Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Vote is Not Enough

Must we go along with every decision that is backed by the majority of votes cast because that is the democratic thing to do? But is it democratic if some who will be affected by that decision are denied a vote? And what if the vote is given to people who for whatever reason cannot comprehend what the vote is about and will use it arbitrarily? In any case, should the ballot be secret to prevent votes being cast under duress, or open to ensure transparency? What if only a small proportion of those eligible to vote have come forward to cast their vote? Which case should be decided on a simple majority, two/thirds majority, or unanimity? Would it make more sense in some cases to limit the vote to electing people who will then make the decisions? If so, should whoever gets the most votes in a single round wins, or would it be fairer if second/third etc. preferences be transferable in determining who would get the greatest support overall?

For anyone who thinks that ‘the majority are with me’ is a simple cast-iron licence to act, answering the above questions is just a start. There are numerous other factors that may affect the legitimacy of decision-by-voting under different conditions. For example, if a juror who refuses to pay any attention to or cannot follow the evidence presented in a trial may be disqualified, should there not be some form of independent overseeing to ensure the proceedings leading up to any vote are not derailed by ignorance, unreliable information or deception? To what extent should those with more money or other forms of power be allowed to use them to get what they want by coercing, bribing or deceiving others to vote accordingly? If formal education and the media generally are failing to help people understand how they are to vote responsibly on different occasions, should these be given a specific duty to raise citizens’ awareness about social and political issues? And where the vote is to elect a representative who will go on to take specific decisions, are we clear what the appropriate qualifications are for standing as a candidate; if there should be a limit to how many terms they can be elected for; and what arrangements should be in place for recalling them or revoking a decision they make?

To understand how these issues are to be addressed, we need to recognise there is no universal blueprint that can be applied to all individual cases. Instead, we have to comprehend what improvements democracy is meant to deliver, and hence consider in different circumstances what conditions have to be in place to maximise the likelihood for those improvements to be realised. There are three main improvements that a move towards democracy will render more likely to happen:

1. Curbing Oppression: to prevent some (a dictator, an elite group, or a large mob) from imposing their decisions on others and making them suffer without ever being held to account, democracy requires decisions to be authorised only when those affected by the decisions give their consent on an informed and un-coerced basis.
2. Correcting Errors: to stop any individual or group of individuals from claiming infallibility and making mistakes that can have undesirable consequences for themselves and others, democracy opens the way for everyone with any relevant idea or evidence to contribute to collective judgement.
3. Cooperating to Build Consensus: to resolve differences and facilitate give-and-take trade-offs without some being placed in a disadvantaged bargaining position, democracy provides a level playing field on which agreement can be reached between people through respectful deliberations.

By assessing how well any given decision-making arrangements help or hinder the three democratic objectives outlined above, we can determine how authentic they are in embodying the spirit of democracy, and what needs to be reconsidered and further revised.

So instead of proclaiming every majority vote as inviolable, or rejecting all attempts at democracy as inherently flawed, we should examine the voting arrangements put forward for local and central political decisions, elections, referenda, etc., and identify the areas where changes need to be made if the core democratic objectives are to be attained. Where voting outcomes have been arrived at as a result of one or more critical distortions, far from invoking democracy in validating those outcomes, we should stay true to our democratic commitment and question their legitimacy.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Automation, Immigration, & Civic Remuneration

Jobs with decent pay are getting harder to come by. Some blame immigration [Note 1]. Others criticise employers for moving jobs abroad. But the underlying problem lies with the widely accepted profit-centric economic model, which considers the cutting of labour costs as inherently positive.

It follows that commercial intermediaries (they who make money as the conduit between workers and customers because they own the design, the production facilities, or the distribution outlets) will keep seeking out new ways to have fewer workers and pay less to those they have to retain. Unfortunately, as less is being paid to workers, fewer workers will have sufficient income to buy what is produced. The production surplus then threatens to drive down prices, pushes more cuts for workers, and demand falls even further. And the vicious spiral of recession is in motion.

