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“The Metamorphosis of the World: New Concepts for a New Reality" - An Analysis of Ulrich Beck's Work

Translation: Ligia Payão Chizolini


The last (and unfinished) book by Ulrich Beck, “The Metamorphosis of the World: New Concepts for a New Reality,” translated and published in Brazil in 2018 by Editora Zahar, is an emblematic and far-reaching work. With a completely original theoretical character, it is very timely for reflecting on the new current reality and its complexity. In this work, the author develops an in-depth analysis of various events and their convergence in what he calls the risk society (2011; 2016). His starting point lies precisely in the distinction between social transformations (present in many moments of history) and the metamorphosis of the world (a singular phenomenon). The latter consists of a radical transformation that impacts all political and social actors on the planet.

Indeed, the current global reality is very complex and, in a certain sense, difficult to understand. The numerous attempts at understanding it are, however, increasingly comprehensive and relevant. Among these initiatives, Ulrich Beck’s proposal stands out. The German sociologist's thesis is that the world is undergoing not a great transformation, but a true metamorphosis. But who is Ulrich Beck? Born in 1944 in Germany, he was a professor of sociology at the University of Munich, Harvard, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Throughout his career, Beck wrote a set of unprecedented and widely impactful contributions to contemporary social theory.


Regarding the work “The Metamorphosis of the World: New Concepts for a New Reality” (2018), it can be said that it is a book of maturity. It is a true compilation of Ulrich Beck’s current and most influential works, which show an intertwining and theoretical maturation throughout his academic trajectory. It is important to note, however, that the author's thinking was still under construction and undergoing transformations. Even so, his analysis is profound and innovative. His thesis is that the current world is undergoing such intense and radical transformation that it changes the way humans position themselves in the world, the way they imagine, think, plan, and do politics, making it necessary to think of a new word for its decipherment: metamorphosis. This expression reveals the sociologist's search for a new sense of the world and its transmutation due to a significant set of extraordinary factors.


The structure of the aforementioned book is organized into three related parts containing twelve chapters in total. In the first part, titled “Introduction, Evidence, Theory,” Beck presents his central thesis: the conceptual difference between social change/transformation and the metamorphosis of the world. From there, the author develops descriptive and interconnected conceptions about the world metamorphosis. In the second part, called “Themes,” the sociologist uses the constructed concepts to analyze empirical events, such as those related to the exponential increase in risks, inequality, politics, and power. In the third and final part, designated as “Panorama,” the author seeks to construct answers to the numerous questions raised throughout the first two parts of the work.


In the topic “Introduction, Evidence, Theory,” Ulrich Beck (2018) develops a strong critique of evolutionism and the temporal linearity of current social theory, arguing that these characteristics are based on cultural colonization, both past and present. Consequently, the author points out three specific moments of historical change: the Axial Age, the French Revolution, and colonial transformations. Furthermore, Beck emphasizes that the fabric of today’s society faces continuous processes of metamorphosis, which should not be simply confused with transformations. It is more than that: it is a true process of “transfiguration” of the world. However, it constitutes a theory difficult to understand. This is because understanding this conjuncture implies deciphering the impacts, for example, of an era of digital communications that drastically altered notions of time and space, bringing distant poles of the planet and different civilizations closer together.


With this, the very perception of society has been altered, as well as the entire world political regime, which until the end of the 1980s was still based on a bipolar division of power (East-West). With the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991), politics was reconfigured and ceased to be linked solely to state actors and institutions, weakening the traditional borders of nation-states. This process made politics an activity with global connections and opened up space for new risks and possibilities (such as the revaluation of cosmopolitanism). Thus, the transition from the national era to the global era converges with the idea of metamorphosis, that is, with spaces of action that are not institutionalized at the state level, as world politics acquires a dual contingency: the specific rules and roles of the main actors remain undefined.


From this perspective, in the second part of the work “Themes,” the author addresses a set of favorable and unfavorable externalities to the methodological cosmopolitan theory of world metamorphosis. In this sense, he initially highlights that this theory surpasses the successful consequences of modernity, discussing the positive aspects of the premises produced. An example of this is that if it is true that cities can establish transnational alliances, it is also true that some instances of the state political order become obsolete and unnecessary. Humanity, therefore, begins to experience positive events and new negative facts. Thus, the important thing is to understand, regardless of value judgment, the current metamorphosis of the world.


Next, the author points out three important dimensions of this new possibility of understanding the world. The first lies in the critique of the nation-state and methodological nationalism; the second pertains to the detailed record of disasters that transcend state borders and intensify the invisibility politics of the excluded; finally, the third refers to the alteration of classes, in the sense that there is a transition from local inequalities to a global perspective of income or resource distribution, which also happens with risks, which propagate worldwide across various regions and create the so-called risk classes. Subsequently, the sociologist delves into the discussion of the metamorphosis of politics and power, proposing approaches about institutions, practices, norms, and social actors. With the metamorphosis of the world, legal, political, economic, and social systems and relationships become exposed, that is, “definition relationships become exposed and politicized with each catastrophe that reminds us of the globality of the risk society and as the logic of global risks permeates everyday experience” (Beck, 2018, p. 150).


By deepening the theme of the metamorphosis occurring in world society, Beck designates this moment as the era of side effects, marked by emancipatory catastrophism. In short, it can be defined that new normative horizons are created intending to replace the national normative landscape with the cosmopolitan one, based on the concept of global justice. This means that metamorphoses reshape the foundational bases of society, providing opportunities for other modes of cooperation, new certainties, and solidarities. In this sense, the author challenges the way the world is analyzed, proposing an innovative perspective based on the consolidation of institutions guided by cosmopolitan ideals. However, he stresses that this will only be conceived through a triple dimension that includes: new ways of being in the world, seeing the world, and making or deciding global politics. It is evident that, as Beck (2018, p. 151) states, “this is not only about new cosmopolitanized spaces of action, but about new fields of action and political reforms.”


To bring a real materiality to his argument, the German sociologist uses the example of climate change as something capable of transforming the world political order. Although it is considered a true threat to human survival, by comparing it to an agent of metamorphosis, Ulrich Beck (2018) validates the idea that this phenomenon has already changed the way individuals live, think, and act in the world. Thus, the dynamics of metamorphosis enable, in this case, an emancipatory catastrophism, as new interpretations of climate change allow for the emergence of a conscious collective capable of transforming the world for the better. It can be said, therefore, that this would be a positive effect brought about by risks, as climate phenomena can alter society and governance, contributing to and producing common goods and normative horizons for public policies.


Given this, Beck points out that climate changes, social conflicts, economic crises, and other events induce the development of a set of transnational responsibility procedures, that is, beyond the borders of nation-states; creating new paradigms of global cooperation that alter lifestyles and enable the cosmopolitan human condition towards social progress through the politics of side effects – where violation precedes the norm. In this context, the metamorphosis of the world is observed through three conceptual lenses: firstly, the violation creates the norm, as the anticipation of global catastrophes violates non-codified civilizational norms; subsequently, this violation causes a shock to humanity; and lastly, a social catharsis. In the words of the German author, it is precisely the experience of the “catastrophe that violates the 'sacred' norms of civilization and humanity and, with this, creates an anthropological shock from which institutional responses become possible and can be institutionalized globally [...] through significant cultural and political efforts” (Beck, 2018, p. 152).


It is also noteworthy the special attention the author gives to the centrality of communication, stating that “there is no metamorphosis without communication: communication about metamorphosis is constitutive of metamorphosis” (Beck, 2018, p. 166). This indicates that although global risks are invisible to the naked eye, with visual communication and mediated images of catastrophes, an anthropological shock occurs that breaks with the invisibility of risks. It is not the catastrophes themselves that provoke this, but the globalized images of events that trigger a kind of social catharsis, which brings forth a new normative ethic for framing and organizing the constitutive structures of society. Therefore, the perception of risks and global public ills leads to a reevaluation of the norms.


Notably, risks start to impose, in all democracies, the search for a new institutional order in the face of progress and public discussion about the future of societies. Ulrich Beck (2018, p. 192) envisions the emergence of the digital intelligentsia as a new transnational class of the globalized society, which uses "digital cosmopolitanization as an energy resource to reshape the world" and challenges both the nation-state and citizens. Following this, with the expression "meta-power games of politics" (Beck, 2018, p. 195), the sociologist highlights the existence of a true interweaving that drives the metamorphosis of the rules governing global politics, involving a transmutation of power and the way it is (re)negotiated among countries. In the author's words, this means that "national politics, which used to operate by rules, and the new cosmopolitan world politics, which operates in a way that changes the rules, are completely intertwined with each other. They cannot be separated in terms of specific actors, strategies, or alliances." (Beck, 2018, p. 195).


In view of this conceptualization, a brief analysis of the metamorphosis of international relations is carried out. In this sense, starting from the idea of a global society, Beck elucidates that the metamorphosis of the world is established through a binary examination for political decision-making. This means that everything that was previously considered in isolation—such as cooperation and competition, equality and inequality, economy and environment, individualism and solidarity, localism and cosmopolitanism, etc.—is now interconnected and, therefore, must be analyzed together to diagnose transformations and, consequently, enable development. With the introduction of new spaces of action, the metamorphosis of global society raises new horizons for politics, since it is no longer restricted solely to the limits established by the traditional arrangements of nation-states, nor is it solely linked to national agents, institutions, or structures.


Indeed, nothing has a permanent character today. While national politics prevail through the application of internal norms, the new politics transmuted in the scope of economic blocs alters the proper applicability of the law, especially due to the interdependence between states and norms. This indicates that, in a metamorphosed reality, national and international politics are intertwined with each other. For Beck, cities are at the epicenter of the world's metamorphosis, as large urban centers have the capacity to, on one hand, mediate interstate relations and, on the other, be the stage for new actors—such as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Transnational Corporations (TNCs)—as well as public policies for the constitution of plural cosmopolitan spaces.


