On the Differences Between State Sovereignty and Public Services

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Discussion

Pierre Dardot, Christian Laval:

"The defense of public services would thus seem perfectly aligned with the prerogatives of the sovereign state: removing healthcare from the logic of the market is an act of sovereignty that is now in the process of reversing the many concessions France granted to the European Union in the past. But is it so obvious that the notion of the public service is in fact aligned with the concept of state sovereignty? Does the former depend on the latter? Is the public service indissolubly linked to state sovereignty? This question deserves particularly careful consideration because it is one of the central arguments deployed by the proponents of state sovereignty.

Let us begin by examining the very nature of state sovereignty. Etymologically, sovereignty means “superiority” (from the Latin superanus), but superiority in regard to what? In brief, it is superiority in regard to any laws or obligations that threaten to limit the power of the state, both in its relation to other states and in relation to its own citizens. The sovereign state places itself above any commitments or obligations, which it is then free to constrict or revoke as it pleases. But as a public figure, the state can only act through its representatives, who are all supposed to embody the continuity of the state over and above the daily exercise of their specific governmental functions.

The superiority of the state therefore effectively means the superiority of its representatives over the laws or obligations that impinge upon them. This is the notion of superiority that is elevated to the rank of principle by all sovereigntists. But however unpleasant it may sound, this principle applies regardless of the political orientation of its leaders: what is essential is merely that one acts as a representative of the state, regardless of one’s particular beliefs about state sovereignty. All the concessions that were successively granted to the EU by the representatives of the French state were acts of sovereignty — for the very construction of the EU, from the beginning, was based on the implementation of the principle of state sovereignty.

Similarly, the fact that the French state, like so many other European states, has consistently evaded its international obligations regarding the defense of human rights is also part of the logic of sovereignty: the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998) obliges signatory states to create a safe and healthy environment for human rights defenders. However, the laws and practices of signatory states, and in particular French laws and practices regarding the border it shares with Italy, violates its international obligations.

The very same can of course be said with respect to climate change obligations, which states happily ignore based on their particular interests at any given time. And in matters of internal public law, state sovereignty reigns supreme there as well. To stick to the case of France, the rights of Amerindians in Guyana are routinely denied in the name of the principle of the “One and Indivisible Republic” — an expression that, once again, references the sacrosanct principle of state sovereignty. Ultimately, expressions such as these are little more than alibis that allow state representatives to exempt themselves from any obligation that might legitimate citizen control over the state.

It is important to keep this last point in mind, for it is crucial in terms of understanding the public character of the so-called “public” service. The precise meaning of the word “public” demands our full attention here, because it is too rarely recognized that the concept of “public” is absolutely irreducible to the “state.” The term “publicum” designates not merely the state administration, but the entire community as constituted by all citizens: public services are not state services, in the sense that the state can dispense these services as it pleases, nor are they merely an extension of the state: they are public in the sense that they exist “in the service of the public.” It is in this sense that they constitute a positive obligation of the state toward its citizens.

Public services, in other words, are owed by the state — and its governors — to the governed. They are nothing like a favor that the state generously extends toward the governed, despite the negative connotations years of liberal polemics have imposed upon the phrase “the welfare state.” Léon Duguit, one of the most important theorists of the public service, made this fundamental point at the beginning of the twentieth century: it is the primacy of the duties of those in power in relation to the governed that forms the basis of what we call the “public service.” For Duguit, public services are not a manifestation of state power, but a limitation of governmental power. The public service is a mechanism by which the governors become the servants of the governed.

These obligations, which are imposed on those who govern as well as the agents of government, form the basis of what Duguit calls “public responsibility.” This is why the public service is a principle of social solidarity, one which is imposed on all, and not a principle of sovereignty, inasmuch as the latter is incompatible with the very idea of public responsibility.

This conception of the public service has largely been suppressed by the fiction of state sovereignty. But the public service nonetheless continues to make itself felt by virtue of the strong connection citizens feel toward what they still consider to be a fundamental right. For the citizen’s right to public services is the strict corollary of the duty or obligation of state representatives to provide public services. This why the citizens of various European countries affected by the current crisis have demonstrated, in diverse ways, their attachment to public services in their daily fight against the coronavirus: for instance, the citizens of numerous Spanish cities have applauded their healthcare workers from their balconies, regardless of their political attitude toward the centralized unitary state.

Two relations must therefore be carefully separated here: the citizenry’s attachment to the public service, and healthcare in particular, in no way suggests adherence to public authority or public power in its various forms, but rather suggests an attachment to services whose essential function is to meet the public’s need. Far from disclosing an underlying identification with the nation, this attachment gestures toward a sense of a universal that crosses borders, and accordingly renders us sensitive to the trials our “pandemic co-citizens” are enduring, whether they are Italian, Spanish, or live beyond European borders." (https://roarmag.org/essays/dardot-laval-corona-pandemic/?)