And the most powerful factor in labour marginalisation is pervasive automation. Exponentially rising processing powers, self-improving programmes, computer-led engineering, and unprecedented access to solar energy, are combining to give us automated mechanisms for virtually every form of production and service delivery. These mechanisms are not just making things we want, they can deliver online or via drones, they take feedback and rectify problems, and they offer a calm interface in providing advice and carrying out orders.

As automated processes radically cut worker costs, it accelerates the decline of purchasing power, and brings us ever closer to a world of plenty that very few can enjoy – unless we change the economic model governing our lives. If instead of pegging pay to activities involving commercial transactions, we link remuneration to contributions valued by society, we can attain a win-win position. Once work in the outmoded sense is no longer needed to be carried out by people, we can focus on what we do value about our fellow citizens – the care, respect, responsibility, creativity, sociability, we cultivate and share with others. A guarantee for civic remuneration can be given to everyone, so people can use it to acquire products and services that can be made available with no labour costs. The more automated innovation happens, the greater the stock of utilisable value there is to be distributed through civic remuneration.

The innovators who design or organise the automation can have a larger share of civic remuneration, so long as they don’t take such a large share as to leave nothing for others. There will be some who feel that without the old profit system, they cannot be motivated to come up with any innovation. But we know that there are always people who invent things like penicillin treatment, higher yield crops, or the World Wide Web, for the common good without insisting on vast monetary rewards for themselves.

Economic systems must adapt to be of use. Before market transactions became dominant, people fed themselves on what they grew; and before that, people gathered fruit and hunted for meat to share amongst themselves. As production processes change, we should leave aside ideological dogmas, and explore how new levels of innovation can be harvested to benefit all, especially when the alternative will pit a profiteering few against the discarded majority with nothing left to live for.

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Note 1: According to the Office of National Statistics, while the number of EU workers in Britain rose by 700,000 between 2013 and 2016, they were outnumbered by the extra one million Britons who went into employment in the same period. In 2016, the number of British citizens working in the UK labour force is at the near-record level of 28 million: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/20/reality-check-are-eu-migrants-really-taking-british-jobs; and Dean Hochlaf and Ben Franklin (authors of the Immigration: Encourage or Deter report) have used the Office for Budget Responsibility projections to calculate that by 2064-65, the UK’s GDP would be 11.4% (£625bn) larger with high migration than it would be with low migration:
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/eu-referendum-immigration-immigrants-jobs-brexit-remain-what-happens-unemployment-a7091566.html.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Give Collaborative Leadership a Try

The iconic sheriff of classic Westerns walks towards the town’s folks with his spurs jangling. He tells them what has to be done, and he makes damn sure it’s done.

The lone heroic leader commands dramatic attention, but history has long observed that the most effective leaders know two things – one, they can achieve the most when others are willing to help them to the best of their ability; and two, how willing others are to help them depends on the sense of togetherness they can engender.

Leaders who leave others feeling excluded will at best be tolerated like a minor princeling, or at worst, disposed of like Caesar. In the cabinet of government or the boardroom of corporations, the daggers may be metaphorical but they can just as swiftly put an end to any flawed ambition.

To steer clear of passive-aggressive mutiny in the office, and generate the kind of synergy where the sum is substantially greater than its parts, one should turn to the art of collaborative leadership. In essence, it calls for four simple things:
• Articulate shared objectives
• Promote open communications
• Engender a culture of mutual support
• Oversee joint reviews and adaptation

With collaborative leadership one can build a team that will enable its members to play to their individual strengths while covering each other’s weaknesses, and thus maximise their collective capacity to achieve what they all want to attain.

Contrary to any suggestion that this is only suitable for relaxed leaders working with a group of cooperative-minded people, it is in fact most called for in situations where collaboration seems to be completely out of sight.

Without the collaborative leadership of Dwight Eisenhower who firmly and respectfully made uncollaborative characters such as Field Marshal Montgomery and General Patton work together on a unified plan, D-Day might not have led to Allied Victory over Nazi Germany. If not for Mary Seacole’s charm and determination to get a disparate band of individuals to contribute to the realisation of her unconventional vision, there would never have been a care and catering service in the darkest hours of the Crimea War for the wounded and battle-weary alike.

And when José María Arizmendiarrieta trained and guided the first generation of managers to build in the 1950s what became the Mondragon Corporation, Spain was still under Franco’s authoritarian rule. It was Arizmendiarrieta’s unwavering commitment and promotion of the ethos of solidarity that paved the way for a federation of cooperative enterprises that by the 2010s are generating €11bn in revenue worldwide with over 74,000 workers (whose pay differentials average no more than 1:5).

We won’t go into the advice and training needed to develop such leadership, but we can use a model called the Synetopia Protocol to check the extent to which any aspiring collaborative leader has managed to put in place what is needed to nurture cooperation and multiply synergy. The nine elements to consider are:

S hared Mission
Y ou-and-I Mutuality
N imble Membership
E ducative Collaboration
T esting of Claims and Assumptions
O pen Access to Information
P articipatory Decision-Making
I mpartial Distribution of Power
A ccountability for Action
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More details on these 9 elements are set out in: ‘The Synetopia Protocol’.

Monday, 1 August 2016

The Politics of Deranged Generalisation

In an episode of the cop drama, ‘Criminal Minds’, a man lost his wife in a fatal accident which he blamed on someone driving a red sports car. A mixture of grief, anger and instability turned him into a psychopath who embarked on killing a succession of people because each of them drove a red sports car. None of the murder victims had anything to do with the original accident. They were just tragically unlucky to be targeted by a deranged mind who picked them out in connection with an incidental characteristic he had come to attach visceral blame to.

Any viewer can see that the killer was utterly irrational, and whatever sympathy one might feel about the loss of his wife, there could be no tolerance for the deadly danger he posed to other people. But in our society today when, instead of one individual behaving in this deranged manner, we have a large number of people blaming, hating and willing to hurt countless others based on some wholly irrelevant characteristics, we are told they should be respected (unless they claim allegiance to Islam, in which case they will be condemned).

Indeed, a whole industry has sprung up to protect people from “politically correct” criticisms, defend them as upholders of “traditional values”, and encourage them to act without reservation on their prejudices. These people may, as a result of some incident in their past or an unfortunate upbringing, have acquired a deep resentment against an individual or a group of them (e.g., the person(s) may be of a different gender, a particular ethnic group, a certain sexual orientation; have a disability, a low income that has to be supplemented by social security, a need to seek refuge abroad; hold another religious or secular outlook; or speak up for disadvantaged groups). And not only are those harbouring such bitter resentment oblivious as to whether their attitude is remotely justified, they mindlessly project that negative feeling to all individuals who happen to have the characteristics they have come to demonise.

When they speak or write viciously against their imagined enemies, spread lies about those people’s beliefs and behaviour, instil in their own children suspicion and hatred for the ‘inferior’ or ‘deviant’, political or religious leaders who spot them as useful fodder come forward to declare them, not as certifiable, but as deserving of respect for their tradition/custom/religion or whatever handy label that is around.

So just when therapy is most urgently needed to save these infected minds from falling over the edge into permanently deranged generalisations and all-consuming hatred, our modern day Dr. Frankensteins harvest them to feed their extremist movements. The monsters thus created stare with enmity at any kind of support given to their ‘foes’, acting alone or as a group they fuel antagonism against innocent and vulnerable people, and they channel their energy into intimidating, even harming, those who have not done a thing to deserve their disdain.

We should all take a closer look at how common it is now for euphemistically termed ‘politically incorrect’ (i.e., morally repulsive) dispositions to be exploited by unscrupulous leaders to build armies of supporters in the service of hate. That is why extremism is on the rise.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Keeping the Con in ‘e-CON-omics’

Brexit, as predicted by all experts that ‘Leave’ campaigners urged us to ignore, is pushing the UK into another recession and intensifying financial uncertainty all round.

What was not predicted, but should not come as too much of a surprise, is that the establishment has come out to ensure that in or out of the EU, it is the wealthy elite who will be protected, and everyone else (having been told we would “get our country back”) will bear the consequence.

The priority as ever is to help the banks make money, and promises for more deregulation have quickly been made to enable them to lend more money profitably – allegedly to revive the economy. But in the same speech in which he announced this move, the Governor of the Bank of England remarked that there was already too much debt around. It’s inescapable that when people have borrowed too much money and cannot pay it back, it will lead to a major banking crisis – as happened in 2008, and before that in the 1930s. In fact, it was because of the irresponsibility of the banking sector that was exposed in the 1930s that prompted subsequent banking regulation to stop banks over-lending to borrowers who could not pay the money back. In the 1980s, the banking sector, with the help of free market ideologues, rolled back these regulatory constraints and was able once again to use savers’ money as leverage in lending out to unreliable borrowers. When bad debts piled up, the banks asked governments to bail them out. And now we’re in for more deregulation, more bad debts, and before long, another banking fiasco.

The real reason the economy is stalling has little to do with lending. A mass production-consumption process can only be sustained if there are lots of people producing goods and services, and getting paid enough to purchase those goods and services. When more and more people are not getting paid work, only getting it at below-subsistence rates, or are ‘in work’ in name only because they are made redundant and told to register as ‘self-employed’, then there is a growing surplus of goods and services without the funded demand to match them. Recession thus ensues.

If only the people running corporations will pay their workers better, and support public investment that creates jobs and improves society’s infrastructure, then there will be more commercial transactions and prosperity will be generally enhanced. Unfortunately, most firms think they can leave others to pay workers enough to maintain the demand side. The end result is that the ‘efficiency’ drive of each comes together as the impoverishment of all.

Governments need to step in when individuals pursue options that undermine society. And the new UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, has spoken about her intention to pursue an inclusive approach reminiscent of that of the former Labour leader, Ed Miliband, namely, to run the country “not for the privileged few, but for every one of us”. But we’re all familiar with how politicians on the right use progressive language to mask their divisive policies. It would be a belated, but nonetheless welcome, change if May should prove genuine in seeking to curb corporate powers and put workers on the boards of businesses.

In the meantime, amidst the economic chaos that has been unleashed, we can only assume that when the goings get tough, the con will just keep going.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Dis-United Kingdom: 10 issues to watch

So by 52% to 48% the voters in UK have opted to withdraw from the European Union. The Prime Minister has resigned, shares and sterling are plummeting, and uncertainty spreads across every sector. But between the euphoria of those who think they have taken ‘their’ country back, and the despair of those who feel Britain has lost its way, there are a number of critical issues that should be closely scrutinised in the aftermath of this referendum:

[1] Relationship with the EU
In case anyone thinks the EU blame game is now over, it is only actually just beginning. EU-bashing has served the uber-right (see Note 1) well, and the attention will now shift to attacking the unhelpful ‘Eurocrats’ for refusing to agree to the perfectly reasonable exit terms that would enable the UK to have all the benefits of an EU member state and none of the responsibilities. Furthermore, unsavoury alliances will be developed with far right parties across Europe which want to build on UK’s referendum outcome to break up the EU and foment nationalistic extremism.

[2] Immigration
Many people voted for ‘Leave’ because they believed there were too many immigrants in the UK, and leaving the EU would help to reduce numbers significantly. But since the xenophobia that distorts the perception of what is good or bad about immigrants won’t go away any time soon, the uber-right will continue to fuel and exploit it. Instead of finding a workable balance between the need for EU workers and the inclination amongst some to keep those workers away, the rhetoric will turn to the problem with immigrants from outside the EU: how those numbers must be drastically cut, and even ‘options’ for repatriation may raise their ugly heads.

