Risk, Return to Industry, and the Future of Democracy

Lukas Szrot


Reflecting on 2020, I argue that the United States has failed, both as a representative democratic republic and as a state. Drawing on social behaviorism of Mead and the pragmatist tradition, this failure has been cultivated by widespread, institutionalized mistrust, expressed in and exacerbated by conspiratorial thinking. I argue, drawing on Mannheim and Adorno, as well as social movements scholarship, that such thinking is interest-bound, weaponizing mistrust, and is broadly psychologically appealing but ultimately disempowering, serving the ends of hasty praxis, failed activism, ruling-class ideology, and false consciousness. I examine two possible sources of institutionalized mistrust: the “culture wars” thesis which argues that mistrust is iteratively linked to polarization along religious, racial, and cultural lines, and Ulrich Beck’s vision of a “return to industry” in which responses to novel hazards are constrained by techno-economic imperatives that further politicize knowledge and splinter class loyalties. I emphasize the second explanation without discounting the first, arguing that this approach to hazards, from COVID to institutional discrimination to climate change, is both unsustainable and self-thwarting in terms of rebuilding social trust. Then, drawing on Beck as well as scholars from the U.S. pragmatist tradition, I offer possible future visions, including but not limited to avenues toward restoration of social trust the United States, based on this analysis.


social theory, critical theory, sociology of risk, sociology of knowledge, cultural sociology, pragmatism, symbolic interactionism


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