From solidarism to national solidarity: lessons of the epidemic

In this time of crisis, solidarity has been widely called for in response to the risk posed by the epidemic. In this article, Sophie Bretesché explores the historic origins of solidarity as a societal value. A sociologist at IMT Atlantique, she specializes in issues of risk and memory in relation to organizational change. In light of past epidemics and their impacts on social organization, she provides insight into the relationship between solidarity and the challenges we face in terms of social organization.


The health crisis caused by COVID 19 has led our society to consider collective risk in a new light. Since the outbreak of the virus and its global spread, our vulnerability to the virus has underscored the fragility of our bodies, and even more so, the organic nature of our societies, made up of individuals who interact with one another. This epidemic, viewed as unprecedented since the Spanish flu of 1918, raises serious questions about the economic development models we have constructed since the Second World War, based on interdependence between major economies.  The epidemic has therefore pushed people to rethink their vision of the society in which they live. It reveals that the society we live in is not simply an artificial construction. It is a whole, which we inhabit, are part of, and which has proven to be riddled with fluids, bacteria, interactions and tensions.

Three components of risk management have come under question: scientific knowledge, the vulnerability level of our society, and our capacity to develop forms or resilience. The crisis has therefore led us to rethink the way society regulates its interdependencies. In response to the spread of the contagion, the notions of liberty and equality played a decisive role at the beginning of the crisis. The expected counterpart of the lockdown – a de facto deprivation of liberty – was equal access to care for all citizens. In this perspective, it is the vulnerability to the risk that is managed collectively.

In recent days, another notion has been widely called for in the health, economic and social spheres: national solidarity. It has been the common watchword in the management of the crisis. This notion has been used in the past , in particular in relation to Pasteur’s groundbreaking discoveries that revolutionized medicine. Solidarism was inspired by the great microbial discoveries, and the medical discoveries resulting from the fight against epidemics had a concrete effect on the way societies were managed. In light of the COVID 19 epidemic, it is significant that the notion of solidarity has been used as the structuring principle for the regulation methods to come.

Solidarist theory at the crossroads of medical discoveries and the economic crisis

In the 1890s, solidarist theory was just starting to gain attention, but it had already been used in biology for half a century. Moral principles and scientific methods must align to go beyond simple charity and create “solidarity” (he did not invent the term but gave its noble meaning) organized collectively. Indeed, it grew out of an intellectual fervor for the notion of solidarity, a consequence of the major economic crisis that hit France from 1873 to 1895. At the end of the 19th century, liberalism, based on the glorification of the market and suspicion of any State regulation, was increasingly considered unacceptable, as it increased social inequality and intensified the much-discussed “social question.” Paternalism, along with managing behavior through religion and philanthropy, were no longer considered credible responses to the ills of industrialization and the development of global capitalism. It was against this backdrop that Léon Bourgeois put forward a new social doctrine in the 1890s, in which the principle of solidarity was a cornerstone.

Pasteur’s discoveries would lead to mass vaccination and raise important social questions.

Léon Bourgeois readily acknowledged that Pasteur’s scientific research on microbial contagion was at the origin of his thinking about the interdependence between men and generations. As he saw it, rich and poor were equally exposed to biological and social ills, and the suffering endured by some would inevitably affect the lives of others. “The isolated individual does not exist,” Bourgeois tirelessly repeated, in response to the liberal dogma of the precedence of the individual over social organization – which liberals saw as a coercive power, and considered that any steps in this direction would result in the erosion of individual liberties. Bourgeois and the solidarists, on the other hand, asserted that the individual is born into society and may only thrive through the intellectual and material resources made available by society. Interdependent and united, men are indebted to one another, as well as to the generations that came before them and those to follow.

From biological solidarity to social solidarity

Bourgeois’s vision was based on scientific knowledge about the facts of social organization. Based on natural sciences and emerging sociology, his vision showed the close solidarity that unites the components of an organization, whether social or biological. This vision, supported by the findings of natural sciences, illustrated how the liberal idea of laissez  faire was counterproductive, due precisely to the interdependence of individuals. The solidarity proven in the field of science led to the implementation of a new social contract for debt that would account for the interdependence and reciprocal duty linking the different members of a society.

Social Security would grow out of this insightful intuition – social ill was ultimately turned into public good. Thus, solidarism grew out of the idea of a “social debt” which would gradually come to encompass the right to education, a foundation of basic goods to survive and insurance against the main risks of life for everyone. A “social duty” was assigned to everyone. The solidarity proposed by Bourgeois established, along with liberty, the effective solidarity of the country in response to the perils of life.

