Monday, 15 October 2018

Four Threats of the Counter-Enlightenment

The Enlightenment has always been about advancing mutual respect, empirical reasoning, and inclusive governance. Contrary to narrow chronological accounts, it has continued to exert its influence through cooperative and progressive development beyond the early 1800s right down to our own time. However, in parallel, the counter-Enlightenment has also been active throughout – tirelessly denouncing intellectual and political progress as inimical to ‘true’ values, while constantly reviving attachment to an assortment of misguided goals.

In the decades following the Second World War, it was thought that with the defeat of fascism, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, wider access to education, social security expanded for all citizens, the establishment of the UN and the EU, and responsible regulation of a market economy, the Enlightenment ethos was safely in place. But malicious manoeuvres to overthrow it did not abate, and by the 2010s the resurgence of the counter-Enlightenment has reached crisis point:

Dismissing Science
Evidence-based examination of truth claims is at the heart of the Enlightenment’s championing of empirical rationality. It supports scientific procedures, which are essential in resolving contested assertions when these arise in legal, policy, or other disputes. Objective expertise and systematic investigation provide the basis of impartiality. Counter-enlightenment advocates therefore dismiss science at every turn. They claim that science should be ignored because it is not infallible, even though they know it is far more reliable than any arbitrary alternative they may call on to back their own claims. The more people buy into the dismissal of science, the more easily vital facts can be brushed aside.

Inciting Discrimination
When counter-Enlightenment advocates attack moral universalism as empty, or savage the cosmopolitan-minded as citizens of nowhere, they are targeting the Enlightenment’s defence of mutual respect amongst humankind. Against the ill treatment of people with different customs or racial backgrounds, the subordination of women, and the neglect of the poor and powerless, the Enlightenment has always called for equality in esteem and fairness in treatment for all. But its enemies prefer to stoke prejudice and hatred against ethnic minorities, anyone vulnerable to stigmatisation, and women who refuse to tolerate abuse or marginalisation. Their goal is to legitimise disdain and discrimination.

Subverting Government
One of the greatest achievements of Enlightenment thinking was to replace arbitrary authoritarian rule by democratic government tasked with serving the public. Like science, democracy is not perfect, but it can be counted on to act in the public interest incomparably more than some narcissistic and unaccountable leader. Yet counter-enlightenment advocates want to see government taken over by an irresponsible elite that will cut protection for the general population, hand more resources and power to the wealthy, feed the prejudices of fundamentalists, weaken if not dismantle public accountability, and threaten dissidents with subversion of the judicial and law enforcement arms of government.

Hijacking ‘God’
Last but not least, while the Enlightenment has helped us realise that people should be left to believe in their own God or none, so long as that would cause no discernible harm, its enemies insist that their ‘God’ is the only true one, and they alone can speak on behalf of ‘God’ in declaring what is right or wrong. They thus try to cloak themselves with ‘divine infallibility’, and condemn all who oppose them as heretics who deserve to be punished unreservedly. Henceforth, anyone disputing their claims, because of their secular outlook or the different faith they hold, are to be castigated as daring to challenge ‘God’, and treated with righteous contempt.

Society has far too long neglected to teach the merits of the Enlightenment. Let us hope it’s not too late to alert everyone to the dangers of the counter-Enlightenment.

Monday, 1 October 2018

How to Mind the Money Gap

Let’s be clear at the outset that being concerned about the ever widening gaps in financial power does not mean that we want to see everyone paid exactly the same no matter what they do. Wanting to reduce the gulf in wealth, which is patently destructive of social wellbeing, is not the same as wanting to eliminate all differentials in rewards for efforts and contributions.

The problem we face is that the few who have obtained the most powerful corporate executive positions are holding everyone else to ransom, by declaring that they must be allowed to gift themselves however big a share of their companies’ revenue, while everyone else must be pushed towards low pay, precarious jobs, and shameful working conditions. They give themselves astronomical pay rises even when their businesses’ finances have done poorly under their watch. And they stop their workers’ pay from even keeping up with inflation.

The solution is worker cooperative management. People who work in the same organisation would not find the valuation of their contributions diverge so radically if they had a say in the process themselves. Research has shown that worker cooperatives are not only on average more productive and offer more stable employment, but they also have lower pay differentials [See Pérotin, V. (2016) What do we really know about worker co-operatives? Manchester: Co-operatives UK]. Workers as members recognise that it makes sense to reward some among them with higher pay, but the extent to which that is agreed is grounded on a shared assessment of how much greater the contributions from those colleagues are, and not simply on the power of those at the top to pay themselves substantially more.

The same principle applies to the differentials in the fees charged by different professionals engaged in resolving potentially adversarial disputes. Just as people can be marginalised as citizens because they are deprived of their share of the proceeds they generate with others, their influence in society can be further diminished by the hyper-sensitivity to wealth when contested assessments are made in relation to issues of critical interest to them. For example, lawyers engaged on either side of a criminal or civil case; accountants involved in establishing or denying financial anomalies; or scientific experts commissioned to scrutinise or defend the safety of a new brand of medicine or food.

In all such cases, if there is a vast gulf between the fees demanded at the lower and upper ends, then firms with fees at the upper end will on the whole be able to tempt and recruit more of the most impressive performers, and they will offer clients who can afford to pay their exclusive fees the unmatched calibre of their recruits in winning the disputes in question. However, if the professional bodies concerned are required to bring their members together to set limits on their fees differentials (with the proviso that they do not all charge exactly the same as would a cartel), then all the relevant firms may then fall into a more affordable range, and can compete against each other on a more level playing field (there is a clear parallel with development in sports where a few wealthy clubs can make the overall league uncompetitive because they buy up all the best players). Consequently, citizens in general will be less likely to be disadvantaged by decisions that will favour the wealthy few at the expense of the interests of the wider public or particular less well-off individuals.
--

Note: The above is one of the 40 recommendations on how to improve the conditions for attaining a better functioning democracy, set out in my book Time to Save Democracy: https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/time-to-save-democracy

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Democritus: an agreeable hypothesis about everything

When philosophy and religion are taught these days, it is most unlikely that the ideas of Democritus (460-370 BC) will get a mention. That is regrettable since his approach to making sense of the universe, life and society has much to commend it.

At a time when religious thinkers were offering different versions of ‘god’ and ‘creation’, and philosophers were coming up with diverse conceptions of nature and its components, Democritus championed the hypothesis that everything was ultimately made up of indivisible entities – ‘atoms’, literally the ‘undividable’. These inanimate entities have always existed and will never perish. Through a variety of combinations, they form substances that make up all things in the universe – from a grain of sand by the sea to distant stars.

We now know that what Democritus characterised as ‘atoms’ are more like what we call molecules (formed by conjoined atoms), and what are indivisible are entities currently classified as quarks, which make up the protons, electrons and neutrons that constitute atoms. In terms of positing ultimately indivisible entities which are the universal building blocks of the universe, Democritus’ hypothesis is nonetheless apposite. Furthermore, anticipating Darwinist biology, Democritus speculated that just as the indivisible basic entities could combine to produce diverse physical properties, these properties could in turn interact and give rise to a wide variety of living things, including human beings.

For Democritus, the emergence of rich complexity from simpler constituent components also applies to the transition from primitive human existence to sophisticated civilisations. The experience of the dangers for isolated individuals and the vulnerabilities of living in small groups, especially when contrasted with the vastly increased opportunities for improvement in larger communities, prompted extensive social and political development. And eventually people would discover that, in order to ensure the benefits of living in a well-structured polity are not wiped away by some unscrupulous ruler, they must as citizens secure democratic control over the state.

