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Is Risk Society a "Risko-cracy" ?

Conférence du 24 anril 2002, Université de Portsmouth, Park Building, Dept of Environment, invité par le pr. Michalis Lianos, CEIST.


(is Risk society a « Riskocracy » ? )

by Denis Duclos

Every day the international media tell us how dangerously we live. Each of us tries to resist this permanent alert, but our happiness is seriously affected. We become anxious citizens, full of phobias, immersed in security rituals, surrounded by challenges that we launch against each other. It is necessary to ask to what type of shadowy social power the media give more influence by creating such a paranoid climate. Is this not the true risk, the risk to be convinced of Risk’s omnipresence? It is time to disentangle the hank of Risk, if we don't want to abandon our cultures to a very sterile and indeed dangerous anguish.

As it currently replaces the traditional fears of damnation or famine, the risk is firstly an exceptionally effective tool of influence. How can a public captured in the net of omnipotent insurance consortiums, watched and guarded by myriads of policemen – one for every 250 residents in France – and security agents, sustained by armies of safety engineers, health inspectors and all sorts of councillors , and tortured by the current journalistic "alertism", how can this public forget that Risk is a vast source of profit, employment and, above all, authority?

There are indeed various Risk discourses, frequently in contradiction with each other . Antagonistic powers minimise the risk of their own activities by increasing that of others: the executives of the nuclear industry denounce road accidents which cause incomparably higher casualties than nuclear plants, but insist on the virtues of nuclear energy in terms of the greenhouse effect, which is of course vigorously contested by the oil industry. Car manufacturers on the other hand criticise the existence of trees along the roads, which are supposed to cause in France more than 800 fatalities per year. Investors condemn zero risk, since it constitutes an ideology of prudence which thwarts shareholder zeal, but the austere managers who believe in "zero system failure" hold exactly the opposite position, just as the adepts of “zero tolerance” do for all those forms of deviance that are suspected to bring young people closer to terrorism.

But Risk subjugates us precisely as a scene of discord. Because insurers, technicians, military people, moralists or economists loudly disagree about risks, lay people see perils swarming, pullulating, without any possibility to reach agreement on how to face these perils. As debates on danger become more frequent, each risk professional increases his shares in the anxiety market, or makes boosts the tone of his interventions. The first effect of the risk theatre is to bring public anxiety to boiling point.

A second effect ensues immediately: the various forces tend to mutually forgive themselves, and invariably agree to bring to the fore the “human factor”. They will incriminate the individuals involved in the risky functions and, more often than not, those who are at the bottom of the scale: the captain of the rusty boat hired by Elf-Total-Fina, the worker smoking next to ignitable fumes, the operator manipulating the bars of a nuclear reactor without respecting the procedures, the long liner pilot who made the wrong decision when landing…; that is, the simple citizen who might be a hidden delinquent, and who will now have to prove that he or she is not as identity controls and moral score checks become increasingly frequent. Individuals are easy targets and cannot escape the full range of prevention, protection and retaliation measures, while organisations handle these much better. In France the most highly publicised trial of the last decades was supposed to establish the responsibility of high standing medical professionals and politicians in the transfusion of patients with contaminated blood. Despite this, the blood industry is still practising the pooling of plasmas, a technique that contributed in the past to disseminate the AIDS virus. Heating systems now eliminate this danger, but no one can tell if pooling blood products will transmit other non detectable pathogenic particles. Similarly, despite measures taken all over Europe after the mad cow scandals, the producers of animal flours that very strangely manage to remain anonymous, are still operating on a large scale; this is probably not entirely legal.

There are many organisations who are responsible for spreading harmful forms of asbestos in their plants or offices. Because of this, several hundreds of thousands of fatalities are expected in the next decade; and this is only in France. However, these companies will not be prosecuted, but will only be subject to some technical adjustments. Their victims, on the contrary, are sometimes accused of failing to report their symptoms in time. They also pay the price for a massive industrial error, such as the decree which forbid the sale of cars manufactured before 1993 and covered 20 millions of vehicles containing asbestos in some of their parts. Even when the risk is attributable to an identified manufacturer, its power may stop the justice. This is quite clear in the case of the thousands of victims of the giant oil spill caused by the tanker Amoco-Cadiz in Brittany, who, 24 years later, still have a very hard time trying to receive compensations won in American courts.

