A Gallimard publication – Les tracts de crise
“At a time when, in order to defeat the coronavirus, we are increasingly being urged to accept population control through the ‘digital solution’ – whether it is called Stop Covid now or under another name tomorrow – we must address the arguments of the small minority of citizens who absolutely refuse to accept it and will no doubt be misunderstood, despite the parliamentary debate announced. Perhaps it will even be humiliated by its inflexible stance on maintaining public freedoms at all costs, to the detriment, if necessary, of greater health efficiency. Let us take the trouble to listen to them, because we will not hear many of those voices that challenge the spirit of the times and the fear that characterises it – that deep-seated evil that has been bothering us for a long time but which the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated extraordinarily. I hope that the fraction of citizens to which I belong will be forgiven for their immoderate love for “freedom above all else”, since everything starts there and comes back to it.”
The Stop Covid project of digital tracing of our lives is difficult to attack in substance since it is designed for our common good. Tracking” – its Anglo-Saxon name says it all – is therefore very likely to be part of our future and to extend its hold on us for good. It plays on the erosion of our collective will to live freely and relies on the infinite possibilities provided by new technologies.
We must, however, challenge the very idea of taking a further step towards what would become the beginning of mass surveillance, the totalitarian nature of which can only escape the dizzying eyes. The voices that claim the opposite and speak of fantasy are invalidated by the mere fact that they do not demonstrate the opposite, playing on only two of our supposed guilt factors: not being “modern” enough and not wanting to do everything to save our fellow human beings.
In any case, we are entitled to consider that one intellectual and spiritual principle overrides all the others – and even gives them meaning. This principle belongs neither to the past, nor to the present, nor to the future, but to all three. It states that there is nothing that can be placed above freedom in general and individual freedoms in particular, not even security – much less servitude, of course. By freedom we mean at the very least the ability to act and think for oneself.
Thus, the problem raised by Covid-19 is not only health and economic. It poses with brutality the eternal metaphysical question of the meaning and value of existence, a question which we had apparently set aside. Why live if one is not first free, such is the question facing the governmental project.
Generations before us have often fought for the principle of freedom, accepting to put their security on hold. Why would we automatically give up on maintaining this spirit, which does not allow for any substantive concessions, since we cannot be half or three-quarters free? One is either free or one is not. And it is only when we are free that we live in a democratic system. That in no way prevents the citizens of these regimes from agreeing to temporarily restrict their freedom when the general interest is at stake – as they are currently doing with confinement – but in no way means that they automatically accept additional control through intrusive channels that plunge into the very heart of their private lives and their privacy, which is quite another matter. Should this happen, we would be faced with a perilous upheaval in the very idea of democracy, calling into question our fundamental values. If modernity and its technological advances imply that people we know nothing about can know everything about us, this counter-progress must be repudiated, if only because it undermines human dignity. And accept to pay the price of this repudiation.
This position of assumed radicalism is not new – although we have been neglecting it for at least a century. It belongs to our history and could become ours again since it has built us as we still are. Its origins go back to the Stoic schools of antiquity where living free was the fundamental substratum of the good life – and the fear of death the beginning of slavery. One of the most striking symbols of this conception of existence remains Cato of Utica. When democracy disappeared after Caesar’s victory over Pompey, he committed suicide, judging that to live in a dictatorship was tantamount to not living. Nowadays, of course, it is no longer necessary to be so absolute in one’s choices, but the lesson is still valid. It teaches that if we want to continue to place freedom above all else, we must question three of our concepts that everything connects – security, risk, death – and revise our view of them in the light of their mutation.
Death, first of all: it is no longer familiar to us. The fear that it now inspires makes us accept without difficulty what we would once have refused without fear. Seventy years of peace and prosperity have distanced us Westerners from the tragedy of life and its finiteness – reserving it for other peoples whose incessant trials we watch from afar. This is not, of course, to question the invaluable progress brought about by peace, which would be ridiculous to say the least, but to note that it has also led to making death a taboo and that this has consequences for the price we are prepared to pay to remain free.
Then there is the risk: whatever we think about it, it is consubstantial with life. It belongs to our humble condition as mortals. Until recently, therefore, we admired men capable of taking the necessary risks to accomplish great things. We had to go through this to progress, to invent, to discover. All that is over. In our post-heroic era – where the end of courage has been theorized for 30 years – risk has changed its status. It has become reprehensible and condemnable, and is what must be avoided under any circumstances. The present time enjoins us to do everything we can to live without risk. In the military field, this rejection has led to the concept of “zero death war”, which today is clearly impossible – unless we accept losing all wars, which is what is happening to us.
Finally, security: while it has always been one of the essential quests of humanity, it has never before taken precedence over everything else. Yet one of the equations of life teaches us that there is a constant relationship between security and freedom – a relationship in the form of a communicating vessel: to increase one is to decrease the other in the same proportion. For a long time, we have been able to intelligently balance this relationship to ensure that we can live a life of near safety and near freedom in an imperfect, elusive and volatile world. Recently, we have broken this sort of pact to make security the new standard of our societies, and freedom an optional extra.
In the fight against the coronavirus, the “personalities” who are committing us to give up an additional part of our liberties via our “digital tracking” are in the majority. We hear a lot about them, but we should not be lulled into complacency by the soothing words about so-called safeguards with new and colourful names, such as “anonymised” or “aggregated” data, “informed consent” or “digital exception”. This is a new language. Nothing on a phone or computer is truly and absolutely anonymous.
Those who compromise on the restriction of freedoms, on the pretext that this restriction would only be temporary, misunderstand the workings of human nature and what drives societies as well as what drives the powers that be. They refuse to see or understand that there is no turning back in terms of control when it is the result of technological progress. Digital surveillance would be so effective that we would come back to it at the first opportunity because there will always be some kind of “virus” to threaten us. It will even have all sorts of names – starting with terrorism – to justify continued monitoring and refinement until it becomes the norm.
To accept this today would be to put our finger in an irreversible gear, to embark on a fatal slope, to accept the breaking of a dike. Digital control of the people would cross the border of acceptable control – at least in addition to the generalized surveillance society we have already entered. Wisdom commits us not to take another step up the ladder of totalitarianism that threatens modern societies – that totalitarianism that does not kill but prevents us from living.
Less than a month after the voluntary freezing of the country due to the pandemic, we know what a challenge the animalcule that caused it poses to us. Without denying the suffering it inflicts on us and the absolute necessity for us to fight it together, it is not so much the humanity it would have risked eliminating as many of the common freedoms that we still have and which make each of us real men and not domestic men. This is what we must defend now, because times, beyond the health crisis we are going through, have never been so Orwellian.
In his Treatise on Duties, Cicero wrote twenty centuries ago: “When circumstances and necessity demand it, we must enter the fray and prefer death to servitude. “These lines from the depths of our culture have not aged at all and can be perfectly applicable to the current pandemic. To be free or to rest, we will have to choose, so that there will not be a day to ask: freedom, for what?
14 april 2020
Corsican adventurer, political philosopher, and French writer – Goncourt short story prize 2015 – Patrice Franceschi is also an aviator and sailor. He has always divided his life between writing and adventure. He has multiplied expeditions throughout the world by land, air and sea. He has also led many humanitarian missions in countries at war, from Bosnia to Somalia, lived among the indigenous peoples of the most remote regions, Papuans, Indians, Pygmies, Nilotics, and has been involved for many years in the ranks of the Afghan resistance fighting the Soviet army. He has also been an active supporter of the Kurds of Syria on the ground since the beginning of their fight against the Islamic state. His novels, stories, poetry and essays are inseparable from a committed, free and tumultuous existence in which he tries “to exhaust the field of the possible”. A reserve officer, he also belongs to the prestigious group of naval writers.