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An Experience Of Solidarity That Whets the Appetite For Social Transformation

Jean-Louis Sagot-Davauroux’s plea for "gratuité"

Translated Wednesday 1 January 2014, by Isabelle Métral

A philosopher and writer, Jean-Louis Sagot-Duvauroux argues that an alternative to the commodification of society should be promoted through unprecedented and convincing local initiatives .He is one of the first ever to have opened the debate on “freedom of charge” or ”free access” with his book entitled Pour la gratuité (In Favor Of Freedom Of Charge or Free Access) [1] in 1995. With Magali Giovannangeli, the president of the Pays d’Aubagne and Étoile county, he co-authored Voyageurs sans ticket, liberté, égalité, gratuité, (Passengers Pay No Fare: Liberty, Equality, Free Access, Au Diable Vauvert pub., 2012

HUMA: The Aubagne Council’s decision to make public transport by bus free was met with skepticism. How do you account for this?

SAGOT-DUVAUROUX : Promoting a novel idea always provokes discussion. And that is a good thing. In the course of four years, the Aubagne experience has proved socially, economically, ecologically, and morally efficient. Universal free access is no doubt a chimera. But some essential human needs, like health, education, mobility or water, can be made free of charge for all – indeed they are already free, in some places or in part. On Aubagne buses, the unemployed passenger and the solicitor are equal. Equality here is concrete. It’s rare and precious. To create public spaces where all are equal irrespective of their incomes is a most desirable, and potentially contagious, political invention.

HUMA : How do you define "gratuité"?

DUGOT-SAVAUROUX : The means to ensure general access, independently of how much money people have in their pockets. It is an alternative to the mercantile mode of access to goods, either by virtue of some natural profusion, like sunlight, for instance, or of political inventions like social security or free education. These policies come with a price. But the revolution lies elsewhere. It lies in the nature of the access to the good concerned. When access is free, then the tune is no longer “to everyone according to their means”, but “to every one according to their needs”.

In a way, what is free is our main axis in life. One part of our life is sold as labor force. The other part is invaluable. To all of us, what you cannot set a price on is more valuable than what can be priced. Our children’s love is more important than the supermarket trolley. But the optical illusion enforced by the market’s hold on our minds prevents us from realizing this.

HUMA : Might the freedom that free access ensures be the outpost of the political question?

DUGOT-SAVAUROUX : Human emancipation, namely freedom on the move, is the foundation of the original communist project. "Gratuité" entails emancipation from the market and its inherent principle “every man for himself”. It also means emancipation from police checks, as these become useless. The communists of yore went on and on about “the decline of the State”. For the supporters of free enterprise, maximum freedom has been obtained through the “free market”, and “free enterprise”, the representative State, and consumption as the key to well-being: thanks to the western model. Now, there are local experiments in many sectors that have outstripped these bounds. In the region around Paris, the incredibly spectacular repression of “fraud” in public transport is no doubt the most impressive form of intimidation of the popular classes by the police, mostly of youths, and among them of our young black or Arab fellow-citizens.

Why couldn’t young people under 25 be allowed on principle to travel for free? They will pay for our pensions, won’t they? It has already been established that the neutralization of travel zones at week ends have led to a decrease in the tensions at Gare du Nord station, the way into the capital for the most popular neighborhoods in the Île de France Region.

HUMA: So you think the notion of "gratuité" is revolutionary?

DUGOT-SAVAUROUX: It is an experience of solidarity that whets our appetite for social transformation. The upholders of capitalism will tell us again and again that human beings are driven by greed. They’re wrong! We know very well how to make solidarity the prime motor. The problem is that money, a human invention, has become their master. "Gratuité" shows that money can be put back in it place: a good slave, a poor master. The forces that militate for an alternative to neo-liberalism would do well if they made an inventory of the experiments that have outstripped the bounds within which the system has confined freedom. "Gratuité" is one of those. This inventory would open up activism to political and ideological perspectives far less depressing than recrimination against our times of trouble.

[1There is no equivalent in English for the abstract notion of Fr."gratuité". Interestingly, the closest notion in English is expressed by the adjective "free" (the broader meanings of which perfectly suit the French philosopher’s argument). But the English adjective must be used with a noun that specifies and so narrows its acceptation: as in "free access", free drinks", "free ride" etc... A more general phrasing might be "freedom of charge", but there again the phrase implicitly refers to a specific sector of life that we expect to be specified ...

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