Nothing can be like before

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Health, climate, economy, education, culture should no longer be considered private property or state property: they should be considered global commons and politically instituted as such

By Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval*

The Covid-19 pandemic is an exceptional global, health, economic and social crisis. Few historical events can compare with it, at least on the scale of recent decades. This tragedy now appears as a test for all humanity. It is an ordeal in the double sense of the word: pain, risk and danger, on the one hand; testing, evaluation, and judgment on the other. What the pandemic is testing is the ability of political and economic organizations to deal with a global problem linked to the interdependence of individuals, that is, something that affects everyone's social life in a basic way. Like a dystopia that comes true, with climate change underway, what we are experiencing now shows what will await humanity in a few decades if the economic and political structure of the world does not change, very quickly and radically.

A state response to a global crisis?

First observation: one way or another, we are willing to rely on national state sovereignty to respond to the global epidemic. And this, depending on the country, has occurred in two more or less complementary and articulated ways: on the one hand, we count on it to adopt authoritarian measures that limit contacts, in particular with the establishment of a “state of emergency” (declared or no), as in Italy, Spain or France; on the other hand, we expect the government to protect citizens from the “importation” of a virus that comes from abroad. Social discipline and national protectionism would thus be the two priority axes in the fight against the pandemic. In this way, we find the two sides of state sovereignty: internal domination and independence from the outside.

Second observation: we also rely on the state to help companies of all sizes pass the test, providing assistance and securing the credits they would need to avoid bankruptcy and keep as many active workers as possible. The State no longer has any qualms about spending without limits to “save the economy” (use whatever it takes); however, just yesterday there was opposition to any request to increase the number of hospitals or the amount of beds in hospitals, as well as emergency services. There was an obsessive respect for budget constraints and public debt limits. Today, States seem to be rediscovering the virtues of intervention, at least when it comes to supporting the activity of private companies and guaranteeing the financial system [1].

It would be wrong to confuse this brutal shift with the end of neoliberalism. Now, this poses a central question: will resorting to the prerogatives of the sovereign State, inside or outside countries, respond to a pandemic that affects the most basic social solidarity?

What we've seen so far is troubling. The institutional xenophobia of the States manifested itself at the same time that we became aware of the lethal danger of this new virus for all of humanity. European states gave the first responses to the spread of the coronavirus in a perfectly dispersed way. Very quickly, most European countries, especially in Central Europe, locked themselves behind the administrative walls of the national territory to protect the populations from the “foreign virus”. The map of the first cloistered countries significantly coincides with that of state xenophobia.

Hungarian President Viktor Orbán lit the fuse: “We are waging a war on two fronts, that of migration and that of the coronavirus, which are linked because both spread through the movement of people” [2]. The same tone quickly spread at the European and global levels: each state must now manage the problem on its own and this much to the delight of the entire European and global far right. The most abject behavior observed was the lack of solidarity with the most affected countries. The abandonment of Italy to its fate by France and Germany showed extreme selfishness, to the point of refusing to send medical equipment and protective masks. It thus sounded a death knell for a Europe rebuilt on the basis of generalized competition between countries.

State sovereignty and strategic choice

On March 11, the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, declared that we were dealing with a pandemic and that he was deeply concerned about the speed of the spread of the virus, as well as the “alarming level of inaction by states ”. How to explain this inaction?

The most compelling analysis was provided by pandemic expert Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Center at the Institute for Advanced International Studies and Development: “The crisis we are going through shows the persistence of the principle of state sovereignty in world affairs. (…) But none of this is surprising! International cooperation has always been fragile, but it has become even worse in the last five years with the election of political leaders, mainly in the United States and the United Kingdom, who aspire to stay out of globalization. (…) Without the global perspective that only the WHO offers, we risk disaster.” She thus reminds political and health leaders around the world that a global approach to the pandemic, as well as maintaining solidarity, are essential elements that encourage citizens to act responsibly [3].

As grounded and fair as these observations are, they do not say that the World Health Organization has been financially weakened for several decades; it was left, in fact, dependent on private financing (80% of its resources come from private donations from companies and foundations). Despite this weakening, the WHO could have served from the beginning as a structure for cooperation in the fight against the pandemic, not only because its information was reliable since the beginning of January, but also because its recommendations for the radical and early control of the epidemic were relevant. For the director general of the WHO, the choice to abandon the tests and systematic tracing of contagions, which were successful in Korea or Taiwan, was a big mistake that contributed to spreading the virus to all other countries.

Behind this delay, there are strategic options. Countries like Korea have chosen to do routine checkups, isolate virus carriers and “social distancing”. Italy adopted the strategy of absolute containment to stop the epidemic, as China had done before. Other countries have waited too long to react, making the fatalistic, crypto-Darwinian choice of a strategy called “herd immunity”. Boris Johnson's Britain initially took the path of passivity; other countries were more ambiguously late in adopting restrictive measures, notably France and Germany, not to mention the United States.

Based on a “mitigation” or “delay” of the pace of the epidemic, flattening the contamination curve, these countries gave up on keeping it under control from the beginning, by systematic screening and general containment of the population, as was the case in the province from Wuhan and Hubei. This herd immunity strategy assumes accepting that 50 to 80% of the population is infected, according to predictions made by German leaders and French rulers. This means accepting the death of hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, especially the “most fragile”. The WHO direction, however, was clear: States must not abandon the systematic screening and tracing of people who test positive.

“Libertarian paternalism” in times of epidemic

Why have states paid little attention to the WHO? In particular, why didn't they give you a central role in coordinating responses to the pandemic? On the economic front, the epidemic in China has paralyzed economic and political powers as the interruption of production and trade on a scale never seen before would lead to an economic and financial crisis of exceptional gravity.

The hesitation in Germany, France and even more so in the United States is due to the fact that the governments of these countries have chosen to keep the economy running as long as possible. More precisely, they gave in to the desire to maintain arbitration between economic and health imperatives, making decisions depending on the situation observed in “day to day”. Thus, they disregarded the most dramatic predictions that were already well known. It was the catastrophic projections of the Imperial College, according to which, with negligence, millions of deaths would occur, which changed, between March 12 and 15, the attitude of governments, that is, it was too late, to carry out a generalized confinement [4].

It is here that the very harmful influence of behavioral economics and the “nudge theory” on policy decisions is seen [5]. Now we know that thenudge unit”, a body that advises the British government, managed to impose the theory according to which individuals strongly constrained by severe measures would tire and relax their discipline at the moment when it was most needed, that is, when the peak of the epidemic was reached. Since 2010, Richard Thaler's economic approach, expounded in his book Nudge at, has inspired the “efficient governance” of the State [6]. It consists of encouraging individuals, without forcing them, “helping” them to make the right decisions, that is, through soft, indirect, pleasant and optional influences, since individuals must remain free to make their own choices. .

This “libertarian paternalism” in the fight against the epidemic provided two guidelines: on the one hand, rejecting coercion to individual behavior and, on the other, maintaining confidence in “restraint gestures”: staying at a distance, washing hands, isolating oneself if you cough, if this is in the person's own interest. The bet on the soft and voluntary incentive was risky, it was not based on scientific data that proved its relevance in an epidemic situation. Well, it produced the failure we now know.

It is worth remembering that this was also the choice of the French authorities until March 14. Until then, Emmanuel Macron has refused to take containment measures because, as he stated on March 6, “if we take very restrictive measures, this will not be sustainable over time”. At the end of the play, which he attended the same day with his wife, he declared: “Life goes on. There is no reason to change our habits, except for the most vulnerable populations”. Behind these words, which today seem irresponsible, there was the option for “libertarian paternalism”. Now, one cannot help thinking, this choice was made because it was a way of postponing the draconian measures that would necessarily affect the economy.

Sovereignty of the State or public services

The failure of libertarian paternalism has taken political authorities to a stunning turn. We began to see this in the first presidential speech on March 12, which called for national unity, sacred union, the “strength of the soul” of the French people. Macron's second speech, on March 16, was even more explicit in his choice of posture and martial rhetoric: it's time for general mobilization, for "patriotic self-denial", since "we are at war". Now is the time for the sovereign State to manifest itself in the most extreme, but also the most classic way, that of the sword that will strike an enemy “who is there, invisible, illusory, who progresses”.

