Our Social Contract is Broken
For years, the social contract that we have in the West has been broken. We have many ways at our disposal to correct the brokenness, and as Catholics, we need look no further than within our own Church to find ways to mend and even overhaul the social contract.
The pandemic has laid bare that we need to make changes to the system because far too many people in our country are falling through the cracks. To rectify the injustices, we need not go headfirst into complete socialism, but socialism is a deep well with many useful ideas to help create a better social contract.
Many of these ideas are not incompatible with the Catholic Church. Indeed, evidence of their compatibility can be found in liberation theology and personalist philosophies—I am a student of Emmanuel Mounier, so I would be remiss to not mention his contributions as a Catholic and socialist.
This is, of course, a massive topic to handle in such a short piece, so I will do my best to make an introduction to questioning the hegemonic social contract theory of our society. I will do so relying on the works of Mounier and other Catholic sources, such as Catholic social teaching.
The social contract is broken in many regards: it is broken in terms of the structure of our society; it is broken in terms of our economy; and it is broken in terms of our justice system. I want to discuss briefly the first two issues, as I discuss the topic of justice in another post.
The decadence of the social and economic aspects of our social contract are linked. We live in a liberal democratic and capitalist society. These two things, liberal democracy and capitalism, need not go together, but we have put them together.
To keep things simple, in our social lives, we have begun to isolate ourselves and distance ourselves from one another. Think of our communities: people are less reliant on communal structures and are less involved in their communities.
Many thinkers of the left and the right have pointed to the hollowing out of communal life that our social contract has done. The rise of individualism means that we are less attached to the structures that once gave our lives meaning (Taylor, 1991: 2).
Mounier saw this back in the 1930s, so this is not a new issue. His concern is that we were putting up roadblocks to communication. These roadblocks began then to alienate us from each other (2016: 40). Pope Francis touches on this issue of alienation in his latest encyclical (2020: s13). Individualism is, in many ways, antithetical to Catholicism and Christianity. Individualism forms persons who are concerned with their own interests.
This is not the way of Christ. Christ is selfless and concerned with the wellbeing of others. If we think of scripture, we can look to Matthew 25: 35-40 where Christ talks about when He was naked, hungry, thirsty, and in prison.
We are called to tend to those on the margins who are our sisters and brothers. We can also look to the parable of the Good Samaritan that Pope Francis uses in Fratelli Tutti, as it too serves to remind us to care for others. One of the main causes for our alienation and disjoining from communal structures is our economic system.
The capitalist system, which has as many varieties as socialism, is in large part to blame for the brokenness of our social contract. Part of the reason that the communal structures are disappearing is that our economic system has made work much more precarious and the least well off amongst us are required to work more and more jobs in order to support themselves and their families.
We have all heard this before: we need to pay people more. It is not only about paying people more, but it is also about making sure that people have job security and are not treated as disposable. Life needs to be more than surviving.
Indeed, Mounier argues that our basic needs must be met but need more to life than that (1961: 453). To fix our social contract, we need to make sure that everyone’s basic needs are met. This does cost money, but it is money well spent if we could help to ensure that everyone sleeps in a warm bed at night.
To achieve this, Mounier does propose a socialist economy that flips capitalism on its head. His proposal is one echoed by liberation theology and even echoes things that Pope Francis has said.
The biggest economic issue is that the human person is being used to serve the interests of profit and capital, which denigrates the dignity of the person. Indeed, Mounier proposes an inversion that has ‘the person as its principle and its model’ (1961: 603). What we can learn is that the economy should be serving the person’s interests and not the other way around.
Amongst other things, this does mean that the social contract should ensure the vital necessities of the person, such as housing, food, healthcare, education, basic clothing (Mounier, 1961: 453) and make sure that they can achieve their personal necessities, i.e., the enjoyment of cultural activities, sports, travel, and leisure (Mounier, 1961: 453).
This is a massive topic, and I have barely scratched the surface of it. In short, the social contract is broken because we have created a society in which we treat humans as disposable.
Capitalism has created structures that put its profit and success ahead of the lives of the humans that make it function. If we want to fix our social contract and restore dignity to human beings, we need to overhaul our economic structures. We can change our morality as much as we like, but nothing will truly change until we change the economy.