Declassification, Degradation, and the Renaissance of the Concept of Class
At least since the election of Trump and the rise of AfD, Pegida, etc., the question of class is on everyone’s lips again. It is precisely in the industrial wastelands that Trump was elected, mostly by industrial workers. The criticism is that the left has been too concerned with culture, women, and migrants. Class and social issues have been neglected. Since the 1980s, sociological research has focused on Ulrich Beck’s individualization thesis and on theories of milieu, subculture and lifestyle. Today, after the crash of 2008 and what followed, there is a return to “class” – and by no means only in traditional Marxist circles – after the middle class was brought to the fore in the noughties (not least as a result of Hartz IV). In the meantime, the literature on the topic of “classes” has really mushroomed. In my presentation I will deal with the approach of Oliver Nachtwey’s “Descent Society” from a value-critical point of view on the one hand, which reflects recent developments against the background of Ulrich Beck’s concept, which was hegemonic in the 1980s and 1990s, and, on the other hand, with the booklet “Middle Myth” by Ulf Kadritzke, who, as the title suggests, himself still vehemently questions the reckoning of the middle (which was the very foundation of Beck) and determines capitalist society as a class society par excellence. These books reflect the basic tenor of today’s debate, which is why Kadritzke, as the seemingly stupid one, should also be given a due, relatively brief place here.
2. Class and the Middle in Value-Critical Contexts
For the first time, Kurz / Lohoff deal critically with the so-called class question in post-Fordism in the text “The Class Struggle Fetish.” According to them, class struggle Marxism does not penetrate to the critique of the commodity fetish as the basic constituent of capitalism. In Fordist socialization, class antagonism as the potential of a transformation of capitalism comes to its end. Through the development of artificial intelligence, computer technology, corresponding expert systems, etc., human labor is substituted on a large scale for the first time in history: “The deepest contradiction of the capital relation consists precisely in the fact that, on the one hand, it binds social reproduction into the form of value and thus chains it to the process of spending abstract labor of immediate producers, but on the other hand, in the competitive mediation, it also annuls these immediate producers in the process of the scientification of labor” (Kurz/Lohoff 1989: 34). In doing so, they argue for the formation of an “anticlass.” Its place is seen in the developed areas of the scientification process, in which “wage-dependents today seek to decouple themselves from subsumption under abstract labor through the negation of family reproduction (‘family refusal’), part-time work, conscious exploitation of welfare state networks, etc., in open opposition to the traditional workers’ movement as well as to ‘alternative’ reactionaries of the crude ‘self-maker’ and self-exploitation scene” (ibid.: 39f). As is well known, the “anticlass” propagated here has not yet formed. Instead, precarious self-entrepreneurship constitutes the “new spirit of capitalism” (Boltanski/Chiapello). Individuals have to be flexible under the threat of Hartz IV while being forced to work at the same time. Old anti-authoritarian impulses of the 1968 movement, which in my impression still appear in the Kurz/Lohoff text, now become a crisis-management imperative.
Such developments are reflected in the 2004 text “The Decline of the Middle Class” (Kurz 2004). In it, Kurz first refers to the famous Kautsky-Bernstein debate. Orthodox Marxists in the 19th century initially assumed that the old middle class, which had modest means of production (workshops, stores, etc.), would be absorbed by competition from large enterprises and that this petty-bourgeois class would eventually be absorbed into the proletariat. The discussion between Bernstein and Kautsky centered on the “new middle class” (as opposed to the “old”), which was associated with an increasing scientization of production. It involved “functionaries of capitalist development in all spheres of life,” i.e., administration, law, media publicity, engineering, health care, etc. (ibid.: 51). Kautsky argued that the new middle classes belonged to the proletariat. Bernstein, on the other hand, discovered a consolidation of capitalism and took a reformist standpoint. Education and knowledge, not capital ownership or ownership of the means of production, were the resources of these strata, he argued, which grew more and more in the course of the 20th century, especially with the implementation of Fordism and thus of the leisure industry. “In this context,” Kurz says, “a momentous concept emerged, namely that of ‘human capital.’ White-collar workers, engineers, marketing specialists or human resource planners, self-employed doctors, therapists or lawyers, and teachers, scientists and social workers paid by the state ‘are’ capital in two ways under certain circumstances: On the one hand, because of their own qualifications, they behave strategically, in a guiding or organizing manner in relation to the labor of other people in the sense of capital utilization; on the other hand, they partly relate (especially as self-employed or managerial employees) to their own qualifications and thus to themselves as ‘human capital,” like a capitalist, in the sense of ‘self-exploitation’ (ibid.: 52). The 68er movement was also a result of this development in the postwar period.
At the same time, the first signs of decline in the new crisis epoch, which had been manifest since the 1980s, were already becoming apparent. Initially, the microelectronic revolution primarily affected the reproduction sector; gradually, however, it extended to the middle classes or new middle classes. The crisis of industrial exploitation was accompanied by the financial crisis of the (social) state. Funds for education, culture, social welfare, health care, etc. were successively cut and eliminated. Qualified activities were also increasingly rationalized away in large companies. In the course of the crash of the “new economy,” even high-tech specialists were laid off.
Kurz sees here that the obsolescence of the old industrial worker not only gives rise to potentials for emancipation, but also calls into question the new middle classes (together with the old ones) in post-Fordism: “Through privatization and outsourcing, the ‘human capital’ of qualification is also devalued within employment and degraded in status. Intellectual day laborers, cheap laborers and misery entrepreneurs as ‘freelancers’ in the media, private universities, law firms or private clinics are no longer the exception but the rule. Nevertheless, even Kautsky is not right in the end. For the new middle class is crashing, but not into the classical industrial proletariat of the immediate producers, who have become a slowly dwindling minority.
Paradoxically, the “proletarianization” of the qualified strata is connected with the “de-proletarianization” of production” (ibid.: 54). The division between rich and poor can no longer be explained today with the capitalist-worker class opposition and the power of disposal over the means of production. Instead, social positions today become precarious in the derived areas of production, circulation and distribution, which are still irregular and unsecured according to legal criteria. These include the long-term unemployed, low-wage workers qua outsourcing (also in the centers), recipients of state transfer payments, up to street vendors, waste collectors, etc.
Capital, according to Kurz, has become more anonymous today in an increasingly socialized society, it includes joint-stock companies, state apparatuses, infrastructures, and so on. Today, the substance of capital is gradually melting away, less and less real surplus value is being created, capital is fleeing into the financial markets, thus creating financial bubbles that are threatening to burst or have already burst (the 2008 crash being the high point so far). The middle classes are now threatened with descent/crash. “The ‘independent means of production’ is shrinking down under the skin of the individuals: everyone is now becoming their own ‘human capital,’ even if this is just the naked body. An immediate relationship emerges between atomized individuals and the economy of value, which reproduces itself only simulatively through deficits and financial bubbles” (ibid.: 55).
3. The Descent Society
Oliver Nachtwey has written a book that has received much attention – not only on the left: “The Descent Society. On Rebellion in “Regressive Modernity” (Nachtwey 2017). Together with Ulrich Beck, he starts out from the so-called elevator effect. According to this, the entire society was driven one floor higher. Social differences remained, but there was a collective increase in income, education, law, science, and mass consumption. This was the prerequisite for individualization processes and a diversification of lifestyles. Upward mobility for working-class children had increased, with traditional class milieus dissolving and distance from the family of origin growing. Nachtwey subsumes this phase under the term “social modernity.” Since the 1990s, however, we have been living in “regressive modernity,” meaning that incomes, education, mass consumption, etc. are shrinking. Nachtwey prefers the image of the “escalator” instead of the image of the elevator. “Some of the affluent have already reached the next floor on the escalator … For most of those who have not yet reached the top floor, the direction of travel is now changing. While it was going up for a long time, they are now going down.” But that also means that people now have to struggle to maintain the level they have reached. “Individual descents or crashes have not yet become a mass phenomenon … Viewed collectively, however, things are going downhill again for employees” (ibid.: 127).
Nachtwey sees the background for such tendencies in economic developments. After the Second World War, there was economic growth of about 4% per year until the 1970s, but in the last boom years in Germany this was only 1.5 – 1.8%. Due to the high growth rates, there was also the chance for redistribution, and new consumer goods were produced (washing machines, refrigerators etc.). Mass consumption became possible. Nachtwey sees the background for the decline in growth in a fall in the rate of profit (although he does not consider theoretical discussions on the rate of profit to be very important) and in an over-accumulation crisis. As rationalization measures reduce the surplus value created compared to the capital employed, companies go to the financial markets.
