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When Steve Bannon, then President Trump’s chief strategist, announced as one of his key goals ‘the deconstruction of the administrative state’, many liberals were appalled. What was less clear, however, was what the administrative state really was, and why it should be defended. Who would say they are in favour of such a dull, faceless concept?

In this article, I’ll be arguing that while the right attacks the state, the left has abandoned it without really thinking its position through; and this pincer movement impacts negatively on us all.

The ‘S’ word

Over the last four decades, the right has led a concerted campaign to denounce, undermine and dismantle the state. Claiming that austerity was unavoidable, rather than ideological, David Cameron and George Osborne committed to push the state down to 36 per cent of GDP or less (in Denmark it is 50 per cent). Liam Fox disparaged ‘pen-pushers’ in the civil service; Michael Gove labelled education officials ‘the blob’. On both sides of the Atlantic, ‘the state’ became synonymous with ‘the big state’. ‘Reform’ became code for shrinking it.

Yet while the left, for its part, has loudly condemned cuts to schools and hospitals, it invariably stops short of making a case for the state as a structural entity. As Polly Toynbee notes in her recent book Dismembered, one of the few current explicit endorsements of the state, we on the left mumble ‘the s-word’ in an embarrassed undertone, barely able to even mention this obsolete relic of the twentieth century.

Even with the recent collapse of outsourcing giants Serco and Capita, it seems that the only acceptable way to articulate the value of the state is to express our love for the NHS.

So why has the state become so unpopular, even among its traditional advocates? One explanation lies in our view of the 1945 welfare settlement. Many influential voices on both the radical and mainstream left claim that the post-war state was paternalistic, top-down, and bureaucratic, embodying a one-size-fits-all approach.

The downsides to thinking differently

We must ‘think differently about the state’, argues a report by Labour MPs Liz Kendall and Steve Reed entitled ‘Let it Go: Power to the People in Public Services’: services are ‘predicated, inappropriately, on a kind of parent–child relationship’. In her new book Radical Help, the social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam calls for an overhaul of the twentieth century state, and the use of digital platforms to empower people to form enabling relationships. Localism, autonomy and co-production are the buzzwords of the day.

But although it’s become unfashionable to admit it, are we not vulnerable human beings often in need of ‘top-down’ help – when we are young, ill, old, and many stages in between? The disintegration of jobs for life into the gig economy makes us less, not more, empowered. And the drive towards grassroots autonomy is at risk of playing into the hands of the right-wing small-state agenda.

As for the claim that the post-war state was bureaucratic, the anthropologist David Graeber has challenged the association between the public sector and bureaucracy, arguing that it’s more prevalent in our bloated corporations. Services are often delivered more efficiently at scale. Bureaucracies are less human than community organisations, but making impartial and impersonal decisions can be a virtue. Some services, like social security and health treatment, are pretty generic.

A state of disrepair

I’m not sure that people really want to take responsibility for their care – don’t we actually just want to leave it to professionals with the knowledge and expertise to make sure we get what we need? Do we really want social services, health, education and so on to be ‘democratised’, or just organised and distributed reasonably and equitably? The problem with state provision is surely not that it’s authoritarian or impersonal, but that it’s privatised, dysfunctional and corrupt.

Progressives seem unable to distinguish between the state’s inherent values and flaws, and the recent pressures exerted upon it by funding cuts and marketisation; between its essential architecture, and its state of disrepair. When people declare that we can’t go back to the post-’45 settlement, it’s not clear if they mean it was an incongruous blip, a luxury we can no longer afford, or something we wouldn’t go back to even if we had the resources.

The neglect of these structural considerations goes hand in hand with a broader problem currently affecting our political culture and discourse: there is a reluctance, on all political sides, to think on a macro, institutional scale – a general anti-political climate that is damaging both our democracy and our society.

Reimagining the modern state

So what should the modern state look like, and what should it do? In order to attempt to answer these questions, we need to have a concerted debate about which aspects of the welfare state are worth preserving, and which need to be remade. And we need to assess what is genuinely new about our era and that would require the state to be reimagined. Why is the state presumed now to have ‘had its day’: is it really because it is no longer relevant to the new times in which we live, or is it because the right has simply succeeded in persuading the public that it needs to be ‘modernised’?

Currently, we only seem willing or able to have large-scale discussions about the polity in relation to new technology and automation. But technology tends to alienate and atomise rather than bring people together.

The much-vaunted blockchain is only really an arcane verification tool, rather than an alternative system of service provision. There is currently a lot of excitement around a universal basic income as the solution to a post-work future, but a UBI cannot build, maintain and run schools and hospitals; and it would presumably need to be distributed by the state – dots rarely joined by its proponents.

A more productive framework for reinventing the state may be the idea of care. Most people do not want to be cared for by robots in their old age. Most care work is poorly paid, or not paid at all. As traditional jobs dwindle, and the population ages, can we begin to see ‘care’ as the foundation of a renewed state – and indeed a renewed politics – which is human, generous, and reconnects public with private?

It’s time to design and advocate for a vision of the state that contains elements of old and new, and in a language that appeals to a jaded public. Yes, we must recognise the importance of subsidiarity and the need for services to speak in a human language and engage with individuals in their diverse contexts. But we must also remember that the state enshrines the invaluable principle of the common good.

The state is designed to protect us all – whatever our status – against poverty, illness, and corporate exploitation. It is currently being prevented from performing that role, and as a result, the principle of the common good is curdling into nationalism. The solution is not less state, but more.
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