In a full-page newspaper interview, the Badisches Tagblatt asked me whether democracy was being endangered by the Corona crisis. I emphasized that wealth and income inequalities have increased even further in the Corona crisis, so that social inequality has reached historic and democracy-threatening proportions. In order to bear the costs of the Corona crisis while containing authoritarianism and social division, radical redistribution is needed. I also had the opportunity to explain the concepts of ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’ - as essential for analyzing capitalism in general and the business-friendly Corona measures in particular.
Full interview: “This policy leads to great social discord”.
Caution: Automatic translation without proofreading - do not cite this text and check back with the German original if it sounds strange!
Karsten Schubert of the University of Freiburg on the development of democracy during the Corona crisis.
Freiburg - Fundamental rights are restricted and proportionality debated: The Corona crisis not only polarizes, it poses enormous challenges to politics. Critics of the Corona measures see a threat to democratic values, but what impact on democracy is the crisis really having? BT volunteer Nadine Fissl talked about this with Karsten Schubert, a research fellow at the University of Freiburg.
BT: Mr. Schubert, can the Corona crisis be described as a challenge to democracy?
Karsten Schubert: Yes, I think so. One can look at the problem with a comparative perspective. Recently, a comparative study looked at the decline of democracy worldwide in the wake of the Corona crisis. In some authoritarian-oriented states, security regulations and authoritarian encroachment by the state would have increased even further, all under the guise of Corona measures and infection control. In the process, the corona situation prevents effective oppositions to such intensifications of power concentration. If you enforce a curfew under health protection with a great deal of police power and prohibit demonstrating, for example, then you can make a political system more conveniently authoritarian than otherwise. There are reports of that happening in alarmingly large numbers around the world.
BT: How do you assess the situation in Germany?
Schubert: In Germany, the problem is different. Here we have the negotiation of the appropriateness of the measures and, above all, their legality, which is then measured again by proportionality. I would say that this whole part of the Corona policy as a whole does not expose any democratic deficits, at least not of a dramatic kind. The fact that there is controversy about the measures, that there are different measures, that then, among other things, courts overturn measures, that is all a sign of the good functioning of healthy democracy. On the other hand, what moves me to a very negative and pessimistic assessment with regard to the Corona policy in Germany is the fundamental social injustice of this policy. We are dealing with debt borrowing on a historic scale and, at the same time, wealth inequality has reached historic dimensions. According to a new study published just before Corona, the share of wealth held by the bottom 50% in Germany has almost halved since 1993; according to another study by the DIW, the top 10% own a good two-thirds of the wealth, while the bottom 50% together own only 1.4%. Income inequality in Germany is as glaring as it was last in 1918, so we’re back to about the beginning of the 20th century in terms of inequality. If you imagine the Titanic with the splendid revelers and diners in first class and then the third class next to them. Such pictures always look as if they are so far away, but in fact we are back in such conditions. And these data describe the situation before Corona. The way Germany and Europe are dealing with the Corona crisis in terms of economic policy is fundamentally reinforcing these already unjust conditions.
BT: To what extent is this also a democratic problem?
Schubert: First of all, this is a type of policy that is democratically legitimately enforced by the grand coalition, so it’s not an obvious breach of the constitution or anything like that. But of course, in the long term, this policy simply leads to great social discord and thus to a strong polarization in politics, above all toward authoritarian and illiberal political offers, i.e. AfD, new right and so on. This can already be seen in the discord in liberal democracies in the West as a whole, which can be traced back above all to four decades of neoliberalism. From a sociological point of view, there is a connection, and in this respect, the very basis of democracy is endangered by this injustice and unequal distribution.
BT: How can this be counteracted?
Schubert: What can be done is relatively clear. As it is now partly demanded, but much too quietly and much too weakly, we need a blatant redistribution of wealth. We need a wealth tax again and we need overall economic and tax models that greatly relieve low-income earners to the detriment of the huge concentrated fortunes of the very rich, such as progressive inheritance taxes with a cap on high inheritances and more corporate democracy. This blatant concentration of wealth among only a very small number, you have to address radically and then you also have more resources to refinance the new borrowing. The neoliberal policies that are such a burden on lower income classes have to be scaled back. There’s also a point about economic imbalance and inequality in terms of burden sharing and gains in the pandemic. I mean, look at the stock market prices, they have exploded insanely. People who already have assets have gotten much richer, but people at the lower wealth and income end have taken severe financial losses.
BT: What dangers do you see if something doesn’t change in this policy in time?
