The Left and social inequality

Planned work on the perception of social inequality by left-wing actors
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

During the last decade, various researchers have been noting an increasing polarisation of the social structure in Western societies. Sighard Neckel (2010), referring to Jürgen Habermas, speaks of a “refeudalisation” of social structure; Thomas Piketty (2014) diagnoses increasing wealth inequality at the beginning of the 21st century; Oliver Nachtwey (2016) sees a new, polarised class society emerging; and Colin Crouch (2019) sees contradictory tendencies in the change to a post-industrial society, but overall an inegalitarian trend. At the same time, the political Left—traditionally defined precisely by its opposition to economic inequality and its option for socialism (cf. March and Mudde 2005, 25; similarly, but more historicising, Eley 2002, 6)—seems to be shifting more and more towards debates on symbolic inequality.[1] This is observed on quite different levels of discourse and by quite different actors. For example, since the turn of 2020/21 there has been a debate about left identity politics on the German news outlet Spiegel Online (Hasters 2021; Heitmeyer 2021; Rödder 2020; Stegemann 2021). Didier Eribon (2013) and Nancy Fraser (2017) have attributed the rise of far-right populism to the fact that the left has turned away from the lower classes and towards identity politics. Similarly, Thomas Piketty (2018) attributes both rising inequality and (right-wing) populist success to the Left’s shift towards the educational elite as its base. However, examples such as the transformation of the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, the Indignados and Occupy movements, the Spanish party Podemos, the Greek party Syriza or the popularity of the “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders seem to hardly fit this picture. Still another perspective is conveyed by a look at current left-wing discourses, in which under the heading of “classism” (cf. Winker 2010, 42-44) there seems to be a certain trend towards an interpretation of economic inequality in terms of identity politics (see for example these two articles from a German left-wing online magazine: Gernath 2020; Fischer 2020). What all these contributions to the discourse have in common is the question for the status of economic inequality and its relation to symbolic inequality in the Left’s political praxis since the 2010s, which could well be seen as an expression of a “crisis of left-wing imagination” (Nachtwey 2016, 232, trans. SMS).

Against this background and theoretically following the Fraser-Honneth-debate (Fraser and Honneth 2003), I currently prepare an empirical project asking questions like: How do left-wing actors perceive social inequality? How do they relate economic and symbolic (e.g., due to ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation) categories of social inequality? What strategies do they propose to counter inequalities?


[1] It is important to stress that by “symbolic” I do not mean “not real”. Rather, I follow Bourdieu (2000, 237) in that symbolic inequality concerns “the question of the legitimacy of an existence, an individual’s right to feel justified in existing as he or she exists”. Thus, symbolic struggles are indeed very real and highly important.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 2000. Pascalian Meditations. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Crouch, Colin. 2019. “Inequality in Post-Industrial Societies.” Structural Change and Economic Dynamics 51: 11–23.

Eley, Geoff. 2002. Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Eribon, Didier. 2013. Returning to Reims. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Fischer, Vanessa. 2020. “Sozialporno Mit Klassismus-Filter.”

Fraser, Nancy. 2017. „Für eine neue Linke oder: Das Ende des progressiven Neoliberalismus“. Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, Nr. 2: 71–76.

Fraser, Nancy, and Axel Honneth. 2003. Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange. London/New York: Verso.

Gernath, Marlene. 2020. „Was deine Jogginghose mit Klassismus zu tun hat“.

Hasters, Alice. 2021. „Deswegen sind meine persönlichen Erfahrungen politisch“.

Heitmeyer, Wilhelm. 2021. „Gesellschaftszerstörerische Politiken“.

March, Luke, and Cas Mudde. 2005. “What’s Left of the Radical Left? The European Radical Left After 1989: Decline and Mutation.” Comparative European Politics, no. 3: 23–49.

Nachtwey, Oliver. 2016. Die Abstiegsgesellschaft: Über das Aufbegehren in der regressiven Moderne. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Neckel, Sighard. 2010. „Refeudalisierung der Ökonomie. Zum Strukturwandel kapitalistischer Wirtschaft. MPIfG Working Paper 10/6“. Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung, Köln.

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Piketty, Thomas. 2018. “Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right: Rising Inequality and the Changing Structure of Political Conflict. Working Paper Series 2018/7.”

Rödder, Andreas. 2020. „Identitätspolitik und Cancel Culture: Wo bleiben die Gegenkonzepte aus der Mitte der Gesellschaft?“

Stegemann, Bernd. 2021. „Identitätspolitik ist für die Linke ein Irrweg - ein Debattenbeitrag“.

Winker, Gabriele, und Nina Degele. 2010. Intersektionalität: Zur Analyse sozialer Ungleichheiten. Bielefeld: Transcript.