I was struck by how bleak a vision Ulrich Beck offered at the end of his final book, as well as how uneasily it sits with what I had assumed to be his self-consciously cosmopolitan politics. I think he’s correct to identify “the striking mismatch between higher education and unemployment” such that “we have the best ever educated generation, which, however, is threatened by a hitherto unknown degree of unemployment” (pg 195). This is in fact the class basis for the neo-socialism which has found its first expression with Corbynism and Sanders i.e. cultural upwards mobility combined with (steep) financial downwards mobility. But what I found more surprising was his apparent vision of a future Europe battling against immigration. From pg 196:
On the one side, a ‘generation less’, which, measured by preceding decades, has to accept material losses; on the other, a ‘generation more’, which, motivated by images of an affluent ‘First World’, wants to share in that wealth. And both–and this is the crucial point–are fractions of the global generations. What is already becoming visible today will in future perhaps emerge more dramatically: the outlines of a new global redistribution struggle. One side on the defensive, trying to hold onto the remnants of affluence with laws and frontier barriers; the others setting out, charging against these same frontiers with all their strength, driven by the hope of a better life.
The assumption here is that there’s a zero-sum relationship between downwardly mobile European millennials and migrants coming to Europe in search of a better life. It’s remarkable how much gets condensed and glossed over in order to make this vision a reality, suggesting that a thinker who styles himself as offering conceptual resources for rethinking politics actually lacked the ability to think beyond the narrow confines of our present political moment.
My point is not that Beck implicitly endorses nativistic politics here (though I think one could make a case that he sort of does) but rather that he lacks the imagination to think beyond the frame in which that politics has emerged. I was always ambivalent about Beck but this really put me off, encapsulating the dangers of what Will Davies called (in a different context) ‘bite sized sociological dualisms’ and their capacity to leave us imagining we are thinking deeply when in fact we are simply abstracting from the narrow coordinates of the world as it currently is.