Civil Society As A Compass

Civil Society is a collaborative perspective that not only values what we have in common as much as our differences but is a values based perspective that supports awareness of what constitutes real value – economically, culturally and environmentally. Inherently it is therefore an ethical and relational approach to society and the world.

This precludes and over rides radical separatism and extreme self-interest (whether economic, cultural, religious, institutional or professional) from having sway over the interests of the whole. At the same time it is a perspective that not only allows for, but encourages, ethical and socially responsible initiative and creativity to contribute to and replenish both the parts and the whole. Civil Society therefore honours both diversity and unity.

My colleague Claudius van Wyk, refers to the Qubernetes  – the ancient Greek helmsmen whose art was navigation. They themselves were a compass that not only set the course for their ships in open water but navigated shallows between and through dangerous rocky waters where it was often unwise to be tempted ashore. Theirs was an art of inner and outer strength combined with subtle balance. ( i)

Similarly considered as a strategic perspective,  Civil Society offers a means of navigation between the dangerous dysfunctional polarities of selfishness and self sacrifice, individualism and collectivism

The potential of Civil Society is to be able to integrate the rights and responsibilities of the individual and society in a new way through two key concepts which are in fact rather old – firstly Personal Responsibility and secondly the ‘Commons’.

Without being righteous or moralistic, the values of Civil Society ask us to look at ourselves in terms of what we can give as much as what we feel entitled to take, because individual and community flourishing are best served through a voluntarist form of mutuality. What we give creates value that both givers and receivers benefit from.

In this regard Civil Society firstly puts emphasis on mutual respect, personal integrity and accountability. This implies that a society worth living in has in some way to reclaim the idea of virtue through personal honour and generosity.

Secondly Civil Society recognises that we all share common wealth which has been and continues to be undervalued and unacknowledged in our present culture and economic system.

This common wealth comprises two elements, on the one hand our birthright of an unpolluted natural world (which is rapidly being depleted) and, on the other, we have the ability to co – create or co-generate the social and economic world as an investment, not only for us all to share in now, but for the benefit of future generations.

This common wealth can be designated as “the Commons” – seen not only environmentally but socially, economically and culturally – as what is valuable in our communities that is not controlled either by corporations or the state. Consequently within a Civil Society perspective, clean markets, truly democratic institutions, safe streets and a responsible media are also part of the Commons like unpolluted rivers and clean air. Civil Society therefore also implies a long-term perspective that currently is not fully represented within our present democratic or economic institutions.

In contradistinction to the fundamentalist capitalist world view of the transactional (rather than productive) economy – that has undermined our institutions through the various scandals and crises of recent times – and which implies that the strong shall inherit the earth and therefore we sink and swim alone,

Civil Society is both a virtuous circle and a perspective on community resilience that is refreshing and generative. It is both the means for and the ends of creating a kinder, more meaningful inter-dependent system of social relations that is respectful and reverent of human flourishing and of nature.

Such a perspective requires that we all take responsibility so that Human Responsibilities are seen equally and co-extensively with Human Rights. This in turn raises the question of how can we create the widest possible legitimacy for “right” authority? It is clearly not possible to do that by simplistically maximizing self-interest or profit for short-term gain whether one is a banker, a businessman, a shareholder or a consumer.

Civil Society, as a mature expression of social relations, cannot be built upon a fundamentalist interpretation of human rights in the sense of a self-referring culture of personal entitlement. Neither can it be built upon an authoritarian reaction to libertarianism. However if we are able to stop short of exercising our freedoms to the very fullest extent of our entitlement – by instead exercising what I would call the gift of self restraint – we fulfill our human responsibilities and move towards each other rather than away. In doing so we protect our shared investment in and heritage of the Commons.

Such a perspective allows for and respects diversity and difference whilst at the same time encouraging individual initiative and mutually supportive behaviours that are congruent with interdependence.

So Civil Society goes beyond ideas of the charity sector, charitable giving or corporate social responsibility to co-generating and co-stewarding shared value. As Harvard economists Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer suggest, “Shared value is not social responsibility but a new way to economic success in which societal issues are at the core not the periphery”.

Consequently Civil Society is a co-evolutionary process of moral and social development in building a sustainable culture in which we can develop the ability to listen deeply and act generously, wisely and creatively for our own benefit as well as the benefit of all.

Philosophically therefore Civil Society is a perspective seeking dynamic, collaborative balance that integrates opposites – for example individualism and collectivism, liberalism and conservatism, holism and materialism, secularism and faith values, science and religion – above all by encouraging individual responsibility, integrity and ethical accountability as the means by which human flourishing, community resilience, common wealth and well being can be protected and extended.

Civil Society as a philosophy and personal practice is therefore a way of relating to the world based on values.

In his Q factor leadership program, my colleague Claudius van Wyk speaks of the Greek Qubernetes. These were the early Greek helmsmen whose art was the navigation of the oceans using only the forces of wind, tide, stars, their physical strength and their inner senses to subtly adjust tiller and sail to steer a safe course. They themselves were a compass that not only set the course for their ships in open water but navigated shallows between and through dangerous rocky waters where often it was unwise to be tempted ashore. Theirs was an art of strength combined with subtle balance.

Civil Society as a proactive, strategic perspective requires that we all develop strength and subtlety to navigate between the dangerous dysfunctional polarities of selfishness and self sacrifice, individualism and collectivism. In other words like the Greek helmsmen that we ourselves become a compass through inner strength and subtle
discernment based upon shared values about shared value.

Author Paul Hawken has suggested that, “Civilization urgently needs a new operating system”. Civil Society is surely a good place to start looking.

( i) Claudius van Wyk: Q Factor Advanced Personal Leadership Programme

J.P.Malkin May 2012

Joshua Paul Malkin is a Co-Convenor of the UK Civil Society Forum and a director of Transformation Strategies Ltd a process, strategy and change consultancy based in Devon

One comment on "Civil Society As A Compass"

  • The great issue in the current debate concerning economic theory transformation is that of a model of macroeconomics based on the apparent logical principles of physics versus a view that sees macroeconomics as an emergent property of multiple human interactions at the microeconomic level. So on the one hand we then can look at the economy as a machine and use metaphors accordingly such as ‘steaming ahead’, or ‘running out of steam’, or being a ‘well-oiled machine’ or ‘coming off the rails’. On the other hand we see the word ‘economy’ as a nominalization of a complex set of human behaviours concerning the exchange of value. As a machine it is there to manufacture profit and people serve that machine as workers or consumers – economic efficiency is defined by that. If, on the other hand, it is a global term for the human act of exchanging value, then economic well-being can be defined in terms of the life-enhancing nature of that exchange of value – the extent to which that activity contributes to true human flourishing.
    The point is this, if we put the human experience at the core of our considerations, as is the case with a genuine civil society, then we measure the success of our activities not quantifiably, in respect of numbers we can measure, but qualitatively, in respect of the general significance that comes to all in being able to contribute to human growth and achievement. If we further contextualize that with the human being being embedded both in society and nature and therefore an embodiment of that total creative process, then a redefined ‘civl society’ perspective will indeed provide a moral compass to humans in most situations that are currently seen to be intractable. The Qubernetes was able to subtly adjust his navigation to the real conditions as they prevailed, respecting the crew, the craft, and the value they were transporting, whilst holding a clear vision of the destination. If human potential actualization is both that spiritual purpose and destination as the inplicit nature of civil society, then civl society becomes such a compass. This is sorely needed in a morally relativistic world.

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