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!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Portraits of cities in despair

Last week I acquired some new toys – access to wi-fi here in Sofia and the software to download films……For someone who has been able these past 25 years to evade television, this is a dangerous temptation. Oscar Wilde put it nicely for us Presbyterians when he noted, laconically, that “the best way to resist temptation is to yield to it”…..
So I have been binge viewing The Wire which started in 2002; ran for ten years and is rated as the best (and most realistic) of television serials. 
It is a savage portrait of a decaying American city – Baltimore to be precise – and focuses on drug wars; teamster corruption; police and education bureaucracies as they try to deal with the new management techniques; and on the politics of the local newspaper. So far I’ve viewed some 20 episodes of the first two series – each of the 5 series is briefly summarised in this article

I find the focus on a city – and its various layers – much more gripping than the conventional one of a murder. The 2 writers are David Simon (who had written a couple of sociological studies of the situation) and a journalist – so the series has attracted a lot of attention from academics and been the subject of glowing reviews here and here
The dialogue is rich – but really does need sub-titles to help the viewer make sense of what the police and politicians – let alone the drug addicts and dealers – are actually saying.

I was briefly in Baltimore in 1987 – while a German Marshall Fellow based in Washington, Pittsburgh and Chicago (I just missed meeting Obama then working the South Shore as a community activist!) but remember being appalled by the Baltimore slums which are at the heart of The Wire’s drama. 

Such binge-viewing brings diminishing returns – and I don’t find it easy to relate to the American and black context. 
By way of comparison, I therefore turned to the first couple of episodes of the 1996 UK television series – Our Friends in the North - which gives a portrait not just of a city (UK's Newcastle; in the news today for the savage cuts the city faces) but one painted in nine studies over a 32 year period. with an emphasis on the various routes for those wanting to escape from or challenge these urban wastelands and their power systems. 
So far – by virtue of the historical depth - I would rate it even higher than The Wire – and it also gives us an early sighting of Daniel Craig!

ps David Simon first came to my attention a year ago - when he wrote this withering diatribe 


Monday, November 24, 2014

EU credit

This blog admits to sharing the general cynicism about the political process. All the more important therefore to recognise when positive efforts show results. Last week’s astounding victory (by a 10% margin) in the Romanian Presidential elections of a quiet outsider took everyone by surprise – he was down by the same margin after the first leg of the elections - but what happened in the subsequent two weeks has given the country its first real opportunity in 25 years to change an utterly venal system. 

Something seemed to snap this month for many Romanian citizens. They are used to smugness, arrogance, lying and deceit from their politicians – although the past two years have seen an increasing number of those politicians being actually tried, convicted and locked up. The Prime Minister (and Presidential candidate) Ponta epitomised their breed – having been groomed by a previous Prime Minister Adrian Nastase (2000-2004) who became in 2010 or so one of the first politicians to be fingered by a judiciary which was given its head by the terms of Romania’s entry to the EU in 2007 – and specifically by the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism
At its heart is the National Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA) whose officials bring the prosecutions which (tenured) judges at last are happy to uphold. (Not that this stops the Romanian Parliament from trying to give its deputies special immunity!)
But blatant attempts at vote-rigging in the last few weeks proved too much for voters - and seem to have been the spur for an astonishing jump of 2 million additional people voting in the second round – more than enough to wipe out the 1.5 million lead which Ponta had in the first round.

Stunning as this victory of decency seems to have been, we need to understand that it has come about only as a result of long, hard and patient work not only of a few Romanian heroes and heroines but of a group whose reputation has become a bit more tarnished these days - namely European technocrats who - as long ago as 2004 - set in place measures to make the Romanian judicial system work. It has been a long struggle which came to a head in 2012.

