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By Linda Milbourne and Ursula Murray

Civil Society Organisations in turbulent times’ highlights the central theme in this recently published book and its focus on rapidly changing times. The political turmoil surrounding us during its completion has only served to accentuate this message: the 2016 EU referendum, a snap election, a new Conservative government, and the US presidential elections, with governments seemingly unmoved by austerity, health or housing crises experienced by large numbers of the population. Significant changes, including a rise in populist and anti-establishment movements form a turbulent backcloth for issues explored in the book, highlighting the challenges and acute dilemmas now facing civil society and voluntary organisations.

The book starts allegorically, underlining the potential entrapment implied by A Gilded Web?

‘All that glitters is not gold.’ Familiar …fairy tales encourage us to adopt ethical behaviours. Yet current society promotes the idea that we should chase all that promises gold. These allegorical stories invariably illustrate that entrapment, whether in a web of deceit an impenetrable forest, or a prison with no doors, follows from this pursuit of mythical gold, which also turns out to be worthless. In the stories, escape …from an elaborately woven web is sometimes achieved via a magic wand.’

But this book is no fairy tale. It is about real society and people, and specifically, civil society organisations ‘finding ways back to ethical paths in turbulent times’.

Lured into dangerous liaisons

A growing culture of competition in society and the loss of care and altruism among civil society organisations delivering what should be ‘welfare’ services, are key issues explored in the book. Different chapters highlight the complicity of many ‘welfare’ service providers in current arrangements, now motivated more by growth and resource acquisition than altruistic motivation, so that they are no longer fit for charitable purpose. This raises questions about the extent to which larger charities and voluntary service organisations will ‘wake up’ and challenge their current compliance in competitive, contract driven cultures and form part of emerging challenges.

Equally, questions about the loss of democratic freedoms to speak out or act freely – now restricted by law, contracts and ideology – emerge from the different studies presented, and lead to questions about the increasingly punitive nature of recent neo-liberal governments. These growing restrictions on civil society freedoms in the UK resonate internationally with concerns about (albeit harsher) infringements on freedom of voice, movement and actions around the world, which are often, mistakenly, regarded as separate.

While much of the book’s research paints a negative picture of the effects of changes on contemporary civil society organisations and their powers to effect social change, not all is doom and gloom, and later chapters discuss how workers’ unhappiness with the way things are, is starting to prompt questions and criticism. Later chapters also identify a rekindling of movements seeking change, with dissent growing in groups that cross generations and in broad alliances. While the book explores the forms of this growing resistance emerging, it also challenges assumptions that civil society organisations are necessarily benign, providing evidence from recent and past history of socially damaging and exclusionary movements.

How is this book different? 

The book draws on a series of studies which explore diverse service fields, large and small organisations, infrastructure and grassroots organisations, campaign, black-led, women’s and faith based groups. It also explores possibilities for challenge and alternatives to dominant arrangements. The book illustrates a rare pedagogic achievement in involving chapters written by eight of the editors’ post-graduate students, who were simultaneously practitioners, researchers and authors. The range and depth of information from these chapters, which together include some 30 case studies and over 70 participants, make for powerful insights into the complexity of experiences that the book explores.

It also differs from most research and writing in this field by adopting a critical approach to studying the actions and behaviours of civil society organisations. Equally, it challenges the separation of research on civil society organisations engaged in delivering services and that on grassroots groups and wider social action, arguing that this narrows the frame for analysing and criticising what’s currently taking place. This means that the book draws on a much wider range of theory than is often applied to studying the UK voluntary sector, locating organisations within wider political, social and economic changes in society. This led the key authors to ask what has happened to ideas of altruism and the voluntary sector’s ethical roots, also prompting a discussion of the conflicting roles that organisations adopt – whether conforming or confronting dominant arrangements – engaging in dangerous liaisons or seeking alternatives.

Reimagining 21st century civil society roles?

The book has broken new ground its field, with fundamental questions about the roles and directions civil society organisations should take if they’re to be part of a more just society, contributing to a more caring and less individualised future world.

In the 21st century we’re in danger of losing sight of the reasons for sharing, rather than individualising, wealth, advantages and wellbeing across society: in part, wealth is socially, not individually, created, and wider wellbeing across a population creates a healthier, safer and more economically productive society as a whole. This book reminds us that there are alternatives and that civil society has a crucial role in seeking these. As it argues in closing, if we omit to make these connections between civil society organizations and wider social conditions, we narrow the value of research and writing and exclude crucial debates and experiences that are currently challenging society – especially concerning the erosion of democracy, wellbeing and freedoms. Unlike fairy tales, there will be no magical rescue.

Buy now: Civil Society Organizations in Turbulent Times: A gilded web?  edited by Linda Milbourne and Ursula Murray.

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