Thursday, 1 June 2023

From Here to Community: a communitarian timeline

Terms such as ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘socialist’, ‘libertarian’, ‘nationalist’, ‘green’ are often used, but not always in line with the thinking of ardent advocates who embrace those labels themselves.  Furthermore, the advocates with a shared label can nonetheless hold quite different views as to what is actually covered by that label.  The same is true of the label ‘communitarian’.  While the term has become more widely used in political writings, less attention has been given to what it is meant to convey by its core advocates.  What is set out below is a brief timeline indicating who have been most closely associated with that label, and when their distinctive ideas emerged. 

Owenite & Cooperative Advocates of Communitarian Experiments (early/mid-19th century)

Robert Owen (1771-1858) pioneered new ways to enable people to live and work together in cooperative communities.  He set out his ideas in A New View of Society (1813) and other publications, and experimented with socio-economic projects at New Lanark (Britain) and New Harmony (the US).  His distinctive experiments in promoting mutual respect, sharing out resources fairly, and providing education and social security for all, led some commentators to coin the term ‘communitarian’ to refer to what he was putting forward in theory and practice.  Many who were inspired by Owen went on to experiment further in devising democratic and inclusive forms of community relations – e.g., the Rochdale Pioneers (1844) paved the way for the cooperative movement.


Thinkers who Developed Communitarian Approaches to Political Philosophy and Social Reforms (late 19th/early 20th century)

After the term ‘communitarian’ was revived in the 1980s/1990s (see the next two sections), a number of experts on late 19th/early 20th century thinkers observed that some of these ought to be recognised as key communitarian theorists.  The most notable figures in this context are Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), John Dewey (1859-1952), and the New Liberals [such as L. T. Hobhouse (1864-1929) and John Hobson (1858-1940)] (as explained by Mark Cladis, Alan Ryan, and David Weinstein respectively).  A similar case can be made for Leon Bourgeois (1851-1925) who, like Durkheim, developed the notion of solidarity to map out an alternative to callous laissez faire and rigid collectivism); and Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) whose writings on the importance of advancing cooperative community relations guided thinking on organisation as Dewey’s did for education. [It should be noted that Ferdinand Tönnies is often superficially read as a communitarian who argued for Gemeinschaft (traditional hierarchical community) against Gesellschaft (loose association of self-interested individuals).  Tönnies was in fact criticised by Durkheim who set out a genuinely cogent communitarian conception of community that is neither Gemeinschaft nor Gesellschaft.]

The Communitarian Critics of John Rawls (1980s)

In the 1970s the most prominent defence of social justice and liberal support for the disadvantaged was that put forward by John Rawls in Theory of Justice (1972). However, Rawls’ arguments relied on ideas which abstracted individuals and their moral understanding from all connections with the wider community. This led to a series of criticisms that emerged in the 1980s: Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) and Whose Justice? Which Responsibility? (1988); Michael Sandel Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982); Michael Walzer Spheres of Justice (1983) and Interpretation and Social Criticism (1987); and Charles Taylor Philosophical Papers (1985) and Sources of the Self(1989).  The critics of Rawls came to be referred in academic circles as ‘communitarians’.  None of them subscribes to conservative politics, and all of them are critical of right-wing libertarianism espoused by the likes of Robert Nozick.

The Proponents of Communitarian Ideas (late 20th/early 21st century)

In contrast to the communitarian critics of Rawls who are ambivalent about the describing their own ideas as ‘communitarian’, from around 1990 on, a range of British and American writers argued explicitly for what they termed as ‘communitarian’ positions.  Both David Miller and David Marquand put forward ideas for the communitarian reorientation of socialism towards a cooperative vision of society.

 Jonathan Bowell, who counted Durkheim as one of his key influences, expounded what he termed ‘democratic communitarianism’, a term Robert Bellah was to welcome and adopt himself in his writings on social development.  Elinor Ostrom argued for a communitarian approach to local government.  To ensure there was no mistaking his political stance, Charles Derber set out his ideas on ‘left communitarianism’.  Philip Selznick, steeped in Dewey’s philosophy, developed in detail what he called ‘liberal communitarian’ thinking, a term which would also be used by a student of his, Amitai Etzioni, who went on to establish the Communitarian Network. Reflecting these related currents, Henry Tam set out the core arguments in Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship (1998), and traced their historical development in The Evolution of Communitarian Ideas (2019).



