Is a Civil Society Britain being born? - RSA

Is a Civil Society Britain being born?


  • Picture of Dr Jim Cowan FRSA
    Dr Jim Cowan FRSA
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While many people want to be part of a different story, they don’t know how. Dr Jim Cowan FRSA, addresses the feeling many have with bio-diversity, extinction, climate change, Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, Brexit and innumerable other issues, that the current system is broken and unsustainable.

What is the vision for Britain’s people? What comes out of Brexit – negotiating trade agreements – however critical, will not deal with the very fundamental social breakdowns we face. The future for many of Britain`s people looks bleak. We have extremes of poverty, racism, mental illness, homelessness, violence, and drug addiction. These are deep divisions weakening the social fabric, outlined by the recent report The State of Our Social Fabric published by Onward, which describes itself as a powerful ideas factory for centre-right thinkers and leaders.

This is an underbelly of people-pain that Covid-19 has underlined. The state of business is an understandable pre-occupation. We have to make a living.  But the answer to the question must be informed by and not replace a vision for what we want for our people.

Those drawing on deeper inner resources know that past, present and future are not three different things. There is momentum from the past that cannot be overlooked and can provide a model for examining the present and illuminating the future. What does it tell us?

In the 1970s the country came to the end of welfare state Britain and we are now coming to the end of 40 years of market thinking. There is no ideology waiting in the wings. There is no equivalent of Beveridge, the great architect of the welfare state. There is no equivalent of the free marketeers like Hayek, with the Mont Pelerin Society, working to get their policies taken up by government and who have created the last 40 years of market fundamentalism. Rather there needs to be something better. The move on from the industrial revolution, to the welfare state and then to market thinking, were transformational changes. Each of these major changes were evolutionary shifts and were steps up. Britain certainly is capable of transformational change. Putting bureaucracy and then markets central can be seen as staging posts for something far better to aspire to through Covid-19 and after it.

So what could this future look like?

The historical, pre-Covid-19 legacies of Britain are:

  • An extraordinarily evolving, deep, profound, business and wealth generating sector which goes back a long way;
  • An infrastructure of local public service with a central government civil service structure sitting on top which goes back a long way too; and
  • The most unbelievably rich, complex civil society probably of any country on the planet.

Each previous change has involved major shifts between these three aspects of Britain. The momentum of history and the breakdowns in the present all suggest it is civil society’s turn to be centre stage. This is the question for today:is a Civil Society Britain being born? Such a change can never come from government; it can only come from people. And there are reasons to think we are moving everything in this direction.

Each time humanity has developed a more advanced consciousness we have changed how we do things, the kinds of organisations we have, and how government operates. That shift of consciousness has entered peoples’ lives, changing how much potential has been realised. Compare the stifling of potential in the Middle Ages with the potential realised in the Age of Reason.

Tackling the issues confronting us now, repairing the social fabric, and replacing market fundamentalism with humanity all comes down to one thing: the kind of consciousness capable of enabling that sought-after movement forward. But we cannot properly address the depth and complexity of the changes needed, with the ways we have been thinking until now. In my research I have looked in more detail into the consciousnesses humanity is moving through and moving into.

Coming from the past we have an ethnocentric consciousness about order, stability, and predictability. Here there is inequality and there are strict norms holding that inequality in place. Control is exercised through hierarchies. But there is also another, very different consciousness, which sees modernity as progress, success, achievement, and unlimited wealth creation. Set alongside this are ideals for justice, equality and freedom.

The depth and complexity of the changes needed in the world today require a movement on from these. And there is indeed what I have been calling a next stage of human consciousness, able to embrace these earlier ones creating unity of action rather than polarisation of speech.

With this consciousness the ego is not in the driving seat. A more expansive, embracing self is there; one which understands action and thought go together in more complex and refined ways of dealing with the world. It is not fearful and needing to control. Problems become challenges, including the ability to successfully improvise in the face of the unexpected. The deeper resources are there. Leaders with this consciousness will tap into all kinds of knowing from analytics to the wisdom to be found through emotion and intuition. Decisions resonate with deeper inner convictions. These leaders are good at collective dynamics that empower everyone involved.

It is a fertile time. People have had a lot of space to think and want a different life; there is a real appetite for change. So is there a next stage of human consciousness actually being put into practice? Frederic Laloux has given us a very full account of such next generation organisations.

Such organisations have an advice process to make decisions, clear processes for conflict resolution, and work in autonomous but interlinking groups with complete control over what they do.  They carefully construct and maintain, as a whole staff group, structures, processes and practices, which enact and support that higher, far more humanistic consciousness. Individuals feel treasured. These organisations are all unbelievably successful at what they do. They are spread across state services, business (including blue collar), and civil society. They are the future of organisation.

I have researched highly diverse initiatives across Britain moving in this direction;  you can read more about these in The Britain Potential.  I found literally hundreds of such initiatives once I started looking for them and, during Covid-19, I continued to find many like the Leeds Festival of Kindness building on Dr Oliver Scott Curry’s work on kindness as a way to unlock co-operation. For an example of moderating the logical of capital with the ‘logic’ of humanity, John Lewis is aiming for its shuttered stores to become affordable housing. There’s a move to make sure small woodlands are part of all new housing estates. Farms producing for local communities are bringing about that civil society centred vision that, under the Covid-19 radar, Britain seems to be moving into. Many highly diverse initiatives are carving new paths, opening up great leadership plus highly supportive environments for those involved. For example, you lose your partner, and it’s the urban farm group who help you through the nightmare.

Without being told to, and without any government policy we, across this country, are developing in the body of the society, islands of micro activity which work better, which have heart, and where individuals fulfil their potential better. This kind of change is a slower percolation. It is going to come, sooner or later. There is plenty for us to do.

Dr Jim Cowan is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Roehampton. His latest book The Britain Potential was published by Arena Books in 2019.

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