Unrevolutionary Revolution

In the opening essay to Reflexive Modernization, Ulrich Beck defines the phrase in the book’s title as “the possibility of a creative (self-)destruction for an entire epoch.” This creative destruction is not the product of a crisis but the result of the “victory of Western modernization” (2).

Quoting Marx and Engel’s famous description of social worlds melting into air, Beck explains: “If simple (or orthodox) modernization means, at bottom, first the disembedding and second the re-embedding of traditional social forms by industrial social forms, then reflexive modernization means first the disembedding and second the re-embedding of industrial forms by another modernity” (2).

Modernization turns on itself, and subverts its own social, economic, and political achievements.

One implication of this concept, Beck argues, is that it is possible for a new society to emerge without revolution (contra Marx): “The new society is not always born in pain” (3). Wealth as much as poverty can “produce an axial change” in social problems (3).

He offers some examples of modernization turned against modernization: “More participation by women in work outside the home . . . is welcomed and encouraged by all political parties, at least on the level of lip service, but it also leads to an upheaval in the snail’s pace of the conventional occupational, political and private order of things. Temporal and contractual flexibilization of wage labour is striven for and advanced by many, but in sum it breaks up the old boundary lines between work and non-work” (3).

These “small measures with large cumulative effects do not arrive with fanfares, controversial votes in parliament, programatic political antagonisms or under the flag of revolutionary change” and so are missed by sociologists. “More of the same, so people believe, cannot produce anything qualitatively new” (3-4). It is Beck’s thesis that this belief is false.

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