Eugénie Bastié: The crisis we are going through seems to be bringing about a return of the State, after decades of talk of its decline. Even President Emmanuel Macron has admitted “we must rebuild our national and European sovereignty.” Are we witnessing the great comeback of the idea of the nation?
Pierre Manent: While waiting for things to unfold we note the return of the least likeable features of our State. In the name of a health emergency, a state of emergency has in fact been established. In the name of this emergency, the most primitive and brutal of measures has been taken: general confinement under police surveillance. The speed, the comprehensiveness, and even the eagerness with which the repressive apparatus was set in motion painfully contrast with the delays, the lack of preparation, and the indecisiveness of our policies of sanitation, whether concerning masks, tests, or potential treatments. Innocent or benign missteps are punished with exorbitant fines. We are forbidden from leaving our residences without passports, but the reestablishment of national borders is still considered a mortal sin. I do not believe the crisis is rehabilitating that State.
As for the nation, it has been abandoned, discredited, and delegitimized for two generations—just as any thought for industrial policy has been abandoned, discredited, and delegitimized. We have renounced the very idea of national independence. Oh, to be nothing more than a soft and pliant node of specialized expertise in the great network of global trade! And above all, the flux must never slow down! Are we discovering that we are dependent on China for almost everything we need? But we have organized ourselves in order to be dependent! We have willed it! Do you believe that, when we emerge weakened by the economic destruction brought about by the health crisis, there will be many who will be willing to reverse the course that we have been following for forty years?
EB: The relationship between the scientist or scholar and the political man, the foundation of political modernity, is being completely overturned by this crisis. It seems that we try to hide political decisions behind scientific expertise, and yet the moment politics tries to stand on its own, it is criticized by public opinion. How should we analyze this situation? Is it the triumph of expertise over political decision-making, or is it in fact the return of what is essentially political in a context of uncertainty?
PM: As for experts and scientists, certain distinctions must be made. We have learned to recognize, to esteem, and often to admire our doctors, caregivers, and researchers. This is a boon during this sinister springtime. We have also discovered the politics of science, which is no more innocent than regular politics. Expertise provides no immunity against the desire for power. In any case, it is up to elected officials to make decisions because they are the ones who are in charge of the whole, that is, the body politic; it is up to them to take all parameters into account and to envision all the consequences of their actions. Aristotle was right: Politics is the queen of the sciences!
EB: How would you analyze the European Union’s reaction to this crisis? More generally, is the crisis revealing the weakness of the West?
PM: The European Union is just as weak as the nations that make it up. The Union is in its last stage. Either it will limp along in its present form, or it will fall apart. The European order is based on German hegemony, a hegemony that is accepted and appreciated by the rest of Europe. Germany finds itself in the most stable and favorable situation it has ever been in. It dominates by its weight alone; it has no need to make a move, or rather it needs not to make a move. This is something President Macron has not understood, and so he wearies the Germans with his incessant requests for common initiatives. The various nations have retreated behind their borders.
This is the end of the European fantasy. There is no marvelous adventure awaiting us on the European side of the road. Every nation has discovered the unchangeable character of its collective being. Delivered from the frustrating dream of “Ever More Europe,” we can now rediscover a certain affection for what we are, we can try to gather strength in drawing upon our national character and patiently nourish our own resources—moral and spiritual resources as well as military and economic resources. This desire to rediscover and reaffirm ourselves will only be salutary if it is accompanied by a lucid awareness of our very real weakness, the weakness into which we have let ourselves slide.
EB: Are you surprised by the docility with which our liberal democracies have accepted the suspension of most of our freedoms? Is this not a sign that the exclusive reign of “rights” remains fragile in the face of the emergency of biological self-preservation?
