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Social dialogue and social contract in a world at fever pitch: what are the chances?

Joe Larragy, Maynooth University, outlined the potential for a social dialogue and a social contract in a divided world at our Social Policy Conference 2020.  Below is an extract from his paper.  

Learning from experience
Ireland’s experience of social partnership and other experiments in participatory democracy such as the citizens’ assembly, provide much to learn from in relation to promoting social dialogue. In the period from 1987 to 2008, in a strictly Irish context, a new form of social dialogue, social partnership in support of a social contract, was established in Ireland.  One of the main innovations in social dialogue in Ireland was the extension of participation in social partnership beyond the interests of Business, Farmers and the Trade Unions.

A world at fever pitch
Contemporary challenges in Ireland are increasingly global in character. The financial crisis of 2008, despite its accentuated effects in Ireland, was ultimately global. Similarly, climate change is a global challenge. And, of course, the Covid-19 crisis is global.   2008 was the moment when the neo-liberal super project turned visibly sour. It revealed all too well what happens when neo-liberalism is not embedded in correspondingly strong countervailing norms, institutions, and distributional Justice, typically underpinned by the state.  Strategically, at global level, the crash accelerated the changing balance of power, not just in economic terms but in geo-political terms. 

A snowball’s chance in hell for dialogue?
Reactionary populism seems like a good term for what we are seeing across the planet today, and it will not fall back of its own accord. It is “reactionary” in the sense that it lacks cognitive content, and is driven by nervous reflex, fear and despair. This has happened before. It is what lay at the root of Fascism in the 1920s and 1930s.  Today, and not only in the USA, there is a partial collapse of trust, belief in liberal democracy, separation of legislative, judicial and executive power. Respect between nation states, and respect within them, safe harbour for refugees etc., have been dealt a serious blow.  The reason for these broader observations is that the world is now more tightly knit.  Global economic activity has now overspilt all previous boundaries leading to environmental destruction and created, globally, a “risk society”. The climate crisis is a mega risk which epitomises this.

But these risks are multidimensional, financial, social, environmental, human, and consequently, and crucially, political. The biggest threats now are to democracy and nation-state institutions.  Against this backdrop, there is a compelling argument to address the question of social contract in new conditions: conditions that are now much broader in scope and global in scale. We, as a planet, face a choice between attempting to develop responses cognitively through a new dialogue, political and social, or simply marching on, brainless, based on some notion of the old normal.

Renewing the social contract and reinventing citizenship
The welfare state settlement has been attacked, particularly since the 1970s, but has survived. It has  survived the crisis of the 1970s, the decades of neoliberalism, and even the post 2008 austerity. Now, however it will need to be reinvented in the context of the breakdown in the neoliberal super project and the need for a truly super-project against climate change. There are some big questions to confront if the social contract is to be revisited and renewed for the coming period. Much has already been done with the welfare state. It used to be heavily gendered, dominated by a male breadwinner model. That has changed, somewhat. It was originally conceived as a national level contract but, with greater economic integration, migration, and transnational markets, much has changed and renewal of the contract must become internationalised. And, of course, it must be consistent with and even contribute to environmental renewal.

Conclusion
The world is in a bit of a mess. It will require global solutions arrived at through valuing of the public sphere, development of social dialogue and hammering out a new version of the social contract. This time, not just a class settlement is needed but a more encompassing settlement that addresses environment, economic management, and human rights across the broadest range of difference between people and in the most complete sense, civil, political and social.

The full paper is available to download here.