Ponta had been Prime Minister for only a few weeks when, in summer 2012, he sparked off a major constitutional crisis which I covered on the blog during July of that year and summarised in this postTom Gallagher (who has given us a couple of books about post 1989 Romania - one of which is significantly called "Theft of a Nation") gave the best overview then
A 22-page report from the European commission says the new government, led by Ponta, has flouted the constitution, threatened judges, illegally removed officials in an arbitrary manner, and tampered with the democratic system of checks and balances in order to try to secure the impeachment of President Traian Basescu……....The crisis erupted because of the massive over-reaction by the new government of Victor Ponta to court decisions sentencing political figures, previously thought to be beyond the reach of the law, to prison terms. Romania had joined the EU (in 2007) on terms that largely suited a restricted post-communist elite that benefited from discretionary privatisations of the economy while pulling the strings in many of the key institutions of state.
A once lively independent media was mainly captured by the new power magnates. Parliament devised rules for itself that made challenges from new social forces very hard and protected its members from prosecution. 
Aware that there was a real danger of Romania becoming a festering political slum within the EU, Brussels officials showed firmness in one key area, the justice sector. The Romanian elite agreed, in 2004, to Brussels having oversight of the justice system even after entry in 2007.The EU has shown consistency by insisting on a proper separation of powers and the gradual creation of a justice system not impeded from going after top politicians, businessmen, civil servants and judges who face credible charges of corruption. 
For the last eight years there has been a messy power struggle between the old guard, determined to hold the line against encroachments on their power, and a small group of reformers in the justice system and the party of Democratic Liberalism that held office until April. They have mainly been sustained by President Traian Basescu, a rough-hewn and unconventional former ship captain in the Romanian merchant navy. 
Basescu is hated by much of the elite because he defected from their ranks and decided to try and make his legacy the cleaning up of one of the most venal political systems in Europe. In the process, leading figures in his own party have not been spared. This led to a string of defections that explain why his most implacable enemies in the Social Liberal Union were able to return to government this spring (2012).Their original intentions had been to wait until parliamentary elections in the autumn before removing Basescu. They were predicted to produce a big win for them due to the unpopularity of tough austerity measures that Basescu had championed in 2010-11.
But panic set in with the prison sentence for Nastase. Prudence was ditched entirely when the British journal Nature published an investigation revealing that 85 pages of the new Prime Minister’s thesis had simply been copy-pasted from other sources.It was decided that Basescu would have to be eliminated from the political game straight away. But that could only be accomplished by neutralising bodies like the Constitutional Court and the Ombudsman, seizing control of the official gazette so that the government could publish or suppress whatever laws and rulings it pleased, and removing the heads of the bicameral parliament in contravention of the rules for this.
President Basescu was unpopular – being associated with austerity measures and being a hyperactive loudmouth. More than 80% of those who voted in the 2012 referendum called to impeach him therefore wanted him out (although the President had called for a boycott) but it failed since only 46% of voters turned out. After this, things quietened down. A report earlier this year from The Sustainable Government Indicators project gives a detailed analysis of events since 2012.
In a few days he will stand down – and could well then face prosecution himself by virtue of his role (as Minister of Transport) in the privatisation of Romania’s shipping fleet for what some people allege to have been too low a figure. As far as I am aware noone suggests that Basescu benefitted....For Romania's sake, I hope this issue does not become another scandal.....

It has taken all of 2 years for Ponta to get the "come-uppance" he so richly deserves.
And for the EC to begin to deserve the Nobel prize it won a couple of years ago

Monday, November 17, 2014

Psycho-analysing a nation

The Scots have a lot to be proud of – gaining, throughout the centuries, a high reputation for intellectual, commercial and engineering endeavour – and for honest behaviour. A reputation that is global from a mix of ambition and evictions which have spilled us to the far ends of the earth.

And yet, 2003 saw the publication of a book with the title “The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence” which suggests that Scots have inhibiting beliefs, attitudes and general mindset which lead to conformity. Much of the mindset arises from Scotland's Calvinist past. A sympathetic review (there were other, angry ones) suggests that these include -
·         A strong tendency to see the world in strict either/or terms, particularly worthless/damned; good/bad; right/wrong.
·         A tendency to treat a person's mistakes or miscalculations as the result of deliberate bad faith rather than an error. This means that if anyone makes a mistake or does something judged to be wrong then they are personally accountable for it and no excuses or extenuating circumstances are permitted in defence. It also means that people's motives for action are often viewed as suspect. This is a viewpoint which leads to cynicism and blame and is one of the reasons why Scots feel overly fearful of making mistakes.
·         An overriding tendency to believe that criticism (and blame) are helpful and lead to improvement. This means that appreciation tends to get squeezed out and the importance of motivation downplayed or forgotten about altogether.
·         A strong injunction to `know your place' and not get above your station. This exhortation comes from Scotland's egalitarian values but paradoxically, in a society where people do not set out in life equal all it does is reinforce class (and gender) inequality.
·         A sense of everyone's fate being bound up with others. This clearly can have positive aspects but in a critical judgmental climate it can heighten people's fear of doing anything different for fear of being criticised or cast out. It also leads to an inadequate sense of privacy and boundaries. In England there is a prevailing notion of what people choose to do in their own life is their business (an Englishman's home is his castle) but in Scotland it is common for people to believe that they may have to account to others for their actions (e.g. where they live, how they spend money, educate their children etc.) or even for what they think. This, and the previous points, all contribute to the common Scots' fear of drawing attention to yourself.
·         Scottish culture is extremely masculine in character. Even the emotional, tender side of Scottish culture is the preserve of Robert Burns and the Burns cult - not women. Over the centuries Scottish women's contribution to society at large has not only been neglected, but also their lives have been particularly restricted and shaped by tight notions of `respectability'. Since women account for over fifty per cent of the population this pressure on women to conform has led to a great restriction on Scottish potential.
·        
A strong Utopian tendency in Scottish public life where people commonly believe that we must all build the New Jerusalem - a perfectly fair, just society where money does not matter. The contrast with America is that whereas the American dream is a dream for individuals to create their own life, the Scottish dream is a dream of collective redemption for Scotland.
But this summer, the world’s journalists who flocked to the country seemed to see a rather different, more buoyant, people. My E-book The Independence Argument – home thoughts from abroad tries to give a sense of how that argument was conducted.
But, in the event, only 45% of the voters chose the independence path. 

Does this therefore prove the point about lack of confidence? 
But in what sense do we (or have we) lack(ed) self-confidence?  
Why did so many Scots have it in the 18th and 19th centuries?
And when did we/they lose it?

Or are the confident Scots all ex-pats?
How might this be measured? 
Is the situation static – or changing? 
Assuming we think it’s a bad thing, how might it be changed? 
What sort of measures have been adopted? When? With what support mechanisms? 
These are the questions I have from reading the book…although the book's preface makes it very clear that the author is impatient with demands for proof...

I spent the 70s and 80s working in the political and administrative heartland of Scotland – with students, professionals, community activists and fellow-politicians - and I agree with the author, Carol Craig, that “failure” (and the fear thereof) was a central reality for an unacceptable number of working class Scottish families.
“Born to Fail” was indeed the phrase some of us latched onto in 1973 in the run-up to the first election for the new Strathclyde Region (responsible for most of the municipal services for half of the Scottish population). It had been the title of a challenging report from a national Children’s Charity which revealed the disproportionate number of families in the West of Scotland who suffered from the multiple handicap (indeed stigma) of unemployment, poor housing, poor health and poor educational achievement.

My own experience since 1968 as a reforming councillor had made me angry with the treatment such people got from local bureaucrats – and had demonstrated how positively people responded if given the opportunity to engage in self-help activity and social enterprise…..
The new Region made a priority of community development from 1976; developed local participative structures and special programmes which ran for 2 decades and was then absorbed into the strategy of the new Scottish Government - work which is well caught in some recent reflections - Supporting People Power. But, frankly, it made little dent on the malaise – which was down (in my view) to decisions of global multinationals, governments…..and…. drug barons

And that’s where I would question Carol’s thesis. It’s a great read – on a par (as far as historical dissection goes) with Arthur Herman’s (rather more positive) The Scottish Enlightenment – the Scots invention of the modern world. She’s unearthed some apt quotations from writers over the centuries – as you would expect of a doctor of literature- and also gives real food for thought with her comments about Jung and Positive Psychology; tables which compare Scottish, English and Irish characteristics; and fascinating comments about how we differ on the deductive/inductive spectrum. 
The introduction does make the important point that she has moved in her life from a strongly political perspective to one that tried to bring in the social and psychological elements. As she puts it on page 24 of the new edition “I simply attempt to add psychological, behavioural and cultural dimensions thus making for a richer and more complex picture”. In amplification she suggests that
the thinker who has contributed most to our understanding of the dangers of “fragmentation”…is Ken Wilber…who asserts that there are two important dimensions; interior and exterior and individual and collective. These then combine to make four quadrants – psychological, behavioural, cultural and structural”. 
This is an important framework – even if Wilber is now a bit discredited.

