ARTICLES Civil society feels increasingly broken – but we can fix it

Birmingham Union Mill - image, Steve Wyler

Civil society feels increasingly broken – but we can fix it

Part of the purpose of this inquiry is to provide a space for conversation about difficult and controversial subjects which either ignite strong feelings, or get ignored through fear and embarrassment. This article is intended to stimulate an open and respectful conversation about some of these issues, and does not necessarily represent the views of the Inquiry.

It’s time to unleash the power of mutual aid

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.

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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.