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Published on 14 November 2022

Prologue: We need to craft a new social contract, and we need to plan a way to win it

It’s now official: for most people in most countries, life is getting worse, and, as if that was not enough to deal with, the path we are on is one that leads to disaster. The latest United Nations Human Development Report reveals that over 90% of countries registered a decline in the standard measurement of human development, their ‘HDI score’, in either 2020 or 2021.[1] As the report notes too, we have entered ‘a new uncertainty complex’ in which colliding crises from pandemics and wars, to hyper-inequality, to the upsurge of far-right political forces, to the ecological emergency put us all in danger.

We cannot fix our era of crisis through course correction or minor tinkering. There is no easy set of reforms. The social fabric has been torn asunder. We need to make it anew. We need a new social contract.

The term ‘new social contract’ does not yet have universal instant name recognition. Discussions about a new social contract have at times seemed to be conducted as abstract and distantly intellectual. At its heart, the idea of a social contract is both simple and profound: the way in which we organise society, including the economy, is a decision that we (should) make together, rooted in a moral core which values the innate dignity of every person.

In this era of crises, the attention being paid to the question of a social contract is an uplifting development for all who seek a more just world. It affirms that we are not merely individuals inhabiting a geography, and that politics is not just a series of events, and that there is an ethical purpose to it, that we belong, and that we can craft a way to live together that will ensure the full social and economic inclusion of all. The social contract debate elevates the level of political ambition, and deepens the vision of social change. Crucially, current discussions on a new social contract make it clear that it will not be marked only by a new document like a constitution, but will entail substantive change in how we live. In this they recall Martin Luther King’s critical reflection on the US Constitution, which was, he noted: [2]

a promissory note to which every American was… guaranteed to the inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness… [but it] is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned… [as] America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked “insufficient funds”.

In other words, the power and meaning of a truly transformational social contract comes not from written words alone but from implementing a set of frameworks, policies and programmes which reshape social relations.

Essays from across Christian Aid’s expansive and powerful collection help draw together, and take further forward, discussions involving a wide range of writers – and crucially, a much more diverse set of writers than dominated earlier political theorising – on what should form part of a new social contract. Aspects of note include the discussions on: fulfilling civil and economic rights inseparably; addressing class, racial, gender and other inequalities intersectionally, and addressing legacies of injustice through affirmative action; applying justice intergenerationally, and connecting the social with the ecological; universal basic income and wealth taxation; providing social protection for all irrespective of employment status, recognising, rewarding and redistributing care work, and strengthening workers’ rights as work changes; tackling oligopolies and excessive market concentration; and responding to how technological progress has expanded the set of services we should organise as essential public goods.

Debates which help envision and elaborate a new social contract are inspiring, insightful and vital. They are also unfinished and require ongoing attention. But while the conversations on destination is crucial, we also need to plan how we get there, as even the most brilliant conceptual and policy summations of what should be in a new social contract will, on their own, not take us to one.

I remember sitting in a room full of economists discussing the need for a transformation in how states were regulating economies. (It was not, of course, a Christian Aid event, for theirs would not have gone as this did.) I was the only ‘non-academic’ in the room, there as the ‘practical practitioner’. The room was buzzing with excitement as participants exchanged economic formulas with Greek letters. This was a room full of people confident that their intellectual acumen assured them that they could shape the future. Then I ruined the moment. I raised my hand, just wondering: ‘the plan here seems to be that we will analyse and then present the evidence to leaders of how current policy approaches are driving a damaging spiral of inequalities, and set out in turn what policy mix would fix that, is that right? ‘Yes,’ came the reply, with a hint of exhaustion at the having to answer such an obvious query. ‘OK,’ I said: ‘can anyone tell me about when and where doing that has by itself brought a noteworthy progressive transformation?’ They went very quiet. I lowered the bar to make it easier: ‘I mean, an example of that working, in any country, in the past century and a half?’ Then they started laughing. There had been no historical example of that unspoken assumption ever delivering.

This is what I have termed the evidence-based paradox. It goes like this:

  1. We should be evidenced based in our approaches.
  2. The evidence for transformational change happening because decision makers are shown evidence is really weak. Therefore,
  3. if we are truly evidenced based, we will not depend only on evidence sharing as a strategy for change.

To complement the conversations on the what of the new social contract, we need also to step up the discussion and planning on how a transformational new social contract can be realised, on what processes generate the enabling conditions for it to be developed, enacted, implemented and sustained. In this work, history has important lessons to offer us.

What history teaches us about how to win a new social contract

The new social contract cannot, of course, merely be a repeat of older ones. For all their achievements, the earlier progressive social contracts failed to adequately address key aspects of justice, especially on gender and on intersectional inequalities, they failed to adequately address ecological obligations, and they were designed to address the now outmoded technological context of their time. Nevertheless, they represented profound steps forward and they provide essential guidance for us today, not only about elements of their content but perhaps even more crucially about how they were brought about.

Some commentators argue that social contracts reflect inherent national cultures. For example, Scandinavians are egalitarian, so Scandinavian countries are more equal. Americans, in contrast, are more individualist and so the US will always be unequal. The historical record, however, reveals a different and more hopeful story, and helps illustrate how we can secure a new social contract for our time.

Take so-called Scandinavian egalitarianism. The social contract embodied in the Scandinavian welfare state is sometimes portrayed as stemming from an essential Nordic character that is seen as innately equal and gentle. In such a portrayal, they are equal because of their cultural character. But such a portrayal is false. Up until the early 20th century, there was grinding poverty and great exploitation in Scandinavia. (Many Americans are descended from Scandinavians who fled starvation!). By strengthening their power through rural collectives and through unions, Scandinavia’s small farmers and workers were able to challenge the power of elites. The elites did not accept this challenge at first. Instead, they organised for troops to come out to stop workers’ protests and strikes. Norway’s government even organised a militia of strike breakers. Strikers were killed, but in the end people’s organising triumphed. What created the conditions for the compromise and concession and for the egalitarianism we see as so Scandinavian today was massive pressure from below. The Scandinavian story can be a powerful lesson for anyone who dreams of a fairer society.

Or take so-called American individualism, which frames the dysfunction of the current broken US social contract that leaves Americans with a maternal mortality rate three times higher than other industrialised countries. At a Davos panel,[3] A US billionaire was asked if he’d support a high marginal tax rate on the super-rich. ‘Can you name a country where that’s worked, ever?’ he replied. Embarrassingly for the billionaire, his fellow panellist could. The answer is the US!

Powerful pressure from below in the US

The US has a history of a much more progressive social contact, the set of transformations brought together from the New Deal, to the Great Society. As was pointed out in that Davos debate, from the 1930s to the 1960s the US marginal tax rate on the super-rich ranged from 70 to nearly 95%, ‘and those were pretty good years for growth’ (and for a growth that working people shared in). This high rate of tax on the super-rich, and relatively high investment in public services to benefit ordinary people, was the accepted, expected, norm. It can be again.

What won the progressive social contract in the US in that era was a powerful combination of pressures from below – trade unions, black organisations, churches and other progressive grassroots groups together devoting their energies, in Martin Luther King’s words: ‘to organize our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands’.[4] In the Venn diagram of the movements, you’ll see people like the African-American trade union organiser Philip Randolph, who successfully pressured both the Roosevelt and Kennedy-Johnson governments by reminding them of the power of organised people – without which we would not remember them as such reforming presidents.

The new social contract that included workers’ rights, social protection and civil rights came, as Jane McAlevey notes, from ‘powerful movements, led by ordinary people, [who built the] ability to sustain massive disruptions to the existing order’. [5] There is overwhelming evidence that the key to ensuring workers got better pay and conditions was unionising – a vital form of coming together for collective strength. This was the case at the individual corporation and at sector level, but also, crucially, at the societal level – the rise of unions was central to keeping inequality in check (and the later weakening of unions was central to the inequality explosion which followed). Notably, the impact of the pressure from below went beyond party: during the period of strong union membership and organisation, Republican as well as Democrat administrations presided over policies on tax and labour laws that were much more egalitarian than later Republican or Democratic administrations presided over, once unions became much weaker. As Cesar Chavez, who organised US farm workers, put it so succinctly and beautifully: ‘We don’t need perfect political systems. We need perfect participation.’ [6] By this, he meant that only mass involvement could enable a shift.

As civil rights leader Diane Nash noted: ‘It took many thousands of people to make the changes that we made, people whose names we’ll never know. They’ll never get credit for the sacrifices they’ve made, but I remember them.’[7] For example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott is sometimes told as if it was only a story of Rosa Parks sitting down and Martin Luther King speaking. But it is a story of organising. As King noted: ‘I neither started the protest nor suggested it, I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman’.[8] The Montgomery Bus Boycott was planned, and trained for. Rosa Parks wasn’t just tired! It involved churches, women’s groups and labour unions. Two years before Rosa Parks was arrested, the Women’s Political Council, a group of African-American activists, had been preparing for a bus boycott, and the Montgomery Improvement Association set up after the arrest had to maintain the boycott for 381 days. During this time, activists printed thousands of flyers to get the message out and got hundreds of volunteers to help organise. Black churches across the city served as centres of organising. People who didn’t even use the bus helped with their cars. Postal workers helped work out the routes carpools should take. Taxi operators agreed to reduce rates. Organisers had to resource the movement from the community. They had to hold huge numbers of meetings. They had to fend off legal challenges – and violence. As Fred Gray, the lawyer for the bus boycotters noted:

