Progressives, Eszter Kováts writes, need to avoid the trap of a politics which only knows friends and foes.
‘Conflicts: existing, polarisation: hardly, politicised and radicalised fringes: yes’ is how the three authors of a large-scale, recently published sociological study on conflicts in Germany summarise their results. The findings have more than intrinsic value and, beyond Germany, could be fruitful for political debates in Europe about progress and equality.
Steffen Mau, Thomas Lux and Linus Westheuser set out to explore developments, consensus and conflicts in contemporary German society with the help of longitudinal data, representative surveys and focus groups. Do politics and media discourse merely represent dividing lines existing in society or do they give rise to them? An important question when the talk is all of polarisation and ‘culture wars’.
The authors have disaggregated this ‘big pot’ into four social arenas: the traditional ‘above-below’ theme of economic inequality plus the newer ‘inside-outside’ (migration), ‘us-them’ (recognition) and ‘today-tomorrow’ (climate). Broadly speaking, they find consensus in all four fields, across age, education and income boundaries.
On inequality, an overwhelming majority favours a safeguarding and redistributive welfare state, rejecting radical market liberalism and excessive inequality. But complete equalisation of society is dismissed as unrealistic or—by meritocratic norms—even morally problematic. Although people movement is the most polarised issue, most advocate neither open borders nor isolation but rather managed immigration and an ethical measure of humanitarian support. This majority also sees tolerance and non-discrimination as important values: only a few can warm to a return to traditional, rigid forms of society—or, conversely, to a far-reaching identity-politics interrogation of their everyday lives. Finally, most see climate protection as urgent but require it to be weighed against other goods: the consequences of climate change are viewed with great concern but so is an overly disruptive or unjust transformation.
Although extreme positions—despite media perceptions—are only taken at the margins, there are however plenty of conflicts when neuralgic ‘trigger points’ (hence the title of the study) are touched, consensus evaporates and emotionally-charged conflicts are activated. From the focus groups, the authors distilled that differences of opinion shot up in an outraged manner when unequal treatment appeared unbearable or when violations of normality, fears of dissolution of boundaries (a ‘slippery slope’) or behavioural impositions (over one’s use of language, for example) were perceived.
The data-rich study refutes the thesis that German society is divided into two irreconcilable camps—high-earning, urban, progressive academics versus less well-placed, rural, right-wing workers—sometimes based on undigested diagnoses from the United States. Nevertheless, trigger points can be—and indeed are—used to fuel polarisation, including in the media. This is where the authors’ differentiated class analysis is particularly meaningful.
Become a Social Europe Member
Support independent publishing and progressive ideas by becoming a Social Europe member for less than 5 Euro per month. Your support makes all the difference!
Economic inequalities, though felt and perceived as unjust, do not lead to anger and resistance even among the disadvantaged—among other things because of the internalised meritocratic ethos of neoliberalism, as Mau explained at the book launch in Vienna. In each of the other three domains, opinions among the less-educated and lower-income strata diverge, are more idiosyncratic and are oriented towards the practical, while for the highly educated they are bunched around the progressive stance. As Westheuser told Radio Eins, a contrary bundling is projected by the representatives of this group, such as journalists, on to the lower classes and the majority of society generally, although this is not empirically valid: anti-migration attitudes, for example, do not necessarily come with homophobia or the like.
The economic dimension also plays a role in the newer arenas. The authors describe the ecological question as a ‘class question in the making’. Cause and impact are differentially distributed: whereas rich people and regions contribute a lot to global warming but suffer comparatively less, the opposite is true for poor people and regions. In the focus groups—where there was a consensus of concern about climate change—the sharing of the burden of the green transition provoked emotional discussion, as did the symbolic battles of the highly educated.
The high-status groups propagate sustainable ways of life—giving up meat and cheap flights, for instance—by which they realise gains in distinction, morally standing out from the masses. Thus climate action is reduced to an ecological lifestyle and individual consumption decisions rather than structural concerns. It is this distinction which broad sections of society reject—not the threat of climate change itself.
The situation is similar with gender-just language. The authors found the use of gender-neutral formulations, as well as feminine and masculine forms, overwhelmingly approved, but not the use of symbols making visible all presumed genders such as asterisks. This was also perceived as a means of distinction—an ‘exclusive inclusivity’ which semantically included but socially excluded.
A bundling of opinions on the three newer themes is however not only taking place among academics but also among two other groups: voters for the Greens and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. If German society consisted only of Greens and AfD supporters, the study indicates, it would indeed be deeply divided into two separate, hostile camps. In the programmes of this ‘symmetrical duo’ migration, identity and climate are also bundled together. The two fringes want to install this dividing line discursively—although, as the data show, it does not exist in society.
The responsibility of the AfD is enormous. As Mau told the Süddeutsche Zeitung, ‘they just wait for new, disquieting topics, then look at how the Greens position themselves in relation to them—and take exactly the opposite attitude’. But this also works the other way around: if the AfD positions itself somewhere, it seems necessary that the political elites (the Greens above all) take the opposite pole, and even consensus can turn into the opposite.
For example, 84 per cent of Germans think trans individuals should be recognised as normal. Nevertheless, the discursive recognition of a minority becomes associated with additional demands most in society reject—not stemming from discrimination and hatred but a sense of unequal treatment and behavioural imposition. And in this the ‘polarisation entrepreneurs’ play a significant role, deliberately pressing the trigger points, actively working towards a division of society.
These figures exist on both sides of the political spectrum and, in addition to politicians, there are journalists and those who set the tone on ‘social media’. Hence, not only have diagnoses of polarisation been adopted from the US in a decontextualised manner but also the discursive means of polarisation: incessant ‘friend-foe’ constructions, the disparaging and denigrating of political and social opponents and generally uncivil discourse are the typical means of those who want to bring about polarisation in the three new arenas. This is particularly virulent in the us-them, identity-politics domain.
Struggles for recognition
The authors consider recognition a ‘positive-sum game’ in that no one is harmed by its conferral—at most it may come at the expense of the dominance of one’s own lifestyle, which can be perceived as a loss of recognition. But the media focus in recent years has often revolved around conflicts among groups fighting for recognition: migrants, Muslims, women, gays, trans. Think of the debates about New Year’s Eve in Cologne in 2015, headscarves, surrogacy or the influence of self-identification laws for women’s rights. When it comes to these questions, it is not possible to draw a spectrum from tolerance, through a broad middle, to rejection.
The perspective of verstehende sociology brought to bear in this book—exploring the meaning of social action to the actors involved—compares favourably with moralising progressive discourses imported from the US about racists, climate-deniers and omni-phobes, which treat any querulousness as a backlash on the part of the privileged. But one should not draw the conclusion from this astute analysis that the progressive agenda is fundamentally perfect and only needs better communication—more moderate and gentle, with less emotional charge, addressing the middle ground.
The left-wing and social-democratic elites often argue ‘Don’t let the culture wars distract us from the questions of distribution’, as if struggles for recognition were a distraction and not the core of an emancipatory agenda. For others however, being on the left means approving of all current progressive demands in the three new arenas (from open borders through calls for individual renunciation of consumption to gender stars)—otherwise one is right-wing. The empirical findings of the book invite the left-progressive academic class, including media people and social scientists dedicated to critical theory beyond Germany, to take the three other arenas seriously but also to reflect on their own role in the discourse of polarisation.
Although the book contains some suggestions for pacifying the most paralysing conflicts in the four arenas, it does not in any way advocate a conflict-averse, lukewarm, anaesthetised centrism. And it leaves the question open—quite rightly as a scientific study—as to how a third position could be formulated and play out politically. Nevertheless, the authors leave no doubt that this is necessary:
Addressing the causes [of anger and exhaustion with change at the lower rungs of the hierarchy] and giving them political expression is an urgent democratic task. If it is neglected, right-wing populists willingly fill the gap. For this reason alone, it is important to look at the social roots of disagreements. In doing so, however, it is important not just to infer mechanically class antagonisms from relative differences of opinion, but to take a closer look at how unequal experiences of competition, domination and agency shape people’s worldviews. (my translation)
The book offers many points of departure for this, which is where we should start.
This is a joint publication by Social Europe and IPS-Journal
Eszter Kováts is an assistant professor in the Institute of Political Science at the University of Vienna and a research affiliate of the Central European University. She was formerly responsible for the East-Central-European gender programme of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Budapest.