Esprit: The coronavirus crisis has shown that political power and decision-making involve uncertainty, which science hasn’t been able to address entirely. Is it a shortcoming to admit publicly that one doesn’t know everything about an illness and its social consequences? Or could that be considered a virtue in democratic societies, precisely because they are able to deal with uncertainty in a positive way?

Axel Honneth: Over the last couple of months, the way countries have dealt with the coronavirus crisis became an indicator for the democratic quality of their political systems. The more openly, publicly and discursively a government articulated its difficulties in controlling the crisis, the greater its democratic potential. However, this development revealed not only a polarization between authoritarian and democratic systems, but also a gradual scale. The more that independent medical experts and public health officials have been allowed to articulate their concerns, worries and proposals publicly with the support of the government, the more democratically robust and developed the political system has seemed to have been. In this respect, the Trump administration has performed better than the Chinese government. Despite thousands of mistakes, it allowed at least some independent experts to raise their voices publicly. On the other side of the Atlantic, most European governments outperformed the Trump administration in encouraging experts to speak out and articulate different opinions.

The purely technical question as to which of these systems was ultimately more effective in terms of controlling the crisis is extremely difficult to answer. Based on what we know, the two extremes did best. On the one hand, there is the extremely authoritarian Chinese government, with its centralized power to enact measures against the spread of the virus. On the other hand, there are the relatively democratic European governments, with their limited steering-power but high degree of open, public debate. The countries that fared the worst by far were the authoritarian democracies led by right-wing populist presidents such as Trump and Bolsonaro, both of whom initially denied the crisis and then resorted to poorly conceived measures without relying on any experts. In the long run, I hope that the truly democratic governments will do the best in terms of managing the crisis, which will likely result from measures taken in dialogue with independent medical researchers and a willingness to distribute vaccines and treatments equally across their respective populations.


Photo by Rodrigo Chagas via Prefeitura de Pelotas from Flickr. Public Domain

Esprit: Public confidence in government measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic varies greatly from country to country. Today, levels of trust are much higher in Germany than in France, although one can also hear protests in Berlin against the measures, which some have deemed to be ‘anti-freedom’. How can this crisis encourage us to rethink the connection between the rule of law and public health? Are the protective measures and restrictions on freedom a result of increasingly politicized medical interventions, or do they reflect a new consideration for the value of individual life in our societies?

AH: The crisis compelled democratic regimes to publicly revisit their moral, cultural and political values, the latter of which are based on written or unwritten constitutions. The result of such a democratic process is, or will be, to realize that even the most effective government depends heavily on a well-equipped, publicly-financed and transparent health system, the aim of which should be to provide care for everyone regardless of one’s social standing, sexual orientation or cultural identity. My guess and hope is that we will experience a historical development in which the opposite of what was predicted by the proponents of the Foucauldian ‘biopower’ paradigm will occur. Instead of politically empowering the medical system in order to effectively control and direct the population to such an extent that only physical survival matters, the medical knowledge of experts will be politicized to improve the ability of democratic governments to protect all citizens against the risks of pandemics and intensify long-term health protection. Nothing is more obscene at a moment when an effective healthcare system is urgently needed than the triumphant lamentation of Foucauldian intellectuals, who argue that the increasing biopower of the democratic state is constantly limiting our freedom by invading our physical lives. The opposite seems true: we, the informed majority of the citizens, willingly accept some small, but by no means catastrophic limitations on our civil liberties in order to cooperatively help each other to reduce the physical dangers of the virus.

Esprit: In your writings on the democratic ethos, you foreground the concept of freedom, which you do not define merely in a formal or legal way. For you, this means that democratic freedom goes beyond a legal understanding; it can be applied to all areas of social life (in both family and professional life). But isn’t this ‘horizontal’ understanding of freedom, which depends on the effective participation of citizens and the formation of a public, currently being challenged by a vertical exercise of power?

AH: The chances for a horizontal exercise of political power, as you rightly describe, have over the last decades never been particularly good in Europe, let alone the other parts of the world. One shouldn’t have illusions here. What has improved in the last forty years are the chances for equality and participation within families and the democratic potential of friendships for cutting through the different social and cultural groups. At the same time, the chances for democratic control over the workplace have been drastically diminished as a result of neoliberal deregulations.

