Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Author Formerly Hated for ‘The Prince’

When Machiavelli began work in 1513 on The Prince, he was not to know that it would become one of the most infamous books for the next five centuries. Indeed the worst thing anyone could do in trying to obtain or wield power came to be known by that deplorable adjective, ‘Machiavellian’.

Anyone who has actually studied the works of Machiavelli, especially his Discourses, an essential companion to The Prince, would know that Machiavelli was far from being a friend of deceptive and ruthless rule. But before we look at why the common misunderstanding should be corrected, we should consider a current trend that projects an even more perverse interpretation of Machiavelli.

Take the 2013 BBC TV programme, ‘Who’s Afraid of Machiavelli?’. Instead of challenging the view that Machiavelli was seeking to guide people with power to use it immorally, the makers of the programme and all who were invited to speak on it not only reinforced that view, but also claimed that it was to be celebrated. Their take on Machiavelli essentially came down to this: if you’re running a government or a large business, you have to be ruthless; you have to make others fear you; and you have to go with your judgement alone on what should be done, and get it done by whatever means necessary.

For these political insiders and business gurus, Machiavelli should not be denounced for advocating nasty power play, but praised for validating it as essential in getting the business of a ruler or top executive done.

But while some people may revel in imagining that even the most ruthless behaviour (of their own or the leaders they advised) would be endorsed by a world famous thinker, there are three crucial points they should have noted. First, when Machiavelli advised that the ends would justify the means, he was very specific about what those ends were, namely the establishment and development of a free republic – i.e., an association of citizens who collectively have a say through public deliberations over how they are to be governed. The people are, he insisted, “more prudent, more stable, and of better judgment than a prince.” So unless the leader in question is genuinely striving to create and secure a form of governance which spreads power more evenly to all people, nothing is justified; least of all, any action to simply make oneself more powerful and feared.

Secondly, the authoritarian model is only recommended where the option of a free republic is not immediately attainable. Machiavelli’s advice was not that a leader should be authoritarian, but that if one were living in a state where power was concentrated exclusively at the top and rival forces would resort to vicious means to seize the throne (not to mention stopping anyone from democratising power to the citizenry), then one would have to be ruthless in countering those threats and firm in securing one’s own power. But if one were in a free republic, or had managed to transform an absolute monarchy into one, then there would be no excuse for using repressive measures.

Thirdly, for Machiavelli, even when a ruler is steering a course from the prevailing authoritarian conditions to a free republic, it does not mean that anything is permissible. One has to ask if one’s actions are helping or hindering the all important process of bringing about a form of governance whereby people can speak feely about contested issues and jointly secure their safety and prosperity without being dependent on the whims of one individual (or an elite).

If political and business leaders want to learn anything from Machiavelli, they should stop focusing on expanding their personal power as an end in itself, and start devoting themselves to empowering others to share in decision-making so that it is never the elite few but always the people who together determine the common good.

BBC Radio did also produce Jonathan Freedland’s ‘Machiavelli: Devil or Democrat?’, which gave some airtime to Machiavelli’s positive influence on the development of democratic republics. However, Freedland still could not resist casting Machiavelli as part ‘devil’ for The Prince. For a scholarly exposition, consult Machiavelli and Republicanism, Bock, G., Skinner, Q., and Viroli, M. (Eds.), Cambridge University Press: 1990.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Art of Nurturing Communities

Governments like to turn on the rhetoric about helping communities to develop and thrive. But while some politicians genuinely support community development by investing resources in what are known to make a difference, others talk about building a ‘Big Society’ even as they embark on doing the very things evidence tells us would sap communities’ strength and destroy social cohesion.

Someone will inevitably ask: what differentiates between effective community development and superficial, or worse, counter-productive, activities that do more harm than good to community life? The truth is that there is a wealth of resources out there. From the Community Development Foundation to the materials produced in relation to the Together We Can programme, there is no shortage of information to guide us. And if one is looking for a one-volume handy guide, there is Community Research for Community Development, ed. by M. Mayo, Z. Mediwelso-Bendek, & C. Packham (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

This book is particularly illuminating when it deals with the issue of researching what works in community-based activities. By bringing together a group of academics who have actually engaged with community organisations, it has given us a collection of essays which combine analytical clarity with practical understanding.

The editors contributed an invaluable opening chapter that tackled head-on some of the most difficult problems in researching community development. They drew attention to the need for conceptual rigour. Community development is enhanced by state-community sector partnership, but undermined by communities having to pick up the pieces of a dismantled state. Following Alinsky’s focus to organise in localities to attain achievable goals in the “here and now” is quite distinct from Freira’s injunction to understand and challenge the underlying causes of social injustice. Doing one does not guarantee the other.

From the book’s wide range of insights, case studies, and wise counsel, I would like to share three ideas that strike me as most important. First, governments concerned with learning about what impact individual community development programmes are having should avoid pressing for evaluation in narrow, pre-conceived, and often irrelevant terms. Those who only ask how many golden eggs are laid by a flock of geese, so to speak, will never appreciate, as the Romans did, the protective value of geese as ‘guard dogs’.

Secondly, researchers should be given scope to tailor their study to help community groups learn more about their own strengths and weaknesses as a constructive exercise, rather than simply to churn out data to respond to measures drawn up by funders. The former approach would actually often lead to more improvements than the all too frequent use of the latter.

Last but not least, both funders and community-based practitioners should learn to bridge the contrasting ‘languages’ they use by developing at the outset a common understanding of a shared enterprise. An enterprise, all involved would do well to remember, which is likely to resemble less a scientific experiment (where input, output, impact can be measured in precise, pre-defined terms), and more a team-building exercise where people come to discover and celebrate their collective potential as a community.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Who Needs Capability Assessment?

You would expect a sensible government to put in place critical assessments where there is a need to manage substantial risks and dangers, but otherwise make trust and openness the norm.

By that simple logic, the British Government would insist on carrying out the most stringent capability assessment of bankers and financial traders to determine if they can be trusted to manage other people’s money. Their failings in the past have cost us almost a trillion pounds in bank bailout spending. But the government prefers to leave them to it. Even the tax on their bonuses was dropped on the grounds that they should not be troubled by the red tape of government control.

Where the government does want to see much more red tape is in the lives of vulnerable people. Take the Work Capability Assessment, for example. People who have been found by their doctors to suffer impairment, which prevents them from getting adequate paid employment, need disability allowance to survive. But they are subject to an assessment regime, notorious for its flawed criteria, run by people with no medical expertise, which to meet pre-determined targets would simply declare a large number of them as ‘fit to work’ and cut their benefits. The victims are left to starve. Some have committed suicide.

Why doesn’t the government put an end to this? Or at least recognise that if anyone’s capability sorely needs to be assessed, it is that of the contractor paid millions to do something they are manifestly incapable of doing fairly or competently.

That takes us to the heart of the matter. This government only believes in using ‘capability assessment’ to make life more difficult for scapegoat groups it wants to portray as untrustworthy. Disabled people and low income groups seeking social security; immigrants looking for an opportunity to start a new life in the country; unions trying to resort to strike actions when all else fail; they all have to jump through endless hoops and still find themselves branded negatively.

By contrast, if you are in tune with the plutocratic outlook of this government, then capability is not an issue at all. Like G4S, you can mess up the public contracts given to you, end up being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, and still be given more work and money by this government ( Or like HCA (Hospital Corporation of America), which has been fined over $1 billion for mis-selling healthcare in the US, but is a generous donor to the Conservative Party, and it gets a lucrative NHS contract

In fact, in order to bring in more corporate ‘high flyers’ to take charge of public services such as education and policing, the government wants to get rid of capability assessment altogether. It has scrapped the requirement of a formal qualification in teaching for academies, ‘free schools’, and (since September 2013) Further Education. Business executives can soon be parachuted into the top ranks of our police forces with no experience in policing whatsoever.

Ultimately, this government’s thinking on capability assessment comes down to this. If you’re high up the corporate ladder, ready to side with/donate to the party that will look after your interests, you will be rewarded even if you’re grossly incompetent. But if you’re low down the socio-economic scale, unable to fight against the vilification and injustice directed at you, you can expect to have plenty of assessments coming your way to frustrate you.

[It is worth remembering that less than 0.9% of the social security budget is lost through fraud AND error (£3.2b), whereas £18 billion more would be spent if there were no underclaim or underpayment of benefits. See, The Lies We Tell Ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty (report by Baptist Union of Great Britain, Methodist Church, Church of Scotland, & the United Reformed Church, 2013)]

Friday, 1 November 2013

The Cooperative Gestalt

One of the most significant contributions of the Enlightenment is its transformative approach to learning. By shifting the focus from static authority-based teaching to progressive lifelong learning, it enabled us to think and interact with one another in a radically critical and democratic way, which opened up new opportunities to improve our lives.

But just as it has become fashionable in some quarters to dismiss the Enlightenment, the value of progressive lifelong learning has also been increasingly undermined.

So let us take stock and ask ourselves:
What exactly is distinctive about progressive lifelong learning?
What makes its cultivation of the cooperative gestalt so valuable?
Why are some people against it?
& what can we do to promote it in spite of the obstacles before us?

What is progressive lifelong learning?

Instead of accepting that one individual or group of individuals can claim that by some special privilege they alone can know what ought to be believed, and others must accept on their authority what they are told to believe, progressive lifelong learning assesses and shares ideas on what is to be believed in an on-going, provisional manner that is open to anyone to contribute, question and revise. A hypothesis, which may be upheld at one time because of the weight of probabilities supporting it, can come to be amended or altogether rejected should new evidence and interpretations cast doubt on its reliability.

The value of the Cooperative Gestalt

What makes progressive lifelong learning so valuable is not the production of new knowledge as such. The monumental Encyclopaedia produced by the leading Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century is hardly of much value as a source of knowledge now. Neither is it special in setting out a definitive methodology for acquiring knowledge, or simply being a modernist spirit in seeking to overturn ideas of the past. Its real value lies in cultivating what may be termed the ‘Cooperative Gestalt’, a mindset that disposes those who have embraced it to:
(1) view others without prejudice as fellow human beings with whom one can collaborate on equal terms to pursue shared objectives;
(2) explore with others on what may be believed on the basis of the open exchange of evidence, testimony, and experiments that are available to public scrutiny; and
(3) involve others in making decisions on matters that are not already settled by common consent, under conditions of informed discussions and mutual respect.

Opponents of progressive lifelong learning

The more people interact with others with the Cooperative Gestalt, the more we approximate a truly inclusive society, grounded in solidarity, and helped forward with the shared deliberations of critical minds. But it is precisely because this would undermine the power of certain exclusionary groups to do as they please that progressive lifelong learning has such implacable opponents. From fundamentalists who want to be able to push their unquestionable doctrines, to ‘I’m more than alright, Jack’ plutocrats who want education to serve their narrow profiteering ends, they would like to see progressive lifelong learning fade away. The problem is compounded by muddled relativists who think nothing taught can ever be better or worse than anything else, not to mention the ‘this glass is one-tenth empty’ brigade who belittles everything about the Enlightenment because it did not achieve improvements in every sphere of life over night.

How to support the cultivation of the Cooperative Gestalt

In order to counter the attempts to marginalise progressive lifelong learning, and promote the cultivation of the Cooperative Gestalt, we need to address the needs, so to speak, of the head, the heart and the hands. The head needs to be reinforced with greater understanding. It is important to explain why it is better to learn continuously in an open and inclusive manner so that we are able to make the most of changing circumstances for the good of all. The heart needs to be stirred with passionate concern. We should explore diverse means – fiction, art, film – to fire up the desire to resist attempts to shut down the cooperative mindset. Last but not least, the hands need the practical tools to bring about changes. We should make use of the many resources available to strengthen the impact of progressive lifelong learning.

(For more information on resources available to help teach the Cooperative Gestalt, see ‘Learning more about Cooperative Gestalt')

[The above is based on the talk given by Henry Tam at the ‘Power of Adult Learning’ conference, 23 October 2013, held at the University of Edinburgh (jointly organised by WEA Scotland, Learning Link Scotland, the Scottish Community Development Centre, Dyslexia Scotland, and Lead Scotland).]

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The Economics of Disability

We all have abilities to varying degrees for certain things in life, and lack abilities for others. What we make of these differences between us is a matter of economics.

In the economic model favoured by libertarians, individuals are left to their own devices to deal with life’s challenges. People with latent talent would not be assisted by others in developing and realising their full potential. People with clever ideas would not get the backing of others in turning those ideas into a large-scale enterprise. Each person, with one’s abilities limited by lack of organised aid from others, and one’s shortcomings magnified through isolation, would thus be left with an impoverished life.

In a cooperative model, where reciprocity and solidarity take centre stage, people organise to give each other systematic support so anyone’s abilities are nurtured and promoted for the benefit of all, and the different inabilities around are compensated for to the disadvantage of none. It does not matter what mix of ability or disability any individual may happen to have. Everyone is treated as equal in so far as they contribute to and are assisted by the collective arrangements in accordance with their respective abilities and needs.

Economic arguments are sometimes presented as a tussle between these two models. But while the cooperative model is one which actually guides progressive reformists as an ideal to strive towards, the libertarian model is just a smokescreen.

In reality, the people who are most vocal with libertarian-sounding advocacy of leaving people to get on with life on their own, are the ones who have already secured the largest support for themselves. But using their status, inherited wealth, and/or a market system that facilitates their profiteering, they are in a position where they have a steadily expanding surplus to more than cover their own shortcomings and disabilities. What they want is to strip others of all collective support so they end up being even more vulnerable, and less able to resist the exploitative demands of the powerful.

It is vital we expose this deception. There is no serious ideology of rugged individualism. If everyone goes down that road, everybody loses out. What the plutocratic elite really wants is to keep preaching to those disabled by illnesses, injuries and poverty the virtue of self-help, while they carry on with the vice of helping themselves to the fruits of others’ labour.

Politicians with a progressive conscience should not be pushed aside by this pernicious rhetoric of unleashing the ‘able’, and resenting the ‘disabled’. It is the economic system that divides us into the elite whose disabilities are well compensated by the excess resources they take from others, and the downtrodden who are disabled by the refusal to give them the necessary support in terms of health, housing, education and employment so they can live a fulfilled life.

It’s not vulnerable people who need to pull their socks up. To adapt a wise saying, it’s the economic system, stupid!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Who’s Afraid of Political Education?

The spectre of bias hangs over political education. Teachers are anxious that they can be censured for siding with one political party against another. But to abstain from discussing the flaws of any policy proposal just because it has been put forward by a political party is not a sign of neutrality but one of intellectual dishonesty. Teachers should feel confident in tackling the ‘why, ‘what’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ of politics.

The whole point about politics is that people’s choices are not just their own personal business, it is society’s business. If people made political decisions on dogmatic grounds, they would be ignoring evidence and jeopardising the wellbeing of others with their prejudices. If people adopted a ‘free rider’ perspective, their attempt to pursue their own ends at the expense of others would threaten the possibility of political cooperation itself. The only coherent guiding principle for why people should choose certain political options is that those options on the available evidence are more likely than others to bring about improvements for everyone in society, or at least improvements for those most in need of them.

But what policy would in each case enhance the common good is much more contentious. Political education’s role is to teach how critical reasoning should be applied to individual proposals. People need to recognize that the findings of empirical research, on which we rely for all aspects of our everyday life, must not be suspended when it comes to political evaluation. On the contrary, if research carried out by people not funded by vested interests points to problems or suggests solutions, then these should be taken seriously regardless of whether a political party happens to dismiss them.

