Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Mill, Dewey & Me

In a year when the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origins of Species has been rightly celebrated, we should remember that 1859 was also the year John Stuart Mill’s seminal On Liberty was published and the great progressive philosopher, John Dewey, was born.

Mill’s ideas on expanding human understanding through experimental science and the freedom to explore knowledge claims without being constrained by prejudices or arbitrary authority paved the way for contested theories like Darwin’s to get a fair and rational hearing. Consequently, societies more prepared to consider new thinking with a genuinely open mind are the ones more likely to advance their abilities to solve the problems which would otherwise hold people back from having a happy and fulfilled life.

As for the accusation that experimental knowledge could only deliver technical tools without enriching our moral understanding, Dewey made the case that ethical dilemmas arose from having to choose between options, where the appropriateness of one’s choices could only be judged with the help of experimental knowledge. What should one teach the next generation? In what practices and institutions should we invest our resources? How to balance the needs of one group against the claims of another? For Dewey, the answers to these questions were not to be found in some transcendental realm beyond human experiences, but have to be worked out like any other challenges in life through systematic and responsible experimentation.

Unless we are prepared to review diverse options, take into account the actual experiences of the people who were involved, and adapt to changing circumstances, we would not learn how to make life better. For Mill and Dewey, human beings share the goal of overcoming suffering, frustration and missed opportunities, and they stand the best chance of attaining that goal if they cooperate in developing arrangements which enable everyone to explore and reflect critically on what practices would bring improved results. Dogmas, superstitions, the whims of the rich and powerful, must all be held in check so unhindered enquiries can continuously deepen our understanding as to the ends and means for how we should live.

In recent decades, as the progressive cause has so often been at risk of splintering through the contrasting political emphasis put forward by liberals, communitarians, civic republicans, deliberative democrats, mass action activists, feminists, trade unionists, localists, and global federalists, Mill and Dewey have provided the one consistent basis for a unifying approach. Thinkers and advocates who draw on their writings, whatever other differences they may have, tend to have important outlooks in common, making it possible to connect what they advocate into a coherent whole. In short, leaving aside divisive labels, intellectual empathy with Mill and Dewey is the surest pointer to a shared agenda for building more inclusive communities.

These two philosophers have been a constant source of inspiration to me. By a fitting coincidence, it was in 1959 – the centenary of Mill’s On Liberty and Dewey’s birth – that my own sojourn in life began.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

A Simple Equation

You don’t need to be Einstein to work it out.

Power x Arrogance = Oppression

Yes, it is as simple as that. You allow a system to concentrate power in some at the expense of others, then even the slightest arrogance would bring about oppression.

Give the Post Office management the power to make cuts to the frontline workforce while increasing their workload, and on the basis of such changes reward themselves with more money while the postal workers get nothing – and sure enough, the postal workers are left with no choice but to take strike action. What do you expect them to do? Say “thank you for reducing our numbers and making work more difficult so that you can get a better pay packet while we get zilch”?

Give the police a system which, according to the latest newspaper report, has just appointed a senior police officer who was “personally criticised for failings in the Jean Charles Menezes shootings” onto the management board of the Independent Police Complaints Commission – and are we now more or less confident that wrongful police actions against us would get a fair hearing?

Meanwhile in America, give the insurance and pharmaceutical companies so much power, and they protect their astronomical profits by leaning on enough politicians to stop them approving anything near a system which provides universal healthcare for what is supposedly the richest nation on earth. In the meantime, those without cover just go on suffering and dying quietly.

Isn’t the ‘arrogance’ part of the equation the bit we can do something about? Remind people of their ‘corporate social responsibility’, their ‘conscience’, the ‘respect’ they ought to show their fellow human beings … but that is the problem with arrogance, people afflicted with it don’t give a damn what you say to them. If they were convinced they could get away with trampling over you, they wouldn’t give it a second thought. You see them everywhere – in organisations large and small, some paying lip service about consulting those their decisions would affect, some not even bothering with the superficial niceties.

The only thing we can do anything about is the power part. Do not let power be concentrated in the few who will owe us no accountability whatsoever. Do not acquiesce in a structure of oppression. Do not forget that even if we as separate individuals lack the influence to correct unjust distribution of power, we could organise ourselves to take a collective stand.

It is often said that a true test of a civilized society is how well it treats its weakest members. An equally important test is whether even the most arrogant cannot get away with pushing others over to achieve their own ends. We can never get rid of arrogance, but we can put a limit on the accumulation of power and thus end oppression.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Interdependence Day

24 October – the designated United Nations Day – should from now on be celebrated as Interdependence Day. The establishment of the United Nations was a momentous step forward away from the anarchic nation-state politics which brought us countless continental conflicts and two World Wars. And underlying the institutional development of the UN was a principle with deep emotional and moral resonance, namely, that we are mutually dependent on each other. We thrive when we respect and respond to one another’s needs, but we are weakened by every attempt to dismiss the concerns of others as insignificant.

So what does appreciating our Interdependence entail? For a start, we should redouble our efforts to challenge those who want to split the world into separate groups with one-way dependencies. They must not be allowed, for example, to get away with dividing people into the ‘well off’ who hand over money with nothing in return, and the ‘poor’ whose lives are dependent on state benefits or philanthropic donations. We are, in fact, equal as citizens and we all depend on each other’s cooperation and good will. We should contribute to the protection of each and everyone of us through our ability to help, and draw on universal benefits we are entitled to count on.

Similarly, attempts to segregate society into the ‘wealth creating’ private sector and the ‘resource draining’ public sector have to countered. The private sector has its economic role but left to its own devices, it is quite capable of losing control and destroying people’s livelihood, whole communities and the environment. The public sector needs to be scrutinised democratically, but unless it is strong enough to take collective action in our common interest, the ruthless and irresponsible would get away with ruining the lives of countless others. When the private financial sector has exploited weak regulations to behave utterly irresponsibly, wiping out people’s savings and jobs, it is not time to be duped into jumping on the ‘slash the public sector’ bandwagon.

As such divisiveness is spreading globally, a worldwide sense of interdependence is even more urgently needed. Jobs cannot be protected for one country if other countries are starved of employment opportunities. We cannot turn a blind eye to the biggest polluters just because they are backed by regimes more powerful than any other single country acting on it own. We have to join forces to stop the climate change deniers make matters even worse.

And we certainly cannot have a small elite of nations which can deploy troops all over the world and bomb others at will, and expect the vulnerable countries to ignore chances to increase their military capability. A world with a few super protectors on whose mercy the rest depend for their security will neither be safe nor peaceful.

Democratic public institutions at the national and global levels hold the key to translating our moral interdependence into mutually supportive arrangements to secure our wellbeing. Total independence from others is not only unrealistic, but it breeds a self-deceiving arrogance that ignores the dire consequences one’s actions could have for others. We need each other’s support, and in this thoroughly inter-connected world, that means we need to work through strong and resourceful democratic governments within our respective state, and at the global level, through the United Nations. If the UN is not robust enough as it stands, the answer is not to weaken it further, but to boost its resources and democratic responsiveness.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Fox and the BBC

One of the oldest tricks used by powerful commercial interests to undermine any public service institution which gets in their way is to accuse the latter of being over-bearing, costly, and harmful. Their propaganda has one not-so-subtle core message: if you dismantle, or at least considerably weaken, such institutions, then the kindly free market will look after everyone much more effectively.

That’s what private health care and insurance companies have tried to do in undermining the NHS in the UK, and blocking the development of anything remotely resembling it in the US. And where have they been given the platform to give utterly distorted views about public health provisions? None other than Fox News of course. Here, with the generous backing of rich corporations, you can always count on ‘experts’ being lined up to criticise any individual or organisation working for the public good. Typically, when Obama was running for President, Fox would routinely have a panel of exclusively pro-Republican commentators to help viewers understand the ‘flaws’ in the Democrats’ arguments. On any contested issue, the views of those more in tune with corporate interests would be presented in a better light, given a more favourable hearing.

In the UK, Fox could not so easily get away with such blatant plutocratic bias. Standing in the way of Fox’s owners are the British requirement on balanced reporting in broadcasting, and the existence of a publicly funded, impartial provider of news, the BBC. So it is hardly surprising that we are being lectured by the Fox-News Corporation junta about the terrible inadequacies of the British broadcasting system.