But the author then doesn’t really deal with the 2 “collective” quadrants and therefore leaves herself open to the sort of attack she gets from radical sociologists and Marxists. If I had read the book when it was first published (2003) I might well have complained that it made no reference to the efforts a lot of us were making in the 70s and 80s to deal with that sense of failure and self-confidence by developing community structures and social enterprise (not sure which quadrant that’s in). The making of an empowering profession is a good record of those endeavours…..
But the fact remains that social indices in those communities which concerned us all of 40 years ago are even worse than before……the lack of confidence therefore for me seems to be largely a class thing....although the author does make an important point about the signals returnees and their spouses pick up......Extroverts clam up......perhaps that's a "small-nation" syndrome? 

With the benefit of the last 24 years I've had living in other countries, my main critical comment relates to the lack of comparative (eg European) references. 
How cultural behaviour is shaped and changes I find increasingly fascinating - “Path dependency” is the term the academics have used for the grip tradition seems to have on the way we think and behave in our social and political activities. Its 25 years since the wall fell – but little seems to have changed in the political mindset of Bulgarians and Romanians – although things are definitely now on the move in Romania in the judicial system. 
When I first worked in Hungary in 1994 I was very struck by what one of my (older) Hungarian team colleagues said – that their history had taught them to be disappointed in their hopes…..By what fusion of education, family circumstances and communications does a society come to develop values of hope, disappointment, fatalism? I would like to see much more discussion of such issues – and Carol Craig’s book is one of the few which could help us explore this field

Things Look Up in Romania; and time to challenge managerialism

Drive down to Sofia at the weekend – escaping the last-minute frenzy of the Presidential Election which, against all odds (not least the brazen corruption of the so-called social democrats PSD) went to an ethnic German who has ruled the city of Sibiu very competently for the past decade.
Political labels don’t mean anything in Romania – the entire system has been corrupt until the judicial system started to work a couple of years ago and to jail scores of politicians…
That story deserves a wider hearing – but the Iohannis victory should be a further boost to “normalising” forces in the country although, inevitably, there are some unsavoury elements in the alliance which supported him.
The PSD candidate was the present Prime Minister who commands a strong parliamentary vote. Sadly, therefore, the scene seems set for yet more mutual aggression – with Iohannis’ disarming personality being one possible saving grace….

Over the weekend I got caught up in a variety of reading material – initially the 2003 The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence which I will comment on shortly.
The author, Carol Craig, has been head of the Centre for Confidence in Glasgow for some years and writes interestingly on her blog about change issues as well as directing to interesting sites such as one called After Now which contains thoughtful papers about modernity and its sustainability – as well as one on the hidden power of paradigms   

She is also editor of a new series of short publications called Postcards from Scotland – one of which (“Letting Go”) challenges the aggressive management style which has become the norm in the past couple of decades and gives a couple of great references – a long paper Performance Management and workplace tyranny produced by a Strathclyde Professor for the STUC – and a  2009 paper by a group of American management gurus entitled Moonshots for Management which takes strong issue with the direction of management.

Two other important papers caught my eye - Democratic Wealth – building a citizens economy – which seems to be one of the rare “alternative” manifestoes we need these days.
And something called the Life After Europe project
I’ll try to make sense of these for you…..

Thursday, November 13, 2014

European Hubris

It’s difficult these days to be objective about the European Union – the combination of the euro crisis, austerity and the immigration set off by the 2004 widening has given so many easy targets and scapegoats.
“The European Project” went from strength to strength (with a short breather until Delors became President in the 1980s) – until hubris set in at the start of the new millennium. The Euro was launched in 2002 with a great fanfare but, in less than a decade, has dragged the entire project into disrepute; the attempt to foist a new Convention on European Nations hit major hurdles very quickly with French and Dutch rejections of the draft in 2005. All the while, however, the European Court of Justice has been throbbing quietly in the basement, supplying the legality if not the legitimacy to the regulations drafted by the Commission with its supportive infrastructure of lobbyists and officials.

