Contemporary capitalism is unrivalled as regards the creation of material affluence, but this is apportioned increasingly unequally. Much evidence points to the fact that, in the long term, things will get a lot worse for the middle class in the West, as the new phase of globalisation with “tradable skills” means that, to a completely different extent, the middle class competes with labour in Asia. If the jobs do not disappear then wages will be forced down.
It is also noticeable that social mobility is diminishing. The class into which you were born more and more determines the course of your life. We have a new class society, partly structured along ethnic dividing lines. In the USA it is the blacks and Hispanics who dominate among the poor; in Europe immigrants dominate the alienated groups. At the same time demographic developments, with a rapidly ageing European population, demand that Europe succeeds in integrating more immigrants.
Who are the winners and who are the losers in this development? What will the consequences be of socio-economic stratification, and why does it arise? Is it the more or less inevitable consequence of the new phase in globalisation, or are there alternatives? Is capitalism sawing off the consumer branch on which it itself is sitting? Social gaps of this kind are not politically legitimate in a democratic age, and, if the differences become permanent, this will give rise to strong political reactions.
In a flat world, communities of interest and clashes of interest are remodelled. The conflicts often occur through one and the same person. What we welcome as consumers can be something we oppose as wage-earners and citizens. Measures that we applaud as pension-savers can be the ones threatening our jobs. It is important for the political debate to render visible these new force fields. If the one hand does not know what the other is doing, then rising frustration may lead to a violent backlash.
This study will examine the new fragmentation, its social and political consequences and the role of companies within it.