‘Control measures cannot replace trust’

The corona pandemic has sustainably altered the world. As trust in the state and in society’s solidarity is eroded, the longing for decisive leadership is growing, especially in democracies. This phenomenon was now the focal point of the first meeting of specialist DAAD alumni representing the social sciences. This high-calibre podium discussion involved the President of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Professor Jutta Allmendinger, the Director of the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik, Professor Anna-Katharina Hornidge, the Director of the Institute of Medical Sociology and Rehabilitation Science, Professor Holger Pfaff and political scientist Professor Wolfgang Merkel discussing how resilient, how stable and how constructive society is in the crisis. At the same time, they were searching for prospects of being able to finally emerge stronger from the current situation. Albeit whether or not this will be the case remains unclear. Because a lot needs to change for this to happen, both within the population and in politics.

‘We need spaces where we can gather’

The loss of trust in individual representatives of the people as well as in institutions and, of course, in fellow human beings as a whole has grown steadily over the past months and years. Jutta Allmendinger quoted the words of philosopher sociologist Georg Simmel: ‘Trust is a solid hypothesis about the likely behaviour of others’. She went on to say that this can however only happen if we have prior knowledge of those other people. And this is precisely the problem. Our increasing life in social and digital bubbles prevents an understanding of all those who do not fit into our own world view. Those who don’t fit into this view remain aloof and thus foreign, a supposed disruptive factor on the edge of our periphery. ‘We need spaces where we can gather and exchange views, such as in the blending of residential areas’, suggested Allmendinger, who simultaneously spoke out in favour of an obligatory social year.

 

‘Our sense of togetherness needs to be strengthened’

‘A resilient democratic society should ensure that our discourse culture is maintained and continued and that the democratic value system is passed on to the following generations’, is how Holger Pfaff put it. ‘Our sense of togetherness needs to be strengthened’, he said, while at the same time diagnosing a crisis in collective leadership. ‘The transitional phase between the federal election and establishment of our new government showed us that a functioning collective leadership is central to a society's ability to act, especially in extreme situations.’

Yet Wolfgang Merkel feels that it’s not just the vertical, but also horizontal trust that is crumbling. ‘The lower third of society dropped out long ago’, he said, while citizens’ trust in parliament as the people's representative has increasingly declined in the past 30 years and the Bundestag and the Länder parliaments are seen to have partially marginalised themselves during the corona crisis. And science, which everyone is looking to in the pandemic? ‘It certainly understands the future and is offering potential solutions, but it can’t claim primacy over democracy,’ Merkel stressed. The requirements raised from a medical perspective would for instance have to be weighed against those from other disciplines as well as with law and order. ‘Politicisation of science is just as undesirable as the scientisation of politics’, is how Merkel summed it up.

Science is after all also affected by a certain inequality. ‘Research agendas are aligned with the better funded systems’, Anna-Katharina Hornidge explained. ‘This has an impact on the ability to speak in global terms.’ All the more so when publications are subject to restrictions. ‘South Africa detected the Omicron variant and raised public attention to it, and in return the country is being subjected to massive sanctions’, Hornidge criticised.

Longing for strong leadership and clear hierarchies

In light of an extremely volatile situation even before the coronavirus in which society feels threatened and doesn’t know where to start with the different positions adopted by science, people are longing for strong leadership and clear hierarchies. ‘In recent years we’ve witnessed a global sprouting of generals’, stressed Hornidge – and in her assessment of this she is in agreement with her colleagues on the virtual podium. ‘The symbolism inherent in this is an admission of failure’, said Wolfgang Merkel with a view to the appointment of Major General Carsten Breuer as head of the corona crisis team in Germany.

Jutta Allmendinger fully agreed with him. ‘We need leadership, but in my eyes this step is just an expression of helplessness.’ The same applies to the demand that the population should control itself, as formulated among others by Hamburg Interior Senator Andy Grote. ‘Are we now to become a control state with surveillance hierarchies?’, Allmendinger asked. ‘It’s always been said that trust is good, but control is better. I would conversely claim that control can never replace trust.’ We can only hope that the latter can be relearned.

Author: Thomas Kölsch

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