Political education should also address the question of who is to be given the electoral support to carry out the most appropriate policies. Not everyone has the same degree of reliability when it comes to fulfilling electoral promises. Some achieve real improvements, but others are merely adept at convincing the public that they would, e.g., champion green policies or improve healthcare, when their intention is to do the very opposite should they secure power. From recruitment interviews to criminal investigations, we need to know how to apply evidence-based assessment to individuals and the claims they make. It is no different in politics.

Once people appreciate why, what and who would make improvements for more people, especially those with greater need than others, then it is essential they learn to exercise their electoral power in backing the appropriate policies and political candidates. In addition to the mechanisms of registration and voting for different elections, there are issues such as how to maximise one’s influence with different methodologies (e.g., with tactical voting, second preferences), or how to overcome attempts to prevent one from voting (e.g., complex bureaucracy to deter minorities, or making it easier for young people not to register to vote).

For the sake of democracy
Only those who dread the prospect of an enlightened citizenry reclaiming government institutions for the common good, want to marginalise political education. For the rest of us, it is indispensable to the functioning of democratic politics wherein objective reasoning and cooperative reciprocity underpin the improvement of society. Far from holding it back for fear of offending politicians, it should be taken forward in line with the approach outlined above, in every school, college, and adult learning class.

[For more information on the collaborative project with the Equality Trust to use dystopian literature to raise political awareness, see: ‘A Novel Exploration of Inequality’]

Sunday, 15 September 2013

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Syria?

The Syrian problem is not unique. One only has to look at Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa ( to see that it is far from being the sole regime in the region that does not respect the human rights of those who have to live under its jurisdiction.

By now, we should all have learnt that trying to solve the problem of arbitrary rule with arbitrary intervention is morally flawed and politically unsustainable.

There are two questions that need to be considered: (a) what type of transgression within a country’s own borders is to be recognized as warranting external intervention; and (b) what type of intervention should be sanctioned without it adding to the suffering of the people concerned.

With the first question, the current answer appears to focus on the use of chemical weapons in killing civilians in Syria. But historically, we know that those powers leading interventions in the Middle East have often shifted their position. At one end of the foreign policy spectrum, being suspected of possessing weapons of mass destruction (Iraq), or harbouring terrorist groups (Afghanistan), would justify armed intervention. At the other end, having nuclear weapons, as well as being reported for violation of Palestinians’ human rights (Israel), or carrying out tortures and arbitrary detention (Saudi Arabia), do not seem to raise too many diplomatic eyebrows. In between these two poles, attempts at developing nuclear capability anywhere else in the region (e.g., Iran) might stir calls for an attack, while failures to keep a tight lid on a disgruntled populace (Egypt, Libya) might lead to pressures to concede to regime change (such pressures being largely absent when those regimes were far more effective with their oppression).

As for the second question, for a long time it was simply ignored. The establishment seemed to assume that bombing any ‘transgressing’ regime into submission was the one and only option for intervention. The fact that the collateral damage from repeated bombings and combat escalation would lead to thousands of civilians being killed and millions being made refugees, would hardly feature in policy discussion.

Both questions must be satisfactorily answered if a real solution is to be found. If the force deployed against a country, which is accused of using force illegitimately, is not to become illegitimate itself, then it must have a defensible and consistent rationale. If the claim that one is concerned with saving innocent lives is not to turn out to be hypocritically hollow, the interventionist ‘cure’ must not destroy more lives than it would actually save.

We hope the American-Russian diplomatic collaboration will produce a solution that removes deadly chemical weapons, ends the civil war, and ensures Syrians are no longer subject to repression and arbitrary arrests.

Is that likely to happen? Both America and Russian are major exporters of arms to the Middle East, and they share an interest in removing chemical weapons and the immensely negative publicity associated with them from the scene. They can then return to doing arms business as usual. There may be a truce here and there in the civil war. But for a truly democratic system to take root and for human rights to be genuinely safeguarded for all, America and Russia would have to stop viewing Syria, and indeed every other country in the Middle East, as mere pawns in advancing their own plutocratic/oligarchic interests, and start prioritising the spread of social and political justice across the entire region.

Arab Spring? More likely, another winter of discontent.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Teacher

Producing exam-hardened individuals to serve the needs of employers has become the be-all and end-all of contemporary education.

But is the exclusive focus on the ability to pass tests in short bursts really helpful to employers, let alone those being tested or the wider society?

Education is ultimately about the kind of people we want to bring up as our fellow citizens. It is indeed important they develop some competence in serving the needs of others so that others will in turn reciprocate by contributing to the meeting of their needs. It is equally important they develop their capacity to find meaning and lead a fulfilling life themselves. Neither of these goals can be realised if we institutionalise a narrow range of skills and tests as the only ones that matter in evaluating the worth of a human being.

Instead of accepting the dominant frame that presents the teacher’s role as that of the factory worker churning out standard components (as well as quite a few spare parts) for the corporate machine, educators concerned with the overall development of those in our charge – in schools, universities, or adult learning – should persist with aiding students in pursuit of their long-term wellbeing.

In spite of the dominant dogma, which stigmatises failures in raising pass rates as disastrous and condemns success in raising pass rates as lowering standards, it is vital to recognise the value of promoting a better understanding of cooperative interactions, opportunities to cultivate diverse human potential, causes of injustice and exploitation, and ways to access cultural enrichment.

To reduce people into categories of good, average and poor exam-takers, and use that differentiation to segregate them into the well-rewarded and the marginalised, is to betray the purpose of education.

It is of course difficult to challenge the prevailing model of education when it is an integral part of our increasingly plutocratic socio-political system. But resistance is most needed precisely when the threat is most difficult to dislodge.

If you too reject the notion that education is about cheering on a few natural born sprinters, and you believe in helping all to run the long distance obstacle course for self-development, then share your thoughts with other like-minded teachers. You may at times feel isolated, but in this struggle you are not alone.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The Reciprocity Test: Pros & Cons

Political differences are usually projected onto a spectrum with Left and Right designating the two ends. But what defines Left or Right? And doesn’t this approach privilege the ‘centre’ in some way as the most balanced position?

To gain a better understanding of political differences, I propose the Reciprocity Test. Whether people think of themselves as Left, Right, or neutral/centrist/independent, taking the test would help them see where they are situated in relation to others politically, and what underpin their contrasting positions.

Instead of a spectrum, the Reciprocity Test maps its results on a series of concentric circles. The mapping itself is determined by the extent to which people agree/disagree with eight propositions derived from the ethical Golden Rule of reciprocity: as we would want others to treat us with due consideration, we should treat others with similar consideration. The eight propositions are:

• As we would want others not to act in a prejudiced way against us (because of our ethnicity, sex, religion, etc), we should avoid acting with prejudice towards others.
• As we would not want any punitive sanction directed at us without due process, we should not impose any arbitrary sanctions on others.
• As we would want to be protected from the dangers posed by transgressors and high-risk activities, we should back the protection of others from similar dangers.
• As we would want others to help us in desperate times, we should ensure others are helped in desperate times.
• As we would want others to support collective action where it can improve our common wellbeing, we should be prepared to contribute to such collective action.
• As we would not want anyone to amass such wealth and power that would leave us at their mercy, we should not allow anyone to have so much wealth and power that would put others at their mercy.
• As we would not accept any claims put forward by others without the backing of adequate evidence and coherent arguments, we should not expect others to accept unjustifiable claims.
• As we would want to have a say about any important decision that can affect us, we should not make key decisions affecting others without giving them a say.

Those who firmly agree with all eight propositions would constitute the core circle – they are the Pros. They consistently back practices and systems, which respect the needs of others, because they appreciate being treated with similar respect themselves. Beyond them, there are four other concentric circles, representing ‘tend to agree’, ‘not sure’, ‘tend to disagree’, and ‘firmly disagree’. Those who firmly disagree with all eight propositions occupy the fringe of our political disc – they are the Cons. What they want from others for themselves, they are unwilling to reciprocate for others.

