Thursday, 15 December 2016

Three Wise Memos

In 2016, millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic, to make their lives better, chose to throw in their lot with con merchants who will make them even worse off than before. The disastrous consequences will hurt everyone else too. So what lessons are we to draw from this year of calamity?

Memo 1: Focus on Jobs

People are, above all, worried about not having a proper job. With stagnant pay, zero-hour contracts, redundancy threats becoming more prevalent, they are not sure if they can make ends meet. Public support is being cut back everywhere, and the private sector relentlessly charges higher rent, insurance, and fees.

Con merchants tell people that it is the fault of immigrants; that if immigration is drastically cut, there will be more jobs available. But not only do immigrants pay taxes and make purchases, and thus boost the overall economy to create more jobs, the precarious state facing so many workers is actually caused by the con merchants and their rich friends, who want to profit more from squeezing out labour costs. Decent jobs are hard to come by because production is moved abroad, automation becomes more widespread, and more work is demanded for fewer paid hours.

A new model for jobs and earnings has to be formulated, otherwise there will be few people left with enough money to buy the things machines made, and the economic system will indeed collapse. The alternative has to combine a guarantee of basic income for all (linked to a recognition of valuable work, such as caring for, mentoring, guiding, and supporting others in one’s family and the wider community); the democratisation of remuneration for everyone engaged in an enterprise; and the restoration of licences to operate for corporations (to set limits on corporate anti-social behaviour).

Memo 2: Mobilise Support

The media would have us believe a revolution is sweeping across the world. But the battles to stop political con merchants have been won or lost on the narrowest of margins for decades, and nothing much has changed on that front. The marginal seats (UK) and swing states (US) still tip the delicate balance one way or the other.

With around a third (it fluctuates between 30%-35%) of eligible voters tending not to vote, most contests are fought largely over the remaining two-thirds of voters, who are broadly split between those who are easy prey for the con merchants and those who see through them. This means that until the con can be more widely exposed (which is an important long term project), the immediate challenge is to mobilise those on the anti-con side to turn out to vote. And to do that, you need a charismatic leader who can inspire, a policy vision that can tackle job insecurity, and an outreach programme that will get your potential supporters out to vote.

We should remember that Hillary Clinton got 300,000 fewer votes in Michigan
than Obama did in 2012; if she had managed to get a tenth of those Democrats (they did not switch to Trump) to cast a vote for her, she would have won Michigan. Similarly, in Wisconsin, while Trump did no better or worse than Romney, Clinton failed to secure the votes of 230,000 Democrats who backed Obama previously; she needed just 30,000 of them to turn the loss of that state into victory. The pattern was repeated in other swing states like North Carolina. If there is one lesson to be learnt here, it’s this: take nothing for granted, mobilise every last enemy of the con to defeat it.

Memo 3: Stand Firm Against Con Merchants

When you’re dealing with reasonable people, by all means cooperate with them and work out sensible compromises. But when faced with con merchants whose business is to make empty promises and nasty threats, you have to stand firm. Obama thought he was inclusively bipartisan in appointing a Republican, James Comey, as FBI Director; but at a critical juncture, Comey flouted all protocol to destabilise the Democrats’ Presidential campaign. By contrast, Trump has no hesitation at all in picking the most extreme Republicans for his top positions.

Nothing sums up political con merchants’ tactics better than their spin on ‘democracy’. Not long before the EU referendum, Farage, dreading defeat, declared the referendum results could not be accepted unless the winning majority was substantial; he said publicly, “In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way”. When it turned out the Leave votes edged out Remain by 52% to 48%, he suggested that any further debate about the issue would be tantamount to a betrayal of the people. Trump also reacted to polls showing him trailing by repeatedly claiming that the Presidential elections were rigged in favour of his opponent. He even warned of widespread uprising if he lost. But when he won the elections even though Clinton had secured a million more votes from the people, he had nothing to say about the fairness or otherwise of the electoral system.

The lies told by Brexit campaigners and Trump are legion and well documented. And a key reason why, in spite of that, their supporters buy into their con is that, when they have heard nothing about improving their job prospects from anyone else, they in desperation hang on to the one direct promise made to them about how everything will be made better by getting tough with foreigners at home and abroad. Like so many who are duped by Ponzi schemes or unsavoury cults, they don’t want to be upset by the truth. Researchers have found that among Democrat supporters, around 60% believe their elected representatives should compromise if necessary to get things done for the country; but among Republican supporters, only about a third would want their elected representatives to make any compromise. When dealing with those who want to bulldoze over us, it’s time we realise there can be no concession.

[a] For more on how the relatively lower Democratic turnout contributed to Clinton’s defeat, see:

[b] According to a Gallup poll, among Republicans, 41% oppose compromise and 32% are open to it; whereas among Democrats, 18% oppose compromise and 59% are open to it:
According to an AP-GfK poll: among Republicans, 62% prefer a new speaker who will stick with conservative principles even if doing so leads to a government shutdown, while 37% prefer someone who will compromise with President Barack Obama and Democrats to pass a budget. But among Democrats, only 37% oppose their party’s leaders making compromise to pass legislation, while 60% support compromise:

[c] Farage’s statement on not accepting a 52%-48% result as conclusive can be found here:

Thursday, 1 December 2016

How Anger Trumps Anxiety

There are people who are prone to anger. They can be furious about all kinds of thing, and once their fuse is lit, they won’t listen to facts or reason. They want to hear that they are right to be outraged about immigrants, refugees, abortion, gun controls, gay marriage, being soft on criminals, not bombing hostile countries, and all that negative talk about fossil fuel. And they want someone to echo their rage and help them shout down anyone who thinks they are not entirely correct.

Then there are people who are full of anxiety. They are worried about everything, and the moment they read another distressing report, it’s added to their ‘to do’ list. They need to know what is going to be done to tackle social injustice, xenophobia, misogyny, gun crime, homophobia, neglect of rehabilitation, bombing civilians, and all that climate change denial. And they need someone who will not only understand those problems, but can prove to them that he or she will deliver all the necessary solutions.

With the angry mob, you can just press a button here and there, lead the ranting, and they adore you as one of them. It does not matter if you have nothing to offer to lift their wages, so long as you despise those immigrants, you’re alright with the gang. It does not matter if you give the biggest tax cuts to the richest few, so long as you condemn abortion vitriolically, you’re their hero. It does not matter if you have behaved abominably to women, so long as you hate gun laws with a vengeance, they’ve got your back.

But with the anxious cohort, the minute you outline one plan to solve one problem, they ask you about the next one on their list. It does not matter if you are better in so many ways than the other one, if you’re weak on one policy issue, they cannot in good conscience support you. It does not matter if you’re the only hope of holding back an avalanche of bigotry nationwide, if you’re not convincing enough in their last analysis, you don’t get their vote. It does not matter if the ideal candidate who ticks all the boxes is not an option here, if you’re not the ‘one’, they can’t help you.

Elections can be won and lost by the smallest of margins. Indeed, with some arcane system, they can be lost even if you win more votes, so long as you don’t win enough of them in the right places. And in too many of those places, alas, the hesitancy of the anxious allows the rampage of the angry to seize the day, the months, and the years to come.

Of course if the angry mob had lost, they had threatened to reject the results and back open rebellion. By contrast, the anxious are now desperately looking for some evidence that things might not be as calamitous as so many had warned if they were to abstain. Sadly, it’s going to be as bad as it gets. But that’s what happens when the obsession with waiting for the perfect candidate gets in the way of stopping power from falling into the hands of the worst.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Brexit-Trump Regression

2016 is the year of the UK’s European Referendum and the US’ Presidential Election. To lose one contest may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both certainly looks like carelessness.

A new industry has sprung up to explain the victories for Brexit and Trump, so dramatically snatched from the jaws of countless opinion pollsters. On the surface, there is much agreement. Millions of people are frustrated and angry. For decades they have been told that corporate freedom and liberalised trade would help everyone become better off. Year in, year out, they are sold the line that they must be more flexible as workers to help improve productivity and competitiveness, which will in turn bring prosperity for all. Yet while they have worked longer hours, taken on more part-time roles, agreed to unwelcome shifts, things just got worse.

Wages became stagnant; jobs more insecure; public services were repeatedly cut; and the prospects of a home for their children, care for their parents, adequacy of their own pensions, were all fading fast.

But why then did people not give their political backing to someone who would deal with the causes of these problems? Why did they not support those who would ensure there are fairer remuneration policies with worker participation, tackle tax avoidance and evasion that cost billions of pounds and dollars, invest in health and housing to give everyone a greater sense of security, stop banks gambling irresponsibly with savers’ money, promote multi-stakeholder cooperatives that deliver greater economic and environmental benefits?

The short answer: no one has come forward with such a political platform. Corbyn in Britain took control of the Labour Party but then has not managed to engage the wider public with any clear vision or convincing policy proposals, leaving him the most unpopular leader of the Labour Opposition since polling began in the 1950s. Sanders in America came closer to formulating a coherent alternative, but the Democrats picked Hillary Clinton instead to run against Trump.