Thus, it is in the urban context that a true transfiguration of old cleavages into partnerships occurs, and consequently, the model of a society of states is weakened and gradually replaced by a new form of global organization, where cities assume an extremely relevant role as global actors. Moreover, as it was understood that "there are no national answers to global [risks and] problems" (Beck, 2018, p. 65), states facilitated the organization of city networks with the aim of building collective political decisions. This happened precisely because a nation-state cannot and is not able to solve alone the risks that threaten its population. In summary, Beck (2018, p. 232) highlights that cities are capable of establishing "a new pattern of alliances and conflicts that shapes urban politics worldwide (albeit in very different ways, in different places and contexts)."


The third and final part of the book, titled "Panorama," brings to the forefront issues that still remain unanswered, as no one can precisely determine the directions of the world's metamorphosis. With the notable change in paradigms and global references, it can be observed that metamorphosis occurs in the interdependence and power struggle relations between states and cities, which opens up various perspectives for the dynamics of a new cosmopolitan politics. In this interim, the dissolution of the traditional world and the gradual transition to a cosmopolitan society means that the effects of globalization distribute risks equally between the center and the periphery, in such a way that new structures and policies are established. Given this approach, Beck proposes inspiring ideas with the aim of demonstrating that there are positive externalities resulting from negative side effects that can contribute to the promotion of innovative public policies that consider risks as a prelude to global catastrophes. Thus, the sociologist's optimism in offering possible answers on how global society can appropriate the phenomenon of metamorphosis to drive effective social transformations in the context of developing urban and state alliances, creating new transnational normative horizons, and fostering new strategic investments geared towards a set of actions that ensure democracies is undeniable.


Throughout the entire analysis developed in the work, Ulrich Beck demonstrates that current civilizations experience constant processes of world metamorphosis, making this book essential for understanding social, political, and economic transfigurations, as well as for reflecting on the creation of public policies capable of solving global order problems. More than ever, it is necessary to understand the new concepts of this new reality, because the world that was "unthinkable yesterday has become real and possible today" (BECK, 2018, p. 12), establishing threats ready to materialize tomorrow. Indeed, Beck was concerned with fostering forms of critical thinking that challenge world politics, aimed at a reform capable of enabling the realization of a society focused on cooperation in the most diverse aspects.


Finally, Beck concludes that the transfigurations of globalized society destabilize the certainties of modernity and simultaneously shift the focus to unintentional processes and events that go beyond the realms of politics and democracy, causing a fundamental shock that breaks with the anthropological constants of civilizations and previous worldviews. Consequently, it is important for current and future generations of risk to deepen the debate about the future of the planet, which is constantly metamorphosing, so that it is possible to articulate responses that help create cosmopolitan, egalitarian, and democratic public policies. This is a great challenge.


The theory of metamorphosis goes beyond the theory of the global risk society: it does not deal with the negative side effects of goods, but with the positive side effects of evils. These produce normative horizons of common goods and push us beyond the national framework towards a cosmopolitan perspective.

Ulrich Beck


Notes


*Professor of the Higher Education Teaching Career in the Undergraduate Law Program at the Federal University of Pampa (UNIPAMPA / São Borja Campus). Postdoctoral researcher with a CAPES scholarship in the Graduate Program in Law at the Regional University of Northwestern Rio Grande do Sul (UNIJUÍ), under the CAPES Postgraduate Development Program entitled "Right to Housing, Neoliberalism, and Vulnerability: the violation of human rights and environmental consequences." Ph.D. and Master's degree in Law from the Stricto Sensu Graduate Program in Law - Master's and Ph.D. in Human Rights - at the Regional University of Northwestern Rio Grande do Sul (UNIJUÍ), with a full scholarship from the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES). Bachelor's degree in Law from UNIJUÍ.


[1] This is what destabilizes the certainties of modern society and thus ends up shifting "[...] the focus to 'being in the world' and 'seeing the world,' to unintentional events and processes, which generally go unnoticed, prevailing beyond the realms of politics and democracy as side effects of radical technical and economic modernization." (Beck, 2018, pp. 11-12).

[2] It was not completed due to the author's death in 2015.

[3] The main promoters of the so-called politics of invisibility are national states and large private groups, as they maintain and reproduce positions of power in society. However, with the transformations of the world generated by globalization processes, this politics of invisibility faces the power of mass media through significant digital metamorphosis (Beck, 2018).

[4] Increasingly, it is necessary to seek global solutions to local problems. A good example of this is the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proposed in the UN's 2030 Agenda, established by the United Nations General Assembly. By applying these global goals, local problems can be solved, and social risks can be addressed, as states – and more specifically cities – establish public policies to implement them according to regional peculiarities.


References

BECK, Ulrich. The Metamorphosis of the World: New Concepts for a New Reality. Translated by Maria Luiza X. de A. Borges. 1st ed. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2018.

BECK, Ulrich. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Translated by Sebastião Nascimento. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2011.

BECK, Ulrich. World Risk Society: In Search of Lost Security. Translated by Marian Toldy and Teresa Toldy. Lisbon: Edições 70, 2016.



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