A recent article in The Economist - hardly a publication known for its gooey-eyed liberal optimism - is right to argue that while damaged by excessive individualism, our society is far from broken. Empirical analysis supported by recent Ipsos MORI public opinion data shows that our society is largely more tolerant, environmentally aware, and safer than a decade ago. As Axel Honneth has argued, growing recognition of the rights and identities of minority groups over the last four decades surely represents some sign of social and ethical progress.
Philip Blond and others on the political right see things differently. Arguing for a new Conservatism based on a repudiation of both social and economic liberalism, they consider people today to have too many individual rights and too few collective responsibilities. Rooted in a nostalgic longing for a mythical utopia, their argument for increasing responsibility by cutting our rights-based culture down to size is dangerously misguided. The world-view which only casts the state in the role of the devil, does succeed in redistributing responsibility from state to citizen. But it does so without any realistic strategy for fostering the behaviours and ways of thinking people and communities need for people be active citizens and thereby reduce state dependency in areas of public life where the state is a barrier rather than enabler of citizen activism.
Re-invigorating civic virtue
While our society is not broken, civic virtue is certainly in need of repair. As Hannah Arendt and Alasdair MacIntyre have argued, the language and importance of behaviour directed by civic virtue and common purpose has been gradually eroded from our public discourse. Today, voter turnout has become the major indicator of civic and political health instead of the depth of citizen participation in the civic and political decision-making of everyday life. This philosophical speculation is supported by public opinion data. Over the past three decades, feelings of belonging in the UK have declined and questions of national identity and cultural cohesion have become more prominent.
Yet as Matthew Taylor argues in his recent essay on twenty-first century enlightenment, the problem is not individual autonomy itself which is necessary for people to create self-authored lives they value. The issue is how individual autonomy can be reconciled with the collective good in our materialist culture where consumer choice is re-packaged as human freedom and social solidarity is reduced to polite indifference to the actions and values of others.
For civic republicans, individual autonomy can only be realised in a society which also exhibits what Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre call civic virtue. Given that we rely on some level of social order and positive freedoms to allow us to make choices in our lives, we can only have autonomy if we make our contribution to developing and maintaining a public sphere marked by vibrant forms of citizen activism and deliberation.
The Citizens’ Contract
How might we turn this civic republican emphasis on civic virtue and active citizenship into practical public policy? And how can they inform a new way of looking at citizen rights and responsibility necessary for stronger civic responsibility and social solidarity at the local level? These questions are the focus of a forthcoming RSA Citizen Power pamphlet, Everyday Citizenship: the case for the Citizen Contract.
The Citizens’ Contract is being developed at the RSA as part of their flagship Citizen Power programme to cultivate civic innovation and citizen activism in Peterborough. Based on rigorous policy analysis, the pamphlet puts forward the case for a place-based community-focused Citizens’ Contracts. Locally deliberated, the Citizens’ Contract is designed as a symbolic and formal agreement holding public services, community and third sector organisations and citizens all to account for improving civic action and responsibility in their area.
The Citizens’ Contract consists of strong citizen rights and responsibilities. Citizen rights include the rights to: influence so people have more power over local and national decision-making; community ownership so local people have an economic stake in the future of where they live; resourcefulness so people have the networks of support they need to be independent; transparency of public information so people can hold authority to account; resillience so individuals and communities can overcome personal and local challenges, and creative individual and collective self-expression. These would sit alongside citizen responsibilities to commit a certain proportion of their time to community and voluntary work, participate in public decision-making; support the most vulnerable in society; protect the environment; cultivate civic health and well-being, and be more independent.
In the pamphlet, we show how these rights and responsibilities are connected to important ‘civic capabilities’ - or civic republican principles - people and communities need in order for civic virtue to be cultivated in practice through the Citizens’ Contract.
Participation in decision-making
Involvement in community activity
Economically and emotionally, self-reliant and resilient
Our recommendation of the Citizens’ Contract is supported by some of the most innovative thinking being developed around rights and responsibilities in public services. in three major areas of public policy, public service entitlements and guarantees, community-contracts and pledges, and the role of ‘declarative norms’ in behaviour change. The benefits of place-based Citizens’ Contract are clear: they have the potential to improve levels of citizen participation in community life and local public service performance, and reduce dependency on non-essential public services while building resilient communities with the capabilities and resources to overcome the challenges they face in collective ways that strengthen social solidarity.
Sam McLean is Director of Public Participation and Head of the Citizen Power programme at the RSA.