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, December 30, 2016

Thanks God it's Friday

I have, for the past month or so, been looking over the year’s posts - with a view to compiling a little E-book which allows both their chronological presentation and some reflections on their significance (if any). I first tried this last year and titled the result In Praise of Doubt – a blogger’s year – although it had a double bonus in starting with some posts from the previous year and finishing with a “sceptic’s glossary” whose provocative definitions deserve a higher profile and are therefore added to the 2016 edition which I hope to publish in a few days – running at the moment with the title The Slaves’ Chorus  …...
This is my 8th year of blogging – at their height, posts averaged one every 2 days….now they average one a week – arguably a more appropriate period for disciplined thinking and writing than the 24 hour frame…..Indeed one of my favourite bloggers - The Archdruid Report - sticks (religiously) to a weekly schedule ….

I try to avoid mainstream media, preferring more marginal writing - so was prepared for the outcomes of the British referendum and the American elections. But the Brexit vote in particular was like a kick in the stomach…. ..my EU citizenship, after all, gives me more significant freedoms (to travel and reside) than does my British citizenship…. Almost a third of the posts dealt with these 2 issues….

As befits a blog whose title refers to two mountain ranges another third of posts deal with my (generally very pleasant) experiences of living in Bulgaria and Romania – particularly experiences relating to art and wine……

The final bunch of posts have more miscellaneous topics, generally occasioned by my reading….. or viewing (documentaries have been an important discovery for me this past year). Indeed I seemed to find books less gripping this past twelve months – only seven made sufficient impact to inspire a post -
How will Capitalism End? - a summary of whose basic thesis can be found in this 2014 New Left Review article

Recommended Blogs
All blogs have a “blogroll” – many of which are outdated. I try to keep mine up to date
A few of the good ones send me automatic updates – generally the collective sites such as Eurozine journal, RSA and the Real World Economist blogs; the great Scottish Review E-journal; and one single blogger How to Save the World. Those which deserve a special mention include –
Poemas del rio Wang - the most amazing site which tends to focus on memories of old central and east European lands; which runs some trips to them; but whose current series is on Iran
That’s How the Light Gets In – the imaginative site of a retired Liverpudlian Polytechnic lecturer with strong cultural tastes
 - Michael Roberts blog - an elegantly written Marxist economist blog
Stumbling and Mumbling - a rather academic blog with, however, good hyperlinks 
Britain is no Country for Older Men – an informative (if rather sexist) blog which celebrates the life achievements of various unsung heroes

The painting is a recent acquisition – one of Plamen Todorov’s dreamlike sequences……

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Romania's "progressive politics" on show once again

I haven’t posted about Romanian politics for more than a year but - with parliamentary elections on December 11 removing the technocratic government created in the aftermath of the November 2015 series of scandals which had hit the ruling “social democratic” party – it seems an appropriate time to try to update readers about the situation here in Romania.    

Last November this is how I described things -

Romanian politicians don’t do resignations. When, a few years back, one of their previous Ministers who had migrated to Brussels as a Euro MP was one of three Euro MPs to be caught in a sting, the other two quickly resigned but not Romanian Adrian Severin…..

When Victor Ponta became Romania’s Prime Minister some 4 years ago, he was almost immediately discovered by a global scientific journal to have committed extensive plagiarism for his PhD. He shrugged that off – although it had immediately led to resignations of German and other national Ministers guilty of such transgressions. But not in Romania…..Even being indicted by the country’s powerful anti-corruption brigade (DNA) didn’t seem to rattle him – only one of the charges would have been liable to remove him.

 But Ponta duly went (pushed it appears) in November 2015 as public anger at political shamelessness reached boiling point - first from the death of a police outrider escorting a Ministry of Interior’s car which had no right for such protection but then, at the weekend, from almost 50 deaths in a night-club which, like all such places in the country, had absolutely no fire or safety precautions……The “Sarah in Romania” blog can always be relied upon for a caustic comment on such matters – ….
This time their seems some focus for policy change to the anger….the country now has a President (Klaus Johannis) who has used at least the language of radical change - although the jury must remain out on whether he has the capacity to deliver. And the street protests - which were normally led by a party political element - look this time to have a slightly more hopeful base in the citizens……but so-called “civil society” (about which one does not hear so much these days) has never really taken off in Romania – despite the extensive funding it got from external sources…..
Despite my own social democratic credentials, I have never been a fan of the Romanian PSD party which, for me, immediately absorbed the Ceaucescu lineage into a distinctive soup of social democratic rhetoric and finance capitalist reality. Tom Gallagher expressed it best when he used “Theft of a State” as the title of his book on post 1989 politics in the country.
The most physical expression you can find of the extent to which the apparatchiks still have their claws in everything is by checking in each city you visit the large mansions in prime areas which have the various party insignia designating them as party possessions…..
Hundreds of politicians are now in jail and it is entirely significant that the current PDS leader is on a 2-year suspended prison sentence for electoral fraud – occurred when the party tried to impeach the country’s President…..

With considerable reluctance, he seems to have accepted that this prevents him from assuming the position of Prime Minister but has just executed what he considers a brilliant move by nominating an unknown Muslim woman instead.............whose name. however, has just been rejected by the President on what are thought to be security grounds .(he husband is a pro-Assad Syrian activist).... Talk about being too clever by half........this is just playing with the country!!

In May 2016 the local elections put this totally corrupt party back into power in most of the country’s urban centres. Early December saw less than a 40% turnout in the parliamentary elections but the PSD took almost half of the vote and the majority of the seats…..They now control almost everything in Romania except the Presidency and the judiciary and are already making vague threats against both……

One of the few English=speaking blogs is Bucharest Life (of which I’m no great fan) but their updates are worth looking at

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Blogging as a giving account of one's life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 5, 2016

TINA – and the little Trumpets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Problem of Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

So help me!! What am I?

The painting is one of Alex Ivanov's (Romanian despite his name) whose book illustrations can sometimes be seen at the Military circle galleries.. Th is one of three I am proud to have in my (comparatively small) collection of Romanian paintings.. 

UpdateA book on “Britain and Transnational Progressivism” https://books.google.bg/books?id=tawYDAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false gives an fascinating picture of the progressive strand in, for example, the West of Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th century

Friday, December 2, 2016

The charm of wine boutiques!

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

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

Then I stumbled across Tempus Vini at 81, Tsar Boris – open just 2 months ago and Kallin always poised with an open bottle to welcome us.
And yesterday morning I noticed Enjoy Wine 19, Ivan Shishman st - whose Ivo welcomed us not only with amusing quips but with a couple of tastings. 

Most of Kallin’s wine stock is Bulgarian – and the same is true of Enjoy Wine (which organizes not only wine tastings but trips to vineyards)

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

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