The four conmen of the apocalypse

What do the Wizard of Oz, Othello’s Iago, Kind Midas and Lord Vader have in common? They are the four conmen that limit co-operation, Prof Henry Tam has...

What do the Wizard of Oz, Othello’s Iago, Kind Midas and Lord Vader have in common? They are the four conmen that limit co-operation, Prof Henry Tam has told delegates at the annual Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) in Manchester.

A former senior public servant with a lifelong interest in how co-operation works, Prof Tam is now Director of the Forum for Youth Participation and Democracy at Cambridge University. He has over twenty years’ experience as policy advisor, programme director and political theorist in support of the development of inclusive communities.

Trying to explain why co-operation, which he described as “a good and powerful thing” remains confined to minority, Prof Tam embarked delegates on a fictional journey about “the four con men of the Apocalypse”.

The first con man is the Wizard of Oz, the character that stands behind the curtain and each times appears as someone or something different, distorting what is happening in the real world. A modern day Wizard would predict the economic forecast and advise what is the most suitable way going forward, sometimes ignoring the co-operative alternative, said Prof Tam.

Othello’s Iago, the character Shakespeare envisaged as someone very good at persuading people whom they should despise or hate is another modern day con man. Prof Tam explained how co-operators tend to talk about caring about each other, but at the same time different media outlets encourage hate and discrimination, thus making it more difficult for people to turn to co-operation.

Mythical character King Midas was the third con man in Prof Tam’s story. If in old Greek mythology Midas turned everything he touched into gold, in current times he is convincing people to hand gold over to him, accumulating endless resources and having more and more leverage to negotiate.

The last con man that prevents co-operation is Lord Vader, who has the force with him, which translates into a sometimes very weak electoral mandate.

“In essence today there are constant forces to prevent people from co-operating”, says Prof Tam. He explained how the four characters are related to the power to control knowledge, which is what the wizard does, the ability to control emotions – as Othello’s Iago, the supremacy over resources in the same way Midas hegemony over gold, and the means to control governance, like Lord Vader.

Faced with such forces they cannot control, co-operators are limited in terms of what they can achieve. However, Prof Tam says change could occur in the UK if revolutionary events took place abroad. He believes change happened in Britain in light of revolutionary events in other parts of the world, such as the French Revolution. “We did not want what happened over there to happen in the UK”.


  • For more stories from the Confederation of Co-operative Housing 2014 conference, click here 
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