The collective pursuit of wellbeing

13 08 2013

The thing that amazes me most about the current financial crisis, and in particular its causes, is not the situation itself but our response to it. The vast majority suffer in silence or, at best, content ourselves by sharing our disgruntlement on social media.

It isn’t clear to me that this will always be the case; after all it was a simple dispute over the access and use of a public park in Istanbul that brought thousands of people onto the streets of Turkey to express their wider dissatisfaction with the government. I find it difficult to believe that none of us really cares and that we will all be prepared to simply sit in front of our TV’s shaking our heads at the latest excesses of capitalism, abuses of power or environmental catastrophe. So if we are sitting on a tinderbox just waiting for that spark to ignite our outrage and bring us all out onto the streets then it makes sense to consider alternatives to the current system, and to get them in place, before the whole thing blows. If we can’t stop the inferno then at least we can have something that can rise out of the ashes.

In order that people don’t continue to feel that they have no influence or interest in the way things are we need to create a people-centred economy rather than a society that focusses on, and celebrates, the mindless accumulation of possessions and wealth. The current model of capitalism, the Ango/American model, is characterised by both increased levels of inequality and decreased levels of wellbeing. This has had huge financial implications as the state, through the NHS and benefits system, has to up the bill. We have all become accustomed to the idea of maximising profit rather than maximising value in a wider sense.

Greed, the cult of the individual and philosophies of exclusion must be replaced by solidarity, community and inclusion.

From my perspective, while there is a need to create a new type of economy there is no need to create one from scratch; co-operative enterprises already have a business model that puts people at the centre of the decision-making process. By encouraging participation, by bringing people with shared values together working towards a common goal, individual and collective needs can be met.

A huge industry has grown up selling the dream of personal happiness and many thousands of books promise a quick fix for a better life. The happiness industry is like the diet industry, it survives and prospers because so many of its clients fail and have to come back again and again. While the industry grows, built as it is around individual goals and aspirations, wellbeing in society as a whole declines. How much better to take a co-operative approach and give people the means to help themselves by enabling them to co-operate with and support others. When we as individuals can find a common cause we are more open to the needs of others and this openess allows others to co-operate with us. At base level this is how early societies were established. Early humans could not hunt for large prey alone. It takes more than one person, even if that one person has a very sharp spear, to fell a mammoth! Societies grew out of the absolute imperative of co-operation in order to survive.

If the only common cause that can be found is standing together to collect job seekers allowance then is it really so surprising that wellbeing decreases? And we are born co-operators. Studies of infants have shown that from a very young age human infants will work together in order to solve a task that could not be solved by one alone. More than that, they have shown that if the rewards for working together are not distributed evenly the infant who has arbitrarily received a greater reward will share the unearned bounty with their collaborator! This sense of fairness when working together is what actually sets us apart from other primates.

This desire for co-operation and equity exists in the philosophy of Ubuntu. The most easily understood explanation of Ubuntu takes the form of a story.  An anthropologist proposed a game to children in an African tribe. He put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told the children that whoever got there first won the fruit. When he told them to run, they all took each others hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that when one could have had all the fruit for himself, they said, ‘UBUNTU, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad? Now I don’t know whether this is an urban legend, so to speak, but it does sum up ubuntu accurately and sets a stark contrast to the individual pursuit of happiness.

Ubuntu asserts that it is society that gives human beings their humanity.  As with the mammoth hunting example, this co-operation for a collective good came about as each individual came together with others as a hedge against his own crop failures and where each individual has an interest in collective prosperity. Desmond Tutu explained it like this, ” One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World.”

The common good, “greatest-happiness principle”, is a philosophy most often attributed to Jeremy Bentham and developed by John Stuart Mill in the late 19th century. Mill argued that it is not one’s own happiness that matters but the greatest amount of happiness altogether and proposed economic democracy rather than capitalism, substituting worker co-operatives for capitalist shareholder owned businesses.

