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!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

a Curate’s Egg

Paul Mason is an engaging writer but, now that I have finished his Post Capitalism – a guide to our future, I have to admit to a feeling of great disappointment.
The book simply fails to live up to the promise of its subtitle. Indeed at least one third of the book is actually devoted to writers and events of more than 100 years ago. Now I am someone who deeply respects the contribution which long-dead writers and people made and which is too easily forgotten – but I do draw the line at suggestions that we have something to learn from the travails of the early soviets of the Russian revolution (p267).

And it is nothing short of breath-taking that his reference to the potential of cooperatives and social enterprise (which employ tens of millions workers globally) dismisses them as “experimental and small-scale” and says that “with the exception of thinkers such as Bauwens and Wark, few have bothered to ask what a new system of governance and regulation might look like” (p 267).
This simply does not begin to do justice to the extensive material which is available – some of which can be seen in such posts as The undermining of cooperation, No Excuse for Apathy and Beacons of Hope
But I am grateful to the book for drawing my attention to the writings of these “thinkers” one of whom is the founder of the p2p Foundation and the other the author of a famous Hacker’s Manifesto. Although I don’t find their accounts coherent or easy to place in the wider literature - they seem the scribbles of young geeks….  

The other text, however, which Mason references and of which I was also unaware, is much more serious – it is Jeremy Rifkin’s 2014 book The zero marginal cost society – the internet of things, the collaborative commons and the eclipse of capitalism  (the link gives the google book).  This does seem a sustained examination of the phenomenon which, despite the title of Mason’s book, he fails (in my view) to treat properly…..   
There is also this review; this interview and a long review from the Ken Wilber integral school
Rifkin’s book does, however, get a fairly severe mauling from the right - the left – and others in between

In short I find Mason’s book a bit of a Curate’s egg - ie good and bad….and suffering badly from the fault to which I draw increasing attention – not even trying to build on the relevant work of others…

Friday, September 16, 2016

Things look up on the wine front

Things seem to be looking up on the Romanian wine front – if my experience yesterday afternoon is anything to go by. Had gone looking for the Dionysus wine bar which had excellent feedback on its Facebook – only to discover that the owner had sold up and that it was in the process of being refurbished. It is scheduled to open next week under the very unprepossessing name (the new owner told me) of “Industrial Winery” (??!!!)

So I wound my way instead to Abel’s Bar which I had noticed last week (open, as seem all such places in Bucharest, from 16.00 to 24.00) and was nicely received by young Anda who advised me on the wine list which contains about 20 Romanian wines, mainly from nearby “Dealul Mare” but also from Vrancea, Dragosani and Transylvania. 
I went first for the Basilescu GOLEM (a mix of Chardonnay and Feteasca from Dealul Mare) and was very impressed that she gave me a small sip for me to check before she filled up the glass. Indeed she did more – she poured me another white alongside the Golem to allow me to compare before I made the choice – the second taste was a GARBOIU (with Sarba/plavaie grapes) from Vrancea

And to help me decide on my second glass – which turned out to be GARBOIU Tectonic (Gewurztraminer) I was able (perhaps this explains the bar’s name??) to taste a sip of Avincis Cuvee Petit (actually a Sauvignon Blanc) from Dragasani (a bit too sweet for me) and a LICORNA Serafim Chardonnay from Dealul Mare – the last of which was very good. But I don’t often get the chance to taste Gezurztraminers so that's what I went for……

Presumably it's the higher prices of Romanian wines (5-8 euros for bottles - compared with 3-5 in Sofia) that make real wine bars feasible in Bucharest. Opportunities to taste by the glass are simply not to be found in Sofia -except at the special events held by CasaVino and Vina Orenda.   

While googling for these websites I found a serious Romanian wine blog – with the delightful name of Good Things. What really impressed is that he has more than 200 posts about wines under 20 lei (just over 4 euros)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Post-Capitalism is here?

How might one read most beneficially a book which, from my google links, looks to be one of the most appreciated and reviewed of the past decade? 