Into this regrettable vacuum came the likes of Farage and Trump, peddling a simple spell for salvation: blame it on foreigners – who were imposing bad trade deals on us; coming over here to take our jobs; cheating their way through our border control by pretending to be refugees whose lives were at risk; encroaching on our culture with their alien customs; claiming benefits and using our cash-strapped public services.

Never mind the lies and distortions that were concocted to feed these allegations. The underlying strategy is to divert the despairing and the furious from the real causes of the problems, and turn them to vent their feelings at scapegoats who ‘don’t belong here’.

It’s hardly a new tactic. Tribal nationalism has been around since the emergence of democratic politics in the 19th century made it impossible for the power-hungry to take over as rulers by force or through deals with the elite in society. So tribal nationalism was adopted as a populist tool to win votes. And it worked in France in the mid-19th century and Germany in the early 20th century, until it brought those countries to their respective ruin.

The Brexit-Trump phenomenon should be seen for what it is – not some unprecedented anti-establishment movement, but a regression to the old tribal nationalist formula which targets the vulnerable, gratifies the lowest common denominator among the disaffected, and serves the demagogues pulling the strings and anyone in the establishment willing to collaborate with them.

If there is a lesson to be learnt, it is this: tribal nationalism inevitably brings intimidation, the spread of hatred and prejudices, and violent conflicts; but if no one will come forward with an authentic agenda to tackle the problems we face, it will continue as the list of ‘others’ grows and persecution becomes the inescapable norm.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Dr. Frankenstein, I presume

When the wealthy elite were looking to gain more political power in the 1970s, they realised that since they were a tiny minority, unless they gambled on bankrolling a military coup, their best bet was to come up with something that a large enough majority of the electorate might fall for.

Along came the creators of the New Right and their idea of political fusion. In short, they proposed to gather together motley parts from the electoral landscape and fuse them into an irresistible force. What these ideological Frankensteins set about cobbling together, with the financial backing of the superrich, was a political creature who would vote for anyone prepared to denounce all the horrid threats against ‘traditional values’, and never ask a single question about why the people they elect would make them poorer while helping the superrich get even richer.

So what are these threats against the ‘traditional values’ so beloved of the ‘moral majority’? Homosexuality, compassion for the poor, foreign customs, immigrants, any religion other than Christianity (or worse, no religion at all), women’s right to make decisions about their pregnancies, the evil of taxation, any preference for diplomacy over wars, scepticism about capital punishment, and additionally, in the US, any form of gun control.

Press the right buttons, and the progeny of the New Right will rise, shout down anyone presented as posing or backing one or more of the above threats, and vote without a second thought for the candidates financed by the plutocrats to enrich themselves further.

But while it worked up to a point for the Thatchers and the Reagans, everyone knows that Frankenstein experiments don’t tend to end well. So in the 2010s we witness in the campaigns that led to Brexit and Trump becoming the Republican Presidential nominee, signs that things are getting out of control.

Establishment Tories and Republicans identify above all with the interests of big business, and they have only gone along with the stoking of bigotry because it helped them win elections. But the monster they tactically unleashed, fuelled by ever more hatred and anger, was no longer following its master’s tactics.

As the economy is endangered by reckless demands, vital investment jeopardised, the contributions of migrant workers rejected, and the business environment undermined by extreme political uncertainties, New Right leaders in Westminster and Washington are beginning to get worried. Yet as the whirlwind of prejudices and rage wreak havoc everywhere, they are too afraid and incompetent to do anything.

In the UK, the Brexit vote emboldened bigotry and hate crime rose by 41% in the fortnight after the EU referendum [Note 1], accompanied by the pound sinking to a 31-year low as confidence in the British economy dissipates [Note 2]. In the US, Trump (vocally backed by Farage) not only endorsed violence perpetrated by his supporters, but actively promoted the notion that the Presidential election is rigged, leading to many of his followers openly discussing violent rebellion against Hilary Clinton [Note 3].

Many of us would indulge in a little schadenfreude given the self-inflicted plight of the New Right’s very own Dr. Frankensteins, if not for the fact that we too are afflicted by the chaos and misery they have brought about.

Note 1: Hate crime rose by 41% in the fortnight after the Brexit vote compared with the previous fortnight:

Note 2: Drop in the value of sterling post-Brexit vote:

Note 3: Trump’s talk of rigged elections and his supporters’ reactions:

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Pathology of Marginalisation

What have the following got in common?

• Abused spouses refusing help from law enforcement agencies and staying with perpetrators of violence who, they insist, love them very much.
• Followers of cults rejecting advice that they should withdraw and continuing to give over their money and devotion despite being exploited.
• Young recruits of criminal gangs pledging their loyalty to their ruthless leaders and accepting that they, in their lowly position, will be treated with contempt.
• People consumed by anger joining extremist groups, parties, or campaigns dedicated to hounding scapegoats, and ignoring the fact that such activities will only lead to their own conditions worsening.
• Alienated loners embarking on destructive actions from property damage to mass killing, and telling themselves that it is for some great cause.

In all these cases, we have people who are opting for what will damage their own wellbeing, and give succour to those unconcerned with the harm they inflict on others. While the severity of the suffering caused varies, there is an underlying psychological pattern. Identity ideologues may want to explain these disturbing social phenomena in terms of gender, religious, age, or racial characteristics, but the relevant factors cut cross these demarcations. We can look at these more closely by distinguishing four inter-related components

First, marginalised individuals who feel unloved and discarded can reach a point where they feel so isolated that they are desperate to have a connection with someone who will pay them serious attention – even if it is attention that would be rejected by most other people.

Secondly, they encounter someone who wants to bring them into something ‘special’ – an unbreakable relationship, a closed group, a feared organisation – that will give them a sense of belonging they have for long craved.

Thirdly, their attachment becomes so precious that they are willing to endure considerable pain, and even humiliation, as the price to pay for remaining a partner/member alongside the one calling the shots.

Finally, they come to associate the pain they suffer as itself a manifestation of the closeness they have attained to the one who holds power over them. They will make whatever sacrifice is asked of them to secure what they view as love and validation.

Commentators and policy advisors often react to such self-destructive behaviour by calling for tougher intervention. They want people who have these behavioural tendencies to be told quite firmly that they should leave the unsavoury characters they defend before it’s too late. They want to put a stop to the brainwashing, initiation, radicalisation, or whatever it is called in each context, so those who are duped would open their eyes and walk away.

But the problem is that unless there is somewhere welcoming for them to go to, they cannot bear to move away from their ‘home’. They close their eyes to the suffering they cause themselves and possibly others, because the reality of their predicament is too painful to contemplate. The only true way out is to help them find an alternative where they will be unconditionally loved and appreciated for the kindness they can bring to others, and not used for the gratification of some manipulative controller.

In parallel with offering such sanctuaries to those who have endured too much marginalisation for too long, we must do more to prevent people from being marginalised at home, at school, in their neighbourhood, at the workplace, or in the twilight zone of extortionate loans and paltry benefits.

The contagion that feeds off marginalisation is not something new and unfathomable. It has been around for centuries, used by sweet-talking abusers, charismatic cult and gang leaders, racist demagogues, and fundamentalist agitators, to trick others into doing their dubious bidding unquestionably. To end the vicious cycle, tough action is needed, and it needs to be directed at these shameless manipulators.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

‘Gains’, ‘Losses’, & Real Value

Political analysts and media commentators have made it their business to assess every party manifesto commitment, policy proposal, and budget initiative by setting out who will gain/lose by how much financially. So we are told on some proposal, young couples with no children will ‘gain’ X £ or $, while those aged 70+ with nothing but a state pension will ‘lose’ Y, etc. On other proposals, there will be different ‘gains’ and ‘losses’ calculated for a variety of demographically defined groups.

But why should we accept this approach at all?

Imagine a woman went into a shop to return a product which did not work to her satisfaction and got a refund of £100, while a man paid £100 for a similar product that did the job he needed it to do. Do we say that the launch of that product has left the woman £100 better off, and the man £100 worse off? Of course not. We cannot ignore what is of real value here. The man has paid £100 for something which meets a need, and if pressed to quantify it in crude monetary terms, he might say that it was worth more than a £100. By contrast, the woman has had to waste her time with a product that didn’t do what she wanted it to do, and she has gained nothing at all.

So much of contemporary assessment of public services makes exactly this mistake of ignoring real value. People pay their respective share into the public pot because it then provides the collective resources to fund services and secure outcomes that cannot otherwise be achieved. Isolated individuals with no taxes to pay would not be able to buy into a comprehensive health service, an impartial judicial system, policing and security at all levels, education for children and inspection of care quality for the elderly, and countless other benefits. Without the guaranteed organisation provided by the government, maximum profit will be squeezed out of those who can afford to pay the charges demanded for some of these provisions, while the rest will be left with no support at all.

