Civil Society Futures looks back on a year of thinking about people's power differently

We have often posted material from the organisation Civil Society Futures, without really grappling with their project. But this first-year's report from their director, Julia Unwin, gives us the chance to really profile their excellent agenda - which, like A/UK, wants to kickstart a different language and practice about politics and power. 

It might be helpful to begin with their own definition of civil society - which is a pretty old term. CSF's version below is lovely: 

Civil society is all of us. When we act not for profit nor because the law requires us to, but out of love or anger or creativity, or principle, we are civil society. When we bring together our friends or colleagues or neighbours to have fun or to defend our rights or to look after each other, we are civil society. Whether we organise through informal friendship networks, Facebook groups, community events and protests; or formal committees, charities, faiths and trade unions, whether we block runways or co-ordinate coffee mornings, sweat round charity runs or make music for fun; when we organise ourselves outside the market and the state, we are all civil society.

The only thing that seems to missing from that is "when we sign up to political parties and vote every two or four years"... which seems to make a familiar point. 

The animated video at the top of the post makes it clear that CSF are as anxious about the systems of money and power that alienate people from their own civil potential, their own individual and social agency, as we are. As Julia Unwin puts it in her post, 

Listening to people all over the country in the first year of this inquiry, there is an enormous hunger for change. People are hugely active in civil society, there is no shortage of energy, commitment, ideas and imagination.  But many are angry, they feel ignored and disconnected from those they see as having power – not just government and companies but large civil society organisations too.

And this is mirrored by funders and major organisations who tell us they need to understand more of what is happening, to be better connected to the emerging movements and networks that are so influential and need support, but they find so challenging. They know that without the active leadership of people and communities, their efforts will always be partial and limited in impact.  

We’ve heard a lot about power, and of course we know that civil society is always in the end about power. But we’ve heard some uncomfortable truths about where power sits, and how it’s used. Established organisations can be creaky and slow to change, hoarding power at the top when people want them to be more contemporary, responsive, engaged, and where appropriate more fluid. We’ve heard that people want to feel a sense of identity and belonging, and look to civil society to provide that. Too often they feel that membership schemes are inadequate and only transactional.  

Time and time again we have been told that people are proud of where they live, they are proud of the communities in which they are involved, and they want to contribute more, but they feel silenced and ignored. And they need spaces and ways to come together and talk, plan, disagree. Spaces which can be genuinely held in common where the difficult, complicated conversations can take place and hugely difficult and complicated decisions get made.  Ways to belong that transcend divisions such as geography, race or religion.

Everywhere people want power in their hands – to use it collectively, for good.  To answer the most difficult questions of our times – such as how people can thrive in an internet age of work – and to do it in a human way.  So much is possible if we can unleash this collective will.

The organisation has produced two reports on their last year of activities, downloadable here. It's a joint production - "Citizens’ UK with its roots in communities across England: Goldsmiths University brings skills in participatory academic research: openDemocracy, facilitating wide ranging discussion about the powerful institutions in our society. And Forum for the Future brings years of experience of helping people figure out how the world is changing and how best to respond" (About page).