Given his account of the world, Democritus advised we should live with three things in mind. First, in society, we must respect and be helpful to others if we are to expect respect and support in return. Individuals who seek only to advance their own interests regardless of the consequences for others, will turn the rest of society against themselves. Secondly, we should cultivate our understanding of reality, and appreciating that while the basic indivisible entities endure, what they combine to produce are finite and will in time disintegrate once more. We should not be misled by superstitions, or fear the natural sequence of beginnings and ends, but accept it calmly. Thirdly, it would be wise to enjoy life when we can, so long as it is in moderation and does not get in the way of our pursuits of deeper fulfilment. Through life’s vicissitudes, a cheerful disposition is a better companion for ourselves and others.

It’s fair to say that anyone hoping to learn something about the nature of the world and the meaning of life, should spare some time to reflect on Democritus’ most agreeable hypothesis.

--
Additional notes:

• Democritus’ writings were numerous and widely known in ancient Greece, but they are now largely lost. Our knowledge of his ideas today is based on preserved fragments; quotations from his works made by his contemporaries; commentaries by (for example) Aristotle; and later expositions by thinkers such as Epicurus and Lucretius. A short introduction can be found in Paul Cartledge, Democritus, London: Orion, 1998.

• Although Democritus was well ahead of his time with many of his ideas, he did not have the foresight to reject the practice of slavery or the exclusion of women from political citizenship. Alas, these were personal blind spots he shared with many of his contemporaries around 5th century BC. However, they do not form any part of his characterisation of the universe or how we should relate to the transience of life.

• Some of Democritus’ ideas have been attributed to an earlier thinker, Leucippus. But virtually nothing is known about Leucippus, whose very existence has been disputed by a number of historians. Democritus, by contrast, was a well-known figure; indeed his fondness for recommending the disposition of cheerfulness led to him being widely referred to as the ‘Laughing Philosopher’.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

The Most Important Ideas to Teach

There are those who maintain that society cannot function if its members are not taught a core set of ideas about what they should value, what is unacceptable, and how they should accordingly act. Such ideas are meant to remove any ambiguity about what binds people together, and provide clear guidance on the attitudes and behaviours we should promote or condemn.

However, every attempt to define these ideas has failed to achieve its goal. Either it ends up with platitudes about freedom, fairness, and any other positive sounding notion without addressing any contention over rival interpretations; or it pushes through specific claims that are rejected by large numbers of people who find them misguided, or insulting even.

To retreat from articulating these foundational ideas for community cohesion and national unity is often rebuked for conceding to relativism. The imagery conjured up is that of being confronted with people who say they disrespect others, are poised to act aggressively, and we just shrug and let them be. While some ardent libertarians or anarchists may indeed prefer to see no rules for collective wellbeing, and are ready to leave the obnoxious and militant to threaten and damage as they please, most of us would not want to stand idly by. But in order to establish a common front against irresponsible deeds, it is not necessary to invoke some timeless guidance on right and wrong.

What is needed is an understanding of the ideas on how we should learn and explore with each other what are acceptable claims, rules, and practices that ought to be adopted for our common protection and wellbeing. At any one time, there would already be commonly held beliefs and enacted laws in place. It is vital to teach all citizens that, on the one hand, these are not immutable and could be altered subject to evidence review and critical examination; while on the other hand, they need to be respected and adhered to unless reasons and relevant findings render them obsolete.

So there is no relativistic standing back and letting people do whatever they want, but neither is there to be any dogmatic presumption that there is one eternal set of ideas that have settled everything beyond question.

As to how the contesting of conflicting claims is to be managed, that is precisely why ideas relating to cooperative problem-solving need to be taught more widely and effectively. Provisional consensus, empathic deliberations, evidential assessment all need to be explained and cultivated so that people are not misdirected towards fallacies and lies. People also need to appreciate that while they may personally have strongly held views about what they should do, they must engage others in reconciling differences. The argument that one must stick by one’s conscience or one’s god is no different from fanatics’ obsession that they will ignore everyone else because their inner voice tells them what they must do.

The most important ideas for any civilised society are not about what we must believe or obey, but about how we work with each other to continually determine what at any given time we should deem reasonable to believe and obey. The real threat to civilisation comes from those who insist that they will refuse to listen to or deliberate with others, and will act as they wish regardless of the harm that could bring upon others.
--

To learn more about how to differentiate what does or does not merit our belief, check out:
What Should Citizens Believe? – exploring the issues of truth, reason & society
Available in e-book format and in paperback.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Xenophobic Curse: how the Right keeps getting it Wrong

A core characteristic of the Right is its preoccupation with securing and expanding the power and privileges of those who want to see themselves towering over others in a vastly unequal socio-economic hierarchy. To secure this objective, its proponents will exploit any opportunity that can raise their status at the expense of others.

For example, they can be found among those who will by any means amass more wealth for themselves even as they impoverish workers, deceive consumers, and damage the environment for others. They lead campaigns to celebrate ‘traditions’ that have discriminated against groups such as women, disabled people, ethnic minorities, followers of non-‘standard’ religions, and any other category of stigmatised people. They project themselves as ‘strong’ by backing the use of excessive force whether it is against targeted groups at home or designated enemies abroad.

Of course, the different tactics for advancing Right-leaning objectives could end up clashing with each other. Fuelling prejudices could get in the way of making money. Individuals who develop a dubious reputation for their callous deployment of force in law-enforcement or the military could be from one or another of the traditionally marginalised groups. Prioritising profits could mean that peaceful relations are favoured over endless sable-rattling.

Over and over again, strategists on the Right have convinced themselves that they could fuse the different tactical elements together. What they count on is that a good dose of xenophobia will help to distract enough people from callous business practices that are depriving them of jobs, decent pay, and revenue to support vital public services. As large numbers are misdirected towards venting their frustration at foreign workers, foreign benefit claimants, foreign terrorists, and foreign institutions, exploitative corporate leaders can keep enriching themselves while everyone else is ripped off.

But xenophobia is like a highly radioactive substance left in a paper bag. The Right think they can weaponise it to protect their own position, yet they have no idea how to contain its toxic effects. In the 1930s, the rich business leaders in Germany thought they would benefit from galvanising the Right by embracing Nazi racist ideology. It was not long before Germany itself was devastated. From the 1980s on, the New Right in the UK and the US have sought to make xenophobia a key ingredient of their overall plan to widen the gap between the superrich elite and the insecure masses.

In the 2010s, radical xenophobic activists were emboldened by the growing enthusiasm of many established Conservatives and Republicans in raising their profile in anti-progressive campaigns. The result was the coming of Brexit, Trump, and the reckless corrosion of economic stability. Shut out workers from abroad who are actually needed, destroy market arrangements that facilitate the flow of goods and services, throw away tariff-free systems and launch trade wars to bring about higher prices and shortage in supply. Economic stagnation then leads to business closures and further job losses.

A tiny minority of people will gain financially from this. Those who devise investment funds that thrive on causing and exploiting chaos in the financial markets; those whose media companies’ ratings and circulations depend on feeding xenophobic prejudices; and those who profit from selling sub-standard and unsafe goods and services – they will be delighted with what is happening around us.

But for the vast majority, including most business people, the consequences are nothing short of disastrous. And with karmic inevitability, the Right has once again poured so much fuel on the xenophobic fire they lit, many of them will also end up being badly burnt.

--
It is often claimed that xenophobia will always be a problem if immigration is not curtailed. This ignores the evidence that xenophobia is lowest in areas with the highest immigrant population, where people become familiar with each other. It is highest in areas with the lowest number of migrants, because fear of the unknown is most easily stirred where its object is rarely seen. The real problem is the threat to people’s livelihood, with jobs and pay constantly at risk as a result of plutocratic exploitation.

As the Right implodes, we should focus on promoting effective means for sustainable livelihood. See ‘The Livelihood Challenge: 10 actions to consider

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Neo-Humans & Sub-Humans

Throughout history, every time technological advancement has enabled a minority to gain substantial advantages over others not in a position to utilise the latest technology, the power gap between the few and the many has greatly widened.

