A relational society needs a “relational state”

Since the 1990s, I have launched the idea of the “relational state,” whose rationale is based upon a relational theory of society. The traditional welfare state should be replaced by a new societal configuration characterised by the fact of being shared, associational, and relational within and between the different social spheres. A progressive society needs a truly responsive welfare state that builds the capabilities of all relying upon a relational work: services that value and build on relationships. This is the relational state.

A form of welfare that understands that a social issue stems from a factual configuration of the social relations between people and not only in their individual good or bad will, that loneliness makes people sick and eventually kills, that personal insecurity or poverty depends on the lack of a reliable social network, that people need a social network to find a job when most of jobs are never advertised, and that people need a community to address the problems of violence, depression, and anxiety.

To pursue a relational society means connecting high system integration (at the level of macro-institutions) with high social integration (at the micro level) going through forms of reticular associations at the meso level. If we criss-cross the two aforementioned forms of integration, dichotomising them for simplicity in high and low, we get four types of welfare state configurations.

  • • Type 1 (low system integration and low social integration): this is a society where a fragmented market welfare (lib) prevails (e.g. the United States).
  • • Type 2 (low system integration and high social integration): these are societies characterised by a stratified and segmented residual welfare left to primary social networks (e.g. underdeveloped countries).
  • • Type 3 (high system integration and low social integration): this is a societal configuration characterised by the traditional institutional welfare state (lab) (e.g. countries governed by a form of socialism).
  • • Type 4 (high system integration and high social integration): in this case, the societal system is characterised by an institutional plural welfare; the whole configuration is that of a relational state supported by a relational society (e.g. emerging policies and practices in evolving post- lib/lab systems).

The relational society is one where the political institutions put in practice the principle of active subsidiarity, in its various forms - particularly in the circular form between the political system and civil society - and by that way they ensure high social integration in civil society. The Province of Trento in Northern Italy (Malfer 2019) provides such an example. Its political system operates through an extended network of social cooperatives and a regular partnership between public and private organisations through intermediary bodies.

A relational welfare state is not just an idea. It is the political form of a relational society. Its basic principle is to provide better levels of basic welfare through the building of rich social networks that can empower people through forms of cooperation among the four basic sectors in order to produce relational goods.

The relational state is a way to design services aiming at empowering people and families in order to face many difficulties in day-to-day life. Families have the potential to change their own lives. The relational state empowers civil society by adopting a relational vision of all social issues and their possible solutions within a framework that promotes relational generative mechanisms (Donati 2015b). It provides the framework for those at the front line to create new relationships with people that support fair and sustainable social transformation.

A relational approach defines not the goals assigned to people, but the way through which people can achieve their inner motivated goals in relation to significant others. Relationships are the glue that keeps people together and the relational state can build public services that foster good relationships. For instance, a service can create opportunities for those seeking work, by providing someone to vouch for you, to support you, and be reflexive with you. It will promote the building of a social network around you within this framework, including the support for the small businesses that will drive job creation.

According to Cook and Muir (2012), there are four areas where scholars should set out their ideas more fully.

The first is how people working in public services can be supported to acquire the skills required by the relational state. Mulgan (2012: 10) argues that the skills and capabilities of people working in a relational state will be different to those in the “delivery state”: “the ability to empathise.

communicate, listen and mobilise coalitions of citizens and professionals to achieve social goals.” For example, he suggests that we make healthcare more like education, deliberately aiming to raise the skills of the public through, for instance, courses or e-tutorials to support people with diabetes and dementia. According to this perspective, we need to identify new roles that staff will play in 21st century public and private services (“catalysers,” “navigators,” “brokers,” “storytellers,” “resource-weavers,” “activators”) as part of a process of supporting citizens to be co-authors of their own lives. Social workers should be trained in learning new methodologies of relational work. Supporting professionals in acquiring these skills and building effective relationships is a key challenge, but one which professional bodies, universities, and service providers are not yet well set up to meet. My relational perspective emphasises the need to share learning across welfare professionals and informal caregivers and to ensure that those engaged in relational services, such as health care assistants, social care workers, and classroom assistants, become keen on how to do a relational observation (O), a relational diagnosis (D), and a consequent relational guidance (G).

ODG systems are based on the sequence: relational observation (O) —> relational diagnosis (D) —» relational guide (G). The principles on which ODG systems operate are as follows: (i) it is a question of defining the social problem and its solution in terms of relationships (e.g. if the problem is unemployment, it is a question of defining it in terms of relationships and look for the solution in modifying the relationships that generate it); (ii) the relational guide consists in activating all those involved in the problem by building a social network between them, and then making them interact spontaneously, while a team coordinates the subjects so that the interactions are oriented to cooperate in order to produce relational goods (for more details, see Chapter 5 in Donati 2011a).

The agency is made by all the parties, as in an orchestra or a sports team, where everyone follows a cooperative standard that is used to continually regenerate a non-hierarchical and non-individualistic social structure and consequently modifies the behaviour of the individual subjects, who are driven to generate relational goods.

Now let us see some details to explain the acronym ODG. (O) Relational observation aims to define the problem as due to a certain relational context. Therefore, it favours the rneso level (in which relational goods can be produced). (D) Relational diagnosis aims to define the satisfactory (or not satisfactory) conditions with respect to the effects produced by the relational context. (G) Relational guidance aims to modify the social context so that it can be mastered by the agents/actors in order to generate relational goods.

A second area where more development would be useful is on how the emphasis on relationships will intersect with an outcomes-focus. Social relations should not be conceived as “objects” of the same kind of concrete or material outcomes, but nevertheless we can speak of relational outcomes. Mulgan (2012: 25) writes, “Some of the goals of government have to be concerned with outcomes - fewer families in crisis, for instance, or better survival rates in hospitals. But others should be relational....” This sentence seems to trace a functional distinction between goals as outcomes and goals as relations that is inappropriate, because the former have a relational constitution like the latter. Outcomes are not the opposite of what is relational: in fact, we can talk of relational outcomes as a new configuration of relations leading to the resolution of a problem. Relational outcomes can be measured, although with different methodologies in respect to quantitative performances. The complex links between social relationships, outcomes, and culture can be investigated within a normative framework that can handle unbound social morphogenesis (see Chapter 6).

A third area is concerned with the discussion about the practices of devolving funding down to the individual level through personal budgets and pupil premiums and how they will intersect with the emphasis on relationships. The literature on social work has highlighted potential tensions between individualised funding and a therapeutic social work based on valuing relationships. Personalisation does not (and should not) mean individualisation. To reduce the human person to an “individual” means to embrace an impoverished ontology, namely one that fails to accord sufficient weight to the primordial and existential realities of human interdependence, inter-being, and symbolic interaction. This is not to deny the importance of personal choice and control in life planning, but rather to argue that choices and control are best favoured within an ontological framework in which inter-being, sociability, and the socially reflexive nature of the self is at the fore. The relational state should operate through a relational reflexivity and refer to relational subjects.

In the end, relational state situates the relations between the public and private sectors, between the state and civil society, in the sphere of coresponsibility, partnership, and co-production (Mendoza and Vernis 2008). The relational state is a perspective based on the thesis that changes affecting the economic and political structure in recent decades have transformed the roles and capacities of social agents, above all in public and government sectors. The globalisation of the economy can transform the traditional welfare state model into a relational state model, above all in its role as public manager. The organisational model to which the relational state belongs is that of the social entrepreneur, capable of creating and managing complex inter-organisational networks in which public, private, and civil society organisations play their part. This new relational model of governance relies more on decentralised civil society initiatives, media exposure, and business self-regulation than on active state intervention. It adopts the principle of subsidiarity together with the principle of solidarity, which means to overcome the defensive and restricted interpretation of subsidiarity as mere “devolution” or “let people do things by themselves.” The relational state is a modality of enforcing an active and promotional interpretation of subsidiarity as “a way to help people to do what they have to do.”

Relational thinking challenges the assumption of the prevailing economic paradigm that it is best to pursue economic growth at whatever social cost, and then pick up the pieces of poverty and broken families afterwards through tax and redistribution policies. An alternative approach, which puts relational priorities first, would seek to protect families and communities while pursuing a Gross Domestic Wellbeing and thus avoid the need for subsequent redistribution and social intervention. Changed priorities in schools would mean no longer aiming to maximise the potential of each child expressed in terms of economic or individual achievement. Instead, the first priority of schools would be to ensure that by the time young people leave, they are able to relate well to others, are prepared to take responsibility, and ready to contribute to the wellbeing of their family and community. Alternative goals based on relational thinking in the criminal justice system would have far-reaching consequences. Instead of a system aimed simply at retribution, or at rehabilitating offenders, the primary goal would be to reconcile relationships between offenders and the victims of their crimes, permitting them to be restored into responsible membership of their community (Weaver 2016). Relational businesses would no longer have the primary goal of maximising shareholder value at whatever cost to the other stakeholders. Recognising that there is more to sustainability than shortterm profits, a relational company would seek to maximise relational wellbeing among all the stakeholders.

Summary: a new way of thinking and making society

The world system based of the financialisation not only of economy but, we may well say, of all social relations, experiences a chronic crisis and has to be reconverted. But how? In this chapter, I have argued that we do not have to resort to an abstract societal “model” but rather to facilitate ways of life (forms of a modus vivendi) which can empower the practices of a civil society that is not subordinate to the compromise between state and market.

It is possible to apply to this new civil society a notion of “reconversion” by analogy with what happened to market reconversion, when we shifted from an economy based on large industrial concerns to the information and know-ledge economy. It can be defined as a reconversion of civil society if w'e think of it as a bottom-up promotion of networks of social relations that do not meet the criteria of monetary equivalence and/or the functional imperatives imposed by state law's, but respond to the need to create relational goods. The reconfiguration of civil society according to this scenario will also redefine the ways of being of the state and the market.

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