The Challenge of Loss

January 10, 2023

Loss is everywhere. Present-day, late-modern societies in the West are confronted with collective experiences of loss to an unprecedented degree. This raises a fundamental challenge, because modern society since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment has thrived on a big promise — the promise of progress. However, experiences of loss contradict this promise. How can a society that is fixated on the promise of “better” and “more” put itself in a position to deal with loss? This will be a political and cultural key issue of the twenty-first century.

The question of loss used to be a standard theme of conservative cultural criticism: the loss of community, the loss of religion, the loss of virtue. Taking a skeptical view of modernity, conservatives grieved about what was or is presumably being lost in modern as compared to pre-modern societies. However, to understand our current problem situation, it has to be emphasized that the experiences of losses or their expectations which we can observe since the beginning of the twenty-first century have exploded the boundaries of this conservative intellectual discourse. Rather, experiences of loss have become a widespread social phenomenon, transcending the boundaries between political camps and those of the intellectual field.

Here, without doubt the most powerful impact comes from climate change, its experience and its anticipation for the future. Extreme weather, the destruction of flora and fauna, the disappearance of agricultural lands and of entire regions that are increasingly becoming uninhabitable — these are just some examples that show how the living conditions for humans are deteriorating in many places. As a result, the anticipation of future loss in society is even stronger than the experience of present loss. In addition, the political measures to combat climate change promise losses of a different kind, as it becomes obvious that societies could be put into a position in which they renounce some elements of the consumer-friendly lifestyle they become accustomed to. While moderns have been used to employing technology in the service of ever-widening possibilities, thus technology is increasingly used for dismantling and un-building.

Another area where present experiences of loss accumulate refers to the losers of modernization, to those social groups suffering from the economic changes of the last decades. From the American Midwest to small-town France, from the former industrial areas in northern England to those in eastern Germany, parts of the old Western middle class have experienced social decline. This used to be different: In the second half of the twentieth century, modernity’s promise of progress translated into the prospect of social advancement and upward mobility for large sections of society. But it is becoming increasingly clear that les trente glorieuses — the thirty-year period from the 1950s through the 1970s — was not the rule but the exception. Economic deindustrialization and post-industrialization have since widened the gap between winners and losers in society. Given the situation on the real-estate markets, even the new, highly qualified middle-class cannot expect to even maintain the standard of living of their parents’ generation.

Moreover, as a result of the history of violence of Western modernity, collective traumata and experiences of loss in the past have in recent decades gained visibility as never before. From slavery in the United States to colonial looted art in Europe, from the victims of totalitarian and authoritarian systems to the long-term consequences of forced migration and displacement: everywhere the wounds of the past are no longer hidden but made public. This also has political ramifications, for example, in the form of calls for restitution.

A final type of loss has become painfully clear only in recent years: political regressions. The hope of globalization and democratization was a promise of progress that has fueled the West since the implosion of communism in 1990. That Russia is determined to wage war, that China increasingly sets itself up as an authoritarian antagonist of the West, and that global collaborations are being scaled back — all of these facts signal an impending regression to a world order where multilateralism is eclipsed by new rivalries and threats of violence. This too is an experience of loss of confidence in the stability of a liberal world order.

It should be said quite clearly: While there have always been experiences of loss in the history of the modernity, they are antithetical to the modern mindset that is guided by the imperative of progress. In the modern discourse it may well be a matter of controversy what exactly progress means — emancipation, freedom, prosperity, well-being — but the basic, fundamental assumption of modernity is that of steady progress: that the future will be better than the present, just like the present is seen to be better than the past. The imperative of progress thus is deeply sedimented into modern institutions: This applies to science and technology, to capitalist economy and its imperative of growth, and to politics and its claim to provide for better lives in the population. It also applies to the form of life especially among the middle class with its striving for higher standard of living and an increase in self-realization. Optimism about the future is so to speak institutionally built into modernity: On the one hand what has been achieved appears to be secure and a long-term regression unthinkable; on the other hand in this framework things will keep getting better as a result of social, technological and cultural change. This is the twofold promise of progress: In the modern era, so assumptions of continuity and dynamism go hand in hand. Loss, though, is something that modern society seeks to minimize or contain. Modern society’s ideal is freedom from loss and pain — which even includes a utopian vision of the abolition of human death, as proposed by the transhumanists.

The paradox, however, is that Western modernity, throughout its history, has in fact not only reduced losses — for example, thanks to medical intervention — but at the same time has created new experiences of loss: Accelerated social change also always creates losers. Global interconnectedness entails cascades of unintended consequences that can be quite negative. The history of violence in the modern age has inflicted deliberate pain and suffering. As a result, there have been ways of dealing with loss since the beginnings of modern society: for instance the genre of nostalgia, the economics of risk management and prevention, the politicization of loss, and psychotherapy, to name just a few. For the most part, however, the robust imperative of progress was able to render the losses of modernity invisible, ban them from public view, or dismiss them as “the collateral damage of progress.”

