Writing by Martha Loach, a member of Studenteer. Illustration by Isi Williams.
As we face seemingly insurmountable economic, environmental, social and cultural challenges, how can we harness our collective power to bring about change? Defined as a community united by shared interests, civil society is vital for fostering collaborative solidarity and individual empowerment.
A neoliberal mindset of ‘me’ over ‘we’ suffuses our societal relationships, etching deep fractures through our communities. Societal discord is exacerbated by financial precariousness associated with the gig economy (characterised by freelance or short-contract employment), the dismantling of the state and unaffordable living costs. Borders are hoisted between a perceived ‘us’ and ‘them’, whilst chasms open beneath our feet. Cultivating a harmonious society rooted in shared values and interests seems wildly utopian, yet it is all the more urgent and the disempowerment and disenchantment suffered by ordinary folk under existing systems of domination means that we are hungry for power.
Civil society incorporates all of us. By transcending the market and state, it is an opportunity for empowered bottom-up progress that excludes no one. By definition, we all have a valuable contribution to make to civil society. It has the potential to generate a radical, creative and necessary transformation that shifts power to communities and the individuals within them.
Civil society is not a series of philanthropic exercises that affix a plaster over the craters left by a dwindling state. It is a form of collective empowerment, a network of ordinary people, a tapestry of diverse groups committed to a better future. Civil society is therefore a distinctly political beast, but one that refuses to be restricted by parliamentary politics or constrained by Westminster elites.
The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the inequalities that blot our society whilst simultaneously highlighting the positive capacity of community. The WHO Regional Office for Europe has long argued that resilient and supportive communities are a public health priority. Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that roughly two thirds of people felt that members of their community would support them if they needed help and over half had checked up on their neighbour. Whilst elements of a healthy civil society have emerged, this is perpetually jeopardised by intersectional inequality. The current juncture represents an opportunity for progressive change. We must nurture the positive glimmers of community and use them to tackle societal injustices.
Whilst civil society may appear elusive, it can be nurtured through simple actions. Volunteering, for example, epitomises how civil society simultaneously empowers the individual and supports communities. Young people especially can develop crucial skills whilst making valuable contributions to civil society organisations. To illustrate this with a personal anecdote, this summer I have relished working for Studenteer, a CIC that connects students and recent graduates with remote volunteering placements. If you wish to heal the wounds of inequality and strive for a more just future through collective action then I implore you to engage with civil society organisations. And Studenteer is a wonderful place to start!