Day 18: Social Contract


Day 18: Social Contract

Our everydayness has been taken away by this pandemic. All the markers of routine and familiarity that filled up our lives’ everyday are no longer around. The bulk of it has shrunken to minimum. For as much as social media, video calls and pictures shared with us can fill up, that is the sense of the world that we have in these days of lockdown. In its ‘lite’ mode, our lives are throwing interesting, challenging and sometimes outright stressful situations on us. There was the relief of going to work when domestic life got overwhelming for any reason. There was a home to shelter in when work life and the big world outside felt rough. For some there was outdoors – to get out for a walk, a road trip, a tour, a vacation, long run, cycling, motorbiking, camping, climbing etc. We are in a halfway house these days, desperately wishing that the separation and legibility is restored.

In this time of crisis our fractures are getting deeper. Religion and class divide in India is being reinforced. Civil servants have hit a new low by hiding their family’s travel history and putting the lives of several of their colleagues at risk. Class differences are revealing themselves unfailingly in the numerous instances of the privileged behaving nasty with security guards, maids, cleaners and drivers. To think of the collective ‘society’ seems stretched in these times. The same collective also embodies a spirit of sharing and altruistic behaviour, making it difficult to dismiss the collective’s future. The threat from the virus is real and poses genuine risk to the fate of each and every individual. The balance must tilt towards the constructive forces of sharing, caring for each other and altruism. Otherwise, the survivors of the pandemic may not have it in them to reconstruct their lives back and perhaps heal. The scars can be lasting. 

The pandemic is a litmus test for many societies across the world. The more it lasts, the more slips of values, behaviour and judgement are likely to happen. Our ethics, values and morality appear to be rules for happier times when there is no insecurity about life’s outcomes and necessary resources. 

Since the pandemic’s progression into a serious multi-fronted crisis, several opinion pieces have referred to the need for a new ‘social contract’ in a post Coivid-19 world. Financial Times editorial ‘Virus lays bare the frailty of the social contract’ strikes an optimist note – 

If there is a silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that it has injected a sense of togetherness into polarized societies.

I see more evidence of the contrary from the EU to the US. In its specific suggestion of ‘radical reforms’ in the role of government, relationships between public and private sector and a rethink on social security, I agree that this is an opportune moment. 

Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.

However, the concern remains that our governments, our corporate leadership and all our systems are made up of individuals. These individuals come with their own persuasions. Then, how will this reform and new social contract happen? What and who will yield the space for change to step in?

We are looking at a mixed bag of responses. Mary Robinson and Phil Bloomer in Open Democracy write – 

In the midst of our COVID-19 pandemic, there are rising calls for government and business to form a ‘new social contract’. This would tackle the immediate economic hardship, and more fairly share the burdens and benefits from our economies. This comes from actors as diverse as the International Trade Union Congress and the Financial Times. In contrast, too many business leaders appear willing to abandon their ‘social license to operate’ by passing the costs of this crisis to vulnerable workers in their supply chains. This approach not only exacerbates the immediate humanitarian suffering but also polarises further our unequal societies, creating greater public distrust of markets.

Perhaps, it may not be sufficient to justify the necessity of a new social contract on the old Hobbesian idea of having rules in the best self interest. It may be necessary to begin establishing a rationale based on shared living and common future. The pandemic in its raw unfolding is a testimony to this common future.

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