• Matthias Hempert

Corona - chance in chaos?

The Corona pandemic and its management have turned our lives upside down at a speed and with a radicalness that hardly anyone could have imagined before. For all of us, deeply felt in our private lives, it is an event that raises many questions. How could it come to this? What can we learn from the experience of this pandemic? What dangers does the crisis pose beyond the mere health threat? How lasting will the changes brought about by this crisis be? Challenging, irritating events are moments in which public intellectuals - whether from philosophy, sociology or literature - can provide impulses for orientation with their interpretations. Without claiming to be exhaustive, what follows is a tour d'horizon outlining perspectives of intellectual voices on the Corona pandemic.

No longer higher, faster, further

An "endless succession of Sundays" and a "60s, 70s feeling" when looking at the blue sky without aeroplane traffic is what philosopher Richard David Precht perceives in the Corona era. This makes perceptible that things don't always have to go higher, faster, further. In the crisis, humans become aware of their biological vulnerability and thus of the fact that they are more closely related to animals than to smartphones. Precht draws a connection between the Corona crisis and the climate crisis: the state is currently showing that it is in a position to follow the recommendations of science, although it has always denied this in matters of climate policy. Climate change, however, is a far greater threat than the coronavirus, because it is a long-term challenge that will not disappear in the foreseeable future. The fact that politicians are currently working on returning to a status quo ante is the completely wrong way to go in terms of climate policy and is particularly testimony to a failure on the part of the Greens to offer a real alternative.

Experience of political self-efficacy

The sociologist Hartmut Rosa recognises in the massive reduction of production, trade and transport brought about by the lockdown a deceleration that was produced by political action and did not necessarily follow the virus. He interprets this as an experience of self-efficacy that reveals the radical power of politics to act in the face of other political challenges: we are not powerless in the face of the climate crisis or distribution issues. "The assumption that the normatively required primacy of politics can no longer do anything in the face of the inherent logics of functional differentiation thus proves to be simply wrong.

Crisis of the Capitalist Way of Life

The Berlin philosopher Rahel Jaeggi interprets the Corona pandemic as a crisis of the capitalist way of life. She points out that health protection, as a public good, defies any market logic and should therefore not be organised in a market economy; following on from this, she calls for a radical questioning of market liberal ideology. Crisis and crisis management would break with certainties that were believed to be safe - the Corona crisis could thus become a turning point at which room for manoeuvre is recognised and demanded. Ultimately an end is put to the political lack of alternatives.

The end of freedom

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben considers the developments of the corona crisis to be an ethical and political collapse. He justifies this drastic assessment with the dead, who often had to die alone in Italy and were burned without burial, as well as with the restrictions on freedom of unprecedented proportions - in each case on the basis of an "unspecifiable risk". At the root of the problem, Agamben recognises the false division of life into a mere biological life on the one hand and a cultural, spiritual life on the other. He fears that the medical reduction to mere biological life will be imposed as the new normality even after the end of the lockdown: social distancing as "the new organising principle of society". According to Agamben, the jurists have not sufficiently fulfilled their task to control the separation of powers and so one has the impression that the words of governments have immediate force of law, "as was once said of the words of the 'Führer'." One cannot renounce freedom in order to save it.

Return of the regulating state

For sociologist Andreas Reckwitz, the return of a strong state is a central insight from the Corona crisis. The state had receded into the background in late modernity (roughly since the 1970s); the economy, technology and culture had taken centre stage. However, even before the corona crisis, the need for a more regulatory state had become clear, in relation to distributive justice as well as to the climate crisis or cultural issues. Both the corona and the climate crisis are about risk policy: politicians should make use of the experience gained concerning crisis management with regard to the climate crisis. However, it would be premature to assume a comprehensive change in society through Corona, because the lines of conflict in society (e.g. liberals versus populists) would remain the same. Existing structures, however, would become clearer as a result of the crisis - for example, the lockdown of the academic middle class in the home office could be perceived as an idyllic deceleration experience, but for most people the situation would be different.

Do not suppress death

The author Thea Dorn analyses an ethical dilemma between health and freedom. On the one hand, she wonders what life is still worth if freedom is missing. On the other hand, she worries that such a supposedly liberal argumentation could mutate into Darwinism or utilitarianism. In any case, "slogans of fair-weather liberalism" are not helpful at the moment - one must relentlessly confront one's own mortality and the question of what kind of death we can and want to expect of ourselves socially. It is much more difficult for us today to face death with steadfastness and bravery than it is for people in other societies, without being able to hope for comfort in the hereafter. Her concern that "in our desperate efforts to contain the current epidemic, we are causing suffering that is possibly even more bitter than death itself: the suffering of leaving people to die alone and without any prospect of comfort" leads her to a plea to develop a more mature approach to the finite nature of life.

Drosten's female authority

The philosopher Svenja Flaßpöhler interprets as a privilege the possibility of being able to keep one's distance in times of pandemic instead of having to live in a confined space like people in refugee camps. She advocates rediscovering a "non-tactile" closeness established through language; in this respect, too, the crisis as a radical break with normality raises the primordial philosophical question: "What is the good life?" In corona crisis management, it is important not to blindly abandon oneself to virology. Nevertheless, it is justified to follow virologists like Drosten as authorities; the latter is "refreshing" in reflecting his authority and insists on epistemological uncertainty. Such a female-style authority can be trusted with good reason.

Panicking elites

The philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek also points out that only a privileged elite can afford to be in isolation at home. Governments, meanwhile, have a great power to exploit people's panic in a state of emergency in order to restrict freedoms; a temptation to make use of this power cannot be denied. However, the powerful are currently panicking because they cannot control the situation. In China, as in countries of the Western world, the basic trust in the state's function of order has been damaged. In the history of revolutions, one can always observe moments of symbolic ruptures in which people turn away from the elites; something like this is also happening now.

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