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Ten years after the crash, is civil society ready to take on big finance?

Ten years ago the French bank BNP Paribas ceased activity in three hedge funds, announcing that it could no longer measure the value of instruments based on US subprime mortgages.

The event is widely regarded as representing the beginning of the global financial crisis, as what had previously been regarded as minor turbulence in the US housing market became something far more serious. Banks stopped lending to each other and the financial system froze, sending shockwaves around the global financial system. The UK, with one of the biggest, most complex, and most interconnected banking systems in the developed world, was uniquely exposed.

A decade on, and the cost of the crisis – both human and financial – cannot be understated. The cost of bailing out the banks peaked at over £1 trillion, while the cost to the economy in terms of loss of income and output has been much greater. According to Andrew Haldane, the Bank of England’s Chief Economist, the cost may be as high as £7.4 trillion – similar in scale to a World War. Since the crisis real wages in Britain have suffered a larger decline than in any other advanced country apart from Greece. Years of austerity has pushed public services towards breaking point, and falling living standards has seen families resort to desperate measures like using food banks. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, recently described the past ten years as the “first lost decade since the 1860s”.

As each ten-year milestone approaches – from the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 2008 to the G20 London Summit held on 2 April 2009 – much will be written about the role of each of the major culprits: the reckless bankers, the weak regulators, the captured credit rating agencies and the blind economists. But what about civil society? What is there to learn from the experience of the financial crisis, and what does this mean for the future of civil society?

Civil society’s blind spot?

In 1960 UK banking sector assets totalled £8 billion, or 32% of the country’s annual economic output. By 2010 this had increased to £6,240 billion, or 450% of annual economic output. Relative to the size of the national economy, the UK banking system grew to be the largest among advanced economies, with most of the growth coming in the two decades prior to the crisis.

Despite this rapid increase in the size and influence of the banks and other financial institutions, civil society did not pay much attention to their activities. Of course, organisations such as credit unions have played a key role in local communities for many years. But in the run up to the crisis few organisations asked difficult questions about the financial sector as a whole, or asked whether it was serving the long-term interests of society.

Of course, civil society was not alone in failing to see the crisis coming. The vast majority of macroeconomists were caught entirely off guard, as were the regulators whose job it was to prevent such crises from happening. While the economy was hurtling towards catastrophe, central bankers were hailing the arrival of the ‘Great Moderation’ and Gordon Brown had declared the end of ‘boom and bust’.

Nonetheless, one of the roles of civil society is to ask difficult questions and to challenge power. While it would be unfair to pass blame for failing to foresee the crisis, elements within civil society could and should have acted more courageously to challenge the power of the City of London. But too often they found it easier to look the other way.

Too little, too late

Once the crisis hit, civil society organisations scrambled to come to terms with what happened, and what it meant for them. Few organisations were well placed to respond quickly. A longstanding perception that finance was a technocratic field best left to experts had left civil society woefully underequipped to intervene, despite the fact that civil society organisations are perfectly capable of getting their heads round other complex issues. Moreover, civil society’s capacity was reduced just as it was needed most, as funding sources started to dry up amid the economic fallout. Without a coherent analysis of what went wrong and what needed to happen, civil society struggled to make its voice heard in the process of reform that followed.

Despite this, there were a number of positive developments. The crisis triggered an awakening on issues of banking and finance, and gave birth to a dynamic new movement dedicated to the cause of financial reform. New organisations such as Positive Money, the Finance Innovation Lab and Move Your Money were established, and alongside older organisations like the New Economics Foundation set out explain the workings of the financial system and repurpose it for the common good. But despite some heroic efforts, these organisations inevitably faced an uphill struggle against the lobbying might of the sector and the ‘insider’ culture of the regulators.

It is difficult to know exactly how much the sector spends on lobbying, but an investigation by the Independent Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that City of London firms provided more than 50% of the Conservative party’s funding in 2010, the year of David Cameron’s general election victory. In 2012, a similar investigation revealed that the British financial services industry spent £92 million in one year lobbying politicians and regulators. Combined with the serial ‘revolving door’ culture between the industry and the regulators, it’s easy to see how civil society’s voice was drowned out.

While the limited reforms did rein in some of the worst excesses, it wasn’t long before intense lobbying from the sector led to them being watered down or rolled back. By 2015 this had paid off, as George Osborne announced a ‘new settlement’ between policymakers and the City and quietly passed a string of concessions to big banks in areas of tax and regulation. Then, in December 2015, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney declared that “the post-crisis period is over”. The message was clear: the financial system had been fixed, lessons had been learned, and it was time to move on. We could return to business as usual.

What next for the future?

