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Commentary :: Social Welfare
The Descent Society
23 Jan 2017
A society of social descent, precariousness and polarization has emerged out of the society of ascent and social integration. The social state was the institutional form of the counter-movement and is a de-commodifying institution since it socializes risks.

By Oliver Nachtwey

[This reading sample of "The Descent Society" published in 2016 by Suhrkamp/ Berlin is translated from the German on the Internet. ]


Risky businesses and creative independence can lose attractiveness for students. Public service can seem to them like one of the few places with job stability, security and calculable advancement. The petty-bourgeois occupational perspective of young academics is only a small part of a society where the collective fear of social descent seems all-pervasive. How could this happen?

The historical memory is often short. Therefore only a few may remember that the German economy in 1999 was still regarded as the "sick man of the Euro." At that time, the unemployment rates climbed to ever new heights. Today, the reality is different. In Europe altogether, unemployment is at record levels. In Germany, on the other hand, there were never as many employees as in 2016 and never so few unemployed since the reunification. While European states sank in the whirlpool of austerity and the economic crisis, the German economy resisted the trend. But this is little more than a beautiful appearance. Germany is part of the "crisis of democratic capitalism" (Streeck 2013) like the other European countries.

In this book, a fundamental social change that is occurring in most western capitalist states will be explained in the example of the German development. A society of social descent, precariousness and polarization has emerged out of the society of ascent and social integration. That is the main thesis.

Since the economic miracle, Germany has been one of the countries where poverty only played a marginal role. The enormous social inequality in Germany, the strong growth of the low-wage sector and the increased precariousness are easily ignored amid the euphoria over "the new full employment." For a long while, the pillars of social integration have been eroding and crashes and descents have increased below the surface of the seemingly stable society.

Literature is a sensitive seismograph for this change. Since time immemorial, longings for social progress have been recorded in literature. In her novel trilogy about the life of Hildegard (Hilla) Palm – the Hidden Word (2001), Awakening (2009) and the Game of Time (2014), Ulla Hahn with a fine touch described the ascent society in the decades after the Second World War. Hahn tells the story of her protagonists in which love for literature and the desire for self-determined life meet. Hilla is extraordinarily gifted and attended high school. Even if her family persisted in simple conditions without ambitions, she had an ascent through education that was exemplary in that time.

When literature tells us the social present, it relates stories of failure, uncertainty, descent, and crash. In the factual novel "Furniture Store" (2015), a former journalist writing under the pseudonym Robert Kisch recapitulates his own social descent from a writer to a furniture salesman. This is the story of a long downhill fall. It gives evidence of the change of a whole branch that a few years ago promised vocational prestige, self-determined activities and a good income. This world of journalism does not exist anymore – or only for a few. "Furniture Store" is not the only example. In her progress report "Seasonal Work" (2014), the author Heike Geissler describes how she could not live from writing anymore and saw herself forced to work for the mail-order business Amazon… Many writers like Georg M. Oswald "Everything That Counts" (2000) and Silke Scheuermann "The Houses of Others" (2012) told of the downhill slide from security.

Literature is not a diagnosis of society but often conveys much truth about reality.

This book pursues classic questions of sociology: In what kind of society do we really live? What holds groups and individuals together and why do they drift apart? How are inequality, rule, social integration and social conflicts connected? Many of the theses presented here with sociological passion are risky in a certain sense since empirical confirmation is still lacking in some areas. Moreover, these theses were developed in the example of a single nation state; inter- and trans-national aspects are only discussed at the margin (so a cursory sketch of European trends is found at the end of the volume). Describing and understanding developments of the last decades in a historically comparative way is central [cf. Mills 2000 (1959)]

The first chapter discussed a social constellation that is partly in the past: the heyday of the social modern age. In the social modern age, the social state thrived, old class barriers were removed and social mobility and education chances multiplied. Children from working class families attained a level of individual development that was long unknown. Ulrich Beck coined the term collective "elevator effect" for this development (Beck 1986). Citizens emerged out of proletarians – only limited citizens since the model of the male family breadwinner prevailed in the social modern age.

Since the 1970s, the constellation of the social modern age gradually lost influence because capitalism no longer reached the phenomenal growth rates of the Golden Age (as shown in the second chapter). After 1973, the long decline of the western economies began. No solution to this crisis has been found up to today. All the efforts – whether Keynesian programs, neoliberal deregulation or a flood of cheap money – have had no effect. A post-growth capitalism is arising. That is the diagnosis in the second chapter. Because of the financial crisis, the economic crisis has not been overcome despite gigantic interventions of nation states and central banks. Instead, a global stagnation threatens.