It is easy to chase away residents of council estate towers which are to be torn down, officially because they are unfit for housing, but more probably because of the fear of potential commotion caused by the ethnic minorities that inhabit them. It is much more difficult to move away harmful installations. While some criticism re-emerges in France on the issue of dangerous plants following the explosion of the AZF factory near Toulouse, we tend to forget that these types of installations have been duly regulated for many decades, particularly after Feyzin, Seveso or Flixborough. The real question is of course how to control in the long run an urbanisation which is creating strategic electoral populations? And how to master the standardised managerial priority of reducing staff and substituting in their place a remote operational control that is as abstruse as it is technically incompetent? In many notorious catastrophes, such as the explosion of the refinery in Mexico City and the leak of mortal gas in the Indian chemical plant of Bhopal, the authorities seemed helpless against the arbitrary power of the manufacturers. They could do nothing to prevent the demoralisation of staff, which is the main route for adverse events in production units.

By contrast, control over individuals seems a very natural way of preventing risk . When public health specialists want to place a ‘sneak’ on cars, like those installed in trucks, they do not really disagree with the coalition of insurers, motorway maintenance companies, car builders and police forces, who will easily accuse the driver of selfishness or sociopathy. Sparing the manufacturers who are thought to have satisfactorily increased the safety of vehicles, this easy consensus allows for example to shift the focus away from several negative developments, such as the bad quality of the network of small roads, the erosion of European motorway road surfaces by the almost uninterrupted flow of lorries, the constant increase of vehicle engine power, the incentives for consuming highly polluting diesel, the increasing ownership of vehicles per suburban household which is now spreading to the remote commuter villages, etc.

The big organisations are united by their common interest in not acknowledging these structural defaults, and prefer to focus on the “psycho-cultural profile” of the driver. Why should they acknowledge the studies showing that the trend towards higher accident rates increases with the extent of the semi-rural road network, which favours both the speed and the number of vehicle encounters? On the contrary, the guilt of the individual is to be cherished by the organisations, which see their client, be it a user, a taxpayer or a citizen, as a raw material for their activity.

Preventative control discourages some behaviours, but it does not solve every problem; for example, it does little for the fatigue of the lorry drivers. Furthermore, it stifles professional heroism, which is in some cases the only effective way to prevent adverse events. In a recent trial, nuclear industry operators in France were condemned for taking necessary steps, which were not authorised by due procedures. This points to another aspect of the risk scene: the classical combat between dignity of persons and arrogance of hierarchies.

Of course, a few whistleblowers attack from time to time the universal amnesia of organisations. There are the famous figures of the combat against silence, like the American biologist Rachel Carson who proved in the sixties how harmful the use of DDT was for the environment; there are many other American environmental heroes. You have also heard, I am sure, of Professor Richard Lacey, who has tried to publicise the hypothesis of mad cow disease being transferred to humans, despite the strong rejections of British authorities. In France, André Cicollela has studied for twenty years the dangers of glycol ethers. Professor Viel has observed the effects of low radiation around nuclear factories. Marcel Goldberg and Ellen Imbernon have surveyed the same phenomena on both in-house and out-sourced workforces. They also continued the work of Henri Pézerat on unveiling the massive scale of the asbestos tragedy after the crucial legal battles of the seventies in the United States.

One should conclude therefore that compared to the great socio-technical machinery, the individual is not an important agent of risk. I think we must make ourselves deeply aware of this fact before adopting Ulrich Beck’s “risk society” hypothesis. As you know, this thesis implies that the contemporary individual is a perpetual administrator of the uncertain, a vigilant controller of self and the others. Looking at the balance of real risks, and the way in which the individual is systematically seen as the main cause of these risks, I think we must consider the reserve point of view and confine the scene of the substantive risk only to the organised concentrations that govern today individual behaviours more than they ever did in the past. This is not only a matter of balancing responsibility that is attributed to the organisations on the one hand, and accusations against careless individuals on the other hand. The very intensity of risk as a focus has to be reduced on the whole, because the current environment of fear overburdens each person with guilt, while it multiplies at the same time the administrative and technical barriers to freedom, starting from the freedom of thinking about… the real risks.

It is necessary then to distinguish between real risk and imaginary risk, even if this classical distinction has been declared naïve and trivial by our friend Bruno Latour. Both are linked, since a fantasy can become harmful, but the way of processing these two forms of risk are opposite: we address directly the ‘objective causes’ of real risk, while we can only reduce imaginary risk by stopping the spiral of indignation and repression, by appeasing those fears that are in fact unrelated to the danger that apparently triggers them. But imaginary risks sound like real risks when one listens to professional alarmists. So how can we tell the two risks apart?

The real risk focuses on obvious facts, which have occurred or are likely to occur, and which affect large populations; facts like a major accident, a localised disaster, a progressive or a precipitated epidemic. The real risk calls for public opinion pressure in order to show to organisations how they have been blind to their own operation, how they have displayed contempt to ‘reality’ and how this contempt led to fatal negligence. This ‘reality’ is almost invariably built with two components: the material environment and the human actors. When it is difficult to generate opposition on the material environment, it is easier to generate it on the human side, even when the real stake is a well determined environment. From this point of view, it is not important if the issue involves a wild forest or marine environment, an urban area, a piece of cultural heritage, a hydrographic system, or air quality. There will always be some humiliated human actors involved: the users of the natural milieu, a poor population around the factory, overexposed temporary workers, the residents of a nearby community, the people of a dominated country, and so on. The real risk has to be real for someone, in concrete terms. This is why for example climate change was not easily recognised firstly as real, and secondly as a risk; it could not be easily associated with an alliance of material interests.

The most real risk is a perceived adverse event which carries the potential of catastrophic reproduction. Then, because of its large scale, it finally becomes necessary to address its collective origin. The American school of risk has, for twenty years now, determined a number of logical possibilities for collective and organisational risks. Either the organisation harbours criminal trends, following the theory of “organisational delinquency”, mainly developed by Diane Vaughan, or is confronted with a uncontrollable level of uncertainty, following Charles Perrow’s theory of normal accidents. In this context, some canonical catastrophes have been taken as topics for a great number of studies, which together amount to a new discipline that one could call ‘riskology’ or ‘cyndinics’.

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on the 28th of January 1986 comes under the first explanation of organisational delinquency. Each professional discipline that participated to the launch lost itself in its effort to outbid the others, thus brushing aside the awareness of the risk and making its calculation impossible. Under the same delinquency heading, one can put the leak of lethal gas which occurred in the Union carbide plant in Bhopal, India. This was indeed due not only to criminally liable technical failures in maintenance committed by the American managers, but also to the desertion of executives and middle rank Indian engineers, following the awareness that the factory would close down.

On the side of the “knowledge-limit”, I would take the example of the almost tragic flood of the French nuclear plant of the Blayais by the waves of the Gironde river during the storms of December 1999. The extent of recent climate irregularity was indeed hardly foreseeable during the construction of the plant in the seventies. Of course, one might say that there is an aspect of criminal negligence in not taking account of such possibilities when building a nuclear installation. The design of such installations should arguably include “stochastic” catastrophic risks, that is risks that are very unlikely to occur in statistical terms. The large installations that are identified as “dangerous” are presumed to be closed systems with highly reliable response mechanisms, but they can always be betrayed either by the environment, or by their own complexity. The typical example here remains the accident of the Three Mile Island on the 28th of March 1979, when operators were inundated with... false information from the security system, which led, as we know, to cumulative errors.

One can apply Perrow’s paradox, namely that “knowing too much about risk causes in itself insecurity”, to a number of large technical systems, such as trains, ships, flight control systems, etc. As a result, the main trend in the cognitive approach of the disciplines around ergonomy and safety has been shaped in the ten last years by one obsession. That of automating and computerising the purely cognitive aspects of risk control, in order to prevent human decision and invention in as many unpredictable situations as possible. Paradoxically enough, the progress in computerising work has led to displacing the essence of risk beyond the limits of “computability”.

Determining forensic liabilities and covering the price of possible loss are two opposite and classical attitudes to risk: the legal responsibility of management responds to collective delinquency. When faced with uncertainty, one covers the risk according to probabilities that are calculated on the basis of past occurrences. There is, however, a third solution: not to proceed at all until it is possible to resolve the technical questions!

But with the expansion of the domain of risk, following the expansion of human power over the planet, the very clear categories of responsibility and capacity to insure appear increasingly unclear and confusing. As Ortwin Renn, another German sociologist specialised in risk has shown, delinquency and uncertainty can become quite impossible to embed.
For example, when the risk emerges ‘upstream’, at a very early stage in the process, and spreads in an unpredictable manner, as it happens with the development of a toxic seaweed, or the irruption of a new disease, how can we impute the cause and to whom? When one does not know for sure how BSE is transmitted to sheep, the very function of forensic language is at stake. But the risk can also be impossible to embed when it presents itself ‘downstream’, for example in the case where we cannot stop the propagation of GMOs in the natural environment. And when causes and effects can clearly be established, is it possible to incriminate a whole social class or an entire sector of activity? For example, can we incriminate nearly all European or North American modernised farmers who massively pollute groundwater sheets and rivers?

When we ignore the long term effects of low intensity radiation, or of changes that are thought to be irreversible, such as a genetic mutation or global warming, how can we address the issue? How can we translate it in social, economic or political terms? Even when the facts are clearly disastrous, what can we think and do when the scale of the disaster exceeds all possibility of insurance, all technical regulation and all due forensic process too? What of events like Chernobyl where all people directly responsible for taking wrong action died during the accident or a few days later? At first sight, it seems logical to separate facts than can still be treated with good old methods, and entirely new kinds of risks. But that, too, does not work very well because these new risks are developing very fast, as the old ones tend to decrease and become routine.

For instance, the French Federation of Insurers complains, I quote, that it is “no longer able to accompany business’s increasing concerns with responsibility”. Beyond this euphemism, one can see the billions of damages caused by a computer virus like Loveyou, the withdrawal of defective products, the wreckage of a tanker, the massive destruction of animals and of huge quantities of animal flour, etc. Having paid tribute to the some 3000 victims of the collapse of the World Trade Center, insurers now remind us discreetly that the towers were filled with thousands of priceless pieces of art.

François Ewald would present insurance as a conquest of civilisation upon the legal conflicts that tore apart the 19th century, and a guarantee of modern democracy. Is this still true when policyholders reach the limits of their financial capacity in trying to obtain cover, while at the same time ever more constraining policy terms are imposed on them? Is this true with the occurrence of adverse events whose underlying cause should be endorsed by organisations following public demand?

The attribution of responsibility by the courts is less and less a panacea. Identifying the responsibilities of management brought more transparency, but litigation often produces low fines, compensations and sentences, which are not commensurate with the immense destructive powers of organisations. Furthermore, as Philippe Vesseron, the director for prevention of pollution and risks at the French Ministry for the Environment, puts it: “manufacturers and officials try to act in most cases in a responsible way, without thinking all the time of their criminal liability”. In some cases the strong forensic trend and awareness of liability inhibits the normal display of professional care and caution, instead of increasing vigilance. Worse still, the threat of legal sanction, henceforth permanent, can incite people and organisations to seek to shield themselves from all future legal action against them; this is clearly reflected for example in the “notices of discharge” that hospital patients must often sign. Other similar perverse effects are those of organisations and individuals being driven by possible media attention, to the detriment of their professional ethics. As things stand, it is not surprising that numerous experts now help businessmen to systematically explore loopholes and contradictions in the laws, in order to avoid their civil responsibilities Just like the “sound wall” can only be perceived a certain time after the passage of the plane, a “risk wall” is now emerging, a long time after the multidimensional increase of adverse events that are due to human activity. We can define this wall by an oxymoron: the more we take risks, the less we can acknowledge and treat them as risks.