What would the cunning fox have us do? First of all, as usual, we should cut back on the ‘excessive’ regulations. The requirement on balanced broadcast reporting unhelpfully prevents corporate interests from using commercial channels to dominate the airwaves with pro-corporate messages and shut out everything else. Without such a requirement, we would have broadcast news as fair and instructive as we already get with the Sun and the News of the World, with their fearless reporting digging into the private lives of anyone, except for those running large and irresponsible businesses.

Secondly, we are asked to stop getting in the way of Sky’s attempt to secure a monopoly over coverage of popular sports events. This is very upsetting because the consumer may end up having to pay more to get all the coverage when it is divided between different providers. But we shouldn’t forget that before Sky came along to bid and charge people for their exclusive coverage, the consumer did not have to pay anything extra at all to view all the main sports events on terrestrial channels.

Thirdly, the BBC should be reprimanded for its ability to invest in new technology, its programming to reach a wide audience, and its world-respected quality because these all make it very difficult for those who want to squeeze more profit out of the public by giving them plutocratically soaked news and cheaper programmes. Yet if the BBC were to lack innovations, cater only for a small minority, or have low quality output, you know who would be first in line to lambast them for not offering value for money.

It doesn’t take Aesop to tell us that when the fox pleas with us to follow it into the jungle of deregulated competition, the last thing we should do is to mistake its deceit for sincerity.

Friday, 7 August 2009

An Alliance to Promote Democracy

Why should we worry about promoting democracy? What is it that democracy brings about that we so desperately need? Knowing that is actually half the battle as all too many people think of democracy as little more than a multi-party voting system, and cannot see anything lacking so long as some such system is in place.

The real value of democracy lies in its aim to secure reciprocity amongst people who live and work together. The ethical golden rule of behaving towards others as one would have others behave towards one, can only be sustained if no one could in practice get away with behaving regardless of the consequences for other people. For all the moral entreaty to be kind and considerate, if power in society is so distributed that some can routinely get away with ignoring the views and concerns of those affected by their actions – across the country, in the workplace, at home – then those less powerful would indeed have to rely on the mercy of the strong.

The problem goes even deeper because without the discipline of having to check what one intends to do against the reasons and experiences of other people, one is liable to overlook ideas for improvement, and prone to persist with one’s errors. No voting system can by itself guarantee that those with the power to make decisions affecting others will properly take into account what others think before making their decisions. Indeed some systems even make it possible for groups with only minority support to continue to rule over the majority year in, year out. Such systems are anything but democratic.

It is therefore imperative to promote democracy so that everyone – irrespective of their race, gender, income, age – can have the ability and opportunities to have a meaningful say about decisions that affect their lives. None should be marginalised and all must be given equal respect before the law. This will necessitate, above all, a relentless drive to ensure that gaps in power inequalities are cut back; those entrusted with the exercise of power are really made answerable for their actions; people can develop informed views and make them count; and those with the least power are given the confidence and support to get their voices heard.

Despite resistance from the sceptical and apathy of the complacent, support for strengthening our democratic culture and practices has been gathering momentum. With initiatives such as the rolling out of the national Take Part programme to help citizens become involved in public policy decisions, the introduction of a Duty to Promote Democracy for all local authorities, the implementation of the Sustainable Communities Act to enable communities to redirect government spending, and the establishment of LINks (Local Involvement Networks) across the country, it is an opportune moment for civil society organisations to join forces to help widen and deepen democracy. The challenge is to move from ad hoc project partnerships to form a broad base alliance which will keep democratic development centre-stage.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Some Like it Thick

By contrasting a ‘thick’ ethos, which is allegedly needed to glue society together, with the ‘thinness’ of what people actually have in common, a number of political theorists have over recent decades created a powerful impression that the solution to social fragmentation is increasing the number of customs and beliefs we share. On this view, Americans or Brits, for example, are engaging more and more in pursuit of their own interests instead of the good of their country, because they are not sufficiently bound together by a thick set of ‘values’ which would underpin their patriotic pride.

This is misconceived as an idea and most unhelpful as a guide to policy. First of all, people love their country for different reasons, and whether they collaborate with or oppose each other depends on the availability of opportunities for them to work for their mutual benefits in a fair manner. People with different outlooks, religious beliefs, or cultural traditions have nonetheless cooperated effectively when they can openly consider how they can be supportive to one another. It is when one side deceives or exploits some power advantage they possess to undermine the other that cooperation breaks down. And deceit and exploitation are practised by members of all faiths and races on their own kind as well as on others. If instead of developing people’s, especially children’s, capacity to understand and reason with each other as people deserving of equal respect, we focus on imposing a set of customs which do not in fact command universal following, we would only breed resentment, not cooperation.

Secondly, ‘thickness’ implies some inherent quantitative measure which by itself can determine what custom we should demand acceptance by all those to be given formal citizenship. It suggests that the more we put into this portfolio of national values, the better it would be – the more we insist on what people should wear or not to wear (e.g., the Burkha or hooded jacket), what they can joke about in relation to religions, what festivals they should celebrate, what symbols they must respect, the better we would function as a united society. But the worthiness of values or customs cannot be validated by the mere fact that they are held by a majority of people. The acceptability of the Burkha or hooded clothing should be judged on the practical implications of their wearer’s identity being concealed. The value of symbols and customs are best left to their beholders, while the proposal for the universal adoption or banning of any practice should be critically examined in the context of the effects they would have on people.

Finally, people’s relationships are enhanced by their differences as well as their similarities. Although members of a large group may have many things in common with some others in the group, what they all have in common may be few in total. But that does not matter so long as they can count on a shared approach or system which enables them to use reason and evidence through reflective deliberations to navigate their way through conflicting courses of action. Such an approach, often dismissed as ‘thin’, liberal, and procedurally-based, is actually what makes cooperation possible whether people have many values or customs in common, or they have serious differences requiring mediation and conflict-resolution in family, school, the workplace, community disputes or international tensions.

If we really want to stop society falling apart, we should rid ourselves of this ‘thick’ metaphor once and for all, and concentrate on the educational and institutional support for inclusive rational deliberations. And the biggest barrier to that is the prevalence of unequal power relations which are still all too often defended in the name of business or religious autonomy.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Pride & Tiananmen

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged, that a society in possession of political prisoners, must be in want of justice and improvement.

However, many people in China do not want to talk about repression and injustice, but only what makes them proud of their country. They are not keen to dwell on the past, least of all events like the Tiananmen incident when, on June 4 1989, hundreds of unarmed civilians in a peaceful protest at the centre of Beijing were killed when the army was sent in. Many others were imprisoned for voicing their demands for democratic reforms. Politicians sympathetic to such demands were removed from office, and in the case of the former Premier Zhao Ziyang, put under house arrest until the day he died.

To ignore atrocities of the past tends to be a recipe for being ill prepared for their recurrence in the future. But talk of the Tiananmen Massacre – especially when coming from foreign political figures who have responsibilities for ensuring their countries’ interests are not eclipsed by China’s – tends to provoke a reaction against what are viewed as attempts to belittle China. Since 1989, many in China would like to believe, their country has moved on. The humiliations heaped on their motherland for much of the 19th and 20th centuries have at long last been eradicated. They are now one of the most powerful nations on earth. Economic strength and military might are joined by achievements such as the spectacular 2008 Olympics hosted by Beijing which fittingly witnessed China topping the medals table for the first time.

Yet with all the indisputable progress, what about basic quality of life issues such as being able to question how the decisions of the powerful in society may affect one and one’s family? Being able to obtain information and contest proposals without having to bribe corrupt officials? Being able to air reservations without fear of being arrested and imprisoned? Why shouldn’t Chinese people be able to do these things?

One answer is that these are Western notions which distort what life should be like for China. It was the spread of such ideas – allegedly alien to Chinese culture – that led students to assemble in Tiananmen Square, demand reforms from their government, and stay defiant in the face of approaching soldiers and tanks, forcing a showdown which could easily have been avoided if they had been more submissive. And it is the persistence of such an outlook that prompts questions about the lack of basic freedom when quiet obedience is the best guarantee of prosperity.

But what has something being Western or non-Western got to do with any of this? Western dictatorships long pioneered repressive measures, ordering troops to fire on their own citizens, and locking civilians up for questioning their government. So China would therefore never adopt such ‘Western’ methods? Western critics of liberal reformists have led the way in condemning them by invoking patriotic sentiments. So China would not substitute ‘anti-American’ by ‘anti-China’ in deploying such ‘Western’ style anti-liberal propaganda?

Ultimately, the Western/non-Western distinction is just a smokescreen. Whether something originated in the West has no bearing on whether it should inherently be adopted or rejected in China or anywhere else in the world. All those who protested in Tiananmen twenty years ago wanted was to have a peaceful system of accountability so there could be a stable and responsive state. China could be justly proud, when that day eventually arrives.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Know Thy Goal

Being a progressive can be like being a member of a lost tribe. You wander around with others, all yearning for that moment when the foundation can be laid for a new just society. But one false turn after another, and you begin to doubt if you would ever get to where you will truly belong.

It doesn’t help when those claiming to have the skills and vision to lead the way so often end up being disorientated themselves. If you follow them unquestionably, you could find yourself stuck in a cul-de-sac handing even more power to those who already dominate society through their corporate networks; pushed together near a pit of quicksand where the unlucky victims are left to sink to the bottom; or marched towards a cliff edge with cries of courage in your ear and echoes of madness all around.

Is this the avoidable fate for those who want to build more inclusive communities? No, not if we hold on to what we should really bring about – a relentless reduction of power inequalities in every sphere of life. That is the essence of a better world. People being able to interact and cooperate with mutual respect and without fear of intimidation from anyone amassing sufficient power to subjugate them. Take a step forward only where that would lead to a retreat of power imbalance, and that would surely guide you to making the right progress.

If you use this as your moral compass, you would not allow the police to hurt innocent people in the midst of peaceful demonstrations; you would not hand power to the meat industries so that they could create the repulsive conditions leading to BSE, bird flu, swine flu and much besides; you would not deregulate financial institutions so they could take more and more irresponsible risks at the expense of ordinary people’s savings and livelihood; and you would not embrace the arms manufacturers as esteemed exporters of fear and death.

Instead, you would map out where the balance of power has shifted too far towards one side in any significant form of social or economic relationship, and rally support for rectifying it. In some cases, this could mean that despite their protest that they have been too tied up with red tape, corporations are to be regulated more tightly and their offshore havens closed off. In other cases, for all the talk of parental right, aggressive parents who are abusive to teachers would need to be prevented from doing so in the future.

Our journey is not about tracking populist hotspots which the media would favour, nor is it about hoisting a few symbolic flags of defiance for its own sake. It is about changing power relations. Find out where conditions give rise to some being able to use their power disadvantage to deprive others of a fair chance to share in and contribute to the common good, and transform them.

There is a saying that at 50 one reaches the age when one can fully grasp one’s mission in life. The progressive struggle – as a deliberate challenge to unjust power distribution – has been going on for not just 50, or 500, but 2500 years since the Chinese Mohists and Athenian democrats systematically started pressing for more inclusive power structures back in the 5th century BC. Anyone who hasn’t grasped the goal of rolling back power inequalities is perhaps not meant to be a progressive after all.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

King John’s Lesson for the G20

In the early 13th century, King John sat on the English throne and thought nothing of deciding what was to be done in his domain without consulting anyone. After all, that’s what rulers were supposed to do – they acquire power and exercise it as they see fit. What he didn’t pick up was that the mood of the people was changing. They were increasingly agitated by their ruler taking decisions which took little account of their concerns. They were not prepared to put up with it anymore.

Those who had no chance of getting King John to hear them out took direct action. Some, such as those who came to be immortalised as Robin Hood and his followers, robbed from the powerful, fought their local Sheriff, and handed money to the poor. Others ambushed and confronted defenders of the establishment just to express their anger.

