Five Things We Can Do To Build Stronger Communities and Protect Them From Overbearing Governments
The events of the past two years have taught us that governments may exploit a crisis, even during peace time, to impose curfews, suspend civil liberties, and suppress citizens’ capacity to work, worship, assemble, share information and opinions, and even donate to political causes. Even if governments acted in good faith when they ordered lockdowns at the outset of the pandemic, the wide-ranging harms associated with their aggressive interventions are very real,1 and demonstrate just how vulnerable most ordinary citizens are to their political representatives.
This vulnerability requires citizens to be ever more vigilant and to carefully cultivate their capacity to think for themselves and live in a way that is not simply dictated by the government of the day. Citizens need to actively defend their liberties when they come under attack; but they must also build up a way of life that cannot be easily infiltrated and crushed by an overbearing State, all too often supported by uncritical media organisations and aggressive Big Tech censorship of the public sphere.
One obvious and familiar way to defend civil liberties is to directly harness the institutions of democracy to the cause of freedom. For example, citizens can mount public protests and lobby their political representatives in the hopes that they will take appropriate action in the legislative and policy arena.
Political activism is certainly important, but it only gets us so far. In a national political community, ordinary citizens typically have very limited leverage over elite actors; while mainstream journalists, large holders of capital, influential scientists, and celebrities of one sort or another enjoy privileged access to the corridors of power. Indeed, there are contexts, such as municipalities with entrenched political majorities, in which citizens cannot even influence their local political representatives.
That is why it is so critical for citizens to think about the liberating potential of institutions beyond the State. Strong and vibrant communities and voluntary associations outside the centralising framework of the State may provide citizens with opportunities for self-government, collective identity, and public service that are not afforded by conventional political institutions.
This does not mean that we should abandon conventional democratic politics, just that we must understand the limitations inherent in representative democracy, and the indispensable role of community-based associations that can offer citizens a more distinctive and tailored set of social structures, values and purposes than those of the democratic State.
A strong civil society does not run on good wishes, but on intelligence, hard work, sacrifice, and commitment. Here are five things we can do to promote stronger and more vibrant communities beyond the confines of conventional democratic politics, and protect them against over-reaching governments.
1. Gear up.
We can equip ourselves with necessary tools, in particular knowledge, skills and experience - to contribute to interesting and worthwhile projects that benefit our own community or the communities and associations around us. For example, one might study agriculture in order to help build an agricultural cooperative. Or someone with a philosophical or literary training might help set up a cultural coffeeshop that hosts events like poetry readings and political debates. Someone else might do a course in landscape architecture and find a way to beautify the environment of their local community. Someone else might study law in order to defend individuals against the actions of States or private institutions that threaten their liberty or privacy. The list could go on…
2. Get involved.
We can play a more active role in social organisations that can promote and protect the interests of our community or region. It could be your local school, church, university, parents’ association, residents’ association, community cooperative, or business venture. These are the sorts of associations that directly form and inform the attitude and behaviour of citizens on a day-to-day basis. They need good, thoughtful, and dedicated people to carry on their missions and be a force for good in the world.
3. Be an entrepreneur and an authentic leader.
Each of us should seriously consider whether he or she has the knowledge, talents, and/or experience to engage in some form of social, political, or economic entrepreneurship. This might involve creating a brand new institution, such as a homeschooling association, a community centre, a local coffeeshop or restaurant, or a community-based insurance scheme.
Alternatively, it might mean taking up a leadership role in a business or civil society association that deeply affects the quality of life of one’s family, neighbours, friends, or colleagues. Such leadership can constitute an admirable form of public service, even if the “public” in question is much more contained than the public of a nation or city. We need to think beyond the old, tired dichotomies between business and civil society. Profit-making businesses can be community-based and can serve common goods.
4. Educate yourself and others in the values of a free society.
We can promote online and offline forums and courses that raise awareness of the value of freedom, social and economic entrepreneurship, the open society, the “civil economy” or “social economy” (i.e. businesses rooted in local communities, and oriented to common goods rather than exclusively oriented to their own expansion), and community networks. By organising online and offline talks and discussions about how we can build up thriving, freedom-loving communities, we remind ourselves and others that their dignity and rights do not actually depend on any concession of the State, but are innate in who we are as human beings.
5. Forge mutually beneficial alliances.
We can forge alliances with like-minded associations, whether informally or through constitutions and contracts. By intensifying cooperation with other individuals and associations with shared interests, we can expand our human and material resources, achieve economies of scale, reinforce our knowledge and skill base, strengthen our voice in the public sphere, and put our heads together with others to find ways to more effectively push back when we come under pressure to cave in to financial and regulatory pressure to water down our values or “sell out,” whether to the market or to a State that wants us to engage in health surveillance or censorship.
These are just a few ideas to get started. Each reader will bring their own peculiar skill set, knowledge base, history, and sense of calling to the task of building up resilient and free communities.
If the State is friendly to this enterprise, that is to be welcomed. But free communities cannot simply be creatures of the State, and they must determine their own destinies to the best of their ability, with or without the encouragement of public officials. They must build up their own distinctive identity and sense of purpose, and be prepared, if necessary, to bravely resist State mandates that put their integrity in jeopardy.
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The likely harms of lockdowns, as reported by Bendavid et al, include “hunger, opioid-related overdoses, missed vaccinations, increase in non-COVID diseases from missed health services, domestic abuse, mental health and suicidality, and a host of economic consequences with health implications.” Some of the evidence for these harms is cited in the introduction of their paper.