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.