Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Six Degrees of Cooperation

Since Robert Owen pioneered his cooperative and communitarian experiments in 19th century Britain and America, theorists and activist alike have been looking to build on them to develop a systematic alternative to prevailing socio-economic arrangements.

200 years on from Owen’s A New View of Society, there is no denying that neither the ‘free’ (meaning rigged) market favoured by exploitative businesses nor the ‘planned’ (i.e., authoritarian) economy imposed by discredited regimes has come up with anything other than ever worsening waste of human potential and thoughtless depletion of precious resources. But how can the latent synergy of cooperation, sustainable communities, and common resources for the common good be realised in advancing towards a state of synetopia?

Across the world, in opposition to the Anglo-American neo-liberal juggernaut, reform advocates (such as Pat Conaty, John Restakis, David Bollier, Silke Helfrich, Michel Bauwens, Julie Ristau, Ana Micka, and Jay Walljasper – see Note 1 below for more information) have drawn attention to the ingredients necessary to bring about, what in some quarters has been termed, the ‘cooperative commons’.

So what holds the key to our societal transformation? In essence, it is about turning cooperation from a general aspiration, by six specific degrees, into a guiding norm for human interactions.

First, inclusive cooperation requires that the needs of all be taken into account without discrimination. People are to work together, not to serve the privileged interests of a class of owners/bosses or a cadre of vanguard leaders, but to enable each to lead a fulfilling life.

Secondly, educative cooperation means that people are to learn through their shared deliberations and open enquiries what would improve their circumstances without being diverted by dogmatic injunctions or distorting propaganda.

Thirdly, democratic cooperation demands that every one is given an equal say in shaping the policies that will affect them, or choosing a representative who will give detailed consideration before making a policy decision on one’s behalf.

Fourthly, renewable cooperation calls for the reliance on resources and mutual goodwill to be conducted so that neither is used up. Cooperation and social development can only be sustained when irresponsible short-termism is put aside for the sake of our shared future.

Fifthly, federal cooperation operates through the principle of subsidiarity so that anything that can be effectively carried out at the most local level or smallest unit should be done so accordingly, but whatever needs a larger grouping to resolve differences or pool greater resources to achieve common aims should be passed up to the next appropriate level to deal with.

The sixth and final requirement is statutory cooperation, which implies that all concerned should recognise that the rule of law is essential to maintain fairness and prevent freeriders and oppressors from taking advantage of others. Cooperation must therefore extend to supporting government institutions from the local to the global level.

The question for any organisation or mode of human interaction is, therefore, how much further it needs to go to meet the cooperative norm fully. One response to shortfalls is to provide examples, explanations and encouragement to help people move forward in line with the reform agenda. But this has to be complemented by a political response – if vested interests persist in blocking change or simply continuing with the callous exploitation of human and natural resources; and those in government are too timid to take action, or worse, in cahoots with them, then reformists must develop a common strategy to get a majority who are supportive of their proposals elected.

And lest it’s forgotten, any political party to be entrusted with winning power to facilitate the necessary reforms, should itself have advanced by the six requisite degrees of cooperation.

Note 1:
The following may be of interest to readers who would like to learn more about the socio-economic changes advocated by the cooperative and commons movements:
- ‘Co-ops and commons approaches to reviving places’: essays by Kate Swade, Pat Conaty, Ed Mayo, and others
- ‘The Wealth of the Commons’: ed by David Bollier & Silke Helfrich
- ‘Humanizing the Economy’: John Restakis
- ‘The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-state Economy’: Pat Conaty and Michael Lewis
- On the Commons: Julie Ristau & Ana Micka.
- 'All That We Share': Jay Walljasper.
- P2P Foundation: Michel Bauwens
- ‘Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship’: Henry Tam

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The National Safety Fund explained

Every country needs to pool sufficient resources to deal with those challenges that its citizens cannot tackle individually on their own. But increasingly politicians have embraced the view that they must pool less rather than more resources for the good of their country, because people have apparently become very reluctant to contribute to safeguard their common wellbeing. Some of them have adopted this stance because their prime concern is to ensure their wealthy friends and families pay as little as possible towards helping other people. But there are those who also sing the same tune because, out of naivety or timidity, they dare not believe people can be persuaded to share more of their resources with others, even if that would improve life for them as well as their fellow citizens.

It is time we rethink how the true value of pooled national resources is made much clearer to the public. For too long, state institutions have taxed and spent without giving any adequate explanation to citizens why and how better outcomes for all have been achieved. We should reverse this neglect and rebuild a real sense of democratic solidarity by doing five things.

First, the fragmented and complex information on tax revenue and public expenditure should be integrated into a single accessible website that explains what is essentially the country’s National Safety Fund (NSF). The Fund is there to make the country safe from a series of key threats (economic instability, lack of productive capacity, hunger and malnourishment, homelessness for the vulnerable, health problems, military and paramilitary attacks, theft and violence, ignorance and prejudice, abuse of people who cannot defend themselves, riots, environmental degradation, destructive climate fluctuations, etc). What resources are pooled together and how they are allocated to tackling these threats should be set out in a clear and interesting way for all to see.

Secondly, every NSF transaction notice should flag up what the money involved is contributing to or how it has been raised. For example, every payslip or bill referring to ‘tax deducted’ should indicate that a democratically agreed amount has been contributed to the National Safety Fund with a link to more details about how the threats in question are being dealt with; and every recipient of support from the Fund – from corporate subsidies and social security to public-funded hospital treatment and environmental safety checks – should be informed where the money has come from via the contributions of citizens to the fund.

Thirdly, just as there are public fund-raising days that help to remind people of what the money collected by charities can do in saving people from preventable suffering (e.g., Red Nose Day, Children in Need, and many others), there should be a National Safety Day to promote awareness and support for NSF, which helps many more people on a far larger scale but is often underrated for the vital protection and improvement it gives to countless lives. On each occasion, it should set out what has been achieved and what major shortfalls still exist, encourage people to make additional donations, and conclude with a review to indicate if more funds still need to be raised fiscally beyond the donations given.

Fourthly, while attention is routinely given to tackling people who attempt to defraud benefit payments, the substantially greater problem of people not paying their share of contributions to the NSF should be addressed with a sustained and high profile Support Our NSF Campaign. The dodging of payments due to the NSF should be presented as unpatriotic attempts to deny the country of the necessary funds, and the public should be routinely reminded of the harm involved, and be encouraged to report perpetrators to an NSF hotline. Citizens can debate what laws and public finances are required, but once these have been decided on by democratically elected governments, any non-compliance ought to be exposed.

Finally, the on-going development of NSF should be guided by a series of NSF Deliberative Weekends taking place across the country where people can select the sessions that interest them and join in deliberative discussions about what funds are raised for tackling particular threats to our country’s wellbeing, how they are used, and what changes should be made. The findings from all the sessions will then be summarised to inform the thinking of politicians inside and outside government.

(The name, ‘National Safety Fund’, is a generic suggestion. Each country can adopt its own preferred name to reflect its own identity and associate it with its own symbols such as flag and emblem.)