Change in complex systems occurs in slow steady processes such as demographic shifts and in sudden, unforeseeable jumps. Nothing seems to change until suddenly it dos, a stop–start rhythm that can confound activists. When British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was asked what he most feared in politics, he reportedly replied in his wonderfully patrician style, ‘Events, dear boy’. Such ‘events’ that disrupt social, political or economic relations are not just a prime ministerial headache. They can open the door to previously unthinkable reforms.
In Tikamgarh, a protest in which three people were seriously injured and fishing families’ houses were burned down, becoming a rallying point for further organization. I have heard dozens of similar accounts around the world—most community change processes include a turning point that becomes iconic and inspirational.
What worked in Tikamgarh also works on a greater scale. Such ‘critical junctures’, as the economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson call them, force political leaders to question their long-held assumptions about what constitutes ‘sound’ policies, and make them more willing to take the risks associated with innovation, as the status quo suddenly appears less worth defending.
Much of the institutional framework we take for granted today was born of the trauma of the Great Depression and the Second World War. The disastrous failures of policy that led to these twin catastrophes profoundly affected the thinking of political and economic leaders across the world, triggering a vastly expanded role for government in managing the economy and addressing social ills, as well as precipitating the decolonization of large parts of the globe.
Similarly, in the 1970s the sharp rise in oil prices (and consequent economic stagnation and runaway inflation) marked the end of the post-war ‘Golden Age’ and gave rise to a turn away from government regulation and to the idealization of the ‘free market’. In Communist systems, at different moments, political and economic upheaval paved the way for
 Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), p. 101.
The post Crises as Critical Junctures
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