Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Political Education with a Twist

Carl von Clausewitz infamously said, “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means”, but in truth, politics is the avoidance of war through the art of persuasion. When violence erupts, politics has failed.

Because people do not live in sealed bubbles from each other, human interactions are inevitable. While this makes it possible for people to cooperate and achieve more together than they can ever do on their own, it also means that they may seriously disagree about how they should treat each other. And there are always those who pay lip service to the notion of fairness while seeking to exploit others at every turn.

The arrangements that endure tend to be those that over time have come to be accepted by the vast majority as the best they can hope to get. The mission for political educators is to help people think through the prevailing arrangements and consider what should be preserved, and what should be altered for the common good.

Not surprisingly, anyone endeavouring to do this is liable to be accused of being partisan by those who would prefer their political regimes not to be questioned by too many ordinary citizens. This has put many people off from advancing political education for fear of being branded ‘party politically biased’. But once they retreat to the ‘safety’ of teaching only what no one with political power could possibly object to, they have in effect resigned to acquiescing in the status quo.

So what can be done? One approach is to leave political parties out of the picture, but highlight why certain practices and policy assumptions should be changed with the help of allegorical or satirical stories. It is a tradition that goes back to Voltaire, Wells, and Orwell, and has proven to be a most effective means of stimulating political reflections in people who may not otherwise be interested in such issues.

But has not the rigid demarcation of disciplines since the mid-20th century meant that political thinkers have long ceased to venture into writing novels? Classic texts can only take us so far, and will bring with them the added complexity of how they should be interpreted decades, even centuries, after they have been written.

A way forward would be to revive the tradition of weaving cogent political ideas into gripping imaginative tales. To this end, I have in recent years produced two dystopian novels, which have been acclaimed as original fiction in their own right, and widely recommended by advocates for political education as a valuable resource to promote reflections and discussions on democracy, freedom and social justice.

The first is the allegorical Kuan’s Wonderland. It tells the story of a young boy taken against his will to the surreal world of Shiyan, where he has to cope with shape-shifting beings, hated creatures called Potokins, the pompous Mauveans, and the mysterious Curator. Through his reluctant adventure, he comes to discover that far from resigning to his life in exile, he must help to counter what may destroy Shiyan and his own world. The Equality Trust has selected it as the novel to read in its Young Person’s Guide to Inequality. It has also been picked as a book for adult reading groups set up by the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association).

The second novel is the satirical tale, Whitehall through the Looking Glass, set in the not-too-distant future, when the Consortium of the world’s largest corporations have taken control of the government of the UK and US. Nearly all assets are controlled by the big firms, and everyone’s movement and preferences are tracked and analysed by the Consortium in order to devise the most effective strategies for convincing people that all is as it should be. The Consortium’s grip on power seems unshakable until resistance emerges where it least expects it. The Chief Executive of the Civil Service College, General Secretary of the TUC, and the Director of the Speakers Corner Trust are amongst those who urge the public to read it.

If politics is not to fail and give way to violence, we need more political education that is different enough to stir the imagination and sufficiently bold in challenging prevailing ideas. Worth giving Kuan’s Wonderland and Whitehall through the Looking Glass a try.

Kuan’s Wonderland:
E-book version available from:
Amazon UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/Kuans-Wonderland-ebook/dp/B008144G9I/
or Amazon US http://www.amazon.com/Kuans-Wonderland-Henry-Tam-ebook/dp/B008144G9I;
The Paperback version is available from: Barnes & Noble http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/kuans-wonderland-henry-tam/1117511602
or CreateSpace https://www.createspace.com/4062249

Whitehall through the Looking Glass:
E-book version available from:
Amazon UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/Whitehall-through-Looking-Glass-Novel-ebook/dp/B00J3VRGEU/
or Amazon US http://www.amazon.com/Whitehall-through-Looking-Glass-Novel-ebook/dp/B00J3VRGEU/
The Paperback version is available from: Barnes & Noble http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/whitehall-through-the-looking-glass-henry-tam/1118953239
or CreateSpace https://www.createspace.com/4709766

A shortened version of my interview with ‘Shout Out’ magazine about the thinking behind the novels can be found at: http://kuanswonderland.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/political-engagement-of-surreal-kind.html

For more about dystopian fiction, visit The Dystopian Syndrome

(The Hunting of the Gods, a novel about Earth being governed by virtually immortal rulers, and modern civilisation knowing nothing about democracy, will be published in 2016)

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Snide & Prejudiced: a tale of constitutional shenanigans

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a government in possession of a slim majority must be in want of more power. But when that power is sought by reversing centuries of constitutional advancement, resistance is in order.

The progressive development of Britain’s constitution was once an inspiration to the world. The sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215 to limit the powers of the ruler; de Montfort’s inauguration of the Parliamentary tradition in 1265; the first ever trial of a reigning monarch for treason in 1649; the Glorious Revolution that produced the Bill of Rights of 1689, which in turned inspired the American Constitution of 1789; the Great Reform Act of 1832 that opened the door to almost a century of franchise reforms that eventually secured the vote for all adult men and women in 1928; and after the Second World War, British MP and lawyer David Maxwell-Fyfe, led the deliberations and drafting of the European Convention on Human Rights (ratified 1953), which drew on the strong democratic traditions of countries like the UK to lay the foundation for protecting human rights across Europe.

Regrettably the Conservative Party (in government with the support of the Liberal Democrats 2010-2015 and with its own small majority since 2015) has decided that since its hold on power is so slight, it will manipulate the British constitution to enable it to do what it cannot otherwise get away with doing. Let’s take a look at a few of the tricks being played on a largely unsuspecting citizenry.

1. Puppet Legislature
The House of Lords has always been a curious non-elected appendage of a supposedly democratic legislature. As long ago as 1649 it was abolished, only to be brought back when the monarchy was later restored in England. The current Conservative plan is for the number of elected MPs to be cut down while it puts more of its non-elected donors and supporters into the House of Lords (which has risen by 16% since 2015 [Note 1]). 50% of the increases in party-affiliated peers have gone to the Conservative Party though that is higher than their share of support from those eligible to vote in either the 2010 or 2015 elections. Many of these donors and supporters hold shares or positions in large companies, and they are free to vote for policies that will increase the profits of those companies. Meanwhile, the government will do nothing to address this anti-democratic anomaly except to erect obstacles to stop the Lords voting against Conservative policies.

2. Political Power for Sale
It has long been recognised that disparity in campaign finance can remove any prospect for a level playing field in electoral contests. The Electoral Commission accordingly set out limits for how much political parties should spend on campaigning in the run-up to elections. But the Conservative Party in government took no notice and exceeded that limit by 23%, and having outspent the Labour Party, they won the 2015 election with a narrow majority. In the meantime, Tory politicians readily admit to financial support they receive from companies that benefit from their policies [Note 2]. Far from placing restrictions on these links, Conservative politicians, such as a former Secretary of State for Health (who was funded by private healthcare firms when he was the Shadow Health Secretary [Note 3]), can be in office one day bringing in new policies to push more public contracts in the direction of private healthcare firms, and leave office the next to take up consultancy roles to help private healthcare firms make more profit out of government contracts [Note 4].

3. Second Class MPs
It is no secret that Scotland tends to vote for representatives on the left of the political spectrum. While the Conservative Party is keen to keep Scotland in the UK (after all, it does not want to lose the oil revenue from the North Sea or the docks in Scotland for British nuclear submarines), it wants to curtail the power of Scottish MPs. So on the back of a ‘promise’ to devolve more local powers to Scotland (in return for their staying in the UK), it plans to ringfence ‘England only’ matters in Parliament and deprive MPs from Scotland a vote in them. The superficial argument is that if Scotland is given certain exclusive powers to vote on ‘Scotland only’ matters without MPs from other parts of the UK having a say, then the converse should be true for ‘England only’ matters. But so long as Scotland is in the UK, and the UK is overwhelmingly dominated by the networks and capital of England, it would be obvious to any impartial observer that decisions concerning England will have a major impact on Scotland. Unless what is defined as ‘England only’ is limited to issues which genuinely do not affect the wellbeing of people in Scotland, what is being concocted is the relegation of MPs from Scotland to second class status.

4. Diminished Rights
Although the UK is the inspiration and a key driving force in the development of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Conservative Party wants to rewrite constitutional history by pretending it is an alien invention that undermines the wellbeing of British people. It is so hostile to the notion of international peer scrutiny over possible violation of human rights that it wants to cut ties with the wider global community so it can reject as irrelevant any external criticism of its activities that breach human rights. Thus it plans to repeal the Human Rights Act. If its promised replacement is meant to offer more rather than less protection for human rights, there is not the slightest evidence for it. Significantly this is happening when the Conservative Government policies to cut support for vulnerable people are being investigated by the UN for the “systemic and grave violations” of disabled people’s human rights [Note 5]. People’s rights to organise to seek better economic treatment are also under further threat as the Conservatives plan to outlaw strike actions by unions unless they are backed by at least 40% of those eligible to vote in those unions – a threshold that if applied to the government would mean that it cannot carry out any action since its manifesto is backed by far less than 40% of those eligible to vote in the country.

5. Destabilised Sovereignty
The Conservative leadership, despite its party’s historical role in taking the UK into what became the European Union, has sought to undermine the electoral prospects of anti-European rivals by promising a referendum on British membership of the EU. But just as England’s sovereign power was enhanced through union with Scotland, the UK’s membership of the EU confers greater strength when the world is geopolitically dominated by continental blocks. To commit to a referendum when the terms of what would amount to a revised deal the Conservative Government would support remain unclear, and when the uncertainty undermines confidence in UK’s future connections with the rest of Europe, is unwise at best, and reckless at worst. Even Margaret Thatcher, who was hardly enamoured with the EU, warned against using the crude mechanism of a referendum to decide on a major constitutional issue such as UK’s membership of the EU (see: ‘Thatcher, Europe & Referendum’). Ironically, when it comes to what can seriously undermine British sovereignty, namely the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) – which would give power to American corporations to sue the UK for enacting laws to protect British people if it can be argued that such laws would reduce the profits those companies might otherwise make – the Conservative Government is happy to keep discussions secret and offer British citizens no opportunity to scrutinise the pros and cons of TTIP.

All the above threats against our democratic heritage should be opposed, and the core issues subject to an independent constitutional review. It is fair to say, in homage to Ms Austen, that we should be ever sensible of the warmest gratitude we owe towards a constitutional tradition that, by bringing justice into government, has been the means of uniting them.

Let us not allow this precious union to be put asunder.
Note 1: The number of Lords eligible to attend the House of Lords went up from 706 in 2010 to 791 before the May election 2015; and up to 821 after the May 2015 election; an accumulative increase of 115, or 16%.
Note 2: See, for example, on private healthcare firms: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/oct/03/healthcare-companies-links-tories-nhs-contracts; and on hedge funds: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/feb/05/conservatives-bankrolled-hedge-fund-managers
Note 3: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/6989408/Andrew-Lansley-bankrolled-by-private-healthcare-provider.html
Note 4: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/oct/20/andrew-lansley-advise-firms-healthcare-reforms
Note 5: http://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/confirmed-un-is-investigating-uks-grave-violations-of-disabled-peoples-rights/

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The ‘All-or-Nothing Fallacy’ of Polarised Politics

Political discussions are too often misdirected, intentionally or otherwise, to fall down the hole of the All-or-Nothing Fallacy.

Here are just a few examples:
• You either punish every accused (innocent or not) so not a single guilty one will get away, or you may as well let every guilty person go free.
• You either pay everyone the same, or you leave pay differences alone.
• You either distrust everything connected with law enforcement agencies, or deem those agencies as totally beyond reproach.
• You either condone all verbal attacks on practices carried out in the name of religion, or you forbid them all without exception.
• You either impose rules on people without them having any say, or you have to allow them to do as they please.
• You either back every proposed armed intervention against foreign targets, or you are unreservedly against the military establishment.

There are countless more such examples to be found in heated arguments or coldly calculated propaganda. Isolated in their bare form, they are easy to spot, but fired off in the midst of claims and counter-claims, they can imperceptibly trap the unsuspecting into one corner or another.

The underlying problem is that nuanced analysis has been marginalised as ‘fence sitting’, ‘lack of assertiveness’, or even ‘muddled thinking’. Having ADS (attention deficit syndrome) at a societal level means that in public debates and private conversations there is now considerable peer pressure to respond to simplistic depictions of political issues, not by challenging them and setting out the variety of possible solutions, but by seizing one of the extreme options with dogmatic gusto.

Those of us involved in political education can play a part in tackling this problem in at least four ways. First, we can make explicit the false dichotomies every time some form of All-or-Nothing Fallacy is slipped into a political discussion. Secondly, we can promote the approach of cooperative problem-solving that has evolved from the deliberations of many leading thinkers and practitioners as a highly reliable way to explore contested issues and resolve disagreement (see: ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving: the key to a reciprocal society’). Thirdly, we can raise wider awareness that while debating may help to develop certain skills and serve to formulate a few relevant arguments, it is a mistake to focus on it as ‘the’ format for exchanging and examining political ideas. In many cases, it merely reinforces the misleading impression that a complex issue can be reduced to a crude ‘either/or’, and that one must back one or the other without assessing other options.

Last but not least, we should sustain a critique of the routine polarisation of policy options deployed by many in the media. Instead of assuming every problem is to be dealt with by some All-or-Nothing proposal with proponents divided into opposite camps, news editors and presenters should learn to facilitate cooperative enquiries where the solution comes from more sophisticated exploration of what on balance may achieve the desired outcomes more effectively than other variants. Commentators may achieve more by being tasked with working out shared positions rather than just goaded into attacking each other [1].

[1] This is not to say that some issues should not be tackled by cross-examination by opposing sides, or by a narrowly focused investigation. But only another invocation of an All-or-Nothing Fallacy would suggest that such techniques are never to be used if they are not always used.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Synetopia: progress through cooperation

Advocates for progressive improvement, from the Enlightenment philosophers [1] to later cooperative and communitarian reformists [2], have been perennially challenged on two flanks. Militant radicals mock them for wasting time over a supposedly utopian dream. Cynical reactionaries misrepresent them as the progenitors of dystopian nightmares

In reality, what progressive thinkers have been helping to develop can be expressed in the notion of ‘synetopia’ – a place where people cooperate together on the basis of objective reasoning and mutual respect to work out how to improve their wellbeing as individuals and as a community.

Synetopia is not an idealised place that is founded on the hoped-for kindness of all who dwell within, nor is it an ideological system that is to be imposed unkindly on everyone without exception. It is a model for human interactions that over time has helped to open our eyes to specific societal problems to be overcome, and potential collaboration that can bring about better outcomes for all concerned.

Based on the critical iteration of progressive thinkers from the Enlightenment on, the model can be outlined with reference to nine key proposals that enable any group of people to come together to achieve more than they can on their own. The extent to which these are taken forward in practice serves to indicate how far synetopia is being realised for any given group of people at the local, national or global level. Set out below are the nine proposals, which for mnemonic reason, are listed under headings, each of which begins with a letter that will together with the others spell out ‘SYNETOPIA’:

Shared Mission
All members of the group should have a shared understanding of their common mission or purpose. The group should be effectively and visibly organised to enable its members to join forces for their respective wellbeing.

You-and-I Mutuality
Instead of ‘Me’-centred individualism or ‘We-subsume-all’ collectivism, there should be genuine mutuality in distributing the benefits and burden connected with the group, and none should amass what comes from the group’s joint endeavours to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

Nimble Membership
There should be a transparent and responsive membership system that underpins who is brought into the group or excluded from it, and sets out the rights and responsibilities of both the group and its members.

Educative Collaboration
All member of the group should be enabled to share ideas, learn through collaborative exchanges, and have lifelong opportunities to study, formulate and discuss interpretations of the world as well as ideas for change.

Testing of Claims and Assumptions
The group should make sure no claim or assumption is privileged as unquestionable. It should subject all doctrines and findings to continuous testing, and revise them in the light of the latest evidence.

Open Access to Information
There should be open access so nothing untoward is hidden and useful information is widely shared. Processes to detect and expose deception should be in place, and demands for secrecy must be independently scrutinised for their legitimacy.

Participatory Decision-Making
The group should enable and encourage all members to participate as equals in the making of decisions that affect them, and ensure everyone can contribute to those decisions on an informed and deliberative basis.

Impartial Distribution of Power
The distribution of power should be monitored and where necessary revised to minimise the likelihood that an individual or an alliance of them can come to possess so much power that they can intimidate or dictate terms to others.

Accountability for Action
All members, especially those entrusted with the authority to act on behalf of the group, must be held accountable for any action against individual members or the wider interest of the group. Disputes over charges should be resolved through independent mechanisms and judgements carried out in accordance with the rules.

Details of these nine SYNETOPIA proposals can be found amongst the leading progressive writers, and they constitute the core elements of the effective governance of any neighbourhood, business, or national community [3]. There is no need to remain shackled by the false dichotomy of either sceptically abstaining from backing any form of social development or dogmatically throwing one’s lot behind some arbitrary doctrine. History has taught us that there is a practical approach to question the way we live, explore alternatives, and test out improvements through sustained cooperation [4]. It is the path that leads to synetopia.

