In this interview Colin Crouch, political scientist, sociologist and speaker at the European Health Forum Gastein 2020, discusses the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, other global issues such as climate change and rising inequality, and how rebuilding a social Europe can contribute to mastering these challenges.
Interview: Dietmar Schobel
Prof. Crouch, everything has been different since the beginning of this year. What have been the most important consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Colin Crouch: The COVID-19 pandemic has jeopardised our lives and our health. Many people have fallen ill, some have died. The pandemic and its containment measures have also had a serious effect on the economy, and this is set to worsen in the autumn and winter. We are all going to be poorer for some time, materially speaking. This happened in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008 as well, but the negative economic implications of the coronavirus crisis are going to be far more considerable.
Are all groups of the population affected in a similar way?
Colin Crouch: The inequalities between rich and poor have already increased over the last 30 years, and the coronavirus crisis has only intensified this development. The consequences for people with a low income have been especially acute. One of the reasons for this is that post-industrial society created a host of low-paid jobs in the service sector. Many of these require close personal contact and could not be continued during lockdown. Other people were needed at work because they were an essential part of the system as key workers, and so they were exposed to an increased risk of infection. By contrast, many people with an average or high income were hardly affected – or even not at all, as large numbers of them have office jobs that could be transferred to a home office.
The inequalities between the rich and poor have only been intensified by the coronavirus crisis.COLIN CROUCH, POLITICAL SCIENTIST AND SOCIOLOGIST
There have been frequent observations in the media and by politicians, predominantly in the initial months, that the COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened the sense of community. Have you witnessed this as well?
Colin Crouch: While the coronavirus crisis has compelled us to stay away from others, it has especially revealed the great extent to which we are dependent on each other. In many countries healthy people have helped the sick, and strong people have helped the weak. We have seen how important it is to have good neighbours, and how much we rely on one another. And it has also been an urgent reminder that collective action is necessary when it comes to solving major problems. This is true for the COVID-19 pandemic itself and also for the other challenges facing us today, such as combating climate change, reforming globalisation, regulating financialised capitalism, reducing material inequalities and reconciling economic change with workers’ needs for security.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also prompted particular concern among many people who have closely followed – and are still following – the measures taken by their governments to contain the virus. Xenophobic nationalists and populists such as Donald Trump in the US, and Matteo Salvini in Italy have lost support, whereas respectable and moderate leaders like Angela Merkel in Germany and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand have grown more popular.
Can we therefore assume that rebuilding society and the economy – after we have hopefully succeeded in bringing the COVID-19 pandemic under control – provides us with an opportunity to create better conditions than before, to “build back better”? Or will there be a sole focus on the economy, and it will just be a matter of quickly restoring economic growth, while social and environmental standards will perhaps even be lowered?
Colin Crouch: There will be a battle between these two positions. However, the related political debate should not be reduced to the conflict between the powers of the free market and the necessity of state intervention to protect weaker groups of the population – as has been the case on frequent occasions since the 19th century. In post-industrial, fragmented society it is a matter of reconciling market and state. We should use the advantages of the global market and at the same time employ corresponding standards to ensure that everybody is able to live safely, healthily and in freedom, and that production processes will stop destroying the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed us in a situation that is historically unique. Seen optimistically, our situation offers the opportunity to pursue this path and to rebuild social-investment welfare states. This concept is similar to that of the economy of well-being, which is oriented on the highest possible level of human well-being instead of maximum profit.
“We should not treat market and state as opposites, but instead reconcile them.”COLIN CROUCH, POLITICAL SCIENTIST AND SOCIOLOGIST
In your latest publication, “Social Europe – A Manifesto”, you demand the rebuilding of a social Europe. How can this be achieved, considering the global economic competition from China and the US?
Colin Crouch: We have to establish an agenda that embraces co-operation and inclusiveness, and fights selfishness and hatred. The European Union should be at the very heart of this agenda and could use its influence as the world’s biggest single market. Many producers elsewhere already include EU product standards wherever they are trading, which gives the union extraordinary power. Currently these standards only relate to the quality of the finished products, though. They should be extended to include the production process and prevent slave and child labour, for example, as well as environmental damage. It will be anything but simple and can only be implemented step by step. This is not about introducing as many regulations as possible, but finding the ones that provide us with the greatest benefits.
Colin Crouch (76) is a British political scientist and sociologist. He is an external scientific member of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, a professor emeritus of the University of Warwick and a Fellow of the British Academy. His book “Coping with Post-Demography” (2003) is regarded as a classic in the sociological diagnosis of time. His latest publication “Social Europe – A Manifesto” was released in July 2020.