As memories of the crisis fade, it is essential that civil society doesn’t roll over to the demands of bank lobbyists. Many experts outside the industry-regulator nexus warn that financial reforms went nowhere near far enough, and have predicted that another crash could be just around the corner. The Systemic Risk Council, a group of global experts on financial stability, recently warned G20 leaders that the global financial system is vulnerable to another crisis. This time round, they warn, central banks and governments will have far less ammunition available to respond. Similar warnings have come from the Bank for International Settlements, which recently said that another global financial crisis could soon hit “with a vengeance”.

Now, with Brexit on the horizon, the risk is even greater. As more banks start to shift operations abroad, the government has indicated that it may respond by slashing regulation in a bid to stem the outflow of business. Media outlets have reported that bank executives and lobbyists are already working hard behind the scenes to turn Brexit to their advantage.

To avoid history repeating itself, there is an urgent need to strengthen civil society’s voice on finance, and develop a credible and effective counterweight to the lobbying power of the banks. We must also work to transform our broken financial system to ensure that finance serves society, not the other way around.

What does this mean in practice? Firstly, it means establishing a credible and well resourced civil society voice on banking and finance. This isn’t a new idea – in 2011 the European Parliament established a new independent NGO called Finance Watch. This organisation receives public funding from the EU, and is tasked with acting as a public interest counterweight to the powerful financial lobby. While Finance Watch’s expert staff are still vastly outnumbered by industry representatives in the corridors of Brussels, the organisation has played a vital role educating lawmakers and the public about the financial system. As Britain starts to plan a future outside of the EU, plugging this gap with a new UK-focused organisation will be vital.

Secondly, civil society must begin the long hard task of transforming our banking sector. The UK has among the most concentrated banking sector in the developed world, and is uniquely dependent on commercial, profit maximising banks. The banking sector channels billions into the economy each year, however most of this flows into property and financial markets, inflating asset prices and destabilising the economy. In other countries, the banking sector plays a more positive role by investing sustainably in local communities, and these banks are often characterised by ‘stakeholder’ ownership and governance. In other words, the mission of the bank is not to maximise profits but to optimise returns to a range of stakeholders, including customers and the broader local economy. Empirical evidence shows that these institutions, such as co-operatives, mutuals and public savings banks, perform much better than their large competitors on measures of financial stability, local economic development, business lending, and financial inclusion.

Learning from best practice around the world, steps should be taken to increase the diversity of the banking sector and create new institutions which serve the interests of businesses and local communities. Initiatives like the Community Savings Banking Association are already doing this from the bottom-up, but much remains to be done before these models can achieve the scale required to make an impact.

But reforming the banking sector is merely the tip of the iceberg. The financial sector’s grip over of our politics and economy did not happen in a vacuum – it is the result of a set of deliberate political choices to rewrite the rules of our economy. The UK’s sprawling financial sector was, and still is, the pinnacle of neoliberalism – the economic system which has allowed privatisation, deregulation, and market logic to penetrate every area of society.

The financial crisis was one product of this system. But challenges such as poverty, inequality, alienation, climate change and homelessness cannot be separated from the economic system which breeds them. To overcome these issues, civil society must go beyond simply ameliorating symptoms, and start tackling root causes. This means challenging the tenets of neoliberalism itself, and working together to build a fairer and more sustainable alternative.

It’s time for civil society to take over the economy

Ten years ago the wheels started to come off the UK economy and we saw the beginning of the financial crash. Fast forward a decade and people are beginning to question what has really changed. As Torston Bell put it in the Guardian: “The financial crisis highlighted the big challenge of our time: to ensure the economy delivers for working people. Looking back over the last decade, it’s clear we have far from delivered.”

The biggest shift the economy has seen has been the reform of the public sector. But from Brexit to the general election, more and more people have been calling for a bigger transformation of the economy to one where people have control, one for the ‘many not the few’ or one that ‘works for everyone’. YouGov polling earlier this year showed two thirds of people say they have no control over the economy, and only quarter think they can influence either their workplace or their local area.

Yet this change has not come, or at least not yet. Beyond small regulatory changes there has been no significant shift on key issues like the regulation of the financial sector or steps toward the reduction of inequality.

Over the last two years we at Co-ops UK have been talking with a wide range of people involved in co-operatively-run organisations – worker owned businesses, housing co-ops, credit unions, freelancer collectives, farmer run businesses and the like. There are 7,000 co-ops in the UK in all, working right across the economy and together they turnover £34 billion a year. Businesses like the Queens Enterprise Award winning Suma Wholefoods and dairy giants Arla demonstrate they are already successful players in the economy. What sets them apart, of course, is that they are businesses owned and run by the people most affected by them, who have an equal say in what they do and how their profits are used.

We have been talking to them about how we can grow the number of co-operatively run organisations in the UK, with an aspiration that in 20 years one pound in every ten will be spent in a co-operative or mutual business. It’s an ambitious target, but one drawn from the fact that co-ops are already significant a part of the UK’s private sector and through concerted effort we can extend that number and their reach.

With 550 organisations we have co-created a strategy to help make this happen. Called ‘Do it Ourselves’ it is based on the recognition that we cannot wait for new government policies or a sudden wave of enlightenment; we need to just get on and do it ourselves. There are three guiding principles:

Commit to being great. Existing co-operatives are the inspiration that draw people to start or join a co-op. We need co-ops to be exemplars – in governance, in member engagement, in making a difference. We need existing co-operatively run organisations to keep on doing what they do best, and do more of it.

Be open to new co-operation. Co-operatives are a tool to help people take ownership of things that matter to them, whether that’s accessing decent food, housing, work or healthcare. People co-operate naturally and we need to identify and support people who are coming together to address the issues that concern them by forming new co-ops.

Inspire more co-operation. While co-operation is a natural instinct, it often takes some inspiration to get started. Through campaigns and brilliant examples, we need to inspire more and more people to see how working together can enable them to take ownership of the things that matter to them.

There is no part of the economy that co-ops can’t work in, whether it’s our broken housing market or supporting farmers to achieve economies of scale. But there are three areas that stand out as needing co-operative approaches right now.

First, social care. Almost every day we hear about the social care crisis. In part this is about a lack of funding. But it also about the way social care is organised. Co-operative approaches to social care allow the workers and users to own and control what organisations do, allowing them to be more responsive to the needs of the people affected by it. In Wales, a large charity, Cartrefi Cymru, has converted to a co-op because it has recognised the importance of having input from a range of stakeholders into the running of the organisation.

Second, the gig economy. As the number of people in self-employed work continues to grow so does the number of people in precarious work. Coming together in co-ops – often in collaboration with trade unions – is a way for these workers to achieve financial security and create a safety net for themselves. Indycube is a new co-op for freelancers that is working with the trade union Community to provide back office services to freelancers, offering a model for how co-ops for the self-employed might develop.

Third, technology workers. The number of people working in the digital economy is growing fast, and for many tech workers having a say in what they do is as important as what they do. Worker ownership – which evidence shows leads to greater levels of productivity and staff satisfaction – is a natural way for tech workers to organise. Co-Tech is an energetic new network of technology co-operatives, sharing work and spreading the worker co-op model, with a goal of growing 100,000 jobs in the sector by 2030.

In the last ten years, since the financial crash began, there have been growing calls for a fairer economy over which people have more say, yet there has been little movement toward it. Over the next two decades, through a focus on key areas of the economy where new approaches are needed, perhaps we can start to shift toward a different kind of economy.

It is time for Civil Society to seize the opportunities technology offers to transform society

In the late 19th century, as the industrial revolution came to maturity, an extraordinary system emerged to address the health needs of industrial workers. In Tredegar, south Wales, a hospital sick pay and insurance system was so effective that Nye Bevan took it as the model for the NHS.

This is far from unique. It is not just the NHS that has its origins in civil society. Our school system and many of the other institutions that create and sustain our society have their roots in our organisations of collective action, ranging from religious bodies to charities to trade unions. Throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century the state looked to civil society to prototype the structures that would, eventually, comprise the most substantial parts of domestic policy.

Scotland became the first society in the world to have mass literacy as a result of the Church of Scotland’s universal parish school system, created by order of the Privy Council in 1616. The Carnegie Fund for the Universities of Scotland meant that this extended to higher education in the early 20th century. The slightly hyperbolic claim that Scots invented the modern world has its basis in a string of inventions, from the pneumatic tyre to television, that emerged organically from a society that was better educated than any other.

Just as the Tredegar medical model was the prototype for the NHS at its creation in the 1940s, the Scottish Parish schools were signed over wholesale to the state in the 1870s, forming the basis of the Scottish education system.

Civil society, the voluntary sector, and public institutions outside government have created the conditions within which we are born, educated and die. As the world changed, so government took on many of these functions. But it was not government that pioneered social change during the industrial revolution and the 20th century.

And on the cusp of a new industrial revolution, it is disappointing that it’s difficult to point to similar innovation from civil society. As we reach a digital frontier there are few examples of institutional civil society using the new tools to transform the world in the way universal education or free health did in previous eras. There are some examples, and Nesta has been bringing together some of the best through its Digital Social Innovation programme. Possibly most notable is Cancer Research UK’s crowdsourcing of cancer data analysis through its Citizen Science programme.