So from common good comes another co-operative principle, common ownership. In a business setting, there is empirical evidence of positive productivity gains from a worker take-over. There is also evidence that the businesses that result are more resilient to economic downturns. Workers often see potential in a business not seen by investors. By anchoring jobs and capital locally worker co-operatives have a significant positive impact on the social cohesion of the local economy.

On a global scale, nobody goes hungry because we have no food. Nobody is homeless because there are no building materials, nobody lives in poverty because there is no money.  People go hungry because the food isn’t where they need it at a price they can afford. People have no homes because they cannot afford housing. People live in poverty while, indeed because, a few accumulate massive wealth. We are accustomed to thinking that we live in a world of scarcity. We do not. We live in a world of abundance but one where that bounty isn’t fairly distributed.  Oxfam recently reported that “the world’s 100 richest people earned enough in 2012 to end global poverty four times over”. As a good friend pointed out when reading the first draft of this article, we can even take issue with whether the richest 100 actually “earned” their wealth at all.

And we need to feel that we have some control over our lives. Democracy doesn’t feel like democracy when decisions are taken far from the place where those decisions will have impact and by people with whom we have little or nothing in common.  Far too often communities have solutions thrust upon them, often from well-meaning groups. Solutions that probably seemed reasonable on paper but which lose relevance and resonance when parachuted into a community that has had no say in the process. Urbanisation and distant state control undermines empathy. We need to bring decision-making back into communities and allow people to have democratic control over their future.

Sociocracy offers a way forward in collective decision-making. This methodology has developed from the Quaker tradition of peace and of valuing the individual and from modern systems thinking. It differs from a democracy in that it is a method in which people work together to govern themselves. While it shares the values of democracy, equality and freedom, it is based on specific governance methods that ensure these values.  It is governance by companions, by like-minded co-operators if you will, based on each giving consent in the decision-making process.

Co-operative enterprise places people at the centre of economic decision-making which leads directly to a sense of fairness and equality. When we have a voice, when we have a fair say, when we are heard, we feel better about ourselves. In a very real sense, co-operative enterprise can be seen as the collective pursuit of wellbeing.

Here comes the cavalry

8 08 2013

It has become a bit of a mantra, a favourite one of mine if I’m honest, to assert that the banks and the bankers are responsible for the current economic downturn, as it is euphemistically called. But even though it is certainly true, it isn’t the whole truth.

Consider the facts, simply expressed. The banks had accrued too much debt. They had so much debt that lenders stopped lending to them. Under this pressure the banks themselves stopped lending any money. The economy got into trouble and the banks got into even more trouble. So bad was their situation that the government (using our money collected by taxation) had to bail them out.  And why did the banks have so much debt? Because they had taken out loans, ie borrowed lots of money, in order that they themselves could lend money to people who wanted to borrow it from them in order that they could buy stuff, particularly property.

So there is a case for saying that the economic crisis wasn’t created by reckless lending but by reckless borrowing. The banks, as any other business dedicated to creating value for shareholders, was simply responding to the marketplace they found themselves in in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. A global economy fueled by conspicuous consumption.

And neither is it good enough to say that the banks were too big to fail in a way that implies that it is a fact that not only cannot be disputed but one that  is nothing to do with us.  In the 1980’s British banking laws were changed to allow building societies to demutualise if more than 75% of their members voted to do so. In practice the societies transformed into banks not just with the consent of their memberships but with the enthusiastic support of their members. There was a rush to open accounts so that individuals could benefit from demutualisation, so called carpet-bagging. But while this practice did occur, most of the pressure to demutualise came from members looking to cash in on a quick windfall.

So it is partly our own faults that we now have a banking system which, unlike the vast majority of other developed nations, is dominated by a very few banks that were deemed to be too big to fail.

A side-effect of the model of capitalism we have created is the hero entrepreneur, lauded for creating multi-billion dollar businesses, many of which have been shown to be socially irresponsible in their determination to avoid their fair share of taxation.

So this crisis has proved beyond all reasonable doubt, that a world economy fuelled by ever growing consumption is not a viable option, that banks as currently structured and regulated cannot continue and that we need alternative models for entrepreneurs. We need to rethink capitalism to move away from the idea that if we all keep buying stuff everything will work out alright in the end.

