THE MIDDLE CLASS ABOLISHES ITSELF
“FREEDOM IS THE CAPITALIST MAINSTREAM”
Interview with Cornelia Koppetisch
[This interview published in SZ-magazine 32/2015 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://sz-magazine_sueddeutsche.de/texte/anzeigen/43404
. Cornelia Koppetisch, 48, is a professor of gender relations, education and lifestyles at TU Darmstadt. She wrote the book “The Return of Conformity – Excursions through the Endangered Middle” about her theses on how much the middle class internalizes neoliberal models.]
The middle class abolishes itself. Education diplomas lose value and neoliberalism confiscates those who should oppose it. These are the best presuppositions for shaking the whole social system, says sociologist Cornelia Koppetisch.
Some flourish in sunny homes; others fall in social depression. The chasm between poor and rich widens more and more.
SZ magazine: The economic situation in Germany is good. People seem to be managing their fear of descent. Do you agree?
Cornelia Koppetisch: Many people here are in insecure working conditions. They have little support and feel they cannot plan their whole life. That employees have a minimum of future security is the prerequisite for a functioning capitalist system.
Would capitalism be at an end if every person were in that precarious state?
Yes, theoretically. When large segments of the population lose control over their lives as in developing countries, they often withdraw into present-oriented life forms. They do not worry about the future any more; they don’t play an active role in work any longer. How this will develop in Germany is an open question. Here 25 percent live in endangered situations and ten percent in fortified poverty. This is a large number. What happens to a society when many of its members are denied an existence in the dominant order?
Could capitalism abolish itself?
Up to now it seemed we were living in a thoroughly rationalized society from which some of us were released in precariousness. Even if their strategies are not effective, the excluded will try to maintain the familiar system. But thinking this through to the end would be interesting.
You write the middle class is digging its own grave. Can you explain?
Finance market capitalism implies that the financial market actors meddle in business policy – to maximize profit. This happens through shareholder value. Middle class citizens with a little wealth who invested this in the stock exchange are responsible for certain jobs becoming more and more precarious. When businesses are increasingly controlled by shareholders and funds, they become oriented in short-term profit possibilities and try to reduce labor costs. Employing workers for limited times and hiring subcontracted workers is cheaper. So every shareholder contributes to undermining the workforce.
Is a shareholder complicit even with only a few shares in a little stock fund?
Absolutely. This is not only clear in Germany. Businesses in the US, for example, settle in American states without union connections where the rights of employees are circumscribed. They argue they would lose their shareholders if they didn’t do this. The shareholders are middle class citizens; fund managers are in charge of their shares.
The investment-seeking capital of the middle class is considerable. The elevated middle class is wealthier today than ever – through the social ascent in Germany after the Second World War. Since then there were no wars and crises like those that destroyed assets again and again up to the middle of the 20th century. Instead private wealth accumulates and reaches far into the middle class. We have a surplus of investment-seeking financial assets; we are super-liquid. The risk of bubbles on the financial markets increases. Money ceases being capital when no goods or services are produced with the invested money.
You criticize the devaluing of education when we develop into one-dimensional creatures. What do you mean?
We see many worried parents taking ever more costly paths to ensure the future of their children: elite kindergartens, private schools and foreign trips. Conventional educational institution s and education certificates are devalued when more and more people invest in higher education. An outbidding competition occurs. We rely on apprentices. College graduates land in unskilled jobs and high school students get none. Everything skids a grade down. The ambitious enroll in elite universities; the other universities are downgraded to second-class educational institutions. The vocational prospects for individuals are not improving. One must constantly upgrade but nothing comes of that at the end.
How can this be stopped or turned around?
I don’t know. When one agrees with the competitive game, one helps reproduce these structures. Playing includes complicity. Actors should be aware of this.
In his book “Capital in the 21st Century,” the French economist Thomas Piketty writes: “No social ascent is possible any more when capital grows unhindered and fruits of work are so trifling.” Is that also your view?
The gap between poor and rich becomes wider and wider. But capital clutches at thin air when too few profitable businesses are founded. This is striking for us in Germany. Enormous amounts of money are stored here and little is invested. Credit is ultimately a social relation. When I – as a middle class capitalist – invest money in bonds, stocks or funds to realize a profit, I count on businesses where persons work producing a surplus and thereby a profit. This is forgotten sometimes. Money itself becomes an investment object when investments are not connected with concrete productivity cycles and no goods or services are produced. A chain of debt letters arises and there is neither money nor a product at the end.