Instead of quantifying the impact of public policies in warped monetary terms, commentators should learn to describe them in terms of lives saved, protected, improved, and enhanced. If they were incapable of doing that except where they could calculate some monetary equivalent, they could undertake projections of how much it would otherwise have cost to secure similar outcomes without public bodies delivering them. What profit-making doctors, commercial security firms, or private educational facilities would charge in the absence of public services would then provide a financial yardstick, albeit a crude one, of how much value we derive from our public providers.

Ironically, such value is not counted as part of the wealth of a nation unless the provider is in the private sector. For example, a public service doctor saves a life in a public hospital would be chalked up as a ‘loss’ of thousands of pounds. But a private sector doctor doing the same for a patient who covers part of the bill with commercial health insurance and part with dwindling family savings would be classified as a ‘gain’ for the economy.

If we are to value our public services, we must brush aside crass conceptions of ‘gains’ and ‘losses’, and start focusing on what is of real value in our lives.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Vote is Not Enough

Must we go along with every decision that is backed by the majority of votes cast because that is the democratic thing to do? But is it democratic if some who will be affected by that decision are denied a vote? And what if the vote is given to people who for whatever reason cannot comprehend what the vote is about and will use it arbitrarily? In any case, should the ballot be secret to prevent votes being cast under duress, or open to ensure transparency? What if only a small proportion of those eligible to vote have come forward to cast their vote? Which case should be decided on a simple majority, two/thirds majority, or unanimity? Would it make more sense in some cases to limit the vote to electing people who will then make the decisions? If so, should whoever gets the most votes in a single round wins, or would it be fairer if second/third etc. preferences be transferable in determining who would get the greatest support overall?

For anyone who thinks that ‘the majority are with me’ is a simple cast-iron licence to act, answering the above questions is just a start. There are numerous other factors that may affect the legitimacy of decision-by-voting under different conditions. For example, if a juror who refuses to pay any attention to or cannot follow the evidence presented in a trial may be disqualified, should there not be some form of independent overseeing to ensure the proceedings leading up to any vote are not derailed by ignorance, unreliable information or deception? To what extent should those with more money or other forms of power be allowed to use them to get what they want by coercing, bribing or deceiving others to vote accordingly? If formal education and the media generally are failing to help people understand how they are to vote responsibly on different occasions, should these be given a specific duty to raise citizens’ awareness about social and political issues? And where the vote is to elect a representative who will go on to take specific decisions, are we clear what the appropriate qualifications are for standing as a candidate; if there should be a limit to how many terms they can be elected for; and what arrangements should be in place for recalling them or revoking a decision they make?

To understand how these issues are to be addressed, we need to recognise there is no universal blueprint that can be applied to all individual cases. Instead, we have to comprehend what improvements democracy is meant to deliver, and hence consider in different circumstances what conditions have to be in place to maximise the likelihood for those improvements to be realised. There are three main improvements that a move towards democracy will render more likely to happen:

1. Curbing Oppression: to prevent some (a dictator, an elite group, or a large mob) from imposing their decisions on others and making them suffer without ever being held to account, democracy requires decisions to be authorised only when those affected by the decisions give their consent on an informed and un-coerced basis.
2. Correcting Errors: to stop any individual or group of individuals from claiming infallibility and making mistakes that can have undesirable consequences for themselves and others, democracy opens the way for everyone with any relevant idea or evidence to contribute to collective judgement.
3. Cooperating to Build Consensus: to resolve differences and facilitate give-and-take trade-offs without some being placed in a disadvantaged bargaining position, democracy provides a level playing field on which agreement can be reached between people through respectful deliberations.

By assessing how well any given decision-making arrangements help or hinder the three democratic objectives outlined above, we can determine how authentic they are in embodying the spirit of democracy, and what needs to be reconsidered and further revised.

So instead of proclaiming every majority vote as inviolable, or rejecting all attempts at democracy as inherently flawed, we should examine the voting arrangements put forward for local and central political decisions, elections, referenda, etc., and identify the areas where changes need to be made if the core democratic objectives are to be attained. Where voting outcomes have been arrived at as a result of one or more critical distortions, far from invoking democracy in validating those outcomes, we should stay true to our democratic commitment and question their legitimacy.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Automation, Immigration, & Civic Remuneration

Jobs with decent pay are getting harder to come by. Some blame immigration [Note 1]. Others criticise employers for moving jobs abroad. But the underlying problem lies with the widely accepted profit-centric economic model, which considers the cutting of labour costs as inherently positive.

It follows that commercial intermediaries (they who make money as the conduit between workers and customers because they own the design, the production facilities, or the distribution outlets) will keep seeking out new ways to have fewer workers and pay less to those they have to retain. Unfortunately, as less is being paid to workers, fewer workers will have sufficient income to buy what is produced. The production surplus then threatens to drive down prices, pushes more cuts for workers, and demand falls even further. And the vicious spiral of recession is in motion.

And the most powerful factor in labour marginalisation is pervasive automation. Exponentially rising processing powers, self-improving programmes, computer-led engineering, and unprecedented access to solar energy, are combining to give us automated mechanisms for virtually every form of production and service delivery. These mechanisms are not just making things we want, they can deliver online or via drones, they take feedback and rectify problems, and they offer a calm interface in providing advice and carrying out orders.

As automated processes radically cut worker costs, it accelerates the decline of purchasing power, and brings us ever closer to a world of plenty that very few can enjoy – unless we change the economic model governing our lives. If instead of pegging pay to activities involving commercial transactions, we link remuneration to contributions valued by society, we can attain a win-win position. Once work in the outmoded sense is no longer needed to be carried out by people, we can focus on what we do value about our fellow citizens – the care, respect, responsibility, creativity, sociability, we cultivate and share with others. A guarantee for civic remuneration can be given to everyone, so people can use it to acquire products and services that can be made available with no labour costs. The more automated innovation happens, the greater the stock of utilisable value there is to be distributed through civic remuneration.

The innovators who design or organise the automation can have a larger share of civic remuneration, so long as they don’t take such a large share as to leave nothing for others. There will be some who feel that without the old profit system, they cannot be motivated to come up with any innovation. But we know that there are always people who invent things like penicillin treatment, higher yield crops, or the World Wide Web, for the common good without insisting on vast monetary rewards for themselves.

Economic systems must adapt to be of use. Before market transactions became dominant, people fed themselves on what they grew; and before that, people gathered fruit and hunted for meat to share amongst themselves. As production processes change, we should leave aside ideological dogmas, and explore how new levels of innovation can be harvested to benefit all, especially when the alternative will pit a profiteering few against the discarded majority with nothing left to live for.

Note 1: According to the Office of National Statistics, while the number of EU workers in Britain rose by 700,000 between 2013 and 2016, they were outnumbered by the extra one million Britons who went into employment in the same period. In 2016, the number of British citizens working in the UK labour force is at the near-record level of 28 million:; and Dean Hochlaf and Ben Franklin (authors of the Immigration: Encourage or Deter report) have used the Office for Budget Responsibility projections to calculate that by 2064-65, the UK’s GDP would be 11.4% (£625bn) larger with high migration than it would be with low migration:

Monday, 15 August 2016

Give Collaborative Leadership a Try

The iconic sheriff of classic Westerns walks towards the town’s folks with his spurs jangling. He tells them what has to be done, and he makes damn sure it’s done.

The lone heroic leader commands dramatic attention, but history has long observed that the most effective leaders know two things – one, they can achieve the most when others are willing to help them to the best of their ability; and two, how willing others are to help them depends on the sense of togetherness they can engender.

Leaders who leave others feeling excluded will at best be tolerated like a minor princeling, or at worst, disposed of like Caesar. In the cabinet of government or the boardroom of corporations, the daggers may be metaphorical but they can just as swiftly put an end to any flawed ambition.

To steer clear of passive-aggressive mutiny in the office, and generate the kind of synergy where the sum is substantially greater than its parts, one should turn to the art of collaborative leadership. In essence, it calls for four simple things:
• Articulate shared objectives
• Promote open communications
• Engender a culture of mutual support
• Oversee joint reviews and adaptation

With collaborative leadership one can build a team that will enable its members to play to their individual strengths while covering each other’s weaknesses, and thus maximise their collective capacity to achieve what they all want to attain.

Contrary to any suggestion that this is only suitable for relaxed leaders working with a group of cooperative-minded people, it is in fact most called for in situations where collaboration seems to be completely out of sight.

Without the collaborative leadership of Dwight Eisenhower who firmly and respectfully made uncollaborative characters such as Field Marshal Montgomery and General Patton work together on a unified plan, D-Day might not have led to Allied Victory over Nazi Germany. If not for Mary Seacole’s charm and determination to get a disparate band of individuals to contribute to the realisation of her unconventional vision, there would never have been a care and catering service in the darkest hours of the Crimea War for the wounded and battle-weary alike.

And when José María Arizmendiarrieta trained and guided the first generation of managers to build in the 1950s what became the Mondragon Corporation, Spain was still under Franco’s authoritarian rule. It was Arizmendiarrieta’s unwavering commitment and promotion of the ethos of solidarity that paved the way for a federation of cooperative enterprises that by the 2010s are generating €11bn in revenue worldwide with over 74,000 workers (whose pay differentials average no more than 1:5).

We won’t go into the advice and training needed to develop such leadership, but we can use a model called the Synetopia Protocol to check the extent to which any aspiring collaborative leader has managed to put in place what is needed to nurture cooperation and multiply synergy. The nine elements to consider are:

S hared Mission
Y ou-and-I Mutuality
N imble Membership
E ducative Collaboration
T esting of Claims and Assumptions
O pen Access to Information
P articipatory Decision-Making
I mpartial Distribution of Power
A ccountability for Action
More details on these 9 elements are set out in: ‘The Synetopia Protocol’.

Monday, 1 August 2016

The Politics of Deranged Generalisation

In an episode of the cop drama, ‘Criminal Minds’, a man lost his wife in a fatal accident which he blamed on someone driving a red sports car. A mixture of grief, anger and instability turned him into a psychopath who embarked on killing a succession of people because each of them drove a red sports car. None of the murder victims had anything to do with the original accident. They were just tragically unlucky to be targeted by a deranged mind who picked them out in connection with an incidental characteristic he had come to attach visceral blame to.

Any viewer can see that the killer was utterly irrational, and whatever sympathy one might feel about the loss of his wife, there could be no tolerance for the deadly danger he posed to other people. But in our society today when, instead of one individual behaving in this deranged manner, we have a large number of people blaming, hating and willing to hurt countless others based on some wholly irrelevant characteristics, we are told they should be respected (unless they claim allegiance to Islam, in which case they will be condemned).

Indeed, a whole industry has sprung up to protect people from “politically correct” criticisms, defend them as upholders of “traditional values”, and encourage them to act without reservation on their prejudices. These people may, as a result of some incident in their past or an unfortunate upbringing, have acquired a deep resentment against an individual or a group of them (e.g., the person(s) may be of a different gender, a particular ethnic group, a certain sexual orientation; have a disability, a low income that has to be supplemented by social security, a need to seek refuge abroad; hold another religious or secular outlook; or speak up for disadvantaged groups). And not only are those harbouring such bitter resentment oblivious as to whether their attitude is remotely justified, they mindlessly project that negative feeling to all individuals who happen to have the characteristics they have come to demonise.

When they speak or write viciously against their imagined enemies, spread lies about those people’s beliefs and behaviour, instil in their own children suspicion and hatred for the ‘inferior’ or ‘deviant’, political or religious leaders who spot them as useful fodder come forward to declare them, not as certifiable, but as deserving of respect for their tradition/custom/religion or whatever handy label that is around.

So just when therapy is most urgently needed to save these infected minds from falling over the edge into permanently deranged generalisations and all-consuming hatred, our modern day Dr. Frankensteins harvest them to feed their extremist movements. The monsters thus created stare with enmity at any kind of support given to their ‘foes’, acting alone or as a group they fuel antagonism against innocent and vulnerable people, and they channel their energy into intimidating, even harming, those who have not done a thing to deserve their disdain.

We should all take a closer look at how common it is now for euphemistically termed ‘politically incorrect’ (i.e., morally repulsive) dispositions to be exploited by unscrupulous leaders to build armies of supporters in the service of hate. That is why extremism is on the rise.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Keeping the Con in ‘e-CON-omics’

Brexit, as predicted by all experts that ‘Leave’ campaigners urged us to ignore, is pushing the UK into another recession and intensifying financial uncertainty all round.

What was not predicted, but should not come as too much of a surprise, is that the establishment has come out to ensure that in or out of the EU, it is the wealthy elite who will be protected, and everyone else (having been told we would “get our country back”) will bear the consequence.

The priority as ever is to help the banks make money, and promises for more deregulation have quickly been made to enable them to lend more money profitably – allegedly to revive the economy. But in the same speech in which he announced this move, the Governor of the Bank of England remarked that there was already too much debt around. It’s inescapable that when people have borrowed too much money and cannot pay it back, it will lead to a major banking crisis – as happened in 2008, and before that in the 1930s. In fact, it was because of the irresponsibility of the banking sector that was exposed in the 1930s that prompted subsequent banking regulation to stop banks over-lending to borrowers who could not pay the money back. In the 1980s, the banking sector, with the help of free market ideologues, rolled back these regulatory constraints and was able once again to use savers’ money as leverage in lending out to unreliable borrowers. When bad debts piled up, the banks asked governments to bail them out. And now we’re in for more deregulation, more bad debts, and before long, another banking fiasco.

The real reason the economy is stalling has little to do with lending. A mass production-consumption process can only be sustained if there are lots of people producing goods and services, and getting paid enough to purchase those goods and services. When more and more people are not getting paid work, only getting it at below-subsistence rates, or are ‘in work’ in name only because they are made redundant and told to register as ‘self-employed’, then there is a growing surplus of goods and services without the funded demand to match them. Recession thus ensues.

If only the people running corporations will pay their workers better, and support public investment that creates jobs and improves society’s infrastructure, then there will be more commercial transactions and prosperity will be generally enhanced. Unfortunately, most firms think they can leave others to pay workers enough to maintain the demand side. The end result is that the ‘efficiency’ drive of each comes together as the impoverishment of all.

Governments need to step in when individuals pursue options that undermine society. And the new UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, has spoken about her intention to pursue an inclusive approach reminiscent of that of the former Labour leader, Ed Miliband, namely, to run the country “not for the privileged few, but for every one of us”. But we’re all familiar with how politicians on the right use progressive language to mask their divisive policies. It would be a belated, but nonetheless welcome, change if May should prove genuine in seeking to curb corporate powers and put workers on the boards of businesses.

In the meantime, amidst the economic chaos that has been unleashed, we can only assume that when the goings get tough, the con will just keep going.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Dis-United Kingdom: 10 issues to watch

So by 52% to 48% the voters in UK have opted to withdraw from the European Union. The Prime Minister has resigned, shares and sterling are plummeting, and uncertainty spreads across every sector. But between the euphoria of those who think they have taken ‘their’ country back, and the despair of those who feel Britain has lost its way, there are a number of critical issues that should be closely scrutinised in the aftermath of this referendum:

[1] Relationship with the EU
In case anyone thinks the EU blame game is now over, it is only actually just beginning. EU-bashing has served the uber-right (see Note 1) well, and the attention will now shift to attacking the unhelpful ‘Eurocrats’ for refusing to agree to the perfectly reasonable exit terms that would enable the UK to have all the benefits of an EU member state and none of the responsibilities. Furthermore, unsavoury alliances will be developed with far right parties across Europe which want to build on UK’s referendum outcome to break up the EU and foment nationalistic extremism.

[2] Immigration
Many people voted for ‘Leave’ because they believed there were too many immigrants in the UK, and leaving the EU would help to reduce numbers significantly. But since the xenophobia that distorts the perception of what is good or bad about immigrants won’t go away any time soon, the uber-right will continue to fuel and exploit it. Instead of finding a workable balance between the need for EU workers and the inclination amongst some to keep those workers away, the rhetoric will turn to the problem with immigrants from outside the EU: how those numbers must be drastically cut, and even ‘options’ for repatriation may raise their ugly heads.

[3] Transnational Institutions

Will withdrawal from the EU be sufficient for Britons to “take our country back” – away from all ties that make us a part of wider transnational institutions? What about NATO, UN, G7, the Commonwealth, OECD? Will anyone bring up the connections between any of these organisations and the potential movement of foreigners to the UK? After all, once EU migration is ‘blocked’, Commonwealth migration will become the next obvious target. NATO, of course, is also a driver of asylum seeking through its bombing campaigns which generate vast numbers of refugees. But since refugees are useful scapegoats, having more of them to turn away may be tacitly welcome.

[4] TTIP (Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership)
Uber-right campaigners belatedly acknowledged that the proposed TTIP agreement would rob the British Parliament of its sovereign right to legislate (since under the terms of TTIP, any corporation with enough financial muscle can sue any government for passing laws that allegedly infringe on their profit-making), and argued that leaving the EU would ensure the UK is not part of the TTIP negotiated between the EU and the US. But since uber-right politicians generally favour private trade and profit over public interest legislation, it is possible that a government under their influence will come up with its own trade & investment partnership with the US, that will concede even more to big business and utterly undermine national sovereignty.

[5] Future of the NHS
Handing more, if not all, of the NHS to the private sector has been a consistent theme amongst uber-right politicians. That did not hold them back during the EU referendum campaign to claim that hundreds of millions of pounds ‘saved’ from leaving the EU would be available to invest in the NHS. Many people believed this. But instead of getting more funding support, the NHS could be heading for even more drastic cuts. When the NHS is unable to continue despite the best efforts of its staff, its wholescale dismantling will come to the top of the agenda, and private healthcare firms, having donated to parties on the right, will be invited to cherry pick the parts with the greatest profit-making potential, and leave the rest to rot.

