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, January 31, 2014

In Memoriam

1 February is Remembrance Day here in Bulgaria for Victims of Communism - but has been so only since 2011. September 9th (1944) is the date which occurs in most of the accounts I have read since it was then that the Communist takeover of Bulgaria took place and the lynching, execution and incarceration of thousands of people got underway– but it was on 1 February that
…….the death sen­tence was passed upon 147 peo­ple from the polit­i­cal elite of the Third Bul­gar­i­an King­dom, includ­ing 67 former MPs and 22 min­is­ters from cab­i­nets dur­ing 1940-1944, among them prime min­is­ters of that time Bog­dan Filov, Dobri Boz­hi­lov and Ivan Bagry­an­ov, as well as the three regents – Prince Kyr­il of Pre­slav, Prof. Bog­dan Filov and Gen­er­al Niko­la Mihov. The sen­tence was passed in the Pal­ace of Jus­tice at 4 pm on 1 Feb­ru­a­ry 1945. The same night, the best known of the defend­ants were exe­cut­ed at the Cen­tral Sofia Cem­e­tery and their bod­ies were bur­ied in a com­mon grave, but it was not before August 1996 that a Chris­tian cross was erect­ed upon it. The sen­ten­ces were jus­ti­fied entire­ly on polit­i­cal grounds. The main defend­ants had first been sent for inter­ro­ga­tion to the former Sovi­et Union and aft­er their return to Bul­gar­ia and estab­lish­ment of the Peo­ple’s Court, their sen­ten­ces were agreed upon between the Polit­i­cal Bureau of the Bul­gar­i­an Work­ers’ Par­ty (BWP) and the Sovi­et lead­er­ship. Present day research of the activ­i­ty of the Peo­ple’s Court leaves no doubt that the entire legal pro­ceed­ings were polit­i­cal­ly biased and the fate of the defend­ants was decid­ed on out­side the court­room.
August 23 was actually named as European remembrance  day for victims of communism and Nazism  - although both Hungary and Latvia commemorate the victims of communism on February 25.  
I am an outsider so should be careful about comments....I have to wonder, however, about the appropriateness of contemporary Bulgarian politicians selecting the best date for such commemoration. Most people these days would not hesitate to string the political class up (God forgive me!). I don't, of course, know anything about how the Bulgarian establishment was viewed by its public in the early 1940s - but it could be argued that it is more appropriate to remember the thousands of more ordinary people who, for a variety of (often dubious) reasons, were summarily executed in those early days of chaos.  

It was bad enough that the judiciary put its stamp on such decisions but just as appalling was the way partisans and others took justice into their own hands and bludgeoned people to death in the even earlier days of the collpase of the old regime. Many ordinary people must have been amongst the perpetrators and constitute a blot on the country's reputation. One reason perhaps why the present-day politicians prefer another date for remembrance.....

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Professional as Modern Harlot

The journal Scottish Review deserves an award for the “biggest bang for bucks” category of global journalism – and/or social comment. Its distinctive contribution is, in a few pithy clear and elegant paragraphs, to demolish the pretensions of the professional classes - whose comments and opinions (and exclusions) now reflect (if not shape) the power structures of modern societies. Forget the “filthy rich” corporate class! It’s the smooth talking of the “chattering clases” siding with (rationalising) the "power elite" which we should have been concerned about during all these decades…   (Those interested can read a full version of the classic 1956 book by C Wright Mills here)

“Cui bono” is the basic question all of us should ask of the stances taken by those who have (somehow) achieved the status of “opinion makers” – whether as academic, journalist, economist, think-tanker, politician, senior professional (civil servant, police, medic) or "quangoist" – all paid by the public (in one form or another) but choosing to lick the arses of one or other of the elite which actually pays their salary. No place for the unwashed public – except perhaps those who have made it to retirement and can afford to shoot from the hip!

