Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Journey to the Real Centre of Politics

Whether it’s Bernie Sanders in the US or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the media are always on hand to tell the public to be wary of politicians who seek to move their country ‘to the left’. By implication, it is always better to stay near the ‘centre’. But what is the centre and what makes it so special?

One common response is to locate it at the mid-point between rival political views – in short, split the difference between ‘left’ and ‘right’. But when ultra-conservative Republicans and Tories have shifted so far to the right of the post-war socio-economic consensus, and the majority who are relatively on the left have stayed timidly silent, the halfway mark between these two camps no longer defines a position of moderation, but denotes the most serious antipathy towards what an earlier generation of Republican and Conservative leaders such as Eisenhower and Macmillan respected as basic decency.

Another attempt to pinpoint the centre is to place it where consensus can be reached. This might make sense if people were all as open-minded and considerate as each other. But give-and-take does not work well when some are so much more relentless in taking and notably less prepared for giving.

Take a look at two opinion polls. In one US Gallup Poll (November 2010), people were asked if they wanted their political representatives to rule out compromise or embrace it to at least achieve some useful results. Amongst supporters of the Republican Party, 43% rejected compromise (only 32% would accept it); whereas for the Democrats, just 18% rejected compromise (while 59% would accept it).

In a YouGov Survey of Americans (September 2015), people were asked if they would support a military coup against their own government if in their opinion that government has gone too far. The figure for Republicans was 43% backing a military coup; while that for Democrats was just 20%.

So if we aim for the ‘centre’ as where trade-offs may take us, then we will end up where those who are twice as likely to resort to a violent rejection of what they don’t like, and only half as ready to make any concession, will dominate the agenda and get their own way at the expense of others.

This contrast between those who are much more inclined to impose their wills on others, and those are disposed to respect everyone with equal concern, actually helps to identify what a meaningful centre may consist of. Since different individuals and organisations may use their power to pursue their goals, if some of them have too much power over others, the risk of exploitation and oppression rises substantially. The only way to avoid this is for the power distribution of any country to be so well balanced that none in it can mistreat others, and all recognise that their shared interests are best enhanced through mutual support.

Instead of blindly pressing for more power for corporations or unions, government agencies or scrutiny bodies, businesses or regulators, courts or representatives of citizens, the proper political challenge is to secure a sound balance all round.

On this basis, the central focus of politics, under current conditions, has to be on curbing the excessive power of, for example, the surveillance state, the property developers, the polluters, the irresponsible finance sector, the exploiters of cheap and vulnerable labour, etc, so that cooperation can emerge as an option for shared endeavour, available to all. And what is all too often pejoratively dismissed as ‘far left’ these days is in fact precisely where the real centre of politics should be.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Convert or Con Victim?

Can we say that people who switch their allegiance to anything we find objectionable must have been deceived/brainwashed/radicalised?

Take these cases:
• People change from one religion (or no belief) to one we have nothing to do with.
• People drop a widely trusted brand to a product we are not keen on ourselves.
• People switch their political support to a party we dislike.

Compare it with these cases:
• People join what is described as a cult.
• People refuse standard medication and pay large sums to buy from someone with the notoriety of a snake-oil merchant.
• People dedicate themselves to a political group with an extremist/violent agenda.

In the first set of cases, the general assumption is that people have been converted to back something else, and while we may not agree with it, there are no grounds to block people changing their minds in these matters.

In the second set of cases, a common view is that something unacceptable has been perpetrated to deceive or distort the thinking of the people concerned, and the latter need to be saved from their predicament.

But this distinction rests on the supposition that the intensity with which we recoil from something or how widely a position is treated with disdain would be sufficient to justify the claim that anyone switching to it must have had their minds unduly messed with. And this is fallacious on two counts.

First, how much we detest an idea, and how many other people share that revulsion, does not mean that the idea can only be believed by a deceived/twisted mind. Throughout history, feminism, pacifism, heliocentricism, inoculation, democracy, and many other notions, have all at one time struck the majority of people as outrageous. In those times, those who came to believe in these ideas might be demonstrating more of having an enlightened intellect than a deceived mind.

Secondly, just because an idea may not appear to be repugnant to many people, it is nonetheless possible that people can be deceived/manipulated into embracing it. From mass advertising to fuel the consumption of harmful substance, to the practice of some divorced couples to turn their children against the other parent, brainwashing may not be far off the mark in denoting what goes on.

So how can we separate the conning of people from fair persuasion? The answer is to be found in how the ‘conversion’ process is conducted. There are three tests that need to be passed:
1. Do the ‘persuaders’ treat the subject of the process with the same degree of respect and concern as they would expect in reverse? Or do they weigh the gains to themselves from a successful conversion more heavily against the losses the converted would have to endure as a result?
2. Are the ‘persuaders’ prepared to engage in an open and cooperative exchange with their subject and others to ascertain the reliability of what they are claiming to be the truth? Or do they want to close off as much as possible relevant arguments and evidence that may cast doubt on their position?
3. Will the ‘persuaders’ check back with their subject about how they would like to proceed? Or is one of their key aims to get the subject to surrender decision-making about specific matters (e.g., money to spend, readiness to use weapons, ganging up on certain people) to them?

Where all three tests are passed positively, it is most likely that legitimate persuasion is taking place. Where only one or two are passed, the process is dubious. And where all three are failed, then it is highly probable that the subject is being unfairly conned/manipulated into accepting something he/she would under more transparent conditions reject.

The three tests mentioned above are based on the three communitarian principles for guiding interpersonal behaviour. You can find out more about them in the post, ‘Communitarians: an introduction’, or in the book, Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship.