Sunday, 15 October 2017

Cooperation: A New Order of Life?

[A review of ‘Victorian Agitator – George Holyoake: co-operation as this new order of life’, by Stephen Yeo, Brighton: EER Edward Everett Root Publishers, 2017.]

When it comes to someone like George Holyoake, even a superlatives-packed introduction would come across as an understatement.

He was an outstanding champion of the cooperative movement in its formative decades, helping to inspire an ever growing number of workers to get involved with the new form of enterprise that would strive to be fair as well as productive. He was an astute advocate for democracy, pressing constantly for improvements such as the secret ballot, which he defended against the likes of J. S. Mill, who did not appreciate that, so long as vast inequality in power existed, many would not dare to vote openly against the wishes of the rich and powerful.

Of course Holyoake himself never hesitated to express his views regardless of what the rich and powerful might think. When militarist nationalism gripped the country, he lambasted the rise of jingoism (indeed he coined the term). When people whose reason and conscience held them back from subscribing to any religious belief, came under attack from those in authority, he argued for secularism (yet another term he invented). And it should be remembered that his readiness to speak up for his beliefs did not rest on any special protection granted to him. Indeed, in 1842, on a dubious charge of blasphemy, he was sent to prison.

In this bicentennial year of George Holyoake’s birth, Stephen Yeo has given us a fascinating new book on this indefatigable reformist. ‘Victorian Agitator’ introduces us to the man with not just an enduring philosophy, but an endearing personality, whose warmth was as ever present as his wit.

In addition to the biographical portrait, however, Yeo also presents us with an inviting canvas on which he had brought together Holyoake’s lifelong endeavours in the shape of three interrelated aspirations: the development of a reformist and non-statist form of socialism; the promotion of an autonomous moral tradition; and the cultivation of what is akin to a religion of cooperation.  

While many readers will enjoy the incidents and anecdotes from Holyoake’s life relayed earlier in the book, it is this second half that shows how relevant Holyoake’s ideas remain to this day. Recurring economic crises and deepening social fragmentation have left us in no doubt that an alternative is urgently needed from the failed market system.

Holyoake tirelessly advanced the cooperative form of economic association that can transcend exploitative relations without risking society being subsumed under some authoritarian collectivism. He made the case for mutual respect sustained by a social equality that would keep disdainful divisiveness at bay. And his secularism demonstrated that love for our fellow human beings could be celebrated without having to rely on any particular doctrine endorsed by an established religion.

If these strands could be joined into a reform agenda, backed by a sense of moral commitment, and fuelled by a passion that responds to a commanding cause, a new order of life may well be possible. ‘Cooperation, not exploitation’ could be its rallying call. Read Yeo’s book, and help answer the call.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Tech’gemony: the crisis of human redundancy

Is there anything technology can’t do? Drive cars, fly planes, beat us at chess, accelerate genetic engineering, secure endless supply of renewable energy, design robots to make more robots, diagnose and repair problems in everything from factory machinery to the human body, elevate artificial intelligence to the level of continuous learning and adaptation – no problem seems to be beyond it, except one: the problem of leaving the vast majority of humankind with little prospect of finding paid employment, because there will come a time when anything we can do, some labour-saving technology can do better (and much more cheaply).

Tech’gemony is coming. Contrary to the mantra of tech giants claiming that they are simply striving to make the world a better place for everyone, the trajectory of their power expansion points unequivocally to dominance by a few with no accountability to those whose livelihood they put at risk.

In the name of ‘progress’, the tech leaders build up their business empires by disrupting existing socio-economic arrangements. By continuously coming up with new, faster, more reliable approaches that render human input redundant, they amass wealth at an unprecedented rate.

As their financial resources rise exponentially, they are able to accelerate the wider adoption of business models that lead to even fewer paid jobs and more precarious employment, squeeze out firms that are lagging behind in applying labour-saving alternatives, acquire more land and assets, and buy up potential rivals who will henceforth serve their corporate goals.

