Ulrich Beck died of heart-attack on January 1. To remind us of some of the important contributions of this very original social thinker, I am reposting this review which first appeared here in 2007.
Power in the Global Age: A New Global Political Economy by Ulrich Beck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In this much-praised essay, Ulrich Beck, German sociologist and professor at Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich, demonstrates why neither nation-states nor international capital alone can save us from the many dangers of the "globalized" globe, and proposes an alliance of these two forces (which can't be ignored) with global "civil society" movements -- not to withdraw from globalization, but to engage it and realize its potential for making a better world for all of us.
Beck argues that: 1. The most urgent problems are now too global to be dealt with effectively by any state (global warming, pollution, exhaustion of carbon fuels, AIDS and other diseases, immigration, terrorism, etc.); 2. Transnational organizations (UN, WTO, NATO, etc.) are clumsy and ineffective, because they are still playing by obsolete "rules" of seeking common ground among states rather than among citizens; 3. Global capital is thus unrestrained by laws except companies' own "extralegal laws" of agreements among themselves, and exercises power over states by nonviolent means of threatening not to invest (in, say, Bolivia, if its laws become too uncomfortable) -- though companies do have to invest somewhere in order to survive, and fierce competition among and within companies makes their leaders' power precarious; 4. Global NGOs can exploit the vunerabilities of global capital (e.g., by organizing consumer boycotts) and pressuring states (e.g., by mobilizing voters and demonstrators), either to solve terrible humanitarian or ecological problems (e.g., Greenpeace, Amnesty International) or exacerbating them (e.g., al-Qaeda -- which is another kind of global nongovernmental organization).
The only hope for humanity is for these three forces (states, which are still necessary instruments of power, enlightened global capital, and global civil society) to combine forces as cosmopolitans, meaning that they feel themselves as belonging simultaneously to the cosmos and to the polis ("glocalization"), not to impose a Western vision of democracy or American culture or any other particular ideology ("universalism" of this sort is imperialism), but recognizing and accepting "the otherness of others" (die Andersheit der Anderen), different strokes for different folks, all recognizing one another's rights to live in a better world.
He says all that in far too many words (my favorite, from p. 286, is Globalisierungsbefürwortungsgegner, rendered by the translator as "opponents of the pro-globalization lobby") and occasionally surrealist metaphors (cosmopolitans should have "both roots and wings" he says over and over), repeats ideas and even phrases, and tells you many things that you already knew (e.g., Pres. Bush's attempt to impose his own sketchily-developed vision of a world order has had and can only have disastrous results, in Iraq and everywhere). Still, the basic ideas (the 4 points numbered above) are probably valid and well worth thinking about and maybe even acting upon -- the utopian (his term) cosmopolitan vision is a lot better than any of the alternatives under discussion.
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