A crisis of the social contract: why we must transform our democracy

The health emergency we face may well pass. But the economic, political and social crises that it has set in motion are here to stay.

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People are born free, and everywhere they are in chains. This sounds like a description of the world in the age of Covid-19. But at a time of permanent emergency, the opening lines to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) remind us of the fragile balance that exists between democracy, protection and obedience to the state.

If the state has emerged from the pandemic as a more prominent force in our public life, the idea of popular sovereignty that serves to legitimise it – the notion that we are equal authors of the laws we are required to obey – has never been weaker.

The idea of the social contract underpins the modern concept of sovereignty. It explains why individuals, who are born free and equal in the state of nature, sacrifice their natural freedom for the civic freedom enjoyed in association with others and governed by laws. The social contract also explains why, in emergency situations, the state has the authority to suspend or restrict fundamental freedoms, such as the freedom of movement, association, and electoral participation.

Most of these freedoms are guaranteed in the founding documents and constitutions of liberal democracies. Most, if not all, have been suspended or restricted as part of the emergency response to the pandemic. This has been justified by invoking a higher-order threat to our common life, by appealing to the social contract which, as citizens, ties our fate together and makes us responsible for each other.

We are at war with an invisible enemy, it has been said, and we must agree to sacrifice our individual freedom so that everyone’s life can be protected. We do it because the state tells us to; no other person or institution has the same claim on us.

We have witnessed a return to sovereignty in practice, and an assertion of its value in theory. But the idea that we share the same threats that make us equal parties to a social contract now looks illusory. Instead, the pandemic has exposed the reality that some people’s freedom matters more; that some lives are considered more worthy of being lived.

As millions of Americans lose their jobs, US billionaire wealth has increased by over 10 per cent. In the UK, black people are four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people. The demands of childcare, or caring for elderly people, mean that returning to work will be more difficult for women than men. During the lockdown, the attainment gap present in children from deprived backgrounds has been knocked back years. The long-term psychological consequences of the crisis, including anxiety and depression, will be felt most strongly by poorer people. Descriptions of the state of nature imagined a lawless condition in which human beings could not sleep for fear of losing their lives, and some compete violently for access to basic necessities. Others pursue honours and peer recognition as a way of making themselves immune to an external threat. The social contract is needed to end what the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “the war of all against all”. Individuals lose a part of their freedom but become safer in the knowledge that it is regulated by the state.

Liberal society is not free from fear. While we take for granted our duty of obedience to political authority, there are huge discrepancies in the protection states offer to their subjects. We are asked to make the same sacrifices, but the state does not take the same responsibility for all.

The health emergency we face may well pass. But the economic, political and social crises that it has set in motion are here to stay.

Together they amount to a crisis of the system: the break-up of the social contract. The WTO has predicted the worst global trade collapse in a generation, unprecedented levels of unemployment, a surge in extreme poverty, and a historic economic crisis. The rhetoric of solidarity and cooperation that emanates from national governments and transnational institutions, such as the EU, contradicts the brutal reality of deep social and economic inequalities.

Indeed, the rise of the far right is fuelled by a system that increasingly demands the obedience of all while offering protection only to some.

We must revisit the basis of our social contract. We must ask fundamental questions about the model around which liberal states have built their social relations: in the workplace, in the household, in educational institutions, in politics, in the justice system. This is a crisis of liberal legitimacy. There can be no technocratic fixes without a radical change of vision. Elections will still be held and parties will continue to take turns in government and opposition. So long as they repeat the errors of the past, large parts of the electorate will remain disenfranchised.

The threat to our civil condition is not only the health crisis but also the condition of permanent emergency that lies ahead. The management of the pandemic has put an unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of a few: scientific experts, data controlling agencies, economic and political elites. They will continue to rely on the authority of the state to demand the obedience of all while offering only partial protection.

If we don’t move the social contract in a radical egalitarian direction, the relationship to the state that it enables breaks down. The state loses its authority, and representative democracy loses its function as the mechanism that makes that authority legitimate. Politics only channels the voice of the strongest, of those who have data, money, weapons, or a combination of all. The state is an agency that holds a monopoly over the use of force, but no legitimate authority.

Rousseau wrote that “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains”. The Social Contract did not intend to explain why states fail, but how their authority could be justified. Rousseau offered one simple solution: democracy. Democracy required grounding the social contract in the general will, eliminating inequalities of wealth and power, and turning the state from a vehicle of domination into one of emancipation.

In the 21st century, we may not be as far from the ideal of democracy as Rousseau was in the 18th century. But we are not that close either. 

Lea Ypi is a professor in political theory at the London School of Economics

This article appears in the 03 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis

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