Diagnoses of the present In What Era Are We Living?

In what era are ee living?; © Goethe-Institut
In what era are ee living? | © Goethe-Institut

Diagnoses of “late” and “post” modernity, capitalism and also democracy are enjoying once again a boom. Hans-Martin Schönherr-Mann sums up the debate recently broached by Thomas Assheuer, Armin Nassehi, Hartmut Rosa and Boris Groys in the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit”.

The owl of Minerva, which the ancient Greeks regarded as the bird of knowledge, begins its flight, as we have known at least since Hegel, only at the onset of dusk. That is to say, the mind never grasps the present, but only always the past in the present. From this simple realization follows, for Hegel, that we cannot see into the future. In contrast to Karl Marx, who confidently announced the imminent proletarian revolution and, with this assurance, threw a knowing glance into the future, quite in the tradition of the Enlightenment, which would master nature and render its processes repeatable in experiment.

Industrial society implemented this project with great success. Only the social consequences have proven to be insufficiently controllable. To this extent we must agree with Armin Nassehi that diagnoses of “late” and “post” with respect to modernity and capitalism remain bound up with demands and hopes that have failed to be redeemed to this day. This concerns the power to control the economy and society, and so distributive justice and pluralism. Discourse about post-modernity therefore falsely suggests that we are currently living in a new era.

Loss of a central perspective

Not only the present resists description; even the recent past refuses to tell us in what era we are living. For Nassehi, the reason for this may lie in the fact that we have long since lost a central perspective on modern society because its various sub-systems – economy, law, science, social state – each obeys its own logic, which cannot be united with the others. Consequently, the era can no longer be brought under a unified concept. Discourse about post-modernity cannot therefore develop a unified perspective on contemporary society, and hence no concept of a new era. At most, and Nassehi concedes this to diagnoses of late and post, such social scientific descriptions represent self-descriptions of society, which possess relevance when they prove to be able to tie into social discourses.

This thesis is vehemently contradicted by Hartmut Rosa. He agrees with Thomas Assheuer that late and post diagnoses were wrong from the start and are today celebrating a return because the world financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath have again placed central aspects of modernity in question: capitalism as such, democracy, and hence modern society as a whole, which is incapable of redeeming both its integrative and socio-economic promises. But he also criticizes Nassehi’s problematic of sociological self-descriptions on the grounds that sociology has no interest in the needs of people and gives no answers to questions about the future of modern society.

Above all, sociology for Rosa still possesses a central perspective, namely the logic of economic growth, escalation and acceleration, which is essential to social and economic stability. In this he sees the danger of excessive acceleration. On the other hand, that the promise of prosperity was not first placed into question by the global financial crisis, that the gap between rich and poor has been widening for decades, apparently leaves him unimpressed. Other institutions may have long since served to stabilize modern societies. In this way modern society no longer reproduces itself as a unity. Boris Groys confirms this indirectly when he notes the symptoms of disintegration in traditional institutions.

An end to all self-evident certainties

In one respect, Assheuer and Groys are misrepresenting history, though with very different intentions. The concept of late capitalism is a legacy of leftist social criticism of the 1960s and expresses a certain hope, namely that the idea of socialism could perhaps still become reality. It did not hold up the model of Soviet socialism, so that we may well ask how far these movements were actually indebted to the Cold War, as Groys assumes, or whether on the contrary they developed in spite of the Cold War. The concept of post-modernity is directed less against Western society than against the illusionary hopes of social progress that unite above all liberals and the left, from social democrats to communists. It is for this reason that their representatives react to the concept so allergically, whereas conservatives sometimes look upon it with favor. With the end of “actually existing socialism”, the hopes of social democracy also collapsed, because after 1989, in the midst of an unfettered neo-liberal capitalism, social questions seemed to appear nowhere on the agenda.

Discourse about post-democracy also has a different background from that of the Cold War. It became really popular only in the 1990s when the economy came to influence politics more and more strongly. In the days of Eastern European socialism, such a criticism would have simply been dismissed as communist propaganda. It was only in 1989 that the word “post-democracy” received a different sense after the triumph of democracy seemed to be dawning in Eastern Europe, South America and even Africa. After the world financial crisis, then, the discourse of post-democracy as the domination of capital over politics received a new impetus.

In short, we should pay careful attention to the differences among the many circulating concepts of “late” and “post”. In each case, they express different sociological diagnoses of the present. Today it is no longer clear what kind of society we live in – much less that we can attain to a common idea of what kind of society we would like to live in.