Schubert: I would distinguish between two issues. On the one hand, it is a normative problem, that is, one of values and justice, if there is such a large inequality of distribution. Because this means that the promise of democracy, of equality and freedom for all, is not kept at all, but is only a caricature of itself. Moreover, it is a functional problem, even for the maintenance of that democracy that we have, because it can actually lead to authoritarian and anti-democratic parties gaining momentum. We should in no way be too sure of the social and political peace that we still have here to a very high degree compared to other parts of the world. If such neoliberal economic policies continue, political decomposition will continue to intensify.
BT: Critics of the Corona measures also repeatedly make German democracy an issue and speak, among other things, of the Corona policy as a danger to it. Can you understand that?
Schubert: I cannot understand a danger to democracy from the specific health measures, as described by the Corona critics. For that, you would have to have a case here in which a government uses these measures to reshape democracy in an authoritarian way. I don’t see that in Germany. Nevertheless, I am skeptical about the current Corona measures with the curfew, and I think they are unconstitutional because they are not proportionate. This is because the entire burden to be borne for the epidemiological gain in this crisis is completely outsourced to the sphere of social reproduction - production is spared. Social reproduction is our leisure time and regeneration, by that we also mean raising children, that’s where the labor force is restored, so to speak. So I see the disproportionality in the fact that large parts of the economy are almost not regulated at all, there can simply continue to produce and for this the private life of people is fundamentally restricted. The fact that reproduction is always further burdened for production is a fundamental characteristic of capitalism. In a welfare state, however, the point is precisely not to give this dynamic free rein. That is why I consider these disproportionate restrictions on reproduction to be unconstitutional and can very well understand the great resentment and protest against these measures. But that is a very different line of reasoning than, for example, that of the contrarians.
BT: So the conversations about the appropriateness of the restrictions represent a functioning democracy?
Schubert: Exactly, the lively discussion about the different appropriateness of measures is a sign of a healthy democratic debate. At the same time, this is precisely the way to criticize the lack of plurality in this debate, because there are voices that should be heard much more; namely, the voices of people who are much worse off economically as a result of this situation, or the voices of young people, for example; all the voices that don’t belong to those who are heard most, namely industry, which simply continues to produce. There are fundamental asymmetries in the debate that can be criticized. But that doesn’t mean that the debate is fundamentally undemocratic, it should just be further democratized.
BT: At what point would you speak of a dysfunctional democracy?
Schubert: On the one hand, in view of the fundamental nature and severity of the distribution problem, I would already speak of a dysfunctional democracy in Germany and Europe. Indicators of this are that things are creaking at all corners with the commitment to the democratic system, polarization, right-wing parties and everything I have already mentioned. But that is a more fundamental criticism and something different than starting from the status quo and then judging the new Corona politics as democratic or undemocratic. I think in Corona politics we just see the very normal continued functioning of political systems and publics as we know them. And the fundamental problems that I’m addressing, they were there before and now they’re exacerbated by Corona and this economic exacerbation of inequality. But this is more a very fundamental question of the realization of democracy, which is incomplete in the democratic institutions that actually exist. That’s why it’s part of democracy to keep working on its realization to demand the values of equality and freedom where they are not realized.
BT: The way the crisis is being handled in Germany is repeatedly compared with the way it is being handled in authoritarian states like China. What is your opinion of this comparison?
Schubert: One thing is that Germany could have handled the pandemic better at many points, yes. There are also many critical debates about this that accompany the policy in detail. But I would not respond to the problems of the pandemic by comparing systems with authoritarian states. In different political systems with different cultures, different policy options were available to the government. As a result, China was much more successful - if you look at the epidemiological events in isolation. But policies like China’s are not compatible with a Western-style liberal democracy, and for good reason. I believe it is fundamental to Western liberal politics in times of Corona that a constant review of proportionality to protect fundamental rights accompany the discussion, and that there be a plurality of voices from academia, politics, and various social interest groups. There may be something to learn from countries like China in a few technical detail designs and also in terms of the fact that a real lockdown that would have included the economy would probably have been more effective and less expensive overall, but not as a plea for centralized authoritarianism.
I am also skeptical about the discussion now going on in Germany about the inefficiency of federalism. I think this has come about because no progress has been made, and then they simply tried something else, but I don’t think that such a rather centralized pandemic control via the federal government works fundamentally better than federalism.
Schubert, Karsten; Fissl, Nadine (2021): „Diese Politik führt zu großem sozialen Unfrieden“. Karsten Schubert von der Universität Freiburg über die Entwicklung der Demokratie während der Corona-Krise. In Badisches Tagsblatt, 5/22/2021 (116), https://www.badisches-tagblatt.de/Nachrichten/Diese-Politik-fuehrt-zu-grossem-sozialen-Unfrieden-88915.html, checked on 5/25/2021.
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