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“The Crisis Will Drag on for a Long Time“

Prof. Klaus Dörre is certain that the crisis situation will not be over once the corona crisis has been resolved. The professor of labour, industrial and economic sociology at the University of Jena anticipates that the world, including the world of work, will be a different one after the coronavirus. There will be many challenges to overcome which will require global change. Nothing about the corona crisis is good, he says, and he calls for clear language and action instead of empty phrases. Nevertheless, he also sees a few positive effects – and a great deal of work for the future.

For weeks, people have been told to stay alone wherever possible or maintain a clear distance from others – the practice being called “Social Distancing”. What does this look like in companies, where people normally work together in groups?

Dörre: “Keep your distance!” basically means a radical de-socialisation or even de-communitarisation. However, production processes depend on cooperation, which includes contact between people. In the jobs currently considered to be systemically relevant in hospitals, supermarkets, nursing homes, agriculture, etc., contact can hardly be completely avoided. One can follow rules and protect shop assistants with sheets of plexiglass, for instance, but for everyone who is not working from home, the risk to their health is disproportionally greater. 

How does this “forced” proximity affect performance at work?

No one can say that for certain at the moment. But social contacts at work are important for a lot of people. Even a physically demanding, monotonous activity is easier to tolerate when the chemistry between the workers is good. That has now disappeared. Instead, bus drivers, checkout staff, care workers or nurses are now receiving more appreciation from customers and the general public. One can only hope that this will continue and will in future also be reflected in better pay, more staff and better working conditions in these areas.  

How can we evaluate economic productivity at this time (end of March) – in Thuringia, Germany, Europe and worldwide?

Worldwide, the economy is heading towards a recession. The only question is how deep the slump will be. In the best-case scenario, the shutdown will end after one month. Even then, we would have to reckon with falls in growth here in Germany like those seen during the 2007-2009 crisis. According to the IfO, a three-month shutdown could lead to a slump in growth of up to 20%; we would then have up to 5.5 million people in short-time work. In any case, the states that will come through the crisis best are those with a robust health system and a crisis-proof welfare state. This also makes it clear which countries on the continent will be worst affected by the consequences of this crisis – those in southern and south-eastern Europe. The high mortality rates in Spain and Italy of those infected with the coronavirus are also linked to the cuts in the health sector forced on them by the European austerity policy. In general, safeguarding employment will be important. In Germany there are tried and tested measures in the form of long-term short-time work.

Does this apply to large companies as well as to the self-employed and small and medium-sized enterprises?

The many small and micro-enterprises are the ones we have to be concerned about. These will not be able to survive for long without direct financial assistance. This is a particular problem for Thuringia, with its small-scale economy. This is all the more so if we have to use digitisation and decarbonisation [= switching to a low-carbon economy, note from the editor] to tackle tasks that will become all the more urgent after the pandemic. For this reason, we can be glad that in this crisis we once again have a federal government capable of taking action. But the government should use the money to drive forward progressive structural change instead of just preserving what already exists.

Stock market prices are jumping up and down, and alternating between fear of the big crash and hope that the crisis will soon be over. What is your prognosis for economic developments in the coming months?

Nobody can make an exact prediction, as we do not know how long the pandemic will last. It is scandalous that short selling is still possible on the stock markets, which, for example, allows traders to bet on company bankruptcies. Too little has changed in that regard since the 2007-2009 crisis. I anticipate a deep slump in the world economy. For the world champion in exports, Germany, it’s uncertain whether there will be a rapid growth spurt after the end of the pandemic. That depends on how quickly other countries, such as China and our European neighbours, recover. The federal government’s actions are contradictory: it ought to be interested in rapid aid within the EU, but it is blocking euro bonds as a means of crisis management.   

Many people are gripped by fear of a crash and the question of when and how they themselves will be affected. What is this fear doing to the working population?

There is much to worry about. That’s why I am not keen on phrases such as “The crisis as an opportunity”. Nothing about this crisis is good. It is threatening thousands with death, will probably cause millions to become unemployed, and is temporarily depriving billions of people of important basic rights. Professors, who are in a very privileged position and are currently enjoying having fewer responsibilities, must also realise this. The longer this pandemic lasts, the more serious its destructive effects on culture, society and the economy will be. Therefore, the following must apply to large and small companies: no redundancies, but preferably subsidized temporary layoffs! It is especially the weakest who are in need of solidarity. One example: the refugee shelters in Thuringia are empty. Why don’t we bring over the people from the camps on the Greek islands? The hygiene conditions there are catastrophic.          