Control over metallic weaponry and large-scale construction techniques meant that ancient rulers could command vast numbers of people to endure hard labour to erect pyramids and structures such as the Great Wall of China. The Industrial Revolution led to unprecedented levels of mass production and transportation, and business leaders could place countless workers like cogs in a machine to deliver wealth that will accrue predominantly to themselves.

The latest IT-driven transformation is also opening new ways to differentiate the have-tech and have-not. On one side of the divide, there are intelligent machines that can carry out many tasks at higher speed and with greater reliability than humans; communication devices that facilitate instant and complex interactions with those devices over vast distance; and bionic enhancement that can give enhanced durability and capability to the human frame. Put these together at the disposal of the small minority who can afford them all, we have neo-humans who can order tasks to be implemented all over the world at the blink of a networked eye.

On the other side of the divide are the people left behind, displaced by machines that do the work they previously did, unable to acquire the latest generation of multi-functional devices, and lacking the many features that give neo-humans incomparably healthier, stronger, and longer lives. In the not too distant future, these will be deemed ‘sub-humans’.

Is this inevitable? Ancient rulers of large empires once considered themselves representatives of gods, or even fully divine. But political movements emerged to confront them and succeeded in securing a wider dispersal of power. Emperors and kings who did as they pleased gave way to constitutional monarchs and elected governments that must concede to democratic constraints. Business magnates too were eventually caught up by political challenges. Ownership of shipping, railway, factories, shops might have given them hegemony over the people for almost a century, but the rise of social democracy resulted in the power and resources of many countries being shared out more equitably and effectively among all its citizens.

Unfortunately, if laissez faire were allowed to prevail, those with inherited wealth and a strong corporate powerbase would accelerate their ascendancy as neo-humans. They would take control of more natural resources (air, energy, water, land) and technological aids that would render other people wholly dispensable. Pushed to the margins with virtually no power to obtain food, shelter, or any basic ingredients of life, the majority of the world would be relegated to the status of sub-humans – neglected, despised, and left to die.

The only way out is for renewed political resistance to challenge this insidious growth of power inequalities, set up collective arrangements to ensure that life-enhancing technology is made available for the wellbeing of all, and halt any form of neo-human development feeding into the takeover of land and resources for a few to the exclusion of everyone else. It is no exaggeration to state that our future depends on it.
--

For a depiction of a dystopian world divided between neo-humans and sub-humans, check out the novel, The Hunting of the Gods: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hunting-Gods-Henry-Tam-ebook/dp/B01FKF212O/

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Patriotism Subverted: Putin’s Strategy to Destabilise the West

It is remarkable how the British and American Right, which once sensed a threat in everything the Kremlin plotted, are now embracing the most subversive plot ever to have come out of Moscow.

Countless Russian sources offering help in terms of finance, illegitimately obtained information, and fake social media accounts designed to boost support for Brexit and Trump in the 2016 UK referendum and US election have been uncovered. And the reason why Vladimir Putin was so keen for the UK to leave the EU and to have someone like Trump as US President can be summed up in three words: Destabilise the West.

Putin do not like dissent at home or challenges from abroad. Within Russia, he could have his critics arrested and imprisoned. But outside, he could not ignore the strength of the Western allies. Ever since he sent his troops to Ukraine in 2014 which led to the Russian annexation of Crimea, his stance has been opposed by the West. His support for the Syrian government has also been at odds with Western attempts to get Assad to step down. Then in 2016 he saw, not one, but two outstanding opportunities to weaken the West.

True patriots clearly would not take kindly to a foreign power meddling in their own democratic processes, and would stand together against those who try to hurt their country. But Putin’s strategy has been to stoke false patriotism. He targeted resources to aid those who would wrap themselves up with the Union Jack or Stars & Stripes, and turn Britons and Americans against foreign ‘enemies’ such as immigrants, refugees, and their neighbouring countries and allies such as the EU in the case of the UK, and Canada and Mexico in the case of the US.

The Russian backed law-breaking Brexit campaign fuelled the rise of hate crime and its outcome has mired the UK economy in debilitating uncertainties. The successful Russian plan to help Trump get elected emboldened racist extremism and led to trade wars that would harm many businesses in the US and abroad. Brexit has also posed immense problems for the EU, while Trump is undermining NATO with his adversarial stance against America’s allies.

With the UK, US, and their Western allies severely disrupted by Brexit and Trump, there is only one winner – Putin. After Russia sent troops to the Ukraine in 2014, Putin was told his country would no longer be welcome as a member of the G8 group of industrial nations. But once Tump became US President, he refused to cooperate with what was now the G7 group, and instead called for Russia’s return.

Putin’s strategy is not confined to the UK and the US. He has developed links with right-wing groups across Europe. He invited France’s National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, to meet with him at the Kremlin. Italy’s Northern League signed a cooperation agreement with United Russia, the political group led by Putin. And like Trump, these tactical flag-wavers tell their supporters that while they must be harsher on immigrants in their country, they should seek better relations with Russia.

Russian clandestine involvement in aiding the campaigns for Brexit and Trump is by now well documented. What needs to happen next is for true patriots to rise up to demand an end to this gross subversion.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Big Egos, Small Print, & Zero Accountability

How many times have we heard the excuse from people at the top of an organisation that they could not possibly have time to read everything that was sent to them? The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, we are told, has not even read the Brexit impact assessments even though she was pushing the process through on the tightest timescale she imposed herself. Donald Trump, in his private business dealings and very probably in his role as US President, is known for responding to lawyers’ questioning about what he had authorised by saying he did not know what was in documents he had signed.

At one level, many of us may feel that we have all experienced having too much to read, or signing up to agreement that are too long or too complicated for us to fully grasp. But we must not forget one critical difference – we in our own everyday lives weigh the costs/benefits to ourselves of how much we explore any proposal before we make a decision on it. We are not paid a hefty salary and given substantial powers to make decisions that will affect the lives of millions of other people. If we do take on jobs that have that kind of responsibility, we have no doubt we need to get hold of and read the relevant information before we sign off on a way forward.

This ‘I’m so high-up, no one can expect me to read everything that can influence the decisions I make’ excuse must be turned on its head. It is precisely because the people high up are entrusted with such power, that they must be held responsible if they fail to digest the relevant information presented to them, and go on to make decisions that result in dire consequences for others.

Political leaders like Trump and May, not to mention those presiding over openly authoritarian regimes, want to wield maximum power with minimal accountability. And they would get away with it if people buy into the fallacy that they have not got time with details. If they lack the ability to digest all the relevant information effectively, then two possibilities should be explored. One is to open the public office in question to others who genuinely have that ability. That would require a critical process that, unlike routine electoral contests that reward those with clever soundbites or superrich backers, tests how well candidates can absorb information, reason on the basis of evidence, recall what is pertinent, and make coherent judgement accordingly.

A second possibility is that even with the most able candidates, the powers associated with that position should be revised. It could be that it is too much to expect any one person to handle the workload involved. A co-leader may be appropriate to share out specific responsibilities. Some decisions should be delegated to others who will be given the corresponding power and responsibility to carry them out. Other powers may be better devolved to other public bodies that have the technical expertise and/or local experience to make far more informed decisions. And there will be areas that are so complex that a scrutiny committee or chamber should be entrusted with examining a proposal, and where necessary, veto it so that the fate of thousands, or even millions, is not left to an executive leader who would otherwise make an arbitrary decision without having engaged with all the relevant information.

It is bad enough to be governed by an individual with too much power. But so much worse when that power is so vast and unmanageable that it will only be taken on by a reckless fool.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Exposing the Affordability Con

Whenever people are made to think society cannot afford to support what is important, but accept costly policies that mainly benefit the wealthy elite, the ‘affordability con’ is on.

