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In a Risk Society, Is Consumption Our Only Tool to Influence Our World?

(Photo: Dice, Money via Shutterstock)

If anything, the original thesis concerning the “risk society” articulated by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck (1992) has taken on a new imperative after September 9/11, especially in relation to questions of security at all levels – national, personal and institutional.[1] Beck was the first to put the notion of risk on the sociological agenda focusing on environmental, health and personal risk. The transition for Beck is not from “industrial society” to “post-industrial” or “postmodern society,” but to “risk society” where the driving logic is no longer class politics as an organizing principle, but rather socially manufactured risk and risk management. No longer are inequalities of wealth and income paramount (although such inequalities remain), the chief problems are now environmental hazards, which cut across traditional inequalities.

As Beck explains, “Risk may be defined as a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself” (Beck, 1992: 21). He elaborates, “In contrast to all earlier epochs (including industrial society), the risk society is characterized essentially by a lack: the impossibility of an external attribution of hazards. In other words, risks depend on decisions, they are industrially produced and in this sense politically reflexive” (Beck, 1992: 183). In risk society, Beck argues, societal courses of action or policies based on calculated risk have been deliberately taken based on the assumption and paradigm of our technological mastery over nature. While Beck coined the term, British sociologist Anthony Giddens (1990, 1991) usefully relates the analysis of “risk” to the concept of “security.” Modernity for Giddens is a double-edged process, for while it has greatly increased individual choice (and freedom), it has done so at a cost which points not only to the “globalization of risk” (such as nuclear war or changes in the international division of labor) but also in terms of “institutionalized risk environments” – that is, new risks that arise from the nature of modern social organizations.

In the field of education, there has also been some talk of risk. Arguably, notions of “at-risk youth” and “nation at risk” pre-date Beck’s and Giddens’ uses of the term. “Nation at Risk” was the title that the US National Commission on Excellence in Education set up by the Secretary for Education, T. H. Bell, under the chairmanship of then- University of Utah President David Pierpont Gardner, in 1981. The commission chose to point to a new “Imperative for Educational Reform” (its subtitle). The risk is conceived as a national one, calculated against the future of America’s pre-eminence as a world leader both economically and technologically. It is a multi-natured risk that places an onerous burden on education as the basis for the nation’s future economic and technological competitiveness.

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged pre-eminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

The report focuses on the competitive element, comparing the United States in terms of efficiency to Japan, South Korea and Germany in producing capital goods. The risk is perceived as being not only tied to loss of position in the production of strategic goods, but also to the “redistribution of trained capability throughout the globe” that this signifies. The report goes on to emphasize an early view of the knowledge economy and the crucial role of education within it, stressing concepts of “excellence” and the “learning society”:

Knowledge, learning, information, and skilled intelligence are the new raw materials of international commerce and are today spreading throughout the world as vigorously as miracle drugs, synthetic fertilizers, and blue jeans did earlier. If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all – old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority. Learning is the indispensable investment required for success in the “information age” we are entering.

Fifteen years later, in 1998, the same rhetoric is revived in a document entitled “A Nation Still at Risk: An Education Manifesto” and signed by The Center for Education Reform President Jeanne Allen and 35 prominent Americans, including school superintendents, US Department of Education officials, businesspeople, state representatives, education commissioners, charter schools’ project managers, university staff, researchers and policy analysts from think-tanks (such as Diane Ravitch from the Brookings Institution), and leaders of various projects supporting what they liked to refer to as “standards” and “excellence” in education.

The risks posed to “tomorrow’s well-being” by “educational mediocrity” are now defined as “economic decline” and “technological inferiority.” The report reads: “Large numbers of students remain at risk. Intellectually and morally, America’s educational system is failing too many people.” The report suggests the Excellence Commission had the right diagnosis but was naive as to the cure. “The real issue is power,” the report advises, and the way the “power-brokers” and “bureaucrats” hold on to power. It goes on to state, “It should now be clear to all that the era of the big-government monopoly of public education needs to end … ” The nature of the risk is one spread by a failed public system of education that penalizes “children of the poor and minorities.”

The report’s guiding principles and strategies for changes are clear: public education must be deregulated; it must staffed and delivered in new ways; “a vast transfer of power is needed from producers to consumers.” And: “There must be an end to paternalism; the one-size-fits-all structure; and the condescending, government-knows-best attitude. Every family must have the opportunity to choose where its children go to school.” But in order to exercise their power wisely, “education’s consumers must be well-informed about school quality.” The main renewal strategies mentioned are: “standards, assessments and accountability” on the one hand, and “pluralism, competition and choice“, on the other. (Italics in original)

The document proceeds to outline the risk management regime for the US education systems in terms of “ten break-through changes for the 21st century,” including the now familiar “national academic standards,” “standards-based assessment” and “tough accountability systems,” alongside “school choice,” charter schools, deregulated teacher force, differential teacher pay systems and “essential academic skills.” Policy observers and practitioners in the United Kingdom will recognize much of the rhetoric and the national risk management strategy as that of the Blair administration’s approach to education policy in its second term, and as reflecting more generally the change of ethos in public service philosophy and provision.

The elements of the program of risk management can be described in terms of the shift from the Keynesian welfare state and compulsory social insurance to neoliberalism (or the culture of consumption) and a form of private insurance constructed through choice. Within this new regime, deregulation (or, said another way, re-regulation) represents an intensive juridification – a legal liberation and optimism based upon confidence in rules. On this model, the well-governed society is committed to the coherence of a framework of rules – that is, a codification – where the government increasingly steps back from actual involvement in state activities, now devolved to agencies, institutions or regions, to the meta-position of rule-maker. In this political environment, the economic, the constitutional and the legal or juridical forms of advanced liberalism overlap in the construction of the citizen-consumer.

Increasingly, alongside the “empowerment of consumers” – which simultaneously involves both their individualization and their responsibilization – is the belief in the efficacy of rules and the distrust of experts’ knowledge. These knowledges (and discourses) grew up with the welfare state – evident in the 19th century census as an instrument of governmentality – and began to exist increasingly independent of the state. Neoliberalism, considered as a risk management regime, involves the distrust of expert knowledges, especially those traditionally involved with the welfare state, such as social workers and teachers. Under neoliberalism, there is a shift to the creation of a uniform structure of expert knowledges based on the calculating science of actuarialism and accountancy – the audit society. “The social” is promoted as that which is capable of being governed – traditionally, the regulation of “the poor” and “pauperization” – now “work” and “unemployment” become fundamental modern categories of social regulation.

In this sense, neoliberalism can be seen as an intensification of moral regulation based on the radical withdrawal from government and responsibilization of individuals through economics, and it emerges as an actuarial form of governance that promotes an actuarial rationality through the encouragement of a political regime of ethical self-constitution as consumer-citizens. This involves modern forms of government of the self, where individuals are called upon to make choices about lifestyles, their bodies, their education and health at critical points in the life cycle – birth, starting school, going to university, first job, marriage, retirement. What is called “choice” assumes a much wider role under neoliberalism: it is not simply “consumer sovereignty,” but rather a moralization and responsibilization – a regulated choice-making.

Its specific forms have entailed a tearing up of labor law under the welfare state and an emphasis upon more privatized forms of welfare, often involving tougher accountability mechanisms and security/video surveillance. The risk society is put in place through actuarial mechanisms, and there is an emphasis on all forms of insurance as a means of reducing risk to the individual (in areas of employment, education, accident, security, retirement). In one sense, this is the primary link between government and the government of the self, which is promoted in its relation to choice-making through cybernetic and information systems. Neoliberalism has a suspicion of autonomous forms of self-regulation. Actuarialism is a mobilization of one predominant structure of expert knowledge and an interrogation of the autonomy which accompanies other expert knowledges of teachers and social workers (traditional forms under the welfare state).

On this view, modernity is characterized by a statist view based on contract. Keynesian welfarism is an interlude before returning to a form of statism and its distinctive forms of legal regulation involving a re-contractualization of social relations through the market. This emphasis on contracting the social is not simply a two-party (buyer/seller) contract, but rather a juridification of society in, for example, a contractualization of the university based on user fees and privatized student loans, where the issue becomes, “Are students (or parents or funders) getting their money’s worth?” This contractualization mirrors legal forms; it employs a proceduralization requiring notification, complaint in writing, personal redress, and so on, elements presupposed in the move to a litigation model.

The regulation of risk takes place through insurance and the responsibilization of the individual consumer, who increasingly is forced to become responsible for his or her own safety, health, employment and education. We might called this a prudentialization of social regulation: we are made to be prudent (as part of a wider moral discourse) and risk management of the social hazards facing us in modernity is based on the self-constituting prudential citizen under economic and contractual conditions.