And it is indeed a retired academic which lets loose in the latest issue of Scottish Review – in a piece about corporatism
One of the striking features of social change in recent decades has been the way in which diverse institutions, ostensibly serving very different purposes, have come to operate in much the same way.In the past, differences in the aims and practices of the public and private sectors, and in the management styles of employers and organisations representing workers, were clearly visible.
However, since the ascendancy of the 'third way' championed under New Labour, western democracies have embraced a form of market 'progressivism' that has blurred the old ideological divide between capitalism and socialism. This has had some interesting consequences – for the operation of trade unions, the public sector and of NGOs, for example. Many union leaders continue to employ the socialist rhetoric of the past but their actions often fall well short of the principles which motivated the pioneers of the labour movement. In this sense it is no exaggeration to suggest that they have been assimilated into the ideology which they claim to oppose. They have become part of the corporate class, whose tentacles are now evident in places well beyond the boardrooms of multinational companies.
What is the evidence for this? Leaders of trade unions now have much in common with senior executives in major companies: both groups enjoy large salaries and various benefits in kind (cars, travel, expenses, etc.) and are well insulated from ordinary members, or customers, through the protection of personal assistants, departmental managers and procedural barriers. The corporate class rewards itself disproportionately compared with ordinary employees. This is seen clearly in the private sector where share options and bonuses are used to boost already generous salaries. But it is now evident in the public sector as well. Last week two Scottish examples of this were reported. Assistant chief constables were awarded a £10,000 a year pay rise at a time when some civilian staff in Police Scotland were being made redundant. This was described by Graeme Pearson, a Labour MSP and himself a former deputy chief constable, as 'lacking in sensitivity'. The rises followed substantial hikes to the salaries of the chief constable, Sir Stephen House, and his four deputies when the new single force was set up last year.
Even stronger criticism was attached to the news that university principals had been awarded an average increase of 4% at a time when staff are taking industrial action over a pay offer of 1%. Many university principals now earn over £200,000, substantially more than the UK prime minister and Scotland's first minister. 
The manoeuvres of the corporate class within the public sector can be seen in many other areas: in the salaries and leaving packages of senior officials in local government and the health service; in the way in which complainants find themselves obstructed by bureaucratic rules and procedures, whose main function seems to be to protect the 'integrity' of the institution rather than lead to a just outcome; by the way in which organisations that are supposedly designed to facilitate proper scrutiny of public bodies (such as the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman) limit the scope of their inquiries. 
In his book, 'The Corporation', Joel Bakan states that 'the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies'. Its mandate is to pursue its own self-interest, regardless of the harm it may cause to others. Those at the top of such institutions construct the rules to ensure that they are the prime beneficiaries (whether seen in terms of money, power or reputation).Bakan goes as far as suggesting that corporations are reshaping human nature so that self-interested materialism is not just a part of who we are, but the ultimate goal to which we should be striving.It's a scary prospect.
I’m reminded of the book  - The Third Revolution - Professional Elites in the Modern World (Routledge 1996) by Harold Perkin, Professsor of History at Lancaster and North-Western Universities (until 1999) who, in previous books, studied the rise of professional society and looks in this one at Twentieth Century elites in the USA, England, France, Germany, Russia and Japan - finding their behaviour equally deficient and morally irresponsible.
It’s a book which should be given to each individual when (s)he makes it into their country's "Who's Who" and is clearly part of the "system". It’s a story of greed - of the "haves", those who have access to the resources and prestige and how they try to retain it - with catastrophic results for the stability of their countries.
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.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Talking - not Writing....

Two very charming and unusual websites which humanise ideas and writing – first Web of Stories which consists of videos of short chats of people explaining how the creative process has worked for them   
It began as an archive of life stories told by some of the great scientists of our time. As the number of stories grew, it became obvious that some were on related topics and a web was slowly being created of connected stories. After a while we also invited famous people outside the field of science to tell their life stories.We are now opening up Web of Stories to everyone, inviting you to help make our web of stories grow. We all have wonderful stories to share, and have family and friends whose tales we would like to hear. So tell your stories, and invite others to tell theirs.
Each contribution lasts little more than a couple minutes but often you will find a series of such sessions eg from Diana Athill, a marvellous nonogarian who was a publisher and came to writing quite late in life. I was just reading her Life Class a few days ago which has an excellent Introduction by Ian Jack 

Somehow, watching and listening to a “character” speak seems to offer a richer experience. Frankly speaking, a lot of talk is drivel but, in front of a tape recorder or camera/video, people discipline themselves a bit better - while still allowing themselves the spontaneity and sidetracks which you often miss with written interviews.

The second website is a blog based on the great idea of getting together with a writer in a pub or wine bar – with the additional frisson of the context being Germany (although the text English!). The blog is called Drinking with German Writers and it really gives a marvellous feeling for one particular side of German life. Very worthwhile! It reminds me of the blog of a German journalist (whose address I will hopefully give shortly) who spent a month in each of 10 global cities and wrote a book about it – and is now doing the same thing in Germany. This month she is in Trier.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Behind the Blog

Exactly a year ago I penned a short “personal credo” to help explain the blog and some of what lies behind it
This blog doesn’t peddle any political line. It’s written by someone who has been lucky enough to be able to paddle his own canoe for more than 40 years and to write things as he saw them – no matter the jarring effect it might have on his readers. For almost 20 years I had a senior position in a powerful Scottish Region, using that position to develop community strategies and writing critically about that experienceAnd, for the last 22 years, I’ve led various teams of consultants in transition countries in efforts to develop  systems of “good government or good governance”. And written critically about such programmes – my website has some of the papers. I vividly remember one of my (Prussian) superiors expostulating at one of the papers - "we do not pay you to think..... but to obey!".
And all during this period, I’ve been reading avidly to try to understand how organisations get so perverted – and how we can prevent that. The blog tries to share the best of that writing 
My heroes are -
·         the little boy in the Hans Christian Anderson tale who dared to shout out that the Emperor had no clothes
·         Voltaire’s so innocent Candide as he experienced such disasters and yet was assured by experts that “everything is for the best in the best of possible worlds”
·         Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations
·         The priest who was the source in the late 1940s of the inspiring Mondragon cooperatives in Spain which now employ almost 100,000 workers in rural areas of the Basque country.
·         Robert Michels for spelling out more than 100 years ago "the iron law of oligarchy"
 I believe in people coming together at a local level to work for the common benefit - principles enshrined in communitarianism (about which I do have some reservations). I spent a lot of time supporting the work of social enterprise in low-income communities. None of this went down all that well with the technocrats or even members) of my political party - and the national politicians to whose books I contributed (eg Gordon Brown ) soon changed their tune when they had a taste of power.
But, above all, I am a passionate sceptic - or sceptical pluralist - as I put in a blogpost in September 2011 - see, for example, my Just Words?

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Guide to Bulgarian painting - or rather to books about......

My blog is now, it seems, the only one in the English language giving any sort of coverage to things Bulgarian. There used to be several young US graduates with nice sites which gave a “flavour” of Bulgaria (Sofia and Smolyan at any rate) but they’ve moved on after their statutory year or so – and, in any event, wrote chatty rather than substantive stuff (apart from one list of books with Bulgarian subjects).

My Bulgarian posts of the past 4 years have tended to be about either the distinctive charm of central Sofia for the flaneur or about the Bulgarian artisitic heritage – with only the occasional gesture to Bulgarian society. I should therefore mention that last week saw the latest (2013) EC report on the judicial systems of Bulgaria and Romania. Bulgaria emerged wounded from this analysis – as is evident for anyone who knows the (increasing) scale of the kickbacks which are needed to win projects here under the Structural Funds.

A lot of Brits still holiday in Bulgaria – but at the Black Sea (or the ski resorts) where they will not encounter the Bulgarian painting tradition. And that’s one of the things which this blog tries to cover - what paintings can tell us about the Bulgarians…..
It’s a good handle onto a country – see Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily for a “food and Mafia” take or Simon Winder for a “cultural” take on Germany. For example, I’ve just come across this dissertation on Bulgarian cinema - The Conformists – creativity and decadence in the bulgarian cinema 1945-1989 by one Evgenija Garbolevsky (2011) which nicely complements the recent post about recent Romanian cinema which attracted a fair amount of interest (100 hits). "The Conformists...." looks at the cinema here during the communist period -
My research focuses on the development of Bulgarian film between 1944 and 1989, as the youngest and most dynamic medium during the period. I explore several forms of subversion, such as decadence, silence and irony, among others, which fostered the creative imagination of the intellectual elite, and made the film art successful. I search for resilience in the oeuvres, in the operation of the institutions, and by looking at the views of the filmmakers and the works of the film critics.
I argue that the Bulgarian filmmakers, similar to their counterparts across the Eastern Bloc, vigorously resisted fitting into the role of lackeys of the Communist regime. Instead, the cineastes articulated their personal visions in their oeuvres by developing aesthetic practices and coded language, expressing their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and communicating their complex political and cultural views to the audiences. The filmmakers eluded censors while including the spectators as accomplices. The tension between rebellion and conformism in the cinematic discourse was intense. Despite the powerfully oppressive cultural policies of the regime, the cineastes succeeded loading their works with subversive messages. Regardless of the ideological straightjacket imposed on them, they sublimated their artistic passions and creative impulses, protested, and mocked the Establishment.
I would be interesting to see if anyone has done a dissertation on Bulgarian art during this period!
You have to work hard to assemble anything remotely like a systematic treatment of Bulgarian art even in the Bulgarian language – let alone English. Four recent publications offer a good start – although only one is freely available to download on the internet ie The Treasures of Varna City Art Gallery (2013) - all 136 pages of superb reproductions. The other three can be bought here in Sofia -
·       A Possible History – Bulgarian art through the collection of Sofia City ArtGallery . It’s 200 pages of material well organised into the various time-periods with appropriate selections of reproductions and shorDimi Gachevt (bilingual) intros to each period - costs 25 levs
·       Last year the Bulgarian Union of Artists gave us a curious 350 pages (in English) - Bulgarian Art – 120 Years (2013) with 350 pages and costing a whopping 120 levs.  It’s a history of the various artisitic associations – with reproductions – but gives absolutely no information about the individual artists. The text gives technical and very boring details of the various splits which occurred – with no attempt made to explain the significance or reasons for the chages. 
·       last week the Academy of Art offered a marvellous catalogue to accompany its current, rather small, exhibition of some of the items from its extensive archives - Painting Collection (1896–1940)  (Museum Collection of the National Academy of Art) (2014) It’s 190 full page reproductions with a very short and general (bilingual)introduction and costs a very reasonable 25 levs.

