(re)Defining the social contract?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 18th century French philosopher and one of the fathers of the Enlightenment and industrial revolution once wrote, “L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.” Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.  


Rousseau believed that a true citizen was one that put aside his or her private interests in reverence to the will of society. Man was, in essence, chained to his fellow man. And so developed society through this period of moral and social enlightenment.


Such societies, however, were by and large ethnically, racially and linguistically homogeneous. The following two centuries saw further dissolution of the remaining empires in Europe, and outside of our more recent moves towards integration, saw a steady return to small, individualistic nation states which used such social and cultural cohesion to develop strong national identities.


But how does this concept of a social contract evolve in countries where the composition of the population, notably its ethnic, racial, religious and linguistic participants begins to become more heterogeneous. Do the ties that helped create national identity and social cohesion in its former form become weaker in this multi-cultural model?


Or, given our insistence on unfettered freedoms, is a social contract a realistic possibility in today’s global world? Rousseau feared chaos would takeover should man operate without one but perhaps times have change. 

In recent years this question has become a point of contentious debate, often framed as xenophobic, and most often equated as an attack on immigration. Last year, in France, then Presidential candidate, and eventual President, Nicholas Sarkozy was termed a xenophobe by his Socialist rival Segolene Royal for his hardline policies on immigrants and French values. And just weeks ago,  Mariano Rajoy, the leader of Spain’s rightwing People’s Party narrowly lost the general election to incumbent Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Like Sarkozy, one of Rajoy’s main campaign issues was the country’s social contract. Over the last decade, the composition of Spain’s population has changed significantly with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from across the world, though predominantly from Africa, South America and Eastern Europe. It is estimated that ten percent of Spain’s 45 million inhabitants are foreign-born.

Rajoy’s planned “contract of integration” understandably raised the ire of many across the country. The contract would have seen new immigrants sign a legally binding contract that would include a promise to “integrate into Spanish society.” Defining this latter phrase is thus at the heart of the debate that rages over such attempts. Rajoy’s contract would have forced immigrants to learn Spanish customs, the language, and would forbid practices such as female circumcision while enshrining equality between the sexes.

And so while some called this proposal an affront to the ideals of freedom and liberty long enshrined in Western society, with immigration to Europe expected to hit 2 million per year, to the United States over 1 million, and to Canada over 400,000, a fascinating academic, social and economic debate begs for more open discussion about the impacts of contemporary demographic change. The social contract our societies have operated under is a product of several hundred years of Christian, Caucasian dominance in the West. So what happens when that demographic dominance begins to erode and in its place gives way to a country where the minority increasingly becomes the majority.


To be sure, this is not about limiting immigration or restricting from where immigrants arrive – the West is far too dependent on immigration for continued economic growth and prosperity to actually contemplate shutting the doors – rather it’s a discussion about what we as citizens or residents of a particular nation, no matter our race, ethnicity, religion, or tenure in a country, believe to be the key values and ideals for the present and future.


But this discussion is about the question of whether people of different racial, religious and cultural backgrounds live together over the long-sweep of history without fissures erupting based on which sub-section of the whole become the biggest? Historians often equate the fracture of the Habsburg/Prussian empire in the 18th century to the ethnic and linguistic divides within. Applied today, will the values and ideals of our current society be the same as those under a cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic population? Or will they be the same if the population of Canada, for example, shifts to a foreign-born majority?


I ask not out of any anti-immigrant or fear of change. Rather I simply wonder what the evolution of Western nations and Western societies will look like as the people within begin to change.


Evidently it touches on topics such as assimilation and accommodation that get so many of us tense about even broaching the topic in public. But if we continue to ignore the topic of societal change that accompanies immigration then what will these nations look like in the future? Will they become truly multi-cultural nations? Or will they fragment into enclaves of social-likes such as we often see in the suburbs and banlieus of major North American and European cities?


And ultimately if the latter is to be avoided, and we are to attempt to build truly cohesive, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic societies, don’t we need some type of common ground? We often talk about the need to celebrate our diversity, but perhaps it’s time we celebrate our similarities instead.


And with that comes responsibilities for both old and new, for both governed and governing. It requires an effort to bridge not only social and cultural divides but ultimately economic ones as well. For the divides present in society are often the result of differences in purchasing power which subsequently act to push people towards support networks, which evidently, are often comprised of those like them. Therein lies government’s role. Immigration cannot solely about numbers, nor resumes and point systems. Building a healthy, vibrant and multi-cultural nation will be dependent on the redefinition of the social contract – this theoretical document that lays out what we, beyond our titles and differences, believe a shared space should represent? In essence, finding common ground in our similarities rather than finding excitement in our differences.




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