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The Social State and Globalization : A Legal Analysis of Forms of Solidarity

Alain Supiot
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht
Cet article est une traduction de :
État social et mondialisation :
analyse juridique des solidarités

Notes de la rédaction

Source : La lettre, no. 36, May 2013
Excerpts from the Inaugural Lecture, 22 November 2012

Texte intégral

Alain SupiotAfficher l’image
Crédits : Patrick Imbert - Collège de France

1It is easy to recognize that injustice breeds violence. But this is where difficulties begin. Difficulties of two types, theoretical and political, which Aristote had already neatly distinguished and prioritized :

2“It is extremely difficult”, he wrote in Politics, “to discover the truth about equality and justice. Nonetheless to do so is easier than to dissuade those who are in a position to manipulate it to their own advantage ; for it is always the deprived who seek equality and justice, while those in power do not give it a thought”. Even assuming that this political obstacle were lifted, one could not hope to uncover the rules of fair distribution of goods and positions by merely observing the facts. Contrary to the biological metaphor which is as old as it is misleading, regulation does not have the same meaning when applied to a living organism as it does when applied to a human society. In medicine, as Georges Canguilhem pointed out, it is easy to agree on what is good : health ; the issue is defining what is bad : diseases and their causes. In society it is, on the contrary, easy to agree on the ills to avert – misery, lying or violence – but defining an ideal order is more complex. While the norm of an organism’s functioning is identifiable in its very existence, to exist and subsist a society must set this norm outside of itself. While Hans Kelsen perfectly grasped the externality of the fundamental norm, this led him to the dead-ends of a purely formalist theory of law, blind to the values that fuel it and the facts that it governs. How can we escape this dead-end without falling­ into that of a scientism which claims that with the observation of the is, lies the answer to the question of the ought  ?

3However different they may be, these two dead-ends result from the same positivist repression, which Pierre Legendre’s work brought to light very well : the repression­ of Western modern­ity’s own dogmatic foundations. His work marked a turning point in legal thought, of a magnitude that was to become apparent only with time. For it will take us time to recognize that in the West, like anywhere else, the institution of people and society is based on indemonstrable premises, which are the product of trust and not that of calculation. It will also take time to exploit fully the heuristics of the concept of dogmatic industrial spaces, which is fundamental to understanding the institutional underpinnings of globalization. These decisive disco­veries, as well as the filial friendship I developed with their author, have profoundly influenced my academic career. While I am far too indebted to you, dear Pierre Legendre, even to hope to settle this debt one day, it is fitting for me to acknow­ledge it publically here in this forum.

4An old metaphor represents Justice as the mother of laws. It is the origin that our orphan humanity posits, without ever being able to return to it. In the terms of the doorkeeper of the first gate of the Law – in the only passage of The Trial that Kafka published in his lifetime – it is not possible to enter the Law, to access what its ultimate reason would be. Were we to go through this first door, an infinity of other ones would continue to separate us from it, just as an undefined series of axioms, added one after the other, could not save a formal system from that irreducible share of the incomputable. Of course, since Montesquieu, we know that the spirit of laws is linked to the characteristics of the environment in which each society is embedded, and that it therefore necessarily differs from one place and from one era to the next. But this is not an automatic causal link, for different representations of duty can emerge in the same environment. Science is powerless when it comes to founding a legal order. The principles on which such an order is based are asserted and celebrated, but neither demonstrated nor demonstrable.

5The Chair’s title – “The Social State and Globalization : A Legal Analysis of Forms of Solidarity” – refers both to an object and to a method. While it is rather long, it is so because this object cannot be confined within the safe and recognized boundaries of a “branch” of law, and because understanding it involves thinking of law as a tool for the analysis of societies, not only as an established system of rules. The social state shows us both the frame of the forms of solidarity which have profoundly transformed our ways of living together over the last century, and the interplay of powerful forces undermining this insti­tutional structure and threatening to bring it down. These are the forces that will need to be understood, along with their predictable impact.

• Inaugural Lecture published by Éditions Fayard and online at in French, and at in English.

• The video of the Inaugural Lecture is available online at, on the professor’s page.

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Alain Supiot, « The Social State and Globalization : A Legal Analysis of Forms of Solidarity », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2015, consulté le 22 février 2018. URL :

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