Nachtwey provides empirical evidence for net incomes, among other things, that they have fallen since the early 1990s (even if there was an outlier in 2005, for example), although it is necessary to differentiate between different industries and companies. They are twice as high in the financial sector as in the restaurant industry or temporary work. Since then, the rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer, which is the central characteristic of the descent society for Nachtwey. Since 2000, descent has not increased, but it is more difficult to rise. This shows, among other things, that almost 17% of those at risk of poverty have problems heating their homes (ibid.: 128).
Precarious work, another feature of the descent society, is expanding and becoming institutionalized; the normal employment relationship (characteristic of men in social modernity) is no longer a given. Nachtwey proves with figures that marginal employment relationships (part-time work, temporary employment, solo self-employment, etc.) have increased overall. Precarious employment is particularly prevalent among poorly educated young people. There are more and more breaks in the employment biography. There are status inconsistencies, e.g., when an academic works in a cleaning crew for more than just a short time. One reason for the obsolescence is that women are working more than they once were, not only for reasons of self-fulfillment, but also because men can no longer be the sole breadwinners of the family. In the case of core workforces, which have hardly eroded in recent years and for which, in contrast to the low-skilled marginal workforces, the normal employment relationship usually applies, advancement is becoming more arduous; marginal workforces are usually assigned the unpleasant jobs. Temporary workers are paid less than internal workers even if they have the same qualifications; they are a constant reminder to the core workforce that they are at risk of relegation. Nachtwey writes: “The unemployed industrial reserve army (the unemployed) was reduced in size at the price that the underemployed (part-time work) and overemployed (low-wage workers who have to do several jobs at once) … has grown” (ibid.: 147). Services and service workers are particularly at risk of low wages, although Nachtwey still assumes an industrial service society. The share of personal services (nurses, educators, qualified personnel at the level of sales, consulting, catering) has increased.
In particular – and this has been extensively debated since the mid-2000s – the middle has been destabilized. Nachtwey counts craftsmen, traders, merchants, farmers – in other words, the old middle class – as well as civil servants, freelancers and, more recently, white-collar workers and skilled workers as part of the middle class. Nachtwey says that “the middle is polarizing. While the lower middle is at risk of falling off, the upper middle exhibits stability, yet feelings of precarity are growing in it as well. This promotes a willingness to conform and a readiness for self-optimization. Competition is also growing among highly qualified workers, e.g., engineers and IT experts. In particular, people are afraid of what will become of their children. Social stabilization comes much later for many academics’ children than in previous generations. A higher level of education no longer necessarily guarantees a higher status – a self-employed lawyer is worse off than one in a renowned law firm. A media precariat is spreading among journalists. In particular, the up-and-comers of social modernity, i.e., working-class children of the lower middle, are now again at risk of falling away. In addition, there has been a fundamental devaluation of qualifications, with 40% of one cohort now graduating from high school. For men, there is a downward trend, for women an upward trend, but within given gender-specific inequalities. Women and men are now in a competition for advancement. In eastern Germany, the downward tendencies have increased more than in the west.
Nachtwey also sees tendencies toward a new underclassification, which is particularly evident in Hartz IV recipients, low-wage earners and top-up workers. This primarily affects women and migrants, who work in call centers, the food industry, the cleaning and care sector, and retail, for example. Nachtwey’s main thesis here is that “In a very contradictory way, at least, the refutation of Marx has been refuted. Indeed, in a broad sense, class society in the Marxian sense has only emerged today. For Marx, class is a relational concept: the exclusion of ownership of the means of production implies a fundamental asymmetry of power and distinguishes workers from capitalists … Seen in this light, Marx’s concept of class is certainly relevant again today, for never before have more people been in wage-dependent employment, primarily because they do not own the means of production … At the international level, social differences between nations have … diminished, but within states they are increasing immensely. Nevertheless, there can be no talk of a dichotomous class society. The importance of the middle classes is great despite the descents” (ibid.: 171 ff.) Here Nachtwey complements Marx with Weber, according to whom class situations are primarily “related to property and employment situations”; with Weber, resources, market opportunities and the way of life can thus be included. Nachtwey thus uses class and stratum synonymously. As middle and upper classes again insist more on themselves, according to him, a “ständisches Prinzip” also returns, in that distinctions about degrees, nutrition, culture are again emphasized more. Poverty and wealth are also increasingly inherited again.
In this context, Nachtwey does not speak of “classes in the sense of homogeneous life situations” from which interests can be formulated, because “the new class relations are fragmented and complicated … The salaried teacher who is laid off during the summer vacations has more in common in some dimensions with the qualified temporary worker than with the civil servant senior teacher … In terms of their job requirements and their lifestyles, however, they differ considerably. Below the classes of asset owners, top managers, etc., there is a growing highly qualified service class, which in turn does not have the same security prospects” (ibid.: 174 f.).
As far as the inequality dimensions of “race” and gender are concerned, Nachtwey comes to the following conclusion: “While higher up the hierarchy one can observe increased equality of opportunity and a reduction in the horizontal disparities of men and women as well as migrants, at the other end of the ladder various dimensions of class disparities accumulate. Women are the most discriminated against, and horizontal disparities are the most pronounced. A female manager has a completely different chance of equality than a female migrant cleaner; in short, gender and ethnicity merge at the bottom of the descent society into a conglomerate of mechanisms of oppression and exploitation” (ibid.: 177).
Nachtwey sees Pegida and AfD as an expression of this rebellion, in which outsiders and a middle class threatened by relegation are gathering. Together with Honneth, he assumes a “savagery of social conflict,” which also speaks of a “crisis of representation,” which means that the political position of the parties can no longer be relied upon. According to Nachtwey, a lack of solidarity as a result of processes of singling out combined with a struggle for status, whereby, as one moves down the escalator, one has to make an effort to maintain one’s status, thus leads to a “market-conformist extremism.” AfD voters and Pegida supporters are not concerned with the expansion of the welfare state, but they are definitely market believers and blame their fears on migrants, etc. (cf. ibid.: 218).
I think that Nachtwey phenomenologically paints a reasonably accurate picture of social inequalities since the 1990s in their contradictions and dislocations. It is all the more surprising that he again makes the commonplace of class society, class antagonism, and ownership of the means of production his overarching framework for doing so. He goes so far as to claim that class society is only coming true today. What is interesting about Nachtwey in this context is that he does not speak of service society, but of an industrial service society. The basic tendency that capitalism necessarily tears itself away from production and becomes more virtual is perhaps meant to be understated in this way; it is thus suggested that production and the worker are still the basis of capital. The anonymity of capital is basically an alien idea for him, that today it has just taken the form of joint-stock companies, state apparatuses, infrastructures. The social structure of inequality, which no longer fits into the old pigeonholes, is to be imprisoned in old crude explanatory patterns, regardless of the new quality, even if they contradict these in their own description. In his view, all wage earners are workers, while the superfluous and the precarious belong to the reserve army, i.e. he remains within the interpretive framework of labor society. The basic tendency that abstract labor is becoming obsolete does not play a role for him, or he leaves it open whether digitization in the course of Industry 4.0 will lead to a corresponding thinning out.
Otherwise, Nachtwey, who is an economic sociologist, refers to Marx and works with Marxian concepts (accumulation, M-C-M’, etc.). The central category for him is the fall in the rate of profit – I will not go into a special discussion here as to whether or not this is true. Nachtwey sees that another financial crash is imminent, but does not penetrate to the fetishism of capitalism and that it undermines its own preconditions, which leads to the obsolescence of abstract labor, to financialization and to the bubble economy. Against this background, however, the development from social to repressive modernity would have to be considered, which has descent tendencies as its central content (assuming one wants to make this phase division); instead, Nachtwey remains primarily on an economic and sociological surface.
Robert Kurz writes in 2004: “The greater the income differences between rich and poor become in the context of the financial bubble economy, the more the structural differences of the classes in the structure disappear. That is why it is pointless when some ideologists of the crashing new middle class want to claim for themselves the former ‘class struggle of the proletariat’, which no longer exists. Social emancipation today demands the overcoming of the social form common to all” (Kurz 2004). In this context, Kurz states an overarching petty-bourgeois thinking that leads to barbarism. Today, this can be seen in a massive shift to the right and a “market-conformist extremism,” to speak with Nachtwey, although Kurz already stated this in 2004.
Andreas Reckwitz, in his book “The Society of Singularities” (2017), a book that also received a lot of media attention, comes out more culturally mediated/postmodern than Nachtwey, likewise in recourse and simultaneous negation of postmodernism to a new class society in the sense of Bourdieu, which is why it will not be debated again here in all its retrospect in relation to the culturalist 1980s and 1990s.
