Archive for January 2010

Failed Two-Party Systems

January 29, 2010

In 1997 when the neo-Thatcherite Blairites disenfranchised  millions of Labour voters, I concluded that ten years later those millions would be looking  for a new political home that reflected their values  AND the need for just and sustainable 21st Century societies.  The result was the Gaian Democracies book . The book is still some years ahead of its time, but as the pitiful  Brown-Cameron Punch and Judy show illustrates, it’s time is coming closer every day.

Now, thanks to Obama, that same penny about “the failed two-party system’ has dropped  with an increasingly angry clanging noise in the USA as shown by these quotes from an excellent article by Anthony Wade.

until we truly grasp that the cancer eating this country away is the failed two-party system itself, we will continue to watch the two sides of the same coin pretending that they care about us when all they really care about is the status quo

They are strictly in the business of polarizing you against your neighbor. They want us arguing over scraps while they continue to consolidate their power and wealth. We are on the Hindenburg and they have us fighting over the window seat.

But realize America that … you will still see wars for no reason and with no end. You will still see no movement on the reforming of elections or expansion beyond two parties. You will see little about media consolidation. You will see nothing done to hold to account those who may have broken the law in the previous administration. That is because they both answer to the same masters. They are both part of the same machine. That machine is fed by the blood of our children, the ignorance of our politics, and our refusal to accept the possibility that maybe we are being lied to by both sides. It is maintained by our basest emotions, the desire to blame someone else for our problems, and confusion between patriotism and narcissism. It will only be defeated by a recommitment to the truth even when it grates against how we feel, a better appreciation of all humanity, and the collective discovery that there can be more than two strains of coherent political thought.

As yet, Mr.Wade and the thousands of others who are thinking and writing along the same lines, have yet to move from anger and dismay to a serious attempt to tackle collectively the profound intellectual and systemic questions that underlie the deepening US tragedy.

For the questions facing progressives in the USA are as profound as they can get as  the British political scientist, Rob Ford, explains

if health care fails, or doesn’t deliver what Americans expect it to, disappointed Americans shouldn’t blame Obama, or the Republicans, or the health care lobby, or Fox News. They should blame Washington, Jefferson, Adams and the rest of the Founding Fathers who decided to privilege small states at the expense of large ones, and enabled the rural right wing electorates of 20 empty states to hold the other 5/6ths of their compatriots to ransom.

Not that an awareness of their Constitutional straitjacket leads necessarily to any significant urge to action as this woefully complacent snippet from the soooo- cool Hendrick Hertzberg in the New Yorker shows.

Thanks to my longstanding obsession with the obsolescence of our eighteenth-century political and electoral hydraulics (such as the separation of powers and the lack of a single government accountable to a national electorate) and this sclerotic system’s sadomasochistic twentieth-century refinements (such as the institutionalization of the filibuster), I am not astonished that Obama has had trouble “getting things done.” Absent only the filibuster—even while leaving untouched all the other monkey wrenches (committee chairs, corrupt campaign money, safe districts, Republicans, etc.)—Obama by now would have signed landmark bills addressing health care, global warming, and financial regulation, and a larger, better-designed stimulus package, too.

To which my response is “Oh Yeah!!! You do mean this President Obama, not some figment of  of your insider’s imaginings”.

I hope this blog is of some help to all those for whom the penny has dropped and rattles infuriatingly in their political consciousness.  The rest of us desperately need the people of the USA  to do the thinking needed to move beyond anger to purposeful 21st century action.


VIGDEOCs and Cultural Creatives: Part 2.

January 25, 2010


VIGDEOC = Viable Innovative Gaian Democracies Enterprises Organisations and Communities.

Look at this photo. What do you see? Not a trick question.


Surgeons at work in the mid-19th century? Yes.

What are their patients’ chances of survival? About 50%. Until about 1870, 48 – 50% of surgical patients died. This percentage had not changed in hundreds of years. Now look at this picture of a 20th Century surgical team at work.


What are this patient’s chances of survival? Better than 99% even for the kind of hugely-complicated surgery that was beyond the wildest imaginings of the gentlemen in the first picture.

Yet, this improvement did not take long to happen. The patients chances of survival had improved to around 99% within a few decades of that ‘first picture being taken.

Mortality rates today are only marginally better than they were at the end of the 19th century. So, tell me, what happened?

After hundreds – even thousands – of years of stasis, had surgeons suddenly got better, cleverer, more dedicated? Had their training changed drastically? Had their instruments improved?

