Oliver Nachtwey’s “The descent society. On Rebellion in the Regressive Modern Age”
Running up a downwards escalator
The election results to the German Parliament on Sunday 24th made a far right nationalist party (Alternative für Deutschland “Alternative for Germany” ) the third biggest party in the Lower House of Parliament. While among the electorate there are nationalist, racists, and neo-nazis, a huge number of people declared they voted for them out of protest against the existing government. Many of those engaging in a protest vote were members of the middle classes with middle incomes, who are afraid to lose their status and class position, due to the increase of migrants and refugees and an increased insecurity. To place this in context and understand some of this background to this turn of events, it is worthwhile to read Oliver Nachtwey’s book which explores changed mobility patterns in German society.
Oliver Nachtwey has offered a staggering account of this phenomenon in Germany, which has made it into the top selling lists of the online bookshop Amazon Germany and was recently awarded with the Hans-Matthöfer-prize for heterodox economic and sociological writing.
Nachtwey sees the social promise that has kept the German society together over the last seventy years as lost. There is no longer an ‘ascent society’ in Germany, but it has instead been replaced by one of descent. The divide between rich and poor has increased and the dynamics of social mobility have changed, to the detriment of those at the bottom. Instead of climbing up the ladder to the top, people are now making a constant effort in order not to descend, simply to hold their position. Given the fact that a majority of the public still seems persuaded by the idea of meritocracy and the belief in collective upward mobility, such developments contradict common expectations. As hard work and ongoing growth were supposed to guarantee constant status improvement, it’s mere absence causes disappointment for employees and is perceived as social descent.
Descent is a problem for society as a whole. It affects not only those whose situation is getting worse, but also causes stagnation and widespread fear. According to Nachtwey such situation is characterised by polarisation and precarity, resulting in an erosion of social integration. What he sees arising in its place is a new social question about the emergence of ‘working poor’ and unequal distribution of wealth and chances for social mobility, which threatens democracy and provokes protest.
The book not only offers a precise analysis of social inequality and struggles within democratic capitalism. Its intellectual strength lies in the way in which aspects – which often remain separate – are brought together. This includes observations on post-democracy, findings on underclasses and precarious working conditions, pressure on middle classes, as well as thesis on stagnating capitalism and low growth expectations.
Nachtwey’s analysis builds on the work of sociologist Ulrich Beck, who depicts the upward mobility in the prospering welfare state of post-war Germany as collective elevator effect. According to Nachtwey, this metaphor has become obsolete, as people no longer move up together. The ‘steady ascent’ has ended with the deterioration of standard employment, flexibilisation, and the dismantling of social security, which went hand-in-hand with former life structures, careers and vocational paths. Instead, the collective and individual dimensions of ascent and descent have come apart. In Nachtwey’s metaphor everyone stands by oneself on the escalator stairs. Those on the top are still moving up, but for a big number of people in the middle and the bottom the direction has changed. They instead attempt to run up a descending escalator. While such an image might be considered somewhat bold, since empirical data shows that individual descent has not become a mass phenomenon and ascent is still possible, it captures the increasing distance between top and bottom as well as the important trend of precarisation collectively faced by a growing number of employees in Germany.
According to Nachtwey, people in Germany have lost trust in the notion of stability. Despite the fact that lower classes, those with less education, older as well as young people, and those with migrant status, struggle in the current labour market situation, middle class people also feel threatened by the potential and actual loss of jobs and social status. The erosion of social integration is therefore not only caused by actual descent, but also collective fear of it, which impedes solidarity. Whether concerning the conflict between employees and unemployed, permanent and temporary staff; residents and migrants; or discrimination between age groups, society has become polarised. And unfortunately this is what we see coming true with the recent elections.
Nachtwey is aware of the potential resentments and reactionary tendencies within the politics and movements addressing the deteriorating situation of the working population, such as those supporting the far right out of ‘protest’. While he points out the dangers of right wing populism, he also has some hope. In identifying the current tendencies as a tension between capitalism and democracy, there is potential for this not only to fuel regressive forms of critique and protest, but also to offer potential to progress towards a more solidaric modern age. It will, however, require progressive forces to engage energetically in efforts to turn the hostile public and political atmosphere around and to channel such tendencies away from right wing populism and towards a more distributory, fair and equitable political landscape.