what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It generally uses books (old and new) 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, October 17, 2014

A five-letter word which sends shivers around the world

One of my closest friends has been working in Sierra Leone for the past 18 months – as Team Leader of a civil service reform project in Freetown. He is back home in Brussels at the moment but scheduled to fly back in a few days – to take up a project extension of 12 months.
Remember that this is the country in the eye-storm of the Ebola pandemic where deaths are doubling every month – as set out in this powerful piece in the current issue of LRB

I remonstrated with him but he had a powerful argument. He has earned the confidence of senior civil servants there – and they need the unique blend he has of experience, common sense and  analytical skills. I don’t anyone in my line of work who is able to come up so readily with “stories” which make so much sense about the perversities which are perpetrated by the leaders of modern organisations (whether private or public). I worked – very briefly – in The World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1990/91 and was generally very impressed with how much its European Office (in Copenhagen) was able to achieve with minimal resources. But it had its weaknesses – a few of its nationals appointed (on patronage) were disastrous and that, according to a leaked report in today’s Guardian, seems to be the case for its African desk.

I remember his (unrepeatable) comments from our skype conversation a couple of months ago.
I salute a brave man
And wish him a safe return.......

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Through a Glass ....Darkly

We don’t need anyone these days to tell us that we’re in a mess. Nor to explain why. The libraries are groaning with books on globalization, deregulation, privatization, debt, greed, corruption, pollution, austerity, migration.
I’m reminded of a wave of books in the 1970s which were early harbingers of this sense of crisis - The Seventh Enemy (1978) was a typical example. It described the 7 main threats to human survival as the population explosion, food shortage, scarcity of natural resources, pollution, nuclear energy, uncontrolled technology - and human nature.
The author’s experience of government and international institutions convinces him that the most dangerous was the moral blindness of people and the inertia of political institutions.

A lot has happened in the subsequent 46 years – new pressing issues have been identified –but who would gainsay his identification of the “seventh” enemy? These days, there would probably be a majority in favour of stringing up a few bankers, politicians and economists – “pour encourager le autres” – were it not illegal…

If, however, the problem has been defined, diagnosed and satisfactorily explained – why do we remain so confused and divided if not, in many cases, apathetic about the action we should be taking?

Over the years, I’ve read and collected books and articles to help me identify the sort of agenda and actions which might unite a fair-minded majority.
Like many people, I’ve clicked, skimmed and saved – but rarely gone back to read thoroughly. The folders in which they have collected have had various names – such as “urgent reading” or “what is to be done” – but rarely accessed. Occasionally I remember one and blog about it.

Only now with the new website – have I the incentive to attempt a more serious trawl, a more sustained read and more systematic search for a common agenda.

I’ve started to uplaod a couple of dozen of "key readings" – most reasonably well-known names but a few outliers….one of which is From Chaos to Change – entering a new era – a remarkable, detailed manifesto for change written by a Dutch veteran of earlier struggles, Joost van Steenis, who is one of only a few activists to have taken and time and trouble to write not one but several detailed manifestos. It can be downloaded in its entirety from the site.

I've made a casual reference to the new website on which I;ve been working feverishly over the past few weeks. It is actually now up and running - but not quite officially open to visitors. You can, however, peek in - its name is Mapping the Common Ground - ways of thinking about the crisis 
This post is actually the text of the introduction to what I was going to call "the library" but I may now entitle "Readings for social change" - which will probably be one of two separate libraries, the other   being "Readings for organisational change"?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Writing as Power

It’s rather a coincidence that the Nobel Prize for Literature is announced the very day I wanted to complete a post about the question which has been exercising me these last few days - namely what makes for good writing.
I have been editing about 20 of the pieces I have written and put on the old website in the past 5 years - and discovered a short paper I had done for some students (at the Central Asian University in Bishkek) on how to write a paper.
Of course, that’s not quite the same thing as writing a novel! But some of the same questions about standards and power seem to apply. What exactly are the qualifications of the panel for deciding who will gain this prestigious (and generous) award? And what precise criteria do they use? I’m generally fairly bewildered by the awards – although I’m not a great fan of novels. But I do like quality writing and have to say that I have read only 3 of the Nobel prize-winners of the last 10 years – Pamuk, Vargas Llosa and Coetze. Few of the other 7 seem all that deserving…..

