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Synetopia: Resource Distribution Revisited

Author: Dr Henry Tam

Rising levels of inequality are underpinned by the growing power of a small elite, yet revolutionary models to achieve greater justice have only ever created forms of  tyranny. We need an alternative to state tyranny or liberal elitism. Henry Tam offers a provocative model of governance which could be used to develop and test new forms of organisation or government and which may help us reduce inequality and ensure claims to privilege are checked and revised.

“For, when everyone’s entitled to get as much for himself as he can, all available property, however much there is of it, is bound to fall into the hands of a small minority, which means that everyone else is poor. And wealth will tend to vary in inverse proportion to merit. The rich will be greedy, unscrupulous, and totally useless characters, while the poor will be simple, unassuming people whose daily work is far more profitable to the community than it is to them.” [Utopia, Thomas More (1516)]

2016 marks the fifth centenary of Utopia, More’s witty and provocative indictment of the absurd distribution of resources of his time. Have things improved much? The poorest in the West today may well have have more in material terms than the poorest living in the early sixteenth century, but More was astute in drawing attention to how the gap between the have-most and the have-little was critical in shaping in human relations.

The few who have the greatest concentration of wealth and the power it can buy, in turn possess the ability to bend others’ wills to theirs. Be it craving for reflected ‘glory’, a share of the crumbs, or merely the avoidance of ill-treatment lest one offends the elite, the people lower down the socio-economic hierarchy suffer ever greater vulnerability, insecurity, and periodic humiliation.

It took the seismic shakeup of two world wars in the first half of the 20th century to bring the resource gap between top and bottom down from the level it had reached by the 1910s. But from the 1980s on, with Thatcherite and Reaganite politics in the ascendancy in the UK and the US respectively, income inequalities and wealth differentials have been soaring again.

Many of those who have gained from the concentration of wealth in a corporate elite, and their political allies, have maintained that it is the only way for society to function. More’s own conception of ‘utopia’ probably hasn’t helped when it seems to suggest that it requires contentment with a much more basic and simplistic form of existence. It gets worse when it is pointed out that people may not readily go along with such a communal regime for long, unless a government not quite so benign as that More envisaged would step in to impose some kind of communist economy controlled by what would, in practice, be a new elite.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the neoliberal consensus has swept ever more widely with its insistence that the powerful should be left to get as much for themselves – the implication being that they should not be held by regulation, and they should be able to pay less and less towards support for public goods. Left unchallenged, this ideological stance is now advancing two related propositions: first, the wealth/power gap should be widened even more quickly by cutting the public support for those with less in society; and secondly, the ability of workers to press for a fairer distribution of what they help to earn for their companies should be drastically curtailed by legislation designed to weaken workers and unions.

Things will only get worse so long as the majority of people are gripped by the false dichotomy of either leaving the neoliberal wealth-and-power grab alone or risking everything for an ideal that is at best a spartan utopia and at worst a totalitarian dystopia.

In reality there are many viable alternatives that have already surfaced in diverse sectors and locations. These include worker cooperatives, local community sustainability projects, credit unions, a state-funded/patient-focused health service, and collaboration across the digital commons. But merely citing their existence is not enough. The adoption of these organisational forms is no guarantee that they would lead to a fairer, productive and sustainable distribution of resources, unless they are run in accordance with a set of governance principles that have stood the test of time in being effective and indispensable in serving those involved equitably in pursuing the objectives they cooperatively define.

Let us refer to the realisation of these principles as ‘synetopia’, both because, transcending the extremes of utopia/dystopia, it denotes a practical place of cooperation, and it is spelt out as an acronym by the first letter of each of the nine principles involved:

  1. S hared Mission
  2. Y ou-and-I Mutuality
  3. N imble Membership 
  4. E ducative Collaboration 
  5. T esting of Claims and Assumptions
  6. O pen Access to Information
  7. P articipatory Decision-Making
  8. I mpartial Distribution of Power
  9. A ccountability for Action

In brief, the organisations that people form to advance their wellbeing at every level would engender a more optimal distribution of resources to the extent they fulfil each of the principles outlined below:

1. 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.

  • 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?
  • Or do members feel a lack of cohesion, and are indifferent or antagonistic towards other members?

2. 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.

  • 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?

3. 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.

  • 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?
  • Are there not too few/too many members to function effectively?

4. 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.

  • Is there a culture of continuous learning? 
  • Are members supported to engage in deliberative exchanges to inform their beliefs, policies, and practices?
  • Is it rare that those involved casually accept or reject ideas without checking with others?

5. 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.

  • How confident are members in questioning claims put forward by those in more highly ranked positions?
  • Is everyone aware that nothing can be ring-fenced from empirical analysis? 
  • Is open and critical discussion of current and new ideas encouraged and facilitated? 
  • Or is there widespread perception that there is no point or scope in subjecting any activity to critical questioning.

6. 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.

  • 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?
  • Or are members’ requests to find out more about what has been done often met with unjustifiable refusal or obstruction.

7. 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.

  • 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?

8. 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.

  • 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?

9. 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. 

  • 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?
  • Are there effective arrangements to remove from office those found through due process to have violated the trust of the group?

Conclusion

Synetopia is not an unattainable ideal. It is a model with elements that have been tried and tested successfully in many different organisations and socio-economic contexts. By subjecting organisations, in the commercial, voluntary or state sectors, to a critical assessment in terms of what changes they need to make in relation to the model, we will have a practical mechanism to examine and improve the way resources are distributed. A better future will come not with the arrival of utopia, but through the sustained advancement towards to synetopia.


The nine principles outlined in this paper have been developed through a combination of academic studies and a substantial action-learning programme (2003-2010) the author led when he was Head of Civil Renewal with the UK Government. An earlier formulation of the principles were set out in the article ‘Equality and the Governance of Welfare’.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Synetopia: Resource Distribution Revisited © Henry Tam 2016.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.