It is also important to separate the wheat from the chaff

The COVID-19 pandemic, the social and other questions

by Karl-Jürgen Müller

The Corona pandemic has also put the social question back on the agenda. Recent studies such as Oxfam’s (“The Inequality Virus. How the Corona pandemic exacerbates social inequality and why we need to make our economy fairer”1) or recent statements such as that of the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Olivier de Schutter (“The EU must reinvent itself to win the fight against poverty”2) are just two examples of many that have raised the issue.

The term “social question” was originally understood to refer to the many social grievances during the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. The term was coined in the first half of the 19th century and addressed the extremely harsh working conditions and inadequate workers’ safety in the newly established industrial enterprises, the very low wages of the newly forming factory workforce, widespread child labour, inadequate schooling, malnutrition and early infirmity, the demise of small commercial enterprises, housing shortages in rapidly growing cities, increasing crime and so on and so forth. However, the 19th century, especially its second half, was also rich in proposed solutions, ranging from offers by factory owners (for example, building factory housing while at the same time warning workers from engaging in political activity) to social works and social teachings of the Christian churches as well as state regulations and social legislation (also with the aim of weakening social democracy) to the first trade union, socialist and communist movements (including class struggle slogans striving for power). 
  Since then, much has improved in the lives of workers and the workforce of industrialised countries in general. The term “welfare state” still stands for the many concrete regulations and efforts to approximate what is commonly called “social justice”. What “social justice” entails, however, is controversial – views differ widely, depending on the world view and the idea of man. And the question of the aspects of the “social question” today, in the third decade of the 21st century, and what characteristics are at stake, leads to multi-faceted considerations that cannot all be mentioned here, but which urgently need to be talked about again – broadly and with all people. 
  Since the beginning of the Corona pandemic and the accompanying state measures to contain it, not only those directly affected have spoken out, but also renowned representatives of the economic elites have presented analyses and proposals on the modern social question.
  For example, in mid-2020, after the “first wave” of the pandemic in Europe, the founder and current CEO of the World Economic Forum (WEF)Klaus Schwab and the economic consultant Thierry Malleret published a book “Covid-19: The Great Reset”, in which they also go into detail about what they believe constitutes the social question today.

Social upheaval and …

In the book chapter “Social upheaval” there are formulations that so far would not have been expected from Klaus Schwab. Here are just a few samples: “One seriously misleading cliché about the coronavirus resides in the metaphor of COVID-19 as a “great leveller”. The reality is quite the opposite. COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing conditions of inequality wherever and whenever it strikes. [...] This situation, of course, predates the pandemic but, as we observed for other global issues, the virus acted as an amplifier, forcing us to recognize and acknowledge the severity of the problems relating to inequality, formerly brushed aside by too many for too long. [...] The second effect of the pandemic and the state of lockdown that ensued was to expose the profound disconnect between the essential nature and innate value of a job done and the economic recompense it commands. Put another way: we value least economically the individuals society needs the most. The sobering truth is that the heroes of the immediate COVID-19 crisis, those who (at personal risk) took care of the sick and kept the economy ticking, are among the worst paid professionals – the nurses, the cleaners, the delivery drivers, the workers in food factories, care homes and warehouses, among others. It is often their contribution to economic and societal welfare that is the least recognised. And: “Moreover, a highly accommodative global monetary policy will widen wealth inequality by driving up asset prices, especially in financial markets and real estate.”

… social unrest

Schwab and Malleret also paint a picture of the socio-political consequences of this development: “It could be that enough people are sufficiently outraged by the glaring injustice of the preferential treatment enjoyed exclusively by the rich that it provokes a broad societal backlash. [...] One of the most profound dangers facing the post-pandemic era is social unrest. [...] Well before the pandemic engulfed the world, social unrest had been on the rise globally, so the risk is not new, but has been amplified by Covid-19.” Because: “In the post-pandemic era, the numbers of unemployed, worried, miseralble, restentful, sick and hungry will have swelled dramatically.”

Youth – a source of the great change?

Schwab and Malleret also propose a few solutions. Above all, they call for a “new social contract”, which, however, remains rather vague. They assign a special role to “youth”. The chapter on “The social contract” ends with the following words: “The young generation is firmly at the vanguard of social change. There is little doubt that it will be the catalyst for change and a source of critical momentum for the Great Reset.” And what are supposed to be the burning issues of the “youth”? “climate change, economic reforms, gender equality and LGBTQ rights.”
  The question remains: How is it to be understood when precisely those who have contributed quite significantly to the social imbalance in the world today now claim that they want to solve the problems? And what can we really make of the proposed solutions, which sound very much like the zeitgeist? 
  Around this year’s digital WEF meeting, a number of other voices have also spoken out that in many ways fit well with Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret.

