Monday, 15 December 2014

Between the Buddha & Camus

What truly divides us in politics is not some grand doctrine or unshakable party allegiance, but our core moral dispositions. Some see others in distress and pain, and instinctively assume such people have only got themselves to blame. And whatever evidence is produced to suggest the contrary, they will keep condemning them for countless deficiencies.

We recoil from such prejudice. When we witness suffering, we want to understand the underlying causes and find ways to overcome them. Unlike our detractors, we hesitate to proclaim ourselves ‘right’ about everything, for we merely seek to be as reasonable as we can under even the most trying circumstances.

But without the simplistic recourse of dismissing human misfortune as rooted in the flaws of scapegoats, we have to struggle to make sense of life’s seemingly endless stream of torment and affliction. Yet what can we do? However much we try to seek out amelioration and progress, the trials are interminable.

Two counsels have in the past proffered advice on this very problem. One is Gotama the Buddha, who observed that suffering was inescapable unless we were ready to attain nirvana through the extinguishing of desires and emotional turmoil. The other is Camus, who pointed out that life was inherently absurd without any meaning except for our defiance against injustice and oppression.

Gotama showed us the path to accepting the experiences that come our way and letting everything go without becoming perturbed. Camus reminded us that the only alternative to a meaningless existence is to engage in rebelling against the suffering confronting us.

What then are we to do? Keep fighting ignorance and exploitation knowing that, as in the myth of Sisyphus, our labours will never end with a final triumph? Or step back from the arena of conflicts even though that robs us of the moral purpose that underpins our existence?

Perhaps we should look beyond their apparent incompatibility and see them as two stages of a single journey. The coming of consciousness challenges us to respond to the causes and consequences of subjugation and suffering. At this point, there can be no surrender to the dominion of the powerful and the cruel. But when the time comes for us to exit, we should be ready to leave it to others to continue the campaign. Once we have completed our tour of duty, we should move on and embrace our own extinguishing.

If we retreat into nirvana when we are in the frontline battling the causes of avoidable suffering in this world, we betray ourselves. If we lament the contrived futility of not being around to fight on till the end of time, we deceive ourselves.

Between the Buddha and Camus, we have a pathway that leads us from the existential commitment to challenge the devious and the unjust, to the time when it is for us to embrace our own disengagement from the tumultuous combat. We rebels may take comfort in knowing that when our mission is done, nirvana awaits.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Con Identity

In everyday life, if we overhear some con merchant trying to sell a pack of lies to the family next door, we would warn our neighbours and perhaps even threaten to report the con-man to the authority.

In politics, the tricksters may not be so easy to spot; some victims grow so attached to the false hope being peddled that they resent anyone trying to talk them out of it; and worst of all, if the con goes down without a hitch, the perpetrator becomes the authority.

But precisely because the stakes are so high, we must do everything we can to expose the con identity of politicians who pretend they want to look after our interests when all they are after is more wealth and power for them and their accomplices.

So how do we spot the political Con? Here are four unmistakable signs:

[1] The Pyramid Trick
Whatever the spiel, the deck is stacked to ensure that it is always going to be more pay, tax cuts, bonuses and dividends for the privileged few at the top of the towering wealth pyramid, while everyone else has to work harder everyday just to stay above rock bottom. Look out for the promise of a fast track ‘social mobility’ draw where if you are one of the very lucky, and decidedly very few, you may get to climb a couple of rungs nearer to the upper echelons. You will be routinely told that all the accumulated wealth will trickle down to you in time, when all you actually get is a relentlessly growing burden weighing you down.

[2] The Smoke & Halo Trick
Any notion that may have a positive connotation will be dazzlingly shuffled before you – ‘God’, ‘Country’, ‘The Flag/The Queen’ (depending if you’re in the US or the UK), ‘The Family’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Traditions’ – stirring up Pavlovian expectations of something deserving of your unquestioning reverence. And while your attention is distracted by the fancy shuffling, your pay packet shrinks, your children can’t afford the inflated house prices in your neighbourhood, the costs of necessities from energy to medicine skyrocket, and you are left with mass insecurity.

[3] The Isolation Trick
Every move is designed to isolate you. Any collective strength you may have from being part of something larger will be drained from you. Voluntary groups daring to campaign are starved of funds. Unions are bashed. And public sector provisions for ordinary people are cut back in every direction (though subsidies for corporations continue to grow). You are told that you’re better off keeping your money in your pocket even when it could buy you much more through a public scheme. The more things are privatised and deregulated, the more you are left on your own – easy pickings for tricksters with all the aces up their sleeves.

[4] The Scapegoats Trick
A simple sleight of hand and you see nothing of the manipulation that sucks out the gains from your increased productivity one day and leaves you redundant with a cut-up safety net the next. Instead your eyes are drawn to the supposed ‘cheats’ sitting next to you – the refugees, the immigrants, the low pay and jobless needing help to feed their children. You are goaded into resenting them, despising them, and channelling all your frustration towards them, while the double-dealer pockets everything in sight.

We hear much about the need to educate the public about the importance of democracy and the value of voting. One preliminary lesson for all citizens must surely be on how to spot these devious tricks and shun the politicians with the reprehensible ‘Con’ identity.

[If you’re interested in reading a story of how Con politicians trick their way to taking complete control over the lives of everyone in Britain and America, try the satirical dystopian novel, Whitehall through the Looking Glass]

Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Meekest Link

On the one hand, we have mounting evidence that cooperative working, shared ownership, and economic democracy contribute to better individual health, more reliable economic performance, greater sustainability, and improved social relations (see note 1 in ‘Six Degrees of Cooperation’).

On the other hand, it is still only a minority of potential employers and service providers who take cooperation and workplace democracy seriously; and most people simply do not have the opportunity to work with others on an equal and inclusive basis.

So how are we to bridge this gap between what is good for us and what is open to us?

The response we most often hear is that we need to disseminate information more widely. If only more people knew about the superior quality of life they can attain through democratic cooperation, it is supposed, they would embrace it. Perhaps the dissemination just needs to be done in a more accessible way or with greater panache, but essentially the idea is that once people get the message that it is a better deal, they would go for it.

Experience, alas, suggests otherwise. Many people learn about the cooperative model and its advantages, and yet relatively few of them go on to convert that understanding into new ways of working. And the explanation lies in the fact that it is not easy to set up cooperative structures, organise their activities on a socio-economically sustainable basis, and engage people so that the democratic input of all does not get overtaken by the dominance from an active few.

Instead of trying to build from scratch a truly cooperative enterprise or campaign group, most pick the easier option of joining established organisations, and unfortunately the great majority of these do not give those who work for them or support them an equal say in how they are run.

The onus thus falls on those who are willing and able to lead the development of thoroughly democratic cooperative bodies. We need them to step forward and put in place the organisational edifice that will enable others to join in. But all too often, amongst those who champion equal participation, there is a palpable reluctance to stand up as leaders.

Perhaps it is connected with an over heightened sense of humility – not wanting to be the ones who act as the fulcrum of the operation, the driving force of change. Yet this meekness is quite misplaced. While it is essential for cooperative leaders not to lose sight of the democratic equality that connects them with others in the enterprise, it is also vital that they have the confidence and determination to lead the way in rallying and organising.

If there is one thing the cooperative and commons movements should do above all else, it would be to encourage those with organisational competence and leadership ability to build and promote social, economic, environmental, and political institutions that will give people a real chance to join in to work with others democratically and inclusively in pursuit of shared goals.

Instead of waiting meekly for others to bring new forms of business and public policy bodies into being, they should unreservedly offer themselves as the key link between cooperative aspiration and its conversion into a vibrant reality.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Revolution for Beginners

Revolution thrills the downtrodden with its promise of radical changes. When prevailing conditions are so oppressive and seemingly unalterable, people are desperate for something altogether different.

But like any explosive device, poorly handled revolutions can cause more problems than they solve.

So let us run through a few revolutionary options to give those entranced by the prospect of a brand new world a clearer understanding of how things really work when the bang goes off.