At the same time, their economic strength enables them to avoid paying taxes by exploiting every possible loophole and contesting any public authority’s demand they don’t like with the best lawyers money can buy.

When the number of paid jobs not yet eliminated by technology dwindles to the point where there are simply not enough people with sufficient income to buy the output from tech-dominated industries, a critical choice will arise. Either the powerful corporations offer to provide their services for free (given free renewable energy sources, recyclable materials, machines with machine-building capability, it is a feasible option), or they turn inward and limit the access to their products/services to themselves. The former represents the utopian version many have talked about, forgetting that corporations dedicated to avoiding paying taxes to meet basic public needs are unlikely to share all they produce for nothing in return. The latter option is the far more likely dystopian scenario that will greet us.

What happens next will be the closing off of land, buildings, facilities that are owned by these corporations. Within their private ‘sovereign’ domain, with the help of the most advanced and ever improving technology, they can get whatever they want. But outside their well-guarded territories, the 99.9% will increasingly struggle as they can no longer afford to obtain the things that have become dependent on technology to produce – clean water, filtering out of polluted air, medication, safe food, fuel supply, and countless others.

While the few, having bought up most of the planet, can dispense with monetary transactions, and live in their earthly paradise with continuously improving technological solutions to every challenge they encounter; most of the world will be shut out in a rapid regression back to a Hobbesian form of life that is inescapably poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Of course it does not have to be like that. But if Tech’gemony is to be halted, governments must act now to curb tech-based corporate powers, and ensure that the fruits of technological innovation are to be shared on an open and democratic basis.

The digital clock is ticking.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Performance Enhancement & Fair Competition

Taking drugs to improve sporting performance, accessing notes during exams to get better results, or forging ballot papers to secure an electoral victory – these are all deemed unacceptable ways to get ahead of others in a competitive situation.

So there is an assumption that just because there is a competition going on, not every means to help one win will be considered legitimate. Indeed, the very existence of a competition requires there to be rules to regulate the participation process and assess the terms of success.

If we turn now to the mantra of competition chanted in aid of the ‘free market’, so that the ‘best’ can win without regulatory red tape or objective oversight, are we supposed to embrace any form of performance enhancement that comes along as just another feature of the competitive world?

What if some people decide to take the inventions of others and sell them as their own; redirect a sizeable chunk of their companies’ earnings into their own private accounts; ask for better deals in return for not revealing some embarrassing secrets of the CEO; or encourage others to buy one’s ‘cure’ for some disease when it is just a placebo?

We will undoubtedly be told by even the most fervent free marketeers that these are all against the law. But why should the law rule against such practices? Could it be that devious exploitation of another person’s vulnerability is not a fair way to obtain a competitive advantage?

How about such tools of performance enhancement as the fuelling of others’ addictions to gambling or nicotine to make more money from them? Giving one small set of children the best education, protection, and networks of useful contacts that money can buy, and denying these to others? Driving up one’s share prices by cutting jobs and reducing wages to below subsistence levels? Donating money to politicians who will alter employment laws to curtail the bargaining powers of trade unions? Mould a compliant workforce by imposing precarious contracts and constant surveillance?

Should there not be laws to prevent these dubious methods of helping the unscrupulous get ahead of other people? The cry for greater competition rings hollow when behind the routine posturing, the advocates for ‘free’ market just want the freedom to do as they please, and constrain any action by others that may get in their way.

Competition can be productive. It can motivate us to strive to achieve more than we might otherwise attain. But it has to be governed by proper rules if it is not to degenerate into a scam. Next time someone is strutting around on a platform for competition, check out what dodgy performance enhancement tools are being smuggled through.

Friday, 1 September 2017

The Will of the People?

Since the Brexit vote and the election of Trump, we have increasingly heard that the will of the people has been declared, so those in charge must now act accordingly, and anyone in disagreement with them should not protest or obstruct, but stay silent. At the same time, hate crime has soared in both those countries, as ‘foreigners’ are demonised and made unwelcome. This combination of authoritarian arrogance at the top and thuggish intimidation at the bottom eerily echoes a period of history that has all too many painful lessons for us – the 1930s.