4. Myth of the Middle
Like Nachtwey, Ulf Kadritzke also wants to point out that we live in a class society today (Kadritzke 2017). He laments the focus on the middle classes in recent years and the fear that they are at risk of falling away, whereas the lower classes are no longer an issue. Kadritzke begins by noting that, despite all the differentiations in the Weimar Republic, the middle classes were placed in a class context in various approaches; he speaks of a wage-earning class. I will not go into this further here. Then, after the Second World War, the part of wage-dependents working not only in the production sector but for the overall reproduction process grew relevantly (I think he alludes to services). According to Kadritzke, the class point of view was now largely abandoned. Thus, in contrast to his work in the Weimar Republic, Theodor Geiger spoke in 1949 of a “class society in the melting pot.” Helmut Schelsky came to the diagnosis of a “leveled middle-class society.” According to this, class antagonism is weakened precisely by leveling, caused by increased consumer opportunities and an increase in living standards. Kadritzke states that in most studies inequalities have increased again since 1989. In sociological discourse, vertical differentiation is being pursued on the one hand, but on the other hand, there is an even more intense debate about the middle and its vulnerability to fall, with the assumption that the majority belongs to the middle. At the same time, an underclass is created, although everyone is wage-dependent. In this context, he also criticizes Heinz Bude’s assessment that there are no common interests when, for example, precarious people look down on the lower class. The overarching class interests are thus lost from view.
He criticizes the fact that modern stratification models, in contrast to class theories, do not start from production relations. Although new lines of differentiation that went through the wage-dependent class indeed made the formulation of a common interest more difficult, according to Kadritizke, a focus nevertheless emerges with regard to the demands for fair wages, good work, social security and the struggle for the welfare state. Kadritzke thus speaks with Dörre of the “end of the integrated class society.” Different wage labor fractions are thus played off against each other (for example, the core workforce and temporary/precarious workers). This is an expression of the “modified, but by no means ‘new relations of production’ with which the social movements have always had to deal” (ibid.: 75). Furthermore, he writes: “The dividing lines between workers and the majority of white-collar workers have long since faded; far more important is the differentiating view of the role of gender and milieu, of habitus and ways of life, which are influenced by present changes AND by the past” (ibid.: 77, emphasis in original). In addition to gender, this should include gays and refugees. He notes this, at least in an endnote, because poverty, for instance, is intertwined with gender (cf. ibid.: 94, note 55). Thus, he argues for “grasping the socioeconomic dimension of modern class society …even if questions remain unanswered. Working on this involves the use of new, mediating categories if one wants to grasp the historical-political and cultural, gender- and occupation-specific manifestations of concrete class relations and the milieus, some of which differ dramatically” (ibid.: 8). Kadritzke claims that talk of the middle “works toward the bourgeoisie of contemporary society” (ibid.: 81).
In Kadritzke’s opinion, the class concept is bent until it fits into the present time. It does not really need to be mentioned that Kadritzke has nothing to do with a fetish critique. With him, there is nothing going on behind people’s backs; his considerations take place solely within a class sociologism. Economic relations and the processual contradiction, the melting of the surplus value mass combined with a development of productive forces (microelectronic revolution, Industry 4.0), the de-substantialization of capital, the obsolescence of abstract labor, financialization and the formation of bubbles, which today culminate in the fundamental crisis, have no meaning for him. History as a capitalist process does not exist for him; capitalism is always the same. Changes occur only externally; he cannot imagine an end of capitalism. Nachtwey, on the other hand, at least includes economic and social changes and also gives a place to the middle, even if he then strangely defines today’s society as a class society. Race and gender are included only externally in both. Both from a perspective that Ulrich Beck wants to push beyond himself and from a traditional Marxist class perspective, allowing for major distortions, one ultimately comes down rather vulgarly to the good old class perspective, disregarding the whole false past suspension of the class problem that took place in “real existing socialism.” One does not care about that.
It is particularly hypocritical when Kadritzke today presents the class problem in the wake of the labor movement as a blanket partisanship for the poor and weak. Thus Kronauer writes with regard to the old workers’ movement: “(The) trade union and political organizations of the workers as well as the institutions of self-help (were) based primarily on the skilled workers. The unskilled, on the other hand, were underrepresented or not represented at all as risk factors (as in the case of self-help). However, those who had permanently dropped out of the work process or who at best still found work occasionally had no place in that milieu from the outset. They no longer represented a power factor in the struggle of the social classes and were excluded in two respects: from bourgeois society anyway, but also from the ‘counter-society’ of the organized labor movement” (Kronauer 2002: 86 f.). Kadritzke’s view, by the way, could thus also feed a structural anti-Semitism by making personalizations possible again. There are all kinds of contradictions in Kadritzke’s work: on the one hand, the middle classes are supposed to exist, but on the other hand they have always been negated in his understanding of class society.
5. Value Dissociation as a Social Form Principle, Class, Middle Class and the Social Question Today
So far, the starting point on the topic of “class and the social question today” here has only been “value.” In conclusion, I would like to discuss what it means for this topic, if one determines not only value, but value-dissociation, as a social principle of form. According to this view, not only is (surplus) value constitutive of totality, but it is equally to be assumed that under capitalism there are also reproductive activities that are primarily performed by women. Thus, value-dissociation means in essence that certain reproductive activities, but also related feelings (sensuality, emotionality, caring activities, and the like) are separated from value/surplus-value and abstract labor. Female reproductive activities thus have a different character from abstract labor, which is why they cannot be subsumed without circumstance under the term “labor”; it is a side of capitalist society that cannot be captured by the Marxian conceptual toolkit. Value and dissociation stand in a dialectical relation to each other. One cannot be derived from the other; rather, the two emerge apart. In this respect, the value-dissociation can also be understood as a metalogy that transcends the capitalist internal categories. In this context, the cultural-symbolic and psychosocial side of this value-dissociation must also be taken into account in order to grasp the social whole, but I will not go into this in detail here.
The “fundamental critique of value” now assumes with Marx that a contradiction of substance (commodities) and form (value) is, in crisis theory, ultimately something like the law that leads to crises of reproduction and the disintegration/collapse of capitalism. Schematically expressed, the mass of value per single product becomes smaller and smaller. The decisive factor here is the development of productive power, which in turn is closely related to the formation and application of (natural) science in the context of the overall capitalist context. With the microelectronic revolution and today, Industry 4.0, abstract labor is increasingly becoming obsolete. There is a devaluation of value and ultimately a collapse of the value relation, with Robert Kurz writing as early as 1986 that “one must not imagine the collapse as a one-time act (although sudden collapses and collapses, e.g. bank crashes, mass bankruptcies, etc., will certainly be part of it), but a historical process, a whole epoch of perhaps several decades, in which the capitalist world economy cannot get out of the maelstrom of crisis and devaluation processes, swelling mass unemployment and the like” (Kurz: 1986, on: exit-online.org). Today, it has long since become clear that not only the very impossibility of achieving returns through the extraction of surplus value, mediated by this process, has led to a softening at the speculative level, but that the overall dynamic culminating in it is actually leading to the decay of capitalism. This structure and dynamic must now be decisively modified with respect to the critique of value-dissociation. The “dissociation” is not, as it might appear, a static quantity, while the value logic represents the dynamic moment, but it is in a dialectical way also upstream of it and makes this dialectical process possible in the first place, which is why a processive value-dissociation logic must also be assumed. The dissociation is thus deeply involved in the elimination of living labor. In the process, it also changes itself in the historical process. Today, the housewife-nurturer model that was characteristic of the Fordist phase has long since dissolved. Today, women must stand their ground in gainful employment, although they are still primarily responsible for reproductive activities. Despite better educational qualifications, they earn less than men and have fewer opportunities for advancement. For men, this results in status inconsistencies because they no longer play the role of family breadwinner and are themselves exposed to precarious employment conditions. At the same time, care activities that are performed professionally today are, in Marx’s terms, dead costs; they do not generate surplus value, but are rather sponsored by the state from a redistribution of surplus value, which today, however, can be skimmed off less. Patriarchy is running wild today as the institutions of family and gainful employment erode in the face of increasing tendencies toward economic pauperization. The principle of surplus value, which goes hand in hand with the striving for a constant increase in money, leads to competition and the desire to be better than others. In this context, the achievement principle has primarily male connotations. Thus, Frigga Haug, referring to the symbolic gender order in capitalism, writes: “The man … is hero and laborer … The idea of competition as distinction and identity formation also determines notions of the polity in the history of Western social theory” (Haug 1996: 146). It is the dynamic mediated by surplus value that the achievement principle has thus always been inherent in and that must be thought together with the dissociation of the feminine.
Here, the problem of capital-productive labor is crucial for the crisis process. At the level of individual capitals, unproductive labor can also be profitable, for example in the form of an outsourced accounting firm. As mentioned, this also applies to professional care activities, although women cannot simply be subsumed under these activities, but must be available everywhere from an exploitation point of view. In this context, the unproductive costs, as mentioned earlier, are mostly borne by the state, which finances qua taxes what would be too costly for companies (infrastructure, highways, education, etc.). (Because the state itself has less money today, such areas were to be partially privatized in recent decades).
