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Thoughts on childcare reform and societal collapse
Last week's widening of early years provision was welcome, but is the wider system too stretched to accommodate it? And what might the implications be of a broader unravelling of our social fabric?
Jeremy Hunt’s childcare reforms in last week’s Budget got a mixed reception. While parents welcomed the expansion of free childcare to children under three, many in the sector worried that the £5.2 billion funding shortfall would “be the end of nurseries”. Focus groups carried out since Wednesday also suggest that voters aren’t convinced.
The Labour Party are sounding a bit like a broken record at the moment, criticising everything vaguely positive that the Government does for being nothing more than a “sticking plaster”. But they have a point. The childcare reforms, while necessary and important, are incomplete and insufficient. Expanding provision, without tackling underlying problems around investment, low pay and so on, is a bit like reinforcing one thread in an increasingly threadbare quilt, without doing anything about the fact that all of the connecting threads are falling apart. (I’m not big on sewing, so apologies if this metaphor is itself falling apart at the seams.)
Let’s unimaginatively imagine that the quilt in question is the social fabric (which isn’t in a good state, according to centre-right think tank Onward). Onward define this as “the networks and institutions that make up the social fabric of communities”, which is fair enough, but I want to talk about it in the broader sense of the social contract between the state and its citizens. This can be defined in political terms (that people surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the state, in exchange for protection of their remaining rights and maintenance of the social order), or in economic terms (the expectation that, in return for their hard work and their contributions to the common wealth through the tax system, people will enjoy a good quality of life and have access to decent public services - and will be able to find decent work in the first place).
We’re not yet at a point where the political social contract has broken down. But the economic social contract is under severe pressure, in this country and in many other countries, as Minouche Shafik has argued. Governments around the world recognise this, and are, to a greater or lesser extent, taking piecemeal (read: sticking plaster) steps to try to patch up some of the most egregious holes in it. The problem is that they’re severely insufficient. At best, they work (a bit) for long enough to allow the focus to shift to finding short-term fixes for another glaring problem. At worst, they exacerbate other problems and bring the whole system closer to collapse.
And that’s the problem. As the economic social contract starts to unravel, the political social contract comes under threat, because people increasingly realise that the cards are stacked against them. They see that wealth inequality isn’t just about some people having much more than everyone else, but that the richest in society have often acquired their wealth through unearned ‘rent’ and power inequalities, and that this is making everyone else poorer.
We’re already seeing declining trust in politics and the rise of populism. And history (which rhymes, even if it doesn’t repeat, says Mark Twain) shows that further, dramatic unravelling of the political social contract can happen quickly.
In a 2020 paper, anthropologists examined 30 pre-modern societies, and looked in detail at the Roman Empire, China's Ming Dynasty, India's Mughal Empire, and the Venetian Republic. These four examples were all classified as ‘good governments’, despite (obviously) not being democratic, because they provided both an economic and political social contract, including checks and balances on the concentration of power and wealth by a few individuals. They found that a common thread in the collapse of ‘good governments’ was “an inexplicable failure of the principal leadership to uphold values and norms that had long guided the actions of previous leaders, followed by a subsequent loss of citizen confidence in the leadership and government and collapse."
How much more does our economic and political social contract need to degrade before we approach the danger zone? Luke Kemp, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, has been trying to find out why societal collapse occurs through a historical autopsy, asking three questions: “What can the rise and fall of historic civilisations tell us about our own? What are the forces that precipitate or delay a collapse? And do we see similar patterns today?” He suggests that modern civilisation is no less at risk than the great civilisations of the past, and that our technological prowess and globalised complexity are better seen as vulnerabilities than as protective armour. He identifies inequality as a key driver of societal collapse (as did a 2014 study on human and nature dynamics). Another driver is climate change (and this afternoon, the IPCC will remind us of the ludicrously short window that we have to reduce carbon emissions and avoid the worst impacts of climate breakdown).
So, what to do? A few years ago, a Stanford historian argued that, over the last few millennia, inequality has only been reduced by violent shocks such as wars, pandemics and civil unrest. His prognosis for the future? “I am not advocating war, but repeating the same old ideas ignores the lessons of history. Something truly innovative and original may have to happen in order to create lasting change.” We need fundamental, cross-cutting, deep-rooted, structural reforms to reduce inequality and build a fairer society. In this sense, fairness is a defence mechanism. Let’s act on it now before a more equal society is forced upon us by the reality of living in a resource-constrained world where there is no surplus to divide up.
As Luke Kemp argues: “We know what needs to be done: emissions can be reduced, inequalities levelled, environmental degradation reversed, innovation unleashed and economies diversified. The policy proposals are there. Only the political will is lacking… We will only march into collapse if we advance blindly. We are only doomed if we are unwilling to listen to the past.”