Monday, 15 January 2018

What Voters Want

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 January 2018

Paradigm Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 15 December 2017

Snakes on Power Ladders

From sexual abuse to financial transgression, we know that higher up people get on the power ladder, the more susceptible they are to acting unethically – for the simple reason that their positions mean they can probably get away with it.

Numerous politicians, celebrities, top executives, the superrich, have regularly featured in reports of wrongdoing that reveal their lack of decency and responsibility. However, not everyone with power abuses it. Many use the power they have to fight injustice, help the vulnerable, and make improvements for others. Indeed without structuring power so that fairness and wellbeing can be defended against unscrupulous individuals, more innocent people would suffer.

How can we minimise the abuse of power in that case? One thing we must do is to build in accountability. This means allowing some to acquire more power (in the form of resources or any other means) only on condition that it serves a morally acceptable purpose, and the exercise of that power must be subject to adequate constraint so those in possession of the power can be held to account. But this should be further supplemented by the critical evaluation of individuals’ fitness for any rise up the power ladder.

It is often forgotten that before the devious and callous snake their way to the top, there are usually opportunities to stop their climb. But unless they are spotted and stopped early enough, these characters will keep gaining support, securing promotions, or winning elections, until they are in a strong enough position to abuse their power and treat others with utter disdain.

So what are the tell-tale signs that should trigger alarm bells? Here are a few tendencies every assessor, interviewer, selector, elector ought to look out for:

• Take all the credit for any success they manage to associate themselves with, but ever ready to shift the blame for their own failure to others, especially those who work for them.
• Claim they are very important people because they have so many vital responsibilities but deny they can be held responsible because they cannot possibly keep an eye on so many different things.
• Ask other people for help routinely but refuse nonchalantly to help others when requests are made to them.
• Make forceful demands on subordinates to do what the latter may have strong reservations about doing, but always present themselves as sincerely oblivious to any objections raised.
• Exaggerate the value of what they do, particularly when it is in fact of little benefit to anyone but themselves, but hide the contributions made by others.
• Insist that they must have more power, pay and privileges to carry on with their work, but maintain others should learn to do much more with less.
• Turn on the charm to impress targeted groups on selected occasions, but treat those they consider insignificant with neither concern nor respect.

The above characteristics are not hard to detect. Most of us have come across people with them in abundance, and while they may conceal them at various public functions, they rarely, if ever, keep up their masks for long. Once their insidious tendencies have been noted, they should be made widely known so that those who will be involved in considering if more power should be given to them can factor in the information, and hopefully, avoid the mistake of letting these snakes go any further up the power ladder.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Unhappy Ending: the politics of secession

Suppose a group of soldiers who have voluntarily joined the army decide one day, when they are on an important mission, that they want to leave the army then and there. They have had enough of the desert, and they want to set up their own private mercenary unit to get more lucrative deals in other parts of the world. Actually, not everyone takes the same view. But in the unit in question, they have a slim majority on their side. So although there are others who prefer to stay in the army, they declare that the will of ‘their’ unit is to leave. When the army asks them to discuss the terms of their withdrawal so as not to jeopardise the current mission or undermine the work of other units in the army, they demand to be given what no one else in the army has ever been granted, and threaten to walk away immediately if they don’t get the deal they want.

Many will feel that it is not concessions, but a court-martial, that should be handed to these people. After all, why should they get away with putting their selfish interests above the safety and wellbeing of everyone else?

When it comes to demands to withdraw from an even larger unit – a nation, a transnational union – we will encounter similar issues. Let’s be clear from the outset that we are talking about secession from what a group has voluntarily joined. Cases where people have been placed under the jurisdiction of a regime as a result of an invasion, for example, would have to be dealt with quite differently.

If we focus on regions and states that have through formal decisions of their respective ruling regime or peaceful community-level integration become part of a wider union, we will see that such a development carries social and political responsibilities that cannot be legitimately brushed aside by unilateral declarations. Having become part of a larger regime, thereby securing greater benefits and security, and earning the trust and support of others in that regime, one must accept that any attempt to discard the needs of others will provoke negative reactions.