This matters because the ideological underpinning of much of digital innovation is totally at odds with the values of civil society. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have usefully characterised this as the Californian Ideology – a mix of individualism, techno-utopianism, libertarianism and neoliberalism. In his film “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”, Adam Curtis points to the links between Silicon Valley capitalism and Ayn Rand’s ultra-libertarianism. So far, so far away from the communitarian and liberal aims of most civil society organisations. And that is reflected in the ‘real world’ manifestations of digital society – companies like Airbnb and Uber, who have business models that are a long way from those of civil society organisations and their attempts to build a fairer world.

There are a few examples of older not-for-profit organisations really reinventing how they do things in the context of modern tech: if we count Universities as Civil Society, then we we could look to how Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may be the foundation of tertiary education in future. The Guardian, which is run by a not-for-profit trust, has also been at the forefront of digital development. The BBC iPlayer is also a leading innovation in the digital space.

And there are some significant not-for-profit digital organisations. Wikipedia has perhaps been the most successful, almost totally dominating the encyclopaedia business, and displacing a range of traditional, for-profit, organisations. Mozilla, which produces the Firefox web browser, is another digital leader. It is important to acknowledge that the open source software community operates very much within a civil society model, but while this is both important and has made huge impact, it is the creation of a new community. But these examples all stand out as exceptions. And what is most concerning is the gap created by civil society organisations not grasping the opportunities of the sharing economy.

But it is very difficult to identify any of the civil society actors that have historically used digital innovation, mobile apps and other opportunities to change the way we live our lives. Uber has changed how people travel, Airbnb how they holiday, and Facebook has profoundly reconstituted our social relationships. I would challenge readers to name a single civil society organisation which has made that sort of difference using technology.

This is important because technology offers massive opportunities that align perfectly with the values of civil society. Social networks used to be mediated through civil society. Now they are mediated by Silicon Valley corporations with a somewhat shaky understanding of privacy.

The core values of the internet are very close to the core values of civil society. Universal, free and open access to information, and the ability to connect to people around the world on the basis of shared values and interests are at the heart of the world civil society has always sought to bring into being.

To take a specific example, the voluntary sector came up with the idea for community transport. Using shared non-commercial buses, or private cars to help people get to the shops, hospital appointments or other services is a core activity for many voluntary organisations. It is a life-saver for many older people. But all too often it remains a person sitting at a phone coordinating lifts. Why wasn’t it a community transport provider that prototyped mobile-led lift sharing – rather than leaving it to Uber? Why didn’t the cooperative movement support taxi drivers to create their own app-led service, as the New Economic Foundation and Nesta are now doing in Bradford and Leeds?

I do not have the answers. But I do know that we need to start thinking about this – I suspect that digital ideas are all-too-often dismissed by civil society leaders as being peripheral to core business activities. There are access issues – not everyone has a smartphone – but these issues are receding rapidly as smart technology becomes cheaper. It needs to stop being a barrier to digital service delivery.

It’s interesting that those civil society institutions that have produced digital innovations are those that have financial security. The BBC has the license fee, paid by most viewers, which allowed time and resource to develop iPlayer. Universities have substantial reserves, and the capacity to produce MOOCs on their existing resources. The Guardian invested substantial amounts of its reserves in becoming a leader in online journalism. Voluntary organisations subsisting on donations and year-to-year grant funding from government will find it very much more difficult to be strategic.

If you wanted to organise a meeting about an issue in the past, you would have gone to a civil society organisation. These days, you use social networks. Many of the activities that campaign organisations used to coordinate have been disintermediated by Facebook and other social networks. There are opportunities here. The ease with which millennials used to join Facebook groups has transferred into a new enthusiasm for joining political parties – transforming the outcome of the UK’s 2017 general election on the way.

Leaders in civil society need to be more open to digital ideas. There needs to be investment available for those ideas – investing in the technology to make sure your organisation delivers on its objectives should be a priority. Most importantly, civil society has a vital role to play in shaping the values of a tech-rich society.

Civil society has the creativity, connections, and trust to transform our world. But we need to use the tools that can best achieve that task. And that will require really serious changes – not just in how we approach, appropriate and develop digital technologies, but in how civil society sees its role in the world. Imagine if the world’s dominant social network was committed to civil society values. Imagine if the deployment of civilian drones was to create social value, by transporting organs or blood rather than delivering books and CDs. Just think of the difference a genuine lift-sharing service could make to congestion and air pollution. It is time for the organisations with the position and resources to make these things happen to act.

It’s not just ‘fringe’ groups that are at risk of surveillance – UK civil society needs to learn digital security, and fast

A perfect storm of hacking and big data, corporate spying, and the surveillance-obsessed British state puts everyone at risk.

Two years ago the human rights NGO Amnesty International was informed that the UK government had spied on its communications. It had taken 18 months of litigation and persistence to confirm their suspicions.

