The state surfs a wave of fear of the consequences and side-effects of public deficiencies and scarcity that it has created. 

In Italy, the coronavirus has largely ended political squabbling. Political parties and citizens across the board are suddenly rallying behind Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government. Italians increasingly see League leader Matteo Salvini, the only prominent figure still criticising Conte, as a spoiler. They want national unity, not political infighting. As a result, Conte, an outsider who was once widely seen as weak and likely to be replaced, is becoming more self-confident by the day. By addressing citizens directly on television, and by trying to behave like the father of the nation, he has boosted his reputation as a leader. Suddenly, Italians seem to want to have confidence in him. 

Here’s a prediction: in many European countries that follow Italy’s example by rapidly going into lockdown, something similar will happen. The more the government takes the initiative, assuming the role of national protector, the more it will command respect. In severe crises such as this one, the state assumes – or reassumes – its authority. 

This is, of course, rather contradictory. Citizens are applauding the state for issuing emergency measures to healthcare providers and providing assistance to companies and citizens in need, despite the fact that the same state has been dismantling vital public services for many years. Why do citizens not turn against the state for having sacrificed the public good and social equality to market forces? In Italy, for example, there have been lots of cutbacks in healthcare. Many regions have a dire shortage of beds, equipment, doctors, and nurses. But instead of holding the authorities accountable, citizens are turning to it for protection. 

In 2003 French philosopher Jacques Rancière wrote an interesting piece about this dilemma. There was a huge heatwave that summer. The French government announced emergency measures to help the elderly to cope. Yet at the same time, it was trying to cut their pensions  the idea being that citizens must learn not to lean on l'état providence (the welfare state) so much.  

Contradictory? No, Rancière wrote, this was purely logical. In many European countries, the government has trimmed the welfare state to make it more efficient and market-oriented, weakening solidarity and cohesion between social classes and various segments of society. As a result, the state has a relationship not with social groups, as it once did, but with individuals. Individuals, however, are alone. Forced to fend for themselves, they have become increasingly vulnerable. When danger looms, they can only turn to the state. As Rancière observed in 2003, “the relationship between individuals and the state is increasingly determined by a sense of fear. 

Online magazine Le Grand Continent recently reprinted his article, which deserves to be widely read. Rancière’s ideas hold true during the coronavirus pandemic: the state surfs a wave of fear of the consequences and side-effects of public deficiencies and scarcity that it has created. The more the state withdraws from public life, the more citizens feel exposed to all kinds of dangers  burglars, natural disasters, and terrorists. When things go wrong, people immediately turn to the state as a last resort: help us! When the state then decides to step back into the arena, identifying the enemy to engage in war, the nation loudly cheers. 

The state has a relationship not with social groups, as it once did, but with individuals 

For example, look at Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s solemn choice of words on 12 March, when he declared war against the virus with a raft of emergency measures. “Ireland is a great nation, he said. “And we are great people. We have experienced hardship and struggle before. We have overcome many trials in the past with our determination and our spirit. We will prevail.” Varadkar posed like a field general leading the nation into battle. 

In France, the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) took to the streets to denounce austerity and the breakdown of the welfare state. They are not a social group in the classical sense, but a collection of individuals. Their demonstrations and sit-ins are directed solely at the state, urging it to protect them against diesel price hikes, the closure of hospitals, pension reductions, and many other things. The same goes for protesters in Lebanon and Chile, and for farmers in the Netherlands driving their tractors straight to the doors of parliament in The Hague: all are appealing directly to the state for protection.  

In the past, channelling citizen’s wishes, demands, and complaints into the political arena was the job of trade unions and political parties. Thecould (and often would) then negotiate compromises, carefully balancing the interests of various groups. This political process no longer functions well. The intermediaries are weak or have already retreated. The state remains the people’s main interlocutor.  

Seen in this light, the feeling of extreme insecurity  resulting from the coronavirus or anything else  is not just something that just happens to people by accident, nor will it pass anytime soon. On the contrary: this has become a political mechanism. And a way, almost, to run a country. 

This is a translated and edited version of a column in NRC Handelsblad. 

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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.