By Darim al-Basam
The world is in a rapid changing era and the Arab region is not an exception in that regard. The successive economic crises of the last two decades, the revolutions and wars of the Arab Spring, the growth of populism, the emergence of protectionist tendencies, the attack on globalisation and the growing role of the social media have nowadays all precipitated the emergence of demands for a new social contract.
More importantly, emerging principles have been adapted by societies in the transformation to the new era of knowledge-based societies. Accordingly, we can see that new set of values are forcing states to restructure the state-society pacts. Also, when we observe countries in the world, it is easily and clearly seen that there are essential differences in societies regarding their preemptive measures, future visions, and their socio-economical, sociopolitical and socio-cultural conditions and their adaptive capability for change.
Comparatively, while the sweeping forces of change and reform showed astronomical impact in various parts of the world, most of Arab states are lagging behind and still reluctantly looking at the new emerging values and power relations among social actors with doubt, and, therefore, unwilling to rewrite the social contract. Most of them cannot save themselves from the tyranny of the status quo.
The social contract is a key concept in social science literature focusing on governance and state–society relations. It refers to the “entirety of explicit or implicit agreements between all relevant societal groups and the sovereign (ie the government or any other actor in power), defining their rights and obligations towards each other. Yet the term has so far been neither well defined nor operationalised in Arab writings.
Moreover, many recent regional and international research projects that I have reviewed about the future of governance in the Arab world, use the term “social contract” heuristically, as an aid to analysis. The paradigms they follow and the perspectives they offer come from the disciplines of economic or political sciences which their analyses are mostly instrumental and technical functional in nature. References to the term of social contract, as the review of these research projects illustrate, are often tokenistic and rarely consider the philosophical difficulties associated with the term. I think, for the sake of accuracy and practicality, researchers in such fields of should adopt the term (social compact) rather than (social contract) as means of avoiding deeper philosophical arguments about this term.
My basic argument is that thinking about social contracts, what they are and how they have changed is a powerful way to understand society and social change at multiple levels of analysis and in multiple contexts. From a sociological vantage point that I follow in this article, social contracts are articulated as part of the social dynamics of societies. It is looked at interpretively, referring to something substantively real.
But although real, I should mention from the very outset that the social contract is an agreement never put into writing, never signed upon, and never even stated outright. Yet, it makes its presence known in every aspect of society. It comes in many forms all depending on historical context. One could categorise or group similar social contracts together under (feudal, tribal, patriarchic, autocratic, democratic ruling …etc). One can also use general labels to shed some light on the given social contract nature, but it is always country and cultural–specific.
Sociologically speaking, it is hard to emphatically word the social contract agreement (implicit most of the time) for it is constantly evolving and is shaped by the interactions and feedback between social structure and social agency and influenced by events, emotion and emergent self organisation and behaviour. It is a complex adaptive system, a living thing, and in a constant state of negotiation and renegotiation based on basic acceptance of the legitimate parameters of state-society relations.
Thus defined, we can compare the social contract with two other intertwined concepts in sociology (a) social covenant and (b) social cohesion – with which it is sometimes conflated or confused. These concepts complement but do not rival the concept of the social contract. Social covenant refers to a “horizontal” process that brings together various ethnic, religious, and ideological groups within a political community. In covenants, the major groups within a society come together and agree on a new framework and vision for co-operation. A social covenant may inform and underpin a nation’s constitution. Some sociologists contrast social covenants with social contracts as follows: “Social contract creates a state; social covenant creates a society. Social contract is about power and how it is to be handled within a political framework. Social covenant is about how people live together despite their differences. Social contract is about government. Social covenant is about coexistence.
In established democracies, the social contract which is the offspring of the nineteen century evolving modernisation process and the imperatives of the pioneer early thinkers that established the rules (Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau ), it is solidly based on the following:
(a) “Government” is the collective authority of society not only to ensure a basic conformity with the ground rules necessary for effective co-ordination of large numbers of people to ensure order and security, but (b) it is also the organisation of society in such ways as to empower citizens to flourish through equal opportunities in pursuit of the life-goals and in the development of their potential as unique human beings, (c) Government is subjected to various aspects of accountability. Major among them is Public Accountability which pertains to the obligations of government and persons or entities entrusted with public resources to be answerable for the fiscal, managerial and program responsibilities that have been conferred on them, and to report to those that have conferred these responsibilities. It refers to the various actions, tools and mechanisms that civil society organisations, public spheres debate, the media, citizens and communities can use to hold elected public officials and non-elected public servants to account .. Where corruption, clientelism and state capture are endemic, public accountability can play an important role in curbing these practices, (d) Government operates within a framework of “rules of recognition and change” that provide a stable continuity for the human community to move through time in patterns of changing social contracts, ordered, nonviolent change and progressive movement into an ever-better future under common human ideals of justice, fairness, equality, and freedom.
