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A society that holds out to its young people the ideal of becoming millionaires condemns itself to repeated crises.

Interview with legal scholar Alain Supiot.

Alain Supiot27 July 2022

A society that holds out to its young people the ideal of becoming millionaires condemns itself to repeated crises.

The jurist Alain Supiot, professor emeritus at the Collège de France, has just published ‘La Justice au travail’,[1] a short book in which he puts this important issue into historical perspective and analyses current developments. He has also presented a new edition of Montesquieu’s ‘Persian Letters’.[2] In our columns, he calls for overcoming the opposition between distributive and recognitive justice, what are nowadays called ‘social’ and ‘societal’ justice.

Interviewed by Anna Musso

Alain Supiot has held the chair ‘État social et mondialisation: analyse juridique des solidarités’ at the Collège de France. He was from 2016 to 2018 a member of the ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work. His work as a legal scholar has been mainly in two complementary fields: social law and legal theory. His current research focuses on the transformations of the social state in the context of globalisation.

The title of your book, ‘La Justice au travail’, has, according to you, a double meaning: ‘the just distribution of work and its fruits’ and ‘the demand for justice as a historical force’. How do you articulate these two dimensions?

Justice has often been conceived as an ideal and unchanging order to which one should conform. But it is, rather, the historically changing experience of injustice that is primary. It was the working-class misery engendered by the rise of industrial capitalism that gave rise, in the nineteenth century, to the desire to understand its causes and to combat its spread. This experience differs from that of today’s platform workers or health-care workers whom management subjects to numerical indicators. In other words, justice is not the result of a ‘spontaneous order’, a self-regulating mechanism of a biological or economic type; it is the horizon of constantly renewed efforts to reduce the factors of injustice specific to a given time and in given circumstances.

History teaches us that the greater the injustice in societies, the more violence develops. Peace is therefore based on social justice, as proclaimed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Why is this principle still not heard?

Revolts against injustice can be suppressed or captured by demagogues who direct social anger against scapegoats. It is only when they are driven by a coherent political project that they can give birth to a more just society. This was the case in the twentieth century with the invention of the social state, which enabled democracies to triumph over totalitarian regimes. Its project was that of a social citizenship, which guarantees to everyone the economic security without which there is no true political citizenship. But, as the preamble to the ILO constitution states, ‘the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries’. In other words, social justice must be a shared goal of cooperating nations.

On the contrary, however, for almost half a century now, faith in a ‘spontaneous market order’ has led to stirring up a competition of all against all, at the international, European and national levels. To set up as a fundamental norm the pursuit of one’s own particular interests disqualifies public interest and frugality, and inevitably engenders violence. A society that holds out to its youth the ideal of becoming millionaires is neither socially nor ecologically sustainable and condemns itself to repeated crises.

In France, as you say, ‘social justice was built on three pillars: public services, social security and labour law’. Given their current deconstruction, what is happening to social justice and solidarity in our country?

Contrary to what its promoters think, this deconstruction does not lead to the advent of a spontaneous market order, based on the adjustment of utility calculations between individuals driven by the sole pursuit of their private interests. The need for solidarity does not disappear; it is transferred to other, non-democratic, bases, such as ethnic or religious affiliation, skin colour or sexual orientation. ‘Social justice’ is then invoked in support of identity-based claims, the inflation of which is proportional to the decline of economic and social citizenship.

You write that ‘social justice must not be locked into the binary of having and being, but must be open to doing’. What does this mean?

It is precisely a matter of going beyond the opposition between distributive justice and recognitive justice, that is to say between what we call today the ‘social’ and the ‘societal’. The former reduces humans to what they have, i.e. to their wealth and purchasing power, while the second reduces them to what they are, to their religious, racial or sexual identity. But what should be taken into account is what they do, that is, the contribution they make through their work to the common good.

This is one of the lessons of the Covid pandemic. It has highlighted the plight of ‘essential workers’, especially those who care for the sick in public hospitals: doctors, nurses, orderlies, not to mention maintenance and catering staff, now outsourced in every sense of the word. We had to recognise that, regardless of their origin, the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation, they were not paid commensurate with the essential nature of their tasks (just think of the dizzying differences between the pay of a nurse and that of an investment banker...).

The pandemic has also shown that the hospital system would function much better if it were organised on the basis of workers’ experience of these tasks, rather than by technocrats or consultancies. More generally, the social and ecological challenges we face will not be met without giving workers a say in what they do and how they do it.

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You say that ‘governance by numbers’ produces a new form of dehumanisation. What does this involve?

Governance by numbers treats all workers – managers and managed alike – as consuming bipeds. They have to react in real time to the signals they receive in order to achieve the numerical objectives set by programs. They are thus locked into the speculative loops of a numerical representation of the world, disconnected from their concrete experience of the tasks at hand. Long before the pandemic, hospital staff were complaining that they had to ‘look after indicators rather than patients’.

This fall into dehumanisation is reflected in a considerable increase in psychological illnesses at work. These risks to mental health do not spare the ruling classes. Perceiving the world only through its numerical representation, they lose touch with reality and appear more and more ‘disconnected’ or ‘out of touch’.

Platform work, what is called ‘uberisation’, leads to a resurgence of bonds of allegiance. Is this a kind of re-feudalisation of human relationships?

The resurgence of allegiances is a general phenomenon, also evident between companies in the same production chain, between the European Union and member states, or between hegemonic states and their vassals. But it is true that uberisation offers a ‘chemically pure’ manifestation of this.

Behind the propaganda extolling the supposed freedom of ‘self-entrepreneurs’, it is in fact the legal structure of serfdom that reappears with platform work. In feudal law, the serf was not a wage-earner, but the holder of the ‘servile tenure’ granted to him by his lord, in exchange for a fee. This is exactly the formula that the platforms are trying to impose. They want to benefit from the activity of the workers they pilot, control and, if necessary, ‘disconnect’, without having to assume any employer responsibility, in particular to contribute to the financing of social security.

An important characteristic of these new bonds of allegiance is indeed to allow those who control the information networks and hold the reality of power to exonerate themselves from their social and ecological responsibilities.

How can we liberate work that is based on bonds of subordination for salaried workers and on bonds of allegiance for ‘uberised’ workers?

With regard to the latter, there is reason to believe that the French government, as most European countries have already done and as proposed by the Brussels Commission, will have to go along with case law, which most often recognises employees.

As for the ‘Fordist pact’, which consisted in exchanging the submission of employees for a minimum of economic security, it has been the target of neoliberal policies for the last thirty years, illustrated in France by the so-called El Khomri and Macron reforms. These have sought, in particular, to emancipate companies from industrial agreements on wages and thus to engage them in a race to lower wages, instead of competing only on the quality of their products. Because it is only through industry-wide negotiations that this quality and purchasing power can be raised.

The absurdity of these reforms is apparent at a time when there is a consensus on the need for such an increase, just as the abolition of health and safety committees has proved to be foolish at the time of Covid. Rather than chasing after the lowest social standards, it would be more appropriate, as your question suggests, to design reforms that give workers ‘the satisfaction of giving the fullest measure of their skill and attainments and make their greatest contribution to the common well-being’. This goal may have been unrealistic when it was proclaimed in 1944 in the Declaration of Philadelphia, but it is within our grasp today, provided we put our new intelligent machines to work for the well-being and creativity of humans and their living environments, rather than striving to do the opposite. I mention in this little book some of the early signs of this very broad project of freedom in the workplace and economic democracy.

You call for a ‘true globalisation’ [mondialisation] to counter actual globalisation, which you describe as ‘anarcho-capitalism’ threatening peace. How do you define and initiate a virtuous ‘mondialisation’?

Driven by religious faith in a historical process of globalisation, anarcho-capitalism tends to liquidate the diversity of laws and territories in order to submit them uniformly to the ‘spontaneous order’ of a market that has become total, supposedly abolishing national solidarities and borders and uniformly governing the planet. In response to the revolts provoked by this process, an ethno-capitalism is now in full swing, directing social anger towards scapegoats, designated by their religion, nationality or origins, and thus offering a mixture of neoliberalism and identitarianism.

To get out of this double impasse, we need to distinguish between globalisation and mondialisation. Etymologically, the world [monde] is the opposite of the immonde [filth]; it is an environment made habitable by human labour and the respect of the ecumene [the relationship of humans to their environment – Editor’s note]. A true policy of mondialisation would consist in inventing new solidarities between nations, which the digital revolution and the rise of ecological perils make more interdependent than ever. Avoiding the pitfalls of both globalisation and retreat into identity, such a policy would make the diversity of languages and cultures a strength, not a hindrance, on the way to a new conception of justice at work, which combines the equal dignity of human beings with the preservation and embellishment of their diverse living environments.

You have also published and prefaced a new edition of Montesquieu’s ‘Persian Letters’. What is the relevance of this classic text?

If I embarked on a posthumous correspondence with Montesquieu on the occasion of the tercentenary of his Persian Letters, it is precisely because he is the only philosopher of the Enlightenment who understood that understanding and respecting the diversity of civilisations was not an obstacle, but on the contrary a condition for the emancipation of men through reason. It is also because he writes in an admirable language, which is a break from the globish used by those who govern us today.

Published by L’Humanité, 28 May 2022

Translated by David Fernbach


[1] La Justice au travail (Paris: Seuil, 2022), 68 pages, 4.50 euros.

[2] Montesquieu, Les Lettres persanes, presented by Alain Supiot (Paris: Seuil, 2022), 400 pages, 8.10 euros.

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