On January 11, 2022, thousands of French healthcare workers marched in the streets to oppose the government’s destruction of the public healthcare system. The next day, schools closed, following a powerful national strike by teachers enraged by the lack of means to deal with the pandemic. Meanwhile, parliamentary deputies of all political stripes worried about the aggressiveness of voters toward them. Le Monde—“the official newspaper of all governments,” as Guy Debord called it—at last dared to take a slightly critical tone toward the government. In the paper’s “open forum” section, a scientist William Dab (though a close ally of the government) declared that the Emmanuel Macron’s recent statement insulting the unvaccinated “masks the inadequacy of public healthcare in the field.”1 It must be said that the President of the French Republic, an ex-banker and former Jesuit student, did go a little too far in suggesting that because of their attitude the unvaccinated could be stripped of their civil rights. His not-so-veiled threat suddenly reactivated the mobilization of tens of thousands of demonstrators in the streets of large cities, over and beyond the ideological divisions of their motivations, to which we will return later.
The following remarks address some of the political questions raised by the current Covid-19 pandemic in the context of French society—an example, if ever there was one, of a European society where any social problem, heath or otherwise, immediately takes on a political dimension; where class antagonisms are always present; where the social question is never far from the surface.
For two years now, the pandemic has had a severe impact on French society, creating an atmosphere of anxiety, fear, and insecurity that paralyzes individuals and congeals worsening conflicts and social problems: those of social impoverishment, rising inequalities, and the violence of class relations and exploitation. This is happening in a political structure where there is an ever more fragile social consensus and a system of representation in crisis, and at a moment already contaminated by the electoral engineering of the upcoming presidential elections in April 2022. As the pandemic persists and the virus mutates and spreads, the congealed class antagonisms are beginning to thaw and express themselves timidly but more and more explicitly. Of course, the preferred interest of mainstream media outlets, which feed each other news stories, is the circus of conspiracy theories hatched on social networks and anti-vaccine mobilizations, the majority of which are organized by the reactionary right. Thus, they have given far less space to the recent demonstrations of healthcare workers and teachers, mentioned above, than to those of the extreme right-wing anti-vaxxers.
Because I have written this text for readers on the other side of the pond, it is important to recognize at the outset that the European and the American situations differ on an essential matter that is at the source of differences in methods to fight the virus, particularly the medical and political use of the vaccine. In the United States, a universal public healthcare system does not exist, and from the beginning the use of vaccines was instrumentalized by the forces of the right, the Trump clan in particular. In Europe, on the other hand, public healthcare systems do exist, but they have been under attack since the rise of neoliberal ideology—an ideology shared by all the dominant political forces, including those of the old social-democratic left. Healthcare has come to be viewed as a commodity and a field of opportunity for private investment; hospitals are now run like capitalist enterprises. This is destroying public healthcare systems. At the same time, European governments, of the left or the right, have from the start considered vaccines, rather than the public health system, as the essential basis of their anti-Covid health policy. This choice does not conflict with the direct links between the nation states and the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, or with the powerful multinationals of the pharmaceutical industry. In other words, if in the United States the vaccine is seen as a palliative for the absence of a public health system, in Europe, governments are using the vaccine to cover up their destruction of the public systems which existed.
In France, the political caste’s lack of credibility appears to be difficult to repair, despite the efforts of professional reformers. Three major factors have reinforced public distrust of official healthcare measures since the start of the pandemic. The first is over the origin of the epidemic: did it have a biological origin, or was it an industrial accident? The heavy and disturbing silence that rapidly settled over the Wuhan affair—where the laboratories, firmly policed by the totalitarian Chinese state, are also places where French, North American, and Dutch scientists collaborated—has only reinforced public doubt over official explanations. Second is the influence the pharmaceutical capitalists acquired in the “management” of the health crisis, with the submission of public authorities to their interests and opaque decisions. Last, but not least, is the shocking opposition of Brussels and the member states of the EU to the lifting of vaccine patents and the distribution of vaccines to the rest of the world, to the poorest societies first. The incoherence and lack of preparedness, the governments’ irresponsibility with regard to secondary antiviral health measures, from masks to basic medicines and tests, were incidental but nevertheless disturbing aspects of these major issues.
To all this, we can add the long-term distrust of vaccines that exists in a number of European countries, even in France, a country where every self-respecting patriot reveres the name of Pasteur. This distrust, which goes far beyond irrational conspiracy theories, has its origins in serious medical errors, whether related to vaccines or not. A well known example was the so-called “contaminated blood scandal” of 1985, in which the then-Socialist government was implicated in cover-ups to protect the French pharmaceutical group Pasteur. The widespread acceptance of the Covid vaccines in France is, therefore, rather surprising. However, here too, political-scientific truth is only a half-truth. Marketed in a climate of panic as a miracle protection against the virus and especially as a “protector of the health system,” which everyone knew was in trouble, the vaccines were soon revealed to be only a protection against serious forms of the infection, and even then, not always. By making the vaccine the center of its anti-COVID program, all the while continuing the destruction of public health services, the French government, like the majority of European governments, transformed the anti-viral fight, and especially the vaccine, into a political issue.
At the same time, the state quickly took the initiative in promoting its “management” of the pandemic, in which it has been crowned with success so far. From the outset, its principal objective was to invert the responsibility for the collapse of the public healthcare system, for the absence of a society-wide health policy. After years of budget cuts in healthcare, opposed by socially isolated struggles of hospital staff, official discourse has laid the responsibility for “supporting” hospitals on the isolated individual. Any criticism of healthcare policy, especially the refusal of vaccination, is blamed for the collapse of public health. The current relations of class power, the near disappearance of the old labor movement organized by trade-unions, the resignation, passivity, and social atomization of the population—all these allowed this discourse to become the official truth.
We are paying for the defeats of struggles over the last several years. After years of important struggles against the destruction (“reform” in newspeak) of the pension system and the dismantling of the national railway system, after the enraged and unexpected demonstrations of the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) against impoverishment in general, we have suddenly moved into the deadly and distressing atmosphere of a rampant pandemic. The startling effect of this cold shower was harmful to the collective spirit that these past struggles had created. At the same time, the collectives that arose in schools and hospitals during the first phase of the pandemic have also been attacked by authoritarian measures. People’s attitude is now less about collective action and more about quitting jobs and losing trust in the public sector, which everyone recognizes has been undergoing destruction by government policies during the last thirty years. For the moment, the pandemic has allowed the state to advance its authoritarian recipes, to reinforce forms of social control.
In this regard, there has been a lot of talk about the “freedom” evoked both by the government and vaccine opponents—a word so ambiguous and empty of social or class content that it can’t explain or justify anything. For many anti-vaxxers, the call for “freedom” translates into a form of selfish individualism that amounts to “the right to contaminate” one’s near and dear. For other anti-vaxxers, however, the demand has a collective sense of defending others from the supposed harms of the vaccine. As Yves Pagès wrote:
The dedicated vaccine opponents, relying on conspiratorial theories or misled by Orwellian rumors, are a very small, almost negligible, number of people. The vast majority of anti-vaxxers are isolated individuals deprived of most of their social rights, distrustful of excessive medication, often quite rightly, who believe that … since for the most part they take basic hygienic precautions, [they] are no more responsible for the circulation of the variants than the vaccinated. … The largest part [of this group] is made up of the immunodeficient and the very old, people not only without an up-to-date vaccine, but who for a long time have never been contacted by health personnel or been well treated for their chronic illnesses, [who have] never been approached by social services, a mental health aide, or any local outreach to test them for free or to convince them of the benefits of the jab.2
In other words, they are the marginalized, those left out of the capitalist economy, a group whose numbers are on the rise. Here we encounter distrust of the state on the part of the poorest. Conversely, a great majority of the vaccinated have gotten the vaccine for equally selfish and individual reasons: to have the “freedom to live fully,” without worrying about others, without bothering to ask legitimate questions about a vaccine policy promoted from above.
In this context, some believe they have detected a turning point in an “unnatural” alliance between anti-vaxxers and the right wing, up to and including fascists. A few nuances: first of all, this “alliance” involves, in fact, an insignificant ultra-minority. It is now well-known that at the core of the anti-vax demonstrations and the agitation about them on social networks is the reactionary, obscurantist, religious, and fascist world, around which gather all sorts of frightened, confused spirits seduced by simplistic explanations (or hypercomplex ones) in terms of conspiracy and manipulation. In this regard, we must salute the constancy of a few surviving groups of the Yellow Vests, groups which have continued to demonstrate against many forms of social control and not particularly against vaccines, and which have kept their distance from demonstrations organized by the right. We should remember that many people who mobilized against the state’s authoritarian health policies—particularly the health pass and vaccine mandates, which marginalize the social life of the non-vaccinated—are themselves vaccinated and not followers of obscurantist conspiracy delusions. Rather than condemn these people, it would be fairer to regret that the radical circles chiefly stand out for their silence; apparently crushed by the complexity of the situation and the effects of the pandemic, they remain inaudible, invisible.
In France, the horizon recently seems to be clearing somewhat and struggles against the government’s pandemic policies are now erupting on the terrain of social issues rather than conspiracies. Demonstrations of hospital workers are becoming more colorful, with the participation (weak but encouraging) of the young and the old. But the teachers’ national strike of January 13, 2022—the largest strike in this sector since 2003—marks a turning point. Teachers in both public and private sectors mobilized against the official policy of keeping schools open without giving teachers and staff concrete means to protect themselves or fight against the virus. Teachers found support among parents, who here and there began to occupy schools. Starting with a very young base that has overwhelmed traditional union bureaucracies, this movement has shown an unexpected radicalism in its complete rejection of the political forces that for decades have succeeded one another at the head of state. As a poster read: “They made the school sick even before COVID.” In Paris, the Socialist candidate for president was expelled from a demonstration with shouts of “Get out! There’s nothing for you here! We have seen enough of you, go shopping!” We can say that the collective struggle temporarily chases away the fear and panic created by the pandemic and official measures. We breathe more easily again.
The recent attempt to create a Paris-bound “Freedom Convoy,” inspired by Canadian events, seems to show the limits of mobilizations separated from social consciousness. In the beginning, largely spontaneous and strongly opposed to right-wing groups, the demonstrations were more against the health pass than against the vaccine. The original idea was a vague one of opposition to the system. People also talked about spreading the movement to other parts of Europe. But its nationalistic content and, most of all, its obsession with the demand for “freedom” (for what?) froze any social dynamic. As someone put it, it’s like they have forgotten the two other keywords of the French Revolution: Equality and Fraternity. In a moment when the pandemic seems to be slowing down, the growing social conflicts, inflation, and poverty are changing the picture.
It’s clear that only a direct takeover of healthcare by hospital staff could change the given situation and represent a qualitative leap in this period. The movement of healthcare workers had begun during the first wave of the epidemic in the beginning of 2021 when their collective spirit accomplished miracles in hospitals before the medical, administrative and political hierarchies regained control. Given today’s pandemic situation and the prevailing social climate of fatigue, it would be unrealistic to expect collective control of healthcare to be on everyone’s conscious agenda.
But it sometimes happens that the unreal becomes real. Here, it is useful to remember that in the worst moments of the AIDS emergency, collectives formed and directly confronted the powerful pharmaceutical industry—an idea that could resurface again. That said, it must be acknowledged that the government’s insistence on the vaccine policy has succeeded in channeling all actions into this arena, pushing all other struggles into second place: struggles like those against the pharmaceutical industry and those in support of hospital workers and teachers ground down by the state machine—struggles that, it must be underlined, have never attracted the conspiracy crowd who are opposed to the social question.
The pandemic and official policies of social control in support of the vaccination campaign have also begun to produce harmful effects on the economy, the same economy whose continued functioning is the primary goal of government. The emergence of more contagious variants, the policy of widespread testing, the quarantining of the infected, all contribute to disrupting transport, services, and productive sectors of food and industry. In schools, kept open in order to make the workforce available, chaos has set in and, fanned by the authorities’ contempt and aggressiveness, revolt has finally openly broken out.3 Added to this is the phenomenon, well-known in the US, of “the Great Resignation,” now affecting all sectors of the economy, especially the service economy. Faced with the prospect of a widespread disorganization of the economy, the official discourse has undergone a modification to announce an evolution of the virus, with which we must now cohabit.
To make a last, brief foray into conspiracy territory: Conspiratorial thinking stays within the confines of bourgeois thought, which places leaders at the center of history. It merely replaces the control supposedly exercised by so-called representative governments by that of secret masterminds. In this way, the conspiracy idea is the enemy of autonomous action, of collective spontaneity, of all prospects for self-emancipation. It also obstructs understanding of the nature of the capitalist system, by harking back to the old idea of a system of social production in which the capitalist class controls its own functioning and the contradictions inherent in class relations. It seems, in reality, that capitalists dominate neither their own system nor the barbaric effects of their activities.
Given the irrationality of production for profit, capitalists are never sure of being able to realize their plans, plots, or projects. With respect to the period we are living in today, we can see that capitalism is incapable of managing the disasters it generates. Caught up in schizophrenic and megalomaniacal maneuvering engendered by their place in social relations, the capitalists and their political class pretend to master everything, while the disaster spreads. They run after disasters, they profit from disasters, but that's all they can do. In the face of the pandemic, as with any accident, industrial or nuclear, they hide their responsibilities and their incapacity to dominate the mad machine by invoking “science-power” and instituting measures of prevention and repression, which can help but not cure.
