The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: civil society

The Explosion of Civil Society



AS THE HOLDER OF THE HIGHEST POLITICAL OFFICE in the land, President Grover Cleveland gained due praise for his integrity, honesty, and a commitment for self-reliance. He struggled mightily against political corruption in an era where it was all too prevalent. He was liked across party lines. Yet his pro-business stance sustained a system where the free market found little to inhibit it. The increasing pressure to reform capitalism before it consumed the social wealth of the nation went largely ignored by Cleveland.  At one point he said, “The factory is the temple and the workers worship at the temple.”  The economy took a severe downturn by the end of his term.

The period just prior to the end of the 1800s also felt massive migrations from the country into the city as the manufacturing industry successfully shifted the nation’s economic system from agrarian to urban. Many became dislocated in the process and the cry was continually raised by millions for a more receptive federal government that put an emphasis on some kind of social/economic compact that would respect the importance of cities.

And then something remarkable happened. Between 1880 and 1910, a civil society movement grew out of the subtle rebellion that changed and humanized almost every level of American society. As the government grew remote and the free market became the dominant force, and explosion of some of the nation’s great civic institutions erupted that would eventually modify capitalism itself and prepare it for years of unprecedented growth and success. Founded in that period, they line up as a “Whos-Who” of citizen organizations:

  • Red Cross
  • YWCA
  • Boy Scouts
  • Urban League
  • Labour unions
  • Parent-teacher associations
  • Rotary Clubs
  • Legions
  • Knights of Columbus
  • Sierra Club

Soon enough municipal charters were developed by citizen groups that oversaw the supply of transportation, water, gas, and electricity. Christian organizations joined together to fight for equal rights for women, including the right to vote. Numerous groups joined forces to fight promote labour laws and to strive for an 8-hour workday.

There had been a social capital deficit in America created by great economic and technological change aided and abetted by a government that refused to consider the fallout of such dislocation. When the political powers refused to listen concerning the growth of poverty, the lack of equality, and the ignoring of communities, it was citizens and not their corporations or governments that pushed back. Great reformers like Jane Adams pressed for political action to alleviate the direct conditions that cities were facing.

The result of all these efforts was nothing less than transforming. Most understood the importance of capitalism and markets, just not at the expense of people and hope, and they worked to develop a more balanced system between the free market and the freedom of opportunity for citizens. They worked with government over three decades rather than abandoning it. And from those efforts came the Federal Reserve Bank, regulation of food and drugs, the establishment of the Department of Labour, the creation of the U.S. Forest Service, and the preservation of more than 170 million acres of land through a vast network of national parks.

Virtually all of the groups mentioned above sought for balance, not dominance, and their efforts were ultimately rewarded a short while later in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Capitalism, reminded of its responsibility to the communities in which it functioned, nevertheless was unleashed in ways unimaginable three decades earlier, rewarding citizens with decades of unprecedented wealth.  And civil society, rooted as it was in local communities, brought citizenship to entirely new levels.

Canada followed a similar, though not as diversified, course, but the results were equally remarkable. The free market generated wealth and employment, and civil society produced people of value, industriousness, education, health, and responsibility. It was the beginning of the remarkable age that unleashed the creativity and dedication of citizens and businesses.

The parallels with our own times hardly need to be raised at this point. We are a people struggling with how to bring that balance of economy and humanity back into alignment. And it leads us to wonder whether we can do it again, whether we can pull ourselves out of our disillusionment with all the prevalent powers that march to a drummer not our own?

Andy Warhol observed that people, “Always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Perhaps it’s time we put that to the test – again.

Time For a Millennial Moment


IT’S NOT DIFFICULT TO OBSERVE THAT POLITICS, as an occupation, has entered a dark era – been in it for some time, in fact. We continue to ask ourselves how it is that good people running for office can get so disconnected from those they are supposed to represent. The chief reason is that the political system itself, predicated on a debilitating kind of partisanship, where politicians live in a bubble-like culture. Unless that system itself can be transformed, politicians themselves are doomed to ineffectiveness.

A lengthy tenure in politics definitely brings experience and know-how, the ability to communicate and glad-hand, to read a room and give the impression that people matter. But if the latter point was true the system itself would change. Experience in politics doesn’t necessarily translate to openness and innovation. It’s like we’re trapped in a time warp of decades-old animosities, relentless arguments, and a dispirited citizenry. We all know it and yet tolerate the treadmill as though nothing can be done to change it. Younger generations don’t care to engage, we’re told, and few of them look to politics personally.

And then something happens like in London, Ontario, a few weeks ago – a largely new council and mayor are swept into office and their average age is 41. So much for the idea that younger generations aren’t engaged. And, for now at least, we can put to bed the sense that they don’t care enough about politics to enter it themselves. Something is happening, and I suspect it won’t just pertain to one city.

