March 16, 2020

“Our Reason, Our Heart for One Another”

Sabine Nuss

Solidarity in the corona crisis and after

Sabine Nuss is a writer and director of the Karl Dietz Verlag in Berlin.

The text has also been published in German and Italian.

“Wir haben alle Waffen auf den Tisch gelegt”, sagte Finanzminister Olaf Scholz über die staatlichen Maßnahmen zur Rettung der Wirtschaft in der Corona-Krise. Die Waffe der Solidarität gehört mit ins Arsenal. 13. März 2020, Bayern, Pullach, picture alliance/Matthias Balk/dpa

Six weeks after the first corona virus case was reported in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel opened herself up to questions from the public for the first time. In an urgent appeal to the population, she called for solidarity: “Our reason, our heart for one another” were being put to the test, she said, and she hoped we would pass the test. But how solidary can a society be when its social relations of which are based on competition, the credo of which is “every man for himself, every man for his own”? And what kind of solidarity are we talking about?

At the time of the chancellor’s appeal, the number of infected persons in Germany had already topped the 2,000 mark. More than a few of those addressed had already proven that they had trouble with solidarity: respiratory masks and disinfectant were quickly sold out despite the media repeating incessantly that hospitals desperately needed them and they were unnecessary for individuals, as normal store-bought masks do not provide sufficient protection and washing your hands for 20 seconds suffices. There were even reports of thefts from hospitals. Businesspeople enriching themselves by selling protective masks at absurdly high prices also made headlines. On the financial markets, investors could bet that airlines and hotels would falter, that people would stay home on their computers due to the virus and watch a lot of Netflix. The hedge funds with corresponding bets in their portfolios made significant profits. One man’s joy is another man’s sorrow.

As If There Were No Tomorrow

Panic buying was also taking place in supermarkets: noodles, rice, toilet paper, soap—sometimes you found yourself standing in front of the plundered aisles and wondering whether you were doing something wrong by only having necessary goods in your shopping cart. Or you watched speechlessly as people tear the last packages of toilet paper out of each other’s hands. As if there were no tomorrow. The knowledge that the virus could be slowed by social distancing, cancelling events, and closing schools also faced accusations of fearmongering and hysteria long after conditions and events in other countries were well-known. “I’m not worried about myself, it only affects old and sick people” was a sentence that naïvely made the rounds.

We needed more infected persons, more dramatic news from Italy, and an information offensive from the scientific community and the political sphere before the need for such measures was understood like domino bricks falling across the country. The “#Flattenthecurve” campaign made it clear that taking precautions was not the same as panicking, and that the point was to prevent, prudently and collectively, the health care system’s capacities from being exceeded. Most people sooner or later understood that “vulnerable groups” now had to be most watched over, as the virus can quickly spread from person to person and reach the elderly and infirm—those who can protect themselves the least. And yes, there was also a broad willingness to help. “For the first time since I’ve known Italians, no one is interested in football. But young people are getting together and collecting donations for the intensive care unit or bringing old people their shopping or medications”, one person tweeted. Under the hashtag #NachbarschaftsChallenge, people got together to hang up notes in their apartment buildings and offer help shopping for those in quarantine or particularly vulnerable neighbours. But is that solidarity?

“Forward and don’t forget—solidarity!”

Practicing solidarity means “being responsible for one another”, “solidary” is used in the sense of “advocating for something together, feeling connected”; “to be solidary” means to band together with someone to achieve common interests and goals. Bertolt Brecht did not mean all residents of a respective country when he wrote the “Solidarity Song” for the movie Kuhle Wampe, with its well-known refrain: “Forward and don’t forget—solidarity!” Against the backdrop of the global economic crisis of the 1930s, he was much more concerned with solidarity between the poor, the workers, the unemployed, and the neglected.

The willingness to help, charity, and benevolence are something else. They do not necessarily require common political goals, struggle, a powerful opponent, or any kind of awareness of social contradictions that could be changed in order to make aid and alms superfluous. It is often precisely those people who feel dedicated to general humanitarian values who help. But they must be able to afford to. Benevolence and charity tend to be hierarchical, alms flow from above to below, rich to poor, strong to weak. Benevolence is interpersonal, but not social—although it is often those who do not have much who give. Nevertheless, a gap remains between those giving and those receiving: they are not united in struggle or in their interests. They do not act with and for one another. There is nothing wrong with this, but solidarity amounts to more than just alms or the willingness to help.

Solidarity Recognizes an “Against”

The relevant literature distinguishes between various forms of solidarity: that of conviction, of action, and of interests. It is worth taking a closer look at what these mean, for if solidarity merely means help in emergencies then it is indistinguishable from a willingness to help. And if solidarity ends up dissolving into a mere “being dependent on one another”, in which cooperation serves to maintain the whole, then solidarity can be invoked for all conditions in which people collectively encounter each other, irrespective of their different social positions in society, irrespective of power asymmetries, irrespective of the distribution of resources. Solidarity recognizes an “against”: against who or what are we banding together, wherein do our interests unite?

