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.