Then why do people invest?
Investors believe they have a natural right to profits without the least reflection on where the business profits should come from and without accepting a business risk themselves. These are the descendants of the better-off, the heirs. Today’s finance market capitalism has uncoupled ownership and business activity. The Song of Songs of entrepreneurial virtues is preached to the simple employees. They should become worker entrepreneurs, found their own companies and act with personal responsibility. But this does not work out. A growing share of the poor, above all those with little training, hardly has any subjective ambitions of ascent. They have long disengaged.
Piketty is for a wealth tax. What is your opinion?
A global wealth tax would be the only possibility for initiating redistribution and installing a democratic capitalism. Our system cannot be rotating faster and faster only to satisfy the claims of owners while the rights of employees are cut again and again. As long as only one nation attempts this, capital migrates – to tax havens and countries where employees have few rights. I recently made this proposal to the Friedrich-Ebert foundation. We must tax those who are very powerful actors in our class society of property owners. They kill themselves laughing. This is obviously a naïve idea in real politics. But tax havens cause our revenue crisis. Studies on this are commissioned but nothing happens.
How close are sociology and economics?
Economists and sociologists think completely differently. Many economists claim market forces regulate themselves and society doesn’t need to intervene. Sociologists argue: no capitalism can exist in a social system without a bond or binding. A complete unfettering of market forces allows the system to implode. The collapse of the financial markets in the recent past demonstrates this. This cannot happen without destroying the environment because the ever greater growth of the economy will use up the environmental resources. Allowing social inequalities to become great is also disastrous because this endangers the social integration and civil society doesn’t function any more.
What does this look like?
Visitors from Russia or other BRICS states, the up-and-coming economies including Brazil, India, China and South Africa are surprised that we go swimming without pistols, that there is a functioning civil society where public spaces are not threatened by violence and safe life is possible outside gated communities and that we have relatively high consumer standards and a high level of civic engagement. This civil society is endangered when inequalities increase.
Inequalities were less before the 1990s. Why were inequalities less?
The postwar time was the golden phase of democratic capitalism because the social state expanded and all the people were well-funded consumers, including workers, thanks to rising wages. Skilled workers were gentrified and lost their proletariat culture. Masses of standardized consumer goods were produced. The employee was well-paid so he could buy a refrigerator, stereo equipment and later a Mercedes because there were fewer exports – compared to today. We didn’t have a reserve army.
What is a reserve army?
Persons who are economically redundant and not really bound to the system form a reserve army. In an economic regard, they are among the losers in a society. But these persons have something up their sleeves so they may be needed sometime or other. After the feudal society in early capitalism, the former rural population wandered into cities in search of work, was proletarianized there and gained the subsistence level – if they could. Today they are the subcontracted laborers and seasonal workers whoa re only employed when they are needed.
Aren’t consumers needed in Germany?
Sales markets emerge everywhere in the world for an export nation like Germany. Our cars are found in China and are selling like hot cakes in the US and many other countries. Germany is regarded as an export world master. The strong domestic consumer is not important any more.
What are the consequences?
Employees in one’s country are needed less and less. A global underbidding competition over wages occurs. Businesses outsource their production sites to countries where workers have few rights and social securities. In Germany, on the other hand, some employees are beginning to reflect: I would prefer Hartz IV before I kill myself in exploitative jobs. That isn’t much but I won’t have debts. They leave the reserve army. Businesses try their luck in other countries. Reserve armies of underpaid employees still exist globally but for how long?
Is a skilled worker part of the middle class? How do people see themselves today?
The matrix of social distinction has changed very much through neoliberalism and through the collapse of the eastern bloc, the loss of an alternative social order and globalization. The middle class doesn’t insult the elites any more but wishes to join them and delimits itself from the lower class. New groups are arising – like the creatives in cultural vocations and the media. Creatives don’t want to be middle class and make fun of the little gardens of their parents but weren’t petty-bourgeois. They in no way earn more than their parents. Life is worse for them. Yet this group was the first to be bound in the neoliberal project.
What do you mean?