[6] Worker Rights
Right wing politicians have long resented the EU-wide agreement to set minimum standards for protecting all workers from the worst possible terms and conditions. Without EU protection, a right wing government will be able to strip away worker rights, legislate against trade unions until they can never contest any edicts by employers, and do away with the minimum wage. When ever greater insecurity grips working people, they will be told that the problem is that there are still too many immigrants working in the UK.

[7] Social Justice
Some people are shocked that large numbers of Labour supporters voted for ‘Leave’, but they overlook the fact that many of these voters think of ‘Leave’ advocates as not standing at the uber-right end of the political spectrum, but to the left of the Labour Party. The Labour Party failed to link uber-right politicians to policies that have, for example, brought in surcharges for families with disabled members renting public housing (aka ‘Bedroom Tax’), decimated Sure Start support for children, and terminated the vital Education Maintenance Allowance for young people from low income families. The success of the ‘Leave’ campaigners is indeed bringing a change of government, but it is not a government to the left of Cameron, but one decidedly comprising many who are much further to the right of him.

[8] The Financial Sector

When the banking crisis broke out in 2008 as a direct consequence of Thatcher’s deregulation of the financial sector (compounded by Labour’s reluctance in the intervening years to bring back better controls), the Conservatives claimed that more effective regulation must be brought back. Once they were back in government, however, they held back from any substantial reform of the banks. They argued that the UK banking sector could be at a disadvantage if the UK acted alone without similar legislation being introduced across the EU. When the rest of EU agreed on limiting bankers’ bonuses, the UK Conservative Government sought to challenge that agreement in order to protect banking interests in the UK. With the UK pulling out of the EU altogether, politicians on the right can once again invoke the excuse that they could not do anything to regulate the financial sector when there would be no guarantee that EU countries would do the same. Thus another banking crisis looms.

[9] Scotland and Northern Ireland
While England and Wales voted for ‘Leave’, the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The Scottish Independence Referendum was previously settled in favour of remaining with the UK on the basis that the UK would in turn remain in the EU. The prospect of the UK dragging Scotland out of the EU against the wishes of the Scottish people means that another independence referendum will almost certainly take place in Scotland, with the vote decidedly swinging towards independence this time round. As for Northern Ireland, the common EU framework it has shared with the Republic of Ireland up to now has helped normalize relations between the two nations. If Northern Ireland is to be pulled out of the EU, that will undoubtedly create serious problems. ‘Leave’ campaigners have insisted that there would be no border controls put in between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but if that were to be the case, then the whole argument about regaining the UK’s own borders would be hollow, since EU citizens could freely travel to Ireland (an EU country), and then just walk over to the Northern Ireland part of the UK.

[10] The Use of Referenda

One thing this referendum has proven is that it makes no sense to use such a device to decide highly complex political issues. To discern the pros and cons of EU membership requires expert analysis. Yet whenever there is a consensus of expert opinions on, for example, the negative economic impact of leaving the EU, they are dismissed as the voice of the establishment, or worse, accused of acting like stooges of a Nazi regime (an accusation made by Michael Gove, MP). Many people voted primarily on the basis that there were too many unwanted immigrants in the UK, and leaving the EU would deal with that problem. In a jury trial, the judge can guide the jurors, and rule out misdirection and false statements, but in a referendum on this scale, lies were perpetrated continuously, and just occasionally retracted quietly. It can only be hoped that the inherent weaknesses of referenda will become more widely known, and it does not become a handy tool for the uber-right to exploit public anger and frustration.

Whenever warnings are issued about uber-right politics, they are dismissed as exaggerations. It would never happen, we are told. Immigrants would not be demonised and blamed for every ill under the sun. Those who use immigrants as scapegoats at every turn would never go on to secure power and run the country. People would never overlook the real causes of problems in society, and simply cheer the ascendancy of the uber-right. Never say never.

Note 1: ‘Uber-right’ covers those on the radical right within the Conservative Party and those in parties to the right of the Conservatives, e.g., UKIP, all sharing the approach of cutting public services, backing military action, and blaming immigrants and multiculturalism for economic problems caused by the banking sector.

[This article was first posted on 24 June 2016, the day after the UK's referendum on its membership of the EU]

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The Lawbreaker’s Mask

Most people frown upon the antics of lawbreakers. They suspect them of trying to take unfair advantage of others by breaking rules and regulations that are meant to apply to everyone.

Yet curiously, charlatans who seek to break off legal constraints in the name of freedom may not only escape censure, but are often applauded for their daring efforts.

How does that work?

Well, run-of-the-mill thieves and robbers may hide their identity, but the most deceptive lawbreakers hide their agenda. By donning the mask of liberty, they are able to rally support in dismantling laws that get in their way. Publicly, they stir up people’s resentment against collective requirements that diminish our precious freedom. Privately, they plot to do away with any law that holds them back from doing whatever they want, regardless of the dire consequences for the likes of you and me.

When they say the state should leave families alone, they mean there should be no law hindering them from treating their spouses and children in any way they see fit. They trumpet freedom for ‘traditional families’ because the tradition they worship confers upon them unlimited power in misleading, intimidating and even abusing everyone else in ‘their’ family.

When they complain about too many rights are granted to “whining minorities”, or too many responsibilities placed on “wealth-creators”, they mean these statutory impositions should be swept aside so the elite few can become ever more powerful, while those lower down the social hierarchy should vent their frustration at those at the bottom of the heap.

When they say the government is hurting enterprise with too much red tape, they mean their notion of a thriving business has no room for legal barriers to exploitation. If only they had total freedom to browbeat their workers, twist the arm of their suppliers, deceive their shareholders, rip off their customers, and pollute the environment, they would be able to make so much more money – for themselves.

And when they say democracy is jeopardised by transnational political institutions such as the European Union or the United Nations, they mean their efforts in thwarting national governments by developing transnational corporate arrangements can only succeed if governments do not join forces in reining them in with the rule of law.

Their rhetoric screams passion for freedom and democracy for all. But behind their mask, the face is animated by the craving for power over others. Hence the endless variations on the same old theme – cut local authorities; shrink national government; withdraw from the European Union. They know, and steadfastly hope others don’t, that without laws enacted and enforced by democratic governments, the predators would be free to turn everyone else into their prey.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Education, Society & the Cooperative Gestalt

All educators have a shared concern with enabling more people to understand why society and its institutions are the way they are, and what they should do to enhance their common wellbeing.

However, this social purpose of teaching is all too often held back by the uncertainty over what should actually be taught to achieve it.

Those with different religious or secular beliefs hold conflicting views about what is truly good for all. Prevailing traditions and changing customs diverge on what are desirable or unacceptable practices. Political parties are poised to condemn any criticism of their stance or policies as intolerable bias.

Understandably, some come to believe that it would be safer to teach only what no one would object to. For example, describe government and business structures but not criticise them; encourage people to volunteer and to vote but not explain why some groups merit support while others don’t; and present all reports and doctrines as worthy of consideration without pointing to any of their flaws.

But since nothing of substance will be taught if every potentially contestable issue is brushed under the carpet, we need to find another way. And if we look back on history carefully, we can see that the mindset cultivated to cooperate through mutual respect, empirical reasoning, and democratic power distribution, has helped to displace prejudices by shared understanding, maximise the synergy of enquirers, and develop institutions and practices that enable people to achieve far more together than they could otherwise have done in isolation.

The challenge for educators is to capture the key ideas that constitute this cooperative gestalt, explain their cogency, show their applications to contemporary problems, and present them in diverse forms to attract engagement with them. To do this, schools, universities, adult education, and other teaching institutions will need to draw on resources that synthesize what have been set out by different writers, and develop these into accessible materials for teachers to incorporate into their own sessions, or guide their students to utilise them directly.

This is not a simple task, but we can make a start with the help of a series of short guides that may assist the cultivation of a mindset that is more conducive to critical thinking and cooperation:

Why should we learn to cultivate the cooperative gestalt: ‘The Cooperative Gestalt’ (its value to lifelong learning and why some may object to it); ‘Politics & the Cooperative Gestalt’ (its relevance to teaching politics and democratic participation).

How can the concept of ‘synetopia’ help to teach effective cooperation: ‘Synetopia: progress through cooperation’ (an introduction to the notion of synetopia – the cooperative place); ‘Synetopia: why, what & how’ (the use of synetopia-based resources to facilitate discussions of cooperative challenges).

Why dystopian fiction can help to highlight the obstacles to cooperation: ‘Cooperative Gestalt and Dystopian Fiction’ (the links between the development of dystopian fiction and the cooperative gestalt); ‘A Novel Exploration of Inequality’ (an example of a dystopian novel recommended by the Equality Trust for exploring issues of social justice).

How to engender cooperative problem-solving: ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving: the key to a reciprocal society’ (the key elements distilled by academics and practitioners); ‘Together We Can: resources for cooperative problem-solving’ (a guide to essays, reports, examples on effective practices).

What are the intellectual roots of the communitarian-cooperative ethos: ‘The Radical Communitarian Synthesis’ (an outline of the historical background to its development); ‘Cooperative & Communitarian: a common heritage’ (the Owenite influence on cooperative enterprises and inclusive communities).

