Social contracts underpin our lives, but we don’t talk about them much. To participate in civilization and to benefit from it, we have to agree to contribute what we can or at the very least, not go round ruining things for other people. We benefit from all manner of things that belong to, or are funded by everyone – as do private companies, who often use the idea of their private-ness to suggest they shouldn’t have to contribute as much. They use the road networks, the police, the fire services, the education of their employees and so forth.
At the moment, our social contract obliges us to pay for participation with health – when the work demanded of us makes us ill, when the cities we live in have such bad air pollution that it kills people. Participation comes at a high price. I think government and industries alike are failing to hold up their side of the contract, because profit is put before health – especially where air pollution is concerned.
Any practice that allows a few to profit from the natural resources of the world while damaging the environment for everyone else, breaks the unwritten contract. There is no mutual good or benefit here. Why are some people allowed to profit to an obscene degree while others are exploited? Why are some people allowed to accumulate vast wealth at the cost of making others ill? The greater the distance between the richest and the poorest in society, the more strain there is on that unwritten contract that in theory binds us all together.
Poor, vulnerable and under-privileged people who seem to have broken the social contract, are punished for it. Having the resources you need to survive taken from you, being a case in point. That we have food banks feeding people who would otherwise go hungry and even starve, is itself a manifestation of the social contract, upheld by people who believe that we all have a duty to contribute to society and to help those who have less than us. There are a great many individual people trying to hold our social contracts in place despite the way those in power are ripping to shreds that which was never put on paper.
Humans have always depended on co-operation to survive. We all depend on each other. We depend on the people around us to respect us and not assault us. We depend on each other for food, for amenities, for shared resources. And yet all too often we are persuaded to think of ourselves as isolated individuals who can act alone with no consequences. If we don’t see the threads binding us together, we can do massive damage to everything we depend on. If we don’t see the importance of working for the common good, what we get is exploitation, and benefit for the few at a high cost to the many.
When we see society in terms of winners and losers, we make ourselves poorer. Most of us lose. When we see society in terms of co-operation and mutual support, more people are able to win. What would happen if we aspired to make sure that everyone was winning at life? What would happen if we started to see piles of wealth as weird, and offering assistance where needed, as normal? Why not aspire to a world in which everyone has enough and lives peacefully, rather than heading towards a world where a few powerful individuals get to be kings and queens of their own infertile piles of plastic rubbish?