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  • 1 International Association on Social Quality, the Netherlands

During the preparation of this issue of the International Journal of Social Quality, the authors were confronted with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. This event thoroughly transcends the issue of the health of people as such. It affects almost all living conditions and the all-encompassing challenge of the sustainability of human life on earth, including flora and fauna. An emerging hypothesis is that pandemics like this one are partly determined by the nature of the current modern ways of life, which drastically disturb the balance of ecological systems. Inevitably, citizens, policymakers, and scientists are confronted with extremely complex challenges that—logically—must be approached in comprehensive ways. In this issue, four articles are published that are—in preliminary form—connected with the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Societal Aspects of the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Introduction

During the preparation of this issue of the International Journal of Social Quality, the authors were confronted with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. This event thoroughly transcends the issue of the health of people as such. It affects almost all living conditions and the all-encompassing challenge of the sustainability of human life on earth, including flora and fauna. An emerging hypothesis is that pandemics like this one are partly determined by the nature of the current modern ways of life, which drastically disturb the balance of ecological systems. Inevitably, citizens, policymakers, and scientists are confronted with extremely complex challenges that—logically—must be approached in comprehensive ways. In this issue, four articles are published that are—in preliminary form—connected with the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. They discuss (1) questions of urbanization, (2) approaches to support vulnerable people, (3) scientific notions that address comprehensive approaches, and (4) theories and practices regarding “corporate social responsibility” and “corporate sustainability.” With regard to their particular subjects, the articles implicitly address both the question of the pandemic and how to contribute to a comprehensive approach from a social quality perspective. Considering its topical relevance, We discuss below some of the societal aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it is intimately tied with both academic activities in general and with the field of social quality in particular. By doing so, the purpose is to contextualize these four articles for the reader. For many reasons, all countries are now facing completely unknown challenges, and this has far-reaching consequences for the academic world. This also applies to the social quality approach (SQA) as a source of orientation for this journal. With this argument in mind, we present in this editorial the first brushstrokes with which to explore the new context for the subjects of the four articles in this issue and as a prelude to a thematic issue about the societal aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.

Figures Concerning the COVID-19 Pandemic

To picture the serious consequences of the pandemic, it makes sense to present some figures as at August 4, 2020, from various countries around the world. These figures are from Worldometer and the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center (2020) (cf. WHO 2020).

Since the registration and collection of data per country is not uniform and accurate, comparative interpretation of this information is not possible. Still, it does represent an indication of what is going on in each respective country. Belgium looks to be a frontrunner and China a gate-closer. Some member states of the European Union show dramatically high numbers of infected, and others have managed to significantly limit the death toll. In most cases, most energy is focused on how to cope with the elimination of the coronavirus and how to save lives.

Reasoning about the conditions of emergence and control of the pandemic, it is clear that we are facing unprecedented complexities. The well-known economist Branko Milanovic rightly questions what has been learned from the 2003 SARS coronavirus epidemic:

Amply evident the transmission of dangerous viruses from animals to humans represented a serious risk. The Chinese wet markets, with their mixture of wildlife species, were singled out by many specialists as particularly likely to generate such animal-to-human jumps. A country which commands vast political and institutional resources, as does China, should have used these to stop any trade in wild or endangered animals … and it failed to use it. (Milanovic 2020)

This does not really do justice to the situation, according to the reporting by China experts Keith Bradsher and Chris Buckley. They note the enormous effort in meat and seafood markets to trace the path of the virus. “Key to the government's containment strategy,” in their view, “is aggressive testing and contact tracing.” They note that “the government set up testing stations at hospitals, park entrances, stadiums and community centers, taken and processing swabs in Beijing from 1.1 million people in less than a week, but has not imposed the citywide lockdowns used in provincial outbreaks” (Bradsher and Buckley 2020). The remarkable outcomes in China with regard to the Worldometer figures require further analysis as an example on a global level of how to fight the spread of the disease.