As educators redouble their efforts to enrich the competence of learners to live and work as fellow members of society, there will hopefully be further collaboration in the development and use of pedagogic resources in support of the cultivation of the cooperative gestalt.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Thoughtful Guide to Political Types

There are two characteristics that have the most direct bearing on people’s political dispositions. If we want to know how we should engage with different people politically, we should begin by understanding them in terms of:
• Interpersonal Thoughtfulness – do they have relatively high or low propensity to care about the needs of others, empathise with others’ feelings, and stand up for those who are treated badly.
• Rational Thoughtfulness – do they have relatively high or low propensity to grasp arguments, reason logically, digest explanations, and cut through irrelevant materials to consider the pertinent evidence.

While there is no exact measure of these propensities, each can be gauged with a mix of proxy assessments:

Interpersonal Thoughtfulness
We can rate people’s interpersonal thoughtfulness in terms of their tendency to, for example:
• Give some of what they have earned to help others in need;
• Feel empathetic pain and sorrow when aware of others’ pain and sorrow;
• Respect others without succumbing to negative stereotypes or prevailing prejudices;
• Stick up for the weak against the strong, rather than join the strong in bullying/ridiculing the weak;
• Share what they by luck acquire with others.

Rational Thoughtfulness
We can also rate people’s rational thoughtfulness in terms of their ability to, for example:
• Respond correctly to logical reasoning questions;
• Summarise arguments presented in articles/reports;
• Carry out sophisticated analysis of learning materials (educational attainment can be a proxy measure);
• Understand how scientific consensus is developed and draw on it in the face of dogmatic or sensationalist claims;
• Follow where the evidence leads without being deflected by arbitrary assumptions or irrelevant digression.

Based on the above we can map out four broad political types:
[A] High Interpersonal Thoughtfulness AND High Rational Thoughtfulness.
[B] High Interpersonal Thoughtfulness BUT Low Rational Thoughtfulness.
[C] Low Interpersonal Thoughtfulness BUT High Rational Thoughtfulness.
[D] Low Interpersonal Thoughtfulness AND Low Rational Thoughtfulness.

Whatever their age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, professed party affiliations, people in each of the four categories we have identified will have in common an important set of political dispositions. These may be summarised as follows:

[A] High Interpersonal Thoughtfulness AND High Rational Thoughtfulness:
Type A people care about others, are inclined to examine the real causes of suffering and deprivation, and want to explore and pursue the options most likely to improve the quality of life for as many people as possible. What will appeal to them are properly argued policy proposals that will enhance the common good, help those in need, and minimise the risk of negative consequences.

[B] High Interpersonal Thoughtfulness BUT Low Rational Thoughtfulness:
Type B people care about the wellbeing of others, but they are not the most rigorous when it comes to scrutinising options, and can be susceptible to follow superficially attractive ideas that are in fact counter-productive. What will appeal to them are easy to understand policy proposals that strike a chord with their emotions, and a sense of togetherness in tackling shared problems, without being bogged down in complex facts and figures.

[C] Low Interpersonal Thoughtfulness BUT High Rational Thoughtfulness:
Type C people care predominantly about themselves, or at most the people who most closely resemble them (through family ties, race, class, religion, or shared objects of hate), but they are adept at reasoning what will get them what they want, and also what will lead others to help them even at the expense of those giving help. What will appeal to them are policy proposals that will offer them something they want for themselves, and while they are unlikely to respond to requests to prioritise those in the greatest need, they might concede if it they were plainly told how they would lose even more if they did not.

[D] Low Interpersonal Thoughtfulness AND Low Rational Thoughtfulness:
Type D people also care mainly about themselves (and perhaps those who they regard as ‘close’ to them), but their relatively weak reasoning powers made them susceptible to misunderstanding (of what is offered by those who want to help them) and manipulation (by those who want to exploit them for their own ends). What will appeal to them is emotive proposals that make them feel that they will get the attention they deserve, and their concerns are respected and will accordingly be addressed.

It follows from what has been outlined that the contrasting characteristics of political types, A, B, C, and D, must be taken into account if any political campaign is to succeed. It can also be seen that political groups/parties tend to gravitate towards those led by type A and those led by type C. Strategies deployed by type C political leaders would be familiar to many observers: mock/attack type A people as ‘out of touch’, ‘soft’, ‘disrespectful’; deceive type B with well disguised and fallacious arguments that their policies will help most people when in fact it will help the privileged few; and stir up type D to channel their anger and frustration at a variety of scapegoats and mislead them into backing what does not in fact help them at all.

By contrast, type A political leaders often suffer from the blind spot of not seeing that intricate explanations of what will best serve the common good will only work for those who are also type A people. To win wider support, they need to adapt their strategies to take account of what we have set out are the different ways to engage types B, C, and D people.

Note: The four types have in this context been sketched in very broad terms. Within each category, it is likely that some will have stronger or weaker propensities in relation to one factor rather than another. So a deep analysis may further subdivide each type into, e.g. B+, B, and B-. But while this may be appropriate for a detailed sociological study, the simpler classification may be sufficient to inform most political strategies, unless there is practical scope to differentiate a target population quite precisely. In most cases, a political leader should just aim to make the offer in the different ways suggested, and ensure that the overall campaign contain sufficient output of each form to reach and connect with all the main political types.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Terminate the Machines?

Add ever more complex programming to automated design and production processes for a constantly widening range of machines that are sustained by renewable energy, and we will soon arrive at a fork road for humanity.

One path leads to the utopian world in which machines will take care of us by doing virtually all the work that needs doing (including their own repair and maintenance), leaving us to pursue whatever will bring us true fulfilment. The other route takes us to a dystopian cliff edge over which the machines will exclusively serve just the few who created them, leaving everyone else with no paid work, no resources, and little hope of a passable life.

So what should we do? The neoliberal option would be to let a tiny elite of human beings control and benefit from the machines, accept that most others will consequently have no paid work to obtain, and will starve to death, become stigmatised as permanent welfare claimants, or be given a small crowded area where they can blame and attack each other interminably.

The Luddite strategy would be to stop these machines from being developed, and insist that a sufficiently large number of paid jobs are reserved for humans irrespective of how much cheaper, quicker, or more reliable they can be carried out by the next generation of machines.

Or we can explore with the inventors and makers of these complex machines if they are willing to follow the example of those who brought humankind advances such as the penicillin or the world wide web – in other words, bequeath the legacy of their genius to humanity, so anyone can add to the functionality of these machines, but the work done by them will benefit everyone.

It won’t be easy to reach agreement about the arrangements to be devised under the third option, but it is the only one that can embrace invention without opening the door to unprecedented polarisation. So long as those with technological creativity are not consumed by insatiable greed and the vast majority of people are not strangled by the fear of extinction, a collaborative future can evolve. There is no reason why the inventors – and anyone who adds to the machines’ performance and functionality – should not have more rewards than others, provided the differentials can be set with the input of everyone reflecting what would be a sustainable consensus for all.

Ultimately, anyone who thinks that the few winners blessed with technological know-how should take it all, must recognise that the vast numbers who would thus be reduced to comprehensive losers would not be content with being shut out in the wilderness. If we don’t want to halt the advancement of technology that can potentially benefit us all, we’d better terminate any attempt to hand absolute power to the elite corporations that seek to take command of all vital machines.

Friday, 15 April 2016

10 Ways to Subvert Legality

“I haven’t done anything illegal.” – So runs the riposte of many confronted with evidence of wrongdoing.

Admittedly it would be arbitrary to punish people without reference to any objective code of law, but the law itself would sink into arbitrariness if it could be twisted to serve the interests of a few against the common good.

Slave owners were able to defend their business as legal until abolitionists managed to change the law to put an end to their repugnant enterprise. Exploiters of child labour persisted until statutory restrictions were introduced to stop their callous practice. But alas, laws can be undone. Worse still, they can be constructed, not to curtail unethical deeds, but boost them.

Modern plutocracy has opted to buy the law as one of its key operational assets. Here are ten of its favourite tactics:

1. Donate vast sums to political parties and politicians who are more likely to change the laws to suit the wealthy few at the expense of the majority of people.
2. Buy and maintain control over media outlets and promise support for politicians who will bring in or abolish laws that will favour them.
3. Ensure those who have taken control of government with their financial backing do little to restrict campaign funding from the wealthy elite while clamping down on similar funding from organisations representing ordinary workers.
4. Arrange exclusive meetings with their political stooges to remind them what laws should be changed to enhance their market share and profits.
5. Put forward international trading agreements to enable big corporations to sue governments that are not in their pocket and daring to pass laws that get in the way of their harmful profit-making.
6. Move their senior staff into government positions (on a short-term secondment basis or a ‘permanent’ role before returning to the corporate sector) to ‘advise’ on how various laws are to be changed, and acquire expertise on what loopholes can be exploited when those staff are back with their long term employers.
7. Obtain subsidies, contracts, tax breaks, bailouts etc by threatening to cut jobs or wreck the economy if public funds were not forthcoming.
8. Deploy the best lawyers money can buy to contest any charges based on laws they have not yet been able to change.
9. Hide the benefits they gain, taxes they avoid, and bribes/donations they make by using offshore accounts that will continue to be protected by the politicians they have influence over.
10. Demonstrate the long term returns for politicians who help them by offering those politicians lucrative speaker fees, jobs and non-executive board positions after they have left public office (but have importantly retained useful links with others still in government).

