Andreas Reckwitz is a sociologist, cultural scientist and author. At the end of 2019 he published “The End of Illusions – Politics, Economy and Culture in Late Modernity” (Suhrkamp). In 2017 he caused debates with “Society of Singularities”. Since April he has been a professor of sociology at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
In the digital era, every social crisis is accompanied in real time by an enormous media crisis discourse: every aspect of the crisis is illuminated and new facts, images and figures are always presented on news feeds. This is exactly what we are currently experiencing in an intense and global form in the corona crisis. The commentators overturned their judgments: “Nothing will be the same anymore.” But didn’t we hear that after September 11, 2001 and on the occasion of the 2008 financial crisis? What does the crisis really mean, is it really so extraordinary, and what could be the consequences if the crisis is over?
In the Corona crisis, a kind of state of emergency applies in many regions of the world: curfews and business closings to slow the spread of the virus. From a greater sociological distance, however, one can see that the state of emergency is a means to an end in a large-scale mode of government policy: risk management.
Is it a danger – or a risk?
Such government risk management in the face of impending damage and catastrophes is not unusual at all, it is typical of modern society. Late modernity, in particular, is not only a global “risk society” (Ulrich Beck), it is also a society of widespread and increasingly systematic risk management – whether it concerns health, technical or ecological risks. In this respect, it is misleading to place the corona crisis in line with long-standing epidemics such as the medieval plague – and not only because of the very different health risks.
There has undoubtedly always been an epidemic. But the decisive factor is whether it is viewed as a “danger” from outside or as an influenceable “risk”. We owe this distinction to Niklas Luhmann. Medieval society saw the plague as a danger, just like a natural disaster: it was essentially limited to dealing with illness and death. However, modern society sees a pandemic as a risk. Risk means: The spread of the infection now appears to be socially influenceable; you are not at the mercy of it, but rather it should be regulated.
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In this perspective, the size of the risk depends on how society acts. Such risk management is of course a highly complex matter. Several characteristics are characteristic of this, and we can currently observe all of them:
1. The state has a central role in risk management. While state functions can otherwise often remain in the background in social life (which is the case in the neoliberal state anyway), the state’s control functions are now required, which can intervene in all segments of social life – all for the purpose of minimizing risks . The state can now exercise control power, right down to the forced quarantine, which otherwise often remains latent (and therefore has a surprising effect on some).
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Science itself is also controversial
2. Modern risk management relies enormously on scientific, often scientific expertise. At present, this mainly concerns virology. It is science that calculates risks, draws up probability calculations of greater or lesser risks and suggests strategies (flattening the curve). There is always the danger that government policy will depend on science: that would be an expertocracy of lack of alternatives. In fact, in democratic societies, the scientific studies and recommendations themselves often prove to be controversial – so now too.
3. The unattainable ideal of government risk management is security in the future. It always moves in a continuum between unpredictability and security. Predictability is a basic goal of modern times: uncertainty should be avoided as far as possible, diseases should be eliminated, death should be postponed. If complete security is not possible, the question arises as to what uncertainty society is willing to accept and what it can know about it in the future. This is exactly what the risk is about: How many seriously ill and dead people would be “normal” and still tolerable if they were infected?
The state relies on bourgeois self-discipline
4. State and individual risk management go hand in hand, especially under late modern conditions. It has been characteristic of society since the 1980s that it is the individuals who learn to be responsible for their health and to protect themselves from risks: from cancer prevention to HIV prevention. The state risk regime in the Corona crisis, however, has the entire population in mind. However, it can now rely on the individual’s self-control abilities. These are not simply “locked away”, but instead rely on their state-led self-discipline: social distancing, hygiene measures, self-quarantine, etc.
5. The key point is that risk management typically has to do with various risks that compete with each other. The systematic minimization of one risk often brings with it other undesirable consequences and risks. A risk and impact assessment is then required. In the current case, this risk competition is very clear: The systematic pursuit of the goal of minimizing the spread of the virus brings with it at least three undesirable consequences and risk zones: restriction of personal rights; considerable economic upheaval, psychological problems due to the restriction of freedom of movement. Politicians are aware of this risk competition and are now trying to minimize the economic risks by means of state measures, which entails further consequential risks.