If governing has become such a challenge and the political system appears so intractable, perhaps it’s time to look to a new generation that isn’t so inured in the present dysfunctional paradigm to have its own opportunity to attempt transformation. There will be significant complications, but it’s not as though the old system hasn’t been fraught with not only difficulties, but perpetual breakdowns.

The Millennials have something to stay at this moment in time, starting with the fact that they deem these political culture wars to be detrimental to public life. And they are finding allies among the older cohorts.  Political parties can attempt to tease them into the political battles all they like, but they are finding little resonance, other than those who already have pre-determined political mindsets.

For years it has been assumed that Millennials, as well as Gen X, hated government. That just isn’t so. What they can’t stand is a political agenda that seeks to drub others in order to win power. Millennials are intelligent enough to know that such an approach burns bridges that will eventually be required if communities are to come together. They just think that the present political approach of divide and conquer is dumb – and it is. Millennials see government as an essential partner in reaching for the world they desire. That motive was clearly on display in the recent London election, with most of the 800 present for the swearing in process of the new council were under 45 years of age.

They are also tired of hearing that government can’t fix our economic problems, that somehow it remains powerless in a globalized world. It’s a rationale that’s been used for 30 years, often as an excuse for inaction. Millennials don’t buy it, neither do Gen X-ers. Government has legislative powers for a reason, they argue, and the problem is that it presently refuses to use it, in part because internal squabbles have rendered it ineffective. British politician Iain Duncan Smith gets it just about right:

All too often, government’s response to social breakdown has been a classic case of ‘patching’ – a case of handing money out, containing problems and limiting the damage but, in doing so, supporting – even reinforcing – dysfunctional behaviour.

A new generation of citizens is emerging that won’t abide by opaque political answers. If there is a housing problem, a dysfunctional public transportation system, an ineffective response to climate change, or a politics more interested in war than progress, they say simply that such things should be fixed without delay. They mean it and they are increasingly proving that commitment by attempting to make politics relevant again. Given what’s been going on in the last few years, they can’t do any worse than what we’ve been experiencing.

High Noon

MPW-17611I was fortunate enough this past week to have received numerous emails from Kellogg’s employees, thanking me for some recent posts.  A theme from these messages began to emerge.  People wanted to explore some of the ideas about how our current economic/political/social system is no longer sustainable.  I think they hit on the crowning struggle and question of our age.

Things are coming to a head – perhaps not this year or next, but soon.  It’s like the Gary Cooper movie High Noon, when the solitary figure of a man determined to do right and protect his community goes up against a number of individuals determined to undo his value system.  Today, democracy is squaring off against the forces of a capitalism that has, perhaps besides its best intentions, begun to undo the very human capital it once so much depended upon.  To date, it has had its way in many of our communities, but as its deteriorating effects become more obvious, as with a situation like the Kellogg’s plant, a democratic backlash is emerging.

A modern state cannot exist merely made up of politics and private enterprise.  Any good society must offer citizens a vast array of ways to get involved in developing various levels of co-existence, solidarity, and participation.  Politics and capitalism will dominate any space where a robust civil society is struggling.  Worse still, political ideologies and the free market will become increasingly dysfunctional the more humanity is stripped from their workings.  In a democracy, this element of civil society, and the ability to determine collective well-being, must be predominant or else we will enter the stage we are presently enduring – power without accountability, wealth without responsibility, and citizenship without community.

In any good society, the greatest interactions are played out by non-profit organizations, neighbourhoods, civic celebrations, citizen encounters, houses of worship, local coffee shops, clubs, groups and a myriad of places where traction is gained for the broader community.  These are the things that provide those places where we live with their life-giving energies.  Vaclav Havel might as well have been talking about London, Ontario:

After all our upheavals, it is time for goodwill, tolerance, decency, interest in others, faith in the good in humanity, respect for our neighbor, natural responsibility, modesty, and an amicable view of the world to return to our social climate.  The more successfully this is done, the better we will all live.”

In so many of our communities these are the very things that are under threat, as neither politics nor capitalism can produce them.  In reality, together they are resulting in the opposite.  Only a rediscovered civil society can save us.

But those attempting to build that society have some sincere questions that, while many will question their validity, are rising to the forefront in citizen consciousness.  In their way, the questions are simple.  The importance right now is not the answer, but the very fact they are increasingly being raised.

  • Why can’t communities recall their political representatives who behave badly or put the party before their constituents?
  • If capitalist elites are stripping wealth from our communities while still using our roads, banks, universities, airports, security measures, and natural wonders, should they be brought back into the social compact that worked for decades?
  • If corporate taxes continue to decline, how can our communities possibly maintain the living style they took years to establish?
  • Why are politicians permitted to govern when they have already confessed to crimes?