All politicians trying to play the ‘Anti-Establishment’ card by superficially distancing themselves from Westminster or Washington, should be pressed to say what detailed plans they have to tackle the ten devious manoeuvres listed above. If all they can say is that they will make their country ‘great’ again, or they are the champions of ‘traditional’ values, and they have nothing to offer to end the plutocratic subversion of the rule of law, then know them for the charlatans they really are.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Only Fools & Porsches

Every year, millions of people are duped into supporting politicians whose real concerns are with helping the superrich elite expand their many mansions and off-shore accounts, not to mention their fleet of yachts, jets, and Porsches.

That is the ultimate indictment of political illiteracy.

All too many people believe that if workers are made ever more powerless, the bosses will be free to make more money that will “trickle down” to everyone; when in reality the bosses will just pay themselves even more and workers are left with greater hardship and insecurity.

All too many people think that if public goods and services are cut and privatised, taxes will be lowered and everyone will be better off; when in fact most of them will lose vital support wherever they turn, while the wealthy few make substantial gains.

All too many people echo claims that if foreigners, minorities, and women will just do as they are told, their country will be great again; when the targeting of scapegoats is callous, and only helps to deflect attention from the exploitation most people have had to endure.

So what should be done?

First of all, we must end the delusion that political education can ever be “neutral” in the face of propaganda and deception. If medical education were only ever to be taken forward when its contents had been approved by quacks and snake-oil salesmen, it would be utterly useless. We cannot raise political understanding if we are not prepared to criticise hollow arguments and expose shameless lies. We will be accused of being biased, but integrity comes, not through retreating from the quacks, but through confronting them.

Secondly, while encouraging people to vote is laudable, it must be backed by explanations of electoral procedures, tactical options and corresponding implications. Some candidates may look pleasant enough on the doorstep, but if elected, they will back their party’s vicious policies in the legislative chamber. The advice ‘Just vote for the candidate you like best’ is as sound as ‘Just take the medicine that strikes you as powerful’. However appealing a particular medication may appear to be, we have to take into account the overall circumstances and how it may work, if we are to find the most appropriate prescription and get better.

Last but not least, we must steer people away from the trap of tantrum politics. It can be tempting to vent one’s anger and frustration by supporting some campaign of ‘tough action’, even though there is no indication of what real improvements it would bring. Demagogues know all too well how to exploit the masses by goading them into thoughtless and aggressive outbursts, when it’s all designed solely for their own aggrandisement. People should be given instead the chance to work constructively to find desirable alternatives through collaborative projects that help each other.

But who is going to make any of this happen?

Educators from schools, through universities, to lifelong learning, should play their part. Community organisations concerned with promoting shared interests and local improvements should integrate political awareness raising into their everyday activities. Businesses should help fund political education as a key part of their corporate social responsibility, and trade unions should encourage all workers to take part. Above all, groups and institutions with a declared interest in increasing political understanding and democratic participation should review their activities and ensure they take on board the advice set out above.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Moral Relativism & the Empathy Scale

Ethics is about what kind of people we ought to be and how we should accordingly behave in relation to each other. Many doctrines have tried to set out a definitive guide, but every one of them is contested by rival proponents. There are not only different religions and schools of philosophy, but within each we have further divisions with incompatible views. Even when there are attempts to bridge diverse faiths and beliefs to find common ground, these are in turn rejected by those who are adamant that there are vital differences that fundamentally distinguish their ‘true’ notions from the ‘false’ views of others.

So beyond recognising that some will dismiss everyone else as utterly wrong, while others will concede that all are somehow equally right, is there anything worth exploring further? Revealingly, when we put them alongside each other – ‘think only of oneself’; ‘care for a just few deemed worthy’; ‘be concerned with those who possess certain characteristics’; ‘respect and reciprocate one’s fellow human beings in general’ – a progression along the empathy scale is evident.

Moral doctrines at the high end of the empathy scale ask us to view others as fellow human beings deserving of respect. We should appreciate that other people would like to be treated in a thoughtful and reasonable manner just as we would like to be treated similarly by others in return. If others behave in a way not to our liking, we should seek to understand if there are extenuating circumstances – just as we would like others to understand us if we acted in a way we truly regretted. However, if upon closer inspection, we discover that someone is exploitative or aggressive because of his/her malignant disposition, we should protect ourselves and respond in a proportionate manner to prevent the person from doing more harm.

But for those who subscribe to doctrines that command them to cut off their empathy for various categories (people with the ‘wrong’ skin colour, religious affiliation, family background, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, income level, attachment to certain customs), the concerns and feelings of anyone in those categories are regarded as irrelevant. At the lowest end of the scale we have the shameless egoists who may use power or deception to get away with their self-centred behaviour, but who never care at all about anyone else.

Often those with a low capacity for empathy will gravitate towards doctrines (faiths, ideologies, political parties) that not only validate, but also celebrate, the exclusion of many types of people from respect and concern. This tends to make them feel vindicated in neglecting, hating, despising, or blaming people who have never done anything to hurt them. By contrast, those with high empathy will be drawn to ecumenical, inter-faith, or universalist-humanist tendencies that look beyond insignificant differences to embrace the golden rule of treating others as one would like others to treat oneself.

Since people’s capacity for empathy may not be as easily constrained as required by the moral doctrines they for whatever reason (family upbringing, encounter with a charismatic preacher/teacher, peer pressure) have ‘adopted’, they may develop a broader conscience and experience revulsion towards the ‘exclusionary’ doctrines they have been hitherto tied to. Furthermore, a person’s empathic reach can be nurtured to widen its engagement with the emotional connections between actions and consequences, and extend its appreciation of how others may feel without necessarily sharing their physical or cultural characteristics. This means that moral development is conceptually possible and empirically feasible.

Of course, such nurturing would be frowned upon by those whose mission in life is to promote opposition to extending mutual respect and understanding to ‘excluded’ people. But instead of shrugging our shoulders with another round of “well, they are entitled to their views”, we should recognise the importance of countering all doctrines that aim to delimit our human empathy. As educators, there is no greater task than cultivating the capacity for empathy and promoting inclusive moral doctrines that are grounded on its growth and realisation.

Note: Empathy changes can also go in the opposite direction. There are documented cases where some individuals with brain damages became deficient in their empathy and stopped to care about other people’s feelings as much as they did before. Traumatic experiences such as childhood abuse may also under certain circumstances have similarly harmful psychological effects. But it is noteworthy that amongst people with a healthy brain and no severe trauma, the general tendency would be to retain or improve their empathic capacity, but very few would aspire to become less empathic. And the essence of the sociopath is that however well he/she may fake emotional connections with other people, that individual does not care about what happens to those they come across or indeed hurt.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

A Strategy for Cooperators

Co-operative enterprises, commons advocates, communitarian writers, have all been making the case that the prevalence of exploitative appropriation in society should and could be displaced by inclusive alternatives that respect mutuality and rest on participatory decision-making.

Instead of a powerful elite enclosing ever more resources for their own profit, taking more from the revenue generated by collective efforts, and steering those in government to privilege their personal gains at the expense of everyone else, people should be able to share what nature offers everyone and what they join forces to create on equitable terms.

There are many examples that this can be done, and done well. Cooperative firms have grown in numbers in the UK when the overall economy stalled as a result of the financial crisis brought about by the corporate banking sector; the Mondragon Corporation has over fifty years become the tenth largest company in Spain; the WIR Bank (formerly Swiss Economic Circle) has provided an alternative to established credit systems and now holds 885 billion Swiss Francs in assets; Semco in Brazil has demonstrated how an extensive worker-led approach leads to one of the most successful businesses in the world; and local landbank-based housing projects and community renewable initiatives have appeared in many countries. Yet despite the many positive stories, plutocratic corporations and oligarchs continue to dominate socio-economic life with the support of governments across the globe.

Why is that happening?

Compared with the endless bombardment of adverts from elite-centric corporations and reports from media outlets bought to serve their plutocrat owners, there is but a trickle of information about the alternatives offered by cooperators. When the few who have heard about these alternatives do want to become part of them, they rarely spot an opportunity to sign up to something that will engage them in a meaningful and active manner. And where we have new members managing to join in the work of cooperators, the task of developing and sustaining that work in the face of challenges backed by the vast financial clout, PR propaganda, and political leverage of the corporate establishment, the odds of overturning the latter’s hegemony are far from favourable.

So can anything be done to even out such odds, and turn the repeatedly frustrated hope of advancing towards utopia into a practical synetopia of everyday cooperation?