But the one problem with all of these publications is that virtually no information is given about the individual artists (in whatever language)! This is also the problem with the other three older collections you can also download free of charge -
·         The Art Collection of the National Bank of Bulgaria (2009) 143 pages of beautiful illustrations 
·         Kazanlak Art Gallery’s offerings 

Four other very good and substantial collections are available if you look hard enough -
·       The Stara Zagora municipal gallery collection (2007) – about 200 pages with nice outlines of the artists (including a short English summary)
·       Bulgarian artists and Munich (City Gallery 2009) – German and Bulgarian
·       The Association of New Artists 1931-1944 (Sofia City Gallery 2012) – with short (bilingual) summaries of the artists
·      City Art Gallery's Catalogue (2003) - 500 pages of postage-size black and white reproductions and brief bilingual blurbs about the artists

Those who read Bulgarian can access a large Dictionary of Bulgarian artists which was produced some decades ago but there does not seem to be a introduction to Bulgarian art for the generalist (even Bulgarian) who wants to know something about the life of the artists – including how they dealt with communism.
The question, of course, is what exactly does information about an artists’s life add to our appreciation of his/her actual output – be it a novel, painting or piece of music

Most people would argue for a separation of the works from the life. One can (like Brecht or Dali) be a bit obnoxious as a person but still admirable as an artist. But I certainly enjoy biographies such as the recent one by Hilary Spurling of Matisse for the light they throw on the choices artists make or the influence of family and friends. The book on Matisse, for example, helped me understand his use of bright colours – they were the surroundings of his daily life as he grew up in a Belgian silk town! And I particularly value the black and white photographs of the artists – whether in streets or in their studios…..  

I have been accumulating a little library (most in the Bulgarian language) of detailed studies of such individual artists as 
·     Ilyia Beshkov (1983) – 500 pages of comprehensive coverage of most items with extensive diary-type text (ed by Bogomil Rainov) which makes me regret not being able to read Bulgarian
·     Marco Behar (Bulgarian Publishing House 1987) – 200 pages of great (black and white) repros and substantial text - by Ivan Mazarov
·     Alexander Bozhinov edited by Ruza Marinska (National Gallery 1999) – most beautiful and detailed 125 page treatment with an English intro and some annotations
·     Boris Angeloushev - by Atanas Stoikov (2003) – a very extensive 450 page coverage with a lot of text and what looks an almost comprehensive treatment of his works
·     Marin Ustagenov (2005) – good selections and a lot of (Bulgarian) text
·     Nikola Tanev 1890-1962 (National Gallery 2010) – two books, one (2000) by the famous art critic Ruzha Marinska, the other (2010) produced by the National Gallery to go with the special exhibition they held then for Tanev.
·     Nikola Petrov (Sofia City Gallery 2011) – small but attractive booklet
·     Vladimir Dmitrov-Maistora – the flower and the universe (National Gallery 2012) – wonderful 200 page bilingual publication!
·     Boris Denev (2013) – a superb 200 page collection of text and full-page reproductions of one of Bulgaria’s best artists. A nice feature is the black and white photos of him in his studio and with friends (such as Nikola Tanev)  
·     Jules Pascin (City Gallery 2013) – typically professional and extensive treatment by the City Gallery staff

Most – except for last five - are out of print. In the 1950s and 1960s a lot of short monographs were produced on artists such as Stoian Venev, Jaroslav Veshin and Tanko Lavrenov 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Banned artists in Bulgaria

