The Politics of Civil Society: Big society and small government, by Fred Powell

2nd edition, Policy Press, 2013, vi + 236 pp, 1 4473 0715 0, hbk, £70, 1 4473 0714 3, pbk, £24.99

It is always interesting to compare a new edition of a book with the previous one. The first edition of The Politics of Civil Society, published in 2007, was subtitled Neoliberalism or social left? The author was Frederick Powell. Informality is now ubiquitous, and the ‘social left’ as an option appears to have dropped off the agenda. The first edition argued that ‘civil society is politically about humanity’s desire to nurture a public sphere for the common good’ (p.2). In the second edition, ‘civil society – as a communicative space – finds itself located between [the] competing forces [of democracy and oligarchy], which in turn seek to bend it to their particular interest’ (p.5).

The first edition followed the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany, the ‘velvet’ revolutions, and the election of centre-left governments in the UK and elsewhere. The second edition is still post- all of these, but it also follows the financial crisis and the strengthening of neo-liberalism and the associated austerity. The second edition sees the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring as characteristic of today’s civil society. There is more of a sense that civil society is somehow on its own, facing both a capitalistic financial sector and governments co-opted by that sector. Now ‘contestation defines civil society’s role in the political order’ (p.60).

Some of the book is completely newly written. The book starts out with a new introduction, and with a new first chapter that offers a critique of the Conservative Party’s ‘Big Society’ project: ‘For those who are excluded from the consumer society, civic or “compassionate conservatives” advocate civil society in the form of a rediscovery of charity as the solution to poverty. There are real problems of scale and metrics, apart from the politics. Charity accounts for little more than a small fraction of public expenditure’ (p.29).

Much of the first edition remains much as it was. The book’s middle chapters chart the history of civil society from the ancient Greek world to the ‘postmodern’ ‘Neoliberalism and Big Society’ experiment. It is particularly salutary to read the ways in which so many elements of German civil society, including the churches, buckled under Nazi oppression (pp.130ff). (There is a useful chart on p.38 to guide the reader through the history.)

Anyone interested in the detail of the ‘velvet revolutions’ will need to visit the first edition, as they appear in the second edition only in summary. What the reader will find in the second edition is an up-to-date discussion of ‘the end of welfare’ (p.186) and of the rise of faith-based charity in the United States. The final chapter, on ‘global civil society: myth or reality?’ is much as it was in the first edition. The first edition contained a concluding chapter that drew together some emerging themes. The second edition might have benefited from containing a similar chapter.

This is a closely argued and fascinating book, and we are in Fred Powell’s debt for updating his treatise. Civil society is both a public sphere for the common good and a communicative space between the competing forces of democracy and capitalism, and it is our only refuge from both rampant individualism and domination by a state co-opted by global financial interests. It is constituted both by what Edmund Burke called the ‘little platoons’ of voluntary action, and by the protest movements around which Powell constructs much of his narrative. Both elements are essential.

If there is a third edition, then an additional chapter on how to foster a healthy civil society would be really helpful. What kind of education system do we need in order to encourage voluntary and political activity both locally and nationally? How might we strengthen the UK’s already excellent voluntary sector infrastructure? And how might our tax and benefits system be adapted to enable a diverse and secure civil society to develop? A first step has got to be a benefits system that actively encourages voluntary work. It is difficult for someone on Jobseeker’s Allowance to commit to sustained voluntary activity; and it is already clear that Universal Credit regulations will impose pressure to increase hours of employment at the expense of voluntary activity. Changes that validated voluntary work as a positive contribution to civil society would be welcome. Even more welcome would be a Citizen’s Income, for such an unconditional and nonwithdrawable income would provide the best possible springboard for the kind of widespread and sustained voluntary and political activity that our civil society is going to need.