Anyway, for the past week, I have been doing three things
·         Writing a 1-2 page “blurb” for the 15 Papers or Essays (which are on average 60 pages long)
·         Writing a slightly longer intro to the 8 E-books which will be on the new website in a week or so
·         Re-formatting all of the material

This has involved recollecting the circumstances which brought this writing into being – and reflecting on my writing style and structure. So I’m now hooked on a major rewrite of the paper on writing reports – which is directed at officials and students facing a stroppy boss or supervisor and interested in the process of creation. Normally I sit with the laptop and let the keys do the thinking – as the phrases and sentences appear on the screen, I question them and am led into some unexpected but fruitful fields. Just as happens when I’m doing a presentation to a group and ask them initially to give me some questions…… In both cases, ideas appear which I hadn't previously thought of...
But this time, I operated even more creatively…some months ago I had bought a very large artist’s sketchpad which can stand on the floor like an easel. With a fine felt pen I just scribble phrases in large script and then tear the page off and leave on the floor like a post-it note….
Alternating between this and the laptop has proved to be quite effective….

By a further coincidence, I was reminded of Steven Pinker’s recently published book - The Sense of Style – the thinking person’s guide to good writing - which asks -
Why is so much writing so bad? Why is it so hard to understand a government form, or an academic article or the instructions for setting up a wireless home network?
The most popular explanation is that opaque prose is a deliberate choice. Bureaucrats insist on gibberish to cover their anatomy. Plaid-clad tech writers get their revenge on the jocks who kicked sand in their faces and the girls who turned them down for dates. Pseudo-intellectuals spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook. But the bamboozlement theory makes it too easy to demonize other people while letting ourselves off the hook. In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon's Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
The kind of stupidity I have in mind has nothing to do with ignorance or low IQ; in fact, it's often the brightest and best informed who suffer the most from it.
I once attended a lecture on biology addressed to a large general audience at a conference on technology, entertainment and design. The lecture was also being filmed for distribution over the Internet to millions of other laypeople. The speaker was an eminent biologist who had been invited to explain his recent breakthrough in the structure of DNA. He launched into a jargon-packed technical presentation that was geared to his fellow molecular biologists, and it was immediately apparent to everyone in the room that none of them understood a word and he was wasting their time. Apparent to everyone, that is, except the eminent biologist. When the host interrupted and asked him to explain the work more clearly, he seemed genuinely surprised and not a little annoyed. This is the kind of stupidity I am talking about. 
The “curse of knowledge” is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows—that they haven't mastered the argot of her guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail……. 
 This is good stuff and what follows echoes exactly what my own draft said all these years ago -
How can we lift the curse of knowledge? The traditional advice—always remember the reader over your shoulder—is not as effective as you might think. None of us has the power to see everyone else's private thoughts, so just trying harder to put yourself in someone else's shoes doesn't make you much more accurate in figuring out what that person knows. But it's a start. So for what it's worth: Hey, I'm talking to you. Your readers know a lot less about your subject than you think, and unless you keep track of what you know that they don't, you are guaranteed to confuse them. 
A better way to exorcise the curse of knowledge is to close the loop, as the engineers say, and get a feedback signal from the world of readers—that is, show a draft to some people who are similar to your intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us. Only when we ask those people do we discover that what's obvious to us isn't obvious to them. 
The other way to escape the curse of knowledge is to show a draft to yourself, ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar. If you are like me you will find yourself thinking, "What did I mean by that?" or "How does this follow?" or, all too often, "Who wrote this crap?" The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader. Advice on writing is not so much advice on how to write as on how to revise.
 Steven Pinker is an eminent psychologist and has a good interview on the book in the current Slate Magazine.

My only quibble is with his title – there are a lot of style books out there but I don’t think that’s what he’s actually talking about. He seems rather to be addressing the more crucial issue of how we structure our thinking and present it so clearly that the reader or listener understands and is actually motivated to do something with the insights…..

Once we stop thinking about the words we use, what exactly they mean and whether they fit our purpose, the words and metaphors (and the interests behind them) take over and reduce our powers of critical thinking. One of the best essays on this topic is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English language”  Written in 1947, it exposes the way certain clichés and rhetoric are calculated to kill thinking – for example how the use of the passive tense undermines the notion that it is people who take decisions and should be held accountable for them.

Fifty years before Orwell, Ambrose Bierce was another (American) journalist whose pithy and tough definitions of everyday words, in his newspaper column, attracted sufficient attention to justify a book “The Devil’s Dictionary” whose fame continues unto this day. A dentist, for example, he defined as “a magician who puts metal into your mouth and pulls coins out of your pocket”. A robust scepticism about both business and politics infused his work – bit it did not amount to a coherent statement about power.

