Saturday, September 13, 2014

‘Dystopia of the Powerful’ Novels

Dystopian fiction provides a dramatic means to draw attention to what life may be like if power continues to be concentrated in an unaccountable few. The two widely acclaimed novels, Whitehall through the Looking Glass and Kuan’s Wonderland, hold up a mirror to the dark arts of societal manipulation, political intrigues, and the dangers of becoming disempowered.

You can find out more about both novels (including the reviews from general readers as well as those involved in political education) as follows:
• For the satirical Whitehall through the Looking Glass, set in a technologically futuristic but otherwise realistic Whitehall (as only a long time insider can depict), where the government itself has been taken over by the Consortium, click on: Guide to Whitehall
• For the allegorical Kuan’s Wonderland, set in the mysterious world of Shiyan where a young boy has been forcibly transported to, and no one he encounters is what they appear to be, click on: Guide to Kuan

(The two novels can be read independently of each other, though they have plot and character connections)

What are the key issues to reflect on
• Do we know who are accumulating power at our expense?
• What are the tricks used to get people to back those who will only exploit them?
• Why the longer we leave politics to the powerful, the worse things will get for us?
• What does it take to unmask and challenge those who want us to be completely powerless against them?
• Do we understand how people can be motivated by different ideals and concerns to unite around a common cause of ensuring none is too powerful to oppress others?

How to get hold of these novels
For Whitehall through the Looking Glass, you can get:
The E-book version from: Amazon UK or Amazon US
The Paperback version from: Barnes & Noble or CreateSpace

For Kuan’s Wonderland, you can get:
The E-book version from: Amazon UK or Amazon US
The Paperback version from: Barnes & Noble or CreateSpace

Options for further engagement
You can:
• Contact the author with your questions
• Share the novel(s) with others through a reading group
• Set up a discussion group to explore the key themes and ideas directly with the author
• Use the novel(s) as the basis for a class on promoting political reflections through dystopian fiction

The Equality Trust, for example, has chosen Kuan’s Wonderland as a key text for engaging young people in exploring the problem of inequality. See their Young Person’s Guide to Inequality (Stories Page), and the teaching aid to promote class discussion, which can be downloaded for free (but beware of spoilers) by clicking on: ‘A Novel Exploration of Inequality’

The WEA has used Kuan’s Wonderland as a basis to engage learners about the problem of inequality. See the WEA page.

Supplementary Texts
In addition to Whitehall through the Looking Glass and Kuan’s Wonderland, and the two probably best known dystopian novels – Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World – the following are also worth reading for their respective vision of how society could turn out if a powerful elite were allowed to accumulate wealth, government positions, and control over the media and the use of force:
• Atwood, M., The Handmaid’s Tale
• Bachman, R. (aka Stephen King), The Running Man
• Bradbury, R., Fahrenheit 451
• Lewis, S., It Can’t Happen Here
• London, J., The Iron Heel
• Moore, A., V for Vendetta
• Wyndham, J., The Chrysalids

Communitarians: an introduction

Who are the 'Communitarian' thinkers? How have their ideas developed over time? And what are the core elements of the cooperative gestalt they advocate as vital to the development of inclusive communities?.

The term ‘communitarian’ first came into usage in the 1840s to describe the approach to community building through cooperative education and organisation that was promoted by Robert Owen and his followers in Britain and America [Note 1].

Owenites maintained that people’s lives could be substantially improved if they interacted with one another in mutually supportive communities, rather than carrying on with exploitative arrangements, which benefited a powerful few at the expense of the majority. They pressed for experimental alternatives to be developed to test out how social arrangements could be reformed irrespective of what traditional beliefs might be invoked to defend the status quo. And they believed education held the key to giving people the skills, confidence and will to bring about new socio-economic structures and power relations.

By late 19th/early 20th century, Owenite communitarian ideas of egalitarian cooperation and democratic solidarity were emerging as key elements in the converging political visions of the New Liberals in Britain, progressives like Dewey and Croly in America, Durkheim in France, and social democrats in Germany and Scandinavia.

This communitarian ethos infused the New Deal, the founding of the NHS, and the political consensus for safeguarding the common good in the post-War years. But it was to come under severe attack from market individualists in the 1980s. The rise of the ‘New Right’ ideology of Thatcher and Reagan privileged the elite who were able to manipulate the market to help them accumulate ever-greater wealth and power at the expense of other people’s security and wellbeing.

Against this corrosive trend, in the 1990s a group of social and political theorists in Britain and America adopted ‘communitarian’ as the name for their shared philosophical outlook. In their writings [Note 2], both the relativist notion of supposing individuals should be left alone to act as they wish, and the authoritarian demand to impose the rigid order of hierarchical communities, are equally rejected. Instead arguments are put forward for enabling ordinary citizens and those in leadership positions to find ways to build and sustain a more inclusive form of community life, with the help of shared learning, deliberative dialogues and participatory forms of collective decision-making.

Reviving the cooperative-communitarian tradition, these writers exposed the threats of relentless marketisation and plutocratic politics, which were turning people into disempowered beings unable to overcome marginalisation and oppression. Their yardstick for assessing reform is whether it will help people relate to each other in mutually supportive and democratically cooperative ways in shaping their political governance, the enterprise in which they work, their living conditions and environment, and any organisation that may impact on their lives. The development of the cooperative gestalt they promoted is to be guided by three principles:

The three key communitarian principles

First, the principle of cooperative enquiry requires anyone making an assertion to be judged with reference to the extent to which informed participants deliberating under conditions of thoughtful and uncoerced exchanges would concur. Any provisional consensus reached by one group of individuals must in turn be open to possible revisions. The ultimate strength of any truth claim rests with the likelihood of that claim surviving the critical deliberations of ever expanding communities of enquirers.

Secondly, the principle of mutual responsibility requires all members of any community to take responsibility for enabling each other to pursue those values that stand up to the test of reciprocity. What an individual may value cannot expect to command the respect from others if its pursuit is incompatible with the realisation of goals valued by others. The range of mutual responsibilities may cover the provision of protection and support for all who would otherwise be vulnerable.

Thirdly, the principle of citizen participation requires that all those affected by any given power structure are able to participate as equal citizens in determining how the power in question is to be exercised. All those subject to potentially binding commands should be entitled to learn about, review, and determine how to reform decision-making processes. This applies to not only government institutions, but also businesses, schools and community organisations.

The communitarian reform agenda

The form of community life favoured by communitarians is that which progressively evolves in the direction recommended by these principles. It follows that modern corporations as much as traditional communities must change to enable people to interact in far more cooperative and mutually respectful ways. It means that social cohesion is not to be secured from rigid homogeneity, but from the cultivation of common values that thrive on moral sensitivity and cultural diversity. It will challenge those who seek to construct a distorted sense of identity out of the ‘superiority’ they imagine they possess over those who are traditionally discriminated against. And far from focusing on just one’s own nation, or one’s neighbourhood community, it supports the authentic quest for a richer sense of belonging to a multiplicity of communities, and to the building of mutual support and cooperative relations across borders when that is essential in the age of globalisation.

Note 1:
Although some writers have combined praise for their idealised form of ‘community’ with reactionary defence of outmoded traditions and hierarchies, none of them has used the term ‘communitarian’ to describe themselves, for the understandable reason that the term is actually associated with the progressive philosophy espoused by a long line of thinkers. The term has been regarded in some quarters as having ‘anti-liberal’ connotation solely because in the 1980s, it was used by academic commentators as a generic label for an otherwise diverse group of thinkers (Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, and Michael Walzer) who had one thing in common: they all penned criticisms of John Rawls’ liberal philosophy because it treated people as unencumbered selves without reference to their relationships to their communities. All these writers rejected the categorisation of them as ‘communitarians’, and apart from MacIntyre, their wider writings showed that they were not against liberal ideas in general, only particular formulations of them.

Note 2:
Bellah, R., et al. (1991). The Good Society. Vintage Books.
Bellah, R. (1996). ‘Community Properly Understood’, in Responsive Community, Vol.6, issue 1, Winter 1995/96, pp.49-54.
Bellah, R. & Sullivan, W. (2001), ‘Cultural Resources for a Progressive Alternative’ in Tam (2001).
Boswell, J. (1990). Community and the Economy: the Theory of Public Co-operation. Routledge, London. 

Cladis, M.S. (1992). A Communitarian Defense of Liberalism: Emile Durkheim and contemporary social theory. Stanford University Press, Stanford. 

Etzioni, A. (Ed.), (1998). The Essential Communitarian Reader. Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield. 

Selznick, P. (1992). The Moral Commonwealth. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 

Selznick, P. (2002). The Communitarian Persuasion. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington. 

Tam, H. (1998). Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship. Macmillan, Basingstoke. 

Tam, H. (Ed.) (2001). Progressive Politics in the Global Age. Polity Press, Cambridge.
Tam, H. (2011). ‘Rejuvenating Democracy: lessons from a communitarian experiment’, in Forum for promoting 3-19 comprehensive education, Volume 53, Number 3, 2011.
For more information, see the guide to Henry Tam’s Communitarianism.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Climate Change: a philosophical debate

Climate Change: should science guide politics – or politics guide science?

A Day Conference and Colloquium arranged by the Philosophical Society of England (
Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London EC1V OHB.
Saturday, 11th October 2014, 10.30a.m. – 4.30 p.m.

Anthropogenic climate change has been described as one of the most serious problems facing the 21st century, yet public debate of the issue is plagued by uncertainty. What are the likely consequences and what costs would be involved in attempting to mitigate them? Science and mathematics are needed to test the empirical claims and to consider the questions they raise about risk assessment and probability. But, alongside the natural sciences, ethics, philosophy and the social sciences also have a crucial role to play.

10.30 a.m. Arrival and registration.

11.00 a.m. 'Cosmopolitan Ethics in the Anthropocene'
Michael Northcott, Professor of Ethics at the University of Edinburgh
Chair: Dr. Henry Tam

1 p.m. Lunch.

2 p.m. ‘Technology introductions in the context of decarbonisation: lessons from recent history’
Michael J Kelly, Professor of Technology, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge .
Chair: Professor Brenda Almond

3.45 p.m. Tea and opportunity for informal discussion


Registration charge, including lunch and morning and afternoon tea or coffee, is £15.

Payment is required by October 1st 2014 but places can be reserved by sending a deposit of £5 to the Hon. Sec. at the address below. For conference enquiries please contact the Chair of the Society, Michael Bavidge: Cheques should be made out to ‘The Philosophical Society of England’ and sent to the Honorary Secretary of the Society Alan Brown, 9 Olney Court, Oxford OX14LZ.

Registered Charity No. 1140044.