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Capitalism as a Regressive Descent Society

by Julian Bierwirth
The escalator is going down and no longer up as in the "social modern age." The social trend drives toward precariousness and the accompanying social descent. Social institutions and the securities developed in the "social modern age" are being cleared away. Citizenship as political sovereign is being replaced by the isolating structures of market citizenship. Trump's 2018 budget is more sadism, greed, hypocrisy and selective perception than public policy. Countermeasures are necessary to reverse the expanding inequality, precarious work, and profit worship.

By Julian Bierwirth

[This book review of Oliver Nachtwey's "The Descent Society. On Rebellion in the Regressive Modern Age" (2016) is translated from the German on the Internet,]

In 2009, the film "Up in the Air" [1] directed by Jason Reitman was awarded the Golden Globe for the best screenplay. In the main role, George Clooney acts as Ryan Bingham who has a very bizarre job. He travels the world and terminates employees of firms that don't want the emotional stress of having to fire employees themselves. At the end, his position is rationalized away and the woman who replaced his colleague pushes him out the door.

The film refers to a social development in the last years and decades that occurred before our eyes. The trend to increasingly precarious conditions is seen as more alarming and frightening than the exclusion of people from the working life. Oliver Nachtwey's
"The Descent Society. On Rebellion in the Regressive Modern Age" [2] [3] brings together different aspects of these developments.

The 233-page book is especially interesting from a perspective inspired by crisis theory. In his presentation of capitalist modernization, Nachtwey locates a breach in the 1970s. Until then, the capitalist modernization process was understood as a history of progress. In the years after the 2nd World War, a "social modern age" formed that integrates more and more parts of human life and thereby made possible improved chances of survival. In this sense, Nachtwey describes the struggles of the workers' movement as a (very long and diverse) successful struggle around integration in this society. A strengthened legal security and higher wages of individuals could make possible a rising quality of life with constantly higher pay, industrial safety on a high level, joint determination through work councils etc. For a long time, normal working conditions were regarded as self-evident.

This development suffered a crack in the 1970s because capitalism could not raise its own economic output anymore on account of an over-production crisis (!). Therefore the funds that were not invested flowed to the financial markets and led to the developments discussed today under the term finance market capitalism. Nachtwey emphasizes very explicitly that the traditional leftist view that sees the cause of the crisis in the expansion of the financial markets is false and reverses the cause-effect connection. Actually, the expansion of the financial markets was a consequence of the over-production crisis and thus an attempt at crisis management within the capitalist modern age. However, the growth rates collapsed in the course of this development so that we live today in a post-growth capitalism.

This post-growth capitalism is now marked by a series of structural characteristics (besides the marginal growth rates) of which three will be discussed here. Firstly, there is a relative ascent of groups that were long socially marginalized. The participation chances for women, migrants, and gays have certainly improved in the last 40 years. However, this development is also accompanied by the opposite dynamic that the differences between the poor and the rich have enlarged. Thus we have to deal with a double process that social inequality decreases on a horizontal plane (between the genders, ethnic groups, sexual orientations etc) while increasing on a vertical plane (between classes, sectors, and milieus). The social inequality between women increases while the social inequality between women and men simultaneously decreases (at least relatively).

Disintegration represents a second structural characteristic of this new epoch. While social institutions and securities were developed in the "social modern age," these are now being cleared away again. People are not simply thrown out of the process (at least in Germany and in most cases) but remain precariously integrated. Nevertheless, the fear of exclusion and the effort at maintaining the precarious inclusion status are the predominant moments of alarmed post-modern work subjects.

The third structural characteristic is discussed in political science under the heading "Post-democracy." In wide parts of society, the perception creeps in that democracy still exists formally but hardly has any real possibilities of influence. The integrating functions of citizenship that once made a political sovereign out of people are replaced more and more by the isolating structures of market citizenship. Political interventions are increasingly seen as managing practical constraints. Citizens tied into increasingly precarious living- and working conditions see this as an exclusion mechanism. No one seems interested in them although they take great pains and do everything demanded of them.

Following Ulrich Beck, Nachtwey describes this new social constitution as the "regressive modern age" although the general (form-) definitions of the modern capitalist society are always hegemonial even if it is less and less possible in reality to realize the relative promises of emancipation. The escalator is going down, as he illustrates, and no longer up as in the "Social modern age." Certainly, there is always the possibility of social ascent but that is only possible under hard conditions and in rare exceptional cases. On the other hand, the social trend drives toward precariousness and the accompanying social descent. Therefore Nachtwey calls this society a "descent society."

Since the precariousness of actors in capitalist society is more striking than exclusion, the comparison with "Up in the Air" is only restrictedly true. The effects of this development on the real work processes and lifestyles of alarmed post-modern subjects are presented more vividly in the 2001 film on the privatization of British railways by Ken Leach titled "The Navigators" [4]. Here the increasing deterioration of working conditions and the general alarm led finally to the death of a colleague – whose true cause of death was subsequently hushed up to not endanger their own precarious jobs.

Nachtwey explains the initial situation as an increasing behavioral uncertainty among individuals from the combination of the three structural characteristics of this descent society (the contradictory dynamic of social ascent and descent, the disintegration tendency, and post-democracy). On one hand, a crisis of democracy is also diagnosed as a crisis of the economy. On the other hand, there is no emancipatory response to this challenge. The new protest movements (he names the new strike movement, the organizing campaigns of unions, Occupy, Podemos and Syriza, the enraged Stuttgart citizens and Pegida) are reactions to this uncertainty. The left must show emancipatory ways out so the present uncertainty and increasing despair do not get stuck in reactionary strategies of crisis management.

On the background of the crisis theory developed by the Krisis group in Germany, Nachtwey's work may lack conceptual sharpness in many places. However, despite everything, fractures in the capitalist society that refer back to fundamental crisis processes are shown very graphically. Many connections are made between economic, political and ideological changes and many starting-points are suggested for a far-reaching analysis.

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by marc
The escalator is going down and no longer up:
1) Governments lowered business taxes in an aggressive location-competition.
2) The answer was accumulation of debts. Public and private debts climbed.
3) Debts support an economy threatened with paralysis because of inequality.
4) When more and more is saved, less and less is consumed.
5) Banks paid millions in bonuses in 2009 while the social crisis deepened. The call for reorganizing the world economy became louder.
6) Governments secured the money of the rich and took air out of the bubble. Instead of higher taxes on the rich, governments cut public services and public workers.
7) Industrial states give less to the poor than before the financial crisis.
8) Deregulating the labor market (along with outsourcing and the threat of outsourcing) led to lower wages. Wages in the US have stagnated so workers had higher real incomes 30 years ago. Income inequality has intensified since 2009. The state has become an "errand boy" for the banks (Bill Moyers).
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