How to save Switzerland from social collapse

Volunteers sort products at Lausanne headquarters for Caritas stores for socially disadvantaged people. Salvatore Di Nolfi / Keystone

Crisis coronavirus exacerbates the problem ofis inequalitys socials in Switzerland, social scientists warn. A phenomenon that could ultimately pose a danger to democratic participation.

This content was posted on April 24, 2020 – 12:04 pm

In Switzerland, it is the most vulnerable people – certain self-employed who are without clients, single mothers, people in debt, pensioners without assets, the marginalized and the excluded – who bear the bulk of the effects of the coronavirus crisis. Many of them risk being excluded from the 40 billion franc assistance program planned by the Federal Council.

Outbreak of unemployment

Despite guarantee loans to companies with a lack of liquidity and public compensation for short-term work, Switzerland registered its largest increase in unemployment in a short period in early April.

In 2018, statistics already showed that 807,000 people benefited from expanded social assistance from municipalities and cantons. Recent figures are not yet available. But the semi-lockdown led to an explosive rise in requests from March (see box).

Oliver Nachtwey is Professor of Social Structural Analysis at the University of Basel and author. Derek Li Wan Po, University of Basel

“In the face of the looming economic crisis and unemployment, it is now important to protect Swiss society from social collapse,” said Oliver Nachtwey, professor of social structural analysis at the University of Basel.

To achieve this, the economist and social scientist believe that the government should do more. “Measures should affect everyone,” he suggests. Social inequalities can become a threat to democracy. Economically dependent people can withdraw and no longer feel worried about the “common cause”, the republic.

“Social inequalities have implications for traditional forms of political participation, in particular voting and elections,” explains Flavia Fossati, Assistant Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Public Administration (IDHEAP) at the University of Lausanne (see box). According to the expert, four crucial factors influence political participation: education, socialization, resources and gender.

Loss of influence unions

“People who have received a good education have greater cognitive skills and better access to information. They also benefit from networks within which they can develop, ”continues Flavia Fossati. This promotes not only discussion and opinion formation, but also, and above all, political participation. On the other hand, citizens with lower social status are less well represented and are more discreet during elections.

Flavia Fossati is a social science researcher interested in inequalities and integration. She is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Public Administration (IDHEAP) at the University of Lausanne. IDHEAP

Flavia Fossati and Oliver Nachtwey further emphasize the declining influence of trade unions. “Previously, the trade union movement, and especially trade unions, represented the socially weakest citizens, and they represented them in the Folketing. Today, it is increasingly rare for graduates from these backgrounds to reach the national level, ”notes Oliver Nachtwey.

In this context, the threat of a spiral of alienation and loss of illusions grows. Oliver Nachtwey takes his country of origin, Germany, as an example. “A quarter of the population is experiencing stagnation, even social decline. People no longer recognize themselves in democracy because ‘democracy, according to them, is not a form of political governance that benefits everyone’ ”.

Many parliamentary resolutions primarily serve the interests of the middle and upper classes, he continues.

ONE dramatic progress

Social services and cantonal and municipal authorities should record an increase of tens of thousands of beneficiaries nationwide. These are the predictions of Christoph Eymann, President of the Swiss Conference of Social Action Institutions (CSIAS).

He refers in particular to the sharp rise in inquiries in cities such as Zurich and Bern. In fact, the authorities received 30 and 70% more requests than last year at the same time.

For Christoph Eymann, the new recommendations constitute a kind of “seismograph” for the coming weeks and months. “It worries us a lot.”

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Danger ofbottom erosionsystem elements Swiss

Flavia Fossati continues: “The danger of rupture increases if part of the population is interrupted, not only socially but also politically”. And this highlights two “usual characteristics of Switzerland”: on the one hand, the very high level of citizens’ satisfaction with politics, and on the other hand, the great confidence they have in the institutions, including the Federal Council.

The social scientist explains this situation with the way direct democracy works. “The opportunity for citizens to take part in referendums regularly, four times a year, gives democracy greater legitimacy.”

Efficiency, ie. the speed and quality with which the Federal Council and Parliament deal with political issues also foster confidence. According to Flavia Fossati, framework conditions such as a good economic situation, guarantee of fundamental rights and the rule of law also contribute to a high degree of satisfaction and trust.

In terms of income inequality – it is measured by the so-called Gini index – Switzerland is in the middle of the European rankings. The Nordic countries tend to be more homogeneous, while the southern countries show greater differences.

For Oliver Nachtwey, however, it is not so much social inequalities as such that are decisive, but rather their influence. The question is whether and from when these inequalities affect political participation.

The social cement holds, after all

Despite significant inequalities, especially between the different cantons, Switzerland offers a relatively high standard of living compared to other countries, says Oliver Nachtwey. “In Switzerland, it is possible to have a comfortable lifestyle even with a low income. Alienation or disruption is still modest because people with low social status are still an integral part of society ”.

This is in contrast to, for example, the United States, where states like Alabama have sophisticated mechanisms designed only to exclude the weak. “In such a context, ethnic, economic and political discrimination are combined,” Oliver Nachtwey continues.

The researcher also directly considers democracy as an instrument to combat social inequalities. “Direct democracy encourages social initiatives. During a vote in the canton of Basel-Stadt, a majority of citizens approved e.g. the construction of social housing ”.

Admittedly, since the 1990s, Switzerland has also seen wage disparities widen. However, social inequalities can be compensated for until 2012 – more recent data are not yet available – mainly thanks to the initiatives of the welfare state or the increase in women’s work.

Currently, the coronavirus pandemic threatens this fragile balance. For Flavia Fossati, the effort is all the more important. “The key to the fight against inequality is and will be a good education system and a strong social state. They are the most effective instruments for preventing the separation and abandonment of a group of citizens.”

Low social status, low participation

Turnout for low-income, low-income citizens is below average. This is what the 2015 parliamentary elections reveal:

Participation rate: 49%.
Participation rate for citizens with a primary school diploma: 30%.
Citizens whose household income does not exceed 4000 francs: 40%.
Note: Figures for the 2019 Swiss election are not yet available.
It is extremely difficult to highlight participation in opinion polls by social groups.

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