The age of government austerity has inarguably changed the political landscape. In the years following the economic crash of 2007/2008, it’s clear that there has been a dynamic shift in the delivery of public and social services. In setting an agenda of reducing state spending, the coalition government of 2010 (in the UK) followed in the steps of a number of other European states that, ideologically, transformed the nature of relationships between government and business – particularly where welfare spending is concerned. The Welfare Reform Act (2012) provides the most obvious example of this shift in thinking, and in the narrative, on this relationship.
In response to the shifting narrative, social movements have, once again, shown to be an exemplary force in directing public discourses on the relationship between the state and the citizen. In the era of post-crisis economics, the rise of bottom-up social movements has complimented a shift in thinking on how we might consider the delivery of public services. It should be said from the outset, however, that this thinking does not employ the ‘Big Society’ narrative, which became popular amongst centre-right think tanks. Rather, the shift in thinking demonstrates elements of resistance to government policy, and, in some instances, is anti-state.
To take some examples of community resistance in the post-crisis era, we only have to look as far as the housing movements that have attracted a huge amount of media attention – the Radical Housing Network, Focus E15 and Sweets Way Resists, to name a few. In drawing attention to current political issues – such as the housing crisis – these radical social movements have demonstrated the power of community organising, and have comprehensively shown that top-down narratives can be challenged. Whilst successes are geographically limited (predominantly in Greater London), they do provide a blueprint for addressing current issues – such as housing people in ex-council homes, or, forcing local government officials to reconsider policies that affect a particular demographic.
The point is that social movements – particularly in the UK, in a post-crisis era – are providing a radical alternative to the way we can begin to challenge certain narratives – such as those recycled under government austerity – and, even, about how we might think about the delivery of public services in the future. There are questions on the extent to which communities could be self-sufficient in this regard, and there are even some interesting questions as to how far communities could distance themselves from state oversight and control. In any case, we should be preparing for a future where the value of social movements in contributing to policy research is recognised. The public sector should not be blind to the increasing influence of community organising, self-help and so on. Indeed, there are very important lessons to be learned from organisations that embed themselves in small communities, and, that work together for the common good.
Whilst a future where such movements are recognised in political parity may be some way off, policy researchers should reflect critically on the usefulness and importance of the hegemonic state intervention if there are working alternatives on the ground.