The politics of contracting a social contract

A social contract is meant to address channels of governance between the governed and the governing. In any polity, the constitution is “the” ultimate social contract that can be supplemented by “a” sub-social contract or a series of them. Government, parliament and judiciary are the mechanisms through which governing-governed or state-society relations are managed. Such relations, manifested through the social contract, entail certain calibre of performance expectation. Given the growing levels of dissatisfaction with the performance of these branches and an increasingly dangerous confidence gap between these branches of governance and citizens, serious action is long overdue. To start late is better than never.

State-society relations before 1989 differ significantly of what has evolved since then. Significant changes have taken place in state-society relations. Changes such as higher inflation, weaker purchasing power and implementation of market rules, where free market conditions are not ripe, led to monopolies and lack of competition, inefficient public sector and partly mismanaged privatisation process, which resulted in weaker governance. The latter surfaced in state’s inability to respond to priorities of Jordanians, which have not changed much since the mid-nineties: Unemployment, poverty, prices and fighting corruption. These priorities are functional reflections of weaker education output, lack of proper public accountability and misappropriation of public funds. On these public policy areas, successive governments proved largely inconsequential.

The outcome was the unintentional creation of a permanent marginalised underclass outside urban centres, which suffers from higher levels of financial debt than urban centres and unequal development in services and infrastructure, rendering it largely uncompetitive in urban settings where opportunities exist. The result is socio-political alienation and a quantitatively qualified sense of disenfranchisement. Evidently, over 60 per cent said they will absolutely not vote if elections are to be held these days, double the figure of previous years, as a recent survey conducted by NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions demonstrates. Increasing political disengagement correlates positively with the highest levels of disapproval ratings of Parliament’s performance ever recorded. These are indicative of weaker faith in the existing constitutional channels of communications through which citizens place their demands on the political system. Consequently, leading to self-chosen, as well as systematic socio-political marginalisation.  

Marginalisation has not been acknowledged enough. For the second time since the advance of the Arab Spring, a government acknowledges “marginalisation” in its discourse, when Prime Minister Omar Razzaz referred to “developing marginalised areas”, as part of the new social contract, in his speech to Parliament. The first was in 2012, when then prime minister Awn Khasawneh presented his government’s programme to Parliament. He said “some of our problems are results of feelings of marginalisation and exclusion, while some of them are attributed to a conviction of absence of justice and equality”.

Disentangling the complexity of marginalisation and concentration of economic and political power resources must be put at play now for “the” or “a new” social contract to be meaningful. His Majesty King Abdullah and Razzaz acknowledged and communicated publically that business as usual is no longer an option. Spelling it out a bit more: Incompetence of economic policy planners and makers, indifference to public affairs, denial, arrogance, falsification, abuse of strategic communications, spin doctors’ beautification of ugly economic reality and lack of accountability culminated in May 30th unconventional protest action.

At upper echelons of power, there seems to be different, yet complementary, understandings of “social contract”. In his letter of designation to the PM, His Majesty stated that“… the government must undertake a comprehensive review of the tax system and tax burden, with a view to limiting indirect and regressive consumption taxes that do not differentiate between the rich and the poor; and with the aim of delineating the relationship between citizens and the state through a clear social contract that identifies rights and dutiesî. The King is clearly emphasising redistribution of tax burden. Progressive tax, though enshrined in the constitution article 111, is being resisted on many grounds. One of them is the presence of an alternative and fair proportional flat rate of income, which in effect and despite competing interpretations, is a progressive tax as contribution increases linearly with income.

Referring to the social contract, the PM in his response to the designation letter stated that “… the government will work on deepening state-society relations through participatory approach based on “the social contract” that enhances rights and duties”. This statement came under the PM’s elaborative plan for political reform, which included amending legislations of political relevance and evaluating the decentralisation experiment. Here, the PM has taken a political angel to “the social contract” under the banner of political reform. As important as political reform is for the short and the long terms, the immediate importance ought to be addressing the tall order of real and perceived socio-economic marginalisation. Since it is a tall order, some serious action on corruption cases that the PM is very familiar with through his work on the privatisation evaluation report is logically in order.

The most recent update on the discourse of social contract was in the PMís introduction of government manifesto to Parliament, he mentioned ìsocial contractî four times out of 3,708 word-long speech. He referred to a constitution-dependent ìnewî social contract with clearly defined ìrights and responsibilitiesî, ìcitizen-government relationsî, and ìcitizensí role in sustainable developmentî. According to the PM, the ìnewî social contract is ìtheî vehicle towards ìnational renaissance. The latter would include, inter alia, citizenship-based rights and duties, government partnership with Parliament, civil society and private sector to deliver education and training that would help the youth to be ìproductive citizensî and provide health services, public transportation and ìdeveloping marginalised areasî. Here, the PM talks about a sub-constitutional formula to do with government plans to engineer ìnational renaissanceî. 

Despite apparent differences and prioritisation, in effect, the outcome would be similar since government spending is continuing, while services are deteriorating. Economic reform goes hand in hand with political reform, conventional wisdom has it. It is not expected that the government would introduce dramatic changes neither in the political nor the economic structures of state and society. However, it can make a huge impact with little things that make a big difference by improving the efficiency and quality of public service delivery. Tax payers would like to see their tax money turning streets into cleaner spaces not filled with littler and government SUVs roaming day and night aimlessly. They would also require schools prioritising reliable quality education over quantity, health centres becoming healthy professional places, transportation evolving into a useable system, civil service becoming in fact a “service” not a costly burden and proper public policy planning reducing the cost of production (cost of energy and bureaucracy) to create “productive citizens”. These are the basic pillars of “a” or “the new” social contract whether under political or economic banners.

The writer is chairman of NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.