Source - Telospress

The following essay originally appeared in Valeurs actuelles on April 2, 2020, and is published here in English translation by permission of the author. Translated by Russell A. Berman.

History is always open, as everyone knows, and this makes it unpredictable. Yet in certain circumstances, it is easier to see the middle and long term than the near term, as the coronavirus pandemic shows well. For the short term, one surely imagines the worst: saturated health systems, hundreds of thousands, even millions of dead, ruptures of supply chains, riots, chaos, and all that might follow. In reality, we are being carried by a wave and no one knows where it will lead or when it will end. But if one looks further, certain matters become evident.

It has already been said but it is worth repeating: the health crisis is ringing (provisionally?) the death knell of globalization and the hegemonic ideology of progress. To be sure, the major epidemics of antiquity and the Middle Ages did not need globalization in order to produce tens of millions of dead, but it is clear that the generalization of transportation, exchanges, and communications in the contemporary world could only aggravate matters. In the “open society,” the virus is very conformist: it acts like everyone else, it circulates—and now we are no longer circulating. In other words, we are breaking with the principle of the free movement of people, goods, and capital that was summed up in the slogan “laissez faire,” i.e., let it go, let it pass. This is not the end of the world, but it is the end of a world.

Let us remember: after the implosion of the Soviet system, every Alain Minc of the planet announced a “happy globalization.” Francis Fukuyama even prophesied the end of history, convinced that liberal democracy and the market system had definitively won the day. One was going to transform the earth into an enormous shopping center, suppress all obstacles to free exchange, dissolve borders, replace countries with “territories,” and establish the “universal peace” that Kant had predicted. “Archaic” collective identities would be progressively eradicated, and sovereignty would become obsolete.

Globalization rested on the imperative to produce, to sell and to buy, to move, to circulate, to advance, and to mix in an “inclusive” manner. It depended on the ideology of progress and the idea that the economy would definitively replace politics. The essence of the system was the end of limits: always more exchanges, always more goods, always more profits to permit money to feed on itself to transform into capital.

Following the former industrial capitalism that still had some national anchorings, a new capitalism, more and more disconnected from the real economy, entirely deterritorialized and functioning in zero time, has taken off by demanding that states, now prisoners of financial markets, adopt “good governance,” susceptible to serving its interests. Privatizations spread, as well as delocalizations and international contracts, leading to deindustrialization, declines in revenue, and rising unemployment. The old Ricardian principle of the international division of labor was used and abused, which led to a competition, under dumping conditions, between the workers of Western countries and those in the rest of the world. The Western middle class began to decline, while the lower classes expanded, becoming increasingly vulnerable and precarious. Public services have been sacrificed on the altar of grand principles of liberal budgetary orthodoxy. Free exchange became more of a dogma than ever before, and protectionism its foil. If it didn’t work, one never backed off but instead pushed the accelerator.

But now, on top of that, collapse! While one once boasted of movement and deracination, everything now has stopped. While the imminent disappearance of borders was expected, one instead sees everywhere: the European Union is closing its borders (which turns out to be possible!)—borders are being placed between cities and regions, between buildings and individuals. One after another, all the countries are reestablishing control of their frontiers—and everyone is applauding.

The order of the day yesterday was to live together in a society with no borders; today it is “stay at home” and do not mix with others. The yuppies of the metropoles are fleeing like lemmings to find safety in the France of the periphery that they used to disdain. The time is long gone when one only spoke of a “sanitary cordon” to maintain a distance from nonconformist thinking! In the “maritime” world of fluctuation, one suddenly faces the return of the telluric—of the place that binds.

Thoroughly deflated, the European Commission looks like a frightened rabbit: bewildered, stunned, paralyzed. Incapable of understanding the state of emergency, it embarrassingly suspended what it previously held most important: the “principles of Maastricht,” that is, “the stability pact,” which limited state budgets to 3 percent of the GDP and the public debt to 60 percent. Following that, the European Central Bank unblocked 750 billion euros, allegedly in order to respond to the situation but in reality in order to save the euro. However, the truth is that in an emergency, each country decides and acts for itself.

In a globalized world, norms are supposed to allow for addressing every eventuality. Yet that forgets that in a state of exception, as Carl Schmitt showed, norms can no longer be applied. To listen to the good apostles, the state was the problem, but now it becomes the solution, just as in 2008, when the banks and pension funds appealed to the public powers, which they had previously denounced, to protect them from going under. Macron himself previously said that the social programs cost an insane sum, but now he declares ready to spend whatever it costs to get through the health crisis, without limits. The more the pandemic spreads, the more the public costs will have to grow. In order to cover the costs of unemployment and fill the breaches in the companies, the states are going to tap hundreds of billions, even though they are already deep in debt.

Labor law is being softened, the reform of pensions is being delayed, new plans for unemployment compensation are postponed indefinitely. Even the taboo of nationalization is gone. Apparently, one will find the money that used to be unfindable, but suddenly everything is possible that used to be impossible.

They are also now pretending to discover that China, which had become the factory of the world (in 2018, China represented 28 percent of the value added of global manufacturing production), produces all sorts of things that we have decided not to make ourselves, beginning with our medicine (since 2008, Europe does not produce a single gram of paracetamol!), and this turns us into the historical object of others. The head of state—what a surprise!—has stated that “it is a folly to delegate to our others our food, our protection, our capacity to care for ourselves, our way of life.” “The coming weeks and months will require decisions of rupture,” he added. Will it therefore be possible to relocalize entire aspects of our economy and to diversify our supply chains?

Nor should we ignore the anthropological shock. The understanding of man promoted by the dominant paradigm was one of the individual severed from his peers, thoroughly in ownership of himself (“my body belongs to me!”), intended to contribute to the general equilibrium by permanently seeking to maximize his own interest in the midst of a society thoroughly ruled by legal contracts and commercial relations. It is this vision of homo oeconomicus that is in the process of collapsing. While Macron calls on everyone’s responsibility, the solidarity of proximity, and even “national union,” the health crisis has recreated sentiments of belonging. Our relationships to time and space have been transformed: our relationship to our way of life, the reason for our existence, and to values that are not exhausted by those of “the Republic.” Instead of complaining, people admire the heroism of the health care workers. The importance is being rediscovered of what we have in common, the tragic, war, and death—in short, everything we wanted to forget: it is a fundamental return of reality.

And now, what is before us? First of all, surely an economic crisis, which will have the severest social consequences. Everyone anticipates a very strong recession, which will affect Europe as well as the United States. Thousands of businesses will fail, millions of jobs are threatened, and a drop of GDP up to 20 percent is expected. States are going to have to go into debt again, which will make the social tissue ever more fragile.

This economic and social crisis might lead to a new financial crisis even greater than 2008. The coronavirus will not be the key factor, because the crisis has been awaited for years, but it will surely be the catalyst. The stock markets have begun to collapse, and the price of oil has tumbled. A stock market crash does not only affect stockholders, but instead impacts the banks whose value depends on their active holdings: the hypertrophic growth of the financial holdings has resulted from speculative activity on the market that they pursued to the detriment of the traditional banking activity of savings and loans. If the stock market crash is accompanied by a crisis of the debt markets, as was the case with the subprime crisis, the spread of payment defaults in the center of the banking system points to a general collapse.

The risk then is having to respond simultaneously to a health crisis, an economic crisis, a social crisis, a financial crisis, and, not to be forgotten, an ecological and migrant crisis. A perfect storm: this is the coming tsunami.

There will also be political consequences, in all countries. What is the future of the Chinese president after the collapse of the “dragon”? What will happen in the Arab Muslim countries? What about the impact on the American presidential election, in a country where tens of millions lack medical coverage?

As for France, right now people are closing ranks, but they are not blind. They see that the epidemic was first met with skepticism, even indifference, and the government hesitated to adopt a strategy: systematic testing, herd immunity, or confinement. Procrastination and contradictory statements lasted for two months: this illness is not serious, but it causes many deaths; masks do nothing, but health care workers need them; screening tests are useless, but we will try to carry them out on a massive scale; stay at home, but go out to vote. At the end of January, Agnès Buzyn, French Minister of Health, assured us that the virus would not leave China. On February 26, Jerome Salomon, Director General of Health, testified at the Committee on Social Affairs of the Senate that there was no problem with masks. On March 11, Jean-Michel Blanquer, Minister of Education, saw no reason to close schools and colleges. On that same day, Macron bragged that “We will renounce nothing and certain not liberty!” after having demonstrably gone to the theater a few days before because “life must continue as normal.” Eight days later, a change in tone: universal seclusion. Who can take people like this seriously? In the language of the Yellow Vests, one might translate this by the slogan: the confined are being ruled by the cons.

We are at war, the head of state tells us. Wars require leaders and means. Yet we only have “experts” who do not agree with each other and our weapons are cap guns. As a result, three months after the start of the epidemic, we still lack masks, screening tests, disinfectant gel, hospital beds, and respirators. We are missing everything because nothing was anticipated, and no one hurried to catch up once the storm hit. According to many doctors, the responsible parties should be called to account.

The case of the hospital system is symptomatic because it is at the center of the crisis. In accordance with liberal principles, the public sector hospitals were to be transformed into cost centers, so as to encourage them to earn more money in the name of the sacrosanct principle of profitability, as if their work could be treated simply as a matter of supply and demand. In other words, a non-market sector was to be subordinated to market principles by introducing a managerial rationality resting on the sole criterion of just in time, which pushed the public hospitals to the edge of paralysis and collapse. Is it known that the regional health guidelines, for example, set a limit to the number of resuscitations as a function of the “health map”? Or that France eliminated 100,000 hospital beds during the past 20 years? That in Mayotte there are currently 16 ICU beds for 400,000 inhabitants? Health professionals have been talking about this for years, but no one listened. We are paying the price now.

When all this is over, will we return to the normal disorder, or will we find, thanks to this health crisis, an opportunity to start with better foundations, far from the demonism of the commercialization of the world, productivism, and consumerism at all costs?

One would hope so, except that the same people have shown themselves to be incorrigible. The 2008 crisis might have served as a lesson, but it was ignored. Old habits prevailed: priority of financial profits and the accumulation of capital to the detriment of public services and employment. When things seemed to be going better, one rushed again into the infernal logic of debt, and the “bulls” began again to gain, toxic financial products circulate, stockholders insisted on the full returns on their investments, while under the pretext of reestablishing an equilibrium, a politics of austerity was put in place that ravaged the people. The “open society” followed its natural inclination: one more time!

For the moment, one could make use of the confinement to reread or rediscover the formidable work of the sociologist Jean Baudrillard. In a “hyperreal” world, where virtuality has surpassed reality, he was the first to speak of the “invisible, diabolical, and elusive alterity that is the virus.” The informatic virus, the epidemic virus, the stock market virus, the virus of terrorism, the viral circulation of digitalized information: all that, he argued, obeyed “the same protocol of virulence and irradiation with a viral power over the imagination.” Virality, in other words, is the contemporary grand principle of the contagion of deregulation.


As I write these lines, the residents of Wuhan and Shanghai are rediscovering that in its natural state, the sky is blue.