Claiming our Primary Role in our Society and Global Economy

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In several of his publications, economist Jeremy Rifkin has analyzed the shifting trends within the global economy and offered thought-provoking forecasts about the nature of work and the nonprofit sector’s role within these shifts. In The End of Work, he noted that the new efficiencies of technologies would significantly reduce the need for mass labor in manufacturing and services in the next century and the nonprofit sector could likely be the arena where the people would go to contribute their unmarketable skills. In his new book, The Age of Access, Rifkin updates his analysis of the global economy. One of his observations is that more of our social life is lived in cyberspace and mediated through commercial means–creating a tension between this fundamentally free item, social relations or culture, which the nonprofit sector holds at its core (with its fraternal, civic, religious, arts, sports, social justice, and environmental organizations) while the commercial sector is trying to charge access to it (with its themed cities, entertainment centers, global tourism, fashion, cuisine, professional sports and games, film, and television). He believes bringing culture and commerce into balance is a pressing concern in the coming era and “will force each of us to ask fundamental questions about how we want to restructure our most basic relationships with another.”

Rifkin asserts that the third sector, which he says is responsible for developing and maintaining our culture, must lead the discourse in determining the future of human effort. He believes that if we were to approach this task with a sense of vision and, yes, entitlement, we would be able to spark a new renaissance. If we do not claim our place in this transition, he warns, the experiences that once were the basis of building relationships and communities will become packaged products of the global market. A major barrier to our meeting this challenge, he continues, is the third sector’s view of itself as subsidiary to commerce and government.

Jeremy Rifkin: I contend that this is the primary sector. People never start bonding through commercial relationships. Every society first starts in the culture, where people create language and agree upon ways of behaving. Societies create deep social meanings that explain what is special about life. Only then, when they have enough trust and have created sufficient bonds do they create trade and then government. It’s never been the other way around.

This sector is also the primary sector because it is where we actually engage in deep play. Deep play is where we create deep bonds of participation to explore our humanity, our relationships to the human principles of life. If you take all of the art, religious, secular, social justice, civic, community, and sports activities, all of those are deep play because the activities are an end in themselves. The end result is joy, actual revelation. It’s experiencing each other and exploring our humanity. People do it because it gives life meaning. It’s what you remember about life on your deathbed. It’s a much deeper arena than the commercial arena or government.

We have taken this sector, which is the primary wellspring of human life, and we have marginalized it as if it deserves last place in our social priorities. Think about the language we currently use to describe this sector. In Europe, they call it non-governmental–not quite public but dependent upon the government. And in the U.S. we colonize toward the commercial arena, so we call it nonprofit–not corporate but dependent upon the corporate sector. A lot of the way we view ourselves is dependent on metaphors and language–we act out of these metaphors. We should get rid of nonprofit and non-governmental–these are colonial terms and attach us as subsidiary to the secondary institutions of market and government. We are the culture and that is primary.

What kind of organizations are you referring to as the culture?

This sector, the culture, includes all of the institutions and affiliations, formal and informal that we engage in that are not commercially contracted or government services.

But today culture looks more like a product of the market?

Yes, that’s right. If you asked the average American, “Think about today and in the future, are more and more of your actual relationships contractual as opposed to cultural, reciprocal relationships?” They would have to say, “Yes.”

We are losing our culture. We need to free up a generation to rebuild culture because cultural diversity is like biodiversity–it is dependent on a system of difference. If culture is approached without regard and respect for maintaining this diversity, it can be mined to exhaustion. And if the culture allows the market to deconstruct it into trivial entertainment, we will lose thousands of years of rich human play.

There is a struggle going on between culture and commerce as to who will control deep play. In my new book, The Age of Access, I discuss what happens when corporations such as Time-Warner and Disney deconstruct culture into a paid-for activity. Commerce has long since deconstructed the United States government.

How does our sector avoid being deconstructed and destroyed?

First, we have to realize that we are the primary sector. We don’t even think of ourselves as a sector. We think of ourselves as little, independent nonprofit organizations casting about looking for corporate philanthropy. It’s pathetic; we all do it, but it’s still pathetic.

What we need to do is claim our identity. As victimized communities have learned through history, you cannot accept the metaphors of the colonizing agents. And I know the word “colonial” is overused and abused, and is often just political rhetoric. But, in this case, it really applies. We should get rid of nonprofit, third sector, volunteer, these are all colonial terms and attach us to the secondary institutions. We are the culture.

And if we don’t do this?

If culture doesn’t lead, the fourth, or criminal, sector is prepared to fill the vacuum in places devoid of culture. You see that happening in Russia and in Eastern and Central Europe–the fourth sector is moving rapidly across those countries because the government eliminated the culture. All of the institutions that make up the culture were eliminated with communist rule. It takes generations to rebuild culture so the criminal society is raging in Eastern Europe and it’s moving into Western Europe.

Fundamentalist and ethnic nationalist groups are also willing to fill the leadership void if we don’t. They both believe that geography counts and they believe that culture counts. The difference is that fundamentalist groups, skinheads, ultra-nationalists, and ethnic cleansing movements believe that the only geography that counts is theirs and, outside of the border, every other culture is Satan. It’s going to be a big struggle.

How would you relate these concerns to the nonprofit workforce?

A lot of people think the reduced demand for mass labor in the commercial sector is bad news, because we can’t imagine what a human being would do if they weren’t using their marketable skills in the commercial arena. But what I contend is that this is potentially great news because we can now free up future generations to move from vocations and professional skills to avocations and interests. In other words, we can free up our talents and energy for far more important contributions in the third sector.

And we need to recognize the difference between the professional and the amateur. Amateur used to be a good word. It means to be “in love with.” This is the realm of nonprofit workers and volunteers. Professional was not a good word. It meant to profess the catechism by rote. We have to claim what makes us different, take on our role seriously and get back to deep play.

We are in the midst of a social and economic transition that will profoundly affect the relationships among institutions, nations and localities; Rifkin urges us to approach this transition, as confusing as it may be, with vision and intent. He leaves us with many questions to be answered, including:

* What must we do to reinforce our view of ourselves as the primary sector filled with powerful change agents?
* How do we claim our role as primary in the context of a quite enthusiastically capitalist environment?

We don’t expect these to be easy questions to answer but we want to believe that it is possible to create a world where most of us are engaged in “deep play”–or in other words, in work we enjoy and that has meaning and is life affirming rather than spirit deadening.

Kenneth Bailey of Third Sector New England conducted the interview.

Third Sector organizations are serving millions of human beings in neighborhoods and communities around the world. They are the institutions most responsible for preserving and enhancing all of the various dimensions of local cultures. The reach and scope of their activities often eclipse that of both the government and commercial sectors. Third Sector organizations carry on many of the most basic functions necessary for the maintenance of democratic societies. They are the lightning rods for challenging institutional abuses of power and for articulating social grievances. They provide a helping hand to newly arrived immigrants and to the nation’s poor. Nonprofit organizations preserve the history and cultural traditions of a people by operating museums and libraries. They are the institutions in which people first learn how to practice civic values and exercise democratic skills. Third Sector religious and therapeutic organizations provide refuges where people can explore the spiritual dimensions of their lives, independent of the pull of market and government. Equally important, the Third Sector is where people create and practice the shared values by which they choose to live. It is the playing field where the culture in all of its richness is maintained.

Excerpt from Jeremy Rifkin’s The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercaptalism Where All of Life is a Paid-For Experience.