In general we can say that the economic crisis has got steadily worse. By now everyone knows that we are not dealing with a short recession, and that unemployment will be a problem well into the 1980s. This is an obvious fact. What we should explore is the impact of the slump on the consciousness of the working class. In Germany the crisis is having a disciplinary effect. That is, within the framework—or more accurately on the basis of—legally guaranteed social security, it has proved possible to nip protest movements in the bud. Although not entirely unexpected, this process demands some explanation. The constraining pressure of the crisis has not only prevented any electoral turbulence, it has evoked deep conservative sentiments amongst the population, which have found a cultural echo amongst intellectuals and in the rhetoric of
I would say that in the last few years it has become clear that the origins of the crisis still lie in the economic system of capitalism, but that the Welfare State no longer allows the crisis to explode in an immediately economic form. Instead, when there is a recession and large-scale unemployment, the symptoms of the crisis are displaced into strains within the cultural and social order. Recent years have rather confirmed me in the conviction that today the onset of an economic crisis does not generally lead to a political response, either by organized workers or trade unions—or in our own case in Germany, by the Social Democratic Party—of a rationally calibrated type. Instead, reactions to the crisis take the very mediated form of an overloading of the mechanisms of social and cultural integration. The result is a much bigger ‘ideological discharge’ than in periods of capitalist development characterized by high employment. The direction of this discharge is two-fold. On one hand the work ethic is incredibly re-inforced: there is a rehabilitation of competitive behaviour, pursuit of gain, and exaltation of virtues conducive to a high mobility of labour. For it is necessary to induce people to accept work they would not otherwise perform of their own free will, or for which they have not had the necessary preparation. The accent is thus placed on an acquisitive ethic and instrumental virtues. This orientation penetrates deeply into the first years of schooling, to the point of dominating the whole educational system.
The other direction taken by this ‘ideological discharge’ is a revitalization of traditional virtues and values: in the first instance those of an anti- or a-political private life, whose literary reflection is a new subjectivism, and a revival (in its own way a pleasing one) of poems and novels in lieu of critical or analytic works on the present historical epoch, or sociological and political treatises. The result is an essentially rhetorical response to the bureaucratization and other negative consequences of capitalist growth. But I think that we have to take seriously that aspect of the propaganda of the Right which deals with real needs and offers a conservative solution to real problems. For in the criticisms of bureaucratism, as in the revaluation of traditional ways of life, in the spontaneous reactions not only against the destruction of the environment but against the dangers of atomic energy, and even in the resistance to administratively imposed educational reforms, there is a basic problem at stake which was a very important one for both Marx and Weber. In the course of capitalist development and of a politically uncontrolled process of accumulation, the partial administrative and economic rationality that is functional to such an economic system gradually penetrates and restructures ever broader spheres of life, which should on their own be evolving completely different forms of rationality—that is, practical and moral agencies, democratic and
To conclude, one could say that the increased ‘ideological discharge’ that I have been discussing operates to diffuse conservative interpretations of problems which are properly speaking secondary dysfunctional effects of politically uncontrolled capitalist growth.
These represent the new element in what I call the ‘potentials for protest’. The novelty of the situation in West Germany—it is probably different in Italy—is that the type of protest which dominated the national scene at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, emerging from the universities and spreading to strata of young workers and apprentices, has died down. This must also be numbered amongst the disciplinary effects of the crisis. In its place we have on the one hand the emergence of forms of revolt taking the direction of terrorism, and on the other hand less dramatic but emotionally powerful currents of neo-populist protest. The latter are a reflection of the inability of the traditional parties and trade union bureaucracies to canalize or specify key themes and conflicts adequately. I see in these protests the sign of a dissatisfaction which leads to an estrangement from parties as such. We have other indications of this: for example, public opinion polls now show that at any rate a significant percentage of the population is discontented, not merely with this or that party, this or that policy, but with the party system as such. This is the first time that this has happened in the Bundesrepublik since the war. Of course in other countries, this potential for protest has been canalized in petty-bourgeois directions: we need only think of Poujadism in France or the emergence of parties against taxes in Denmark. But in West Germany no canalization of this kind has so far occurred; we are still at the first stage of attempts to form parties on such economic issues. However, I am convinced that as soon as these currents organize themselves into parties, it will become clear that their real potential for protest cannot be encapsulated in this form. By nature they cannot let themselves be institutionally interpreted by parties and routed through parliaments, without the base of these movements feeling itself cheated.