I visited three exhibitions last week here in Sofia as the snow threatened and then arrived at the weekend – first at the National Art Academy which was showing some of their collection accompanied by a superb 200 page catalogue called Painting Collection (1896–1940) (Museum Collection of the National Academy of Art); then the excellent City Gallery which was showing a rather disappointing exhibition of Sirak Skitnik; and finally, the refurbished National Gallery which is at last showing beautiful work from its collection – at least on the second floor (and if you ignore the temporary exhibition of an artist who doesn’t even figure in the updated version of my booklet on Introducing the Bulgarian Realists – how to get to know the Bulgarians through their paintings). 
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This updated version (not yet online) includes the details of another 40 artists I've been able to add over the past year – as well as the links I discovered today to two of the books in my extensive collection of books on Bulgarian painters – the terrific production on the Art Collection of the National Bank of Bulgaria and also a link to an old book I found a year or so ago in the antique bookshops here - Socialist construction in the work of Bulgarian artists (Sofia 1954). This gives reproductions of more than 30 typical paintings of the period – glorifying the life of the worker.  
I find it remarkable how little reference I find – particularly in the art books here – to the problems artists experienced in Bulgaria both in the immediate aftermath of the communist takeover in September 1944 or in the two decades which followed. Famous artists such as Boris Denev and Nicolae Boiadjiev suffered from bans. And I stumbled today on two more examples - Konstantin Shtarkelov (1881-1961) was the most famous of a clutch of outstanding Bulgarian watercolour painters (including Pavel Francalijski; Yordan Geshev and Kriskaretz). Shtarkelov came from a very poor family and lived in poverty in Odessa and Moscow as a youth and met the key Russian artists of the time before returning in 1909 to Bulgaria. He did portraits but preferred to draw landscapes from Rila and Pirin Mountains, Sofia and Tarnovo regions (see pp 39-42 of the Bulgarian Bank book for 4 examples).  He was also a war artist in 1912–1913 and 1917. His works were exhibited in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Venice, Germany and Hungary.

But, after September 9 1944, his work was banned and forgotten because of "his ties with the Palace". They call him the "official artist of the bourgeois regime and royal favorite " ... Konstantin Shtarkelov was expelled from the artists’ union and spent five months in the Central Prison before living a life of destitution. According to an extensive article I found about him on the Artprice website he did eventually manage to hold a much visited exhibition of his works in 1960. It attracted mixed reviews and he died less than a year later.
I was also very pleased to come across today this little story about Vasil Barakov (1902-1991) - one of the first Bulgarian artists to show industrial landscapes 
in 1948-1949 a group of artists, including Vasil Barakovo, Zlatyu Boyadziev (one of Bulgaria’s best) and Zdravko Alexandrov were sent to paint three months in Romania, mainly in the area of ​​Baia Mare (Transylvania) and around Ploesti. Barakov returned to Bulgaria with many landscapes, portraits and sketches, which captures features of Romania. In early 1949 the group made a joint exhibition. Only three days later it unexpectedly closed. Critics accuse the authors of formalism. They do not reflect reality in brotherly Romania.
"My father - says son of Vasil Barakov - Dr. Miroslav Barakov - was mortified. He knew that the paintings were good – as did his colleagues but did not show his external feelings, did not react emotionally. But, after these serious charges in those dangerous and difficult years, something snapped in him and he almost ceased to paint… well, from time to time, he did a still life but focused instead on on film posters, book design. Often our salary saved my mother a teacher of mathematics.This went on for 10-12 years. "In 1967, however, the ice around the great master of the brush crushed. He was awarded the title of Honored Artist. In 1973, the maestro made a commemorative exhibition in gallery "Rakovski" 125 in the capital. When he went in the morning in the exhibition hall, the artist finds there the other great master of the brush - Ilia Petrov.  
Bulgaria has had a museum of socialism for a year or so which I;ve not so far been tempted to visit. But this rather superficial assessment  suggests that I should give it the once-over. Certainly "leftists" such as Ilyia Beshkov and Marko Behar had no problems flourishing in the new regime but quite a few others suffered greatly....

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Outsiders

The weather remains amazingly mild here – registering 14 on the short motorway over the Balkans on Sunday as I drove down to Sofia although the city itself was 9 at 14.00.

For the past week I have been gripped by powerful descriptions of Europe in the first part of the century through the eyes of two writers who, in very different ways, brought the freshness of an outsider’s perspective to the various worlds they found themselves in
First the amazing Viktor Serge, born in Brussels at the end of the 19th century, knew grinding poverty as an unschooled (and imprisoned) anarchist and was allowed to join the Bolsheviks in 1917 and paints a memorable picture in Memoirs of a Revolutionary of life in those years. As one of the few individuals with western networks he played an important administrative role in the organisation of the various Communist International Conferences in the early 1920s but was too critical ever to be accepted and experienced various imprisonments and exiles.
With his literary gifts, psychological insight and proximity to key players, Serge is one of the greatest chroniclers of Europe’s socialist revolutions, and he offers a unique perspective. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he combined political conviction with a willingness to face the contradictions and failures of the Russian Revolution. Of the mid-1920s, he writes, “None of us had, in the bourgeois sense of the word, any personal existence: we changed our names, our postings, and our work at the Party’s need…we were not interested in making money, or following a career, or producing a literary heritage, or leaving a name behind us; we were interested solely in the difficult business of reaching Socialism.” But he also writes of his horror when, having escaped to Belgium in 1936 and seen the shop windows full of ham, chocolate and fresh fruit, he understood that socialism had failed to provide for the most basic material needs of the people. When his hopes were disappointed, he didn’t deny reality; he described it.Though Serge believed that individual existences were of interest only as part of the “great ensemble of life,” he placed considerable importance on personality, observing that “the character, and even in certain cases the direction, of historical facts depends to a very large extent on the calibre of individual human beings.” His memoirs are full of incisive sketches of important figures. Of Trotsky in the early 1920s, for instance, Serge wrote, “No one ever wore a great destiny with more style.” The people Serge describes are not bronze icons, but flesh and blood.
His writings are only now coming available - eg here and here; and his role in the wider anarchist movement set out here; and here.

The second, completely different, author is Christabel Bielenberg who came from a very privileged Anglo-Irish family but found herself as a young woman married to a German living in Nazi Germany for almost 15 years. The Past is Myself gives a very unusual outsider’s take on Germany of that time.

And then, by way of contrast, a third book on contemporary Siberia - Silverland; a journey beyond the Urals by the remarkable traveller Dervla Murphy. Vastly underrated as a writer, this 2007 book gives us great vignettes of people met on her train and bus journeys in freezing Siberia in the early 2000s – and the sort of life people lead in this remote region. Also good historical background – and strong opinions about the policy nonsenses of western systems. A unique blend this octogenarian gives us -  and there is a nice interview with her here.

All three books are examples of the insights good prose written by thoughtful outsiders can give us. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The perversities of modern power

Over the past year or so, I have been coming back to some questions I first posed a decade ago – namely how people of my age (disgusted as we are by the behaviour of our corporate and political elites) might best focus our energies and resources to help nudge the systems of which we are part to a more hopeful future - and who were the people we could support in that venture . 
My initial - if rather tentative - answers were contained in a 30 page paper Draft Guide for the Perplexed. (The link gives the pdf file of the Guide which, unfortunately, doesn't allow the access to the links in the body of the text (the footnote links are OK), You can find a word version linked at the end of the post Draft Guide for the Perplexed – its about 20 titles up from the end of the list which that website link gives)
Breaking Out from an Insane World was one important recent post in that series.
The last post in the series had a summary of my recent reflections about the subject which I’ve now amended to read -
  • The “mixed economy” which existed from 1950-1990 was a healthy and effective system for us in the West (The UK, as always, is an exception)  
  • It worked because power was diffused. Each type of power – economic (companies/banks etc), political (citizens and workers) and legal/admin/military (the state) – balanced the other. None was dominant.
  • Economic globalisation has, however, now undermined the power which working class people were able to exercise in that period through  votes and unions
  • Privatisation is a disaster – inflicting costs on the public and transferring wealth to the few
  • Neo-liberalism has supplied a thought system which justifies corporate greed and the privileging       (through tax breaks and favourable legislation) of the large international company
  • All political parties and most media have been captured by that thought system which now rules the world
  • People have, as a result, become cynical and apathetic
  • Two elements of the “balanced system” (Political and legal power) are therefore now supine before the third (corporate and media power). The balance is broken and the dominant power ruthless in its exploitation of its new freedom
  • It is very difficult to see a “countervailing power” which would make these corporate elites pull back from the disasters they are inflicting on us
  • Social protest is marginalised
  • Not least by the combination of the media and an Orwellian “security state” ready to act against “dissidence”
  • But the beliefs which lie at the dark heart of the neo-liberal project do need more detailed exposure
  • as well as its continued efforts to undermine what little is left of state power
  • We need to be willing to express more vehemently the arguments against privatisation - existing and proposed)
  • to feel less ashamed about arguing for “the commons” and for things like cooperatives and social enterprise (inasmuch as such endeavours are allowed)
But how do we go about re-establishing some sort of balance of power?

How can social forces be strengthened; and political and state systems of power reformed - so that the wings of corporate power can be properly clipped??

I’ve been encouraged to return to this theme by the summary of and papers from this very recent Conference on the Restructuring of the Corporation 

The papers are certainly fascinating – but suggest (with the exception of Henry Mintzberg) that change will come from within the system. Most people involved in these arguments about social and economic change focus on one or other of the three parts – political, legal or commercial ie stronger, more focussed protest; or different voting systems; or more social enterprise; or more corporate social responsibility; or stronger legislation against lobbying for example. Few so far seem to see Mintzberg’s point that we need a mixed cocktail!  