Does the follow-up risk overtake the initial risk?
So what is special about government risk management in the face of the corona crisis is not that it is taking place. It also took place after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 or in the wake of the 2008/2009 financial crisis and is currently – albeit hesitant – in the face of climate change. What is special is the far-reaching means that are now being used and the specific circumstances. The shutdown of large parts of public life, which at least many Western European societies rely on, is an extreme means of risk minimization that has not yet been used on this scale.
There are two complications here: These far-reaching measures increasingly lead to the initial risk (the uncontrolled infection curve) being “overtaken” in its degree of severity by the consequential risk: the considerable economic damage. So there is a risk shift here, which makes the balancing between the different risks all the more urgent.
Discrepancy between individual and collective threats
In addition, the peculiarities of the virus confronted individuals and the public with an ambivalence of the risk structure that is not so easy to grasp: the virus itself is harmless for the large number of infected people (very different from the HIV virus, for example) , but risky, even fatal for a few, especially for people with serious medical conditions. It is therefore not a question of completely preventing infections, but “only” of slowing the spread to prevent overloading the health system. In other words, if you practice social distancing, it’s less about protecting yourself and more about protecting the population. So there is a discrepancy between individual and collective threats. This discrepancy causes the public to fluctuate between reassurance and uncertainty. This is all the more true since public confidence in social progress has waned since the 2010s and scenarios of relegation, loss and catastrophe are circulating anyway.
What will societies look like after the end of the Corona crisis? What will change? A reliable forecast is difficult. With regard to the economy, economists have worked out scenarios of a milder or a more profound slump.
Social structures are changing slowly
In everyday culture, a certain strengthening of solidarity relationships is conceivable, at least in the close range. In general, however, events and structures have to be clearly differentiated from one another: social structures are persistent and change slowly. Events can rarely destroy them or build them from scratch. Rather, it can be assumed that the corona crisis will intensify certain transformation processes that have already started. This affects two areas in particular: the revitalization of the regulatory functions of the state and the profound impact of digitalization.
After politics relied on an active (nation-) state from 1945 to the 1970s, which assumed strong control functions in the economy and social life, western societies have been at the helm since the 1980s, partly neoliberal dynamic liberalization, based on deregulation and de-bordering sat. State functions were reduced as part of globalization and a socialization of the market: the market went before the state. The 2008 financial crisis marked a turning point in this regard: It suddenly became clear that basic state rules are necessary to tame the markets.
Since then, discussions have increased from the left to the conservatives that the state has neglected the public infrastructure – education, housing, health, transport – and needs to be revitalized: from the question of health insurance in the USA to the rent cap in Berlin .
The corona crisis will give a boost to this transformation from dynamic liberalization to an “embedding liberalism”: The need for state preparedness for crisis situations and a robust public health network, which is currently painful at times, are further mosaic stones in a renaissance of the late modern state and its public functions of the “general”.
Globalization processes – for example when it comes to global mobility – will probably be regulated more by the state in the future. And of course: within the renaissance of the state, the alternative to the liberal will be a populist or authoritarian statehood, as becomes clear in Hungary or China.
In addition to the state, digitization is likely to be the second major winner of the crisis. In this crisis, the digital revolution is proving to be a stroke of luck: in a phase in which face-to-face communication seems risky, the digital media that enable communication between people who are absent may not replace everything, but they can replace some. Society is now making even more intensive use of this: home office and video conferences in the field of work, digital learning at school and university, online consumption and personal communication via the network – one can assume that these experiences will lead to the fact that even after the crisis has ended digitalization of work, education and privacy continues.
And the climate change?
However: In East Asia, in order to banish the infection, the digital tracking of risk persons has also been intensified. Another possible consequence of the crisis is that the state tries more freely to use personal data “in the interests of society”.
And the climate change? This central question of the 21st century does not disappear through the corona crisis. In some ways, it seems that the corona crisis is a kind of social training field under extreme conditions, a test case for what will occupy us in general in the coming decades in connection with climate change: state risk management that deals with risk competition, uncertainty, and controversial scientific Expertise and an interconnection of collective and individual prevention. But first we have to pass the current test.