Paul Mason’s Post Capitalism -   a  Guide to our Future came to my notice a year ago but it was only yesterday that I actually picked it off the shelves and started to read it.  
I was unable to apply my litmus test to it since it lacks a bibliography – but I knew enough about it to have confidence that it would repay my study – I had, after all, thoroughly enjoyed his Meltdown – the end of the age of greed (2009) and his earlier Live Working or Die Fighting – how the working class went global in 2007. 
This is someone, after all, who has combined an early career as a militant with a later one as both a print and television journalist – reporting on political and industrial struggles against capital…  

The early pages of reading (the opening “Neoliberalism is broken” chapter) produced my usual squiggles which indicate appreciation but my attention started to wander in the middle of the subsequent discussion of the Kondtratieff waves - despite the earlier nice little intellectual vignettes of people such as Marx, Rosa Luxembourg, Rudolf Hilferding and Jeno Varga. 
So I started to google for the reviews since these give me the questions which ensure that I am reading more closely. 
And I came across at least 30 quite long reviews of the book to which I will give links at the end of this post…..

Chris Mullin was a contrarian Labour MP who wrote a couple of amusing memoirs about his life in parliament and was therefore someone I felt would have some sympathy for Mason’s book but his review is a tough one 
one has to plough through more than 200 pages of analysis in the course of which the author examines one by one the various economic theories advanced by 19th- and 20th-century political philosophers and various IT gurus….At no point on this long road are there any references to the impact of majority affluence on politics in the developed world. Nikolai Kondratieff (inventor of the wave theory of capitalism) occupies almost an entire column in the index. JK Galbraith and Tony Crosland do not merit a single mention….(Crosland actually has one!)
We have to wait until page 263, a chapter headed “Project Zero”, to discover what the author has in store for us.

Methinks that Mullin is a tad too impatient – analysis and diagnosis are important!

The first part of the book ends with a series of annotated graphs which Mason suggests best summarise the massive shifts in debt, performance and inequality which characterise the decades of the last "wave". I really had to concentrate to get the points being made in the graphs

 “Prophets of Postcapitalism” introduces the second section of the book (at page 109), paying tribute to the questions posed by the great Peter Drucker (then in his 90sin his little 1993 book “The Post-Capitalist World and to others who have understood the significance of the technological and social changes which have been shattering our worlds in recent decades eg Jeremy Rifkin, with his 2014 book The Zero Marginal Cost Society
It is at this stage that I needed one of these maps which identify the link between various intellectual schools – such as this one from the very useful Commons Transition website
In that context, this article from Open Democracy seemed to me to set the Mason book in an appropriate context

Anyway I am now half-way through the book but stuck in the section on the labour theory of value – whose relevance I am struggling to understand

For those with more patience, I came across at least 30 quite long reviews – in a few cases of more than 6 pages long…
- Ann Pettifor, for example, prepared a very thoughtful commentary on the book for a discussion she had with the author – suggesting, for example, “we are not the subject of impersonal forces but have human agency” and that capital gains (rather than rate of profit) is the main motive for owners…
- a long and rather pedantic Real-World Economics review focuses on the book’s main thesis about low marginal costs and the new sharing economy
- Prospect gave Mason an interview
- one academic devoted 50 pages to his analysis – in 3 separate The first part here,I can actually understand. The longer parts here and here I have to confess I find largely incomprehensible

One of the best reviews is one from an Australian green Senator and this one is good on some of the book’s contradictions

A sample of other reviews
a more sympathetic one from the Take Back the Economy people

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Cotroceni scandal, seascapes and white wine – all in a Bucharest day’s work

Sun still striking 30 here in Bucharest at midday. A lazy morning determined a journey to the Cotroceni Palace to see the seascape exhibition put together by the famous collector and painter Parizescu; we knew that security was strict but were still annoyed with the injunction to remove the camera from the rucksack (signs clearly indicated that a personal camera could be used for 4 euros but I wasn’t sure that the collection would make this worthwhile).
In the event I was wrong - the room whose brick ceiling looked like a cathedral but which is in fact the original kitchen turned out to house the most amazing little collection of early 20th century Romanian classics (Artachino, Pallady, Popescu, Ressu, Steriadi) and had me scurrying back to the gatehouse for the camera – having checked with 2 pleasant curators that this was OK. At which point the Romanian system clicked into action – a phone call was made to someone and I was denied permission to photo – although the notices clearly say that only the grounds and church are banned……

Furious, I returned and tried to get an explanation from the overbearing woman – who would only say that as the collection didn’t belong to the Palace, photos were not permitted…..She did agree to make a telephone call to the Director who apparently told her to have my camera brought up from the gatehouse……smiles all round……

