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University of Basel

“We live in a class society.”

Interview: Urs Hafner

The sociologist Oliver Nachtwey thinks people should argue openly about their different economic interests and believes that the class society has never ended.

Prof. Oliver Nachtwey. (Foto: University of Basel, Christian Flierl)
Prof. Oliver Nachtwey. (Foto: University of Basel, Christian Flierl)

Oliver Nachtwey is a new professor of sociology at the University of Basel. At the beginning of August, a few days after he took up his new position, his office on Petersgraben is hard to find as his name is not yet on the door. The room looks like it has been redecorated, the empty bookshelves are awaiting the first books. In the corner, a smart suitcase is ready for Professor Nachtwey’s weekend trip to Frankfurt, where he still lives until he moves to Basel with his family in November. Before serving coffee and water, the young sociologist stresses that he will soon be moving to Basel and wants to live and get involved here. He reports that he has just ventured into the Rhine for a swim for the first time on the spur of the moment. With a fashionable haircut and beard, he wears a suit and an elegant German wristwatch.

UNI NOVA: Mr Nachtwey, do you feel like you are living under socialism in Switzerland?

OLIVER NACHTWEY: I imagine socialism to be somewhat different … the quality of life is very good here. I went to Valais on vacation a few times as a child and loved it there each time.

UNI NOVA: I was thinking more of figures rather than feelings: the right-wing liberals claim that we’re living in socialism or semi-socialism because the public spending ratio is over 50 percent.

NACHTWEY: (laughs) The public spending ratio, in other words, the proportion of the gross domestic product spent by the state, is an extremely imprecise measure to determine socialist or even just social conditions. In Germany, the public spending ratio barely decreased after the welfare state cuts. A high public spending ratio can mean various things: extensive bureaucracy, high military expenditure, low wages that necessitate state transfer payments. You have to look very closely. The right-wing liberals’ question could be countered with another question: is the high public spending ratio also a bad thing when the state is in a position to rescue ailing banks and to safeguard the economy from more serious damage?

UNI NOVA: Let’s leave the socialism question unanswered then. In your sensational book about “downward mobility” you describe plausibly how the lower middle classes and lower classes in Europe are becoming poorer while the upper classes are gaining in economic terms. Are we living in a class society again?

NACHTWEY: We’ve always lived in a class society, so it’s not a question of going back – although I don’t yet know the conditions in Switzerland well enough to be able to make qualified statements. Western societies, at any rate, continue to be pervaded by structural asymmetries that are characteristic of class societies: the economic and cultural resources are unequally distributed and are reproduced unequally. From the 1950s until into the 1980s, class differences seemed to be losing importance – the sociologist Ulrich Beck spoke of the “elevator society”: everyone was doing increasingly well in economic terms. But even then structural disparities still remained.

UNI NOVA: Did the economic miracle muddy the waters of science?

NACHTWEY: For a while, yes. And now the social classes have become more visible again: the richest and most powerful, in other words the top five to ten percent of the population, are blatantly flaunting their wealth. Wealth is seen per se as a sign of achievement; someone who earns a lot is regarded as a key player, no matter how he or she made their money. If a firm’s performance declines, the top manager’s salary is not reduced. The lower classes, on the other hand, are growing and are virtually losing their connection to society. In Germany, a quarter of all jobs are in the precarious low-wage sector. There is still just one single member of the working class with a seat in Germany’s parliament.

UNI NOVA: Anyone who says “class” evokes Marxism, but the theories of class consciousness, of class in itself, of the proletariat and so on – they’re mistaken.

NACHTWEY: It’s not that simple. Even for the sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, who was anything but a Marxist – he was a staunch liberal – capitalist societies were necessarily class societies. As early as the 1990s, he said that the significance of class would increase again. The term “class” means that people have different interests due to the fact that they’re in different economic situations. And this inevitably leads to conflicts: the classes argue and fight one another, but they also have to negotiate and try to find solutions. Ideally, the conflict will result in integration and pacification. Those who deny the existence of the class society declare themselves in favor of an apparent consensus that can end in social anomie.

UNI NOVA: Anomie – so you assume that social norms are eroding, that society is facing isintegration?

NACHTWEY: Not necessarily. But phenomena such as the German right-wing Pegida movement, the conspiracy theories that are circulating among like-minded people on the Internet or also the  anonymous hate comments, which, as we all know, are sometimes distributed by well trained technicians, they all indicate that social pathologies are spreading at an alarming rate. Many people bottle up frustration and fears while the pressure to perform on the labor market increases. The number of days of sickness absence in firms is falling, so people are going to work even though they’re not really fit, but at the same time psychosocial disorders are on the rise.

UNI NOVA: Why don’t people defend themselves when they’re under pressure?

NACHTWEY: They do, but in a destructive way. They reappear protesting vociferously in right-wing populism. They see this as a kind of self-defense…

UNI NOVA: … self-defense?

NACHTWEY: Because they feel that no-one is listening to them any longer. The people who belong to the lower classes and to the middle classes that are threatened by social descent have become less important and less visible in public life. They no longer see themselves represented by the established popular parties. The associations are disappearing and the trade unions are weakening. In these organizations of civil society, people used to be able to vent their anger and express their indignation, and they met with a positive response. The trade union offered protection from the unreasonable demands of the market, the regulars at the local pub comforted each other and recommended restraint after the last glass of beer. The erosion of this social environment is leading to anomie.

UNI NOVA: So that means everything used to be better in the days when lively associations and strong trade unions still existed?

NACHTWEY: Today, there are too many precarious job situations that no longer provide people with security, but I don’t long for the good old days that never existed in that way. Conditions were also retrogressive, for instance with regard to women’s emancipation. That’s why it’s not possible to simply turn back the clock. The situation is more open today, much more is possible. The problem is not the disappearance of the associations but what is going to take their place, what kinds of communities does it make sense to build? The internet, which speeds up social change, can be a medium of both emancipation and regression. In global terms, I see both authoritarian and democratic tendencies at the moment, the stalling Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, on the one hand, and the new autocrats, on the other hand. I believe Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump in place of Hillary Clinton. In Germany, there is Pegida, but there is also the “welcome culture” that was supported by some six million people. Germany took in the refugees and the country didn’t collapse.

UNI NOVA: German daily newspapers describe you as a left-wing academic. What do you say to that?

NACHTWEY: If it’s written in the newspaper, it’s probably right, isn’t it?

UNI NOVA: What does a left-wing sociologist do?

NACHTWEY: I’m interested in labor, in social justice, the economy and political phenomena. My ideal aim is to obtain scientifically sound results on social injustice and social change. My findings should enable keen citizens to better understand the world and perhaps even to improve it. I’m not going to take charge and tell everyone what to do.

UNI NOVA: Not like Lenin then. And how does a conservative sociologist work?

NACHTWEY: He or she should actually reach similar results to those of a leftwing sociologist, but will interpret them differently. Many conservative sociologists claim that the contrast between right-wing and left-wing no longer exists, or that they are not on the right but work objectively and free from value judgments as the great sociologist Max Weber demanded. Yet people who argue like that are themselves ideological because research is always influenced by personal belief systems. Left-wing sociologists are more likely to analyze the consequences of social change with regard to social justice, conservative sociologists are more likely to examine how social stability can be maintained. Left-wingers criticize the negative effects that the market has on income distribution, conservatives criticize the – also negative – consequences for the traditional family.

UNI NOVA: In Switzerland, empiricist sociology dominates. This deals with evaluating very detailed data, and – unlike you – is scarcely present in public discourse. Will you be entering into a fierce academic debate?

NACHTWEY: I don’t like fighting. First of all, I’d like to get to know my colleagues better – I admire their work. However, it would benefit such a diverse science as sociology if more collegial discussions were held in order to better understand social change. But we should argue in society. It may sound paradoxical, but conflicts promote social integration – provided that the fight is not supposed to end in the elimination of the opponent, as the influential state theorist and Nazi sympathizer Carl Schmitt had in mind. Debating results in friction but also compromise and sometimes even a little warmth.

Oliver Nachtwey, born in 1975, Oliver Nachtwey has been a professor of social structure analysis at the University of Basel since 1 August 2017. Prior to that, he was a lecturer and researcher at the Technische Universität Darmstadt and at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main. The economic sociologist focuses on labor, inequality, protest and democracy. He writes for daily and weekly newspapers, as well as for online portals. His study “Downward Mobility: Dissent in the Age of Regressive Modernity”, which was published by Suhrkamp in 2016, met with a lively response and became a bestseller – a rare distinction for a substantial work of non-fiction.

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