Germany's Hidden Crisis: Interview with Oliver Nachtwey

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Movement is not always forward, this at least is what Oliver Nachtwey argues. The young and celebrated German sociologis's thesis on ‘regressive modernization’ – something like how present-day progress hides major retreats – is now spreading beyond his country’s borders. The blame for this regression, Nachtwey believes, lies to a large degree with what he calls ‘poverty in work’, i.e. precarity, which has pulverized the concept of economic prosperity and security, and disrupted historical social equilibriums. Call centres, fast-food outlets, cleaning teams…, processes of downward mobility that this academic, who defines himself as a ‘modern Marxist’, sees as extending to ever more sectors of society.

The author of Germany’s Hidden Crisis speaks of workers terrified of losing their status, embarked on a pathological self-assertion in terms of performance and productivism. Even in countries like Germany, with its great economic miracle, ‘figures that speak of economic growth fail to tally with people’s everyday experience’, argues Nachtwey, professor at the University of Basle.

Interview conducted by Ana Carbajosa and originally published by El Pais.

AC: You argue that we are going through a phase of regressive modernization. Digitalization, medicine, economic growth in many parts of the world, are these not sufficient advance?

ON: If we look at the labour market, we see more skilled workers. And more women working. But also a more unequal market, where there is more precarity, especially for women. The same goes for democracy. It is not true that people are more passive.  There is much talk of 1968, but participation in demonstrations today is greater, though at the same time protests have lost the capacity to influence and there are also more reactionary protests. Society is becoming more modern, it is ever more liberal, but at the same time more unequal.

AC: You even speak of a rebirth of social classes.

ON: Ulrich Beck spoke of a social elevator. After the Second World War, it was as if rich and poor were riding up together, life was improving. That is no longer the case. Germany, for example, was for decades an economy with poor people, but one in which even less skilled workers drew decent wages. But starting in the 2000s, a class was created with low wages on which people might live, but not necessarily well. They had to move to outlying districts where rents were lower, and found it harder to get work. The new classes are not just defined by salary, this is a new multidimensional phenomenon. There is a type of middle-class life, with vegetarian restaurants and good schools, which is impossible for people on low wages. This is not a class formation from below as in the nineteenth century – in other words, we are workers and have our own culture and respectability. Today the class is being formed from above, and your middle-class children, with their language and music lessons, have no points of contact with other children.

AC: What relation is there between this redefinition of classes and the rise of populisms?

ON: Many workers may vote for the Alternative für Deutschland, but they are not necessarily its original clients. The AfD was founded as a liberal, petty-bourgeois party, against the euro, but now we see it having a good deal of success among lower classes. People vote AfD not because they are poor, but because they do not feel represented by the traditional parties. They have the sensation of lagging behind, of not being sufficiently recognized, because they feel that the social order is eroding, that we are no longer all moving upward together. In the old model of social classes, workers belonged to a collective with a framework, and could blame capitalism and the system. Today people accept that there are no social classes and that no one is responsible for you – neither your employer nor the state. You are alone, and many people are afraid of the future. Inequality is not a cause of the populist wave, but it is a trigger that, for example, suddenly makes immigrants into a threat to your way of life.

AC: This is clearly observable in the east of Germany, where the far right is strongest.

ON: Indeed. For many years, people were told that there was no money, and suddenly when the financial crisis broke out there was money to rescue the banks. Then the refugees arrive and there is also money for them. People think that others are taking what they deserve for themselves.

AC: Despite perceptions and grievances, there is economic growth in Germany, unemployment is at a record low, and exports are steadily rising. Where does the anger of so many citizens come from?

ON: It’s been a long process. I have seen many companies in which workers provided by subcontractors earn 50 per cent of those on fixed contracts despite working together on the same production line. The liberalization of temporary work in the early 2000s opened the door to low wages and provided incentives for business models based on temporary staff. Scarcely four years ago, in a car assembly plant, the permanent staff included not just the people making cars, but also the catering and security personal. All were covered by the same wage agreement. Today we are seeing a fragmentation of work relations in which services are subcontracted out under worse conditions.

AC: How does this duality affect the working atmosphere in companies?

ON: There is a very difficult relationship between the permanent staff, with their rights and privileges, and those outside of this. When Angela Merkel or Andrea Nahles ask why people are complaining, they say everything is going well in Germany, but the problem is that macroeconomic data that show economic growth fail to tally with people’s everyday experience.

AC: What role does robotization play in the growth of precarity?

ON: There is a great deal of debate around the question of automation, but ever more people are employed and we are still waiting for the supposed impact on employment. The German economy today is very automated, and at the present time this is complementing work and requiring more highly skilled workers, but the human factor remains behind. In fact there are other workers today who have greater autonomy but are not so well paid. This is a clear example of regressive modernization. People today have more autonomy, but less security.

Translated by David Fernbach

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