What are some problems with individualism

Left and green have lost sight of social injustices. Harald Welzer finds it radically apolitical.

When a political movement loses sight of the social whole and its material prerequisites. Image: dpa

Just a reminder: what was the ideological core of neoliberalism again? Correct: radical individualism. It was put most simply and unambiguously by the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when she announced that there was no such thing as society, there were only individuals. And since then, people have been learning that almost everywhere in the world, they have to take their skin to the market in the face of globalized competition, and for this they have to be productive and efficient, educated, qualified and adaptable, healthy, flexible and guilty.

Uh, why guilty now? Because the neoliberal individual is trapped in a paradoxical requirement profile: In order for the economy to function, the individual is required to work and consume more and more, which inevitably leads to more and more consumption of resources and energy, but then it must be held up to the fact that All of his efforts to separate waste, save energy, eat organic food and so on are unfortunately not quite enough to put a stop to the systematic destruction of the basis of survival. The individualization of the market has a psychological equivalent: It is not the economic system, but the individual that is guilty, and a few decades of successful efforts to educate people about environmental damage have made them aware of their guilt.

Why am I telling you this? Because it seems to me that the ecological left (if such a collective political category is permissible) reproduced and understood in a tricky way what the neoliberal conception of the world has given. Because in the course of its institutionalization, the ecological movement of the 1970s that was socially theoretical and critical of capitalism, for which names such as Ivan Illich, Carl Amery, Robert Jungk, Rudolf Bahro, Denis de Rougemont and others stand, has become one that has peace with production - and was ready to make market conditions if at the end of the value chain it seemed certain that something about the product was organic, fair, CO2-saving or, best of all, everything together.

Harald Welzer is a social psychologist, climate culture researcher, co-founder and director of FUTURZWEI, the foundation for future viability. The book that currently occupies him: “The new order on the old continent - A history of neoliberal Europe” by Philipp Ther (Suhrkamp).

The criticism of a systemic non-sustainability, of the unchecked neoliberalization of the entire world economy, especially after 1989, or the search for a connection between the ecological and the social question increasingly disappeared from view the magical idea of ​​being able to “write black numbers with green ideas” (Fritz Kuhn, Grüner) and to generate “green growth” - which of course expressed nothing else than the final, albeit absurd, reconciliation of ecology and capitalism. And it is also a striking example of the irony of history that it was precisely the red-green federal government that implemented the neoliberal restructuring project in terms of tax, labor market and regulatory policy. Ironically, the Greens have gutted the project of an ecological restructuring of society in terms of economic policy and thus disempowered them.

Social and environmental justice

This long historical introduction had to be in order to understand the fatal consistency of the continuing distance to the big questions of the establishment of social and ecological justice and a non-destructive metabolism of humans and nature: The ecological left is in a subtle way itself to the Become part of the neoliberal project.

Only against this background can it be explained why aspects of individualization became more and more politically important and aspects of the societal faded into the background: hence the emphasis on the recognition of even the most marginal difference, hence the shift of the scandalization of social inequality to individual inequality. Hence the insistence on the socially and educationally fatal assertion that individually different starting conditions did not exist, while every PISA study shows that socially unfairly distributed educational opportunities are far more pronounced in this country than elsewhere and above all: than they were once in this country .

Social democracy in Willy Brandt's time wanted to deal with such socially inherited inequality by opening up the education system; today schools and faculty are left neglected. The example of the education system makes it clear what individualization actually means: For example, in red-green Schleswig-Holstein, the "community school" was introduced with great emphasis, which based on common lessons up to grade 10 the educational path, as it is called , for which individual children keep it open longer.

Since it is not possible to prepare for the competitive society without differentiating the performance of the children, the concept of "inner differentiation" has been devised, which means that although everyone sits in one class, their performance is assessed differently, depending on whether the children are classified at the Hauptschule, Realschule or Gymnasial level. One cannot imagine a more perfect school for the development of individualized competitive behavior and individualized attribution of failure, apart from the fact that the teaching staff is completely overwhelmed with the (naturally differentiated) grading: what is a G3 for the internal high school student in this system is the internal one Secondary school student an H1, and unfortunately that's not a joke.

Systemic inequality

Rather, this example illustrates in the bitterest way what happens when a political movement loses sight of the social whole and its material requirements and gets involved in identity politics and individual differentiation: in such a way, the destructive growth economy plays just as little role as the systemic one Inequality of life chances and the deepening of social and ecological inequality, both nationally and globally.

In this way, an austerity policy can be approved by parliament, which leads to the impoverishment of large sections of the population elsewhere. And in such an optic, which is always focused only on the particular, it is overlooked how the democratic constitutional state is being abolished by the destruction of privacy by Internet companies and surveillance authorities. And because of the sheer concentration on recognition and respect (incidentally, strangely enough, a Wilheminian terminology) of and in front of everything and everyone without distinction, one nonchalantly ignores the fact that the lack of consequences of climate policy through droughts, floods and other people in poor countries costs, but in the rich it allows the continuation of the emission-intensive business as usual.

One could go on and on: Have we seen the ecological left demonstrate against Frontex or against the debt policy resulting from the alleged euro bailout? If you would like it to be a little smaller, where has the vile treatment of Karstadt's employees as a result of an unholy alliance between politics and a billion-dollar investor led to public protest? Sure: All of this is more complex than it appears in the keyword-like order, but all of this is about objective social problems, the cause of which can be named. If you want to change something about them, you can only do that if the interests and actors who are responsible for these problem areas are identified and combated.

It does not work with abstract postulates of equality and the wish that everyone should love and find each other well. The sociologist Stephan Lessenich aptly described our type of society as an externalization society, which takes its resources from outside and dumps its problems outside. On the islands of wealth that externalization forms, one can then excellently demand the ecological pacification of capitalism, the end of climate change or the recognition of all conceivable gender identities.

In the end, this is not only radically apolitical, but also the translation of neoliberal values ​​and concepts of the world into an identity politics that is not or at most symbolically interested in the overarching goal of a just and sustainable shaping of society.

The article was published in Edition zeo2 2/2015. You can read the article on ourFacebook siteto discuss.