Ever since irresponsible bankers utilised the vastly expanded scope handed to them by reckless deregulation to gamble away billions of their savers’ money, the public have been told one simple story. Money is in short supply. Therefore, ‘everything’ has to be cut back – help for people who cannot get a job, support for workers whose job does not pay them enough to live on, funding for the health service, for tackling homelessness, for education at every level, and the list goes on. And whenever anyone points to the desperate need to finance these services better, there will be those who faithfully repeat the mantra, “but we can’t afford it”.

So why is it that we can afford to hand billions over to bankers, despite the atrocious problems they have caused? Moreover, that money is given to them with no strings attached. They can pay themselves vast bonuses regardless of whether or not they are now lending more responsibly. And the deregulated financial system remains in place for them to exploit.

That is not the end of it. If billions are to be spent on sending bombers and missiles to attack a foreign country, that will go ahead without even a public debate in Parliament or Congress. Is there a serious threat to the lives of Britons or Americans if such costly action is not taken? No, if anything, it would just add fuel to the flame of twisted resentment against the West and raise the level of terrorist threats. It certainly does not compare with the threats and violence unleashed on ordinary people in the UK and the US as a result of growing economic insecurity and rising levels of hate crime. Yet domestic protection is unreservedly scaled back by the Conservative Government’s cuts to policing numbers in the UK, and the US Republican President’s de-prioritisation of all threats other than ‘Islamist’ terrorism.

What about the argument that money is needed elsewhere? Perhaps there are vital actions that have to be paid for to help society as a whole. So what do those cautious custodians, who tirelessly warn us about the need for austerity and deficit reduction, think our precious money should be put aside for? In the UK, the Conservative Government’s priority was to prevent losing votes to UKIP, and while both David Cameron and Theresa May (successive Tory Prime Ministers) had been unequivocal that they believed the UK was better off in the European Union, they would hold a referendum on the issue, and when that was lost, their government would spend endless amount to push ahead with Brexit even though it would make trade, jobs, standards of living, all worse off for the vast majority of Britons. In the US, the Republicans’ priority was to reward their superrich donors and friends. The federal deficit would be escalated to around a trillion dollars to pay for tax cuts that would overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest few.

To compensate for such drastic losses to the public purse, the Conservative Government in the UK has taken an even more resolute stance on cutting back on expenditure in other areas, for example, by reducing the staffing level of the HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) team tasked with tackling tax evasion by those with most to gain from evasion.

Finally, on the point about there being no money, it should be noted that a defining feature of any sovereign government is its power to oversee the flow of money in the economy. If it deems it necessary, it can issue more money. Under the guise of ‘quantitative easing’, a lot of extra money has been injected into the economy in the UK and the US. But it was not designed to help people in need. Indeed it is widely acknowledged that by far the biggest beneficiaries of quantitative easing have been the wealthiest who own shares and assets, and of course the bankers, for whom, affordability is always someone else’s problem.

Friday, 1 June 2018

The Political Wing of Bad Business

Think of those businesses which make their money from activities that are harmful to millions of people. If governments were left to develop policies to serve the public interest, these inherently anti-social corporations would be tightly regulated, and their callous profit-making would be much curtailed. To make sure that does not happen, many of them have adopted the strategy of ‘donating’ funds to those politicians who would prioritise their profiteering over the protection of the common good.

The political wing of these corporate marauders is then positioned as the party of the ‘free market’. In the name of promoting ‘economic prosperity’, it will do all it can to keep any unhelpful legislation off the table, and bring in changes that will make it even easier for irresponsible companies to ride roughshod over ordinary citizens.

Is this an unfair exaggeration? Let us look at the political parties in the US and the UK that have historically obtained a larger share of the contributions from big businesses. And for both the Republicans in the US and the Conservatives in the UK, their leading backers come from four notable sectors:

Finance: the largest donations overall come from the sector that gamble with their savers’ money (while counting on public bailouts if they end up losing), and also includes hedge fund management, insurance, payday lending, and distressed-debt acquisitions (these last two particularly rely on minimising regulatory protection of people living under precarious social and economic circumstances).

Fossil fuel industry: for those whose profits come from the sourcing or utilisation of fossil fuel, it is vital that protection of the public from local environmental degradation and wider climate change damages be minimised. Fracking in the UK, for example, was supported by changes in the law that were opposed almost unanimously by the public.

Private healthcare businesses: in the US, any attempt to improve public healthcare provision that may reduce the profit margins of private health insurance providers is strenuously opposed; in the UK, the demand is for handing over much more NHS money to private healthcare companies; and in both countries, pharmaceutical companies want public funding support with research but private autonomy to push up profit margins.

Property developers: public investment in infrastructure is sought, but private profiteering must trump requests for housing that is affordable or development that enhances rather than destroys local jobs and enterprises. One US developer indeed described affordable housing quota as “immoral”.

Two additional sectors feature in the US, namely, casinos and information technology. Any business model that relies on people gambling when the odds are against them needs lawmakers to stand aside as much as possible, and the casino moguls have built their empires with the support of ‘free market’ champions. As for information technology, the capturing, passing on, and exploitation of personal data have been seen increasingly as a key threat to privacy and democracy, but tech companies’ mantra remains fixed on wanting to be left alone to do what they regard as ‘beneficial’ (and profitable).

Perhaps it is time responsible business leaders join forces to curb the dubious financing of the political wing of their not-so-responsible counterparts. There can be no level playing field when the unscrupulous few can keep bending the rules to suit themselves. The only way to end what by any name is blatant corruption, is for the majority to take a stand.

---
Notes:

For more on how to tackle the undermining of democracy, see my book, Time to Save Democracy: how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics, from Policy Press in the UK: https://policypress.co.uk/time-to-save-democracy , or Amazon in the US: https://www.amazon.com/Time-Save-Democracy-Ourselves-Anti-Politics/dp/1447338243

For more information on the donations referred to above, see:

Bloom, D. (2018) ‘Revealed, how a third of Tory donations come from a tiny group of rich men who enjoy lavish dinners with Theresa May’, Mirror: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/revealed-how-third-tory-donations-11798246
Cahill, H. (2017) ‘Party donors: Here are the biggest names bank-rolling the Conservative campaign’, City A.M.: http://www.cityam.com/264987/party-donors-biggest-names-bank-rolling-conservative
Pilkington, E. & Swaine, J. (2017) ‘The seven Republican super-donors who keep money in tax havens’, The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/nov/07/us-republican-donors-offshore-paradise-papers
Reeves, J. (2016) ‘Top 10 list of corporate donors to political parties reads like a most-hated-companies ranking’, MarketWatch: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/these-10-companies-could-influence-the-presidential-election-again-2016-06-16

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

What Should Citizens Believe?

In order to have an informed discussion about what should be done to protect individuals and advance the common good, we need reliable evidence and sound arguments. Yet all around us, charlatans are not only spreading lies, but also conning people into rejecting what have been put forward with good reason. Citizens often end up not knowing what to believe, or buying into false and dangerous narratives. But what can be done?

Following the publication earlier this year of Time to Save Democracy (Policy Press) with detailed proposals to reform our system of governance, the ‘Question the Powerful’ project is now bringing out a new book, What Should Citizens Believe (published in association with Citizen Network), to help anyone interested in promoting democracy to engage others in exploring how disputes over rival claims ought to be resolved in society. It contains five sets of ‘Explorations’ that will, in diverse ways, assist teachers and students of politics in discovering how to establish what merits belief.

Introductory Explorations

What Should Citizens Believe will introduce you to the problem of belief evaluation with ‘Fallacies Unmasked’, which flags up sleight-of-hand arguments that are liable to obstruct rational judgements; ‘The Justification Challenge’, which highlights various pseudo-defences against critical scrutiny that should be overturned; and ‘Experimenting with Cooperation’, which explains how a cooperative approach to problem-solving has evolved over time to help us navigate through contested claims.

Practical Explorations

You will next be involved in considering the practical implications of the approach being put forward, with reference to four key sets of issues: ‘The Impact of Cooperative Problem-Solving’ will demonstrate the positive difference that can be made; ‘Empowerment Matters’ will outline the developmental support needed to advance the cooperative approach; ‘Crossing Institutional Barriers’ will review the obstacles that should be overcome; and ‘Reflective Leadership’ will set out how the necessary changes can be taken forward by those in leadership positions.

Civic Explorations

You will discover what kind of civic outlook and arrangements are required to sustain cooperative problem-solving in ‘Communities of Thoughtful Citizens’, which explains what should be done to advance the nurturing of thoughtful members of overlapping communities. The key implications relating to the three types of civic thoughtfulness to be cultivated are then elaborated in the chapters on: ‘Mutual Responsibility & Empathic Thoughtfulness’; ‘Cooperative Enquiry & Cognitive Thoughtfulness’; and ‘Citizen Participation & Volitional Thoughtfulness’.

Philosophical Explorations

A number of philosophical issues will be shared with you in exploring how the ideas underpinning cooperative problem-solving can stand up to epistemological scrutiny. A historical perspective of the debate is given in ‘The Baconian Revolution’; the notion that we should settle for nothing less than absolute certainty is challenged in ‘God & the Cartesian Quest for Certainty’; a classic paradox is critically reviewed in ‘Inductive Reasoning & the Grue Paradox’; and the nature of reasoning itself is put under the spotlight in ‘Wittgenstein & the Tortoise: a philosophical fable’.

Novel Explorations

In the final part of the book, you will explore aspects of anti-democratic manipulation through the prism of dystopian fiction. You will encounter extracts from three novels (Kuan’s Wonderland; Whitehall through the Looking Glass; and The Hunting of the Gods) that have been recommended by the Equality Trust, the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association), and others for promoting wider interest in what should be questioned in society, along with instructive discussion topics derived from those works.

Conclusion

Whether you want to acquire an extensive overview of the problem of belief evaluation in society, have access to a selection of materials to engage people with different interests in ways to settle disputed claims, or be better equipped in facilitating discussions on how to expose fallacious arguments, you will find What Should Citizens Believe a handy primer. It may not have all the answers regarding the legitimacy of different beliefs, but it will help to fortify minds in combating those who seek to thrive through lies and misdirection.
--

What Should Citizens Believe? – exploring the issues of truth, reason & society, is available in e-book format: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07CSYRF8H and in paperback: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1548183105

For more about Time to Save Democracy and the political reforms it puts forward, read ‘The Vote is Not Enough’, posted with the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics: http://www.crickcentre.org/blog/vote-not-enough/

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Society’s Identity Crisis

How people see themselves has always been a key factor in the political struggle for a better society. For reactionaries, their arbitrary dominance over others can be more effectively preserved if most people identify with their assigned position in a highly unequal hierarchy. For progressives, by contrast, the challenge to overturn neglect, oppression and exploitation, becomes stronger as people view themselves as fellow citizens united in pursuit of their common good. In recent decades, the reactionaries have gained the upper hand because a range of identity problems have, inadvertently or deliberately, been stirred up – undermining the civic solidarity that is vital for the progressive cause.

One notable strand of this societal identity crisis is the antipathy shown towards any pluralist conception of ‘belonging’. Under primitive conditions, people may well feel that belonging to their tribe is the be all and end all of their lives, and their assigned role in the tribe encapsulates their identity. As a result of social evolution, however, each of us can now identify strongly with different groups, institutions, characteristics, cultures, and rituals, and still recognise our shared citizenship in a sovereign state. But the fashionable rejection of pluralism means that people are expected to immerse themselves in one monolithic identity – defined by a narrow ethnic profile, religious affiliation, some parochial accent and customs, plus whatever other arbitrary features picked out by those promoting their version of ‘true Brits’, ‘real Americans’, etc. This outlook blatantly ignores the fact that multicultural development is at the heart of all our identities. Those who hark back to ‘their’ Anglo-Saxon roots forget that Angles and Saxons were different tribes that not only in time integrated with each other, but also with Celts, Normans, Danes, and others from the Mediterranean and the many different Commonwealth countries.

Another strand flows from the formation of exclusionary group identities that in effect divert efforts from tackling perpetrators of discrimination and abuse, and channel them instead towards divisive generalisations. Ethnic minorities are rallied to stand up against ‘Whites’, while white people who are themselves badly treated are urged to direct their frustration against ‘Minorities’. Women are encouraged to see ‘Men’ as the aggressors, while men who have suffered injustice themselves are goaded into regarding ‘Women’ as being unfairly favoured at every turn. Such crude, and often manipulative, divisions into rival camps can also be found in relation to religion, sexuality, age, class, nationality, and numerous other factors. Their net impact is to corrode common civic bonds and leave individuals more susceptible to siren calls to detest/resent/oppose the ‘enemy’ group.

Furthermore, the obsession with having an absolute identity fuels demands for stringent demarcations. Instead of focussing on battling those who mistreat others because of the latter’s biological, cultural, or some other characteristics, people have their attention directed towards protecting their ‘identity’ from being diluted by ‘interlopers’ who must never be allowed to become one of them. Thus people who rejoice in celebrating a culture not traditionally associated with their ethnic lineage are castigated for trying to appropriate something that ‘belongs’ to others. People who undergo gender reassignment are warned that their previous biological history render them unacceptable to be members of whichever gender they have sought to transition to. Such rigid delineations end up pushing aside issues that deserve serious consideration, and leaving behind immovable obstacles to any cooperative quest for solutions.

Progressives have too often in the past hesitated in promoting the value of civic identity, and supporting its teaching to raise awareness and understanding of how citizens are to unite to secure the common good, their mutual respect, and protection for their diversity. The resultant vacuum has drawn in both misguided demarcations and malicious divisiveness. To cure society’s identity crisis, we must revive our civic identity and champion a pluralist culture that brings together the best in all outlooks and traditions, as the only sensible foundation of long-term solidarity.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Real Political Divide

Political commentators see the causes of social fragmentation everywhere. Localists are supposedly at odds with the cosmopolitan minded. Women and men are split into warring factions. Traditionalists can find no common ground with progressives. Ethnicity or religion is turned into a permanent dividing line. Advocates for diplomacy and rehabilitation are confronted by champions of force and punishment.

But is society so irreparably splintered? Or is our attention being diverted from the real divide that is threatening us?

On closer examination, we can see that the one true conflict exists between those who are determined to get whatever they want at the expense of others, and those who are unwilling to put up with such aggression. The former comprises people who want to enrich themselves by deceiving consumers, exploiting workers, and squeezing suppliers; and individuals who have no compunction about treating various categories of people as subordinate or inferior even though nothing warrants it on moral or rational ground. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, a political alliance has developed that brings these people together to secure more power to get their own way.

In staunch resistance against them are people who take reciprocity seriously. They support business that is conducted fairly; they do not want to demean or subjugate others as they have no wish to be so demeaned or subjugated by anyone else; and they are content for diverse customs to flourish so long as there is no encroachment against interpersonal respect or the public good. These cooperators do not accept that their antagonists have any right to mistreat others, and they do not buy into their lies that such behaviour is necessary for economic prosperity, national pride, or upholding the most precious traditional values.

Unfortunately, the anti-cooperators are adept at deception and many people fall for their routine con that tricks people into supporting what is in fact at odds with their real interests. For example, people are rallied to march under the banner of ‘freedom’ when the actual policy agenda is to further the freedom to make money from selling harmful products, to intimidate and marginalise scapegoats, and to mistreat others because they have the power to do so. The flag is waved to summon ‘all patriots’, but in fact it is being used as a cloak to hide support for foreign dictators and initiate aggression abroad and repression at home. And ‘God’ and ‘goodness’ are notions stripped of gentleness and compassion, and turned into false labels to legitimise discrimination, abuse, and even violence.

