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Access, transparency, participation and citizenship: for a new social contract

Communication built on rational principles acquired in an intersubjective manner and aimed at shared knowledge, can play a very important role in many critical aspects: in the rebirth of a Humanism guaranteeing the fundamental rights of global citizenship; in the formation of a transnational civil society (Beck, 1997); in the effective realisation of a global domestic policy which the old nation-states are beginning to pursue, albeit in ways open to criticism; in the decisive global promotion of strategies aimed at the achieving of a society of widespread knowledge which, in the long term, could be – in an age in which information, knowledge and access (Rifkin, 2000) are the most important sources of wealth and power – an inexhaustible resource for the reduction of global inequalities[1]  and the crucial issue of human rights and citizenship (Nussbaum 2010; 2011). At a no less important micro level, the conditions of social and ethical communication and of the model for sharing knowledge could finally lead to an unprecedented leap in the quality of (internal and external) organizational practices in nation-states, public administrations, enterprises, and, above all, in a production system that is increasingly becoming a service society.

In carrying out this “project”, linked to a Diskursethik which strives for the equality, transparency and responsibility of the actors involved in communication, we must tackle the paths of twentieth-century thought (not only ethical), which conveyed the value of relativism (Nagel, 1997)[2] and the substantial and universal – or as Wittgenstein put it – the  heterogeneity of language games and forms of life.

The linguistic act allows for the creation of an intersubjective relationship in which its producers simultaneously create a relationship which constantly refers to a system of rules –  in this sense, communication is at the base of the social contract and the social bond. The concept of “inter-subjectivity” constitutes the founding element of individual identity and ethical principles, even if selected autonomously, arise within discursive and communicative dynamics which are rationally based and geared towards an understanding (agreement) that can’t be enforced[3].

The subject finds himself directly involved in a dense network of social relationships which pre-exists the affirmation of his personality and which conditions him. “The process that involves interaction of individuals in the group implies the pre-existence of the group.” (Mead, 1934: 164).

Despite the diversity of perspectives, underlying the work of the scholars who provide the theoretical glue for our analysis is the profound conviction that sociality is not an accident or a contingency, it is the very definition of  the human condition (Todorov, 1995: 29): all individuals are ‘marked by an original incompleteness’ which is only corrected in the course of social existence[4]. Therefore, it is only during the process of socialisation, and within the (communicative) networks of social interaction, that the social actor, in addition to structuring his self-awareness and identity, can begin to weave, and then feed the “fabric” of the system of ethical values and knowledge which forms the basis for consensus (Habermas 1981a: 199). Within this process[5], the medium of language plays a fundamental, not to say vital,  role for the system itself, directing it towards an understanding and mutual recognition by all parties. This central activity requires awareness of – and the ability to control – the complex nature of communication skills and is manifested in the production of culture and, in particular, in the process of social construction (Berger P.L. and Luckmann T., 1966) of local and global shared meanings. We should also note, as well as the strengthening of the means, the proliferation process of the channels of communication and communicative modes, as well.

In the age of glocalization, the thoughts of the German philosopher and sociologist are particularly relevant, especially those regarding the search for the universal critical prerequisites for reaching agreement with the Other. This understanding is realised, even for Apel, (who speaks of acts of linguistic communication), on the basis of a communicative rationality and not on the rationality of means and purposes formulated by Max Weber. It’s an understanding that could be translated in operational terms as the exchange of knowledge resources, the reduction of global uncertainty, the recognition of global citizenship rights, the sharing of (some) normative and ethical principles and policies[6], transnational development, the formation of a transnational civil society, and educational policies for a multicultural society and to educate the citizenry.

It’s in this sense that the attempt to merge a theory of action with a theory of systems and the realisation of a need for communicative rationality, leads to a dialectic relationship between instrumental action and communicative action, between “systems” and “world of life” emerging in the communicative action theory. In particular, the concept of a world of life (Lebenswelt) is the essential mechanism for ensuring the reproduction of social systems:

Under the functional aspect of mutual understanding, communicative action serves to transmit and renew cultural knowledge; under the aspect of coordinating action, it serves social integration and the establishment of solidarity;  finally, under the aspect of socialization, communicative action serves the formation of personal identity. The symbolic structures of the lifeworld are reproduced by way of the continuation of valid knowledge, stabilization of group solidarity and socialization of responsible actors. The process of reproduction connects up new situations with the existing conditions of the lifeworld; it does this in the semantic dimension of meanings or contents (of the cultural tradition) as well as in the dimension of social space (of socially integrated groups), and historical time (of successive generations). Corresponding to these processes of cultural reproduction, social integration, and socialization are the  structural components of the lifeworld: culture, society, person (…)The dimensions in which communicative action extends comprise the semantic field of symbolic contents, social space, and historical time. The interactions woven into the fabric of everyday communicative practice constitute the medium through which culture, society, and person get reproduced. (Habermas, 1981b: 730-731).


Habermas also points out that these complex reproductive processes concern, in a particular way, the symbolic structures of the vital world, in which it’s crucial to distinguish the substrate material of the world and the vital resources that make its “maintenance”[7] possible. Language, aimed at an understanding with the Other and based on universal communicative assumptions that recall the concept of intersubjectivity, allows us to transcend each individual’s intimate and private sphere and enables him/her to empathetically participate in the discussion.

In the so-called risk society, the extraordinary growth in communication and the radical diversification of education channels have led to a greater capacity for self-determination (autonomy) on the part of social actors when it comes to choices, values, behavioural patterns, cognitive patterns. But what has been upset in its entirety is  the ‘shared symbolic system’. The concept of ‘intersubjectivity without compulsion‘ is, in this sense, quite productive in terms of positive effects on our discussion. This means the development of models and strategies aimed at consolidating the important networks of social relationships (which are now also “virtual”), within which the social actor orients himself and the public sphere is constituted.

The world-system and the new informational, global and interconnected economy (Castells), require a new sensitivity to issues relating to the Subject, social relations and the space of knowledge. Once again, Habermas helps us to formulate the concepts of interaction and intersubjectivity, which are also interesting, especially in view of the strengthening of the transnational political public sphere. Every aspect of individual and collective practice, from politics to economics, ethics to aesthetics, has been invested in this important social change. In other words, in this new type of social system, characterised by the involvement of the masses in the mechanisms of production and consumption of goods and services, we can see a change in the Subject’s (social actor’s) relationship – and of his reference group’s – to power (Honneth, 1986, 1992), knowledge, work (Beck, 1999; Rifkin, 1995), actual consumption[8] and aesthetic enjoyment.

The process of convergence between communication technologies brings risk with it but also great possibilities for civilisation on condition that Nation-states and Politics recover their essential role. According to Lévy,  it is fundamental that, when faced with changes of this importance, one reflects deeply, both on the impact and on possible projects, since «The technical decisions, the adoption of standards and regulations, the pricing policies, will contribute, whether we like it or not, to the shaping of a collective sensibility, intelligence and coordination which will tomorrow be the infrastructure of a civilization on a global scale» (Lévy, 1994: 15). Thus a new perspective on nomadism takes shape for modern man – who we might define as the multimedia individual[9] – in which movement is no longer at a physical level (moving from one point to another in space), but a visual navigation through countless worlds of life – often virtual, but no less exciting and full of symbolic value – and infinite provinces of meaning. Intelligence, with the help of computer technology, will be distributed everywhere and constantly enhanced, thus creating a new communication civilisation. It is no coincidence that major scholars and theorists of radical modernity and globalization warn that the need for a repositioning, or even reinvention[10], of the political system is a priority.

Such a re-positioning of politics and the power systems is necessary not only in relation to the public sphere, but also to individual social actors, who are even capable of producing their own culture and establishing their own agenda of priorities that the power system will be forced to address. And here we are talking about individuals – and we need to reiterate this strongly – who are increasingly autonomous and aware of their choices. This is highlighted by some statistically recorded phenomena including the radical diversity of consumption (not just cultural consumption) and the proliferation of so-called “multimedia diets”.

[1] Inequalities that are also political and cultural.

[2] E. Tugendhat (1984) defines “relativism” as the “finding of a multiplicity of mutually contradictory moral beliefs (…) each advancing its own absolute claim” (p.69).

[3] The theory of Jürgen Habermas is much influenced in this respect by George Herbert Mead who, in proposing an interesting concept of the “generalized other”, arrives at the assertion that “”The attitude of the generalized other is the attitude of the entire community. (…) In the abstract period the individual assumes the behaviour of the generalized other towards himself (…) only like this does the thought – or the internalized conversation of gestures that makes up the thought – manifest itself “(Mead, 1934 : 154).

[4] “The source of every judgement is in reference to the other (…) and therefore both the ethical and the aesthetic have to be born into society. We can’t judge without leaving ourselves and looking through the eyes of others. If you could raise a human being in isolation, they could not express any judgement, not even about themself: they would lack a mirror to see themself” (Todorov, 1995: 34).

[5] This can happen when “The subjects able to speak and act are established as individuals simply because, as members of a particular language community, they grow up in an inter-subjectively divided world of life. The identity of the single and the collective are co-originally formed and conserved in the processes of communication formation “(Habermas, 1991: 11).

[6] A process that is already happening, not without difficulty,  in the field of international law.

[7] In this case, the Weberian categories come back into play, as “Material reproduction is accomplished through the medium of purposeful activity, activity with which socialized individuals participate in the world to achieve their goals ” (Habermas, 1981b : 731).

[8] On this subject in particular, refer to the interesting concept of “visible consumption”, defined as a symbol of social status and individual prestige in a competitive society, in the work of T. Veblen (1899) who, despite everything, retains his originality and the modernity of his analysis. Of the critical voices, see also the brief but interesting collection of writings published in journals  in France and Italy by J. Baudrillard (1987).

[9] It was discussed the topic, together with issues of digital divide and privacy, in P. Dominici (1998).

[10] The original title of the work by Ulrich Beck (1993), Die Erfindung des Politischen, translated into Italian as The Age of E, really means “The Reinvention of Politics.”