Never before have we had to rely so much on nonprofit organizations to maintain elementary decency in our society as we do today, but at the same time never before have the challenges for nonprofits been tougher. Some of the difficulties arise from the nature of American culture. At our best, Americans have the enthusiasm, the vitality, the curiosity, the exhilaration of adolescence. However, we also have the adolescent proclivity to self-absorption, moodiness, and despair. Such adolescents are above all competitive, striving to see who can be the king of the mountain. Capitalism at its most freewheeling is an almost perfect expression of just these motives. What adolescents have not yet learned is that the future must be nurtured, that children must become parents, must find themselves in losing themselves in the care of children, other people, and the planet itself.
The virtue Americans most need today is what the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called “generativity,” the care that one generation gives to the next. With what kind of society will we endow our children and our children’s children, what kind of world, what kind of natural environment? By focusing on our immediate wellbeing (are you better off now than you were four years ago?), we have forgotten that the meaning of life derives not so much from what we have as from what kind of person we are and how we have shaped our lives toward future ends that are good in themselves.
Robert D. Putnam, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has pointed out some striking analogies between the present moment and the dawn of the Progressive era in the early 20th century. The “splendid little war” with Spain in 1898 did not prevent the public from being appalled at the lavish self-indulgences of the rich, the miseries of new industrial workers and urban slum dwellers, the corruption that compromised big business and government alike, and the general failure of public morals.
What the Progressives represented was something we badly need now. They stood for a massive increase of volunteerism and civic activism, but they also demanded that government take a more active role in solving the problems that voluntary groups could not handle alone.
The political rhetoric of recent years has pitted “welfare-state liberalism” against a neo-capitalism that would leave most social problems for business and nonprofits to solve. George Bush has publicized his “thousands points of light” at the same time that he continues his predecessor’s policy of cutting public funds for education, welfare, and the nation’s insfrastructure. A renewed progressivism would have to crosscut the political debate and wed activist citizenship to an activist state.
The challenge to the nonprofit world in the immediate future is not only to improve the indispensable job of delivering services that it already provides, but to help direct the attention of society to problems that require government action. The solution does not lie in creating new centralized bureaucracies but in developing sensitive and intelligent government agencies that can respond to and promote a variety of public-private partnerships in the solution of problems.
We know that the interdependence of modern societies is both complex and fragile. As a result, the viability of society depends, far more than it did in the past, upon the mutual trust and good will of the citizens. All-out pursuit of individual or group advantages quickly becomes not only pathological, but threatening to the survival of all.
The politics of generativity takes social inclusion and participation as a key theme—for economic no less than for moral and social reasons. We are a society that still denies to many of our citizens the support of societal membership and dignity that are routinely extended to the privileged—and to all in many of our “competitor” nations. Health insurance and retirement benefits, for example, are not extended to the entire population.
We can no longer assume that taking seriously the human development of everyone is a utopian ideal, but must realize it has become a goal of enlightened self-interest. Only a society that engages the responsible action of all its citizens can hope to deal with economic, social and environmental problems.
It may be that, as has happened in the past when the political parties ignored major realities, we need a new social movement. One thinks of the Green movements which have made some headway in Europe, but much more than environmentalism is required. A politics of generativity would not easily be located on the existing ideological spectrum. It would favor effective political action at the federal and state levels, backed by major commitments of money and expertise, but in the service of local and regional institutions and programs.
Even more important, such a politics is premised on active citizen involvement and discussion, where issues of long-term purpose and consequence take precedence over the simpler indices upon which current policy analysis focuses. This would make it harder for institutions to operate “over the heads” of the people. The achievement of generative politics will be to overcome the politics of greed and selfishness with a politics of the common good.
Many people who are active in the voluntary sector fear involvement in the political realm, with its, to them, naked power plays and questionable morality. But, as in the progressive era, we cannot avoid politics.
Robert N. Bellah is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of The Good Society (Knopf). This article is adapted from the Sept. 24, 1991 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
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