From debt to social redistribution

This philosophy upholding the fundamentally social nature of all individual existence  goes hand in hand with a process that Jacques Donzelot called “the invention of the social”. For Bourgeois, there was no purely individual property: all activity and property, had, in part, a social origin and as such, the taxes and social security contributions collected by public authorities on income and assets were the rightful compensation for the services offered by society.

This conception provided the basis for the reforms championed by Bourgeois, which would result in the introduction of progressive rates for estate tax in 1901 as well as the creation of a progressive income tax in 1914. The debate over estate taxation, begun in 1893-1894, represented a key moment in the development of solidarism. In the Revue de métaphysique et de morale (Review of Metaphysics and Morality) the philosopher Alphonse Darlu set out the principle of solidarity between generations, which would provide the basis for the legitimacy of estate tax for over a century.

Covid 19: when the epidemic reveals the role of professional communities    

A look back at the epidemics of the 19th century therefore reminds us how such phenomena have drastically changed conceptions of social relationships and political action. And the current COVID 19 crisis has revealed a number of dimensions that are intrinsic to society.

The first relates to the organization of certain professional communities, which have for years been built upon continuous adaption to complex, difficult situations  with regard to the resources at their disposal. This notion of a “professional community” has now taken on particular significance, even if in recent years it has been damaged by technocratic, bureaucratic and managerial reforms. The management of the crisis has illustrated, for example, how the medical community has shown unwavering commitment to its general interest mission, as well as remarkable effectiveness as a community.  Accounts from nurses, nursing assistants and physicians illustrate what has risen to the surface in the face of adversity: caring for others, self-sacrifice, the hard work and dedication of the community and the unavoidable risk-taking that comes with their jobs.

If national solidarity is now expressed, among other ways, by applauding from balconies, we must not be too quick to relate what healthcare workers are doing to a kind of inexhaustible dedication. The medical community is proving its extraordinary capacity to reorganize itself continually, to form strong and effective collectives, while maintaining what forms the very essence of care: the relationship with the patient. And they are performing their duties after years of hospital rationalization, weakening of collectives and of these professions becoming less valued. The solidarity required for the epidemic calls not only for greater appreciation for healthcare professionals, but for their participation in hospital management practices.

The teaching community, another community that has been undervalued in recent years, has also shown its ability to resist and teach during the lockdown. The teaching profession has often been given short shrift when it comes to the essence of education, the relationship, but has now been highlighted precisely in terms of what’s missing: the physical act of knowledge transfer. Once more, despite attempts to develop distance learning,  the power of in-person group learning situations cannot be overemphasized, especially in order to reduce and correct social inequalities.

The epidemic and the key role of unskilled workers

Lastly, during the lockdown, other, more invisible professions have proven to be especially exposed to contagion, even as they perform an activity that is essential to the country. Cashiers, garbage collectors, farm workers, truck drivers and delivery people are examples of essential activities, and yet they are largely unrecognized and undervalued. These are the jobs that are essential and contribute to production, but physically expose workers to the risk of contagion.

The situation reveals the great inequalities between those who can work from home and those who are exposed to the virus. Ultimately, this inequality of circumstances and salary will require a rethinking, in terms of forms of interprofessional solidarity and value chains for tomorrow. And while various forms of social injustice were at the centre of the yellow vests movement, the epidemic has magnified the essential nature of service jobs. In the French culture, based on logic and honor, it is good form to view the service with distance, or even, condescension, even though it reveals the highly social nature of our activities.

Read more on I’MTech: The current “mini-collapse” requires a democratic response

If the medical discoveries of the 19th century brought to light the interdependent nature of the human beings who make up society, the current COVID 19 crisis has provided a reminder to our societies about the fundamentally organic and physical nature of our social and professional activities. Moreover, the active engagement of certain professions reminds us, as in the 19th century, about the social debt we owe to the workers who are most exposed to the virus.

From a distant view to a society based on solidarity

In commentary about the epidemic, many have cited two works of French literature for insight into what we are experiencing. Giono, in Le Hussard sur le toit (The Horseman on the Roof), shows the distant, cold viewpoint of a soldier who does not change his attitude towards cholera. It highlights the selfishness, hate, fear and passivity in relation to the illness. Camus’s La Peste (The Plague), on the other hand, reveals the fraternity and solidarity displayed in particular by health workers.

By choosing to develop a new kind of solidarity, the regulation of risks requires our society to increase its ability to recognize service jobs, and rethink professional value in light of social contribution. For the strength of professional communities and of organizations’ methods of resilience will determine not only our resistance to the epidemic crisis, but also our ability to create a more equal society based on greater solidarity.

To learn more about Sophie Bresteché’s research work:

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