Berghain: finally, no queue!
Photo: dpa/Britta Pedersen

ViennaWho’s really in charge in the corona age? Are experts depriving politicians and normal citizens of their power? And is that something anyone wants? Michaela Pfadenhauer is a professional sociologist, teaches at the University of Vienna and has sought to address these questions. We interviewed her over the phone.

Berliner Zeitung: Ms Pfadenhauer, have you observed a yearning for an “expertocracy” during the corona crisis?

MP: We certainly had this want at the beginning of the crisis, when there was an enormous level of trust in scientific experts. Then the disenchantment set in. People started to see that expertise can be ambiguous, it takes time, and we experts have to deal with long periods of uncertainty to obtain secure knowledge. That not only made the public feel unsure, but politicians also got impatient. All that led to us losing that longing for experts to a longing for strong politicians.

Have we seen this kind of loss of power before?

In the 1960s people often spoke of “technocracy”. At the time there were advancements like atomic energy and even in the scientific community there was a hope that technocrats would make better decisions. There was a view that we actually don’t need any politicians, or at least we only need them there to execute the decisions that experts make. The other extreme is a stance that wants to keep scientific expertise far away from politics, which believes decisions are always related to values and questions about values always lie outside the field of science. That would deprive power not from politics, but from experts, so that would be the opposite of “expertocracy”.

Photo: Vienna University

Sociologist Michaela Pfadenhauer was born in 1968 in Nuremberg and holds a professorship in Culture and Knowledge from the Faculty for Social Sciences at the University of Vienna. Together with Ronald Hitzler she curated the book Techno-Sociology – Explorations of a Youth Culture.

The Fridays for Future movement also defers to experts. Its message is: we know the facts, now we need to act on them. But that principle hasn’t been as successful as it has with corona. How do you explain that?

First of all, I want to say that Fridays for Future has a narrow understanding of science. The field of cultural and social sciences barely has a place in its world. Their understanding of science is strictly in the sense of natural sciences, in a positive sense even. There is this belief in objectivity without considering the nature of how we construct objectivity. But to answer your question: I suspect the reason is to do with the topic at hand. We are all familiar with disease, but climate change is something abstract. In the end the corona statistics are abstract too, and that’s why there has been this change of mood. At the beginning, people really felt that they couldn’t walk out their front door, because the virus was lurking out there. People only gradually understood that lockdown measures were put in place so that not too many people would become ill at once and our healthcare system wouldn’t be put under pressure.

One group of experts, namely virologists, has been dominant during the crisis, rather than economists. Fear of the virus was forefront in people’s minds, but surely the fear of unemployment was also very present?

My hypothesis is that there was a reduction of the complexity of the situation: this is about life and death so we should listen to the medics. When economic issues, questions about education, the problem of violence within the family came up, that became morally problematic. But modern society is characterised by a high level of complexity. That has to be considered when it comes to every political decision. Normally, the different elements of a problem will be discussed and weighed up against each other. Usually that results in compromises. That was suspended during the crisis so that clear-cut decisions could be made.

A visit to the theatre is fine, but not to a club. You can fly too, even if you’re sitting in a tin can without any social distancing.

Michaela Pfadenhauer

Would you agree there has been a greater focus on medical science, but not on the medical profession?

By “the profession”, we mean those professionals that treat individual patients or clients. Doctors in this sense didn’t have much of a say. On the one hand, doctors as care providers were viewed as systemically important, they were applauded – but at the same time general practitioners, for example, felt poorly informed, and for a long time didn’t know what they were supposed to do if someone came to them with symptoms. This crisis was a question of health, but those in the medical profession haven’t had any boost. Doctors have fallen to the level of carers and salespeople. At the same time the entire population has been addressed by those who aren’t doctors, especially by politicians, as if they were patients. And people were spoken to in a particularly paternalistic way, a style we’d be more used to from old school doctors. The health minister and the chancellor have been telling people how to wash their hands properly or touch a door handle. Normally, people would only get these sort of instructions on how to behave from a doctor. This crisis has made it possible to defer some responsibilities – and it’s put the spotlight on specialist disciplines that previously most of us only had a vague idea of, for example virology, epidemiology, infectiology and so on. It remains to be seen how long it will take before they slip back into obscurity.

Do you think we could see a return to the first phase, another reduction of complexity?

In certain areas I can see it happening. It depends on the R number, if we see rising fear and uncertainty – then everyone will be completely glued to science again. But if we get a scientific breakthrough, a vaccine for example, everyone will be asking the same question: I can get vaccinated, but should I? I’d certainly want to hear from a pharmacologist who can explain the side effects.

There are however certain areas where virologists seem to be in charge. Berlin’s culture minister, Klaus Lederer, said recently that people wouldn’t be allowed back to clubs until there’s a vaccine.

Culturally speaking, what’s happening is a disaster, for Berlin as well. The nightlife scene is a counterpart to our high culture, the great theatres, the opera. Clubs are part of our cultural life, but the discourse around this varies a lot. A visit to the theatre is fine, but not to a club, and you can fly too, even if you’re sitting in a tin can without any social distancing. There are clear reasons for a lot of things. Dancing is different from sitting still. Having fixed seats makes people identifiable, and so on. But the clubs lack a lobby. The culture minister would of course have a problem just like any club manager if something big happened. But what’s happening is nevertheless a cultural catastrophe.

When it comes to the treatment of clubs, I wonder whether this is due to scientific rationality or if clubs are seen as less valuable and less systemically important than sectors like mobility and transport?

As someone who has spent a long time studying the club scene, I suspect that the situation would be different if the Love Parade had been successful in the political sense. It never managed get its values across clearly, as in “this is how I want to live.” Otherwise, the clubs might not be in such a difficult situation – then visiting a club might now be treated the same way as going to the theatre. Deutsches Theater or the Schaubühne won’t be allowed to die – but Tresor or Berghain could. These are venues which are held in the same esteem by different circles. In 10 or 20 years we might have to ask ourselves why we did so little to champion this form of cultural life.

Translated by Elizabeth Rushton