what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Blogging as a giving account of one's life

I notice that I am not the only person who reflects on the year’s blogging experience. Chris Grey is an organisational theorist who started a blog to accompany his fascinating book A Very Short Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap book about studying organisations – and has a post identifying some of the year’s themes (as well as readership stats)

I particularly liked the description of his working method - 
I also try to include in each post copious links to a wide variety of media sources and, to a lesser extent, academic works. I don’t know how many readers follow these links but at any rate I feel better-informed as a result of digging around to find them.
Typically, I think of a topic on Friday morning, ponder it during the day and write the post on Friday evening (yes, my life really is that exciting). Most posts take two to three hours to research and write.

I’ve been blogging since 2009, with a resignation from a major project in China I was leading in 2010 leading to a slow withdrawal from the paid labour front and giving me more time to enjoy the stretch of country between the Carpathians (where I summer) and the Balkans (where I winter) and to read, write……and muse…..
And last year I collected the year’s posts, put them in chronological order and wrote both a Preface and Introduction for In Praise of Doubt – a blogger’s year which tried to answer such questions why anyone should be bothered to read my material – and also why some of us have developed this blogging habit -

My claim for the reader’s attention is simply expressed – 
·       experience in a variety of sectors (and countries) – each closely manned with “gatekeepers” whose language and rules act to exclude us
·       the compulsion (from some 50 years), to record what I felt were the lessons of each experience in short papers
·       Long and extensive reading
·       A “voice” which has been honed by the necessity of speaking clearly to audiences of different nationalities and class
·       intensive trawling of the internet for wide range of writing
·       notes kept of the most important of those readings
·       shared in hyperlinks with readers

I confess somewhere to an aversion to those writers (so many!) who try to pretend they have a unique perspective on an issue and whose discordant babble make the world such a difficult place to understand. I look instead for work which, as google puts it, builds on the shoulders of others……my role in a team is that of the resource person….who finds and shares material….

Perhaps my father’s hand is evident in the format and discipline of the blogpost – he was a Presbyterian Minister who would, every Saturday evening, take himself off to his study to anguish over his weekly sermon which he would duly deliver from the pulpit the next morning……Arguably indeed the dedication given these past 7 years to the blog is a form of “giving of account” or justification of one’s life!!  I have grown to appreciate the discipline involved in marshalling one’s thoughts around a theme (in my father’s case it was a biblical quotation).

I rather like the format of a blogpost of some 700 words (at most a couple of pages). Management guru Charles Handy famously said that he had learned to put his thoughts in 450 words as a result of the “Thought for the Day” BBC programme to which he was a great contributor.

For me a post written 4-5 years ago is every bit as good as (perhaps better than) yesterday’s - but the construction of blogs permits only the most recent posts to be shown. A book format, on the other hand, requires that we begin……at the beginning ... It also challenges the author to reflect more critically on the coherence of his thinking ……. 

The photo is of a new Bekhiarov I acquired this week (with, lower, the first one I bought from this great BG realist) - both from the great Absinthe water colour gallery in Sofia where I found this week a wonderful 400 page catalogue of the International Watercolour Society's 2016 exhibition in Varna - with a superb global collection. This is their 2013 catalogue

Monday, December 5, 2016

TINA – and the little Trumpets

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher introduced us to TINA – her refrain being that “there is no alternative” (to the liberalisation of national and global markets).
Social democratic parties bought into that argument and have shown no inclination to rethink policies since the global crisis began almost a decade ago. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, I grant you, is one exception – but has attracted vitriolic attack on the basis that there can be no going back to the world of the 1960s and 1970s.

The argument generally consists of the following elements -
- The state can’t get out of the immense debt which it has taken on by rescuing the banks
- Although the operations of privatisated industries are subject to increasing attack, the idea of reprivatisation is rarely presented in social democratic programmes
- The ideology of greed has become so legitimised, lives so atomised and the commodification trend so strong that notions of collective and cooperative effort seem more and more unrealistic
- We can’t stop automation
- Only eccentrics question the worship of growth

Much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the social democratic camp has so far produced little to convince - let alone inspire - people that a feasible programme exists which could attract electoral support. This short 2015 Compass article and book Rebuilding social democracy – core principles of the centre left ed Keven Hickson (2016) give a fair sense of both the mood and policy drift…….

Of course, convincing programmes need to be based on a sound story…..about what exactly has been going on in the post-war period? It’s clearly not enough simply to blame neo-liberalism,,,,,
This week I watched one of the best narratives I have so far come across - Global Trumpism – presented by Mark Blyth, author of Austerity – history of a dangerous idea which I wrote about earlier in the year.

Blyth’s style of historical ideas, colloquial language and slides is a gripping one which puts other economists into the shade….
His starting point is the growth of populism throughout Europe and now the States and the question whether (as I tended to suggest in one blogpost on Brexit) it is a reaction to immigration trends and fears – or has a more basic economic explanation…. He shows how the location of Brexit and Trump supporters correlates with the devastation caused by globalisation and recent Chinese imports; job insecurity et al - but then uses the largely unknown figure of Michael Kalecki to show how the post-war Keynesian consensus unravelled in the 1970s

Kalecki had warned as far back as 1943 of a central flaw in the Keynes’ model – which duly presented itself in the 1970s with the arrival of serious inflation which was dealt with by first monetarist and then neo-liberal policies. The post-war regime slowly gave way to one of secular disinflation; capital assertiveness; global markets; strong central banks; and weak trade unions and parliament

As befits a political economist, Blyth wants to know about losers and winners – none of this cosy nonsense about equilibrium….and uses Branko Milanovic’s slide of global trends in income distribution showing the shape of an elephant to back up his argument about global trumpism….

He returns, finally, to his initial point in exploring the various economic options we seem to have –
- The sort of spending on infrastructure which Trump’s campaign envisaged? (probable but not with anticipated results)
- the return of “good jobs”? (unlikely)
- getting corporations and the rich to pay more tax (“fat chance”!)
- “technological disruption” (the digital disruption has already happened)

All in all a really thought-provoking presentation……from a Professor of Political Economy - a dsicipline which hopefully will be finding a deserved place for itself after almost a century of neglect…….

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Problem of Identity

A recent post criticised “political labelling” but ducked the perfectly legitimate question of the descriptor someone with my set of values and commitments might find more acceptable. 
I object to being called a “leftist” simply because, the label carries the connotation that I favour state power - and I am a firm believer that “power corrupts” and always needs an institutional challenge and balance….“The Open Society and its Enemies” was in the early 1960s one of the key books which influenced me….
So, in my book, central state power needs to be balanced with citizen power - properly served by five other systems –
- strong parliaments;
- strong municipalities;
- diversely independent media;
- independent judicial systems; and
- real structures of accountability.

Parse most European systems and it’s only the northern ones which come through positively from any ratings….the British one certainly doesn’t fare well….

And excesses of economic power should be dealt with not only by appropriate structures of anti-monopoly legislation but by the encouragement (via laws and funding) of cooperatives and worker participation. 

Balance” is the key…and that is achieved by state actions which draw from what we might call the “Acton” toolkit (in honour of the English Lord’s quip about “absolute power corrupting absolutely”).
England is perhaps unfairly termed “perfidious” since the “balance of power” principle it pursued for so long served Europe well…..and is one which deserves more honour as a serving ideology for our times…..That’s why I was so taken with Henry Mintzberg when, in 2000, he started to use the term “rebalancing society”. I have always admired the German system.....

My father was, in the 1950s, part of a group of local dignitaries who used the label “moderate” when they fought in the municipal elections – neither left nor right….interestingly they faced not only Conservatives and Labour but an increasingly vociferous groups of liberals…….If “Progress” had not got such a bad name recently, I might be tempted to use the term “progressive” of myself….. 

I am an “agnostic” in matters of religion and “sceptic” vis-à-vis anything which passes for conventional wisdom or arouses new enthusiasms (hence my distrust of the “identity politics” of the past few decades) – but these terms don’t do justice to the values I hold of equality, fairness, openness and challenge….   

So help me!! What am I?

Friday, December 2, 2016

The charm of wine boutiques!

Markets are fascinating things – whether it's farmers harvesting and distilling grapes and distributing the bottled product to supermarkets and wine boutiques – or artists crafting their materials to delight us in galleries with their canvasses or sculptures. All the choices to be made – and the different activities and roles involved in bringing such things as wines and paintings together with customers and clients. ........Since a cycling trip through France as a teenager, I’ve always appreciated wines – but been happy until recently to settle for whatever was available cheaply in the nearest shop…

Bulgaria has made me more aware first of the scale of artistic endeavor – the annotated list of Bulgarian artists in the latest edition of Bulgarian Realists is now almost 300 (without even starting to give serious consideration to contemporary artists!) – and, now, of the scale and variety of its wines… ..
But it’s been a gradual process of learning about its wines - ever since the first stunning taste of a Targovishte Muscat at Balcik in 2002 - on our way back from a trip to the Aegean!
What has helped my education, of course, are the annual wine fairs here in Sofia – with more than 70 Bulgarian vineyards offering a sample of their wares….almost 500….and the lovely little annual catalogue of Bulgarian Wine which gives notes on a sample of those vineyards......But all that can be a bit overwhelming….
So I’ve been delighted to find these days that young Assen’s Vinoorendo has been joined by no fewer than 3 other wine shops - first Rumen’s Winebar 52, Alabin St where we had a lovely evening last week tasting 5 of the Santa Maria selection – for 5 euros

Then I stumbled across Tempus Vini at 81, Tsar Boris – open just 2 months ago and Yassen always poised with an open bottle to welcome us.
And yesterday morning I noticed Enjoy Wine 19, Ivan Shishman st - whose Ivo welcomed us not only with amusing quips but with a couple of tastings. Most of Yassen’s wine stock is Bulgarian – and the same is true of Enjoy Wine (which organizes not only wine tastings but trips to vineyards)

If you have money, it’s not difficult to part with it in such places – as the owners share their information and passion for the various bottles on offer!

While googling about the idea of wine markets, I came across this superb blog by a Prof of Political Economy who clearly takes his wines seriously – while making the whole subject of the wine market fascinating….. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

In Praise of the Documentary

I have come late to the work of documentarist Adam Curtis. I had registered a year or so ago his The Century of the Self (2002) which told the story (as Curtis puts it) of “how those in power have used Freud's theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy"; and shows how the man who effectively invented the PR industry which then went on to take over the machinery of state propaganda……. was Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays.
And his documentary Bitter Lake (2015) about the role of Saudi Arabia in post-war politics was a mind-blowing piece which brought forth this post earlier this year with its acknowledgment that -  
Good documentaries require a rare combination - knowledge of the subject, experience of filming, appropriate selection and editing of text, images and music, and appreciation of how to fit them together

His latest (3 hour) production - Hypernormalisation - hit our screens last month – with Curtis himself setting the scene in his blog thus -
We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless migrant crisis, random bomb attacks. And those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed - they have no idea what to do. 
This film is the epic story of how we got to this strange place. It explains not only why these chaotic events are happening - but also why we, and our politicians, cannot understand them.It shows that what has happened is that all of us in the West - not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves - have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world.
But because it is all around us we accept it as normal. HyperNormalisation is a giant narrative spanning forty years, with an extraordinary cast of characters. They include the Assad dynasty, Donald Trump, Henry Kissinger, Patti Smith, the early performance artists in New York, President Putin, intelligent machines, Japanese gangsters, suicide bombers - and the extraordinary untold story of the rise, fall, rise again, and finally the assassination of Colonel Gaddafi. 
All these stories are woven together to show how today’s fake and hollow world was created. Part of it was done by those in power - politicians, financiers and technological utopians. Rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, they retreated. And instead constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang onto power.
And it wasn’t just those in power. This strange world was built by all of us. We all went along with it because the simplicity was reassuring. And that included the left and the radicals who thought they were attacking the system.
The film shows how they too retreated into this make-believe world - which is why their opposition today has no effect, and nothing ever changes. But there is another world outside. And the film shows dramatically how it is beginning to pierce through into our simplified bubble. Forces that politicians tried to forget and bury forty years ago - that were then left to fester and mutate - but which are now turning on us with a vengeful fury.

Curtis is not to everyone’s taste – with some annoyance being expressed at the randomness of his narratives - which do jump around in a rather tantalizing if not conspiratorial way….with music and odd image clips (from BBC Archives). Indeed there is a short mocking video here which does capture his style….. .
But I personally like the way he tries to capture recent intellectual history – and, in particular, builds bridges across the huge abysses that increasingly separate the social science disciplines…. We need a lot more of this….

Close readers of this blog may have noticed that it has occasionally mentioned the fascinating period of American intellectual history in the 2 decades after the second world war whose personalities and books in the late 50s and early 60s helped shape my own thinking people like JK Galbraith, James Buchanan, Ivan Illich…

 An Adam Curtis Resource
The google search I did for articles and interviews about his work unearthed quite a few gems – my favourite being this long interview with him, the second of a series (the first being a fascinating account of how he came to stumble on his particular type of documentary)
"all watched over by machines"….https://vimeo.com/groups/96331/videos/80799353


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Not with a bang ....but a whimper......

Last year I drew attention to the fact that, despite their prolific output, economists seemed to have some difficulty in making sense of more global trends – 
It’s significant that the best expositions of the global economic crisis and its causes rarely come from economists……..somehow the framework within which the modern economist operates precludes him/her from even the vaguest of glimmerings of understanding of the complexity of socio-economic events. Their tools are no better than adequate for short-term work…..
For real insights into the puzzles of the modern world, think rather David Harvey (a geographer) and his A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005); John Lanchester and James Meek (novellists and writers); Susan Strange, Susan George or Colin Crouch (political science); or Wolfgang Streeck – a Koeln Professor of Sociology. All have extensive and eclectic reading; a focus on the long-term; and the ability to provoke and write clearly. 
"Eclectic" is the key word; few economists are trained these days in political economy - which roots the study of economics in the wider context of history and political analysis...... 

Wolfgang Streeck is Director of the Max Planck Institute and an unlikely scourge of capitalism – but his texts are becoming ever more apocalyptic. He has just published another - How will Capitalism End? - a summary of whose basic thesis can be found in this 2014 New Left Review article
The NLR is the favoured outlet for Streeck’s long, clear and incisive articles eg one in 2011 on “The Crisis of Democratic Socialism”  which led to the short book Buying Time – the delayed crisis of democratic capitalism (2013). 
His latest book, however, explodes any idea of the inevitable arrival of a socialist paradise –On the contrary, his is a dystopian vision in which capitalism perishes not with a bang, but a whimper. Since, he argues, capitalism can no longer turn private vice into public benefit, its “existence as a self-reproducing, sustainable, predictable and legitimate social order” has ended. Capitalism has become “more capitalist than is good for it”. 
The postwar marriage between universal-suffrage democracy and capitalism is ending in divorce, argues Streeck. The path leading to this has gone via successive stages: the global inflation of the 1970s; the explosion of public debt of the 1980s; the rising private debt of the 1990s and early 2000s; and the subsequent financial crises whose legacy includes ultra-low interest rates, quantitative easing, huge jumps in public indebtedness and disappointing growth.
Accompanying capitalism on this path to ruin came “an evolving fiscal crisis of the democratic-capitalist state”. The earlier “tax state” became the “debt state” and now the “consolidation state” (or “austerity state”) dedicated to cutting deficits by slashing spending. Three underlying trends have contributed: declining economic growth, growing inequality and soaring indebtedness. These, he argues, are mutually reinforcing: low growth engenders distributional struggles, the solution too often being excessive borrowing.  
The book finishes by exploring five systemic disorders – “stagnation, oligarchic redistribution, plundering of the public domain, corruption and global anarchy…..” which Streeck talks about here and which are (very briefly) defined in this summary

Curiously, however, the book seems to give little coverage to automation…on which a recent article called Four Futures offers an insightful perspective – reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books – a review which also carried a good piece on The Supermanagerial Rich

Other Relevant Reading
David Harvey eg

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Leftist, anarchist or fatalist???

I started this post with every intention of analysing the deep gloom which has descended on “progressives” not just this year but since it became clear that neoliberalism – far from dying since 2008 - seemed to be enjoying a second coming. I discovered, however, that this required a bit of a diversion into the issue of political labelling.....so bear with me.... 

Despite my 20 odd years’ experience as an elected politician, I have never been happy with political labels…..from the very beginning (in the late 60s) I could see how my (older) Labour colleagues were closer to officials than to their constituents. And the sympathy I quickly developed for community development also gave me a slightly anarchistic approach in matters of political ideology.
I was lucky, of course, to be able to occupy a senior role at an early age - slipping into position after the Labour party locally had experienced a few years of electoral defeats - and had the luxury, after the first few elections, of knowing that my party had a fairly impregnable grip on power on the massive new Strathclyde Region which had been set up in 1973/74.

But, equally, the knowledge that the poorer citizens of this Region suffered from the UK’s worst rates of deprivation drove a few of us to set up what were at the time (mid 1970s) unique deliberative structures (at both community and regional level) which brought officials, councillors and community activists together in a creative and utterly non-partisan spirit
To this day I consider these were the best things I ever achieved…… although the community business movement which I helped set up in the late 70s were a close second….

I’ve been out of politics for the past 25 years - and out of sympathy with British (and European) political parties for the past 15 of these. It was George Monbiot’s Captive State (2000) which first alerted me to the scale of the corporate takeover of the British state – which has intensified globally since then…..
Since the 1980s I’ve had strong “green” sympathies but vividly remember, five years ago, being deeply offended when an article I contributed to a magazine feature marking the anniversary of the 2001 Twin Towers attack was given a “leftist” health warning. This is how I reacted at the time - 

Four separate issues arise from this -
- First, do the editors not realise that use of such a label for one (only) of the articles is effectively an invitation to their readers to ignore it or treat it with suspicion? What does this say about freedom of expression?
- Second, criticism of the logic and effects of “neo-liberalism” has come from a great variety of quarters – not least the ordo-liberalism which has been the backbone of the post-war German economy.
- Third, it has been recognised for a long time that the left-right labelling makes little sense. Wikipedia has an excellent briefing on this. And I recommend people do their own test on the political compass website - which uses two (not one) dimensions to try to situate people politically. 
Finally, there is the issue of whether I deserve the label which has been thrown at me – either from the article or from the range of beliefs I actually hold. The references in my article are impeccably mainstream academia (Colin Crouch; Henry Mintzberg) and a final section clearly signals that I have no truck with statism. 
All my political life I have supported community enterprise and been opposed to state ambitions and the “evil” it brings in, for example, the adulterated Romanian form. My business card describes me as an “explorer” – which refers not so much to the nomadic nature of my life in the last 20 years as the open nature of my search for both a satisfactory explanation of how societies and economies work; with what results; and the nature of relevant mechanisms for adjusting what societies judge (through democratic processes) to be unacceptable trends.
I readily admit to having been attracted in my youth to the British New Left’s analysis of British inequality in the late 1950s - but I was profoundly influenced at University by people such as Karl Popper and his The Open Society and its Enemies, Schumpeter (his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy and Ralf Dahrendorf; and, at a more practical level, by Andrew Shonfield and Tony Crosland who were also writing then about the benefits of the “mixed economy”. More recently I have generally been a fan of the writings of Will Hutton (whose stakeholder analysis of UK society was disdained by Tony Bliar on becoming PM).
As an academic I was influenced by the critical analysis of UK and US political scientists in the 1970s which went variously under the terms “Limits of the State” or “problems of implementation” and the softer end of the “public choice school” of institutional economics. But, unusually, the anarchistic/libertarian sweep of Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire also got to me in the 1970s (which is why I am (unusually) located in the south west quadrant of the political compass).
I therefore not only disdained the injunctions of the dominant left and right extremes of British politics of the 1980s but, as an influential Scottish regional politician, used my role to create more open processes of policy-making. Indeed community activists and opposition politicians were more important partners for me than members of my own party. I held on to my leading political position on the huge Regional Council simply because I belonged to neither the left or right factions amongst my colleagues but was their natural second choice! The definitions I give in my Sceptic's Glossary reveal the maverick me.

It is "big business" and its abuses of power I have always been hostile to.........

The next post's analysis of the "apocalyptic" turn which progressive comments have taken in recent months and years should be read in this light......