Against this backdrop, the powerful, shared opponent appears to be the virus. At least that is what politics communicates: “We are dealing with an enemy that we do not know”, Angela Merkel said. The common goal, behind which all band together against the pandemic, is preventing a rapid spread of the virus and protecting health care system’s capacity to rescue lives. In order to do so, we must dispense with personal meetings, gatherings, going to the bar, and instead stay home—“social distancing”. Those who can ought to take care of people facing problems due to isolation or quarantine—collectively, with our neighbours, selflessly. The positive in the crisis, as one hears so often these days, is how solidary everyone is being. After all, the corona crisis is an acid test for “our society”.

The Crisis Does Not Affect Everyone Equally

What gets lost in the “we” and “our opponent” is that the crisis does not affect everyone equally. There are reasons for this. Regardless of the fact that a pandemic presents every social formation with major challenges, the corona crisis does not produce general human or “social” problems, but rather specifically capitalist ones. There are, for example, lots of reports these days about the ruinous cuts to the health care system and how they are now coming back to haunt all of us. Healing people was subjugated to a microeconomic logic—hospitals had make money, be profitable, and more than anything work “efficiently”. That means: no surplus capacities and cutting emergency reserves down to a bare minimum, as they only cost money.

Christian Drosten, the virologist at Berlin’s Charité hospital, explained in his daily corona-podcast for Norddeutsche Rundfunk that there were major problems with laboratory availability in small hospitals and in the countryside, “because cost optimization in medical care led to many county and municipal hospitals simply abolishing their laboratories entirely.” Instead, samples are now sent through complicated logistics and results take several days to arrive. This will not be solvable during the pandemic: “This train has simply left the station. That is something that was cut out of medical care, or sacrificed in the spirit of economic efficiency, and that is something that has happened in many spheres of medical care in the last 15 years and even more so in the last ten: the flat fee per case has forced many small hospitals to give up, and other hospitals to ask themselves, where can we save money?”

Solidarity between “Above” and “Below”?

“Economic efficiency” was not only the knockout argument in the health care sector, but also served to legitimize the privatization of broad areas of public services worldwide, particularly over the last three decades. Today we know: economic efficiency led to a worsening of labour relations, lower wages, and a redistribution of public wealth into private hands where it now concentrates. Inequality researcher Thomas Piketty pointed out that privatization is one of the central reasons for the massively expanding gap between rich and poor in recent years. And as Piketty’s co-thinkers Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman recently showed in their book with the programmatic title The Triumph of Injustice, tax policies since the 1980s have been a large part of this: globally, but most drastically in the US, where progressive taxation—higher taxes on higher incomes—has been practically abolished,  workers in the US pay higher taxes than the superrich percentagewise. But in Germany as well, tax reforms under the red-green coalition in the 2000s favoured the wealthy and prosperous. The loosening and even abolition of contractually secured, long-term employment relations and the expansion of the low-wage sector were a part of this development.

“Economic efficiency” refers to a very specific economy, namely one whose efficiency is considered ensured when capital valorises itself as quickly and as strongly as possible. It not only presupposes a below and an above, but also has them as its result—to historically and regionally varying extents. The economist Sebastian Theme tweeted: “Currently many are being asked to participate in corona prevention measures. The general good and social solidarity are often listed as arguments. How must that sound to those who have the impression that solidarity with them had long been revoked?”

The pandemic thus targets multiple vulnerabilities not only medically, but also economically. In the crisis this becomes painfully palpable for many. It is up for debate whether the state orders to close schools, bars, cinemas, fitness studios, theatres, cancelling football games, etc. came too late, or if we perhaps should have closed the borders earlier and coordinated better with other countries. If it was too late, there were reasons. In the capitalist market economy, commodities are distributed via the circulation of goods and money, while the production of these commodities is organized via the exchange of labour power for money. Capitalist growth depends on a smooth functioning of this circulation. If small and large enterprises are shut down, distribution chains are broken, loans cannot be serviced, bills cannot be paid, wages cannot be collected, and liquidity bottlenecks emerge. That can cause a chain reaction and endanger the existential foundation of everyone—labour, capital, the state, and thus more than anything: growth.

Competition in the State of Exception

In the age of corona—and that is what is historically so exceptional—the state itself has interrupted this circulation quite purposefully. For the circulation of goods and money, which always also means the circulation of people, allows the virus to spread. That is why the state must intervene in order to bridge the state-ordered interruption of circulation with state money, cheap credits, deferred tax payments, and short-time work. People are even talking about helicopter money: the arbitrary paying of a certain amount of money to everyone by the central bank so that people can keep buying.

