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Thoughts on civil society in Ireland

This post is an experiment in "stream of consciousness" writing without correction or editing after the fact. Here be mixed metaphors!

Snow brought us to with inches of collapse, another failure on top of all the others; no transport, alternate shortages of salt and water.
No-one cared quite enough to really do anything, but the whinging reached fever-pitch.
But we didn't collapse, we struggled on to suffer another day.

There is something particularly Irish about complaining that "No-one has cleared their paths", while your own skinkles in the morning sun.

What is so difficult about learning from the past?
Is it the imagination required to create a new path for the next time? Or is it admitting you were wrong in the first place?

Here we lack imagination in a general sense, but in particular we, and our politicians merely articulate this effectively, lack any vision of what our society, our economy, our State should do, or how it should function. Not just how it should, but how we want it to.

At no point is there a feeling of wanting or not wanting something. What the State does its business, it doesn't concern the citizens. Who are not really citizens, they just happen to live here. This is the thinking, individualist and ultimately selfish.

Which brings us back to the snow. There is much talk in the press of how it brings people together. People help each other in the street, clear a driveway for a neighbour. But this is on an individual level, still. It is one-to-one. And it is to be welcomed, but it will not save us from ourselves.

The blessed white stuff goes no way towards bringing about a social change whereby an individual takes a step to assist or benefit society as a whole.

There is an additional abstraction there, you cannot see the face of the person you may help directly, you may never see them, or it may not help anyone.
You are throwing pennies into a wishing-pond of good-will and good works, and you can't see the results. There is an element of faith involved.

Say we assume that the citizenry of our model island were all tossing pennies at some point in the past:
Everyone benefits from the good works, and good-will, although they may not all be effective, or to everyone. Overall, they are positive.

Why then, would our citizens stop contributing?

There are a number of reasons:

  1. They cease to believe in the power of the wishing-pond, they become cynical
  2. They believe that they are better to spend the effort on themselves, rather than sharing it with the shapeless wishing-pond
  3. They feel they do not need the benefits that come from it, so why should they pay?
  4. If no-one else is contributing, why should I?

The important thing to note here is that the wishing-pond's power depends entirely on its contributions, once the cycle weakens, it is swiftly broken.

The question which is particularly intriguing here is whether the wishing-pond was ever really there, in our young state.

Recently we have seen a number of commentators questioning the founding myths of the State, whether there was any real drive to change the social systems or just replace the top rank with a different clique.
The post-Independence failure to lift the slums and tenements out of poverty, the worsening of the incarceration and abuse of children, the deep alliance with the Church, the abetting of the tyranny of the large farmer; these suggest that the wishing-pond was empty to begin with.

Is it possible to fill the pond now?

We are effectively faced with the uphill battle of creating an altruistic and public-spirited social and civil society inside a fully-formed modern nation-state, complete with corporate structures and advanced privatisation.

This is not impossible.
Let me not fall into my customary trap of negativity and naysaying.
It has been done before, and can be done again.

The crucial difficulty is that the project is guaranteed to be meaningless and peripheral if it is driven from outside by a clique; if it is fake, manufactured, trying too hard.

It must come from within, from the society which has proven that it is incapable of growing this layer.
How then, so? Perhaps the answers lies in seeds and soil.

The people will reject institutions cut from whole cloth, but we can offer both ready environments for growing civil society organisations where ideas already exist, and seeds for places where the environment is ready but there is nothing around which to crystallise.

If we achieve this, the next challenge is how to maintain and develop this civil society, delicate as it will be, so that it does not shatter again.

One Comment

  1. Kate wrote:

    You have a sensible stream of consciousness, John. You are absolutely right that change must come from within. Out with the shovels before we dig ourselves into a deeper mess! Nice post!

    Friday, December 31, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

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