what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Thursday, August 13, 2020

We need to talk about ....the state

Governments have long been an easy target for public anger - whether defined as the particular collection of personalities who form a particular political regime OR as the administrative systems which provide our public services. But underlying attitudes to the state  tend to ebb and flow....25 years ago "the State"  was very much out of favour - with the low point being probably the 1997 World Bank annual development report "The State in a changing world" which reflected the neo-liberal critique of the very concept of state provision which had become the default mode.

The new millennium saw the beginnings of a realisation that the pendulum had swung too far toward business and deregulation; and that the state did have important functions to manage The global financial crash of 2008 should have brought us to our senses - but didn't.
It is rather Covid 19  which has brought the whole issue of the role and performance of government back into public debate

Last month Pankaj Mishra had a superb long article in LRB about what the performance of different states on Covid 19 tells us.
And an article in the forthcoming issue of the Political Quarterly - "Covid 19 and the blunders of our governments" - by Gerry Stokes et al is an early example of the sort of academic treatment we can look forward to in the near future (be warned - this may be behind a paywall - but an annual sub for the best UK political journal is under 20 pounds!) The article sets the UK government's performance in the pandemic in the wider context of the political science literature of the past 25 years on "policy blunders" and makes some recommendations which, I have to say, I found very weak.
But first, Mishra
The escalating warning signs – that absolute cultural power provincialises, if not corrupts, by deepening ignorance about both foreign countries and political and economic realities at home – can no longer be avoided as the US and Britain cope with mass death and the destruction of livelihoods.
Covid-19 shattered what John Stuart Mill called ‘the deep slumber of a decided opinion’, forcing many to realise that they live in a broken society, with a carefully dismantled state. As the Süddeutsche Zeitung put it in May, unequal and unhealthy societies are ‘a good breeding ground for the pandemic’. Profit-maximising individuals and businesses, it turns out, can’t be trusted to create a just and efficient healthcare system, or to extend social security to those who need it most. 
East Asian states have displayed far superior decision-making and policy implementation. Some (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea) have elected leaders; two (China, Vietnam) are single-party dictatorships that call themselves communist.
They share the assumption that genuine public interest is different from the mere aggregation of private interests, and is best realised through long-term government planning and policy. They also believe that only an educated and socially responsible elite can maintain social, economic and political order. 
The legitimacy of this ruling class derives not so much from routine elections as from its ability to ensure social cohesion and collective well-being. Its success in alleviating suffering during the pandemic suggests that the idealised view of democracy and free markets prized since the Cold War will not survive much longer.
Few narratives are more edifying, as economies tank and mass unemployment looms, than the account of the ‘social state’ that emerged in Germany in the second half of the 19th century. In "Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age" (1998), Daniel Rodgers showed that many Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries returned from stays in Germany with ideas that would inform the New Deal.
‘The state must take the matter into its own hands,’ Bismarck announced in the 1880s as he introduced insurance programmes for accident, sickness, disability and old age. German liberals, a tiny but influential minority, made the usual objections: Bismarck was opening the door to communism, imposing a ‘centralised state bureaucracy’, a ‘state insurance juggernaut’ and a ‘system of state pension’ for idlers and parasites. German socialists saw that their Machiavellian persecutor was determined to drive a wedge between them and the working class. Nevertheless, Bismarck’s social insurance system wasn’t only retained and expanded in Germany as it moved through two world wars, several economic catastrophes and Nazi rule; it also became a model for much of the world. 
Japan was Germany’s most assiduous pupil, and the Japanese, in turn, inspired China’s first generation of modern leaders, many of whom spent years in Tokyo and Osaka. Despite the defeat and devastation of the Second World War and the US occupation, Japan has continued to influence East Asia’s other late-developing nation-states: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam.
What made Germany such a compelling prototype for Japan? It is that Germany was a classic ‘late developer’ – the archetype of all nation-states in Asia and Africa. It unified only in 1871 and began to industrialise nearly a hundred years after Britain. Its leaders had to cope with the simultaneous challenges of rapid mechanisation and urbanisation, the disappearance of traditional livelihoods, the growth of trusts and cartels as well as trade unions, and an intensifying demand, articulated by a vibrant socialist movement, for political participation.
Fascinating stuff - which owes not a little to Francis Fukuyama's brilliant 2 volume study of "The Origins of Political Order - and Decay"
Regular readers will know that I am trying to complete a book with the title "Is Admin Reform really all that sexy?"  I last blogged about my efforts at the beginning of the year  This is clearly the signal to get back to work!

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