What regularly becomes evident in the crisis is the propertylessness of wage-dependent people. Many now point to their precarious existence and do not know how they should pay their rent when no orders or wages are coming in. In the US, where conditions are even worse, workers in gastronomy labour while ill because they have no sick pay nor health insurance.

It is the paradox of our economy that, on the one hand, we are dependent on each other by cooperating in the everyday division of labour mediated through goods and money, that is to say we are dependent on circulation. At the same time, we are pitted against each other, in competition. It is not “economic” but rather capitalist efficiency that measures according to equity returns, dividing members of society into rich and poor, into buyers and sellers, workers and entrepreneurs, contributors and benefits recipients, employed and unemployed, debtors and lenders, property holders and non-property holders.

Those who primarily look after themselves in the crisis thus follow the logic of their world of experience: first come, first served—still gets the toilet paper, those who are clever speculate on protective masks or steal them even if it prevents others from saving lives, those who have money fly with a private jet, get the rare spot on the breathing machine and speculate at the expense of others, engage in panic buying. Hospitals appeal to politicians not to leave them financially high and dry, as otherwise it could happen that operations which are not so direly necessary but bring in more cash will be prioritized. It is taken for granted that there are losers and winners, everyone takes care of themselves and makes it through—or gets even richer. While this competition is lauded in good times, the state of exception highlights how harmful the principle of competition actually is.

Appealing to Higher Values 

Taking others into consideration? Responsibility for the whole, being willing to help? Surely, this is also all being called for, but it is not enough. A society in which individuals are set on “everyone against everyone”, in which parts are abandoned and others are forced into the hamster wheel, bringing them to the limits of their physical limits while others do not know where to invest the rest of their capital so that it multiplies into the grotesque—such a society direly needs an appeal to higher values more than any other, it needs the cement that appeals to the heart, cement that holds together the splintered, unequally provided with resources, competing individuals. “We have laid all weapons on the table”, finance minister Olaf Scholz said about the state measures to save the economy in the corona crisis. The weapon of solidarity belongs to this arsenal.

“Solidarity”, the former mayor of Bremen Henning Scherf wrote, “has become an empty formulation, not least because the term was robbed of its kernel by inflationary usage.” In the corona case, solidarity is no empty formulation but rather contains unconsciously an important mobilizing function. It means not only being in solidarity with those in need of protection, but also to carry through, hold out, and hold in during the crisis. The utterly overwhelmed hospital staff receives a lot of applause these days. Rightly so. But does that improve their working conditions or income?

We now sit collectively like the canary before the snake of the corona virus, hoping that the chalice of severe illness passes us by and that the state will be strong enough to save “the economy” so that it can continue after the horror subsides. The appeal to solidarity will have served its purpose. After corona is before corona. Is that what we want?

No Market Can Regulate This

If we have seen one thing in the pandemic, then it is this: the market is not the solution to our problems. When it functions, it does so at the cost of humans and nature; during crises, it cannot be relied upon and we are forced to take the tenor of events out of its hands. When people are discussing nationalizing companies, bringing the production of necessary medications or medical protection supplies “back home”, when lorries full of protective masks are being confiscated because we cannot allow for those with the most money to be those who get the masks (as health minister Jens Spahn put it)—oh, really? Signs are hung up at supermarkets asking people to only take three packages of noodles and one package of toilet paper, because there is enough for everyone if everyone is modest. The US is denied the right to buy German patents for a lifesaving vaccination for lots of money. “The exclusive sale of a possible vaccination to the US must be prevented by all means. Capitalism has limits”, SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach wrote on Twitter.

In the corona crisis, that which defines the market is suspended: solvent demand that decides who gets what, and above all how much, irrespective of the needs of others. That this principle is not for the benefit of all could be one lesson we draw from the crisis.

But there are many more such lessons. For example, that it is high time to revoke both health care provision as well as public services in general from the market principle, to no longer sacrifice lifesaving capacities to “cost pressures”, to guarantee wages that enable a good life and are crisis-secure, to prevent precarity, to shape labour in a way that does not lead to burnouts, to ban ludicrous speculation on the suffering of others, to no longer accept the juxtaposition of bizarre wealth concentration alongside bitter poverty, to end the competitive race of all against all, along with the absurd competition between nations and for the lowest tax rate, the lowest minimum wage, the loosest environmental standards, and the highest GDP.

“Let us be solidary. But let us remain so when it is all over.”

Yes, our reason, our heart for one another demand that we mobilize all considerations, willingness to help, and responsibility to end the pandemic and protect as many people as possible. Let us be solidary. But let us remain so when it is all over, when people take to the streets, when they strike for higher wages and better working conditions, for more staff and a better quality of life, for an all-encompassing public sector, for an environmentally sustainable economy that serves people and not capital—there will be powerful enemies. For that reason, forward—and don’t forget again: solidarity.

Translation by Loren Balhorn