Once this paradox is understood, it completely neutralises Beck’s theory of another modernity which is entirely based on reciprocal vigilance. Just because this vigilance has no legitimate and pertinent purpose, we are unable to define what risk is, and how to reduce it. Pursuing the issue of real risks, I shall propose here that, instead of a necessarily authoritarian ‘risk society’, the only way to master the most real among these risks, that is to say the institutional and organisational risks, is to refocus contemporary democracies on regulating organisations and give at the same time more freedom to individuals. This is quite the opposite of the way chosen by western countries since 1990. Thus, when the American Republicans decided to dissolve their congressional Office of Technology Assessment, they took the heavy responsibility of stopping all serious criticism on energy expenditure, which is as such a major cause of pollution and military conflicts. Conversely, when the unpalatable Chinese regime closes down a great number of coal mines, it helps commit the Chinese culture to the reduction of societal risk. When in France nothing is truly planned for the progressive replacement of the nuclear energy production system, and nothing is done, despite the well known dangers and pollution from extensive lorry use, to develop trucks-on-trains networks – we call this “ferroutage” – the political élites are effectively hiding themselves in denial.
Let me also note that in these examples there is no need for the accurate calculation of risks, or for the sophisticated choice between levels of forethought and caution. These are very simply matters of reasonable political choices.

But let us talk now about imaginary risks, which does not mean unreal risks. “Unreal” might, for example, appropriately characterise the absurd but widespread fear that the ingestion of GMOs would modify the genetic composition of the eater, or the belief that one is more in danger in the flight that follows an accident or a terrorist attack. This classical superstition explains the persistent decline of flight reservations, long after the 11 September 2001. Nevertheless, those ‘unreal’ risks are never that unreal. They indicate legitimate anxieties, such as anxieties about the generalised manipulation of living beings, or the growing power of techniques of aggression and massacre.

Imaginary risks focus, often unjustly, on scapegoats. Thus, the fear of being mugged by youths often hides a xenophobic hatred and leads to a series of measures, such as body and house searches, arrests and arbitrary detentions, phone and e-mail tapping, etc., whose victims are increasingly unrelated to the true offenders. The very idea of “world terrorism”, which supposedly targets everything, from airports to universities and maternity hospitals, denies the fact that suicide-attacks are not statistically spread risks, but depend on confined antagonisms, even if large numbers of people can fall victims to such attacks. But in a society that takes itself to be in a generalised crisis, this terrorist climate stimulates all that it seeks to fight. As it supplies the ideal pretext for “increased security”, it gives more arbitrary power to watchmen and controllers, and changes the spaces of liberty into model-prisons.

Many imaginary risks are built to veil shameful desires. For example, the frequent expression of regret for the very real problem that AIDS is in Africa, might reflect in some cases a hidden wish: could an epidemic resolve overpopulation? Another example, which is quite different. The conscious or unconscious refusal to expose one’s intimacy in a public space may lead to bizarre fears, like the fear of catching some illness while using a mobile. It is quite possible that this secret fear uses some real medical concern around microwaves in order to legitimate itself.

That reminds us of what Véronique Campion-Vincent called “urban terrors”: mygales in yuccas, strychnine in canisters of sedatives, or razor blades in apples distributed to children during Halloween. Little based on facts, these camouflage other fears: the fear to see the poverty rising from the exotic product, to admit that the medicine is a drug, or that the child that knocks on our door at Halloween might be closer to what he or she is mythically representing: the transfixed Death demanding its due, and receiving in return the hatred of the Alive. These western fears are echoed in other, less known, terrors, like the anguish of being snatched in an ambulance – very fashionable in India; the fear, in China and Japan, to see one’s substance emptied by a sorceress disguised as a lover, or in Latin America, the terror to wake up without one of your kidneys, which will have been snatched by obscure transplantation circuits; this is a nightmare which has a counterpart in countryside people and consists in being devoured by an ogre disguised as a gringo... or as a prostitute met in a bar!. Who would not recognise in these fantasies, some variations of sexual guilt?

