No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Andreas Reckwitz (2019), Das Ende der Illusionen – Politik, Ökonomie und Kultur in der Spätmoderne (The End of Illusions: Politics, Economy and Culture in the Late Modern Age), Berlin: Suhrkamp.

The current form of liberalism

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a new form of governance emerged that emphasizes the deregulation, dynamization, and opening of previously fixed social structures. Reckwitz calls this "apertistic liberalism," or "opening liberalism." It was accompanied by a narrative of progress that focused on economic, political, social, cultural, and technical advancement. This was especially evident in the development of a post-industrial knowledge economy in North America and Europe, which has been greatly influenced by the digital revolution. This process of digitization has allowed for the creation of networks of individuals and organizations and has made the internet an experimental space for new identities and collaborations. However, social reality is often more complex and vulnerable than the narrative of progress suggests, as seen in events such as the financial crisis, Brexit, terrorist attacks, and the Trump election.

According to Reckwitz, sociology helps to make these paradoxes and ambivalences in society visible in order to encourage reflection and realistic steps towards change. It is not possible to expect clear evaluations or simple solutions, and those who can effectively deal with ambivalence will have an advantage in this late modern world.

Late modernity

The late modernity of the 21st century is a form of society that has evolved from the classical industrial modernity of the 20th century. Industrial modernity was characterized by mass industrial production in large companies, mass housing construction, Keynesian economic planning, the expansion of the welfare state, and a belief in technical progress. It was also marked by social control and cultural homogeneity, as well as clear divisions of roles and discrimination against certain groups. Late modernity, on the other hand, is characterized by globalization, democratization, market expansion, liberalization, and networks. It is a contradictory and conflicting social formation that is marked by both social rise and fall, cultural appreciation and devaluation, and polarizations. These polarizations are not intentionally brought about, but are rather the unintended consequences of action.

The Society of Singularities, and its causes

In late modern society, there is a focus on producing and valuing uniqueness, individual differences, and the extraordinary. The traditional concept of individualism is not sufficient to fully understand the social and cultural processes of late modernity. Reckwitz refers to these processes as singularization, in which idiosyncrasies, non-interchangeability, incomparability, and superlatives are expected, manufactured, positively judged, and experienced. This is evident in the ways that late modern society values the particularity of individuals, but also the individuality of things and objects, such as the authenticity and non-interchangeability of desired goods and brands. Even collectives, such as projects, networks, and self-chosen communities, can claim incomparability. Only that which is seen as singular and valuable is truly valuable in this society.

Reckwitz identifies several causes for the transformation from a society of equals to a society of singularities: the economic shift from industrial to cognitive-cultural capitalism, the technological revolution of digitization, and the emergence of a new, urban middle class of highly skilled and self-developing individuals who have become the leading group in society. Those who cannot or will not be unique are devalued and often remain invisible. This leads to a double structure of singularization and polarization.

The Winner Takes it All

In the economy, cognitive-cultural capitalism, which is focused on global networking, has led to the growth of simple services and routine jobs with low prestige and social security, while market structures that follow a "winner-takes-all" logic have emerged. In education, there is a growing number of university graduates and fierce competition between schools and universities, as well as between graduates. This can lead to the devaluation of low or medium educational qualifications. In terms of life forms, the successful self-realization model, which seeks uniqueness and accumulates singularity capital, greatly devalues traditional middle and precarious classes and has a high potential for disappointment. In the digital world, those who are poorly connected may become isolated and invisible. Spatial structures also reflect this polarization, with metropolitan regions thriving while remote regions may face emigration and a loss of attractiveness. In politics, a new liberalism, based on competition, difference, dynamization, and worldwide demarcation of social, economic, and cultural issues, has dominated since the 1980s. This has led to the emergence of aggressive populism, which promotes the social closure of nation-states.

A new class structure

In late modernity, the transformation from an industrial to a post-industrial economy has led to the emergence of a new class structure. On one hand, there is a highly educated, urban new middle class, and on the other hand, a new, insecure lower class made up mainly of service proletariat members. The traditional middle class, which is oriented towards order and sedentary living, is caught in between.

