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'Our Elites Have Lost Consciousness of the French Social Model': An Interview with Alain Supiot

In this interview with Philippe Petit, Alain Supiot discusses the gilets jaunes protests and the urgent need to re-align the exercise of power with the rich and diverse experiences of people's lives.

Alain Supiot, Philippe Petit12 December 2018

'Our Elites Have Lost Consciousness of the French Social Model': An Interview with Alain	Supiot

This interview was originally published on Marianne. It has been translated from French by David Fernbach. 

Philippe Petit: You make a rather sparing use of op-ed pieces, even though your interventions in the press or on the radio – though you’re not a habitué of the TV screen – are extremely firm and prescient. For example, during the 2007 presidential campaign, when you regretted that the civil service was excluded from the debate on employment, or more recently with the El Khomri law in spring 2016, when you denounced the steady reduction of social protection caused by ‘neoliberal potions supposed to boost growth and employment’. In view of recent events, were you surprised by the movement of the gilets jaunes? And how do you view this?

Alain Supiot: I have in mind here the first sentence of the constitution of the International Labour Organization adopted in 1919: ‘Universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.’ Repeated in 1944, this obvious truth refers, not to charity or good feelings, but to the experience of the inordinate violence of the two world wars, in order to call for an international order based on social justice and solidarity, both between and within nations. Ignoring this experience condemns us to fall back into the situation described by the same constitution: ‘conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled’. The gilets jaunes movement is the expression of unrest of this kind, constantly inflamed by forty years of neoliberal policies, and is now being expressed everywhere, if in various forms: Arab spring (which has turned to winter); election of demagogues diverting social anger onto ‘foreigners’; mass emigration of young people who cannot find decent work in their own country...

PP: You believe that the issue of social justice should be a political priority. However, it has disappeared at the level of governments, the European Union and international institutions. In your opinion, is social justice reducible to standard of living?

AS: The stagnation or decline in income from employment and the dramatic increase in inequality are crucial issues that cannot be permanently obscured by the trickle-down theory or the metaphor of ‘lead climbers’. However, reducing social justice to these issues is one of the weaknesses of the post-war social model, which has been entirely in thrall to economic indicators: growth, GDP, unemployment rate. The organization of work and the preservation of the environment are two sides of the same coin. This is as true for employment at the local level, where the aim should be to reduce commuting distances, as it is at the international level. Manufacturing heavy products at one end of the world for consumption at the other is clearly ecologically unsustainable. However, international trade law, like European law, promotes the mobility of people and goods without taking into account its social and environmental costs. In France, where recent reforms of the labour code aim to impose this geographical mobility on all employees, the president recently declared that ‘instead of making trouble’, employees made redundant in the Creuse would do better to go to Corrèze, four hours’ drive a day. The gilets jaunes movement reveals the incompatibility of this demand for generalized mobility with the ecological imperative. They do not find it ‘fair’ to be made financially responsible for car pollution, while being always on the move because they are forced to live further and further away from their workplace, in areas emptied of their local shops by supermarkets and deserted by public services and the healthcare system. It is absurd to hold individuals responsible for the ecological failures that have created an economic system that has been released from democratic control by international and European law. Social justice does not mean only the distribution of the fruits of labour, but also their content, organizational modalities and ecological impact.

PP: You have always maintained that non-recognition of the dignity of productive workers can only lead to anger or violence, even uncontrollable reactions or extremist recuperation. Does the exasperation of the gilets jaunes– and I don’t mean professional vandals – strike you as a symptom of the social contempt expressed towards those who feel humiliated, ignored, even despised?

AS: The demand for dignity in and through work and the absence of stigmatization of foreigners are two remarkable features of this movement. Far from the vagaries of a certain left, which theorizes the end of work and believes that justice should be based on the recognition of differences in skin colour, gender or religion, this movement could appeal to the ILO’s 1944 Declaration of Philadelphia, according to which ‘all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and with equal opportunity’. This dignity has been infringed by the unbelievable contempt with which the current President of the Republic has constantly insulted the working classes, whom he has variously described as ‘nobodies’, capable only of ‘messing up’, ‘illiterate’, ‘lazy’, ‘losers’, or ‘Gauls reluctant to change’. Such brutalization of society is dangerous. It can only fuel violence and an ascent to extremes, the main victims of which are always ultimately the working classes. The memory of the bloody repression of the Communards in 1871 seemed to be in the President’s mind when he said that ‘Versailles is where the Republic took refuge when it was threatened’.