Since the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon (whose domain covered the Principality of Catalonia) and Isabella I of Castile in 1469, a united Spain has evolved, notwithstanding internal tensions (especially during Franco’s dictatorship over the period 1939-1975). The union of Scotland and England was initiated by James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England in 1603, and consolidated by the formal agreement by both the Scottish and English parliaments in 1707. In addition to the original 13 former British colonies that voluntarily joined forces in 1776 to become the United States of America, others subsequently applied and were accepted as members of that country. In 1973, the UK joined the European Economic Community, and agreed to the EEC’s development into the European Union.

In none of the above cases were the changes in question brought about by force, and the membership of a larger union led to co-dependence that underpinned the wellbeing of all members. The notion that one member can just unilaterally secede without reaching an agreement that is satisfactory to others who would be adversely affected by the secession is morally dubious and politically absurd.

Not surprisingly, when some of the southern states tried to secede, the US refused to accept their move, and the dispute led in 1861 to civil war breaking out. Yet despite that historical lesson, there is still the misconception that any member of a nation or transnational union can simply declare its intention to withdraw and thus create a cast-iron obligation on others to accept it.

The issue is not whether one can point to a referendum that only gives voice to those in the area potentially seeking secession, to justify any demand. If others in the union are treated as irrelevant and denied any say at all, then any demand for secession is inherently flawed. Why should Britons living outside Scotland see the fate of the United Kingdom decided exclusively by people in Scotland? Why should the EU accept damaging changes as a result of a decision taken by UK residents alone? Why should Spain agree to Catalonia leaving to become an independent country when the views of the rest of Spain have not been taken into account?

People at any level in an established political union may have legitimate grievance against those in power. But what would be a justified course of redress cannot be left solely to the complainants to determine. If the rule of law can be set aside by any sub-group within a union, then all kinds of militia or separatist movement can be advanced with no regard for the harm they bring to others. And when that happens, it is not going to end well.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Exposing the Affinity Myth

When we hear people dismiss what we have to say about their ideas or behaviour on the basis that we cannot possibly understand them, because we do not share their experiences, how should we react?

It has become so common that we could be talking about anything, and someone would play the ‘But you are not like us, so you’ll never get it’ card. The difference could be linked to a religion, a sect, a purported ethnic group, some tradition or custom, socio-economic background, or even experiences tied to a particular locality or a close-knit community. The idea is that since we are ‘different’ from them, we cannot sensibly make any comment about them, least of all criticise them in any way.

Now while it’s obviously wrong to go on about certain aspects of other people’s lives or actions without any real understanding about them, it is equally mistaken to assume that we have to be, from their point of view, practically one of them before we can grasp the rights and wrongs of what they are up to. Understanding comes from a combination of knowledge and imagination, and group affinity is seldom, if ever, a necessary prerequisite. To debunk the myth more swiftly, let us consider three claims relating to the importance of ‘being one of us’.

[1] You cannot understand what is different from you.
The notion that an observer must be just like the observed to know anything significant about the latter may sound plausible at a very superficial level, but does not actually bear the slightest scrutiny. Entomologists can learn a lot about insects without being remotely like insects themselves. Astronomers can predict the behaviour of distant planets without possessing much resemblance to a planetary object. Oncologists do not have to be suffering from cancer themselves before they acquire expert knowledge on how to diagnose and treat the disease. Understanding of behaviour, of what constitutes a normal pattern, and what indicates deviation from the norm, come from systematic studies and review of evidence. Being the same type as what is studied is certainly not necessary. Otherwise it would take a sociopathic serial killer to explain one.

