David Bosshart: "We are giants in terms of knowledge – and dwarves when it comes to implementation."

05.01.2021
Interview

Whether people are putting their faith in experts or the populist movement, we are experiencing a lack of shared realities, asserts David Bosshart in an interview. Bosshart is driven by the question of how we achieve so little despite knowing so much.

David Bosshart

Four years ago, in Polarization Shocks, you described how our society is drifting apart. That was, so to speak, the harbinger of what we are now experiencing. Have your worst fears come true?

What drives me are not so much my fears, but the question of why and how we achieve so little despite knowing so much. We are giants in terms of knowledge – and dwarves when it comes to implementation. We suppress, forget, postpone. The big trends – globalisation, digitalisation, the imbalance of capital and labour, populism – are long-term ones and have been going on for decades. It’s the same with pandemics. Infectious diseases transmitted by animals have steadily increased in frequency and intensity. We know all this. The importance of capital (platform capitalism, new monopolies) compared to labour has also increased with the financialization of the economy and the assetization of everyday life – the principle of exploiting and monetising all of our mental, emotional and physical potential. Digital business models tempt us to act in much riskier ways and drive leadership decisions to extremes, as do incentives of income and wealth. We react rationally to these changes with an increase in specialisation and expertise – yet at the same time, we react irrationally in the form of the populist movements. In the end, all of these perspectives lack common realities.

What do you think is accelerating the divisions between social classes the most: COVID-19, digitalisation or political views?

First of all, the topic of class society is key, because the economic conditions for people in affluent societies still play a decisive role. Peace can to a large extent be bought with shared prosperity. That is why there is a need for growth, and why GDP growth is clung to as a glimmer of hope. The old dialectic between the employer or capital owner and the employee or worker defined clear mutual dependencies in the industrial world: people knew they relied on each other in order to progress. And with the expansion of the welfare state, a balance of power could be achieved. But in the face of globalisation, digitalisation and financialization, this no longer works. Today, the beneficiaries of digitalisation, those monopolising the big platforms and the financial industry all assume that they are invincible. Currently, it seems to me that as we increase our focus on cultural minorities, we risk forgetting the significance of economic power. Without it, there is no political power. COVID-19 has revealed the divisions within our society between religious, esoteric and science-focused groups – fluid opinions with no real, practical power majority. None of this is reassuring. Religious states are a good illustration – commercial factors remain arguably more powerful than religious ones. In this respect, Marx is still highly relevant. Ten years from now, we will still be defining ourselves by the work we do. And it should be properly valued and remunerated.

Can polarisation be stopped, and if so, how?

People are interactional beings; they want to be needed and be recognised for it. They don’t want to be told that they are ‘deplorables’ or ‘losers’. Disdain like that destroys the social cement that holds us together. The COVID-19 crisis is a good illustration of what ‘systemic’ really means. One cause of polarisation is the extreme reduction of ‘skills’ – which are supposedly in demand – to a few predominantly cognitive abilities. We therefore speak – and not without good reason – of ‘cognitive capitalism’. What we really need is a holistic view of hand, heart and head. As the divide between ‘highly skilled’ and ‘low-skilled’ (or even ‘unskilled’) increases, we are entering a world of so-called ‘degree-isation’: young people are now under pressure to complete more and more well-recognised qualifications in order to get a well-paid job in the struggle for status and recognition. Nowhere is the elbow-war for ratings and rankings more pronounced than in so-called ‘higher education’. These developments have not made us better equipped for life or more able to reach a consensus; rather, we are behaving increasingly like highly trained rats. The US still has the largest number of top universities in the world, but they have become incredibly expensive, so you can only gain entry if you have the appropriate capital and connections. A Harvard degree is now a luxury accessory, a sort of Louis Vuitton bag of education.

China seems to have a better handle on the pandemic than Switzerland. Is COVID-19 making us question our systems?

The real question is what we will learn for the future. What can we do to at least make events like this more bearable? We cannot prevent them entirely, especially in liberal systems. China has it easier because tracing and tracking are politically possible and supported by a large part of the population. Putin said three years ago that whoever controls artificial intelligence controls the world. Those are the words of someone who wants to exercise dominance via centralised control, because artificial intelligence centralises power. We have to make sure we are using background technology – such as blockchain, for example – to continuously improve security for citizens and consumers. Prevention is the keyword.