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The big lie

Ulrich Beck talks with Eckhard Fuhr about why full employment is an illusion and why Kafka's works belong to the classics of sociology.

Die Welt: Do you know how you’ll vote if parliamentary elections are held this autumn?

Ulrich Beck: No, I’m still not sure. I hope there'll be more to choose from than just "more of the same" that all the parties are dishing up at the moment - perhaps a new party programme and new faces. Then it would be easier to choose.

What faces are you thinking of?

I can’t say for sure. But I can't imagine that with five million unemployed, the same old team of Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer with their same old ideas will be able to win the election.

But you do know "what the choice is". At least that’s the title of a polemic you’ve just published. What is the choice, what's at stake?

The alternatives being outlined by the parties and portrayed by opinion pollsters at the moment don't correspond with the opinions that a majority of voters seem to hold. If you were to look at the candidates' individual strengths, you'd get very different results. I think Schröder would have a good chance of winning if foreign policy was the key issue. But in terms of labour policy, most people don’t like him any more. It’s not clear what course Frau Merkel is going to choose. She’s brilliant at maintaining an eloquent silence. No matter how much the parties oppose each other, there is no real alternative to speak of.

So no clear battle lines have been drawn?

No. The parties are in agreement about three key points: they all say they want full employment, they are trying to achieve that within the framework of the nation state, and they all want to use some form of neo-liberal medicine to do so. All of these premises are dubious.

So the old theory that growth creates jobs no longer holds?

I think you have to look a bit closer. We're dealing with an increasingly fragile labour market. I call it "Brazilianisation". What that means is that traditional employment patterns that guarantee social security and a living for a whole family are on the wane. But what until now was considered the exception – frequent changes of jobs, some of which have to be carried out simultaneously to support a family – is becoming the norm in Europe. The "jobs miracle" that's taken place in some European countries like the UK is based on this trend. But this isn't "full employment" in the old sense of the term, which would also solve the problems of the social security system. First of all politicians have to change people's expectations, and not create false ones. So growth can create new jobs. But for many people that will mean a deterioration of their living standards.

You talk about "the society of less". Is your argument built on the critique of growth that was fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s?

The situation today is completely different. Back then we were talking about new individual lifestyles, about a conscious decision to stop consuming, about opting out of traditional career paths and alternatives to work – and all against the backdrop of what was generally still a secure social situation. Today we really need to draw on what people discussed back then, but this time because it's an emergency, because we have to. That's just the way it is: when unemployment becomes an everyday experience, the idea that alternatives to employment are desirable loses a lot of its attraction. We need to consider those visionary ideas, especially now. As I said, resurrecting the old idea of full employment is illusory. But German politics still clings to the idea. And it’s a big lie.

But aren't ordinary citizens lying to themselves as well?

I think the electorate is more realistic. At lease they sense that the era of full employment belongs to the past. Politicians who admitted that might be able to garner more trust.

You say the situation in Germany is such that it would be more appropriate to describe it using Franz Kafka’s parable "The Metamorphosis" in which Gregor Samsa suddenly finds he's turned into a beetle, than by using political or sociological analysis. Have things gone so far that Germany can only be understood by means of literature?

I’ve been thinking about how to summarize theoretical figures I've been working on for years in a way that allows them to be effective in the current political debate. And Kafka's "Metamorphosis" is an outstanding parable for the diagnosis of the "second modernity". There's a considerable overlap between the theoretical idea of the second modernity and what Kafka attempts to express in "The Metamorphosis". What is happening is a metamorphosis, and not a crisis. So there's no going back to how things were before. The theory of the second modernity holds that the radical implementation of the principles of modernity – autonomy of the individual, the market, scientific rationality, etc. – pulls the carpet out from under the modern institutions – above all the nation state. As in "The Metamorphosis", something happens to us that we don't want, and that we don't want to accept or understand. An ever greater discrepancy is emerging between our actual situation and our concepts of reality and normality. Kafka describes this with incredible precision. His works belong to the classics of sociology.

So can literature allow sociology to cover new ground?

Yes, especially the paradoxes of modernity have to be cast in concrete narrative forms. With Kafka this happens in a way that can directly nourish the development of sociological theory, just think about the difference between "change" and "metamorphosis".

One of the leitmotifs of your writing is the theory that those seeking answers to the challenges of the second modernity should look to Europe, and yet Europe is in deep crisis.

Europe has always been in crisis. That's what's made it a success story. The current crisis is being misinterpreted because we have false expectations when it comes to Europe. Motivating the no to the constitution by the French and the Dutch could also be a yes to Europe. There are European motives for that no, a vote that I'd argue is a vital expression of democracy. It's an expression of European scepticism. People who want a technocratic consensual model or a Europe based on national sovereignty and homogeneity can easily overlook that. Europe is based on the recognition of variety and differentiation. It's something completely new that cannot be expressed using the terminology of political and democratic theory.


The interview originally appeared in German in Die Welt on July 14, 2005.

Ulrich Beck teaches sociology at the University of Munich and the London School of Economics. His works include Cosmopolitan Europe, Reflexive Modernisation, The Brave New World of Work and Power in the Global Age.

Translation: Stephen Taylor.

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