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New Left Review 82, July-August 2013


alain supiot

GRANDEUR AND MISERY OF THE SOCIAL STATE

The social state: a dense forest of miscellaneous regulations that grew up with the Industrial Revolution and is now, some claim, inexorably withering. [1] This is an abridged version of Supiot’s inaugural lecture, delivered at the Collège de France on 29 November 2012; a full translation is available on the Collège de France website. The French term État social has no exact equivalent in English. Rendered here with the gallicism ‘social state’, it is a broader notion than the welfare state—in French, État providence—since it includes not just social security (pensions, healthcare, dole), but also, crucially, public utilities, trade union rights and employment law, on which Supiot has published extensively. Are they wrong? Not if they mean that the social state is simply one moment in the long history of human solidarities which have taken multiple forms, none of them definitive nor guaranteed. But they are certainly wrong if they think that social justice is no lon1ger a relevant question. ‘The only law that is absolutely indispensable is labour law, or social law in the common meaning of the term’, the jurist Jean Carbonnier wrote. [2] Jean Carbonnier, ‘Le droit au non-droit’, in Olivier Abel, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Ellul, Jean Carbonnier, Pierre Chaunu: Dialogues, Geneva 2012, pp. 75–97.

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