Creating a good society, a better society or a more civil society?

| November 3, 2014

Do we have a healthy balance between the state, the market and the community? Sociologist and activist Eva Cox says we need to work on how to restore government and community power to avoid dire consequences for our society.

Does the market model work to meet social needs, let alone economic ones? It basically assumes that the competitive interaction between customers’ choices and desires and the sellers of the goods and services essentially find a balance. The theory is that competition for sales will create adequate supplies, lower prices and acceptable quality for the self interested customers. The almost fundamentalist belief in this process may work well at your local growers’ market but less effectively even at the supermarket where interfering corporate power plays may reduce our choices and fix prices.

Markets become much less useful as a magic fixit for the managing the complex social and economic issues that surround the distribution of collectively funded services to the public. We have seen citizen entitlements rebadged as commercial type services as the last three decades plus have seen the market model invade almost all areas of distributing goods and services. The public and community organisations that delivered such services were no longer clearly differentiated from the commercial services, for sale to those who could afford them, even if there were some fringe overlaps.

These changes started as part of the marketising of the Western democracies under the neo liberal push of the eighties and have changed the way we do almost anything into a business model. In Australia today, all shades of governments not only allow commercial services to compete with public and not for profit services to deliver their programs, they also insist that market models be seen as the norm for all types of organisations, whether public, private or not for profit.

The current government’s mantra of being open for business is rapidly reducing the idea that public funding is for the public well being by encouraging public institutions e.g. universities to become corporate tarts and forget their role of providing public benefits. These moves plus other signals of increased power for corporate Australia, e.g. through the Commission of Audit, suggest that the power of that sector is becoming a threat to the necessary balance a good society needs between its power brokers and distributors.

Claus Offe, a German sociologist, offered us the following model for power balancing in democratic societies in the 1990s, now being undermined. He saw as necessary an equitable level of differences between the roles of the three major distribution sectors: the state, the market and the community – including the private family. Their differential positive roles were:

  • the state made laws, collected tax and distributed universal services/resources
  • the market made, sold, met needs and innovated
  • the community harnessed passions, differences and social issues and raised them to create debates and equity

The balance of power ensured that each sector polices the other sectors to ensure they remained aware of others and share enough to maintain political order, freedom to create and equitable access to goods and services. This was necessary to ensure no one sector became too powerful, as the other two could limit the power of any one.

Were any one sector to dominate, the consequences could be dire e.g.:

  • too much state, and we have Stalinism and stasis
  • too much community, and we have Bosnia/Serbia or maybe the mess of Syria and ISIS
  • too much market, and we have the mafia, or maybe a thoroughly inequitable corporate state e.g. Australia

Do we have a potential crisis of too much market arising under the directions of the present government, too often supported by the Opposition? Have our recent and current governments:

  • reduced the public sector to a mean safety net, e.g. undermining Medicare, selling Medibank, cutting university funding and welfare payments , threatening the ABC and  undermining government controls over far too much e.g. environmentally?
  • destroyed the independence of the community sector as political players, silencing their dissent by subcontracting the state delivery of services to them and turning major agencies into corporate bodies like the businesses?
  • boosted and bolstered big businesses until they basically run the place?

There is international and local concern that democracies are in trouble as more people become disillusioned with current major political groups. Inequalities are increasing and economic growth is being seen as problematic in its failure to redistribute wealth. China has shown that democracy and capitalism are not necessarily partners.

It is time to act to counter these trends. Gough Whitlam’s death reminded us that good social changes are possible so we need to revisit the aims of good society and work on how to restore government and community power to make it happen.