PP: Reforms have been discussed for decades, and, contrary to a preconceived notion that the French are resistant to reforms – and I should make clear the distinction between regressive reforms and progressive reforms – these have been the alpha and omega of all our successive governments. But they are also the means of ratifying many of the deregulations you have criticized, for example concerning public services, financial markets or the removal of trade borders from the European market. As we are on the eve of the European elections, could you clarify what you mean by reforms that would go in the right direction?

AS: A distinction should be made between reformism and transformism. Transformism is the art of adapting to external constraints while keeping the power structure intact. Its motto is to change everything so that nothing changes. Reformism, on the contrary, is based on the project of a fairer society, a better future for the greatest number, which people try to bring about by challenging the distribution of political and economic power. Two institutional factors have combined over the past twenty years to prohibit any reformist ambition in our country. On the one hand, what Frédéric Lordon has rightly called the flawed nature of the euro, which puts political power under the control of economic power and deepens inequalities between and within nations. And on the other hand, the progressive anaemia of democracy, reduced to an ‘electoral market’ controlled by communications techniques. This anaemia affects political democracy: the deputies of the current majority have been recruited on the model of hiring company executives; there’s not a single worker or employee in the National Assembly. It also affects democracy at a social level: the recent ‘reforms’ of the labour code, supposed to restore employment, have ended up transforming collective bargaining into an instrument of collective submission. In very ‘old world’ style, they focused on the firm instead of laying the foundations for economic and social negotiation at the territorial level, including local elected officials and public services. There is an urgent need to re-align the exercise of power with the infinitely rich and diverse experience of people’s lives, rather than pretending to know in advance what is good for them. In other words, to restore the democratic principle in the political sphere and extend it to the economic sphere. Together with colleagues from various European countries, we recently published a call for this in eight major national newspapers. Not saying in advance how to rebuild the European Union, but calling for a continent-wide debate on this subject.

PP: I know your reluctance to descend into the fray; you prefer to analyse, rather than prescribe. It’s not the function of a specialist in employment law to speak in the place of people who want to live better. But it may be their role to indicate a few avenues to help find a way out. Anger is a spark, and you know as well as I do that sparks can have a bad outcome. As someone who is open to the world, with a detailed knowledge of other civilizations and emerging countries, and familiar with European legal systems, what do you think of the political situation in France? The country seems strangely powerless in the face of the decline of intermediate bodies – trade unions and others. What would it take to avoid this being taken advantage of by extremist parties?

AS: The invention of the social state enabled democratic countries to set up legal mechanisms to metabolize the energy of economic conflicts of interest, turning these into the driving force behind a regular redefinition of social justice. Forty years of neoliberal policies have sought to dismantle these mechanisms for converting power relations into legal relationships and to undermine all institutions based on the principle of solidarity. Today, France is confronted, like all countries in the world, with the evaporation of the mirage of happy globalization, with rebellion against social injustices that have become blatant and the rise of ecological perils. Like all countries in the world, it has responded with an authoritarian temptation, which has taken on a technocratic face in our country but could also become ethno-nationalist. One of the handicaps of our country is the short-sightedness of a large part of its ruling classes, including in the university milieu, who do not imagine there can be any ideas beyond the current framework, and whose international horizon is reduced to Anglo-American models or Nordic rigour. It would be too little to say that they have lost confidence in the French social model; they have actually lost consciousness of it. However, it is the resilience of this model that has so far kept at bay the ferments of division and xenophobia. Based on a high degree of solidarity, an honest and dedicated civil service, a relatively protective employment law for the working classes and quality public services accessible to all, this social model has protected our country for a good while from a return of social violence. It is now on the verge of a breakdown, including in the police, because instead of changing it, governments on all sides have been working for twenty years to methodically undo it. On the contrary, we should base ourselves on the best of what it provides in order to chart the way to a better future for the greatest number of people.