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!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The World Of Yesterday

A month ago I wrote about the art of the memoir ….listing some of the more memorable examples for me of that genre of writing. In the past fortnight a book has been keeping me company which must rate as one of the greatest of the 20th century – Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday which was first published in 1942 after his suicide the previous year but then languished for decades before being reissued recently as part of a revival of his work. Zweig’s memoir is less an autobiography than an intensely perceptive historical account of fin-de siècle Europe-up to the start of the Second World War. It may also be the longest suicide note in history.

Most of the (long) reviews have been ecstatic – with the exception of an exceedingly intemperate one in the London Review of Books from Michael Hoffman.

In the Introduction to his book Stefan Zweig rightly says that no generation in recent times had undergone such a series of cataclysms, each breaking bridges with an earlier period, as had his own. He had lived not only in one world of yesterday, but in several, and it is these worlds he sets out to describe.
He was born, a Jew, in 1881 into a cosmopolitan and tolerant Vienna and into a world of utter political and economic security, confident in steady progress in society and in science. It knew the douceur de vivre (except that unmarried young men and especially young women led a sexual life which could find an outlet only in prostitution), and where culture - no longer under the patronage of the Court, but under that of the Jewish bourgeoisie - was more honoured throughout society than was wealth.
The culture of the older generation was challenged by the avant-garde, with which Zweig and his fellow-students, even while still schoolboys in a stultifying educational system, were knowledgeably, passionately and actively engaged. Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Rilke were their lodestars. The universities were little better: Zweig was only a nominal student at the universities of Vienna and Berlin: his real intellectual life lay elsewhere.
 Already at the age of 19 he had the first of several articles accepted for the feuilleton section of the prestigious Neue Freie Presse in Vienna (of whose editor, Theodore Herzl, he gives a wonderful account). In Berlin he was looking for (and found) a wider circle - socially and intellectually - than in the somewhat inbred bourgeois and mainly Jewish milieu in which he had moved in Vienna. He drank in influences of every kind, from the sophisticated to the louche, exposing himself to `real life' as opposed to the purely literal and to some extent derivative life he had led so far.
In his travels in Belgium and his beloved Paris, he sought out the great artists and poets of his time. His descriptions of them - their physical appearance, their character and their psychology - are always masterful. His worshipful admiration of their work and of their personalities extends to reverence for the manuscripts or other memorabilia which he collected all his life. Though an Austrian, he identified himself first and foremost as a European.
The pivotal chapter, entitled “Brightness and Shadows over Europe”, describes the first decade of the 20th century: what a wonderfully optimistic, vigorous, progressive, prosperous, and confidence-inspiring decade that was, and yet how that very energy was used in greedy competition, how states who had plenty wanted yet more and clashed with others who wanted the same, so that in the end that very vigour brought about the cataclysm of the First World War.
Written with tremendous verve, these few pages surpass many an analysis of the causes of that disaster. And he observed with horror how overnight not only the masses but his so sophisticated and sensitive intellectual friends were swept along by the hysterical and bombastic enthusiasm for war. The sole exceptions among his friends were the Austrian Rilke and the Frenchman Romain Rolland. Only when Zweig visited Switzerland did he meet other opponents of the war who, like Rolland, had moved there because they could not bear or dare to live in their own countries. (Not all of these, of course, were lovers of peace: they included communists who would unleash their own slaughter in the coming years.)
He then describes the immediate post-war years: the terrifying inflation in Austria, which however seemed moderate when compared by the even more horrific inflation which followed in Germany; the collapse of and contempt for all pre-war cultural and social norms and forms, especially among the young.
These four or five terrible years then gave way to a decade of relative normality. It was then that Zweig's fame reached its apogee and he became the world's most widely-translated living author. He has some fascinating pages analyzing what might be the cause of this success which he found both intoxicating and disturbing because - so he says - he had ever been beset by self-doubt, by a desire to avoid personal publicity and to feel under obligation to nobody.
He presents some wonderful vignettes relating to that decade: of a visit to the Soviet Union in 1928 in which he is overwhelmed by the naive warmth of the people and only just made aware that he was being manipulated; his encounters with Gorky and with Croce; or of how Salzburg, the town he had made his home, had become, through its Festivals which began in 1920, a place of cultural pilgrimage from all over the world which brought to his home the most famous literary and artistic figures.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they burnt and banned all his works, eventually, after tortuous discussions involving Hitler himself, forbidding their revered composer Richard Strauss (of whom Zweig again gives a superb pen-portrait) to stage his opera `Die schweigsame Frau' because its libretto had been written by Zweig. The pressure of the Nazis on Austria became ever greater, and in 1934 Zweig left, initially for England (later for Brazil). In helpless despair he saw from afar more clearly than his friends in Austria that his homeland was doomed. And when Austria fell to the Nazis and he lost his passport, he became a refugee, subject to constant bureaucratic form-filling.
There is an eloquent lament for the world before the first world war when one was free to travel the world without a passport, and free from so many of the humiliating restrictions and regulations which now control innumerable aspects of our lives. The man, who as a cosmopolitan had felt at home everywhere, as a refugee now felt anchored nowhere. Tortured by the collapse of civilization in Europe, demeaned, deprived and unconfident, he poured out this masterpiece. He sent it off to a Swedish publisher in 1942, and took his life on the following day.

Some excerpts (from the later chapters) can be accessed here and a quite excellent long review here

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Fatalism - democracy's default position?

I have become a sucker in recent years for “intellectual histories” – what you might call “stories about stories” - or trying to identify the common strands in how we try to make sense of “what happens”. I can’t quite remember why I decided to order David Runciman’s The Confidence Trap – a history of democracy in crisis from World War I to the Present (2013) – perhaps because he is such an elegant reviewer for London Review of Books - but I had not expected it to bring old debates to life with such verve. After the initial surprise with the “executive” style of the sparse narrative (with lots of binary contrasts) I quickly got hooked on his counterintuitive approach to the seven turning points he examines 
1918, when democracy was confronted with the catastrophic consequences of an unanticipated war;
1933, when it had to cope with a global slump
1947, when Europe was being divided and the cold war was developing in the aftermath of World War II;
the Cuban missile crisis in 1962;
oil shock and stagflation in 1974;
 - short-lived triumphalism in 1989;
the financial crisis of 2008.

The book’s beginning - with an analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic work “Democracy in America”, the first volume of which was published in 1835 (Tocqueville had travelled to America from France in 1831) – sets the tone for the various intellectual dialogues Runciman sets up in the book 
 “The person who first noticed the distinctive character of democratic hubris—how it is consistent with the dynamism of democratic societies, how democratic adaptability goes along with democratic drift—was Tocqueville.” Neither an optimist nor a pessimist, Tocqueville “did not share either the concerns of the traditional critics of democracy or the hopes of its modern champions.” Runciman does not share these concerns or hopes either, and yet with Tocqueville he seems convinced that the rise of democracy is the great political fact of modern times.

His basic argument is that “democratic regimes” deal with challenges better but that this very success has probably sown the seeds of future failure. Modern democracy seems, he argues, to develop a “fatalism” which finds expression in two very different types of behaviour - first that of “resignation” (“this too will pass”); and, second, that of “recklessness” – when some sort of strong action seems called for…

I made de Tocqueville’s journey 156 years later (from Scotland) – courtesy of the German Marshall Foundation – to explore (on a 6 week fellowship) how local communities (eg in the Pittsburgh area) were dealing with the effects of the closure of their steel mills. I was lucky enough to be “embedded” in the various municipal organisations with interests in community enterprise (including a brief period in the Chicago mayor’s office at the height of one of their schools’ crises) and soon found myself overwhelmed by the role of charitable Foundations in this sort of work. Like de Tocqueville, I could feel the energy in the air.... 
I came as a sceptic but identified no fewer than nine features of their local development process as "worthy of study and replication" 
- more pluralistic sources of Local Funding (the scale of corporate and tax-free grants to Foundations)
- networking of people from the private and public sectors (eg Community Leadership scheme)
- scanning for strategic work : the active, participative role played by the private sector in the process of setting the regional agenda in places like Chicago was impressive
- coaching : the way community economic development skills were encouraged
- marketing : of voluntary organisations
- affirming : affirmative action in Chicago Council was handled very systematically in areas such as hiring and sub-contracting
- negotiating : the flexibility of the planning system allowed local councils to strike deals with developers to the direct advantage of poorer areas.
- persevering : the realism about timescale of change
- parcelling into manageable units of action: the British mentality seemed to prefer administrative neatness to permit a "coordinated" approach. American "messiness" seemed to produce more dynamism.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

How Sofia opened Robert Conquest's Eyes

Robert Conquest – who died last month at the age of 98 – was the best known British investigator in the post-war period of the true scale of the communist tyranny.  During the 1960s he edited eight volumes of work including “Common Sense About Russia” (1960), “The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities” (1960) and “Power and Policy in the USSR” (1961). His other early works on the Soviet Union included “Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair” (1961) and “Russia After Khrushchev” (1965) published in the United States republished as The Contemporary Soviet Union Series by Frederick Praeger, whose U.S. company published, in addition to works by Aleksandr SolzhenitsynMilovan Đilas and a number of books on communism.

Many of us saw him overly fixated on Soviet atrocities - but the opening of soviet records after 1990 proved him correct. 
I learned several new things from the obituaries and tributes of recent weeks. First that he was a poet and close friend of Kingsley Amis – with a strong line in doggerel.  

But the most important insight was that his revulsion against Soviet tyranny stemmed from his personally witnessing the Communist takeover of Bulgaria in 1944 – an event which I have written about here. In 1944, Conquest was posted to Bulgaria as a liaison officer to the Bulgarian forces fighting under Soviet command, attached to the Third Ukrainian Front, and then to the Allied Control Commission. There, he met Tatiana Mihailova, who later became his second wife. At the end of the war, he joined the Foreign Office, returning to the British Legation in Sofia. Witnessing first-hand the communist takeover in Bulgaria, he became completely disillusioned with communist ideas. He left Bulgaria in 1948, helping Tatiana escape the new regime. Back in London, he divorced his first wife and married Tatiana.

The third fascinating fact is that, on the war’s end, he actually joined the Labour Party’s International Bureau – working therefore with Dennis Healey (who sadly died about 10 days after I drafted this - at the ripe old age of 98). Conquest then joined the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), a unit created by the Labour government to "collect and summarize reliable information about Soviet and communist misdoings, to disseminate it to friendly journalists, politicians, and trade unionists, and to support, financially and otherwise, anticommunist publications."

You can read more about his life here. He is an obvious candidate for the next entry in the blog Britain is no country for old men

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Carbon Democracy

Those of us who try to keep up with things have piles of books on the key subjects of the day - "global warming", "end of oil", "neoliberalism" or "Islamic extremism". The books in each of these categories all have their particular cast of characters; storyline; prescriptions; and prejudices. But, like ships that pass in the night, they steer clear of (and rarely reference) one another. 
I’ve just finished a rare book which aims to connect the dots between these categories – it’s Carbon Democracy – political power in the age of oil (2013) and a stunning bit of work whose provocative historical insights turn upside down many of our preconceptions 
The use of coal and oil in the context of industrialization has always been about who has the power to profit from the surplus these energy forms produce, but until now, no one has pulled the various historical details together into a historical narrative laying bare the fascinating power dynamics behind the rise of Western political systems and their relationship with energy. Carbon Democracy is an examination of our civilization’s 400 hundred year use of carbon-based energy fueling sources, and the political systems that grew up intertwined with them. Rather than presenting energy and democracy as separate things, like a battery and a device, Mitchell discusses the political architecture of the Western world and the developing world as inherently tied to fuelling sources.
The thesis is that elites have always sought to maximize not the amount of energy they could extract and use, but the profit stream from those energy sources. They struggled to ensure they would be able to burn carbon and profit, without having to rely on the people who extract and burned it for them. Carbon-based fuels thus cannot be understood except in the context of labour, imperialism and democracy. 
This book is a response to David Yergen’s The Prize: The Epic Question for Oil, Money, and Power, a classic story of hardy entrepreneurs taking huge risks to find oil in the most remote places. Yergen’s narrative centers on oil scarcity, and its contributions to economic growth in a capitalist framework. Oil is, to Yergen, the prize, solving the key problem of how to supply enough energy for a modern consumer society with a flexible and inexpensive fuel source. 
In Carbon Democracy, Mitchell has a counterintuitive take on oil, one that after a while, makes much more sense than Yergen’s. Mitchell points out that the problem of oil has never, until recently, been that it is a scarce commodity, but that it is a surplus commodity. We had too much of it. And the central problem that this created was now how to find more of it, but how to ensure that oil cartels profiting from high oil prices could make sure that very few new oil finds, especially from the massive fields in the Middle East, came online.
Far from a hardy band of entrepreneurs searching for more oil, the story of oil is one of parasitic cartels manipulating governments and inventing concepts like mandates, self-determination, and national security to ensure they could retain high profits selling a widely available commodity. But Mitchell takes the story much deeper than Yergen did, because Yergen’s book is fundamentally a fairy tale that skirts over questions of labor and colonialism. 
Mitchell goes back before the widespread use of oil, to the industrialization of England and England’s use of carbon-based fuels, like forests, peat, and coal. Industrialization demanded two seemingly contradictory factors – huge new tracts of land to grow industrial raw materials like cotton and high energy food crops like sugar, and far more centralized urban centres for manufacturing. What happened, of course, is that England simply acquired colonies with large land tracts overseas, using slave labour to harvest necessary commodities, while becoming an urban society in its core areas. Eventually, England began using coal to fuel its economy, leading to substantial economic growth and imperial strength.
Coal, though, presented a challenge to the governing elites, since the characteristics of coal, with its labour intensive extraction methods, were quite vulnerable to strikes. Coal was hard to transport, and miners operated underground in a collaborative manner. Once on the surface, coal had to be moved by fixed networks of trains. There were multiple bottlenecks here, and in the late 19th century, for the first time, the energy system of the industrialized world was reliant on workers who could withhold their labour and block a key resource. This translated directly into political power. 
As Mitchell put it, “Coal miners played a leading role in contesting work regimes and the private powers of employers in the labour activism and political mobilisation of the 1880s and onward. Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of about three times the average for workers in all major industries, and at double the rate of the next-highest industry, tobacco manufacturing.” The coal industry was the key radicalizing force in bringing democracy to the Western world…….

