The Limits of Cosmopolitanism: Ulrich Beck’s “German Europe”

By Bruce RobbinsJuly 18, 2013

The Limits of Cosmopolitanism: Ulrich Beck’s “German Europe”

German Europe by Ulrich Beck

Triptych image: Diamantis Sotiropoulos, "Threat"

IN THE SECOND WEEK of June 2013, the Greek government closed down the nation’s public television and radio stations, firing all their employees. This sacrifice to the austerity gods was timed to coincide with a visit to Athens by Greece’s European masters (with the help of the IMF), who have made privatization of public assets and mass firings of public workers a condition for disbursing bailout funds. Sending the journalists home cut down live coverage of the general strike that naturally followed: public transport, hospitals, and so on. The news since then has continued to be bad, in every sense of the term. Unemployment in Greece is already climbing toward 30 percent. Everyone knows by now that the official European policy of austerity is a day-to-day disaster. And everyone knows that the real power behind these measures is Germany.

Something is wrong, Ulrich Beck writes in the first paragraph of his short book German Europe, when one democratic state can decide the destiny of another democratic state. This may seem obvious, but it needs to be said. Beck’s book can afford to be short because it tells us, mainly, things we already know. The book is nonetheless very valuable because it speaks stirringly against Germany’s current leadership of Europe, because the speaker is an eminent German sociologist and public intellectual to whom Germans will presumably listen, and because it makes you want to delve deeper into these everyday mysteries. One might have even wished the book were longer. It would have had to be if Beck had taken more time to explain how he finds clarity in the midst of an economic crisis the technical details of which are, as he says, so damn obscure.


Being clear about obscurity was what made Beck famous. His book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1986) was a global bestseller that made the uncertainty of outcomes into the basis of a new theory of the present. According to Beck, the industrial age, with its emphasis on rational calculations and elaborate planning, was over. Risks of various sorts — especially financial and ecological risks — had now come together to define a new age, a new social system, a new condition of generalized uncertainty: risk society.

At the time, Beck seemed to have discovered the sociologist’s Holy Grail: a new way of describing modernity, and one to which the whole world would bow reverentially. In retrospect, his attempt at rebranding may not stack up all that well against, say, the Digital Age, which was about to dawn in the 1990s (and since then has itself aged rapidly). But the risks Beck talked about were real, and his ambitious bid to define how we live now got serious attention. Another thing his risk-centered version of modernity had going for it was that it was, by critical theory standards, surprisingly cheery. It managed the neat trick of making room for the likelihood of ecological catastrophe (more Chernobyls), while refusing the kinds of pessimism and melancholia fashionable among gloomy anti-modernists in the Nietzschean vein. For Beck, living with risk meant living with perpetual self-consciousness; being perpetually self-conscious, while stressful, meant you were hypothetically capable of acting so as to avert the worst. Compared with peers like Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, Beck kept on the sunny side of life.

This early optimism spilled over into subsequent books on globalization and cosmopolitanism. Globalization, Beck wrote in What Is Globalization? (1997), had deepened the divisions between rich and poor and put toxins into the flesh of penguins many thousands of miles away, but it was also “arousing a cosmopolitan everyday consciousness which transcends even the borders between man, animal, and plant. Threats create society, and global threats create global society.” On the whole, then, globalization was not such a bad thing after all. Little by little, it was replacing an obsolete sense of national sovereignty with new, attractively transnational modes of identification, compassion, and solidarity.

Again, this nicely balanced dialectical account has not aged particularly well. It is evident now, if it wasn’t before, that national sovereignty is not obsolete, and that not all of its defenders are narrow-minded chauvinists. Beck’s theory of modernity, viewed from today’s vantage point, seems too enraptured by the leap from the national to the transnational plane, and unready to think hard about political antagonisms persisting at the larger scale that such a leap would do nothing to solve. He’s too negative about the nation-state, too sure about its transcendence, and not cautious enough about a state-transcending impulse aimed less at putting an end to war than giving a boost to global commerce.

Cosmopolitan Vision (2004), Beck’s next book, celebrates the European Union as a concrete embodiment of cosmopolitanism. First and foremost, he says, the EU must be celebrated for achieving peace among nations that have a bloody and long-standing tradition of warfare to live down. (As an exercise, think of just those wars fought in the 19th century by innocent little Denmark as it was pried loose from its hold on adjacent territories; I count six.) In the same conciliatory spirit, Beck favors the admission of Turkey to the EU. “Europe is becoming an open network with fluid boundaries,” he writes, “in which the outside is already inside.” This is a bit poetic, perhaps, but it can be brought down to earth as follows: Economically speaking, Europeans are already connected to places like Turkey, as Turks are already part of Europe. What is needed is a political mechanism enabling the Turks, as well as the Europeans, to vote on the consequences of economic interconnections in which they are already immersed, but without the pertinent decision-making power. That transnational political mechanism, Beck argues, is what the European Union should be.

Or perhaps that is only what I wish Beck had said. He is a lot more eager to talk about peace than he is about economics. The great accomplishment of the EU, as he sees it, is to have wrested power away from militaristic nation-states. But what is that newly acquired power supposed to be used for, or against? What are cosmopolitanism’s enemies? Since the end of the Cold War, “militarism” has not been an adequate answer to this question. Once the peace is being kept, then what? Sometimes it seems as if cosmopolitanism’s enemy must be Europe itself, either its colonial past or its somewhat xenophobic present. Self-critique is one of Beck’s highest values; he accuses postmodernists like Foucault of a covert alliance with nationalism because both express insufficient faith in reflexivity. But what seems to matter most in his eyes is not applying reflexivity so much as possessing it. Self-critique is something Europe can congratulate itself on, perhaps even something distinctively European: “Could […] radical self-critique be what distinguishes the EU from the USA and from Muslim societies?”

The last chapter of Cosmopolitan Vision, entitled “Cosmopolitan Europe,” calls for European intellectuals to defend “the eastwards expansion of Europe against the timid, faint-hearted reservations of nationalists.” The 2004 enlargement of the European Union to which Beck is referring — the largest in the EU’s history — ended up granting membership to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Beck echoes the official line of Europe’s political and economic elites, most of whom hungrily imagined the benefits of various sorts that were to be enjoyed from bringing aboard countries that were both ex-communist and less economically developed than the existing members. There is something a bit eerie about the assumption that only nationalists could possibly object to the new geopolitical alignment. This was, after all, a commercial deal. Do we believe that deals like this are always win-win?

Beck’s EU seems to be a society of winners in which the only losses are the ideological ones suffered by the proponents of nationalism and militarism; small-nation socialists would not count as losers, for example, even if his unified Europe represents most fully the interests of the big corporations. As long as military force is not involved, Beck is happy to think of the EU as an empire. That’s the note on which Cosmopolitan Vision ends, and it’s also the one on which German Europe begins. “In contrast to other empires, which traced their origins back to myths and heroic victories,” Beck writes, “the European Union was born out of the agony of war and as a response to the horrors of the Holocaust.” Notice that, despite its ethically immaculate conception, the EU is described here as another in a long, noble line of empires. Imperial power without the messy and embarrassing bloodshed: that sounds like a somewhat touched-up portrait of global capitalism.


Which brings us back to Germany, Greece, and the economic crisis. We do not even have an accepted name for this crisis: is it a financial crisis, a sovereign debt crisis, a credit crisis? By whatever name, the crisis for Beck is another example of risk society in action. Nuclear power stations “might have an accident; the financial markets, which even the stockmarket jugglers no longer seem to understand, might crash. This is the subjunctive as a permanent condition.” More specifically, it illustrates the “spread of non-knowing” that risk brings with it. “What are we to make of the fact that nobody understands what is happening?” Beck asks. A crisis like this is a hard thing to rally demonstrators against. Beck quotes a German commentator who quotes a left-wing politician who says something that many of us have no doubt wondered: “What are you supposed to write on the poster? ‘Crisis, piss off?’ ”

Beck’s positions may not be quite poster-ready, but several of them are very forcefully put. For example: the costs of maintaining Europe have not been equally distributed. Non-European refugees tend to enter Europe from the south, and although Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal receive some EU payments for their trouble, the social and economic burden of dealing with refugees and other migrants still falls disproportionately on the Mediterranean countries. It’s why anti-immigrant violence has been rising there, and a reason to call for pan-European solidarity.