As for the Arab world, the birth of the social contract in the post- colonial era was not, as in democracies of the West based on collective authority of society. Instead it was based on Authoritarian Welfare Corporatist States. After independence, such states had the key objectives of nation-building and consolidation rather than being driven by demands from democratically mobilised social forces.
Although nation-building and developmental aspects of social policy were arguably paramount, authoritarian corporatist states also were keen to create a social base of support and specific contract with citizens. While a social contract of sorts may be said to have existed, in a kind of “authoritarian bargain” between the state and the citizenry it was a top-down arrangement and uneven in scope and application, leading to major gaps in social development over time.
The social contract was mainly based on the redistribution of rents from natural resources, government revenues and other forms of transfers. The state provided subsidised staples and public utilities, free public education and health services and public sector jobs to citizens. The latter were thus ‘compensated’ for the forced top-down decision making and the lack of political participation. Experience showed that the scope of such welfare system was limited. The main beneficiaries were the largely male employees of the public sector and their families. Domestic workers, agricultural workers, the self-employed, and informal workers remained outside of the social policy system and relied principally on the family support system. Moreover, most jobs were based on connections rather than merit.
However, by the late 1970S , most aspects of this social contract were beginning to fray. With growing young populations, weak institutions and declining state revenues, many governments lost the ability to pursue fulfilling their duties. This ‘old social contract’ was not working anymore because of the deterioration in the efficiency and social justice impacts of public spending.
Inflicted by significant fiscal deficits, the public sector could no longer be the “employer of first and last resort.” In fact, the public sector started retrenching. A generation of young people, who had diligently gone to school thinking they would get a public-sector job, found themselves unemployed. Worse, their skills were not suited to the private sector, which nevertheless was not growing rapidly enough to absorb them.
The 1980s were painful years of structural adjustment during which most Arab countries abandoned statist economic models and accompanied social contract in favor of an ‘unsocial’ social contract that emerged under neo-liberalism and market-oriented paradigms. Indeed, the expectations of the middle class and the youth grew at a time when an emerging wealthy class benefited from privatisation of state owned enterprises. The wealthy class appeared as if it were a group of self-interested lobbies enhancing the unequal distribution of wealth and contributing to growing corruption and lack of transparency in public tenders.
This exacerbated socio-political inequalities and eroded formal and informal relationships between the well-connected and the excluded, between ethnic and sectarian groups, and in particular between generations. Put differently, declining faith in governments and the political elite in most Arab countries had negatively affect their legitimacy, weakened their ability to carry out sensitive functions such as maintaining order, defending national sovereignty, and managing economic conditions, and had led in some cases to the deterioration of social cohesion, justice, and solidarity.
The 2011 uprisings that swept across the region pushed forward debates about the relationship between citizens, societies, and states. People in some Arab countries broke the terms of the social contract unilaterally and press to replace it with a different social contract.
But most post 2011 regimes have re-established similar social contracts to the old ones, with a focus on preserving short-term stability instead of tackling the root causes of the uprisings. That left large segments of people with the impression that they are excluded from core state functions like accountability and inclusion. As many citizens know that their socio-economic and political conditions have not improved, these ‘new’ social contracts start to break down, risking in new revolts and potentially civil wars that could be more destructive than the conflicts that started in 2011. What we see now in the streets of Baghdad and Beirut is a case in order. Activism is becoming integral to the functioning of power as we live at the age of robust social action and protest politics.
The quest for rewriting the Arab social contract has not ended but, rather, has just began. For this, social contracts’ substance and, sometimes, their scope needs to be re-negotiated, or in some cases, entirely re-invented.
Great deal of multidisciplinary research is needed by Arab social scientists to draw up the boundaries of the new social contract.
The main research questions need to be addressed will be defined as:
1. What are the social dynamics and the relevant historical and social milieu in which state-society relationships have been established since independence in each of the Arab countries? Soft assets such as institutions, governance, power relations, social fabric and cohesion must be attended to as a priority enquiries
2. What are the foundational development paradigms and policy options that were constructed in the given country as bases for the state-society relations, and whether such policy options were equitable and inclusive? What went wrong in implementation? What are the lessons learned? What are the emerging issues and trends that need to revisit and rewrite the social contract?
3. How can we develop a Theory of Change for each Arab country that could serve as the bases for forging a new social contract ? How we can identify the new power relationships and the emerging social actors in the decision making process ? What is the role of the new active citizenship and the new insurgent public spheres in the age of social media in altering the state and society relationship? Such a theory could adequately describe the nexus linkage between inclusive politics, security and rule of law reforms, equitable socio-economic development reforms and new forms of participatory governance. More importantly, it can clearly identify the entry point for the desired change, articulates chain of causation narratives and spell out the underlying assumptions and strategies for the new social contract?
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