[3] Transnational Institutions

Will withdrawal from the EU be sufficient for Britons to “take our country back” – away from all ties that make us a part of wider transnational institutions? What about NATO, UN, G7, the Commonwealth, OECD? Will anyone bring up the connections between any of these organisations and the potential movement of foreigners to the UK? After all, once EU migration is ‘blocked’, Commonwealth migration will become the next obvious target. NATO, of course, is also a driver of asylum seeking through its bombing campaigns which generate vast numbers of refugees. But since refugees are useful scapegoats, having more of them to turn away may be tacitly welcome.

[4] TTIP (Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership)
Uber-right campaigners belatedly acknowledged that the proposed TTIP agreement would rob the British Parliament of its sovereign right to legislate (since under the terms of TTIP, any corporation with enough financial muscle can sue any government for passing laws that allegedly infringe on their profit-making), and argued that leaving the EU would ensure the UK is not part of the TTIP negotiated between the EU and the US. But since uber-right politicians generally favour private trade and profit over public interest legislation, it is possible that a government under their influence will come up with its own trade & investment partnership with the US, that will concede even more to big business and utterly undermine national sovereignty.

[5] Future of the NHS
Handing more, if not all, of the NHS to the private sector has been a consistent theme amongst uber-right politicians. That did not hold them back during the EU referendum campaign to claim that hundreds of millions of pounds ‘saved’ from leaving the EU would be available to invest in the NHS. Many people believed this. But instead of getting more funding support, the NHS could be heading for even more drastic cuts. When the NHS is unable to continue despite the best efforts of its staff, its wholescale dismantling will come to the top of the agenda, and private healthcare firms, having donated to parties on the right, will be invited to cherry pick the parts with the greatest profit-making potential, and leave the rest to rot.

[6] Worker Rights
Right wing politicians have long resented the EU-wide agreement to set minimum standards for protecting all workers from the worst possible terms and conditions. Without EU protection, a right wing government will be able to strip away worker rights, legislate against trade unions until they can never contest any edicts by employers, and do away with the minimum wage. When ever greater insecurity grips working people, they will be told that the problem is that there are still too many immigrants working in the UK.

[7] Social Justice
Some people are shocked that large numbers of Labour supporters voted for ‘Leave’, but they overlook the fact that many of these voters think of ‘Leave’ advocates as not standing at the uber-right end of the political spectrum, but to the left of the Labour Party. The Labour Party failed to link uber-right politicians to policies that have, for example, brought in surcharges for families with disabled members renting public housing (aka ‘Bedroom Tax’), decimated Sure Start support for children, and terminated the vital Education Maintenance Allowance for young people from low income families. The success of the ‘Leave’ campaigners is indeed bringing a change of government, but it is not a government to the left of Cameron, but one decidedly comprising many who are much further to the right of him.

[8] The Financial Sector

When the banking crisis broke out in 2008 as a direct consequence of Thatcher’s deregulation of the financial sector (compounded by Labour’s reluctance in the intervening years to bring back better controls), the Conservatives claimed that more effective regulation must be brought back. Once they were back in government, however, they held back from any substantial reform of the banks. They argued that the UK banking sector could be at a disadvantage if the UK acted alone without similar legislation being introduced across the EU. When the rest of EU agreed on limiting bankers’ bonuses, the UK Conservative Government sought to challenge that agreement in order to protect banking interests in the UK. With the UK pulling out of the EU altogether, politicians on the right can once again invoke the excuse that they could not do anything to regulate the financial sector when there would be no guarantee that EU countries would do the same. Thus another banking crisis looms.

[9] Scotland and Northern Ireland
While England and Wales voted for ‘Leave’, the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The Scottish Independence Referendum was previously settled in favour of remaining with the UK on the basis that the UK would in turn remain in the EU. The prospect of the UK dragging Scotland out of the EU against the wishes of the Scottish people means that another independence referendum will almost certainly take place in Scotland, with the vote decidedly swinging towards independence this time round. As for Northern Ireland, the common EU framework it has shared with the Republic of Ireland up to now has helped normalize relations between the two nations. If Northern Ireland is to be pulled out of the EU, that will undoubtedly create serious problems. ‘Leave’ campaigners have insisted that there would be no border controls put in between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but if that were to be the case, then the whole argument about regaining the UK’s own borders would be hollow, since EU citizens could freely travel to Ireland (an EU country), and then just walk over to the Northern Ireland part of the UK.

