Interview: Bejamin Barber

The political philosopher tells Mathew Little how the voluntary sector can help revive democracy, starting on a local level

Benjamin Barber addresses the NCVO conference in London
Benjamin Barber addresses the NCVO conference in London

Last November, newspaper columnist Simon Jenkins used the NCVO Annual Hinton Lecture to warn that the voluntary sector was undermining democracy. On Wednesday, at the umbrella body's annual conference, American political philosopher Benjamin Barber claimed that it could be democracy's saviour.

According to Barber, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, civil society is the school of citizenship. "Men and women are born free, but they are not born citizens: citizenship is made," he says. "It's not made in the voting booth; it's made in the nexus and networks of relationships that are constituted by educational institutions, the workplace, voluntary organisations and churches.

"Civil society creates a sense of responsibility, a sense of otherness and an ability to work with others and reach compromise with people you don't agree with."

Barber says he saw the roots of the current economic crisis in four decades of "de-democratisation", an "extraordinary scam" in which all the main political parties on both sides of the Atlantic had been complicit.

Power had been taken away from democratic governments and given to the markets and corporations, he says. But the process of re-empowering the state required a resurgence of civil society, changing people from consumers into citizens.

This means that voluntary organisations should not get distracted from their civic mission by the lure of service delivery. "It creates in civil society the same service ethic, the same department store ethic, that has to some extent turned government into a bureaucratic provider of services to passive consumers who no longer see themselves as active citizens," he says.

Nevertheless, he says, voluntary organisations should not be campaigners or lobbyists like those Jenkins blames for rivalling political parties and devaluing the ballot box. Rather, the real focus of civil society, he says, should be at a local level, on grassroots community organisations. President Obama, he notes, started out as a community organiser.

"Although he was ridiculed for it by Sarah Palin, Barack Obama said being a community organiser had taught him a lot about democratic politics and the political process," says Barber. "It helped him win the presidency. A lot of the habits that come with engagement in civil society and the local sector translate well into the skills and responsibilities that are entailed in political citizenship."

The emphasis on locality is perhaps where Barber's American experience departs from the reality of the UK, where the voluntary sector often focuses on the national political scene.

"For Britain, a particular challenge is unitary, top-down government," he says. "US civil society has it easy because we are a federalised, decentralised system. It's quite natural to do things locally. Here, the locality is always part of the outstretched hand of central government."

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