I am currently feeling a mix of emotions, from fear for the wellbeing of friends and loved ones, to anxiety about our work and the business we have built, to concern and indeed guilt, when I think of the many people facing lockdown situations far away. This piece, written with and by the whole team, is an initial attempt to draw on the thinking and work we have done over the last five years to make sense, partly to ground our own work in this time, and partly with an ambition to offer something that can. We would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.
Our society is moving slower than it has in the past, yet it is changing faster and more fundamentally than it has in the past. We are all adapting and this is just the beginning. First and foremost, this is the time to keep our businesses afloat, our children educated, and our relatives looked after. This is a time of tremendous and urgent importance. This moment is a chance for our society, economy and politics to come together in a way that will make them different beasts. The story of The Crucible.
The historical moment has stopped being broad with Covid-19. Our goal is to offer our framework in the hope that it will be helpful in three ways. The New Citizenship Project has a way of seeing the challenge. In the early 21st century, we are entering the era of the Citizen, a time when people are dissatisfied with being merely consumers and want more control over what matters to them. The ideas that earned a platform and stimulated change at organizations include The Guardian, the Co-op, and the European Central Bank.
framing the deep choice that we now face collectively. To help make sense of what is happening.
The citizen shift is happening. The deep choice that we now face collectively; and as an invitation to step into the agency we all have to shape the future.
There are times when the moral story of our society changes. The right thing to do was to keep our heads down, do our duty and be content with our lot, while the God-given few led society forward. The story collapsed during the two world wars. The right thing to do was to look out for ourselves, to choose the best deal from those that were offered, to produce whatever people would consume, because if we did the best society would result. Five years ago, we published a report called This Is The #CitizenShift, laying out the core ideas that continue to underpin all our work.
This Is The #Citizen Shift is the subject of Consumer Citizen: Quickfire Concepts. In the 21st century, we are living through another moment of collapse and rebirth as we shift from consumer to citizen, according to our report. The right thing for us to do is to get involved, to step into our own power to shape the world for the better, and to open up opportunities to do so for others. The digital era has created new spaces for participation that can be used to replace the Consumer story, which has been badly exposed by the financial crisis and the climate emergency.
Our mission at the New Citizenship Project is to work with organizations of all shapes and sizes to help them build and understand the Citizen story. We support and challenge the organisation we work with to name and recognise Consumer logic in what they do, and to adopt new behaviours and structures which channel people’s ideas, energy and resources, not just sell them stuff. The need for now.
Two things have changed with Covid-19. We have been thinking about how the big societal change will happen and how the Citizen will become the new dominant story.
There is no guarantee that the story will win, and the step forward into the Citizen story cannot be taken for granted. The historical moment is no longer broad, but immediate.
There are three possible futures. This is how we understand what is happening right now. There is a contest between these three stories. In this moment, all three are present. Our collective future will be shaped by which one emerges as dominant.
The Subject story is making a big comeback. We are already seeing the accentuation of appalling levels of inequality, as well as near-universal acceptance of the reduction of civil liberties. If there is a part of us that wants to go back to normal, there is another part of us that is reassured by the idea that someone else is in charge. There is a clear path to take over the story. Mass-surveillance programmes could be used to track people in order to keep the public safe. Hungary and Israel have been described as the firstviruses dictatorships, and it’s possible that others could follow.
The story of the consumer could be restored. This is what it would mean if it were to be back to normal. It would be similar to the aftermath of the financial crash in 2008. Some of us want to be able to open back up and pick up where we left off, so we put our crises back where they were. Billions of pounds are spent persuading us to pretend that nothing ever happened, as powerful interests and an awful lot of money put into making this happen for us.
There are three ways forward from here. Two will result in continuous and cascading failure for all types of organizations and for humanity as a whole. We will be back to square one on the challenges of climate and inequality if we return to the Consumer story. We will be back in crisis in a short time. The Subject story is even worse, restoring the standing challenges, but with the addition of cover-ups and conspiracies that will hamper progress and slow change even more. We will be back in crisis in a short time. Both scenarios are attractive, but they won’t work.
This is the moment when we can step forward into the Citizen story. Despite the restriction of individual freedom, people, communities and organizations are finding purpose and agency in the present moment. Hyperlocal self-organising units and mutual aid groups have sprung up everywhere. Businesses and suppliers are coming together to compete. Some central government departments and more local authorities are making interventions that seek to sustain, channel and develop agency, not just treat people as self-interested individuals to be policed or “nudged” into compliance. There is a part of us that is deeper and more fundamental, and has been more deprived, and that we feel when we look across the fence and clap for someone who we don’t know. This could grow as well. It could be the beginning of a new story if this is a nice side effect.
We all have an agency. The Citizen story is the only one that actually works. We are still early on in the imagining and shaping of a Citizen society, so it is the most difficult. The institutions and processes are not off the ground. We need to do some work. All of us together.
No government can make the Citizen story happen for us. It will require communities across the country and the world to lead into new ways of thinking and operating, and it will require this to be driven by individuals who have the courage to think and act differently, learning more from their peers and fellow Citizens in other sectors than from the outside. Much of this moment is in the hands of national governments, which has been the case for decades. To leave that statement to stand bare and unexamined is to walk the path to the Subject story. The Citizen story adds two important qualifications, the first being that government in a democracy is in principle government by citizens, and the second being that the space for government is defined by society. Our power to shape the future is restored with this understanding.
There are no answers yet as to how to do this. Here are three levels of questions we offer you to ask yourself, and that we are asking ourselves. It has to some extent been the case, but it is more true in times of uncertainty. In the coming months, careers, reputations, and legacies will be made. The reorientation of all sectors will be dramatic. That is what it means for society to be changed. This is a huge opportunity for everyone.
How can you find and build agency in your own life, even through small actions? When you are being treated as a Subject or a Consumer, how do you know who you are? How can you tell when it’s happening? How can you know when you are acting towards others as Citizens, creating opportunities for them to express their agency? As an individual citizen…
How can you find a level of connection to the place that works for you? What can you do to make a contribution that you can sustain? What are the authorities and council that control power in your area? How are people treated in the area? What can you do to make them do it better? As a citizen of the community…
How do you understand the purpose of your organisation? What is the world to do, and what is it doing? How could your organisation operate differently in order to create more space for people to find their agency and share in its purpose, not just transact? How could you involve people more in your organization? How could you start something in this moment, even if it’s small? As a citizen of your employer…
If you truly believed in yourself and those around you, what would you do? All of these questions are related to one that is deeper and more fundamental.
We want to close by saying that we see the people we have worked with over the years leaning into this already, and that we have got this far with our understanding by watching you. This is occurring.
Over the last five years, we have built a business out of both celebrating and supporting organizations of all sectors to build the Citizen story. In the coming weeks, we will be looking for more examples like this to celebrate, reframing and reinventing their relationships with people to build and distribute agency, and talking to the people who are doing it; and if we can help you be part of it. Kirklees Council has an approach to partnering with and supporting community organizations rather than attempting to either replace or manage them, and the Guardian is working with readers and communities to understand the true impact of the virus.
This is a difficult time and a dangerous one. The Citizen Shift is very much on the cards at this time.