Timothy Garton Ash

On 19 January 2021, Timothy Garton Ash, one of the most renowned neoliberal thinkers, advisor to Margret Thatcher, founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and recipient of numerous established highest prizes and decorations, was permitted to present his thoughts for the “future of liberalism” on three newspaper pages in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”. He diagnoses a failure of liberalism since 1989 and suggests that in future liberals should also show themselves as “conservative-socialist liberals”. To explain, he writes, among other things: “It is a commonplace that we see a dramatic growth in inequality in many developed societies. [...] To diminish the inequity of life chances, starting with that most basic chance to go on living, liberals must simultaneously tackle multiple inequalities: most obviously those of wealth, healthcare, education and geography (Rust Belt versus the coasts of the US, north of England versus Greater Londonia), but also that between generations, and less visible inequalities of power and attention. To redress this multidimensional inequality will require us to support more radical measures than most liberals have been prepared to contemplate over the 30 years since 1989. [...] Measures that could contribute here include a negative income tax (as proposed long ago by Milton Friedman); a universal basic income [...], a universal taxpayer-funded minimum inheritance [...], and universal basic services such as healthcare, housing and social security.”

The gap between rich and poor …

On 23 January, the editorial of the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” had the title “Corona, the Non-leveller”. The diagnoses sounded like Schwab’s and Malleret’s, and the conclusion also sounded quite unusual for NZZ readers: “Learning from this crisis – and preparing better for the next one – means going beyond the day to finally recognise social inequality as a central political challenge of our time and to act accordingly. Those for whom morality is not impetus enough should be guided by reason – and they will come to the same conclusions: The pandemic and its consequences will not be over until they are over everywhere. And the next crisis will come less quickly and will be less far-reaching if the gap between rich and poor does not widen but narrows”.

… and capitalism as the solution?

And on 27 January, the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” reported about the annual letter from Blackrock’s CEO, Larry Fink, to the CEOs of large companies around the world. Blackrock manages and distributes around nine trillion US dollars worldwide, which is almost thirteen times the total Swiss value added, the Swiss gross domestic product of 2020. With all this money, Blackrock influences corporate and investment decisions – and very likely political decisions – around the world. In his letter to the CEOs of major companies, Larry Fink identified three major problems facing the world: “the pandemic that has enveloped the entire globe; secondly, inequality, which has grown again and is contributing to social polarisation; and thirdly, climate change, which is increasingly felt even in the western industrialised countries”. Further down, the newspaper article on Larry Fink says: “His confidence in the future and his optimism are based on the trust that capitalism will prove to be the problem-solving authority that can bring these threatening developments back on a sustainable track”.

“To set a fox to keep the geese”?

It is very likely that one is making things too easy for oneself if one only thinks of the phrase: “To set a fox to keep the geese”? Maybe some corporate leaders really do have a kind of “bad conscience” about the consequences of an economic and financial system that they themselves helped to shape for decades. Maybe some corporate leaders really do fear counterproductive social unrest if they continue as before. Or maybe it is just about new investment, turnover and profit expectations adapted to the “zeitgeist”.
  Even more important is the following question: Can the state of the analysis and the proposed solutions to the problems mentioned be convincing at all? Question marks are appropriate! For example: In the 19th century, capitalism did not solve its own problems. Nor in the 20th century. Gradual concessions were usually only made after long, often fierce and sometimes sacrificial struggles. This shows the history of the labour movement. Switzerland’s direct democracy has helped to mitigate these struggles and seek solutions in a civilised manner. Every European country has its own history. Not to mention the other continents.
  And what do we do with the logical contradictions when, for example, on the one hand everything is to be mobilised to bring new technologies into use that further pave the way to the 20:80 society, and on the other hand their consequences are lamented? In their book “Die Globalisierungsfalle. Der Angriff auf Demokratie und Wohlstand” (The Globalisation Trap. The attack on Democracy and Prosperity), published already 25 years ago, in 1996, Hans-Peter Martin and Harald Schumann had reported on a meeting of leading business representatives and world-renowned retired politicians in a posh US hotel at the end of September 1995. There, the business representatives made short statements explaining that with the widespread use of modern technologies, only 20 per cent of workers will be needed for skilled jobs in the future, while 80 per cent of the current workers will be practically superfluous. They could be offered low-paid jobs, but above all, Zbigniew Brzezinski suggested at the time, “tittytainment”, a modern kind of Roman “bread and circuses”. Today, one would probably speak of unconditional basic income and “social media”.

Do not abandon the questions to the “elites”

Even more: the question of the essence of the social question must dig deeper. This is the question of a well-founded image of man and its consequences for the active shaping of the conditions of life and the becoming and acting of every mortal. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as of 1948 formulated the basis with its Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. What does this mean for human coexistence, for the fundamental right to the free development of the personality in a social context and for the demands on economic order, profession and economic life that do justice to human nature? So, it’s about more than – moreover, questionable – retouching. A fundamental discussion would be desirable – especially for the post-pandemic era and afterwards: How do we want to live together? The search for humane answers to this question and concrete progress cannot be abandoned to the “elites”, it is a profoundly democratic task.  •

1 of 25 January 2021
2 of 29 January 2021

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