What is a Shared Society?

Yesterday at the United Nations I spoke at a panel on addressing global poverty organized by the Club de Madrid, a group of former democratically-elected world leaders, which has in recent years championed a concept which they refer to as that of a ‘Shared Society’.  The title of the concept was recently adopted, to some bemusement and bewilderment, by Theresa May in the UK who has sought to differentiate her government’s social vision from that of her Conservative predecessor, who championed the risibly named ‘Big Society’ – an idea which seemed to import from across the Atlantic while melding confusingly the terminology of the Great Society with the voluntarist vision of a ‘Thousand Points of Light‘.

In an effort to make sense of the concept advanced even earlier by the Club, I suggested that it could be thought of as composed of three themes.  The first is that of individual dignity, rights and effective empowerment.   The second is that of conviviality, bringing together the recognition of social pluralism with an appeal for involvement in a whole.  The third is that of responsibility of all for the common good and for things held in common.  Understood in these terms, the idea, and ideal, of a shared society can be applied on any scale.  It can quite compatibly be thought of as applicable to the world as a whole, the nation, or local communities, or indeed de-territorialized communities, such as those which might nowadays be created, to ambivalent effect, on social media.

The Sustainable Development Goals, whatever their deficiencies, might be thought of as a reflection of the recognition of a global shared society.  The guiding ideas of universality of application of the goals, and responsibility for attaining them, as well as of leaving no one behind, can be linked to an associated normative perspective.    From such a vantage point, Theresa May’s recent statement that ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’ deserves modification: ‘If you are a citizen of somewhere, you’re a citizen of the world’.

The idea of a shared society, as advanced by the Club, is not only a normative perspective but it is also an empirical orientation, grounded in the premise that policies and actions rooted in the idea may be more likely to generate desirable and durable gains.  An example which I offered in my remarks was that of a universal literacy campaign.  To be successful, the campaign must aim to achieve individual substantive freedoms, or capabilities.  The campaign must recognize the fact of social pluralism in order to diagnose why illiteracy may be present in each specific case — for instance among adults who were unschooled, ill-schooled or dropouts, among those in far-flung regions or social groups which are poorly served by existing schools, among itinerants and so forth.  Finally, the campaign must be grounded in an idea of shared responsibility that can motivate the campaigners and the society at large.

The causal connections between effective empowerment, economic productivity and the ability to participate in the life of society generally, help to provide economic justification for an inclusive strategy, quite apart from its already adequate ethical case. (The former President of the Kyrgyz Republic, who spoke before me, gave the example of early childhood interventions, now very widely recognized to have enormous economic benefits for the entire society).

The perspective of shared societies generally leads to an orientation toward universality, in intent of who should be included, if not always in method, as well as an orientation toward democratic process, so that inclusion does not merely take the form of the rolling out of a policy designed by technocrats, however much informed by necessary expertise.  The idea of a shared society may be causally important because the vision necessary for people to accept shared institutions and to be motivated to work together to enhance inclusion as well as general achievement goes beyond a calculus of mutual insurance or of the social contract and instead requires a substrate of common feeling.  Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze pointed out that the greatest twentieth century spurts in life expectancy were paradoxically achieved in the UK during the World Wars, likely because of the advances these spurred in shared social institutions aiming to protect and promote the health of the population. [There is of course an ambiguity here:  Wartime may not only have provided moments of fellow-feeling – although the differential mortality rates of officers and ordinary combatants must be recognized – but also given rise to a greater role for the state in the organization of society, because of the perceived necessity of fully mobilizing scarce social resources toward the collective effort.  Whether the recognition of individual rights and social pluralism, also aspects of the ‘shared society’ vision, was enhanced or compromised, is an interesting question for historians: it is certainly well-known that both wars gave rise to new social claims (on the part for instance the working class after the first world war, and women and racial minorities after the second) as well as to increased state powers, for example of taxation, in both the UK and the US.]

Ultimately, the furtherance of dignity, rights and inclusion – let alone equality – requires what has been called a “human rights culture” which, whatever the possibilities for providing it with philosophical foundations, certainly also requires active support in social life, by bringing about contexts and conditions for people to gain a requisite sense of psychological security and of common humanity, which does not seek to deny or dispel their different and even incompatible visions.  It must be recognized that a moral language, and imagination, limited to human rights claims risks is rigid, compromise-averse and thus conflict-prone, and  that, especially, though not exclusively, when deployed by the powerful, it can mask hypocrisies.  On the other hand there can be no doubt about the the moral force of many such claims, in their historical and political contexts.

How such a culture is created and sustained can be mysterious, but what is quite clear is that it is now under attack, beyond what any argument for ‘rebalancing’ could justify. Its friends must pause to ask what they could do otherwise.  To reiterate argumentative controversies may do rather less to promote a human rights culture than to draw creatively on various methods of persuasion.  John Donne‘s ever powerful words still express, perhaps better than any other, the sentiments that sustain it:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Yet, today, the bell tolls too infrequently.  The deniers of rights claims as such, as contrasted with those who seek to achieve a workable balance between moral claims, including rights claims, of different kinds, most often speak through indirection, because they do not dare to speak of what they really mean, that the deaths of others do not diminish them, because they do not seek to be involved in mankind.  If a line between those of good and bad faith should be drawn, it is not to cast anyone out but to overcome an impasse. If shared societies could ever be achieved, it is by applying the very principles that they are meant to embody to recognize and to address the factors that impede them.


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