For more than a century across the western world, political movements, governments and public policy focused exclusively on states and markets, and ignored civil society – the relationships and activities that constitute our lives in families and communities.
Civil society forms the social infrastructure in the ‘centre’ of society, between the individual and the state, between households and nations. Perhaps the core insight of The Radical Centre is that the rediscovery of civil society is the key to revival of our politics, our society and our culture. This is radical because both Left and Right systematically suppress this ‘centre’ of society, and devalue the relationships within it.
Civil society relationships are horizontal, relational and voluntary. State-citizen interactions are vertical and coercive. Business-customer interactions are monetary exchanges. When politics focused exclusively on states and markets, it focused only on state-citizen and business-customer interactions and ignored the relationships that matter most to us.
Why was civil society, the social infrastructure in the centre of society, marginalised for a century?
Historically, the 20th century was the century of concentrated power (Communism, Fascism, World Wars, Big Business). Civil society, by contrast, is dispersed, localised, and small in scale.
Ideologically, the philosophies of the 20th century were individualist-collectivist (Fordism, Marxism, Nazism, Existentialism, Scientific Management, Neo-Liberalism). In all these philosophies, Left and Right, civil society was absent.
Organisationally, labour unions and corporations were easy to organise. Before the internet, it was difficult and costly to organise the disparate components of civil society.
In 20th century politics, notions of Left and Right formed a stable linear structure for politics without civil society. It had four key elements:
- Both Left and Right saw the public sector/private sector as the solution to every problem. They regarded the imposition of state or market solutions on society as the proper business of government.
- Both Left and Right saw only individuals and governments as social actors. They could not see associations of citizens and their interactions.
- Both Left and Right advanced core public/private sector constituencies (public sector employees for the Left; corporates and some professional groups for the Right). Both ignored family and small-businesses and the self-employed. Both ignored the third sector (households, associations, social enterprises, cooperatives).
- Both Left and Right saw politics as ‘management’, the execution of top-down, corporate-style administration. Both used political parties as their instruments of management, based on command-and-control cultures. These parties no longer need citizens, and now comprise professional operatives and ‘career politicians’.
This is the politics that we have inherited from the 20th century. It is a politics that cannot solve 21st century problems because:
- The active participation of citizens is required to solve the pressing social, economic and environmental problems of our time. The imposition of state or market prescriptions on society does not work.
- Associations of citizens, big and small, are key social actors, not just individuals.
- Self-employed people, micro and family businesses form a vast and growing sector that does not fit the traditional public or private sector, and does not fit the management goals of Left or Right.
- Top-down ‘management’of society and organisations runs counter to the practice of participation in distributed networks in the 21st century.
Without civil society, 21st century social and economic problems cannot be solved.
The Radical Centre, then, is a movement for the recognition and revival of our principal social relationships – the horizontal, the relational, and the voluntary. It is a radical alternative to the individualism and statism of Right and Left.
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