German society remains conflict-ridden and highly polarized in 2022. Some even talk of a split, but is that really the case and what would that ultimately mean in times of inhumane war? Is perhaps one half, and here we should think in particular of the lateral thinkers, those vocal critics of government policy who sometimes mobilize thousands, particularly susceptible to Russian propaganda? Are they right-wing? Left-wing? Do Putin’s influencers and pro-Kremlin media have an easy time with them? A look at Germany should be able to answer this question and provide a closer look at the current structure of society there.
In order to be able to deal with this question in more detail, the question should first be asked as to how the lateral thinkers‘ movement is composed. Is it a homogeneous mass that can perhaps be assigned to a political direction? But already here it is necessary to calm down, because, no, they do not represent such a one, even if superficial analyses suggest this under circumstances or even suggest. And yet there are always such assumptions, even if they do not represent reality.
The problem is that they are usually based on an outdated view of society, which is often still dominated by class theories and the obsolete left-right schema. However, this is no longer capable of depicting the social dynamics of the 21st century and thus leads to misconceptions. In order to at least come closer to the real conditions, however, it is indispensable to find new explanatory patterns and to apply them.
One of these is the possibility of interpreting social conflicts within a society as milieu conflicts, which develop into milieu struggles.
The basic idea of this theory is based on the assumption that society, due to various influences such as behavioral capitalism, the development of the homo stimulus, radical individualization tendencies or the changing times, is breaking down into ever smaller realities of life, also called social milieus. These end up defining themselves by the fact that those who belong to them share specific world views, behavior patterns, norms, values or ideas of a good life. In some cases, these life realities no longer have much in common. Some milieus seal themselves off, while others are almost missionary in their activities.
The best-known milieu model is that of the Sinus Institute, which addresses the following realities of life:
- Conservative-Upper Milieu (11%)
- Post-material milieu (12%)
- Performer milieu (10%)
- Expeditive environment (10%)
- Neo-ecological milieu (8%)
- Adaptive-Pragmatic Middle (12%)
- Consumer Hedonistic Milieu (8%)
- Precarious milieu (9%)
- Nostalgic middle-class milieu (11%)
- Traditional milieu (10%)
It goes without saying that the potential for conflict is high when different views clash.
The resulting conflicts can be summarized under the term milieu struggle. This means that potential challenges arise between the realities of life (milieus) in a society, which are actively or passively addressed. The milieu struggle is always preceded by milieu conflicts. There are usually two reasons for this:
- Lack of satisfaction of needs of the persons who are assigned to this reality of life
- Perceived attacks on the self-image (e.g., self-determination, identity, etc..) of the reality of life.
Now, not every reality of life has the possibility to eliminate the causes of conflicts or even to articulate them adequately. The voices of the precarious or the hedonists, for example, can be heard much more quietly than those of the neo-ecological milieu, and so some discontent smolders away for years.
This is a dangerous state of affairs, because occasionally it often leads to the famous straw that breaks the camel’s back. This can be any topic, the elimination of which rarely affects the actual conflicts. Unfortunately, this of course increases the susceptibility to demagogy of all kinds, but rarely in the long term. A typical example of this is the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The former U.S. president succeeded in bundling the discharge of numerous conflicts in American society for himself – and this is the central point – across all milieus, and was thus successful.
But back to the specifically German situation and specifically to the idea that Corona critics, who according to all research come from a wide variety of milieus, do not represent a homogeneous mass and therefore merely form a so-called milieu coalition, would be susceptible to Russian propaganda.
The overall answer is probably no, because a milieu coalition usually consists of only one or a few conflicts that affect different milieus similarly, although not necessarily in the same way.
Only then do people with different views, who would otherwise have little to say to each other, come together, and without this basis the milieu coalition also breaks up again. As hard as some demagogues will try on the Russian issue, this shift in the narrative will not succeed, and it demonstrably will not succeed. The broad mass of lateral thinkers cannot be hijacked for this issue because there is no basis in terms of milieu conflict for it. In some realities of life, such as the conservative upscale milieu, not even to a degree. It is simply not part of their narrative, and consequently there is hardly any potential for activation.
But could skillful propaganda and disinformation at least succeed in causing hidden and suppressed conflicts to discharge in their favor? It doesn’t look like that either – in a wide field, not with individuals and small groups – because many social time bombs have already been able to ignite on topics such as the euro rescue, free trade agreements, refugee problems, the climate crisis, disenchantment with politics, inflation or Covid-19 and will continue to do so, while in parallel society will continue to fragment and go down the path of collective individualism.
Andreas Herteus is the director of the Erich von Werner Society, an independent institution for contemporary issues. He has summarized the theory of the milieu struggle, with other basic features of the 21st century, in his book „Grundlagen gesellschaftlicher Entwicklungen im 21. Jahrhundert: New Explanatory Approaches to Understanding a Complex Age“.