Foto: Catherine Culp

Interview with Ulrich Beck by Milica Jovanovic and Dejan Ilic

Cosmopolitan perspective seems to be the core of optimism of the renowned German sociologist Ulrich Beck, who speaks of all sorts of crises with unrelenting interest in human condition. Professor Beck visited Belgrade last week as a guest of The Group for Social Engagement Studies (Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory) and the Heinrich-Boell Foundation, giving lectures on saving the European project. He spoke for Pescanik on historical and contemporary stressors that challenge this project, anticipating yet another political Copernican turn.

A quarter of the century has passed since the Berlin wall was torn down. What political and social processes do you consider crucial for the event in 1989?

Often it is said that this was something like a miracle, indeed none of us couldn’t believe it. The big word of those days was “unbelievable”. But there’s a very specific history, and the event could be traced back to many influences. One I find very interesting is the background of human rights initiatives, starting in Stockholm already in the 70’s and 80’s, which had huge influence for the whole situation in Eastern Europe. And then there is another interesting aspect found in the politics between two Germanies; there were two systems confronted, so some kind of cosmopolitan politics was the background for this success. The threat of atomic war created the common interest between military contradictions, which opened up a small space for politics on both sides. So, actually, the German politics was successful not because the Germans interacted on local but on global level, which sets up an important paradigm.

And how would you judge this period after the fall? Were the expectations met, 25 years later?

All those expectations and hopes were certainly not failed, but it didn’t work out quite right either. For example, I was at the sociology department on the German level, and we were asked to evaluate communist faculties and institutions of sociology. I said I was not going to do it, but of course others did it, which wasn’t very fortunate. They were the ones who said ‘this is where you have to go’, instead of asking what kinds of experiences could become part of our common future. I think we should have done that instead.

Of course, it was a very important European event, with all the other countries involved. It was a start of a new vision for Europe, and this vision was very important, to some extent successful, but not as successful as we wanted it to be. In my opinion, one of the main visions, or main successes of EU, is that transformation of enemies into neighbors. In the history of Germany this is quite a successful move, and I think this is actually the essential meaning of the Union. It didn’t work out in this region, though, and today again we are in the situation when we don’t know what is going to happen. But this vision of how enemies become neighbors is very important.

In the late 1990’s, commenting on events in the Balkans in between wars, Fareed Zakaria devised a term “illiberal democracy”, to describe an order in which there are basic democratic mechanisms and procedures, but which fails the very idea of a political community of free citizens. This concept of a non-liberal democracy recently gained momentum with sharp criticism of Orban’s Hungary – where we could also add emerging autocrat Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbia. How do you explain these phenomena?

We should not only look at Europe in this sense, I think there is a larger picture which we have to make. But I would say that we are in a situation where we are highly cosmopolitized, we are experiencing interdependence in our everyday life, on issues like climate change, finances, and so on. This may come as a shock to many people, when they suddenly realize that this world out there is a part of their daily existence, which they didn’t vote for, and they don’t know how to act. So there is a reaction to close down, to reinvent ethnic, national identities – leaders create angst, distort perception, they start to manipulate in very clever ways. This even happens inside EU, as you say in Hungary.

Concerning the Russian aggression in Ukraine, I now think we are in a situation where two visions of nationalism collide; on one hand there is, I would say, cosmopolitan nationalism – it’s not anti-nationalism, it’s cosmopolitan, which means acknowledgement of the others as part of your national identity. This gives more security in Europe, it’s enriching the sovereignty of the nation as well. On the other hand, we have this more territorially bounded, ethnically dominated nationalism, which is more aggressive to some extent. Others believe cosmopolitan nationalism is aggressive as well, because it’s a contradiction, but I think in this situation, the countries especially in this region have to make a decision – what kind of future they want.

EU offers economic success, but in my opinion, EU offers a perspective in which the ethnic identity can survive in a cosmopolitanized world. The idea of an isolated, territorially defined ethnic nationalism is actually a contradiction in itself in a globalized world. From a more theoretical perspective, I would say we are changing to a world in which we could talk about ‘cosmopolitan realism’ and a ‘national idealism’. People used to say that nationalism is the real thing, but I think it has now turned around. Opening up is the only way actually to have a long time perspective in this complicated globalized world.

We have cosmopolitan everyday life, but we don’t have cosmopolitan identities. From that perspective, if you look what is going on right now in Spain for example, it seems that national identities are too strong despite this daily cosmopolitanism. You propose for a Europe of cities and regions, a kind of a political network of authorities that would keep EU together – although, it is not clear how finances and security would be controlled within such a network. If you connect money or power with this idea of national or ethnic identity, things in Spain become more understandable.

It’s a very important question, and of course not an easy one to answer. First, I would say, you are correct, this cosmopolitization of everyday life is not happening in the minds and identities of people, they still have fixed ethnic or religious perception. But I think it is important to notice that even if you want to be successful with, say, anti-European party you have to go for a seat in the European parliament, otherwise nobody cares about you. You have to take part in the European system in order to be against it. Another example is if you look at terrorism, the Islamic state has a globalized perspective in order to have anti-global politics.

So, on the level of action it is quite interesting that this cosmopolitization is a matter of becoming successful. I just want to notice that, it is a contradiction between identity and action. I would like to look at those people that are trying to go back to the nation state and reinvent ethnic identity, how they really act, if their acting is correspondent to the way they think. Well, this is more of a sociological remark, it really doesn’t answer your question.

My idea comes from a very specific question: so far, we have European institutions and I would say that the structure of these institutions is quite cosmopolitan; we have, for example, a very interesting law system on the European level, etc. Very interesting things. But the minds are still national: we have a cosmopolitan structure and national minds, and the question for me is how these fit together. I ask myself, how can the European vision, or European structure become a part of what people want and what people think. There may be many ways to think about that – one way may be to think of a regional identity, which is closer to individuals, their history. That could be a sub-unit where people find ways to indentify; often those regions are in a way cosmopolitan, or should be. Another way is with the cities, they are open, definitely more cosmopolitan, they are cross points of ideas, people.

Maybe we should not think of the ‘united states of Europe’ but of ‘united cities of Europe’. But, you are right, then the question of distribution comes up. Well, to me, we need a different Europe. What we have now is the first, very important, emerging development of European Union, but I’m not sure if this is going to work in the future. Therefore, we have to think about those things. Maybe the way we think about member states, or about Serbia and other states that want to become members, should not be a one-way ticket, maybe there should be movements about regional or specific expectations to Europe, how to change and open up to the specific history of this region. This may make quite a difference, well, bring this voice to the European public, I think it would be an interesting experience.

You think that European institutions are flexible enough?

I think that they should be. I haven’t met the president of the Commission so far, but I know quite a few members of the Parliament and other EU institutions, and I think this is a historical situation where Europe – because of the crisis – knows that something has to change. We have to capture and accept the differences, different perspectives and historical experiences, and there has to be a new way of connecting. Not in a supra-structure, not a supra-state, supra-nation, but a way – and this is a cosmopolitan way – to try to connect the differences and acknowledge them.

Scottish independence referendum had both territorial nationalist and pro European aspects, while the movement – as opposed to London – offered some distinct answers to immigration, austerity, benefits, European policies, and other issues. This referendum brought hope for post-nationalistic policies in Europe. Now, with Hungary on one and Scotland on the other end, do you think that Europe can sustain itself without political ideals, on a pure economic calculation?

It’s a very good example to look at those two cases. I was ambivalent in the Scottish case, I have to confess. But, the Scottish are more European than the British, this is an interesting point, they wanted to become part of the European union, and the British are not so eager any more. Now, it’s a situation that is not as clear cut as people believe it is, because for example the Scottish are supposed to have their own taxes, and it is not clear how it is going to be executed in the British system, etc. Europe is about building and rebuilding borders and limits, and now the old borders between Scotland, Britain and Europe don’t function anymore. There’s a movement going on even if it seems to be a settled matter, I find this interesting as well – how do the British get along with these new expectations created by the Scottish, how does the European system get along with it.

In the case of Hungary I would say that actually there’s a limit in accepting this kind of politics, and this limit has been crossed. I think Europe should be more clear in its perspective and say ‘we don’t accept this’. Europe is not a foreign state, it is a mixture, you can’t have different politics for domestic and for European public. It is not this way anymore, we are on both sides of politics, and therefore it would not be an intervention into a sovereign nation, but actually raising the issue of how is the principle and idea of liberal democracy being realized there. And I would wish that there is a more strict public reaction. In Germany there is a lot of criticism, but in the matter of real consequences there has not been done much.

What has happened with the European idea? It is as if they have given up on ideology, policies, values, and instead turned to mathematical calculation. Hungary is again a fine example: while the laws suppressing press freedoms and minorities, like Roma, were being passed, Europe was like ‘we don’t have mechanisms to build pressure against that’. But when Hungary changed its banking policies, Europe was very fast to say ‘no’. Hungary is very close, not only in the matter of geography, local policies in Serbia are developing that are very similar to Hungarian. Official German stand is to support Serbia because of few practical foreign policy details, but when it comes to internal policies, they say it’s your internal matter, we don’t want to interfere. These are real concerns.

How I see the situation now, there’s a sudden geo-political, strategic play involved in Europe as well, and this is pretty much related to the intervention of Putin, and the issue now is if Putin wants to put Serbia on his side, or prevent it to become a part of the EU. In this situation, as you say, Merkel could say well, there are more important issues, we don’t care so much about the basics of the European value system. I think this is a risk which we are facing.

What I find interesting from the European perspective, what makes it so specific –compare EU for a moment with the USA. Nobody wants to become a member state of the US, everybody is afraid of the US as an imperial power. And lots of countries want to become part of the EU. The power of the EU is that when those countries want to become members, they are making some basic reforms in the law system, fighting corruption, implementing structures of democracy, and this is quite remarkable. This is actually the power of EU.