Then, after a little picnic at the neighbouring Botanic Gardens, off to sample some white Romanian wines. The incredible price, range and quality of wines in neighbouring Bulgaria has meant that I am better informed of the wine scene there than here in Romania – good quality bottles of wine are 5-8 euros in Romania but 3-5 euros in Bulgaria.
Of course all Romanian cities are well endowed with wine "crameries” where you can get good regional wine from the barrel for just under 3 euros a litre. Hence my consumption of Romanian wines has tended to be restricted to the more common wines from Dealul Mare, Recas and Murfatlar – although I will buy bottles from the great Cotnari and Husi range in Moldova and I did find this week an excellent Riesling (in Lidl) for 4.5 euros (20 lei) from the Satu Mare vineyard of Ratesti  

I have attended 2 of the recent annual Sofia November wine weekends and frequently consult the great little Catalogue of Bulgarian Wine produced each year by T Tanovska and K Iontcheva. Significantly, despite its much larger population, Romania does not (a far as my researches indicate) have such a publication …the glossy coffee table book recently published purporting to be about Romanian wines is just a sloppy bit of PR work........Perhaps I'll learn more at the big wine fair in Bucharest 2-6 November this year. Big date - it will be my first such Romanian event - insallah!!

So it has been much more difficult for me to make an assessment of what the wine market offers here in Romania. I decided it was time to rectify that. The Dealul Mare vineyards are in the Carpathian foothills only an hour’s driving north of Bucharest – this site offers a nice introduction to what’s on offer - and this blog also gives some useful technical notes on some of the better wines  
But I wanted to see what was available here in Bucharest so chose Ethic Wine’s Tasting Room just 5 minutes drive away…...which is both a shop and wine bar. For 15 euros I had a taste of three great Romanian whites – Liliac Feteasca Alba (near Targu Mures); Bauer Sauvignon Blanc (near Craiova); and a Iacob white cuvee from the Davino vineyard at Ceptura (Dealul Mare), But, surprisingly no titbits were on offer to help sharpen the tastebuds - and only a few slices of bread were offered when I asked. A strange sort of "tasting room"!

Probably the most comprehensive guide to Romania’s wine and vineyards is the CrameRomania website which includes this list of about 130 romanian vineyards
And the Dionysus wine bar looks worth checking out

Monday, September 5, 2016

FAST READING AND SLOW WRITING

As an avid reader for more than half a century, I have become more and more aware of the shortcomings of most recently-published non-fiction books.
Their bibliographies may look impressive and their chapter headings riveting but the books increasingly suffer, in my view, from the following sorts of deficiencies –
- They are written by academics
- who write for students and other academics
- and lack “hands-on” experience of other worlds
- the author’s speciality indeed is only a sub-discipline – eg financial economics
- the focus is a fashionable subject
- written with deadlines to meet commercial demands
- making claims to originality- but failing to honour the google scholar adage of “standing on the shoulders of giants” (despite – perhaps even because of - the extensive bibliographies)

I now have a litmus test for any book which catches my eye – actually not one but three -
 1. Does it reveal in its preface/introduction and bibliography an intention to honour what has been written before on the subject?
 2. Indeed does it clearly list and comment on what has been identified as the key reading and indicate why, despite such previous efforts, the author feels compelled to add to our reading burden??? And can you, the reader, identify any obvious gaps in that list?
 3. Can the author clearly demonstrate (eg in the introduction or opening chapter) that the book is the result of long thought and not just an inclination to jump on the latest bandwagon?
All of three years ago, I wrote about “slow books” - I wasn’t aware of the phrase - it just came to me in a creative flash. I was not really surprised, however, to learn that the phrase had already been coined – although fairly recently as I see from this March 2012 article in The Atlantic and this (rather local) 2009 website. In 2009 there was even a small book entitled Slow Reading 

Let me push, however, for a wider definition of a “slow book”. 
"Slow food" is an entire process - it is the preparation, production and consumption. And abhors the formulaes, specialisation and slave labour which the logic of modern production and ownership systems require eg in MacDonald's and Amazon.

Similarly "Slow books" stand against marketing and "commodification" (sorry about the word!) and are about the relationships of real authentic people - whether as writers, readers, craftsmen or suppliers.
update; a review of a new book - Slow Reading in a Hurried Age

I will now reveal – exclusively for you – my ten tricks of fast reading and comprehension. They are very simply expressed -

General
- Read a lot (from an early age!)
- Read widely (outside your discipline)
- Read quickly (skim)
- If the author doesn’t write in clear and simple language, move on to another book asap. Life’s too short……Bad writing is a good indicator of a confused mind

For each book
- Mark extensively (with a pencil) – with question-marks, ticks, underlines, comments and expletives
- Read the reviews (surf)
- Identify questions from these to ensure you’re reading critically
- Write brief notes to remind you of the main themes and arguments
- Identify the main schools of thought about the subject
- Check the bibliography at the end – to see what obvious names are missing

