Economic failure

“Safety and danger coexist in the same objects and practices. Under the right (or wrong) conditions, everything we need for life can also maim or kill: water can drown, food can poison, and air can choke. Babies cannot be born without risk to the mother, nor can they grow to adulthood without facing innumerable dangers” (Wildavsky: 1988:5). The aim of this paper is to assess why it is argued that we live in a ‘risk society’ as well as a ‘regulatory state’.

By the end of this paper it should be clear that we do indeed live in a ‘risk society’ and a ‘regulatory state’ despite what others like Margaret Thatcher might argue. There should also be a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between the ‘risk society’ and the ‘regulatory state’. Before engaging in any meaningful discussion it is essential that the key concepts surrounding the discourse be clarified. The ‘risk society is not intended to imply an increase of risk in society as implied in some of the literatures, but rather it is a society organized in response to risks.

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“It is a society increasingly preoccupied with the future (and also with safety), which generates the notion of risk”1 and subsequently ‘the regulatory state’. Ulrich Beck defines ‘risk’ as a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced by modernization itself (1992:21). It is also conceptualized as the potential for harm and/or safety. This definition posited by Aaron Wildavsky seeks to include the probability of safety, which slightly deviates from the definitions offered by other scholars.

Rowe sees risk as ‘the probability of encountering negatively-valued events’ (qtd. in Wildavsky: 1998:3). It is the governmental interference with market or social process to control potential adverse consequences (Hood: 2001:3). The idea of the regulatory state is “the process in which governments’ role as regulator advances while its role as direct employer or property owner may decline through privatization and bureaucratic downsizing” (ibid. 6). Are we living in a risk society? Why?

“From floods to rail safety, from industrial polluting to food, wherever we turn risk appear to be at the top of public policy” (“Making Sense of the Risk Society”). The major proponent of ‘the risk society’ is Ulrich Beck, who argues that ‘the risk society’ is indeed a world risk society where people and their governments are caused to prepare for and deal with innumerable risks of many different kinds, in many different forms. He argues that “the risk society is a catastrophic society [where] the exceptional conditions threaten to become the norm” (1992:24).

According to Beck risks are no longer to be seen only as the dark side of opportunities, they are also market opportunities, resulting in profit for some and affliction for others. The ‘risk society’ was conceptualized as a result of the different risks people worry about – the possibility of encountering risk is deep and perverse throughout the world and as a result often take center-stage of policy making. Risks are produced in the form of voluntary and involuntary, natural, social, and man made risks.

According to Wildavsky (1988:5), the axiom of connectedness holds, there is no choice that results in no harm. At the level of public policy the main dangers can be grouped into four groups according to Mary Douglas (1982:2). These include:  Foreign affairs – risk of being attacked or encroachment; war; loss of influence, prestige and power.  Crime; internal collapse; failure of law and order; violence versus white collar crime  Pollution; abuse of technology; fears for the environment; and  Economic failure; loss of prosperity.

These have all assisted in creating a climate of anxiety about the direction and management of our technological future. According to Beck in World Risk Society, the residual risk society has become an uninsured society, with protection paradoxically diminishing as the danger grows. Why is it argued that we live in a ‘risk society’? At the apex of the future, which reaches into the horizon of the present day, industrial civilization is transformed into a kind of `world cup’ of the global risk society. Destruction of nature and destruction of markets coincide here.

The answer to this question becomes quite lucid as the very ecosystem on which life depends is being threatened. The earth is under severe ecological stress caused by exponential growths in population, overexploitation of its resources, widespread pollution, defilement, contagion or impurity which all inflicts some harmful interference of natural processes, causing governments to reorient their approaches to public policy so as to incorporate mitigation measures to guard against an impending catastrophe as a result.

Even more alarming is the fact that all these hazards are intricately intertwined thereby producing greater exposure to other risks, as demonstrated by the ensuing global warming brought on by unsustainable environmental practices and ozone depletion. Increased ultraviolet rays from the sun penetrating the earth has given rise to increase in cases of cancer associated with exposure to too much sun. “Irreversible changes are explosive and unstable; each deviation growing larger is so altered it can never return to its original state” (Douglas: 1982:21).

The risk produced by modernity induce systematic and often irreversible harms, which generally include above all radioactivity, which according to Beck completely evades human perceptive abilities, toxins and pollutants in the air, the water an foodstuffs, together with the accompanying short and long term effects on plants, animals and people (1992:23). The `BSE crisis’, a textbook example of risk society, scientifically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the ‘mad-cow’ issue emerged during the 1980s, 1990s and has since been making international news.

The subsequent connection associated with the human variant of the disease Creutzfeldt-Jacob and consuming meat from cattle infected with mad-cow disease epitomizes for Beck and others the features of a risk society (Hood: 2001:3). Other prominent features of the risk society advanced by modernity include the risks associated with genetically modified organisms which pose potential dangers for the human population in the future. For example it is alleged that chickens are now being raised without feathers for consumption in an effort to reduce the labour and time put into plucking them.

This could further give rise to diseases in the future and may be associated with the rise in levels of bird flu in recent times. The risk society has led to the compulsory slaughter of well over a million chickens that are considered to pose risk of a serious global epidemic, as governments poise to deal with it before it reaches such a stage. We live in a risk society because increasingly we are caused to institute risk management systems in an effort to deal effectively with and prevent where possible harmful effects associated with risks.

We are susceptible to a number of diseases which has confined scientists to decades in their laboratories working arduously in search of means and ways of treating, preventing and curing these diseases. The risk society produces diseases ranging from flu (likely to be the next global pandemic) to leptospirosis (currently on the rise in Jamaica due to recent natural hazards which affected the island recently), to the more detrimental cancer and AIDS affecting the global hemisphere.

“Today there is 4. 5million known chemicals with perhaps 45,000 in commercial use. It takes a team of scientist 300 mice, 2-3 years, and about US$300,000 to determine whether a single suspect chemical causes cancer” (Douglas and Wildavsky: 1982:53). According to Beck (1992:24) socially recognized risks contain a peculiar political explosive; what was once considered apolitical becomes political in the risk society. What emerges in the risk society is the political potential of catastrophes.


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