Hyperculture versus Cultural Essentialism

According to Andreas Reckwitz, there are two fundamentally different approaches to culture worldwide: hyperculture, in which culture provides space for individual self-development and diversity in global markets, and cultural essentialism, in which culture is seen as a medium for the collective identity of communities.

The impact of symbolic appreciation and depreciation

Reckwitz believes that the cultural factor of symbolic appreciation and depreciation has a significant impact. The transformation from an industrial to a post-industrial economy is a response to a double crisis of saturation and productivity. In cognitive capitalism, goods acquire characteristics based on intangible assets, knowledge work, and scalability. This form of capitalism is characterized by extremes and leads to a deep economization of the social. Subjective experience and psychological satisfaction have become vulnerable measures of a successful life, and there is a paradoxical culture of emotions that places a high value on positive feelings as a life goal, but does not support dealing with negative feelings and disappointments.

Cultural conflict

In the 1990s, there was optimism about globalization and the belief that western-influenced modernization would triumph globally. However, Reckwitz argues that we have seen an increase in cultural conflicts since 2000, including Islamic fundamentalism, nationalist tendencies in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, self-conscious defense of culture in China and India, and right-wing populist centrifugal forces in the West. These conflicts reflect a disagreement about the meaning of culture and how to approach it. In late modernity, individuals seeking self-fulfillment cultivate their own life forms by bringing together fixed pieces of culture from a mobile world market of cultural goods (cosmopolitan hyperculture), and there is also a culturalization of collectives, or moral identity communities.

What does Reckwitz mean with ‘Culture’?

For Ernst Cassirer, culture was the way in which the world is perceived and the meaning that is assigned to it through worldviews and everyday ideas. This means that any practice can be understood as cultural by examining the definitions, terms, distinctions, and interpretive assumptions it contains. Culture is not limited to religion or art, but also includes nature, gender, and technology, as these are all shaped by social significance and interpretation. The cultural field is the dynamic social area in which value is assigned and denied, and this process is often marked by conflict. Every society has its own ways of assigning value to certain things, spaces, events, groups, or individuals, and denying value to others. Culture often comes into conflict with formal rationality, which refers to procedures, laws, and cognitive processes. The cultural sphere deals with what is sacred, while the sphere of rationality deals with the profane, factual, emotionless, and disenchanted. The positive and negative valorizations of culture are linked to strong emotions, while the profanity of rationality is relatively low in emotion.

Hyperculture

According to Reckwitz, the cultural sphere of valorization dynamics expands in late modernity as more and more things, beyond their use, interests, or function, are drawn into the cultural game of appreciation and devaluation. Culture now refers to the multiplicity of cultural goods circulating in world markets and the resources that are made available to individuals for their self-fulfillment. The cultural sphere of hyperculture is a dynamic and unpredictable market in which there is competition for visibility, attractiveness, and productivity. It values the new, innovative, and creative, as well as cultural goods that have achieved the status of classics. Global cultural capitalism is the central pillar of hyperculturemarkets, which are focused on the individual. There is an open attitude towards the diversity of cultural practices and goods, regardless of their origin. The transnational new middle class, made up of highly educated individuals with above-average cultural, economic, and social capital, seeks and finds its identity in the hypercultural, which is aimed at self-fulfillment and singularity. Cultural capitalism, which is no longer centered on industrial functional goods but rather on goods and services with symbolic and experiential value, constantly introduces new cultural goods into the world and makes existing local cultures useful. A liberal cultural policy that promotes diversity and globalism, particularly in metropolis regions, as well as global migration processes, has strengthened the hypercultural tendency by constantly introducing new elements into global cultural circulation.

The transformation from a leveled medium-sized society to a late modern three-class society is driven by post-industrialization of the economy, the expansion of education, and the liberalization process of changing values.