My own Just Words - a glossary and bibliography for the fight against the pretensions and perversities of power looks at more than 100 words and phrases used by officials, politicians, consultants and academics in the course of government reform which have this effect and offers some definitions which at least will get us thinking more critically about our vocabulary – if not actually taking political actions.

And the Plain English website is the other source I would recommend. It contains their short but very useful manual; a list of alternative words; and lists of all the organisations which have received their awards.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The comedy of words

I am a great reader – and fairly prolific writer. Indeed at one point, my secretary in the 1980s called me “paperback writer” in an allusion to the Beatles song. And I have indeed tried my hand at various times with (self-published) little books – one written in the 1970s around 30 or so questions about a new system of local government (for community activists); the second a more autobiographical piece drafted for more therapeutic purposes to help me make sense of my life; and the last - In Transit - a collection of papers I put together to give to people I was working with in central Europe and Asia. This last I suppose was a calling card of a sort.   

Every now and then I try to pull my thoughts and experience together – for example in a paper such as The Search for the Holy Grail – some reflections on 40 years of trying to make government and its systems work for people but I lose patience too easily and move on to other things – leaving this one unfinished. A presentation at a prestigious Conference, however, does wonders for concentration and I therefore had more success in 2011 with this paper about the deficiencies of the capacity-building work in ex-communist countries - The Long Game – not the log-frame

What I don’t understand about most academic and bureaucratic writing is that it is so lifeless….it seems designed to cast a disinfectant over our living souls and kill the bugs of creativity and insight… I have been exceptionally lucky since 1970 - in holding first political positions (and then consultancy roles) which allowed me to observe the processes of government at first hand; and then being allowed the freedom to reflect quite openly about this to those who cared to read such reflections…  
I have always found two collections of essays particularly inspiring – those of the development writer Robert Chambers and those of Roger Harrison - the organizational development consultant.

Both produced collections whose essays were preceded with detailed notes explaining the conditions in which the essay was drafted and indicating how the writer had adjusted his thinking…..

And this morning, I stumbled across another name we should honour for the quality and openness of his mind - and writing. Neil Postman died in 2003 but I still remember him for his critique of television - Amusing Ourselves to Death. It was actually a tribute I came across
I sense a dwindling number of people in the academic world who are unclassifiable. Neil Postman, who died in 2003 was one, and now we can say he will always be one. Such figures—with reputation but no real discipline—have a tendency to make people think. Postman had that.He was expert in nothing. Therefore nothing was off limits. Therefore one’s mind was always at risk, from a joke, a headline, an idea, a person walking through the door. The only way to respond to such strange conditions was with ready humor. And humor would bring you more ideas.
Now what discipline, what department is that?Everyone who knew Postman—and I include perhaps a hundred thousand who only heard him speak—knew him first through humor, which was the reflection in person of the satire in most of his books, each of which is a pamphlet, an essay between covers: The Disappearance of Childhood (1982) was satire about the infantalization in American culture. Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) was satire about entertainment and what it was doing to us. Technopoly (1993) was satire on the “surrender of culture to technology.” 
In these days of grey specialisation, such qualities deserve celebration!
His, of course, was not the only voice to warn against the new technology….

The activist with the wonderful name of Jerry Mander had wowed us a few years earlier with Four Arguments for Getting Rid of Television and I was delighted to see, during this morning’s surfing, that he is still going strong – with The Capitalism Papers (2012) which got a nice review in Dissident Voice  

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Search for the Holy Grail

I’m now doing some final work on the new website – whose name is still “Mapping the Common Ground – ways of thinking about the crisis”. Today – apart from a cycle to the Loran Gallery to see its nice little exhibition of Socialist Realist painting – has been devoted to doing summaries of about 15 of the extended essays which will be one feature of the site. Another feature will be about 10 little E-books I’ve produced in the past year…….
The Independence Argument was the most recent – although it will be an updated version that is uploaded in a week or so. I’m also planning an E-book of 100 pages incorporating the various posts I’ve done on EC Structural Funds and Good Governance; and also one on the Romanian painting greats…….
Here’s how I try to entice the reader into my 40-page essay - The Search for the Holy Grail

I consider myself a fortunate man – given opportunities to take part in the mysteries of governing for almost 50 years - and not succumbing to cynicism. Essentially – I suspect – because I’ve played several professional roles since I left university –
·       22 years of strategic leadership in first local and then regional government overlapping with 17 years teaching (latterly in urban management) followed by
·       almost 25 years of consultancy to governments and state bodies of the transition countries of central Europe and central Asia.

