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When government can't solve social and economic problems, what then?

By Vern Hughes - posted Wednesday, 20 September 2017


Gridlock is the new normal in politics. Neither side can command a working majority in parliament. Neither can deliver a knockout blow in the 'culture wars'. Neither bosses nor unions can win the industrial wars.

Stalemate is the order of the day – in politics, ideology, morality and culture.

For 150 years, politics in the English-speaking world has been a contest between rival methods of capturing and then using government as the main means of securing public and private well-being, and defining the relationship between them.

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That era has now ground to a halt. It has ended, not because the Left and the Right have given up their quest to control the state (their ground troops are still in battle positions) but because that contest cannot now be won by either side.

The scale and structure of government are simply too big, and society too diverse, to be captured by either party. Moreover, the political instruments of the last century established for this purpose (mass membership political parties) have dissolved.

All recent attempts to 'reinvent' government or make it more responsive to citizens have ended in conspicuous failure. Government is intrinsically centralized and impersonal. Around the world, governments work from an operating manual drawn straight from Henry Ford's car factories of the 1920s: they are routinised and require anonymity in interactions between officials and citizens.

Anyone who has tried talking with Centrelink knows what this is like.

Government is also intrinsically expansionary. The functions of government have widened over a century and a half, and the responsibilities of civil society have shrunk. Trust between citizens and government has spiralled downwards as the power of government has spiralled upwards.

The demand on governments to solve ever more of society's relational ills (crime, suicide, epidemics of addiction) has increased in inverse proportion to its capacity to meaningfully address these issues.

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Prevention of family violence and suicide, for instance, require networks of personal and social relationships which dissolve isolation and powerlessness. Governments, however, cannot forge these relationships. They can only conduct abstract campaigns about behavior or gender, and pick up the pieces afterwards.

Governments had more of a chance of maintaining the social fabric when a shared cultural consensus or sustaining moral tradition was in place. With the rapid secularization of the West and the onset of intense 'culture wars', that possibility has gone. We no longer have a shared understanding of what it means to be a good person and to live a good life in society.

The ideas that once used to be widely accepted about these questions have been discarded, but there is no agreement about what should take their place. Nor is there likely to be in the forseeable future.

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About the Author

Vern Hughes is Secretary of the National Federation of Parents Families and Carers and Director of the Centre for Civil Society and has been Australia's leading advocate for civil society over a 20-year period. He has been a writer, practitioner and networker in social enterprise, church, community, disability and co-operative movements. He is a former Executive Officer of South Kingsville Health Services Co-operative (Australia's only community-owned primary health care centre), a former Director of Hotham Mission in the Uniting Church, the founder of the Social Entrepreneurs Network, and a former Director of the Co-operative Federation of Victoria. He is also a writer and columnist on civil society, social policy and political reform issues.

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