Friday, September 2, 2016

My Three Years in Uzbekistan

Uzbek’s dictator has died – having held on to office for some 30 years, His replacement could well be someone I knew from my 3 years as Team Leader of an EU-funded Civil Service Reform project in the country between 1999 and 2002 - Shavkat Mirziyoyev who served as governor (Hakim) of Jizzakh Region from 1996 to September 2001, then as governor of Samarkand Region from September 2001 until his appointment as Prime Minister in 2003, a position he has held until now.
The project was required to have 2 “pilot regions” which were his two of Jizzakh and Samarkand. He was chairman of the project’s Steering Committee…….

Ours was quite a large team which was attached to the Cabinet of the President’s Office – indeed we were supposed to be inside their building but it was blown apart by a bomb a few month’s before I arrival so we had to put up with a big office overlooking the scaffolding as it was refurbished.

I had some amazing experiences in the country whose atmosphere was quite unlike anything I have experienced elsewhere – with a fascinating combination of ornate tea ceremonies and hard drinking. Early on Al-Queeda gained some Jizzakh mountain passes near its capital Tashkent (this was – sadly - before Craig Murray’s time) which put them off-limits to us for some months. I acquired a taste for painting there – as well as rugs and terra-cotta figurines. 

Some people might consider it dubious to be involved with work in such regimes but I felt privileged to be allowed to stand in a classroom of the Tashkent Presidential Academy for Reconstruction and present to civil servants the sort of perspective about power enshrined in Rosabeth Kanter's Ten Rules of Stifling Innovation - and also to lay out the European experience of developing local government over the centuries.
Coincidentally or not, Karimov decided a few years ago that political science was too dangerous and banned its study in universities

The Search for Democracy

In 1977 I published a little book called “The Search for Democracy – a guide to and polemic about Scottish local government” which was written around some 40 questions community activists and students were putting to me about the new system of Scottish local government which had arrived in 1975. I was in a fairly unique position to deal with this since I had, for some 3 years, been occupying one of the leading positions in the country’s largest local authority – Strathclyde Region

Not least of my puzzlements was about the source and nature of power. And the story told by one of the architects of the British NHS (Aneurin Bevan) about his own search for power - from his own municipality through trade unions to the heights of the British Cabinet - used the powerful metaphor of the onion. As each layer peeled away, there did not appear to be a heart!

Like Bevan, I have been peeling away various slices to try to get to "the heart of the onion" eg (in Scotland) as community activist; manager of community development projects; political science academic; local councillor; local manager; - then since 1990 foreign consultant (capacity development; civil service reform); change management expert; trainer.......

The subtitle to part I of the book was “Birthpangs or Death Throes?” The questions the book explored related naturally to those organisations which most immediately impacted then on ordinary people
As, in later years, I dealt with higher levels of government, the questions changed.....And, as local government has become emasculated, so the questions which people raise have perhaps become more pertinent....

But, for the moment, treat this as a history lesson...........
·         - What were the new Districts and Regions supposed to achieve?
·         - Why do we seem further away from these goals?
·         - Will the new system not produce conflict and delay?
·         - Are the new councils not too large and distant?
·         - Does the public get value for money?
·        - How much "fat" is there?
·         - How much freedom does local government has?
·         - Will a Scottish parliament not require the abolition of one of the tiers?
·         - What do councillors do?
·         - How do people become councillors?
·         - What sort of power do they have?
·         - Who are they accountable to?
·         - Are party politics really necessary?
·         - How does the party system work?
·         - How does the committee system work?
·         - What are its deficiencies?
·         - Where does power lie?
·         - Why are so many obstacles placed in the way of those wanting help and advice?
·         - Will community councils make any difference?
·         - What have councils done to improve their services?
·         - How do councils know if their policies are working?
·         - how might voluntary organisations/community groups play a bigger role?

Forty years on I am still, it seems, “searching for democracy”….. but, as the various papers in this website show, the questions have become global. 

Indeed at the start of the new millennium I had been so concerned about its erosion that I had drafted a paper around a set of rather different questions an updated version of which - Guide for the Perplexed – I placed on a website some years ago…… 
There it has languished, still unfinished…….but a recent exchange has encouraged me to pull it out again and do a bit of minor updating…..

it’s now called Mapping the common ground and is a fairly rare overview of what has been written over the years about the democratic malaise from which we have been suffering for the past 2 decades…
Please dip in - and let me know what you think!!