It is a feature of the late-modern present day that this is no longer simple to do. The promise of progress has become fragile and in many places lost credibility. The losses — both those already experienced and those anticipated in the future — can no longer be rendered invisible so easily; they are growing in numbers, and the attention paid to them is growing, too. In late modernity, we thus see both an escalation of loss and a growing awareness of loss: from climate change to the losers of modernization, from collective traumata to regressions. It is remarkable that the United States of America, which once could understand itself as the avantgarde of modern progress, has been hit by all these different types of losses to a particular extent.

The belief in progress in the classical sense is unable to prepare modern societies for losses, but in late-modernity the question becomes imminent: How should we deal with them? Which possibilities are on offer for a ‘doing loss’ in present society? How can liberal democracy thrive in spite of and among losses?

In fact, the present-day political field turns out to be an explosive experimental space for dealing with negative events. The rise of right-wing populism in Europe and North America needs to be interpreted against this background of escalating loss. Populism is at its core a politics motivated by loss: fed by the experiences of vulnerability among the losers of modernization and the fear of loss among parts of the middle classes, it adds fuel to the anger over loss. The promise is no longer about progress but about the illusion of regaining what has been lost: This can be found in slogans as “take back control” by the Brexiteers or as “Make America great again” by Donald Trump.

In order to fight populism, which different strategies of dealing with losses are thinkable? A serious political strategy is the continuation of risk management towards a societal ideal of resilience. This policy departs from the assumption that — unlike the narrative of progress supposes — negative events in society cannot be avoided altogether. So the aim is to make institutions and practices more resilient and to reduce their vulnerability, for instance in the face of climate change, security risks or global cascading effects such as we have seen during the pandemic. Another strategy to deal with losses which is circulating in public debates and which would deserve closer scrutiny is the narrative of “loss as gain.” This strategy can be found especially in recent ecological debates: Was the mobile, fossil fuel-based lifestyle really progress? Wouldn’t its loss actually translate into a gain in quality of life? The question is here how to redefine progress on the basis of new parameters.

Resilience and the self-criticism of past progress notwithstanding, there will still be losses. A final strategy for dealing with them is to have them acknowledged by others as well as by ourselves. Psychotherapy knows this from dealing with death and bereavement: It is not about the suppression of loss (when one does not want to acknowledge the loss) or about a fixation on loss (when the world seems to be about nothing else) but about an integration of loss: when the loss is becoming a normal and respected part of one’s life.

Liberal democracy in Europa and North America can thrive in spite of and among experiences of losses. But this is only possible if late-modern politics rethinks its concept of progress. The classically modern idea of progress which is based on the notion of an infinite process of increase and improvement has to be replaced by a more subtle and ambivalent concept that both acknowledges the painful losses of the past and of the probable future. Climate change, the structural shifts of the economy, the violent history of the West and new geopolitical constellations do demand such a reality check. If modern politics made empty promises about the inevitability of increase and improvement which can only be disappointed, then it would indeed undermine trust in the democratic process. To face the truth with open eyes and make loss, the experienced and the anticipated a legitimate and crucial topic of debate does not necessarily weaken democracy but could strengthen it. However, to reach this aim, modern society has to develop an awareness of its vulnerability.


“The losses — both those already experienced and those anticipated in the future — can no longer be rendered invisible so easily,” argues sociologist and 2022 Thomas Mann Fellow Andreas Reckwitz. Whether it be climate change, social equality, or political regressions, Reckwitz believes that the integration of loss and a reformulation of the definition of progress will help strengthen society’s trust in democracy. He is the author of several publications, including The End of Illusions: Politics, Economy, and Culture in Late Modernity (Polity, 2021) and continues to make contributions to German newspapers Die Zeit and Der Spiegel. Andreas Reckwitz is Professor of General Sociology and Cultural Sociology at the Humboldt University Berlin. He has held numerous fellowships and visiting professorships in Germany and abroad, including at the University of Berkeley, the London School of Economics, the Universities of Freiburg, Heidelberg, Witten/ Herdecke, and Bielefeld, the Institute for Advanced Studies Vienna, and the University of St. Gallen. In 2019, he was awarded the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation. In 2017 he received the Bavarian Book Prize, in 2020 he was shortlisted for the Leipzig Book Fair Prize, and in 2021 he received the Academy Medal of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences. From 2012 to 2020 he was a member of the advisory board “Education and Discourse” of the Goethe-Institute.