In response, Amnesty’s Secretary General Salil Shetty said: “It’s outrageous that what has been often presented as being the domain of despotic rulers has been occurring on British soil, by the British government.”

It’s worth noting that this instance of state snooping happened before the ‘Snoopers Charter’ of 2016 gave GCHQ basically free reign to snoop on citizens. The passing of that act arguably marked the point that the British government went off the deep end in terms of surveillance and authoritarianism.

That story highlights just one aspect of the perfect storm of corporate and state privacy infringement which should make all those involved in British civil society extremely worried – and security-conscious.

It would be foolish to claim political repression in the UK is on a par with that in Russia or Turkey. But it would be just as foolish to ignore the considerable history of state snooping in the UK, or the growing role of this government as peddler of dangerous surveillance equipment – at home and abroad.

If this all sounds far-fetched, consider the ‘spycops’ scandal. Undercover police officers were revealed to have slept with the activists they were targeting. They maintained fictitious lives, and often relationships, for years. They have misled courts and withheld crucial evidence. It’s likely still going on, and it starkly illustrates what the British state is willing to do to maintain the status quo.

We’ll probably never know the real scale of the enormous infiltration operation used against left-wing groups since the 1960s, but we do know it included the family of Stephen Lawrence, and more recently, Green peer Jenny Jones.

Being an activist in the mid-2000s – especially environmental actions – was to inhabit a world where police infiltration was expected, as was violence, surveillance and intimidation. Many people from outwith this ‘scene’ are still surprised when this is described to them. But it was nothing new. And the idea that this surveillance was something reserved for ‘extreme’ or ‘hardcore’ activists, those blockaders of roads and coal trains, is disproved by the discovery in 2009 of the ‘blacklist’ – a secret file listing thousands of construction workers labelled as ‘trouble-makers’.

Corporations – in this case construction companies – were behind the blacklisting scandal, though it’s known now that undercover officers colluded with the company operating the blacklist, and the names of activists appeared alongside those of trade unionists.

The scandal showed the power of ‘big data’ long before Cambridge Analytica started scraping our Facebook likes. Now the threat is even more severe. The extent of corporate spying on civil society, going back years, is surely now well-known – Shell and McDonalds being most notorious – but while it used to be a dodgy-looking guy at a London Greenpeace meeting, now it can be much more subtle.

Obviously the most prominent recent examples of this ‘surveillance capitalism’ era are the tactics being used against activists. For instance in the US, Black Lives Matter protestors are spied on by police using sophisticated software that trawls social media. And Gulf regimes have eagerly bought up mass surveillance technology – mostly hawked by the UK and Israel – and used the software to track and imprison dissidents. But these are the mine canaries. It’s not just outspoken activists leading street protests who will increasingly be targeted like this. All civil society is at risk.

NGOs, if successful in their job, are sometimes an annoyance or threat to the state; alongside journalists, trades unions, campaigners and other cogs of civil society, NGOs are often crucial in forcing reform or exposing corruption. So it is not surprising that such organisations have been high on the hit-list of rulers seeking to consolidate power and silence opposition. Idil Eser, Amnesty International’s Turkey director, is currently in jail awaiting trial.

The list of governments using propaganda and legislation to undermine NGOs is long. While Putin does it more bluntly, such a trend is visible in the UK: the ability of civil society groups to play a part in politics was severely curbed by the so-called “gagging law” of 2014, which still remains in place despite continued protest. Recent proposals for a new Espionage Bill take things even further, threatening jail time for anyone sharing leaked ‘sensitive’ information, including journalists. Add this to last year’s Investigatory Powers Act (IP Act), which has made the UK one of the most extreme surveillance states in the world, and the path we’re on is pretty clear.

The other side of this ‘perfect storm’ is hacking. Police and security services hack, of course – see the huge powers handed to them under the ‘equipment interference’ section of the IP Act – but increasingly geopolitical squabbles and anti-democratic attacks are taking the form of cyber attacks.

Ukraine has suffered a barrage of cyber attacks over the past year, with sophisticated malware taking out banks, media organisations, and even national infrastructure. The power grid in parts of Kiev went down at Christmas last year, plunging people into darkness when temperatures outside were below freezing.

Clearly some of these attacks are being carried out on the orders of state actors; a kind of proxy war being conducted silently and invisibly. It’s an incredibly powerful tool: what quicker way to silence a troublesome organisation, be it journalistic or campaign group, than to hack into its (often poorly-protected) digital infrastructure? Files can be deleted or altered, private information stolen, and sites taken offline at a crucial time. Human rights defenders are particularly at risk, as cases documented by Front Line Defenders show.

