Need for shift away from 'age of me' to 'age of we'


OPINION:Simultaneous crises in finance, politics and the environment are all in different ways symptoms of an out of control individualism

IRELAND HAS been dealt some damaging blows in recent times. The bursting of the property bubble and the collapse of confidence in the banking system have left a crisis of confidence that matches, and sometimes exceeds, the parallel crises in Britain and elsewhere.

In the short-run, many looked to governments to sort out the mess, just as they look to governments to help fix the knock-on impacts of volcanic ash. But as the shock of the crisis recedes many are looking elsewhere for longer-term solutions. Increasingly, they are looking to civil society, the world of voluntary organisations, faith, trade unions and social enterprises.

Civil society was born out of the idea that we do our best when we work with others, and when we understand our interests as shared with others. Civil society is now coming centre stage because the simultaneous crises of finance, politics and the environment are all in different ways symptoms of an out of control individualism. All point to the need for a shift from what we call an “age of me” to an “age of we”, where we relearn our ability to co-operate and collaborate with others.

The Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in Britain and Ireland consulted hundreds of people across these islands to find out how they view the role of civil society. Everywhere we found a growing clamour for a reassertion of civil society’s long-standing role in the economy, providing financial services that are often fairer and more sustainable than for profits.

We found a sense that civil society increasingly has to complement the formal processes of representative democracy – a message that is equally clear in other parts of the world. And we found an appetite for more radical solutions that deal with the fundamentals of power.

A particularly strong concern in Ireland was the ability of civil society to argue and voice dissent. This has always been one of its most important roles, acting as both a challenge and conscience for democracy and formal power. Yet, civil society organisations in Ireland are unique in respect of their funding. Research by the centre for non-profit management at Trinity College has shown that 70 per cent of income for the not-for-profit sector derives from the State, an unusually high proportion.

There will always be some tensions between governments and civil society. But dependence at this level brings with it acute risks of censorship and self-censorship. In some of our meetings, there was heavy criticism of funding being cut from organisations that cause embarrassment to the State or who challenge the status quo.

That many State-funded organisations – originally established with watchdog functions – are required to seek clearance for press releases by Government before being circulated to the media was offered as one example of how voicing dissent was made difficult. This points to two main conclusions.

One is that civil society organisations need to be careful how dependent they become: grants and funding will always be attractive, but they nearly always bring with them some lost independence.

The other message is that changes are needed in the terms of engagement. Throughout our work we have been struck by the potential to open up democracy and government to more voices and more engagement.

Some parliaments are showing how this can be done through formalising rights for petitioners to put issues on the agenda and take part in debates, for example. Ultimately, the Oireachtas and political parties can derive greater legitimacy though a bigger role for civil society in deliberation, argument and decision-making.

Political reforms need to be matched by economic ones. The policies that gained currency in the last two decades were squarely aimed at for-profit commercial companies, including tax breaks and incentives. More resilient banks will certainly depend on smarter regulation of financial products and we, for example, propose a rule that financial products should not be able to remain on the market if it can be shown that a majority of their purchasers misunderstand crucial aspects of how they work.

But regulation isn’t enough. Around the world many now recognise that the next phase of economic development will be very different and will require tools that direct investment in new ways.

A significant role is likely to be played by the social economy, which already accounts for between 3 and 8 per cent of gross domestic product in most advanced economies.

Investors and policymakers have been slow to recognise its significance and the fact that co-operatives, mutuals and social enterprises are often more resilient to shocks than for-profits.

Whatever the long-term ramifications of Copenhagen, climate change is set to be a dominant reality for business as much as civil society.

Civil society played a decisive role in warning the public about the risks of climate change. Now it is making the running in helping us adapt to new industries and new lifestyles, financing and running local energy and food production, and pioneering the new measures needed to hold others to account.

Then there are the vital institutions that help us to know about our world. We increasingly depend on others to tell us what’s happening around us. But the media on which we depend has become ever more divorced from the communities they are meant to serve.

One of the lessons of history is that sectors work best with a healthy pluralism – a balance between private sector, public sector and third sector. Yet in the media, this third sector has almost disappeared. It struggles to find a voice. And it has largely ceased to be a serious player or owner.

We argue that a healthy media depends on pluralism as well as freedom and integrity. We suggest that philanthropists and foundations should look to use their own assets to build up independent media, particularly through the web, and to build up scrutiny of existing media. We propose a “kitemark” for newspapers, magazines and broadcasters who show a serious commitment to truth and accuracy.

These are just some of the ideas which we think are relevant to Ireland, as well as to the Britain. Over the last 20 years, and particularly since 1989, civil society worldwide has been growing in confidence and strength. We learned the hard way the risks of an overmighty state.

And more recently we’ve learned the risks of an overmighty market. That’s why the time is now right to put civil society at the centre of Ireland’s recovery, and to re-emphasise what brings us together, what makes us “we” rather than just a collection of “me’s”.

Geoff Mulgan chaired the Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland. Its report Making Good Society was published yesterday – see: Previously, he was founder and director of London-based left-wing think tank Demos

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