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)

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