Solidarity in global risk society

Published on The Jakarta Post, by Roy Voragen, Bandung, Feb 18, 2011.

We live, according to German sociologist Ulrich Beck, in a global risk society. In our society decisions are clouded by radical doubt and our actions have unexpected and unwanted side effects.

In risk society, more knowledge only raises more complicated questions (the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk urges us to ask what the moral consequences are for us now that we are able to modify ourselves through genetic engineering).

In risk society, we have to deal with uncertainty and contingency. In present-day modernity — which has been given many names to symbolize our uncertain times: late, radical, liquid, second, reflexive and post-modernity — radical doubt is turned against itself and it is no longer possible to colonize the future with a grand gesture so that certainty supposedly becomes secured. However, we have to make decisions even if we cannot know the consequences.

A good example is the debate concerning global warming. Some outright deny it, others downplay it, and those who do claim that it exists do not agree on what the causes and consequences are, let alone what should be done. Al Gore and others are accused of overreacting and even of fear mongering. However, sometimes a situation calls for fear mongering, because it urges us to act immediately by putting our doubts aside.

The unwanted side effect of fear mongering is the cry wolf syndrome – used repeatedly it can lead to distrust. The war-on-terror is a good example; George W. Bush inaugurated the war on-terror by saying that whoever is not with him is against him. Bush, as the commander-in-chief of this war, only created more enemies. More and more are unilaterally declared enemies-of-state, the latest casualty being WikiLeaks’ spokesperson Julian Assange. We have been sucked into the trap by worrying that we will be perceived as soft on terror.

Jacob Burckhardt, a Swiss historian of art and culture, posed the following thesis: When a society becomes more complex, the need for radical simplifications quickly emerges. He noted this at the end of the 19th century, a time of nation-building, colonialism and wars. Now we live again in complex times, and this time around radical simplifications are again offered.

The debate on migration is an example. The American political scientist Samuel Huntington urged his fellow countrymen in his book Who are we? to defend the WASP culture against the influx of Latin-American immigrants. Dutch politician Geert Wilders warned in his short movie Fitna that Islam justifies its believers to use violence against non-Muslims. Both men want their country to be more homogenous and thus to return to more parochial times (it is, of course, a myth that such times ever existed). They play with fire by perceiving Latin-Americans and Dutch Muslims as a fifth column; they defend and define national culture against an enemy from within, unworthy of trust because they have multiple loyalties (for this reason John Locke, writing in the 17th century, excluded Catholic Britons from toleration).

We are constantly posed with hermeneutic problems. We could know how to act if we are able to understand a situation, however, we do not know who the other is or how she or he is going to (re-)act, which means that there is always a gap between what we need to know and what we do in fact know, i.e. indeterminacy. This makes our society an ambivalent place, which can lead to anxiety and fear. Therefore, the stranger needs to be deported or assimilated.

The stranger is proximate but socially distant. The danger is a renewed longing for “communityhood” — a community of thick relations of care — to exclude the stranger (from xenophobia to suburbia) … //

… If citizenship is not to be reduced to a passport and the right to stay within a certain territory, it should be connected to spatial justice. Citizenship should mean more than being allowed to be in a certain space, it should also mean that one is allowed to become of that space (to take Indonesia as an example: some are more equal than others, to paraphrase George Orwell’s Animal Farm, i.e. pribumi vs. non-pribumi).

Spatial justice requires that all citizens have the right to enter, use and participate in changing public space, as is happening right now in Cairo and other cities in Egypt. Spatial justice has also to deal with spatial segregation through the architecture of fear, which means that we need to address publicly the privatization of risk and anxiety. And, finally, it means an acknowledgement that we cannot speak for the other, but that we have to grant space for the other to speak for themselves and assure that we actually listen. (full text).

(The writer is a lecturer at the Faculty of Philosophy, Parahyangan University, Bandung. He can be contacted at Amor Fati by Roy Voragen).

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