The resources and the will for social integration fade with the permanent weakness of the economy. Public enterprises came under a privatization pressure, the social state was redesigned and social civil rights were reduced. Market- and competitive mechanisms were implemented in nearly all social areas. That is the signature of our time. At the end, many achievements of the social modern age were subjected to a new regressive modernization (third chapter). Processes of regressive modernization often join social liberalizations with economic deregulation. Horizontally, society becomes more equal and inclusive – between groups with different sexual orientations, between the genders and even between ethnic groups in certain areas. Vertically, these equal rights go along with greater economic inequalities.

In his book "Risk Society," Ulrich Beck diagnoses the old industrial society, bids farewell "to the soft soles of normality and takes the backstairs away from the stage of world history" (Beck 1986). Apart from the fact that industrial society up to today – despite the Internet and the service trade – has not completely said goodbye, the descent society is encountered gradually on soft soles and on backstairs. It has not yet reached the front stairs. To be sure, the increasing extent of poverty, precariousness and social inequality is thematicized ever more often in the general public. However, the new inequalities were not treated adequately in the past. Social ascent remains an object of longing: ascent through achievement, ascent through equal opportunities and ascent through education. As to equal opportunities, it is not new news that children from worker families often do not have the same educational chances. Despite formal equality, those with less cultural capital fail in the social contest over chances while the better-off are sometimes successful from the start without their own efforts.

Do we speak about ascent because it occurs less and less in reality? That is the thesis of this book. The change to the descent society happens in several dimensions. Great zones of social stability exist. However, the development dynamic of the German society has changed. For example, real income rose up to the end of the 1990s. So-called "normal working conditions" (the unlimited job with protection against unlawful termination granting a certain measure of social security) was the rule at that time. In the last thirty years, the social dynamic has developed to the disadvantage of dependent employees. Precariousness, a marginal phenomenon in the social modern age, spread in the descent society and is now institutionalized as a relevant part of the labor market. In view of occupational mobility, the ascent is still clearer than descent but the perspectives have worsened. The so-called middle has shriveled. Some of its members descended – a Novum in German postwar history. That women are more often gainfully employed represents a gain in emancipation. In many cases, women are now forced to accept low-paying jobs since the income of the man is not enough to make ends meet for the family.

The modern age continues developing but simultaneously backward. Problems that were long regarded as defeated are returning. "Class structures return on the stage of social inequality through the rebuilding of the social state and the narrowing of social state civil rights (Giddens 1984). Social classes do not appear as collective milieus with battle-seasoned organizations as in the late 19th century. Therefore the traditional class struggle is not experiencing a repeat performance although there is a multitude of new social conflicts. In the descent society, conflict is enflamed in the tensions between capitalism and democracy and between freedom and equality. A new rebellion is marked out, a democratic class conflict that is driven in its core by the struggle over political and social civil rights. New civil rights protests are a by-product of political estrangement in the post-democracy.

A great danger exists here; apathy, social separation, and anti-democratic emotions are spreading. On one side, fears of descent – particularly in the middle-class – produce the need for social Darwinian or xenophobic distinctions, a phenomenon heard for example in the debates whether Germany is extinguishing itself or whether the culture of the lower class is unproductive. Pegida and AfD (anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany) are also expressions of this development.

On the other side, a novel protest is stirring where both social themes and democratic participation are involved. Strikes are occurring again – whether in janitorial work, child care, with Amazon or in hospitals – by groups that earlier were assumed to be hard to organize for unions since the jobs are frequently temporary and precarious. With Occupy, an unconventional protest movement arose that occupied public spaces for months. Occupy was a base democratic movement that often (but not always) acted outside the established leftist organizations like unions and parties because these were seen by the protestors as part of the establishment and part of the problem. Both the new strike movements and Occupy are original forms of protest of the descent society. Fear of descent and precarity involve a collective experience and are no longer seen as individual fate. In the German Occupy camps, a new type of protestor was encountered who played an important part as in the New York Zuccotti Park or among the Spanish Indignados: young academics with precarious jobs, poor perspectives and blocked channels of ascent. Their number may still be small but they find great approval in the general public. Their own parents and grandparents experienced the decades of social ascent and now must see their children threatened by collective descent. "We are the 99 Percent" – the slogan of the Occupy movement was emblematic for the post-democratic descent society. Questions of just distribution were joined with questions of democratic participation.

An idea of a successful future was lacking in many protests of the past. People long for the supposedly better times of the social modern age. Therefore the rebellion remains spontaneous and episodic. A strange quiet soon follows a period of heightened social protest. However, the social tension will probably continue as long as the problems are not solved. The protests are reactions to the problems. Hopefully, the rebellion itself will not become regressive some time or other.

If the diagnosis presented here is correct, we could face a new cycle of social conflicts and wrestling over a better society. The future of our democracy will be decided in these conflicts. I am grateful for space, time and discussion possibilities offered by three institutions: the DFG Post-Growth Society in Jena, the Hamburg Institute for Social Research and particularly the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt.