Thinkers who have been most closely associated with the coining of the term ‘communitarian’ (the Owenites and cooperative pioneers during the 19th century) and its revival in the 1980s (the often cited ‘communitarian critics of Rawls’); as well as theorists who explicitly refer to their ideas as ‘communitarian’ (all those mentioned in the section on late 20th/early 21st century) and the key figures who influenced them (Dewey, Durkheim, etc), are without exception antipathic towards both oppressive traditional hierarchies and atomistic free-for-all individualism.  No notable conservative writer has presented their own ideas as ‘communitarian’.  While some commentators like to refer to non-liberal East Asian societies as ‘communitarian’, that is not based on any intellectual or theoretical usage that is actually connected with that term.  There are progressives who want to distance themselves from communitarian thoughts because they are misconceived as ‘illiberal’ or right-wing.  In fact, communitarians are the amongst the most progressive of liberal, social democratic, and cooperative advocates.

Tuesday, 16 May 2023

Don’t Know Much About Politics?

Why do so many people vote for political figures who prefer to serve the wealthy elite rather than deal with the problems afflicting everyone else?  How come vast numbers choose not to vote for politicians who actually have a track record in helping those in need and improving the quality of life for the general public?

Alas, all too many people just don’t know much about politics.  They are fed lies, surrounded by tabloid mood music, misled by demagogues, and have rarely – if ever – learnt much about the real pros and cons regarding the policies being debated in the media.

Would it help if we have more political education to enable citizens to learn about public issues and how state power is obtained or used?  Of course it would.  But that is also why there is a growing number of Con-minded politicos who thrive on voters being misled – witness recent Conservative Education Secretaries in the UK and Republican governors and legislatures in the US – who have manoeuvred to hamper objective learning of many issues central to political deliberations.

For example, for schools, they invoke the notion of ‘contentious issues’ to stop any teaching which may increase pupils’ understanding of issues (such as tackling racism or climate change) that they would prefer to leave mired in false and misleading exchanges.  For universities, they cite ‘academic freedom’ as the reason why no one – be they white supremacists, rampant misogynists, or militant homophobes – should be denied the opportunity to promote their views on campus.

Politicians concerned with the safeguarding democracy from widespread lies and malicious distortion must take urgent action to ensure citizens can learn objectively about matters relevant to political decisions.  They must stop those who serve plutocratic and/or fundamentalist interests from abusing the law to designate any topic as too ‘contentious’ to teach just by contesting widely shared claims.  And just as academic freedom does not entail that any baseless allegation or thoroughly discredited theory can be promoted as worthy of consideration, all learning institutions must be allowed to apply their peer-validated expertise to adjudicate what ought or ought not to be disseminated.

Con-minded politicos want to pretend (when it suits them) that all expressions are equally entitled to be aired – except for when they touch on those ‘contentious’ issues they want to silence.  In reality, the scientific community, the legal system, the established professional bodies, the peer-scrutinised researchers, the networks of accredited experts in diverse fields, provide multiple means of differentiating between reliable claims and unwarranted assertions, acceptable evidence and fanciful imaginings, sound advice and life-endangering falsehoods, across countless topics.

We all rely on these impartial means, and society simply cannot function without them.  Only the most shameless charlatans can spout with a straight face that ‘academic freedom’ means anything goes, or they alone know what must be taught and what must be banned.  By contrast, educators draw from the expertise and findings of the different bodies and systems in existence to help share with learners what at any given time are deemed instructive to share, and what groundless claims and misinformation should be kept at bay.  Applying this approach to the teaching of political issues is something we need more than ever.


Who’s Afraid of Political Education? Edited by Henry Tam is now available from Policy Press:

Monday, 1 May 2023

When Dogmas Met Caesars

Few historical occurrences can have worse consequences than when a powerful autocrat seizes upon some ‘unquestionable’ doctrine that has attracted a fanatical following. 

The classic dogma-meets-Caesar scenario has to be when Emperor Constantine decided to proclaim Christianity as the religion for the Roman Empire in the early 4th century.  In the centuries that follow, absolute imperial rule was infused with a sense of infallibility – anyone deemed deficient in one’s devotion to the emperor or  his ‘God’ (and the two were of course aligned) could be tortured or executed.  This invocation of ‘God’-sanctioned power would manifest itself down through the days of the Spanish Inquisition to contemporary theocratic regimes in a number of Islamic countries.

However, ‘God’ doesn’t always have to come into it so long as you have a doctrine that commands fervent belief in certain quarters.  Indeed, the very first documented case of the unfortunate coming together of a dictator and a dire dogma is to be found with Qin Shi Huang, who as China’s ‘First Emperor’ (reign: 221-210 BC) embraced the Legalist doctrines which declared that a ruler must set down punitive sanctions against everything that might undermine his power, and enforce them ruthlessly to secure total compliance.  The Legalists maintained that anyone putting forward rival ideas must not be given a hearing.  Accordingly, Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of books that offended Legalist sensibility, and the burying alive of scholars who dared to disagree with Legalist teaching.

During the French Revolution, Robespierre and other like-minded extremists showed how even a word such as ‘reason’ can be capitalised and used as the name of a quasi-religious cult.  Picking out ideas from Rousseau that would imply a single lawgiver could discern the ‘General Will’ even if ordinary people do not subscribe to it, Robespierre declared that on behalf of the General Will he would take whatever action he deemed appropriate – such as instituting the execution of thousands of people, including those whose ‘crime’ was to plea for more moderate policies.

Into the 20th century, the mass intimidation and killing of civilian by dictatorial leaders armed with oppressive dogmas got only worse.  Antisemitic white supremacist ideas found a home with the Nazis whose murderous intolerance destroyed millions of lives when opposition was theoretically and institutionally ruled out as unacceptable.  Racist delusion and militarist obsession were also fused together by Japanese usurpers who put an end to parliamentary democracy in their country, and in the name of their unquestionable national and spiritual destiny brought suffering and devastation that rivalled that caused by the Nazis.

Marxist doctrines about some indubitable Dialectic that would ensure the lower class overthrow the economically dominant class, were taken up by revolutionaries who would argue that they were merely acting in line with historical inevitability when they eliminated all opposition to their rule, destroyed anyone suspected (rightly or wrongly) of doubting communist ideas, and carrying out sweeping changes that led to the deaths of millions of people.  Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, were all alike in possessing neither reservation nor remorse in crushing countless victims who got in their way.

What about ‘free market’ doctrines such as those propagated by Milton Friedman?  They were presented as ‘scientifically’ correct beyond question. With total certainty they assert that with deregulation, privatisation and cuts to public social spending, prosperity would arrive (more specifically, it would arrive for the wealthy minority who will benefit from the system rigged in their favour, while the vast majority are likely to suffer lower standards of living and greater economic insecurity). In the 1970s, military coups were carried out by Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina and Augusto Pinochet in Chile to get rid of democratically elected regimes, leaving them to implement Friedman’s doctrines with the help of widespread tortures and executions. A wealthy elite emerged to get richer, and the majority suffered from poverty and unemployment – not to mention fear of getting ‘disappeared’.

Autocrats are inherently a menace.  But if they should get their hands on some ‘unquestionable’ doctrines that make them think they could do no wrong, the danger they pose skyrocket to a whole new level.

Sunday, 16 April 2023

Brexitopia: what it’s really about

Some commentators, especially in the US, have pondered if the push for Brexit was fuelled by some lingering British yearning for past glory – a forlorn quest for a grand status which has long vanished.  In truth, while individuals who voted for Brexit did so for a multitude of reasons – quite a few contradicting each other and most are simply false (be it about redirecting funds to the NHS or improving the economy) – the main strategic push for Brexit came from the craving for ‘free market’ exploitation.

The ideal of Brexitopia has been relentlessly promoted by its most ardent advocates, not because it embodies a return to a ‘great’ waves-ruling Britain, but because it can bring about a future fit for exploitative profiteering on an ever widening scale.  