Mitchell is a British born political scientist and student of the Arab world. He is a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University having previously been Professor of Politics at New York University. When he arrived in the United States in 1977 to start a Ph.D. in Politics at Princeton, he was 
"surprised to discover that the Politics Department at Princeton was teaching the same old positivism. I was interested in the politics of the Arab world, having traveled there several times, so I evaded political science by taking courses in Middle Eastern history and Arabic language and spent three of the next six years studying and researching in Cairo”. 

He’s also the author of Rule of Experts – Egypt, technopolitics, modernity (2002) and it’s this background which helps give his study of “Carbon Democracy” such great originality…The book has an amazing historical sweep but gives us chapter and verse on aspects of the various turning points of the developments of coal and oil in Britain and America which tend to remain hidden from view in most accounts….. And what a wonderful title - "carbon democracy", with all its connotations of institutional aping...The excerpts are from the long review the blogsite “Naked Capitalism” gave the book in 2012 
Flowing through the narrative is the question of imperialism and neo-imperialism. A variety of ideological mechanisms, such as the self-determination ostensibly preached by Woodrow Wilson, were in fact ways for Western oil consuming states to control and slow the flow of oil from poorer but oil rich countries.
Mitchell shows how Palestinian strikes at oil installations in the late 1930s led Britain to support a Jewish state in the area, and how American mining engineers helped craft the apartheid regime in South Africa.
 At the same time, aggressive left-wing parties in the British parliament sought to combat imperialism, because they understood that imperialism abroad was meant to break the power of British labor – in particular coal mining – at home. Mitchell pays particular attention to the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles and the period of negotiations after World War II to set up an international management framework. The League of Nations, he writes, “was to be an economic mechanism to replace, not war between states, but its taproot – the conflict over material resources.”
In addition to what would become the World Bank and IMF, Keynes wanted to establish an international body to manage commodities, including and especially oil. While no institution was ever set up to do this, a framework of national security and “the Cold War” managed to keep Middle Eastern and Russian offline for a long period of time. In addition, the oil companies used public relations to encourage a high oil consumption lifestyle in the United States, so as to keep the price of oil as high as possible. In Europe, Mitchell encourages a revised view of the Marshall plan, as a joint European and American elite plan to break European labor power. It’s a particularly interesting way to interpret the rise of the European Union, one deeply at odds with thinkers like George Soros who see the EU as a success of far sighted visionaries who sought to to build an “open society”.
Mitchell cites American intervention in post-WWII European economic and political arrangements as evidence. Three years later, after rapid inflation caused real wages to collapse, coal miners joined a series of strikes demanding that the government increase pay levels or extend food rations… Rather than yield to these claims, France and other European governments turned to the United States. Keen to promote their new corporate management model abroad (and to have Washington subsidise their exports), American industrialists used a fear of the popularity of Communist parties in Western Europe to win support for postwar aid to Europe. ‘The Communists are rendering us a great service’, commented the future French prime minister Pierre Mendès-France. ‘Because we have a “Communist danger” the Americans are making a tremendous effort to help us….
The European Coal and Steel Community, established as a first step towards the political union of Europe, reduced competition in the coal industry and supported the mechanisation of production, with funds provided to alleviate the effects of the resulting pit closures and unemployment. The United States helped finance the programme, which reduced the ability of coal miners to carry out effective strikes by rapidly reducing their numbers and facilitating the supply of coal across national borders. The third element was the most extensive. The US funded initiatives to convert Europe’s energy system from one based largely on coal to one increasingly dependent on oil.