Between the core and the fringe, people’s answers may not fall uniformly on one circle or another. Some may answer ‘tend to agree’ to some of the propositions, but opt for ‘not sure’ or ‘tend to disagree’ in relation to others. What we then get is what is often called a spider-gram where the answers are joined up across the different circles (for it resembles a spider web). Spider-grams closer to the core are people inclined towards being Pros, and those with more points nearer to the fringe are people inclined towards being Cons. Those in between are not so much neutral or independent, but just people who can’t make up their minds about their readiness to reciprocate towards others.

Mapping our political differences with the Reciprocity Test helps to show what set people apart, not in terms of their party allegiance, attachment to cultural labels, or stance on single issues, but in relation to their readiness to apply the Golden Rule of reciprocity to diverse interactions with their fellow human beings. People can go on disputing what Left and Right really stand for, but the Reciprocity Test would reveal who are the Pros, the Cons, and those who have yet to decide.

[It may be noted that beyond the outermost circle of the Cons, there is a further category of people who reject the very premise of every one of our eight propositions. These are people who do not want or expect others to treat them with any consideration at all. They shrug their shoulders at being neglected or treated badly. And they see no problem with neglecting or treating others badly. While Pros can try to enter into a dialogue with Cons by probing why the latter refuse to accord others what they demand for themselves, there is little prospect of any real engagement with nihilists, for whom anything goes, and nothing needs any justification.]

Note: anyone interested to read more on the eight propositions and what they may entail, please go to ‘Notes on the Reciprocity Test’.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Bouncers for Cyber Clubs?

Take any club in physical space. In order to gain admission, people have to sign up to the terms on offer. They go in and meet others, some they know as friends, some they have heard of, and many are strangers. They mingle, they join in some conversations and avoid others. Common courtesy suggests that people are free to exchange views respectfully, and everyone should desist from rudely confronting others. So far, so good.

What if some new members of the club were to put on masks and go up to others to shout nasty abuse at them? Any responsible club would warn them about their unacceptable behaviour, and throw them out if necessary. In cases where the abusive reprobates go so far as to threaten other club members, the club would have to consider reporting the individuals to law enforcement agencies to protect the innocent and hold the culprits to account.

But when the club is located in cyber space, however, we are told different rules apply. Club owners maintain that they are not ‘publishers’ and cannot be held responsible for the ‘contents’ that appear in their domain. For good measure, they throw in the claim that their club is a ‘democratic’ space which is open to anyone saying whatever they want.

The inescapable fact is that club owners who set up a meeting place which is under their control, and where the terms of admission are set by them, have a choice in either preventing or facilitating nasty, threatening behaviour against people who have entered their clubs. If they want their clubs to be a free-for-all venue for malicious abuse, where vicious threats can be directed against anyone without consequence, then they should be honest about their intent. Social media clubs making millions of $ and £ out of their members have to decide if their business is to serve as a refuge for unconscionable abusers to quench their pathological craving to intimidate others.

Some may say that any suggestion that the abusive behaviour of a minority should be curtailed is not only an overreaction, but unworkable. But it is hardly an overreaction to expect any reputable club to take a firm stance against anyone using its facilities to launch attacks on its members.

As for how abuse can be detected, evaluated and dealt with, cyber clubs are actually in a much stronger position to determine exactly what is passed from one member to another. A code of conduct can be crowd-sourced. Volunteers for adjudication panels would not at all be hard to find. Decisions can be reached rapidly. Ejection of those who have breached the rules, subject to appeals, is easily implemented. Similar procedures can be set up for referrals to the police for any hateful, abusive, threatening behaviour targeted at anyone with the aid of the cyber club’s facilities.

It’s time to end the pretence that perpetrators of abuse in cyber space can transcend censure. There’s certainly no reason why they should be shielded from punishment.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Downturn Abbey

[Previously on Downturn Abbey: Lord Eton found out his banker cousin had lost him almost a million pounds and he would henceforth be only the third wealthiest billionaire in the country. He told his butler that all the staff’s wages would be reduced and everyone downstairs must learn to tighten their belts.]

Butler: Your papers, M’Lord.

Lord E: What depressing news have we today? I see my stocks have risen by a measly 7%. I’m afraid we have to cut back further, Tompkins.

Butler: As you wish, M’Lord.

Lord E: Tell the staff that they will be limited to one meal a day from now on. And this winter, we can’t afford to heat their quarters, so they should save up to buy some thicker clothes.

Butler: Anything else, M’Lord.

Lord E: The party Lady Eton and I are hosting next week, I want it to be a more lavish affair than ever. It wouldn’t do for people to think my position is in any way diminished by my cousin’s buffoonery with my investment portfolio. So make sure we have absolutely the most expensive wine, and the finest caviar. And arrange for the London Symphonic to play in the garden.

Butler: I’ll see to it straightaway.

Lord E: Before you go, Tompkins, tell me, do you think the birthday present I picked out for Dame Elizabeth Crompton is too common? I dare say she must have a fleet of yachts already.

Butler: Would you like me to cancel the order?

Lord E: No, we can give the yacht to Miranda when she graduates next year. But what shall I give Lizzy instead? Oh I know, book her on one of those ghastly space tours to the moon. It’s absurdly costly, I’m told, and something so vulgar would be just her cup of tea. What’s the matter, Tompkins, you don’t approve?

Butler: I wouldn’t have an opinion about such things, M’Lord. Forgive me, I was just remembering a news story I heard on the wireless this morning.

Lord E: Well, do tell.

Butler: It was about a butcher who terrorised his family. He made his ten children do all the work, but while he had a luxurious life with the money he made, and enjoyed the best cut of meat, he kept his children locked up at night in a cold dungeon and only threw them scraps every now and then to keep them from starving to death.

Lord E: Tompkins, that’s a tall tale if I ever heard one.

Butler: How so, M’Lord?

Lord E: If there were ever such a butcher, his children – and you said there were ten of them – would simply have to get together to give him a good beating, kick him out and end his petty tyranny. Isn’t that right, Tompkins?

Butler: Never a truer word spoken, M’Lord.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Anti-Social Enterprise

It should be no surprise that businesses, like the individuals who run them, are found all along the moral spectrum.

There are those who integrate the pursuit of financial success with the aim of safeguarding the wellbeing of those affected by their operations (i.e., their workers, customers, suppliers, local communities, and the environment). They do this with a variety of means: worker representation on the board; employee ownership; worker/consumer cooperative structures; asset locks tied to community benefits; independent audit of social (as well as environmental and economic) bottom-line measures; and the investment of their surplus to meet defined social ends instead of channelling any of it towards personal profit.

But there are also many corporate executives who not only fail to give due consideration to wider social concerns, but who have no compunction about hurting others in the process of expanding their own wealth and power. Gambling away other people’s life savings; putting employees in highly dangerous working conditions; turning consumers into addictive wrecks; pricing the poor out of essentials such as homes and energy; polluting our air and water; the list goes on.

Indeed near the irresponsible end of the spectrum, the difference between a successful entrepreneur and a shameless racketeer may simply come down to whether one has enough money and connections to get the law suitably changed.

Of late, quite a few of the corporations, which have been screaming for the state to get off their backs (so they could make more money off the backs of those unprotected by the law), have taken to donning the label ‘social’ as though it were an amulet that can protect them from all criticisms. Thus we hear of their top-level commitment to corporate social responsibility, and their dedication to generating social value. But the only fitting characterisation of them where the word ‘social’ has a place is Anti-Social Enterprise.

Unfortunately, some conniving politicians support anti-social enterprise because they can benefit from the latter in terms of campaign funding, financial dividends, or future board positions. They plot to remove regulatory ‘red tape’ so these businesses can do as they please. They pretend there is no significant difference between socially dependable and routinely irresponsible organisations.

