Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: agora

Time to Rethink Charity

Charities are in the news. Many seem to be failing, failing as businesses, failing in standards or failing in their role as advocates. Standing back, we can see two tendencies, one very negative, the other potentially positive, although currently much weaker.

The negative trend in the UK is the on-going collapse of the public and voluntary sectors and the invasion of large private organisations who are privatising Whitehall, the NHS, schools, local government and even the voluntary sector. For some this is called ‘modernisation’ but it is hard to see what is so modern about disastrous and corrupting inefficiency of projects like the Public Finance Initiative, the Work Programme or the inane procurement regimes which drive out community organisation and true innovation.

Again and again we find that when the public sector tries to harness the ‘dynamism’ of the private sector it often finds itself on the losing side of the deal. This is not surprising, when one side of the deal comes motivated to maximise profit, while the other is just following procedures, then expect a mess. Neither side is to blame – oil and water do not mix.

One of the saddest features of this collapse is the way in which so many charities, many with long and noble histories, have found themselves climbing on board the privatisation bandwagon. Today many charities are no more than inefficient private business – with high CEO salaries, poor terms and conditions for staff and bureaucratic cultures. There is nothing dynamic and creative about this new kind of voluntary sector – often there is nothing particularly voluntary about it either.

However this is not the full story. There are also a new forms of organisation emerging, ethical businesses, who do not just focus on profit; and community organisations that are dynamic, entrepreneurial and creative. For organisations like these the old charity model no longer seems to apply.

This old charity model still dominates our legal structures, and it fits into an understanding of civil society which goes something like this:

  1. The public sector provides core public services – from policing to healthcare. The sector is managed and controlled by politicians, who are accountable to the public (every few years).
  2. The private sector provides services or goods that people pay for. It is commercial and focuses on profit. It survives only when we buy what it offers.
  3. The charity sector harnesses our citizenship, enabling people to give, time, money or passion to supplement core public services.
  4. In particular the governance of charities must be voluntary, for this is meant to make it immune to the profit motive (and hence it is protected from corporation tax).

This model may have worked reasonably well in the past. But it is not clear how these distinctions hold when:

  • Government stops providing services and starts to buy them (what is called commissioning).
  • Instead of services people are given budgets to buy their own support (what is called personalisation).
  • Some business are choosing ethical objectives (what is called social enterprise).

It would be easy to declare the whole thing a farce, to dissolve the distinctions and to leave the market to sort everything out. Let people and government buy what seems best, let businesses grow, transform and become ethical. Let charities wither, if they no longer offer ‘good value’.

But, as G K Chesterton said, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.” In this case the reason for the strong distinction between the profit motive and the ethical motive is that it doesn’t take long before the profit motive wins hands down. Profit enables businesses to buy political influence, control and even the appearance of being ethical. This is the reason that the likes of SERCO, A4E and G4S keep winning contracts from the public sector, while the small, the local and the ethical struggle to survive.

Instead of abandoning the distinction between the profit-seeking and the charitable it may be better to redefine it. In fact there may be a much better distinction available to us.

Today, when we use the word ‘market’ we usually think only of commercial exchange – buying and selling. The term has become captured by narrow liberal economics. However if we go back to ancient Athens and revisit their version of the market – what they called the ‘agora’ then we find, not just commercial exchange, but a whole range of human activities: teaching, praying, playing, politics, government. The agora is a public space and it was marked off by a series of sacred marker stones which could not be moved and beyond which no private property could be claimed.

So Athens, one of the most creative and fruitful places in human history, protected its public spaces from private enclosure. However Athens did not put all of the activities of the agora under control of the ‘demos.’ It was not public (or democratic) control that made something public – it was its appearance in the public space. It was the transparency of these affairs, as opposed to their privacy, for privacy is the essence of the private. The agora was a space in which we came outside and behaved as individual, diverse and interacting citizens.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that the assembly, where the people met to make democratic decisions in together, was actually outside the agora – on a hill called the Pnyx. The Pnyx overlooks both the agora and the Acropolis, which was also a distinct site, and which was protected for the sacred purpose of worship. The agora, the space for free citizen action, was therefore distinct from both those areas where people came together to act as a whole people – in making decisions or worshipping God. The agora was plural, diverse and sacred.

Can we then replace the profit-voluntary distinction with a different public-private distinction?

Perhaps we should distinguish what makes something public from what makes something private, and in particular we should work hard to define and protect those things which are public – which we all share together – from those things that are private.

Here are some thoughts on what measures we might use to guard the public:

  • Local – Things that are rooted in the local are more reliable than the national or international where only a brand, a logo or profile is visible.
  • Transparent – When we aim to serve the public we will be quite happy to let people know our salaries, our savings, our funding and our workings.
  • No copyright – If we are interested in the public interest we will not want to protect private property rights and milk citizens for years to come.

Perhaps a further advantage of this approach might be to help us think about what David Miliband used to call “double devolution” the shift in power back to people and to communities. Devolution to the individual means that some public services need to be converted into private entitlements – in particular incomes sufficient to meet our basic needs. However other public services need to be converted into public goods – resources that communities themselves can examine, support or transform.

In this way we can overcome the reductive simplifications of Marxism with its ludicrous suspicion of private property and the very natural human activity of trade. Yet we can also remember that we also need public goods, safeguarded from the invasion of the private, that there to be enjoyed – in one way or other – by all of us.

Ideal Markets or Real Markets

In public policy we use the word ‘market’ in radically different ways and in fundamentally inconsistent ways.

For the liberal (or if you prefer, neoliberal) the word ‘market’ is used to describe a special kind of human interaction – the ‘free exchange of goods or services at an agreed price’. The beauty of this liberal vision lies in the market’s seemingly magical ability to achieve three wonderful things at the same time:

  • It is a place of freedom – free individuals come together to bargain and exchange
  • It is a place of community – people make promises to each other and bind each other by contracts
  • It is a place of productivity – time, energy and money flow into the places which have the most value.
Of course, this vision of the market is just a beautiful ideal. In the real world:
  • The starting point is not fair, and advantages accrue to those already advantaged, and so freedom turns into exploitation.
  • When relationships of power are radically unequal then the community we create is atomised and elitist.
  • The most productive is not always the best; commerce can destroy nature, community, industry and even politics itself (as we are finding out to our cost in the UK).
And most liberals do know this. The market is their ideal, but they accept that in many areas there will be what they call ‘market failure’ and – for various reasons – it is recognised that the ideal market cannot really exist. So they will – to varying degrees – accept that markets must be controlled or an alternative system offered in their place. The market is for the liberal a ‘Platonic ideal’ – it may not be fully realisable – but we should strive towards it and use it evaluate the real.

Thus economics becomes the measure of man, not man the measure of economics.

Of course there are those who do not worship the market. These anti-liberals include socialists and conservatives. This may seem a surprising alliance and we often forget that there used to be a very different kind of conservative (small c) philosophy – one that valued King, country, religion, the local and the small. But this kind of conservatism now has nothing to do with the UK’s Conservative party. The Conservative party is now the leading ‘liberal’ party and it is no longer in the business of ‘conserving’ anything at all – except perhaps the interests of the rich and the powerful.

The anti-liberal thinks of the market not as a space but as a force:

  • The financial market is a malevolent force selling fraudulent products or gambling with our savings.
  • The housing market is crazy bubble where our own greed drives up prices to the benefit only of those who can escape it at the right point.
  • Markets drive the growth of monopolies, big business and the industrialisation of almost everything – markets even seem to kill the possibility of markets.
Of course socialists and conservatives also will accept the need for markets. Only the most zealous want to control food production, everyday shopping or enterprise. But the market is, for them, not an ideal space, but a demon, to be controlled and harnessed. At best its energy provides other resources and so it can be taxed to support the things the anti-liberal really values.

Until the 1990s the battle between the liberal and the anti-liberal was largely fought on the margin of the sphere of public services. Markets were for private goods and services; when it came to public services it was the state that was in control. There was a disagreement about what should be nationalised and what should be left free – but no disagreement that nationalisation meant – ‘outside the market’.

But this has now changed radically. Today it is quite common to hear people talk about markets for public services: the social care market, the healthcare market, the market for social housing. However these markets rarely have any of the qualities that the liberal associates with markets. It is not people, making free decisions, who buy these services – it is commissioners or governments. Here the word ‘market’ takes on a third meaning – roughly – ‘the stuff we spend public money on’.

So we are left with three entirely different and contradictory meanings for the term market:

  1. A space within which free, contractual and efficient exchanges can take place – the idealised market
  2. A force which can redistribute, steal or exploit resources and power – the demonised market
  3. An array of objects, services or products, perhaps purchased by the state or its agent – the phoney market
Of course when a word is so used and abused it is easy to lose patience and to simply abandon the whole concept. What is the value of the word ‘market’ when it means three contradictory things?
However I would like to make the case for a fourth use of the term – I would like to make the case for the market as an ‘agora’ – a free, protected and public space where a whole range of human activities can be carried out. The agora is not primarily economic – it is simply the space the community needs to collaborate and to work together. Business can be done there, but it is not defined by business.
I was very struck a few years ago to find, on a visit to Athens, that the ancient agora had been marked off by sacred stones. The purpose of these stones was to protect the agora from the private – from the invasion of the sacred space by people’s desire to extend their houses or gardens. It was sacrilege to privatise the market – the market was public property – divinely blessed.
What is more the agora was not just for shopping. The agora was for every kind of public business. The school master taught his students; philosophers sat on the stoa, a shaded area on the edge of the agora (hence stoics); government officers worked and ran meetings; and temples operated. The agora is messy and human – lots of stuff goes on – out in the public square. The agora even housed the building for weights and measures – the system for checking on cheats – for ‘regulating the market’.
Interestingly the agora excluded the Acropolis (the centre of religious life), the assembly which met on the Pnyx (the centre of political power) and the Areopagus (the centre of justice). Each of these institutions was based on one of the hills looking down over the agora from on high.
Perhaps it is time to leave the idealised, demonised and phoney markets behind us. Perhaps it is time to work out how to protect and cherish real markets – the agora – those essential public arenas in which we do stuff together.

Today these place will not just be physical – they will also be virtual – but they are essential. Without the agora we cannot be fully human.

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