The illustration is a woodcut by the marvellous Hans Masserel

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Dealing with the Past - Encountering Romania Part 9

The countries on which the Iron Curtain fell have had a difficult time since 1989 dealing with the record of repression, imprisonment, flight and death inflicted on millions of their citizens during that almost 50 year period. A few countries passed laws banning those holding power at that time from any future positions of authority but most countries, including Romania, had a reluctant and confused response to such questions of responsibility and justice.  25 years on from the end of the Ceaucescu regime, for example, there are still almost 100 serving Romanian MPs who held senior positions in that regime – and it was only in 2006 that the various archives were made (more or less) fully accessible to allow the researchers of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in Romania to do their work. 
Coming to terms with the communist past in Romania is a 2011 article which analyses the highly politicised way the Commission report was treated by politicians and the media. 
Romanian communism between commemoration, nostalgia and scientific debate (2011) widens the analysis.
Transitional Justice in post-communist Romania (2012) is a recent book which assesses how such issues as property restitution and the rewriting of history books have been handled.

In Western European countries we turn to social history for insights into the recent past (particularly the last 50 years or so). I did a blogpost not so long ago about the extensive work which is available on post-war Britain
But in central and eastern European countries history of any sort is a highly contested field; and it is to anthropology and ethnography that we need to turn to get a deeply textured feel for the past as lived by the mass of people.
Katherine Verdery is an American Professor who has written extensively about Romanian cultural patterns from the research she was allowed to do here from the 1970s. 
Another recent book which deals with a key but strangely neglected subject is Heroes and Victims – remembering war in 20th century Romania by Maria Bucur (2010)