What is interesting about questions like these is that they are being asked everywhere around the globe – the supposed capitalist domain.  Everywhere it has ventured and enriched itself, questions such as these are being left in its wake.  And from them have come certain theories that are gaining increasing traction.  Why can’t a global tax be placed on those global transactions that remove wealth from one country to another that will help to reimburse the communities they have left somehow depreciated?  What if citizens practiced civil disobedience to reveal their displeasure with a political class that seems as inept and it is remote?  If large businesses get public funds to expand their efforts, why not charge them a service fee for using a community’s infrastructure?

Look, these are questions that many will object to and attempt to refute, but the reality is that citizens and communities are asking them increasingly – Kellogg’s employees are asking them everyday.  Such queries are being brought forth because of the very inability of politics or commerce to reverse our slide.  Corporate barons and economists alike might belittle them, but such challenges are beginning to keep pace with corporate profits.

If the economic reforms of the past three decades are not matched by the increasing capacities of civil society, our lives will inevitably become one-dimensional, caricatures of themselves, and will result in an apathy towards public affairs – much like we have now.

We must rebuild a system in which words, kind deeds, responsible business, and responsive politics can shake the very structure of the elites and where words themselves can become more powerful and transcendent than capitalism’s call to our baser selves and the penchant for politics to turn us away from the public space. 

What took place at Kellogg’s this past week is just another step bringing our communities into a showdown with capitalist forces gone astray.  And such power will not prevail as long as citizens openly ask such questions.

Transcending Politics


One more insight from Michael Ignatieff’s book, Fire and Ashes, stuck with me and it forms one of the great results of losing in politics – namely you become one of the forgotten ones.  At least that’s the theory.  Ignatieff puts it like this:

In the weeks afterward, the solitary reality of defeat began to sink in.  It turns out that there is nothing so ex as an ex-politician, especially a defeated one.  Your phone goes dead … When you’re done in politics, you are well and truly done, and it is a good idea to accept this as quickly as you can … the psychic challenge after defeat is to recover your standing.”

Political office can add a kind of esteem to your profile.  People notice you in restaurants.  There are requests to speak or attend meetings.  But what the politician often doesn’t realize is that it is the office that lends that credibility, not necessarily anything you have or haven’t accomplished.  Then, once you no longer hold that office, you often aren’t accorded the same kind of notoriety.  I have known dozens of former politicians who speak to this being their experience.  This reality that “your phone goes dead” can be disturbing if one is not prepared for it.  The higher up the pecking order you are in politics, the busier your phone gets.  But lose that office and you discover that the fall is not only precipitous, the silence can be deafening.

And yet there is another side to being out of politics that is often overlooked.  If your connection with your community was strong and vital prior to entering the political arena, you discover that you can quickly pick up those relationships again once your political days are done.  In my case, the phone started ringing.  Job offers immediately came in, but more important were those desiring help with their various community endeavours.  I was asked to sit on boards of churches and local organizations. I ended up meeting with families without food, and wealthy individuals seeking a place to invest their resources that would spell the most good to our city.

But by far the greatest amount of requests came from those desperately struggling to believe in the validity of politics.  They rightly assumed that some kind of “system-wide failure” was rendering the political class ineffective.  The majority was desperately trying to believe that politics could still have an honourable place in our communities.

For whatever reason, my life took on some special meaning after politics.  It took me some time to understand it, but it basically came down to the fact that if you put your community first prior to entering politics, and give it the place of prominence while you are elected, then your community, in turn, will respect you in kind.  In other words, if you live a life that transcends politics, you eventually discover that your fellow citizens are eager for your community development energies once more.

There is now this profound feeling in the Canadian citizenry that politics is all about the party, about getting elected, about treating voters as a means to an end.  It has almost become universal, yet many politicians continue to play and extend that game.  It has been going on long enough that citizens are getting far more attuned as to who is a fake and who isn’t.  They can detect that party “groupie” from the principled public servant.  They easily spot the person with fabricated answers.  They know when they’re being played and when they’re being honestly engaged.

Which leads me to believe that the person who can put their constituents above everything else in politics – the parties, the perks, the propaganda, the pandering – is the very person who can restore integrity to our political structures.  The politician who lives his or her life well beyond politics itself will be recognized by citizens for the genuine article she or he is.  I watch in despair as both aspiring politicians and those already elected manipulate the public to get their vote and realize that I’m just one of thousands that detects the superficiality of it all.  By the same token, I delight when I’m spoken to straight up and humbly, just as most citizens would be delighted.  In fact, we would be overjoyed at meeting someone who is directly authentic.

British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, was once confronted by an opponent who pitted his policy against Disraeli’s.  It was a bitter exchange.  Disraeli looked seriously at the man and said, “Sir, I shall not defeat you – I shall transcend you.”  Isn’t this what we are looking for, the kind of politics that can get past itself?  What is wrong with wanting our next mayor, provincial or federal politician to be the next Mandela or Vaclav Havel?  Nothing, absolutely nothing.  In fact it is a welcome aspiration.  But for a person to actually be that kind of politician, they must first live transcendent lives, the kind that wins the voter through humanity, genuineness, transparency and passion for community instead of party planks and plastic smiles.  Be that before you enter politics and you might be the next politician to turn your community around through humble and respectful public service.  It’s what you are and not what you want to be that will spell the difference.

The Curse of Blind Optimism

optimismRecently our city’s mayor, in giving his annual address, made an interesting request of a large part of London’s population: “Keep your negativity on the sideline … give good news a chance.” This is becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish in a community with frustratingly high unemployment and a deeply divided political council.

Alas, such advice is increasingly received as the plaintive gesture of an ineffective political order. It is all the more remarkable considering the city’s desire to hear from average citizens about the kind of city they want. In a community struggling to find a future one can hardly expect input to be merely roses – especially with a kind of political leadership experiencing difficulty working through its own divisions.

We are slowly coming to the end of the entitled political order – one which historically asked citizens to have confidence in their elites which would result in benefits for all. Given democracy’s recent record, it is growing harder to suspend our disbelief much longer.

Even at the World Economic Forum in Davos,, Switzerland, significant space has had to be created for the concept of civil society and its importance to future of democracy, human rights and prosperity.  Nicholas Davies, Head of Constituents and Strategic Initiatives for the Forum, observed:

The experiences of the last two years have demonstrated that inequality and social and political inclusion are once again powerful drivers of protest, while the mobile revolution has transformed the way citizens interact with business, government and international organizations. Some governments have responded with new mechanism for engaging civil society actors, while others have put in place new restrictions intended to stifle them.

One of those “new restrictions” might very well be the desire to either be positive or stay on the sidelines. And it’s not just political leaders that play this game; increasingly, civil society leaders attempt to promote enthusiasm even as they know well enough that government policies undermine much of what they seek, This “finger in the dike” approach can hardly bring us to a new future for our communities.

A new report was unveiled at Davos titled The Future Role of Civil Society that calls on citizens and groups to be enablers but also to become “constructive challengers” of the prevailing system, “to create social resilience while driving agendas forward, engaging with business and government in ways that enable it to effectively inspire and support innovative change at multiple levels.”

At the foundation of all this desire for change that we hear consistently around the world is the admission that the narrative is not actually being written by citizens and their communities but by massive power structures that tell us to be happy with what we have. We are subtly led to act as though happiness is based upon what we purchase. We are reminded that our communities must now get by with less because of the limitation of resources. Perhaps worst of all, it is expected that we will accept the prevailing wisdom that professional marketeers and financial analysts know the way ahead – as citizens, we just aren’t smart enough.

Really? We have citizens that bring up their children in respect everyday, despite the obstacles. We have small businesses that successfully cast off the failing corporate ethos of the day to benefit their communities, hire workers, and, yes, make a profit in the process. We have an untold number of citizens who volunteer at libraries, social agencies, schools, intersections, and hospitals who never expect a cent. Our communities possess citizens that expend their adult lives caring for the desperate overseas and at home. There are people who life-long learn, who take on new languages, who raise their game in the senior years to enhance their respective communities. Don’t let the experts tell us that they hold exclusive knowledge in how to perform politics, run an economy, or deal with limitations. All of these things mentioned above average citizens undertake each and every day in an on-the-ground fashion that the self-proclaimed experts can never visualize or purchase.

But where is the acknowledgement of this citizen power, this social capital residing in our communities? It runs silent through our neighborhoods and remains hidden behind official agendas. You can’t buy it or elect it – it just is and forms the nexus of all that is yet to come in community development. But at present it strains to escape the bonds of exile. It cringes when informed it should play the game or remain silent on the sidelines.

A new life is emerging in our communities, our countries. It strikes the note of common cause, common policy, a common calling. It is slowly gaining traction in places like Davos or Newark, New Jersey, but has yet to break through the bubble created by experts and professionals.

The new reality is neither blind nor naive. It is wise in the ways of living even if it doesn’t comprehend everything about the Consumer Price Index or political marketing. It is tired of being told to stay positive when our biggest challenges remain unaddressed and grows increasingly resentful of being patronized by elitists. We require neither politicians telling us to behave or civil society leaders asking that we be optimistic. We need to challenge the systems as they are and stop hiding behind positive euphemisms. Enough with the platitudes already.

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