On Tuesday January 18, The World Economic Forum is hosting a panel discussion on Renewing a Global Social Contract. The concept of a social contract has its origins in the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who used it to justify the authority of the state. But while it can seem like a useful conceptual tool, it also contains many pitfalls. When it's the global elite inviting the world into a new global social contract, we need to be careful. Who is setting the terms of the contract? And whose interests is the contract protecting exactly? Unless the process by which the terms of the social contract are formulated is democratized, we should be highly suspect of the very idea of a global social contract, writes Jason Neidleman.
Talk of a new global social contract is in the air. Elite institutions from management consultancies, to leading universities and even the United Nations are all alluding to the concept. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, a new global social contract should focus on “two fronts” : The first is sustaining and expanding economic growth and productivity; the second is mitigating the suffering faced by those adversely affected by these trends. Minouche Shafik, director of the London School of Economics, envisions a new global social contract that attends more carefully to women and to the global South . António Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, favors a “New Social Contract and a New Global Deal that create equal opportunities for all and respect the rights and freedoms of all.”
Today the World Economic Forum, perhaps the global elite institution, hosts a panel entitled “Renewing a Global Social Contract,” in which the speakers will attempt to identify “new policies and business actions…needed to create social mobility, good jobs, and an equitable society for all.” Framing a political agenda around the concept of a contract has an obvious appeal. If politicians and business leaders can argue that their proposed policies have the consent of everyone involved, in virtue of some a social contract, then those policies will enjoy a level of legitimacy they wouldn’t otherwise have. But simply invoking the language of a “new global social contract” does not in itself establish much of anything. The devil is in the detail: Under what conditions could a claim to general consent be warranted? And who sets the terms of the contract?
The philosophical origins of the social contract idea and its problems
This question has been at the centre of the liberal political philosophy for four centuries. Early modern political thinkers like Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke were attracted to the idea of a social contract because it was a way of reconciling the authority of the state with the basic freedom and equality of its members. No doubt aspirations to a similar synthesis motivates the somewhat less philosophical present-day proponents of a social contract.
But, as we begin to think a bit more carefully, difficulties quickly emerge. Historically, sovereign authority has rarely emerged as a produce of formal consent. Very few of us have ever, or will ever, consent to the terms of the laws, norms, and institutions that govern our activity. To address this problem, early social contract theorists posited a pre-political state of nature, in which individuals were free and equal, none wielding any authority over another, and from which those individuals could plausibly consent, through a social contract, to the creation of a state and a sovereign.
Very few of us have ever, or will ever, consent to the terms of the laws, norms, and institutions that govern our activity.
This is both a very appealing and at the same time very unappealing way of thinking about justice and legitimacy. It is appealing because, as noted above, it allows its proponents to reconcile liberty and authority. If each one of us is by nature free and equal, none entitled to rule over another, then it is only by our mutual consent that sovereign authority can be legitimately instituted. The logic is unassailable, and the commitment to the equal dignity of all is morally compelling. It is unappealing, however, because the conditions for its authentic realization—equal citizens, similarly situated vis a vis one another, none wielding power or privilege over any of the others—have never, and likely could never, come to be. And, as critics of the liberal tradition have shown, it can be dangerous to use abstract concepts that rely on false premises.
As history, the concept of a pre-political state of nature has been quite comprehensively refuted. Discoveries in Anthropology and Archaeology show that human beings have always lived together in communities characterized by social hierarchy. (Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of its great theorists, acknowledged that that state of nature “no longer exists, and perhaps never has existed.”) The state of nature is quite simply not a plausible account of the relationship between individuals at any point in human history. And this is not the only problem. As mentioned previously, very few people ever have the experience of consenting in the way social contract theorists describe. Contract theorists, therefore, must have recourse to what political philosophers call “hypothetical consent,” which—in contrast to theories of “actual consent”—does not depend upon an expressed agreement of all associates. Theories of hypothetical consent articulate principles to which self-interested parties have not in actuality consented but to which they could reasonably consent. Here, we must attend very closely to the possibility that proponents of a social contract have substituted their preferences for the preferences of those in whose name they claim to speak.
We must attend very closely to the possibility that proponents of a social contract have substituted their preferences for the preferences of those in whose name they claim to speak.
Attending to these concerns, John Rawls suggests that we reimagine the state of nature as a thought experiment in which potential contractors place themselves in what he called an “original position,” outside of any society. From there contractors apply a metaphorical “veil of ignorance” over their reasoning, meaning that they are ignorant as to how much, or how little, privilege they will wield in the society they are imagining. Subjects reasoning from the original position, divorced from any vested interests, will, Rawls argues, arrive at fair and equitable principles of justice.
Who sets the agenda of a global social contract?
It is something like this way of thinking that we see at work in the recent attempts to theorize a global social contract referenced above and on the agenda for today’s panel at Davos. But are the proponents of these new contracts reasoning from behind a veil of ignorance or are they privileging a particular agenda? Beyond that, is it even plausible to think that we could reason in the ahistorical way imagined by Rawls and other contract theorists? These are the questions the rest of us should be asking.
Are there interests or ideological constraints pre-inscribed into the terms of the social contracts being proposed at Davos?
Carole Pateman, in her seminal Sexual Contract, interrogated the presuppositions of early modern conceptions of the subject or agent contracting to the terms of the social contract. She showed how patriarchal norms were pre-inscribed into the terms of what she called the “fraternal social contract.” Similarly, Charles Mills, in his equally seminal Racial Contract, showed that the ostensibly universal terms social contract theory concealed a racist ideological backdrop that predetermined the terms of inclusion (and exclusion) in the jurisdiction of the social contract. Are there interests or ideological constraints pre-inscribed into the terms of the social contracts being proposed at Davos, at the UN, the LSE and other elite institutions? If so, what are they?
And, finally, we should ask who is defining the terms of the new global social contract? Even if we opt to think through the prism of a social contract, it will not be enough to address exclusions and injustices in the terms of existing global norms and institutions. Any attempt to theorize a global social contract without attending to the axes of exclusion in the establishment of existing rules and norms is destined to reproduce the same inequities inscribed in those rules and norms.
Real justice demands democratization of the process by which the terms of the social contract are formulated.
Real justice demands democratization of the process by which the terms of the social contract are formulated and promulgated. In this regard, proponents of a new global social contract will benefit from the work of philosophers like Charles Beitz, Martha Nussbaum, and Thomas Pogge who have reimagined the idea of a global social contract from the ground up, with parties to the contract being individual human beings. Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute is on the right track in thinking about the global social contract as requiring radical rethinking of social democracy on a global scale . Similarly, Kumi Naidoo, writing for the World Bank, argues for citizen assemblies and other forms of participatory decision-making as a way of arriving at the terms of a possible global social contract.
True justice will require a reallocation of power, from those likely to be present at the World Economic Forum to those most likely to be unaware that it is even happening.