[1] The following books are recommended to attain a better understanding of the Enlightenment and its key proponents:
Blom, Philipp: ‘A Wicked Company: the forgotten radicalism of the European Enlightenment’.
Bronner, Stephen Eric: ‘Reclaiming the Enlightenment’
Commager, Henry Steele: ‘The Empire of Reason: how Europe imagined and America realized the Enlightenment’;
Gay, Peter: ‘The Enlightenment: an interpretation’;
Hampson, Norman: ‘The Enlightenment’;
Israel, Jonathan: ‘Democratic Enlightenment’;
McMahon, Darrin M.: ‘Enemies of the Enlightenment’;
Porter, Roy: ‘Enlightenment: Britain and the creation of the modern world’.

[2] For a background piece on communitarian thinkers, see: ‘Communitarians: an introduction’.

[3] For a more extensive look at the elements of good governance, see: ‘Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide’. (For specific advice in relation to peer production and commons economy, see: Michel Bauwens’ ‘The Ten Commandments of Peer Production and Commons Economics’).

[4] For a short history on the struggle to challenge power inequalities and develop more inclusive communities, see ‘Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle’.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Let’s Come Clean about Nuclear Waste

A relatively small amount of material can generate a vast amount of energy, without polluting the atmosphere or depleting the precious ozone layer. Nuclear fission sounds like the Holy Grail of energy management. No wonder big corporations have stepped in and offered it as the magic solution to everything – from supplying electricity to those who can pay for the privilege, to threatening annihilation against anyone who might end up paying the ultimate penalty.

But it brings in its wake the most dangerous waste – not just in the form of its deadly radioactive by-products which retain their potency to destroy lives for hundreds of thousands of years, but in terms of the resources its production consumes when they can be so much more beneficially utilised elsewhere.

Let us look at a few facts relating to the economics of nuclear power.

Disguised Costs
It is often claimed that safe, renewable energy such as solar powered electricity costs users more than nuclear-power generated electricity. But that is because, instead of comparing the retail costs of both on the same basis (which would reveal solar powered electricity to be cheaper [1]), the retail cost of the former is compared with the wholesale price nuclear plants charge electricity companies. Not only is this a false comparison, the ‘lower’ wholesale cost of nuclear-based electricity masks a huge government subsidy to the nuclear industry.

In the UK alone, the government’s own 2012/13 budget revealed that £2.5bn ($3.8bn) a year was spent on “nuclear legacy” issues (i.e. decommissioning and waste handling). Nuclear companies would charge electricity suppliers a lot more if the government (using taxpayers’ money) does not cover the costs of dealing with their nuclear waste. No such subsidy on a comparable scale is given to solar or wind energy [2].

Plutocratic Deals
While solar and wind energy companies are relatively small, start-ups, the nuclear business is made up of large corporations with the financial muscle to do deals with governments to maximise their own profits. When plutocratic parties are in power, no matter if they are in the east or west, they align themselves with the agenda of wealthy corporations. The latest example can be seen with the UK Government asking for China’s help to finance the £24.5bn ($38bn) Hinkley nuclear plant project, and in return, China will be given the opportunity to construct another nuclear plant at Bradwell in Essex, which will be owned by Chinese companies. To assist Chinese investors, the UK Government will give a £2bn ($3.07bn) loan guarantee for the Hinkley project. The profit will go to wealthy corporations based abroad, and the harmful nuclear waste will be left in Britain.

Costly Accidents Do Happen
The nuclear business model is dependent on people forgetting that when nuclear power plant accidents happen, they can be devastating, and such accidents do happen. Between 1952 and 2009 there were at least 99 nuclear power plant accidents (defined as incidents that either resulted in the loss of human life or more than $50,000 [£32,555] of property damage) around the world. The total property damage caused by these accidents amounted to $20.5bn (£13.4bn). The most notorious of these was of course Chernobyl (1986), where in Belarus alone, incidence of congenital defects rose by 40% within six years of the accident. Even the lowest estimate of cancer related deaths caused by Chernobyl put the number at 27,000 worldwide.

After Chernobyl, lessons were supposed to have been learnt, and the mistakes of a Soviet-era operation would allegedly not be found in developed democracies around the world. Then came Fukushima in 2011. While the death toll from radiation exposure will rise from the 1,232 reached in 2014, the bill for radiation clean up and compensation for injuries has been estimated at $105bn (£68bn).

Cost-Benefit Analysis of Nuclear Weapons
Finally, it may be argued that even though the civil use of nuclear power generates too much harmful waste and dangerous accidents, its military use is vital. Without disputing the principle that the possession of nuclear weapons by at least one country necessitates their acquisition by a number of other countries to maintain a balance of power, there is still the issue of strategic coherence.

The sole objective of nuclear weapons has always been to deter an enemy invasion. And while there are already more than enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the entire planet’s population, more is still being spent on them. A 2011 report estimated that the nine ‘nuke’ countries spent $100bn (£65bn) in a single year on developing and maintaining their nuclear weapons. Yet far from giving them sufficient security, they spent a further 10 times more (i.e., $1trillion) on their non-nuclear military capability.

It has reached a point where it is clear that the ever-expanding purchase of nuclear weaponry may not meet either economic or military objectives. In the UK, the debate about replacing Trident submarines with nuclear missile-firing capability has highlighted this issue. The Government’s own estimate indicated it would cost over £20bn ($31bn). If we factor in running costs over the purported 40-year lifespan with £2bn a year (i.e., £80bn), plus at least £13bn in decommissioning costs, we have a total of £113bn ($174bn). Leaving aside how that much more could be done for the country with that amount of money, there is the military question of why that should be prioritised over the army which, already cut down to 82,000 troops by the Government, is now going to be further cut to 60,000. And with terrorism being the major threat, would not well trained and equipped troops be a less wasteful way to strengthen a country’s defence than having even more nuclear weapons against fanatics who are quite prepared to martyr themselves?

Add up all these costs, and we have trillions of pounds/dollars spent on generating profits for the few and hazards for the many; an expensive short-term solution for now and the risk of radioactive leaks for virtually ever; devastating industrial accidents threatening our safety and dysfunctional military priorities undermining our security.

What a waste.

[1] Recent Deutsche Bank analysis confirmed it was cheaper in around 30 countries than grid electricity, and others are likely to follow.
[2] In fact, the UK Government is further cutting public support for solar energy and using its planning power to curtail the development of wind farms.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Nietzsche, all too Nietzsche

People who took no interest in politics, Pericles famously remarked, were not just minding their own business, but they had no business living in a democracy.

If people were not to submit to a tyrant, or descend into lawlessness, they must engage in collective deliberations – and that involves learning about each other’s perspectives, discussing contested proposals, and reaching decisions on rules and policies they would subsequently live by.

But in recent decades, as voter turnout drops, political literacy declines, there is correspondingly a rise in what may be described as Nietzschean individualism.

Against the ethos of respecting the needs of others and cooperating with one’s fellow citizens to work out shared strategies for the common good, the Nietzschean outlook insists that individuals should stand alone and consider solely what they ought to do to improve their own selves. Joining with others is dismissed as losing oneself in a crowd. Caring for the weak is deemed a sign of weakness. Only those who focus on making themselves better than what they had been stood any chance of becoming Übermensch (commonly translated as ‘super human’, but more accurately, ‘over-and-above the normal human self’). Otherwise, they are to be lamented as ‘human, all too human’.

Nietzsche of course has often been misunderstood. His ideas were deliberately misappropriated by the Nazi regime when he in fact detested people with anti-Semitic views and treated blind nationalism with disdain. He was not adverse to the development and display of physical and military strength. But for him, it would only be meaningful if such strengths were directed at opponents stronger than oneself. To target those who were weaker would be for Nietzsche simply pathetic. He admired creative geniuses like Beethoven and Goethe for being determined to bring forth what no one else had conceived of before, and scaling new heights of aesthetic achievement.

There’s nothing wrong with striving to be a pioneer, but the distinctive Nietzschean flavour comes with what one is supposed to exclude in the process. Nietzsche wants the passion for overcoming one’s mundane self to be so all-consuming that there is no place left for considerate interactions with others.

As Nietzsche’s philosophy is inherently opposed to rules and prescriptions, what greater self one strives to become is entirely left to individuals to decide with no reference to social implications. A Beethoven may write music that enriches countless lives, while the founder of a tobacco company may cause millions of premature deaths. Morally, it’s all the same to Nietzsche.

This indifference to the fate of others, combined with the exclusive push to meet one’s self-selected challenges, has not surprisingly bred the notion of the ‘striver’ as a contemporary hero. Such ‘strivers’ are to be praised, and they deserve to take whatever they can get, because they are relentless in pursuing their own ‘self-determined’ goals.

Some ‘strivers’ may by chance make the world a better place, but experience tells us they are more likely to ruin the lives of others with barely a shrug of their shoulders. If making one’s corporation stronger means thousands would lose their jobs or left with barely enough to live on, one should press on and not be distracted. If expanding one’s fossil fuel empire generates vast environmental problems for others, one should proceed without hesitation.