In 1933, the Nazi Party in Germany received 43.9% of the vote cast and obtained 288 seats out of the available 647. Hitler went on to secure the support of the Centre Party in passing the infamous Enabling Act, which dismantled all constitutional constraints on Nazi rule and enabled Hitler to embark on whatever he declared to be necessary to fulfil the will and destiny of the people – everything from stigmatising vulnerable groups, making arbitrary arrests, to removing innocent people to concentration camps, and invading neighbouring countries.

Two years later, the Conservatives in the UK under Stanley Baldwin won 47.8% of the votes, and with the support of other parties, formed a government that commanded a majority of 255 in the House of Commons. When Baldwin stepped down in 1937, Neville Chamberlain took over as Prime Minister on the assumption that the national mandate to govern had been passed to him. With that mandate, he signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938, which allowed the Nazis to overrun Czechoslovakia with impunity, and encouraged them to plot more invasions.

Did Chamberlain act on behalf of the will of the British people? If a referendum had been held in the UK at that time, when many people did not want to go to war with Germany again so soon after the First World War ended less than two decades ago, Chamberlain’s appeasement policy might have been backed by a majority of the public. But the reality was that Nazi aggression and oppression could not be appeased. This is not being wise after the event. Politicians such as Churchill and Attlee could see it and wisely, and courageously, formed a new national government between them (after pressurising Chamberlain to resign) and together fought the Nazis until the war was won. The US tried to stay out of the war too, but was stung into action when it was attacked by Nazi Germany’s ally, Japan, at Pearl Harbour.

Whatever Hitler, Chamberlain, or any political leader might claim to do in line with the will of the people, the fact remains that they should never be allowed to impose their interpretation of what that ‘will’ means on everyone else, especially when it could have dire consequences in ruining countless lives. Even if they had managed to win enough votes on one or another occasion, many of those who voted for them might be misinformed in the first place, or simply voted for a headline they found attractive without considering what specific policies would ensue. Most importantly, circumstances could change to reveal that what might have seemed a good idea at one time was likely to lead to a major disaster that must be averted at all costs.

Almost a century on from when fascism first reared its ugly head and isolationists thought they could prosper without giving consideration to other countries, we once more face threats that are all the more dangerous because they come from those who claim to be backed by ‘the will of the people’.

In the US, Trump’s white-washing of the racist intimidation and callous murder witnessed at Charlottesville leaves no doubt where his narrow sympathies lie. As far as backing from the people is concerned, out of the US population eligible to be a voter in 2016, only 19.2% of them voted for him [see Note 1]. Americans once bravely fought and helped to defeat those who supported the toxic Nazi ideology abroad, they must now tackle those who are promoting it at home.

As for the UK, Theresa May, like Chamberlain, took over from a previous Conservative Prime Minister who had resigned, and declined to call an election before she triggered Article 50 to leave the EU, because it was ‘the will of the people’ (out of the UK population who were eligible to be a voter in 2016, 31.8% voted to leave the EU [see Note 2]). When she eventually called an election in an attempt to obtain a mandate for her actions, the Conservative Party promptly lost its majority in the House of Commons. Chamberlain was not permitted to get away with thinking the UK could cut itself off from Europe and keep appeasing nationalist extremism when it was spreading across the channel. Neither should May be allowed to steer the UK away from Europe and reinforce anti-immigrant sentiments just to appease the nationalist extremism growing on our own soil.

At any given moment, it is unlikely anyone can tell for certain what the will of the people is. But for all time our conscience will leave us in no doubt – stand against racism and bigotry.
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Note 1: Out of the whole voting-eligible population in the US, it is estimated that on average 76% are actually registered to vote (based on a 2012 study by The Pew Charitable Trusts); in the 2016 presidential election, the turnout was 54.7%; and Trump won 46.1% of the votes cast – so 46.1% x 54.7% x 76% = 19.2% of the voting-eligible population in the US backed Trump for President.

