The Coronakrise and Moments of Respatialization

By Matthias Middell

In Germany, the spread of the novel coronavirus is discussed as a crisis – Coronakrise – at least partially due to the fact that the term rolls off the tongue with ease. In other linguistic contexts, the term “crisis” is less systematically used to describe the pandemic. We nevertheless share some perception across many societies that the spread of this virus is a great challenge to confront not just nationally but at all scales of action. Many historians have used the history of past pandemics to formulate lessons in dealing with Covid-19. Instead, in relation to a global history context, I’ve been wondering what reflections we might take from this crisis as a possible moment of respatialization.

Before we come to any characterization of the current crisis as a(nother) moment of respatialization, I should clarify what I mean by such a qualification. I depart from the idea that space matters and that space is a product of social interaction – the most banal essentials of the spatial turn. This general principle is true for all history, but it applies even more so to times of condensed social interaction when a collectively perceived crisis seems to require adapting established spatial formats and orders to new challenges. By spatial formats, I mean spatializations characterized by institutionalization, routine performance, and intersubjective reflection; spatial orders meanwhile are the outcomes of negotiation processes of various formats – how actors combine, transcend, systematize, or challenge these formats.[1] When crisis and new challenges, real or perceived as dramatic, are a product of the global condition, we can also speak of critical junctures of globalization to distinguish rather long-term transformations from these moments. Under the global condition, actors challenge existing spatial configurations and produce new or confirm existing spatial formats (both territorial like nation-states and non-territorial like supply chains). This crisis has proven to be a moment of deep reflection on and challenge to the spatial organization of societies; whether any abrupt shifts in discourse or practice translate into longer transformations remains to be seen.

Border (Grand-Rue) in Mouscron, Belgium closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This border separates Mouscron from Wattrelos, France. 8 April 2020. Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Historically, we can observe such a process of dramatic respatialization during the age of revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic between the 1770s and the 1820s when republican nation-states and constitutional monarchies emerged, which also rearranged the relationship between these democratizing metropoles and their imperial extensions. Last year, I co-edited a volume in which historians considered how the French revolution shattered existing spatial orders and required new modes of self-organization in both rather predictable spaces such as in France or Spanish America as well as in less obvious places such as in certain native American communities and on islands like Cyprus and the Azores.[2] Neither the internal spatial organization of empires that previously dominated that ocean basin nor the international order of states remained the same after that deep crisis.

Other candidates for such moments include the end of World Wars I and II and the end of the Cold War. In each case, we can enumerate a series of changes in spatial orders relevant at the time (e.g. the dissolution of the socialist camp resulting inter alia in expanding European unification or the inclusion of Southeastern China into the core of world markets) as well as a reassembling of already existing spatial formats: from region to nation, from imperial realms of dominance and blocs to alliances as well as supply chains.

These historical examples illustrate that such a moment of respatialization does not concern one single spatial format only but affects them all (to varying degrees) and particularly their former arrangement (hierarchy or loose connection). In order to know whether the world is really experiencing such a moment of respatialization before we can assess it in hindsight, we have to check how many spatial formats this crisis effects, what happens to them, and what happens to the spatial orders they are part of. Another lesson to be taken from historical observation is an uncertainty regarding the exact timeframe of such moments. While the term moment may suggest that we have to read societal change in rather short periods of time, there are other layers that offer a longer perspective. It takes time before even the most rapidly taken decisions by political, economic or social actors affect the spatial configurations of social interaction. It takes even more time before these actions are transformed into legally binding structures.

The question now is, are we currently experiencing a similar crisis with comparable consequences? By analyzing historical examples, we see that such processes have a high degree of contingency and openness and can only be meaningfully accessed ex post. I bring this question to the table not only due to intellectual curiosity, but also because there are some very practical issues at stake: is it likely that the course of history changes and that new spatial orders are emerging? Are there indicators visible for some spatial formats becoming more important than they were in the past? Are others in decline? So far, my observations from a vantage point in Germany indicate that unlike in the age of revolutions where completely new formats developed, we so far see an intensified renegotiation and debate over three formats in particular: the nation state, the region, and transregional supply chains.