While they promised everything under the sun in the run-up to the EU referendum – maintaining standards, retaining levels of fundings, staying in the single market, enhancing services – all these commitments were jettisoned as soon as Brexit was voted through in parliament.  From that moment on, the Brexit advocates revealed their one and true interest as dismantling the protective arrangements against exploitation which had hitherto been in place as an integral part of EU membership.  

When they complain that the UK has not been moving fast enough to realise the ‘benefits’ of Brexit, what they mean is that the government is too slow in removing those previously EU-mandated safeguards which get in the way of callous profiteering.  Their own priorities are to:

·      Slash worker rights: weaken trade unions, lower standards for working conditions, undermine health and safety at work, and increase job insecurity to make workers more compliant and more sackable.

·      Cut environmental standards: increase the scope for making profit from environmentally harmful activities, remove requirements that curtail pollution, and cut down preventative measures that serve the public.

·      Roll back human rights: reduce protection against prejudice-fuelled abuse, facilitate the flaming of community tension, and push back arrangements designed to tackle discrimination.

·      Downgrade consumer protection: leave people to have to pay more for the same or worse service than before, open the door to less safe and poorer quality products, and allow more commercial deception. 

The above actions would enable unscrupulous profiteers to make more money from exploiting the disadvantages thus foisted on workers, consumers, communities, and the wider environment.  It is almost certain that the vast majority of people will as a result suffer in social and economic terms, with the poorest having to endure the worst.  But for the Brexitopian advocates, all that matters are the financial gains to be made by the profiteering clique.  They do not care about people’s quality of life deteriorating, instability worsening, or the economy shrinking.  So long as they can get rid of those laws that hold back exploitative profiteering (and put in new ones such as banning worker actions or peaceful protests against corporate wrongdoing), they would celebrate Brexitopia as a lucrative new dawn.

Saturday, 1 April 2023

David Hume: Conservative or Anti-Conservative

Keen to increase the intellectual ballast for their political outlook, some conservatives have sought to identify more major thinkers as their champions.  One thinker who was thus enlisted is the eighteenth-century philosopher and historian, David Hume.

The main reason why the conservative-minded think Hume is on their side is the thorough scepticism he directed at radical/revolutionary ideas.  Hume stressed the reliability of any given claim can only be derived from experience.  Over time, if people have come to find that certain claims – be they about the recurrence of some natural phenomenon, or the efficacy of a social arrangement – are backed by their shared experience, then that is a sound basis for accepting them.  By contrast, if someone tries to argue against such claims without any tangible evidence, then our starting point has to be one of doubt regarding such an argument.  Indeed, the more drastic a departure from what is backed by prevailing findings and observations, the less inclined we should be in allowing it to determine our thinking.


In his historical writings, Hume cited disapprovingly the ideas Cromwell and many parliamentarians invoked in getting rid of King Charles I in the English Civil War (1642-1651).  This has suggested to later conservatives that Hume would frown upon any proposal to change a long-established socio-political system, and he could therefore be embraced as a beacon of conservatism.

Alas, they are mistaken on two levels.  First of all, Hume was never dogmatically against change.  For him, the key was whether what was being put forward was some abstract claim not connected to any relevant experience, or it was a set of assertions that people could assess from their own observations.  After all, he judged it was correct that political rebels in England forced King James II off the throne in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ (1688).  For Hume, proposed changes for which there are sound empirical grounds for trying are worthy of experimental adoption; but complete transformation which has no evidence to suggest may have beneficial effects should be resisted, especially if it is intended as irreversible.  

Secondly, given Hume’s opposition to sweeping claims that defy empirical validation, he would most likely be a staunch critic of quite a few of the core elements of contemporary conservative politics. Take the following:

·      Religious fundamentalism

Hume would wholeheartedly reject any political idea that seeks to use some contested text in one particular religious tradition to justify an edict on everyone to comply with a command that strikes many as dubious and harmful in its effects.

·      Market ideology

Hume would expose as groundless any attempt to declare one single approach to structure the economy as sacrosanct.  He would point to the diversity of economic systems, the different pros and cons, and warn against accepting ‘free market’ as unquestionably the best model despite mounting evidence to the contrary.


·      Xenophobic jingoism

Hume would challenge any claim that one race or one nation is inherently superior to all others as disconnected from any empirical fact. He would reject as delusional any suggestion that we should seek to dominate others on the absurd basis of our ‘greatness’.

Hume’s philosophy is consistently cautious – about what we are warranted in believing.  That extends to beliefs which supposedly reflect long established traditions that should be preserved, when in fact they are groundless claims that ought to be cast aside.

Thursday, 16 March 2023

Four Lessons from the 2008 Financial Crisis

Politicians who refuse to recognise the causes of the disastrous global financial crisis of 2008 are likely to allow them to happen again.  Here are four key lessons which must not be forgotten: 

[1] Bankers’ Greed & Irresponsibility

When savers deposit their money with banks, the latter are supposed to hold that money plus any agreed interests until a withdrawal request is made. But in the period 2006-2008, many banks (in the US and in a number of European countries though, as we will see below, with notable exceptions) increasingly used their savers’ money to make high risk investment which would inevitably collapse.  When they were hit by the colossal losses (stemming from deeply flawed subprime mortgage packages), millions of people across the world were in danger of losing their life savings, and different national governments had to step in to provide funds to prevent that from happening.  It was covering the losses made by irresponsible corporate gamblers in the banking sector, and not funding much needed public services, that led to the crisis and subsequent drain on public resources.

[2] The Need for Regulation

Is the problem of allowing financial companies to risk savers’ money an unforeseeable one?  In the 1920s, American banks used savers’ money to gamble on the stock bubble which burst and led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. To prevent this kind of disaster from recurring, the US Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act of 1932 to bring in safeguards which would, amongst other things, stop financial companies from risking the loss of savers’ money in making investment that could fail.  In the UK, institutions licensed to accept savings were kept from being able to use those deposits to invest in deals that should be left to merchant banks.  However, by the 1980s, ideological deregulators were pushing to give bankers the freedom to make money irrespective of the risks to the general public.  In 1986, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government lifted an array of British banking regulations in a move hailed as the ‘Big Bang’.  In the US, the Federal Reserve Board (under Ronald Reagan’s administration) began to reinterpret banking regulations as loosely as possible, until the Republican Congress passed the Gram-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 to formally repeal the Glass-Steagall Act. By 2000, it was wide open for banks in the US and the UK to gamble with their savers’ money – since they either make even more profit for themselves, or they make huge losses and ask to be bailed out by their government.


[3] The Problem with ‘Free Market’ Regulators

‘Free Market’ advocates like to argue that the 2008 financial crisis had nothing to do with deregulation, but with poor handling of issues by regulators.  What they would not admit to is that, not only had a robust regulatory framework been largely dismantled, but what was left was overseen by people who subscribed to the deregulation mantra.  In the US, without explicit legislation to stop the Ponzi-scheme-like subprime mortgage deals, it was down to those with statutory responsibility to make the case for intervention.  But in that time, who was the Secretary of the Treasury? It was none other than Henry Paulson, former Chairman & CEO of Goldman Sachs, brought into government by George W. Bush.  Paulson, who was able to save himself $50 million in tax payment thanks to a provision passed under President Bush, repeatedly insisted in the years and months leading up to the financial crisis that all was well, and no action was needed.  If you hand regulatory oversight to people who are inclined to keep regulation out of money-making deals – regardless of the damages they may cause – necessary intervention will most likely be left ignored.

[4] Crime, Bonus & Punishment

When banks were losing so much money that people were in danger of losing their life savings (as many did during the Great Depression), government had a choice – punish those who had acted irresponsibly and help those who could be harmed by their action, or help the culprits and punish their victims. In the UK, billions were handed to the banks (which could then pay bonuses to their top executives) while the rest of the country was subject to austere cuts.  In the US, vast sums were given to the banks virtually with no strings attached, but people who lost their homes and jobs had no comparable support.  Of the countries hit by the 2008 financial crisis, only Iceland tried to prioritise helping ordinary people, let the irresponsible companies go bust, and sent guilty bankers to jail.  Where greed and irresponsibility are rewarded by bailouts and bonuses, instead of being punished by bankruptcy and jail, it is likely that more of the same will happen again. 