During the current pandemic, conspiracy followers received unexpected support from people in so-called alternative spaces within the system. Euro-centered, invested in the construction of mini-parallel societies or in the creation of ghettoized living environments, such people have joined the conspiracy universe animated by the extreme reactionary right. Petrified by panic, the followers of New Age reformism reassure themselves by denying the reality of the pandemic, some going so far as to find refuge in admiration for Trump! It should be remembered that not any discourse that claims to be “alternative” should be assimilated to an anti-capitalist position.
It is not certain that capitalist powers—the capitalist class and its apostles—will emerge from this period unscathed, or even strengthened, despite the arsenal of social controls deployed. Definite signs indicate that the dominant ideology is struggling and has become even more fragile. We are witnessing not only a crisis in the system of political representation, but also a lack of confidence in the fundamental values of the capitalist creed: belief in progress (already weakened well before the pandemic) and confidence in Science as the ally of state power in mastering the world. Official truths, distilled from morning to night by the system’s propaganda channels, are less reassuring than before. Inter-class consensus, a pillar of representative democracy, continues to fissure with rising inequalities and impoverishment caused by the pandemic. The insistence on repressive measures, the extent and digital sophistication of the control of individuals—a disguised adoption of the Chinese model—appear to many as a sign of weakness rather than a proof of strength. One undeniable sign of this crisis is the now widespread discourse questioning the meaning of life in such a society—with various corollaries, such as skepticism towards waged activities.
Power doesn’t engage in lying for the sake of lying. It does so because under capitalism, it operates under the false impression that it controls society and the economy, that it dominates a nature already largely shaped by its activity. The effects of the ecological disaster prove the contrary; but despite evidence of rising seas and spreading fires, governments obstinately claim that they can still repair this. In reality, they can only keep track of events. Some events, like earthquakes, are by definition beyond their control, of course, inherent as they are to the life of the planet. But events like epidemics result from their destructive activities in the pursuit of production for profit, whether by way of industrial accidents or interactions between animals and humans. The state cannot accept that it can only trail behind such problems; instead, it must reaffirm that it controls and foresees. This is the lie that feeds into irrational attitudes and conspiracies.
Production for profit dominates the destructive march of capitalism. The contradictory dynamic of this mode of production is also at the root of the incapacity of modern states to deal with disasters and catastrophes. If there is, for the moment, a lesson to be drawn from this difficult period, from the sufferings brought on by the pandemic and its social consequences, it is this. A sign in a Parisian demonstration asked, “Will the next nuclear accident be met with the same methods and the same teams in charge?” In the logic of total mastery peculiar to capitalist ideology, the unexpected, the unanticipated, has, as we know, no place, either in moments of subversive rupture of the order of things, or in the erupting consequences of the machine’s destructive and exploitative production of value.
The pandemic, like the catastrophes to come, is part of the barbarism of this social system. Only by taking control of our lives and our future can we emancipate ourselves from its deadly logic. It becomes almost a mantra to repeat this thought, barely audible in our impotence before the disaster. We know that the desire for liberation cannot be realized individually (or by a small committee), that it requires a collective mobilization to construct the means of self-government. From this perspective, we are dependent on the unexpected in history. In any case, the weapon of criticism, already an essential milestone of this unpredictable unexpected, can raise our self-respect and protect us from the idiocy and resignation brought on by imagined conspiracies.
For now, we are seeing an unraveling of the social fabric and labor relations. But the unexpected return to the social question that we see in France provides a joyful element of optimism. It encourages us to announce a proposition drawn from our own science, according to which the struggle, the reconstruction of the collective, is a factor of immunity. To retrieve one of the stimulating mottoes of the anarchist movement of the early 20th century: “Let’s save pessimism for better times!”
- In an interview for a popular newspaper, Macron stated he wanted to “piss off” the unvaccinated, treating them as new enemies of the people. Of course, he implied that he and the political class are examples of responsible behavior.
Yves Pagès, “Sous-entendus mortifères du Manifeste conspirationniste,” https://blogs.mediapart.fr/yves-pages/blog/270122/sous-entendus-mortiferes-du-manifeste-conspirationniste.
Just before the teacher’s national strike on January 13, 2022, the Minister of Education, an execrable character from the Macron clan, declared, “We are not going on strike against a virus!”