Will working people turn to more radical parties or positions out of fear? Even before the corona crisis, you had established that trade unionists were also increasingly moving to the right, politically. Or is the crisis strengthening solidarity between workers and employees?

Wherever right-wing populists such as Trump or right-wing radicals such as Bolsonaro are in power, crisis management is failing completely. People will see that. The USA is currently becoming the centre of the global pandemic. The radical right is naturally attempting to take advantage of the situation. All sorts of conspiracy theories are being spread online. Those who believe them risk not only their own health, but also that of other people. I believe, therefore, that the crisis will lead to a huge defeat for right-wing populists and radicals. I have a different concern. Climate change could entail a number of external shocks, which also require large-scale crisis management. We must therefore be careful that the state of emergency does not become the norm. Democracy needs public discussion, debate, demonstrations, and strikes. We have recently experienced this in Thuringia and these fundamental rights must be safeguarded in perpetuity – in spite of crises.

If a vaccine or medication against the coronavirus is developed and the crisis subsides, what do you think the world of work will be like then? Will working people and businesses change – or have they already changed? Or will everything carry on as it did before corona?

After corona, the world – and the world of work – will be different. Dogmas of economic policy that have been considered incontrovertible in recent decades have now been swept away: debt ceiling – passé! The “black zero” of a balanced government budget – that was yesterday: public debt – all the rage. This paradigm shift will continue after the pandemic. It was overdue and the corona crisis has only accelerated it. People will also wonder how to interpret the fact that for the second time in 10 years, the capitalist market economy has had to be rescued by methods that belong to the non-market economy. It will not be possible to dismiss such events as a “black swan” in future. It will also be easier for all of us to decide what we really need. Even I can live perfectly well without Bundesliga football. But I couldn’t live without bakers, farmers, medical assistants, lorry drivers, and helpful neighbours. This shows that we all need a well-functioning social infrastructure. This must become a well-funded public asset. If you compare the monthly income of [professional footballer] Jadon Sancho with that of a geriatric nurse, it is immediately clear that something is not right in our society. Social services must be socially upgraded – financially, but also within the recognition pyramid.

And how will the corona crisis affect post-growth processes? How will it affect the state?

The crisis is degrowth by disaster. As in 2009, climate-damaging emissions and perhaps also the consumption of resources will decrease. Because of the crisis, Germany may even achieve its climate targets after all. However, this has absolutely nothing to do with the revolution in sustainability that we so urgently need. We can see that the state is assertive in times of crisis. It can restrict freedoms that we exercise at the expense of others, through mandatory rules – for the benefit of all! It is always crucial that state action be subject to democratic decision-making. Freedom has a binding social dimension and this also applies to entrepreneurial freedoms. In the future, these freedoms must be strictly linked to sustainability goals. Once again, I say: the one thing that’s better than not driving an SUV is not producing it! And I say that despite the Opel plant in Eisenach. I could also say: better than not exporting military equipment is not manufacturing it in the first place – in spite of the jobs at Jenoptik, etc. The examples make it clear: after the crisis, we need a fundamental debate about our economic order – and this debate must not be conducted exclusively by economists and career politicians.            

Finally, a personal question: You are under quarantine. What effect is that having on you as a human being and as a scientist?

At first, I underestimated the crisis and went on a package holiday for the first time in my life. I found myself standing in front of cordoned-off beaches with my wife. And I saw how the police at the hotel threatened British tourists with rubber truncheons to enforce the “keep your distance!” rule. There were days of trembling and uncertainty as we wondered whether our evacuation to Germany would be possible at all. All that chaos has opened my eyes. By comparison, I’m doing relatively well in quarantine. Our lovely neighbours are going shopping for us. Of course, I miss the direct contact with my family and my colleagues. It isn’t clear what will happen to the research projects. But those are high-level problems. For some time now, requests have been coming in for texts, books, interviews, etc. on the subject of the coronavirus. So, it isn’t going to get boring. Nevertheless, I’ll breathe a sigh of relief when the quarantine is over. But the crisis, I’m sure, will drag on for a long time.

This article first appeared on the Website of the University of Jena.