Friday, December 25, 2015

Communitarianism & Synetopia

From Socrates’ questioning of all assumptions to Rorty’s assumption that nothing is beyond questioning, the history of philosophy can give the impression that little progress is ever made in reflecting on how we should live. But the intellectual journey from Thomas More’s communal utopia to our communitarian conception of synetopia would suggest that, provided the process of questioning is systematically linked to the formulation and revision of the way we live together, we can improve society over time.

Questioning the claims and commands of those who expect others to accept them is essential if the misguided and devious do not slip through along with sound assertions and orders. However, such questioning must be anchored to objectives that can be genuinely shared by all involved, and these would have to revolve around a combination of their personal and collective wellbeing. It also has to be carried out in a robust and responsible manner so that bad reasoning and inadequate evidence are challenged, while lessons learnt are retained until they are superseded by better explanations or new findings.

The development of the synetopia thesis has been driven by adaptations to shared experiences of what helps and what hinders the cultivation of cooperative problem-solving. Collaborating under conditions of equal respect and mutual support, people achieve far more than they ever could as isolated individuals, or worse, as enemies who plot to undermine each other.

Of course it is possible that some people would prefer to go with their own inclinations, however irrational or repugnant these may strike others, even if it means that other people’s wellbeing could be adversely affected. In some cases, even their trade-off to gain some gratification at the expense of other aspects of their lives may appear absurd to other people. But as Wittgenstein might say, the differences between such people and the rest of us are foundational – in the sense that they cannot go any further beyond the bedrock of justification. We may prefer to cooperate so as to maximise our personal and mutual good in harmony, but there are those who would rather follow their own short-term desires irrespective of any wider consequences; inflict pain on the innocent; build empires by subjugating the powerless; lose themselves in mind-numbing addictions; boost their low self-esteem through bullying; enrich themselves by deceiving the trusting; or indulge in personal obsessions with no thought for anyone else.

The ultimate difference is that while we can reach out and invite others to join us in what are genuinely common endeavours, the variants of self-centred exploits cannot be presented as a philosophy that is open to all.

In other words, synetopia is where reciprocity is taken seriously (see: ‘Reciprocity & Progressive Communitarianism’). Throughout history, as this ethos evolves, cooperation expands and diverse strands of joint deliberation and democratic power sharing come together to form a worldview directed at the building of inclusive community life (see: ‘Communitarians: an introduction’; ‘Cooperative & Communitarian: a common heritage’; and ‘The Radical Communitarian Synthesis’).

When it is applied to the functioning of local and national government, it generates further learning on how inclusive communities can be developed and sustained (see, for example, ‘Rejuvenating Democracy: lessons from a communitarian experiment'). This in turn helps to inform the formulation of ‘Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide’, which provides a general framework for assessing what needs to be improved.

The reasoning that underpins the synetopia thesis that mutual questioning and systematic cooperation will help advance us towards better human conditions is set out in detail in the following books:
Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics & citizenship (Macmillan 1998): a comprehensive statement of the core principles, and their justification and applications. Reviews of the book can be found here.
Progressive Politics in the Global Age (Polity 2001): a collection of writings by European and American thinkers on progressive communitarianism.
Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle (Birkbeck 2015): an exposition of the barriers to the development of more inclusive communities, and how they were overcome over the past centuries.
Responsibility and Personal Interactions (Edwin Mellen Press 1990): a detailed study of how our responsibility to one another is connected to the type of personal interactions we seek to sustain with others in society.
Punishment, Excuses & Moral Development (Avebury Press 1996): a collection of communitarian writings on what judgement and response would be appropriate in relation to the behaviour of other people.

If your university or local library has a copy of the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences (2nd edition; James D. Wright, editor-in-chief; Oxford: Elsevier; 2015), then you can access a useful summary of communitarian ideas in the article, ‘Communitarianism, sociology of' (by Henry Tam, in Vol. 4, pp.311-316).

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Synetopia Protocol

‘Synetopia’ denotes the ‘cooperative place’, where people work together so that the sum of what is achieved for everyone is greater than all the outcomes they would have managed to attain as isolated individuals. It marks the departure from ‘utopia’ where the ‘good place’ is either too abstract a notion to serve as a guide, or is premised on such impossible terms that it is in effect an unrealisable ideal (or ‘ou-topia’ - ‘no place’). By contrast, synetopia is achievable precisely through forms of interaction that have been tried and tested in diverse contexts, and proven to improve human relationships and improve the quality of life. The challenge is to put the essential elements in place consistently and extensively. To this end, a protocol has been devised with the ‘SYNETOPIA’ acronym spelling out those elements:

S hared Mission
Y ou-and-I Mutuality
N imble Membership
E ducative Collaboration
T esting of Claims and Assumptions
O pen Access to Information
P articipatory Decision-Making
I mpartial Distribution of Power
A ccountability for Action

The Synetopia Protocol is designed to provide a simple framework to help review any group (voluntary, commercial, or governmental) in terms of how it is performing under each of these nine elements, and map out how they can be improved and sustained on a continuous basis. There is no perfect future to reach, but simply a cooperative process to render the present better than the past.

