Wednesday, 1 December 2010

An Interview with 'Father Christmas'

Q: Sir Reginald, you’re one of the most celebrated entrepreneurs and philanthropists in the world. Your renowned generosity has led your friends in the City to call you ‘Father Christmas’. That must make you proud?

R: Well, we should all do what we can. I haven’t given that much. On the latest count, maybe I’ve given about £40 million to charities.

Q: That’s a huge sum. Some have estimated that to be almost 0.005% of your personal fortune.

R: Yes, I think my children sometimes worry that I’m getting too generous. But how many more mansions and companies can I buy them! It’s so important to think about other people. When I look at my vast art collection, for example, I don’t think about myself, I think about the people who might be deprived of a chance to view these masterpieces. So I’ve donated millions to galleries and museums to enable them to display my precious collection to the masses.

Q: And you give substantial sums to political parties too?

R: ‘Parties’, as you rightly noted, not ‘party’. I’m totally non-partisan. Political parties seek to gain power to run our country, and I give them the support they need to do that well.

Q: Isn’t it true that in return your tax bill has been drastically reduced under all the different governments?

R: Not just my tax bill, all my friends have had to pay less tax as well, and most of them haven’t donated a penny to any political party. So once again, others benefit from my generosity, which is fine by me.

Q: Your giving is not limited to this country either, is it?

R: I’m a complete cosmopolitan. We live in a splendidly inter-connected world. And I give to countless overseas projects.

Q: Like the one with the princes in the Middle East where your gifts helped them build up the world’s finest fleet of Rolls Royce cars?

R: Absolutely, and in return, we got a contract for supplying their government with some of the deadliest weapons in the world. I’m very proud of contributing so much to the peace and stability of this volatile region.

Q: Finally, Sir Reginald, what about the people who work for you? What are you most proud of in giving to them?

R: So many things come to mind. I give them all a good income. Some of them complain it’s not enough to live on, but what do they know about the cost of living! They should try the upkeep I have to cope with. I give them a straightforward working environment, with none of these health and safety complications tripping everyone up every second of the day. But above all, I give them that rare opportunity – to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, because every quarter to increase our overall profitability and share values, I give a good number of them the sack.

Q: That must be quite hard to do?

R: You’ve got to think about the big picture. The more people I make unemployed, the lower the pressure is on wage demands. That keeps inflation down, which helps the economy, and all my friends are happy.

Q: No wonder they call you Father Christmas.

Monday, 1 November 2010

On Strikers and Own Goals

Strikers attract headlines. They are a focused and determined bunch. Nothing will deflect them from their goal – scoring in a cup final, smashing home that last minute equaliser, or moaning about one’s club to get one’s pay doubled.

The trouble is when you need them to help you defend your vulnerable position, their impetuosity could cost you a few serious own goals.

Public services are going to be drastically cut back. There will be reductions to the level of support for people, old and young, who would not otherwise be helped; to the number of jobs needed by families and communities; to the resources required for maintaining a basic decent quality of life.

For some, the time has come to bring on the strikers. This would get everyone’s attention, they say. They will score against the opposition, for sure. But how do they think they will actually achieve that. Have they really got a coherent strategy? Have they thought through their tactics?

It has to be said that in these kinds of clashes, the strikers don’t exactly have an enviable track record. They tend to come on and draw attention to the widespread inconvenience they will cause, and away from the problems heaped on society.
That’s 0-1 down.

Every strike from then on, far from raising awareness of the consequences of cuts to jobs and services, just strengthens the hand of those who present themselves as the true custodian of the public good, standing firm against reckless strike action.
That’s 0-2 down.

As the contest goes on, if the strikes continue, the public loses patience completely with what they see as purely self-interested actions, and throws its support behind the shrinking of public provisions, with little sympathy left for those who try to resist it.
That’s 0-3 and the final whistle.

Of course, under the right circumstances, strikes could deliver for social justice. They’ve even made a film - 'Made in Dagenham' – celebrating how strikes helped to further the cause of equal pay for women. But horses for courses, and blind deployment of strikers would just lose everyone the one match they desperately need to win.