But anti-social behaviour should be no more tolerated in a firm than in an individual.

Any decent political party concerned with building a responsible economy will understand that for socially minded businesses to thrive, a level-playing field must be cleared of the negative practices deployed to undercut them. Unless anti-social behaviour such as exploitative wage-setting, pollution, marketing of unsafe products, tax dodging, corporate funding of political collaborators, are systematically tackled, the conscientious entrepreneurs would be crowded out by the corrupt and the callous.

Furthermore, no anti-social enterprise should be allowed to get away with deceiving the public by proclaiming their ‘social’ credentials when all they possess is a shameful if well-disguised track record of deceit and exploitation.

Enterprise can indeed be a force for good, provided its anti-social elements are weeded out.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Oppose the War on Welfare

If a foreign government had launched an attack on our most vulnerable citizens, it would be regarded as a declaration of war. And such an attack has indeed been launched, albeit not by a foreign government, but by our own government in the United Kingdom.

Instead of ensuring all those ending up sick or disabled are supported to the best of our collective ability, the government has urged those who are well-off or at least have a regular income to distance themselves from those needing to claim benefits to sustain their lives. Suspicion, interrogation, and deprivation are the new norm in subjecting the sick and disabled to harrowing uncertainty.

By using ‘fraud detection’* as cover, the government has deployed devices, from stringent criteria to unrelenting assessments, to strip people of the support they desperately need to survive. The British Medical Association has asked for the misguided Work Capability Assessment to be stopped immediately. The number of people dying from suicide, or from the conditions which have prevented them from getting paid employment, has kept rising after more and more of them were told their benefits would be slashed. But the government’s sole response is that there must be even more benefit cuts for the poor (to complement the tax cuts for top earners and big corporations).

Against this background, a growing number of citizens have rallied behind a petition to oppose the War on Welfare:
To sign it is not just to add pressure for a debate in Parliament about this scandalous affair, but to pledge oneself to oppose these insidious enemies of our common well-being.

So let me adapt the words of our great bard in sounding the clarion for a battle that will one day rival the heroics of bygone Agincourt:

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remember'd;

We few, we happy few, we brothers & sisters;

For all who back this cause with us

Shall be our kin; whatever else they be,

This day shall unite our condition:

And everyone in Britain now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their presence cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us in Solidarity.

[* Fraudulent claims/over-payment to a tiny minority actually amount to less than 0.9% of the benefits budget (6 times smaller than the amount the government fails to pay over to those in need but who have either under-claimed or not known how to claim). For more information, see: The Lies We Tell Ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty (report by Baptist Union of Great Britain, Methodist Church, Church of Scotland, & the United Reformed Church, 2013)]

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Chartist No. 6: the call for annual elections

Of the six democratic reforms famously demanded by the Chartists in Britain in 1838, real progress had been made on all of them bar one – the call for annual elections.

Those in government have over time conceded that all adults should have a vote, the ballot should be cast anonymously, and constituencies with a relatively tiny population base should not have the same number of representatives as larger ones. But somehow annual elections remain completely anathema to them. One wonders if governments in the UK, US and elsewhere, where responsiveness to the public has been a growing issue, should give the idea of being held to account by voters on a yearly basis more serious consideration.

Perhaps annual elections would be too costly. To win control of the White House or Parliament for four/five years with one throw of the dice is indeed a big prize that attracts huge donations. With elections coming up every year, however, the dividends from backing the winner along with the corresponding appeal of digging deep into one’s pocket, would be lowered. So with less private money drawn into mudslinging about public policy differences, there is less scope for distortion by expensive negative advertisements. Besides, anyone worried about elections becoming too costly should back reforms to curb the excesses of campaign finance.

What about the claim that annual elections would switch people off? At present, many people, especially those in non-marginal seats, believe that their vote would not make any difference. Political parties tend to contact voters only when the once-in-many-years’ national elections come around, and that fuels voter alienation. But with annual elections, politicians would have to make more effort to engage their constituents on an on-going basis, and short-term swings can have far greater impact on electoral outcomes than if they were absorbed into a long cycle. Instead of resorting to casting protest votes in local elections which cannot affect national policies, people can vote directly on their government each year. Consequently, more, not fewer, are likely to take advantage of that opportunity.

Finally, it is said that annual elections would be disruptive to policy-making, because politicians stuck in perpetual electioneering mode would not focus on addressing the needs of the country. But political campaigning has ended up being divorced from actual problem-solving for society largely as a result of the impossibility of setting out in a single election what a government would do in up to half a decade. So we end up with vague promises, pledges that have to be jettisoned, and interminable disputes over how to respond to changing circumstances. By contrast, annual elections would focus politicians’ minds on getting real results because that is what year-in, year-out, they would be judged on.

Would this mean that annually elected governments would neglect sustainable solutions for superficial improvements? Actually annual elections and the constant scrutiny they bring would make it more difficult to get away with either cosmetic changes or irresponsible cuts/expenditure. One has to be genuinely effective if one is to last more than a year.

The elite used to think the Chartists were absurdly radical in calling for democratic trust to be placed in the public in assessing and choosing the representatives who will look after the interests of their country. They came to accept the wisdom of nearly all those proposals, and 175 years on, it’s time to sign up to the sixth and final one – annual elections.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Whose Money Is It Anyway?

When our country needs help, shouldn’t we all contribute more according to our ability for the sake of the common good? Some to their credit are willing to do just that, but others keep coming up with reasons why they should be left alone. One argument suggests what money individuals make is their business and no one else has a right to demand a share of it. Another claim that because of the ‘Debt Crisis’ there is simply no money left to share with anyone. And finally, there are those who insist that what spare money there is should only be lent to private individuals and firms, but it must not be invested in any form of public provisions.

Let us look at these arguments one by one.

For a start, it is obvious that though some people know how to make a lot of money, it does not necessarily follow they have a right to keep that money. For example, there is no legitimacy to the money-making activities of those who push narcotic drugs, traffick people, steal, con, or extort from others. There are also problems with people who pollute, promote addictive consumption, or tempt others into taking excessive risks with their money or their health. In all such cases, society has an interest in deciding what laws and policies should be put in place to curb the activities in question, which may involve taxing, fining or even confiscating the proceeds generated by them.

Apart from taking money from those who have acquired it by dubious means, a democratic state also has a responsibility to ensure sufficient resources are pooled together to deal with threats which would otherwise harm society. This can’t be left to individuals to chip in as they see fit, for the simple reason that there are inevitably freeriders who would try to benefit from the pot without sparing any of their own fortune.

At this point we hear the familiar cry of “There’s no money.” But has all the money really disappeared? In the UK, unclaimed assets – money sitting in accounts with no claimant – are conservatively estimated to stand at £77billion. Evasion and avoidance of taxes stash away another £120billion. And corporations outside the financial sector (ie they are not banks) are sitting on cash reserves of £756billion (Ernst & Young estimate). In truth there is plenty of money, the question is what should be done with it.

Many people seem to forget that when the banking sector was in danger of collapsing, it took bailout money from us via the state (estimate fluctuates between £500billion to 1trillion). Now the UK banks sit on assets of nearly £7trillion and pay out £13billion in bonuses (2012), yet some still pretend it would be sacrilegious to suggest that they should help the country by loaning, investing, or paying a windfall contribution to fund public works to revive the economy. These same people urge the banks to lend more to the private sector when private debt as % of GDP is six times higher than that of the public sector debt. Furthermore, while this approach is showing no sign of generating growth, a definitive study* has confirmed that a fiscal expansion funded by borrowing will lead to growth, and with the current unemployment level, reduce the deficit.

Let’s start using our country’s money more wisely.