What happened around 1870 to make even the most difficult surgical operations vastly safer than they had been a decade or two earlier? Any suggestions? Any theories?

The answer is that surgeons everywhere started to apply the scientific knowledge that had just become available from Joseph Lister in England about Hygiene, using Carbolic Acid and Hydrogen Peroxide as Disinfectants, about Bacteriology from the work of Louis Pasteur in France, and about the Sterilisation of their instruments from Robert Koch in Germany.

Interestingly, because surgeons were all private practitioners at that time, it was market forces that drove even the most hidebound and blinkered of them to rush to implement the entirely non-surgical innovations that were making their more scientifically-minded colleagues very wealthy.

How does this relate to the VIGDEOC networks?

Remember the Questionnaire? We are agreed that

our current systems of  government and democracy do not know how to respond to crises we are facing

The reason today’s politicians, economists, business leaders, academics, administrators and commentators are failing so badly is because they have yet to use the scientific knowledge that has become available in the past half century to co-create VIGDEOCs that can define and eliminate the problems that baffle the current system.

Just as the 19th Century surgeons before Lister, Pasteur and Koch, they are working within a set of theories and practices that go back hundreds of years. Here is a summary of how they see the world by the Canadian philosopher, John McMurtry.

  • Each country is first and foremost a competitor in the global market and should act according to its own interests.

  • All states have a right to use all resources within their reach.

State governments

  • Are the ultimate source of civil order.

  • Should keep out of the markets.

  • Should encourage trans-national companies to play a full part in all national and international decisions affecting global trade and development.

Representative democracy

  • is the nearest approach to an ideal democracy that is practicable in the real world and is the true guardian of a free society.

Science and technology

  • We can ignore the ‘doom-mongers’ because science and technology will always find solutions to the problems that worry them.

The market economy

  • All human needs express themselves in the market place in monetary terms and therefore the market will lead to optimal solutions for all problems.

  • Permanent economic growth is desirable and necessary, with no inherent environmental or human limits to the conversion of life into saleable commodities.

  • Individual consumer desires are permanently increasing, unlimited and good.

  • Those who do not or cannot express themselves in the competitive process are a problem, but not one that calls for radical reflection.

  • The great majority who have only their labour to sell must do so.

  • Ever larger trans-national corporations are perfectly natural.

Market forces

  • Competition is the dominant principle governing relationships of all kinds.

  • Freedom to buy and sell in money exchanges is the basis of human liberty and justice.

  • Profit maximisation is the engine of social well-being and is not to be hedged by public regulation or ownership.

  • Private property s good in all things.

  • Information is a proprietary and marketable good and a legitimate means for acquiring wealth, power and privilege.

  • Aggressive individualism on the part of individuals, companies and states is acceptable.

With minor variations, those ideas have dominated human affairs for at least 200 years and have their roots in much earlier times. They go back 2500 years to Plato and Aristotle, 500 years to Machiavelli, to the Westphalian Treaty of 1659, and the thinking of John Locke and Isaac Newton, and, of course, to the free-market theories of the French Physiocrats and Adam Smith and Ricardo that have shaped the dominant economic paradigms for well over 200 years.

If there were less than a Billion people on Earth, if wars were fought with muskets and swords, if the highest form of technology were the steam engine, that world view would not immediately threaten the future of either the human family or of the species we evolved with.

Today, however, with over 6 Billion people on the planet, with wars waged by horrific high-tech weapons, and technologies that rip off the tops of mountains or scour the coral reefs off the ocean floor, those values and assumptions have to be consigned to the trashcan of history.

In the 21st. Century,  our societies have to tackle the complex systemic new threats we face within a new world view,  one that assumes:

  • The world is a system of interacting subsystems that have evolved together and depend on each other
  • Viable Societies depend on a functioning ecological base and a finite, partly renewable resource-base.
  • The principle of partnership applies to present and future human and non-human systems.
  • The self-organising potential and diversity of natural systems is the model for the co-creation of a global network of VIGDEOCs.

Time for another little break, I think. Then,we’ll outline how being part of a global network of VIGDEOCs could  affect your lives and the lives of everyone you come into contact with and the future of every living thing on Earth.

VIGDEOCs and Cultural Creatives: Part 1.

January 21, 2010


Have you all had something to eat?  Food plays an important part in all the activities of the VIGDEOC networks, not just at these introductory events.  Not always as brilliant as that we’ve had this evening but always good and wholesome.  So, can we start then by thanking Mushir and Jenny for the delicious food they prepared  for us this evening.
Now to business

My job is to explain why this could be the most important evening of your lives and your children’s lives.  If I am successful you will leave here as a new member of your local VIGDEOC group.
I have to start by reminding you that you’re here because you ticked  the “Agree” boxes in the questionnaire on the VIGDEOC’s leaflet.

Can I just check that everyone in this room agrees that

  • the whole human family is faced by a bewildering combination of  complex social, economic, ecological, managerial, security crises.
  • our current systems of  government and democracy do not know how to respond to crises such as fossil-fuel emissions, global warming, over-population, rising sea-levels, species extinction, terrorism, drug abuse, gross social and economic inequality, inefficient public services,  street crime and much more besides.
  • our democratic and governmental systems need to be re- configured so that our societies can tackle the complex crises we face effectively, creatively and intelligently and learn how to co-exist symbiotically with the Gaian Systems to which we all belong.
  • all human enterprises, organisations and communities (from Amazonian tribes to  Google to the EU) are complex, self-organising, quasi-biological systems.
  • companies who model their operations on natural systems, not machines. can lead our economic systems onto a path that is harmonious with the Earth’s ecosystem.

Why is this questionnaire so important? Because VIGDEOC networks are not in the business of debating either scientific evidence  that has already been adequately researched and peer-reviewed by the appropriate specialists or obsolete and irrelevant doctrines and dogmas. That would be, to coin a phrase, “Hamster-work”; lots of noise and energy but always finishing up where you started.We have far more important and interesting and fun things to do.

Later, I will be blunt about the  business that we have to be in, but for the moment, let’s just explain what a network of VIGDEOCs means.


Networks of VIGDEOCs are combinations of

  • Viable Innovative Gaian Democracies and
  • Viable Innovative Gaian Enterprises and
  • Viable Innovative Gaian Organisations and
  • Viable Innovative Gaian Communities

Put together tens, then hundreds of each category and, in time, they will  add up to global networks of VIGDEOCs.
The meanings of Enterprise, Organisation and Community are pretty flexible. They are intended to cover all the formal and informal human systems to which we belong.

But Viable, Innovative and Gaian are different. They all have specialised meanings within the context of the VIGDEOC networks and I’ll  explain why those meanings are so important in a minute.

First, though, is there anything you’d like me to clarify so far?


by specialists

Dissolving the USA’s Utterly Broken Systems

January 18, 2010

No-one skewers the con-men and phonies as well as Naomi Klein. Introducing the new edition of her classic “No Logo” in Saturday’s Guardian, she goes after “Obama” as a global brand with panache and precision and righteous anger.

For 4500 words, Ms. Klein itemises the sickening truth of how the global popularity of this super-cool political brand has facilitated – at least for a time – the seamless continuation of the particularly brutal form of crony capitalism that led George W. Bush and his neo-con crew to be so universally despised and the USA itself to be justifiably reviled,

For Ms. Klein, as for me, Obama is a lost cause, But what of the millions of people worked so hard to get Obama elected?

[They] do not want markets opened at gunpoint, are repelled by torture, believe passionately in civil liberties, want corporations out of politics, see global warming as the fight of our time, and very much want to be part of a political project larger than themselves.

Will disappointment with Obama persuade many of them that there is no point in becoming politically active? As Obama plumbs the depths of betrayal (or smiling impotence) ever more deeply, will the most idealistic of them

succumb to a mood of bitter cynicism and do what young people used to do during elections: stay home, tune out

Perhaps not, because, as Bernard Weiner , points out, once the veils have been removed

One sees the system exposed, all the warts, jerry-rigged structures, thievery, manipulation, corruption, etc. We saw American capitalism naked, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Still, these financial players (“too big to allow to fail”) rule the roost, along with similar behemoths in the fields of energy, pharmaceuticals, insurance, the military-industrial complex, etc.

Congress takes no effective action even while smoldering rage and resentment and desire for political vengeance is building around the country,

Or as Ms. Klein puts it:

… the economic model that dominates around the world has revealed itself not as “free market” but “crony capitalist” – politicians handing over public wealth to private players in exchange for political support.

What used to be politely hidden is all out in the open now. Correspondingly, public rage at corporate greed is at its highest point not just in my lifetime but in my parents’ lifetime as well.


the system itself is utterly broken.

So, where is all that rage, that resentment, that desire for political vengeance, that new understanding that the whole system is ‘utterly broken’, to find a meaningful expression?

