Uncertainty about the future is the daughter of the welfare state

On the occasion of the ENS festival, Professor Philippe Descola explains how the unpredictable “imposes its routine” and how the citizen of modern States “expects them to protect him against uncertainty”.

Where nothing is ever certain, where the hazards of ordinary subsistence and health (droughts, floods, epidemics, insect pests) depend on the whims of the deities or the benevolence of the ancestors, where bad luck in the hunt or the erratic behavior of migrating animals result from the wrath of game-master spirits that humans have casually dealt with, where the perpetual hostilities of vendetta make it unclear whether the unknown visitor might not be a potential assassin, so for most of human history and even now on the sidelines of modernization, uncertainty is not what stands out against the monotonous background of life. On the contrary, it is the unpredictable which imposes its routine at all times. Perhaps it will be said that the techniques of controlling fate – geomancy, propitiatory rites, divination, oneiromancy – offer an indication of what the populations on the edge of modernity are well aware of the uncertainty since they seek by these means to guard against it.

But these are not token equivalents of a welfare or social security system, driven by a concern about the randomness of existence, rather proven methods for discerning good and bad matches between humans. and of these with substances, sites, periods or metapersons.

By contrast, and in exchange for giving up part of his free will, the citizen of modern states expects them to protect him against uncertainty, assuring him the promise of physical and moral security. rooted in the old Mediterranean metaphor of the ruler as a good shepherd, guiding his flock to the best pastures and caring for sick animals and newborns.


This contract is however in the process of losing its validity. Because not only does the welfare state seem powerless to protect us from the increasingly proven uncertainties of global warming, but it is even the first responsible for it by stuffing us for two centuries with resources torn without measure from the Earth, an unforeseen cause of a catastrophe of which it is still difficult to predict all the ins and outs. However, the signs of this are already visible everywhere, especially for the indigenous populations who see the melting of the pack ice and the glaciers, the drying up of the forest or the extension of the arid zones, paradoxical victims of a voracious way of fighting against the material uncertainty which condemns those who were indifferent to it to discover it in its most vivid consequences when they were in no way responsible for it.

All the apparatus that Bismarckian capitalism has developed to minimize the consequences of the uncertainty engendered by the conditions of industrial production is thus powerless to resolve the unintentional damage it has caused while instilling in those who have held apart from this frenzy the beginning of a new anxiety about an uncertain future.

The 5th Night of the ENS takes place on Friday September 9, 2022 with conferences and round tables to discover, understand and tame uncertainty.

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Uncertainty about the future is the daughter of the welfare state

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