[*The Economic Consequences of Mr Osborne - Fiscal Consolidation: lessons from a century of UK macroeconomic statistics, by V Chick & A Pettifor, University College London & Policy Research in Macroeconomics, 2010, revised 2011]

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Greed Tyranny

Why do people with much more power and money than the rest of society take it upon themselves to reshape public policies to secure even greater domination over everyone else? What drives them to seduce politicians with their substantial donations and media influence? Or to strike fear into voters against imaginary threats so they would back policies that actually serve the corporate elite at their expense?

The answer lies with the sixth giant, Greed.

After the defeat of fascism in the Second World War, progressives rallied to Beveridge’s vision of slaying the five infamous giants of Ignorance, Idleness, Squalor, Disease, and Want. A civilised society in partnership with a responsive state would ensure the provision of education, employment, housing, healthcare, and social security. Public debt of over 200% of GDP was brought down through growth fuelled by state investment in building a better future for everyone. Quality of life improved substantially, especially for those on lower income.

But they forgot about Greed. And Greed struck back with a vengeance.

From the 1980s on, Greed in the form of plutocratic manipulators have driven forward a relentless agenda to make the wealthiest 5-10% in society even more rich and powerful by releasing them from any bond of solidarity with the other 90%.

Ideological arguments do not so much shape this agenda as are deployed to justify the overriding aim of amassing more power and resources for those with the most, while making everyone else more dependent on them.

These plutocrats – Reaganites, Thatcherites, funders for ‘protest’ parties like the Tea Party & UKIP – push for taxes to be cut to widen the gap between rich and poor. They press for public provisions to be slashed so that it will hurt the 90% but will have little impact on the wealthiest. They arrange for public assets to be handed over to private corporations so the few can make profit from the rest and penalise those who cannot afford to pay. They repeal laws as red tape if these hinder the wealth accumulation of corporations, but bring in regulations to clamp down on any resistance from workers and unions to arbitrary business diktats. Worst of all, they orchestrate scapegoating campaigns to deceive people about the real causes of social and economic problems, and divert public anger towards vulnerable people least able to defend themselves: immigrants, disabled people, the unemployed, those in dire poverty.

Greed, with the other giant causes of human misery in its tow, is now a tyrannical force in politics. Those most adept at squeezing dry the fruit of ordinary people’s labour, and siphoning off the resultant nectar to their private reservoir, are granted a place at the apex as ‘wealth-creators’ and can pick their own privileges. Everyone else is robbed of equal access to quality education, decent jobs, affordable homes, free healthcare, and a real safety net.

Politicians looking to rally the great majority of the public to join forces in rebuilding our society, step forth and declare: it’s time to end the tyranny of Greed.

[There are two public talks in Cambridge this May on ‘The Problem with Plutocracy’ by Dr. Henry Tam:
7 May, Tuesday, ‘Left with a Hard Choice: the contest of democracy v plutocracy’
13 May, Monday, ‘Will this be the Plutocratic Century?’
For more details, see ‘The Problem with Plutocracy’]

Monday, 15 April 2013

The ATOS Inquisition

There was a time when the Spanish Inquisition hunted down those with the ‘wrong’ beliefs and made them recant their heresy. Now the British Government has rekindled its spirit, but with the aim of confronting the sick and the maimed so as to make them recant their disability.

Imagine you have been struck down by an illness, and according to your doctor, you will no longer be able to carry out work that would earn you a wage in today’s economy. For a time, you draw solace from the fact that you live under a state that maintains a genuine safety net for all, and you will not be left jobless, homeless, or having to beg for charity to keep you alive.

But then a Conservative-led Government comes along and decides that the best way to deflect public attention from its refusal to curb the excessive powers of the corporate elite is to serve up scapegoats. So it tells two and a half million people incapacitated by diverse forms of illness and injury that it will no longer pay any attention to what the doctors who have actually dealt with them have to say. Instead, it brings in the corporation, ATOS, to light the flame of recantation.

ATOS Inquisitors, armed with the mandate to interrogate and declare as many disabled people as undeserving of public support, have plunged countless vulnerable people into the deepest despair.

Examples of ATOS callousness and incompetence abound. Calling themselves ‘assessors’, they ask those summoned to appear before them questions such as “how long have you had Down’s Syndrome?” or “when did you catch autism?” A middle-aged woman, registered blind, was simply told that her benefit would be withdrawn. In another case, a 24-year-old epileptic, who was subject to grand mal seizures, had his benefit cut after he was ‘assessed’ to be fit for work. Just three months later, after living in fear that he could not pay his rent or buy food, he had a major seizure and died. People with debilitating and terminal cancer have also been told they had to surrender their benefits.

For those who managed to find help to appeal against ATOS, a third have had their assessments overturned. But many are too stressed or isolated to mount a challenge. Justice can only prevail if the entire inquisition regime is cast aside. The National Audit Office has investigated and found ATOS work to be unsatisfactory. The British Medical Association has asked for the assessment system to be scrapped.

But the Government is not relenting for one moment, even if people are dying from the fear and reality of losing what little money they had hitherto relied on to stay afloat. The Government is bringing in even more stringent inquisitional criteria to cut the provision of life-saving benefits. Meanwhile, they reward ATOS so handsomely that its chief executive is given a £1 million bonus.

If the ATOS Inquisition had featured in a dystopian novel about what a rightwing government might do, it would be decried as irresponsible scaremongering. Sadly it is all too real.

[To learn more about the Employment & Support Allowance (ESA), take the ESA Quiz. Note: the number of people claiming benefit as they are unable to work has not actually risen since 1997]

Monday, 1 April 2013

Don’t Know Much About Politics?

In the recent ‘No, Minister’ poll (conducted between February and mid March before the latest Budget announcement), people were asked to vote for up to three Cabinet Ministers in the UK who they would like to see removed from their post.

The three Secretaries of State the British public most wanted gone turned out to be Iain Duncan Smith (Work & Pensions Secretary, picked by 46% of those who voted), Michael Gove (Education Secretary, 35%), and George Osborne (Chancellor, 34%). [As each respondent could cast up to 3 votes, the % of voters wanting different Ministers removed add up to over 100%. It is also worth noting that in a Telegraph poll of Conservative Party members, the top two favourite Ministers were Gove (41%) and Duncan Smith (14%)]

Although the response mechanism was self-selecting, a number of observations can nonetheless be made. For example, the three ‘most unwanted’ politicians share one notable characteristic: they were unapologetic in pushing forward policies that are widely debated in the media for their likely harm to vulnerable groups (e.g., the disabled, jobless, children, the poor).

By contrast, despite the severe cuts and privatisation to which NHS services are subjected, Jeremy Hunt (Health Secretary) came a distant fourth (with just 17%) after routinely apologising for the faults of the NHS while consistently deflecting blame onto NHS employees. No other Secretary of State was anywhere near being picked by 10% of those who voted, even though their actions on cutting and privatising public services would also have major negative impact. But since the impact would be channelled through opaque processes of transfers to private contractors, or weakening of intermediary bodies (e.g., local authorities, legal aid providers), the Ministers concerned remain largely under the civic radar.

This raises the question that if the electorate in general reacts primarily to reports of blatant affront to our moral sensitivity, then politicians who are skilled at dressing up their policies with soothing words and delivery complexities may escape being held to account by the public. To counter this, we would need to increase our political understanding, and back our emotive responses with critical dissection of public policies.

Worryingly, the younger generation appears to be heading in the opposite direction. It is often said that young people are active in protests, but how many are engaged in shaping and securing support for policies to be implemented by government? The signs are that very few show much interest in what government does and how it can be changed. Indeed despite the support of many youth organisations in publicising the ‘No, Minister’ poll via Twitter and other social media, hardly anyone below mid-twenties took part in the poll.