Deregulating the financial sector makes it far more likely for a calamitous crisis to occur.  Why do some people nonetheless push for it?  It’s basically why ‘Free Market’ acolytes always call for deregulation – it increases the scope for unscrupulous profiteering while passes the risk of harm to the public (consumers, communities, the environment, public agencies).  In cutting down regulatory safeguards, callous executives can engage in activities that generate more income for them even though it greatly increases the probability of many unsuspecting people getting financially or even physically hurt as a result.  When damages are done, they will deploy top law firms to help deny their culpability, pay out if necessary compensation (which is tiny compared with the profits they have then made), or lobby the government to bail them out.

In closing, it is worth noting that Norway and Sweden were persuaded to adopt financial deregulation in the late 1980s, but after they both got burnt in the 1990s, they learnt the lesson and tightened their financial regulations again. Subsequently, they were largely unaffected by the 2008 global financial crisis. As for Denmark, which never embraced the deregulation mantra at all on the banking front, it emerged unscathed from what hit most European countries in 2008.

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

‘Orchid Mantis’ Politics

One of the most insidious forms of political con has to be the Orchid Mantis – which I’ve named after the predatory arthropod that takes on the appearance of a nectar-giving flower, to attract unsuspecting insects so as to capture and feed on them.

In politics this con works on two levels.  First, it picks on certain notions which are likely to appeal to a large number of voters, and pretends it champions them when it is more likely to harm those who get close to them.  Secondly, the con is amplified when even otherwise sensible commentators help it along by referring to the con as if it is sincere in what it professes.  

Let’s look at three notable examples.

[1] The ‘Patriotic’ mimicry

These politicians present themselves as flag-waving champions of their nation.  They are keen to use force to show how strong their country is under their leadership.  They talk down others and insist ‘their’ people matter more than everybody else.  In practice, they will take foreign political donations and business benefits so long as they help them personally.  They will risk the security of soldiers and civilians through counter-productive or provocative military posturing.  They decry diplomacy and arms control if that hinders the profit-making of their arms manufacturing and trading backers. And they are the ones who consistently vote against better support for veterans in the military, but always for more to fund corporate contractors.  Far from being patriotic, they are all too ready to sacrifice other members of the country to advance their own ambition. 

[2] The ‘Religious’ mimicry

Then there are the politicians who position themselves as devoted ‘Christians’, ‘Muslims’, or whatever sect they want backing from.  They will tirelessly attack anyone who disagrees with them as a heretic, an infidel, an immoral atheist.  They will selectively pick out a few texts that lend themselves to hateful or oppressive interpretation, and promote them as the defining doctrines of the One True Faith.  For anyone who derive from religion a sense of compassion, human fellowship, fairness, reciprocity, these fundamentalists will have nothing but contempt.  They will do everything they can to sound pious and surround themselves with symbols of the religion they seek to exploit, but their true nature is embedded in their callous disregard for the suffering they cause to others. They will justify their cruelties by pretending that everything they do is authorised by ‘God’, and dismiss any evidence of their wrongdoing as an affront to their ‘sacred’ beliefs.

[3] The ‘Pro-Business’ mimicry

Alongside the pseudo-patriots and faux-faithful, there are the politicians who set themselves up as ‘pro-business’/’pro-market’ as though they have found the formula for prosperity for all, and they are the only ones decent enough to want to implement it.  In reality, what they have found is that a rigged market system will concentrate wealth and power in them and their rich allies, while increasing inequality gaps so the majority will be made weaker and more vulnerable.  They say they want deregulation to make the market free, when what they seek is to remove regulations that will hold them back from exploiting consumers, workers and suppliers.  They are fully behind laws and subsidies that help them take advantage of others.  They are pro those big businesses that donate to them as co-conspirators, but they care little for the dire consequences their biased policies may have for other businesses or the economy at large.

Expose the Con

In biology the behaviour of Orchid Mantis is known as ‘aggressive mimicry’, as it involves masquerading as something helpful in order to inflict severe harm on others.  That is precisely what Orchid Mantis politics is about.  The last thing commentators should do is to help the perpetrators of this con by referring to them as ‘patriotic’, ‘Christian’ (or whatever religion they are trying to co-opt), or ‘pro-business’.  Call them out for the tricksters that they are, and stop them harming unsuspecting voters.