So here comes the cavalry.

The era of self-congratulatory entrepreneurs, of businesses focused only on shareholder value, if not quite over completely, is certainly coming to an end. We are on the brink of what Tony Bradley writing in the3rdimagazine, has termed societal entrepreneurship.  This is different to social enterprise, I think, as this sector has up to now tended to create social entrepreneurs in the same mould as the hero entrepreneur. Individuals striving to create value for themselves and just a few others.  Societal entrepreneurship, or co-operative enterprise as I’d prefer to call it, focuses on creating value for all stakeholders; those within the enterprise, clients, suppliers and the wider community.  A co-operative, societal enterprise takes the hero entrepreneur out of the picture, or at least places them amongst a crowd.

Banks are leaving poorer communities which leaves room in the market for pay day lenders. Ironically, reforms to the banking system here in the UK, which mean that banks have to have larger cash reserves to protect themselves against the level of debt that they faced in 2008, will make it more difficult for competitors to enter this market place. So how are we to create the diverse banking systems found in, for example, countries like Germany? Well, ideas are coming from the most unlikely places. The Church of England has committed itself to forcing pay day lender Wonga out of business by encouraging the greater acceptance and utilisation of credit unions.  A credit union is a member-owned financial co-operative democratically controlled by it’s members and operating to encourage saving and to provide credit at affordable rates. Many credit unions also support community development. By employing this model of financial institution stakeholder, rather than shareholder value is improved. The role of the credit union goes beyond finance into societal, community enterprise, as with the micro-finance of the Grameen Bank system developed by Muhammad Yunus.

There is a growing desire from investors to have at least some of their capital generate a social as well as a financial return; to have social impact.  Social impact is a way of evaluating just how the organization’s actions affect the surrounding community.  The creation of tangible, measurable social impact is increasingly important in the development of business models, public policy and finance.

And large corporations can no longer simply pay lip service to their corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy. It was once acceptable for big business to send out their staff once a year to clear some wasteland in the name of team-building and CSR or to sponsor a charity.  Corporate businesses must start to consider all of their stakeholders and to make sure that their actions have a positive impact, not solely in terms of job creation, in the communities in which they are based. If they don’t move this way themselves then investors will increasing push for them to do so. Some companies, like Unilever, are starting to take this seriously with a commitment, set out in a sustainable living plan,  to double the size of their business while simultaneously reducing their environmental impact.

While capitalism may well outlive the current turbulent economic climate there is at least a movement towards sustainable capitalism. Adoption of co-operative enterprise, encompassing community development and community based finance is a powerful first step.

Please no, Mr. Darcy

2 08 2013

Mr. Darcy: May I have the next dance, Miss Elizabeth?
Elizabeth Bennet: [taken aback] You may.

This is the kind of radical writing that has caused such a fuss is it? Well no, not quite.
The constant obsession of the female characters in her novels to find a man to marry them may have been a reflection of the times in which she was living but it hardly picks her out as a radical, feminist icon for the 21st Century. Putting Jane Austen on bank notes may annoy me since there are many more deserving women but she is a safe choice and not one “to frighten the horses.” But it would seem that the fact of her being a woman at all has been enough in and of itself to alarm certain sections of the community.

My first point is this. If we had more women in senior positions in the Bank of England then it would have been unthinkable that Elizabeth Fry would have been replaced by Winston Churchill on the £5 note in the first place. There would have been someone injecting a bit of common sense and stopping the bank making such a glaring mistake. That the men at the top thought it would be OK because the Queen is on all the notes and she is a woman is outrageous. Then again, they can prove me wrong by having all of the men on the notes replaced by women as soon as Charles or William or George takes the throne and their place on the currency.

Secondly, the campaign to have a woman on the banknotes could not have been more reasoned or reasonable. Led by Caroline Criado-Perez it simply pointed out that there had been only one woman on the notes in circulation and that soon there would be none and that this didn’t seem fair when 50% of users of currency were women.