PM: No one contests that the pandemic constitutes an emergency and that with an emergency some unusual measures are unavoidable. But the fragility of human health in a way constitutes a permanent urgency and may provide the State with a permanent justification for a permanent state of emergency. We now see in the State only the protector of our rights; now, since life is the first of our rights, a broad path is opened up to the State’s inquisitorial power. That said, we gave ourselves over to the State long ago, according it sovereignty over our lives. This long-term tendency has become more acute in recent years. The spontaneity of public speech has been subjected to a kind of prior censorship, which in effect has excluded legitimate debate on most of the important questions of our common life, or even of our personal lives. Whether the question is migration or relations between the sexes and related social questions, an ideology common to society and the State dictates what is permitted and prohibited, which is the same as what is honorable and shameful, noble and vile. In a word, we have altogether internalized the principle of a code of speech and expression, which it is considered suspect to resist. Thus have we quietly left behind the liberal and democratic regime that was informed and animated by rival collective projects, and which presented us with great undertakings, common actions to accomplish, good and bad, judicious and ruinous, but which gave us reasons to put up a good fight, occasions for vigorous argument, and great questions nourishing great disagreements. This happy time is gone. Our world is full of victims who, in a voice that is at once whining and threatening, claim to be wounded by all this talk. They see in the grammatical rules governing gender an offense to all women and find homophobic insult in schoolboy profanity. How can we now oppose the State as guardian of rights while we beg it to intrude into our ever-wounded personal lives?
EB: Do you think that the fundamental principles of liberalism are undermined by this crisis? Can they be saved?
PM: What is undermined are the fundamental principles of globalization, which are called liberal—that is, the competition of everyone with everyone or the idea that human order results from the impersonal regulation of the flux. This ideology exploited certain liberal themes, but the liberalism we must preserve is something different. A liberal regime organizes peaceful competition in order to define and implement rules of common life, and it distinguishes rigorously between the realm of political command and that of entrepreneurial freedom in the largest sense of the term, which includes in particular the free communication of moral, social, intellectual, and religious influences. And here is the key point: The liberal regime presupposes the national framework; there has never been a liberal regime without a national framework. In recent years, our regime has undergone a corruption that has affected all classes: the rich, since the regime has favored finance and rent-seeking, especially in real estate, and has incentivized the high technostructure to turn its back on the nation, sometimes to the point of losing a sense of the common good; and lower-income groups, which have been discouraged from working by indiscriminate social spending. The functions directly related to sovereignty—military, security, justice—have been deprived of resources. Thus, either we will proceed to reallocate resources in favor of these essential functions and rewards for working, or we will further immobilize ourselves in the State’s administration of ever-scarcer resources, while we continue to wither away morally and politically.
EB: While everything possible is being done to save the lives of the most vulnerable, the basic ceremonies that accompany life’s end have been limited, even abolished. What does this crisis tell us about the place of death in our modern societies?
PM: The government has taken upon itself the authority, under the circumstances, practically to forbid the last ritual to which we are still attached, that is, the one that accompanies death. Despite our very widespread tendency to make death invisible, this measure provoked sadness, consternation, and disapproval. Everyone can see that ceremonies might be regulated while maintained in their essential features, without participants risking more than is risked every day by delivery personnel or cashiers, not to mention caregivers.
This brutal erasure of death is inseparable from the erasure of religion: Have you noticed that, on the long list of authorized reasons for leaving one’s domicile, the “needs of pets” were not forgotten, but there was no provision for those who might wish to go to a place of worship? This merits reflection. Those who govern us are honorable people who are doing their best to overcome a serious crisis. But they have not noticed the enormous, and inadmissible abuse of power implicit in some of their decisions. How is this possible? In recent years, the institutions, regulations, and laws that define common life in Europe have become malleable in the face of the demands that all of us, tyrants tyrannized by our desires, choose to address to them. We have drunk a cup of wrath, as the Scripture says. We have delegitimized the institutions that order the transmission of life, and now we are removing the rites that accompany death. It is time to wake up.
Pierre Manent was director of studies at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, until his retirement in 2014.
Translated from the French by Ralph C. Hancock.