It is obvious that Fordism and state-interventionist Keynesianism corresponded with the leveled middle-class society in Schelsky’s sense. State activity, expansion and the sponsorship of services were mutually conditional. Thus, in contrast to the classical petty bourgeoisie, new middle classes emerged in administration, the media public sphere, health and education, etc., and student numbers rose.
Since the 1970s, the microelectronic revolution has made large amounts of labor superfluous. This led to a crisis of real utilization. The inflation of fictitious capital is a consequence of this, which was first unleashed in the crash of 2008. Such tendencies are at the expense of the welfare state, but also at the expense of e.g. bankers, high-tech specialists, insurance employees. After the financial crash of 2008, rescue packages had to be put together for systemically important banks to prevent them from collapsing.
From the subjective side, it is the “male”-connoted scientification and development of productive forces, which is centrally based on the dissociation of value as a basic context, which undermines the capitalist-patriarchal form of socialization, individualizes women, allows them to become employed on a large scale, etc. Precarization of the middle classes in more recent times is a consequence of these processes. Equality of opportunity, as it is always called, and opportunities for advancement, which always imply competitive intentions, were thus produced in the Fordist phase by a welfare state sponsorship. Underclasses remained and consisted primarily of guest workers and migrants. In the transition to post-Fordism since the 1970s, the leveled middle-class society was transformed into a fragmented and pluralized middle-class society, which is why sociology turned to research on milieus and lifestyles. At the latest with Hartz VI, this kind of middle-class society was accompanied by the fear of relegation, of falling into the abyss. Since then, at the latest, people have had to struggle to stay in the same place on the downward-moving escalator. As Nachtwey has shown, it is initially the lower middle classes that are at risk of descent, i.e. skilled workers, middle employees, etc. However, in the event of another financial crash and the successive implementation of Industry 4.0, occupational groups in the upper middle classes could also be massively affected, i.e., even well-saddled doctors, lawyers and the like. The segment of marginalized groups could then increase: Hartz IV recipients, the long-term unemployed and solo entrepreneurs, people lacking vocational training, single women, the disabled, migrants and the elderly could expand massively, with social benefits then being thinned out even further. Existing right-wing extremist resentments could increase massively, as right-wing extremism researcher Heitmeyer has been showing for years. Migrants without a German passport have always been marginalized, since citizenship basically presupposes marginalization.
Capitalism has always depended on social inequalities with the extreme vanishing point of exclusion and falling out, and I have not even gone into the processes of exclusion and slum existences in the so-called Third World. In capitalism, by the way, the “gypsy” is the excluded par excellence. He was always covered with special laws, even if he had, for example, a German passport; as the epitome of the lawless, superfluous, expendable in the social internal space, he is considered the “very last one,” whereby the attribution of “asociality” and “foreign racialization” are united in the Gypsy stereotype (I cannot go into this in more detail here, see Scholz 2007).
If today the concept of class is no longer valid with regard to socioeconomic inequalities, this must not lead to leaving the complexity of inequality relations to stand for themselves and to see an everyman declassification at work, in which everyone is, so to speak, equally at risk of descent/fall. It can be assumed that a class society led via a class compromise to a leveled middle class society in Fordism, which via Keynesian interventions finally led to a fragmented and pluralistic middle class society, until mediated via the microelectronic revolution, an Industry 4.0 and an inflation of the financial markets with corresponding crash developments descent tendencies and descent fears of the middle classes emerged. The background to this development is the litigious contradiction, which in turn has its basis in a contradictory dissocation of value as a basic social context. Ownership of the means of production and position in the production process are no longer suitable for determining inequality, if, as it were, the proletarian is now deproletarianized, if “the labor society has run out of work.” In this context, bourgeois stratification models say more than Marxist class definitions, which convulsively believe that they have to subsume every development under class categories. Today’s complex inequalities are thus themselves historically mediated by collective social inequalities and corresponding gradients into the present. Those who have academic parents and parents with dough still have greater educational opportunities than children of poor parents; even if they are devalued today, they are minimum requirements for maintaining status. The decisive factor here is the “Fordist bacon” that one had accumulated, which is no longer easily available to younger poor people today.
Other relations of inequality, however, which are distinguished from this, are already out of the question from the outset. It must by no means be assumed that socio-economic disparities were solely determined by class relations in the sense of the capitalist-worker antagonism, rather learned workers and their organizations tried to exclude weaker ones, the lumpenproletariat, once again, as becomes clear in the Kronauer quote above. A “native” middle class and class standpoint today is thereby decisive for the resentment against “others” who come “to us.”