The first weeks of the corona crisis were dominated by a debate about the return of the strong (nation-)state. Many, if not all states closed borders and controlled checkpoints such that long queues of trucks made visible how much traffic usually “flows” across such borders. Being a foreigner became precarious. Rich countries subsidized their suffering airlines by paying them to bring tourists and the transnational managerial and working class “home.” Control over citizens’ mobility was introduced or extended within national territories. China became a heavily debated model for a massive lockdown that was viewed in the West as both efficient and problematic, while many countries in Africa at least tried to follow this example. Already by mid-March 2020 French President Macron and German Minister of Economics Altmaier realized to what degree transregional value chains established since the 1990s (especially with China) contradicted fantasies of economic national sovereignty and led to calls to renationalize strategic sectors. Some European states revivified the concept of the national welfare state, developed since the late 19th century; millions of workers were paid state subsidies when their companies had to close production sites.

The growing role of nation-states as lender, regulator, and employer of last resort at a moment of crisis does not come as a surprise given the more than hundred years of institutionalization as a format and its enormous financial power. It was astonishing to see how well-established nation-states lacked efficiency in responding to the first wave of the virus: no information at the national level on medical resources, and a rather chaotic distribution of competencies between the various administrative institutions or levels within the state. The general excuse has been that neoliberal deregulation of the post-1980s had perhaps gone too far, and maybe we should reverse this trend. When major companies request national funds, chances are not small that this is going to happen. One has, however, to be cautious not to take the German example too much as a blueprint since this is perhaps the most extreme case where a national government now makes use of the extra profits made in times of accelerated processes of globalization and Europeanization to strengthen national regulatory power. Not every state commands the economic power able to support a similar set of initiatives.

Regionalism is a second spatial format that gained importance in the last decades. When turning to Europe again, we saw many pessimistic comments on the future of the European Union at the beginning of this crisis. The EU Commission remained rather absent and was not equipped to do more than support what nation states were already doing. But again, this was a rather short-lived. In the meantime, we’ve witnessed a remarkable renaissance of regionalism. One may think of the African context in light of regional competences gained since the Ebola outbreak in 2014,[3] but also German Chancellor Merkel’s recent comments that the next EU budget has to be much bigger than previously thought. For the time being it is pure speculation: perhaps regionalism will gain most from the current crisis. Citizens might be willing to invest their taxes once again into the reconstruction of border-transcending activities, but their acceptance might shrink if the “global” becomes too anonymous and distant – culturally and physically. In this sense, the current crisis may continue a trend since the 2010s: geographical proximity (often translated to cultural familiarity) counts more than the economic profit (and lower consumer prices) from large-scale globalization. Regionalism, therefore, may be an effective framework for combatting what appears to be a much larger crisis currently ramping up: climate change.

Third, transregional value chains have suffered a lot from the crisis since transportation capacities seem to shrink (but cargo is a growing sector of the otherwise suffering airlines and there is no reason to believe that railway transportation and container shipping will see long-term losses) and production stalls intermittently following outbreaks, not to mention the export bans on some essential items. However, the public debate has shifted away from the fatalism of the idea that the world is flat (as Friedman suggested in 2005) and that companies should compete for the last cent they can squeeze out of a world-wide division of labor. The price benefit of these transregional supply chains in stable times is obvious. Politicians now scrutinize whether this mode of production is safe enough during moments of crisis; consumers, already wondering about the impact of these chains and consumer habits on the climate, face a new moral dilemma; executives ask if the shrinking profits from outsourcing, already more difficult over the past years when wages grew in China, can be calculated against the bailout capacities of states at “home” (not to mention the growing state capacities to influence corporate decisions when the state becomes a shareholder itself).

To conclude, while some have characterized the effects of the crisis as deglobalization and the return of the nation state, the processes of respatialization may be summarized only as a turn away from a certain type of globalization. This crisis is simply another episode in a continued process of adaptation to the changing nature of the global condition. New globalizations will emerge out of this moment, and the only thing that is so far safe to predict: even after the current crisis there will be new ones emerging, accompanied by new processes of respatialization.

[1] https://www.degruyter.com/view/title/547627

[2] https://www.degruyter.com/view/title/547649

[3] https://www.recentglobe.uni-leipzig.de/zentrum/detailansicht/artikel/1-the-role-of-africa-in-the-global-world-order-negotiations-between-african-visions-of-order-and/; https://www.recentglobe.uni-leipzig.de/fileadmin/Einrichtung_ReCentGlobe/Blog_PDF_Herpolsheimer_Corona_Afrika.pdf


Matthias Middell is Professor of Cultural History and director of the  
Global and European Studies Institute at the University of Leipzig, and speaker of the SFB 1199 and the Leipzig Research Centre Global Dynamics.


Citation: Matthias Middell, The Coronakrise and Moments of Respatialization, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.05.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23960.


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