Sunday, 15 March 2015

Cooperation Unbound: a new model for democratic education

History has shown that once authoritarian hierarchies have secured a foothold, they tend to focus on consolidating their top-down control. Whether the institution in question is the government of a country, a body with a dedicated function (e.g., an army, an orphanage, a care home), or a commercial enterprise, so long as the powerful few at the top are not effectively held to account by those who have to comply with their instructions, they will often maximise the benefits to themselves at the expense of everyone else.

One of the most notable features of the democratic struggle during the 19th/early 20th centuries was the drive to enable the disempowered majority to learn why and how they should go about getting a greater say about the decisions that affected them. Reformists who wanted democratic cooperation to replace authoritarian controls recognised their cause could only be effectively advanced if education played its part. And in quick succession, learning providers such as the Working Men’s College (founded 1854), Cooperative Women’s Guild (1883), Ruskin College (1899), Workers’ Educational Association (1903), Cooperative College (1919), National Council of Labour Colleges (1921), were set up.

But in recent decades, support for democratic education has slipped down the agenda. And with every economic downturn, funding from state and philanthropic sources was not only cut back, but it would henceforth be more tightly squeezed into employment-focused training to meet the needs of a largely non-cooperative economy.

In order to rebuild the momentum to democratise state and business institutions, four steps should be taken to develop a new model for democratic education with reciprocity at its heart.

First, lifelong learning providers should explore with representatives (from social, cooperative, and community enterprises; trades unions; worker-owned/worker-run partnerships; and other progressive institutions) what type of education will best encourage and enable more people to contribute to the success of those organisations.

Secondly, they need to put in place partnership arrangements to deal with course development, financial commitment, and impact review. These should be at a level that would be neither too large to render communications superficial nor too small to hinder economies of scale.

Thirdly, the partners can agree their organisational backing and funding support on the basis of how they will benefit in directly quantifiable economic terms and as measured by SROI (social return on investment), from a range of courses and programmes co-designed to raise understanding of how the barriers to democratic cooperation can be overcome.

Finally, when partnership structures, course contents/delivery, and funding agreement are in place, further investment support can be sought from relevant government agencies, social investors, CDFIs (community development finance institutions), and progressive foundations to help with the continuous improvement of the learning opportunities and the widening of their accessibility.

Back in 1879, Professor James Stuart of the University of Cambridge, a leading proponent of adult education, remarked that the cooperative movement “is a democratic movement if there ever was one. It therefore cannot repose on the good sense of a few; its success will depend on the good sense of the masses.”

It is time we accept that we cannot rely on goodwill funding or grants dispensed to those on the receiving end of a supplicant relationship. We must integrate the objectives of social justice, economic vibrancy, and political inclusion into a reciprocal partnership, and use that as the foundation to revitalise democratic education.

You may also find this relevant: ‘The Case for an Open Cooperativist Development Agency’
A longer version of this essay, which may be of interest to those in the UK involved in lifelong learning, or cooperative and community development, can be found here

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Politics & the Cooperative Gestalt

A core aim of politics is to get people to experience the world in ways that certain pronouncements and policies would resonate with them much more than others. It is no coincidence that public relations, opinion polls and political strategies have become inextricably linked.

Whether the majority of people are, for example, becoming more disposed to view human suffering as being primarily down to the personal flaws of individuals, or essentially caused by institutional failings, can have a key impact on what kind of political platform will win the most public support.

People’s tendencies to take one view or another on these matters are often shaped in turn by where they stand in relation to three pairs of dichotomies regarding, respectively, the attitudes, beliefs, and commands we encounter in life:

1. Deference to the values & preferences of a privileged few v. determination to regard all needs and desires as equal.

2. Absolute certainty & faith in established dogmas v. pervasive scepticism & iconoclastic embrace of the new.

3. Compliance with the rule by one unquestionable individual (or group) v. insistence that everyone should choose for oneself without any collective requirement.

Depending on which combinations prevail in one’s mind, one would be disposed to back those politicians who appear to chime with that psychological frame. And while the Right might have been in the past characterised mostly by the former position in each of these dichotomies, and the Left often presented as gravitating towards the latter, contemporary politics tend to mix and match. In fact, a recent tendency amongst many politicians has been to say that the ‘centre’ is what they are about. But without showing clearly how that differs from the more familiar dichotomies, their stance has come across as something akin to:

We appreciate the concerns of the privileged should not be too hastily brushed aside, but we don’t want to ignore the needs of ordinary people. We are not certain what we believe but we don’t want you to doubt everything we say. And we don’t like a powerful few dictating terms to us but we don’t like leaving decisions to individuals either.”

In short, bland and vague. And some have reacted against this centrist platitude by dashing headlong to one or another pole of the old dichotomies. Thus libertarians wanting to shrink governments to nothing, and anarchists wanting to see the back of all corporations. Traditionalists invoking religious purity or national pride to attack anything they dislike. Radicals impatiently dismissing all social or economic reforms as too slow and too cautious.

But politics does not have to be about either the muddled middle or polarised opposites. The dichotomies outlined above can be displaced by an entirely different set of dispositions – namely, the Cooperative Gestalt.

According to the cooperative gestalt, the most constructive way to interpret and respond to our experiences consists of being disposed to:
• Upholding or revising our attitudes towards other people so long as that leads us to show greater mutual responsibility and respect in our dealings with other people.
• Assessing the claims made by anyone in relation to the extent it has been subject to cooperative enquiry whereby provisional certainty is granted so long as the door remains open to revision based on new evidence or argument.
• Backing decisions that have been made with genuine citizen participation so that all those affected by the decisions are able to make a meaningful contribution to them before they are finalised.

A politics that speaks to and reinforces the cooperative gestalt is one that rejects not only simplistic extremes, but also has no time for mechanical triangulations that merely take the midpoint of rival views. It provides a real alternative that engages with human propensity towards reciprocity. Historically, it evolved out of the cooperative-communitarian tradition, and has in the past inspired progressive movements that draw people together to preserve valuable relationships and healthy differences, as well as curtail threats to common wellbeing and corrosive inequalities.

It is time politicians learn to reconnect with this inclusive mindset, and focus on applying it to the development of policies that will bring about a more cooperative and sustainably prosperous society.

You can read more about the cooperative-communitarian tradition by going to:
‘Communitarians: an introduction’ (short article); or Communitarianism (book-length exposition).

For the connections between the cooperative gestalt and:
A. Lifelong Learning: see ‘The Cooperative Gestalt’;
B. Political Reform Movements: see Against Power Inequalities;
C. Dystopian Visions: see ‘Cooperative Gestalt & Dystopian Fiction’.
D. Corporate Social Responsibility: see ‘The Cooperative Gestalt Approach to CSR’.