Here’s a simple strategy for cooperators to consider:

1. Set up a Cooperators’ Franchise Network (CF-Net). Individual cooperator organisations (Co-Orgs) pool their resources through a membership fee to support their CF-Net to do more effectively what they cannot manage on their own. The franchise network will provide: quality/integrity assurance for the franchise’s members; promote the added value offered by genuine cooperator organisations; campaign for pro-cooperator policies with the public and politicians; support the development of existing and new cooperator organisations within the franchise; and offer help to non-cooperator organisations to reform their cultures and systems in line with the cooperator’s ethos). Many cooperatives already belong to their own network, but that still leaves many other cooperator organisations out there without broader support. There is no reason for there to be just one CF-Net. In fact, for the sake of diversity and learning from contrasting approaches, it is better to have a number of robust CF-Nets.

2. The CF-Nets are to collaborate in establishing and funding a Global Cooperators Federation (GC-Fed). The GC-Fed’s key roles will include: agreeing and enforcing rules to promote common assets and guard against demutualisation; developing and marketing a shared cooperators’ brand to raise interest globally; attracting investment on cooperators’ terms to support the long term development of the CF-Nets; and coordinating with other NGOs in securing a level playing field for cooperator organisations.

3. Each cooperator organisation (Co-Org) as part of being a member of its franchise is to commit to continuous improvement in accordance with the core aims of the franchise, and actively promote participation opportunities to their local communities and relevant sectors. Co-Orgs will play an informed part in guiding the work of their respective CF-Net; provide education and training to help those interested in participating in their work as members; and engage all their members in planning and carrying out their activities.

Unless a strategy resembling the one outlined above is taken forward, it is likely that cooperator organisations will remain marginalised and fragmented, never making anything more than a tiny dent in the plutocratic economy. Cooperators all work on the key premise that only by joining forces can we achieve what we are unable to manage separately. Our willingness to pursue the strategy of comprehensive cooperation will be the ultimate test of our commitment.

For more on how the case for democratic cooperation can be made through a number of political education resources, see ‘Synetopia: why, what & how’.

Monday, 15 February 2016

There’s Something About Capitalism

What is capitalism? At one level it is no more than a system wherein some can accumulate wealth to purchase natural, human, and man-made resources so that these will produce whatever returns their owners can extract from them. The owners may get rental income from properties they let, payment from machines and plants they lease out, interests from money they lend, or revenue from the work of people they have hired. Without the accumulation by a few and the incentive to make more money out of the accumulation, it is argued, there just would not be sufficient concentration of wealth or motivation to fund the endless variety of useful – as well as useless – things we seek out.

But the problem with allowing a few to amass concentrated wealth and power long predates capitalism. History has shown that for thousands of years human societies that succumb to a few having vastly more wealth than others will end up being exploited by the dominant few. It’s the nature of power dynamics. The few who can practically call all the shots will make the rest bow down to them. Money can buy one-sided bargaining, intimidation, threats of hunger (and withholding of healthcare), and rewriting of the laws where necessary. Against this backdrop, the Communist attempts to overthrow capitalism clearly miss the point completely. An unchallengeable party taking control of virtually all capital is obviously no better, but far worse, than hundreds of rich business owners sharing that control, for the simple reason that the greater the concentration of wealth and power, the more unaccountable and oppressive will become those who wield that concentrated power.

Ironically the failure of totalitarian communism has taught naïve champions of ‘capitalism’ nothing. After the fall of Berlin Wall, neoliberals pretend that the collapse of the Soviet regime confirms that capitalism is unassailable. The real lesson is that the relentless concentration of power in an unaccountable few is dangerous and unsustainable. Sooner or later, the oppression will reach boiling point and something will have to give.

Of course there is no guarantee what it will give way to. At present, a few anti-neoliberal commentators are adding the declining yield of capital from decreasing purchasing and mounting debt, to the emergence of the low marginal-cost sharing economy, and ending up with hyper-utopian predictions about a “post-capitalist” future that will bring justice, abundance, and happiness for all.

I have no doubt that when capitalism continues to degenerate into a form where a few sit on vast concentrations of wealth, while others keep getting paid less in real terms and weighed down by borrowing (because they are not paid enough to buy the things they help to produce), serious problems will erupt. Unfortunately, unless democracy reawakens and wrestles government institutions from the plutocrats, the problems will be ‘solved’ by sacrificing those on middling and low income.

As for the dreams of a landscape filled with universally accessible machines that are ready made to generate or replicate anything people want – energy, food, transport, homes, entertainment, medicine, etc – at no marginal cost, while the raw materials needed are themselves recycled also at no cost, they are not only far fetched, but they divert vital attention from the need to recapture state power, to a fantasy that a new utopian world is coming soon and all will be well.

This is not to say that new technology for recycling, renewable energy, digital sharing, low cost manufacturing, coupled with cooperative working, commons ownership of certain resources, cannot deliver better quality of life for some people. But it will only happen on a large scale, and benefit more than a minority of the population, if new ways of working where power-sharing is at the heart of all operations become the norm.

And for that to happen, there has to be a substantial shift of power from the elite atop organisations and society to others. This is not about equalising wealth, but about sharing out power to consider how production can be better managed and more resources generated for the many, not just the few. Worker cooperatives do not reject pay differentials. They discuss amongst themselves and experiment in reaching the most productive differentials so some are paid more than others, but only in so far as that is really helpful to maximise the positive impact of their enterprise. As writers and advocates, we can help to make the case. But ultimately, if those with concentrated power are not willing to change, only a sovereign government can bring in new rules and practices – not necessarily to put an end to capitalism, certainly not to bring in communism, but to facilitate the extensive development of cooperativism. We are not talking about an impossible utopia, but the dawn of synetopia.

Monday, 1 February 2016

The Politics of Anti-Rationality

As a philosopher, John Stuart Mill produced highly influential works that explain how arbitrary beliefs should be displaced by systematic, experimental reasoning. As an elected Member of Parliament, he turned his attention to politicians who deliberately exploited foolishness and prejudice as a means to win support for their self-centred agenda which was actually detrimental to the public. When asked if he was maligning the Conservative Party as dim-witted, he explained thus:

“What I stated was, that the Conservative party was, by the law of its constitution, necessarily the stupidest party. ... Now, I do not retract this assertion; but I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. ... And I do not see why honourable Gentlemen should feel that position at all offensive to them; for it ensures their always being an extremely powerful party. ... There is a dense solid force in sheer stupidity – such, that a few able men, with that force pressing behind them, are assured of victory in many a struggle; and many a
victory the Conservative party have owed to that force.”

It may be argued that rationality is a matter of degree, and everybody has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to what we know (or not). But as Socrates pointed out, while we are all ignorant about various matters, those who know about what they lack knowledge of are wise, but those who think they know when they are in fact quite ignorant of the subject in question are fools. And what makes Mill object to his political antagonists is that they build their platform on the exploitation of irrationality. Far from trying to help people reason and understand, they encourage them to despise the pursuit of knowledge, they endorse the display of blind hate and twisted prejudice, and they deride those who seek deeper understanding as feeble.

These tendencies can be seen from ancient emperors and monarchs pretending that they speak for the gods, while encouraging superstitions amongst the masses so that it was all the easier to trick them into accepting raw deals in this life. They can be seen in religious charlatans through the ages as they prey upon the minds of dupes and would-be fanatics. And they are all too visible amongst contemporary neo-conservative politicians who extol the god-like virtues of the corporate elite, dismiss criticisms of oppressive business practices as mere jibes made by ‘know all’s, and champion every vicious prejudice as a great traditional value.

Like the philosophers of the Enlightenment who came before him, Mill hoped that education would enable more and more people to reason, discuss and explore what would be better ways to shape their lives and organise society. But like many progressive politicians who came after him, he was concerned that the power of education might not always be a match for the deceit and propaganda deployed by those who would glorify prejudices for the sake of turning the gullible into legions of diehard supporters for exploitative regimes (see, ‘Convert or Con Victim’).

The enemies of mutual respect and rational cooperation will always have the edge in any process for allocating political power if there is nothing in place to expose their lies and misdirection. Some have concluded from this that the devil cannot be beaten and henceforth they too would try to win votes by pandering to people’s prejudices – whether these take the form of anti-immigrants, anti-internationalism, anti-science, anti-welfare, anti-equality in any sphere, or anti-diversity in every context.

But there is a different conclusion that can be drawn from this conundrum – and that is, we must be resolute in exposing lies and misdirection. We must use every means at our disposal, and develop new tools and networks to question those in power, challenge prejudices, and help those with unreasonable views to reflect on the implications of their beliefs and rethink what they may have hitherto held to be indubitable. It is commonplace these days to maintain that there is no guaranteed march of reason and progress. Indeed, irrationality not only resurfaces, but goaded by unscrupulous politicians, can even spread alarmingly. But history has shown that where the citadels of dogmas and bigotry are relentlessly and imaginatively challenged, truth and understanding can prevail (see the short history, Against Power Inequalities)