The situation with the democratic public sphere is equally bad. Political parties are in very bad shape for a number of reasons: an aging party membership and a fixation on winning elections; a public media that fails to inform due to economic privatization; and a large number of citizens who have no effective power to participate, due to their working conditions. The impacts of the pandemic on the democratic public sphere are extremely ambiguous. On the one hand, the vertical exercise of power has strengthened, because of the need for quick and concentrated measures against the crisis. On the other hand, governments have become much more dependent on public support and participation, which has led to an increased awareness of certain workers and professions such as nurses, garbage collectors and transport workers, whose active cooperation was absolutely vital (it is too early to know what the results of this unexpected re-evaluation of certain types of labour will be). Throughout the crisis, the degree of social integration has increased, at least in countries where the citizens realized the extent to which they rely on each other. As you can see, I do not have a clear answer to your question. It is an evolving process through which we are living right now. A lot can change.

Esprit: In France, problems with the supply of pharmaceuticals have brought the concept of sovereignty back to the fore. For the right, it is a matter of national sovereignty, while for the left it is popular sovereignty that counts. This seems to be a response to the feeling that the political is to a certain extent powerless in times of globalization. For the most part, the issue of sovereignty vis-à-vis European integration and federalism, which you recently defended as a political project, has assumed centre stage. Is there a concept of sovereignty that is compatible with the legal limits set by states?

AH: This is a very difficult question. At the beginning of the pandemic, it looked as if the much maligned nation state, with its centralized authority and power, would be the only authority capable of undertaking the measures necessary for protecting the life of its citizens against the virus. However, following the initial measures, the consequences of such a ‘sovereign’ reaction became visible. Healthcare systems in some European countries were in such bad shape that they quickly became overwhelmed and needed help from neighbouring states. Decisions regarding border closures also required international coordination. It also became clear that there was economic pressure in the EU to help out worse-off member states in order to maintain economic stability across the EU. This didn’t stem from a moral insight or an existing feeling of solidarity. It was simply the result of a prosaic calculation: in the long run, EU member states would be economically better off if they all contributed a sum proportional to the amount of their GDP to a relief fund. Even the staunchest defenders of national sovereignty in Europe have now understood that what we need in the short term is a graduated scale of power. For example, a federal state might acknowledge that it is more appropriate and prudent to make some political decisions on a regional or municipal level.

A graduation of political sovereignty within the EU would imply that each citizen has to learn to be a member of different ‘legal communities’ or, to use your words, of different ‘legal states’, each having its own constitutive rules and laws. This is certainly not something completely unimaginable. Didn’t we all learn relatively quickly to submit ourselves to different legal authorities, e.g. being legal members of a nation state and, at the same time, of a partly self-regulating city? Why shouldn’t we be capable of enlarging this complex legal self-understanding by additionally becoming legal members also of a partly sovereign transnational agency with decision-making power? I think that political arguments that only allow an alternative between national sovereignty, be it based on the ‘nation’ or the ‘people’, and its complete negation, a supranational agency of political power, are too simple and don’t live up to the political complexity of the world we inhabit.

Esprit: You often emphasize the gap between the modern progress of interpersonal freedoms (e.g. in the private sphere) and a certain decline in public and political freedoms. In order to reduce this gap, you propose the notion of ‘political freedom’ that would attempt to embed the democratic ideal in experience. Can a crisis like the one we are experiencing, in which private life and public space have been affected, be able to encourage such an attitude?

AH: I think it is too early to judge what we as citizens have learned from the ongoing pandemic. I’m pretty sure that many of us have learned already how important it is to be able to trust your fellow citizens to follow rules that were democratically established. How reassuring it is to find yourself in the company of people who collectively reprimand the one person not willing to wear a mask in the subway. In this regard, the pandemic might have the productive and beneficial effect of enabling citizens to make democratic decisions that have positive consequences for their everyday lives, either by re-establishing a democratic ‘We’ or by illuminating how important such decisions may be for the protection of your own physical safety and health.

If this were true, then the pandemic would have the potential to recreate the participatory experience of democracy. But, again, it is certainly too early to judge. The opposite might equally be the case, namely that a majority of people soon come to the conclusion that all of the measures taken by the national government or the EU in order to get the pandemic under control were unjustified, resulting in even greater levels of mistrust in democratic decision-making. Various options exist for counterbalancing the growing weakness and creeping disappearance of participatory democracy, but two extremely powerful resources would be the recreation of a truly democratic education in public schools and an attempt to democratize the workplace. In the struggle for social freedom and democratic participation today, however, we haven’t advanced much beyond Durkheim and John Dewey and their fight for better forms of public education and a fairer, more inclusive division of labour.

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