Shared Mission
All members of the group have a shared understanding of their common mission or purpose. The group provides an effective and visible vehicle to enable its members to join forces for their respective wellbeing.
Measures of success: How widely is the core mission owned and appreciated by all members? How convinced are members that they have an organisation which has the rules and capacity to achieve their mission?
Indicators of deficiency: Members feel a lack of cohesion, concerned that they are isolated and insecure, are indifferent or antagonistic towards other members.

You-and-I Mutuality
Instead of ‘Me’-centred individualism or ‘We-subsume-all’ collectivism, there is genuine mutuality in distributing the benefits and burden connected with the group, and none can amass what comes from the group’s joint endeavours to enrich themselves at the expense of others.
Measures of success: Are there arrangements in place to prioritise, adjudicate & enforce the fair distribution of benefits? How confident are members that the arrangements will operate reliably and impartially?
Indicators of deficiency: Members believe that others have privileged access to what is produced by the group, and they are constantly marginalised and deprived of their share.

Nimble Membership
There is a transparent and responsive membership system that underpins who is brought into the group or excluded from it, and sets out the rights and responsibilities of both the group and its members.
Measures of success: Is there a sustainable and non-discriminatory process to recruiting, inducting, rejecting & expelling members? Do members know what is expected of them individually? Is there a clear decision path for assessing membership issues such as merger/federation with other groups?
Indicators of deficiency: There are too few/too many members to function effectively; current members are distrustful of the process of accepting and/excluding people as members.

Educative Collaboration
All members of the group are enabled to share ideas, learn through collaborative exchanges, and have opportunities to study, formulate and discuss interpretations of the relevant evidence as well as proposals for change.
Measures of success: Is there a culture of lifelong learning? Are members supported to engage in deliberative exchanges to inform their beliefs, policies, and practices?
Indicators of deficiency: Members are detached from thinking through why things are done in their group; they casually accept or reject ideas & instructions. There is a lack of interest in learning from each other or from other sources.

Testing of Claims and Assumptions
The group does not accept that there is any claim or assumption that is fundamentally unquestionable. It is prepared to subject all proposals and findings to continuous testing, and revise them in the light of the latest evidence.
Measures of success: How confident are members in questioning claims put forward by those in more highly ranked positions? Is everyone aware that nothing (in the name of ‘tradition’ or anything else) can be ring-fenced from empirical analysis? Is open and critical discussion of current and new ideas encouraged and facilitated?
Indicators of deficiency: Irrational beliefs are allowed to take hold & undermine intelligent considerations. There is widespread perception that there is no point or scope in subjecting any activity to critical questioning.

Open Access to Information
Nothing untoward is hidden and useful information is widely shared. Processes to detect and expose deception are in place, and demands for secrecy are independently scrutinised for their legitimacy.
Measures of success: How reliable are the communication channels in place to facilitate inspection, audit, whistleblowing, peer review to keep wrongdoing at bay? How easy is it for members to discover and access relevant and accurate information about the group’s past performance and future options?
Indicators of deficiency: There is common suspicion that systematic or reactive shielding of irresponsible actions is perpetrated; there is unjustifiable refusal or obstruction to members seeking to find out more about what has been done in the group and why.

Participatory Decision-Making
The group enables and encourages all members to participate as equals in the making of decisions that affect them, and ensures everyone can contribute to those decisions on an informed and deliberative basis.
Measures of success: Are the procedures for decision-making clear to all members? How extensive are training and participation opportunities made available? And how effective are they in ensuring that no one will be ignored or disrespected? Does the joint decision-making apply to how to divide and distribute the resources generated by the group?
Indicators of deficiency: A significant number of members either lack the information or skills to make sensible decisions, or decline to become involved in decision making altogether. Insufficiently thought-through or biased decisions harm the group & its members.

Impartial Distribution of Power
The distribution of power is monitored and where necessary revised to minimise the likelihood that an individual or an alliance of them can come to possess so much power that they can intimidate or dictate terms to others.
Measures of success: Are there safeguards in place to stop individuals or sections in the group accumulating power? Is there a regular and effective redistribution of power so that even concentrated powers for emergencies are only granted on temporary basis? Are there checks and balances so that no one can hold others to ransom by threats?
Indicators of deficiency: There is suppression of dissent and pervasive enforcement of reluctant compliance. Members show fear, resentment, distrust towards the leadership.

Accountability for Action
All members, especially those entrusted with the authority to act on behalf of the group, are held accountable for any action against individual members or the wider interest of the group. Disputes over charges are resolved through independent mechanisms and judgements carried out in accordance with the rules.
Measures of success: Are there transparent electoral or selection process to replace those with positions of authority? How easy is it to detect unjustifiable actions? Are there reliable mechanisms for all to trigger to summon potential wrongdoers to account for their actions? Are members supported in being vigilant in challenging decisions that appear to be illegitimate?
Indicators of deficiency: Some are able to stay in positions of power regardless of the severity and frequency of concerns raised; some are suspected of placing their own personal interests and/or those who bribe them above the collective interests of the group.

The elements identified for the synetopia protocol are derived from a combination of academic research, international exchange of policy ideas, and a review of the findings of the ‘Together We Can’ action learning programme I carried out as the UK Government’s Head of Civil Renewal between 2003 and 2010. More details on each of the nine elements that constitute synetopia can be found in the essays on those elements listed in the 'Guide to Synetopia'.