Digitalization and its effect on work

New information technologies make it easier for companies to coordinate their work across distances, providing the infrastructure for the distribution of worldwide production networks. Manufacturing firms are being moved to locations with lower labor and location costs. This economy values speed and permanent innovation. "Crappy jobs" in simple services can be profitable by cutting costs such as low wages, reduced social benefits, and increased work due to precarious labor rights. This routine physical service work aims to maintain a normal state and is often invisible or only noticed when it is not being performed. Due to the extreme specialization in this field, employees are only valued for their specific skills and not their whole personalities. Competition for these jobs is high, including through migration, and pay is below average.

On the other hand, highly educated individuals in the knowledge economy are gaining ground in the post-industrial era. The consumer revolution and the demand for new goods with immaterial effects, the increased demand for cognitive expertise, the exploitation of the possibilities of the digital revolution, the new impulse of automation in production and global networks and production sites, and the expansion of innovation-oriented knowledge work and simple services are all immediate conditions and features of the transformation from industrial to post-industrial.

The post-industrial economy

The post-industrial economy is driven by globalization, the shift from state economic policy to neoliberalism, and the intensification of financialization in the economy. The neoliberal competitive state promotes future technologies, cuts subsidies for old industries, eases global supply chains, cuts income and corporate taxes, privatizes social benefits, and allows both a low-wage sector and the accumulation of large fortunes. It deregulates international financial markets, leading to a deep economization of the social and the marketing of areas that were previously not organized as markets (such as infrastructure and cultural institutions). Financialization, which has intensified since the 1980s, includes capitalism in financial markets and indebtedness (such as investment funds). It leads to short-term profit maximization and an economization and competition for the best stock market performance, resulting in optimization pressures in the short term. It also leads to increasing indebtedness of both private households and governments, as the post-industrial economy of the West is largely financed by credit and debt. This economy constantly needs fresh money, which can be created out of thin air after the end of the Bretton Woods system.

Cognitive Capitalism

Post-industrial capitalism, also known as cognitive capitalism, values goods and services with symbolic and experiential value. It introduces new cultural goods into the world and makes existing local cultures useful. A liberal cultural policy that promotes diversity and globalism has supported the hypercultural trend, particularly in metropolises, as well as global migration processes which constantly feed new elements into global cultural circulation. The cultural sphere of hyperculture is a dynamic and unpredictable market in which there is competition for visibility, attractiveness, and being productive. It values the new, innovative, and creative, but also appreciates cultural goods that have achieved classic status. Global cultural capitalism is the central pillar of hyperculture markets, which are focused on the individual. There is an open attitude towards the diversity of cultural practices and goods, regardless of their origin. The transnational new middle class, with high cultural, economic, and social capital, seeks and finds its identity in hyperculture, which is aimed at self-fulfillment and singularity.

The risk of excessive demand

In late modern society, people are often under a lot of pressure to be successful and fulfill their potential. This can lead to mental health issues like depression and burnout. In the past, people were expected to control their emotions and not let them get the best of them. But now, there is a culture of positive emotions, where people are encouraged to focus on feeling good. However, this can also lead to negative emotions like disappointment and frustration, and there isn't always a good way to deal with these feelings in society.

Singularization

In late modern society, individuals are expected to be unique and to pursue self-fulfillment in all aspects of their lives. This shift can be traced back to the rise of a new middle class influenced by education and prosperity, the transformation of the economy towards consumer capitalism and the use of digital technology and social media, and the shift towards liberal values and the promotion of positive psychology. The pursuit of self-realization and authenticity has led to a culture that values positive emotions and puts pressure on individuals to find meaning and satisfaction in all aspects of their lives. However, this focus on self-fulfillment can also lead to negative emotions such as disappointment and frustration, and there is often a lack of recognized methods for dealing with these emotions in everyday life.

Singularization describes this process in which individuals strive not for the uniform and standardized, but for the individual, the special and non-exchangeable. Only what is experienced as singular and not as standardized seems authentic. It is a culture of positive emotions. The deciding factor is how you feel about your life, how the individual moments feel. The ideal seems to be a positive life of the highest intensity. Ideally, all components of life should generate positive emotions in the culture of self-fulfillment. Investments are made in wealth building, in training and skills, in useful social networks and in physical fitness and psychological balance: status work now appears to be the framework for successful self-realization.

 A Double Bind

In late modern society, people are expected to strive for self-fulfillment and personal success. They rely on various forms of capital, such as money, education, and social networks, to achieve these goals. This culture of self-realization is very ambitious, and often leads to feelings of disappointment and frustration when expectations are not met. The pressure to constantly compare oneself to others can also lead to envy and negative emotions. In addition, the focus on subjective experience and the desire for self-determination can make people more sensitive to their own negative emotions and events that are out of their control, such as illness or accidents. Overall, the late modern culture of positive emotions can create a double bind for individuals, who may feel torn between the conflicting expectations of self-fulfillment and social success.

 Disappointment

According to Reckwitz, “modern society” tries to eliminate negative events and make life more predictable. Despite these efforts, it's not possible to completely eliminate negative events. When these events happen, people often feel desperate and helpless, or they may try to find someone to blame. The high expectations of a successful and self-determined life in late modernity can lead to intense feelings of disappointment and negative emotions when expectations are not met. These emotions may be long-lasting if attempts to meet these expectations continue to fail.

So, in modern society, people often try to control and predict events in their lives, but it is not possible to completely eliminate negative experiences. These unexpected events, known as negative unavailability, can be difficult to cope with, especially in a culture that values self-determination and success. While it is not possible to eliminate all negative experiences, it is important to develop a tolerance for ambiguity and to understand that progress is not always possible in every aspect of an individual's life. Some people may find it helpful to seek support from friendship networks or to gain a comprehensive understanding of their situation through therapies like psychoanalysis. It is also important to find ways of coping with negative emotions, such as through affect control or by adopting a more "ecological" approach to life that recognizes and respects the limitations of an individual's psychological and physical resources.

Political Paradigms

Next, Reckwitz discusses the concept of political paradigms, which are broad frameworks that shape political discourse and action over a period of time. He suggests that we are currently in a transition phase, moving from a paradigm of apertistliberalism (which emphasizes openness and dynamism) to a new paradigm of regulatory liberalism. This new paradigm may seek to address issues such as social problems created by previous paradigms, a lack of infrastructure and social inequalities, and the emergence of "losers" in education and employment due to the expansion of education. The text also discusses the concept of the political paradox, in which a political paradigm creates new social problems that it is unable to solve with its own policies. It suggests that the way out of this paradox may be to recognize that social change is the norm and to develop a tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty in order to avoid creating new problems.

Opening liberalism, and what next?

In recent years, the paradigm of apertist liberalism, which initially successfully energized blocked society, seems to have become increasingly paradoxical and may be on the verge of being replaced. Political paradigms are discourses and techniques for governing that are used to address social problems. The current paradigm, apertist liberalism, is a dynamic paradigm that emphasizes individual freedoms and the opening and deregulation of orders in favor of markets and difference. It has been successful in addressing certain social problems, but has also contributed to the creation of new problems that it is unable to solve. It is likely that the next political paradigm will be a regulatory paradigm, which focuses on establishing and maintaining social order and regulation. This new paradigm, according to Reckwitz, will need to address socio-economic, socio-cultural, and practical democratic problems, and will likely involve a shift towards greater stability and social boundaries.

Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is a political and economic ideology that emphasizes the role of the private sector in driving economic growth and minimizing the role of the state in economic and social affairs. It was first put into practice in the 1980s under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US, and has since spread to other countries around the world. Neoliberalism advocates for the privatization of public services, the reduction of government regulations, and the promotion of individual responsibility. It also emphasizes the importance of diversity and multiculturalism in society. However, critics argue that neoliberal policies have led to increased inequality and a decline in the power of workers.

