Only Connect


  • Social care
  • Social productivity

There is an argument I have made to progressives for many years and which I have since heard made more eloquently by Roberto Unger:greater equality should not be the end of progressive politics although it is almost certainly an important means. As Unger argues, the right’s focus on market based freedom and the left’s on social justice underwritten by the state fails to engage with what is both the ultimate goal of progress and the aspiration of people themselves – to live full and fulfilling lives.

The left might wish it was otherwise but not only are most people not particularly animated by the idea of social equality per se but the idea that people have of justice tends to be more about what political philosophers call procedural justice (fair application of rules, the balance of rights and entitlements) than substantive social justice. When pollsters ask people what is unfair in society they are as likely to mention welfare cheats and immigrants as the gap between rich and poor.

However, there is also a problem with identifying the goal of progress as lives that are ‘full and fulfilling’, or some other idealist description. It is hard to define the good life substantively. If we start with what people say matters right now we end up with a set of goals which seem rather prosaic and with only a tenuous link between individual aspirations and the requirements for a successful society. Yet if progressives claim that the good life is to be found in a certain set of universal attributes they open themselves to the claim of arbitrariness and arrogance and also seeming to be advocates of the dangerous idea that it is the business of social planners to help people create meaning in people’s lives.

Might there be an alternative end goal for progressivism? I would like to suggest connectedness or, at the risk of falling into jargon, ‘inclusive connectedness’. By the latter I mean being connected empathically and substantively to people from all parts of the society in which we live.

As Aristotle argued, being connected richly to other people is a vital element of living a good life. As social beings, the quality of our connections can be seen to be a direct correlate of the quality and value of our lives. Whilst the most reliable path to individual contentment may lie in a retreat from the social sphere into a world of contemplation, human fulfilment is an interpersonal phenomenon involving the effects we have on others.

More instrumentally, connectedness expands our horizons and opportunities can make us feel more valued and help us be more resilient to adversity. Being inclusively connected is not just a matter of personal preference or social co-incidence; prizing connectedness calls on us to be responsible for making and maintaining those connections beyond our own social tribe (something which requires us to transcend our evolved instincts).

Prizing connectedness also leads us to explore and value those attributes of society which give rise to connectedness; the balance of shared values with tolerance of difference, of freedom with social inclusion, of structure and tradition with spontaneity and experimentation.

The idea of inclusive connectedness as the goal of progressive politics gives rise to two big questions. The first involves understanding more deeply than we already do - from the work of Robert Putnam and many others - the relationship between connectedness and other aspects of the good life well lived. The RSA has explored aspects of this through our Connected Communities and Social Mirror projects. I spent a fascinating two hours a few days ago discussing a Participle innovation called Backr which is, so it seems, successfully exploring the importance of connectedness to gaining, and progressing in, employment.

The second set of issues concern the barriers to inclusive connectedness. I am excited to be chairing the Social Integration Commission which is looking at the degree of connectedness in British society, identifying the most glaring dimensions of disconnectedness and exploring how they might be overcome. It is early days for the Commission but already some fascinating, and sometimes counter-intuitive, findings are starting to emerge. For example, it turns out that even though people choose to live in a diverse area it doesn’t mean they choose diverse forms of connectedness.

Economic equality as the goal of progressivism offers clarity, measurability and a focus on the collective good. Aiming for a world of full and fulfilling lives offers texture, humanism and speaks to our personal ambitions. Might the goal of inclusive connectedness combine both?

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