Some may say that unless one has a better suggestion, striking is the only way forward. But we don’t always have to know the right solution to be sure what would be a very wrong answer. I have no idea how to carry out brain surgery to help someone regain consciousness, but I have no doubt that you’re not going to bring someone out of a coma by cutting off his head.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Paint It Red

I was in the middle of reading Drew Westen’s The Political Brain when I saw a white rabbit running past me muttering, “I’m late, I’m late.” I followed him but soon fell into a hole which turned out to have a very long drop. By the time I landed, ever so gently, at the bottom, the rabbit was already heading out to an open field where a large crowd had gathered. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but all the people listened to him attentively. Then suddenly a pack of human-sized playing cards appeared from nowhere. The Jack of Clubs pointed at the rabbit and solemnly declared, “Paint it red”. The cards diligently carried out the order. The now red rabbit was dumb-founded. In the next moment, everyone had turned on him. They shouted abuse, threw rotten eggs and tomatoes at him, and chased him away.

Curious as to what had happened, I walked over to what appeared to be a family picnic by a river to see if they could enlighten me. The father wore a very big hat and was totally absorbed in dishing out the food, except he was piling it all on the plate of this one ginormously fat boy. The other ten or so children were frankly emaciated. Before I could say anything, the smallest of the kids, a little girl of four or five, raised her hand and asked, “Why can’t we all have a share?” The father stared at her and replied in a low voice, “Because it’s my food, Alice, and I can do what I want with it.” “But,” said Alice, “that’s not fair.” She had barely finished speaking when those strange playing cards popped up and surrounded her. Contemptuously, the Jack of Clubs uttered as he looked down at Alice – “Paint it red”. The other children glared at red Alice and in an inexplicable rage they pushed her into the river, and the little girl was never seen again.

I wanted to report this awful incident and found my way to the nearest courthouse. As I approached, a huge egg loomed into view. The judge, it transpired, was none other than Humpty Dumpty. I had to wait because he was in the middle of a very serious case. A walrus and a turtle had both been accused of drugging all the King’s horses, a crime punishable by death. In support of his defence, the turtle offered a cast iron alibi. By contrast, the walrus offered a large bag of gold. The turtle was outraged, “That’s a bribe!” But Judge Humpty Dumpty disagreed, “No, no, no, words should be chosen carefully, especially when they mean whatever I want them to mean. And what the walrus offers me is a generous donation. So he can be set free.” The turtle turned to the jury and pleaded with them, “this is madness, you cannot let this happen. You mustn’t let wealth overrule justice.” In an instant, the pack of cards whizzed by and the turtle was painted red. The jurors fixed their gaze upon him and shouted in unison, “Guilty! Guilty!” Humpty Dumpty nodded in approval, “Excellent decision. It just leaves me to record his guilt and give the order for, oh, I never get tired of this part, Off with his head!”

Shocked at what I was witnessing in this topsy-turvy world, I went to the highest authority in the land – the ruling twins of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. At their palace, in front of their subjects, I asked them if they were aware of what was going on under their reign, and if so, what they intended to do about it. Tweedledum replied with a smile, “Those who have can go on having”, and Tweedledee continued, “and those who have not are not going to have”. As they clapped each other, I said there must be a better, fairer way. Even as the assembled masses showed signs of agreement, the pack of cards flew by me and left me painted in red. At that point, the mood of the crowd changed. They started running towards me chanting, “He’s red, he’s red, off with his head!” And then I woke up from the nightmare. Or so I thought.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Anger Mismanagement

A woman was recently caught on CCTV picking up an apparently healthy cat which didn’t belong to her and putting it into a wheelie bin, where it remained trapped for fifteen hours before it was fortunately found by its owners. That footage was put on the Internet, and outrage against the woman’s behaviour spread in no time. Death threats were made. The local police had to consider giving her protection in case her location became known.

Rage is so easily triggered these days. But often it explodes without any sense of proportionality. There are people who almost foam at the mouth when they hear about the small minority of poor people who try to cheat the benefits system. Yet they barely whimper about rich people manipulating tax arrangements to take billions more pounds out of the public purse (£50 billion more on one cautious estimate). Similarly, there are people who are incensed with thoughtless young people vandalising their neighbourhoods, and want the entire police force out to rein them in, though their fury is not summoned when the broader fate of their neighbourhoods is sealed by corporate bosses who moved their business out of the areas, knowing full well that would devastate the communities for years, if not decades to come. And there’s the vengeful rage directed at any drunk driver for getting only a few years in jail for killing one person, but nothing remotely comparable expressed against business directors who knowingly, through deadly pollution or life-shortening products, bring about the untimely deaths of thousands of innocent people.

In fact, when we look more closely, the corporate elites who cause the most harm to the population are the ones least exposed to angry recriminations. Aided by the media, litigation and lobbying tools they have at their disposal, they can sit back while others whose offences are much smaller than theirs are served up for public ire to consume. Furthermore, where the daily reporting of crime and misdemeanor is not enough, the corporate interest-driven media line up scapegoats who, though they are actually more victims than perpetrators of human cruelty, are vilified for the sole purpose of being made into lightning conductors for the thunderous temper of other people. The public, instead of seeing, for example, refugees seeking to escape persecution, workers resorting to strikes to save their livelihood, or public servants taking the blame for everything, as fellow sufferers plunged into fear and uncertainty by a system which looks after the plutocratic few, are goaded into bitter resentment against them.

It does not end there. The deliberate deflection of anger away from corporate manipulators takes its most formidable form when the public are tricked into venting their spleen at the people who are most genuine about helping them get a fairer deal in society. America has shown most dramatically how this works in practice. John Kerry, a true war hero, was portrayed as unpatriotic as opposed to his rival for the Presidential race, G W Bush, who avoided being drafted for the war. The more Obama wants to help his fellow Americans with healthcare reform and economic recovery, the more he is attacked for being ‘Un-American’ (in some cases, literally). Even social reform-minded Republicans are now subject to anger offensive to dislodge them in congressional primaries in favour of candidates who “really connect” with ordinary people (i.e., the candidates most dedicated to protecting the corporate status quo and committed to bringing their righteous wrath upon the likes of gay people, Muslims, feminist advocates, Latino immigrants, and of course, liberal politicians).

Sometimes, in the face of oppression and injustice, anger may have a place to fuel resistance. But we need to direct it, not at innocent scapegoats, but the real culprits.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Another Coup on Animal Farm

There has been yet another revolution on the old Manor Farm. The last grand pig leader was removed from the farm house, and the new occupant, Porkie, and his trusted friends, told all the animals that things were to be completely transformed.

It was entirely the fault of the old pig leader who was always trying to help everyone and ended up wasting so much of their resources that they were in heavy debt. There were even rumours that some of their neighbouring farms might take them over. Porkie declared he would not make the same mistake. He would leave animals to sort things out. He had faith in their ability to make life better for themselves. All animals would thrive, he declared.

In time, some animals did thrive. The fat cats, who actually caused all the problems in the first place by gambling most of the farm’s money away and begged the old pig leader to help them out, had got away with not having to pay their own debt while continuing to squeeze everyone else. They got fatter by the day, and they were a shining example, said Porkie, of how animals did best when they were left alone to make their own living.

The big (“but we’re not bad”) wolves grew even bigger by renting out shelter to many wretched animals that no longer had anywhere decent to live on the farm. As more homes were mysteriously blown away by, what some secretly suspected were wolf-induced, violent storms, the big ‘nice’ wolves stepped in with an offer no one could refuse.

Down in the gutter where the latest stories about Manor Farm were spread, the rats were doing splendidly well with lots of feel-good tales about the rich and famous, and snippets about how lazy, scrounging creatures were getting their comeuppance. Together with the crocodiles and the vultures, they even set up a Weeping Fund for fluffy animals that had become destitute. The Fund raised a microscopic portion of what the Farm used to raise routinely through a collective levy, and was greatly appreciated by those few cute bunnies and guinea pigs whose ‘saved from the brink’ life story rendered them eligible for this kindly aid.

For the rest, the hardworking horses, the fatigued donkeys, the obedient sheep, the redundant goats, and many others, life sank deeper and deeper into misery. There was no hope for anything better – unless you count Rev Ron Raven III’s sermons about the wonderful Sugarcandy Mountain which would one day be reached by all who believed in his words. Some fat cats donated generously to Rev Raven to set up Sugarcandy Mountain Schools where animals were taught that blessed were those who knew how to make lots of money.

The old owl, Socrates, did not like what he saw. He warned that the farm was degenerating into a most appalling state. He urged the animals to do something before it was too late. The wolves wanted to tear the outspoken owl to shreds, but Porkie was more forgiving. Socrates, he said, was a fool and couldn’t help being dissatisfied about everything. What was important was whether he, Porkie, and his good friends, were satisfied. And they most certainly were.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Against Power Inequalities

The Cooperative Movement in the UK has been organising a fortnight of activities to promote awareness and understanding of the cooperative model, in the run-up to the UN International Day of Cooperatives (3 July 2010).

Under the banner of ‘There is an alternative’, it showcases the numerous examples of cooperative enterprise. There are over 4,800 independent cooperatives in the UK, operating successfully in diverse fields, from healthcare to housing, farms to football clubs, food retailing to funeral service, credit unions to community owned shops, pubs to public relations, wind farms to web design. Most importantly it draws attention to cooperation as a different, vibrant, inclusive way of life which shuns exploitation, and takes as its foundation the voluntary collaboration of equals in achieving common goals.

Many individuals and organisations still maintain that it is not viable for people to run businesses, the economy, or society on a cooperative basis where everyone has equal power in shaping the key decisions. These anti-egalitarians come up with endless excuses for why power has to be concentrated in some (usually them) for the world to work as it should. Without deference, fear, submissive compliance, they decry, chaos would prevail.

I have studied these enemies of the cooperative ethos and examined how for centuries they have deployed a variety of tactics to frighten and deceive people into accepting power inequalities as the necessary social norm. My book, Against Power Inequalities, recounting their ideological manoeuvres and how progressive-minded activists have throughout history sought to counter them is now published and aptly launched as part of the Cooperative Movement’s celebration of the International Day of Cooperatives (

The theme of this year’s International Day is on how cooperatives empower women to participate as equals when in so many parts of the world, and certainly in all too many business organisations, women still have less say than men. Cooperatives show that decision making by people as equals, regardless of your gender, ethnicity, your parents’ wealth, or any other factors which should have no bearing on the respect for you as a person, can lead to positive and sustainable outcomes for all concerned. They also demonstrate that the wealth generated by the efforts of everyone does not have to be distributed disproportionately in favour of the few powerful men and their exclusive network of elites. Instead, a fair distribution considered and agreed by every member of the enterprise – one member, one vote – is not only do-able, but engenders a real spirit of mutual help and respect.

But as with every democratic form of co-existence, even the most effective cooperatives have to cope with individuals and organisations which persist in rejecting their ethos. Until cooperatives become the standard model for joint enterprise everywhere, they will have to hold their own, stay true to their principle, and keep persuading others to embrace the cooperation of equals as the foundation of all human activities.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A Mad Tea Party's Brewing

The so-called ‘Tea Party’ movement in America is at first glance a curious brew. It appears to be a coming together of individuals who want more freedom, and the way they go about it is to demand less intervention from government. Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Review of Books, connected it to the shift towards greater social freedom in the 1960s and economic freedom in the 1980s. It was, he suggested, a long term trend of people wanting to get on with their own lives without government telling them what to do.

But one man’s freedom can easily be another’s enslavement – if there were no fair rules, and no impartial system to enforce them. In the 1960s, the freedom of Blacks, women, homosexuals, and other people disadvantaged by prevailing social conditions and prejudices only expanded because successive governments intervened to end the discriminatory actions of many in the general population, and in so doing helped to engender a more progressive culture. Reagan, who opposed these reforms, tellingly spoke in favour of white people retaining their freedom to refuse to sell houses to Blacks.

The economic freedom championed by Reagan and friends through the 1980s was precisely the freedom of those with the economic muscle to do as they pleased at the expense of those with little power. What the advocates of such ‘gangster’ freedom wanted was to make people think that they would all be better off with a much reduced government, when in fact the common good would just get trampled on by those with the most formidable weapons in their corporate arsenal.

It was of course a direct consequence of the deregulation of the 1980s/1990s which allowed financial businesses to wreck the world’s economy. The Tea Party movement is now trying to blame the government for doing too much when the problem is that the government had done too little in recent decades. Having pushed government’s control back, financial institutions used their greater freedom to put millions of people’s life savings at risk. The Tea Party proponents attacked the government for spending billions to prevent the financial system from meltdown, but what would they prefer instead? Let countless ordinary citizens lose everything they had because the banks had recklessly gambled their money away?

When the evocative ‘Tea Party’ label is peeled away, what we have is actually the same old ‘Let’s Help the Powerful Help Themselves’ sleight-of-hand. Look closely at what they are agitating for: tax the powerful less; don’t help the vulnerable, especially with their healthcare needs; stop interfering with what energy companies want to do; and generally reduce the capacity of public institutions to hold commercial interests to account. And if bank failures, massive oil leaks, destructive climate fluctuations, helplessness amongst the sick and poor, widespread unemployment should bring millions to their knees and at the mercy of those who are by now more powerful than ever, then all the better as far as they’re concerned.

The madness and deceit of it all are summed up by George Monbiot’s splendid indictment of Matt Ridley (Guardian 1 June 2010) – a classic cheerleader for the ‘Tea Party’ cause – government, accordingly to Ridley, is “a self-seeking flea on the backs of the more productive people of this world”, it undermines market freedom through taxes, regulations and bailouts. Ridley became the chairman of Northern Rock Building Society, which exploited deregulation to lend recklessly and ended up on the brink of collapse risking a total wipeout of their customers’ savings. The government had to bailout Northern Rock with a public rescue package worth £27 billion. For once the true parasite is unmasked.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Ultimate Horror Show

Ever thought about our fascination with vampires, werewolves and zombies? They strike a visceral fear into us, far deeper than any other kind of monsters, because they threaten the loss of what many of us regard as the essence of our humanity – our capacity for thoughtful connection with others. What makes it so precious to be human is that we can deliberately cultivate caring relationships: empathise with other people, think through the consequences our actions could have for them, and choose with due care what should therefore be done.

Unlike other monsters, which can at best destroy us physically, these creatures can rob us of our moral thoughtfulness. Once bitten by them, one would be condemned to become like them - consumed by a mindless and destructive craving, discarding any consideration of how others’ lives could be ruined by one’s reckless behaviour. Vampires, on some interpretation, might still in some instances struggle to reclaim their humanity. Werewolves, in between their ghastly transformation, might try to use their temporary rationality to lock themselves away. But unless the process is reversed, they would ultimately slide towards a similar fate to the zombies’ – losing all sense of reason and sympathy.

What makes it all the more horrific is that these are not alien entities from another planet or dimension, they are/were humans who had become thoughtless beings, and they would infectiously turn us into replicas of them. And the most frightening thing about this is that beyond the fiction of vampires and zombies lies the reality of the contagious spread of thoughtless behaviour.

Every day there are people who promote the cult of thoughtlessness. They tell people who have the most to lose from irresponsible business practices, pollution-driven climate change, oil-related environmental destruction, redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, and countless other harmful activities, that they should switch off their minds and go with the flow. Question not what these practices are inflicting on the world, the mantra goes, but embrace the wrecking of lives as the norm. The venom passes to a few, a few more, and soon enough, the zombies are everywhere threatening to wipe out any sign of thoughtful independence.

Look at poor John McCain. A decent man who once stood out in a deranged crowd which included one President who joked about bombing Russia out of existence, another one who actually ordered the large-scale bombing of a country when he had no reliable evidence that it was necessary, and now a presidential-hopeful who’s proud of her all-round ignorance. John was thoughtful once, reminding those who had not yet succumbed to the horror that climate change had human causes and needed to be tackled by collective action, that campaign finances must be reformed if democracy was to be saved from dominance by the rich and powerful, that immigrants should be treated as human beings too.

But like so many others who had been overwhelmed before him, that John McCain is gone. Forget about climate change, never mind using collective resources to save the vulnerable from losing all their savings with the irresponsible banks, but demonise immigrants instead, and blame the powerless for their own plight.

Every minute of the day, this is happening. For every McCain, there are hundreds, thousands of Tom, Dick and Mary, surrounded by beings hell-bent on eradicating every last trace of thoughtfulness in them. This is the ultimate horror show.

Friday, 2 April 2010

In Praise of Mo Tze (墨子)

If the US is looking to cultivate a ‘special relationship’ with any single nation in the world, few will now deny, it is China. It is sometimes forgotten that for over two millennia, with the exceptions of the 19th and 20th centuries, China was the most prosperous and powerful country bar none. In the 21st century, its economic, military, and cultural strengths are propelling it back to the top of the global league. And just as it has in the past co-existed with other Empires like the Roman in Europe, the Mogul in India, or the Ottoman in the Middle East, which at different times came and went, it is perfectly capable of getting along with, indeed collaborating productively with, other powerful regimes. Far from being rivals, the US and China can be partners.

However, one of the key ingredients for successful partnership is mutual understanding, and while China can access a multitude of resources reviewing in depth the American cultural and political psyche, the support for better comprehension of Chinese civilization is still all too limited.

Take the blinkered focus on China as a Confucian country. Of course Confucius (551-479 BC) has a pivotal place in Chinese history. His teaching on securing harmony through people fulfilling their traditionally assigned roles in society has been one of the most influential doctrines through the centuries. But he was not the only moral teacher to have a lasting impact on China, and his ideas did not go unchallenged. For a start, we should take a closer look at Mo Tze (c. 479-399 BC), who studied under Confucian scholars but came to the conclusion that their philosophy was fundamentally flawed. People – and for him, that term denoted the general population, not the privileged few – did not have a better life when they meekly carried out the roles laid down by the powerful: the ruler over the ruled, husbands over wives, fathers over children, masters over servants. On the contrary, lives improved only in so far as people genuinely cared for others as they would wish others to care for them. He explained that, for example, if we wanted other people to help look out for our parents or children when our abilities to do so were limited by circumstances beyond our control, we needed to be ready to offer our support to other people’s parents and children.

Mo Tze’s doctrine of Universal Love was not an idealistic entreaty to give the same care and attention to everyone when no one could afford to stretch one’s time and resources in such a manner, but a pragmatic proposal to promote social solidarity so that together people could be confident of attaining a decent quality of life which would be denied to many if they were left to struggle on their own.

Unlike Confucius who looked exclusively to ancient aristocratic texts he favoured to justify his ideas, Mo Tze maintained that any policy proposition should be subject to three tests. First came the test of past experience. He found that many of the proposals on elaborate rituals championed by the Confucians were not in fact always valued. For example, the people of the earlier age of Hsia recorded favourable accounts of much simpler rites which allowed people to show respect without having to use up scarce resources, especially amongst the poor, on showy ceremony. The second test consisted of current testimony. What people said, regardless of their social background, should be considered in deciding if any proposal was beneficial or not overall. To allow someone to declare any policy or custom as indisputable solely on account of their status would distort the truth. Finally, the third test built in checks from future experience. Even if past records and current testimony suggested that a particular policy or practice would deliver improvements for people, it still would not rule it out from being changed if its impact in the future should prove to be negative. For Mo Tze, policies must be adaptable in the light of their actual consequences.

Within a single generation, Mo Tze’s school had become the main rival to the Confucians. Mohist adherents travelled extensively in China to spread their reform message. The Confucians detested them for suggesting the needs of all should be responded to with equal respect, instead of bowing down to the hierarchical establishment. Leaders of competing states found much to irritate them in the Mohist practice of providing armed protection where necessary to defend the weak from attempted invasions by the strong.

In time, Mo Tze was acknowledged even by his Confucian critics as someone who was honourably dedicated to pursuing the goal of a better life for all. They admired his courage in standing up to princes and their armies, and recognised the potency of his arguments – even if they ultimately disagreed with them. Mo Tze’s teachings have remained alongside Confucianism in Chinese intellectual and political history. Dissuading people from wasting resources so that none would be deprived. Reining in the powerful so the weak would not be at their mercy. Exposing the selfish so that real cooperation could be promoted for the common good. These are Mohist motifs which have been weaved into China’s heritage. To understand China, you need to appreciate Mo Tze’s place in it.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Ever Tried Homeopathic Democracy?

What distinguishes a proper medicinal cure from, say, a piece of lard? At a minimum, it should have certain active ingredients which are known to have an effect on what it is intended to cure or at least ameliorate. If it has no such ingredient, or has them in extremely diluted form that they could have as much impact as a feather landing on the Great Wall of China, then you might as well go and swallow some lard.

The more you think about it, the more curious it is that public money should be used to purchase any placebo substance which by design is diluted so that it could have no active ingredient. Hence the current outcry about state funding for homeopathic ‘medicine’. Better late than never in recognising their ineffectual nature and focus our energy and resources on what can really improve our health.

It’s no different with our civic health. Democracy was devised to help society fight off the ills of oppression and anarchy. To counter decisions made with no meaningful involvement of those affected by such decisions, it was proposed long ago that the power to decide the fate of all must be grounded on the participation of everyone concerned. Dignified citizens, not pitiful supplicants, would determine what is to be done for their common good. It follows that for democracy to work, it must have active ingredients in the form of engaged citizens – participating, reflecting, deliberating, and acting collectively to shape their shared destiny.

But what we have in practice is very diluted indeed. How many citizens form opinions, not on the basis of informed deliberations, but through reading tabloid headlines? How many in America would oppose reforms to improve access to healthcare, fight climate change, or curb the powers of irresponsible banking institutions, just because their deepest prejudices are fanned by the enemies of the public good? How few are confident that citizens can band together to rein in the influence of large corporations? How few believe that by investing their time in looking into public issues and discussing these with decision makers, they could make a difference?

It is often said that time is in short supply, and people cannot be bothered with all the democratic responsibilities citizens are meant to take on. Allegedly, they just want to leave it to others, and the ratio between citizens and the ‘others’ becomes so great that the civic ingredient needed for a vibrant democracy approaches vanishing point. But people do act on the things they care about. The difference between a mother fighting for better medical care for her child, and a hundred mothers conceding defeat to a developer ruining their neighbourhood is often the overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the latter case. When that is multiplied many times over, we have thousands, millions of citizens assuming – wrongly – that democracy is a lost cause.

Democracy can of course make a huge difference. The key is to revive its active ingredient – citizens who will come together, deliberate critically, place the common good above private gains, and pursue their objectives with confidence and determination. Many networks and organisations are doing precisely that in their efforts to develop active citizens: Take Part, Democracy Matters, the Community Sector Coalition, the Citizen Organising Foundation, Unlock Democracy, the Community Development Foundation, the Citizenship Foundation, to name just a few. They have the know-how and commitment between them to restore democracy’s potency. Separately they might find it difficult to achieve, but working together – with strategic unity and tactical collaboration – they will undoubtedly attain their common goal.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Begging the Charity Question

Another natural disaster, another prompt to donate money to help those in need. That’s absolutely right. And decent people – i.e., most of the human race minus hate-warped evangelists – respond. Not all as generously as the likes of Sandra Bullock ($1 million cheque to the Haiti appeal - never mind the Oscars, she should be given an award for her lead role in generosity), but we did our bit. The problem is that we all know this still leaves the much bigger question unanswered: how can we stop people from being so wretchedly vulnerable to the disasters to come?

Earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, floods, extreme heat and cold, and more will keep coming. Charity will supplement the resources to deal with the immediate crisis, but the underlying weaknesses are still there. Hurricane Katrina infamously hit New Orleans when the rich had been able to leave the city behind, killing the poor stuck behind with no protection. Across the world, excepting where people have been able through the use of their democratic power to take collective action to look after themselves, the powerless are left to be crushed whenever the next catastrophe strikes.

Charity is a useful top-up, drawing on the generosity of the kind, adding to relief for the stricken, but only fools and charlatans would suggest it holds the key to combating human suffering. For all the moralising about Victorian values of charity, the one vital legacy of the Victorian era was to highlight the squalor, degradation, and utter repugnance of a laissez faire society, where people, old and young were left to suffer and die whenever misfortune should befall them. Successive governments in Britain, other European countries, and even America learnt in the early twentieth century that state funded public actions were ultimately indispensable to improving people’s life chances significantly.

So let us not succumb to global amnesia and forget the necessity of democratic public institutions to secure better protection, fairly and reliably, for all. Alongside the most valuable charitable work, there must be real political foundations for long term housing, development, law and order, education, and health provisions if those with the least power to protect themselves are to have any future.

And it is not just countries like Haiti that need strong democratic governance to bring about improvements for the people, their American neighbours are also experiencing a growing incapacity to develop public solutions beyond the acts of private charity in meeting desperate needs. With over 45 million US citizens lacking health insurance cover, and a life expectancy rate lagging behind all other major developed countries (and not so developed ones like Cuba), it beggars belief that the idea of collective government action to guarantee protection for all citizens should be vehemently rejected by so many. Perhaps those who are fortunate enough to have insurance themselves can’t bear to pay a few dollars more in taxes to help others, and they shield their conscience by pointing to charity as the safety net.

But make no mistake, in America, in Haiti, across the world, individual acts of charity can never substitute for universal support secured for all citizens with contributions from all citizens. So give generously to charities, and if you really care about minimising avoidable suffering, give your backing to collective action to secure better protection for all, at home and abroad.

Friday, 1 January 2010

The Denial Industry

People don’t take too kindly to injustice. They react against attempts to exploit their weakness, and are more than willing to press for fairer outcomes if their concerns were persistently ignored. But this can only happen, or happen with the correct consequences, if people knew what was really going on. Sadly, this means that those in powerful positions can protect themselves by covering up the truth. And the more they need to cover up, the more deception they have to spread.

The Denial Industry is now one of the most formidable businesses – with its hired agents to manufacture false and misleading information, its legion of public relations specialists and lobbyists, funded by corporations who have the most to gain by undermining the credibility of their critics. Climate change is the most obvious example – to spin out stories to cast doubt on the scientific evidence on the correlation between industrial increase in CO2 emission and global warming. Why? So that companies can go on making their profits while causing more and more long term problems which the poorest in the world will have to bear disproportionately. The same trend has been going on for decades with the arms trade – the denial of the utter destructive futility of increasing the military capability of oppressive governments and ruthless rebel groups all over the world. Millions of people are injured, killed or displaced. We read about the refugees who need to be turned back, and not the weapons sold to the people who make lives hell for them back at home.

The way to counter the workings of the Denial Industry is for those who are engaged in genuine scientific research, investigative examination and objective reporting to pursue their activities, with the support of public funding untainted by private interests. The battle against the tobacco business and its deployment of the Denial Industry has demonstrated that even the most heavily invested lies can be exposed.

However, the fact that cigarette companies have maintained their growth and profits by increasing their export sales has shown that cutting off a few heads of this Hydra of deception is not enough. The lies must be contested and extinguished everywhere.

In the midst of all this, watch out for the most insidious tactic of all of the Denial Industry – namely, to undermine science itself. Creation myths about who created what are harmless enough in themselves. But the reason why significant finance is given to support the teaching of creationism in schools, to discredit Darwinist ideas which are paradigmatic in scientific reasoning, and to conflate empirical hypotheses with groundless assertions, is to attack the basis of legitimate reasoning itself. If scientific reasoning and evidential assessment were lumped with myths, and their distinct role in validating beliefs could be denied, then happily for the sponsors of the Denial Industry, every criticism of their actions could be dismissed as unfounded.