Magazine article Soundings

A Connected Society

Magazine article Soundings

A Connected Society

Article excerpt

Social connectedness has a key part to play in the search for equality.

Political conditions in many countries presently demand that we undertake serious thinking all the way to the roots about how to build a progressive politics of egalitarian empowerment. In this essay I focus on the contribution that connectedness can make to such a politics. After discussing the relationship between egalitarian empowerment and social connectedness, I describe the economic, political and personal benefits that connectedness can bring, and reflect on how policy-makers could tackle the project of building a connected society.

Egalitarian empowerment, social structure and connectedness

If we are to work from the roots, I should start, briefly, with the original meaning of democracy. From the ancient Greek, of course, its literal meaning is 'people power', or - as one scholar has recently put it - the capacity on the part of a broad and inclusive public to effect change.1 Insofar as the purpose of democracy is to empower individual citizens and give them sufficient control over their lives to protect themselves against domination, the core ideal of democracy is political equality.

What exactly is political equality? We have come to think of this ideal as consisting primarily of voting rights and the right to run for elected office. These political rights are, of course, fundamental, but this is a limited view. Voting rights are only one way to work toward the egalitarian empowerment of a citizenry. The achievement of freedom from domination depends on establishing something like a balance of powers among a multitude of particularistically interested individual citizens. The question is how to empower each and all within the competitive realm of politics such that none can dominate any of the others, nor any group dominate other citizens. This can be achieved only when there is broadly egalitarian economic empowerment, egalitarian educational empowerment and egalitarian social empowerment.

Yet political equality is not merely about empowering citizens across social classes and positions so that all are equipped to compete economically, educationally or socially with one another, and thereby to wrench balanced and fair outcomes from shared institutions. The best way to achieve freedom from domination for all citizens is to ensure that all participate through politics in creating those shared institutions in the first place. The goal is to engage a whole political community equally in the work of co-creating a shared public life.2

Thus the goal of political equality aims at two things: first, general egalitarian empowerment, and, second, broad participatory engagement of citizens in political life. And achieving these two goals requires paying attention to social structure.

What do I mean by social structure? I mean the very basic organisation of our lives through patterns of association: who do we know, who are our intimate associates, what organisations are we part of, who are the people to whom our connections are more distant but to whom we nonetheless have a connection? To which of our fellow citizens do we have no connection at all? One can imagine mapping one's own relationships. To make such a map is to capture one's associational life. The question of social structure is a matter of what this map looks like.3

Because economic life has so much power over our collective co-existence, the focus of progressive politics has long been on fiscal and monetary policy and how to redistribute the economic benefits of increases in national productivity. Yet fundamental features of social organisation themselves have equally profound economic and political consequences, and are equally important in the pursuit of egalitarian goals. Indeed, the failure to do right by social structure can have profoundly inegalitarian consequences.

Perhaps one of the most profound examples of a failure at the level of associational life in a democracy is the case of racial segregation in the US. …

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