They say it takes a village to raise a child. It took the whole of Montgomery’s black community to win the fight against segregation in transportation.[9]

Likewise, when the civil rights movement’s 1962 Operation Breadbasket challenged companies to increase the share of profits going to black workers and communities, it was only after the movement showed that they could successfully organise a boycott that those companies, in Martin Luther King’s words: ‘the next day were talking nice, were very humble, and [later] we signed the agreement.’[10] As King noted when challenged by ‘moderates’ who asked why he needed to organise:

we have not made a single gain without determined pressure… lamentably it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily… freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.[11]

Today in the US, the Poor People’s Campaign and the Fight for $15 are organising workers, churches and grassroots activists and securing better pay and better services, and showing that people don’t have to accept society as it is. The Rev William Barber calls these movements ‘fusion coalitions’ because their power comes from bringing so many different groups together. People are coming together in growing numbers in connected movements to ensure that their wages go up, their healthcare is provided, and they are not burdened by debt; to at last break the hold of white supremacism and structural violence; and to win a Green New Deal to protect their environment, provide quality public transport and create millions of jobs. It’s not just that this social contract is worth fighting for – it’s that it can only be won through millions of people fighting for it.

Organising for social transformation in newly independent countries in Africa and Asia

Following independence, and intimately entwined with that independence, several African and Asian countries established progressive social contracts. While it is often the names of great national leaders that dominate how major steps to tackle inequality are officially remembered, organising from below was key to their realisation. In Ghana, organising by cocoa workers not only led to the cocoa board protecting their incomes, but also led to the roll out of free education, first to cocoa workers and later to everyone. As the 2016 World Social Science Report notes, sometimes the process leading to reductions in inequality was very visibly conflictual – in Malaysia, for example ‘the highspeed redistribution in the 1970s and 1980s was born out of widespread rioting in 1969, as the country’s ethnic Malay majority protested about its economic and social marginalization’.[12] While at other times it was more collaborative – in Mauritius, for example ‘the government developed “OECD-style social protection”, working with a large and active trade union movement to introduce centralized wage bargaining, price controls on socially sensitive items, and generous social security, especially for the elderly.’ [13] While the route differed, in each case the existence of powerful pressure below was key. Interestingly, it has been found by experts like Leonard Wantchekon of Princeton and Erica Chenoweth of Harvard that non-violent movements have had an important advantage over violent movements in fostering more equal societies afterwards, because violent movements lead to a concentration of power, an emphasis on hierarchy and a vertical politics, whereas non-violent movements require building a distributed leadership and mass participation that can support a more democratic way of politics afterwards. In other words, when change is brought by mass power, its consequences are more democratic, inclusive, accountable and redistributive.

Progress in tackling inequality in African and Asian countries after independence was also rooted in a narrative of the meaning of independence and of national destiny. Anti-colonial movements’ vision had not just been about replacing foreign leaders with local ones. Their dream had been to replace land grabbing by the rich with fair land redistribution to people living in poverty, cramped slums with room to move, painful hunger with full stomachs, squalor with dignity, exploitation with decent work, corporate impunity with workers’ rights, inequality with equality, hopelessness with hope, and shame with self-worth. Citizens in newly independent countries were clear that the role of the new governments was to reshape society by tacking inequality.

Collective pressure in Latin America

In this century, one of the most important examples of a progressive new social contract was in Latin America, in the period from roughly 2000 for a decade or a decade and a half. As the 2016 World Social Science Report noted of Brazil in that period, ‘the incomes of the poorest Brazilians [rose] more than five times faster than those of the richest… women’s incomes faster than men’s… black people’s faster than whites’, the impoverished north-east faster than the rich south-east’. [14] In Bolivia, even more progress against inequality was made even faster. Latin American countries redistributed some land from large landholders to landless people; they increased the wages of the poorest people by increasing the legal minimum, strengthening labour law enforcement, and enabling trade union representation; they increased social protection for children and older people; they expanded public services like health and education, paid for with progressive taxes; they organised economic policy around jobs; and they tackled discrimination.

How was this achieved? Why, in a region so unequal, where for decades before governments had been worsening inequality, did the governments of the 2000s act differently? The short answer is, because ordinary people built collective pressure from below. From landless workers’ movements in Brazil to indigenous people’s movements in Bolivia, organising from below was the key to enabling change above. As Diego Sánchez-Ancochea, one of the leading experts of this period, titled one of his papers – ‘It’s the politics, stupid!’ And by politics he does not only mean party contestation but the social movements which both generate parties and pressure them – this pressure is vital because without it there is no counter to the permanent pressure from elites.

In Brazil I sat down with the landless workers who collect coconuts from the forests and the big estates. They successfully campaigned for a law that protects their right to do so; the cooperatives secured from the government a guaranteed minimum price for key products so that they could be assured of a minimum income; in several districts the groups secured free, state-funded pre-school for small children and won access to water and sanitation. They told me ‘Individually we coconut-breakers are small. But when we organised we became visible.’ ‘Everything we have achieved has been through the strength of our friendship.’ ‘We got together in our community, then we linked with communities across the region. We went and got support from the trade unions, from the Catholic Church, and from the wider public. We started an association and kept pressing for our rights to earn a living and live in dignity.’ On their T-shirts they had printed this slogan: ‘Organizadas somos fortes’– Organised we are powerful.

Elites have never just been waiting to be better informed by civil society before they voluntarily made things fairer. As Jay Naidoo, who founded the trade union coalition in South Africa that helped bring down apartheid, once told me: ‘It was not about how brilliant our argument was. No one cedes power because of a great PowerPoint. What matters is the balance of power between your side, the people’s side, in the confrontation and negotiations with the other side, the side of the elite.’

Now, too, we must make our own history. As activists put it to me: ‘There is no justice, just us.’ But ‘just us’ – organised – is powerful.

History shows that there is hope – if we work together

History sheds an interesting light on how the depth of the crisis we are in impacts our ability to secure a new social contract. Today, the pessimistic narrative says that inequality is now in an out-of-control spiral: that governments will be unable to fund core services or look after the unemployed; that online retail monopolies will be the only thriving businesses; that an underclass of the uninsured, unvaccinated, offline and out-of-work will be kept from the gates of the working-from-home by a new cohort of private guards. Worst of all, it says that as vicious inequality hardens, we’ll even learn to blame those who have been pushed behind. In contrast, the optimistic narrative says that it is in crises that inequality has been turned around – from the launch of the New Deal in the US in the Great Depression, to the creation of welfare states in Europe after the Second World War, to the introduction of universal healthcare in Thailand in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. But history shows that neither of those two narratives gets it quite right, if they assume any automaticity. One way to think of crises is like heat. Like the fire of a blacksmith or glassblower, crises make malleable formerly rigid social and political structures. Which direction they bend depends entirely on the direction in which they are pressed harder. While we can sometimes feel that things are all going on around us, when we look at history we can see how we can shape them too – not alone, but with each other.

Conclusion: we can win the new social contract we need, if we organise

Our society is fractured and our world endangered. We need a new social contract. The work needed now on a new social contract has two key dimensions which, though related, are distinct. The first dimension is the what of the social contract. The second dimension is how to win it. Recognising that justice delayed is justice denied, and keeping an eye on the ecological ticking clock, we must not wait till we have absolute clarity on the vision ahead before we start to plan the social-political path towards it. We must respond to the fierce urgency of now.

In our work to move from theory to practice and win a new social contract we can learn from our ancestors. We’ve won before; even in – especially in – this crisis, we can win again. But to do so, we will depend, as we have for each transformational social advance, on organising. This is not to say that if we organise we are certain to succeed in securing a new social contract; it is rather to say that this is the way that we have succeeded in the past, and the way that gives us a chance now.

As the great civil rights song reminds us:

Freedom doesn’t come like a bird on the wing It doesn’t come down like the summer rain, Freedom, freedom is a hard-won thing. You’ve got to work for it, fight for it, Day and night for it, And every generation has to win it again.

[1] Human Development Report 2021-22: Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives: Shaping our Future in a Transforming World, United Nations, 2022,

[2] 'I Have a Dream' speech by Martin Luther King (transcript), delivered on 28 August 1963, NPR,

[3] ‘Billionaires in Davos hate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 70% tax on the rich’, Hamza Shaban, The Washington Post, 23 January 2019,

[4] ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ speech by Martin Luther King (transcript), delivered 16 August 1967, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute (,

[5] No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, Jane McAlevey, 2016,

[6] An Organizer's Tale: Speeches, Cesar Chavez, 2008,

[7] 'Diane Nash, civil rights movement leader, reflects on Selma', 5 March 2015, ABC Eyewitness News,

[8] ‘My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence’ speech by Martin Luther King, delivered 1 September 1968, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute (,

[9] Video exhibition at the Martin Luther King Jr Museum, Atlanta.

[10] ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ speech by Martin Luther King (transcript), delivered 16 August 1967, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute (,

[11] Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963.

[12] World Social Science Report 2016: Challenging Inequalities: Pathways to a Just World, UNESCO, 2016,

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid