Science as a Candle for Democracy

Candle

July 14th celebrates the storming of the Bastille in Paris on that day in 1789. After the War of Independence in America, it was a second revolution to bring democracy to a kingdom, this time in Europe. For Thomas Paine, writing The Rights of Man shortly thereafter (a quote used by the great Christopher Hitchens in his biography of Paine:

“Never did so great an opportunity offer itself to England, and to all Europe, as is prodiced by the two Revolutions of America and France.”

Whether, over two hundred years’ later, the success of the revolutions is properly signalled by the visit to France of the popularist Donald Trump is highly questionable for his visit signifies a distinct darkening of how democracy is faring in the USA, Europe (post-Brexit referendum), Turkey, the Phillipines, India, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel where serious strains are being felt and ‘strong man’ politics is under way.

It may be straining credibility to equate these dark concerns on democracy with the election of Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament, to the position of Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, a Committee whose purpose is to scrutinise the UK Government on its strategy and programmes in this area. Yet, this linking of science and democracy is central to the changes we are currently seeing in the world of politics.

Science in the Soul‘ is a collection of the writings of Richard Dawkins, where he shows his distinct ability to reason and explain to the full.  In the book, Dawkins commends the science populariser, Carl Sagan, as a man that should have won the Nobel Prize: not for science but for literature and it made me re-read his excellent book ‘The Demon-Haunted World‘, published around twenty years ago.

Sagan’s book is about how “scientific thinking is necessary to safeguard our democratic institutions and our technical civilisation” and is so apt in an era of Donald Trump and Brexit (with its Govian taunts about how not to believe experts) that it should be read and re-read by anyone with a desire to understand our current problems and what is needed to extricate ourselves from the hole that we are digging for ourselves. It was also frighteningly prescient. I reprint here, word for word, a sizeable paragraph from the book that accurately forecasts a significant chunk of our world in 2017:

“….science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agenda or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. As I write, the number one video cassette rental in America is the movie Dumb and Dumber. Beavis and Butthead remains popular (and influential) with young TV viewers. the plain lesson is that study and learning – not just of science, but of anything – are avoidable, even undesirable.”

If an afterlife existed, Carl Sagan would be looking down at the events of 2016, and tut-tutting knowingly, shaking his head and pulling at his long, white beard (all sages have long, white beards in heaven, don’t they?): “I did tell you guys!” he would be shouting, hoping that some mystical ripple would resonate from his screams of despair into our heads, deaf and dumb to all sense.

In the so-called developed world, technology moves forward at a great pace so that major phase transition events bypass us with alacrity. The whole ‘fake news’ environment washed over us only in the last few years as the networked world provided everyone with the ability to be journalists and have an opinion that all can see. As always with new technology, those most capable of utilising it to advantage included the criminally-minded who not just sent emails from Nigeria asking for your money, or emails and texts that would lock up your computer or cellphone if you replied but, more subtly, perverted voting systems and swayed voters by their ability to infiltrate the social networks with lies, distortions and manipulations to a precision that a few thousand votes in the right States resulted in a Trump presidency.

Sagan wrote further on this:

“We’ve arranged a global civilisation in which most crucial elements – transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting – profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

“The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous sceptical scrutiny of everything – new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.”

Carl Sagan was a sceptic and the book shows how scepticism, used pro-actively, not as a tool to doubt everything for doubt’s sake, is central to understanding. He provided a toolkit for guarding against a fallacious or fraudulent argument. In summary:

  • Where possible, independently verify the facts
  • Encourage debate on this by opponents and proponents of views expressed
  • Discount ‘authorities’ who generally carry no weight; in science there may be experts, not authorities. In politics, beware such experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis
  • Don’t get over-attached to an hypothesis just because it’s yours
  • Quantify where you can
  • If there’s a chain of argument, show that every link works
  • Occam’s Razor – if two solutions exist, choose the simplest
  • Always ask if the hypothesis can be disproved (e.g. Brexit will save British taxpayers £350m a week!)

Now, not everyone has the time to go out and do all this. So, we rely on journalists and others to do so. This brings me back to Norman Lamb, a man who has gained tremendous respect across all parties for his honesty and campaigning zeal (in the area of mental life as an example). He is a democratically-elected member of a Parliament often thought of as the home of democracy (Thomas Paine might have doubted that and the first-past-the-post system of elections means that most in the UK are, effectively disenfranchised) and now Chairs a Committee on Science and Technology. We should be using such institutions to galvanise the linkages between science, technology and democracy to challenge ourselves in how we think so that crass assertions made during the Brexit referendum and by Donald Trump and others (that might lead to the USA’s desertion of the Paris Agreement on environment as just one example) are challenged by not just politicians but by all those that should hold us to scientific thinking.

This means that we should understand why those that wish to believe in such perversions of reality actually do so and why scientific thought processes are so easily overturned, that ‘rigorous scrutiny’ is accepted as the norm. A recent article in the Financial Times, by John Gapper on how CP Snow identified the gap in thinking on science by intellectuals in the 1950’s shows that this is not new, but it is not just intellectuals that have the vote in the 21st Century, it is all the people.

So, a plea to Norman Lamb and his Committee, whatever the Terms of Reference have historically been, it is time to challenge our lack of scientific thinking, the lack of awareness of science and technology throughout the population and how this “combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces” – if it hasn’t already.

Democracy took many lives and many years to establish in the western world and elsewhere. It is not yet extinguished but, like a candle that has been burning for many hours, the light is in danger of failing. Sagan’s book was sub-titled: “Science as a Candle in the Dark”. On the day the French commemorate its own democracy, we should not let that candle flutter to extinction.

Candle

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Scotland and the UK’s Democratic Deficit

It was Bogdanov who coined the phrase “the Dictatorship of Democracy” to describe one of the options for a post-Imperialist Russia. It was Mao Zedong who used the term “Democratic Dictatorship” to Orwellianise the role of the Chinese people to attack the Imperialist spirit of Chiang Kai-Shek.