Ultimately, the trouble with the Nietzschean notion of Übermensch, is that it encourages the discarding of social bonds when people need more than ever to understand each other and cooperate more effectively. Since Nietzschean strivers will always overlook the impact of their actions on the wider society as simply not their business, they have no business calling the shots in any democratic society.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Journey to the Real Centre of Politics

Whether it’s Bernie Sanders in the US or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the media are always on hand to tell the public to be wary of politicians who seek to move their country ‘to the left’. By implication, it is always better to stay near the ‘centre’. But what is the centre and what makes it so special?

One common response is to locate it at the mid-point between rival political views – in short, split the difference between ‘left’ and ‘right’. But when ultra-conservative Republicans and Tories have shifted so far to the right of the post-war socio-economic consensus, and the majority who are relatively on the left have stayed timidly silent, the halfway mark between these two camps no longer defines a position of moderation, but denotes the most serious antipathy towards what an earlier generation of Republican and Conservative leaders such as Eisenhower and Macmillan respected as basic decency.

Another attempt to pinpoint the centre is to place it where consensus can be reached. This might make sense if people were all as open-minded and considerate as each other. But give-and-take does not work well when some are so much more relentless in taking and notably less prepared for giving.

Take a look at two opinion polls. In one US Gallup Poll (November 2010), people were asked if they wanted their political representatives to rule out compromise or embrace it to at least achieve some useful results. Amongst supporters of the Republican Party, 43% rejected compromise (only 32% would accept it); whereas for the Democrats, just 18% rejected compromise (while 59% would accept it).

In a YouGov Survey of Americans (September 2015), people were asked if they would support a military coup against their own government if in their opinion that government has gone too far. The figure for Republicans was 43% backing a military coup; while that for Democrats was just 20%.

So if we aim for the ‘centre’ as where trade-offs may take us, then we will end up where those who are twice as likely to resort to a violent rejection of what they don’t like, and only half as ready to make any concession, will dominate the agenda and get their own way at the expense of others.

This contrast between those who are much more inclined to impose their wills on others, and those are disposed to respect everyone with equal concern, actually helps to identify what a meaningful centre may consist of. Since different individuals and organisations may use their power to pursue their goals, if some of them have too much power over others, the risk of exploitation and oppression rises substantially. The only way to avoid this is for the power distribution of any country to be so well balanced that none in it can mistreat others, and all recognise that their shared interests are best enhanced through mutual support.

Instead of blindly pressing for more power for corporations or unions, government agencies or scrutiny bodies, businesses or regulators, courts or representatives of citizens, the proper political challenge is to secure a sound balance all round.

On this basis, the central focus of politics, under current conditions, has to be on curbing the excessive power of, for example, the surveillance state, the property developers, the polluters, the irresponsible finance sector, the exploiters of cheap and vulnerable labour, etc, so that cooperation can emerge as an option for shared endeavour, available to all. And what is all too often pejoratively dismissed as ‘far left’ these days is in fact precisely where the real centre of politics should be.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Convert or Con Victim?

Can we say that people who switch their allegiance to anything we find objectionable must have been deceived/brainwashed/radicalised?

Take these cases:
• People change from one religion (or no belief) to one we have nothing to do with.
• People drop a widely trusted brand to a product we are not keen on ourselves.
• People switch their political support to a party we dislike.

Compare it with these cases:
• People join what is described as a cult.
• People refuse standard medication and pay large sums to buy from someone with the notoriety of a snake-oil merchant.
• People dedicate themselves to a political group with an extremist/violent agenda.

In the first set of cases, the general assumption is that people have been converted to back something else, and while we may not agree with it, there are no grounds to block people changing their minds in these matters.

In the second set of cases, a common view is that something unacceptable has been perpetrated to deceive or distort the thinking of the people concerned, and the latter need to be saved from their predicament.

But this distinction rests on the supposition that the intensity with which we recoil from something or how widely a position is treated with disdain would be sufficient to justify the claim that anyone switching to it must have had their minds unduly messed with. And this is fallacious on two counts.

First, how much we detest an idea, and how many other people share that revulsion, does not mean that the idea can only be believed by a deceived/twisted mind. Throughout history, feminism, pacifism, heliocentricism, inoculation, democracy, and many other notions, have all at one time struck the majority of people as outrageous. In those times, those who came to believe in these ideas might be demonstrating more of having an enlightened intellect than a deceived mind.

Secondly, just because an idea may not appear to be repugnant to many people, it is nonetheless possible that people can be deceived/manipulated into embracing it. From mass advertising to fuel the consumption of harmful substance, to the practice of some divorced couples to turn their children against the other parent, brainwashing may not be far off the mark in denoting what goes on.

So how can we separate the conning of people from fair persuasion? The answer is to be found in how the ‘conversion’ process is conducted. There are three tests that need to be passed:
1. Do the ‘persuaders’ treat the subject of the process with the same degree of respect and concern as they would expect in reverse? Or do they weigh the gains to themselves from a successful conversion more heavily against the losses the converted would have to endure as a result?
2. Are the ‘persuaders’ prepared to engage in an open and cooperative exchange with their subject and others to ascertain the reliability of what they are claiming to be the truth? Or do they want to close off as much as possible relevant arguments and evidence that may cast doubt on their position?
3. Will the ‘persuaders’ check back with their subject about how they would like to proceed? Or is one of their key aims to get the subject to surrender decision-making about specific matters (e.g., money to spend, readiness to use weapons, ganging up on certain people) to them?

Where all three tests are passed positively, it is most likely that legitimate persuasion is taking place. Where only one or two are passed, the process is dubious. And where all three are failed, then it is highly probable that the subject is being unfairly conned/manipulated into accepting something he/she would under more transparent conditions reject.

The three tests mentioned above are based on the three communitarian principles for guiding interpersonal behaviour. You can find out more about them in the post, ‘Communitarians: an introduction’, or in the book, Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Plutocracy: a lesson for citizen education

Let us begin with a quotation from a politician who embodied the plutocratic approach to government. US Senator Boies Penrose (Republican) told his big business supporters how it was going to work:

"I believe in the division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under which you make money ... and out of your profits, you further contribute to our campaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money."

That was back in 1896, and in the subsequent century, Penrose’s strategy has become entrenched in the operations of political parties on the Right in the US, the UK, and many other countries too. The aim is to concentrate wealth more and more in the hands of the corporate elite. To do that, the earnings and job security of everyone else must be curtailed as much as possible. And to deflect public attention from the endemic exploitation, unions, immigrants, the poorest and the jobless are to be routinely vilified as scapegoats.

Instead of teaching how democratic ideals are supposedly upheld or how myriad government institutions function, each new generation of citizens should be taught how plutocracy has taken over the running of our state and society, and how the many will be made to serve the narrow interests of the wealthy elite until the relentless manipulation is finally exposed and overturned.

A historical case study is always handy: if we go back to Senator Penrose, we find him showing the way for others to follow in subsequent decades. In the run-up to the Presidential election of 1920, he discovered that the candidate in the lead to secure the Republican Party’s nomination was Leonard Wood, an advocate for profit sharing and employee share ownership, and supporter of Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting policies [Note 1].

Penrose sent a message to Wood, offering to swing the remaining delegates behind him, provided Wood would in return give Penrose and his oil interest friends control of three business-related posts in his cabinet. After Wood refused, Penrose used his connections in the party to push enough votes in the direction of Warren G. Harding to get him the nomination.

Harding went on to win the 1920 election, and led a presidential administration mired in scandals, resignations and corruption. Every major policy was designed to please big business, with taxes cut for the rich, and workers enduring numerous wage reductions. Harding was followed as President by Calvin Coolidge, and then Herbert Hoover. Together their 12 years of plutocratic Republican Presidency brought the US and then the world into the Great Depression.

In response to Democrats’ efforts from F.D. Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson to correct the de-stabilising bias of the Right’s plutocratic policies, the Republicans dedicated themselves fully to the Penrose doctrine of capturing government institutions solely to serve the superrich. In Britain, their ideological kin, the Conservative Party, has since the 1970s adopted exactly the same approach.

And these parties will go on convincing many people to buy into their exploitative agenda unless we begin to explain why in fact not all parties respect the interests of all citizens regardless of their wealth, and teach everyone about the dangers of plutocracy as a growing and highly corrosive force.

[Note 1: Although Teddy Roosevelt became US President for one term as a member of the Republican Party, his progressive policies proved too much for the party and when he sought re-election, he stood as the candidate for the Progressive Party.]

Saturday, 1 August 2015

O Humanities, Where Art Thou?

The revival of interest during the Renaissance in what came to be referred to as the Humanities led to a watershed in how we think about the world and our place in it. Down the centuries since, it has been through the Humanities that we learn about our own potential as human beings – discovering why we can strive for a better future and how we must avoid the mistakes of our past.

So why is there a relentless move against the teaching of Humanities? Why do so many people in powerful positions want to see funding and time allocation cut for Humanities subjects? There are three inter-related reasons.

First, the rise of global plutocracy has fuelled the desire amongst those who have amassed the greatest wealth through rigged markets, to preserve the status quo. They do not want money to be ‘wasted’ on enabling people to think critically about how human interactions and social priorities may be altered.

Secondly, since only certain subjects are expected to contribute to the strengthening and expansion of corporate wealth and power, plutocrats want investment to target only these subjects.

Thirdly, instead of challenging the ideology of Mammon, all too many in the field of Humanities have simply retreated. Some have sought survival by mimicking the scientific-technological disciplines by conjuring up contrived quantification and equation. Others have shrunk their attention to micro-specialisms so they can have something ‘original’ to get published and make a claim for research funding.

The net impact is that the ineffectuality of the Humanities becomes more and more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of enriching our understanding so we can reflect on how we should live, any attempt to address that very question is deemed too broad to merit academic consideration, which must have a tightly disciplined focus.

But what can be done? One long overdue move is to bring forward intellectual perspectives that offer alternative conceptions of how we should respond to life’s threats and opportunities, and relate to one another in ways unbound by the prejudices of outmoded traditions or the free-for-all of contemporary plutocracy.

In order to do this, we need to draw on the resources of philosophy, literature, history, sociology, etc to develop ideas on how we should live. One such set of ideas, often termed ‘progressive communitarianism’, synthesizes insights on the value of reciprocity, the nature of reasoning and consensus building, and the connections between community bonds and inclusive decision-making, into a cogent alternative for reviewing human interactions.

What progressive communitarian ideas offer, is not a definitive theory, but a possible model for how we can rethink and re-organise human relationships in diverse institutional and societal contexts.

The only antidote to plutocrats filling people’s minds with the false notion that their Mammon-centric system of society is the sole option for humanity, is to present the world with a different vision. To see what such an alternative may entail, take a look at ‘Reciprocity & Progressive Communitarianism’.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Public-Private Divide

On reflection, any sensible person can see that there are things best left to people to do on their own initiative as they see fit, and there are other activities which need to be done collectively by a larger group. Where something only matters to a single individual, it is arguably no one else’s business to get involved. But where we have concerns that are relevant to society as a whole, then it has to be everyone’s business to help address them without exception.

In between these two types of scenario, there are a wide variety of issues that call for smaller or larger associations of persons, and each may require more or less involvement from a higher body with statutory authority.

Alas, ideologues prefer to dismiss this nuanced continuum of human endeavours, and insist that there is a sharp and simple ‘Public-Private Divide’. Worse still, some of them go on to insist that everything should be ‘public’, while others take the opposite extreme and demand everything be kept ‘private’.

Post-1989, the radical communist ideology of subsuming everything into the public domain now has few adherents. The total elimination of all sense of privacy and private ownership is problematic enough in its challenge to personal motivation and the need for autonomy, but it brings out the underlying paradox of having to enforce any kind of ‘everything is public’ system by means of vesting power and resources in the hands of an elite group of private individuals with little accountability to the wider public.

Unfortunately, the rampant laissez-faire ideology of leaving everything to the private realm is still alive and well. Its proponents have not quite done away with government institutions altogether, but they have come a long way in shrinking the state’s role in meeting public needs, and capturing government bodies for the sole purpose of directing them to serve the private interests of a wealthy elite.

One notable symptom of the ascendancy of the laissez-faire ideologues is the widespread acceptance of wealth-creating activities as inherently private. This is not a surprising ploy given that most present day advocates for laissez faire are plutocrats, and by positioning wealth as belonging to private individuals, they provide it with an ideological shield from public intervention.

But just as the extreme ‘all is public’ ideology is exposed and rejected, the same must happen to the unrestrained ‘all is private’ creed. Wealth is what has the potential to enhance the wellbeing of people. Yet by succumbing to the ‘only the private sector creates wealth’ myth, society goes along with economic measures that classify activities that boost cancer-causing smoking, prolong vindictive litigation, or increase pollution-causing production as ‘wealth creating’. Meanwhile, when public resources are organised to teach children, treat the sick, or care for the elderly, they are considered as a ‘drain’ on the nation’s wealth.

This dubious distinction gains some superficial credence from the fact the former are viewed as voluntary acts, even if conducted with harmful consequences; whereas the latter is enforceable by law and hence assumed to be coerced. But clearly not everything resulting from a collective process is undesirable, especially when it is underpinned by an open and democratic system of decision-making. And if people democratically agree to pool together a proportion of their country’s resources so they are more able to address a whole range of common concerns, that is not a matter of coercion or draining, but a productive move that delivers real benefits for all.

By contrast, given the deception, manipulation, and unbalanced bargaining positions, which often prevail in private transactions, the value of such activities is far from intrinsically good. For example, if some ‘entrepreneur’ manages to get people to waste their money on smoking themselves to an early grave, or gamble away the savings for their family, that is not a positive act of wealth creation at all.

Simplistic ‘public-private’ dichotomies are often framed to serve either those who want to be unaccountable custodians of everyone’s wealth, or those who want to be free from all legal constraints as they dupe and exploit others in order to amass ever greater wealth for themselves. In a democratic society, we need to remember that neither extreme is desirable, and we would all be better off if we learn to allow those activities most effectively carried out by an individual, a group, a federation, or a government to be taken forward at the appropriate level.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Lifelong Learning & Everyday Governance

Schools, without exception, devote the great majority of their time to teaching academic subjects such as language, literature, mathematics, history, chemistry, biology, physics, etc. Many have argued that however important it is to have a good grasp of these subjects, a much larger proportion of time should be spent on vocational training (e.g., craft, technology, engineering) or life skills (variously grouping together skills to handle personal, social, health, financial challenges).

But proponents of all three domains of learning (academic, vocational, life skills) tend to overlook one thing that everyone needs to learn about – the art of governance. This is not to be confused with the listing of citizenship rights and responsibilities, or a recounting of the features of political institutions and electoral arrangements. Governance is about how a group of people (of whatever size) can be held together and led to cooperate for their common good.

From local residents’ and community groups, through schools and hospitals, businesses and government organisations, to multinational corporations and global political arrangements, the effectiveness of their governance impacts on the people who live within their sphere of influence.

To understand what differentiates good from poor governance, and how to steer towards the former is critical to playing a positive role in any collective entity. This involves academic learning from the political ideas on how best to govern; vocational learning from management practices on getting the most out of organisational performance; and life skills learning from interpersonal experience on relating to people constructively in a group context.

While different individuals may benefit from knowing particular academic, vocational or life skills topics, they all need to acquire real competence in contributing to (or at least not hindering) effective governance of the many institutions they are involved with in their lives. The test of governance arises every day, and not only should it be taught systematically in schools, it should be a feature of lifelong learning made accessible to every member of society.

The current absence of governance education is one of the key reasons why most people have little idea of why certain companies behave irresponsibly, some public bodies are mired in errors, or the government under particular administrations let the citizens down. They view these outcomes as mere spectators, not recognising that they can make a difference by, at a minimum, discovering what is wrong with the governance in question and backing changes that will redirect it for the better. Indeed they can go further and actively engage in shaping new policies and practices.

But what is to be taught? Instead of just explaining what constitutes a system of governance, educators must set out what the ingredients of effective governance are. Drawing from the extensive findings in political theory, management analysis, and studies of human interactions, it can with confidence be said that those responsible for any institution (and as we will see, this incorporates all who are involved with the workings of the institution and not just a few designated ‘leaders’) must put in place and sustain the following nine elements:

• Shared mission
• Mutual benefits
• Coherent membership
• Collaborative learning
• Continuous re-evaluation
• Accessible information
• Joint decision-making
• Balanced power
• Open accountability

By teaching introductory courses in schools on what these entail, developing a deeper theoretical and practical understanding through further/higher education, and sustaining continuous improvement through lifelong learning, the everyday governance of the multitude of institutions that affect all our lives will be notably better, which in turn will lead to more optimal outcomes for everyone.

As to what constitutes the basis for these nine elements and what each of them involves, see the outline presented in ‘Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide’.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Left at the Identity Checkpoint

2010 should have been a turning point.

That year, the aftershocks of the banking crisis hit Greece and led to a €45 billion EU-IMF bailout, triggering a rapid decline of share prices around the world while plutocrats sought to retrench their wealth advantages by backing austerity policies for the poor. At the same time, corporate irresponsibility was exposed in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – one of the worst in history. The reckless pursuit of fossil fuels- related profits contrasted sharply with the timid and ineffectual outcomes of the 2010 UN Climate Change Conference. Later that year, WikiLeaks released documents that revealed US-led military action in the name of the ‘war on terror’ had killed a large number of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan and fuelled the increase in Taliban terrorist activities.

With that backdrop, one might have expected the political Left to rally the public in reining in those who used their excessive power to destablise and endanger the lives of ordinary people.

Alas, in the UK, 2010 saw the Conservatives securing enough support to lead a coalition government; and in 2015 they even won their own majority in Parliament to carry on their programme of redistribution from the poor to the rich. And in the US, the conservative Republicans have since 2011 obtained a majority in the House of Representatives; while in 2015, they took control of the Senate too.

Unless politicians on the Left recapture the legislature, the Right will go on imposing their law and disorder on society. One school of thought insists that this is above all a matter of ‘moving the Left to the Centre’ – in short, appealing to large corporations, avoiding confrontation with the media moguls, and winning the trust of ‘aspirational’ voters (code for those who are relatively better-off than those at the bottom and are more likely to vote).

This may be a coherent strategy – for those who want to take the New Democrats/New Labour project one step further to create ‘Moderate Republicans/Decent Tories’ as rivals to the dominant Right. In a sense they would still be on the ‘left’, since to the right of the established Right there are already the Tea Party Republicans/UKIP Tories.

But for those who identify with the values of the political Left because they are concerned with the wellbeing and security of all citizens, and not just the privileges and freedom of the powerful elite – the focus has to be on engaging with those who suffer from the policies of the Right but neglect to vote for a better alternative. Almost 50% of those eligible to vote don’t register to vote or turnout to vote. And there are many who vote on the misguided assumption that they and their families would have a more secure future under politicians who actually view their needs as subservient to those of big corporations.

The Right will always get more money for their campaigns because it will consistently prioritise the interests of those with the most money. But it is ideologically incapable of offering the majority of people a better and fairer deal when that conflicts with the selfish preferences of the wealthy elite.

So long as the Left understands that outreach is not about monotonously asking people to vote for its candidates every time an election approaches, but to listen, take on board suggestions, give feedback, and thus to build relationship, trust and cooperation, then it will find that there is a ready majority to back those who are truly on their side.

For examples of how to engage people sincerely and effectively to build relationships to improve public outcomes, see the resources compiled under our ‘Together We Can’ section.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Democracy at the Workplace

For centuries, progressives and reactionaries argued about the need to democratise the governance of society. Repression countered revolutions. Rhetoric battled with reason.

By the middle of the 20th century, with the comprehensive defeat of fascism in the Second World War, the dispute was settled. Even the most conservative-minded conceded that it was untenable to deny members of a society the right to shape how it was run. Opponents of democracy were henceforth on the defensive - but only at the societal level.

At the level of individual organisations, despite the mounting evidence from worker cooperatives, participatory partnerships (e.g. John Lewis Partnership), and employee-owned firms, that businesses which empower their workers to exercise control over them perform better on all key indicators, the case for democratisation has been very much kept to the margins.

One explanation for this is the authoritarian predilection amongst many owners and top executives who, like the petty princelings and egocentric emperors of old, hate the thought of having to share power with anyone else. But an equally important factor lies with a lack of understanding of what would constitute the effective democratisation of the workplace. Too many attempts have fallen down for being too superficial, poorly planned, or inadequately sustained.

Before a call goes out to develop a major research project to address this issue, it is worth checking back with the findings we already have. In this context, we all owe a great debt to Paul Bernstein who, in his book, Workplace Democratization, drew together what extensive research had found and distilled them into six key components:

[1] Meaningful participation opportunities for all in decision-making, either directly or by elected representatives. Profit-sharing without participation in decision-making is insufficient as when or how much is shared would still be decided by those with no accountability to the recipients.

[2] Frequent feedback of economic results to all workers, including the sharing out of surplus to be decided on terms agreed by everyone. Democratic decision-making cannot be stopped short at considering how the revenue generated by all is to be shared by all.

[3] Full sharing of management information with workers so there is a real shared understanding of what is going on. Workers need to know what is going well or not so well, and what changes are necessary if they are to develop informed views about what actions and decisions they are to propose and/or support.

[4] Guaranteed individual rights (akin to basic political rights) to speak out, organise, meet in groups, and question decisions. Without such rights being protected, workers may not participate for fear of being disciplined, demoted or even dismissed.

[5] An independent board of appeal in case of disputes (composed of peers as far as possible). Any kind of owners or management only set-up would breed distrust and deepen alienation.

[6] A sustained cultivation of democratic attitudes and values. This requires on-going, proactive activities to keep interest afloat in reviewing how the business in question is doing. Without imaginative engagement, workers’ attention may drift away and there is a risk of democratic atrophy setting in (just as it can happen in national politics).

For anyone interested in promoting workplace democratisation, focus on how to put these six components in place.

[For a detailed exposition of these principles, see: Bernstein, P., Workplace Democratization (1980), New Brunswick: Transaction Books]

Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Meaning of ‘Pro-Business’

When we hear people waxing lyrical about the importance of being ‘pro-family’, ‘pro-freedom’, and of course, ‘pro-business’, we must ask: what do they really mean?

One of the commonest tricks in political rhetoric is to cover any ill-conceived or obnoxious proposal with a seemingly incontrovertible label. Who wants to be accused of being anti-family or anti-freedom? But we all know that we cannot allow parents to abuse their children or spouses to be beaten in the name of respecting the ‘family’. Loving relations make family valuable. And where such emotional bonds are missing or broken, changes are not only desirable, but in some circumstances, necessary.

So when it comes to the chorus of ‘we must be pro-business’, instead of blithely singing along, it is vital we take a look behind the label. If ‘pro-business’ means being supportive of everyone involved in business operations – for example, ensuring the people who work in them earn enough to live on; the business has a well-earned reputation that it will not harm the lives of those who use their products; the working practices are not injurious to those who work in them or destructive of the environment in which they operate; it generates sustainable benefits without deception or exploitation – then, let us all sign up to that ‘100% Pro-Business’ manifesto right now.

But what if when the smokescreen is blown clear, what we see is actually an agenda that is above all about giving even more power to the 1% most well-off executives in any industry to do as they please at the expense of everyone else – workers, suppliers, customers, local communities? What if ‘cutting red tape’ is just a code to liberate powerful executives to act irresponsibly? And the greater ‘freedom’ of the elite turns out to be a licence to impose pitiful wages and soaring prices on those who cannot stand up to them?

To champion such an agenda under the banner of ‘pro-business’ is not just disingenuous, but would undermine the development of productive enterprise. When rises in productivity are siphoned off, as they have done for decades in the US and UK, to fund astronomical salary increases for the few at the top, to leave stagnant wages for the rest, it destroys morale and deprives working people of the purchasing power to sustain a healthy economy.

So instead of parroting the calls to be ‘pro-business’, let us press those who hide behind this label to explain themselves. What is it that they propose to do to help everyone connected with business activities to do a better job and get a fair share of the benefits? If all they actually plan to do is to sidle up to the wealthy elite and offer them whatever they want, then their political position should be more transparently known as ‘pro-superrich’.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Money Can Buy You Votes

As pundits queue up to expound what went wrong for Labour and why the Conservatives won control, it is important to remember an old adage – follow the money.

A key political issue in any society is whether the benefits generated by people’s joint efforts as workers and citizens should be siphoned off to boost the bank accounts of a few, or shared out more fairly and productively in terms of people’s pay and the support for public services that serve the common good.

Seen clearly in these terms, most people would of course reject politicians who promote the former, and give their backing to those who champion the latter.

Unfortunately, plutocratic politicians have one big, financial advantage. By committing themselves to doing whatever they can to help the wealthy few exploit the masses even more, they get all the assistance that money can buy.

The UK has provided a case example of how this is done with a two-prong approach. First, the superrich, from hedge fund managers to property tycoons, make sure politicians on the right can substantially outspend those on the left. For example, in the final week of the latest election campaign, with many voters still undecided, the Conservative Party received 10 times more in political donations than the Labour Party. And it was no coincidence that the Conservatives in government had by then brushed aside the Electoral Commission’s recommendations and changed the law to allow a 23% increase on what can be spent in election campaigning.

Secondly, corporate moguls have been buying up media outlets for decades. Through those channels they continuously spin out stories about how society’s problems have little to do with laws and policies favouring the superrich, but are all due to vilified scapegoats such as benefit claimants and immigrants (and the EU too for good measure). As for any politicians who dare to stand up to corporate power – the tax evaders, the profiteers, the phone hackers – they are relentlessly presented as foolish, dangerous, incompetent, and untrustworthy.

If anyone doubts that advertising, direct selling/campaigning, media coverage etc can have a critical influence on people’s behaviour, they need to be reminded of how corporations spend billions on their marketing and PR, and the whole new online information and networking industry is sustained by money spent on advertising. And the goal is never to convert everyone, but just to get enough people to go with one product/political party on enough occasions.