Higher up the social hierarchy, the barons were getting fed up with John’s ‘know it all’ hubris too. In 1215, they forced their King to sign the Magna Carta – a charter which would limit the powers of the ruler and make his right to take decisions on a wide range of issues conditional on proper consultation with the leading aristocrats in the land. Two vital consequences followed from this. First, once it was conceded that no ruler had any special power or wisdom to lead infallibly, there was no going back. Anyone trying ever again to reclaim the right to rule without letting others have a say would be overthrown by an implacable opposition.

Secondly, and even more importantly, the principle of engagement in decision making – it would come to be increasingly recognised – could not be ring-fenced to apply to just a few aristocrats. Each declaration that the ruling group could not possibly allow anyone else to join in was to be met with resistance until, eventually, everyone, regardless of race, gender, income or creed could vote, scrutinise, and stand for office.

The G20 is no King John. But in a globalised world, people can see that there are transnational institutions like the banks and energy suppliers whose actions have caused havoc and distress everywhere. Any international political grouping, be it the G20, G8 or any other combination, positioning itself as the vehicle to deal with these institutions and tackle other worldwide problems, will inevitably draw to itself the questions, “who do you speak for? And how have you given them a say?”

When the world’s most powerful people gather together to decide what is best for the world, the people who have not been given a say would be concerned with their interests being ignored by those decisions. What will be the investment priorities to revive the world economy? Why should the call for an independent global reserve currency be dismissed out of hand? What actions will actually be taken to close the offshore tax havens? Will more be done to tackle climate change? These are important issues which only a global authority can help to address, but no one individual or group can assume that authority without recognising that it has to be grounded on a global democracy to make it sustainable.

Sending the Sheriff out to catch Robin and the hoodies is not a long-term solution. Some day those in control of the world’s fate would have to face up to the need for a global Magna Carta which sets out transparently how people everywhere, regardless of their nationalities or socio-economic status, can vote, scrutinise, and stand for office in relation to the global authority acting in their name.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Powerlessness can damage your health

How power is distributed in society can put innocent lives at risk. The less powerful you are in relation to others, the more likely you are to suffer ill health. We are not talking here about how the powerful may abuse their positions and inflict harm on those who cannot stand up to them. It is the mere fact that by virtue of being in a subordinate position that one becomes more prone to sickness and deterioration.

A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology study found those having to take more overtime tended to develop signs of cognitive impairment known to be a risk factor for dementia. Members of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health carried out the study by tracking more than 2,000 workers in the UK since the 1980s, and cross-referenced their scores on a range of brain function tests against their overtime records. Those who had done the most overtime had lower scores than others in terms of their reasoning and word-use ability.

Why would anyone keep working long hours with all the associated stress and exhaustion? They may be desperate to earn more to make ends meet, or they are simply not in a position to say no. In either case, they have to endure it because no other option is open to them.

The study did not differentiate between the seniority of the workers concerned, but anyone wondering if this has any bearing on the power-health relationship can refer to the study by Rose and Marmot (published in ‘British Heart Journal’) which looked at 17,000 workers with the same employer and found that death rates from heart disease were four times as high amongst the most junior workers as amongst the most senior administrators working in the same offices.

The reality is that the higher up you are in an organisation, the more control you would have over what you would spend your time doing, and how you would deal with the issues you face. By contrast, the lower down you are, the more you have to take orders you may not agree with, the less say you have over what hours you work, and any influence you have over key decisions dwindles unless you work for a very progressive employer.

This is mirrored by the impact of power distribution across society more widely. According to the study by Donkin, Goldblatt and Lynch (published in ‘Health Statistics Quarterly’), those with lower socio-economic status have shorter life expectancy than those with higher status – indeed by a margin of almost seven and a half years shorter for men (in England and Wales in the late 1990s).

So next time someone tells you that it is up to powerful people to amass resources and control for themselves and it’s nobody else’s business, remind them that any act of power distribution which intrinsically cuts down the life chances of other people is everyone’s business. We have a common interest in getting it right.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Year of the Invisible Ox

The third largest minority ethnic group in Britain have just started celebrating the Chinese New Year. It’s the Year of the Ox, an animal that embodies many of the characteristics often ascribed to the Chinese: quiet, hard-working, high on productivity and low on maintenance. You can let them get on with laboring to get things done, and you don’t really need to pay too much attention to them.