According to a recent analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey (from 1983-2010), today's young people are “less supportive of the NHS than their parents were; are less likely to favour higher benefits (though they are far more likely than their elders to be unemployed); and feel less connection to society at large than previous generations.” (‘Generation self: what do young people really care about?’, Guardian 11 March 2013)

The disengagement of young people from public institutions and collective provision undermines democracy. It could easily leave the wealthy elite to retain governmental control to serve the needs of the few. And unless political ignorance is radically dispelled, the prophecy of the government doing little for the people might just become perpetually self-fulfilling.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Community Development at the Crossroads

The notion of ‘community’ has always attracted polarised observations. Some people praise communities as the cradle of moral values and social cohesion, while others warn against their oppressive tendencies and regressive influence. The truth is that communities can be the foundation for realising more fully what is good in human nature, provided they are steered away from stultifying dead-ends and guided forward in a democratic and inclusive direction (see, for example, ‘Communitarianism Revisited’).

That has been the challenge for community development in its broadest sense: stepping in to enable people to identify their shared interests and work together as equals to achieve common objectives. Since the 1960s, in the US and UK, community development work has been supported with public funding to build the confidence and capacity of countless neighbourhood communities to press for improvements, which would otherwise be overlooked or rejected. During the 2000s, the Labour Government actively supported community development work and developed programmes such as Together We Can to promote more effective community empowerment.

But its reliance on public funding makes this model of social improvement highly vulnerable to political shifts. In the UK, community development organisations at the national and local level have suffered severe cutbacks as the Conservative-led Government brought into office its ideology that communities should be left to their own devices rather than receive publicly funded support.

Community development thus faces a difficult future. There are suggestions that to survive, it must learn from other approaches to facilitating community action. For example, community organising relies on volunteer leaders to work with other volunteers to identify shared concerns, and raise money from corporate and individual donors where necessary to pay for specific activities. Community asset transfers provide a means for community members to raise money through land/property transferred to their ownership. Community cooperatives are supported by the financial and in-kind support given by their members whose shares both help to fund their organisation and guarantee each an equal say in how it is run.

At one level there is no question that community development should engage with other methodologies to establish an alternative basis to pursue its core objective. It can integrate other community-unifying techniques into a seamless offer for inchoate groups. It can be the hub for bringing people together to discuss priorities, resolve differences, plan for what they can address by themselves, and put pressure on those who have a duty to respond to their concerns.

At a deeper level, however, one has to recognise that the barriers, which community development practitioners work tirelessly to help their fellow citizens overcome, afflict all attempts to build community solidarity. There will be times when they are divided by conflicting interests in terms of funding needs or organisational profiles as well. And there are plutocrats who stand to gain from such divisions and they will do what they can to fuel them so as to prevent communities from developing a common front against their exploitation.

To address this problem, we need to draw on three sources of support: first, a shared framework for empowering communities to work together (see, for example, the ‘open-source’ approach of ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving’); secondly, a network of mutual-aid, which will require cooperative advocates, practitioners of diverse forms of community development and empowerment, and democratic educators to come together; and thirdly, vibrant leadership to build greater unity over current separations. Above all, community development activists need to apply what they have always promoted to those they seek to help, namely, identify others with a shared interest and unite behind an agenda for joint action.

[The above is based on my presentation for the Keib Thomas Memorial Seminar organised by the CDNL (Community Development Network London), 13 February 2013. CDNL offers: free membership; regular e-bulletin; 2-3 open meetings a year; a planning group which meets quarterly. For more on CDNL, contact Matt Scott via]

Friday, 1 March 2013

The Power Hypothesis

For any social, economic, or political arrangement, a key question to ask is whether its distribution of power is so uneven as to allow some to exploit others without the latter being able to resist. If the answer is yes, then the arrangement is oppressive and inherently deficient, and should be reformed to reduce the prevailing level of power inequality.

So long as no one has so much power that they can bribe or threaten others who would otherwise be unwilling to act as instructed, then people will over time relate to each other in broadly reciprocal terms. All will know that either they are helpful and respectful towards others, or they would have to face others who would decline to be helpful and respectful to them. With no one side being able to take any unfair advantage over others, everyone has to find ways to interact on mutually beneficial terms. Any attempt to take from others without offering to give anything in return would be easy to detect, frowned upon, and duly dealt with.

Conversely, the further society departs from an even distribution of power, the Power Hypothesis predicts increasing prevalence of exploitation, as growing tension takes the place of reciprocal cooperation. A prince, a lord, a king, who has enough power that others fear that any opposition would be futile, would be able to ride roughshod over them. The same applies to heads of a household, a village, or an empire.

It also applies to international relations, where for centuries nations have sought to secure peace by means of a ‘Balance of Power’. And not surprisingly, when Spain, France, England, Germany at different times surged ahead of others in their socio-economic capability, they launched aggressive military operations against them.

Similarly, across contemporary society, oppressive behaviour surfaces where those in charge of organisations are not accountable to those they manage. Without a structure of employee rights to counter-balance managerial edicts, staff can be badly treated, and routinely see their share of the firm’s financial success disappearing into the inflated salaries and bonuses of their bosses.

Even worse treatment is meted out in institutions whenever there is a lack of democratic scrutiny to ensure those in charge do not abuse their authority in dealing with those placed under their jurisdiction: e.g., in care homes for the elderly, mental institutions, juvenile facilities, or prisons.

The only effective antidote in all such cases is for the power of all to be shared through a democratic system of governance. As a worker cooperative or a democratic state, such a body would treat each member as an equal, give each the support and protection they need, and expect from each an equal commitment to defend the common good.

Instead of arguing in broad generalities about ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’, ‘hierarchical traditions’ or ‘anarchic modernity’, we can apply the Power Hypothesis to the specific features of any form of human association and discover if they need to be reformed, and how far, to achieve greater power equilibrium. It has stood the test of time in differentiating harmful instability from sustainable cooperation. The more we use it as a guide to social and organisational development, the better off we would all be.

[Henry Tam’s book, Against Power Inequalities, a historical account of the problem of power inequality is available in e-book or paperback.]

Friday, 15 February 2013

Communitarianism Revisited

by Jonathan Boswell & Henry Tam

Communitarian concerns for mutuality and solidarity can be traced back to ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers and mainstream world religions. They came to be embraced in action by working class movements, cooperative Owenites and others in the 19th century. The ethos of cultivating democratic cooperation to build inclusive communities, where none will be left to the whim and mercy of others, became an inspiration to all who want an alternative to regimes that only regard might (military, hierarchical, or increasingly, economic) as right.

With the rampant rise of market individualism in the 1980s, the two of us (both academics – one ex-industry and politics, the other with experience from national and local government), decided to set out what communitarianism should mean in theory and practice if it is to help society navigate through the battering of plutocratic forces.

Jonathan Boswell’s book on democratic communitarianism, Community and the Economy (1990), argued for prioritising values of fraternity, complementary association and democratic participation. It examined public co-operation in the economy, and proposed arrangements whereby sectional interests could better co-operate with each other and government in the interests of social norms and public policies.

Henry Tam’s book, Communitarianism: A New Agenda for Politics and Citizenship (1998) attacked both individualism and authoritarianism. It argued for the ideal of inclusive communities based on the principles of co-operative enquiry, mutual responsibility and citizen participation. These were applied to the development of education, work and protection for citizens across state, business and third sectors.

Both books were widely reviewed and came to define the reform focus of communitarianism. We warned against allowing the Thatcherite-Reaganite ideology of the unrestrained market to corrode society and the economy. Sadly, however, plutocracy has since triumphed over the timid reform agenda of New Labour. We now have big money dominating government; public services relentlessly contracted out or sold off; accelerating disparities in income and wealth; deregulation unleashing greed, speculative frenzy and financial crisis; and failed banking institutions requiring bailouts, burdening the state with massive deficits. On top of it all, we have bone-headedly misguided economic policies, already producing miserable results for all but the privileged few.

So who is to be entrusted with rebuilding our crisis-torn economies and social fabrics? Up to 2010, our approach was to keep all political channels open. We placed a lot of emphasis on the voluntary, local and educational. We looked to civil society to play a key role, separate from party politics, as well as independent of both central government and the market. But in the light of what the present Government is doing to the UK, a party political strategy is no longer optional.