With regard to India, the economist and epidemiologist Ramanan Laxminarayan (2020) states that, thanks to severe political measures, the lockdown in that country prevented a tragedy in its megacities: “It has most likely saved millions of lives, but the bold public health actions of the government should be matched by similar efforts to ensure that the pandemic does not generate a secondary hunger and poverty crisis. Nearly a billion Indians earn daily wages and have no meaningful savings.” The unemployment rate exploded. It signified the beginning of a massive exodus to leave these megacities, and with this exodus came the transfer of the contamination to medium-sized cities across the country. It is important to note that India's one hundred thousand intensive-care unit beds and twenty thousand ventilators are mostly in these megacities. This exodus is described by Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar (2020). Thousands and thousands of unemployed people in India have to walk sometimes more than fifteen hundred miles to be taken care of in their native region because they became suddenly homeless without food, clothes, or care.

Facing Unprecedented Societal Complexities

Debates about Politics in the First Phase

Since its onset, it has gradually become obvious, that the COVID-19 pandemic is both a local and global phenomenon of unprecedented complexity and extensiveness. David Kirkpatrick and colleagues (2020) report that, while many European experts and policymakers are supposed to be ready to cope with viral outbreaks from poorer regions—like the Ebolavirus in Africa, their pandemic plans over the past several years “were built on a litany of miscalculations and false assumptions. European leaders boasted of the superiority of their world-class health systems but had weakened them with a decade of cutbacks. When COVID-19 arrived, those systems were unable to test widely enough to see the peak coming or to guarantee the safety of health care workers after it hit.” In the same vein, Matt Apuzzo and colleagues write:

Interviews with doctors and public health officials in more than a dozen countries show that for two crucial months—and in the face of mounting genetic evidence—Western health officials and political leaders played down or denied the risk of symptomless spreading. Leading health agencies including the World Health Organization and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control provided contradictory and sometimes misleading advice. A crucial public health discussion devolved into a semantic debate over what to call infected people without clear symptoms. The two-month delay was a product of faulty scientific assumptions, academic rivalries and, perhaps most important, a reluctance to accept that containing the virus would take drastic measures. (Apuzzo et al. 2020)

Some considerations regarding differences in the approach to the epidemic (eventually to become a pandemic) in various countries may illuminate the sociopolitical complexity of the impact of the spread of the virus. The striking differences for example between the United Kingdom and Germany deserve attention. Economist Mariana Mazzucato (2020), Director of the University College London Institute for Innovation, explained that “since 2015, the United Kingdom has cut public-health budgets by £1 billion, increasing the burden on doctors in training and reducing the long-term investments needed to ensure that patients are treated in safe, up-to-date, fully staffed facilities.” According Martin Kettle (2020), a health expert at The Guardian, the consequences are that the health spending level per head in the United Kingdom is approximately two-thirds that of Germany. Before the eruption, in Britain there were four thousand intensive-care beds and in Germany there were twenty-eight thousand. In Germany, the testing worked well from March, while in Britain mass testing was abandoned. Boris Johnson's claim

that no country in the world has done more to support its workforce during the pandemic, is false. Germany has had a more generous furlough scheme than Britain's in place for years, and it boosted support with other measures in March. In addition, Germany unveiled a further £116bn economic recovery package at the start of June … the British government has embarked on the pretense of a nationally focused policy rather than the reality. “Global Britain” is based on the nostalgia-driven fantasy that, by doing it alone, Britain can again become a superpower. (Kettle 2020)

A new report by Britain's Office of National Statistics has concluded that, because the government weathered the first wave of the pandemic, deaths really have been significantly higher than in neighboring countries (ONS 2020). According to Mark Landler (2020), however, “the report … does not provide raw numbers of excess deaths for each country, but rather a relative measure of the rate of deaths above the historical average, adjusted for factors like age differences.”

With these methods, the outcomes in many countries will be different from the presentation by Worldometer (see Table 1). The patterns of reacting to the pandemic of the federal administration of the United States constitute another heuristic case to demonstrate the sociopolitical complexity of the COVID-19 epidemic situation. Since January 2020, the US federal administration has created an accumulation of failures as a consequence of the denial and ridiculing of the seriousness of the coronavirus (Wallach and Myers 2020). It is plausible that, because of the systematic underestimation and cutbacks of public health provisions in the United States in the last years, the combat against the epidemic-turned-pandemic has fallen short. Quite in contrast to President Donald Trump's comments, public health experts from the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health state that the virus is like a forest fire; it will burn as long as there is fuel. And this fuel continues to be supplied by the US federal administration (Gorman 2020). The pandemic causes indescribable distress, especially hitting vulnerable communities on a huge scale. It threatens health and undermines economic conditions with a dramatic loss of income, demoting citizens in their political strength and sociocultural relationships. All of this is masked by deliberately false government information (Smith and Wanless 2020). The US figures are the silent witnesses. Expectations are that, in particular, thousands of people from this segment of the US population will be evicted from their homes in the foreseeable future (Nnoko-Mewanu 2020). From the consultancy firm of McKinsey and Company, Aria Florant and colleagues have concluded on the basis of numerous studies that African Americans are almost twice as likely to live in the counties at the highest risk of health and economic disruption when the pandemic hits those counties. Moreover, they are likely to experience more severe complications from the infection. African Americans are about 30 percent likelier to have health conditions that exacerbate the effects of COVID-19 (Florant et al. 2020).

TABLE 1:  

Data Concerning the COVID-19 Pandemic up to August 4, 2020

CountryPopulationDeathsDeaths/1 m. popSituation
Belgium11,592,0009,850850± stable
United Kingdom67,906,00046,210680± stable
Spain46,755,00028,472609stable
Italy60,456,00035,166582stable
Sweden10,102,0005,744568stable
United States331,113,000158,929480increasing
France65,282,00030,294464stable
Brazil212,644,00094,702445increasing
South Africa59,365,0008,539144increasing
Germany83,799,0009,232110stable
Denmark5,793,000616106stable
Russia145,939,00014,20797increasing
Argentina45,218,0003,81384± stable
India1,380,752,00038,98428increasing
Australia25,516,0002329± stable
Japan126,452,0001,0028stable
New Zealand5,002,000224stable
China1,439,323,0004,6343stable

Sources: Worldometer (www.worldometers.info), Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, 2020

Like President Trump, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has persisted to dismiss the severity of the coronavirus's potential impact. He has insisted that an anti-malaria pill of unproven efficacy and physical fitness can cure those who fall victim to the virus. Like Trump with many state governors, he clashed with Brazil's provincial governors, who tried (and are still trying) seriously to combat the outbreak (Londoño et al. 2020). Both administrations demonstrate a terrifying denial of the all-pervasive force of the virus on all dimensions of societal conditions, as well as a profound lack of interest in the complex societal determinants of the outbreak (Darrow 2020). Paul Krugman (2020) tries to find answers to the question of why the United States is by far the worst-hit country in the world. What drives this society toward the edge of the abyss? He argues that it is indeed characteristic for the United States that demonstrators against public (health) measures carry guns and invade state capitals. But his additional supposition is that the anti-lockdown demonstrations are not “spontaneous grass-roots affairs. Many were organized and coordinated by conservative political activists. Some with close ties to mister Trump's campaign and financed in part by rightwing billionaires.” The main driving force was and is to start the economy and keep it going “as the administration's desire to have big job gains leading into November elections, so that it could do what it knew how to do—boast about economic success.” According to Krugman, we are losing the war against the coronavirus “because Trump and those around him decided that it was in their political interests to let the virus run wild.” Likewise, the federal administrations of the United States and Brazil have used various methods to wipe out scientific insight into not only the nature of the viral outbreak, but especially its societal implications and how to act as intelligently as possible eliminate it. David Leonhardt (2020), in his impressive overview of the consequences of corona politics in the United States, notes that it is not only the leadership but most of all the individualistic culture of this country that has caused the current dramatic outcomes. (The US has 4 percent of the world's population and 22 percent of the COVID-19-related mortality.) This observation addresses an intriguing and especially challenging question for a global orchestration of politics with which to defend human life on earth.

According Maureen Dowd (2020), the most valued infectious disease expert in the US, Anthony Fauci, was not welcome anymore at the White House back in June. The reason for this was that he insisted strongly at this stage of the epidemic not to restart economic activities too early. As a result of the White House's ignoring of expert advice, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on 21 July that the number of people infected with the coronavirus in different parts of the United States was anywhere from two to thirteen times higher than the reported rates for those regions (Mandavilli 2020). The case of the United States demonstrates that the COVID-19 pandemic is not only a “health” affair. It no less is an extremely serious “public” societal affair with sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and sociocultural dimensions.