But anytime a woman puts her head above the parapet, for whatever reason, it’s time to unleash the trolls.

The most common defence I’ve seen is freedom of speech. This only serves to show that the trolls, perhaps not surprisingly, don’t really understand what freedom of speech is and why threats and insults are not it. Freedom of speech is the political right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas. In practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute and is commonly subject to limitations; for example libel, slander, obscenity, sedition, ethnic hatred, copyright violation and revelation of information that is classified. I’m sure Edward Snowden would like to claim that he was only exersizing his freedom of speech when disclosing secret documents. His defence is a morally sound one but it is not freedom of speech.

The right to freedom of expression is slightly different and is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds”. However Article 19 also goes on to say that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “be subject to certain restrictions” for example “respect of the rights or reputation of others.”

So, I would hope that it would be clear to anyone that freedom of speech or it’s close cousin freedom of expression doesn’t allow for the kind of vitriolic abuse that a number of women have been subjected to this week.

The problem is two-fold. The abuse and the technology used to deliver the abuse.

The internet was given to everyone by Tim Berners-Lee. We need to keep it that way. But every community has guidelines which all agree to follow. There are pages and pages of terms and conditions which we all sign, every day, when accessing technologies: from installing an app. to downloading an ebook, from joining a dating site to opening an email account. True enough, we never read them, goodness knows what permissions I have given to Apple over the years. If company representatives turned up tomorrow and said that I had signed over my house in the small print on the latest iTunes upgrade I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Anyway, the thing is that Twitter isn’t the internet is just one, albeit very large, community. Twitter can police their system as firmly or as lightly as they want to. It’s their system, their rules. I really can’t see why they are dragging their heels about buttons to report abuse or to introduce systems to detect those opening multiple accounts, a regular habit of trolls to multiply their trolling capacity.

This isn’t the complete answer as the technology and the trolls will continue to dance a lobster quadrille as they each try to best the other. But it would show us non-trolls that Twitter is taking this at least a little bit seriously. And actually, Twitter is a business. If they don’t do something, or at least give the impression that the are doing something, then as soon as someone offers a similar platform that cuts out the abuse all of us non-trolls will take our 140 characters elsewhere and Twitter will go the way of Bebo or MySpace.

And it isn’t just Twitter. I saw this tongue in cheek post in the comments section of the BBC football website following an article about Rangers FC. “Perhaps somebody from the BBC would like to come on here and confirm that it was always their intention that the Comments functionality of their website should be used as a high-profile platform for bigots and religious zealots to express their views.” In fairness to the BBC the abusive comments had been removed but I include the example here just to show that any site open to comment is open to abuse.

And one arrest so far? This leads to the more fundamental point is the abuse itself. What makes some men think it is OK to threaten women, physically, verbally or remotely and why it isn’t taken more seriously in our society. The collection of accounts in Everyday Sexism is appalling. Only today Yale University has downgraded what we would all call rape to something they call “non-consensual sex. Of the six students found guilty of this new offence in the past six months not one of them has been expelled. Four were given written reprimands, one received probation and another was suspended for two semesters but will be free to return next year to graduate. As a society we are simply not taking offences of violence against women, physical or verbal, seriously enough.

And there is a freedom of expression case to consider. I’m pretty high-profile. I’m very well-known, particularly in Scotland, both in business and community initiatives. I speak regularly and often controversially to anyone who will listen. Yet I no longer put myself forward for Question Time, or Woman’s Hour or any other high-profile media event. Why not? Partly because I don’t think the adversarial style of debate is helpful but partly because I don’t relish a high-profile in the lands were trolls abide. And I’m not the only one. In days gone by you could appear in the press or on TV and if there was controversy it was gone quickly. The 15 minutes of fame. But now controversy is shaped and followed and fixed forever on the internet. Things may eventually blow over, as they did in the past, but they take much, much longer and the nature of the attacks can be more vehement as abusers hide between multiple, anonymised profiles.

This is the real freedom that we need to protect. The right of women, and men, to be able to express an opinion with out the fear of trolls.