Germany’s Hidden Crisis
Social Decline in the Heart of Europe
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256 pages / November 2018 / 9781786636348

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November 2018 / 9781786636362

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208 pages / November 2018 / 9781786637147

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How neoliberalism is causing a social crisis in Germany

One of the German-speaking world’s leading sociologists lays out modern Germany’s social and political crisis and its implications for the future of the European hegemon.

Upward social mobility represented a core promise of life under the “old” West German welfare state, in which millions of skilled workers upgraded their VWs to Audis, bought their first homes, and sent their children to university. Not so in today’s Federal Republic, where the gears of the so-called “elevator society” have long since ground to a halt. In the absence of the social mobility of yesterday, widespread social exhaustion and anxiety have emerged across mainstream society. Oliver Nachtwey analyses the reasons for this social rupture in postwar German society and investigates the conflict potential emerging as a result, concluding that although the country has managed to muddle through the Eurocrisis largely unscathed thus far, simmering tensions beneath the surface nevertheless threaten to undermine the German system’s stability in the years to come.

Nachtwey’s book was recipient of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s 2016 Hans-Matthöfer-Preis for Economic Writing.


“A true masterpiece. Focusing on the case of Germany—which has long been mispresented and misperceived as a paragon of economic success and political stability—Oliver Nachtwey offers a detailed account of the crisis of contemporary capitalism. Moving at the forefront of leading theories of political economy, the book develops an empirically grounded synthetic perspective on ‘regressive modernity,’ a concept of which much can be expected for future progress in the study of capitalist development.”

“A major critical review of Europe’s most important country, its socio-economics, its politics, and its self-diagnoses.”

“In this comprehensive sociological study, the author assembles sobering news from Germany, a country the elites of which routinely pride themselves of presiding over a stable, prosperous, and socially inclusive society. To which there is even some truth, comparatively speaking. Yet capitalism thrives on credible promises and on hopes being redeemed. As elsewhere in the West, German elites are increasingly distrusted and hopes frustrated, giving rise to virulent fears and anxieties. As private and public debt, near-stagnation and growing inequality shape gloomy perceptions, a disjunction occurs between ongoing technical and economic modernization, on the one hand, and the notion of ‘progress’ that used to be associated with it. This is a condition for which Nachtwey coins the term ‘regressive modernity’. Among its characteristics are a decline of collective action and public goods production and the ‘de-institutionalization’ of social and economic conflict. Instead of anything resembling organized class struggle, we see symptoms of diffuse and ‘anomic’ rebelliousness ranging from short-lived ‘occupy’-style mobilizations to the outbursts of rightist mobs. Nachtwey has written a lucid analysis highlighting the social causes of our current perplexities.”

“It needs at once sociological imagination, an interpretive sense for statistics and explanatory sharpness to be able to decipher the anxious and conflict-laden atmosphere in a country that looks extremely well-ordered, affluent and healthy from the outside. Oliver Nachtwey, impressively combining these three talents, has managed to prompt such a necessary change of perspective with regard to contemporary Germany: In his fascinating study he not only informs us about how downward mobility, precariousness and polarization have grown over the last decades in Germany, but also about how people suffering from these developments fight against the downgrading of their lives—be it by inventing new forms of protest, be it by joining nationalist movements. A must to read for everyone interested in the dark side of the economic wealth of Western countries.”

“Oliver Nachtwey has written an empirically grounded book of great topicality. He focuses on Germany, but his analysis is of much wider relevance. Nachtwey reveals that the ‘elevator effect’, which reduces the significance of social distinctions, is finished. A ‘downward escalator effect’ now makes class disparities visible again. Growing insecurity, increasing inequality and swelling precarianization lead to a renaissance of both left-wing revolts and right-wing authoritarianism.”

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