The age of permanent crisis is here – governments must rapidly adapt

By on 24/02/2022 | Updated on 28/02/2022
A 2014 photo in Eastern Ukraine at a time of previous tensions with Russia in the country. Photo by Steve Evans via Flickr. Reproduced under Creative Commons

In this crisis-ridden era, Adam Lent argues that a bigger state is needed but it must be a fundamentally different, community powered state.

Welcome to the perma-crisis. A state of ongoing disruption to political, economic and social life from which there is no foreseeable exit. COVID, inflation and now the escalating military conflict in Ukraine are the most obvious signs we are rapidly entering an era of protracted turmoil. 

But these events are really just an intensification of a deepening crisis that has existed for well over a decade when the financial crash of 2008 hit. Two unprecedented ‘temporary’ measures – ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing – may have effectively masked the profound economic fragility that has underpinned the last thirteen years but their efficacy is now up as prices surge and markets reel in response to COVID and Putin’s invasion.

But there is one feature that even more profoundly marks our current era out as one of perma-crisis: the deepening environmental disaster. This has already begun not just in terms of extreme weather events but also the pandemic itself – almost certainly the direct result of the human destruction of nature. And there really is no exit from the environmental crisis. It is too late now to prevent serious effects (including more pandemics) and, on current evidence, there is no sign that the necessary action will be taken to prevent a worsening of those effects. 

Expect the various other crises underway to be compounded and extended by the environmental disaster and expect it to throw up whole new crises of its own including one that is widely overlooked – a long-term economic contraction.

So, the perma-crisis is here and it will have incalculably profound impacts. Just one of those impacts – but one already well underway – is the expansion of the state.

The necessity of a bigger state

There are still those on the right of the political spectrum who very noisily bang the drum for an ever smaller state. But it is in the nature of a crisis that the state grows rather than shrinks.

The reason is simple. Serious crises require a degree of collective action and co-ordination that the primarily self-interested and highly fragmented business world cannot provide.

It is not a question of ideology but simply one of survival that the state accrues more power and resource, often very rapidly, in times of war, natural disaster (such as a pandemic) or economic meltdown.

And once we are into a perma-crisis, that coordinated collective action becomes an ongoing necessity rather than a temporary expediency. 

So, the free market fundamentalists may shout and scream about ‘socialism by the back door’ but the threat to their perspective no longer comes from the left but from the practical reality of the times in which we live.

However, the existence of the perma-crisis is no argument for a return to the classic big state created in Britain during and after the Second World War. A model that has a huge influence on the way government and public services work even today and which many on the left still cherish.

That top-down, technocratic state may work reasonably well in providing a short-term response to a sudden crisis. But in a perma-crisis it is highly counter-productive for three reasons:

  • It cannot sustain popular legitimacy for its actions at a time when populations are less deferential and can easily access oppositional perspectives.
  • It can never develop responses sophisticated enough to account for the huge diversity and complexity of ongoing multiple crises affecting different places and communities in very different ways.
  • And it can’t rely solely on the vast resources available to states in happier times as stalled economies struggle to generate sizeable tax revenues. 

Notably, these are all problems that have emerged as the pandemic has ground on:

  • growing opposition to or ignoring of emergency measures
  • ineffective initiatives from central government
  • and fears about the extra tax burden being imposed on a population already struggling with rising prices.

A community-powered state

The alternative is to accept that the state must be bigger but must also operate in a fundamentally different way. 

This is a state that maintains legitimacy by securing popular support for its crisis-response by engaging with citizens in ongoing dialogue and debate. To do this it would use all the tools that have been developed in recent years to allow for rational deliberation and consensus-building across populations. 

It is a state that maintains efficacy by acknowledging that all crisis-response is local. Central government can set the framework but ultimately it is the public servants and communities down on the ground who know best how to respond. They must be given the freedom and money to do so. 

And finally, it is a state that recognises that resourcing and empowering communities to take action on their own behalf is vital in a time of permanently constrained public funds.

In short, this is a community powered vision for the future of government and public services.

It’s a vision rapidly gaining momentum within the public sector and at local level. And there are the earliest green shoots of interest in Westminster. But as the perma-crisis takes hold, MPs need to start thinking and acting much faster.

Stale debates between big state and small state adherents must be ditched. The real question we should be asking now is how we fashion an enlarged state that has the culture, structures and regulatory framework to work with the tens of thousands of communities who hold the key to an effective response to the perma-crisis.

New Local supports We’re Right Here – the campaign for a Community Power Act.

A version of this article first appeared on the New Local website.

About Adam Lent

Adam Lent is the chief executive of New Local, a UK based independent think tank and network of councils, with a mission to transform public services and unlock community power.

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