Left-wing liberalism

Next to right-wing liberalism, that is focused on opening markets, there is left-wing liberalism too. Left-wing liberalism is a political ideology that advocates for the expansion of individual rights and for the empowerment of individuals, particularly for those who are marginalized or underrepresented. It focuses on issues such as gender equality, the rights of sexual minorities and ethnic groups, the rights of people with disabilities, and the rights of local communities. Left-wing liberalism also promotes the rights of nature and supports ecological movements. In this way, left-wing liberalism seeks to create a diverse and free society. As it works to realize and extend individual rights, left-wing liberalism also emphasizes the connections between politics, economics, and law. It supports the use of public-private partnerships and the increasing influence of the judiciary in shaping policy. This type of liberalism breaks away from the traditional focus on states and instead supports a network of supranational and subpolitical actors.

Dissatisfaction with neoliberalism

The dominant political paradigm in the Western world, known as neoliberalism, has been facing a crisis since 2010. This paradigm, which emphasizes individual freedom and the role of markets in driving economic growth, has been criticized for contributing to financial crises, neglecting public services, and leading to social polarization. The crisis is not only economic, but also cultural and democratic in nature. Many people are dissatisfied with the negative consequences of neoliberal policies, including income inequality and the erosion of social support systems. It is possible that a new political paradigm, one that focuses on regulation and the embedding of liberalism, will emerge to address these issues and provide solutions to the problems created by neoliberalism.

The crisis’ cultural dimension

The crisis of apertistic liberalism has a cultural dimension too, which has to do with the effects of left-wing liberalism. It is about the politics of multiculturalism and identity politics, as well as about the dissolution of mutual ties in a liberalized society. The policy of multiculturalism has encouraged cultural disintegration in the countries of immigration. At the same time, it carries the risk of isolating cultural communities on the basis of criteria such as ethnicity and religion - a development that in some places is being answered by a new white identity politics.

Polarization between highly educated and precarious people

In general terms, the current political paradigm has led to a society that is becoming more divided and unequal, with a small group of highly educated and successful people at the top, and a larger group of less skilled and precarious people at the bottom. This polarization is also reflected in the geography of the country, with some areas thriving while others are left behind. While the new middle class may embrace globalization and post-industrialization as a path to social progress, those in the precarious class and some segments of the old middle class are experiencing loss and decline. The divide between high-skilled and low-skilled jobs, as well as academic and non-academic education, also reflects this polarization. However, the current political paradigm has not been able to effectively regulate or address these issues, and in some cases may have even contributed to them through deindustrialization and a focus on urban knowledge centers.

The general cause of neoliberalism’s crisis

Liberalism is a political and economic ideology that advocates for individual rights and freedoms, and for the free market to operate without interference from the state. In recent years, there has been a crisis in Western liberal democracies, marked by a rise in populist movements and a shift in the political landscape. This crisis has been attributed to a number of factors, including economic inequality, cultural polarization, and the erosion of democratic norms.

One possible explanation for this crisis is the impact of neoliberalism, a form of liberalism that emphasizes free markets and individual responsibility. Neoliberal policies have led to deindustrialization and the rise of urban knowledge centers, but they have also contributed to economic inequality and the erosion of social services. In addition, the singularity society, characterized by increased individualism and the erosion of cultural consensus, may have contributed to the crisis of apertistic liberalism. This crisis has been described as a crisis of deregulation, with important political decisions being made outside of democratic control.

What’s next?

the current political system of apertist liberalism, which emphasizes individual freedom and the role of markets, has become inadequate in addressing social and cultural problems such as inequality and cultural disintegration. The next political paradigm, according to Reckwitz, should focus on regulating society in a way that maintains a liberal foundation while also addressing these issues. This may involve new rules for businesses and civil society organizations, and recognizing the importance of all types of work and reducing the discrepancies in how they are valued. The goal is to create a new social contract that takes into account the complexity of modern society and the need to frame social dynamics while also protecting individual freedom.