First up, the vanguard revolution that will violently overthrow existing institutions and impose a new regime to sweep aside all oppression and inequality. Always attractive to trigger-happy volatile type as well as to dreamers with a dictator-complex. Tends to be fairly indifferent to innocent people being sacrificed along the way, and intolerant of dissidents, for whom an unpleasant end is usually reserved.

Next in line, we have the anarchic revolution that displaces oppressive ruling power, not by another form of power, but by the complete absence of rule. Every structure for collective decision-making, every system for common endeavours, is disrupted or even dismantled. In the ensuing chaos of everyone-for-oneself, free-riders and exploiters take advantage of radical lawlessness and they alone gain.

Thirdly, brown shirts, black shirts, and Armani shirts all share a fondness for the dressed-up revolution. Always put on the appearance of the purest dedication to serve the nation, ruthlessly target those victimised as scapegoats (mostly minorities), and dramatically alter government policies and structures – but only to serve the commercial, military, and ideological cravings of the string-pulling elite.

Fourth in line, but ever popular, is the quiet revolution. Instead of direct confrontation, this route leads its followers to lots of small-scale alternative enterprises. These show how business can operate in a radically different way. Though they are confined to pockets here and there, they are celebrated as heralds of a new future – which will arrive, some day, somehow.

If the options so far don’t look as though they would deliver the improvements needed any time soon, then at least there is still the ultimate political weapon – the democratic revolution. If those in power deny you a vote in deciding who should be in control of national policies, then the vote is what you press for. If you have the vote, then use it get those you trust to represent your interests elected. If there is no prospect of a party with policies that best enhance the common good getting elected, then work with others to build a party or an alliance that merits your vote.

Plutocrats have for decades encroached on the common good and rewritten the rules at every level to boost their own aggrandisement. It will take a revolution to end their iniquitous reign. But as we have seen, people who talk a good talk about revolutions may be the last people to turn to if we really want to change the world for the better.

Forget about installing another dictatorship, see endless disruption for the nihilistic trip it is, avoid the con-merchants who will invoke God and the Flag to exploit you even more, and put aside idle dreams that a good society can blossom when government stays in the hands of oppressors. Only a large-scale democratic revolution will secure the necessary changes. So start building a wide progressive alliance, engage with citizens in all walks of life, and rally support for policy changes that no party wanting to hold public office can afford to reject.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Six Degrees of Cooperation

Since Robert Owen pioneered his cooperative and communitarian experiments in 19th century Britain and America, theorists and activist alike have been looking to build on them to develop a systematic alternative to prevailing socio-economic arrangements.

200 years on from Owen’s A New View of Society, there is no denying that neither the ‘free’ (meaning rigged) market favoured by exploitative businesses nor the ‘planned’ (i.e., authoritarian) economy imposed by discredited regimes has come up with anything other than ever worsening waste of human potential and thoughtless depletion of precious resources. But how can the latent synergy of cooperation, sustainable communities, and common resources for the common good be realised in advancing towards a state of synetopia?

Across the world, in opposition to the Anglo-American neo-liberal juggernaut, reform advocates (such as Pat Conaty, John Restakis, David Bollier, Silke Helfrich, Michel Bauwens, Julie Ristau, Ana Micka, and Jay Walljasper – see Note 1 below for more information) have drawn attention to the ingredients necessary to bring about, what in some quarters has been termed, the ‘cooperative commons’.

So what holds the key to our societal transformation? In essence, it is about turning cooperation from a general aspiration, by six specific degrees, into a guiding norm for human interactions.

First, inclusive cooperation requires that the needs of all be taken into account without discrimination. People are to work together, not to serve the privileged interests of a class of owners/bosses or a cadre of vanguard leaders, but to enable each to lead a fulfilling life.

Secondly, educative cooperation means that people are to learn through their shared deliberations and open enquiries what would improve their circumstances without being diverted by dogmatic injunctions or distorting propaganda.

Thirdly, democratic cooperation demands that every one is given an equal say in shaping the policies that will affect them, or choosing a representative who will give detailed consideration before making a policy decision on one’s behalf.

Fourthly, renewable cooperation calls for the reliance on resources and mutual goodwill to be conducted so that neither is used up. Cooperation and social development can only be sustained when irresponsible short-termism is put aside for the sake of our shared future.

Fifthly, federal cooperation operates through the principle of subsidiarity so that anything that can be effectively carried out at the most local level or smallest unit should be done so accordingly, but whatever needs a larger grouping to resolve differences or pool greater resources to achieve common aims should be passed up to the next appropriate level to deal with.

The sixth and final requirement is statutory cooperation, which implies that all concerned should recognise that the rule of law is essential to maintain fairness and prevent freeriders and oppressors from taking advantage of others. Cooperation must therefore extend to supporting government institutions from the local to the global level.

The question for any organisation or mode of human interaction is, therefore, how much further it needs to go to meet the cooperative norm fully. One response to shortfalls is to provide examples, explanations and encouragement to help people move forward in line with the reform agenda. But this has to be complemented by a political response – if vested interests persist in blocking change or simply continuing with the callous exploitation of human and natural resources; and those in government are too timid to take action, or worse, in cahoots with them, then reformists must develop a common strategy to get a majority who are supportive of their proposals elected.

And lest it’s forgotten, any political party to be entrusted with winning power to facilitate the necessary reforms, should itself have advanced by the six requisite degrees of cooperation.

Note 1:
The following may be of interest to readers who would like to learn more about the socio-economic changes advocated by the cooperative and commons movements:
- ‘Co-ops and commons approaches to reviving places’: essays by Kate Swade, Pat Conaty, Ed Mayo, and others
- ‘The Wealth of the Commons’: ed by David Bollier & Silke Helfrich
- ‘Humanizing the Economy’: John Restakis
- ‘The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-state Economy’: Pat Conaty and Michael Lewis
- On the Commons: Julie Ristau & Ana Micka.
- 'All That We Share': Jay Walljasper.
- P2P Foundation: Michel Bauwens
- ‘Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship’: Henry Tam

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The National Safety Fund explained

Every country needs to pool sufficient resources to deal with those challenges that its citizens cannot tackle individually on their own. But increasingly politicians have embraced the view that they must pool less rather than more resources for the good of their country, because people have apparently become very reluctant to contribute to safeguard their common wellbeing. Some of them have adopted this stance because their prime concern is to ensure their wealthy friends and families pay as little as possible towards helping other people. But there are those who also sing the same tune because, out of naivety or timidity, they dare not believe people can be persuaded to share more of their resources with others, even if that would improve life for them as well as their fellow citizens.

It is time we rethink how the true value of pooled national resources is made much clearer to the public. For too long, state institutions have taxed and spent without giving any adequate explanation to citizens why and how better outcomes for all have been achieved. We should reverse this neglect and rebuild a real sense of democratic solidarity by doing five things.

First, the fragmented and complex information on tax revenue and public expenditure should be integrated into a single accessible website that explains what is essentially the country’s National Safety Fund (NSF). The Fund is there to make the country safe from a series of key threats (economic instability, lack of productive capacity, hunger and malnourishment, homelessness for the vulnerable, health problems, military and paramilitary attacks, theft and violence, ignorance and prejudice, abuse of people who cannot defend themselves, riots, environmental degradation, destructive climate fluctuations, etc). What resources are pooled together and how they are allocated to tackling these threats should be set out in a clear and interesting way for all to see.

Secondly, every NSF transaction notice should flag up what the money involved is contributing to or how it has been raised. For example, every payslip or bill referring to ‘tax deducted’ should indicate that a democratically agreed amount has been contributed to the National Safety Fund with a link to more details about how the threats in question are being dealt with; and every recipient of support from the Fund – from corporate subsidies and social security to public-funded hospital treatment and environmental safety checks – should be informed where the money has come from via the contributions of citizens to the fund.

Thirdly, just as there are public fund-raising days that help to remind people of what the money collected by charities can do in saving people from preventable suffering (e.g., Red Nose Day, Children in Need, and many others), there should be a National Safety Day to promote awareness and support for NSF, which helps many more people on a far larger scale but is often underrated for the vital protection and improvement it gives to countless lives. On each occasion, it should set out what has been achieved and what major shortfalls still exist, encourage people to make additional donations, and conclude with a review to indicate if more funds still need to be raised fiscally beyond the donations given.