Of course, my aim is not to propose here any kind of regulation of fantasies about risks.
I would only like to point out this: if, on the one hand, real risks become less and less possible to capture rationally, and if on the other hand, imaginary risks are on any moment ready to inflate themselves spectacularly when they are given a chance out of their irreducible and chronic production by individuals, is there not a most real risk? The risk of mixing up reality and fantasy into a sort of hallucinatory risk?

And, supposing that the registers of controllable risk are saturated, is there not a major risk that the risk becomes a threat in itself? That the language of risk inspires, in the end, a language of personalised fear, a language of incrimination, but an incrimination which would go far beyond the outdated forensic categorisation (categoreo meant in Greek and Latin “I accuse”), and allow some unlimited hostility against a superhuman competitor, against an inhuman monster?

Let us remember, at this point, that the contemporary Evil figures of terrorism, prepared and preceded by the monstrous figures of mass and serial killers, notably in America, tend to take the place of the somehow old fashioned Risk.

During the twenties, social and ethnic fears helped to militarise peoples: from a tender age, everyone had to wear a black, a red, khaki or feldgrau shirt. But today, one can get ‘soldierised’ around Risk, this enemy with a thousand faces. We can see in the modern urban crowd of the “free countries” a proliferation of uniforms. All sorts of escorts, helpers and security agents, rescue teams, public agency workers, switchboard operators, hostesses, executives with badges, even milk, pizza or parcel deliverers. Behind the uniform, orders and regulations oblige each wage-earner to display vigilance. Each one of these people is aware of alerting procedures in case of viewing suspicious behaviours as well as technical and procedural faults. The trade unions’ tradition of whistle-blowing stems out of denouncing working conditions, but has strangely converged with the survivalist training paranoia in the worrisome excitement of informing on everyone and everything suspicious.

This drifting worsens with the dramaturgy of ‘world terrorism’ and becomes more harmful because it builds on facts and is fed by scientific ‘riskology’. The partisans of freedom must question the expert construction of risk, which has been operating for twenty years now and has introduced the re-thinking of social relationships in terms of security. Objective as it wishes to appear, the scientific discipline of Risk has a taste for killing liberties, and this is as problematic as the problems that it is intended to solve. It is time to bring to light the limits of the scientific knowledge of the riskologists, before the authoritarian neurosis that accompanies the times of crisis builds further legitimacy against our democratic principles.

The main limits I see to the field of risk refer to the fact that the risk tends to divide itself into different perceptions which are simply different ways of dealing with life and culture. This very division implies that there is no approach which can claim pure legitimacy against other approaches. This tells us that if we wish to live in a relatively secure world, it is probably very important that none of the specific risk discourses achieve a complete triumph over the others.

In the great theatre of uncertainty and lack of control over our lives, we know that the experts share public beliefs, just as Paul Slovic’s surveys show. The experts divide themselves and build their disputes along the same lines of opinion which divide the public.
-Some of them ask who is responsible and call for caution.
-Others, sure of their industrial experience, propose safety concepts and devices.
-A third group, acknowledging peoples’ right to choose their technologies, prefer to construct debates on future orientations.
-Finally, a fourth group, composed of the more adventurous, research the catastrophes that fascinate them. They return to admire the dark beauty of the event, much like the volcanologists who look forward to climbing an eruptive crater. In doing so, they remind us that in all disasters, human communities experience festivity, solidarity and heroism.

These different lineages of contemporary ‘riskology’ cannot mutually cancel themselves without error or injustice. The pursuit of the diabolic hyper-celebrity which threatens an Americanised humanity will not in itself suffice to represent all these different perceptions of risk, including the most open and adventurous ones. But the noble wish to reconcile these perceptions in a sympathetic, soft style of managing and governing post-modernity might also be problematic.

We project indeed our cultural, consubstantial anguish on different faces of the world. It is important for our individual security – which is probably the most important one – that no superpower or other super-legitimacy take advantage of our fears and impose a homogeneous, collective approach of risk. We must take at least one risk. That of allowing contradictory passions about risk to exist, in relatively autonomous ways.

Thank you.

Lundi 31 Août 2009 - 14:43
Mercredi 11 Novembre 2009 - 02:41
Denis Duclos
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