Intellectual coverage of this unique venture has been massive – with academia queuing up to receive generous European funding. Did you know, for example, that there were, at the last count, 409 Jean Monnet Professorial Chairs in European Universities – funded for the initial 3 years by the EU? Four Hundred and Nine!!

The natural scepticism of journalists has been kept in place by a combination of EC press releases; editorial control of newspapers whose owners are (to a man) pro-European; and by budgets which no longer permit detached scrutiny.
I told you it was difficult to be objective!

The UK, of course, is home to “the awkward squad” which has an innate resistance to overblown rhetoric and projects. Tom Gallagher’s latest book - Europe’s Path to Crisis – disintegration via monetary union - is a great read in that tradition eg the 2003 blockbuster “The Great Deception – can the European Union Survive?; the rather more philosophical The Tainted Source; and the incendiary 1995 book The Rotten Heart of Europe –the dirty war for Europe’s money by one of the guys behind the moves toward monetary integration (Bernard Connelly) whose detailed analysis was so explosive that he was not only sacked from the Commission but banned from further critical writing on the subject. Curiously for a book which was honoured with a Danish award for moral courage, Amazon cannot offer the book – not give any comment on it   

Tom Gallagher, whom I readily admit to being a friend, is no stranger to controversy - with a fascination for the undergrowth of political activity not only in the Balkans (an early specialism) but in the Celtic fringes of Portugal (1980s) and Scotland (most recently). Romania hardly qualifies in that category but has been a fruitful harvest for his ruthless probing - initially with Romania – theft of a nation, latterly with Romania and the European Union – how the weak vanquished the strong (2010)  

Possibly it was that second book which gave him the idea for this latest book which is very clearly not another technical study of the eurocrisis - but rather a very political analysis (with scrupulous references) which carries an unspoken question about hubris.    
His “Europe’s Path to Crisis” has inspired me to try to identify the more balanced of the critical writing on Europe - particularly those which can go beyond the critique and have an alternative agenda which might be worth exploring. To reach these (rare) sites, you have to wade through not only angry nationalist sites but also some which purport to be critical but which turn out to have European funding!
The best guide is probably this recent one from Cardiff University. I doubt, however, anyone has a realistic agenda which can satisfy both multinational interests and the frustration of European citizens.....
The recent appointment of Juncker as President of the Commission was hardly calculated to inspire confidence (not that this has ever seemed a consideration for the European political class) but recent revelations about the tax evasions which have been an integral part of the Luxembourg system over which Juncker presided for so many years so seem to be the last straw.

My surfing also threw up this interesting book on The sociology of Europe - and my mail, coincidentally, this New Pact for Europe - produced by a collection of worthy Foundations (including the Bertelsmann and Gulbenkian ones). 
Great rhetoric - but little reference to the hard economic, ecological and political realities I have been writing about in recent posts (the bibliography kills the report's credibility for me).

Monday, November 10, 2014

Have the Kleptomaniacs and Liars really won?

Readers will have noticed a darker tone to the (infrequent) posts of the past few weeks. This could reflect the time of year - but there is every reason for people to feel a bit apocalyptic at this point in the 21st Century.
Dave Pollard is a Canadian of my generation who writes wisely about our epoch – and caught our social ills well recently with this post about thirteen trends in social behaviour he suggests epitomise our times and a slow collapse in our “civilisation”    
Here are the shifts I am seeing more tangibly that would seem to epitomize early collapse:
1.      Corporations have given up the pretence of being ethical. At first, a decade or two ago, many corporations tried to convince the public they were really concerned about social and environmental issues. Then they discovered that whitewashing, greenwashing, and lies in their advertising and PR were more effective and cheaper. Now they don’t even bother to lie. They just say they are forced to do what they do because their mandate is to maximize profits. Now they settle their malfeasance out of court because it’s cheaper than obeying the law, and hush it up with gag orders, whistle-blower prosecutions and threats of costly and protracted litigation against anyone who dares challenge their illegal activities. Now they buy their politicians openly. Instead of them serving us, as they were designed to do, it is now us against them. Now it is illegal for citizens to film animal cruelty atrocities in factory farms and slaughterhouses, but not illegal for corporations to commit those atrocities.
2.     Politicians have given up the pretence of being representative. Speeches no longer talk about “the people” or a better society or collective interest, but solely about response to intangible, invented or inflated dangers like “terrorism” and “illegal” immigration (but not the real dangers, since that would offend their owners). Gerrymandering, bribes, voter disenfranchisement and vote-buying are now accepted as just how the system inevitably works. Political influence and political decision-making are now totally and overtly a function of the amount of paid lobbying and money spent. The term “democracy” is now conflated with “freedom” and Orwellian use of language is openly employed to suppress public opposition, dissent and outrage.
3.     Lying has becoming rampant, overt and even socially acceptable. The biggest and easiest lies are the lies of omission: burying corporatist and ideological legislation and pork in “omnibus” bills and “riders”, gross distortions of measures like unemployment and inflation, burying junk investments in opaque repackaged and overpriced offerings to the public, activities couched to offer perpetrators “plausible deniability“, and unlisted ingredients and unlisted dangers on product packaging. Another example is lawmakers passing “popular” laws but telling regulatory staff not to enforce them or “look the other way”, or starving the regulators of resources. But more egregious is the overt lying, led by the outrageous (and again Orwellian) untruths of almost all modern advertising and PR (including political campaign advertising), which we are now forced by every means possible to watch/listen to/read. And of course, just about everything done by the legal “profession” who are paid to obfuscate, threaten and lie, and the mainstream media, who are paid to report only distracting news that does not offend corporate sponsors, and to oversimplify and distort to pander to their dumbed-down audience.
4.     Widespread use and acceptance of “ends justify the means” rationalizations. This is the hallmark behaviour of the Dick Cheneys and other severely psychologically damaged people who prevail disproportionately in position of power. Consequentialists rationalize that, immoral as their actions might be (or might have been), the outcome will be (or was) a desirable one, so their conduct in achieving it is moot. This argument allows them to decide to wage wars and commit other acts of violence (and almost all major recent wars and major acts of violence have been rationalized on this basis). What’s worse, when the desired “ends” are not achieved (liberation of women in Afghanistan), the shifting of blame to others for the failure to achieve the ends is used to excuse both the failure to achieve the ends and for the abhorrence of the means. Probe just about any act of violence, any lie, or any illegal or immoral behaviour that someone is justifying or excusing these days, and you’ll find an “ends (would have) justified the means” rationalization. It’s endemic, and not only among right-wingers. And few of us have the critical thinking skills to see its dangers.
5.     Human activity (litigation, security, financial “products” etc.) is focused on defending the status quo rather than producing anything of value. The reason most of us could not survive today in the radically decentralized, low-complexity societies that will take hold after civilization’s collapse, is that most of us don’t produce anything that peers in our community value, or ever will value. We are “managers” of useless hierarchies, paper pushers, systems people, guards, number crunchers, packagers, transporters and vendors of goods we do not know how to make, with parts we don’t know the origin or makeup of. Because we intuitively “know” that this is so, we are desperate to keep civilization’s crumbling systems operating. What else could we do?
6.     The illusion of growth has become totally dependent on increases in oil and in debt. In a presentation here the other day, economist Nate Hagensrevealed that since 2000 96% of all US GDP growth has come from more consumption of primary energy, not from increases in production or efficiency or “innovation”, and that it now takes creation of $14 of new debt (i.e. printing of currency) to produce $1 of GDP. So when economists and politicians say they want a return to growth (to avoid a collapse of the Ponzi scheme stock and housing markets, among other reasons), what they are really saying is that they want us to burn more fossil fuels and print more money.
7.     Acceptance of obscene inequality. People just shrug when they learn that the entire increase in global income and wealth since the 1970s has accrued to just 1% of the population — everyone else’s real income (purchasing power) and wealth has declined (i.e. they’re further into debt), in many cases precipitously. This is despite the fact that this increase in income and wealth has come at a ghastly and accelerating social, political and ecological cost. The Occupy movement tried to challenge this, but the movement is dormant.
8.     Denial of reality, across the political spectrum. Most of us (except in the US and a few other backward countries) now appreciate that climate change is caused by burning fossil fuels and is dangerously accelerating. But most of us still believe, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that it is somehow possible to change global behaviour so radically that we reverse emissions and prevent runaway climate change, or that we’re going to somehow replace most emissions with renewable energy or other “innovations”. Most deny the reality that our education and health care systems are dysfunctional and unsustainable, that the Internet is a huge consumer of energy dependent on the industrial growth economy for its existence, that species extinction has already accelerated to a point unprecedented in the planet’s history and threatens the stability of every ecosystem, that our political, economic and legal systems are so dysfunctional they cannot be salvaged, that industrial agriculture has already destroyed most of the soils crucial for our survival, that choosing short-term jobs over long-term economic and ecological health is disastrous, and that “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron. For those who aren’t in denial, the ever-growing cognitive dissonance in the media and in public discourse is staggering.
9.     Widespread cynicism and acceptance of conspiracy theoriesStephen Colbert wrote “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.” Cynics are, as George Carlin said, disappointed idealists. The rampant growth of cynicism reveals a similar increase in fear and disappointment. Conspiracy theories are popular because they give us someone else to blame (someone huge, mysterious and unstoppable, hence relieving us of the obligation to do anything or even to understand what is really happening), and because they feed our cynicism, and because we all want something simple to believe instead of the impossible complexity of the truth. And that desire for something simple to believe also inspires…
10.   Search for and willingness to believe in charismatic people and magical solutions. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t see another promise of a technology that will provide infinite, cheap, climate-saving energy. Judging from the number of views these articles/videos receive, they are magnets for public attention. And when we’re constantly disappointed by “leaders” to promise us “hope” and change, it is not surprising that so many fall under the influence of zealous charismatic people with absurd (and discredited) but miraculous (and simple) political and economic and technological “solutions” to every problem. The world’s last powerful charismatic leader, the despotic Mao, killed 80 million of his country’s citizens while keeping ten times that number in thrall. Notice the charismatic tilt of many of the new leaders of the fearful Randian/Thatcherian/Reaganite right, and the leaders of many popular new age cults.
11.    Ubiquitous spying and corporatist surveillance. I don’t think I need elaborate on this, except to note that the corporate sector’s use of collected intelligence and surveillance in its many forms dwarfs that of the more obvious government and military sector. The military-industrial complex is back. So far it’s too incompetent to figure out how to use the data it’s collecting, but they’re spending an awful lot of our money working on that. Their level of anxiety is rising too — they’re tuned into the general dissatisfaction and are afraid of civil insurrection upsetting their lucrative and high-maintenance apple-cart. (If only.)
12.   Self-colonization and the emergence of “apologism” and mandatory optimism. We’ve seen the emergence of mandatory optimism in the corporate world, and more overtly in the prerequisite for being a TED talker and other “positive thinking” movements. But now the vilification of criticism and pessimism (as distinct from cynicism) is becoming more ubiquitous. Critical thinking and doubt are dismissed out-of-hand as negativity and a “bad attitude” even in peer conversation. When internalized to the point we feel bad about feeling bad, it’s an essential tool of self-colonization — the co-opting and self-censoring of our own anger, skepticism, fear, sadness, grief, and ‘unpopular’ beliefs in order to be socially accepted by others, and in some cases to brainwash ourselves into denial of our own feelings and beliefs that we are struggling to cope with — and reconcile with what others are saying they feel and believe (there’s that cognitive dissonance again: “If I’m the only one thinking this, I must be crazy, so I’d better not talk about it”). What all this produces is something now called “apologism” — a propensity to make excuses and minimize an event or belief or feeling because you don’t want to seem “always” critical or out of step with the mainstream or peers. In its worst form it emerges as a victim-blaming defence for atrocities like assault, harassment or abuse. But in its milder form it can lead to dangerous group-think, the suppression of new and important ideas, and destructive self-blaming.
13.   Widespread anomie and the trivialization and co-opting of dissent by professional activists. The term anomie means a disconnection between ones personal values and one’s community’s values. It refers to a state of ‘rudderlessness’ where it is difficult to find one’s authentic place or engage in meaningful social interaction with most others, especially those in different demographics. In a major international study, pollster Michael Adams found it increasingly prevalent in young people, and on the rise in all age groups. Adams remarked on how Americans in particular were becoming increasingly “suspicious of and indifferent to the plight of their fellow citizens”. The disengagement of the young explains why so many activist groups are dominated by older people (a new phenomenon in the last half-century). Unfortunately, the activist vacuum has allowed professional environmental groups (Greenpeace, 350 etc.) to co-opt much of the activist movement’s activities, creating a constant manageable “trivial theatre of dissent” that is comfortable for many older people opposed to violence and confrontation, and comfortable for the corporations and politicians because it’s controlled and unthreatening. Mainstream media like it because it’s simplified, dichotomous and often specifically orchestrated for their cameras. And it creates easy, stable, well-paying jobs for mainstream environmental group spokespeople, while changing absolutely nothing.
 While I believe most of these trends and emergences are complex collective responses to changing realities, and either well-intentioned or unconscious (i.e. without malicious intent), taken together they would seem to evince a broad, intuitive shift in our collective gestalt, our way of coping with the world. They reveal more than anything, I think, a giving up of the belief in fairness, justice, controllability, understandability and consensus as means of “making sense” or taking action reliably to achieve desired objectives in the current reality of how things work. They reveal both the incapacity of our now massively-overgrown, fragile and unwieldy systems to function sustainably or effectively, and the incapacity of ourselves and our broken communities to function effectively within their purview.

Pollard's analysis fits my own. Its implication is that we should renounce reform efforts - and focus on individual and community efforts. But where does that leave those who are still governed by idealism?

In the spirit of "make-do" and "self-help", this article points to a change in the perception and use of the motor car

Friday, October 31, 2014

The undermining of cooperation

My apologies for the minimal posts of the past fortnight – I was moving from the attic flat I had in central Sofia to a somewhat larger one just down from General Dondukov Bvd and off Vasil Levski – but another “period” piece, this one from the early 1930s and the building (housing a cafĂ© which is the haunt of the locals - and 3 flats) still owned by the family whose grandfather built it.

Then, on Sunday, a snowy drive through Bulgaria to Bucharest for car servicing and, Wednesday, to the mountain house which had, amazingly, seen no snow.
In Bucharest I got back into Leonard Woolf’s spell-binding 5-volume auto-biography – following this time his discovery and mapping of the British cooperative movement 100 years ago – and the powerful role played in its educational system by working class women.

It brought back memories of the Cooperative Society in my home town of Greenock in the 1960s – basically the complex of shops, funeral parlour and insurance which was the staple of working class life for so many decades in the West of Scotland; and the great community spirit evident particularly amongst the women in the housing schemes I represented in the late 60s through to 1990. Women were the backbone of the tenant associations and various self-help schemes – including a famous adult education one which is described in this big study – The Making of an Empowering Profession 

That, in turn, got us talking about the absence of such a spirit in 20th century Romania; its decline in the UK; but its continued strength elsewhere.
I remember the Head of the European Delegation in Romania in 1993 handing out to those of us who were working here as consultants summaries of Robert Putman’s new book which traced the differences in the performance of Italian Regional authorities to the habits of centuries. This was a warning that Western “best practice” might have some problems in this part of the world. Putnam’s work spawned an incredible academic literature which is summarised in papers such as “Social Capital in CEEC – a critical assessment and literature review (CEU 2009) and “The deficit of cooperative attitudes and trust in post-communism (2013)
Catherine Murray’s 2006 paper “Social capital and cooperation in CEEC – toward an analytical framework"  is, with its various diagrams, probably the most helpful introduction to the issue

There was a (very) brief moment in the early 90s when cooperatives were talked about – at least in some places – as one of the models which might be relevant for the central European economies but market “triumphalism” swept all away….killing an opportunity which has been taken in other countries as well set out in this short paper “Cooperative Enterprise Development after 30 years of destructive neo-liberalism

The Resilience of the Cooperative Model is well described in the paper in the link; in “Coops – pathways to development” and also on the website of the European Research Institute for cooperative and social enterprise  - for example in this paper