It is to be assumed that the recourse to the concept of class is again used by ideologists of the middle class today because they do not want to accept the danger of descent or falling into the “lumpenbürgertum” (Claudio Magris), and because the society of descent is meanwhile actually threatening to change into a society of crash. Hence the differentiation of upper, middle, and lower middle, as in Nachtwey’s work, which has long since become blurred. This is to be countered with the class category as a concept of order; in this way, one still wants to take a place in the albeit hierarchical structure, instead of falling out of it and being the “very last”. The discussion about social inequalities has become more vulgar Marxist in recent years, one could say, in that everything is to be bent back into the class category, the more a yoga-middle increases. On the other hand, the concept of class is still understated and inadequate in the context of a downward movement of value-dissociation-society, because it is about degradation, declassification, exclusion and being superfluous.
The insistence on the generic concept of class thus expresses not least the convulsive evasion of the insight that the classical patriarchal working subject might have had its day, as Claudia von Werlhof already wrote in the early 1980s in the essay “The proletarian is dead, long live the housewife!” (even if she must otherwise indeed be reproached for life-philosophical/reactionary tendencies), namely that the man must descend from his high horse of the free and equal by eroding the normal employment relationship and by making him a woman, so to speak, in unsecured conditions, by tying an apron around him and cutting off his wiener (Werlhof 1983).
Today there are strong tendencies to subsume “race” and gender again under the class category and to declare this more or less implicitly as the main contradiction, instead of considering different dimensions of inequality in their own logic and placing them in the inherently broken context of the value dissociation. This would have to be investigated more closely not only on a socio-structural, but not least also on a socio-psychological level. This becomes clear, for example, when Demirovic titles an article: “Gender Relations and Capitalism. A Plea for a Class-Political Understanding of the Multiple Contexts of Domination” (Demirovic 2018). In this context, by the way, it was not the case that race/ethnicity and gender had ever been in the foreground in recent decades, as is often suggested or claimed today; it is downright ridiculous to declare this mainstream; rather, an individualization, milieu, and lifestyle orientation against the backdrop of the male working individual, beyond all these dimensions of inequality, were prevalent in the social sciences. I could not go into detail here on the connection between “class”/economic inequalities, “race,” gender, anti-Semitism, and antiziganism from the point of view of the value-dissociation critique, but I have done so elsewhere (Scholz 2005).
Demirovic, Alex: Die Geschlechterverhältnisse und der Kapitalismus. Plädoyer für ein klassenpolitisches Verständnis des multiplen Herrschaftszusammenhangs, in: Pühl, Katharina/Sauer, Birgit (eds.): Kapitalistische Gesellschaftsanalyse, Münster, 2018.
Haug, Frigga: Knabenspiele und Menschheitsarbeit. Geschlechterverhältnisse als Produktionsverhältnisse, in: Haug Frigga: Frauen-Politiken, Berlin 1996.
Kadritzke, Ulf: Mythos Mitte, Berlin 2017.
Kronauer, Martin: Exklusion, Frankfurt/Main, 2002.
Kurz, Robert: The Crisis of Exchange Value 1986 ( www.exit-online.org)
Kurz, Robert/Lohoff, Ernst: The Class Struggle Fetish 1989 ( www.exit-online.org).
Kurz, Robert: The Decline of the Middle Class 2004 (Exit! in English)
Nachtwey, Oliver: Die Abstiegsgesellschaft, Frankfurt/Main 2017.
Reckwitz, Andreas: Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten, Frankfurt/Main 2017.
Scholz, Roswitha: Homo Sacer and the Gypsies 2007 ( www.exit-online.org).
Scholz Roswitha: Überflüssigsein und Mittelschichtsangst, in: Exit! No. 5, Bad Honnef 2008.
Werlhof, Claudia: Der Proletarier ist tot. Long live the housewife? in: v. Werlhof/Mies, Maria/Bennholdt-Thomsen: Frauen die Letzte Kolonie, Hamburg, 1983.
Scholz, Roswitha: Differenzen der Krise – Krise der Differenzen, Bad Honnef 2005.
This paper was originally presented at the Exit! seminar “Class and Social Question” on Oct. 6, 2018. Parts of the paper were taken from the article “Überflüssig sein und Mittelschichtsangst,” in Exit! No. 5, 2008. Thus, the text predates the Corona crisis.