Whenever the anti-cooperators and their con go unchallenged, the majority of people suffer economically while the few siphon off more to go into their offshore tax havens; minorities are threatened with worse treatment; women are told to comply with macho commands crafted in line with a medieval mindset; and force is deployed without adequate justification or accountability.

It’s time to put aside minor differences and unite around a shared agenda to protect ourselves from the anti-cooperators. We value freedom, and that is why we must not accept it being granted only to those who will restrict others’ freedom for the sake of their own profits and prejudices. We are patriots, and our conscience will not let us tolerate scoundrels projecting their selfish goals as the nation’s destiny. We believe in moral values and responsibility, and for that very reason we can never allow callous egoists to keep conning and exploiting others.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Brexit Con

Imagine a group of people who for decades have been getting increasingly resentful that they could not make more money because there are so many laws stopping them from selling unsafe products, deceiving the public, polluting the environment, and mistreating workers. They think back nostalgically to a time when they could bankroll a few of their own to go into politics and change the laws to expand their profiteering at the expense of the wider public, and lament the fact that since the UK has joined the European Union, where the consensus goes against their exploitative agenda, it is no longer enough to buy control of the UK government.

Then it occurred to them that all would be well again if they could get the UK to withdraw from the EU. Like his counterparts at the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, Rupert Murdoch dislikes the EU because it has powers to rein in business irresponsibility. It was reported that “when asked by the journalist Anthony Hilton why he was so opposed to the EU, Murdoch is said to have replied: ‘When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say; when I go to Brussels, they take no notice’.” (Martinson & Mason, 2016).

So this group began to collaborate closely to run the ultimate political con. The objective from the outset is to pull the UK out of the EU, jettison good standards for trade and employment, and reset requirements relating to the protection of people’s rights, their safety, and the environment to such token levels that more easy profits can be made. It is not an agenda members of the group are afraid to own up to. Speaking to the Treasury Select Committee, “Jacob Rees-Mogg said regulations that were ‘good enough for India’ could be good enough for the UK – arguing that the UK could go ‘a very long way’ to rolling back high EU standards.” (Stone, 2016)

But speaking bluntly about lowering standards in a meeting which few members of the public would hear about is one thing. To convince enough people around the country that the UK should leave the EU is quite another. Here a two-prong strategy was adopted. On the one hand, attack the EU as costly and inefficient, even though it has provided far greater leverage to secure trade deals all around the world that benefit the UK, facilitated vital cross-border cooperation across every major industry and policy area with our nearest neighbours and partners, and is far leaner in terms of its staffing numbers/jurisdiction ratio compared with that of the UK government.

On the other hand, attack the EU indirectly as the reason why the UK is ‘flooded’ with immigrants and foreigners, who are to be routinely presented in a nasty, negative manner. As the Leveson Inquiry found in relation to the behaviour of the British press, “when assessed as a whole, the evidence of discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers, is concerning” (Leveson, 2012).

As the UK’s Brexit negotiation continues to be mired in a mix of confusion, denial and fantasy, it is becoming clearer every day that there will be less, not more, money for our public services; protection for workers, food safety, the environment will be made more vulnerable; British based research, manufacturing, and creative institutions will suffer from loss of collaborative arrangements with others across Europe; the Good Friday Agreement is put at risk; and standards of living for the vast majority of people will plummet.

Why then is there still this unrelenting push for a hard Brexit that maximises the severing of ties with the European Union? Of course it makes no sense for anyone except for those who devised this con for the sole purpose of lining the pockets of their unscrupulous friends at the expense of everyone else. Then with their friends’ political donations and biased press coverage, they hope to form their very own basement standards, tax loopholes aplenty, plutocratic government that, if they should win a big enough majority, may go on to celebrate the handing over of the NHS to some private US healthcare company.

--
References

Leveson (2012): https://www.ein.org.uk/news/leveson-report-finds-sensational-or-unbalanced-reporting-relation-immigrants-and-asylum-seekers

Martinson, J. and Mason, R. (2016) ‘Theresa May had private meeting with Rupert Murdoch’, The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/sep/29/theresa-may-meeting-rupert-murdoch-times-sun

Stone, J. (2016) ‘Britain could slash environmental and safety standards “a very long way” after Brexit, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg says’, Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-safety-standards-workers-rights-jacob-rees-mogg-a7459336.html

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The ‘Public Money Protection’ Act

Unethical draining of public funds should not go unpunished. We pool our resources for the common good, and if anyone – through greed, malice, or sheer thoughtlessness – deplete those resources, then the law should take action.

However, no government to date has thought through how this ought to be done. Individuals who claim, say £100 more benefits than they should, are portrayed as public enemy number one, and an over-zealous system is instituted to root out such behaviour, even when that means many others end up being wrongfully deprived of desperately needed payments. On the other hand, generous deals and concessions are ever ready to be offered to those who evade taxes to the tune of millions, or pocket even larger sums from the public purse to cover their mismanagement of everything from banks to railways.

One suggestion the government should consider is to put in place a Public Money Protection Act, the purpose of which would be to empower the public to take action against people who have unjustifiably added to public financial burden without any corresponding public gains. Individuals who defraud on benefits or expenses claims would be covered, and so would those who cheat on their taxes, misspend public funds, make illegitimate claims for public subsidies, take irresponsible actions that require public bailouts to prevent wider calamities, order unlawful evictions that fuel homelessness-related public expenditure, pay under the minimum wage and add to the burden of public benefit payment, and anyone else whose behaviour leaves the government with a higher than necessary bill to pay (including irresponsible ministers in government).

A dedicated arm of the public prosecution service would be set up to bring cases to trial with a jury that will not only decide if the accused is guilty, but also in cases of conviction, determine what punishment is to be handed down, subject to judicial advice.

The punishment will have three components. First of all, it covers what must be paid back as direct compensation for the loss of public funds, and what additional fines should be levied as a deterrent. For offenders who are below the poverty line, pushing them further into unpayable debt would be counter-productive. But for people who cheat or misspend millions of public money, and think they can go on living the high life with their off shore savings, a substantial fine would be very relevant indeed.

Secondly, there should be various options for jail time. In some cases, weekend imprisonment over two or three years may be more effective than a six-month sentence. The jury should be able to take into account the pain and disruption the individual in question has caused others in society, and what may be needed to deter any repeat offence. The duration of any incarceration put forward would have to be proportional to the amount of public money involved, plus any knock-on damages caused.

Thirdly, we have what may be a supplement (or in some cases, an alternative) to a prison term, namely, the restorative process. The jury would consider what would be a fitting activity for the convicted individuals to carry out. For some, it could be that they should spend time helping those they have hurt through their financial misdeeds. For others, it could be having to carry out menial tasks in public. There may be options to take on specific assignments in the community where being remorseful and conscientious in repairing the damages caused are integral criteria for measuring completion of the rehabilitation programme.

The fines imposed will help fund this prosecution service, and it would be apposite if this arrangement incentivises it to prioritise cases where the financial damages are most serious. At the same time, for those who think even a hefty fine would be proportionately small change out of their holdings, having to perform duties they may consider beneath them in public on a regular and prolonged basis, and to have to make real efforts to connect with those affected by their thoughtless acts, may just get through to them that they need to change their ways in the future.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Democracy on Life Support

For many people, the votes for Brexit and Trump, cast in spite of, or rather because of, the lies and misdirection at the heart of those campaigns, suggested that when democracy could no longer draw a clear distinction between well-informed and ill-judged voting, its time is up.

But will the demise of democracy pave the way for an era of happy government-less anarchy? Alas, history has shown us that it is politics’ nature to abhor a power vacuum. Without an open and peaceful system to set policies in the absence of unanimous agreement on every issue, tensions will escalate into conflicts, and the devious and the ruthless will push their way to the top, until one or another is established as the unaccountable ruler of the realm.

Imagine Trump with no democratic safeguards, and he and his family are able to rule arbitrarily so long as no rival manages to usurp the throne. But can democracy be revived? The answer depends on whether concerns with its decline can be directed to fuel the necessary action. It is one thing to know that with a third or more eligible voters routinely not bothering to vote (in the UK or the US), it is easy for those with concentrated wealth to buy large-scale manipulation to trick enough people to vote for their preferred outcome. It is quite another to know what should be done about it.

Getting more people to register and to turnout to vote is a laudable aim. But the people saturated with mass deception may just end up voting for politicians who view them as mere fodder for their own gains at the expense of the public. Changing electoral systems may make more votes count, but who is to say those won’t be votes tilted to go in the direction of those supported by the best manipulators money can buy?

Enemies of democracy are ever ready to hide behind the facile claim that people should be left to judge for themselves, as though the law should have nothing to say about people putting out words and images that can mislead, deceive, incite, or divert others into doing what they should not. These are often the same people who demand tough actions to stop people spreading extremist messages, releasing confidential information, or exchanging vile pictures to feed perversion. They are right that the law should take a firm stand against unacceptable communication, but they are wrong to suppose that nothing can be unacceptable when is put forward in the name of politics.

In fact, to save democracy, we must not only institute better regulatory arrangements to deal with irresponsible communication, we need to put much tighter restrictions in place to stop political con merchants and extremist leaders organise activities to target scapegoats, exploit cultural misunderstanding, and stir up distrust and animosity. In parallel, community relations should also be strengthened with the help of inclusionary events, neighbourhood meet-and-greet, and where appropriate, restorative reconciliations.

Finally, the elephant in the room must no longer be ignored. The relentless rise in wealth and power inequalities since the 1980s has eroded the foundation of democracy. Democracy cannot survive if the few can go on amassing vastly more money and hence control over the lives of others. Through a combination of curtailing tax avoidance and evasion, guaranteed levels of public service and basic income, redistribution to even out purchasing powers, and pre-distribution through the development of worker cooperatives to attain more equitable pay differentials, democracy’s revival will be achieved in so far as the power gap between citizens is substantially reduced.

--
Henry Tam’s new book, Time to Save Democracy: how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics is available from Policy Press: https://policypress.co.uk/time-to-save-democracy

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Cooperators’ Dilemma

An unequivocal lesson from the Prisoners’ Dilemma is that in order to attain the optimal result for all concerned, those involved need to possess sufficient mutual trust to enable them to be fully committed to doing what will best help each other [Note 1]. This in turn requires relationship-building over time, the development of a code of conduct, support for the exploration of collective solutions, and the establishment of enforceable rules.

Instead of suspicion, alienation, or exploitation, cooperators engage others in a reciprocally supportive manner so that their local institutions, organisations they work in, and government bodies under whose jurisdiction they live, will all develop for their common wellbeing.

However, not everyone subscribes to this approach. For example, there are people who because of their warped upbringing, indoctrination, or mental pathology, find it virtually impossible to empathise with anyone they have routinely perceived to be ‘beneath’ their social level, ‘outside’ their tribe-like group, or simply ‘alien’ to them. Others, consumed by greed and ambition, cannot help but ignore the concerns of others.

Then there are those, whose reasoning capability and susceptibility to misdirection, render them liable to be conned by charlatans in commerce, religion and politics. Having bought into incredible deals that are clearly too good to be true, no amount of evidence or explanation can persuade them that there are actually better ways to secure a more rewarding life, if only they would be prepared to cooperate with others who can see through the deception that has entrapped them.

Cooperators thus face a dilemma. On the one hand, they can try to cut off interactions with those who won’t cooperate with them. For example, they may retreat and set up a commune or some form of self-contained commons, where cooperation can thrive, and the antics of the ant-cooperators can be kept at bay. But in this ever more inter-connected world, that is unlikely to be sustainable. Moreover, the laws and policies of society cannot be suspended wherever cooperators would like them to be set aside. Disengaging from local, national, or transnational government jurisdiction is not a realistic option.

On the other hand, they can continue to live and work alongside the anti-cooperators. While they know the latter are ready to undermine cooperative working at every turn, they hope they constitute too small a minority to undermine the overall cooperative arrangements in society. Unfortunately, this all too often falls down when the disruptors turn out to have a majority – e.g., when there are enough of them to overturn collective arrangements for the common good, with their vote in a critical referendum or an electoral college process that decides who will be president.

In truth, cooperators cannot withdraw into their own enclaves shielded from outside turbulence, or keep putting up with the activities of the anti-cooperators in the hope that they would not have too much impact. Anti-cooperators will not hesitate to use the political powers they gain to take unfair advantage over others; and attempts to hold them to account will be met by aggressive derision of the judiciary, attacks on those who back parliamentary or congressional oversight, and persistent undermining of independent investigators.

Cooperators cannot work on the assumption that everyone is disposed to cooperate, or that the damages done by the anti-cooperators will always be manageable. The only way forward is to defend and strengthen the rule of law, work with politicians who are genuine in their support for cooperation, and promote education at all levels to counter ignorance and the tricks of demagogues. It is the only way out of an otherwise impossible dilemma.
--

[Note 1] Successive studies of the Prisoners’ Dilemma have found that individuals are more liable to choose options which do not serve them well if they are not aware and convinced that there is a reliable way to secure a better outcome. Left to themselves, each may betray the other thinking that would save their own skin, and both end up going to jail on the testimony of the other. By contrast, if both are confident that the other won’t talk, and thus stay silent themselves, neither will be convicted on any incriminating evidence submitted by their partner.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Four Deities & a Humanist

Suppose a conference is held for those who place their faith in a deity. They will at the outset unite in closing the door on the humanist who asks if it would not be better if everyone can come together to discuss how people should treat one another.

Once the humanist is shut out, however, those present will soon segregate themselves because they quickly discover there are too many substantial differences dividing them. Before long, the conference is split into four sections that are barely on speaking terms with each other.

The first section is exclusive to the ‘Our Deity is Best’ group. They are united by their unwavering faith that their Deity is the mightiest, most incomparably omnipotent being in the whole of existence. But as soon as the talk turns to the identity of this supreme deity, furious arguments break out. Some say the Deity has a son who is also a god. Others say the Deity is One, not Three-in-One. Others dispute who the Deity has chosen to be the select few. And no one can agree if the almighty Deity wants them to kill people who carry out abortions, execute people who are probably wrongfully convicted, or never take up arms even against murderers.

The second section has a sign on its door: ‘Our Deity is the Ultimate Mystery’. They all worship their Deity, about whom they know nothing. They draw inspiration from this Deity in everything they do. Every moment of their lives, every space they occupy, they find it to be filled by the ineffable beauty, strength and majesty of the one they embrace with all their heart. But no one is to speak on behalf of this Deity, because it is beyond human comprehension. So its followers feel ecstatic in its presence, and decline all requests to explain what it is they are actually worshiping.

In the third section of the conference we find those who admire the ancient practice of deifying powerful emperors. For them, it makes far more sense to worship someone who has shown the world what it is to be powerful and intimidating. They adore the fact that they can place their total trust in someone; never doubt the righteousness of anything done by that deified person; and always accept whatever they are told from on high irrespective of contrary evidence. But rows inevitably break out over who should be treated as an unquestionable deity. Should blind faith be placed in Il Duce or Der Führer? Should Stalin or Mao be worshiped as godly heroes who could do no wrong? Would the devoted followers of a Marcos or a Trump not want their ‘faultless’ leaders to be elevated beyond all reproach too? The mindless dedication aroused in one faction is matched by the disgust and loathing stirred up in another. Punch-ups escalate into mass shootings.

