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The Liberal-Regressive Modern Age

by Oliver Nachtweg Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 at 4:16 AM

The financial crisis of the states-dramatically intensified by the costs of bailing out the banks-shifts the costs to the broad population without touching the wealth of the economic elites. Political governing is increasingly uncoupled from the approval and influence of citizens.


By Oliver Nachtweg

[This article published in July 2011 is translated from the German on the Internet, Oliver Nachtweg is an author and co-worker in economic sociology at the University of Trier active in social movements and globalization criticism.]

Like the 1989/1990 revolutions in Eastern Europe, no one in the West saw the Arab revolutions coming. Anthony Giddens, the most respected social-democratic theoretician of the last 30 years, recently described Gaddafi’s regime as a one-party system that “was not especially repressive and said the dictator was very popular. Gaddafi’s son studied at the London School of Economics where Giddens was president until 2003 and received a considerable gift when his study ended.

The real cause of this blindness lies much deeper. In politics and political science, people largely agreed since the alleged “end of history” (Francis Fukuyama) that revolts and revolutions belong to the past. When a revolution happens, it appears every time as a “black swan,” the unforeseen exception to the rule. [1]

The Harvard scholar Adam K. Webb criticized the doctrine of the disappearance of revolution in 2006. [2] In his opinion, those processes that make a national revolution unlikely – namely globalization, the triumphant procession of democracy, the interdependent international system of states and the formation of supra-national institutions – also make a regional or global revolutionary crisis improbable.

Webb who is not a leftist also did not see any immediate revolutionary situation for the developed market economies. In his scenario, the global financial crisis did not occur. However the structural change of democracy to “market-serving governance” and the growing power of supra-national institutions (like the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization) were signs of future revolts.


In Arabia, the unity of lack of democratic and social perspectives triggered the mass demonstrations against the authoritarian regimes. In 2011, we witnessed this in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Great Britain. What is the situation in Europe?

In Europe there is no revolutionary situation today – and there will not suddenly be a revolutionary situation. The latest protests are eruptions of accumulated discontent and deep estrangement from the liberal modern age, not episodic periodic events. Europe is in broad revolt against the ignorance of democracy and the structural adjustment programs of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Here the youth marked by precariousness, unemployment and lack of perspectives become supporters of a new democratic politics. [3]

The financial crisis of the states – intensified dramatically by the costs of bailing out the banks – shifts the costs to the broad population without touching the wealth of the economic elites in many countries. Mass demonstrations and general strikes are the result. Despite Stuttgart 21 and a new anti-nuclear movement, Germany is still the great exception – above all on account of its relative economic stability.

In other states, the sharpest social cuts since the Second World War occurred in the last months. Triggered by these cuts, a new unconventional democratic politics blazes the trail. Widespread accepted civil disobedience, “enraged citizen” protests and political strikes sprout up from the ground. Inspired by the protests at Tahrir Plaza in Cairo, many public places – from Madrid to Madison/ Wisconsin – become the new Agoras, places of the democratic public.

Paradoxically the new democratic politics mostly passes by the established leftist actors and parties. These actors are largely seen by protestors as part of the establishment and thus as part of the problem.

Western democracies do not really see the crisis of their own model. In the past 60 years, the societies of the West and their parties were stable because they made possible social ascent and social integration. The direction of development is reversed today. Societies of descent, precariousness and polarization have come out of societies of ascent. Inequality has risen considerably in nearly all OECD countries. [4] The western, liberal-social modern age has eroded just where it functioned so successfully in the last 50 years: the free self-determination of the individual. The social state of the post-war years as the “political embodiment of mass democracy” [5] gave citizens the positive freedom for individual conduct under conditions of social security.


This liberal-social modern age is now massively endangered. On one side, “reflexive modernization” (Ulrich Beck) advances with increasing equality between the genders and at least partial equality between residents and highly-trained migrants. On the other side, inequality, class distinction and illiberality grow in dealing with lower classes and migrants. We have entered an epoch of the liberal-regressive modern age that replaces the liberal-social modern age.

Liberal-regressive modernization represents above all a modification – more exactly a neoliberal dismantling – of state civil rights through so-called activating social policy and privatization of common goods.

The dismantling of social state civil rights extends far into civil and middle class rights even if all civil rights including the right to vote are not lost today as in the poorhouses of the 18th century. For transfer-recipients, neither privacy nor banking secrecy is in effect. In Portugal, the latter was recently completely annulled for transfer-beneficiaries. In this way the great achievement of the social modern age, the separation of state civil rights from class position, is quashed little by little.

