The Open Society and its New Enemies

We live in curious times. We are enduring a series of interconnected global crises, but seem to have lost the will to demand — or even believe in the possibility of — radical change. Banks may crash and jobs melt away, the rich can get richer and the poor poorer. Forests can burn, towns flood, and species vanish at unprecedented rates. Yet we are not demanding any real change from our governments. Why is this? Given the extensive international architecture that has already been created to deal with such issues, why are we, as a global community, seemingly unable to pull the tiller around and change course?

Public discontent is certainly snowballing as more and more people — now in industrialised countries as well as developing ones — are feeling the full force of these escalating crises and inequality. But it seems that public anger is not being translated into widespread and forceful demand for change: instead there seems to be a growing feeling of disempowerment and pessimism. Public concern about environmental threats is also at a 20-year low, even though these high-stakes threats remain very much in place.

Underpinning this is an economic zeitgeist that insists that ‘there is no alternative’ to facing up to the harsh demands imposed by economic liberalisation and globalisation, which has focused on generating an intensely competitive environment in which only the ‘fittest’ companies and countries — operating at lowest cost — can survive.

Furthermore, globalisation — a process that has been implemented quite deliberately over the last two decades — has created a seemingly inescapable economic straightjacket that now dictates most governments’ response to social and environmental issues, as well as economic ones.

A direct consequence of this economic monotheism is governments’ insistence that escalating crises can only be resolved using ‘market-friendly solutions.’ This is a recipe for disaster. It favours solutions that leverage private finance by creating profitable opportunities for business—even if these ‘solutions’ are highly risky, untested and/or very likely to have inequitable impacts.

For example, when it comes to selecting solutions to deal with climate change and biodiversity loss, ‘innovative financing mechanisms’ such as carbon trading and biodiversity offsets are currently de rigeur. Yet this move to using complex financial mechanisms that most people do not understand has created a seductive hall of mirrors disguising the fact that these mechanisms may not actually work well, or even at all. Furthermore they may be supplanting other tried and tested approaches that are known to be effective. Carbon markets remain turbulent and unpredictable. Biodiversity offsets and the new concept of ‘no net biodiversity loss’ raise the prospect of solutions that trade species and habitats off against each other, which is patently absurd.

Similarly the stealthy rise of the bio-economy, an industrial model based on replacing fossil fuels with biomass processed with known and yet-to-be-developed biotechnologies, is likely to ramp up global landgrabbing to an unprecedented scale, with significant implications for human rights.

It is important to realise that a rigid taboo on questioning liberalisation and globalisation has been maintained within governments and intergovernmental organisations over the last twenty years. Critically, this taboo now seems to be spreading through civil society and the philanthropic community, with extremely worrying consequences for open and democratic societies. In particular, a prohibition on questioning and challenging the underlying economic drivers of social and environmental injustice and debating and creating real and effective alternatives, threatens to impinge upon civil society’s diversity and its ability to innovate, mobilise and inspire change.

In addition the rise of ‘philanthrocapitalism’ is also seeing the diversion of much needed funding into rigidly data-driven campaigns and market-friendly solutions and projects themselves (which present opportunities to regenerate revenue). This is having a profound influence on who gets funded and who doesn’t. As Michael Edwards has commented:

“Any group that speaks the language of markets will have ready access to funding despite the novelty of these ideas and the absence of any hard evidence that they produce significant systems change; while those who want to organize communities or deepen democracy will face severe restrictions despite the proven historical importance of their work…The bottom line is that support for the deeper and more transformative elements of social change is in especially short supply because the system that funds them is dangerously out of balance, despite its claims to innovation and success.”

Stepping back and looking at the overall picture it really begins to look as if political democracy is crumbling. It seems that representative politicians do not (or perhaps cannot) base their decisions on the needs of people; they are often constrained by the dictates of the market (as can be seen with respect to the interplay between ‘the market’ and governments’ responses to the financial crisis in Europe). This, combined with a civil society that is progressively losing its ‘voice,’ means that governments are becoming ever less accountable.

Furthermore, many politicians seem to favour a ‘business as usual’ mentality, seemingly ignoring the notable fact that a large majority of people now think that banks and financial institutions have too much influence on governments’ economic decisions. This blinkered approach may well be bolstered by the fact that corporate lobbying in general is as extravagant and influential as ever.

The overall situation is compounded by the decreasing financial resources available to civil society following the financial crisis, and the fact that funding for key cross-cutting issues that have enormous potential for leveraging change (such as campaigns on trade and finance, and overconsumption) remains minimal.

In addition the issues that need to be addressed are, as can be seen from this description, complex. In my experience, communications departments often balk at the prospect of trying to convey complex messages about economic drivers and the diversity of alternatives that can exist.

None of this makes for comfortable reading, especially given the overwhelming size of the challenge and its many different facets. Indeed the extent of the challenge is now a key part of the problem itself. However, something really does have to change, or we are up a certain creek without a paddle.

My belief is that even though there are civil society organisations (CSOs) doing good work, their successes are fragmented, and address individual aspects of issues, rather than the structures and dynamics holding the whole destructive edifice in place. It seems to me that there is an urgent need for a new international space to consider these threats to open society. The following pivotal questions need to be addressed:

(1) How can people be informed and inspired about financial, food and environmental crises and their underlying drivers, to the extent that they regain optimism about re-engaging in political debate and successfully demanding different and effective solutions?

(2) How can the taboo on criticising the current monotheistic economic paradigm be overturned, encouraging an increasing plurality of views and innovation amongst government officials, within civil society and within the philanthropic community?

We need to create a new civil society-led space to discuss the way in which diversity and innovation in civil society are being curtailed; and to integrate recommendations for change into the emerging debates around philanthropy and power, and social justice philanthropy. This would help to counter a trend identified by Stephen Pittam:

“What troubles me…is that there appears to be a trend among grant-making foundations to move more in the direction of using their own power to determine what to do rather than building power within civil society organizations, which tend to be better rooted and to have a better idea of what’s needed.”

In addition, the very existence of such a debate would start to break down the current taboo on critiquing and debating economic models.

However, it is not enough to seek to change the financial context within which smaller and/or marginalised CSOs and social movements are operating. There is an urgent need to revitalise financial support for them right now, especially given the urgent and irreversible nature of some of the environmental threats we face.

There is a particular need to strengthen campaign communications. As Vicky Browning, Director of CharityComms, has observed:

“Communications and marketing are still sometimes seen as the icing on the cake: the nice-to-have optional extra that tells people about the “real” work charities do – like project work, services or campaigning…The most successful charities already understand that communications is anything but peripheral, and this understanding will spread over the next decade.”

Ultimately, we need to open up and foster broad debate about economics drivers, their impacts on people and the environment, and diverse, innovative and feasible alternatives.