Here’s where the clarity and intelligence that Ms. Klein, Dr. Weiner [and others it has to be said] bring to their accounts of the veil-stripping consequences of the Obama-Cheney-Bush-Greenspan-Geithner- Bernebanke-effect loses traction.

Ms. Klein tells us that

… transformative goals (sic) are only ever achieved when independent social movements build the ­numbers and the organisational power to make muscular demands of their elites.

Say that again!!

“.. independent social movements build the ­numbers and the organisational power to make muscular demands of their elites.”

Hello??!! This makes no sense.

What is meant by “their elites”? Their country’s elites? Are these the same elites that Obama is fronting for? If those ‘elites’ are not somehow part of the movement then why should they listen even to the most ‘muscular demands’? Who are they? Why are they still – evidently – in power, still running the system that we all agree is ‘utterly broken’? If they are, why should they change the way they think and act? They’ve got much more ‘muscle’ than any independent social movement ever had.

If the best that progressive movements can do is make ‘muscular demands’ on the existing elites controlling the ‘utterly broken’  system, then the kind of energy, anger and awareness that she and Dr. Weiner describe will be betrayed again – and again and again and again.

Why shouldn’t the elites that are in power actually belong to those movements?  Why should they not have been elected to represent those movements? Why can’t they be committed to changing the system to one that is genuinely democratic and just and sustainable?

Dr. Weiner goes a little way down this path and says:

We have to organize the anger and show our fellow citizens (using what we’ve now learned) who the real villains are and how to send them packing.

That may (MAY???!!!) mean running for office, actively helping choose and support good candidates, organizing locally around local issues, contributing money, taking our money out of the half-dozen largest banks and investment houses and putting in into local community banks and credit unions… founding bartering societies and community gardens, launching affinity groups, writing letters and articles, organizing creative demonstrations, using the internet to communicate political ideas more widely, and …

evidently as an afterthought,

beginning to think seriously about the founding of a broad populist-democratic party, whatever.

Doncha love that final “whatever”?

It says, perhaps, that apart from the myriad of practical difficulties there would be very real physical dangers in trying to found a broad populist-democratic party. From the outset, its founders, supporters, workers and candidates would have to confront the malignant hostility of the jackals who serve the elites who run the USA’s current system. Remember the FBI’s murderous COINTELPRO programme against the Black Panthers in the 1960s? That was 40 years before the draconian provisions of the Homeland Security Act defined peaceful protesters as potential terrorists, and thus the prospects for those who take the path Dr. Weiner suggests are not a little terrifying,

That may also be one of the reasons why Ms. Klein fails to mention Dr. Weiner’s electoral politics option, even as an afterthought. But, from my reading of her work over the past decade, there is another, far more profound, reason. Engaging in electoral politics is incompatible with her basically anarchist value-system. As with the anarcho-syndicalism of Noam Chomsky, many leading progressives and environmentalists oppose forming political parties, oppose contesting elections, and above all, oppose taking political power.

In her Guardian piece, Ms. Klein refers fondly to

Tens and then hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were making their case outside trade summits and G8 meetings from Seattle to New Delhi, in several cases stopping new agreements in their tracks.

From all of those events, Ms.Klein argues elsewhere that the emergent activist model mirrored,

the organic, decentralized, interlinked pathways of the Internet .. a model of coordinated decentralization that is entirely lost on those looking for leaders and puppet masters. (My emphasis)

She describes a model of protest that is ‘a coalition of coalitions’ mostly made up of

NGOs, Labour unions, students and anarchists. (my emphasis)

Look again at that little list. Ms. Klein is suggesting that anarchist groups are qualitatively the same as NGOs, labour unions and students. She seems not to see that anarchists bring with them, and act within the framework of their very particular political ideology, whereas the other three types of organisations are invariably issues-led.

There is a strong whiff of musty  top-hats and elastic-sided boots when Ms. Klein says,

If neoliberalism is the common target there is also an emerging consensus …that participatory democracy at the local level — whether through unions, neighbourhoods, farms, villages, anarchist collectives or aboriginal self-government — is where to start building alternatives to it.’ (my emphasis)

Whatever the reason, in her thousands of articles, interviews and speeches, Ms. Klein has consistently rejected even the very limited electoral strategies that Dr. Weiner suggests. Dr. Weiner’s tentativeness is understandable because, as he says, it is only:

once every 10 or 20 years, at least in America, the veils part a bit and we can see the scarifying reality of how our government really work: the Army/McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, Watergate and the Pentagon Papers in the early-1970s, Iran-Contra in the early-1980s, and the Cheney-Bush era of the past eight years.


Now Obama’s the object of anger. There is major anti-Administration activism coming from both the Left and the Right, including even a budding Know-Nothing party or faction forming on the tea-bagging extreme — all signs that indicate the presence of major seismic activity under the tectonic plates of the American political process.

It is still early days for those who are trying to think what they should do about the horrific reality that the parting of the veils has revealed. Moreover, the revelations that flow from this parting of the veils are different from those of the past. Today’s revelations are not just about particular villains or policies or even institutions, they have to do with the basic properties of the US system of government.

There is no way to fix a system that is “utterly broken” by “making muscular demands” on its elites. Obama did not break this system. Nor did the Bushies, nor Clinton, nor, even, Reagan and the neo-liberal ideologies he brought back into power A new Roosevelt backed by a quasi Social-Democrat Congress to implement a New-New Deal could tinker with the system and try to make it less corrupt, less inhumane, less inefficient, less destructive, less unjust, less flat-out dumb. But they would not succeed because, to paraphrase Bucky Fuller,

you cannot fix a system that is utterly broken by fighting the existing reality. To change a broken system, you have to build a new model that makes the broken system obsolete.

These appalling realities that have emerged from behind the veil, arise from and are embedded in the hugely complex nature of the socio-political-technological- ecological systems that have co-evolved over the past 400 years. None of those complex, ill-defined, loose-boundaried  systemic problems are  ‘solveable ‘ in the traditional conventional sense.

As the great British cybernetician Stafford Beer put it, such complex, systemic problems can only be ‘dissolved‘ , not ‘solved’.

Thus the new political movements that will emerge in the USA, and the governments they form at every level,  will succeed where the 19th and 20th Century models will fail, because,  using the rules of systems and cybernetics in participative processes, they will fundamentally reconfigure the unjust and unsustainable systems that are giving rise to today’s appalling problems.

To paraphrase the 1992 Clinton campaign, “Its the system, stupid“.

Thus, though the spirit underlying what Dr. Weiner says is admirable, the fundamental flaws in the USA’s broken systems of politics, business, economics and governance can only be addressed by developing models that are attuned to 21st Century realities and knowledge rather than 20th Century models and myths. And indeed, the people of the USA and the human family in general, deserve nothing less

What those 21st Century models of politics, business, economics and governance could be is the topic of a future essay. At this stage, I will merely preview say that they would consist of a global network  of diverse and self-organising VIGDEOCs: Viable Innovative Gaian Democracies Enterprises Organisations and Communities.

Tony Judt’s Alternative to corporate capitalism

January 9, 2010

Tony Judt is someone I admire enormously and he is now, as this article  says, “‘A bunch of dead muscles, thinking’.

Once I had got a little way beyond  the shock and grief of knowing that he is dealing with the disease that devastated my brother Allen at about the same age, the topic of his next book began to explain something about people under, say, 50,  that has puzzled me  for years.

Judt  was reflecting on  the responses to a lecture he had given about the role of the state in our societies.

At the end of the lecture he was struck by how many young people came up to him expressing amazement at ideas they had never heard before. “This is the second generation of people who can’t imagine change except in their own lives, who have no sense of social collective public goods or services, who are just isolated individuals desperately striving to better themselves above everybody else.”

Judt now intends, in the time he has left, to devote himself to writing a book to help young people think collectively again. “It could really have an impact if I get it right. Something that will get the next generation to see there is a way to think about politics that is not just the way we’ve been habituated to do it. I care about that and I think I can do it.

Judt’s insight explains, i think, so much about my own experience since writing  Gaian Democracies. Scarcely  one member of the generation for whom John and I wrote the book has  attempted to engage with the ideas, or relate the scenarios we outlined to the rapid deterioration of all the major systems on which their future lives and those of their children depend.

Its as if outside of the  interests of a tight circle of friends and immediate family, thirty-to-fifty year olds who should be assuming some responsibility for  the direction of their societies – as their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents  tried to do –  are stuck in the mind-sets that previous generations grew out of in their twenties.

You can read a version of his lecture here. Please do so.  Judt  is trying to help us to think and act positively in a disintegrating world. He deserves to be heard.

By one of those happy (? ) coincidences, his lecture provides me with an invaluable account of the importance of Social Democracy in the 20thCentury that will be a great help for my blog on  ” and the alternative to capitalism is…?”

Thank you, Tony.