[10] The Use of Referenda

One thing this referendum has proven is that it makes no sense to use such a device to decide highly complex political issues. To discern the pros and cons of EU membership requires expert analysis. Yet whenever there is a consensus of expert opinions on, for example, the negative economic impact of leaving the EU, they are dismissed as the voice of the establishment, or worse, accused of acting like stooges of a Nazi regime (an accusation made by Michael Gove, MP). Many people voted primarily on the basis that there were too many unwanted immigrants in the UK, and leaving the EU would deal with that problem. In a jury trial, the judge can guide the jurors, and rule out misdirection and false statements, but in a referendum on this scale, lies were perpetrated continuously, and just occasionally retracted quietly. It can only be hoped that the inherent weaknesses of referenda will become more widely known, and it does not become a handy tool for the uber-right to exploit public anger and frustration.

Whenever warnings are issued about uber-right politics, they are dismissed as exaggerations. It would never happen, we are told. Immigrants would not be demonised and blamed for every ill under the sun. Those who use immigrants as scapegoats at every turn would never go on to secure power and run the country. People would never overlook the real causes of problems in society, and simply cheer the ascendancy of the uber-right. Never say never.

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Note 1: ‘Uber-right’ covers those on the radical right within the Conservative Party and those in parties to the right of the Conservatives, e.g., UKIP, all sharing the approach of cutting public services, backing military action, and blaming immigrants and multiculturalism for economic problems caused by the banking sector.

[This article was first posted on 24 June 2016, the day after the UK's referendum on its membership of the EU]

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The Lawbreaker’s Mask

Most people frown upon the antics of lawbreakers. They suspect them of trying to take unfair advantage of others by breaking rules and regulations that are meant to apply to everyone.

Yet curiously, charlatans who seek to break off legal constraints in the name of freedom may not only escape censure, but are often applauded for their daring efforts.

How does that work?

Well, run-of-the-mill thieves and robbers may hide their identity, but the most deceptive lawbreakers hide their agenda. By donning the mask of liberty, they are able to rally support in dismantling laws that get in their way. Publicly, they stir up people’s resentment against collective requirements that diminish our precious freedom. Privately, they plot to do away with any law that holds them back from doing whatever they want, regardless of the dire consequences for the likes of you and me.

When they say the state should leave families alone, they mean there should be no law hindering them from treating their spouses and children in any way they see fit. They trumpet freedom for ‘traditional families’ because the tradition they worship confers upon them unlimited power in misleading, intimidating and even abusing everyone else in ‘their’ family.

When they complain about too many rights are granted to “whining minorities”, or too many responsibilities placed on “wealth-creators”, they mean these statutory impositions should be swept aside so the elite few can become ever more powerful, while those lower down the social hierarchy should vent their frustration at those at the bottom of the heap.

When they say the government is hurting enterprise with too much red tape, they mean their notion of a thriving business has no room for legal barriers to exploitation. If only they had total freedom to browbeat their workers, twist the arm of their suppliers, deceive their shareholders, rip off their customers, and pollute the environment, they would be able to make so much more money – for themselves.

And when they say democracy is jeopardised by transnational political institutions such as the European Union or the United Nations, they mean their efforts in thwarting national governments by developing transnational corporate arrangements can only succeed if governments do not join forces in reining them in with the rule of law.

Their rhetoric screams passion for freedom and democracy for all. But behind their mask, the face is animated by the craving for power over others. Hence the endless variations on the same old theme – cut local authorities; shrink national government; withdraw from the European Union. They know, and steadfastly hope others don’t, that without laws enacted and enforced by democratic governments, the predators would be free to turn everyone else into their prey.