In the past decade, Germany has caught the attention of the world for the high-profile moves it has made in the field of global public health. While the country’s contributions to social medicine date back two hundred years to the birth of Rudolf Virchow, the waves it has made in global health are more recent. A 2017 article in the Lancet argued that Germany “has become a visible actor in global health [only] in the past ten years.” The WZB Berlin Social Science Center has been at the center of some of these developments.
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For lack of a better term– or for reasons of inexactitude– scholars have zeroed in on the term ‘backlash’ to describe our current political moment. I would like to take some time to unpack this historically, and to offer some tentative thoughts on how to re-frame contestation as distinct from mere ‘backlash’. To begin with, a ‘backlash’ is defined as a strong negative reaction to a social or political development. It often harkens back to a fabled past and represents an attempt to reclaim a set of privileges. Images of segregationists in the American South come to mind. And yet, not all those who contest the current order are reactionary. In fact, many social movements are born from a desire to emancipate. The concept of a ‘backlash’ precludes this possibility. It articulates a subtle suspicion of those who would question prevailing orthodoxies, regardless of the substance of their critique or the manner with which they engage politically.
In framing contestation as a ‘backlash’ we accept the grand narrative of a liberal teleology. That is, the almost evangelical belief in a rules-based international order, which privileges markets and individual autonomy. For better or worse, we are told that there are no real alternatives. This is a lethal form of intellectual inertia: it sanitizes politics and immobilizes debate precisely when we need it most.
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„Mein Haus brennt, und ich stelle die Möbel um!“ – dieses russische Sprichwort stehe exemplarisch für die gegenwärtige Krise der Sozialwissenschaften, argumentiert Robert Benson in seinem neuen Beitrag. In Zeiten von Neoautoritarismus in Gestalt von Trump und Bolsonaro, Repressionen gegen universitäre Einrichtungen im Herzen Europas und rechtsextremen Mobs auf den Straßen von Chemnitz seien Akademiker*innen mehr denn je in der Pflicht, sich zu Wort zu melden. Stattdessen dominierten nach wie vor elitäre Debatten innerhalb akademischer Zirkel, weit entfernt von allgemeiner öffentlicher Wahrnehmung. Doch wenn Wissenschaft weiterhin nach dem von Max Weber konstatierten Muster betrieben werde – berechnend, exakt und gefühllos, so spiegeln auch die resultierenden Debatten diese Haltung wider. Als Sozialwissenschftler*in hingegen habe man, frei nach Howard Becker, den Luxus moralischer Indifferenz aufgegeben. Daher plädiert Benson für ein Ende des Maulkorbs – es sei an der Zeit, den Elfenbeinturm zu verlassen und kollektiv die Stimme zu erheben.
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The Austrian jurist Hans Kelsen wrote in the summer of 1932 ‘one hears talk on all sides of a crisis—and sometimes even a catastrophe— of democracy’. Embroiled in a bitter exchange with his fellow legal scholars, the erstwhile philosophy teacher from Vienna was increasingly isolated and at odds with his profession. ‘Those who are for democracy’ he argued ‘cannot allow themselves to be caught in the dangers of idle debates’. Spirited in his defense of the Weimar Constitution, Kelsen was not in keeping with the times. There was, he believed, a sense of urgency to his scholarly work that his contemporaries simply did not understand. We live in a world, he lamented, absent of heroes. Within months of accepting his professorship at the University of Cologne, Kelsen was summarily dismissed on political grounds.
‘History may not repeat itself’, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder argues, ‘but it certainly instructs’. Once again there is talk of a crisis of democracy. Yet like the fatigue which comes at the onset of a fever, there exists a disorientating malaise amongst social scientists. We work and publish; we debate with our colleagues, but to what ends?