In addition, the unforeseen impact of the pandemic on the well-being and lives of health workers is a strong indicator of the complexity of the societal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sanhita Ambast, an Amnesty International researcher and advisor on economic, political, and cultural rights, shows that over three thousand health workers are known to have died after contracting COVID-19 in 79 countries:

The overall figure is likely to be a significant underestimate due to under-reporting, while accurate comparisons across countries are difficult due to differences in counting. France has collected data from just some of its hospitals and health centres … figures of deceased health workers provided by health associations in Egypt and Russia have been contested by their governments … the countries with the highest numbers of health worker deaths thus far include the USA (507), Russia (545), UK (540), Brazil (351), Mexico (248), Italy (188), Egypt (111), Iran (91), Ecuador (82) and Spain (63). (Ambast 2020)

Ambast concludes that

it is especially disturbing to see that some governments are punishing workers who voice their concerns about working conditions that may threaten their lives. Health workers on the frontline are the first to know if government policy is not working, and authorities who silence them cannot seriously claim to be prioritising public health … the COVID-19 pandemic is a global problem that requires global cooperation. (Ambast 2020)

A Recent Italian and Chinese Dialogue about COVID-19 and the Need for a New Politics

The International Association on Social Quality (IASQ) has recently published a dialogue between a representative of Eurispes in Rome and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) about aspects of the current COVID-19 pandemic. The hypothesis brought forth in this dialogue was that it is not from the economic-financial but from the political-legal dimension of societal life that the direction to achieve a dignified and sustainable life should be taken (Van der Maesen 2019). Both opening statements endorsed the need for international governmental collaboration for coping with this life-threatening pandemic. Governments should take their responsibility to go beyond minor differences, conflicts, and contradictions to articulate in a common endeavor what is needed for all people on earth. This, among other resolution, implies that the academic world should create effective forms of collaboration for reinforcing the needed orchestration of shared comprehensive knowledge of the disease. The current US federal administration's decision to formally ignore the Paris (COP 21) climate agreements and leave the World Health Organization directly undermines and contradicts this endeavor, which is of vital importance.

According to Sun Yanhong from of the CASS in Beijing,

the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked widespread discussion about the prospects of globalization. Some governments and media that once supported globalization began to question it. However, unless the mankind [sic] abandons [the] market economy based on exchange as its basic economic form, it is impossible to abandon globalization and resort to the “closed door” policy. To this end, in the future, the governments of all countries should assume more responsibilities in guiding and governing globalization and push globalization to a track of more benign development through coordination, so that countries can achieve mutual benefits and win-win situations more securely in “exchanges” and “cooperation.” This particularly depends on cooperation of major powers on the principle of seeking common ground while reserving differences. (IASQ 2020)1

The response by Gian Maria Fara, President of Eurispes, is that

globalization is not a “free choice” that someone has decided to implement; on the contrary, it is a global process of economic, political and cultural integration, in continuous evolution. It is based on precise trends of economic, productive and financial development made possible by a scientific and technological progress with few precedents in human history. A process, it should be stressed, that produces great benefits as well as widespread costs. Globalization, of which we are all directly or indirectly actors, on the one hand has enabled hundreds of millions of women and men to emerge from poverty and hunger, has accelerated the exchange of information and knowledge, has promoted new lifestyles and new interpersonal and societal relations as it has brought people closer together. On the other hand, it has caused great imbalances and damage, for example, to the environment. Precisely because of these contradictory aspects and the profound changes in relations between human communities, the leadership of this complex globalization process cannot be left solely to the responsibility of the economy and finance. It is thus necessary that “Politics,” in the highest and most positive sense of the word, resumes its leading role, moderating excesses and tackling the contradictions that globalization generates. Never as in this period [of the corona pandemic] “Politics” must perform the task of directing the flows of the economy according to a perspective that makes life acceptable and dignified for individuals, both in our time and for future generations. This must take place within each country, but according to a supranational logic that allows to coordinate interventions in a situation of real international collaboration. (IASQ 2020)

The above arguments demonstrate the need for comprehensive approaches to adequately cope with highly complex global issues and processes such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Both the current ecological challenges as well as normative principles in these approaches are to be taken into account. The latter concern the leading principles at stake in processes to create dignified human daily circumstances all over the world. Dealing with the current threatening pandemic first of all means taking public health approaches that address the direct cure for and prevention of the coronavirus disease. However, it transcends these health approaches because both the origins and the implications of this pandemic lie beyond the direct relation between humans and the (spread of) the virus. The approaches involve complex intertwined socioeconomic, sociopolitical, sociocultural, and socio-ecological relationships, which require comprehensiveness.

