Friday, 15 January 2016

Flag, Freedom, & Family …

Think about ‘Flag’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Family’, not to mention, ‘God’, ‘Enterprise’, and ‘Traditional Values’. In many contexts, they conjure up positive associations for millions of people. The pride one takes in the success of one’s country. The freedom to defy tyranny. The nurturing support of one’s family. The boundless love encapsulated in the ideal of God. The ingenuity of business enterprise in meeting one’s needs. The moral anchor offered by traditional values.

Yet all these notions have been hijacked by manipulators to trick people into believing that ill treatment of scapegoats and exploitation of the vulnerable are glorious endeavours. The ‘Flag’ is waved to cover up unjustifiable aggression. ‘Freedom’ for the elite is invoked to subjugate the many. Interference with people’s own family life is instigated on the basis of an alleged respect for the ‘Family’. ‘God’ becomes a label endorsing every act of oppression. The belittling of workers, pollution of the environment, shortchanging of customers are all glossed over as a small price to pay for allowing ‘Enterprise’ to flourish. And hateful prejudices are fanned by the rhetoric of ‘Traditional Values’.

The last thing we should do is to concede to the hijackers and let them keep hold of these terms and abuse them. We have a duty to remind our fellow citizens that precisely because such terms can be contested, we need to rethink which version should be embraced.

The flag of one’s country is rightly a matter of pride, and we should celebrate when it is hoisted by a conscientious leader who will leave no one behind, but not if it is being waved by a treacherous demagogue. Freedom is a condition we all seek, and everyone should be granted it so long as it does not infringe on the freedom of others, which is why we would just become less free if we allow the powerful elite to keep gambling away our money, making people addicted to their harmful products, or imposing contracts on others courtesy of their superior bargaining position. The family should be cherished for the love and security it provides, and society indeed has no business with how people go about forming their families, except in cases where one or more malignant members embark on abusing and terrorising others.

God embodies the highest ideal, but any claim about what God commands is nonetheless made by mere mortals who are fallible, and these include the delusional as well as the deceptive. Any business enterprise that is run by creative minds to add value to the lives of others deserve help with its growth and expansion, but anti-social enterprise that is concerned with exploiting others for its own gain must be reined in. And traditional values must evolve over time; and the inclination to differentiate between what is to be preserved and what is to be phased out in the light of experience, rather than dogmatic adherence, has itself become one of the most treasured traditions.

People with an enlightened and progressive outlook should not surrender the aforementioned notions and many other emotionally significant words. Instead of dismissing them, and end up appearing disdainful of the potential good they stand for, it is essential they are respectfully unpacked, with false and malicious interpretations exposed, and their proper applications restored.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Goodbye Utopia, Hello Synetopia

“For, when everyone’s entitled to get as much for himself as he can, all available property, however much there is of it, is bound to fall into the hands of a small minority, which means that everyone else is poor. And wealth will tend to vary in inverse proportion to merit. The rich will be greedy, unscrupulous, and totally useless characters, while the poor will be simple, unassuming people whose daily work is far more profitable to the community than it is to them.”
Utopia, Thomas More (1516)

Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ heralded a new tradition of seeking the ‘good society’ wherein all is held in common and everyone cooperates to serve their shared interests.

Over the last 500 years, the tradition has moved on in three quite distinct directions. First, there is the retreat from the conventional world to go off elsewhere to build small communal groups with no (or very limited) private ownership, to be sustained by an anarchic sensibility of mutual help without many top-down rules or enforcement. Secondly, there is the sweeping transformation that depends on a charismatic leader or an all-powerful state to act as the communistic overseer of all things common, on the basis that the common good will prevail through the judgement of those in control. Thirdly, there is the experimental development of communitarian arrangements for sharing and cooperation, not as an escape from but to replace prevailing institutions.

The first has long been branded as the tendency to chase after utopian dreams. Attempts at setting up isolated communal groups rarely last more than a few generations and seldom spread their ethos more widely. The second trend is rightly chastised as the harbinger of dystopian nightmares. Relying on a strong leader or unchallengeable party machine, the proclaimed custodianship of common property held in a cult or a totalitarian state invariably degenerates into some form of exploitative appropriation.

By contrast, the third approach recognises the interdependence of existing institutions and seeks to change them through on-going experimentation. Resources and responsibilities are shared out with the help of a variety of democratic methods, and new commons and cooperative forms spread organically through similar sectors and diverse localities. Cooperatives, sustainability networks, digital commons, and other forms of inclusive associations have shown a variety of ways to elevate human relations from self-centred zero-sum contests to sustained mutual respect and collaboration.

By their very nature, groups that rely on on-going deliberations, democratic decision making, and experimental adjustment do not work to any fixed blueprint. But there are certain elements that they cultivate in order to expand and realise their potential. These are elements that make them a cooperative place – or ‘synetopia’. Not all of them consistently succeed in developing or integrating all these elements, but where they do, people involved with them attain higher satisfaction and they achieve their objectives more effectively and on a more sustainable basis.

The nine core elements are summarised in the Synetopia Protocol so that any group, small or big, can check its progress towards a higher state of inclusiveness. Utopia, for better or worse, is not going to be attainable, but where the quests for better forms of human association do converge on an approach that delivers continuous improvement for all, it is where we find synetopia.