Civil society grew up in tandem with democracy. For two hundred years we have learned again and again that the formal apparatus of elections and parliaments only works if it’s complemented by a vigorous informal world of activism, argument and campaigns. Indeed it’s through civil society that societies experiment and adapt, imagining different futures and trying them out.
Much of the daily life of civil society is healthy – with no signs of long-term decline and decay, or for that matter any rise in selfishness and other ills, despite the pressures of recession. But it’s also clear that civil society is less than it could be. For a century or more it has been pushed to the margins by commerce and the state, which have claimed the lions’ share of resources and power. It has been paid lip-service, but generally neglected. And it has lost ground in areas it was once strong, like finance or childhood.
Today we can see the convergence of both long and short-term trends which could point to a major change in the position of civil society. The long-term trends can be traced back to many sources – the rising economic importance of charities and social enterprises globally; the counterculture of the 1960s; the global flowering of civil society activity in the wake of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall; declining trust in politics and the rise of a culture in which people seek and expect expression and voice.
The net effect of these changes is that it’s become harder for politicians to ignore civil society’s voice. In Barack Obama the western world has its most visible leader rooted in community activism. Here David Cameron and Gordon Brown compete to show off their credentials. But beyond a general encouragement for volunteering and social enterprise the political parties have found it hard to define a more serious agenda for civil society. In large part this is because the more radical agendas involve major shifts in power.
The Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society, undertaken with the involvement of hundreds of people from across the UK and Ireland, has tried to define what that agenda should be. Its starting point has been the remarkable coincidence of three crises: the financial crisis and its economic effects which has sharply reduced the status and confidence of market liberalism; the ecological crisis which has moved centre stage as never before in the wake of the Copenhagen Summit at the end of 2009; and a crisis of political confidence, particularly in Britain because of an accumulation of events, including most recently, the scandal of MP’s expenses.
Each crisis poses very different questions. But it is now impossible to imagine plausible answers to these questions which do not involve a widened role for civil society associations – as the complement to representative democracy; as the place where a different kind of economy takes shape, or is being rediscovered; and as the site for everyday solutions to the effects of rising carbon emissions.
Our recommendations propose not just action to promote the conditions for civil society to act (such as better protections of civil liberties around campaigning, as well as fewer regulatory barriers in the way of everyday community action), but also major changes to how power is organised.
In the economy and finance we argue for a major shift in regulations to expand the social economy, in part returning to the more pluralist economy of the nineteenth century. Social enterprises and cooperatives already account for a large share of economic activity (£24bn and £28bn respectively). But they rarely appear in considerations of economic or industrial strategy, and most of the gatekeepers of investment largely ignore them.
In the media we argue for radical reforms to favour greater pluralism in place of the division of labour between a single public sector organisation and a small band of commercial conglomerates. That will involve changing funding flows, as well as encouraging philanthropists and civil society to become more directly engaged in supporting diverse sources of news and comment.
For democracy itself we recommend moves to complement the formal rules of elections and representatives with greater engagement of civil society, more openness on the part of assemblies (for example with petitions or opportunities for citizens to take part in debates), devolution both down to local government and beyond to neighbourhoods, and more overt support for community leaders at all levels.
The bigger message behind these and many other recommendations is that we are seeing a shift from an age of ‘me’ to an age of ‘we’: with more willingness to strengthen collective institutions that embody a common interest rather than only self-interest.
This message takes us to the core of what civil society means today. Its ideas extend well beyond the much older traditions of charity and mutual support, though they grow out of them. They generalise from the direct impulse of charity to address the underlying causes of suffering and need, which can include attempting to challenge power structures. They put a strong emphasis on rights to voice, or democracy and, compared with traditional approaches to charity, assert that beneficiaries are best placed to define and understand their own needs. They are suspicious of actions, however well-intended, that leave beneficiaries passive and powerless.
Beyond traditional charity and mutual self-interest, modern civil society is also concerned with universal principles and claims, as well as universal accountabilities. In the environmental movement these ideas have arguably been taken furthest, with a commitment to nature and the biosphere as well as the interests of future generations. These ideas of universality have grown steadily as civil society associations have gained in confidence and depth. They have been most visible in those parts of civil society dealing with children, people with disabilities, race, gender and poor communities. But they can be found to some extent in almost every field. They have pushed civil society not only to denounce what is wrong in the present but also to grapple with visions of how things could be better; of a world with significantly enhanced rights, and equally enhanced responsibilities, radical devolution of power and active voice in many fields of life, from the workplace to the family.
That radical vision is now laying down a challenge to politics: whether to stop at supportive words. Or whether to go further and implement a radical shift in power.
Geoff Mulgan is Commission Chair for the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society