Note 2: In the UK, out of those eligible to register to vote, it is estimated that 85% actually register; the turnout for the 2016 EU referendum was 72%; and 52% of those voted ‘Leave’ – so 52% x 72% x 85% = 31.8% of the voting-eligible population in the UK backed Brexit.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Impartiality or Bias in Politics

Imagine last night a couple of public announcements were made. First, the Church of Flying Angels issued a statement about babies being made by angels and placed in women at the instruction of the Creator, and that it would be unforgiveable for any public or private agency to counter the rise of teenage pregnancies. Next came a broadcast by the No-Nonsense Party, promising that if elected, they would make the country strong and great again once they have stopped people living here if their surnames have fewer than two or more than three syllables.

Now teachers, commentators, politicians are being asked what they make of such views. Should they all stay silent because any critical remark they make would be condemned as biased?

But is it biased if having looked at the reasoning and evidence related to these announcements, they conclude that they are ill-conceived and ought to be rejected? In fact, any honest and impartial observer would set out why no credence should be attached to these ideas. By contrast, to say nothing when discussions about them are going all around would not be a sign of neutrality, but an abdication of responsibility to point out grave errors when these are dressed up as sincere religious/political declarations.

The key to impartiality is the readiness to apply the same standards of critical assessment to any given case as one would to all other cases. So long as one’s judgement flows from that assessment, without it being altered by any undue influence (e.g., bribes, discharge of personal favours, loyalty to one side of those involved in a dispute, intimidation, vindictiveness), then whether others agree with it or not, it cannot be accused of being biased.

Moving away from the Church of Flying Angels and the No-Nonsense Party, there is, alas, no shortage of absurd and false claims being solemnly put forward in our everyday life either. And when we find ourselves in a school, a discussion group, or some other forum, we should not hesitate to call out what is untenable and advise others not to be taken in by them.

If we criticise the proposal of one particular political party because we have pledged our loyalty to another party to attack whatever is put forward by their rival, then we may well be biased. But if our support for any party at any time is itself shaped by our critical evaluation of the policies of different parties, then we are as impartial as we can be.

This will not stop, of course, those with fanciful notions or devious lies branding as ‘biased’ anyone who dares to object to what they say. If you are not one of their dedicated supporters, you are by their definition ‘biased’. That won’t alter the fact that their protest is hollow. After all, would we accept that all referees are biased whenever they penalise a player for committing a foul, because in their judgement, that player has committed a foul? It’s quite irrelevant for the team penalised to moan about referees not supporting their team. Referees may for all kinds of reason support or not support any particular team, but so long as their decisions are based solely on the rights and wrongs of the case before them, they do a fine, impartial job.

So let us ignore the ‘shut them up by calling them “biased” brigade’, and speak out honestly and impartially about the political proposals we hear. As friends, analysts, or teachers, we would not be true to ourselves and others if we pretended there was nothing to say.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Importance of Being English

It could be said that the first rule of being English is not to talk about being English. While other people may want to analyse their cultural characteristics, or broadcast their national identity; we prefer to be quietly confident about who we are.

But can we afford to be quiet anymore when the notion of Englishness is at risk of being hijacked by the unscrupulous to serve their dubious agenda? If we let them define ‘English’ in ethnic, religious, even jingoistic terms, such misrepresentation could take hold by default.

Instead of allowing this to continue, we should more readily assert and celebrate the Englishness that truly binds us. We must not hesitate to speak of it with pride, or dismiss attempts to taint it with prejudice.

For a start, what kind of people do we English regard as embodying the best that is within us? Looking back on our history, we admire those who curbed arbitrary rule, extended the democratic franchise, and gave us all better military and social security. While our past was not free from the shameful activities of slave traders, we side with reformists who condemned slavery and tirelessly put an end to it. Reflecting on the scars from religious hatred and conflicts, we esteem those who led the progress towards respect across diverse faiths and beliefs. And we accord the highest honour to those who defied and fought against such repugnant threats as Nazism and all its fascist allies and variants.

The heroes of England, past and present, are the ones who enhance our wellbeing – physically, intellectually, culturally. Think of the many outstanding English scientists and inventors; thoughtful critics and dedicated campaigners; the great writers, artists, and composers; outstanding stars in sports and entertainment; and above all, think of our abundance of everyday heroes, like our soldiers, teachers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, and nurses, and many others who dedicate their lives to serve our common good.

And do our heroes come from a single town, city or region? Do they all subscribe to one particular religion or none? Do they speak with one uniform accent, and have exactly the same taste in what they eat and drink, what they read and watch? Do they know all the classic allusions or every contemporary cultural reference? Are they without exception descended from one ethnic group, or arrived from a single place like Denmark or French Normandy? The answer is a resounding ‘no’ on every count, and any accurate portrayal of Englishness must reflect the rich diversity that permeates every dimension of who we are.

Of course it does not follow that ‘English’ can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. We have a shared history that underpins our sense of belonging. We have a vibrant language that, despite its propensity to evolve, serves as an anchor for our mutual understanding. We possess a distinctive blend of humour, pragmatism, and delight in inventiveness. And we have no time for bullies and oppressors.

Our flag of St George commemorates the legend of a Greek-Roman hero slaying, not some defenceless scapegoat, but a mighty dragon that was posing a threat to innocent people. That indeed is a fitting symbol of the English spirit.

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Saturday, 15 July 2017

Isn’t Profit a Tax on Workers?

The people of a country generate its Gross Domestic Product with the support of the nation’s infrastructure, judicial protection and public services, and a part of the overall revenue is channelled to fund the maintenance and development of the state’s capability to discharge its duties to the people. That is taxation.

The people in a company generate its turnover with the support of those in charge of the company putting in place effective systems and investment, and a part of the returns is diverted to cover what those who own/run the corporation believe are necessary to keep them doing what they do. It is their profit from the enterprise – it is in essence also a form of taxation.

Taxing people to pay for important support that would not otherwise be forthcoming – be it a deduction for the work of the government, or one for the input of corporate chiefs – makes sense, so long as the deductions are set at an optimal level.

Obviously if the people in charge are taking too much from those with whom they are meant to be working as a team, misspending the money on ill-conceived projects, or keeping large amounts for their own gratification with scant regard for those they have taken the money from, then the arrangements need to be challenged.

In the case of a country’s government, the closer we get to a democratic system of accountability, the more likely citizens can scrutinise how much is being taxed and choose through electoral contests the tax/spend options that make the most sense to them.

In the case of companies and those who control them, despite parallel arguments having been made about democratising corporate governance, most workers have no say at all how much of the revenue they generate together is taken away as profit. And if the amount taken away satisfies those with power, but leaves the company in question less viable or the workers more insecure, not much can be done under an autocratic regime.

It is ironic (though hardly surprising) then that the plutocratic elite complain incessantly about being taxed by a democratic government that citizens can freely play a part in electing, scrutinising, and removing; while at the same time they tax the workers of organisations they preside over without any form of democratic input from those workers to ensure that the proportion taken out as profit is fair and good for the business’s own future.

Of course, there’s the familiar retort that workers can move to another firm if they’re not happy with too much money taken away from them as profit for those in charge, whereas citizens cannot escape from their country and its taxes. In reality, economic conditions make all the difference. Workers, with unions’ negotiation powers curtailed and social security slashed, have little choice but stick with companies that treat them with scant regard. Wealthy citizens, by contrast, can set up a few homes abroad or hide their money off-shore, and avoid paying taxes.

But the plutocrats will no doubt point out, it’s their company, they can take out what they want as their profit, and they can’t see why anyone else should have a say about it. Just as the autocratic rulers of old used to say, it’s their country, they can take whatever they want, and they laugh at the thought that anyone else should have a say about it.

Let’s see how long the reign of corporate dictatorship lasts.