Even aside from the darker aspect of political interference, stealing data from organisations is lucrative, making commercially-driven attacks an issue too.

Paranoia is not useful; the first step in digital security is assessing the actual risk. Who might be the threat, and what would be their motives? Where are your weaknesses? Many organisations still use obselete operating systems, which are sitting ducks for cyber attacks – as the recent ransomware outbreaks, targeting an old version of Windows, demonstrated. Guides to basic digital security, like Security in a Box, are a good place to start.

Digital technology has made campaigns and civil society actors more powerful than ever, able to quickly reach and mobilise huge numbers of people. There was always going to be a flip side of the coin in terms of the threat this tech enables, and the authoritarian turn by governments globally makes that threat much more severe. Getting clued up on security is an essential step in winning the big fights ahead.


Look for the helpers: how can we build a civil society that’s ready for the worst?

As we reel from shock to shock – bombings in Manchester, attacks in London, the horrific fire in Kensington – one thing has become clear. Civil society in its widest sense is central to how we respond. Immediately after the blue light services heroically dealing with horror come the volunteers – the churches, the community groups, the individuals giving money, pouring tea, putting down mattresses, opening halls. The frequently unsung response of solidarity at times of dreadful shock.

The new civil defence for new and different threats.

We saw it in the floods in the winter of 2015, in the 7/7 bombings, in train crashes and in disasters across the UK: a desire to help both the stranger and the neighbour which is at the core of civil society.

There are a few things about which we can be sure. There will be more of these unexpected tragedies, and civil society will continue to contribute.

Civil society brings immediate rescue. The tea urns, the offers of shelter, the clothes and mattresses. The rush of donations. The immediate response of providing relief. The warmth and comfort at times of acute personal distress and grief.

And as I have written elsewhere civil society helps us to remember – through ritual, and sharing of grief civil society provides some of the space for healing and recondition.

And it can help to build bridges after afterwards. There will always be need for reconciliation – for deep understanding to enable people to come to terms with what has happened, and, if possible, prevent it happening again.

Civil society helps to get redress and enable the voice to be heard. Desperately distressed people needing advocacy and support both individually and collectively to negotiate their way through the inevitable bureaucratic nightmare. Advice about rights, and out insurance, about companion. Redress at a time when rights are challenged.

And finally, civil society is about resilience. Its about building strength for the long term, getting ready for the inevitable shocks and crises, and going beyond the superficial declaration that this will not cow us, to a deep, stronger sense of preparation  for shocks.

In York where I live the Council for Voluntary Services has co-ordinated Ready for Anything – a response plan for the emergencies that will come and across the country there are similar examples of civil defence, led by civility.

Local community organisations, have deep networks, they command trust and confidence, they mobilise volunteers, they attract support. They have expert knowledge.

The task must now be to create a framework that gets support to the supporters quickly, safely and when it is needed. That allows the genuinely expert voices who know the community to be heard, and that commands trust.

After all, we never know when we will be turning to civil society for help, but we can be very sure that it will happen again.

Civil society feels increasingly broken – but we can fix it

It’s time to unleash the power of mutual aid

Browsing on Ebay in an idle moment, I recently came across an unusual copper token. It was dated 1796, and within a garland of wheat appeared the inscription ‘Union Mill Birmingham’.

This token, I soon discovered, was produced at a time of national crisis.  During the years 1795 and 1796 a series of poor harvests, and difficulties in importing grain because of war with France, produced dramatic rises in the price of bread. Across the whole country many of the people were literally starving.

One response was protest. ‘Bread riots’ broke out in Tewkesbury, Norwich, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Croydon, Cambridge, Carlisle, Nottingham, Newcastle and many other places across the country. Women played a major role, as an angry population occupied markets and demanded that traders reduce their prices. The local militia was called in, and ringleaders were arrested and in some cases executed.

Another response was philanthropy. Edmund Burke claimed that the food shortages were accompanied by a great wave of private philanthropy, producing ‘a care and superintendence of the poor, far greater than any I remember.’ It was the eighteenth-century equivalent of our modern day food banks.

Inevitably there were calls on government to ‘do something’. But at first the national government of the day was unwilling or unable to do much. It brought in a tax on hair powder designed to reduce the use of flour, and it introduced legislation to forbid the use of wheat in distilling spirits and in making starch. At the end of 1795 the government took further action: it released wheat on the London corn market at or just below the market price in order to keep prices steady. For the first time the collection and publication of accurate statistical information became a government responsibility.

Local government acted too. In May 1795 magistrates in Speenhamland in Berkshire introduced a variation on the Poor Laws of the day, providing variable amounts of relief according to the size of a labourers’ family, their income, and the prevailing price of bread. But this was bitterly attacked for its unintended consequences: encouraging large families and incentivising farmers to pay the lowest possible wage.

