Christian Laval

French sociologist

Christian Laval (born 1953) is a French researcher on the history of philosophy and sociology at the Paris Nanterre University.

Christian Laval in 2016



The pandemic as political trial: the case for a global commons, 2020

The pandemic as political trial: the case for a global commons (March 28, 2020), co-written with Pierre Dardot, ROAR Magazine
  • The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global health, social and economic crisis. Historical comparisons are few, particularly in recent decades. This tragedy constitutes nothing less than a trial for all humanity. The two meanings of the French word "épreuve" captures the dual significance of what we now confront: épreuve in the sense of an ordeal, an immense and painful undertaking, but also a test, an evaluation, or a judgment. The pandemic, in other words, is now testing the capacity of our political and economic systems to cope with a global problem situated at the level of our individual interdependence, which is to say at the very foundation of our social life. Like a dystopia made real, the current situation provides us with a glimpse of what soon awaits humanity if global economic and political structures are unable to radically and rapidly transform in order to confront the climate change crisis.
  • What we have witnessed so far is cause for alarm. The institutional xenophobia of the state form is becoming especially manifest just as we are gaining increasing awareness of the lethal danger the virus poses for all humanity. The European states responded to the initial spread of the coronavirus in a totally uncoordinated fashion. Very quickly, most European states — Central Europe in particular — locked themselves behind the administrative walls of their national territory in order to protect their population from the "foreign virus," and the first countries in Europe to cloister themselves in were also the most xenophobic. This set the tone throughout Europe and the rest of the world: every state must look after their own — to the delight of the extreme right in Europe and elsewhere. And nothing has been more abject than the lack of solidarity with the most affected countries. Italy's abandonment by France and Germany — who pushed selfishness to new heights by refusing to send Italy medical equipment and protective masks — sounded the death knell for a Europe built on a foundation of generalized competition between states.
  • The WHO has been financially weakened for the past several decades, and is now largely dependent on private donors, with 80 percent of its funding coming from private businesses or foundations. But despite its weakened condition, the WHO could have still provided an initial framework for global cooperation in the fight against the pandemic, not only because of the reliable information it had gathered since the beginning of January, but also because its recommendations for radical and early control of the epidemic were ultimately correct. According to the Director-General of the WHO, the choice to abandon systematic testing and contract tracing, which were effective in Korea and Taiwan, was a major mistake that contributed to the spread of the virus in virtually every country. The ultimate cause of this alarming delay were strategic choices. Italy was quickly forced to adopt a strategy of absolute confinement in order to halt the epidemic, as China had previously done. Other countries waited far too long to react, largely on the basis of the fatalist and crypto-Darwinian strategy of "herd immunity." Boris Johnson's United Kingdom was entirely passive in its initial approach, and other countries equivocated and delayed their restrictive measures, such as France and Germany, not to mention the United States.
  • By adopting a strategy of "mitigation," or epidemic delay by "flattening the curve," these countries have de facto renounced any serious attempt to keep the virus under control from the start through the use of systematic screening and general confinement of the population, as was done in Wuhan and Hubei province. According to the forecasts of the German and French governments, the strategy of collective immunity necessitates 50 to 80 percent contamination across the entire population. This amounts to accepting the deaths of hundreds of thousands — even millions — of people who are supposedly the "most fragile." All the while, the WHO’s recommendations were very clear: states must not abandon systematic screening and contact tracing of anyone who tests positive for the virus.
  • Why have states placed so little confidence in the WHO, and why have they not accorded the WHO a central role in coordinating the global response to the pandemic? In China, the epidemic effectively paralyzed the country both politically and economically. Freezing economic production and trade has never been practiced on such a scale, and the outcome has been a very serious economic and financial crisis in China. Germany, France and the United States most of all, thus largely hesitated in order to keep their economies running as long as possible — or, more precisely, to balance off economic and public health imperatives based on how the situation unfolds from "day to day," rather than heeding the more dire, long-term forecasts.
  • It is also worth recalling that French officials adopted this very same approach until March 14. Macron initially refused to adopt strict containment measures because, as he stated on March 6, "restrictive measures are not sustainable over time." As he exited the theater he had attended that very same day with his wife, he declared "Life goes on. There is no reason, save for vulnerable populations, to change our social behaviors." Lurking beneath these words, which seem utterly irresponsible today, one cannot help but detect a tactic in which this libertarian paternalism allowed governments to defer the draconian measures they knew would necessarily disrupt their economies. Nonetheless, the eventual failure of libertarian paternalism to contain the virus compelled the political authorities to radically change course. In France, our first glimpse of this shift was Macron's Presidential Speech on March 12, in which he appealed to national unity, to our sacred union, and to the French people's "strength of character." Macron’s next speech on March 16 was even more explicit in its martial posture and rhetoric: it is time for general mobilization, for "patriotic self-restraint," because "we are now at war." The figure of the sovereign state now manifests itself in its most extreme but also its most classic form: that of the sword that strikes the enemy, "who is there, invisible, elusive and advancing."
  • But there was an even more surprising twist in the president's March 12 address: Emmanuel Macron was suddenly and almost miraculously transformed into a staunch defender of the welfare state, and of public health. He even affirmed the impossibility of reducing everything to the logic of the market! Many commentators and politicians, several of whom are on the left, eagerly welcomed Macron's recognition of the irreplaceable importance of our public services. Yet what we witnessed here was really little more than a delayed response to Macron's public confrontation with a doctor during his visit to the Pitié Salpêtrière Hospital on February 27. The doctor, a professor of neurology, insisted Macron provide the public hospitals with an "investment shock" ("choc d’attractivité"), and Macron assented to the doctor's demands, at least in principle. It was of course immediately recognized that Macron's subsequent pronouncements were completely hollow, and they in no way called into the question the neoliberal policies his government has methodically pursued for years.
  • Nonetheless, during the same press conference, Macron declared that "delegating our food, our protection, or our ability to take care for our living environment to others is madness. We must take back control." This invocation of state sovereignty has been welcomed by many, especially the neo-fascists of the Rassemblement National (the National Rally). The defense of public services would thus seem perfectly aligned with the prerogatives of the sovereign state: removing healthcare from the logic of the market is an act of sovereignty that is now in the process of reversing the many concessions France granted to the European Union in the past. But is it so obvious that the notion of the public service is in fact aligned with the concept of state sovereignty? Does the former depend on the latter? Is the public service indissolubly linked to state sovereignty? This question deserves particularly careful consideration because it is one of the central arguments deployed by the proponents of state sovereignty.
  • Let us begin by examining the very nature of state sovereignty. Etymologically, sovereignty means "superiority" (from the Latin superanus), but superiority in regard to what? In brief, it is superiority in regard to any laws or obligations that threaten to limit the power of the state, both in its relation to other states and in relation to its own citizens. The sovereign state places itself above any commitments or obligations, which it is then free to constrict or revoke as it pleases. But as a public figure, the state can only act through its representatives, who are all supposed to embody the continuity of the state over and above the daily exercise of their specific governmental functions. The superiority of the state therefore effectively means the superiority of its representatives over the laws or obligations that impinge upon them. This is the notion of superiority that is elevated to the rank of principle by all sovereigntists. But however unpleasant it may sound, this principle applies regardless of the political orientation of its leaders: what is essential is merely that one acts as a representative of the state, regardless of one's particular beliefs about state sovereignty. All the concessions that were successively granted to the EU by the representatives of the French state were acts of sovereignty — for the very construction of the EU, from the beginning, was based on the implementation of the principle of state sovereignty.
  • Similarly, the fact that the French state, like so many other European states, has consistently evaded its international obligations regarding the defense of human rights is also part of the logic of sovereignty: the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998) obliges signatory states to create a safe and healthy environment for human rights defenders. However, the laws and practices of signatory states, and in particular French laws and practices regarding the border it shares with Italy, violates its international obligations. The very same can of course be said with respect to climate change obligations, which states happily ignore based on their particular interests at any given time. And in matters of internal public law, state sovereignty reigns supreme there as well. To stick to the case of France, the rights of Amerindians in Guyana are routinely denied in the name of the principle of the "One and Indivisible Republic" — an expression that, once again, references the sacrosanct principle of state sovereignty. Ultimately, expressions such as these are little more than alibis that allow state representatives to exempt themselves from any obligation that might legitimate citizen control over the state.
  • It is important to keep this last point in mind, for it is crucial in terms of understanding the public character of the so-called "public" service. The precise meaning of the word "public" demands our full attention here, because it is too rarely recognized that the concept of "public" is absolutely irreducible to the "state." The term "publicum" designates not merely the state administration, but the entire community as constituted by all citizens: public services are not state services, in the sense that the state can dispense these services as it pleases, nor are they merely an extension of the state: they are public in the sense that they exist "in the service of the public." It is in this sense that they constitute a positive obligation of the state toward its citizens.
  • Public services, in other words, are owed by the state — and its governors — to the governed. They are nothing like a favor that the state generously extends toward the governed, despite the negative connotations years of liberal polemics have imposed upon the phrase "the welfare state." Léon Duguit, one of the most important theorists of the public service, made this fundamental point at the beginning of the twentieth century: it is the primacy of the duties of those in power in relation to the governed that forms the basis of what we call the "public service." For Duguit, public services are not a manifestation of state power, but a limitation of governmental power. The public service is a mechanism by which the governors become the servants of the governed. These obligations, which are imposed on those who govern as well as the agents of government, form the basis of what Duguit calls "public responsibility." This is why the public service is a principle of social solidarity, one which is imposed on all, and not a principle of sovereignty, inasmuch as the latter is incompatible with the very idea of public responsibility. This conception of the public service has largely been suppressed by the fiction of state sovereignty. But the public service nonetheless continues to make itself felt by virtue of the strong connection citizens feel toward what they still consider to be a fundamental right. For the citizen's right to public services is the strict corollary of the duty or obligation of state representatives to provide public services. This why the citizens of various European countries affected by the current crisis have demonstrated, in diverse ways, their attachment to public services in their daily fight against the coronavirus: for instance, the citizens of numerous Spanish cities have applauded their healthcare workers from their balconies, regardless of their political attitude toward the centralized unitary state.
  • Two relations must therefore be carefully separated here: the citizenry’s attachment to the public service, and healthcare in particular, in no way suggests adherence to public authority or public power in its various forms, but rather suggests an attachment to services whose essential function is to meet the public's need. Far from disclosing an underlying identification with the nation, this attachment gestures toward a sense of a universal that crosses borders, and accordingly renders us sensitive to the trials our "pandemic co-citizens" are enduring, whether they are Italian, Spanish, or live beyond European borders. We are extremely skeptical of Macron's promise to be the first leader to question "our developmental model" after the crisis is over, and there are plenty of reasons to think that the drastic economic measures currently in place will eventually share the same fate as those enacted during the 2008 economic crisis: we will likely see a concerted effort to "return to normal" — i.e., return to our otherwise uninterrupted destruction of the planet amidst increasingly conditions of social inequality. And we fear the enormous stimulus packages designed to "save the economy" will once again be borne on the backs of the lowest-paid workers and taxpayers.