Creatives feel free. However they pay a steep price for that: earning little and working in precarious conditions. The hype of creative callings creates new possibilities on the side of employers. Businesses now pass off unattractive jobs as “creative.” The man or woman can be given a self-realization bonus – and needs fewer securities and lower salaries. This can be seen in the advertising branches. The commercial artist who was originally an artisan is titled a creative and paid poorly. Hierarchies are flattened and personnel costs reduced and thinned.
Would it help if the middle class were in solidarity?
The middle class was never a real solidarity community. It was always too broad and too multifarious for solidarity. It has never been engaged like the working class – perhaps except for the 68-generation who came out of the middle class. The artist ideology coincides with neoliberalism.
In what way?
Artists say: everyone is different and has his or her individual field. The possibilities of acting collectively against miserable working conditions or under-payment are blocked. Artists and creatives are seldom organized in unions or effective professional associations. The professions represent the counterpart to creative callings. Professional associations like the medical association or the association of university lecturers are good at bring about good working conditions and royalties and salaries. Creatives seemingly do not need those necessities.
What are the after-effects?
There are winners and losers among creatives. This is striking in cities like Berlin. Some successfully leap in a secure existence by their mid-thirties. Others have problems with increasing age.
You write a text about two women in this phase of life who long believed in the message of autonomous lifestyles. Despite good education, they did not attain secure circumstances of life.
They feel expelled and despised by their own milieu because they supposedly are responsible themselves for their failures. Obviously no one admits he or she is excluded for not leaping to the other side.
Why have many not accomplished the leap? In the past, one could ride on one’s ticket in the world of universities for a long while: now and then an assistant academic position and then unemployed for two years. There were many alternatives to a secure job at the universities, through job-creating schemes or work in the social realm. Then the question was raised when many of these employment niches were closed: what does the rest of my working life look like? Will I get a pension later? On one hand, people from this generation still respect self-sufficient lifestyles. On the other hand, they are ungracious with those who get nowhere.
Are creatives now faithful servants of neoliberalism?
I believe so. That is the trick. French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello emphasized this in their work “The New Spirit of Capitalism.” Ideals like autonomy, emancipation, personal responsibility, freedom and creativity once formulated by the counter-culture are confiscated by the capitalist mainstream. They have no resistance potential any more. So I explain the return of conformity and neoconservatism as defense of neoliberal freedom exactions. Being creative and acting with personal responsibility are among the virtues demanded from employees today and no longer subversive. These virtues have wandered to the side of capitalism. Therefore younger persons now say we want tradition, security, something that that remains, laws and prohibitions. We don’t want to be free any more. What seems scarce and costly today are bonds and security and no longer freedom. Sometimes this leads to defensive reactions. Everything the 68-generation introduced as values – sexual tolerance, diversity and liberation – are demonized – even in the so-called majority class in the mainstream of the population and not only in the right-wing.
Does that lead to an apolitical attitude?
In the generational comparison, opinion surveys like the Shell youth-study show the younger generation often withdraws into the private sphere. They concentrate on personal advancement and grapple less with politics.
What generation do you mean?
Generation Maybe, the generation born after 1975. They are the first generation that grew up with the consequences of globalization and endure much worse conditions in working life than their parents. Nevertheless younger persons do not interpret their problems in a social framework. The right decision is crucial. This does not mean there is no interest in the economy but the economy isn’t connected with their life. This obviously reflects the fact that younger generations distance themselves from older generations. Baby-boomers grew up with Easter-marches, feminism and the anti-nuclear movement. Subsequent generations deeply mistrust this generation, sometimes rightly. What the 68-ers imagined seem like congealed rule structures to younger persons. Leftist attitudes are often preached today by those who sit in the social box seats, for example by the 68-ers who are in good positions and pay youths poorly because they don’t like to share their privileges with the younger or give to the excluded. This creates mistrust.
You write: Perhaps the future generation will succeed in overcoming middle class logic. What generation would that be?
The children of the younger who are so adjusted today could be politicized. The generation that is now in the starting blocks can no longer be politicized. In times like these, there are too few critical points. The upheaval is here and really alarming. Persons can critically position themselves when the social system that is now arising becomes established, when people see the relative strengths.
My son is 21 and wants to be an ecologist. A professor says half of his students are vegetarians. That is political.
That is a little political. What is lacking is a concrete alternative to today’s social system. This generation could be called pragmatic. One is only politically active when an immediate success is possible. The younger do not venture any utopia or counter-project. They do not engage in trench-warfare or status battles. But that would be political.