Communities and Housing//

From voluntarism to reciprocity: defining the common good

Written by: Jonathan Rutherford on 1 May, 2012
Filed under Communities and Housing, Democracy, Economy

Read the first part of this piece here.

An increasing number of Labour politicians are using the term the common good.

There is a growing recognition that its emphasis on relationships, democracy, community and locality can address the problems of social fragmentation and popular estrangement from mainstream politics. But it requires some definition of meaning, and about what its key policy might be.

Cameron’s Big Society was governed by voluntarism; Labour’s common good is governed by reciprocity. The philosopher John Locke described reciprocity as the ‘bond of society’. The civil economist Stefano Zamagni calls it a ‘generalised trust without which neither the markets nor the society can exist’.

Reciprocity is the ethic that our right to be assisted carries an obligation to help others in need. It is a give and take which establishes a sense of justice in relationships: the unjust person is ‘the one who takes too much in terms of advantages or not enough in terms of burdens’.

Reciprocity allows the development of fraternity, or what we might call social liberty. Edmund Burke describes it as ‘that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint’: a condition recognized by JS Mill at the end of his life when he wrote  his unpublished essay, ‘On Social Freedom; or, The Necessary Limits Arising out of the Conditions of Our Social Life.’

While solidarity calls up an underlying shared identity, fraternity emphasises diversity between equals. The common good is not about erasing individuality or cultural differences. It is relational and begins with a recognition of the other, a respect for their integrity and a dialogue in search of goods and meanings that can be held in common. In creating relational goods, common cultures and hybrid identities out of people’s differences, the common good fosters a sense of national and local belonging.

Alongside a movement of local community and institution building, Labour’s offer to the country must be a new covenant with the people that promises fairness, protection and a future prosperity.

At its centre is a new contributory welfare system based on reciprocity, which guarantees to those who contribute to the common weal a job, a home,  a decent pension, and financial protection against the risk of unemployment, disability and sickness. It would include guaranteed, paid parental leave for working mothers and fathers and a national system of childcare with a graduate workforce and an ethic of pedagogy.

A reciprocal welfare system based on people’s contributions of work, domestic labour and caring, saving, and community service also requires distributional justice, which could be pursued in two ways.

First, for those unable to work due to illness or disability there must be a generous level of support available through a reformed and properly responsive Work Capability Assessment and a Work Related Activities Group that practices relational welfare not sanctions.

Second, for the working poor Labour must reform the economy for a wages led recovery. No-one in work should be poor. The covenant would include organising for a living wage, opportunities for skills and vocational training, reform of the banking system, and regional economic development.

The market requires reciprocity for efficiency and productivity. The obligation of business in its pursuit of profitability is a limit on high pay, the just and respectful treatment of its workforce in terms of wages and conditions, and its participation in corporate governance. The common good requires a balance of interest between society, labour and capital.

This reciprocity of interests can be extended – for example – into health, to tackle epidemics of chronic illnesses caused by excessive consumption of health-destroying commodities produced by the food, alcohol and tobacco industries. People have a responsibility to look after their health, but so too does business: to stop its irresponsible use of trans fats and excessive levels of salt and sugar, and its targeting of cheap alcohol and cigarettes at the young.

Capitalism in the UK isn’t working. The country has been reduced to the status of an emerging economy. The financial system is an obstacle to responsible and developmental investment. The private sector is not creating the jobs necessary to sustain our population. Employment trends signal a future of  diminishing skilled and semi skilled work, a volatile jobs market and the expansion of low paid insecure work. Inequality and poverty are set to grow beyond their already unacceptable levels.

People need security, social stability and hope in order to flourish. A dynamic economy needs a strong resourceful society and a vibrant culture. In the future social enrichment will beget economic wealth. Cameron’s Big Society tinkered around the edges.

The 2012 Welfare Reform Act tidied up a complicated system and ignored its flaws and economic realities. In the coming decade a democratic politics of the common good and a new Labour covenant involve fundamental changes in Britain’s welfare state and economy. The times require ambition – and something more than tinkering around the edges.

Jonathan Rutherford is editor of Soundings journal and professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University.