Seen retrospectively, the postwar decades of Germany were marked by a unique economic, social and political constellation. The National Socialist dictatorship followed the politically-polarized society of the Weimar Republic full of class conflicts. After its collapse, a relatively stable and socially protected democracy arose in Germany. In this book, this epoch is called the social modern age.

Economic prosperity was its material foundation. In the brief period from 1950 to 1973, the average annual economic growth in Western Europe – a result of Keynesian capitalism – amounted to 4.8%. The constant growth made possible a rapid social modernization that included and restructured work, life, culture and politics (cf. Berger 2000).


In Germany, the roots of the social state go back to the Bismarck era when health- (1883), accident- (1883) and pension-insurance (1889) were introduced. Bismarck reacted to the growing significance of the workers' movement and at the same time sought to modernize the young capitalism. In the Weimar Republic, central social institutions were introduced like unemployment insurance (1927). But the social state was first carried out extensively in the democracy after the Second World War – because large parts of the social and political elites had lost trust in an unregulated Laissez-faire capitalism only obeying the market laws. The Hungarian-Austrian economic historian Karl Polanyi predicted this in his book "The Great Transformation" (1944) before the end of the Second World War. Polanyi argued the idea of a self-regulating market – that later was propagated again by neoliberalism – must always remain a "crass utopia" [Polanyi 1995 (1944)). Realizing such a utopia would represent a complete social embedding of the economy. That kind of society subjected to the market, Polanyi said, could not exist without dissolving its own substance, that is itself, the person and nature. All attempts at approaching the optimal market society would ultimately produce counter-movements that would socially embed society again. So city workers and the poor, socialists, farmers and conservatives championed a new social policy in the US after the 1929 Great Depression. The social state established after the Second World War in Germany and in other (western-) European countries was the institutionalized form of the counter-movement analyzed by Polanyi {Later we saw the pendulum swing back in the direction of market liberalism}.

Proletarians possess neither capital nor the means of production. That was their characteristic feature for Marx. Therefore they can only sell their labor power [Marx 1962 (1867)]. In capitalism, labor is a commodity that is sold and purchased on the labor market. Workers were handed over defenselessly to the dangers of the market – poverty, sickness, old age and unemployment. The social state is able to restrict the extent of the commodity character of labor. It is a "decommodifying" institution since it socializes the above-mentioned risks. The French sociologist Robert Castel calls the complex of rights to social security benefits, pension claims, public goods and services "social property" (Castel 2000). The social state did not function the same everywhere. Some of its developments are more strongly universal and focused on redistribution. Others are rather conservative and oriented in maintaining status; still others offer hardly anything more than a social minimum [In his 1998 typology, the Danish political scientist Gosta Esping-Andersen distinguishes between liberal-residual (for example Great Britain), conservative-corporatist (Germany) and social-democratic-universalist (for example Sweden) welfare states.]

Moreover the social state is not a philanthropic agency. A productivist dualism is ascribed to it. On one hand, it can diminish the life-risks of paid laborers and on the other hand assure that persons fit for work are really able to work. Social policy creates an essential prerequisite for an adequate supply of healthy workers through industrial safety and health protection. Still no one should have an easy time. Whoever is able to work should do work. Everything else is sanctioned (cf. Offe/Lessenich 2005).

Who belongs to the huge crown of potential workers has changed again and again historically. In early capitalism, children and women were obviously included. The struggle against child labor was long and lasted to the beginning of the 20th century. In the middle of the 20th century, the role of the woman changed insofar as she should be chiefly a housewife while the man earned the money.

The social state was a central authority of social progress in the social modern age. That is still the essential point. Employees could increase their social property and their share in the social wealth. The social- and health-policy was expanded. There were poor persons and a lower class but the extent and character of the deficiency had changed. Absolute and relative poverty decreased. The crass pauperism of the worker sectors belongs to the past. Social neediness in this time was encountered beyond paid labor. That is now changing in the descent society (cf. chapter four).


On Rebellion in the Regressive Modern Age

The possibility of social ascent was one of the central promises of the “old” Germany – and was often fulfilled. An Audi came out of the beetle; an academic came out of a skilled worker’s child. Sometimes the social elevator was stuck. University degrees do not automatically mean status and security anymore. Employees receive less and less of the big cake. Oliver Nachtwey analyzes the causes of this rupture and focuses on the conflict potential that is arising. Even if Germany escapes the crisis relatively lightly, social conflicts began here and are now shaking all Europe: new left movements, work struggles and parties on one side and anti-foreigner protests and right-wing populism on the other side.

Oliver Nachtwey, born in 1975, is a fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. He has taught and researched inequality, protest and democracy at the Universities of Jena, Trier, Darmstadt and Frankfurt on Main.
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