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Hardly a publication known for its gooey-eyed liberal optimism, an article in a recent copy of The Economist is right to argue that while damaged by excessive individualism, our society is far from broken. Empirical analysis supported by recent Ipsos MORI public opinion data shows that our society is largely more tolerant, environmentally aware, and safer than a decade ago. As Axel Honneth has argued, growing recognition of the rights and identities of minority groups over the last four decades surely represents some sign of social and ethical progress. While rightly commited to the need for civic renewal, Philip Blond and others on the collectivist side of the individualist-collectivist political divide see things differently. Based on a repudiation of both social and economic liberalism, they consider people today to have too many individual rights and too few collective responsibilities. Rooted in a nostalgic longing for a mythical utopia, their argument for increasing responsibility by cutting our rights-based culture down to size is dangerously misguided.

Hardly a publication known for its gooey-eyed liberal optimism, an article in a recent copy of The Economist is right to argue that while damaged by excessive individualism, our society is far from broken. Empirical analysis supported by recent Ipsos MORI public opinion data shows that our society is largely more tolerant, environmentally aware, and safer than a decade ago. As Axel Honneth has argued, growing recognition of the rights and identities of minority groups over the last four decades surely represents some sign of social and ethical progress. While rightly commited to the need for civic renewal, Philip Blond and others on the collectivist side of the individualist-collectivist political divide see things differently. Based on a repudiation of both social and economic liberalism, they consider people today to have too many individual rights and too few collective responsibilities. Rooted in a nostalgic longing for a mythical utopia, their argument for increasing responsibility by cutting our rights-based culture down to size is dangerously misguided.

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The world-view which only casts the state in the role of the devil, does indeed succeed in redistributing responsibility from state to citizen. But it does so without any realistic strategy for fostering the behaviours and ways of thinking people and communities need for active citizenship to flourish and thereby reduce state dependency in areas of public life where the state is a barrier rather than enabler of citizen activism.

This one-dimensional view of the state, prominent at the moment, becomes all the more important in areas of social and economic deprivation where levels of what Amartya Sen terms ‘inequality of capability’ are lowest, where public services are most widely needed, and where civic health is least likely to flourish.

2010 Australia Day Citizenship ceremony by Richard Taylor

While our society is not broken, civic virtue is certainly in need of repair. Anyone committed to resuscitating progressive political philosophy and politics in the UK needs to seriously engage with and recognise the value of a shift in modern conservatism towards the ideals of civic responsibility and citizen activism. It is easy to blame neo-liberalism and unfettered markets for our so-called moral decline. But as Žižek writes convincingly in his latest book, it is equally the failure of the political left to construct an effective opposition and alternative to it.

Today, there is growing consciousness of our need to make fundamental changes to our political culture. Voter turnout has become the major indicator of our civic and political health, when it should be the depth of citizen participation in the civic and political decision-making of everyday life. Rather than viewing ourselves as ‘everyday citizens’ whose identities are intimately related to the life experience and outcomes of other citizens, we have been encouraged to reduce our citizenship to that of the passive consumer primarily interested in maximising our own self-interest.

But as Matthew Taylor argues in his recent essay on twenty-first century enlightenment, the problem is not individual autonomy itself which is necessary for people to create self-authored lives they value; nor is the problem citizen rights. The problem is having individual autonomy and rights which are divorced from the common good. The challenge for political and social progressives today is how to reconcile autonomy with the collective good in a materialist culture where consumer choice is re-packaged as human freedom and civic solidarity is reduced to the polite indifference to the actions and values of others.

The re-emergence of civic republicanism provides us with  some key principles for delivering such a public sphere.

First, the common good and not the interests of a particular group of citizens should be the guiding principle of all public policy and decision-making.

Second, collective decision-making should be as inclusive as possible and include a significant degree of public involvement.

Third, informed deliberation needs to be at the heart of public decision-making.

Fourth, the good society is dependent on every citizen having the power and independence to be free from the domination of others.

Fifth, the legitimacy of public instititions demands strong civic participation in collective decision-making guided by other-regarding intentions.

And sixth, the good society is one where economic inequality is limited.

How might we turn this civic republican emphasis on civic virtue and active citizenship into practical public policy? And how can the these principles  inform a new way of looking at citizen rights and responsibility necessary for developing stronger civic responsibility and solidarity at the local level? These questions are the focus of a forthcoming RSA Citizen Power pamphlet, Everyday Citizen’s: the case for the Citizen’s Contract.

The pamphlet puts forward the case for a place-based community-focused Citizen’s Contract, which is being developed at the RSA as part of our flagship Citizen Power programme to cultivate civic innovation and citizen activism in Peterborough. Locally deliberated, the Citizen’s Contract is designed as a symbolic and formal agreement holding public services, community and third sector organisations and citizens all to account for improving the civic health and outcomes in their area.

This is an edited version of an article by Sam McLean on The Citizen's Contract. Read the full text.

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