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: