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The Grandeur and Misery of the Social State

Alain Supiot

Introducing Alain Supiot

Serge Haroche
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht

Texte intégral

1Alain Supiot, by welcoming here today your Chair of The Social State and Globalization: a Legal Analysis of Forms of Solidarity, the Collège de France is pursuing its mission to make thought based on profound and original research available to a broad public.

2Labour law, or social law more generally, your main research subject, is currently undergoing major changes, both in France and in the rest of the world. And it is suffering the effects of the rapid and sometimes brutally sudden transformations of our societies in the grip of a now ubiquitous global market. The study of this aspect of law, which constitutes an intermediary between public and private law, between that of people and that of chattel, and from each of which it borrows concepts and methods, is a complex enterprise on a technical level, a fascinating one on a theoretical level, and a crucial one if we are to remedy some of the ills that are currently afflicting our societies.

  • 1 Jean Pélissier, Alain Supiot and Antoine Jeammaud, Droit du travail, Paris, Dalloz, “Précis” coll., (...)

3There are three complementary dimensions to your work, and you have become highly renowned in each of them over the course of your career as a jurist and a researcher. First a technical dimension, for before any theoretical analysis came the precise and methodical description of the massive body of texts pertaining to your subject. Your participation in the writing of the Dalloz handbook of labour law1, one of the volumes that constitute any law student’s Bible, shows that you are indeed one of the leading experts on social law in our country.

4But besides your expert competence, I would like to stress a second aspect of your work, namely that of theoretical analysis. In several of your works, which have been highly influential, you have endeavoured to unpack the workings of social law and grasp the principles underpinning its development. To do so, you have not only drawn on law, but also on anthropology, sociology and economics.

  • 2 Alain Supiot, The Spirit of Philadelphia. Social Justice against the Total Market, Verso Books, 201 (...)

5In this theoretical work you have provided an insightful analysis of markets’ influence on the evolution of law, and of the shift which is causing the sovereignty of the law regulating markets to be increasingly replaced with competition between laws, which are seen as “legislative products”. This critical analysis culminated in your recent book The Spirit of Philadelphia2 which had a considerable impact, and in which you denounce the emergence of a world where “governance by laws is giving way to governance by numbers”. You contrast a world “that relies on the faculty of judgement”, that is, particularly on “processes of legal qualification and of interpretation of texts, the meaning of which can never be definitively set”, with a governance which relies on the “faculty of calculation”, that is, “processes of quantification and programming of behaviours”. You conclude that this “pulverization of law into subjective laws” is producing a society where the individual is now “reduced to the state of a contracting and calculating monad, living in a world rendered entirely calculable and programmable”, a world that has become “dull and devoid of mystery”.

6I am not a jurist myself and the laws governing quanta, which are neither dull nor mysterious, are very different from those that currently apply in modern societies. I am however fortunate to have an anthropologist among the people closest to me, and who enabled me to understand this crucial and critical aspect of your work. I furthermore think your analyses resonate deeply in another domain, that of research in the academic world, where globalization and the law of the market have had perverse effects similar to the ones you denounce in social law. In that domain as well, researchers’ individual qualities, the non-quantifiable part in each of them, tends to no longer be taken into consideration and to fade away in the face of global and quantitative evaluations. The subjective notion of trust, which implies the allocation of long-term recurrent research funding, is being replaced with that of short-term contracts, which often obey utilitarian motivations that attach little importance to the “priceless gift” that is fundamental research.

7But let me bring to a close this side note which ties in with my personal concerns as a researcher, at a time when our community is considering its future and how to improve it. I simply wanted to say that your thought, though it applies to another domain, can be particularly useful in the search for solutions enabling us to withstand the implacable law of the market.

8This naturally brings me to the third dimension of your work. As well as the legal technician and theorist, there is also the clinician who does not just observe problems but offers ways of remedying them. The forms of expertise you articulated at national level before the French Economic and Social Council, and at international level when you led an interdisciplinary group of researchers on the question of labour law in Europe, led to a diagnosis and recommendations that are now being discussed within international bodies. This aspect of your activity is undoubtedly of utmost interest to politicians and ministers, and is not unrelated to the presence of the Prime Minister, Mr Jean-Marc Ayrault, whom I would like to salute.

9This brief presentation provides only very incomplete insight into your career, Alain Supiot. It is highly international, as I mentioned, and your audience at that level can be measured by the impressive number of languages into which your work has been translated. Yet it is also well rooted in Nantes, where you have been a university lecturer since 1982, and where you created an Institute of Advanced Studies that you have been running for the last few years, which hosts researchers from across the world, from the North as well as the South. It provides a space for them to share their thoughts and their studies on law and institutions, but also on languages, religion and aesthetics.

10Your arrival at the Collège de France which, I am sure you will agree, is also a sort of Institute of Advanced Studies, will allow you to combine your national mission, of teaching social law in the making in Paris, with a regional anchorage which I know is very important to you. The attentive audience that will now follow your inaugural lecture counts at least one other person – isn’t that right, Mr Prime Minister? – who will fully appreciate the wise balance you will now have to find between Paris and Nantes.


1 Jean Pélissier, Alain Supiot and Antoine Jeammaud, Droit du travail, Paris, Dalloz, “Précis” coll., 2004.

2 Alain Supiot, The Spirit of Philadelphia. Social Justice against the Total Market, Verso Books, 2012.

© Collège de France, 2013

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