During the preparation of their articles for this issue, the authors were called by the topical circumstances to relate their subject with the emerging global pandemic crisis. They were inspired to come forward with ideas in an effort to develop more comprehensive approaches to dealing with the pandemic and how it is affecting daily life. In this vein, the SQA in this issue was explored regarding its capacities to strengthen these comprehensive approaches.

On the Four Articles in This Issue

Unruled Urbanization, Increase in the Number of Slums, and COVID-19

In the first article, Paolo Motta discusses the increase in world population and the related increase in the process of urbanization in the past decades, which has resulted in the creation of many megacities on all continents. This process has been taking place in an unregulated way, according to the prevailing eclectic economic and design rules. It has ignored historical considerations of human urban settlements. At the same time, with the high rate of urbanization both the size and the number of slums have significantly increased. Today, more or less 70 percent of the world's population is urbanized and 28 percent of this urbanized population is located in slums. Therefore, one main question that is being worked on by UN-Habitat is how to address this increase in slums:

Inequalities are linked with poverty and sustainable development and have patently hindered development and stalled progress. Acting together, these inequalities further entrench the deprivation suffered by certain groups and individuals and manifest themselves clearly in the way space is used. The fight against inequality requires the establishment of a new governance paradigm which coordinates efforts, strengthens formal coordination mechanisms, establishes joint responsibilities and provides the resources and incentives necessary at every level of government. (UN-Habitat 2016: i)

In order to look for new ideas as alternatives for the unruled processes of urbanization, Motta discusses the chances of minor cities and towns to flourish. Thanks to new technologies, new livelihoods can arise for many people living in smaller cities. This may create opportunities for actors, be they states, companies, or nonprofits, to address the immaterial values of past local heritage, specific peculiarities of place, tangible and intangible patrimony, and other necessary elements so as to assure smaller cities and towns a permanent integrated development. Modern technologies can provide effective tools in favoring territorial reuse through compatible mobility infrastructures, communication networks, and renewable energy. These are indispensable elements for proper societal development. They concern especially values related to the sociocultural dimension and the environmental dimension of daily circumstances. To underpin his arguments, Motta applies some essential aspects of the SQA, looking at how each addresses the reciprocity of essential dimensions of societal life (IASQ 2019). Herewith, we can go beyond the one-dimensional economy-driven production of houses and beyond the megalomaniacal “fashion form” that has been estranged from the primary demands of community life as explained with the constitutional and conditional factors of social quality. He argues that the SQA is not only necessary if we are to face the complex urbanization problematique and to assure an urban–rural territorial rebalance, but it is also needed as a tool to fight climate change and other future emergency events. In other words, this perspective provides a realistic lead for answering the issue of global sustainable development as confirmed in the UN-Habitat Agenda 2030.

Motta is also engaged with the BRICS Lab of Eurispes. He argues that BRICS member states (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) intend to have active roles in the implementation of a new overall development process, which will include looking at issues related to urbanization. It was for this purpose that in 2010 the United Nations created a specific forum for development, as discussed in a study by Eurispes based on the SQA (Ricceri 2019). In other words, the BRICS countries can become the promoter of an innovative way to look at the problematique of and the solutions to “wild” urban development on all continents. With these considerations in mind, Motta also dedicates some space to the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Relevant information is presented from work done by UN-Habitat. In a recent document, it concluded that in just a few months the pandemic has transformed the way we live, work, travel, and socialize. Over 1,430 cities in 210 countries were affected as of April 2020. About 95 percent of all cases until that time occurred in urban areas. And in these areas, 1 billion people live in informal settlements and slums in overcrowded and inadequate housing. Finally, 2.3 billon people lack adequate access to safe water and sanitation. These living conditions make fighting the virus virtually impossible (UN-Habitat 2020). And rightly, Lee Riley and colleagues (2020), all of them US public health experts, write that the most important factor in enabling the spread of epidemics in slums is the neglect of these marginalized populations by governing elites: “If slums were ignored, infection rates in e.g. Delhi would be underestimated by 10 percent to 50 percent and that the effectiveness of vaccination may be overestimated by 30 percent to 55 percent. … The world's public health systems and governments must make sure that people who live in slums, homeless encampments and refugee camps are not forgotten. We must prepare to deal with the consequences of the pandemic—for all populations.” Motta concludes that with the pandemic the world is facing an immense challenge. This, of course, implies an irrefutable necessity to question what the SQA can contribute in our collective effort to successfully rise to this challenge.

Methodologies for Supporting Vulnerable People and the Social Quality Approach

The second article, by Judith Wolf and Irene Jonker, is the result of more than ten years of practical experience in applying of the SQA—specifically with regard to constitutional factors—in supporting vulnerable people by focusing on their strengths and stimulating their personal agency. Their SQA-based methodology was developed by looking at comparisons with experiences of various people and communities in the United States. It is called “person-centered intervention” and is delivered through a program referred to as “Pathways to Empowerment” (PTE). Nowadays, it is applied by seventy-five care organizations in the Netherlands. The Netherlands Center for Social Care Research of the Radboud University Medical Centre in Nijmegen (“Impuls”) is where it is most often employed. Based on the ideas underlying the constitutional factors, “taking care of” has changed to “supporting the recovery processes” of persons experiencing loss of control in their lives. This change refers to the difference between a “top-down” and a “bottom-up” approach. Although PTE initially concentrated on disadvantaged people subsisting at a great distance from mainstream society, by 2020 the target group had become a great deal more varied. It now also includes people who have temporarily lost their balance in life or who have specific support needs. It is interesting to note that professionals do not just notice that PTE has a positive impact on the lives of clients, but also on the relationships within teams and organizations (i.e., more strength-based interaction and leadership) and within living situations (i.e., reduction of aggressive behavior in shelters).

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the number of vulnerable people all over the world will explode. Francisco Garcia (2020) notes, regarding the situation in the United Kingdom, that “just weeks after thousands of rough sleepers were housed for lockdown, the Tories are throwing them back on street. … There is something profoundly cruel about offering temporary safety, only to wrench it back at the moment it becomes remotely expedient to do so.” He refers to the fact that 280,000 people are homeless and that the pandemic will increase this number: “The reality is of a world where the government's own official data on rough sleeping is thought to be so misleading that it shows numbers five times lower that the figures collated by local councils” (Garcia 2020). These serious societal excesses will give the PTE program extra significance. PTE experiences help us learn that it is effective to stimulate people to stand up for themselves again and to use the powers that are present in communities. This approach seems highly important regarding the circumstances of vulnerable people, which have been caused by the pandemic.

The article also presents reflections on the existing and desired nature of the constitutional factors of social quality (personal security, social recognition, social responsibility, personal capacities, and eco-conscience). Until today, most research based on SQA has been addressing the conditional factors (socioeconomic security, social cohesion, social inclusion, social empowerment, and eco-reality). For the PTE program, the SQA has proven to be extremely useful. It helps professionals to better understand interpersonal, institutional, and societal factors and processes that impact the lives and recovery of clients. From this understanding, it helps not to focus exclusively on the individual and his or her personal recovery. PTE practices though also make clear that the dialectical relationships and interaction with the conditional factors and vice versa need more reflection and understanding. Moreover, it is emphasized that the normative factors (social justice and equity; solidarity at the community, national, and international levels; equal value of all people, enhancing human dignity; and restoring eco-equilibrium) should explicitly deliver a clear orientation for the direction of this dialectic. The key concept of personal agency needs further elaboration. This “force” would allow a better understanding of biographical development, self-regulation, and self-realization, by which individuals can take care of themselves and others as well as have the confidence and competence to contribute to society. In other words, from the PTE practices new horizons are to be opened for the SQA, in particular regarding the nature and position of the constitutional factors.

Beyond the Scientific Divide of Physics, Natural Sciences, and Human Sciences

The third article is written by Jaap Westbroek, Harry Nijhuis, and Laurent van der Maesen. The authors cooperated in various projects in Laak, a borough of the city of The Hague. The SQA was deployed as a framework for the development of ideas and strategies. These projects were also connected with activities of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in this city (Van der Maesen 2012).

Also inspired by their common experiences, they started—an in-depth theoretical exercise regarding the nature of the divide between physics, other natural sciences, and the human sciences. The lasting persistent divide signifies enormous obstructions to the development of a comprehensive understanding of many complex multidimensional issues that we are facing today. The development of global overall sustainability, paving the way for humane urban conditions, ensuring dignified living conditions all over the world, and creating actual responsible societal roles of companies are just a few examples of these issues. The COVID-19 pandemic of course constitutes the most urgent topical situation that needs comprehensive approaches. There is a growing need to understand and to cope with reciprocal processes in and between the socioeconomic/financial, sociopolitical/legal, sociocultural/welfare, and socioenvironmental dimensions of societal life. These challenges invite the academic world to find pathways to go beyond the existing problematic divide, which obstructs comprehensive approaches to these important issues. There are many conditions underlying this divide: the paradigmatic historically rusted behaviors and economic interests of scientific communities play an important role. This article explores an example of a theoretical obstruction underlying classical divide. In summary, it argues that evolutionary thermodynamics (ET) implies an ontological physical concept that has the ability to theoretically connect physics and evolutionary sciences, like biology, and the human sciences. Similar to ET, it assumes that the SQA carries a corresponding ability to be a functional catalyst for the connection of various human sciences and the natural sciences. Finally, it hypothesizes that the underlying assumptions of ET and of the SQA show great affinity. If true, they can interact to play an interesting role in the respective natural and human sciences.

The first part of the article questions the theoretical divide between physics and evolutionary sciences, in particular biology. More particularly, it questions time reversibility as a fundamental tenet of physics. This runs counter to the discourses of all other sciences, which presume the evolution of phenomena and therefore the irreversibility of time. The argument is constructed through examples in biology and astronomy by way of a reinterpretation of the second law of thermodynamics. Characteristics of evolutionary processes (time irreversibility, chance, dialectic evolvement of levels of complexity) are explained according to the laws of thermodynamics. ET is launched as a new connecting theoretical concept. Productive dialectic interaction between levels of complexity is interpreted as the driving force in the evolution of nature. It is assumed that ET as a connecting concept could pave the way to the mutual understanding of physical and evolutionary phenomena in nature. Based on this catalyst ability, the development of cooperation between physics and the other sciences may be facilitated.

The second part explores—in analogy to ET—a similar interpretation of the human sciences. It explores the theoretical foundations of the SQA, analyzes the degree of affinity with the conclusions of the first part of the article, and considers the consequences of the results for its position in the human sciences. Productive dialectical interaction between levels of complexity according to the first part constitutes the driving force in the evolution of nature. It is argued that the same holds true for dialectical processes pushing the evolution/development of humans and societies. It is assumed that the dialectics thereof should constitute the ontological leitmotif in the human sciences. The latter is hypothesized in the SQA. This theory therefore implies ontological features that do have a close affinity to basic elements of ET. The normative SQA principles can be seen as the factors that give direction to the dialectical processes. Thus, human beings—to a certain extent—do have the future of the world in their own hands. To underpin the argument regarding the ontological essence of dialectics as an evolutionary force distinct from the defining patterns of ontological thought in the human sciences are identified, interpreted, and compared. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the human sciences have been heavily influenced by physics and its philosophical foundations. Current positivistic and individualistic approaches in the human sciences, born in the slipstream of the assumed scientific authority of physics, are scrutinized. The one-sided application of this epistemological approach gives rise to unacceptable reductionist knowledge of humans and societies.

The conclusion of this article is that, if no thorough changes take place, the global situation will only get worse, revealing the complex physical, biological, and societal problems that cause far-reaching ecological imbalances and, as a result, a decrease in overall sustainability. The COVID-19 pandemic represents a terrifying example of such imbalances. Resuming business as usual with regard to the socioeconomic, sociopolitical, sociocultural, and socioecological dimensions of life is tantamount to unacceptable ostrich behavior concerning the enormous consequences of the above-mentioned problems. Finding solutions for the extremely complex pluralist nature of these problems requires knowledge deriving from a manifold of scientific perspectives: physics, natural sciences, biology, and various human sciences.

The Current Meaning of the Discourse on Corporate Social Responsibility and Corporate Sustainability

The fourth article, written by Varghese Joy, presents an academic review of studies about the so-called “social responsibility” of companies and the related concept of “corporate sustainability.” This study contextualizes the conclusions of the reviewed research within the framework of the SQA. The author argues that the workings of our economic production systems result in the reduction of all relations into commodity relations. This commodification leads to a conversion of activities, services, art, biophysical phenomena, and people into objects of trading for profit. As a consequence, the author notes that, with the first outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers in countries like India, Brazil and the United States, because of this commodified form of “corporate social responsibility,” have been forced out of the workplace. The adjective “social” and the noun “sustainability” remain undefined in the reviewed studies that are referred to in this article. The consequences of this ignorance are explained in this article with help of current arguments put forward in the SQA relating to corporate social responsibility and sustainability (IASQ 2019). As it turns out, the tension between commodification and sustainability cannot be made explicit and remains a semantic affair that is played out in the public arena. Joy provides several examples of this tension, which can be substantiated with new information, which comes about precisely as a result of thinking through the consequences of the current pandemic. In the interview with Peter de Waard, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden explains that, due in part to the reduction in oil prices as a result of the pandemic, Shell's operating results as of late have been poor. Therefore, Shell is not ready for the big turnaround and is taking small steps investing in new energy. There is no mandate from shareholders to make Shell “anti-economic.” He explicitly states that there is only one kind of sustainability that counts, namely economic sustainability (De Waard 2020). Although the terms sound alike, “economic sustainability” and “overall sustainability” (or environmental sustainability), as discussed all over the world, are not the same. As a consequence of this tension, it is the former term, not the latter, that matters to shareholders in general and is top of mind when they think of corporate social responsibility.

Mariana Mazzucato and Antonio Andreoni conclude that, as one of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of states in the economy has increased in importance:

In some case, governments have gone beyond conditionality to alter ownership models. Germany and France are acquiring or increasing (respectively) the state's equity stake in airline companies, citing the need to safeguard national strategy. … In other negative cases, major companies and sectors have leveraged their monopoly or market-dominant bargaining power to lobby against conditionality. In the UK, Easyjet was able to access £600 million in liquidity from the BOE, despite having paid £174 million in dividends a month earlier. (Mazzucato and Andreoni 2020)

According to both, states can align corporate behavior with the needs of society and ensure sustainable growth and a better relationship between workers and firms. Many other economists think the same way. Nevertheless, the theme of the legal a priori underlying ownership is ostentatiously kept out of the discussion. On 29 July, the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google were invited to a Congressional hearing in Washington to discuss the “kill-or-be-killed ethos” of Silicon Valley, the home of Big Tech. The value of these four companies is $4 trillion. According to Tim Bray, a Big Tech veteran, “the session was billed as an ‘examination’ but it wasn't, congressional staff had already generated millions of pages of damning evidence [of abusing power]” (Bray 2020). The point is that, thanks to the legal constructions of ownership from past centuries, just these global operating companies will increase in wealth and power, because they play a major role in the development and application of communication technologies, in an accelerated manner, changing the production, distribution, and consumption relations between workers and owners. Their control of the marketplace allows them to do whatever it takes to crush independent business and expand their own power. It is of interest to know what the US Congress will and can do in the near future (Bray 2020). Will the pandemic also really change the world's economic and financial systems? This supposition merely refers to a utopia if the quintessence of these systems remains unaffected. In this context, “corporate social responsibility” and “corporate sustainability” as themes remain limited to lecture halls and study rooms.

Note

1

This dialogue was originally published on the website of Eurispes and that of Guangming Online in China (https://en.gmw.cn/2020-06/16/content_33916008.htm).

References

The International Journal of Social Quality

(formerly The European Journal of Social Quality)

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