The curious thing, however, for a book with “democracy” in its title, written by a political scientist and with a sub-title which includes the phrase “political power” is how little exploration we get of the implications of the end of oil for our so-called democracy. The book is very strong on the methods used to “manufacture” the “consensus” of the ruled (curiously without mentioned Chomsky!!) 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me"??

Austerity policies and anti-terrorism strategies have become two of the strongest parts of European government responses to the global crisis which has gripped the 21st century……precisely the conditions for stoking up public fears about the wave of refugees pounding European borders.

The shocking scenes which hit us earlier in the year from the Mediterranean and now from the Balkans show a crisis, we are told, as great as any in the post-war period. Figures become meaningless after a time – so what are we to make of the figure of 50 million “forced refugees” – quickly taken up to 60 and then 70 million?? This report is a useful guide to the problem.

 Before any comment, let’s remind ourselves of some previous “flows”…..

·         Armenians were brutally evicted from their lands by the Turks after accusations that they had been helping the (Russian) enemy – the famous travel writer, Leigh Fermour, paints a vivid picture in his final book of meeting up with some of their descendants in the early 1930s in Plovdiv in central Bulgaria (as I did 75 years later).
·         Greek aggression led in the early 1920s to savage ethnic cleansing and population exchange between Turkey and Greece;
·         Italians bled from the country in the early part of the 20th century – whether to the US or my hometown in Scotland
·         Hitler’s persecution of Jews in the 1930s led to a massive exodus from which America and Britain were the beneficiaries;
·         no quarter was given during the murderous Spanish civil war and led to a huge refugee flow across mountains to southern France.
·         The end of the war – and the radical redrawing of European boundaries by the victorious forces – saw tens of millions of people forcibly removed from their homes and trekking in all directions. Keith Lowe’s 2012 Savage Continent; Europe in the aftermath of World War II rightly talks of it being “an until now unacknowledged time of lawlessness and terror” to whose portrayal the final section of Stephen A’Barrow’s recent Death of a Nation added a powerful voice.   
·         Post war saw the first ships arrive in Britain with West Indians seeking a better life – joining Indian and Pakistan middle class people whose restaurants woke the country up from a gastronomic torpor…
·         and Germany was, of course, the recipient of many Turks in the 1970s also seeking a better life there….

In 1975 John Berger wrote a book called The Seventh Man - one in seven of the working force in Britain and Europe was then an immigrant. And indeed – full disclosure - so am I! My blog masthead states, rather cheekily, that I am “a political refugee from Thatcher’s Britain” but I am actually more of an economic refugee. It’s the fees I earned from my work with (mainly) Danish, Dutch and German companies when I chose to leave the UK in late 1990 that keep me in my current life- style in Bulgaria and Romania. No need to make ironic comments – call it “reverse flow”……
The Scots and the Irish have a reputation for leaving their country to seek fame and fortune in far parts of the globe and have done fairly well out of it – although some of the early migrants were driven from their homes by rapacious landlords (The Highland Clearances) and famine.

Commentary
This short but masterly podcast about the situation puts to shame the outpourings of the corporate media which spew their poison at us every minute of the day. A real example of what a lone voice can achieve!!!! And the inestimable John Harris gives an important lesson in lexicology here

The initial responses of the German people and leaders are what we expected in the past when hearts and homes were open to those driven from their countries by forces outside their control. This was my parents’ response in the early 1940s when they took in a family belonging to the Free French forces stationed in my home town – I still remember the red, white and blue of the silver-crepe ornament which adorned our front window at Christmas in the 1950s; and our PE teacher was a refugee from the Greek Civil War……

But materialism and fear (the later instilled by the prejudice whipped up by the media) have hardened our hearts. It appears that the old spirit is 
still alive only in Germany….scenes at Munich central station described here. Two factors explain the initial positive German response – historical feelings of guilt and their current manpower needs - but that response is careless surely of the potential effects on the country’s social fabric. But the political position quickly changed

I must confess to having some difficulty myself with the initial welcoming response to the refugee flow from “liberals” whose secure lives all too easily lead them to an insensitivity about the anxieties of the average citizen.

Update from 2 November blog 

update from May 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/31/jared-kushner-grandmother-refugee-holocaust