It is not a truism in social science to say that we have passed from a metaphysics of the self as producer, which characterized the era of left politics and the welfare state, to a metaphysics of self as consumer, which now characterizes politics on the right, the neoliberal market economy and the provision of public services. In this shifting metaphysics, it is even possible to talk of the symbolic economy of the self and the importance of understanding processes of self-capitalization, self-presentation, self-branding and self-virtualization as market processes that simultaneously involve political, ethical and aesthetic elements.[2] We might follow Foucault’s lead to talk in terms of processes of political, ethical and aesthetic self-constitution through choice-making involving the purchase of goods and services and, in some cases, longer-term investment decisions.

A genealogy of the entrepreneurial self reveals that the relationship, promoted by neoliberalism, that one establishes to oneself through forms of insurance and personal investment – for example, user charges, top-up fees (the variable fees that replaced flat-rate fees at UK universities six years ago) and student loans – becomes the central ethical and political component of a new, individualized, customized and privatized consumer welfare economy. In this novel form of governance, responsibilized individuals are called upon to apply certain managerial, economic and actuarial techniques to themselves as new citizen-consumer subjects. Increasingly, under neoliberalism and the Third Way in the UK, risk and security management are associated with the new consumer-welfare regime, where an entrepreneurial self invests in herself – a form of prudentialism – calculating the risks and returns on this investment in her education, health, employment and retirement.

This process I describe as both self-constituting and self-consuming. It is self-constituting in the Foucauldian sense of choice-making shaping us as moral, economic and political agents. It is self-consuming in the sense that the entrepreneurial self creates and constructs herself through acts of consumption. Take, for instance, the example of a self-investment in an advanced degree undertaken over a period of four to five years, where the entrepreneurial self is paying for the degree herself (lets assume £2,000 per year for five years). This is an investment in her future, and it is made after a process of deliberation, of weighing up a range of factors including future security and employment prospects (a clear form of risk calculation and management). The investment is made in the self – in an activity that traditionally is held to be personally transformative – although it is made over a period of time and its success as an investment requires active participation (“work on the self”) by the subject. Certainly, it differs from the normal acquisitive model of consumerism, and one could argue that the purchase of (and investment in) services differs markedly from the purchase of commodities.

The neoliberal regime is supported by the rise of enterprise culture and “enterprise education” as an attempt to fortify neoliberalism and its conflation of autonomy with possessive, individualized consumerism and to subordinate the security of the producer to the freedom of the consumer.

There are substantial risks to citizen-consumers despite the emphasis on public watchdogs and provision of consumer information: effectively, the process of contractualization and tendering does not involve “the public” or the “consumer” in any collective decision-making sense, and yet it mortgages the citizen-consumer to a form of hire-purchase. The long-term financial and social costs of this mortgaging are not often clear. In an age of consumerism, the fundamental question is, to what extent, if at all, can the citizen-consumer shape privately funded public services in ways other than through their acts of consumption?


Beck, U. (1992) “Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity.” London: Sage.

Adam, B, Beck, U., Loon, J.V. (2000) “The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues for Social Theory.” London: Sage.

Giddens, A. (1990) “The Consequences of Modernity.” Cambridge: Polity

Giddens, A. (1991) “Modernity and Self Identity.” Cambridge: Polity

This is clearly evident in the growth of risk management and risk management education programs, especially since the perceived growing vulnerability of public institutions like schools. Some schools in the United States, for example, have introduced security systems based on the latest iris-recognition technology.

Self-capitalization refers decisions to invest in the self, especially where payment typically is undertaken over a period of years, such as in advanced degrees often completed part-time. Self-presentation refers to the new emphasis on symbolic goods and the ways in which the ethos of self-presentation prevails in a symbolic economy and depends often on “skills of self-presentation,” including personal grooming (hair, face etcetera), personal style, dress, body shape, body language, verbal presentation and, increasingly, the ability to change one’s overall appearance regularly. This is very Goffmanesque, although the creation of the self through the purchase of goods and services is given a much clearer market imperative that weighs on an “aesthetics of self” and is evidenced in examples of self-branding (that is, branding the self; “I’m a ____ person” – fill in the blank with “Levi,” “Coke,” “Gucci,” “Armani,” etcetera) and self-virtualization (that is, the creation of personal web pages).

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