It may be harsh to turn this phrase on to the UK, but the current referendum in Scotland is showing that there is certainly a Democratic Deficit that being used to characterize why Scotland is turning towards independence (or at the least more devolution) and why English regions and Wales are now excited by the prospect of real, permanent and growing change.

The UK has always had a centralized system of government. Based on English and Scottish monarchic government, the gradual transfer of power to a London-based Parliament composed of the Commons and the Lords testifies to the history of nations that willed government to the centre.

Regional challenges have, over the years, been destroyed – at least until recently. Nothing signified this more than Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of the Greater London Council in 1986 after Labour had won the elections and the Conservative Government could no longer stand its independence. The reinvigoration of London in its new formation – under both Labour and Conservative Mayors – served to provide a key opportunity to test whether the political centre could resist.

Devolution in Scotland and Wales (and the cross-party and cross-religion agreements in Northern Ireland) has been seen as the centre’s evolutionary resistance to change. It was not until the Scotland Act 1998 (just 16 years ago) that devolution was allowed there – having failed in the 1970’s because those in favour of devolution counted to less than 40% of those eligible to vote.

Partly because of the system of elections in the UK (which are first-past-the-post), Governments in the UK have tended to be elected with small percentages of the national vote (around 40%). As a result, the largest minorities gain the majority of the seats (except on rare occasions such as in 2010) and form the Government. This means that regions and nations such as Scotland and Wales may be governed by parties and ideals completely at odds with their own leanings.

For Scotland and Wales, this has been especially galling as they are both, in recent years, anti-Conservative. Whatever they stand for, the Conservatives are not seen in either country as their own. In England, the same can be said for many areas – the South-West (Liberal-leaning), Midlands and North (Labour). It is the south of England (centred around the highly prosperous heartland of London) that dominates national thought and population. Interestingly, London itself is not a Conservative heartland with a tendency towards social democratic ideals, but the outer London Boroughs and the rest of the South-East are dominated by Tory blue.

Democractic Deficit

Centralisation of power is the norm in the UK. The Centre makes all the decisions and regions (outside of Scotland) have modest powers. Most local authorities have decision-making authority over budgets for street lighting, refuse collection, local social care, local policing and similar but the assault on education and on local authority funding from the centre has been fierce in recent years and strengthened the stranglehold of Central Government. Education is a good example. The vast majority of state secondary schools are now Academies – outside of local control and reporting directly to the Secretary of State for Education. There is argument on both sides, but the centering of power into the Department for Education shows itself as part of a default mechanism in England. In Scotland and Wales, this has not occurred.

For Scots, the desire for change has been in evidence since the failed referendum in 1979. The recent debates on Independence focus on the “Yes” position as positive and the “No” position as negative (even if it is named “Better Together” the argument of this position has been entirely negative). David Cameron may have punctured the UK by allowing the referendum to be characterised in this way and none of the UK parties have been able to capture the essence of what positively makes the UK worth having apart from a nod to tradition and the past.

The reality, though, is not much different. Scots do not see the Conservative Party as relevant to them and while devolution has provided much decision-making power, the voice of the UK, spoken through Cameron and his ministers, is a daily reminder of the downside of Unionism. That voice speaks from elsewhere.

Before Cameron was Brown and Blair. Blair was characterized by centrist governance, dogma and, although leading Labour, was still seen to represent a distant (by miles and ideas) government. Brown was so dogged by problems (international finance and personal) that despite being Scottish, he fared no better. He was also a “died in the wool” centrist.

This has meant that the desire for self-government is also a desire for real “voice” – one that inspires people. Most Scots are no longer inspired by politicians that they see as remote in terms of distance and in terms of policies. Around half the Scots may well vote that way on 18th September.

Democratising the “Democratic Deficit”

The dictatorship of democracy (that leads to the democratic deficit) by the largest minority is central to UK politics and has been throughout its history in a country that has a relatively benign and social population. Of course, this is not the case in Ireland – a special case. In the rest of the UK (Great Britain), the democratic deficit has not caused national strife since the Civil War in the 17th Century – where there was no democratic ideal even with Cromwell. Apart from skirmishes (such as over the poll tax under Margaret Thatcher), British people have been notably sanguine. There was no Freedom of Information until Tony Blair (and there are many exceptions to this) and ministerial privilege can overturn national accountability such as in the alleged corruption at BAe Systems in Saudi Arabia.

However, the Scots have slightly opened Pandora’s box. Out of this referendum may well come the opportunity to reduce the deficit at least. This has long been a Liberal tradition – blind-sided by the link with Social Democrats in the 1970’s – before the Liberal Democrats came into being. Liberalism was meant to enshrine the spirit of “localism” – against the centrist doctrines of Conservatives and Labour. This localism would have prized a federal Europe (EU) and been at the forefront of devolution for Scotland, Wales and the regions of England.

Devolving as much power as possible to the most local area possible reduces the Democratic Deficit. This is hated by traditional politicians because it loosens power. In a world where national politics is such a profession, it becomes harder to achieve. It is argued that local power begets local corruption – the type of prolonged power that means the same party stays in power for too long and becomes corrupted.

This means that the second pillar of Liberalism, voting by proportional representation, is needed to offset the potential for local dictatorships.

The people of the UK are not naturally inclined to shake up the centre and their desire to maintain first-past-the-post elections shows a desire for little change. It may be that the Scots show the way to change and a reduction in the Democratic Deficit whether they vote “Yes” or “No” on 18th September. It may be a big decision for the Scots – it it already a potential game changer for democracy in the whole of the potentially dis-United Kingdom.

