What obligation does a group have to develop the agency of its members?
It is entirely possible that “groups” generally speaking have no such obligation.
Perhaps a non-profit with a stated mission of increasing agency has an obligation, while a corporation with other priorities does not. That certainly seems to be the functional way of things. But is that ideal?
In a practical sense, I don’t think I would advocate for every group – a broad term, indeed – to be focused at all times on the agency of its members. Agency is important, of course, but sometimes it’s more important to just get things done.
Yet if every person is to develop the capabilities of agency – to feel a sense of voice, a sense of influence over one’s world – where is that development to happen? Certainly we can’t rely on a few good hearted non-profits to win the battle for us.
Civil society more broadly seems the obvious place to turn: Develop curriculum that supports students as agents, structure governments which include citizens as agents, encourage voluntary associations which empower members as agents.
All of that is good. All of that important.
And yet, I find it strangely unsatisfying. An insufficient solution to a Goliath of a problem.
Schools don’t embrace agency unless the people demand it, governments don’t embrace participation unless the people demand it, and associations cannot flourish unless the people demand it.
None of these will simply sprout forth from the earth.
So, idyllic visioning aside, we are back to having a few non-profits advocating for agency and training the next generation of advocates. Perhaps we will achieve a critical mass of agency in a few hundred years or so. We’ll see how it goes.
Surely there must be other engines we can turn.
One challenge is that there is little incentive for any large organization to be concerned about agency. We may not expect this of large corporations, but even among the political crowd – too often the emphasis is on one act of agency which is swept up in a sea of voices. There’s no room for real political participation. For dialogue or for the real work of building policy together.
Walter Lippmann was deeply concerned with what he called the centralizing tendency of society – to get things done, you need to centralize, you need to bureaucratize, and ultimately – you need to cut people out of the process. It is democracy which pays the price.
Perhaps even more troubling is that the way to seemingly organize against centralized power is to build your own centralized power. Form a union. Create a new political party. Who is in power changes, but ultimately the system remains the same. And democracy pays the price.
I’m afraid I’ve stumbled upon no grand solutions in this line of inquiry, but I wonder what a…system in equilibrium would like like.
Through our many formal and informal groups, could we build a society which supports every individual’s agency, and yet still get the work done? Not every interaction with every group will increase your agency, but what is the right mix, the right balance of experience to create a good but workable system?
I cannot solve the troubles of the world, so perhaps, more simply, I should ask myself this: as a person who is a member of many groups and of many kinds of groups – do I do everything I can to increase the agency of those around me?
The group, after all, has not it’s own soul – it is ultimately up to us to make this vision so.