Each of these roles has confronted me with a conundrum which kept me exploring – in both real and virtual places - questions such as
·       how local professionals and politicians could develop a different sort of relationship with particularly “marginalised” groups
·       the role of external advisers in countries trying to create pluralist systems in ex-communist countries
·       how what is called “institutional capacity” can be built

Since 1970 I’ve tried to make sense of the challenges I’ve been involved with by writing about them – relating the various projects to the wider literature in the field – and sometimes being lucky enough to have the results published. This way I have certain “reality checks” on the way I was seeing and thinking about things along the way.

We have a saying - “Those who can, do – those who can’t, teach”.

And it’s certainly true that leaders of organisations do not make good witnesses about the whys and wherefores of the business they’re in. Most political and business autobiographies are shallow and self-serving. Even with the best of intentions, it seems almost impossible for an active executive to distance himself from the events which (s)he’s been involved in to be able to explain properly events – let alone draw out general lessons which can help others. An interesting exercise would be to identify (for Britain) the most important political and managerial autobiographies of (say) the last 50 years to try to (dis)prove the point. Denis Healey’s 1985 autobiography probably rates as the best of its genre. My friend Des Wilson has produced not only a very readable one ("Memoirs of a Minor Public Figure") but, earlier this year, a hilarious take on his age - "Growing Old - the last campaign"  

But, on the other side, can the teachers actually teach? Academic books and articles about the reform of government have churned from the press in ever larger numbers over the last 50 years (See my “annotated bibliography for change agents”). Do they tell a convincing story? More to the point, do they actually help the aspiring reformer? Or do they, rather, confuse him and her – whether by style, length or complexity? Indeed, how many of them are actually written to help the reformer – as distinct from making an academic reputation?
Perhaps the most insightful writing has been some of the intellectual (auto)biographies which have come recently from a few sociologists and political scientists eg Richard Rose….Daladier

This (unfinished) 40-page paper of mine is therefore a fairly unusual endeavour in coming from a self-avowed “change agent” who has also tried to keep up with “the literature” and also to reflect critically on what he (and funders) were doing.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Internet

Despite my blogging habits and two websites, I’m actually a bit of an “old-fogey” as far as technology is concerned. I’m not on Facebook; would never Twitter or Tweet; use the most basic Nokia mobiles; rarely skype; and prefer to ask human beings for directions rather than use GPS.
I’ve been vaguely aware of the various arguments about whether the internet has been good or bad for us but have resisted the temptation to read the hundreds of books on the subject – apart from Jeff Jarvis’ What would Google Do? which I wrote about all of 3 years ago

Efgeni Morozov, however, is a name I recognised when I popped in yesterday to the local branch of Knigomania and his To Save Everything, Click Here looked precisely the sort of book to bring me up to date with the debate – not least because of its extensive bibliography.
I found it an easy read – although an editor’s pen would have been a useful corrective to his rather ornate phrases. I know this is an ungenerous comment to make about a young Belarussian made good (the review in the Times Higher Education Supplement link above ends with a good profile of the guy) but he does rather ask for it since he devotes part of his critique to the notion of "gatekeeping"! The best of the reviews of the book is probably this one in the Los Angeles Review of Books
To understand the limitations of technocratic approaches to social problems, he reads in communication studies and political philosophy. To provide a context for his interpretation of the dominant Internet myth, Morozov draws on key works in the history, sociology, and anthropology of science and technology. The bibliography is diverse, ranging from the canonical debate between John Dewey and Walter Lippman on the role of expertise in democracy. This type of synthetic work is all too rare in cultural criticism, and there is an excellent reading list embedded in the endnotes of To Save Everything, Click Here. If Morozov’s argument rings true — and, for the most part, it does — it is due to the strong philosophical foundation on which he stands.  
"To Save Everything" is animated by a thoroughgoing critique of two central ideas that Morozov terms “solutionism” and “Internet-centrism.” The first describes an instrumental engagement with public life that regards all social and political issues as problems to be solved. The second refers to a fascination with the Internet as a wholly novel sociotechnical phenomenon (which Morozov first diagnosed in his 2011 book The Net Delusion). Solutionism and Internet-centrism are both worldviews infused with the technocratic values of efficiency, cleanliness, and productivity, values that are poorly suited, in Morozov’s view, to life in a pluralistic liberal democracy. 
These terms allow Morozov to take a position outside the usual pro–con debates over digital technology. Rather than participate in the kind of either-or thinking characteristic of questions like “Is Google making us stupid?” (the title of an infamous 2008 Atlantic article by Nicholas G. Carr), Morozov explores the underlying assumptions that make such a question possible in the first place. Across an exhaustive — and, at times, exhausting — review of the recent technology literature, he traces a persistent, unexamined reiteration of the dominant Internet myth…… 
Morozov pinpoints the mantra of today’s solutionism in the recurring description of entrenched institutions as “broken”: Education is broken; the Postal Service is broken; Wall Street is broken; Congress is broken. This solutionist Mad Lib is especially prevalent in the discourses of Silicon Valley where start-up founders are encouraged to pitch to potential investors in terms of the problems they plan to solve. Indeed, writes Morozov, “Silicon Valley is already awash with plans for improving just about everything under the sun: politics, citizens, publishing, cooking.” But not all organizations can or should be modeled after a Silicon Valley start-up: “Most public institutions should not be held to the same standards as their private counterparts,” since “their mission is to provide goods and services that markets cannot or should not provide.” Such institutions will almost inevitably appear “broken” when judged according to the bottom-line economic measures favoured by business-minded solutionists: efficiency, for instance, or productivity. ….. 
Across 350 pages, he leads the reader on a relentless march through the weeds of Internet-centric hype, criss-crossing technologies and contexts as diverse as open government, gamification and crime prediction, the quantified self and serendipity engines. It is a strange sort of quest that feels almost compulsive in its pursuit of the bugbears of technological solutionism and Internet-centrism. The result is a relatively short book that simply feels too long, its comprehensiveness sliding into redundancy as the examples pile up. One wonders if it was necessary to attack every single instance of Internet-centrism? Following a lengthy engagement with the “datasexuals” of the Quantified Self movement in chapter seven, going after Gordon Bell’s “lifelogging” practices felt particularly tedious at the start of chapter eight. Surely some targets are more worthy than others. …..
The critique of efficiency and productivity in the foreground of To Save Everything builds on a commitment to deliberative democracy that undergirds much of the book. Deliberation, Morozov points out, is quintessentially inefficient. Bringing people with different backgrounds and commitments together for the purpose of reaching a mutually satisfying agreement is a slow and messy and often frustrating process. Whereas solutionism assumes the possibility of consensus and unanimity, Morozov champions compromise. “Perfection shouldn’t be pursued for its own ends; democracy is a complex affair in which, in the absence of disappointments, there would never be any accomplishments.” 
Public Books is a site I’ve praised recently and ran an interesting interview with him 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Some Notes on a Crisis

I left several books in the mountain house last week about the global crisis which I need to retrieve and get into eg
·         Austerity – the history of an idea by Mark Blyth - a Brit who is now a Prof In "Political Economy" (no less) at an American University and who actually writes clearly and powerfully! See this lecture of his.
·         European Spring – why our Economies and Politics are in a Mess – and how to put them right  by Philippe Legrain - who has a rather dubious CV as an adviser to Barroso and Think-tanker but whose book - if a bit repetitive - looks a useful narrative.... 
·         Crisis without End – the unravelling of western prosperity; Andrew Gamble - see below
·         17 Contradictions and the end of capitalism ; David Harvey - see below
·         Buying Time – the delayed crisis of democratic capitalism ; Wolfgang Streeck - also see below
·         Capitalism and its alternatives; by leftist Chris Rogers - a decent review of which I haven't yet been able to unearth
·         Utopia or Bust - a guide to the present crisis - a small book by American writer Ben Kunkel who has reviewed in excellent prose for the London Review of Books and who, like James Meek, looks at economic issues from a non-specialist point of view
·         The End of the Experiment?  by Andrew Bowan which has an accompanying blogsite- Manchester Capitalism -  which helpfully offers explanations of the key parts of the book

But a different sort of book distracted me this last couple of days - Together – the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation produced a couple of years ago by the famous sociologist Richard Sennett. For a good sense of both the man and the work, this interview in Brick Magazine is quite excellent.
Much as I appreciated the freshness and elegance of the discourse – and the references to Tonnies, Robert Owen, Saul Alinsky et al - I could have done with some recognition in the book of the role of cooperatives.
I wrote some years ago about the Mondragon Cooperative in the Basque country – which rarely gets proper credit for its amazing employment record (employing more than 80,000 people in that mountain area). I was sad to see that it hit a bad patch last year and had to close one of its affiliates.

But let me again raise the question I posed in my review last month of Phillip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste – how neo-liberalism survived the financial meltdown;
Where, amongst the hundreds of books produced in the last few years about the global crisis, is the annotated bibliography to help us sift and classify them? 
Mirowski’s book has a 41 page list of books and posed these questions –
·       What were the key causes of the crisis?
·       Have economists of any stripe managed to produce a coherent and plausible narrative of the crisis, at least so far? And what role have heterodox economists played in the dispute?
·       What are the major political weaknesses of the contemporary neoliberal movement?
·       What lessons should the left learn from the neoliberals, and which should they abjure?
·       What would a counter-narrative to that of the neoliberals look like?

But the book only really touches (and briefly) on the second of these questions – the others he suggests “demand lavishly documented advocacy and lengthy disputations” and maybe an alternative left project. His book, he concludes with surprising modesty for such a pyrotechnic writer, simply “dispels some commonplace notions that have gotten in the way of such a project”. Neoliberals have triumphed in the global economic crisis, he suggests, because -
·                     Contrary evidence didn’t dent their world view
·                     They “redoubled their efforts to influence and capture the economics profession”

This conclusion, frankly, left me feeling a bit let down - after I had devoted a couple of days to wading through his verbiage……surely a guy with his experience and reading can do better??? What we need are comparisons and classifications of this reading…..

The titles of the books on my little list are significant – and three of them seem to promise a bit more –Wolfgang Streeck of Koln; David Harvey of New York; and Andrew Gamble of Sheffield – so let me just share some of the reviews before I actually get into them

You can get a sense of Wolfgang Streeck’s writing from this article from New Left Review. He writes in his latest book - Buying Time – the delayed crisis of democratic capitalism -

Previous crisis resolution instruments are not available anymore. The traditional toolbox containing inflation, increasing sovereign debt levels or making cheap credit available to private households and corporates has exhausted itself. At different junctures of post-World War II development these policy instruments served as short-term fixes – or capital injections – to support redistributional objectives. The original twist in Streeck’s line of argument is that such objectives and the means to achieve them chiefly served to benefit those market actors who needed them the least.

When focusing on Greece Streeck’s ire is not only reserved to the troika’s activities and misjudgements. He has a keen eye for the domestic origins of the fiscal crisis in Athens. Streeck emphasises that this crisis is primarily the result of a state that is forced to turn to sovereign indebtedness as a mechanism to replace taxes, which the authorities fail to collect from its better off citizens. Streeck highlights the extensive capital flight beginning in 2009 and the privileged tax status that shipowners, farmers, various liberal professions and the Orthodox Church continue to enjoy in Greece.

But the flight crew sitting in the ECB tower in Frankfurt fundamentally lacks the key ingredient of democratic legitimacy for their costly and risk-prone interventions. While these operations allows decision makers to again buy some time, Streeck does not consider this arrangement to be more than a short-term form of financial doping. And the cost for the ECB’s reputation is considerable as evidenced by various resignations of German members from its governing council during the past three years and the challenges it faces from the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany.

Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that Streeck’s book has unleashed a fierce debate, predominantly so far in Germany. His domestic critics, including the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, the former SPD Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Joschka Fischer from the Greens, have either accused him of nostalgia for national currencies, being naïve about the merits of currency devaluations or lacking a workable alternative scenario outside the cornerstones of EU integration and euro area membership.
The polemical reactions of many of his critics only serve to confirm that Streeck appears to have hit a raw nerve among many in Germany. He emphatically rejects the national consensus demanded by the political and economic establishment in Germany and its prominent academics, who equate Europe with the EU and consider the single currency as a fait accompli of TINA politics, i.e. ‘There Is No Alternative’.

Indeed, the policy alternatives that Streeck offers are controversial. That is their purpose and they merit a thoughtful debate. He wants the euro to become an anchor currency parallel to the reintroduction of national denominations. Streeck is in favour of giving back to national governments the option to devalue their currency and thus creating leverage for discretionary policy intervention. A return to an orderly and flexible currency exchange system is equally part of his recommendations as are capital controls to stem recurring capital flight and tax dodging in the euro area.
But his underlying argument about policy alternatives is that contemporary capitalist societies in Europe urgently need an infusion of democratic oxygen, citizens’ involvement and a public willing to articulate different options. How this can be voiced is anybody’s guess, not least Streeck’s. Given that numerous democratic institutions have been reduced to mere bystanders in the course of the past crisis management years, Streeck formulates a rather pessimistic, but entirely reasonable alternative.
He pointedly asks why should only markets be allowed to panic and follow herd instincts? What happens when civil society threatens to do the same? Streeck argues that democratic mobilization and civic engagement should be the orders of the day. The protests may be desperate, loud, display a makeshift air and be highly disorganized but they are absolutely necessary. The ‘’αγανακτισμένοι’’ in Greece or the “indignados” in Spain are examples of a growing constituency across Europe who feel they are being treated with contempt and that their dignity has been hurt.

David Harvey, although a geographer, is the world’s best- known exponent of Marx. His Origins of Neo-Liberalism can be read online. His latest book is a small one which tries to compress his extensive work into 17 Contradictions and the end of capitalism

Drawing on his previous commentaries on Karl Marx’s Capital, David Harvey’s latest book is a brave attempt to translate that monumental work into the simplified language of the 21st century. It is beautifully written, persuasively argued and – in these dismal times – refreshingly optimistic about the socialist future awaiting us all.
The author begins by drawing “a clear distinction between capitalism and capital”. “This book”, Harvey explains, “focuses on capital and not on capitalism.” More accurately, the topic is the hidden engine that drives capitalism, not the rickety vehicle as it trundles along bumpy roads. Harvey is not only interested in finding out how the engine works and why it sometimes fails. “I also want to show”, he adds, “why this economic engine should be replaced and with what”. No shortage of ambition, then.
Although it might seem force, I can see why this distinction is necessary. To write a short book – or indeed to do any kind of science – you have to simplify, abstracting away from reality in all its complexity. “How does the engine work” is, I suppose, a different question from “Where are we going?” or “Will we ever arrive?”

Focusing simply on the engine, Harvey’s 17 contradictions are exclusively internal ones – tensions intrinsic to the hidden mechanisms driving the circulation and accumulation of capital. It’s a convenient strategy that allows him to set aside such “external” factors as, say, changing gender relations, epidemics or warfare. But I couldn’t quite understand the basis on which some topics were excluded and others discussed at length.
Harvey’s 16th contradiction – entitled “Capital’s Relation to Nature” – includes the looming prospect of catastrophic climate change. It’s an excellent, scientifically well-informed chapter and one of the highlights of the book. Harvey claims it as an “internal” contradiction on the basis that capital is a working and evolving ecological system embracing both nature and capital. I agree with that. But in accepting that point, aren’t we including the bumpy road as part of the engine? If climate change counts as “internal”, what justification is there for excluding race and gender? Harvey explains: “I exclude them because although they are omnipresent within capitalism they are not specific to…capitalism”. Well, no, but then neither is environmental degradation. The consequences might be more terrifying today, but humans have been triggering extinctions since the beginning of farming and probably before. Mammoths once roamed across Europe…

My other criticism is that while Marx wrote quite a lot about revolution, Harvey goes strangely silent on the topic. As a result, the book’s final pages remind me of going to the wishing well and asking for 17 nice things that ought to happen – solidarity everywhere, no alienating work, everyone creative and fulfilled. It’s an inspiring list. But it does little to help us think about how to get there or if it would really work. Marxists need to do more if we are to sound convincing.

But the book I am most looking forward to is Andrew Gamble’s Crisis without End – the unravelling of western prosperity

This is not a book on the financial crisis per se, but one that uses the crisis as a point of departure to consider how our world has been ordered over the past century, along the way displaying in-depth understanding of the events leading up to the crash and the actions taken to respond to it.
Before analysing the consequences of the crisis for neoliberalism, Gamble lays out his notion of a neoliberal economic order and details how the current international economic system was set in place after the Second World War. This section is extremely valuable, as most scholars connected to post-structuralist or post-Marxist schools of thought are content to use neoliberalism as a kind of bogeyman-placeholder for all that is wrong with the predominant political and economic system in the West without ever defining the notion.

While one does not have to agree with the anti-neoliberalism rhetoric, Gamble’s introduction ably sets the pace for what follows by showing that while the crisis wounded the neoliberal order, five years on it seems remarkably unscathed. He then embarks on answering his main question: Why has the neoliberal order proved so resilient, and can it renew itself in the face of the challenges to its effectiveness, sustainability and legitimacy that the crisis revealed?
Gamble lays out three hypotheses – thesis, antithesis and synthesis – about why we haven’t seen much change in the aftermath of the recent global financial crisis.
1) The crisis was just a blip. Although it seemed serious, it has no long-term significance for the functioning of the present economic system because it is not structural.
2) The 2008 crash revealed not just a serious malfunctioning of the financial system but deeper underlying problems that need fixing before recovery is possible.
3) And most plausibly, in Gamble’s view: the crisis has revealed an impasse. The fundamentals governing the international economic order have changed, but since the immediate crisis was contained, incumbent policymakers could stave off radical change. However, the neoliberal order has become highly unstable and postponing change will lead to further breakdown or deadlock. Hence the “crisis without end”.

A compelling line of argument appears in Gamble’s second step, where he discusses the three fundamental conflicts underlying the functioning of the neoliberal economic order that the crisis has not only revealed but intensified. He compares the current crisis’ characteristics to those of the two major crises in the 20th century in light of the dilemmas that he sees as inherent in the international neoliberal order: governance, growth and fiscal trade-offs.
- The governance dilemma lies in the tension between a unified international market order and a fragmented state system, between international connectedness and national sovereignty, in which the emergence of new powers poses severe challenges to the existing order.
- The growth trade-off manifests itself in the tension between the incentives needed for maximising private gains and the social conditions necessary to facilitate private accumulation. The question of how sustainable growth can be achieved in the face of prolonged stagflation and environmental risks is at the heart of this dilemma.
- Finally, the fiscal dilemma concerns the legitimacy of markets, as uncontrolled competition undermines social cohesion and solidarity, especially with increasing debt and falling living standards.

Gamble paints his picture in broad strokes, and in arguably overly gloomy shades. The welfare state may be more resilient than he might admit, especially its continental and Scandinavian versions, because different primary mechanisms of redistribution were originally put into place. While the Anglo-Saxon variety relies mainly on redistribution through taxation, the continental version is contribution-based. Since the fiscal dilemma implies difficulties of raising revenues from taxes, inequality is more of a problem in the tax-based redistributive systems prevalent in liberal market economies.
The fundamental dilemmas underlying neoliberalism raise the question of what has to change before a new era of prosperity in the West can be established, and Gamble considers four scenarios.
The first is the default, where nothing much changes and rising internationalisation leads to further shocks and a perpetual crisis.

The other three scenarios move away from a unipolar economic order; in scenario 2, to a bipolar situation in which US-Chinese competition over resources and markets spurs protectionism and a decline in trade with renewed fiscal and monetary problems.
Scenarios 3 and 4 involve multipolar situations, with either multilateral cooperation including emerging powers leading to a more diversified new market order (scenario 3), or with conflictive and bloc-building tendencies bringing more fragmentation and decline in international flows (scenario 4).
Evidently, scenario 3 is most likely to restore confidence and build conditions for sustainable growth.

Alas, Gamble leaves the question of how to achieve scenario 3 unanswered, and concludes that the future is likely to include aspects of all four. Like me, the reader may be left wishing he had taken a few more risks in identifying conditions that make different outcomes more likely.
This is clearly not a book that crunches numbers and draws conclusions based on well-identified empirical evidence, but Gamble gives his own account of the general feeling that there is something wrong and lethargic about the way the West is dealing with the aftermath of the financial crash, and that only more radical change can lead us back to sustainable growth and prosperity.
Like Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Gamble shows that the global financial crash and its effects are not just manifestations of the normal capitalist cycle, but extraordinary, and will affect the world and the international economy for decades to come. Although he analyses the crisis through the lens of a critique of neoliberalism, this does not distract from his insights into the challenges for economic and political systems at both transnational and domestic levels.
Where Piketty’s book convinces with myriad historical data and empirically derived evidence, Gamble’s gripping narrative persuades via insight and anecdotal evidence.

My personal quibble with Gamble’s approach is that we must have faith in his analytical brilliance and persuasive argumentation, because none of us knows the counterfactual – what type of social and/or economic system would generate better societal outcomes, and better from what perspective? Arguably, more rigorous empirical identification and quantitative evidence would have helped the momentum and credibility of some of his arguments.