I myself would think that it would be a mistake not to stick to this idea of Europe in order to become a member, because afterwards we have a lot of problems, not a common value system, etc. All kinds of things are happening, we may even have a strong fraction of anti-European countries being part of the Union. This would be counterproductive, so I think your concerns are very important.

Would you say that Putin’s Russia is a failure of Europe?

There are two aspects of this issue. The first one is that actually, in the early stage, we should have been open enough to offer Russia membership in the Union. I know it would have been very difficult, but it would be good in a long perspective. I think we are in the situation now where this exclusion is even worse. The other one is that, I would make a distinction between Russian elites, Putin’s interpretation of politics on one hand – and Russia on the other. I have been quite often in Russia, and in my experience or at least what people have told me, is that his foreign politics, this intervention in Ukraine, is a part of politics which is actually related to Moscow as well. Putin has lots of resistance among people who are for openness and more democracy in Russia. So he wants to put an example in order to suppress the possible resistance of citizens in his own country.

We have to see that we cannot look at countries as we used to, they are not homogenous, there are lots of movements involved, they are cosmopolitanized, I would say, it’s a different picture. So, yes, this is a situation, I think, and it’s important to realize that if we accept this military intervention to some extent as a necessity, at the same time we have to again signal that others who are open and want to become part of Europe as a value system still have an important work to do. I’m quite amazed at the German chancellor Merkel, in my opinion she is doing quite an interesting job in this relation, because perhaps of her eastern European experience and the memory of the Soviet Union and Russia.

It should be said that this pressure for change in order to become EU members, almost stopped by gaining full membership in case of some countries, for example, in Romania and Bulgaria this transformation was not very successful, at least as far as we can judge from here. They continued with their own agenda. In the matter of Russia, let’s agree that Germany has a good policy towards Russia at the moment, but then we have this problem with the EU and because it is not homogenous, there are many influences and interests within. For example, there are post-socialist countries which are very keen to have a strong answer to this Russian behavior in Ukraine.

It’s very difficult, you are right, there are all sorts of contradictions. I think, like it has been in the past, there have to be pioneers for the European issue. This expectation that all countries move at the same time, in the same direction, I think is not very realistic. And in this situation, because of so many different aspects, so many different nations in Europe, it is very important to have few countries that are the center of EU, who just go ahead and try to find answers to those new issues.

And the problem with Germany in these last years was that it somehow mixed too much German and European interests, and it didn’t really take responsibility. German politicians said, well, we are not leading but still we are actually imperialistic power in economic terms. This is a very ambivalent position. Now, I think, lots of people distrust Germany and now we are finding that all this isn’t as good policy as it seemed at first.

I think there are some chances for a change; it would be important that Germany takes European common interest first, and say we are not only interested in our own economic growth, and instead really try to find new ways for the situation, how to involve other countries and European parties. And there are quite good chances for it to happen. I’m in communication with SPD and others as well, I think they are starting to realize that there has to be a new European initiative, in which others should take part as well. Is it going to be strong enough, and is it really going to work – that’s of course another question.

The energy crisis tangled with political turmoil in Ukraine, could also be seen as one aspect of a crisis that recent reports speak of as imminent danger – global warming. How is it possible that humanity didn’t understand this risk?

I’m looking at the climate change from a sociological perspective, and I’m saying on the one hand it is a thing that happens in nature, which is an ongoing process of destruction etc, but from a sociological perspective, the main thing is the anticipation of potential catastrophe where we have to find an answer. And this is quite a mobilizing force, in the sense that people think that they cannot live the way they have lived and it is a very fundamental concern of everyday life and politics, etc. The problem is if you look at catastrophes, you don’t see it as a man-made, they are just natural catastrophes, so many people don’t take it seriously.

But if you just look at what happens in the society, it gets more interesting. For example, there was a flood in Serbia last spring, which was quite severe and hit many people, and suddenly there came solidarity beyond national borders. It’s not the answer, but the society is changing. To some extent, my idea is that this, let’s say movement of change, which mobilizes people, threatens existing structures. Because if you have some very nationally bounded idea of politics, suddenly climate change, at least seen in sociological consequences, opens a different way of looking at the world, and pressures existing order to transform.

I think those cultures or political systems that believe, or are forced to believe in ethnic national identity, have a problem in making climate change an important perception of reality because of potential power of transformation. So, when I look at the climate change I’m not only a pessimist – I’m not an optimist either, but I just see enormous changes that are happening in the social and political spheres.

One would think that in 21st century huge scientific and technological advances should be that agent of transformation. Yesterday a spacecraft landed on a moving comet 500 million kilometers away…

Indeed, and with such events we somehow get an image, or a feeling of mankind. The mankind as a point of reference. Maybe it is going to be something like a Copernican turn – so far we have thought that the world is turning around the nation, but now we start to realize that nations are turning around the world. And now we have to find out how all this works.

Pešč, 15.11.2014.