Fourthly, while attention is routinely given to tackling people who attempt to defraud benefit payments, the substantially greater problem of people not paying their share of contributions to the NSF should be addressed with a sustained and high profile Support Our NSF Campaign. The dodging of payments due to the NSF should be presented as unpatriotic attempts to deny the country of the necessary funds, and the public should be routinely reminded of the harm involved, and be encouraged to report perpetrators to an NSF hotline. Citizens can debate what laws and public finances are required, but once these have been decided on by democratically elected governments, any non-compliance ought to be exposed.

Finally, the on-going development of NSF should be guided by a series of NSF Deliberative Weekends taking place across the country where people can select the sessions that interest them and join in deliberative discussions about what funds are raised for tackling particular threats to our country’s wellbeing, how they are used, and what changes should be made. The findings from all the sessions will then be summarised to inform the thinking of politicians inside and outside government.

(The name, ‘National Safety Fund’, is a generic suggestion. Each country can adopt its own preferred name to reflect its own identity and associate it with its own symbols such as flag and emblem.)

Monday, 15 September 2014

Experimentally Seeking Progress

Lifelong learning is indispensable because no one can reach the point where there is nothing more to know or understand. Learning is an on-going journey where we continuously discover more ways to dispel myths and misconceptions, and find new ideas and insights to improve the way we live.

But this quest is made all the more difficult because, at one end of the political spectrum, there are people who want to see all thoughts frozen at just where they would like them to be. For the sake of traditions, stability, prosperity, or any other totem they can point to, they consider critical exploration of prevailing beliefs and institutions as unhelpful, perhaps even dangerous. Education for them is all about passive acceptance of pre-fabricated ‘facts’.

At the opposite end we have those who are not so much interested in learning as in revelling in a state of permanent iconoclasm. They dismiss every idea as untenable. They reject every attempt to share knowledge as indoctrination. For them, the excitement of fermenting ‘anything-goes’ chaos outweighs all drawbacks of ignorance and irrationality. Any form of teaching, except their own, is to be shunned as authoritarian.

To steer through these two extremes we need to follow the path of didactic experimentalism. What is to be believed should not be fixed at some arbitrary point, nor randomly denied for no good reason. Our views on nature and society ought to be adjusted in the light of informed experimentation that sifts out errors over time and builds on findings that add clarity and coherence to our shared understanding.

One may assume that this is the natural path people would take, but history tells us differently. For thousands of years down to the early 17th century, the Chinese philosopher, Mo Tze (5th century BC), stood out as one of the few thinkers in pre-modern times to have advocated the experimentalist approach – linking his teachings and proposals to what best met the test of experience. Even now, his ideas are eclipsed by the traditionalist Confucians and the ‘free-for-all’ Taoists.

In the 17th century, even as Francis Bacon was mapping out how experimentalist learning could lead to the incremental advancement of testable and revisable knowledge, it was the rise of ‘we’ll give you certainty-for-all-time’ infallibilism and ‘I doubt there’s-any-truth-to-be-learnt’ scepticism that stole the limelight. Bacon’s contributions have remained overlooked in educational and general history alike.

And despite the depth and breadth of the experimentalist teachings put forward by 19th/20th century thinkers such as J. S. Mill and John Dewey, all too many conservative-minded education funders and policy makers still regard those ideas as unsuited to the steady ‘transmission’ of knowledge, while there are radicals who distrust them for not throwing everything overboard.

Perhaps extremes will always carry a forceful appeal. But for all their uncompromising stance and flamboyant postures, they lead to a dead-end. When it comes to learning to improve our understanding of the world and how it can be made better, progress is more likely if we follow the trail blazed by the experimentalist pioneers.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Keeping Democracy On Its Toes

Elected politicians and appointed officials are entrusted with making decisions in the public interest when it is not feasible for the public to make those decisions themselves. But how do we know that they are acting for the common good? Question the Powerful speaks to Jessica Crowe, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS).

Why is public scrutiny essential in keeping public bodies responsive and accountable?

It comes down to one basic principle – someone who makes a decision should not be the only one to review or question whether it was the right decision or had the intended consequences. As individuals, if we take a decision, we will always be biased in favour of thinking it was just and wise. Public bodies, spending the public’s money and often with power over people’s lives, cannot do without the ‘critical friend’ challenge that public scrutiny provides. It’s not just about keeping them honest – which is vital – it’s also about enabling the wisdom of crowds to be brought to bear and to improve decisions and services for the future.

Are the public only interested in scrutiny findings if they are linked to some scandals?

We can’t expect the public to be engaged in every aspect of governance all the time – they have lives to lead and that’s why they elect their representatives to do the job. But obviously the more public interest there is, the greater the mandate scrutineers have to challenge and probe, so they need to keep on doing more to ensure their work is publicly visible, relevant and inclusive. My experience is that when scrutiny investigates a key issue, the public (or at least those sections of the public most affected) do get involved, whether there is a big scandal or not.

Do you think the quality of public scrutiny in the UK compares well or not with that of other countries?

I think public scrutiny has not been helped by the quality of public debate fostered by some of our national newspapers, or the coverage in the local and regional press. Internationally I know there is concern from bodies like Transparency International about recent developments such as the imminent demise of the Audit Commission, but we still compare well on many measures of public corruption. The most active local public scrutiny now often comes from the ‘hyperlocal blogosphere’ – but there must still be a question about the quality of some of this and how well-informed it is. It is crucial that public scrutiny is evidence-based and involves the exercise of judgment, not just critique or a single perspective.

What more should be done to help improve public scrutiny?

One major problem we face is the ever-growing complexity of public service delivery. This makes it increasingly difficult for scrutineers (let alone members of the public) to pin down who is responsible and accountable for what. It is becoming urgent that we make our systems of accountability less opaque and less complex. We at CfPS have recently proposed a new institution, local Public Accounts Committees to help achieve this. These would have greater powers than existing arrangements to look across all public services that affect a local area and call for national interventions if necessary.

Are there any trends people should be worried about?

The widening gap between the resources available to public scrutineers and those they should keep watch over poses a serious problem. As a recent article on the substantially different levels of resource available to the public prosecutor and those on trial for illegal phone-hacking indicates, public wrongdoing may not be so easy to expose when those with something to hide can outspend their accusers many times over. In local government, for example, staffing levels supporting local authority overview and scrutiny are at their lowest since 2004. If resourcing for public scrutiny continues to fall, incompetence, poor decisions and corruption will become ever harder to identify, highlight or prevent.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Question the Powerful: the political education project

Democracy is premised on all citizens having an equal say, and everyone being ready to cooperate for the common good. But when an unaccountable elite amasses ever more power and wealth, they become increasingly accustomed to imposing their agenda on others regardless of the consequences.

To counter this emerging dystopian scenario of the powerful securing irreversible hegemony over everyone else in society, it is essential that people of all ages and backgrounds learn about the growing threats, what they must do to resist them, and how they can build an equitable and sustainable alternative.

The 'Question the Powerful' (QTP) project has been established in conjunction with the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, to take forward the work of expanding political education so as to reverse the widening power inequalities that are corrosive of reciprocity and inclusive community life.

The project will promote a range of resources, including theoretical analyses, dystopian fiction, polemical essays, and policy guidance, which have been put together to promote an alternative to as well as a critique of the plutocratic distortion of human relationships.

It is not enough to recount the mechanisms of government institutions, or set out in abstract terms the ideal of voting, if people are to see clearly why the distribution of power is fundamental to social cohesion and personal wellbeing. By showing how power concentration in one group, who can buy their way out of democratic constraints, can damage our lives, we pave the way for a deeper and sharper understanding of what should be done to: (a) strengthen collective means to counter the harm inflicted by prevailing power inequalities; (b) cut the considerable gap between the powerful and others to secure a better balance of power for all; and (c) develop cooperative forms of democratic collaboration to facilitate the spread of inclusive networks and communities.