But there was another dimension to his March 12 speech, which did not fail to surprise. Emmanuel Macron, suddenly and almost miraculously, had become a defender of the welfare state and the public hospital, even going so far as to assert the impossibility of reducing everything to the logic of the market. Many commentators and politicians, some of them on the left, were quick to see this position as a recognition of the irreplaceable role of public services.

In short, we would now have a form of postponed reaction to what he said on his hospital visit"Pitie Salpetriere”, on February 27: Macron ended up giving a positive response to the neurology professor who demanded a “shock of goodwill” from him, at least in principle. The fact is that the promises made on that occasion were a farce, as the neoliberal policies, methodically adopted for years, were not really called into question, so that this was immediately recognized [7].

But there's more. During the same conference, the French President recognized that “leaving our food, our protection, our ability to do things, our way of life in the care of others” was “madness” and that it was necessary to “take back control”. This invocation of nation-state sovereignty was welcomed, including by neo-fascists.

The defense of public services would now merge with the prerogatives of the State: removing public health from the logic of the market would be an act of sovereignty that would correct the excess of concessions made in the past to the European Union. But is it so obvious that the notion of public service requires, by itself, the sovereignty of the State!? Is the first not based on the second, and are the two notions inseparable from each other? If the question deserves even more serious consideration, it is because it is a central argument supported by defenders of state sovereignty.

Let's start with the question of the nature of state sovereignty. Sovereignty properly means “superiority” (from the Latin superanus), but in what sense? With regard to laws and obligations of all kinds, which may limit the power of the State, both in its relations with other States and in relation to its own citizens. The sovereign State places itself above commitments and obligations, as it is free to contract them and to revoke them whenever it sees fit. But the State, considered a public person, can only act through its representatives, who supposedly embody a continuity that goes beyond the duration of the exercise of their functions.

The superiority of the State, therefore, effectively means the superiority of its representatives with regard to laws, obligations and commitments that may compromise it permanently. And it is this superiority that is raised to the rank of principle by all sovereigns. As unpleasant as this truth is to our ears, this principle applies regardless of the political orientation of rulers.

The bottom line is that they act as representatives of the state, regardless of their beliefs about state sovereignty. The delegations successively granted by the representatives of the French State to the European Union were sovereign; since its first steps, the construction of the EU was due to the implantation of the principle of State sovereignty.

Likewise, the fact that the French State, like so many others in Europe, has escaped its international obligations in the defense of human rights, is part of the logic of sovereignty. The declaration that they are human rights defenders obliges states to create a healthy and protective environment for these defenders, however, the laws and practices of the signatory states – especially the French state on the border it shares with Italy – have violated these obligations. international. The same observation can be made with regard to climate policy obligations, from which states happily release themselves always according to their interests of the moment.

In matters of domestic public law, the State has not been outdone either. Thus, to stay in the French case, the rights of the Amerindians of Guyana are denied in the name of the principle of the “one and indivisible Republic”, an expression that again refers us to the sacrosanct sovereignty of the State. Finally, the last one is the alibi that allows state authorities to exempt themselves from any obligation related to control by citizens.

Here's a point that will help us clarify the public nature of so-called "public" services. It is the meaning of the word “public” that must receive our full attention here. It is not easy to see that, in this expression, the “public” is absolutely irreducible to the “State”. The public designated here refers not only to the State administration, but to the entire community, a unit that is composed of all citizens: public services are not state services in the sense that the State could dispose of them as it sees fit, nor are they a projection of the State, are public insofar as they are “at the service of the public”.

In that sense, they fall under a positive obligation of the State towards citizens. In other words, they are owed by the State and by the rulers to the ruled. It does not consist in a favor that the State does to the governed, as in the formula of the “Welfare State”, a formula that is controversial because of the liberal inspiration that created it. The jurist Léon Duguit, one of the main theorists of public services, commented this at the beginning of the 8th century: it is the primacy of the duties of those who govern to the governed that constitutes the basis of what is called “public service”. For him, public services are not a manifestation of state power, but a limit to government power. It is the rulers who are the servants of the ruled [XNUMX].

These obligations, imposed on those who govern, are also imposed on government agents; well, it is they who form the basis of “public responsibility”. That is why public services fall under the principle of social solidarity, which is imposed on everyone, and not the principle of sovereignty, which is incompatible with that of public responsibility.

This conception of public services has certainly been repressed by the fiction of state sovereignty. However, it continues to be heard in the relationship that citizens have with what they consider to be a fundamental right. It is because the right of citizens to public services is the strict counterpart of the duty of these public services, which rests with the representatives of the State. This explains why the citizens of several European countries affected by this crisis have tried to demonstrate, in different ways, their links with these services, involved as they were in the daily fight against the coronavirus: this is why the citizens of many Spanish cities applauded from balconies of the buildings, the health teams, despite any attitude towards the unitary and centralized state.

Two things must be carefully separated. Citizens' attachment to public services, in particular hospital services, is by no means an adherence to authority or public power in its various forms, but an attachment to the very services whose essential objective is to meet public needs. Far from manifesting an adherence to national identity, this attachment provides a universal meaning that crosses borders. And it is he who makes all of us sensitive to the difficulties experienced by our “fellow citizens who are facing a pandemic”, whether Italian, Spanish and, ultimately, European or not.

The urgency of the global “commons”

We cannot believe Macron's promise that he, after the outbreak of the crisis, would be the first to question "our development model". One can even legitimately expect that the drastic measures to be adopted in economic matters will repeat those of 2008. In this sense, they will only aim at a “return to normal”, that is, the destruction of the planet and the growing inequality of people. subsistence social conditions. It is to be feared now, indeed, that the huge bill to “save the economy” will once again be presented to the lowest-paid workers and taxpayers.

However, thanks to this ordeal, something has changed, which means that nothing can be like before. State sovereignty, with its security bias and its xenophobic tropism, has demonstrated its bankruptcy. Far from containing global capital, it manages its action, exacerbating competition. Two things have already become clear to millions of men. On the one hand, there is the place of public services as common institutions capable of bringing about a vital solidarity among human beings. On the other hand, humanity's most urgent political need turns out to be to institute world commons.

As the main risks are global, mutual aid must be global, policies must be coordinated, means and knowledge must be shared, cooperation must be the absolute rule. Health, climate, economy, education, culture should no longer be considered private property or state property: they should be considered global commons and politically instituted as such. One thing is now certain: salvation will not come from above. Only through insurrections, uprisings and transnational coalitions of citizens can they enforce this on states and capital.

*Pierre Dardot is a philosophy researcher at the University of Paris-Nanterre.
*Christian Laval is professor of history of philosophy and sociology at the University of Paris-Nanterre.
They are authors, among other books, of Common: essay on revolution in the XNUMXst century (Boitempo).
Translation: Eleutério Prado
Article originally published on the website Mediapart.


[1] One of the most ambitious stimulus plans to date is that of Germany, which abruptly breaks with the ordoliberal dogmas in force since the beginning of the Federal Republic of Germany.

[2] Quoted in Nelly Didelot, “Coronavirus: les fermetures de frontière se multiplient en Europe”, Libération, 14 March 2020.

[3] Interview with Suerie Moon: “Avec le coronavirus, les Etats-Unis courent au disaster”, Le Temps, March 12, 2020.

[4] Neil Ferguson's team modeled the spread of the virus showing that under laisser faire it would kill 510 to 2,2 million people in the UK and US respectively. See also Herve Morin, Paul Benkimoun et Chloe Hecketsweile, “Coronavirus: des modélisations montrent que l'endiguement du virus prendra plusieurs mois”, Le Monde, March 17, 2020

[5] "to nudge” means to give a touch or a push. It is an incentive or stimulus that aims to make the individual act, without imposing restrictions.

[6] Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Yale University Press, 2008. Also Tony Yates, “Why is the government relying on nudge theory to fight coronavirus?”, March 13, 2020, on-nudge-theory-to-tackle-coronavirus.

[7] Ellen Salvi, Emmanuel Macron annonce une “rupture” en trompe-l'œil, Mediapart, March 13, 2020.

[8] Leon Duguit, Souveraineté et liberté, Leçons faites de l'Université de Columbia (New-York), 1920-1921, Felix Alcan, 1922, Eleventh Lesson, p. 164.

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