growing popularity of direct protests is suggestive of a rise in political activity outside of the formal process. In Britain, the sheer volume of people marching to campaign about single issues - from the marginalisation of countryside issues to the anti-war movement - marks something of a watershed in the nature of political participation. Globally, the customary anti-capitalist demonstrations which appear around the world on Workers' Day, added to the direct actions of protestors at World Trade Organisation summits serve as ready-made examples of subpolitics in practice. Nevertheless, such eye-catching examples need to be yoked to issues of ideological influence and the relative distribution of power. Whilst many people are making themselves heard on the margins of the formal process, the overwhelming majority of political decisions are still made by elites experts in power-bound spaces without public consultation.

6.2 Unfortunately, the risk society perspective is blighted by a lack of appreciation of the socio-economic conditions and factors which stimulate and/or discourage subpolitical engagement. Pushing aside the cloud of social bads, effective political opposition still remains vitally dependent upon the resources which enable action (see Lodziak, 2002). So long as economic, cultural and technological capital remain unequally distributed, a critical disjuncture will continue to exist between public disquiet and oppositional mobilisation. The importunate appearance of bads alone does not guarantee argumentation and conflict between expert systems and subpolitical groups. Nor is there any direct connection between the emergence of manufactured risk and the formation of political reflexivity (Goldblatt, 1995; Tomlinson, 1999: 205). Risks will inevitably be approached with different political strategies according to social habits and cultural circumstances (Alaszewski, 2005; Wynne, 1996). Inter alia, social bads can be productive of anxiety, inertia and political fatalism. In some cases, risks may function to exacerbate ontological insecurity, stimulating political acquiescence rather than reflexive activity (Caplan, 2000: 23; Giddens, 1990: 135). It cannot be assumed that public concern about social bads will be translated into political mobilisation or institutional divestment of power. As has been demonstrated, the discursive construction of risk can be used to invoke the apportionment of political blame and the intensification of strategies of surveillance and control. Even though there is evidence to indicate that the unceasing appearance of manufactured risks has generated a net rise in subpolitical activity, the present scale of this activity does not bear testament to a transformation in the locus of politics. We must also be clear that the radical changes necessary to counter the mass production of social bads require something of a cultural reformation. A significant movement toward eliminating risk would require a sizeable swing in public values and a sustained effort to sacrifice short-term for long-term gains. Although many would agree in principle with policies that reduce pollution levels or redistribute global wealth, the knock-on effects of these policies may be less appealing. As Stephen Nugent candidly reflects:

Those espousing a 'Third Way' which actually takes on an accurate global view should be preparing their constituents to accept rather grim costs: no winter shoes for the kids this year, or next. (Nugent, 2000: 232)
There can no doubt that the negative imprint of social bads on the environment makes restorative measures and political upheaval a priority. However, the production of manufactured risks does not in or of itself produce global concordance, less still decisive action.

6.3 In conclusion, it is clear that the goods/bads heuristic at the heart of the risk society narrative gives a distorted view of the functioning of political economies in western capitalist cultures. In application, Beck's demarcation of distributional logics is crudely constructed, ethically disputable and empirically wanting. In a nutshell, there is a conspicuous shortage of old fashioned sociological proof to validate a pendulum shift in political logics in western cultures. As far as the empirical dimensions are concerned, the evidence is fuzzy and inconclusive. In spite of the lacuna in Beck's thesis, risk research has broadly flagged social bads as the most anxiety provoking risks. Nevertheless, both the extent and depth of this concern remains unplumbed. The risks we fear the most are by no means those we focus on the most amidst the undulations of everyday life. In global terms, the degree of public concern about risk is difficult to codify, given the sundry political priorities of individuals in diverse continents, countries and regions. However, the theoretical objections to Beck's binary approach suggest that the distinction between 'goods' and 'bads' cannot be sustained due to the diffuse character of risks and the porous boundaries between the two logics. In reality, social bads continue to dovetail with social goods, both in terms of risk distribution and political concerns. Under the logic of risk, as under the logic of class, some remain more equal than others.

6.4 Ultimately, it would seem that Beck's fetishization of risk encourages him to render everything explainable through a single variable (Elliott, 2002: 310). In academia, as in life, we would do well to remember that 'how you see, determines what you look for, which in turn vectors what you get' (Flusty, 2000: 150). With this in mind, there remain some wider disciplinary issues that still need working through around the readiness of sociologists to be seduced by all encompassing theories. In the 1980s both postmodern accounts of social life and the so-called 'cultural turn' promised to deliver new paradigms and a fresh set of conceptual tools.

6.5 Both approaches have since been heavily criticised for their reduced understanding of social structure and their lack of attention to the operation of power. There are obvious parallels to be drawn with the shortcomings of the risk society thesis catalogued here. Aspects of Beck's theory do retain utility in the new millennium, but in a risk sensitive climate we should be duly wary of searching for the equivalent of a sociological quick fix. As has been illustrated, risk functions equally well as a vehicle through which political ideology is regulated, oppositional actions are marginalised and aggressive behaviour is sanctioned. Economically dominant capitalist nations have the material power and military capability to enact their will on ascribed progenitors of risk. The social construction of risk which has emerged around conflicts in the Middle East elucidates that social bads can act as receptacles which become shot through with dominant discourses. At present, it would appear that the 'global' politics of risk emanates out from the West and indelicately tramples over cultural differences (Bujra, 2000: 63). It has been demonstrated that, depending upon social context, risk can act as a generator of subpolitical action or a mechanism through which hegemonic power is reasserted.

6.6 Unfortunately, Beck's desire to mechanically attribute political reflexivity to the individual glosses over the possibility that the language of risk can reinforce as well as undermine social control. In order to properly understand how people make sense of social bads, it is necessary to direct attention toward the habitus through which risks are 'made to mean' (Mythen, 2002: 204). Returning to the biting material issues, it is worrisome that the political debate about risk is forming around the structures and curves of global capital. There is a real danger that significant cleavages of class, gender and ethnicity are simply being glossed over. Whilst Western politicians may perceive new terrorism to be a pressing social issue, those dwelling in the favellas in Rio or the shanty towns of Lesotho will doubtless speak of different priorities.


1 This task has been adequately accomplished elsewhere. See, for example, Elliott (2002), Goldblatt (1995) or Mythen (2004).

2 Beck does acknowledge that the logics of goods and bads can merge in the transitional phase between industrial society and the risk society, with risks augmenting class cleavages (Beck, 1992: 44). However, this concession is overwritten by a stronger tendency to emphasise the universality of risk.

3 In the cases of both Chernobyl and Bhopal, the most severe impacts were felt by local plant workers and those proximate to the explosions.

4 Take the following quote by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence cited in The Guardian, May 18th 2002: 'The likelihood is - because it is not possible to defend every place at every moment - that there will be another terrorist attack. We should just face that reality'.

5It is worth noting that oil installations in Iraq have been fastidiously guarded by US troops while cultural and historic monuments have been left unattended.


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