So instead of pinning blame on those politicians who have tried to halt the rise of corporate power and challenge plutocratic politics for being ‘out of touch’ with the electorate, the most pressing task for any democratic society is to tackle the problem of money buying up political control.

It is the most insidious form of corruption. And until those in government are prepared to put an end to it, it will only spread further. But how can those who defy the plutocratic mantra get into government in the first place? That requires a new form of progressive populism that engages people on the ground through honest conversations. It can be done [1].

[1] Look at the electoral success of the left in Latin America for the past two decades.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Remember: Together We Can

Many people have written at length about the contradictions inherent in neo-liberal ideas. But they could have saved themselves a lot of time if they had seen neo-liberalism, not as a public philosophy, but as mere propaganda concocted to give the most unrepentant egoism a veneer of respectability.

Neo-liberal doctrines are not devised to show how society could be organised for the common good, but to convince the 99% beneath the plutocratic elite that any collective action by them would only make things worse for everyone.

The central theme is simple: do not join forces through unions, do not pool resources through taxation, do not protect each other with a public safety net, and do not support any international political institutions that may get in the way of transnational businesses. The benefit is supposed to be greater freedom for the individual. The intended outcome is that those in charge of powerful corporations can do as they please without anyone capable of reining them in.

Key to the neo-liberal deception is that collective action must necessarily be bad – less efficient, more unresponsive, and likely to deprive people of what they want. In reality, provided they are steered cooperatively and monitored democratically, collective action can in many cases deliver greater efficiency, higher responsiveness, and secure improvements that most individuals could never hope for on their own.

Of course, support for collective action in certain cases does not rule out individual action in others. In fact, one of the most important advantages of collective action is the provision of fair rules and effective enforcement so that people can pursue many of their goals in life through individual actions without being held back or injured by others who care only for themselves.

There is no disputing historically that unions have secured higher wages and safer working conditions for workers; public health systems have provided reliable care for more people than private firms prioritising profits; worker-run and worker-owned firms have greater productivity and higher worker satisfaction; international political bodies sustain peace and cooperation more effectively than when it is just left to individual states.

To ensure any collective action keeps its focus on the social purpose it is designed to serve, the approach known as ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving’ serves as a tried and tested guide. (See ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving: the key to a reciprocal society’). By embedding the elements of respect for participants, critical deliberation as the means for resolution, accountable decision-making, and systematic review and revision, people have been able to achieve much more than they could if they had been left to their own devices under the prevailing hierarchical structures.

Some of the examples illustrating how well it could work were captured by the last Labour Government’s ‘Together We Can’ programme - including how crime and fear of crime could be substantially reduced; pupils’ confidence and performance boosted; housing services and tenant satisfaction greatly improved; community enterprise developed and sustained. (See the guide to resources on ‘Together We Can’)

Ultimately, the hollowness of neo-liberalism can be seen in the contrast between the ‘Together We Can’ support for cooperatively guided collective action that demonstrably enhanced the common good, and the egoist politics that leaves individuals to fend for themselves so the powerful few can remain unchallenged in how they treat others.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

What's in a Vote?

Imagine you walk into a restaurant, and some people sit there forking up imaginary food and insist that others with empty plates before them should do the same. At the other end of the room, a hungry couple offered a variety of real food refuse to eat any of them because the menu does not contain the perfect dish they have always dreamt about.

That restaurant is our electoral system. There are those who want people to vote even in cases where it would not make any difference. They acknowledge that in seats where the incumbents have the backing of an overwhelming majority of the local constituents, a vote against them would not change anything. Yet they want to see people exercise their vote so much that they would even advocate compulsory voting for all.

By contrast, we also have those who regard it as a complete waste of time to cast a vote for anyone unless that person subscribes to the same policy position they hold on virtually every issue. Whatever differences the candidates may have between themselves, they are all branded as “the same” just because none of them represents these purists’ ideal politician.

Both these outlooks focus on chasing after their own sense of political perfection and neglect to pursue what would actually help to bring about a better government.

A key reason why so many people don’t vote is because with the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, in a sizeable majority of seats in, for example, the UK Parliament (at least 60% of the seats) or the US Congress, to get the incumbent voted out is statistically highly improbable. Making it compulsory for people to vote in these cases would not change anything except perhaps make them even more disillusioned.

But making the system one based on proportional representation means every vote will count. And when people can see that the number of seats to be held by any political party will be proportional to the number of votes cast for that party, they will have an incentive to vote for the party they most strongly support, knowing each vote will directly increase the proportion of seats to be gained.

Meanwhile, since under the prevailing system the electoral battle is to be decided in the marginal seats, then one should lend a hand by helping to persuade voters in those seats to vote so as to bring about a more responsive government by backing the most appropriate party in each constituency.

Whatever people’s party political differences maybe, they must realise that just as it is necessary to press for proportional representation because a vote against incumbents in totally safe seats under FPTP would be a wasted vote, a vote for a candidate who stands no chance of winning a given seat would also be a wasted vote.

In fact, in the critical seats that could determine if a country would continue to sacrifice the poorest for the enrichment of the wealthiest, voting for anyone other than the candidate who stands the only realistic chance of dislodging the current government supporter, or keeping out an even more plutocratic/scapegoat-persecuting candidate, might well prove to be disastrously counter-productive.

Of related interest to this post: see ‘10 Things about the State of Our Democracy’

Note: As for the old arguments against proportional representation system: (1) the suggestion that first-past-the-post (FPTP) gives a better connection between a voter and the politician thus elected is spurious since the voter-to-winner ratio is so high that there is little real connection, and most people would rather deal with a politician from the party they back; (2) the warning that a proportional system could let in more extremist parties begs the question of why, if a party is so extreme that the country should seek to keep it out of public office, legal restrictions should not be placed upon such a party directly; (3) the pseudo-justification of FPTP delivering a clear-cut majority for the government is flawed in theory (because a country divided on ideological or socio-economic terms should not be ruled by a contrived majority) and in practice (even FPTP is yielding coalition government with the smaller parties gaining more support).

Friday, 10 April 2015

Thatcher, Europe & Referendum

Amongst politicians who proudly declare themselves ‘Thatcherites’, there is one policy that has become almost sacred – namely, to precipitate the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union by holding a referendum on the issue. Ironically, it was Margaret Thatcher who most cogently set out the argument, regardless of whether one were pro or anti remaining in Europe, against deciding the matter by means of a referendum.

She did this when she was the Leader of the Opposition in 1975 when the then Labour Government proposed a referendum to decide if the UK should stay or leave the then EEC (European Economic Community). It shows that sometimes when they are unencumbered by power, politicians can be quite effective in questioning the powerful:

“On all major matters the essential task of government is decision. That does not mean absence of argument or absence of some differences. It means the capacity to reach a decision after argument and consideration, and sticking to it or resigning.

We now face the new system. If the Government cannot agree, gone is the discipline of resignation, gone is the principle of accountability to Parliament. The new doctrine is to pass the buck to the people.

… Perhaps the late Lord Attlee was right when he said that the referendum was a device of dictators and demagogues.

The treaty [with Europe] has been in operation for over two years. I know of no country in the Western World in which a referendum has been used to override a treaty obligation which had been through all its parliamentary stages and had been in operation for two years. Such a step would have a damaging effect on Britain's standing in the world. …

We know … the present Prime Minister was firmly against a referendum. But problems and divisions were arising in his own party, and one group of dissenters campaigned for a referendum. We accept that any hon. Member who holds strong views on the legislation itself is entitled to propose any method which he chooses to defeat it. But when Cabinets and Shadow Cabinets come to deliberate, they should bear in mind all the constitutional consequences of the course of action proposed to be slow to undermine cherished principles which have served liberty well for a long time.

It is quite possible to put a democratic case for having referendum provisions. If a referendum is put forward seriously as a constitutional instrument, we should need to consider the different kinds of referenda involved and what they implied for the present rules and conventions of our political order.

Assuming that we wanted the referendum provisions to apply only to constitutional questions, we should try to define what that means in a British context—an extraordinarily difficult exercise. If we wanted to avoid leaving the decision on whether to have a referendum to the whim of future Governments, we should have to think of some means of limiting its powers.

This White Paper has come about because of the Government's concern for internal party interests. It is a licence for Ministers to disagree on central issues but still stay in power. I believe that the right course would be to reject it and to consider the wider constitutional issues properly and at length.”

(40 years on from that speech by Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons on 11 March 1975, ardent Thatcherites from Cameron to Farage should take note from their political idol when she had so comprehensively exposed the pitfalls of resorting to referenda).

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Invasion of the Power Snatchers

Human history is filled with reminders that we should treat each other in a reciprocal manner, and not let anyone get away with taking advantage of others in ways they would never tolerate themselves. Embedded in ethical codes, moral tales, and religious commandments – this Golden Rule tells us that everyone should be accorded equal respect, and none is to be placed at the whim or mercy of someone else. This calls for sustained vigilance against anyone seeking to appropriate too much power for themselves.

Exceptional circumstances, which call for power to be vested in a single decision-maker, should be treated precisely as exceptional with effective plans to end any temporary concentration of emergency power.

And we should beware of the antics of those who are as adept at assuming the mantle of a Midas as that of a Caesar. We must be prepared to reverse the hyper-accumulation of wealth by an elite, and ensure it is adequately counter-balanced by tax-based redistribution. Attempts to deceive people into surrendering power to a privileged few by dressing the latter’s interests up as vital economic, military or religious goals must be exposed and rejected. The basic needs of those in the weakest position must never be passed over in any trade-off to satisfy the demands of the strong. The capacity for whistle-blowing by the few and open protest by the many must be reinforced and built into the machinery of civic resistance.

But when confronted by the entrenched position of the powerful, it is easy to believe that the concentration of power is not just unavoidable, but irreversible. Precisely because the power gap has widened, the powerful would be less and less inclined to give way, while others are powerless precisely to the extent that they cannot challenge the status quo. Instead of tackling the problem of power imbalance, people are then told to accept the inevitability, even the sanctity, of power divisions such that reciprocity gives way permanently to an asymmetric relationship – the disadvantaged shall act out of deference or fear to ensure they are not even worse off, and the privileged shall act out of their generosity or mercy in granting a few small concessions.

Consequently, all too many resign themselves to living under prevailing power structures, because it is drummed into them that significant changes could never be achieved.

In reality, power relations that are more balanced and thus conducive to reciprocity can be attained. Throughout history, the progressive struggle has successfully challenged the epistemological authority of dogmatists, and opened up the field of knowledge to wider participation; confronted the evaluative authority of edicts and traditions that neglect the interests of those with little power, and promoted the equal respect for all; and opposed the executive authority of leaders to make unaccountable decisions, and introduced instead more power sharing.

Yet the enemy of reciprocity is never completely vanquished. As soon as we let our guard down, those who seek to dominate and exploit others will emerge again and manipulate society to amass wealth and power for themselves at everyone else’s expense.

To protect all that is fair and decent in human interactions, we must therefore relentlessly repel the invasion of the power snatchers.

For a detailed exposition see: Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Cooperation Unbound: a new model for democratic education

History has shown that once authoritarian hierarchies have secured a foothold, they tend to focus on consolidating their top-down control. Whether the institution in question is the government of a country, a body with a dedicated function (e.g., an army, an orphanage, a care home), or a commercial enterprise, so long as the powerful few at the top are not effectively held to account by those who have to comply with their instructions, they will often maximise the benefits to themselves at the expense of everyone else.

One of the most notable features of the democratic struggle during the 19th/early 20th centuries was the drive to enable the disempowered majority to learn why and how they should go about getting a greater say about the decisions that affected them. Reformists who wanted democratic cooperation to replace authoritarian controls recognised their cause could only be effectively advanced if education played its part. And in quick succession, learning providers such as the Working Men’s College (founded 1854), Cooperative Women’s Guild (1883), Ruskin College (1899), Workers’ Educational Association (1903), Cooperative College (1919), National Council of Labour Colleges (1921), were set up.

But in recent decades, support for democratic education has slipped down the agenda. And with every economic downturn, funding from state and philanthropic sources was not only cut back, but it would henceforth be more tightly squeezed into employment-focused training to meet the needs of a largely non-cooperative economy.

In order to rebuild the momentum to democratise state and business institutions, four steps should be taken to develop a new model for democratic education with reciprocity at its heart.

First, lifelong learning providers should explore with representatives (from social, cooperative, and community enterprises; trades unions; worker-owned/worker-run partnerships; and other progressive institutions) what type of education will best encourage and enable more people to contribute to the success of those organisations.

Secondly, they need to put in place partnership arrangements to deal with course development, financial commitment, and impact review. These should be at a level that would be neither too large to render communications superficial nor too small to hinder economies of scale.

Thirdly, the partners can agree their organisational backing and funding support on the basis of how they will benefit in directly quantifiable economic terms and as measured by SROI (social return on investment), from a range of courses and programmes co-designed to raise understanding of how the barriers to democratic cooperation can be overcome.

Finally, when partnership structures, course contents/delivery, and funding agreement are in place, further investment support can be sought from relevant government agencies, social investors, CDFIs (community development finance institutions), and progressive foundations to help with the continuous improvement of the learning opportunities and the widening of their accessibility.

Back in 1879, Professor James Stuart of the University of Cambridge, a leading proponent of adult education, remarked that the cooperative movement “is a democratic movement if there ever was one. It therefore cannot repose on the good sense of a few; its success will depend on the good sense of the masses.”

It is time we accept that we cannot rely on goodwill funding or grants dispensed to those on the receiving end of a supplicant relationship. We must integrate the objectives of social justice, economic vibrancy, and political inclusion into a reciprocal partnership, and use that as the foundation to revitalise democratic education.

You may also find this relevant: ‘The Case for an Open Cooperativist Development Agency’
A longer version of this essay, which may be of interest to those in the UK involved in lifelong learning, or cooperative and community development, can be found here

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Politics & the Cooperative Gestalt

A core aim of politics is to get people to experience the world in ways that certain pronouncements and policies would resonate with them much more than others. It is no coincidence that public relations, opinion polls and political strategies have become inextricably linked.

Whether the majority of people are, for example, becoming more disposed to view human suffering as being primarily down to the personal flaws of individuals, or essentially caused by institutional failings, can have a key impact on what kind of political platform will win the most public support.

People’s tendencies to take one view or another on these matters are often shaped in turn by where they stand in relation to three pairs of dichotomies regarding, respectively, the attitudes, beliefs, and commands we encounter in life:

1. Deference to the values & preferences of a privileged few v. determination to regard all needs and desires as equal.

2. Absolute certainty & faith in established dogmas v. pervasive scepticism & iconoclastic embrace of the new.

3. Compliance with the rule by one unquestionable individual (or group) v. insistence that everyone should choose for oneself without any collective requirement.

Depending on which combinations prevail in one’s mind, one would be disposed to back those politicians who appear to chime with that psychological frame. And while the Right might have been in the past characterised mostly by the former position in each of these dichotomies, and the Left often presented as gravitating towards the latter, contemporary politics tend to mix and match. In fact, a recent tendency amongst many politicians has been to say that the ‘centre’ is what they are about. But without showing clearly how that differs from the more familiar dichotomies, their stance has come across as something akin to:

We appreciate the concerns of the privileged should not be too hastily brushed aside, but we don’t want to ignore the needs of ordinary people. We are not certain what we believe but we don’t want you to doubt everything we say. And we don’t like a powerful few dictating terms to us but we don’t like leaving decisions to individuals either.”

In short, bland and vague. And some have reacted against this centrist platitude by dashing headlong to one or another pole of the old dichotomies. Thus libertarians wanting to shrink governments to nothing, and anarchists wanting to see the back of all corporations. Traditionalists invoking religious purity or national pride to attack anything they dislike. Radicals impatiently dismissing all social or economic reforms as too slow and too cautious.

But politics does not have to be about either the muddled middle or polarised opposites. The dichotomies outlined above can be displaced by an entirely different set of dispositions – namely, the Cooperative Gestalt.

According to the cooperative gestalt, the most constructive way to interpret and respond to our experiences consists of being disposed to:
• Upholding or revising our attitudes towards other people so long as that leads us to show greater mutual responsibility and respect in our dealings with other people.
• Assessing the claims made by anyone in relation to the extent it has been subject to cooperative enquiry whereby provisional certainty is granted so long as the door remains open to revision based on new evidence or argument.
• Backing decisions that have been made with genuine citizen participation so that all those affected by the decisions are able to make a meaningful contribution to them before they are finalised.

A politics that speaks to and reinforces the cooperative gestalt is one that rejects not only simplistic extremes, but also has no time for mechanical triangulations that merely take the midpoint of rival views. It provides a real alternative that engages with human propensity towards reciprocity. Historically, it evolved out of the cooperative-communitarian tradition, and has in the past inspired progressive movements that draw people together to preserve valuable relationships and healthy differences, as well as curtail threats to common wellbeing and corrosive inequalities.

It is time politicians learn to reconnect with this inclusive mindset, and focus on applying it to the development of policies that will bring about a more cooperative and sustainably prosperous society.

You can read more about the cooperative-communitarian tradition by going to:
‘Communitarians: an introduction’ (short article); or Communitarianism (book-length exposition).

For the connections between the cooperative gestalt and:
A. Lifelong Learning: see ‘The Cooperative Gestalt’;
B. Political Reform Movements: see Against Power Inequalities;
C. Dystopian Visions: see ‘Cooperative Gestalt & Dystopian Fiction’.
D. Corporate Social Responsibility: see ‘The Cooperative Gestalt Approach to CSR’.