Not surprisingly, in the struggle between the white establishment and the champions for the ‘black’ minorities, the Chinese have been cloaked with invisibility. It is notable that in professional or entrepreneurial roles where a practitioner’s skills and commitment are directly rewarded by appreciative clients or customers, many Chinese have achieved success for themselves. But where progress depends on getting through a large organisational hierarchy, few make it up the corporate ladder. Culturally disinclined to blow their own trumpet, they seldom if ever question being overlooked.

On the other side of the fence, ‘Black & Minority Ethnic’ consciousness hardly stretches to the Chinese either. Black (covering African and Afro-Caribbean) and Asian (covering those from the Indian sub-continent) groups are the ones to be given more support. Though the Chinese are the ones with the lowest participation rate in civic engagement and voting – and let’s not forget, there is not a single MP of Chinese descent in the House of Commons – little is done to rectify that anomaly. Indeed one highly influential advocate of BME rights had been quoted as saying that more must be done to increase the representation of Black and Asian – not Chinese or any other group – in public life.

There are two possible lessons here. One is that the Chinese should learn to adapt. They must stop cultivating in their children outmoded deferential attitudes, and all the meek and mild nonsense of getting on with their responsibilities quietly. Instead, they should teach them to be far more assertive, make their presence felt, sell themselves to those in senior positions to get on.

The other lesson is for the champions of equality and diversity to open their eyes and see what needs to be done to counter the neglect of Chinese people. No, they are not all successful business leaders. Many live in poverty. A large number have to put up with dreadful working conditions. They suffer the slings of prejudice and arrows of discrimination, but their ill fortune is seldom if ever covered by the media. Many have no prospect of career progression because their cultural diffidence is interpreted as signs of limited abilities. They have no political role model, because Parliament has no place for a single one of them.

So what is going to be the way forward? As we know, on Animal Farm, not all animals are equal. Between pigs and human, black and white, the ox will have to speak out before others take it seriously.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Unite or Perish

Why do you think the old British American colonies declared in 1776 that they would act in unison to build a new independent nation? Many feared being subsumed into a united America could cause its own problems. In the end, they were persuaded by the succinct eloquence of Benjamin Franklin: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Today the citizens of the world don’t have mad George (the eighteenth century monarch or his contemporary namesake – not after the end of his term of office anyway) sending troops all over the globe demanding submission. But the threat we’re having to face is no less daunting.

For decades now business giants have made themselves the ruler of the seven seas. Their plutocratic regime has a wider span and firmer grip than the British Empire ever attained. In pursuit of their own short-term profit, they have pressed ahead regardless of the dire problems they cause for others. Unions can no longer protect workers when corporate bosses can cut pay or move jobs abroad at will. The media fuel a consumerist culture so that parents not endlessly buying new products risk being seen as failures by their own children. Allies in governments help to block environmental action and allow pollution to reach ever more dangerous levels. And to cap it all, financial transactions became so deregulated that irresponsible lending plunged the world into a deep recession.

What the plutocrats fear is concerted democratic action – citizens of the world acting together through a global government capable of challenging the cynical hegemony of powerful corporations. And that is precisely what we must press for above all else.

Of course you will be told that there are many more urgent issues governments have to turn their attention to. But none of them acting alone stands any chance of delivering the solutions we need. To have real long term employment prospects (instead of the ‘hired today, fired tomorrow’ flexible jobs), to replace destructive consumerism by a sustainable planetary future, and to stop the senseless recurrence of economic crises, we must have a government with worldwide jurisdiction and accountability to all citizens to stop business powers from trampling on us.

What about the threat posed by a world government? In truth, decisions affecting the entire world have been made by an unaccountable elite for decades. Arms sold to oppressive regimes, carbon emission increased, tax havens protected, these things happen because the people giving the go-ahead do not have to account for them to the global public, or think about losing their positions of power at the next election.

Ultimately, the United States were stronger and prospered because the separate colonies decided to join forces. Democratic arrangements made sure the federal government would on the whole act in the interests of all. A democratic global government would likewise safeguard the interests of citizens around the world. Time is running out. The world must learn to unite, or most assuredly, it will fall apart.