Germany, Beck argues, should be more supportive of its southern neighbors for reasons that are pragmatic (if they fall, we will fall with them) as well as ethical (if we are more prosperous, it’s because they have been buying our exports). “Germany has undoubtedly profited politically, morally and economically from Europe, from the euro and also from the crisis,” he writes. “Pressing for European political union is therefore very much in [Germany’s] interest […] [I]t would amount to political suicide if Europe were to come to grief because of German stinginess.”

Austerity does not work as economics. Unfortunately, it has boundless appeal as a quasi-religious precept. German taxpayers are all too eager to believe that others are slackers while they themselves are self-disciplined and even ascetic. As Beck points out, there is a straight line from austerity back to Martin Luther’s slogan “Suffering purifies.” (For that matter, the impulse to self-punishment also adds a certain irrational appeal to environmentalism, thereby inviting anti-environmentalist backlash.)

Beck reminds us, and we can never be reminded too often, that we have been misled by economists who claim to master all the technicalities of 21st-century capitalism. “[E]xpert economists lead both politicians and the public astray,” Beck writes. “The economists neither can nor will grasp the scale of the social costs that a relapse into nationalism and perhaps also xenophobia, violence and dictatorship would bring to the Greeks.” “That’s not my department,” as Wernher von Braun answers in the old Tom Lehrer song, when asked where his rockets come down. The point is valid if also self-interested: for decades, economics has been the disciplinary bully on the block, and sociology has been much picked on. What can an expert sociologist like Beck provide us that the expert economists don’t?

Like all would-be cosmopolitans (I include myself), Beck knows the concept suffers from a deficit of strong popular feeling. He no doubt wishes he had the magic formula for a pan-European populism that would not be nationalistic or xenophobic. His own language is high-toned rather than populist; though not academic in the worst sense, it doesn’t always improve on the officialese around him. He uses the phrase “middle classes” the way President Obama does, as if it included everyone except Mitt Romney. In Europe, which invented the idea of the working class, this is not going to fly. “If people are to experience Europe as something more meaningful, the appropriate slogan must be, ‘More social security through more Europe!’ ” Well, maybe, but “more Europe!” sounds as if Beck had been spending too much time hobnobbing at Davos with his fellow wizards.

Apropos of northern perceptions of southern misbehavior, Beck mentions the memorable picture of the Venus de Milo giving the world the finger that ran in the German tabloid Bild in late 2011. A good cosmopolitan like Beck would never permit himself such a vulgarity — and, even if he did, where would he point it? Somewhere beneath German Europe’s floorboards lurks the question of whether this hypothetical gesture, should it work its expressive way into Beck’s urbane prose, would be aimed at German voters or transnational bankers. As the first among the now numerous theorists of risk, Beck might have been expected to intervene a bit more strongly against the financial sector’s deliberately obscurantist packaging and marketing of risk in the form of new financial instruments. It’s hard to see any solidarity as real unless someone is not included in it. And who better to exclude than the banks? It is the banks that have been rescued by so-called “rescue” packages; almost none of the bailout money goes to the man in the street. Their investments protected, the bankers and brokers have been racking up even higher than usual bonuses as Austerity Man knocks vainly on doors and prowls the internet in search of work. But Beck does not seem eager to supply his cosmopolitanism with enemies, even in the financial industry.

German Europe also makes an odd philosophical detour to defend humanism against Carl Schmitt, the anti-universalist German thinker who insisted that there can be no politics without enemies and that your choice of enemy is a free one, without need for justification or explanation. If Beck had an intellectual enemy, it would probably be Schmitt. Yet it may be that Beck can’t shake loose from Schmitt because he senses, however reluctantly, that his own concept of risk belongs in the theoretical tradition Schmitt inaugurated — specifically, that of the “state of exception.” Risk, like the state of exception, is welcomed for its ability to suspend the rules: “[T]he anticipation of a catastrophe can lead people to do things tomorrow that were absolutely inconceivable yesterday.” Like Schmitt, Beck marks off a zone of the inconceivable, the unpredictable, the inexplicable. This gives him access to hope, but it discourages him from doing all the explaining that he might have done. What if risk is not so inexplicable after all? What if the stock-jugglers knew very well what they were doing when they made it so hard to trace the contents of the new financial instruments? What if the same were true of the credit rating agencies that signed off on them and took the big fees for it? In that case, the point would be to explain, and to accuse, and perhaps even to make some vulgar gestures.

I, too, hope that the urgency of the European situation will make politically possible measures that would have been inconceivable not so long ago, like a tax on financial transactions or “joint liability.” With the wheels of the European bus hanging over the cliff edge, it may well be that chances have improved for the kind of cosmopolitan cooperation that would once have seemed utopian. But, as critics like Naomi Klein, Craig Calhoun, and Bonnie Honig have warned us in the past, the opposite result is more likely. When the cry of “emergency!” goes up, take care; someone has probably been planning bloody murder. Panic is not the best state of mind in which to check that everyone’s long-term welfare is being equally considered. Historically, recent disasters have served as excuses for neoliberal experiments in privatization. That’s what’s happening in Europe now.

It is by no means impossible to describe the current European crisis in moral terms: Mediterranean governments tax too little but borrow and spend too much (for example, on a bloated public sector); hence, they are unable to pay their debts. Beck could have explained in more detail the ways in which this description is wrong. Whatever the Greek state’s corruption and incompetence at collecting taxes, for example, the public sector in Greece is actually quite small, proportionally speaking. A major reason why the government could not repay its debts was damage done to Greece’s shipping and tourism industries by the global financial crisis and recession of 2007–2008, damage that can be attributed pretty directly to Wall Street and the bipartisan policy of market deregulation that set the brokers loose to play with so much of the world’s money (though not all of it). In the United States, the idea that both major parties are at least partly responsible for Europe’s economic troubles is not the common-sense view. The point needs making because, considerate as Europe has been of its bankers, it has been less so than the United States and the United Kingdom, whose governments consistently take international positions defending their respective financial industries, whatever the impact of those industries on the rest of the world.

Beck cannot be blamed for blaming Germany first. But national self-critique is a tricky business. As Sacvan Bercovitch showed in his classic analysis of the American jeremiad, national self-critique can easily flip-flop into national self-aggrandizement. In reproaching ourselves for our fall from some high, founding principle, we stake a claim to be its rightful heir, a claim that doesn’t apply to other, lesser nations. In much the same way, though Beck starts out unequivocal — “A German Europe violates […] [the] basic principles of any viable European society” — he ends by making his peace with the idea of a special role for Germany. If his fellow citizens were to become more European, he says, they could properly become “the schoolmasters and moral enlighteners of Europe.” If the mood among European nations were to swing in favor of genuine solidarity, he has no trouble imagining that Germany might “put itself at the head of this coalition.”

On the same page, Beck imagines this coalition coming to include two further allies: “the players in the global financial markets” and “the populations of the debtor nations.” This apocalyptic image of Greeks and bankers falling into one another’s arms is a bit of a stretch. The lion and the lamb shall lie down together, but, as Woody Allen says somewhere, the lamb won’t get much sleep.

Beck begins with the scandal of Germany deciding Greece’s destiny, but he does not argue that every nation should decide its own. And on this fundamental question he’s right. It will be a tough sell: to many Greeks, the idea that it’s necessary “to cede various sovereign powers such as control of one’s own budget for the sake of European autonomy” will sound like more of the same — like being told, once again, to close down their public television and radio. The point is that as things are now, it’s the banks that are laying down the law, so to speak, without anyone voting up or down on the situation. Democracy won’t be real in Europe until that kind of law has to be proposed, debated, and voted on by all concerned. Beck has moved us a small step closer to this highly desirable consummation, and to a unified political will in Europe, by getting his readers accustomed to thinking of a “European Germany” rather than a “German Europe.”


Bruce Robbins’s most recent book is Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State (Princeton, 2009).

LARB Contributor

Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His books include Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (2012), Upward Mobility and the Common Good (2007), Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (1999), and The Servant's Hand: English Fiction from Below (1986). His essays have appeared in n+1, The Nation, Public Books, and the London Review of Books. He is also the director of a documentary, Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists, available at


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