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Japan’s national mission heading into World War II was fukoku kyohei. It means ‘rich country, strong army.’ Post defeat, the ‘kyohei’ was dropped but the sentiment remained: a strong national project would protect the interests of the Japanese, albeit with Sony as the vehicle rather than the military. But following two devastating earthquakes in two decades, the state’s incompetence post-Fukushima, the collapse of the ‘bubble economy’ and the rise of China, the weakness of Japan’s central, bureaucratic state has become apparent.

Bending Adversity, David Pilling’s marvellous book on Japanese history since the Meiji Restoration in 1868 ushered in a period of rapid modernisation, tracks a new space opening up beneath this rich nation, strong state. It is one of a flourishing civic culture. Since the Kobe earthquake in 1995, there has been a blooming of civic action. There are now 40,000 non-profit organisations in Japan. These organisations are thriving beyond the traditional state structure which is increasingly ineffective and irrelevant.

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This wrestle of authority between the hierarchical, bureaucratic state and a civic renewal based on people, creativity and initiative is taking place, though often in less dramatic circumstances than Japan, across societies everywhere.

Taking a lead from Moises Naim’s description of a ‘mentality revolution’, Adam Lent tracks this ‘power to create’ in a British context. Civic organisation, energised through motivation, interaction, and state ineffectiveness, is challenging the traditional structures of power in ways that may ultimately change power and democracy considerably.

Japan and Britain are facing similar conflicts: between civic and state power. But so is the US as city-based innovation thrives while Washington DC is in stasis. The Middle Eastern uprisings have such an element (though it is considerably more complex admittedly) as does Ukraine. In so many places, the incompatibilities of rigid statehood and civic fluidity are clashing. The question is whether traditional state power will be washed away on the waters just as the pine trees of Rikuzentakata were washed away in Japan’s tsunami?

What is interesting about all these cases is the fact that these nation-states were constructed for an entirely different purpose from the one they are needed for now and they have largely failed to change. The Japanese, British and American states are Imperial states (as indeed are Russia, Syria, France, China, Egypt, Israel and Iran). The original purpose of such states was to raise finance efficiently, borrow securely, manage resources through efficient bureaucracies and contend diplomatically and militarily with other similar nations. Over time these states took on more and more responsibility as they self-replicated and expanded. In the case of the UK, what was once administered municipally become centralised. In an age of Empire this state was effective.

As representative democracy spread - in a few of the cases listed above at least – then the Imperial state was put to a different purpose. Many of the necessary features of a state that was capable of managing warfare and colonies were suitable for managing universal welfare states too. The state passed seamlessly from warfare to welfare with a similar architecture. What we now see before us is the Imperial-welfare state. It may contract out more of its provision but it is to large bureaucratic corporations that it turns – they speak a similar language of uniformity and control.

But now in a society with new tools of transparency, high velocity flows of information and the ability to organise rapidly, new products and technologies constantly becoming available, successful models of non-state forms of organisation such as the civic culture that is thriving in Japan, austerity, pluralism, and clear state failures, the power flows are starting to shift in quite dramatic ways.

Notions of civic democracy are not new – but they normally fail as traditional state power manages to resist quite easily. In Japan’s case, a liberal era began to take root in the 1920s but then it was curtailed by militarisation post the Great Depression and humiliations in international negotiations around its military presence. The result was catastrophe but the state structure still remained post-1945, notwithstanding  de-militarisation and a new constitution.

However, for the first time since the construction of the Imperial-welfare state that might be about to change. Those who wish to nourish a democratic culture based on people, communities and local decision-makers taking responsibility for meeting their own needs and coming up with their own creative solutions, may be about to see argument start to shift in their direction. That’s if people choose to take on the responsibility.

None of this is certain but the fight is now a fairer one. Whether it’s the American civic renaissance, the UK’s entrepreneurial flair, Japan’s mass volunteering, China’s rising democratic hubbub, or new civic movements in many European cities, there is a sense that this time really could be different. The Imperial-welfare state feels woefully incapable of responding to globalisation, demographic change, resource constraints, austerity, transparency, an era of hyper-personalisation and information democracy. Today’s political parties, as Lent implies, are part of this Imperial-welfare state; they are organs of it. If it falls, then they do too.

Pilling notes the survival of a single miracle Rikuzentakata pine tree after the tsunami. Perhaps the era of rich nation, strong state will come to an end in a similarly dramatic fashion. Whatever the outcome, what is now clear is that we are facing an era when people, communities and places will be better able to do it for themselves. The ‘power to create’ can become more democratically dispersed. What seems permanent now may gradually or dramatically disappear. Just don’t expect the Imperial-welfare state to go quietly. It will require determination and conviction to lift its hold – but at least radical democracy no longer faces the same limitations and weaknesses it has for a century or more.

Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation. His latest book is ‘Left without a future? Social Justice in Anxious Times’ .

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