Society today is made up of three major forces – the market place, government and civil society – with the former two being the dominant forces. This has resulted in a materialistic and utilitarian culture where civil society takes a back seat to the market place and the government. What have been the consequences of allowing the market place and government dominate our culture?
Two dominent forces
According to Jeremy Rifkin (The European Dream, 2004), the two dominant forces have taken over what civil societies used to address. Civil society used to attend to the basic needs of the individuals and community such as religion, education, health care, recreation, entertainment and neighbourhood engagements. They wrote stories about their collective destiny; they created codes of conduct and created opportunities for establishing bonds of trust, which generated social cohesion. Finally yet importantly, they created a market place coupled with government to maintain law and order particularly for the market place. In short, these two forces were built by and on the foundation of civic societies.
Rifkin maintains that we have allowed corporations and the government to take over building civic societies. So much so, that whenever we encounter a serious social problem, we immediately appeal to large corporations to make ‘philanthropic donations’ and to governments for more services to address the social problems. That leaves them in the driver’s seat determining the level of public services made available to the needy.
So, what’s wrong with that?
What is wrong with leaving it to the market place and the government to provide the social services? There are at least two major problems with this approach. First, they do NOT build bonds of trust in society, which is needed to develop social cohesion. Second, they represent a narrow range of values and cultural norms. The market place is driven primarily by the bottom line; the government’s primary role is to maintain law and order in capitalist or socialist political/economic societies alike. Both are driven essentially by ‘materialist and utilitarian’ values, according to Rifkin.
A third force
A third and different force, namely, civic society, is needed to build a responsible cohesive society. This third force is driven by a different set of values. At its core, civic society reflects the following value – by giving of oneself, one’s well-being is enhanced’. This is the opposite view of the market place, which represents the view of Adam Smith – the common good is advanced by each person pursuing his or her own self-interest. Civic society institutions are needed to advance the social capital in society to ensure the well-being of everyone. That is why civic society institutions such as churches, neighbourhood organizations and NGO’s must muscle themselves back to being an equal partner with the market place and government. Society needs this three-legged stool; any two-legged variation cannot sustain a vibrant society for long.
It follows that faith-based communities should continue to challenge governments to execute their role as a re-distributive agent; and remind leaders of corporations of their responsibility to nurture a social conscience and to follow it. We, the public, need to be educated about our collective destiny and our responsibilities in building inclusive and cohesive societies.
To meet these challenges, civic society institutions such as faith-based communities need to do more than advocate and educate; they need to provide direct social services along with the market place and government. In fact, they need to provide the first and foremost social service … not serve as the third component. Indeed, historically, many civic society institutions have done just that. More recently, there has been a tendency to expect the market place and government to meet these expectations.
What implications does this have for online services provided by civic society institutions like faith-based communities? The Internet, which is potentially a powerful tool for advocating and educating on a massive scale, should also be deployed to support direct social services. One of the promising ways of using the Internet to this end is to request donations from countless networks. In short, it is a powerful tool to create limitless social networks across communities for advocating, educating and fund-raising. It can be used to build social networks across faith-based communities thus expanding its networking capability exponentially.
The new challenge is: are faith-based communities prepared to take advantage of this opportunity to build networks across their communities for advocating, educating and raising funds? Let’s hope they are.
Otto Toews (Ph. D.)