[2] You cannot understand without emotional connections.
There are times when being able to relate to the joy or despondency of another person is crucial to sharing their feelings. But even in such situations, it is a matter of degree rather than an absolute either-or. Only those totally lacking in empathy are unable to take some delight in seeing others happy, or feel sad at the sight of someone sobbing inconsolably, even though they are relative strangers. At the same time, a clearer understanding, or a more objective assessment, may require precisely the distancing of emotions. It is more difficult for us to consider if someone has done something wrong and should be penalised, if we were too close to the person in question. If our judgement were to be affected by intense love, anger, fear, or admiration felt for the individual being examined, we might well not truly comprehend what has been done. Often the more detached we can be from a given subject, the better we can come to understand it.

[3] You cannot understand what it is like without having had the same experience.
It is sometimes claimed that men and women cannot possibly understand what the other sex experience. Similar divides are deployed for people with diverse religious beliefs (or those with none at all), ethnic backgrounds, or even class differences. But the key here is one’s capacity for psychological understanding and moral imagination. The development of one’s emotional intelligence enables one to have gradually higher degrees of understanding of what others may be going through even though one’s physiology, ancestry, habits, or income may be very different from them. Conversely, anyone who insists that no one can understand anyone else except those who are virtually identical to oneself slides down a solipsist path that closes off all avenue of understanding. We are all unlike in some ways, and interpersonal understanding is built on mental bridges that overcome those dissimilarities, not on futile insistence on eliminating them all.

So don’t be deflected by the affinity myth. If anyone tries to play the old ‘you’re not like us, you’ll never understand’ card, that’s already a good indication that their attempts to hide from critical appraisal by others is an all too familiar one.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

What do we mean by ‘Civic Engagement’?

‘Civic engagement’ is sometimes taken to mean involving citizens in doing good work in their communities, when its use should be focused on engaging citizens in democratic political processes. In the former sense (incorporating cash giving, volunteering and helping strangers), the UK, for example, performs better than other European countries according to the annual survey commissioned by the Charities Aid Foundation (2016 figures). However, in the latter sense of democratic participation, the UK lags behind most other European countries (e.g., France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, and all the Scandinavian countries [Note 1].

And in supporting people’s involvement as citizens in their collective self-governance, we should not make the mistake of thinking that this requires any reduction to the diversity of cultural backgrounds in society. There is a vital difference between socio-cultural identity on the one hand, and civic-political identity on the other.

There is no question that the civic identity of citizens, whose rights are protected by their government, and who are responsible to that government and their fellow citizens in relation to a legally defined set of obligations, is of the utmost importance. But some commentators have wrongly conflated the need to remind citizens of what it means to be a British (or an American) citizen, with the desire in some quarters to champion particular social and cultural identities as the defining features of being British (or American).

Any country with citizens that have a diverse mix of socio-cultural identities will actually have a stronger sense of shared civic identity if they have more opportunities to interact freely and positively. There is evidence that mutual respect and integration are enhanced by people getting to know each other more, while prejudice is fuelled by the lack of experience of people with apparent differences. For example, according to research findings, individuals who come into contact with immigrants more often are less likely to have anti-immigrant prejudice, and more likely to be among those who voted ‘Remain’ in the EU referendum [Note 2].

So instead of pandering to the prejudiced calls to cut diversity in order to promote civic cohesion, the government should ensure there are more opportunities for people to interact with others from diverse backgrounds so that there is less misunderstanding, less alienation, and a greater sense of togetherness. This would also suggest that policies to segregate schools by faith or allow selection by religion within a school are likely to be inimical to civic integration [Note 3].

Of course, the ability to communicate in English is a vital dimension of being a citizen in a predominantly English-speaking country, and every encouragement and support should be given to all citizens to be reasonably proficient in English. Refusal to try to learn or get help to understand English should not be sanctified as an emblem of diversity, but discouraged as a hindrance to civic solidarity. However, we must bear in mind that, just as some citizens have to rely on sign language or cannot read English because of their visual impairment, people who have come from abroad and may not initially be able to grasp English should be given sympathetic assistance in learning to communicate in a different way.

