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).

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: ]

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.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Tech’gemony: the crisis of human redundancy

Is there anything technology can’t do? Drive cars, fly planes, beat us at chess, accelerate genetic engineering, secure endless supply of renewable energy, design robots to make more robots, diagnose and repair problems in everything from factory machinery to the human body, elevate artificial intelligence to the level of continuous learning and adaptation – no problem seems to be beyond it, except one: the problem of leaving the vast majority of humankind with little prospect of finding paid employment, because there will come a time when anything we can do, some labour-saving technology can do better (and much more cheaply).

Tech’gemony is coming. Contrary to the mantra of tech giants claiming that they are simply striving to make the world a better place for everyone, the trajectory of their power expansion points unequivocally to dominance by a few with no accountability to those whose livelihood they put at risk.

In the name of ‘progress’, the tech leaders build up their business empires by disrupting existing socio-economic arrangements. By continuously coming up with new, faster, more reliable approaches that render human input redundant, they amass wealth at an unprecedented rate.

As their financial resources rise exponentially, they are able to accelerate the wider adoption of business models that lead to even fewer paid jobs and more precarious employment, squeeze out firms that are lagging behind in applying labour-saving alternatives, acquire more land and assets, and buy up potential rivals who will henceforth serve their corporate goals.

At the same time, their economic strength enables them to avoid paying taxes by exploiting every possible loophole and contesting any public authority’s demand they don’t like with the best lawyers money can buy.

When the number of paid jobs not yet eliminated by technology dwindles to the point where there are simply not enough people with sufficient income to buy the output from tech-dominated industries, a critical choice will arise. Either the powerful corporations offer to provide their services for free (given free renewable energy sources, recyclable materials, machines with machine-building capability, it is a feasible option), or they turn inward and limit the access to their products/services to themselves. The former represents the utopian version many have talked about, forgetting that corporations dedicated to avoiding paying taxes to meet basic public needs are unlikely to share all they produce for nothing in return. The latter option is the far more likely dystopian scenario that will greet us.

What happens next will be the closing off of land, buildings, facilities that are owned by these corporations. Within their private ‘sovereign’ domain, with the help of the most advanced and ever improving technology, they can get whatever they want. But outside their well-guarded territories, the 99.9% will increasingly struggle as they can no longer afford to obtain the things that have become dependent on technology to produce – clean water, filtering out of polluted air, medication, safe food, fuel supply, and countless others.

While the few, having bought up most of the planet, can dispense with monetary transactions, and live in their earthly paradise with continuously improving technological solutions to every challenge they encounter; most of the world will be shut out in a rapid regression back to a Hobbesian form of life that is inescapably poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Of course it does not have to be like that. But if Tech’gemony is to be halted, governments must act now to curb tech-based corporate powers, and ensure that the fruits of technological innovation are to be shared on an open and democratic basis.

The digital clock is ticking.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Performance Enhancement & Fair Competition

Taking drugs to improve sporting performance, accessing notes during exams to get better results, or forging ballot papers to secure an electoral victory – these are all deemed unacceptable ways to get ahead of others in a competitive situation.

So there is an assumption that just because there is a competition going on, not every means to help one win will be considered legitimate. Indeed, the very existence of a competition requires there to be rules to regulate the participation process and assess the terms of success.

If we turn now to the mantra of competition chanted in aid of the ‘free market’, so that the ‘best’ can win without regulatory red tape or objective oversight, are we supposed to embrace any form of performance enhancement that comes along as just another feature of the competitive world?

What if some people decide to take the inventions of others and sell them as their own; redirect a sizeable chunk of their companies’ earnings into their own private accounts; ask for better deals in return for not revealing some embarrassing secrets of the CEO; or encourage others to buy one’s ‘cure’ for some disease when it is just a placebo?

We will undoubtedly be told by even the most fervent free marketeers that these are all against the law. But why should the law rule against such practices? Could it be that devious exploitation of another person’s vulnerability is not a fair way to obtain a competitive advantage?

How about such tools of performance enhancement as the fuelling of others’ addictions to gambling or nicotine to make more money from them? Giving one small set of children the best education, protection, and networks of useful contacts that money can buy, and denying these to others? Driving up one’s share prices by cutting jobs and reducing wages to below subsistence levels? Donating money to politicians who will alter employment laws to curtail the bargaining powers of trade unions? Mould a compliant workforce by imposing precarious contracts and constant surveillance?

Should there not be laws to prevent these dubious methods of helping the unscrupulous get ahead of other people? The cry for greater competition rings hollow when behind the routine posturing, the advocates for ‘free’ market just want the freedom to do as they please, and constrain any action by others that may get in their way.

Competition can be productive. It can motivate us to strive to achieve more than we might otherwise attain. But it has to be governed by proper rules if it is not to degenerate into a scam. Next time someone is strutting around on a platform for competition, check out what dodgy performance enhancement tools are being smuggled through.