Blog article

Co-op Policy Blog #6: Civil society is people

As a student I learned about civil society as something essential and powerful but also precious and potentially vulnerable. It was at once the cherished space people in the Eastern Bloc carved out to fight the tyranny of the nomenklatura, and a sphere of human life under threat from the relentless encroachment of neoliberal discipline in a globalising world. But that's academia for you.    

In the humdrum of day-to-day public policy, civil society is often used as shorthand for pressure groups, charities and the third sector, the donation economy, special regulations, tax exemptions and funding streams restricted to particular legal forms and good causes. But it’s not. 

Civil society is people. Or, more specifically, its people working together and using their collective power in pursuit of common goods. Or, more specifically still, it is people working together independently of the state and outside of market relations to pursue shared common goods.

Some crucial things are left out here: like solidarity, collective agency and the creation of a societal space distinct from the world of businesses and markets.

A ten year Civil Society Strategy

More than a year on from the Prime Minister’s much mused over Shared Society speech, her government is doing something, or talking about it anyway. The Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) is developing a ten year Civil Society Strategy, which we’re told will be at the heart of this government’s efforts to create a better and fairer UK. The problem is that DCMS is starting off with a pretty flawed interpretation of civil society: basically anyone outside the state trying to do good. Some crucial things are left out here: like solidarity, collective agency and the creation of a societal space distinct from the world of businesses and markets.

Notwithstanding that most co-ops are at least  in part businesses that operate in markets, this is the societal space that modern co-operatives sprung from and it is one we should defend and try to expand.

Help us promote a co-operative vision for civil society

Co-operatives UK will be responding to the DCMS consultation on its Strategy and we are encouraging all co-ops to do the same. The deadline is 22 May. You can find a link to the consultation, a summary of our thinking to date and our full draft response here.

We think the UK needs a bold and ambitious Civil Society Strategy. It should encourage, enable and support people to empower themselves through collective action to achieve their aspirations for a shared common good. The Strategy must support the reinvigoration of a civil society full of individual and collective agency, participation, shared responsibility, solidarity and mutualism. 

In practical terms we want the Strategy to be full of a particular type of public policy that redistributes power and opportunity for action and, crucially, that nurtures the capacities of people to work together to share power and seize opportunities. We think this means:

  • Significantly more resource for grassroots community development and empowerment, including place-based economic development 
  • More and better ‘Localism’ 
  • Help for civil society organisations to reproduce and form co-operative networks and federations   
  • Investing in digital infrastructure for the common good
  • Providing an enabling, user-friendly corporate framework
  • Increasing support for community investment
  • Public sector partnerships that are nurturing and empowering
  • Promoting and incentivising the participation of business in civil society

Tell us what you think. What's missing? Should we be positioning co-ops differently?

Find out more here

Please send us any comments or suggestions before 16 May by emailing me direct or by posting on the Facebook discussion

Thank you for supporting our policy work through your membership of Co-operatives UK. 

James Wright, Policy Officer

Written by James Wright
Updated: 16/04/2018