There were of course the usual establishment injunctions to the poor to change their behaviour, which, it was implied, was the real problem. Surely they could cook rice puddings or eat potatoes instead of bread? At least the English royalty did not urge its subjects to eat cake – the probable consequences of that idea were no doubt fresh in its mind.

But there was another response, and it came from civil society. Friendly societies, established by working people to assist their members in times of crisis, started to bulk-buy grain for their members in order to keep prices as low as possible. For example at Rothley in Leicestershire a friendly society drew £50 from its funds to purchase corn, have it ground, and sell the flour at cost to members. A multitude of similar ‘flour clubs’ were set up across the country. But some went further. In Sheffield, for example, sixteen friendly societies pooled their funds, took out a twenty one-year lease on a suitable site, and built a water-mill.

This was not all. Mutually-owned water-mills and wind-mills were successful, but the most advanced social entrepreneurs of their day realised that to really make an impact they needed to harness the latest technology: steam power. The problem was that this was expensive, well beyond the reach of the modest funds held by the friendly societies. But in 1795 an ‘Anti-Mill Society’ was formed by the poor inhabitants of Hull, who sought both approval and financial assistance from the mayor and aldermen of the town, but most significantly they raised the capital they needed through a share issue.

And not just in Hull. In Birmingham in 1796 more than £6,000 was raised in shares and donation for a new 16-horsepower steam mill operated by the Birmingham Flour and Bread Company. At the time it was probably the largest mill in the country. The example was taken up elsewhere, in Manchester, Whitby, Bridlington, Newport, Beverley, Shardlow, Brentford, Plymouth.

In some of the ‘union mills’ as they became known, bakeries were also established. 38 sacks of flour were baked each week at Birmingham, and holders of five or more shares could have their flour and bread delivered to their houses. A society at Wolverhampton distributed 770 loaves each week, supplying about fifty shops in the area, where members could buy their flour or bread. Cash sales were insisted upon by all societies, to reduce the problem of debt among the industrial poor. In all, at least 46 flour and bread societies and mills were set up, then and in subsequent years of scarcity. Some proved to be of considerable duration: the Devonport Union Mill in Plymouth began operations in 1817 and continued to 1892.

So this was the remarkable story that lay behind the token I found on Ebay. And it made me think about the various ways in which, in modern times, we respond to national crisis and to social injustice, and the role of civil society in that.

We can see many of the eighteenth century responses at play today. Sporadically we experience popular protest, and even riots, when the sense of injustice has sufficiently accumulated and it seems that no-one is listening. The proliferation of philanthropic charities which began in earnest in the eighteenth century continues apace. And of course there are continuing calls on government, national and local, to take action.

But nowadays much less attention, at least by policy makers and investors, and even by many leading voices within civil society, is given to the impulse towards mutual aid, to the spirit which created and sustained the Union Mill in Birmingham. Perhaps it is time to rediscover this spirit, to push it up the agenda, and to place it centre stage in our vision for the future of civil society.

* * *

Why does that feel important right now? To my mind it is important because so much of civil society as it is currently configured, despite all its achievements, is today looking increasingly broken and becoming increasingly discredited.

It has become dominated by philanthropic models of charity which confer power to the most privileged in our society. It has become constrained by a public sector culture which replaces human relationships with regulated transactions. It has become infected with a market philosophy which validates some of the worst behaviours of the commercial sector.

The effect of all this is to disempower ordinary people, leaving them without agency or control or a sense of solidarity, and perpetuating inequalities. If we allow this to continue it seems to me that much of civil society will at best become increasingly irrelevant, or at worst part of the systemic problem that it purports to tackle.

But perhaps we can do something about this. Perhaps we can rediscover and refresh the radical traditions in civil society which have been long suppressed and undervalued. The principles of association, self-help, mutual aid, community ownership, and community enterprise.

There is no lack of evidence of the appetite for this. To take just one example, since 2009, almost 120,000 people have invested over £100m to support 350 community-led ventures throughout the UK through community shares.

So perhaps our task should be to seek ways to shift the balance away from philanthropic models, away from public sector contracting, and market behaviours, in favour of mutual aid.

And what that might mean in practice? Well, for a start it might mean investing in the technologies which can support mutual aid. It might mean creating incentives through the tax system. It might mean that funders and policy makers would celebrate and reward successful mutual aid wherever it can be found.

And then perhaps we can begin to imagine a future where civil society is playing a leadership role in building solidarity, in bringing control back to the people, in encouraging social entrepreneurship to flourish, and in generating a shift in power in favour of those otherwise left behind.

