The contributions of civil society to our wellbeing during the past year’s COVID-19 pandemic have been widely celebrated, whether bringing food, medicines and shopping; relieving social isolation; or in so many other small or large acts of kindness. Austerity, on the other hand, has been shown by the National Audit Office to have depleted our resilience and constrained the state’s capacity to respond to the pandemic.
But some difficult questions arise about the role of civil society in an age of austerity. Should we celebrate the contributions of civil society in mitigating the impacts of austerity, or lament civil society’s role in masking the state’s abdication of its responsibilities to its citizens? Should we embrace the activities of civil society as resistance, or criticise it for inadvertently facilitating austerity and neoliberalisation? Have civil society’s responses to austerity constituted real alternatives, or only flickering ‘candles in the wind’?
In Hope Under Neoliberal Austerity, we explore these questions through 12 case studies of people in the North East of England working – sometimes with university staff and students – to improve people’s lives. These reveal thorny issues of power, accountability and trust, while also offering grounds for cautious hope.
Signs of resistance include pursuit of public good and the enhancement of public space, along with independence of funding. The case studies exhibit a range of such resistances (or ‘flames’ of social renewal): all pursued the public good in some shape or form; many also helped to create public spaces for social interaction and public deliberation while promoting unheard voices; and several resisted controlling, power-infused funding regimes which promote competition and individualism, eroding social institutions and transferring and rescaling risk. Indeed, most of these initiatives exhibited ‘generative power’, building social actors’ capacity to act and to accomplish collective goals, as well as resisting, negotiating or sometimes exerting ‘authoritative power’.
This generative role in building capacity and agency is available to the state but is also open to other social actors and institutions, notably civic universities, and this is another theme explored through some case studies. Many individual academics have worked with civil society organisations, formally or more often informally, over many years towards social benefit. Shared values, trust, knowledge exchange and mutual respect are key elements of such collaboration. Beyond this, some universities now aspire to promote the public good through more strategic, institutional action, perhaps through ‘civic university agreements’. Some case studies examined in our book involve (and shed light on) cooperation and cocreation involving academics, often in a personal capacity, and all the case studies are coauthored by academics and non-academic partners. What can we learn from these?
It is evident that most of these cooperations derived from personal relationships, built on trust between individuals, rather than strategic partnerships. Also evident is the importance and role of ‘knowledge brokers’, that is people who support interaction and engagement, enabling partners to understand each other’s goals and professional cultures.
While the added value of university involvement in these examples of civil society action can be clearly identified, a question hangs over their sustainability, particularly where the cooperation is predicated on short-term funding. This is a longstanding problem for project-based approaches to innovation and regeneration which has intensified under neoliberalism with its typically competitive, time-limited project funding. Sources of funding also reflect, and in turn impact upon, power relations amongst the social actors: while local councils’ autonomy and capacity to act had been diminished by substantial reductions in central government support since 2010, civil society has an even less secure funding base. Meanwhile, universities are not immune to neoliberalisation in an increasingly marketised and competitive funding landscape where the growing importance of audit and rankings limits their freedom to do other than embrace these cultures.
In conclusion, there is some optimism arising from these case studies about the role that civil society can play in resisting, and developing alternatives to, neoliberalisation and in promoting social renewal. Even though these case studies precede the COVID-19 pandemic, there are important lessons here and the relationships that are at the heart of these civil society actions are also those that will enable further cocreation of future solutions. These cases also provide many starting points for the debates that will be needed as we consider what kind of social contract we need in the 21st century going forward.
Importantly, a Conservative government has discovered that there is such a thing as society, that each individual has a responsibility to everyone else and that the state does have a vital role which cannot be performed by markets. In the midst of these dark times, then, there is some hope alongside the despair – hope that when we rebuild after this crisis there is a recognition of the valuable role of the state, in promoting wellbeing and the public good, and in sharing power and building capacity without abdicating responsibility. Hope that we recognise the contribution of voluntary and community organisations, and civil society more widely, as well as investing in valued public institutions and social infrastructure. And hope that we continue to recognise the contribution of so many undervalued lower paid workers, with better wages and a social security system which really does provide security in time of crisis.
A crucial issue, however, is which framing narrative will emerge and dominate after the crisis. Will this be one of austerity, as after the banking crisis? Will Bourdieu and Wacquant’s ‘thought virus’ of neoliberalism survive the coronavirus as it survived the banking crisis? Or will a reenergised, civil society be at the heart of the changes we need in our society? Will we emerge as consumers, as subjects or as citizens? This contest is at the heart of social renewal, and there will be a responsibility for civil society and academics to engage in this struggle, as well as in local action.
Mel Steer is Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at Northumbria University.
Simin Davoudi is Professor of Environment and Planning at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University.
Mark Shucksmith OBE is Professor of Planning at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University.
Liz Todd is Professor of Educational Inclusion at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University.
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