People from English-speaking countries should also remember how common it is that we ourselves do not speak the language of the places we visit, or even settle in as expats. As for naturalisation and arrangements such as the citizenship test, again we need to separate out concerns with civic identity from those about socio-cultural identity. The emphasis should be much less on selective cultural knowledge, and far more on civic-political information relating to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, legal and political procedures, and how to access and check guidance on appropriate civic behaviour (e.g., registering to vote, paying taxes, learning about public policies, reporting crime, etc).

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Note 1. Source: ‘The End of Voters in Europe? Electoral Turnout in Europe since WWII’ by Pascal Delwit, published in The Open Journal of Political Science, 2013, Vol. 3, No.1, Table 3.

Note 2: ‘Examining the role of positive and negative intergroup contact and anti-immigrant prejudice in Brexit’ by Rose Meleady, Charles R Seger and Marieke Vermue: published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, June 2017)

Note 3: In existing Church of England free schools that are bound by the 50% cap on religious selection, 63% of pupils are classified as ‘of white origin’, but in Church of England secondaries that religiously select all of their places, 78% are white. Source: government’s figures as reported by the British Humanist Association, 2016.

[The above observations are taken from a longer paper on civic engagement and integration written in response to the House of Lords’ Select Committee's Call for Evidence on Citizenship & Civic Engagement. For the full version, see: http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/citizenship-and-civic-engagement-committee/citizenship-and-civic-engagement/written/69325.html ]

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Cooperation: A New Order of Life?

[A review of ‘Victorian Agitator – George Holyoake: co-operation as this new order of life’, by Stephen Yeo, Brighton: EER Edward Everett Root Publishers, 2017.]

When it comes to someone like George Holyoake, even a superlatives-packed introduction would come across as an understatement.

He was an outstanding champion of the cooperative movement in its formative decades, helping to inspire an ever growing number of workers to get involved with the new form of enterprise that would strive to be fair as well as productive. He was an astute advocate for democracy, pressing constantly for improvements such as the secret ballot, which he defended against the likes of J. S. Mill, who did not appreciate that, so long as vast inequality in power existed, many would not dare to vote openly against the wishes of the rich and powerful.

Of course Holyoake himself never hesitated to express his views regardless of what the rich and powerful might think. When militarist nationalism gripped the country, he lambasted the rise of jingoism (indeed he coined the term). When people whose reason and conscience held them back from subscribing to any religious belief, came under attack from those in authority, he argued for secularism (yet another term he invented). And it should be remembered that his readiness to speak up for his beliefs did not rest on any special protection granted to him. Indeed, in 1842, on a dubious charge of blasphemy, he was sent to prison.

In this bicentennial year of George Holyoake’s birth, Stephen Yeo has given us a fascinating new book on this indefatigable reformist. ‘Victorian Agitator’ introduces us to the man with not just an enduring philosophy, but an endearing personality, whose warmth was as ever present as his wit.

In addition to the biographical portrait, however, Yeo also presents us with an inviting canvas on which he had brought together Holyoake’s lifelong endeavours in the shape of three interrelated aspirations: the development of a reformist and non-statist form of socialism; the promotion of an autonomous moral tradition; and the cultivation of what is akin to a religion of cooperation.  

While many readers will enjoy the incidents and anecdotes from Holyoake’s life relayed earlier in the book, it is this second half that shows how relevant Holyoake’s ideas remain to this day. Recurring economic crises and deepening social fragmentation have left us in no doubt that an alternative is urgently needed from the failed market system.

Holyoake tirelessly advanced the cooperative form of economic association that can transcend exploitative relations without risking society being subsumed under some authoritarian collectivism. He made the case for mutual respect sustained by a social equality that would keep disdainful divisiveness at bay. And his secularism demonstrated that love for our fellow human beings could be celebrated without having to rely on any particular doctrine endorsed by an established religion.

If these strands could be joined into a reform agenda, backed by a sense of moral commitment, and fuelled by a passion that responds to a commanding cause, a new order of life may well be possible. ‘Cooperation, not exploitation’ could be its rallying call. Read Yeo’s book, and help answer the call.