The ' Question the Powerful' resources (see'QTP Resources' for details) have been tested and revised through critical academic discussions, government policy implementation and reviews, and exchanges with lifelong learning participants. The project aims to work with partners in education, democratic advocacy, and the media to increase awareness and application of the ideas set out in the core resources in mounting an effective challenge to those who are relentlessly undermining democracy and cooperation.

If you are interested in supporting this educational project - through promoting/reviewing the resources it is making available; conducting face-to-face or online Q&As; arranging public talks; engaging tutors/teachers; or commissioning articles for your web/publications - get in touch with me at:

Thursday, 14 August 2014

QTP Resources for Political Education

Political Education that addresses power inequality:
The ‘Question the Powerful’ educational project promotes materials that aid learning about why and how those with more power than others are to be subject to democratic control. The key lessons relate to the importance of structuring power in society so that:
• none will be so strong that they can exploit or oppress others;
• each can have an equal say in determining the pursuit of the common good; and
• all can count on the security produced by their shared endeavours.

Learn from the QTP resources:
We have drawn from a wide range of ideas on democracy and community cooperation to produce a set of key texts and support materials. Each one offers a new perspective on the threats of letting the powerful dominate others, and together they set out how a better alternative can be secured. If you’re interested in rethinking the potential of politics in redressing power imbalance and socio-economic injustice, take a look at the following:
• Dystopian fiction warning against the dangers of allowing the powerful to take over ever more wealth and power: the satirical Whitehall through the Looking Glass and the allegorical Kuan’s Wonderland (for details, click on: Dystopia of the Powerful novels).
• A historical review of how the devious, greedy and arrogant everywhere have always tried to amass power to dominate others, and how democratic and progressive activists have organised the struggle against them (for details, click on: Against Power Inequalities).
• A comprehensive and accessible introduction to the communitarian theory of strengthening democracy and building more inclusive communities; and reform ideas to inform policy discussions and campaigns (for details, click on: Communitarianism).
• Resources on community empowerment practices and cooperative problem-solving techniques that have been tried and tested in enabling citizens to deliberate and act together to shape decisions that affect them (for details, click on: Together We Can).

Promote the ideas & key texts:
As a writer/editor or a host of a reading circle/web group, you can support the ‘Question the Powerful’ project by:
• Reviewing one or more of the key texts listed above and recommending them to your readers;
• Suggesting they keep in touch by subscribing to the ‘Question the Powerful’ blog (it’s free – just have to enter their email address in the box on at the top left of this webpage);
• Co-writing or commissioning an article about one of the texts or a particular aspect of the project that will most interest your readers.
• Explaining the thinking behind the project or specific texts through, for example, an interview with the project’s director;

Organise learning sessions:
As a learning provider or community organiser, you can support our political education project by:
• Arranging for a one-off presentation on a core theme or one of the key texts of the project (see QTP Talks for examples of past and current talks);
• Co-producing learning aids for your students/members;
• Hosting a briefing session for tutors/teachers on utilising the QTP ideas & key texts;
• Organising a Q&A session at one of your routine/annual events to discuss feedback and follow-up work to learning from the QTP materials.

Help us Question the Powerful:
Politics ought to be the public antidote to exploitation by the powerful few. But if we allow the few to buy their way to controlling political institutions, then we are rendered mere pawns in servicing their private gains. To forestall the hegemony of the unaccountable, help us promote the ‘Question the Powerful’ project, its resources, and the learning opportunities that can be developed with partners in schools, adult education, civil society and government.

Friday, 1 August 2014

We Are What We Eat

Ludwig Feuerbach, the 19th century radical thinker, is probably best known for his aphorism about our essence being the food we consume. But when one reflects on the social phenomenon known as ‘Incredible Edible Todmorden’, his philosophy that true fulfilment is ultimately to be found through the interactions of mutually caring people, is even more pertinent.

In Todmorden, a town with a population of about 15,000 in the north of England, this vision of the good life is very much an everyday aspiration. No one reading Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution: the story of Incredible Edible Todmorden (by Pam Warhurst and Joanna Dobson, Troubador: 2014) can fail to be impressed by how the seemingly simple idea of encouraging people to grow edible plants on public land around the town would mushroom into a pervasive culture of healthy living and community cooperation.

The ‘Incredible’ book can be read at two levels – both equally important. First of all, it is a handy guide to cultivating vibrant community spirit through the growing and sharing of food. Instead of filling public areas with pyracantha and grasses, or lamenting the lack of allotments for individuals to use, why not plant fruit and herbs in communal space? For anyone interested in doing just that, the authors are more than happy to share their recipes – for everything from what to grow, how to cook, to finding volunteers and drafting a constitution for a community group.

In case you wonder how shared growing on public land could happen with neither top-down control nor privatisation, there is the practical example of a council granting license for people to use public land to grow food – thus building trust and enabling people to improve things for themselves and their communities.

Far from suggesting that merely tapping into people’s innate niceness and everything would then work out spontaneously, this book constantly reminds us that it takes hard work, persistence, and an unwavering willingness to learn to make things happen.

At a second level, this book is an inspirational tale of how social change can happen when people reclaim their common resources. Given the increasing interest in the politics of the commons, the story of what has been happening in Todmorden – and now spreading to other parts of the world – demonstrates vividly the role of accessible practices in steering society towards the ethos of sharing and cooperation.

The tireless and imaginative ways the pioneers in Todmorden engaged with schools, adult learners, pubs and restaurants, local farmers, the police and fire services, offenders on community service, and numerous other groups and organisations show how an alternative mind-set can be nurtured. And with a different set of dispositions, people are more ready than ever to come up with new collaborations to support healthy eating, community enterprise, sustainable farming, environmental improvements, and countless other positive outcomes most public policy makers can only dream of.

The most important outcome of all is the realisation that communities do not have to succumb to the ideology of greed or surrender to the clutches of despair. Cooperation can and does offer a better future.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Politically ‘Incorrect’ or Morally Repugnant

When people are categorised as dubious because of the colour of their skin; despised because they are disabled; or detained because they question the claims of their government; they stand little chance of fighting back on their own unless there is a wider system of protection that will throw its weight behind them.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights represents a crucial collective agreement on the dignity to be accorded to all people solely by virtue of their common humanity. Yet we continue to encounter people sneering at the mention of human rights, or blithely brushing aside the condemnation of their violations as mere ‘political correctness’. Why?

Four reasons come to mind, and each calls for a firm response.

First, people all too often forget how hard it is to win better protection, or how precious that protection really is. It is the nature of succeeding generations to take the accomplishments of earlier times for granted. Unless they are effectively reminded of how daunting life would be without true respect for human rights in all circumstances, they will not be ready to resist the encroachment against those rights when it comes.

Secondly, the notion of human rights, like any idea or practice in life, can be exploited by the unscrupulous to benefit themselves at the expense of others. If attempts to invoke ‘human rights’ to justify immoral behaviour go unchallenged, they damage public understanding. Not only must such attempts be swiftly exposed, we cannot allow them to be appropriated by anti-human rights politicians as an excuse for dismantling the essential legal framework that is in place.

Thirdly, there is always a minority who pay lip service to respecting human rights while they try to undermine it surreptitiously. From polluting water supply to human trafficking, those responsible for callously ruining the lives of others should be widely branded as the worst public enemy. Whether it is through better detection, enforcement, or the closing of legal loopholes, the pursuit of these culprits ought to have the highest profile so that the public are aware of the importance of stopping them.

Last but not least, there are people who are so extreme in their views or so egoistical in their inclinations that they openly disavow any respect for various sections of society. To massage their self-importance, they will insist on their own superiority over women, gays, other ethnic groups, people with different beliefs, or people on low income. They cling to feeding their self-esteem by denigrating the ‘others’. Instead of granting any relativist credence to their ‘customs’, ‘traditions’, or ‘faiths’, they should be roundly condemned.

Human rights, as the mutual commitment to defend our basic wellbeing, are indispensable for ensuring abuse, exploitation, or predatory behaviour have no place in a civilised society. It’s time to put an end to the insidious trick of using the ‘political correctness’ label to cast aspersions over legitimate moral criticisms.

Only by taking seriously the implications of human rights can we begin to counter the spread of inhuman wrongs.

[The above is based on a longer essay I wrote for the Global Minorities Alliance to commemorate the United Nations Day of Diversity, Dialogue and Development in 2014]

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Cooperation Denial

Findings from anthropology, social psychology, game theory, and many other fields consistently suggest that where people cooperate with others as they would like others to cooperate with them, it leads to positive outcomes for all concerned.

Yet from ancient monarchic oppression to contemporary corporate exploitation, we keep coming across cooperation deniers who refuse to accept that working in equal partnership with others is a preferable option. They all exhibit one or more of these familiar symptoms: they claim to have answers to problems that no one else should question; they feel they deserve to have a better life than others; or they need to have far more power than others if chaos is not to break out.

Consequently, either their rejection of cooperation is accepted, in which case everyone has to put up with their egocentric behaviour; or persistent cooperation denial stokes frustration and resentment until tension boils over to bitter confrontation.

Is there another alternative? How can society be guided away from anti-cooperative forms of human relationship without falling into other types of asymmetric structure or some anarchic free-for-all where those with the might will sooner rather than later declare themselves to be exclusively ‘right’?

According to the Radical Communitarian Synthesis, a political philosophy that brought together the three most pertinent strands of critique against cooperation denial, this problem should be tackled by addressing its three underlying causes. First, systemic ignorance allows misunderstanding and deception to stop people seeing how more reliable answers can be ascertained cooperatively. Secondly, selective indifference to the plight of others blocks people from taking into consideration the full impact of their own behaviour. Thirdly, structural imbalance of power makes it possible for some to dismiss as unlikely any prospective retaliation against their unjust actions from victims too weak to hit back.

Correspondingly, a culture of cooperation can only flourish if we strategically advance the core elements of inclusive community life:

(1) Cooperative Enquiry: truth-claims must be subject to coherent and transparent assessments that can be validated by informed participants deliberating under conditions of evidence-based and uncoerced exchanges. (For examples of how the cooperative approach to problem-solving can be applied in practice, see: ‘Together We Can’).

(2) Mutual Responsibility: arrangements should be put in place so that people can effectively help improve each other’s wellbeing, and collectively curb any activity which intentionally or otherwise inflicts harm on others, especially those most in need.

(3) Citizen Participation: the gap between the powerful and others should be continuously reduced so that all those affected by any given power structure can participate as equal citizens in determining how the power in question is to be exercised. (For more on how this problem has been tackled, see ‘Against Power Inequalities’).

To counter cooperation denial and the deleterious effects it has on society, we must therefore have:
• Lifelong learning that will raise people’s shared understanding of how things will get better through collaboration and enable them to see through the lies and dogmas spread by charlatans and exploiters;
• Commonly owned institutions through which people can tap into meaningful give-and-take interactions so no one’s contributions are undervalued and everyone’s needs are taken into account;
• Power redistribution so that the power gap is substantially reduced and greater power is only ever entrusted to those who are truly answerable to and can be replaced by the people they are meant to serve.

The extent to which these are achieved will determine how far and fast open cooperative governance in decision-making by states, businesses and community groups, from the local to the global level, becomes the norm.

[For a detailed exposition of the ideas outlined above, see ‘Communitarianism’]

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Scapegoats United

From FDR’s New Deal to Attlee’s Welfare State, wise leaders have recognised that the strength of nations comes from the solidarity of their citizens. They know there is no upside in handing power to a superrich elite. Divisive polarisation feeds insatiable greed and suffocates those in need. And it inevitably breeds the grotesque practice of scapegoating – goading the poor to turn on the vulnerable, deflecting attention from bankers’ reckless gambles and wider corporate irresponsibility.

Instead of bowing down to this pernicious con, and conceding ever more to the malicious and the misguided, it is time for citizens to join forces. The attack on any one of us is an attack on us all. To lay the foundation, here is a simple five-point platform around which unions, cooperators, anti-poverty, anti-discrimination, sustainability & disability activists can rally and fight as one:

1. Poverty (Want)
When people cannot even afford basic necessities like food and energy, we shall not allow them to be cast aside and disparaged as scroungers.
We will work together for universal social security, and access to low-cost mutually owned renewable energy & local sustainable food supply.

2. Disease & Disability
When people are sick, frail or disabled, we shall not allow them to be mistreated just because they cannot pay for private care.
We will work together to secure quality healthcare for all, prioritise public resources for the care of children and the elderly, and extend user-controlled health and social care.

3. Squalor & Homelessness
When people end up living in cramped space, squalid conditions or out on the street, we shall not allow them to be blamed for their predicament.
We will work together to build enough affordable homes for the citizens of the country, and expand co-operative & commons-based housing and land tenure.

4. Ignorance & Prejudice
When people face prejudice and abuse because of their ethnicity, gender or sexuality, we shall not allow them to be mocked or insulted by others who should know better.
We will work together to educate everyone about the importance of mutual respect & cooperation, and build shared understanding through school & community activities.

5. Redundancy
When people organise unions to ensure everyone can earn a living wage under safe working conditions, we shall not allow them to be demonised as anti-business.
We will work together to support those who strive to defend working people and steer investment to responsible enterprise respectful of all stakeholders.

By coming together as Scapegoats United, instead of competing with each other along single-issue lines, activists will be able to help each other:
• Unite behind a more powerful voice in countering lies and denigration;
• Keep public attention on the key policy issues that really matter to people; and
• Encourage voters to back candidates who will most effectively address their concerns.

Niemöller warned us that if we let oppressors pick off others one by one, then by the time they came for us, there would be no one left to turn to for help. So the need to join forces is paramount. The time to act is now.

[William Beveridge’s vision for a civilised society calls for the slaying of the ‘five giants’ of: want (poverty), disease, squalor, ignorance, and idleness (redundancy). For more on Martin Niemöller: see]

Sunday, 1 June 2014

In Solidarity or In Solitary

Remember the iconic photograph of the man standing alone in front of a convoy of tanks about to enter Tiananmen Square?

A symbol of the power of individual defiance? Or a reminder of the futility of acting alone?

It was June 1989. Young protestors had gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to press the country’s leaders to adopt democratic reforms. On the fourth of that month, the government ordered troops to clear the square. The protestors were isolated. There was no visible support from the rest of China. Some fled, some surrendered, and many were shot.

But what if, instead of just the students gathered in an easily targeted area of the capital, numerous other citizens from all provinces and diverse sections of society had openly backed the demands for democratisation, would the outcome had been different?

On the other side of the world, on the very same day – June the fourth, 1989 – members of the Solidarity movement, which had for years been banned for daring to criticise the ruling regime, achieved widespread success in the open elections that were finally held in Poland.

Solidarity did not win democratic reforms overnight. It had built up support across the whole country over a long period of time, and true to its name, it was a mass movement that developed a clear, united front to challenge the iniquitous concentration of power in a few.

In the months following the triumph of Solidarity in Poland, collective demands for power redistribution became unstoppable, and one-party dictatorship vanished across Eastern Europe, culminating in the historic fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Before long, the Soviet Union itself broke up and in its place came republics with multi-party elections.

Unfortunately, the dismantling of one party rule, though crucial, was not enough to guarantee that power would henceforth be spread amongst the citizens as equals. Power all too often ended up being concentrated in a plutocratic elite. Through their possession of the vast proportion of available resources and their privileged position to dictate terms on how future resources were to be distributed, they could make decisions to benefit themselves at everyone else’s expense.

Not only has this happened in both the established and newly formed multi-party regimes, it has emerged in China’s one-party system where, as in most parts of the global economy these days, it is not tanks, but banks, that hold the citizens to ransom.

The iron curtain may have been lifted in 1989, but in its place, there is now an electrified fence keeping us away from the gated communities of the wealthy elite.

The only way to counter predatory exploitation is to join forces as a progressive electoral force to reclaim our democratic power. Random protests and proliferation of parties that just keep splitting the vote, simply leave the plutocrats in charge.

We must act in solidarity. Or else, too many of us will be confined to a solitary future that will be wretchedly poor, nasty, and short.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Crook, the Bees, their Hive & its Haters (a fable)

The bees work day and night to make their honey, and they share it out fairly. No one takes a lot more than others, certainly not to the extent that anyone would be left to starve.

Along comes a crook.

He says he can strategically expand the market for honey and increase the returns on the bees’ labour. By which he means he will take 90% of the honey, sell it and keep all the proceeds as his profit. When the bees ask what they get from the deal, they are told they get to keep 10% of their honey, which apparently is more than the going rate at many hives now under the control of other crooks, or ‘owners’, as they prefer to call themselves.

Some of the bees ask if they should organise themselves to negotiate a better deal with the ‘owner’. Others cry out that the man doesn’t own anything, he’s just a crook and should be chased away. Quite a few bees, however, are not keen on either approach, and propose that if they work even harder, they may get to keep 11% of their honey.

As arguments ripple through the hive, a few angry bees that had been trained by the crook enter. They call themselves ‘true bees’ – a number of them even have it tattooed all over their bodies. They declare that true bees love the Great Bee in the sky, love the Yellow & Black Flag, & love freedom and enterprise. When asked what that’s supposed to mean, they reply that it means they should hate the smaller bees, hate bees with a darker complexion, hate bees with rainbow-colour wings, and pick on them all as much as possible.

“Why?” the bees ask.

“Because”, the ‘true bees’ explain, “they are a disgrace. They are to be blamed for everything. If you don’t get enough to eat, it’s their fault. If you haven’t got enough space to live, it’s their fault. Just sting the hell out of them, and you will feel a lot better.”

Some of the bees start to intimidate other bees, and find themselves filled with a sense of righteous elation. And they call themselves ‘true bees’ too.

But the majority of bees are disgusted by this behaviour. And when the crook cuts their share of their own honey down to 5%, they call for unity to oust the man.

Unfortunately, the crook has managed to direct more ‘true bees’ to defend his control over the hive. These creatures, bordering on derangement, now routinely attack other bees. They most viciously target those bees that try to point out that the real enemy is the crook.

In time, the hive continues to weaken through its growing divisions. It makes less and less honey. Eventually, the crook plans to set it on fire because it is worth more to him as a one-off cheap source of energy than an ‘unprofitable cost centre’.

At last, even the ‘true bees’ realise they have been duped, and uniting with other bees, turn their wrath on the crook.

But is it all too late?

[My thanks to Peter Greenaway’s for calling his film, ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’, otherwise this piece might have been titled ‘Honey, it’s all been stolen’.]

Thursday, 1 May 2014

All Quiet on the Voting Front?

Europeans and Americans have got a number of important elections coming up. Elections to the European Parliament in May; followed in November by midterm elections in America for Congress and many Governor posts; and barely six months on from that, we have the next general election in the UK. But while our forebears fought for the right to vote, many of our contemporaries across the EU and the US don’t seem to bother with voting at all.

In the 2010 general elections in the UK, nearly 35% of registered voters did not vote. Amongst 19-24 year olds, 44% have not even registered to vote. In the US, figures suggest that almost 58% of voters did not take part in the country’s last congressional elections. And compared with the elderly, young people today are 20% less likely to vote.

Why is this happening?

There are three main reasons and unless we deal with them, democracy will be completely hijacked by manipulators who capture public offices for their own gain, and leave everyone else much worse off.

First, too many people are falling into the trap of believing that all the main political parties are really the same. This is a product of callous politicians doing a good act of pretending to be caring, and caring politicians being too timid to show their radical stance. But the fact remains that some politicians are committed to improving people’s lives, and some have no compunction about hurting others so that they and their corporate sponsors can get richer still. And while there may not be the perfect party that will do everything we want, so long as one party can reduce the sufferings that would otherwise be perpetuated or even aggravated by another, then citizens ought to vote for them.

Secondly, most people have little idea about what political institutions do. Without adequate political education, they just don’t see how their lives will be affected by different people winning elections. Some ignore local authorities because they misunderstand their jurisdiction. Others pay no attention to inter-state bodies when these can substantially strengthen or remove the protection they have as workers, consumers and cross-border travellers. People need to know the possible consequences from different politicians winning each election.

Thirdly, we must be honest about the first-past-the-post system being a serious drawback. 10% of the people may favour a particular party and its policies, but instead of getting 10% of the seats, they get none. Furthermore, for people living in the multitude of safe seats, the entire contest is rendered irrelevant when the incumbent is almost certain to win. In the UK nearly 60% of the seats in the House of Commons are regarded as safe. And the problem is even worse in the US.

In the short term, efforts have to be concentrated in the marginals. Even if there is no point in casting a vote in one’s own constituency, one should help the party one supports by aiding campaign efforts in a marginal seat. In the long run, proportional representation needs to be brought in. Any party getting X% of the votes should get X% of the seats. As for the perennial claim that it would benefit extremist parties, either those parties are genuinely so dangerous that they should be banned, or else they are entitled to win political offices on the basis of the electoral support they get.

Ultimately, in politics – to adapt a saying – all it takes for evil to triumph is if good citizens stay quiet on the voting front.

(For a dystopian vision of a dying democracy, take a look at: Whitehall through the Looking Glass)

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Rethinking Education

[Professor Diane Reay, a leading scholar and critic of educational policies, shares with us her views on contemporary educational thinking. She is Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge]

What would you say are the main problems in education today?

In the state system we have an overly controlled, highly prescriptive and excessively regulated education system with a low trust, low respect ethos that does not enable teachers to teach in the ways they consider best for students, or allow children and young people to exercise their curiosity or develop their creativity. But I would argue that the educational system has never worked for most children and young people, particularly those from working class backgrounds, because it was never set up to educate them, but rather to control and discipline.

Why are you particularly worried about the impact on children?

When I was a teacher in the 70s and 80s a main objective was to enable children to think for themselves, to be creative and innovative in their learning, to question and reflect on the world around them. Now the curriculum has been closed down, children and their learning are no longer the main ends in education but rather means to the ends of audit and testing, and beyond that, labour market productivity. This move from centring the needs of the child to centring the needs of the economy is linked to a distrust of the cultivation of independent minds, and a preference for compliant workers – ironically when we need innovative individuals.

Why do you think the education system is moving in this direction?

I think there has been an ideological reaction on the Right to child centred, progressive education which New Labour has colluded in. This has been exacerbated by the dominance of neo-liberal discourses of competitive individualism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. There is a focus on working in and on the self, which marginalises collectivity and cooperation, and results in target-driven cultures preoccupied with outputs rather than processes and people.

How do you see this animosity towards child centred education manifesting itself?

I think because social distances between different social groups have grown in tandem with the increasing gap between the rich and poor, there are mistrust, contempt and fear among our political and policy elites towards class and cultural ‘others’. This manifests itself in a preoccupation with control and discipline within the education of, in particular, the working classes. It is unsurprising that increasing numbers of state schools are run like military academies, preoccupied with rules, appearance and building the ‘right’ sort of character. There is a similar impulse to control teachers.

What is the key measure for reversing these educational trends?

Above all, we must start to treat education as a means of social solidarity rather than social mobility. Current interpretations of educational diversity, which have primarily been preoccupied with the creation of a strongly hierarchised diversity of school provision, need to be replaced with a concern with intra-school and classroom diversity so that possibilities for social mixing are enhanced. At the same time the current highly competitive, hierarchical and fragmented educational system should be replaced with a collegial system founded on collaboration and mutual support between schools. There also needs to be curricular changes. First, a revalorizing of vocational knowledge and a broadening out of what constitutes educational success beyond the narrowly academic. Secondly, teaching children to be caring, respectful, cooperative, knowledgeable about their own and others’ histories, and well informed about contemporary global issues are equally, if not more, important than the current relentless focus on the 3Rs. Further measures would include greater respect and autonomy for teachers; and a much fairer redistribution of resources. According to OECD figures (2009), 23% of British school educational spending goes on the 7% of pupils who are privately educated.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A History of the World in 500 words

[In every country, there is a debate about what should be taught, especially in relation to history. One answer is that all educators should teach at least one simple lesson on how we got to where we are. Here’s the proposed set text for your reference:]

In the beginning, there was land – where people could find food and shelter, where they could herd livestock or cultivate crops. Rules evolved to prevent some from stealing the fruits of others’ labour. Customs developed to sanctify the reciprocity of treating others as one would have others treat one.

Then came the Con-men (and they were mostly men). They said the land belonged to them. On a good day they would say some supreme deity had given them the land. On a not so good day, they would warn that something bad would happen to anyone who dared to question their claim. The upshot was that people would only be ‘safe’ if they agreed to serve these new ‘masters’ of the land.

Henceforth, people needed permission to work, rest or play anywhere on the land taken over by the Con-men. Whatever they found or made on Con-land belonged to the ‘owners’. For the work they put in, they would be paid a wage. But for the privilege of using the land, and any building or equipment thereon, they would have to pay the Con-men rent, interest, and the bulk of what they had produced, otherwise known as ‘profit’.

The Con-men passed on to their descendants their ‘rightful’ inheritance; while the labouring masses became precariously dependent on what they were paid. At times, workers would be told there was no work for them, and they would end up with no pay, no food, and nowhere to sleep.

Gradually, people began to realise it was all a con. Resources should never have been carved up just to suit the masters of exploitation. Power and wealth should be distributed fairly, and people at large should democratically decide how best to share the rewards from their collective endeavours.

Calls for reforms were ignored until rebellions and revolutions were threatened. At the sight of Con-men getting overthrown in one country after another, concessions were finally granted. Citizens were given a real say in government, and reforms were put in place so that those privileged by the rigged distribution of resources would have to share a little bit more of their wealth with the wider population who generated that wealth in the first place.

Alas, this trend was halted. All too many revolutionaries became Con-men themselves once they had a taste of power. As for the moderate reformists who stayed true to their principles, they were brushed aside again as soon as the threat of revolution subsided.

Thus from the ancient Pharaohs to today’s plutocrats, the same old mix of manipulative tricks continue to be deployed. Everyone is told that if those with the most do not keep getting even more, everything would fall apart. And anyone with not enough to get by is urged to blame it all on those with even less.

If history has one lesson for us, it is this. The Con will go on – unless and until the lies are exposed, and power reclaimed for the wellbeing of all.

[For a book-length history of the struggle against power inequalities, read Against Power Inequalities, by Henry Tam.]

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Art of Exposing Emperors

Educators and community activists face a difficult challenge whenever they try to rouse their fellow citizens to oppose the misrule by a powerful elite.

How can they reach beyond the informed minority to get more people to see through oppressive policies that serve only the wealthy, and give their support to more inclusive political alternatives? If they in the name of ‘neutrality’ merely repeat what politicians on all sides claim, they leave their audience as detached as before. If they attempt to expose the vicious iniquities of specific political agendas, they risk being branded biased and may find their funding curtailed.

Long ago, Hans Christian Andersen gave us a hint of how a cautionary tale can prompt people to recognise that servile conformity would only allow the embarrassing folly of a naked emperor to go on.

Since his time, others have produced allegorical and dystopian stories with which political consciousness can be raised, and passion for change can be fuelled. Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, Wyndham, Vonnegut, Atwood, are amongst those who have used fiction to engage the public imagination in visualising the horrors that lie behind the political stance of callous leaders.

To celebrate and continue this tradition of exposing oppressive rule, the ‘Novel Exploration of Inequality’ project has been developed to provide teachers, adult learning organisers, and community outreach workers with a political fable, Kuan’s Wonderland, and a learning resource, to help them engage more people, young and old, in thinking about the injustice spreading around us and what should be done about it.

In addition to collaboration with the Equality Trust, work is also underway with WEA (Workers Educational Association) to pioneer new approaches to use this resource to promote social purpose education in tackling inequality and exploitation. With the novel’s setting in a surreal world, it is free from any links to party politics. But its allegorical diagnosis is vivid enough to stir readers’ political indignation.

If you are interested in how these materials may help you or other colleagues in your political engagement work, find out more about Kuan’s Wonderland and download the learning resource for free from the Equality Trust.

To discuss how you can make use of this novel and its companion learning resource, contact the author at:
Kuan’s Wonderland is available as an e-book or in paperback.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Time for a Cooperative Government

There is increasing recognition that enabling organisations to meet people’s needs through cooperative working is key to solving the many socio-economic problems we face.

But the impetus to promote cooperative ventures can be seriously jeopardised if we allow ourselves to be misled by the notion that cooperation will thrive more if government simply retreats. Reciprocity and cooperation are greatly dependent on the rule of law. Without a democratic government guaranteeing that all participants are accorded equal respect and protection, and that deception and exploitation will be duly curtailed, non-cooperators will take unfair advantage of others, knowing there is no public redress.

If cooperative problem-solving is to become more widespread in every major sphere of life – educational, economic, environmental – then government support is vital. What cooperators need is politicians who pay more than lip service to cooperative values and community co-production. What is required is a genuinely cooperative government that will:

• Publicise and promote the core cooperative values (self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity); give recognition to groups that put these values into practice; and work with the cooperative sector to prevent any false use of the ‘cooperative’ term that is designed to mislead the public.

• Embody those values in its own policy development so that citizens are given tangible support to: help solve their communities’ problems; hold each other accountable for their actions; participate in collective decision making; be treated as equals in law and all electoral processes; secure social justice; and work together to define and pursue common goals.

• Practise subsidiarity openly and consistently so that problem-solving is carried out at the most feasible level closest to the people affected, which may be at the street or town level for some issues, but at the national or international level for others (such as dealing with transnational financial activities or global impact of climate change).

• Facilitate the development of cooperative practices and organisations by investing in the dissemination of know-how and provision of sector-led advice across all key areas, including education, food, energy, financial services, elderly care, and community land ownership and house building.

Any politician who pretends that more cooperative working will spring from a debilitatingly shrunken state is either ignorant or disingenuous. It is no help to keep loading a greater burden onto cooperators while non-cooperators are allowed to siphon off more resources under the cloak of deregulation.

A cooperative government is one that not only acknowledges that cooperative problem-solving is a more effective and sustainable way to improve people’s quality of life, but it is also one that is visibly committed to creating and maintaining the social and economic conditions that will enable cooperative groups in their diverse form to thrive. It is time political leaders set out how they will make this happen.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Anarchy: Dreams & Nightmares

From Washington to Warsaw, I have spoken with many political activists who want to improve government institutions by strengthening their democratic responsiveness. We all share a vision of citizens being empowered to shape public policies to enhance the common good. But any chance of realising that vision is seriously undermined by the proliferation of Pro-Anarchy Proponents (or PAP for short).

PAP come in many forms. And they all have their own reasons for advocating practices that are premised on the virtual extinction of government. Anarchist protestors distrust any collective system that can make binding decisions on everyone, and insist that there should be no rule except for what one has personally signed up to. Free market deregulators never tire of arguing that the ideal world is where businesses and individuals are left to make their own choices without any government intervention whatsoever. Anti-government militia maintain that they have an inalienable right to do what they want, and no government should get in their way. And survivalists believe that people should prepare for life without any form of government, as all such public institutions will inevitably be wiped away.

All these groups are driven by very different motives, but the societal changes they push for have a common destination. Every PAP road leads to a state of anarchy. In place of a pluralist constitution, which combines the basic protection of all individuals from neglect and abuse, with a transparent system of decision-making that is binding on all, what would prevail instead is what each individual manages to secure for oneself.

Dreamers amongst PAP will imagine everyone coming to an amicable understanding without having to invoke the rule of law to settle disputes. For them, life without a government – however democratically responsive it might have been – will be far better when it is down to individuals to sort out their own problems. The nightmare of a reality will be more of a free-for-all contest where might is inevitably right. Some will wield vast economic power; some will have stockpiles of weapons; and some will be bolstered by their ability to stir up crowds through their words and media outlets. Not all those with superior power may seek to advance their own interests regardless – there may indeed be real philanthropists amongst them; but only the most naïve can possibly think that there would not be those who try to impose their will on others.