Podcast: Josie Long’s guide to setting up your own charity

In 2011, the comedian and broadcaster Josie Long was worried that austerity would exclude working class young people from the arts. And so, with a friend, she founded the group Arts Emergency. After loads of boring meetings, it’s now a thriving charity with a cornucopia of projects, helping creative young people across the country.

Civil Society Futures sat down with Josie to discuss how she did it, and what advice she’d give to anyone else looking to set up their own charity.

Check out the Arts Emergency website.

Don’t f**k with the formula!

Not made for these times

In 1966, while Brian Wilson was radically innovating, and creating new works of musical genius, other members of the Beach Boys remained sceptical. Fellow band member Mike Love’s famously bad advice to him at the time (at least apocryphally) was “Don’t fuck with the formula”. Don’t move away from what works, i.e. in their case (formulaic) songs about girls, surfing and cars.

But then again if the formula’s no longer fit for purpose, there comes a time when it’s more risky to stick with it.

It’s important that NGOs don’t end up as the Mike Love of the world of social change.

But when it comes to campaigning, it feels like much of the sector is stuck in the wrong space. There are a set of positions and assumptions that need to be examined and radically reconsidered.

Notably, we see tensions playing out around:

a) Disconnectedness

We talk about this in the previous post. There is a pull towards representing and fulfilling the interests and priorities of supporters, which can be at the expense of the quality of links with, and accountability to, the communities that organisations exist to support. See our Lost Voices project for more about the disconnect with those with direct lived experience of the issues.

But even the connections to supporters aren’t always that great. Online campaigning offers a low cost/high volume model of operating in which generating meaningful action or developing meaningful dialogue can easily end up as low priorities .

b) Control

NGOs identify a need for branding and communications coherence and this encourages a desire to exert continuing control over campaigning messages and messengers.

But this approach can constrain the energy of their campaigns and close off routes they could otherwise flow in. And it fails to exploit or build the power of community activism, especially where power could be built by working more closely with unconstituted groups.

Drawing on findings from 47 campaigns, the Networked Change report identifies that, “Groups which allow their supporters to customize and adapt campaign messages and visuals to better suit their local contexts are showing that flexibility pays off in higher engagement rates. They succeed because they are building networks across geographic boundaries that better respect the distinct differences in culture and approach at the local level”.

These campaigns achieved success precisely because of their ability to open up to the new cultural forces that favour openness and grassroots power, but also because they frame and strategically direct this power towards achieving meaningful outcomes.
Not holding onto control is a particularly important principle in joint working. The excellent new handbook from Crisis Action on building and working in coalitions, for example, stresses the importance of subsuming brand and being prepared to operate behind the scenes  (“Serve the cause not the coalition”).

At our Justice.Period event last week, we witnessed two campaigns publicly agree to merge petitions to help get free sanitary products to school children who need it. It was a widely, and rightly applauded, but this should be the norm, not the exception.

c) Hierarchy

Centralised control is typically maintained through hierarchical structures. But this can lead to campaigns that are bureaucratic, slow moving, and insufficiently reactive and adaptive.

And there’s growing evidence that more fluid ways of working are likely to be most effective in campaigning. In her developing work on strategic leadership, for example, US academic Hahrie Han stresses the importance of organisations being able to sense how the world around them is changing, and that this relies on responsiveness to constituencies, and the ability to draw resources from those constituencies, through decentralised structures and distributed decision making.

Back in the 80s, Tom Peters was setting out that in complex contexts the best principle is to apply what he called a simultaneous loose-tight model – with boundaries around common strategy and values, but then with maximum operational freedom to implement being delegated to the frontline

So it’s about time the whole sector caught up with this.

d) Timidity

We should celebrate all campaign victories – but looking across the sector if feels like we are mainly fighting rearguard actions against things getting worse. That’s valuable work but it’s important too to be able to look up from this and think more long-term about what can be done to help create more conducive policy contexts. Without this, the space for change will continue to shrink.

One driver of this is that organisational pressures on campaigners to show results are encouraging campaigns that are more about walking through open doors than about seeking systemic change. In conjunction, this all looks something like this.

NGOs need to do more to counter internal pulls that are increasingly out of sync with the realities of social change.

That means ceding control, distributing power and leadership through more fluid and facilitative structures and ways of working, reaching out more,, and thinking more expansively about the dimensions of change.

We know that this is possible because we ran Losing Control, a two day movement-building hack exploring these issues with nine social movements with a range of constituted and unconstituted groups across migrant and refugee and youth and social justice sectors. The NGOs, bar one or two organisations such as Friends of the Earth, were notably absent.

All these areas need thought, to avoid getting boxed into a failing formula. And we’ll talk more about all these things in forthcoming posts.

This article was originally published by the Social Change Agency.