In the United States, exemplary achievements of the liberal-social modern age like the right of association are up for debate. Unions in the US have become marginalized actors. In the southern states, union organization in private enterprise has virtually collapsed in the last 20 years through egregious legislation. In Wisconsin, unions are no longer recognized by the state side. The individual civil right to collective organizing is in question. While the first black president governs the country, more African-Americans sit in prisons than there were slaves in 1850. [6]


In the meantime western democracy has crossed its zenith. Political governing is increasingly uncoupled from the approval and influence of citizens despite free and universal elections – with drastically falling voter turnout. Practical constraints and necessities prevail that are normalized by lobbyists and legitimated by experts. This “post-democracy” (Colin Crouch) approaches more and more the Schumpeter model of empty competition democracy in which only the elite of the “governing class” [7] compete over who may govern.

The post-sovereignty of individual nation states is part of post-democracy after the financial crisis. The population, the parliament and the government do not decide over the financial policy of a country. No, the financial policy of whole states is dictated by rating agencies, the IMF or the EU. It is only executed by the governments. The interests of larger but weaker social groups are sacrificed in an authoritarian way to the alleged public interest. A small but strong group subordinates other interests to the public interest and its own interest to the public interest. The bankers who are again pocketing bonuses are system-relevant and therefore unassailable in crisis times. What distinguishes the enlightened West, thinking in alternatives, was abandoned in favor of the dictate of practical constraints.

Some governments standing under the dictate of structural adjustment programs have already fallen. While an “ungovernability” of western democracies was emphasized by the conservative side in the 1970s because of the strength of unions and social movements [8], countries like Portugal and Ireland experience a foreign government today. In Iceland, a new constitution-amending process is underway that basically changes the political structures. For a year Belgium has been without an elected government and led by its civil service machinery. In the second half of 2010, the EU-council president exercised power in Belgium.

Electoral democracy still functions formally in the West – if one disregards George W. Bush’s appointment as president in 2000. But there were often no elections in the West any more while people in the Orient knew that elections were manipulated. The parties are hardly distinguished. What they promised before the elections was simply not carried out after the elections.

In countries like Italy and France, semi-Bonapartist upstarts or the new rich came to power that acted like masters of public manipulation. The social-democratic and socialist parties also served in a post-democratic way. In the case of Greece, a brutal austerity program emerged out of the social-democratic reform program. The Spanish government sought to prohibit the latest completely peaceful protests because they supposedly endangered the course of communal elections or election democracy. Could there be a clearer example for the raging post-democracy?


The increasing inequality in the liberal-regressive modern age led to an ever-greater loss of trust in the institutions of democracy, not only to fading voter turnout and asymmetrical political participation – to the disadvantage of the socially weak. The stronger the inequality, the greater the mistrust toward the parties. [9]

The consequence is a dangerous dialectic of polarization: on one side new base democratic forms of protest and on the other growing estrangement from parliamentary democracy. Rightwing populist parties or neo-aristocrats gain greater and greater acceptance. The rise of rightwing populists and rightwing radicals is unbroken in the Scandinavian countries and also in Italy and France. In the US a similarly successful actor entered the political stage with the rightwing Tea Party movement.

In short, the states of the West have fallen into a political unrest unknown since 1968. Western countries are more deeply democratically institutionalized than the Arab regimes. However that may not be true in the long run.

Imagine the situation in Europe when the ruler is the richest man of the country and controls the media. While a few genuine democrats sit in Parliament, corrupt rightwing conservatives form the majority. The ruler has contacts to the shadow economy, regards the democratic administration of justice as unnecessary and doesn’t worry about public morality. Defraying the monthly expenses is impossible for more than half of the population. 40 percent of families have problems in paying the credit for their housing. The monthly rent causes distress for 38 percent of the population. [10]

If this country were in Arabia, we could certainly be excited if people took to the streets and began a revolt. However this is precarious for Europe when this happens with Italy.


[1] Vgl. Nassim Nicholaus Taleb, Der schwarze Schwan. Die Macht höchst unwahrscheinlicher Ereignisse, München 2008.
[2] Vgl. Adam K. Webb, The Calm before the Storm? Revolutionary Pressures and Global Governance, in: „International Political Science Review“, 1/2006, S. 73-92.
[3] Vgl. Steffen Vogel, Europas Jugend: Abstieg und Wut, in: „Blätter“ 4/2011, S. 27-30.
[4] Vgl. OECD, Growing Income Inequality in OECD-Countries: What drives it and how can policy tackle it? Paris 2011.
[5] Jürgen Habermas, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, Bd. 2, Frankfurt a. M. 41981, S. 510.
[6] Vgl. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York 2010.
[7] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void? The Hollowing of Western Democracy, in: „New Left Review”, 42/2006, S. 25-51.
[8] Vgl. Claus Offe, Unregierbarkeit. Zur Renaissance konservativer Krisentheorien, in: Jürgen Habermas (Hg.), Stichworte zur geistigen Situation der Zeit, Bd. 1, Frankfurt a. M. 1979, S. 294-318.
[9] Vgl. Armin Schäfer, Die Folgen sozialer Ungleichheit für die Demokratie in Westeuropa, in: „Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft“, 1/2010, S. 131-156.
[10] „Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung“, 9.2.2011.
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