Towards a New Social Contract for the 21st Century

Maysoun Douas

May, 2021
We find ourselves going around in a loop. Our social model is giving out quickly as we exhaust the natural resources of our environment. What we used to call the endless cycle now has an expiration date.

In configuring modern societies, democracy, industrialization, human rights, states, borders and so many other innovations that may manifest in an isolated manner, some converging at certain moments, but mostly they take their separate courses.

To date, conflicts surfacing around our progress were treated as the problems of just a few, worrying and occupying a considerable portion of our global society. It was not until the Paris Agreement on the 2030 Agenda that we linked cause and effect in repairing the unsustainability of our development. We finally perceived a roadmap that allowed for broad, open and inclusive participation in order to generate systemic changes, from the local to the global, the private to the public, and the collective to the individual.

It is great progress for global society to be able to share such an ambitious agenda. It represents a cultural context of transformation that surpasses language barriers, recognizes local idiosyncrasies and facilitates collaboration among peers in order to meet sustainable objectives.

Photo_ Hasibul Haque Sakib_ CC BY 2.0
We have now proven we can reduce borders, distances and barriers, but we continue to foment inequalities and maintain complex institutions lacking sufficient efficacy.

But why do we continue to be unable to confront the decline of confidence in democratic systems, to manage climate, social, health and economic crises?

Inequality runs increasingly broad and deep, while polarization hinders any advances, and threats are increasingly hybrid, more internal than external, more social than military. And governance is more than ever local versus global, and multipolar rather than unipolar.

Our social model no longer solely depends on a sustainable agenda, but requires profound reform regarding the relationships that our social contract mediates, including: our systems of wellbeing; our progress as fused societies in an increasingly connected global society; the expansion and actual implementation of human rights; the search for balance in terms of social welfare; the compatibility between the digital and non-digital development; and the health of our natural and patrimonial environment.

Among the issues explored here is the idea of maintaining a “contract” as a link, which can even be conceptualized in terms of a “pact,” “agreement” or “covenant.” It would attempt to overcome the legacy of a time when commodity (or capitalism) and industrialization shaped our language, communication and our understanding of reality, moving on from the role of understanding the human being as a citizen who represents an element of production in an industrial chain of profit and productivity, subjected to human needs.

Such a “contract” upholds mediating laws as the protagonists, which provide a tacit commitment, assessing consequences and recognizing the capacities of those parties that comply with it: these are rights and obligations, but also freedom. This “pact” would be a moral alliance, which entails elevating efforts in order to overcome the letter of the law, and take on responsibility developed in a committed social context, adapting morality to societal progress.

We must understand that the walls that isolated us from others’ problems have now fallen, and we face a single type of problem: shared ones.

The new context has to reflect the willingness of different agents to propel a collaboration for societal wellbeing, in order to eliminate inequality, polarization and the delegitimization of democracy as a governance tool to face our challenges.

Above all, it is crucial to shore up the will to make this “contract” or “pact” flexible, adapting it the fluidity of the moment and the demands of security, protection, and development of life (human or animal), in order to maintain a social justice that meets expectations and needs.

There is unanimous consensus that our current democratic model is expiring. There is a dissatisfaction with processes that limit representation, participation and power, which remain unable to confront problems of public management with the nuances and depth required. This dissatisfaction leaves the citizenry on the margins, where alternative spaces are created that are not based in human rights, nor in the plural construct of society, which undermine the epistemological roots of democracy. Democracy is delegitimized as a construct as it is based in the broken right of “freedom.” It must be restored to its supremacy of past centuries.

The last few years have placed a stress on democracy, and evidence of this came to the fore on January 6, 2021, as José María Lasalle pointed out. Before that, the people, not only in Spain, had found that, “Elections fail to satisfy the majority of society’s aspirations,” as opined Manuela Carmena, who attributes this failing to the very structure of democracy.

The fact that democratic spaces in Spain and Europe engage in rules and dynamics that prevent resolution of problems that threaten our foundational value furthers this democratic crisis. So does the lack of dialogue, or how noise now substitutes other forms of communication.

If democracy is based in being able to build together, the call to participate should also be encouraged, so that each person feels the duty to contribute and to change things. We must recover the space of citizenship, and rescue dialogue from extremes and polarization.

As Federico Mayor Zaragoza noted following the declaration of the UN Human Rights Charter, “Now we can think, now we can talk, now we can make a new social contract and realize that action has to be communal and joint.” We the people, we need to form part of the management of the ordinary. We must understand that the walls that isolated us from others’ problems have now fallen, and we face a single type of problem: shared ones. These require solutions from not just a few, but increasingly require the contribution of the rest of society.

We need this reality, a politics of multiple actors, and open and participatory democracy, to begin our journey. We need civil society to unlock its potential, to conduct its crucial work in transforming habits of consumption into sustainable and responsible consumption. We need to recover the energy to define our type of democracy, our type of politics and the dynamics of joint management.

As Ana Saiz de Miera recognized, “I think now you have to assume that we are all playing this game, that we all have something to say, and that we all roll the dice.”

In order to create this joint scenario, we have important challenges to overcome, including the one Andrés Ordoñez recognizes as the construction of negative identity: “During the 19th and 20th Centuries we built a negative identity discourse. I am me because I am not you. Now we must build a positive identity discourse. I am me, you are you. But I recognize myself in you and I recognize you in me.” This pertains not only to our cultural environments, but also to ideological spaces, to the narratives of ostracism that have stirred the cultural pot via social networks and feeding “cyber populism.” This latter phenomenon fills a digital space without democratic governance, without rules or supervision, compounding to create a hybrid threat that exists in a parallel reality to the one we live in. These environments emphasize hatred towards empathy, and extrapolate it to our political and democratic experience.