Without any democratic form of government to redress the balance, the freeriders, the exploiters, and the aggressors will decline to accept or respect any rule that hinders them. They will find ways to eliminate opposition to them, and in time establish their ‘rule’ as absolute. Anarchy is the backdoor to authoritarianism.

Across the world, there is widespread recognition that governments need to be improved, to be made more accountable and democratically inclusive. But PAP talk is not only a distraction, it is ultimately a recipe for surrendering to the most abject arbitrary rule.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Politics for Outsiders: an educational mission

If a high proportion of people are poor at basic maths, there will be an outcry about deficient numeracy. If large numbers cannot read or write, we will hear of a crisis in literacy. But when the vast majority of people have little grasp of politics, there is barely a murmur about the collapse of democracy.

Politics has been caught in a vicious downward spiral because a few have managed to alienate the majority from the process of public decision-making. Intense lobbying, campaign finance, and tactical threats from the wealthiest 1% (or less) of the population have come to shape the policy agenda for everyone. And this hegemony will continue if most citizens remain ignorant of why and how they must stop being outsiders, and engage in politics to defend their collective wellbeing.

Educators have a vital role to play in clearing this miasma of misunderstanding and kindling instead an appreciation of the importance of taking inclusive political action. There is no shortage of learning resources that can be utilised. The ‘Politics for Outsiders’ collection (along with its companion Learning Guide), for example, brings together what have been developed through academic criticisms and practical policy trials, and provides a coherent set of materials to explain why:

• The concentration of power in a few inevitably leads to the exploitation and oppression of the rest, and it can only be countered by concerted political action;
• The model of inclusive community life provides a basis for consensus-building and provides criteria for critically assessing public policy proposals;
• The dangers of not opposing fundamentalist agendas (be they based on the abuse of wealth, religion, or social differences) must be widely and vividly shared;
• The use of cooperative problem-solving in dealing with social and economic challenges is far more effective than top-down or uncoordinated alternatives;
• The conditions for holding people responsible for the consequences of their actions should not be blurred by sophistry or amoral denials.

By drawing on ‘Politics for Outsiders’ and the writings by other thinkers and practitioners, educators can design courses that will not only inoculate other citizens from the infectious myths deployed to distort political realities, but also help them cultivate the informed and critical mindset needed to reconnect them to policy making in the public realm.

‘99%’ is a potent term to remind us of the vast majority who are left outside the decision-making establishment. Educators, our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to show them the way back in to reclaim the democratic control that should be exercised, not just by a privileged few, but by us all.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Chinese Pride or Western Prejudice

At the end of this month (31 January 2014), the Year of the Horse begins. The media around the world will undoubtedly take the opportunity once again to make as many sweeping comments about China and Chinese people as they can.

This year we can turn it into a little game and check the accuracy of what’s confidently proclaimed by commentators, with the help of a new book by Ben Chu (The Independent’s Economics Editor) called Chinese Whispers: why everything you heard about China is wrong (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2013). The book brings together an array of generalisations about all things Chinese, and with wit and considerable analytical prowess exposes old myths and new exaggerations alike.

Two of my favourites are: ‘the Chinese don’t want freedom’ and ‘the Chinese live to work’. Apparently, Chinese people are so obsessed with working hard that they neither mind getting paid a pittance nor being denied the freedom to express their concerns about how they are treated. That would be a convenient excuse for the exploitation of Chinese migrant workers in Britain and America in late 19th/early 20th centuries, and of lowly paid workers in China today. But the reality is that when economically one is given no other option but to take what little is on offer, and politically one can see no real opportunity to challenge the prevailing arrangements, one has no choice but to toil in silence – like billions of non-Chinese around the world.

But have not ‘the Chinese reinvented capitalism’? Have they not come up with a new economic system that, guided by far-sighted planning, and fuelled by congenitally diligent workers, is propelling China to surpass the US to become the largest national economy by 2017? According to Chu, China has merely removed the barriers in a way that countries in Europe and America have done in previous centuries (and in East Asia more recently). It has allowed its workforce to engage in producing what there is a worldwide demand for. But it is already making similar mistakes to other more advanced economies in fuelling investment bubbles; allowing a tiny elite to amass an ever increasing share of the wealth generated by the whole nation; and curtailing the purchasing power of the vast majority of its own population through a combination of low wages and minimalist welfare spending. As people save up in case they are sick and for their old age, the demand needed to sustain domestic manufacturing fails to materialise, and the same old capitalist problems will hit China.

Needless to say, Chu does not care for the claim ‘China will rule the world’. He has good reasons. Economically, the country’s per capita GDP is two and a half times smaller than that of Greece. Technologically, it is a long way from the top of the league for innovations. In 2009, it registered 1,600 patents in the US, while Spain registered 4 times that with 6,500, not to mention Japan’s 35,000. Culturally, its influence in terms of arts and entertainment is negligible outside its own frontiers. Militarily, it spent in 2012 eight times less than the US on the armed services. Its troops are confined to its own borders, unlike the US which has 500,000 troops stationed abroad. It also has 20 times fewer nuclear warheads than the US.

To the wider world, China neither poses a threat nor offers a special salvation. The Chinese people have their customs, but they also adapt to changing circumstances. In seeking peace and prosperity, they are not that different from anyone else. If anyone thinks they have a snappy phrase to capture the diverse mindsets and inclinations of a billion Chinese people, they should take a look at ‘Chinese Whispers’ first.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

‘Question the Powerful’: quincentenary of the 1514 watershed

The progressive tradition of critical thinking and radical reform has been a driving force for intellectual and social improvement for centuries. Although it began to take shape over the first half of the 16th century, the year 1514 marked a notable watershed worthy of commemoration five hundred years on.

Down to 1514, Renaissance Humanism was still largely preoccupied with recovering ancient learning to quench the growing thirst for knowledge. After 1514, the floodgates opened and the eras of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Reform rapidly came in subsequent centuries – successively advancing the frontiers of human understanding and democratic cooperation far beyond what had been previously thought possible.

Ideas articulated by a number of thinkers in 1514 cumulatively gave rise to the progressive ethos: never accept that there is no room for improvement; constantly explore alternative options; and be ever ready to question the powerful.

In 1514, Erasmus wrote Julius Excluded from Heaven, a satirical dialogue about papal abuse of power, which mocked the religious establishment for pretending that its greed and ill treatment of people were divinely sanctioned. In the same year, Thomas More, a friend of Erasmus, began writing The History of Richard III, a sharp critique of the tyrannical behaviour of kings. It cast doubt about the structure of hierarchical power as much as his other work, Utopia, questioned the socio-economic distribution of resources in the society of his time.

1514 was also the year when Copernicus wrote his Little Commentary, which challenged the view then held by everyone in a position of authority, namely, that the earth was the centre of the universe, and argued instead for a heliocentric model with the earth moving around the sun. No less revolutionary was Machiavelli’s The Prince, which he completed in 1514 to explain, along with its companion piece, Discourses, why rulers must do everything they can to take control of the apparatus of an authoritarian state, and transform it into a free republic for the common good.

One of the most dramatic exemplars of this new progressive mindset was Philip von Hohenheim, who in 1514 embarked on his medical career. He visited universities across Europe and concluded that it was wholly unacceptable to rely without question on ancient texts such as those by Celsus who wrote about medicine fifteen hundred years previously. Declaring that all texts must be critically questioned no matter how long they had been accepted, von Hohenheim changed his own name to ‘Paracelsus’ (‘beyond Celsus’), and led a movement to transform medicine by relentlessly subjecting its theory and practice to empirical analysis and experimentation.

Of course all the figures mentioned above had their share of shortcomings and intellectual blind spots, but collectively, they helped to inaugurate the progressive tradition, which in the next five hundred years transformed innumerable aspects of life for the better. And as we commemorate the quincentenary of this watershed year, we should recognise the oppressive threats posed in our times by the rise of plutocracy and resurgent fundamentalism, and draw strength from the wisdom and courage of the 1514 pioneers to persist with finding better alternatives and never desist from questioning the powerful.

To find out more about the progressive tradition, here is a list of ten books that take a closer historical look at how it has evolved, and what lessons we may draw from its development over time.