Multiple crises and great social transformations: Between social regression and concrete-utopian hope?

Multiple Crises and Social Transformation

We are living in times of great social transformations [1] and multiple crises. The current heath crisis is just one of numerous global crises societies are confronted with. For decades, societies have been struggling with the crisis of employment, of environment and of economy and, regarding the global emergence of populism, one could also point to a crisis of the political (Demirovic et. al.).

Demonstration against police misconduct and discrimination in the US. Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

The concept of multiple crises as advocated in critical social sciences (ibid.), addresses the crises of social relations in contexts of great transformations. At the same time, it is emphasised in this intersectional perspective that different crises are always interwoven. Therefore, crises can lead to new condensations which in turn unfold a new crises-laden dynamic that can cumulate in a general loss of trust in social order and political institutions. In other words: Social transformations such as globalization or digitalisation are always ambivalent: On the one hand they are based on the expectation to improve the social, political, cultural, or economic living and on the other hand they always harbour the loss of certainties and orientation. And when transformation processes become crisis-ridden, there are always losers and people in charge.

The current global health crisis is a good example here. Corona is not a natural disaster. Corona is the consequence of blatant political failures – at the national, European, and global level. The Corona crisis illustrates in a drastic way that diseases do not stop at national borders but have a global dimension. And a totally wrong lesson to be learned from the recent health crisis would be to recall the concept of nationalism such as populist right wingers want to make us believe. Globalization is a good thing – if politicians and citizens are willing to mould globalization processes based on public institutions that are inspired by the legacy of human rights and a global solidarity principle.

The spread of Covid -19 demonstrates that states have been neglecting global responsibilities that stem from human rights. Health is a human right and therefore, states are obliged to support the World Health Organization (WHO) not only in the context of a pandemic but also to be aware of the social determinants of health as already outlined in 1978 at the WHO conference in Alma Ata. [2]

Corona has shown that, due to neoliberal adjustment politics, public institutions such as the health system have been dramatically weakened (Meisterhans 2016). Not only in the so-called poor countries in the global south but also in the western hemisphere, has it become obvious that many people lack access to health services. Even in so-called developed countries the health system, due to Covid-19, is close to collapse. Numerous democratic governments are currently inclined to demonstrate their capacity to act and are in danger of falling into a populist hyperactivity, which deals with the symptoms of the current health crisis, but not with their own failures to prevent the global health crisis. What is particularly worrying about the contemporary crisis-management, is an authoritarian or at least paternalistic spirit guiding action, which might also be applied in future crises. This is to take into account that for several decades, various democracies have faced a growing authoritarian backlash and reactionary populism in national and global contexts (Moffitt 2016; Sauer 2017; 2019; Wodak 2018; Katsambekis and Stavrakakis 2020), which may become more entrenched under current conditions of contemporary biopolitical crisis management.

Overburdening the health care system in times of Corona. Nurses and NHS colleagues protest in London. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Crisis and criticism in times of right-wing populism.

We are currently witnessing that right-wing actors and networks are appropriating this discourse on the political state of emergency with conspiracy-theoretical intent. The crude hygiene demonstrations in Berlin and Leipzig, for example, in which a new cross-front (“Querfront”,” Querdenker”) is calling for resistance to the state, government and media in the Corona crisis, are helping to create new confusion. It is a bizarre mix that has emerged: Anti-vaccinationists, conspiracy theorists, right-wing extremists, anti-Semites but possibly also people who are seriously concerned about the curtailment of democratic rights. What we can learn from these protests and demonstrations is that civic engagement is not per se emancipatory. Nevertheless, the thesis outlined here is that it is possible to distinguish legitimate and progressive critiques. A good example are the protest performances of the Chilean feminist theatre troupe and feminist collective Las Tesis. The collective had a starting point with the scandalization of sexual violence and not only inspired feminist protests in Argentina and Mexico, but also in Austria, France, the USA, Spain, and Germany and was also transformed into a call for comprehensive health, education, and pension reform and a critique of neoliberal politics which are based on a practice of distinct negation. The collective uses dystopian narratives and performances to draw attention to urgent problems and the suffering of structurally marginalized societal groups and aims to inspire the public. In what sense do they inspire the public? The point is dystopian storytelling, and performances can potentially serve as a wake-up call and can push the audience to imagine a worst-case scenario if the status quo is not transformed based on a universalizing human rights legacy. Thus, a dystopian imagination can help to educate the hearts of the people in so far as it promotes empathy-driven societal learning processes. In other words, such civic practices can citizens what it means to be vulnerable and as such form the motivation for solidarity beyond borders – not only in a national but also societal and cultural sense (Rorty 1998).

Distinguishing regressive and progressive civic resistance

From this perspective, progressive forms of protest can be distinguished from regressive and repressive ones. While the latter serve to deny realities or to distort them apocalyptically, and thus are associated with a generalised distrust in the other and marked by the search for scape goats, protests like La Tesis tell a different story. They tell us narratives that make us understand what it means to be in a subaltern position (Spivak 1994) and thus enable collective reflection-processes on the suffering in a solidarizing perspective. To cut a long story short: Protests that are performed like the ones of Las Tesis can potentially motivate social collectives to imagine another world – a better world. In this sense, we should regard multiple crises in a dialectical way: And that is to realize that crises always form the base for social learning processes that can be distinguished from apocalyptic narratives, which aim to generate feelings of powerlessness and a diffuse rage “against those up there”.

Developing concrete hope based on the education of sentiments and on collective reflection.

So, let us join a process of social transformation which scandalizes the status quo but while scandalizing the status quo a civic practice could be established that could be based on processes of remembering, repeating and working through (Freud 2000) in order to create a principle of hope (Bloch 1985) that structures processes of great societal transformation. Another world is possible, and the Karls-University invites students, but also the civic public, to participate in shaping the future. Doing this could mean to reflect on the origins of discomfort and suffering in culture in a solidaric perspective and to take these reflections as fundament for the development of concrete utopian perspectives. 

Article by Nadja Meisterhans, Lecturer for our Bachelor’s Programs Politics, Philosophy & Economics and Citizenship and Civic Engagement

Are you interested to learn about more social issues and how to change the world sustainably? Would you like to deal with social transformation in your studies? Then get to know our Master’s program Master in Social TransFormation – Politics, Philosophy & Economics.


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[1] On the term great social transformation see: Polanyi, Karl 1978. The Great Transformation. Politische und ökonomische Ursprünge von Gesellschaften und Wirtschaftssystemen. Frankfurt/Main
[2] The “Declaration of Alma-Ata” from the International Conference on Primary Health in 1978 defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing”, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. It is a fundamental human right and the attainment of the highest possible level of health is a most important world-wide social goal whose realization requires the action of many other social and economic sectors in addition to the health sector” (WHO, 1978). The social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national, and local levels.

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