It is necessary to move towards fluid citizenship, towards both representation and participation, at the combined local and global levels.
Rediscovering communication, as a true counterpower, invokes the need for more intense citizen participation, which is often confused with the existence of unregulated digital spaces. Here is also a need for changing the dynamics of public management, of the basis of the commons. This all underlines the need for renewal.

We must rethink the relationships that unite us so that that there is opportunity for progress. A true redefinition of the rules. As Rafael Heiber put it: “It mean simply updating the relationship between the subject and the world.” If our ambition is to look for balance and a better life for all, we must “reinvent politics,” as Manuela Carmena urged. We cannot conceive of democracy without people, and of institutions that turn their backs to citizenship. Rather, it is key to incorporate continuous collaboration, as José María Lasalle notes: “Democracy has to become a hospital not only to take care of administration, but of respect and help.”

These reflections have led me to conclude that we certainly must create change. We need a new social contract. As the 21st Century launched events that characterize our present and define our future, it is time to renew ties and aspirations, and to incorporate the progress of centuries as well as accept the consequences of the past.

We must assume that this effort entails dialogue, consensus, and a reinforcement of mutual understanding in order to evade military solutions. This means understanding that, in order to reinforce and expand democratic spaces, we must start with citizenship. Sustainability of rule of law is a long process, including local processes that need support in order to adapt to the contexts, realties and difficulties of each society.

We need to confront our responsibility for, and involvement in, migration flows. It is fundamental that we understand these flows are not just transitory, as mobility is and will continue to be a constant in our relationships. In this sense, it is necessary to move towards fluid citizenship, towards both representation and participation, at the combined local and global levels.

Although migration forms part of human evolution, with the construction of urban settlements and the development of civilizations, today’s social contract is linked to the movement of people across borders, the same borders that symbolized the transition towards a modern world order with the birth of nation states.

The construction of our social contract focuses on territorialized citizenship, which is united and linked to the nation state, and therefore does not recognize migrants and ethnic minorities within the political, social, cultural and economic community.

Redefining citizenship does not permit delay, not only because of the humanitarian disasters we create. Federico Mayor Zaragoza explained in an interview: “If we want to make a new social contract, the first thing we have to do is admit what horrible things we have accepted!”. We must assume responsibility as the first step in amending our past mistakes, and also recognize that we have partially built progress and stability in the last two centuries, in order to commit to our future coexistence.

We must understand that secularization is a path to inclusion, not exclusion. Models of social development and the bases of our civilizations are not neutral, and neither are they innocuous. In denying this we would be denying a part of what we are as humanity. Proceeding from acknowledging these influences on our civilizations, as well as our thought processes, is key in order to advance to our potential, great consensus.

Building a new social contract means expanding the basis of these values that shape our realities and our relationships, going beyond the cultural barriers born from values that represent only a part of the world population within a temporal framework—the West—which moreover does not admit the existence of other truths, or attempts to submit these to its own reality. The social contract constructed in this way is at odds with our reality, which is plural and diverse. Understanding our “truths” is the way towards overcoming the global threats we face.

The advances we have lived through have created a new paradigm, where the value lies no longer in what you have, but rather what you do, or what you know how to do as an individual, focusing on the person.
We must have to go from the economy of “possessing,” to an economy that accompanies how we exist, committing to levels of digitization, artificial intelligence and the capacity to calculate quantum computing. This is perceived as a rush for control, efficiency and productivity by solely a few, which obliterates basic and fundamental rights and exposes us to multiple dangers. Consequently, it is essential to pursue models that reduce reality to numbers in a way that does not have consequences for human rights, adopting comprehensive models that include well-being and sustainability in a single, common framework.

For many years, there was an expression that embodied our global society: “you are as much value as what you have,” which managed to weave together complex implications from the economic, to education, to universal rights, to the exhaustion of resources, to social relations and even to relationships between countries.

The advances we have lived through have created a new paradigm, where the value lies no longer in what you have, but rather what you do, or what you know how to do as an individual, focusing on the person. Digitization is a new engine of postmodernity, nourished by people’s action, and the “things” that surround us, generating value, generating agents of power, whether economic or political.

We must adapt our social contract to this new reality, which is nourished by people, their capacities and their human reactions, in order to generate an economy and a power no longer subject to the rules of a social contract that treated people as a production line, with manufacturing as a primordial need.

We turn to new economic models, new frameworks for understanding the economy in its broad and open relational dimension, with aspirations to transcend growth as the only observable measure.

We are missing a different, less rigid perspective of what is desirable, less fanatic regarding the moral standards or norms, and less focused on shielding certain actors. If we seek a framework of coexistence that is more flexible to fluid transformation and that emerges from different territorial and relational realities, that looks to understanding as reflection, as a meeting, as rejecting distrust—a feminist perspective that views dialogue as a virtue—a new window of progress opens. We need to rebalance roles and remember what José Luis Sampedro said to youth: “You will have to change the course and the ship.”

There are still many frontiers to renovate, and together with democracy as a tool for understanding, they can achieve social justice and sustainability. We are more than prepared to do this, which is why Federico Mayor Zaragoza reminds us of Albert Camus’ saying: “He despised them because they could have done so much but dared to do so little.” I dare to redefine, to reinvent, for common progress.