Comment: What we can learn from consumerism

Markets create losers as well as winners, not only making the strong stronger but often also making the weak weaker.

Consumerism and competition have brought great gains, but freedom requires responsibility. Civil society, though not free of the operations of money and markets, has been enjoying a revival as a zone of protection from their worst effects, figured - to quote the Ford Foundation's Michael Edwards - as "the space where people come together to pursue their collective interests and make a positive difference to their lives and the lives of others; to debate and negotiate the 'good' society".

To have charities bidding and competing against one another and against the private sector for contracts clearly threatens to undermine or crowd the space. But private action - rather than individualism - needn't be in conflict with community action. Political theorists have often stressed that cooperating individuals - vide Locke's robust citizens - form the nexus of civil society. As Montesquieu sees it, for instance, "everyone contributes to the general welfare while thinking that he works for his own interests". What's good for me, you might say, can also be good for my neighbour.

Once we're cognisant about the risks markets throw up, there is much that can be learned from them and from private enterprise. Take Linux and open-source software - computer codes written by programmers scattered all over the world and made available for public use. Linux programmers have a strong enough stake in the success of the project to make collaborative and incremental contributions without being part of a formal organisation. Open-source programming is shaping a growing share of the world's computer servers and the internet.

Both thinking globally and acting locally, and thinking locally and acting globally, civil society groups must build links between digital networks and physical hubs to promote virtual and voluntary action. This calls for an architecture of participation where all can contribute. Considerable attention is being focused on civil society at the moment, notably by the Carnegie Trust and umbrella body the NCVO. Perhaps we should be looking to harness the power of open-source principles for civil society.

Nick Seddon, author and journalist,

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