Provision of Public Services by Civil Society

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John Restakis (in ch. 6 of Humanizing the Economy:

“The argument for promoting a renewed role for civil society in the production of social services does not mean the abandonment of the fundamental principle of collective responsibility for these services. Nor does it mean the abrogation of state responsibility in favour of private market solutions. It does mean the de linking of public goods from exclusive government control. Public funds would still flow to these services and they would remain universally accessible. But the organizational structures that provide them would become progressively civic. Civil society is the repository of those values and social relations that are best suited to the provision of care in a manner that is humane, responsive, and founded on those principles of reciprocity and mutuality that are the hallmarks of caring relationships. What is lacking is the development of civil society institutions that are capable of applying these values on a scale, and in the context, of a modern mixed economy.

In many ways, the struggles over public services that have gripped civil society are part of a necessary maturation process that in the end will give birth to new forms of social care. The spotlight that has been thrown on the role of civil society with respect to social care is not one that was sought. It arose as a consequence of the changes that were thrust upon the state as a result of financial, organizational, and ideological pressures. In the developing countries in particular, the pressures – some would say coercions - attending globalization have been especially damaging to the idea of social goods as a civic obligation. As a result, social care is in danger of losing its social meaning.

To date, the posture of the leadership that has arisen in civil society to respond to these changes has been defensive and wholly inadequate to meet the changes that are sweeping away cherished notions of the role of government, the individual citizen, the private sector, and the meaning and content of social care. What is urgently needed is a clear and courageous understanding of the immense forces at play and the vision to guide the emergence of a wholly new role for civil society as the wellspring and ultimate guardian of those social and civic values that humanize our relations as citizens. This is true whether we speak of caring for each other in our times of need or ensuring that the blind interests of capital don’t replace the bonds and obligations of a caring community with the dehumanizing mechanisms of commerce. This is not just a question of lost jobs or the declining quality of care, critically important as these questions are. What is at stake is the idea of social care as the obligation of a community to care for its members on the basis of a common humanity expressed through relationships of mutual responsibility. It is for this reason that the expansion of reciprocity through the democritization of social care is essential.

Co-operative institutions play a unique role in this process both as a source of ideas and historical experience, and as models for the realization of these values in actual social relationships. As the social co-ops in Italy show, and as we will soon see in the experience of the health co-ops of Japan, co-operatives can offer the means to move beyond the conventional framework of this debate to advance a new vision of care that places in better balance the values of civil society with the resources and redistributive powers of the state. Such a project is central to the reclamation of social value in the political and economic institutions of our new century.”