A new government is urgently needed to redress the damage and ensure those with an abundance of resources they have accumulated on the back of others’ hard work, will contribute to the common good. We've concluded that only the Labour Party is in a position to form such a government. But to succeed, Labour must face up to three key challenges.

First, it must be clear that it has learnt the lesson on the deregulations which helped to ruin the economy and distort public finances. It must be prepared to take vigorous state action to confront the problems of unethical, anti-social banking; over-mighty corporate lobbies; media irresponsibility; and massive tax avoidance. It should show leadership in investing in growth, employment, and affordable housing. It should recognise that to support these aims richer forms of public co-operation will be needed.

Secondly, it needs to promote social, civic and collaborative criteria, not competitive ones, in all public services from health and welfare, to education and criminal justice. Local government needs to be reinforced and empowered with real freedom, not financially decapitated. And it should ensure that citizens are aware of and involved in the development of decisions that affect them.

Thirdly, a Labour government should promote co-operative enterprises and both worker and community involvement in business in the private sector. It should also improve civic education and nurture public interest forums at local as well as national levels, as these will be important as bridges between social, economic, environmental and other groupings.

Blue Labour advocates have invoked some elements of communitarian thinking in their attempt to refocus British politics. In our view, the only worthy government would be one committed to meeting the communitarian challenges in full in reversing the growth of inequalities, rebuilding social solidarity, and reinvigorating a cooperative economy. That is the path to put our fragmented communities back together in one inclusive nation.

[Communitarian ideas were taken forward in the US too by eminent colleagues such as Amitai Etzioni, Philip Selznick, Charles Derber and Robert Bellah; and currently these ideas appear to have a major part to play in President Obama's Second Term.]

Friday, 1 February 2013

No, Minister

The Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy (University of Cambridge) has launched its 2013 ‘No, Minister’ poll. The aim of the exercise is to challenge the misconception that all politicians in government are the same, by raising awareness of the esteem or reprobation members of the public attach to different Ministers.

Democracy can be damaged not only by crude cynicism – dismissing every political agent as equally bad; but also by naïve neutrality – giving everyone the continuous benefit of the doubt. By pooling citizens’ views of what different Government Ministers have done, we can more effectively promote informed participation in politics.

The ‘No, Minister’ poll is conceived as an antidote to the outmoded ‘Yes, Minister’ caricature of British politics, which presents Government Ministers as innocents abroad at the mercy of their manipulative civil servants. The reality is quite different. In recent decades Ministers have invariably set out their preferred policies, and civil servants have increasingly striven to deliver them even if, in certain cases, speed can only be achieved at the expense of more extensive scrutiny.

So how does the ‘No, Minister’ poll work?
1. You can put forward up to three Secretaries of State you would like to see ejected from their posts: just send their names along with your reason (tweet to @HenryBTam or email to
2. You can do the same for up to three Secretaries of State you would like to see retained in their posts.
3. The results will provide a basis for reviewing how the public think about the people who hold the highest political offices in the country.
4. Poll closes 15 March 2013 (names of participants in the poll will not be published)

Our objective is not to conduct a scientific poll, but to prompt reflections on the impact Ministers have on society. The votes and reasons will be collated, with the results published in April on the website of the Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy.

[For the ‘No, Minister’ poll, votes are only to be cast for full Cabinet members, not those who may attend Cabinet meetings. For a current list, see:]

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Leave No One Behind

The military ethos that true patriots uphold has nothing to do with macho posturing or jingoistic flag-waving. What matters is dedication to one simple motto: leave no one behind.

There is no greater test of the love of our country than being ready to defend our fellow citizens when they are under threat from forces, which would otherwise overrun them. This solidarity transcends all other differences. Only cowards and bigots would say ‘I’m alright, Jack’, and leave others behind just because they are women (or men), gay (or straight), black (or white), secular (or religious), poor (or rich). In the face of danger, we are all equal.

And as those who have been in the military know, it is not just an enemy’s bullet or bomb that can hurt us. Safe and effective transportation, decent living quarters, provision of healthy food and medical care are all needed to keep people fit and safe.

But is the ethos of solidarity only relevant on the battlefield? Are we to suppose that before any threat to our common safety is in sight, we should each look only to oneself and care nothing for others? And similarly, as soon as the fight is over, are we to forget the maxim of watching one another’s back? There is undoubtedly some who would like nothing more than everyone else rallying to protect them when they feel endangered but care nothing for others at other times. Yet the majority of us recognise standing together means no opting out.

In the UK, for example, after the Second World War, voters decided the threats of disease, squalor, ignorance, idleness and want could not be overcome without collective efforts to protect one and all. Despite the national debt as % of GDP being 3 times that of the debt level created by the 2008 banking crisis, the country pulled together to build security for all. Social housing, the NHS, inclusive education, police and military defence, benefits for those unable to work or temporarily without a job, combined to give all citizens the protection they need. It in turn fuelled a vibrant economy.

Regrettably, some of those who profited from prosperous times since then have decided to withdraw behind their moats and pull up the drawbridge. They no longer want to contribute to the collective good, and want those less fortunate to suffer on their own. They will pay themselves more while make others redundant. Anyone who cannot get a job; earn enough money; are sick, disabled or too old; they will without a second thought jettison. They will even claim that they are the custodians of their country’s interest.

But real patriots will not put up with anyone hijacking the flag of our nation, or demeaning our democratic fellowship. We know we are at our strongest when we refuse to be divided. So let us recover our common protection, and ensure that however adverse the circumstances, we shall as one nation leave no one behind.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Like to Teach the World to Vote?

Give people a vote,
The illusion of having secured democracy may last a day or two.
Teach people how to vote,
And they can mobilise as citizens for the rest of their lives.

What we all too often hear in Britain, America and elsewhere is that there is no point in using the vote. The vote, allegedly, won’t change anything because the people standing for public office are all as bad as each other – which anyone who has worked with politicians would know is not true; and their proposals are basically the same – which is patently false when the policy differences can be measured in the vast number of people given or deprived of vital assistance.

The main reason why so many people feel that having a vote is irrelevant is because it is presented to them like a mystery gift, with no explanation of how to make use of it. They hear one set of politicians saying they should vote for them, and another lot arguing to the contrary. One side attacking those in government, and the other denouncing their critics. As words and figures clash, confusion is spread, and many end up either voting for the party saying the things they like to hear, or they don’t bother voting at all.

Without informed guidance on how to interpret politicians’ claims, voters are effectively disempowered. Imagine what would happen to the jury system if the lawyers for the prosecution and the defense can say whatever they like with no judge to rule out irrelevant diversions or strike out baseless assertions. Or how patients may cope with presentations from two rival doctors competing to treat them (and obtain their fees) without any body untied to profit-making to arbitrate on claims of miracle cures or groundless warnings.

Politicians will no doubt be concerned with anyone providing guidance on how to make sense of their arguments, and will understandably try to dismiss any advice contrary to their own position as unfairly partisan. But there already exist many research institutions, whose independence can be validated by the absence of funding from party or profiteering sources, which are capable of assessing the implications of policy proposals and the consequences of their implementation.

Educators should not be afraid or hesitant in teaching others how to navigate the claims of politicians, look behind the rhetoric, check the veracity of conflicting assertions, and ascertain the consequences for them and society more widely with one party rather than another in power. Furthermore, they should help citizens learn about the impact of their vote under different systems so as to maximise it for existing electoral arrangements and enhance it through future reforms.

And to provide an impartial framework for ensuring activities relating to electoral discussions and voting practices do not breach democratic propriety, we can build on the work of well established institutions such as (in the UK) the Electoral Commission; and (in the US) the Federal Election Commission.

So teachers in schools and tutors of lifelong learning, if you have acquired a critical understanding of how politics works, don’t keep it to yourselves, share it with your students – the future of democracy depends on it.