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Staying out of the hands of the state

The flowering in the numbers of civil society, non-state organisations, groups and campaigns is the reverse side of an historic decline in participation in formal political processes in Britain and an ever-increasing alienation from existing power structures.

That much is clear from a new report Making good society, which was produced by a commission set up by the Carnegie Trust under the watchful gaze of former New Labour advisor Geoff Mulgan. What is less certain is the path mapped out by the report for civil society in reshaping Britain.

The strength of civil society organisations is their relative independence from the state. It is where, as the report puts it, “people come together to pursue their shared interests, enthusiasms and values” on a not-for-profit basis, adding:

In civil society, people come together freely as equals. Civil society has grown as an expression of the values of co-operation, solidarity, mutual commitment and freedom. It has complemented, influenced and challenged the formal institutions of democracy. And it has always stood for visions of a good society, as well as meeting more immediate needs.

In 2006–7, the UK had 870,000 formal civil society associations with assets of £210 billion. Uncounted, but probably in still greater number, are the thousands of informal community groups that do anything from improving public spaces to campaigning for fee-free cash points, the report says.

Modern capitalist state structures, of course, stand for everything civil society doesn’t. The “values” of the state are about ruling over people, a partisan commitment to vested interests such as high finance and corporate power and a “freedom” so circumscribed that anything meaningful will certainly get you on to a more-or-less secret database. No wonder the commission found civil society so much more positive!

So much so that it would like to harness the untapped power and potential of civil society in “responding to the triple crises of our time: those of political trust, economics and the environment.” Don’t get too excited, however. We’re not talking revolution here. Quite the opposite.

For example, the commission wants a greater role for civil society in creating “stable, responsible and transparent financial activity”. This would be achieved, suggests the report, by “strengthening its capacity to influence financial institutions and regulators through building its own specialist institutions that have the knowledge and authority to challenge conventional financial thinking.” Or by “mobilising citizen investors, the millions of ordinary people with pension plans and savings, so that their future incomes are derived from companies that operate responsibly and sustainably.”

In reality, however, the financial system is on the edge of a precipice and pension schemes are in meltdown. Final salary pension schemes are being unilaterally wound up while the state has had to take on limited obligations of companies that have gone under. Now the state scheme itself is under threat.

After correctly pointing out that representative democracy in Britain was created in large part by pressure from below, principally through the struggle of the Chartists and Suffragettes, the report advocates using civil society to breathe new life into the political system through a bigger role for civil society in “organising deliberation, argument and decision-making”.

However well-meaning, this is surely the wrong approach to civil society organisations. They flourish precisely because they operate and exist in an environment that is largely self-created. Drawing them, as the report suggests, into solving society’s deep problems will lose them their independence. Nor would this answer the related crises of democracy, the economy and the environment. That will only come when the state itself is transformed and democratised through mass action because it is certainly beyond reform.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
16 March 2010

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