Society and History

Who deserves what? Making sense of inequalities during times of crisis

23. May 2023 by Till Hilmar
Do we deserve our gains and losses in the aftermath of social crises? In this guest post, University of Vienna social scientist Till Hilmar, author of "Deserved," draws important lessons from the lived experiences of post-1989 transformations.
Even though economic shifts are structural, people experiencing social crises and transformations tend to believe that individuals deserve their successes and failures. © Till Hilmar

We live in a time of crisis today, a period of "polycrisis", as economic historian Adam Tooze coined it. The ramifications of the lingering pandemic, war, soaring energy prices, the climate crisis, and the deepening of economic inequalities are intertwined and affect societies around the world.

Considering such events solely as momentary flare-ups in history overlooks their enduring impacts on society – we should consider them in the context of their long-term consequences. How can we comprehend the lived experiences of individuals during times of crisis and the durable inequalities they bring about?

Book launch and discussion: Till Hilmar's "Deserved" (2023)

Save the date: On Monday, 27th November 2023, Till Hilmar will present his new book "Deserved. Economic Memories After the Fall of the Iron Curtain". "Deserved" investigates the moral imagination of economic change in the aftermath of the breakdown of communism in Eastern Europe. The event will feature a prominent panel of experts and the opportunity to discuss the following questions: 

  • How do people perceive and affectively make sense of economic inequality in Central Eastern Europe today, and what are the consequences for political trust?
  • How are today‘s crisis experiences informed by past encounters with significant social changes during the 1990s?
  • How do political actors weaponize the memory of social change – in Central Eastern Europe and beyond?

Visit the event page for further information. 

Listen also to the "Transformative" podcast Episode 39: Economic Memories of Transformation.

In times of crisis, who deserves to win and lose?

In this regard, the post-1989 period in Central Eastern Europe presents rich lessons for current times. In countries that underwent the breakdown of state socialism, the social inequalities resulting from rapid deindustrialization, labour market crises, the revaluation of skills, and high inflation in the early 1990s deeply entrenched themselves, shaping people's life chances for decades to follow.

In my new book "Deserved", I sought to analyse the main narratives that emerge when people remember the 1990s in Central Eastern Europe today. Major crises generate a dichotomy of "winners" and "losers", a pattern of social and moral categorization that people must grapple with. Who deserves what, and why? Interviews with engineers and care workers uncovered that people find themselves fervently discussing and pondering questions of inequality and its long-term effects when trying to make sense of these processes.

From a social science perspective, we know that a person's age, gender, ethnicity, qualifications, and location at the time of the crisis all fundamentally ingrained themselves into socioeconomic trajectories. Robust welfare systems can effectively cushion such shocks and mitigate their effects. Therefore, trust in public responses emerges as a crucial factor, which was notoriously low in many Central Eastern European societies.

However, even though the power of circumstances is beyond individual control, individuals with first-hand experience of the post-1989 changes form a vivid moral imagination about it. People may actively employ a "winner versus loser" language on others, yet simultaneously strive to distance themselves from the stigmatizing consequences when it pertains to their own life choices.

Major crises generate a dichotomy of "winners" and "losers", a pattern of social and moral categorization that people must grapple with.
Till Hilmar

Narratives determine which inequalities are tolerable

The way individuals ask and respond to questions of deservingness shapes their overarching narrative of economic transformation.

They ask: What economic choices were available to individuals once the Iron Curtain came down? If a person became unemployed in the wave of mass layoffs of the time, they wonder, did he or she really try hard enough to escape economic hardship?

People may hold the meritocratic belief that it was personal effort or a commitment to hard work that made the difference, or they may attribute it to factors such as health or psychological circumstances, thereby presenting a more structural explanation. Alternatively, they may perceive it as largely reliant on luck.

These narratives matter because they influence the degree of inequality that individuals are willing to tolerate in the present. As numerous studies on welfare attitudes have revealed – not just in the Central Eastern European context –, the way people attribute agency significantly influences their perceptions of the state's role in redistributing resources to those who are less-well off.

For example, if someone strongly believes that another person's inability to overcome a period of joblessness stems from laziness or a lack of seriousness, they will be much less inclined to feel a sense of solidarity. Consequently, they may also deem them as undeserving of state support.

Who has a right to be saved from economic distress or bankruptcy?

Close friends are also morally judged

These issues also profoundly affect the everyday perception of friendship bonds. This is a space where individuals articulate their core values, as it is grounded in the lived experience of egalitarian relationships.

The post-1989 era and the divergent outcomes of social mobility have given rise to stark material disparities among individuals who were once more equal, thereby challenging notions of equality within one's immediate social circles.

Philosopher Avishai Margalit suggested that friendship ties are "thick" because they are built upon a shared understanding of the relationship's history. This makes it difficult, however, to sustain a sense of equality when material circumstances diverge.

When remembering the disruptive changes of the 1990s, people evaluate the economic agency of their current friends as well as of those from whom they have severed ties or distanced themselves, thereby creating an unsettling nexus between the notion of economic deservingness and their innermost social circles.

How will we recall who deserves what after our current crises?

To conclude, the concern with individual responsibility for economic outcomes is a major reason for why, in welfare societies, ideas about who deserves what, and why are so salient in the wake of major crisis experiences. We should be mindful about how we come to judge the "polycrises" of our times.

For instance, we can observe similar patterns in the way the economic ramifications of the pandemic are perceived – think of the example of the large-scale programs of pandemic state relief, which were publicly discussed in terms of legitimacy, in terms of who has a right to be saved from economic distress or bankruptcy –, as well as in the unfolding energy crisis, which entails a profound and arguably enduring material shock for a considerable number of people.

The memories of the post-1989 transformations also direct our focus towards the variation in national memories that shape the interpretation of long-term economic ruptures. While neoliberal transformation was considered a Czech "success" story, the predominating East German narrative is of being marginalized as "second-class citizens."

We may also be able to observe analogous differences in the varying ways causes and responsibilities for the decarbonisation of European economies are publicly communicated by political and economic stakeholders today.

Finally, if we truly wish to comprehend people's experience during times of crisis, we must abandon the idea that these experiences exist solely at the individual level, something that we may currently observe in an upsurge of psychologically informed discourse about individual "resilience".

In fact, people navigate crises as interconnected subjects within a web of social relationships such as friendship ties. Their ideas about the moral and inequality-related implications of crises experiences are moulded within these networks. Therefore, their memories and their long-term narratives about them are deeply influenced by these very social connections.

Related event: RECET Festival May 24-26, 2023

The Research Centre for the History of Transformations (RECET) at University of Vienna is hosting their second History and Social Sciences Festival "Transformations of (In)Equality" from 24-26 May, 2023.

High-profile voices from academia, civil society, the arts and culture will discuss the multiple dimensions of and contestations surrounding (in)equality, and its many transformations over the past years and decades. Entrance is free, pre-registration is required only for those who wish to participate via ZOOM broadcast. Register here.

Till Hilmar is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Sociology of University of Vienna and a faculty fellow at Yale University's Centre for Cultural Sociology. His website is: You can find him on Twitter as @till_hilmar.

His research interests include qualitative approaches to inequality, cultural and political sociology, social memory, post-1989 transformations, and text-as-data. He is interested in popular ideas about economic inequality and is developing methodological approaches to understand cultural narratives about economic change.

Edited by Lynn Chiu, University of Vienna