This special issue examines the continued political significance of classed identities and attitudes in what Klaus Dörre (2022) calls “demobilized class societies”. These are societies in which class continues to be a significant vector of inequality but has by and large become muted in politics and public discourse. In doing so, the collection continues a conversation begun during a conference at Florence’s Scuola Normale Superiore in the winter of 2019.Footnote 1

In the not so distant past, it was commonplace that the conflicts between parties “basically represent a democratic translation of the class struggle”, as famously put by Lipset (1960, p. 220). Class was not regarded as one category of analysis among others, but formed the central component of an image of society shared by large segments of citizens, scientists, and political representatives. While never uncontroversial, it is no exaggeration to say that, up until the 1970s, “class society” was a term used naturally in all corners of the planet, inspiring collective identity and allowing for local struggles for better wages or political rights to be located in a global structure of inequality and dominance ripe for change. This constellation also engendered a generation of sociological scholarship on class which, notwithstanding clichés of “economic determinism” or the “base-superstructure” dichotomy, was far from simplistic. Each in their own way, Weberian and Marxist scholarship on class conflict (in Germany e.g. Lepsius 1993; Offe 1972) as well as cleavage theory conceptualized class conflict as stemming from a combination of objective dimensions of inequality, culture, and political organization. The triad of a) positions in the class structure, b) social identity and milieus, and c) political organizations channeling antagonistic interests—class, Stand, and party in Weber’s words—formed a well-established frame of sociological inquiry (Bartolini & Mair 1990).

Yet, both the linkages between the elements of this triad, and the significance of class for politics in general, were soon put into question by a range of works on postindustrial societies. These studies attested to a “death of class” as a predictor of partisanship (Pakulski & Waters 1996), a dissolution of class milieus (Mooser 1983), or even a wholesale “destructuration of social structure” (Beck 1986). As some commentators noted, it was not without irony that class analysis lost much of its appeal in the 1980s and 1990s, just as capitalism massively increased its global scope, inequality began to rise again, and distributional conflict acquired new salience in times of stagnating growth (Chibber 2022; see also Hall 2020; Savage 2021). Nonetheless, this demise of class analysis was not only grounded in discursive fashions, but also in a social reality that eluded simpler equations of class, identity, and political partisanship. Class structures pluralized in the course of deindustrialization, educational expansion, and the transnationalization of labor (Oesch 2006). Milieu identities were increasingly defined by differences in values, lifestyles, and consumption not obviously connected to the workplace or the economic sphere (Vester et al. 2001). Meanwhile in the political and organizational realm, the power resources of workers were severely weakened. The power of labor unions declined and former parties of the working class increasingly drew support from the growing ranks of the middle class, muting the voice of workers in politics. While class-based political identities eroded, the rise of new issues like those of migration and transnationalization, gender equality, and ecology complemented or even supplanted the political logic of the “democratic class struggle”.

Half a century after the end of the postwar “trente glorieuses”, the social and political sciences finds the triad of class, culture, and politics partly disassembled, partly reconfigured, and partly intact but hidden from view. The challenge—which this special issue seeks to help address—is to provide an accurate picture of this new constellation and the way it shapes our societies. What is certain is that the political significance of class has returned as an interest of wide publics in and outside the academy in recent years, perhaps most prominently in the soul-searching following 2016’s “Trump/Brexit moment” (Dodd et al. 2017) and the discourses around the role assumed by the “white working class”. In a reading that also became a dominant subtext of public commentaries, the successes of right-wing challengers were seen as testifying to a deeper class-political realignment, pitting a proletarianizing populist radical right against a liberal left entrenched in the urban middle class. Autobiographical accounts of structural change, like Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims or J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, provided a master-narrative by which the center left’s one-sided focus on liberal urban professionals pushed working class voters into the fold of the populist radical right. Scientific studies disproved these all-too-simple stories, while also digging deeper into the points they had called attention to, reconstructing how populism, radical right voting and anti-political sentiment were rooted in classed grievances, status claims, and worldviews (Damhuis 2020; Flemmen & Savage 2017; Evans & Tilley 2017; Westheuser 2020). Ethnographic studies of social identities and political consciousness revealed a subtle everyday politics of class, particularly salient in the absence of classical channels of political articulation (Beaumont et al. 2018; Cramer 2016; Hochschild 2016; Dörre et al. 2013). On the macro-scale, class was shown to be an important factor in the politics surrounding the “return of inequality”, and the transformation of the conflict structures of advanced capitalist societies (Häusermann & Kriesi 2015; della Porta 2015; Savage 2021; Mau 2015; Piketty 2018; see also the contributions in Mosimann et al. 2022).

Where class had been a dead horse in political analysis, then, moments of rupture like Brexit, the Trump presidency, or the Gilets Jaunes became emblematic for both the renewed significance of class, and for a radically altered constellation of class and politics. Attempts at making sense of this constellation inspired much sensationalist punditry, but also very fine work in political sociology and adjacent fields. In these—as in the contributions to this issue—the potential and contours of a renewed political class analysis for our times becomes visible. Simplifying a very diverse array of voices, we can describe this new political class analysis as capturing the persistence and reconfiguration of links between class, culture, and politics. At the same time, we also see a distinct sensitivity for the mechanisms that block and divert the translation of objective positions into cohesive identities and political organization. Paradoxically, it has often been through analyses of fragmented class identities, political demobilization, and constellations of political conflict not articulated in class vocabulary that class analysis has recently renewed itself as a fertile paradigm of political sociology. Katherine Cramer’s (2016) examination of “rural consciousness” as a form of class conflict displaced into a regional idiom, or studies on the classed politics of immigration and nationalism (e.g. Dörre 2018), are a case in point.

Contributions in this issue exhibit a similar sensitivity, when they reconstruct the entanglement of class with migration and welfare (Altreiter et al.), the classed nature of political demobilization (Beck and Westheuser), or the subtleties of identity work involved in labor organizing in new economic sectors (della Porta et al.). To capture both the “headlines” and the “subtext” of class (Kalb & Halmai 2011), contributors draw on a legacy of older works regarding the embeddedness of class in a wider cultural milieu in and outside the workplace. Not coincidentally, six out of seven articles draw on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, the thinker of class’ intimate connection with cultural distinction, and of class as a tacit sense of one’s place in the ensemble of social relations. Other approaches that serve as points of reference, like E.P. Thompson, Michèle Lamont, Alessandro Pizzorno, Nancy Fraser, Axel Honneth, or Michael Vester, stand for related strands of the cultural materialist tradition.

In the bigger picture, this sociological sensitivity can be seen as reflecting the specific historical moment which forms the backdrop of this special issue. As mentioned above, positions in class relations today continue to mold life chances, social experiences and with them political worldviews. At the same time, class politics plays out in a pluralized and often demobilized landscape. This leads to at least two paradigmatic shifts which contemporary class analysis must reckon with.

Firstly, going beyond the classical equation of class with redistributive conflict or labour struggles, class politics today is situated in a multi-dimensional structure of political conflict. Contemporary studies have fruitfully extended the scope to political arenas like the ones formed around migration politics or LGBT rights, arenas which upon closer inspection reveal themselves to be shaped by sociostructural relations (see Lux et al. and Flemmen et al. in this issue). Seen from this angle, the centrality of class is not to be assumed a priori but subject to empirical investigations which may well find class to be significant for some areas but not for others, or differing from context to context. Compared to earlier debates on class, the studies in this collection exhibit a relatively pragmatic relation to their core concept, drawing on a wide understanding of class and using multiple indicators like occupation, income, and various forms of capital, including education, while orienting themselves firmly towards the empirical object. It may well be that the demise of a class analysis entangled in the politics of the Cold War today opens the possibilities for approaches that proceed less dogmatically, without losing sight of the deep political implications of class inequality and our knowledge about it.

Secondly, with class organization on the low, and the language of class largely absent from politics and everyday discourse, political sociology needs a finely calibrated sensorium to detect both the hidden and the manifest aspects of class. It can be assumed that fragmented links between social position and political conflict increase the relevance of the cultural forms mediating between the two. How do classed identities, mentalities, and lifestyles mediate between objective positions in the social structure and position-taking in the realm of politics? How exactly does class come to bear on political processes in a situation where class politics has ceased to be a central point of reference?

The contributions in this special issue each give partial answers to this question, looking at the social world from distinct empirical, theoretical, and methodological angles. Most articles explicitly center on political worldviews, attitudes, and practices that are defined by classed experiences, but function without class as an explicit center of political expression. In other words, they survey overt or subtle, pluralized, fragmented or reassembled forms of “classed politics” (Jarness et al., 2019). Others deepen our understanding of class and the social bases of politics by looking at mobilized class conflicts. Methodologically, contributions encompass the survey-based mapping of populations, interview-based explorations of qualitative nuances, as well as theoretical discussions. Cases examined include a wide range of rich democracies across Europe, covering Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Sweden, Norway, Poland, and Hungary.

Thomas Lux, Steffen Mau, and Aljoscha Jacobi map the sociostructural bases of attitudes towards four complexes of political conflict, which they reconstruct as “arenas of inequality”. These arenas are labeled as “top-bottom” inequalities, which focus on economic resource distributions and welfare; “inside-outside” inequalities, which relate to migration, access, and national membership; “us-them” inequalities, which encompass the recognition of sexual and ethnic diversity; and “today-tomorrow” inequalities, which focus on issues of environmental sustainability and climate justice. By relating conflicts around these issues to distinct forms of inequality, the authors develop a sociological complement to political science studies that capture cleavage structures via the positions of parties. This leads to a reappraisal of prominent diagnoses of societal polarization and of the formation of a new cultural cleavage along which attitudes towards migration, sexual diversity, and climate action are said to align. Using factor analysis, the article shows that each of the four arenas forms a distinct attitudinal dimension, and that the attitudes of most citizens do not cohere in the way suggested by summary labels like those of “cosmopolitans” and “communitarians”. Through cross-country comparisons, the authors further show that only in the realm of “inside-outside” inequalities, opposing attitudes on societal conflicts are underpinned by distinct social bases.

Donatella della Porta, Riccardo Emilio Chesta, and Lorenzo Cini examine worker struggles in companies of the platform economy, namely Amazon and food delivery services in Italy. These struggles have attracted considerable attention in recent years for their capacity to “defy the odds”, since workers have organized despite conditions of fragmentation, fluctuation, and precarity usually assumed to inhibit collective strategies. Reconstructing the formation of political identities in the platform workers’ mobilization, the authors highlight the importance of the cultural environment of struggle. Networks and other resources outside the workplace, the generalization of grievances into larger political identities and pre-established sectoral cultures of solidarity, working conditions, and forms of organization are shown to be formative for mobilizations in the newly emerging world of platform work.

Magne Paalgard Flemmen, Vegard Jarness, and Lennart Rosenlund develop a highly innovative method for studying links between Class, “Stand”, and Party in survey data. The authors draw on a Bourdieusian framework to reconstruct how political choice is embedded in the wider lifestyle dispositions of distinct class fractions. Using data from Norway and a combination of Multiple Correspondence Analysis and the Chi-Squared Automatic Interaction Detection (CHAID), the article shows how both class positions and lifestyles are systematically linked to variations in voting patterns. For instance, the authors reveal a form of “cultural capital leftism”, i.e. a strong connection of left-voting not only to education but also to “legitimate”, i.e. “high” cultural tastes. Overall, lifestyle differences are shown to account for political divergences within populations sharing similar class positions. The article is an exemplary case of how culture can be brought into the analysis of class and politics in quantitative analyses.

Linda Beck and Linus Westheuser’s qualitative study of working class political consciousness corrects a one-sided focus on right-wing workers. The article analyzes in-depth interviews with German production workers, drawing inspiration from the work of Axel Honneth and Pierre Bourdieu. The authors reconstruct seven repertoires of everyday critique by which workers criticize injustices of economic distribution, symbolic recognition, and political representation. At the heart of this social critique stands a sensitive awareness for frustrated expectations and transgressions of an “implicit social contract” (Barrington Moore). Against the widespread narrative of a rightward shift of workers, the authors thus reconstruct a grammar of workers’ political consciousness that is contradictory, predominantly marked by political demobilization, and open to different political appeals.

Carina Altreiter, Jörg Flecker and Ulrike Papouschek inquire how class and habitus shape the way that Austrian citizens view the welfare state, and configurations of solidarity more generally. The background is a framing of solidarity in an ethno-national register propagated by right wing populists, a framing that denounces the alleged exploitation of solidarity by migrants. As the authors find, this form of boundary making is only a relatively minor variant compared to the more prominent pattern of moral expectations of work performance, self-reliance, and reciprocity dominant among the middle and working classes of rural Austria. These themes, which strongly resonate with those found by Beck and Westheuser, are contrasted with the expansive notions of solidarity encountered in two more privileged urban milieus, where respondents stress principles of equality and need over those of performance and deservingness. Analogous to Flemmen et al., the authors show that while class positions play an important role in shaping political thinking about solidarity, these positions are further differentiated by the cultural idiosyncrasies and identity processes of distinct social milieus.

In addition to these five contributions, the special issue will be continued by two further articles in a forthcoming issue of the Berliner Journal. The first is an article by Nora Waitkus, which uses Latent Class Analysis to bring out connections between class and various forms of wealth. Although the sociology of wealth and its elite holders is burgeoning, the seemingly obvious link to class has so far remained underexplored. Waitkus compares the purchase that different frameworks of class analysis have for making sense of inequalities of financial assets, real estate, and other forms of wealth. Her main contribution is a Bourdieusian conceptualization of wealth portfolios. It brings into view how wealth is differentiated along both vertical and horizontal lines, revealing class-specific strategies of asset ownership.

The second forthcoming article is by Nepomuk Hurch, whose contribution theorizes the relation between class experiences and perceptions of the future. The demobilized class society of late neoliberalism heavily relies on a fatalistic discounting of the future as a pillar of social order (see also Pettenkofer 2017). Yet, only recently have sociologists started to explore how imaginations of collective futures are shaped by class. Drawing on Bourdieu and recent work by Jens Beckert and Lisa Suckert, Hurch presents a model for exploring how positions and trajectories in the social space shape latent perceptions of the future. Precarization, the author argues, results in an expropriation of the collective expectations of dominated classes—a process urgently in need of further investigation.