Roger Sue

Recreating Social Ties Liberty, Equality, Association Publication date : February 1, 2001

As the new millennium dawns, the disintegration of the social fabric is accelerating. Basic family ties have weakened as have the wider ties of the economy and the symbolic one of politics. As a result, the nation- state has lost its cohesion, and its members no longer seem to know what holds individuals together to make up a society.

And yet, our society is also undergoing restructuring. New contacts and networks are being created, and new and increasingly varied experiences shared. The new information technology has been developing so quickly because it favours this trend.

How can this paradox be explained? Surely because the new links that are being created every day escape all the usual categories. They are not communal, as were the ties of traditional societies, nor are they based on a social contract, as was the case of classical models. Instead, they are based on voluntary associations, thus reconciling autonomy, freedom and equality.

Social ties today are based on the numerous associations that address not only local neighbourhood issues, but also larger, more global ones. Even economics is increasingly open to associations: this trend is not limited to social economics, but includes the growing number of businesses that function like associations, based on involvement and participation. Somewhere between individualism and community spirit, there is a path which will enable us to recreate social links. This new path lies between the two extremes of pure liberalism and state socialism. A civil society is finally beginning to emerge, which is neither controlled by an all-powerful state nor abandoned to uncontrolled market forces.

It was this form of association that inspired the early nineteenth-century socialists, but they did not have the means to put their ideas into practice, and the historical context was not in their favour. The situation is entirely different today: our institutions and the existing forms of political representation are now behind social changes and advances. True democracy is already in place, but the political forms of expression which will favour its development remain to be created.

This year is the centenary of a French law (known as the Law of 1901), which has played a key role in promoting voluntary non-profit associations — a fitting moment to reconsider what contemporary society is and what it should be.

Roger Sue, a sociologist, teaches at the University of Paris-V. He is the author of Vers une Société du Temps Libre and La Richesse des Hommes.