Sunday, January 5, 2014

New Wave on the Black Sea

A few months back I viewed a tough portrayal of contemporary Romania - Child’s Pose which received the top award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival but which we found a bit too close for comfort. 
One cold evening in March, Barbu is tearing down the streets 50 kilometres per hour over the speed limit when he knocks down a child. The boy dies shortly after the accident. A prison sentence of between three and fifteen years awaits. High time for his mother, Cornelia, to intervene. A trained architect and member of Romania’s upper class, who graces her bookshelves with unread Herta Müller novels and is fond of flashing her purse full of credit cards, she commences her campaign to save her lethargic, languishing son. Bribes, she hopes, will persuade the witnesses to give false statements. Even the parents of the dead child might be appeased by some cash.
Călin Peter Netzer, the fil’s director, portrays a mother consumed by self-love in her struggle to save her lost son and her own, long since riven family. In quasi-documentary style, the film meticulously reconstructs the events of one night and the days that follow, providing insights into the moral malaise of Romania’s bourgeoisie and throwing into sharp relief the state of societal institutions such as the police and the judiciary.
A detailed review of the film can be read here. The film represents the new wave of Romanian films which have been coming out in the past 5-6 years and have attracted a lot of attention eg this recent New York Times' piece  
The emptiness of authority is an unmistakable theme in the work of nearly all the younger Romanian filmmakers. Doctors, grandiose television hosts, swaggering bureaucrats - all display a self-importance that is both absurd and malignant. Their hold on power is mitigated sometimes by their own clumsiness but more often by unheralded, stubborn acts of ordinary decency. An ambulance technician decides to help out a suffering old man who is neither kin nor especially kind; a student stands stoically by her irresponsible friend; a militia officer, in the middle of a revolution, goes out of his way to find and protect an errant, idealistic young man under his command.There is almost no didacticism or point-making in these films, none of whose characters are easily sorted into good guys and bad guys. Instead, there is an almost palpable impulse to tell the truth, to present choices, conflicts and accidents without exaggeration or omission.
This is a form of realism, of course, but its motivation seems to be as much ethical as aesthetic, less a matter of verisimilitude than of honesty.
There is an unmistakable political dimension to this kind of storytelling, even when the stories themselves seem to have no overt political content. During the Ceausescu era, which ended abruptly, violently and somewhat ambiguously in December 1989 — in the last and least velvety of the revolutions of that year — Romanian public life was dominated by fantasies, delusions and lies.
 And the filmmakers who were able to work in such conditions resorted, like artists in other communist countries, to various forms of allegory and indirection. Both Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu describe this earlier mode of Romanian cinema as “metaphorical,” and both utter the word with a heavy inflection of disgust.................. I can say, though, that every conversation I had in Bucharest, even the most casual, circled back to the old days, so that I sometimes felt that they ended much more recently than 18 years ago.
And the physical aspect of Bucharest confirms this impression. The busy shopping streets have the usual storefronts — Sephora, Hugo Boss, various cellphone carriers and European grocery chains — and the main north-south road out of town is jammed with Land Rovers and lined with big-box discount stores. Turn a corner, though, or glance behind one of the billboards mounted on the walls of old buildings, and you are thrown backward, from the shiny new age of the European Union into the rustiest days of the Iron Curtain.
The architecture is a jumble of late-19th-century Hapsburg-style villas and gray socialist apartment blocks, some showing signs of renovation, others looking as if they had fallen under the protection of some mad Warsaw Pact preservation society. .....
“There is no Romanian film industry.” This is not another one of Cristi Puiu’s counterintuitive provocations but rather a statement I was to hear again and again in Bucharest as I visited the offices of film schools and production companies, a studio back lot and the headquarters of the National Center for Cinematography (C.N.C.). There was no shortage of industriousness, but Romania lacks the basic infrastructure that makes the cycle of production, distribution and exhibition viable in other countries. What is missing, above all, is movie theatres: there are around 80 cinemas serving a country of 22 million people, and 7 of the 42 largest municipalities have no movie screens at all. (In the United States there are almost 40,000 screens and millions of movie fans who still complain that there is nothing to see).
 What Romania does have, in addition to a backlog of stories crying out to be told on screen, are traditions and institutions that give filmmakers at least some of the tools required to tell them. The “dinosaurs” at U.N.A.T.C. take their pupils through a rigorous program of instruction that includes courses in aesthetics and art history and requires them to make two 35-millimeter short films before graduating, one of them in black and white. This kind of old-school technical training, which extends to acting as well, surely accounts for some of the sophistication and self-assurance that Mungiu, Porumboiu and their colleagues display. Not that anything comes easily. The shortage of screens means that the potential for domestic commercial returns is small, and therefore it is hard to attract substantial private investment, either from within Romania or from outside the country.
And the scarcity of theaters makes exhibition quotas — which other countries use to protect their film industries from being overwhelmed by Hollywood — untenable. But if there is no film industry, there is at least a Law of Cinematography (modeled on a French statute) that establishes a mechanism by which the state helps finance movie production. Taxes collected on television advertising revenue, DVD sales and other media-related transactions go into a fund, money from which is distributed in a twice-yearly competition. Winning projects are ranked, with the top selections receiving as much as 50 percent of their production costs from the fund. Film costs tend to be modest — the budget of “4 Months” was around 700,000 euros — and the filmmakers have 10 years to pay back the state’s investment, at which point they own the film outright.Many of the filmmakers I spoke to complained about the system. Corneliu Porumboiu, impatient with its slow pace and bureaucratic obstacles, financed “12:08” himself. Shortly before Cannes last year, Cristian Mungiu was involved in a public spat with the C.N.C. that made headlines in the local press. After a dispute with the centre, Puiu circulated a letter pledging never to participate in the system again.
 A useful little book on the Romanian cinema is A Short History of Romanian Cinema by Marian Tutui
And this article gives some background (in Romanian) on the relevant films. 

Images of Bucharest in the 20th century - Encountering Romania part VII

Encouraged by the images from an impressive book issued last month - Demolished Bucharest 1985 - unofficial archive images edited by Serban Bonciocat et al - we took a stroll on Friday in the area on the edge of the ginormous People’s Palace where there are still, amazingly, buildings which survived the megolomaiac onslaught on this central area. We even lunched in one of them – a new fish restaurant, Le Chef Calcanon the long straight Regina Marie Boulevard. We were impressed that the chef welcomed us and advised on the meal which took in a very nice bottle of white wine (for only 11 euros) – the guys are from Constanta and the fish menu is large and fresh.

While trying (unsuccessfully) to find a reference for the new book, I came across a couple of very interesting websites which document the destruction Ceaucescu inflicted on the city in the 1980s 
Bucharestian is an ambitious site which offers not only images but other goodies such as these crisp comments on Romanian mores 
- The Only Romania website has a collection of wonderful black and white photographs of Bucharest - including these of the 1970s before the demolitions – and some equally rare photos of the bustle of the cityin 1985 and shots from a Swedish visitor in the mid 1970s 

The images encouraged me to buy the 2012 book Bucharest’s Photographer  - Carol Popp de Szathmari (2012). De Szathmari was born in 1812 (died in 1887) and was one of the world’s first photographers. They are a great addition to the library I am slowly developing of images of both Bucharest and of Romania eg The Discreet charm of Bucharest by Dan Dinescu (2008) by Dan Dinescu  and Bucharest Architecture and Modernity – an annotated guide (2009) by Mariana Celac et al