“The Corona Crisis Splits the Social Milieus”

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The Berlin sociologist Andreas Reckwitz on the class issue in the corona crisis, the strengthening of the state – and the side effects of the exit restrictions.



© Photo: dpa / Robert Michael
Visitors to a weekly market in Dresden


Mr. Reckwitz, in times of crisis, sociology is more in demand than ever to provide guidance. How do you rate the social and political reactions to the spread of Sars-CoV-2?

First of all, it is striking that the current crisis quickly created an enormous need for comment. In the digital age, crises in society are commented on and processed in real time. The crisis intensifies in discourse. The self-commentary of our condition gives the impression of a fundamental break.

For sociologists, however, the question arises to what extent such an event actually translates into a long-term structural change and to what extent it does not. The state of emergency is just not a permanent or normal state.

Nevertheless, the collective experience of these days seems to be a historic turning point – after the pandemic, the relevant debates suggest, nothing will be the same as before. Her colleague Eva Illouz, for example, recently pointed out in the “Suddeutsche Zeitung” the fragility of the social order that we usually take for granted. How does the corona crisis affect society’s self-awareness?

Of course, in large crises the fragile and contingent character of a social structure is always evident, which was also the case in the financial crisis in 2008 or after September 11, 2001. I would like to bring some sobriety into the excited debate.

What we are currently experiencing is basically a case of government risk management – certainly a particularly far-reaching and also global risk management: the risk is an exponential spread of the infection. Governments are developing risk minimization strategies, not least thanks to scientific support.

However, this is typical of modern society: the disease is not simply allowed to happen, but an attempt is made to actively influence the processes. Minimizing one risk may create other risks. These have to be weighed against each other

In your most recent work “The End of Illusions” you prophesied the transition from unrestricted liberalism of the past three decades to an embedding liberalism. The state is currently showing its muscles, in Germany the “black zero” is off the table for now. Does the current major crisis have the potential to act as a driving force for socio-economic change?

In any case, it has the potential for a change in the state and government policy. From the 1980s to the 2010s, the political paradigm of dynamic liberalization dominated: it was about deregulation and de-bordering, of markets, of individuals, of mobility – globalization was being pushed. The state often withdrew and its control options were reduced.

Background information on the corona virus

Since the 2008 financial crisis, however, there has been a growing awareness that certain government regulatory tasks are necessary, for example when it comes to providing infrastructure or securing social standards, housing, transport and health.

It is very likely that the pandemic will give this renaissance of the state a boost: in the long term, the state must provide for an appropriate health infrastructure, but also regulate the dynamic events of world society. That would be embedding liberalism. As an alternative, however, the danger of an authoritarian state that cuts fundamental rights is also visible.

To what extent has the austerity policy of recent years been made responsible for privatizations and austerity measures in the field of general interest for the violence with which the Corona crisis is scourged, for example, in a country like Italy?

In the wake of neoliberalism, we have seen a great deal of privatization in many countries, and the associated streamlining of health systems as a result of returns. Commercialization in this area has meant that the emergency care of the population is not sufficiently available in many societies.

At the moment there is a mantra-like reference to the systemic relevance of repetitive activities from the service sector. In addition to doctors and virologists, nurses, suppliers and cashiers are the heroes of the hour. There is also a lot of clapping from balconies. Will we experience an economic and symbolic appreciation of previously disadvantaged professional groups in the long term?

In any case, one can observe that the previously invisible activities suddenly become visible in the crisis. A polarized post-industrialism is generally characteristic of the contemporary economy: 75 percent of the employed work in services, but within this sector the knowledge work of the highly qualified contrasts with the simple services of the low-qualified – academic class here, service class there.

The normalization work of simple services, those that take care of care, security, cleaning, transport and food supply, is almost invisible to society as long as the ‘normal state’ works. Now that it is up for grabs, it becomes clear that society depends on it. It remains to be seen whether this will pay off in the long term – symbolically or materially – for the groups concerned.

Hoarding pasta and toilet paper has quickly become an international symbol of radical selfishness. At the same time, we also experience a lot of help and solidarity. How does the crisis affect social cohesion?

Two patterns become clear: one is the experience of collective consciousness – everyone is affected. This also leads to solidarity support, in the ‘neighborhood’, in the neighborhood. Such a collective consciousness is typical for a state of emergency – which has so far still been organized in an orderly manner. You will see if there is anything left of it.

The second pattern: some people can use resources of flexibility. The self-optimization known from late modern culture is continued here: how do I now pay attention to health and nutrition? How do I ensure movement and variety, how can I see the crisis as an opportunity to pause, etc.? There is an abundance of advisory offers on the Internet: the individual of self-development and self-optimization treats the new situation with proven strategies.

The urban middle class has started an orderly retreat to the home officewhile the service proletariat is pounding the street to keep the store running. The positive side effects of the shutdown – more time for said self-care and slowing down the everyday hamster wheel – only benefit those who are not currently worried about their jobs or need to be at the forefront of society. How does Corona raise the class question?

This is central: Even if social distancing is aimed at everyone, the crisis affects the social milieus in very different ways. In general, the social structure of late modernism presents itself as that of a three-class society: the new middle class of academics, the traditional middle class and the new precarious class (service class) are opposed to each other.

In the risk constellation of the corona crisis, the cards are now being reshuffled: in each of these three classes there are subsegments that are crisis-proof and others that are up in the wind. There is a segment in the service class that is sure to get through the crisis well, namely the infrastructure professions, for example the highly acclaimed cashiers in supermarkets and drugstores.

On the other hand, there are many livelihoods in the area of ​​transport, gastronomy and hotels that are just about nothing. All those services that are not about basic services and at the same time rely on close customer contact or short-term demand have enormous problems.

There is also a split within the new middle class: there are those employed in the knowledge economy, whose salaries just keep going and where the work has just shifted to their home desk. On the other hand there are many creative artists, the whole art, music and theater business, the solo self-employed – a segment that lives from ever new demand or relies on public contexts; it is in a threatening situation.

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The EU has little community effect in the crisis. Instead, borders are being drawn up everywhere, and the nation state is positioning itself. Will Corona provide a long-term counterpoint to the transnationalization process in recent years?

Globalization processes are never linear, there are always phases of increase and inhibition, Jurgen Osterhammel has shown this for about the long 19th century. It is very likely that the corona crisis is helping to slow the dynamics of globalization processes in recent decades.

It remains to be seen whether global production chains will be partially localized again, but it is very likely that individuals’ global mobility will be inhibited for health reasons alone. The same applies here: the criticism of rampant globalization has been around for a long time, and the consequences of the corona crisis would intensify a development that is already underway.

Due to the extraordinary situation, most citizens advocate the most massive restriction of fundamental rights since the Second World War without much fuss. Is there any reason to fear that some of this will remain, that societies could subsequently be more illiberal than before the crisis?

It is of course remarkable that most people follow the prescribed measures without resistance. However, this seems to be due to the fact that the current state of emergency has strong scientific reasons that are brought into the public sphere through politics. Most simply understand that the disease curve has to be flattened.

In the extreme version in which we are experiencing this at the moment, this is surely only conceivable for a short time. The exit restrictions have other side effects: restriction of freedom, destruction of professional existence, psychological consequences. It is hardly conceivable that the companies could at least resign themselves to this in Western Europe and North America.

Interesting in this context is the surveillance technology of digital tracking of infected people in East Asia. It seems to be an open question whether there are arguments for this from a western perspective.

Do you see a danger that authoritarian government techniques in pandemic control will prove to be more potent than liberal forms of rule, and that fear of the virus could also promote the call for quick – undemocratic – decision-making procedures in Europe?

It is important to see that the type of health risk management is different in different countries. So there is no alternative: China did it differently than South Korea and Taiwan, Western Europe does it differently, and Sweden takes a different approach.

Different techniques all have their advantages and disadvantages. You always have to make it clear: nothing is dictated by virology, everything is a question of political consideration. And in addition to the health risk, other factors such as the preservation of a liberal democracy with strong personal rights as well as a strong economy and a functioning labor market are relevant. You cannot limit everything to a possibly authoritarian fight against pandemics. In my opinion, there is a sensitivity to this in Western Europe.

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