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!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Vernissaj and wine

The Astry and Konus Galleries are both favourite ports of call for me here in Sofia. Vihra and Yassen are, respectively, highly sociable and knowledgable about Bulgarian painting - and helpful to outsiders like myself. Vihra - at Astry Gallery - organises special exhibitions every 2 months or so - with Vernissajs and bookmarks - and last evening was the first I have been able to manage. For a modest and talented young landscape artist - Sabit Mesrur - one of whose paintings heads this post.
Yassen - at the Konus Gallery - also teaches and I at last visited the small gallery which the Academy of Fine Arts has in Levski street, just round the corner from my flat. It has currently a nice little exhibition by one of the Academy's first graduates, Rumen Gasharov (1956). I was given a couple of excellent little booklets free of charge. I offered to make a contribution - but it was refused. His website should be here.
And today I opened another of the Magura range of wines I have mentioned before - from the very North-East of the country. This one of the "Rendez-Vous" label - Cuvee du Sud. Crisp and tasty. Highly recommended - if a bit pricey at 6 euros - from the great shop they have here in Sofia. It may be a bit far out - but a number 5 tram from Makedonia Bvd takes you down to Pushkin Boulevard very quickly and comfortably. They have great range of whites, reds and roses (including cheap but excellent boxes). Only pity is that they don't give wine-tasting......

Letter to the younger generation

At my stage of life, I sometimes get asked for career advice by some of the younger colleagues who have worked with me. I always find it difficult to know what to say since times and contexts (let alone individuals) are so different. And, as Oscar Wilde put it very aptly, "I always pass on good advice – it’s the only thing to do with it”! When I do try to answer – particularly in writing – I generally found that what came out was actually more helpful to me since I was forced to think about aspects of my life and its times to which I hadn’t given much attention. And I remember a couple of lovely books which were based on an older colleague writing to younger ones. The first "Lettres a une etudiante", was written by the French sociologist, Alain Touraine in 1974(and is sadly not available in English). I can’t at the moment remember the second author (it was probably C Wright Mills). But, in my Carpathian library, I have a marvellous book of reflective essays by the big names in European and American Political Science describing how they came to get involved in the discipline, who they worked with and were inspired by and how they came to write their various magni opi.

These thoughts came to me as I read one of Orlov’s papers - whose general ideas I presented yesterday. In this paper, chunks of which I reproduce below, he is trying to explore the implications of the bleak scenario he skecthes out for a young man. Let me first remind you of Orlov’s basic argument which he present on the basis of his living for significant periods of his life in Russian and the US and seeing the Soviet collapse at first hand.
• Despite the apparent ideological differences between the two countries, the SU and US the same industrial, technological civilization
• They have competed with one another in various destructive races - not only the arms race and the squandering of natural resources race – but in also the jails race and the bankruptcy race
• Both countries have been experiencing chronic depopulation of farming districts. In Russia, family farms were decimated during collectivization, along with agricultural output; in the U.S., a variety of other forces produced a similar result with regard to rural population, but without any loss of production. Both countries replaced family farms with unsustainable, ecologically disastrous industrial agribusiness, addicted to fossil fuels. The American ones work better, as long as energy is cheap, and, after that, probably not at all.
• the causes of the Soviet collapse are now clearly evident in the United States
• the Soviet Union had various features (state owned housing; concentrated urban systen; vegetable gardens; family support systemns; district heating) which gave its citizens a resilience in coping with the collapse of jobs and public services which the US completely lacks
• it is therefore all the more important people start to prepare for the worst scenario and alter their lifestyle (there was talk a year or so back of „resilience” being an important social feature)
• most contemporary American systems (justice; education; health) now operate disastrously and in the interests of the „fat cats”.

I gave a link yesterday to one of Orlov’s papers - Thriving in the age of collapse – and it is the final section of that paper which addresses the question of "What Can Young People do to Prepare for America's Collapse?" I've selected most of the text to give a sense of the tautness of his language and argument.
We have a three-tier generationally stratified middle-class society. At the top, we have a whole lot of happy, prosperous, self-assured old people, living it large, not willing for a moment to admit their complicity in impoverishing their children and grandchildren. In the middle we have a smaller number of their adult children, running themselves ragged, forced to delude themselves that everything is under control, just to keep up their spirits. And then there are even fewer young people, just coming of age, and, one would think, justifiably angry with the hand they have been dealt. Few of them are up to the Herculean task that has been set in front of them.
Consider “Steve,” who is 18 years old. He found out about Peak Oil after one of his on-line video game buddies sent him some links to Web sites, which he found deeply shocking. Now he is totally freaked out.
One of Steve's most severe and painful realizations, if he is lucky enough to have it, will be that he has been lied to all his life, more or less continuously, by his parents, his minders at school, and even, to some extent, his own peers. If he does not have this realization, then he will be doomed to see all that happens to him as the result his personal failings: his weakness, lack of talent, inability to fit in, or bad luck. Even if he does have this realization, he will find it difficult to live his life accordingly, because those who lack this realization, and deem themselves successful, will try to denigrate him as a misfit or a loser.
One part of the lie is that America is the best and getting better – land of possibility and so forth – and that he can achieve his dream, whatever it is, by being diligent, hard-working, and a team player. Of course, his dream must be an American dream – just like everyone else's, and involve a house in the suburbs, a couple of cars in the driveway, a couple of kids, maybe a cat and a dog, and lots of money in retirement accounts.
The other part of the lie is that Steve can live such a life and be free. He would be free - to make false choices. For breakfast Steve will have... stuff from a cardboard box with commercial art on it, excellent choice, Sir, well done! And in order to get around, he will have... a disposable vinyl-upholstered sheet metal box on four rubber wheels that burns gasoline, very wise, Sir, very wise! By choosing a prepackaged life, Steve himself would become a prepackaged product, a social appliance designed for planned obsolescence, whose useful life will be determined by the availability of the fossil fuels on which it operates.
That these are lies is plain for all to see: with each next generation, people are being forced to work harder and to go deeper into debt to maintain this suburban, middle-class lifestyle. About a third of them experience severe psychological problems. Also about a third of them do not believe that they will be able to afford to retire. The majority of them believe that they are not doing as well as their parents did.

Escape Plans
This society still has plenty to offer to a young person, provided that the young person is clever enough to know how to take advantage of it.
First of all, it is probably a bad idea to go straight to college. It is best to avoid getting sucked into that pipeline, which starts around the middle of senior year and ends with post-graduate indentured servitude of one sort or another. Apply to a couple of schools, strictly pro forma, to avoid suspicion. Having a high school diploma is important; the grades and test scores are somewhat important. Demonstrated excellence at one or two things is more valuable than a good average. Most important is learning the differences between your talents, you interests, and your expectations.

At this point in the game, gaining basic money-making skills is far more important, especially in the trades, such as landscaping, interior restoration, carpentry, house painting, floor sanding, mechanical repair work, and so on, because these are all jobs that can be done for cash. Avoid dangerous trades, such as roofing, abatement, and, in general, anything that involves toxic chemicals or dangerous machinery. Having some business skills is important too – knowing how to deal with bosses and customers and how to supervise people. The best approach is to work a series of short jobs – shorter than a year, learning a trade and moving on immediately, and always be on the lookout for special, unofficial projects. Think of regular employment as good cover, but not as the main source of income – and therefore best kept to part-time. Always job-hunting, switching and learning new jobs, will help keep your mind sharp. But be sure to read as well, and challenge yourself by reading difficult books – this will help you when you decide to go back to school.

Once you graduate, immediately become financially independent from your parents. Move out, and work on developing a good roommate situation. Go for the cheapest rent you can find by talking directly to landlords and offering to take care of security and maintenance. Pick your roommates carefully and try to get a cohesive group together, so that you can rely on each other. Do not accept money or other sorts of financial help from your parents. Do everything you have to so that if and when you decide to go to school, and file financial aid forms, you are not their dependent, and they are not expected to pay your college tuition or living expenses. If your parents require an explanation, it is that you care about them: you do not believe that their retirement will be enough to live on, and the money that would be swallowed up by tuition will help. If you have a system worked out for living frugally and making a bit of cash, on paper you can look penniless, which is perfect, because schools will confiscate all the money that you disclose to them. Be sure to always disclose just enough to avoid suspicion, and brush up on the laws to make sure it's all legal.

Higher What?
When thinking about attending a college or a university, it is important to understand what these institutions actually are. They are often called “institutions of higher learning,” but the learning is quite incidental to their two most important missions: research (government or industrial) and something known as “credentialing:” the granting of degrees. In many ways, it is a sort of extended hazing ritual, where the aspirant is required to jump through a series of blazing hoops before being granted access to a professional realm
Excellent teaching does happen, but more or less by accident. Professors are recruited and retained based on their publications and awards (to lend prestige to the school) and their ability to attract grant money. Much of the teaching is done not by the professors themselves, but by graduate student teaching assistants, adjuncts, and various other academic minions.

The human mind learns best through repetition and through applying knowledge, but college curricula are structured so as to avoid repetition, with each course designed as a stand-alone unit. Most of the learning takes the form of cramming for tests, and what is tested is not knowledge but short-term memory. By the time students graduate, they have forgotten most of what they have been taught, but with perfectly honed cramming skills, ready to brute-force their way through any further superficial tests of their “knowledge” or “competence,” to join the swelling ranks of America's credentialed amateurs.
For some students, the more prestigious schools offer a certain charmed quality: no matter how much they drink and how badly they do, they cannot flunk out. An echelon of tutors is summoned to guide their every mediocre step, all the way through graduation. These are the children of the elite, whose attendance at these institutions is more a matter of tradition than anything else. It makes no difference whether they learn anything or not: for their breed, the pedigree counts for a lot more than the obedience training. I have run across a few of these zombies with Ivy League diplomas, childish handwritings, speech peppered with nonsense syllables, and an attitude that never stops begging for a slap.

Fields of Mud
When choosing a field of study, it is important to keep in mind that there are disciplines that will abide and remain perennially valuable, while others are fluff. The sciences – Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Zoology, Botany, Geology – will serve you well. Mathematics, Philosophy, Astronomy, and a foreign language or two will make you a better person. Literature and History are invaluable, but rarely taught well; if you cannot find a truly inspired teacher, teach yourself – by reading and writing, which are the only two activities these two disciplines require.
Then there are the pseudo-sciences: Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, and Economics. They disguise themselves as sciences by employing experimental techniques and statistical analysis, and, in the case of Economics, a funky sort of math, but they are fluff, and are clearly marked with an expiration date.
Lastly, there are the conduits to the professions: Law, Medicine, and Engineering. They have little to do with getting an education, and everything to do with learning a trade, and, of course “credentialing.” In each case, the hazing is extreme.

The legal profession is already a bit overstocked, and, law being a luxury product, it seems unlikely that these graduates will be able to pay down their copious student loans in the new economy. Already many of them lack the option of becoming public defenders or taking on pro bono cases because of their huge financial burdens.
I have already said enough about medicine; but if Steve wants to be a doctor, there are some medical schools around the world that graduate real doctors, rather than technocrats who practice “defensive medicine” and shuffle paper half their day. After the extended sleep deprivation experiment they are put through as interns, they get to live in stately homes, fly to pharmaceutical company junkets, and play a lot of golf. That may change.

I am partial to engineering, having put myself through its rigors. It sometimes creates what I feel is a good sort of person – a bit stunted in some ways, strangely passionate about inanimate objects, but capable at many things and generally trustworthy. If Steve has exhibited the telltale tendencies – such as completely dismantling and reassembling various gadgets, and making them work perfectly again afterward – and if he looks forward to four years of scribbling out formulas under intense pressure, then engineering may be for him. Whether he will be able to earn a living by engineering is unknowable, but then engineers can usually find plenty of other things to do.

The Piece of Paper
It is often hard to tell ahead of time, but for a lot of people graduating may be quite pointless, while dropping out at an opportune moment may be quite advantageous. I know plenty of people who never graduated; they have been my bosses, my colleagues, and my employees. They often have an original perspective, along with an unusual depth of knowledge. Some of the best-educated people I have ever met have been dropouts: the self-educated poet Joseph Brodsky, for instance, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature, dropped out of grade school aged fifteen.

It is best not announce your intention to never graduate, but behave accordingly. While others are busy checking off boxes on their little curriculum planning sheets and suffering through pointless required courses with mediocre instructors, you can find out what you want to learn and who you want to learn it from, and take your time to learn it well. If a good project comes along, take it, take a leave of absence from school, then go back and study some more. Keep telling everyone that you intend to go back and get your degree. I know people in their late 40s who are still in good standing, always threatening to come back and finish their degree: people find them quite charming.

Earth, Revisited
The last, and possibly the most formative part of your education is for you to go and see the world beyond the borders of your country. Learn a language, then go and backpack through countries where you can speak it. Spanish is about the easiest language you can learn, and it unlocks a huge world, which offers a great richness of spirit, along with a level-headed perspective on all this gringo madness that you will have to learn to escape from.
You are at an age when parts of who you are – your outlook on life, your personality, your habits and your tastes – are still forming. There is no better way to gain a fresh perspective on the world – and on yourself – than to put yourself into an unfamiliar situation: new place, new culture, a different language. Who knows what you will find? It could be a new place to live, an acquired taste for leading a nomadic existence, or it could be a new peace of mind, a sense of self-sufficiency, or a unique perspective on life.
It is human nature to want to postpone making unpleasant decisions until the last moment, and we can do so with impunity, provided we leave enough options open for us to choose from. Every day that we live contentedly within the status quo, we restrict our options further and further, by making ourselves increasingly dependent on more and more systems over which we have no control, and on which we cannot rely. But there are also small, conscious steps we can take that break some of these dependencies, and create new options for ourselves. If we take enough such steps, then when the time arrives for a major, life-changing decision, we will be ready
. Tomorrow I hope to explore the question of how much of the analysis is relevant for Europe – and which countries here seem to be more reslient than others.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Facing the end of the world we have known

I’ve now had the chance to read Dmitry Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse; the Soviet Experience and American Prospects which I referred to a couple of weeks ago
It’s a long time since I’ve read such a provocative and uncompromising set of arguments – delivered with dry wit – about the situation which faces the US and its citizens and what they might learn from the Soviet collapse. There have been many critiques of the American system (most famously from people like Will Hutton and Chomsky) and many books about the peak-oil scenario – but Orlov’s is the first one which I’ve felt inclined to buy multiple copies of to pass on to friends and colleagues; and to go back immediately for a second read. And, unlike other books, he makes this impact with absoluetly no bibliographical references!
A couple of his earlier papers (on which his book is based) are actually available on the net – one on the parallels between the SU and the US ; the other on what individuals (although the book is aimed at Americans, it has implications for Europeans) should be doing to to prepare for the very different world in which we will be living sooner rather than later.
The Soviet Union and the United States are each either the winner or the first runner-up in the following categories: the space race, the arms race, the jails race, the hated evil empire race, the squandering of natural resources race, and the bankruptcy race. In some of these categories, the United States is, shall we say, a late bloomer, setting new records even after its rival was forced to forfeit. Both believed, with giddy zeal, in science, technology, and progress, right up until the Chernobyl disaster occurred. After that, there was only one true believer left.

They are the two post-World War II industrial empires that attempted to impose their ideologies on the rest of the world: democracy and capitalism versus socialism and central planning. Both had some successes: while the United States reveled in growth and prosperity, the Soviet Union achieved universal literacy, universal health care, far less social inequality, and a guaranteed - albeit lower - standard of living for all citizens. The state-controlled media took pains to make sure that most people didn't realize just how much lower it was: “Those happy Russians don't know how badly they live,” Simone Signoret said after a visit.

Both empires made a big mess of quite a few other countries, each one financing and directly taking part in bloody conflicts around the world in order to impose its ideology, and to thwart the other. Both made quite a big mess of their own country, setting world records for the percentage of population held in jails. In this last category, the U.S. is now a runaway success, supporting a burgeoning, partially privatized prison-industrial complex (a great source of near-slave wage labor).

The bankruptcy race is particularly interesting. Prior to its collapse, the Soviet Union was taking on foreign debt at a rate that could not be sustained. The combination of low world oil prices and a peak in Soviet oil production sealed its fate. Later, the Russian Federation, which inherited the Soviet foreign debt, was forced to default on its obligations, precipitating a financial crisis. Russia's finances later improved, primarily due to rising oil prices, along with rising oil exports. At this point, Russia is eager to wipe out the remaining Soviet debt as quickly as possible, and over the past few years the Russian rouble has done just a bit better than the U.S. dollar.
The United States is now facing a current account deficit that cannot be sustained, a falling currency, and an energy crisis, all at once. It is now the world's largest debtor nation, and most people do not see how it can avoid defaulting on its debt. According to a lot of analysts, it is technically bankrupt, and is being propped up by foreign reserve banks, which hold a lot of dollar-denominated assets, and, for the time being, want to protect the value of their reserves. This game can only go on for so long. Thus, while the Soviet Union deserves honorable mention for going bankrupt first, the gold in this category (pun intended) will undoubtedly go to the United States, for the largest default ever.

There are many other similarities as well. Women received the right to education and a career in Russia earlier than in the U.S. Russian and American families are in similarly sad shape, with high divorce rates and many out-of-wedlock births, although the chronic shortage of housing in Russia did force many families to stick it out, with mixed results. Both countries have been experiencing chronic depopulation of farming districts. In Russia, family farms were decimated during collectivization, along with agricultural output; in the U.S., a variety of other forces produced a similar result with regard to rural population, but without any loss of production. Both countries replaced family farms with unsustainable, ecologically disastrous industrial agribusiness, addicted to fossil fuels. The American ones work better, as long as energy is cheap, and, after that, probably not at all.
The similarities are too numerous to mention. I hope that what I outlined above is enough to signal a key fact: that these are, or were, the antipodes of the same industrial, technological civilization
His second paper is called Thriving in the age of collapse which you can read while listening to him deliver a lecture on the same topic. He may not be the most powerful orator (as distinct from writer), but his dry wit is very evident. Of course, his bleak message that our political and administrative systems are incapable of preventing the collapse and that we should simply adopt the strategem of survival is, at the end of the day, literally Voltairian (After experiencing the cruelty of the world, Candide decided that the most appropriate thing for him to do was to "cultiver son jardin"). It is also a bit difficult for a political creature such as myself to accept. But the section in Orlov's book which points out that governments nowadays only intensify problems through "bondoogles" is not only amusing - but borne out by experience and the critical literature.

John Harris is a british journalist who has developed a nice "Brechtian” camera style – by which I mean one which removes the mystique of both media and politics. He has been taking us in recent weeks behind the scenes of the British party Conferences – and this is a good episode which has the British voter talking about the (ir)relevance of politicians. We need more of this style of video.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

visual pleasures

I’m sorry I missed the walking tour which Valentin Mandache arranged on Sunday around Targoviste -one of Romania’s ancient capitals. I always enjoy driving through the town – and his invitation gives a sense of the town's treasures/

It’s good to be back in Sofia – with its vegetables (leeks and tomatoes); galleries; pleasant cycling and oace of life. The Sofia City Gallery continues to celebrate its greats – with a special exhibition of one of Bulgaria’s most revered painters – Nikola Petrov (1881-1916). I can understand why his influence (despite his youth) was so great – his landscapes are delicate; his portrait sketches deft; and his nudes were clearly the inspiration for Nikola Boiadjiev. A very nice little book accompanies the exhibition – at only 5 euros. I hadn’t realised that Petrov was from one of the Danube towns – in the north-east, Vidin – which I haven’t been able to get to so far but will certainly visit once the Romanian engineers eventually finish their half of the new bridge (another year off I suspect). The town does have an art gallery. For me, Nikola Tanev is the greatest and is also from a Danube village – Svishtov – the signs for whose car ferry I saw as I left the Russe District

I mentioned recently an interview with Ralf Dahrendorf on an excellent history series available on the internet. I don’t use such facilities as much as I should – here’s another challenging snippet

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Visions of the Future,

My blog has been playing catch-up recently with some of the debate currently going on in European left circles. I have to confess I have mixed feelings about a lot of the stuff which comes from think-tanks written by the curious new breed of scribblers who seem to inhabit the airwaves and ante-chambers of power. God knows, I respect ideas but these rootless characters have developed a language which doesn’t seem to relate to the real world – and certainly doesn’t deal with the HOW of reform. One example is this short publication by a Norwegian (who should know better!!).
A year ago I bought and started to read an intriguing book Red Tory written by an ex-priest which seemed to be yet another attempt to give us a third way between greed capitalism and centralised socialism. And the coalition government has roped in quite a few big names from the social enterprsie sector to explore how mutualism might be applied to public services.
Not to be outdone, a figure duly appeared on the left and gave us the idea of Blue Labour – and Prospect magazine gave us a debate last year between the 2 proponents which has been updated in their present issue Their ideas also link to those of Paul Hirst which I blogged about last week, when I expressed surprise that people did not seem to be talking about the German social market model or, indeed, of Will Hutton’s notion of stakeholder capitalism - which had been the "in-idea” in the mid 1990s and to which Tony Bliar and Gordon Brown had turned deaf ears - Brown in particular being sold on the American rather than the social market model. And lo! People are indeed now referring to the German model - with some good points as always being made in the subsequent Guardian discussion thread (not least that one the key elements are regional banks).
Trying to get the best of both worlds (a rather Manichean view of the world!) can be difficult. I speak from personal experience - generally finding myself operating as a bridge between groups distinguished by class, party, profession, nation etc). There is a (central european) saying about bridges - "in peacetime, horses shit on them and in wartime they are blown up"!!

Brits play a great game of analysis – its the doing where they seem to come unstuck. That’s why I liked this blog about a local food initiative – a great example of what can be done when people get off their backsides. The same blog had a post about New Public Management written by one of its architects in the UK but announcing its demise (which has been announced for the past decade) and wondering what the next big idea would be to take its place. Obvious he hadn’t seen Paul Kingsnorth’s article I blogged about yesterday. Any way Colin Talbot replied and argued that it was not helpful to use such phrases – which concealed a variety of practices some of which were not disasters.
One of them which was certainly a disaster and which Gordon Brown forced through despite many warnings was the Private Financial Initiative (PFI) which Craig Murray writes about from his Ambassadorial experience.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Too big to be saved

I have referred several times in this blog to Paul Kingsnorth – who has a very pertinent article on the global crisis in today’s Guardian
In times like these, people look elsewhere for answers. A time of crisis is also a time of opening-up, when thinking that was consigned to the fringes moves to centre stage. When things fall apart, the appetite for new ways of seeing is palpable, and there are always plenty of people willing to feed it by coming forward with their pet big ideas.
But here's a thought: what if big ideas are part of the problem? What if, in fact, the problem is bigness itself?
The crisis currently playing out on the world stage is a crisis of growth. Not, as we are regularly told, a crisis caused by too little growth, but by too much of it. Banks grew so big that their collapse would have brought down the entire global economy. To prevent this, they were bailed out with huge tranches of public money, which in turn is precipitating social crises on the streets of western nations. The European Union has grown so big, and so unaccountable, that it threatens to collapse in on itself.
Corporations have grown so big that they are overwhelming democracies and building a global plutocracy to serve their own interests. The human economy as a whole has grown so big that it has been able to change the atmospheric composition of the planet and precipitate a mass extinction event.
One man who would not have been surprised by this crisis of bigness, had he lived to see it, was Leopold Kohr. Kohr has a good claim to be the most important political thinker that you have never heard of. Unlike Marx, he did not found a global movement or inspire revolutions. Unlike Hayek, he did not rewrite the economic rules of the modern world. Kohr was a modest, self-deprecating man, but this was not the reason his ideas have been ignored by movers and shakers in the half century since they were produced. They have been ignored because they do not flatter the egos of the power-hungry, be they revolutionaries or plutocrats. In fact, Kohr's message is a direct challenge to them. "Wherever something is wrong," he insisted, "something is too big."
Published in 1957, The Breakdown of Nations laid out what at the time was a radical case: that small states, small nations and small economies are more peaceful, more prosperous and more creative than great powers or superstates. It was a claim that was as unfashionable as it was possible to make. This was the dawn of the space age – a time of high confidence in the progressive, gigantist, technology-fuelled destiny of humankind. Feted political thinkers were talking in all seriousness of creating a world government as the next step towards uniting humanity. Kohr was seriously at odds with the prevailing mood. He later commented, dryly, that his critics "dismissed my ideas by referring to me as a poet".
Kohr's claim was that society's problems were not caused by particular forms of social or economic organisation, but by their size. Socialism, anarchism, capitalism, democracy, monarchy – all could work well on what he called "the human scale": a scale at which people could play a part in the systems that governed their lives. But once scaled up to the level of modern states, all systems became oppressors. Changing the system, or the ideology that it claimed inspiration from, would not prevent that oppression – as any number of revolutions have shown – because "the problem is not the thing that is big, but bigness itself".
Drawing from history, Kohr demonstrated that when people have too much power, under any system or none, they abuse it. The task, therefore, was to limit the amount of power that any individual, organisation or government could get its hands on. The solution to the world's problems was not more unity but more division. The world should be broken up into small states, roughly equivalent in size and power, which would be able to limit the growth and thus domination of any one unit. Small states and small economies were more flexible, more able to weather economic storms, less capable of waging serious wars, and more accountable to their people. Not only that, but they were more creative.
On a whistlestop tour of medieval and early modern Europe, The Breakdown of Nations does a brilliant job of persuading the reader that many of the glories of western culture, from cathedrals to great art to scientific innovations, were the product of small states.
To understand the sparky, prophetic power of Kohr's vision, you need to read The Breakdown of Nations. Some if it will create shivers of recognition. Bigness, predicted Kohr, could only lead to more bigness, for "whatever outgrows certain limits begins to suffer from the irrepressible problem of unmanageable proportions". Beyond those limits it was forced to accumulate more power in order to manage the power it already had. Growth would become cancerous and unstoppable, until there was only one possible endpoint: collapse
Two years ago, I reread the book and picked out several quotations– of which this was one –
the chief blessing of a small-state system is ...its gift of a freedom which hardly ever registers if it is pronounced.....freedom from issues....ninety percent of our intellectual miseries are due to the fact that almost everything in our life has become an ism, an issue... our life’s efforts seem to be committed exclusively to the task of discovering where we stand in some battle raging about some abstract issue...
The blessing of a small state returns us from the misty sombreness of an existence in which we are nothing but ghostly shadows of meaningless issues to the reality which we can only find in our neighbours and neighbourhoods
Kingsnorth continues that
We have now reached the point that Kohr warned about over half a century ago: the point where "instead of growth serving life, life must now serve growth, perverting the very purpose of existence". Kohr's "crisis of bigness" is upon us and, true to form, we are scrabbling to tackle it with more of the same: closer fiscal unions, tighter global governance, geoengineering schemes, more economic growth. Big, it seems, is as beautiful as ever to those who have the unenviable task of keeping the growth machine going.
This shouldn't surprise us. It didn't surprise Kohr, who, unlike some of his utopian critics, never confused a desire for radical change with the likelihood of it actually happening. Instead, his downbeat but refreshingly honest conclusion was that, like a dying star, the gigantist global system would in the end fall in on itself, and the whole cycle of growth would begin all over again. But before it did so, "between the intellectual ice ages of great-power domination", the world would become "little and free once more"
The discussion thread to Kingsworth's article is also worth reading.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Do Social Democrats Think Any More?

I didn’t actually send a nomination to Social Europe for "the thinker who most influenced the European social democratic agenda last year” – simply because it’s so obvious that thought has no real place in the construction of social democratic party agendas and activities these days. It’s all a question of focus groups, sound-bites and clandestine negotiations with media and financial interests. I was tempted therefore to suggest the name of Peter Mandelson who first concocted this diabolic formula. But an additional reason is that I didn’t want to add to the anglo bias of the Social Europe website. There must be many interesting German, French, Dutch and Scandinavian "writers” who have some useful thoughts to offer reform parties. Sadly, however, I have not been able to find my way to their blogs and papers – until now! Rene Cuperus is a Dutchman who has written well and provocatively about the causes of social democratic decline – and it was through following links to him that I came across two websites which are actually devoted to the revitalisation of social democratic thinking at a European indeed global level. The first is Policy Network which, at first glance, seems too focussed on political leaders for my taste. But their publications are worthwhile – particularly a recent one Priorities for a new political economy - Memos to the left which has introductory essays by Will Hutton and Colin Crouch amongst others and then 19 short essays by European (British, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian and Spanish) and North and Latin American writers. Interesting that Germans don’t really figure in such books – they are not anguishing the way the rest of us do. They just get on with sustaining a system which is, broadly, working?
Another title which looks interesting is Social Progress in the 21st Century – social invetsment, labour market reform and inter-generational inequality which was also funded by the second useful website I came across - the European progressive political foundation (FEPS). Set up in 2008 and close to the Party of European Socialists (PES), FEPS explores new ways of thinking on the social democratic, socialist and labour scene in Europe. Its publications look interesting and I hope to report on one in particular which I have downloaded – a tribute to Tony Judt and the challenge he posed us in his penultimate book "Ill Fares the Land".

I have just found (and added to the links on the right-side) a great blog devoted to superb, off-beat examples of Romanian architecture. It’s bilingual and called A patriot’s Guide to Romania.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Power - and saws

First thing morning, my druzhbar (power saw) was serviced by a young neighbour, Rasvan - and immediately powered through the thick tree branches at the front. Then the heavy work of carting them up to the house! By then it was midday - and the wind was really up; with the sun making it very acceptable - particularly on the terrace at the back with a wine after preparing another bean soup with the great new pressure cooker.

Hopefully tomorrow I can finish the sawing and storing of the wood. Three branches have given enough for a couple of weeks sustained heating!

The internet is impossibly slow now and will probably make further blogging impossible until I get back to Sofia - at the end of the week. I do realise that the title I gave to today's post - Come back Corporatism -does beg a lot of questions! Talk of the "new political class" points to the great "cosiness" (collusion) between political, corporate and media elites. But the corporatism of northern european system is a negotiated system composed of powerful groups which balance one another!

Come back Corporatism - all is forgiven!

The events of the past few years have made millions of people angry with their political leaders and disillusioned with the political and economic systems in which they operate.

But for anything to happen, there have to be feasible and legitimate options capable of gaining the support of a significant number of people.

That’s quite a challenging set of preconditions – feasibility, legitimacy and support! A paper on my website tries to track the various analyses and reforms which have been offered in the past decade or so (excluding technical tinkering).

But nothing will happen without catalysts for that change – individuals who have an understanding of the social process of the transformation process and the skills and credibility to ease change into place. Noone buys blueprints (let alone manifestos) any more. And politicians in many countries have lost credibility. Process is all. So where are the catalysts who have that understanding and skill sets; and who cannot be fitted into the conventional political labels?

It was by accident that I pulled a book from my library yesterday which has been lying unread since I bought it years ago. It was Paul Hirst’s From Statism to Pluralism produced in 1997 from various papers he had written in the previous 5 years and arguing the case for “associational democracy” in both the public and private sectors. It has a powerful beginning –
The brutalities of actually existing socialism have fatally crippled the power of socialist ideas of any kind to motivate and inspire. The collapse of communism and the decline of wars between the major industrial states have removed the major justifications of social democracy for established elites – that it could prevent the worse evil of communism and that it could harness organized labour in the national war effort.
Those elites have not just turned against social democracy, but they almost seem to have convinced significant sections of the population that a regulated economy and comprehensive social welfare are either unattainable or undesirable
.He then goes on to argue that –
• more “associational” forms of democracy and wider decision-making would help re-balance the centralisation of the state and the dominance of big business. In this view ‘association’ means groups of people who have similar concerns, views, and aims.
• Associationalism (it has many similarities with mutualism) is the most neglected of the great 19th century doctrines of social organisation. It lost out to collectivism and individualism. But conditions have now changed dramatically and make it an appropriate principle of reform and renewal of Western societies.
• widely distributed methods of decision-making, (both within and between organisations and groups throughout society and the economy) would better enable effective, informed and appropriate action. It might reduce the need for complex top-down regulation, better distribute wealth and security, and offer a potential solution to mistrust and social disintegration within communities.

Sadly Hirst died in 2003 but I discovered yesterday that other people in Britain have recently been going back to his papers and books. Indeed a booklet was produced earlier this year on the discussions.

Clearly the renewed interest stems from the UK Prime Minister’s interest in what he calls the “Big Society” – of public services being managed by its workers (part of the mutualist approach) or by community and voluntary organizations (social enterprise). Although Cameron was talking about this before the global crisis, the concept is a bit suspect these days with such large cuts in public expenditure.

However, social enterprise has a long and honourable tradition and was one I was proud to work for in the 1980s. A recent article set out how the Hirst agenda and social enterprise fit However the elephant in the room is the Big Corporation – and here the limits of (if not the motives for) the Cameron agenda are perhaps most exposed.

And Hirst too does not say much about the economic side of things which Will Hutton was so eloquent about at the same time (stakeholder society) – beyond a few comments about the “industrial districts of Italy”.

Although Germany gets a brief passing remark or two, I find it astounding that the “corporatist” model of North Europe does not get proper treatment. Is that because “corporatism” got a bad name in Britain in the 1970s (it was blamed for the poor economic performance) – or because the Brits (and Americans) are so myopic about foreign activities?

 We should not underestimate the power of words and phrases – but I suspect the explanation is more the latter. I find it ironic that the Brits were very interested in the 1960s with what they could learn from France and other European countries about industrial policy - but that they have no such interest when part of the European Union!

Apart from the usual academic books about German politics, I know of only two general books on Germany in the English language – the idiosyncratic Germania by Simon Winder and Peter Watson’s doorstopper of a book German Genius – neither of which says anything about how Germany managed, in the post-war period period, to become such a politically and economically resilient country.

The only serious article I know about the country are the 60 pages in Perry Anderson’s The New Old World. I remember in the 1970s we had a huge book by John Ardagh which took us through all aspects of contemporary Germany. Now the books are shallow (and mocking) travelogues whcih say more about the Brits than the Germans.

However there is a recent academic paper which explores why a “coordinated market economy” was first chosen as the appropriate model for Germany; and why it might still be the most appropriate for Germany but for other EC countries.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Our catastrophic elites

In 1987 a book and a film appeared in America which seemed to signal a questioning of the greed culture which had received the imprint of approval from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The book was Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities which ended with the come-uppance of one of Wall Street’s “Masters of the universe”. The film was Wall Street; Money never sleeps - starring Michael Dougals as Gordon Gekko whose signature line was "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good".
Alas, the reflective mood was momentary – indeed the broader effect seemed to have been to persuade other professions to get into the act. A decade later, a distinguished historian, Harold Perkin, published The Third Revolution - Professional Elites in the Modern World(1996). In previous books Perkin had studied the rise of professional society. In this one he looked at Twentieth Century elites in the USA, England, France, Germany, Russia and Japan - and finds their behaviour equally deficient and morally irresponsible -
What all six countries, except Germany, are found to have in common are greed and corruption, from the wholesale fraud, embezzlement, and bribery practised by Soviet apparatchiks , through the systematic bribery of Japanese politicians by the big corporations, and the apparently general corruption in French local government contracts, to the more 'legitimate' but dubiously ethical machinations of junk bond merchants in the U. S. or take-over conmen in Britain. This is attributed to the professional elites who are 'good servants but bad masters', and when they have power are liable to abuse it, exploit the masses, and line their own pockets. At this point one cannot help concluding that there is nothing new under the sun, that ruling elites or cliques have always been tempted to enrich themselves, and that corruption, even blatant and very large- scale corruption, is not an invention of professional society.
It is a book which should be given to each individual when (s)he makes it into their country's "Who's Who" and becomes part of the "system".
A few years earlier, a powerful but different critique of our elites had been launched by Christopher Lasch - The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. The book's title is a take-off on Jose Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, a reactionary work published in 1930 that ascribed the crisis of Western culture to the "political domination of the masses." Ortega believed that the rise of the masses threatened democracy by undermining the ideals of civic virtue that characterized the old ruling elites. But in late twentieth-century America it is not the masses so much as an emerging elite of professional and managerial types who constitute the greatest threat to democracy, according to Lasch -
The new cognitive elite is made up of what Robert Reich called "symbolic analysts" — lawyers, academics, journalists, systems analysts, brokers, bankers, etc. These professionals traffic in information and manipulate words and numbers for a living. They live in an abstract world in which information and expertise are the most valuable commodities. Since the market for these assets is international, the privileged class is more concerned with the global system than with regional, national, or local communities. In fact, members of the new elite tend to be estranged from their communities and their fellow citizens. "They send their children to private schools, insure themselves against medical emergencies ... and hire private security guards to protect themselves against the mounting violence against them," Lasch writes. "In effect, they have removed themselves from the common life."
The privileged classes, which, according to Lasch's "expansive" definition, now make up roughly a fifth of the population, are heavily invested in the notion of social mobility. The new meritocracy has made professional advancement and the freedom to make money "the overriding goal of social policy." "The reign of specialized expertise," he writes, "is the antithesis of democracy as it was understood by those who saw this country as the 'last, best hope of earth'". Citizenship is grounded not in equal access to economic competition but in shared participation in a common life and a common political dialogue. The aim is not to hold out the promise of escape from the "labouring classes," Lasch contends, but to ground the values and institutions of democracy in the inventiveness, industry, self-reliance, and self-respect of working people.
The decline of democratic discourse has come about largely at the hands of the elites, or "talking classes," as Lasch refers to them. Intelligent debate about common concerns has been almost entirely supplanted by ideological quarrels, sour dogma, and name-calling. The growing insularity of what passes for public discourse today has been exacerbated, he says, by the loss of "third places" — beyond the home and workplace — which foster the sort of free-wheeling and spontaneous conversation among citizens on which democracy thrives. Without the civic institutions — ranging from political parties to public parks and informal meeting places — that "promote general conversation across class lines," social classes increasingly "speak to themselves in a dialect of their own, inaccessible to outsiders.
Lasch proposes something else: a recovery of what he calls the “populist tradition,” and a fresh understanding of democracy, not as a set of procedural or institutional arrangements but as an ethos, one that the new elites have been doing their best to undermine.

It has to be said that neither book made much impact – perhaps they were just seen as “moralizing”. Contrast that with the impact made in 1958 by JK Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. Has any recent book, I wonder, made the same impact? Perhaps the Spirit Level – why equality is better for everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009) comes closest. I would therefore have to nominate them for the Social Europe award mentioned recently - although I personally think that Danny Dorling's 2010 Injustice - why social inequality persists is a more powerful book since it doesn't just itemise the inequalities but identifies and explodes the various rationalisations which sustain them.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Triumph of the political class

Thunder has been reverbating around the valleys in the last couple of days, knocking out my electricity several times. But that is not the reason for my silence. I have been absorbed by one of the books in the latest Amazon package (which arrived within 2 days of my ordering them) – Peter Oborne’s The Triumph of the Political Class. Some months ago I said that noone seemed to be celebrating the anniversary of Robert Michels’ Political Parties which appeared a hundred years ago and which was one of the seminal books of my university years – suggesting that trade unions and social democratic parties were inevitably destined to betrayal by their leaders through the “iron law of oligarchy”. Havong tasted the perks of power, they don't easily let it go. Oborne’s book appeared in 2007 - but is a worthy successor and offers important perspectives to the various posts I’ve made about the collapse of our democracy -
Lewis Namier (1888-1960) argued in his masterwork The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III that talk of great battles of principle between the Whigs and Tories of Hanoverian England was nonsense. Ministers were in politics for the money and to advance the interests of their cliques. MPs who boasted of their independence were forever seeking favours from the public purse. Ideology mattered so little that 'the political life of the period could be fully described without ever using a party denomination'. You can do the same today, argues Peter Oborne in this thought-provoking polemic. Members of the 21st-century 'political class' are as isolated and self-interested as their Georgian predecessors. The political class is very different from the old establishment. It despises the values of traditional institutions that once acted as restraints on the power of the state - the independence of the judiciary, the neutrality of the Civil Service and the accountability of ministers to the Commons.
If you are young and ambitious and want to join, Oborne sketches out a career path. First, you must set yourself apart from your contemporaries at university by taking an interest in politics. You must join a think-tank or become researcher to an upwardly mobile MP on graduation. Before getting to the top, you will have eaten with, drunk with and slept with people exactly like you, not only in politics but in the media, PR and advertising - trades the old establishment despised, but you admire for their ability to manipulate the masses.
You will talk a language the vast majority of your fellow citizens can't understand and be obsessed with the marketing of politics rather than its content. You will notice that once in power, you can get away with behaviour that would have stunned your predecessors. You can use your position to profit from lecture tours and negotiate discounts, as the wife of PM Tony Blair uniquely did. Politics will be your career. You will have no experience of other trades and be a worse politician for it. Despite the strong language you may use against other political parties, you will develop a stronger loyalty to parliamentarians (regardless of political label) than others and will close ranks if their privileges are under threat.
I have only two quibbles with the book - first that he attributes the decline of parliament to the new political class - but its decline goes back several decades before that. He makes an interesting point, however, about the Whip's power being challenged in the past decade by the power of the Press Secretary (whipping the media into its place). And, although he mentions Mosca's famous book on the political class of a hundred years ago, he fails to place his critique in the wider critical literature. See tomorrow's post for more on this.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ways we see the world

I don’t know whether the generations which have grown up with television and the internet experience have experienced the power of seminal texts which many in my generation did. I was driven this past week to think about the key authors who had a profound influence (during my spell at University) on my way of looking at the world. For probably the first time, I saw the common theme in their message – celebration of pluralism and of scepticism at a time when the influence of ideology was still strong. I should also have mentioned the writing of Bernard Crick whose book “In Defence of Politics” (1962) celebrated the practice of politics as a necessary and honourable one and may have been one of the factors leading me a few years later to go into local politics. (We are in need of such a text these days!)
Two difficult recent questions have made me think about “figures of influence” – a question about which contemporary figure (s) I admired (I could come up only with that of Riccardo Petrella); and, today, with an invitation from Social Europe to nominate the (living) “thinkers” (my inverted commas) with the biggest influence on the European left-of-centre agenda in 2010/2011.
When I read the names of those nominated last year, my immediate reaction was that the left thoroughly deserved its present pathetic electoral position if the poll was correct in its judgement. The first three names were Paul Krugman, Juergen Habermas and Slavoj Zizek (who??). Even worse was that Anthony Giddens, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Umberto Eco came next. Then Zygmund Bauman, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, Oskar Lafontaine, Ulrich Beck, Manuel Castells and (wait for it!)…Ed Miliband! When, 10 years ago, I wrote my own list of inspiring “standard bearers” it did include Lafontaine (and George Monbiot).
But I’m not sure how sensible the poll is – each country is so different – and how does one actually measure the influence which any thinker has had? And what exactly is a “thinker”? Do we not all think? And if by “thinker” we mean an academic such as Etzioni, is there not a certain contradition between being a “thinker” and having an influence on party agendas? Of course, you will say, neo-liberals such as Hayek have had a profound influence on the agendas of all parties in the past couple of decades – but he is dead. Keynes put it so well in 1935
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas
.There are so many voices today that we often require an intermediary (journalists like Will Hutton, Paul Mason and George Monbiot) to act as mediators and popularisers.
In any event, I would prefer to explore which “writers” have the most to offer the social democrats – regardless of the likelihood of their message being bought. In the article I wrote a couple of weeks back for the Romanian journal, I found myself using two quotations from the world of a green Irish economist - Richard Douthwaite – and would therefore certainly nominate him. I will now look around my (extensive) bookshelves and see who else should be nominated. And you, gentle reader? Who would you nominate?
I'm glad to be able to show a Romanian painting for once - by late 19th century painter Theodor Pallady

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sceptic pluralist

The superb weather continues – azure blue sky, blazing sun, light breeze and scattered fluffy clouds. A run down to Bran to stock up and bumped twice people into I knew! I’m obviously becoming a native at last. It will be difficult to tear myself away – but Bulgaria does now beckon with the resumption of workshops there next week
I’m still reflecting on the editorial labelling my published article in Revista 22 got last week (“view from the left”) and, specifically, the “key influences” I referenced in my initial blog response (Crosland and Shonfield). I realised that I had missed some of those whose writings I came across when I was at University and which, effectively, marked me for life – namely Karl Popper, Joseph Schumpeter, Reinhold Niebuhr, JK Galbraith, Robert Michels and Ralf Dahrendorf (in that order). All shared a sceptical and pluralistic outlook on life – and these 2 words are more important to me than “left” which, sadly, embraces all that’s best and worst in politics. I am not trying to establish liberal credentials – particularly since one of the 2 (funded) supplements in that issue of Revista 22 was an eight-page summary of 23 “right-intellectual” streams of thought. Just wondering where I actually stand in relation to all that has been written about social improvement in the past century.
I suppose I was always a bit “elusive” politically. I wrote once that I never felt I really “belonged” anywhere (my upbringing on the class-divide in a Scottish shipbuilding town saw to that). The more I read, the more confused was life and the path to take – both individually and collectively.
For those who want to taste the real Popper, the 800 pages of The Open Society and its Enemies are available here.
And a short and dismissive libertarian review (“sheer social democracy”) can be read here.
But my reflections brought up this gem – of Ralf Dahrendorf in conversation in 1989 in a great history series

Why is it that the older I get, the better the writing seems to become? I finished a few days ago another “travelogue” (there has to be a better name for such sublime writing) - Out of Steppe about the lost peoples of central asia where I spent 5 years of my life. And I have now started another in this genre of well-read young Englishmen immersing themselves in the life of people whose predecessors suffered repression, forced marches and exile – Rebel Land – among Turkey’s Forgotten People. Reading about the suffering of these diverse groups from the Balkans, Caucasus and Turkey certainly makes the grievances of the Scots rather trivial!

Another reminder of what Roosevelt’s programme for artists during the Great Depression produced. Where is its like today?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Do we need the state?

On Friday, the clouds were mottled and swirling in a string wind – autumn, it seemed, had closed down summer. But the last 2 days have been cloudless and the dawn now announces a similar day. Yesterday, as I was preparing the potato omelette with the eggs my neighbours had brought me (and a very tasty soup); the milk from their cow (who feeds on our grass); the locally prepared cheese I had bought from other neighbours; and the salami from a neighbouring village, I realised that, here in my village, I am almost self-sufficient (if we count the village as “self” and allow me to keep my oriental spices and large, white Bulgarian beans (“Bob” – as they are called). My overheads (I have to keep on pinching myself) are 100 euros a month (including power, heating, tax and insurance). It is petrol and the mobile phone (25 euros) which adds to the expenses (and the wine and palinka/Rakia stocks!)
By coincidence, I came across this American paper which confronts the possibility of the collapse of American society – and how people should cope. Sadly (but typically) a lot of space is concerned with guns and self-defence. And the paper makes no reference to the blog which has, for some years, been dealing (on a weekly basis) with the “peak oil syndrome”; how it would affect the (unrealistic) way of life of north americans; and what practical steps people could be taking now to develop the resilience which will be necessary to cope with the new conditions. One of my readers has drawn my attention to a book published in 2008 which suggested many of the conditions which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union (military spending; oil shortage, debt, trade deficit) are now present in the USA - Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse - but that much of the infrastructure available to the Russians to cope (eg District heating; vegetable plots) is missing in North America.
North Americans, of course, do not factor the state into these issues since they assume that the state is part of the problem. In Europe – despite the neo-liberal hollowing out of the state and politicians increasingly being seen as hollow puppits – many persist in our belief that collective action still has a role. The question is whether politicians and the state can rise to the challenge.

Last November I suggested that any convincing argument for systemic reform needed to tackle four questions -
• Why do we need major change in our systems?
• Who or what is the culprit?
• What programme might start a significant change process?
• What mechanisms (process or institutions) do we need to implement such programmes?

Earlier this year I drafted a paper which tried, amongst other things, to summarise some of the writing on the second and third of these questions - but have not given proper attention to the last question.
One of the bloggers I respect has, however, recently turned his attention to the issue of the moral basis for a greater role for the state.
And a recent paper from the Quality of Governance Institute by Bo Rothstein, entitled Creating a sustainable solidaristic society - a manual is also relevant.

The proper and legitimate role of the state are, of course, central concerns of this blog of mine. It was only when I started my work with governments in transition countries 20 years ago that I started to think seriously about the subject – although my debureaucratising mission of the 1970s in Scottish local government had made me think very hard about the role of local government and its various stakeholders. But this was hardly the most appropriate preparation for the issue of what “the state” might reasonably be expected to do in the special conditions of post-communism? And, in any event, the basic questions of the role of the state were quickly settled in Central Europe in 1990-92 without any public discussion – thanks to international bodies such as The World Bank. You would nonetheless have thought that some academics in countries such as Slovakia (which has twice experienced the process of state-building - once in 1918 as part of Czechoslovakia, then in 1993) might have pulled together some lessons and considerations about the role of the state!

I’ve also started to Fukuyama’s latest tomb – The Origins of Political Order - which appeared in the spring. It’s a sequel of sorts to the late Samuel Huntington’s classic “Political Order in Changing Societies.” Fukuyama’s update of Huntington’s work examines what current scholarship understands about the evolution of states. Beginning with hunter-gatherers, the book ranges across an astonishing array of knowledge to look at the development of countries, up to the French Revolution. (A second volume is intended to pick up where “The Origins of Political Order” leaves off). Evolutionary biology, sociology, political philosophy, anthropology – all these disciplines are mined for insights into what is among the most difficult problems in international politics: the question of how to establish modern, functioning states. David Runciman summarises thus
Human beings have always organised themselves in tight-knit groups – there never was a Rousseauian paradise of free-spirited individuals roaming contentedly through the primordial forests. The trouble was that the first human societies were too tight-knit. These were essentially kinship groups and generated what Fukuyama calls "the tyranny of cousins". People would do almost anything for their relatives, and almost anything to the people who weren't (rape, pillage, murder). This was a recipe for constant, low-level conflict, interspersed with periodic bouts of serious blood-letting.
The way out of the kinship trap was the creation of states (by which Fukuyama means centralised political authorities), which were needed to break the hold of families. States are one of the three pillars Fukuyama identifies as providing the basis for political order. The reason that powerful states aren't enough on their own is that political power doesn't necessarily solve the problem of kinship. Instead, it can simply relocate it up the chain, so that all you get are strong rulers who use their power to favour their relatives, a phenomenon that is all too easy to identify, from the ancient world to contemporary Libya. So the rule of states needs to be supplemented by the rule of law, which imposes limits on political power and corruption. However, the rule of law itself can destabilise political order by undermining the ability of states to take decisive action when it is needed, and giving non-state organisations too much of a free hand. Hence the need for the third pillar: accountable government (or what we might now call democracy). This retains a strong state but allows people to change their rulers when they start behaving badly.
Fukuyama thinks that we too often treat the three pillars of political order as though they were separate goods in their own right, capable of doing the job on their own. We champion democracy, forgetting that without the rule of law it is liable simply to entrench social divisions. Or we champion the rule of law, forgetting that without a strong state it is liable to lead to political instability. But he also thinks that whole societies can make the same mistake. He distinguishes between a good political order, and an order that is simply "good enough", which occurs when only one or two of the building blocks is in place, giving the illusion of security. For instance, ancient China arrived at a strong centralised state far earlier than the west, in order to combat the problem of endemic civil war. But the Chinese state that emerged was too strong: it crushed the warlords but also crushed any incipient civil society or ideas of accountability. Thus China enjoyed an early advantage on the path to political order, but it was this advantage that set it back, because too much power was concentrated too soon. It is this fact, Fukuyama believes, that explains the autocratic condition of Chinese politics to this day
Other useful reviews are here, here and here
The sculpture is in the park next to the Sofia City Gallery - marking the allied bombing of the city in 1944. For some reason some people want to remove it.....

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I’ve ben racing through books in the last few days – first a marvellous tale The Last Testament of Gideon Mack by one of Scotland’s up-and-coming generation of writers, James Robertson. The link gives a review by Irvine Walsh, one of the more established of our writers, who not only gives an excellent summary and commentary on the novel but also graciously asserts that Robertson is one of Britain’s best current novellists. Certainly I enjoyed his most recent book – And the Land Lay Still which Walsh also reviews very positively (google for that). Recent political events in Scotland are an important presence in both books (indeed the main character in his most recent) – but Gideon Mack had a particular resonance for me since its main character is a “son of the manse” (who, despite lack of belief, becomes a minister himself). The sense he conveys of life in the manse (the house in which the Minister lives) as Gideon is growing up and of church activities, for me, as another “son of the manse” is very well done.
At one point he has the devil say to Mack –
I like Scotland. I like the miserable weather. I like the miserable people, the fatalism, the negativity, the violence that’s always below the surface. And I oike the way you deal with religion. One century you’re up to your lugs in it, the next you’re trading the whole apparatus for Sunday superstores. Praise the Lord and thrash the bairns. Ask and ye shall have the door shut in your face. Blessed are they that shop on the Sabbath for they shall have the best bargains. Oh yesy, this is a very fine country
Norman Lewis was also admired for his writing in the second half of the last century - although he’s better known now as a travel writer. I read earlier in the year an excellent biography of Lewis and read this week the first two parts of his autobiography – I Came, I Saw; and The World, The World. Quite sublime writing! He can summons up characters and landscapes so powerfully - and is particularly strong on the loss of traditional ways of living (whether in Spain, India, Latin America or rural Essex)

In April 2010, I blogged about the sudden commitment which appeared in Conservative manifesto to permit “free schools” – based on the Swedish model There is a story today about the apparent decline of school performance in Sweden – and some backtracking in Sweden on the concept of the “free school”
Sweden's path-breaking educational reforms of the 1990s have come under question since last December when the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development published the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment. This showed that Swedish students had dropped to 19th place out of 57 countries for literacy, to 24th in maths, and to 28th in science. This compared with 9th, 17th and 16th in studies done in 2000, 2003 and 2006 respectively. And Swedes, used to coming near the top of just about every human development index, were appalled. Jan Björklund, the minister of education, moved to tighten central control over schools and is soon to launch a parliamentary inquiry into competition and free schools.
Just two excerpts from the discussion thread which followed - 1.
Only 10% of Swedish students go to free schools (as of 2008) so for Sweden to have been dropping in the 2009 PISA tables must surely be a reflection on the whole system, for example even if the 10% did a fantastic job it could not make up for the other 90% if they underperformed.
2. Many Swedish free schools are not run for a profit, they are run by churches or charities, so you cannot generalise about the profit motive and all Swedish free schools
and, from one of the customers,
One of those free schools I went to, JENSEN, had half-days for all its pupils, which basically ment that you started at 8 am and left at 12ish am for 1 week, and then switched to beginning at 11 am and leaving at 4ish PM the next week. The school did this because this, basically, ment that they could have twice the amount of students in 1 school as opposed to having a full day at school which would mean less pupils = less taxpayer-money = less profit.
So they have an incentive to fill classes up with 30-40 students in tight rooms, to cut the amount of hours of teacher-led classes and to basically warehouse pupils until they are old enough to disappear

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Faithful readers of the blog will know that I am no friend of the model of management which underpins the European Commission system of procuring Technical Assistance; and that, indeed, I have suggested it has many similarities with the Stalinist model which preceded it in the countries in which I work. Target setting; requirements to stick to activities decided hierarchically a couple of years earlier; tight monitoring - all betraying the confidence that their planned interventions can and should conquer the complexity of the world. And that failure to do so is the fault of those (lowly) individuals trying to implement the ordered change rather than the systems in which the intervention is located (or of the leaders who maintain those systems)
Aid on the Edge- Exploring complexity & evolutionary sciences in foreign aid - is a thoughtful blog which often explores these issues and had a good post this week on the debate which is apparently going on in the development field about a "results'based" approach
On one side of the results tug of war are those calling for more and better results, more rigour in analysis and more discipline in reporting. The failure of development, they argue, is basically about the failure to focus on results. ‘Modern management techniques’, especially those that are embodied by ‘results-based management’ are seen as the answer.
On the other side are those who argue for a ‘push back’ against this approach. Such reductionist approaches are seen as only suitable for certain kinds of development interventions, and that at their worst, these approaches inhibit the creativity and innovation needed to achieve results in the first place. The danger here is that we throw out the results baby with the reductionist bathwater (see here for a previous Aid on the Edge post on this).
Appropriate strategic approaches (and by extension, results approaches) need to be based on:
(a) the nature of the intervention we are looking at, and
(b) the context in which it is being delivered.
Reading across these approaches we can suggest a preliminary framework which may prove useful in bringing together different results approaches in a productive and mutually beneficial way.
First, imagine an agencies projects and programmes being distributed across a spectrum of the ‘nature of interventions’, placing relatively simple interventions on one end, and more complex issues, at the other.
Then let’s add in a vertical axes on context. Again, think of a spectrum, this time from stable/identical to dynamic/diverse. This gives us a 2 by 2 framework for analysing and mapping different development interventions. Where exactly an intervention is positioned on this framework has implications for the kinds of results orientation we can take. In the top left corner of simple interventions in identical stable settings, is the Plan and Control zone – here ‘traditional’ results-based management approach, conventional value for money analyses and randomised control trials work well.
The bottom right corner of complex interventions in diverse, dynamic settings is what I have termed Managing Turbulence. Here we need to learn from the work of professional crisis managers, the military and others working in dynamic and fluid contexts.
In between is what I have called Adaptive Management, where either because of the nature of the intervention or the nature of the context, multiple parallel experiments need to be undertaken, with real-time learning to check their relative effectiveness, scaling up those that work and scaling down those that don’t
Sadly, my blog does not allow me to reproduce the matrix - but it is the sort of "balanced", "appropriate" or "contingent" approach I admire. I know it's fashionable to attack a "one size fits all" approach - but I find that political and managerial leaders generally find it difficult to resist the latest managerial fashion. If only more of them could develop and use such matrices!!
"Balance" is a word I have noticed this year pops up quite a lot in my writing. It was one of the central points of my Revista 22 article which appeared this week; and the importance of getting the appropriate balance between demand and supply factors is a central part of my approach to the development of effective training systems. As I thought about this, the word "requisite" also came into my mind - and I remembered the work of the sadly neglected organisational theorist Elliot Jaques

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Looking at the evidence

Evidence-based policy-making” was a phrase which, for me, epitomised UK New Labour’s ahistorical arrogance after their 1997 victory and the make-believe world they inhabited. It carried with it the dual assumption that, until their arrival in power, policy-making had not been based on evidence and that truth would now replace political prejudice. Granted, major issues such as the municipal poll tax and rail privatisation had been introduced in the previoius decade by Conservative Governments on the basis of ideology and scant regard for evidence – but it was asking us a lot to believe that political calculation and inclinations were suddenly going to vanish and politicians start behaving like technical experts. And Bliar’s constant mantra about “what works” was probably more a way for him to justify his constant rejection of old labour policies in favour of those which better fitted corporate interests. William Solesbury was part of an academic unit 10 years ago which looked critically at the fashion. However, it is still nice to see evidence incisively brought to bear on a policy issue - and this short article on the latest policy measure the Greek government is having to impose to keep financiers happy certainly does that! Has any financier even bothered to give a coherent explanation of the logic behind these actions? The Social Europe website, from which the article is taken, also has an excellent post on global measures which should be adopted.

I’ve just finished one of the most powerful descriptions of man’s inhumanity to man I've read since Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation – the conquest of the middle east.The author is Oliver Bullough; the book, Let our Fame be Great – journeys amongst the defiant people of the Caucasus and it opened my eyes to the fate which overcame the various tribes of the north east part of the Black Sea during the Tsarist period – let alone the Stalin and Putin ones. We all know about the Chechens and Ossetians – but who has heard of the Circassians, let alone of the Avars and Balkars and the repression, forced exoduses and genocide they suffered? Neal Ascherson’s great The Black Sea had introduced me to the history of the northern part of the Black Sea but not the Caucasian part. Bullough tells here how he came to write the book.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

political labelling

I am deeply grateful to Revista 22 for the privilege of being one of their invited contributors to the special issue on 09/11 – particularly when I was clearly going to be out of line with their avowed “market” philosophy. And I do admire the journal for its important role in Romanian society.

I was, however, disappointed to find that they had, without consultation, added a “health warning” to the title of my article – viz “a view from the left”. 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 for 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 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 convinced 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 was 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 politican, used my role to create more open processes of policy-making. Indeed community activitists 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.

For the past 20 years, however, since I left the UK to work as an adviser on institutional development in central europe and central asia , I have not been involved in politics.
My interest is to find some common ground in all the critiques of the current social and economic malaise – and to develop some consensus about the actions which might be taken.
A paper on my website is an early draft about this.