Those in the final section begin to wonder if they are at the right conference. They have started by trying to look beyond the differences that on the surface have divided them – the texts they refer to, the customs they follow, the stories they like to tell; and gradually, as they work towards what their love of god as the embodiment of the moral ideal have in common, they come to the conclusion that what matters above all is that they should follow the one true divine injunction – to love their neighbour as themselves. They come to realise that they should care, reason with, and support others as they would want others to care, reason with, and support them. Respectful reciprocity and an abiding sense of cooperation and compassion are revealed to be the essence of their faith. Upon that discovery, they leave the conference hall to seek out the humanists gathering in a nearby field, and join them in pursuit of their common goals in life.

Monday, 15 January 2018

What Voters Want

To equate voting with democracy is a bit like conflating mere movement with life. The former may be a possible sign that the latter is still present, but it is no guarantee that it is in fact functioning. The reflexive switches of a dead frog do not herald its resurrection. And when people’s votes are largely based on false assumptions and misleading information, democracy is basically moribund.

Rhetorically, it is easy to declare that voters should get what the voters want. But it does not take a genius to recognise that what voters want above all is a system whereby they and their fellow citizens can consider the real options, and without intimidation, bribery or deception, select what they have good reasons to believe would be the best choice.

History is full of examples of people being pressurised or tricked into voting for what is far from being in their best interest. The people of Sicily and Naples were once tricked into voting for their previously independent domains to be annexed to the Kingdom of Piedmont on the promise of the creation of an ‘Italy’ that the vast majority of them knew nothing about. The citizens of France were misled into casting their votes to give Louis-Napoleon the power to become their democratic president, which enabled him to establish himself as a very undemocratic Emperor of France for life. The Third Reich rose on the back of popular votes cast by Germans who thought they would secure long term security and prosperity, rather than oppression and a totally ruinous war. More recently, lies and prejudices so dominated the 2016 votes for Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US, that ‘post-truth’ was declared the word of the year (by Oxford Dictionaries).

If voters are to get what they, based on the available evidence, and the clearest understanding untainted by devious misdirection, would actually want for their country, then three guarantees need to be put in place. First, the status of shared and equal citizenship must be enforced. Everyone must be able to influence democratic outcomes in the same manner. There must be similar thresholds for a ‘majority’ vote to be validated. In the UK, for example, trade unions are not allowed to call for strike action unless at least 40% of their eligible-to-vote members are behind a majority vote to strike; but no such threshold is set for the far more disruptive action of pulling the UK out of the EU when only 37% of those eligible to vote backed ‘leave’. Other discriminatory practices vary from making it more difficult for certain demographics to vote, or requiring in effect many more votes to get one party elected compared with its rival (e.g., in many US congressional districts, Democrats have been thus disadvantaged by boundary changes ordered by Republican-controlled states).

Secondly, the pretence that there is no objective basis for truth, and that anyone can say absolutely anything must be swept aside. Every country that takes the rule of law seriously has a judicial system founded on the impartial pursuit of truth. While the likes of Trump and Brexiters may insist that only they speak the truth and everyone else is a liar, they cannot be allowed to undermine the rule of law by getting away with their dismissal of independent scrutiny and reporting of claims made in the public domain. Even the US, where the Constitution suggests that no law shall infringe on the freedom of speech, that has from the founding of the republic been interpreted by Congress and the Supreme Court as fully compatible with the setting and enforcing of legal limits on irresponsible communication that may incite lawless behaviour; is unacceptable in itself (e.g., exchange of paedophilic words/images); makes use of information that belongs to someone else; contains false or misleading details; or threatens national security. Not applying these restrictions rigorously to politicians and their backers is not to protect democracy, but gravely endanger it.

Finally, the challenge to maintain power equilibrium must be taken up. It is abundantly clear that many of those with concentrated wealth and power buy themselves far greater influence over public policies by hiring leading lawyers, accountants, propagandists, lobbyists, etc to push forward what they seek at the expense of ordinary citizens. In parallel, plutocrats are determined to enhance their relative strength even further by pressing for the relentless cutting back of public services and societal safety-nets. The poorer and more vulnerable people are, the easier it is to distract them with campaigns against scapegoats, or scare them with unfounded ‘there is no alternative’ proclamations. The drive to curtail power inequalities is, therefore, not merely a social policy option, but the very essence of democratic development. And to ensure those with more equitable power will exercise it in an informed manner, deliberative participation techniques should be embedded in state-citizen interactions so that people can exert their influence in line with a sound understanding of different options and their implications.

There is no alternative to democracy but ‘might is right’. It will either come in the guise of an authoritarian ruler, or it will appear with the façade of an anarchic paradise, before the greediest and most ruthless take advantage of the absence of collective constraints, and elbow their way to take control. If we want to keep democracy alive and, hopefully, vibrant as well, we need to put the aforementioned guarantees in place. Without them, voters will seldom, if ever, get what they truly want.

--
A detailed exposition of what is to be done to rescue democracy is set out in Henry Tam’s Time to Save Democracy; how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics, which can now be ordered from Policy Press: https://policypress.co.uk/time-to-save-democracy

Monday, 1 January 2018

Paradigm Lost

Students of political theory or people sampling rival media commentaries may well get the impression that there are countless incompatible ways to organise how we live in society, and there is no end to arguing which may serve us better than any other.

But actually since the 17th century there has been a growing recognition that communities structured for maximum cooperation amongst their members provide a preferable model of social and political planning. The Royal Society advanced it for scientific investigation; the Levellers pushed the idea of universal suffrage to reflect the fact every citizen has an equal right to take part in deciding the fate of the commonwealth; and the Quakers demonstrated that petty religious disputes could be put aside for the sake of caring for one another.

From 1700 to 1900, through the Enlightenment and the Age of Reform, what may be termed the Cooperative Community paradigm came to the fore as the guiding approach to social and organisational development at every level. By early 20th century, there was a clear consensus that political and educational support for facilitating cooperation within and across communities is superior to the anti-cooperative stance of colonial expansionists, aggressive fascists, racist ideologues, plutocratic exploiters, financial manipulators, Bolshevik totalitarians, or oppressive theocrats. The post-war consensus embraces this paradigm in favouring welfare standards for all citizens, a regulated market to provide a level-playing field, the democratic rule of law against blind hatred and corrupt behaviour, and sustained investment in independent research and universal education.

Unfortunately, since the 1980s, the New Right has, with backing from the most irresponsible businesses (gambling, smoking, polluting, arms manufacturing, financially disruptive speculation, etc.), bought more propaganda powers to win political control to help those businesses, and deflect public dissatisfaction towards scapegoats such as immigrants, benefit claimants, and any politician prepared to take a stance against businesses that pursue their short-term profit at the expense of everyone else. A by-product of the New Right’s penchant for muddying the water is that an increasing number of people buy into arbitrary beliefs or a misguided acceptance of anything-goes relativism.

By now, the Cooperative Community paradigm has become obscured from view. Instead of learning from its historical impact, and applying it to current challenges, social reformists and democratic activists find they don’t even have a common language to rally public support for an end to New Right hegemony. There is an urgent need to recover the paradigm that has been an invaluable guide for us.

By drawing on the ideas of thinkers and leaders such as Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Jefferson, the Owenites, J.S. Mill, Abraham Lincoln, John Dewey, F.D. Roosevelt, Clement Attlee, Karl Polanyi, Hannah Arendt, and many others, we can reconfigure the paradigmatic model for displacing prejudiced and exploitative interactions by informed and inclusive cooperation. We should not be deflected by divisions over small differences, intellectually or organisationally, but should focus on our shared need to join forces in protecting and enhancing cooperative arrangements in the face of the relentless onslaught from the enemies of mutuality.