Antigonistically Speaking – the Permeability of Governance

In a world too confused by the economic rise of China to question whether democracy will ultimately produce the best results for humankind; in a world where fighting between Sunni and Shia, between secular and religious, between Dinga and Machar dominates the news as much as Catholic and Protestant did in the UK not that long ago; in a world where the after-effects of the Arab Spring result in a literal chaos; in a world where street demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil, Thailand and elsewhere have threatened the rule of “law” – we need to question how our political institutions work and whether they are robust and durable enough to withstand the constant pressure that we put them under. In a “global” environment, in the so-called “west”, we should also question what political systems we are operating under – as we fit perilously into local, national, regional and global systems.

Around 441BC, Sophocles wrote Antigone http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antigone -a Greek tragedy that, as a school kid, I could immediately appreciate – not through the tragic figure of Creon but through Antigone herself. She dared to push against the tyrannical rule of a king at a time when no-one else, let alone a woman, would dare to do so and lost her life as a result. Opposing the law that Creon laid down was, in her view, proper if that law was wrong – if it was tyrannical. I liked that as a pupil in a school where teachers could appear to be on the wrong side of tyranny.

In nearly 2,500 years since Sophocles wrote Antigone, humans have learned and unlearned the story many times. Because we focus on economics so much (i.e. how we generate wealth) we seem no longer sure whether there are other questions that we should be asking. As 2014 gets under way, maybe we should be questioning what the world needs in order to be Antigonistic – being able to prod the rule of law when that law or the implementation of that law is wrong and to understand where it is impossible to do so.

This is not just an argument for democracy but for a system of government and implementation that is permeable – allowing for change. We also should be asking how we fit into the various levels of government – local, national, regional and global.

It is also worth looking at how we understand where the permeability does not exist at all and where gentle prodding is not likely to succeed – for it is there that fractures happen.

Permeability

It is the ability of our human systems to be permeable (in normal times) that enables them to evolve as our needs change. It means that old-fashioned notions can be changed and that structures which are worn-out can be thrown away. When permeability does not exist, then tyranny wins out.

The permeability of authority is applicable to any organization or structure: from corporate to national government and beyond. In the 21st Century, as communication systems and capabilities continue to rise, how such structures take in information and change is a critical factor for our social existence.

The change in governmental structures from strong individuals (appointed by the gods) through the tyrannies of dictators and various forms of democracy can be seen in their permeability to new thoughts and to absorb the thoughts of others.

God-given rights to rule (whether Charles I of England or Louis XIV of France) were thought of as indisputable in the same way that the earth was thought of as flat. Such rights were disposed of in the 20th Century by political “truths” such as communism or fascism. These “truths” swapped god-appointed rulers for political dictators. Elsewhere, the “big man” tradition as shown by Idi Amin in Uganda or dos Santos in Angola is similarly impermeable to change or outside thought.

In China, the story of impermeability is writ large. The civilization state (Martin Jacques) has evolved at the top from god-appointed rule to political dictat but the impermeability remains. Whether the excuse is heavenly authority or communist or legalism, the ability of that nation’s leadership to restrict change through the impermeability of its structures remains.

The Permeability Grid

Any organization can be assessed as somewhere on the grid of permeability. At its worst extreme today, North Korea stands out – completely impermeable to any thought of change or even discussion, it embodies the lunacy of not just tyranny but of the inability to listen to any reason. This is not just about governing but also about the basic rights of its people. North Korea would get 0 on the scale of impermeability.

Of course, moving too far towards complete permeability is towards chaos. The other extreme (100 on the scale) would be where every thought is taken on board and acted on. This represents an organization that has no control – which some would find enjoyable even if chaotic – but often leads to mayhem. An example of this may be Waterworld  or some other dystopian view of the future, but the tendency here is that it leads towards strong group asserting themselves and veering back towards 0.

The balance between tyranny and chaos is commonly held to be democracy and open societies where the key parameters of society allow and enable freedom of thought and opinion with individual and group rights yet within structures that avoid chaos. This is not at the centre politically but may well be at the centre in terms of permeability.

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This grid works in a similar way to complexity theory – the way that complex adaptive systems work. The tyrannies occupy the areas of stasis at the opposite end to chaos. In the middle, where real evolution happens, stands the “edge of chaos” – it is reasonable to assume that the best democratic, open societies or organisations exist here or should have ambition to do so. It is at the edge of chaos that real permeability exists – the ability of groups of people to listen, understand and adjust. This is where evolution happens without revolution.

The Common Threads blog has been all about how we are mired in rigid 19th Century establishments – even in democratic nations like the USA and the UK. There are a myriad of examples. Humans have evolved many ways to do itself down and ruling elites, wherever they are, enforce lack of permeability through many devices.  Even in supposedly open societies like the USA and UK, rigidity seems to be the natural default mechanism. This leads to poor voter turnout and reactions to Edward Snowden as we have recently seen.

Of course, these can be considered minor against other nations which vary from terror to corruption. South Africa, for example, has moved decidedly from one extreme – the tyranny of apartheid (terror) – but is in danger of side-stepping back into chaos.

Mandela shined a light into the darkness

The worldwide sadness that accompanies the death of a great man or woman shines some light into the cavernous darkness of those who do not live by the same high principles. This has been the case with the death of Madiba as was witnessed by the South Africa’s President Zuma when he rose to speak in front of his subjects in the memorial event in Johannesburg.

Jacob Zuma has been accused of corruption – millions of Rands of government money allegedly spent on his own property – an excess now termed Nkandlagate after the name of the region. The Guardian reported on this in November.

Yet, both fought the tyranny of apartheid – where a dictatorship of a minority (mainly of whites over blacks) could have been fractured by conflict but was changed by an eventual collapse of belief by the majority (under pressure from the rest of the world and its own black population) and nurtured to a peaceful outcome by Mandela.

Nelson Mandela was not one to overtly criticize those in the ANC that committed corruption. The ANC was his “home” but Mandela’s spirit of understanding and compassion must have been stretched to the limit when seeing his ANC brothers and sisters involved in enriching themselves at the expense of the mass of poor people in his country.

Andrew Feinstein, a former South African MP and ANC member, has written vividly on the post-Mandela corruption in South Africa in his book: “After the Party

Lighting up the shadows

Under Nelson Mandela’s giant shadow, there lies a worldwide web of corruption that is not just within the borders of his home country. As the boos rang out to embarrass Jacob Zuma, the question is whether they sounded loud enough to make a difference. Can the moments of reflection on Nelson Mandela’s life shine a light into the shadow so that those who see the problem act on it?

Throughout the world, corruption exists in many forms. The recent edition of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index showed that South Africa ranked 72nd (along with Brazil) out of 177 nations evaluated. Jacob Zuma and his compatriates may have corruption issues but there are (according to the Index) 105 countries in a worse state.

Nigeria – which is 144th on the 2013 list – has just recently seen a letter from the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria being sent to the President asserting that $50 billion of oil revenues has gone missing – representing 70% of the value of such revenues since 2012. Mr Sanusi’s letter calls for immediate audits of the oil accounts.

Whether or not the revenues have been misappropriated, the fact that the Governor of the Central Bank believes that they may have, this points to a society that is prone to corruption – and it is known to be on a grand scale.

Corruption can be seen as the brother of tyranny. Instead of terror, it provides a method of keeping the population quiet. Zimbabwe’s use of income from the Marange diamond fields ensures that the political leadership there is relatively secure and that real democracy / open society cannot permeate.

Angola is another example where Sonangol (the State Oil business) serves to ensure that oil revenues find their right place in the hands of the President and his family and retinues.

In both, terror accompanies the corruption of the resource curse and shows the methodology of keeping stasis – maximising the chances of ruling elites clinging to power and power over the resources of a nation.

How Do we Want to Live?

The rise of China and our continued reliance on economic growth / GDP as the only measure of our success as humans should give us pause – where “us” includes the Chinese as much as anyone else. If those of us in the democracies of the world believe that open societies are important, how important are they to us? How do they compare with a bit more GDP (knowing how unreliable GDP is anyway as a measure of wealth) and how unreliable is it to see economics as the foundation for the quality of our lives? How threatened are we by the non-democratic regimes elsewhere? Does China’s economic success of the past thirty years) threaten their internal structures or the rest of the world’s? Should we react to other nations’ lack of permeability – statis enforced by terror or corruption or legalism?

Common Threads has been about the impermeability of our legal, political, economic and social structures and changes needed in nations like the UK and USA. With the global economy upon us and with world-wide challenges such as climate change and resource scarcity; with G8 and G20 providing economic mechanisms for mutual dialogue; with Arab nations struggling to maintain the Arab Spring against the drive to stasis in places like Egypt and chaos as in Syria and Libya – how hard should we be pushing the “edge of chaos” – democracy – as the right answer throughout the world, knowing that this may cause us economic harm if the Chinese government, for example, don’t like what we say?

Is the alternative to motivating others to our ideals the fear that we could fall into the trap of impermeable extremism (as Golden Dawn in Greece would extol) or even the trap of Tea Party / Ayn Rand rigidity? China, Angola and many other states need an Antigone but it has to be more than brave students at Tiananmen Square. Antigonism will only work when our governments are brave enough to extol our open government world-wide.

Trickle-down Economics – The Thatcher Legacy

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This was originally posted in 2013 just after the death of Margaret Thatcher. Now that the Conservatives have amassed a majority at the General Election, I am re-publishing as the message holds even firmer today.

“In our system, everything is done according to a pyramid approach: the order is given from the top and carried out at the base.”

No, this was not Margaret Thatcher but Jiangwen Qu – professor at Kumming’s Centre for Asian Studies, talking about China. (Taken from China’s Silent Army, Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo).

He went on to say: “We believe that other countries should follow this model, because if you let everybody give their opinion it is difficult to make decisions.”

Yet, it demonstrates how in our so-called democracy, the top-down theory of decision-making was so faulty. Margaret Thatcher won three general elections because the Labour Party was split between the left-wing (originally led by Michael Foot) and the right, which broke away to form the Social Democrats. In the UK’s ridiculous “first-past-the-post” election system, a party needs only 35-40% of the vote for a substantial majority – that was Margaret Thatcher’s luck. This luck had already been seen in her victory over Edward Heath in the leadership contest in 1975 – although it has to be said that she took full advantage of that luck.

Margaret Thatcher always said that she believed in democracy but made great fortune from its deficiencies. Apart from a rigged election system that gives minor parties full majorities, she did not practice democracy in terms of decision-making. Her cabinet (where the Prime Minister is supposed to be prima inter pares – first amongst peers) was where “the order is given from the top and carried out at the base”. This was her style from the time she became Prime Minister to the time she was thrown out by those who had the substance to rebel after 13 years of her idiosyncratic style of democratic rule.

Leadership and Democracy

Within a system such as ours, Margaret Thatcher did not split the country – her support was far less than half the country (usually than 40% of the voting population) and even those that voted for were split between various streams of the Tory party. She fragmented it. Her supporters in 2013 would mainly be found in UKIP today  although she would have still used the Tory Party as it is the only vehicle for power. The split was far worse as it demonstrated that rule of a democratic party would be by just the largest minority and with extreme policies.

Those policies did change the economic landscape that had been moving to rigid control by sclerotic centrist organisations such as Trades unions, Public Sector, old-style corporations and successive governments that had no vision for society.

Thatcher destroyed the comfiness of society in her own terms and put in its place more top-down doctrines around monetarism. Because liberalism had floundered after the first World War, centrist forms such as socialism and corporatism were, it seemed, all that there was left. Even the linking of Liberals and Social Democrats in he 1980’s was to prove a failure of liberalism as the Liberal Party moved towards a centrist European ideal and away from the localism and bias away from the centre that had characterized the party from its inception.

Strong leadership takes advantage of democracy in the UK (and still does) and the trade-off between the two is a constant battle. Where no leadership exists (and this is a story of today) then democracy does not replace it until some form of leadership appears. In the UK, we still have sclerotic centrist organisations that support the status quo and no vision or leadership for the 21st Century that would inspire the change that wealthier and better-educated citizens would aspire to.

The Centre going Forward

There is a massive danger that the completely centrist and statist system operating in China (as quoted in the first paragraph above) will, because of China’s growth and rapid ascendance, come to dominate political thinking the world over. Liberal Democracy is already wilting in western Europe as major decision-making is made by the unelected (in Brussels and for some time in Italy) with nations such as Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and Ireland ruled from the centre (read Germany). This is far away from localism and screams about the loss of Liberalism. The now-disgraced and jailed Chris Huhne remains a fan of the EU and the Euro – not a surprise that his background is social democracy not liberalism.

The 20th Century was a battleground between the forces of darkness epitomized by  extreme Nationalism, Communism and Fascism on one hand and the forces of democracy on the other. Millions lost their lives and millions more suffered in gulags and concentration camps for democracy and the end of extremism.

The 21st Century battleground is more complex as the war between the different political forces of centrist and localism is splintered by the battles for resources and markets (and by the impending battle for climate and conservation) and between north and south and rich and poor and corruptors and corrupted.

Thatcherism knew only Hayek-style liberalism – an understandable reaction against socialism and the fear that fascism was created around that fear. In its place, The Road to Serfdom (Hayek’s best known work and Thatcher’s quasi-bible) postured a place for Government in monetarism and information provision – working to ensure that the market could work through transparent pricing. This was its limit and disregarded the essence of society (although Thatcher did not assert that society did not exist, she might as well) as did Hayek in his complete opposition to anything that wreaked of socialism – even social democracy was something that Hayek viewed as naturally leading to totalitarianism.

The problems that Hayek missed and that Thatcher and Reagan made possible (and that China is already risking) is that while socialism runs everything from the centre, the opposite camp of economic liberalism naturally tends towards a small minority at the top owning all the assets and all the decision-making apparatus. It is clear from the history of the last 30 years that the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer (in terms of direct wealth and the supporting services offered to them) and that the dynamism needed in society from the other sectors is dying. Margaret Thatcher notoriously believed that there would be a trickle-down effect. That was nonsense and that is now proved.

Worse, a market-led economy which is based around numbers only (with GDP growth as the religion) leads to huge societal dislocations. The NHS is a valid case where management by statistics leads to deaths and the complete abandonment of human character – as evidenced by the maltreatment of the elderly. The opposite system (as in the USA) based on insurance only leads to only the wealthy having good medical services.

Worse, the motivation by quantity alone means that quality of life is abandoned in the drive for more goods. This is the market at work when left to its own devices. The market is driven by the simplest routes to success – numbers. We cannot be solely market-driven even if the market is the best form of driving entrepreneurialism.

People-centricity not Centrism or top-down

Society has experimented with many forms of government and economics. On the latter, we have a general agreement that market-led economics works best, but it is market-led not liberal or libertarian markets. Market-led means that other decision-making mechanisms are relevant wherever the market tends to extremism – such as domination of the market by monopolies or when the rich 1% control all the assets.

In the West, we believe that democracy works best because we all have a stake and are all equal under the law. Huge, developing countries like India and Brazil have similar philosophies but are riven by corruption. China is a centrist “civilization state” which directs from the core and will, at some stage, erupt into democracy. Russia is a centrist state by tradition and a mafia-dominated chaos.

Where we believe in equality under the law, we have to strike balances which Hayek / Thatcher / Reagan economics cannot achieve. This balance has to ensure that the drive is towards the individual but that society steps in to take out excesses. The balance is developed by society – with civil society and civil society organisations strengthened against the powers of the centre wherever they are.

This is far away from a socialist state where assets are owned and / or controlled from the centre and where equalization is the norm. Balance (whatever it is called) rewards entrepreneurship but would not award bankers or managers in the same way. It would not have made the reduction to 45% in the top income tax rate in the UK – whether or not this had been financially sensible in the short-term – as it shows a total disregard to society and the motivation of the great majority of its citizens that are struggling to prosper.

People-centricity and a focus on society using the best of the market and democracy but using brain power and ingenuity as well as technology represent the 21st Century as we struggle against top-down, centrism, climate change, resource degradation and inequality.

It is not what Margaret Thatcher intended as it requires not just the whip but also the driving force of human capability in all areas of society to see beyond the numbers or the desire to control from the top. It is leadership by motivation and inspiration.

With the death of Margaret Thatcher, let’s lay to rest trickle-down economics  along with socialism and fascism.

When Bush Senior said “it’s the economy, stupid”, society was shelved.

Let’s talk society not just economics. Human brain power not numbers. Ingenuity not GDP. Well-being not hospital stats. Quality not quantity. Society not just economics. Real leadership, motivation and inspiration.

Institutionalized!

Will Self’s excellent new book “Umbrella” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Umbrella-Will-Self/dp/1408820145/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1348396331&sr=8-1) brilliantly describes the torture of individuals put into “mental institutions” and how (until very recently in the UK) they were appallingly treated.

 

Old people in Care Homes have similarly been shown (one example had a miniature camera secured in the room of a care home) to have been malnourished, beaten and generally abused.

 

Maybe it is improper to use these examples of Institutions that have become uncaring and out of control to symbolize the problems faced regularly by all of us, but it is no coincidence. We have all become “Institutionalized” by the edifices that society has created to carry out the basic functions of society. This is not new. Ossification of institutions is a regular occurrence in society. The reason that monarchs are overthrown, for example, is because the institution of monarchy – the rule of society by one person or clique – becomes, eventually, intolerable to society in general.

 

Cracks in the Institutional Wall

 

We are all confronted by Institutions throughout our lives. From hospitals to school, from government departments to businesses, individuals live their lives working in and being confronted by Institutions.

 

Institutions have been defined as: “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms and organizations that together generate a regularity of (social) behavior” (Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade).

 

They provide “equilibria” to society as a method or ordering our behavior. Greif also developed notions of dynamic institutions to show how institutions change through time.

 

Common Threads’ focus is that the institutions developed in the 19th Century for politics, economics, education and other key areas of society don’t work well in the 21st Century. The aim has been to generate some discussion of where the problems may be and look at some potential solutions rather than try to develop a theoretical analysis (when this is being done elsewhere – for example, in the area of economics at ESNIE (European School on New Institutional Economics – http://esnie.org/).

 

Major economic dislocations as we have seen since 2007 in the West – the banking disasters leading to huge debt problems leading to depression in Greece and the potential for this throughout Europe – could presage major changes in the way institutions develop. Often, the cracks in the wall have to be very large before we either build a new wall or try to fill in the cracks – which is what is being done now.

 

The changes in our institutions that are being made – small changes in banking (mainly in terms of individuals) are akin to deck chairs being moved around on the Titanic. Whether in our political institutions or our economic ones (or wherever large organizations have been set up to provide societal equilibrium) the danger is that they do not change enough to enable society to prosper – rather, built on the foundations of the 19th Century, they fail to deal with the issues that face them (and us) today.

 

Building Order out of Chaos – Challenging Entropy?

 

Just like the walls of Jericho were built to keep out intruders (subject to the odd trumpet) and we build firewalls in our computer systems to keep our systems secure, society builds our Institutions also to have effective walls against change and to build ourselves a cover against the outside world. Maybe we are genetically primed – our cells work within walls that allow us to withstand the chaos that would otherwise ensue. The Second Law of Thermodynamics essentially describes entropy – the natural tendency for good energy to dissipate into bad (useless) energy. Our life on this planet is a constant grind against the power of entropy and, maybe, our desire to build this equilibrium is a natural and instinctive drive for order within chaos.

 

This natural tendency to build order exists throughout civilization and can produce stability and contentment. But, as Darwin wrote: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” (Origin of Species).

 

The key is that Institutions cannot be left to ossify but have to change to meet the changes in environment that exist externally. New order has to be developed constantly.

 

In business, in relatively free markets, businesses come and go on a regular basis. The FTSE 100 started in 1984 and today only three companies from those 100 remain in the FTSE 100 – GKN, Rolls Royce and Imperial Tobacco. This is because the FTSE 100 reconstitutes itself every three months. The Dow Jones started in 1896 – who remembers American Cotton Oil or National Lead or United States Rubber? That is not to belittle business – there is a tough economic law that works hard to reward success and punish failure. Companies that don’t work hard to change to meet the needs of the external environment simply fail. Apple is a great example of a company that was close to collapse in the 1980’s but (under Jobs) completely redirected itself so that it is now the highest valued company in the world. But, for how long? Most companies fail (70% in the first three years).

 

Taking Down the Walls

 

Within the rest of society, change is harder. In our fight against the ravages of chaos, we allow pressure to build up, often learning the wrong lessons. This so often leads to an explosion as pressure gets too much. Society is not very good at understanding where the pressure is building. We defend the status quo for too long and then find ourselves unable to contain the whirlwind that attacks us.

 

In the UK, we have prided ourselves on our ability to change gradually so as to release the pressure before it gets too much. Not since the middle of the 17th Century has England fought a Civil War. This is held up to be the result of the changing democratic scene – from Magna Carta through rule by nobles to rule by the Commons (elected nobles); constant enlargement of the vote from 1832 onwards to women in 1918 (as long as they were over 30 and lived in a decent house) to 18 year-olds in 1969.

 

The walls have been dismantled brick by brick and most democracies follow a similar path.

 

The challenge now is that, in an age where developed societies have reached a decent level of economic wealth, politicians are losing any connection with those they are supposed to represent. Only around 50% of the voting population bothers to vote in general elections. More are now linking up with one-issue groups who they believe will push agendas on their behalf rather than hope that a political party will (by the mere casting of a vote every five years) carry out a manifesto that cannot meet most aspirations.

 

This means that the one issue lobbyists are getting greater powers to influence. Their techniques and ability to make change happen is developing constantly. Originally, such groups were primarily labour organizations (Trades Unions) and, in the UK, this developed into the Labour Party. Now, there are groups within the Third Sector that campaign on any range of issues from the environment to health, from taxation to education, from peace campaigners and human rights to fox-hunting (both sides). Organized campaign groups now operate as a key part of society so that individuals are now useful only at elections.

 

This means that more Institutions have been developed to challenge the political parties (it happens throughout the world). This is not a challenge to the political process – it may even solidify it by shoring up the political process within a wall of campaigning institutions.

 

What role for Society?

 

It is in this context that several have questioned the future in which we grow Institutions to work with other Institutions to govern (or run other aspects of our lives). This response to the walls around politics and government may be a natural one but is questionable as the new Institutions (of the campaigners and lobbyers) are run by a small number of people and funded in many ways. They are not accountable in the same way as political parties are supposed to be (and continue as long as they are funded). Their funds come from a variety of sources and confusion exists amongst society in separating out charitable work from campaigning and lobbying. In the UK, there is no register of lobbying so there is no transparency that is at least attempted in the US (which has its own problems owing to funding regulations that allow companies to fund to whatever level).

 

There is a real danger that the way we are evolving the democratic process is anti-democratic. Democracy is supposed to be government by the people. We have a three-tier system now whereby professional politicians are influenced by a small number (relative to the population) of professionally-run organizations throughout a term of office – remembering the individual citizens only when elections loom.

 

Is this the best we can do?

 

Building the Walls from the Bottom Up

 

In Australia (as I have mentioned in an earlier post), The Centre for Civil Society (under Vern Hughes) – http://www.civilsociety.org.au/ – has developed some new insights and a challenge to the norm in http://www.civilsociety.org.au/CivilSocietyPolitics.htm.

 

This is worthy of investigation as one means of providing greater involvement in our own future.

 

Also critical is the use of technology. Changes in the means of communication have always brought with them the means to radically change society. The printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, the TV, the computer and the internet, the mobile phone, wireless comms – all lead to more and faster information and an enabling of the individual.

 

This is a critical cause of concern for leaders of legalist states such as in China but also offers challenges (and opportunities) to so-called democracies.

 

Individuals are now empowered by technology by dis-empowered by institutions. This means that empowerment is taken up by online shopping or social networking rather much more than for social change or betterment. It means that civil society will continue to be badly served by national and international institutions that meet lobbyists in the corridors of power but are insufficiently grappling with society itself (rather the funneling through funded organizations).

 

Yet, power exists. Libya is a exciting example. Just recently, armed militia groups (a powerful central non-government organization) were ousted by people – civil society coming together to say, “thanks for toppling Gaddafi, your work is done!” In Egypt, Tahrir Square was the centre of civil society’s success to overthrow a dictator. Here, the Military Institutions delayed the correct response and we will have to wait to see if the elected President, Morsi, will serve his citizens or other Institutions (including religious).

 

Civil society (we, the people) should see the 21st Century as one where we are allowed to deliver. The forces for 19th Century equilibria often stand in the way of progress – and are standing in the way of serious climate change policies on an international scale. Institutions set up to effect change may be set up for the right reasons but we are now institutionalized and should seriously re-evaluate our reaction to the new Institutions just as we challenge the old ones. If we need a wall, then we should be blowing that trumpet to unsettle the existing ones.

 

Left-right, left-right: Parties and cliff edges

In the UK, Members of Parliament go back to work after the summer recess. All the talk is about Cameron’s reshuffle and leadership issues: Cameron is accused of acting like a “mouse”; Clegg’s leadership is under threat from his own party; the two Ed’s of Labour (Miliband and Balls) are said to be continuously arguing and that the phrase “two Eds are better than one” may not be true in this case.

More seriously, as the post-summer issues are traditionally short-term nonsense, last week’s Prospect Magazine has Peter Kellner (President of the pollsters, youGuv) writing an intriguing article on how the Liberal Democrats’ support has collapsed since the last General Election  http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/death-by-coalition/. As a result of entering into coalition with the Conservatives, their support has gone from 24% to 10% – which would result in a fall from 57 to around 10-12 seats if an election were to be held today.

While much of Kellner’s response to the polling made good sense, one aspect of the questions his pollsters asked concerns me greatly. This aspect focuses on how much to the left or right the party is.

The concern is this: surely, this form of questioning is out of date in the realpolitik of 21st Century thinking and 21st Century politics. Surely, in an age of individualism and the lobbying by NGO’s and many one-issue organisations of one issue arguments, the left / right analogy is no longer relevant?

Is politics really about left vs right anymore?

The left and right of politics were named after where the French parties sat in the National Assembly in 1789 at the time of the revolution. In 1791, the Legislative Assembly had the “innovators” on the left, moderates in the middle and the defenders of the Constitution on the right. This became the dominant march of politics in the 20th Century. Different and violently opposed political doctrines literally fought it out on the battlefield throughout the 20th Century. Fascism and Nazi-ism on the right, Communism on the left were the extremes in the battlefields of China, Spain, Cambodia, Europe (in WWII) or wherever the post-feudal wars (those that we fought up to the end of the first world war) were fought. Innovation became muddled with socialism and communism; defenders of the constitution became muddled with economic rigour and libertarianism capitalism (never the manner of the “ancient regime”).

Right and left became doctrinal and, with the fight for the rights of labour against the owner class, the 20th Century adopted the political norm.

Is economics an argument of right and left?

Now that the 21st Century is into its twelfth year, the left / right argument appears completely out of date. Sure, there are arguments about economics that will be with us forever: from libertarian, tea party protagonists all the way to Keynesian interventionists. But, because capitalism is now the standard economic and accepted model, the battle is not right vs left in economics but which form of economic model around the capitalist norm. Arguments are much less severe in developed nations and turn on moderate changes in taxation.

Much bigger issues, such as ending tax havens, transfer pricing, corporate power, corporate governance, the role of banks, corruption and many other crucial issues are stymied as politicians argue over the short-term vote catching issues – 1p or 1c on income tax, for instance.

Is the way we are governed right vs left?

Communism or socialism now only survives on the periphery. China is not a communist state – its economics are capitalist within a statist structure and the party ensures a legalist control (it is above the law). This is not communism. Russia is now a centrally controlled capitalist enterprise (run as a large corporate machine). The rest of the world operates in a democratic to quasi-democratic state. Hereditary monarchy is now mainly for the tourists and the press (celebrities within a celebrity culture).

There is little traditional right vs left in government.

Is the environment a subject for right vs left?

Here, confusion reigns. Traditional right-wingers in the UK (from a Tory mould) can be classed as conservative when it comes to the environment. They often oppose untrammelled modernity and defend the right to conserve (as “Conservatives”). Yet, they oppose green movements because they associate them with restrictions on economic growth. Roger Scruton in “how to Think Seriously About the Planet – the case for an environmental conservativism” http://www.amazon.co.uk/Think-Seriously-About-Planet-ebook/dp/B00829L62C/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346585639&sr=8-1 puts the case for the right to take back control of the agenda.

The affects of CO2 are now disputed only at the periphery but the case for changing our ways is not agreed. This is now much more about individual nations wanting their own freedom and more about the problem of worldwide agreements – not a right vs left issue at all.

Does politics need right vs left?

Less and less people vote in general elections. Maybe the reason is that the left vs right arguments that drew people’s interest and motivation are no longer prevalent. The motivation to vote for broad platforms which mainly focus on short-term issues designed to entrap voters based on their short-term economic concerns is weak. Tradition still subjects most voters to choose their party and most political parties focus on swing votes – the 2% that Romney and Obama will work to win over in the USA, for example. The 2% that means that 98% are virtually disenfranchised!

The traditional view of politics is one where political parties are formed to organize themselves so that they can attract votes from the individuals who are not organized. This is changing.

Individuals have always formed into non-political party groupings – from trades unions to employer associations, from charities to NGO’s. Many of these groups are single-issue campaigning groups or lobbyists that work hard to influence political opinion and political parties directly and via the media. These range from economic groups to environmental, from governance to charitable, health to education – the spectrum is vast.

This third sector (usually a reference to charities, but comprising all citizen action groups, from sports clubs onwards) is not primarily left of right, but single focus – taking up an issue or cause around some issues. Their influence on government is substantial. Most Government Bills are developed as a result of significant lobbying from single-issue groups. For example, the Bribery Act came into being as a direct result of such lobbying and formal meetings between Government and a diverse range of lobby groups from CBI to NGO’s.

This means that the ancient Greek form of democracy – where every individual is supposed to have an equal say in Government – which was never the norm in most democracies as political parties formed – is now fractured into more layers. Government now relies on the lobbyists and reacts more to them than the community or study groups assembled from the general populace prior to elections.

This means that the left and right of politics (already under strain anyway) are meaningless. Single-issue groups lobby on single issues and political parties, no longer fighting on the issues of left vs right, sway as they are buffeted by those who are able to articulate the issues and now the means to communicate effectively. This means that the individual voter is now even more disenfranchised as it is only a small fraction of the population that is engaged in this process – and that, even at elections, the driving force behind vote-catching is bound to short-term or lobby focused.

A new politics?

In an era of globalization and instant communications, individual nations are less able to maintain an individualist position. Nevertheless, as the Olympics and Paralympics have shown in the UK, national pride remains important and is a reason why the Eurozone crisis will endure much longer than hoped.

However, within this national pride, it is likely to be an era when individualism is also crucial. The mass movements of left vs right are no longer relevant and single issues are much stronger in motivating and exciting.

If there is any truth in this then it is interesting to note the preamble to the Liberal Democrats Federal Constitution:

“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.”

In the nonsense over cabinet reshuffles and personalities, it is probably the case that very few even know where to look for the above statement http://www.libdems.org.uk/who_we_are.aspx  – (which is found on the Liberal Democrat website after its coalition agreement – which is all short-term).

Yet, it could be the clarion call for our age – a liberal theme that is far more “of our age” than the 20th Century arguments of right or left.

If right vs left is truly out of date, then open society, balancing liberty, equality and community, individualism cherished, developing talents, creativity and the rest within a coherent community is a proper and enticing call that should be further developed. Apart from a better focus on the environment (our natural capital) which demands more from us, the preamble is not right or left – it is also not middle ground but moves the argument away from traditional left vs right.

Citizens of the 21st Century world maybe deserve something more from our governing elites that have not moved from their 19th Century models.  How we balance our competing single issues and how citizens get to have their say in the crucial issues that determine how we spend our lives is what 21st Century politics should be about. Maybe parties like the Liberal Democrats should think of the themes that will dominate thinking in the 21st Century. Maybe that is a way to get some common ground with citizens – the voters.

Civil Society – Its Place in the 21st Century

Vern Hughes, Director, Centre for Civil Liberty in Australia, has produced a manifesto for the Mobilisation of Civil Society. Its ten tenets are:

1. Understanding the World Outside States and Markets
2. Personal and Social Relationships
3. Self-Help and Mutual Support
4. Small is Beautiful
5. A Leaner State with Less Bureaucracy
6. A Market Economy without Concentrations of Corporate Power
7. Social Enterprise in Finance and the Exchange of Capital
8. Entrepreneurship and Innovation
9. Social Enterprise in Education Health and Social Services
10. A Renewal of Democracy

and the full proposition can be found on:

http://www.civilsociety.org.au/Manifesto%20for%20the%20Mobilisation%20of%20Civil%20Society.pdf

This links so well with my own philosophy that, this week, it makes sense to show the Manifesto and my own comments on it – which is also displayed on:

http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Manifesto-Mobilisation-Civil-Society-wed-4137855.S.93363203

My own comments:

Vern, this is a courageous attempt to frame a new society and one that, in principle, has a great weight of sense behind it. The manifesto should consider some more variables – which you may already have done.
One is how Civil Society fits in a fractured world made up of democracies (however imperfect) and many states where even the simplest form of democracy does not exist. China is a major player now and the basic forms of democracy (and civil society) play no part. Economics as measured imperfectly by GDP – which ignores all “externalities” – is to the fore on a Maslow index where the basic needs are still to be met. Political change (in the way you suggest and in a way that makes much sense) is well behind in terms of priority.
Second, civil society works (or attempts to work) within the decision-making processes to effect change. Having spent five years in an NGO (until very recently at Global Witness, a pro-transparency and anti-corruption / conflict NGO), the key to any success is operating to make change. But, NGO’s and civil society organisations are unelected and the danger of a civil society in this form taking a dominant role (it already has a very key role) is not obvious.
Third, I agree that in modern society where information is available and transparency should be, the drive to more local decision-making is critical for most decisions. Large, centralised and almost totalitarian agglomerations (monopolies) should not be tolerated. However, the newly developing nations of China, Russia and Brazil (as examples) will see this as a secondary issue. Developed nations will stress the need to compete – this is a major challenge.
Fourth, reducing the state through localism is important but the state’s role needs to be better explained and will vary from country to country. The state has a role to play (such as being the guardian against monopolies across the spectrum) as well as traditional issues of defence and security. These roles are tough to assess.
Fifth, I argue in my own blog – https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/ – that the economics and politics of the 19th Century is still dominant and need massive revision. I therefore support in principle the direction of change from your own NGO with economics being in the centre of the change. Apart from the inclusion of key externalities such as climate, waste, quality vs quantity, pollution that 19th Century economics ignores (except on the periphery of substitution and pricing – with massive disconnects throughout), politics and politicians are too short-term and too focused on the next election to build successful futures. That is why the Chinese and their lack of democracy appears more economically successful today. But, that is not the direction to travel.
So, good luck with this manifesto as a starting point for an urgent process of change!