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!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

No Excuse for Apathy

One of my unfinished projects has been a mapping of “alternative” ways of using our energies than that of the mad economic system which has had the globe in thrall (and peril) for at least the post-war period……
The project started with a short essay in 2001 (updated in Notes for the Perplexed) and moved into higher gear with the opening last autumn of a website Mapping the Common Ground which acts as a library of useful material for those keen to effect social change. Ways of Seeing…..the Global Crisis was my round-up of the reading I had been doing in recent years – with my common complaint being the failure of writers to give credit to others and indeed to make any attempt to do what Google Scholar exhorts us to do – “stand on the shoulders of giants”.
So I was delighted, this morning, to come across an encouraging American initiative The Next System whose opening video may be a bit crass but which makes amends with its initial report – The Next System Report – political possibilities for the 21st Century which contains extensive references to writing I had not so far encountered and to good community practice in various parts of the world.  This led me to new writers such as Pat Devine and Andrew Cumbers (celebrating public ownership); and such gems as -
- the manual Take Back the Economy;
- the book Capitalism 3.0 by Peter Barnes
We are Everywhere – a celebration of community enterprise
- An article on Democratising Finance by Fred Block
- The full bibliography of Danny Dorling’s glorious Injustice book

And that was just a couple of days after I had downloaded a lot of material relating to “the commons” which delicately tiptoes round the topic of “common ownership” – see this excellent overview The Commons as a new/old paradigm for governance – with a second section here
I was alerted to that by a fascinating article in Open Democracy Planning a Commons-based Future for Ecuador which is part of a wider effort that country has been making – set out in a document National Plan for Good Living which must be one of the first efforts this century to have a National Plan!

Other finds are -
The evolution of social enterprise – a very friendly overview of various landmarks in the important history of this “movement” (rather US-centric)
 - Commons Transition – the book from a site “of practical experiences and policy proposals aimed toward achieving a more humane and environmentally grounded mode of societal organization. Basing a civil society on the Commons (including the collaborative stewardship of our shared resources) would enable a more egalitarian, just, and environmentally stable society.

So no excuse! Let’s get off our backsides and do something to build a more sensible world!!

Monday, April 13, 2015

In Praise of Older (Wo)Men

Sheldon Wolin is a name to conjure with – in the early 1960s his book “Politics and Vision” was the core text for my course on political philosophy. He was born in 1922 and taught at Princeton University.
I thought he was long dead….but was delighted to discover yesterday that not only is he still going strong but that he has become almost a revolutionary in his old age….

In one very recent video series he deals with the question of whether Capitalism and democracy can Co-exist – allowing me to stumble on his explosive 2008 book Democracy Incorporated which can be read in its entirety here; reviewed here and summarised here
 If this analysis of a ‘democracy without citizens’ – in which popular sovereignty is reduced to ‘consumer sovereignty’ – sounds too Cassandra-like, Wolin backs it up with detailed history. (This history is, admittedly, heavily US-centric, but since the US is perhaps the limiting case of a managed democracy, this focus is instructive.)
Wolin rides roughshod over the standard American self-image of being the world’s most robust democracy. In chapters 11-12, he traces the evolution of American democracy back to the Putney debates of the 1650s, in which Ireton upheld the interests of ‘independent’ property-owners against Rainsborough, who championed the rights of the non-landed, and therefore non-voting classes .
It was Ireton’s anti-egalitarian position which, Wolin maintains, effectively triumphed in post-revolutionary America. Hamilton and Madison (unlike Jefferson) were deeply sceptical of democracy, precisely because it threatened the extant distribution of property and wealth: portraying the popular will as infected by ‘passion’, they confined ‘reason’ to a class of ‘guardians’, which was purportedly blessed with the insights of ‘cool and sedate reflection’ . They hence went about constructing a political system in which elaborate checks and balances stymied the wishes of the democratic majority, thereby ensuring a politics of ‘deadlock’ , which could be resolved only by the intervention of the powerful.
According to Wolin, then, though the ‘political coming-of-age of corporate power’ (xxi) took centuries, the conditions for managed democracy were instituted early on. The one real exception on this road to inverted totalitarianism was Roosevelt’s New Deal ‘experiment’ of the 1930s, which Wolin discusses in chapter 2. This ‘counterimaginary of a state-regulated capitalism’ was a valiant attempt to control corporate activity for the common good, but it did not survive World War II.
This ‘constitutional imaginary’ succumbed, steadily, to a Cold War ‘power imaginary’ which was prepared by the US’s wartime taste of global power. This power imaginary replaced a preoccupation with welfare, participation and equality, with what Wolin terms a ‘dematerialised’ ideology of patriotism, anticommunism and fear
This new, Manichean ideology, although not explicitly in the service of corporate wealth and inequality, certainly had these as its corollaries. And this because,
  • first, the Soviet Union was (nominally) committed to anti-capitalism and a thorough-going egalitarianism, thereby lending capitalist individualism a patriotic aura, and impugning its detractors. 
  • Secondly, the Cold War generated a massive increase in defence spending, which in turn made the American economy highly dependent on the corporate defence industries.
  • And thirdly, since all enmity was now directed at Communism, any suggestion that there might be economic enemies at home became seen as artificially and invidiously divisive, or even (as in McCarthyism) tantamount to Communism itself.
There is also an interview with both Wolin and another iconoclast – J Ralston Saul – at an interesting website called Common Dreams

The emphasis on age and experience reminded me of a charming blog which carries the (sexist) title Britain is no country for Old men which celebrates the lives and achievements of various characters. It gives a good sense of the Britain that was…..My posts sometimes feature older, inspiring activists such as Stephane Hessel (95) and Grace Lee Boggs (99) 

With all the emphasis these days on innovation, it's good , however occasionally, to have the perspective of experience ........

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Kafka is alive and well

Both my passport and my driving licence need renewal this year – the  hurdles I face (on mainly the former) will force me to stay put in Romania for the entire summer period….I am amazed that British citizens are (literally) not up in arms about the impossible (centralised) systems which have been in place for passports for the past few years.

We are told to expect a wait of 3 months (minimum) for the delivery of updated passports – during that period we are without a passport with emergency passports being available (returns only) for 100 quid.

If, like me, you have changed your address almost each year and find it impossible as a result to satisfy the requirement of notifying the driving licence authority of changes of address, you are reduced to giving a relative’s address. 
If you are living abroad, you are told to get a driving licence from the country of residence – with all the tribulations that involves of presenting yourself for a test as if you were a trainee driver (instead of one with 50 years’ experience – in 12 countries) 

Now I read of the Kafla-esque experiences Brits are having with their cars being towed away and being forced to pay hundreds of pounds to get them back even although their road discs are entirely up-to-date…..

This post may sound a bit Colonel Blimpish but it does indicate that IT systems in the UK are not exactly delivering on the promising new world we had been promised!!!! 

The photograph which has been heading these posts for almost 4 months is now changed since the warm weather has at last appeared here in Sofia!!! It shows one of the sculptures which graces the park in which the Sofia City Gallery is located.

Friday, April 10, 2015

King James English

“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (Ecclesiastes 9.10)

What is it that makes these and the other words and phrases from the King James edition of the Bible have such a deep impact on our mind and soul? And do they have the same effect on those who read them in translation?

Brits usually think that the 17th Century language of the Bible is original – but it is in fact a translation. Not only that but an example of what we imagine to be impossible – excellence by committee!! The story is told here.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Big Screen Time

It’s 40 years since I read John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” (reviewed here) but it’s a phrase which has returned recently to haunt me – see my latest E-book effort Ways of Seeing…..the Global Crisis.
I heard the phrase again in a Bucharest cinema in a short trip I made at the end of the month – although it was expressed as “Maniere de voir” and it came from the mouth of the legendary photographer Sebastiao Salgado whose life film director Wim Wenders was celebrating in the documentary Salt of the Earth
About time that such photographers were properly celebrated – have there, I wonder, been films about such figures as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz and the times in which they lived? Documentaries we have - eg a curious one with CB here which has him reminiscing...a much more insightful commentary here but what about films which try to recreate the lives and events through actors and film sets?

This question occurred to me since I have been viewing recently quite a few films about other artists…..such as Picasso, Renoir, Turner, Dickens and Beethoven.
And it led me to Jeremy Iron’s portrayal of iconic Alfred Stieglitz in a film (TV biopic actually) which actually focuses more on the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe and bears her name as the title. Indeed the only photography which figures in the film is the infamous exhibition Stieglitz mounts of O’Keeffe’s naked body….  

For the most part films about artists are trite – even if the scenery is nice (Turner) - with plots turning on an highly selective aspects of the artist’s life…and failing to give either a sense of the artist’s creativity or of the times in which (s)he lived.

One exception - The Invisible Woman – made a big impact on me largely because it gave us insights into the importance of public readings for people such as Dickens; and of his God-like status in those days - which allowed everyone to whitewash his young love out of existence. But although the film apparently cost 12 million dollars to make only 3 million has been recouped in box-office takings – hardly an encouragement to creativity when most blockbusters these days cover their costs within the first month (here I have a confession – I was able to stream it………).

The detailed book by Claire Tomalin on which the film is based can be bought for about 15 euros – but will give many hours of pleasure…..As did Hilary Spurling’s 600 pages of Matisse 

It made me wonder about the economics and aesthetics of the different ways of presenting ideas and creativity – such as films, documentaries, books or even video presentations such as this ted talk by Salgado. So many millions of dollars (and wo-man hours) spent on film production to give (each of) us less than 2 hour’s (shallow) “entertainment” compared with a multiple of that enjoyed during the reading of a book – whose costs are a tiny fraction. Nae contest!

And yes I know that it is not a question of either/or – that films encourage (some) people to buy (and even read) books…..and most people have neither the time nor the energy to read….
But, still, we need to fight for the book -  ""Fahrenheit 451" still gives me a thrill every time I think of it, depicting a world without books in which a few brave individuals risked prosecution for their having memorised the text of one particular book…..

Regular readers know that my nomadic existence of the past couple of decades has helped me develop an immunity to television and newspapers – now television sets are banned in the places I control and I am happy to buy only LeMonde Diplomatique (as the only journal which still retains footnotes!). It is my location which enables me to be so selective - and makes me yearn for a campaign on the lines of the 1978 book “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television”. Rather ironically, I'm currently reading a superbly-written book Armchair Nation - an intimate history of Britain in front of the TV 

- this list of 100 films based on the lives of artists and writers reveals that I missed one great film - Carrington!!
- and this list of books which the current TV series Mad Men has shown characters reading is a sign of hope.......

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Good viewing in Sofia

Some great exhibitions recently here in Sofia
You don’t often get to see collections of Nikola Tanev’s paintings – the last one was 5 years ago at the National Gallery. But last month the Finesse private Gallery put on a fascinating collection some of which I;ve put on flickr

Spassov, Angel (1884-1974) was a well-known  sculptor – one of many greats produced by Bulgaria although the current exhibition at the Bulgarian Union of Artists on Shipka St also shows what a good painter he was…A great catalogue on his work was recently issued by Pleven Gallery

And the National Gallery has just opened a rare exhibition of industrial landscapes which cover not only the communist period but the early part of the century too. Here are some examples from my flickr collection.

The first is a Zlatyu Boiadjiev (from 1945);

the second a Petar Dochev;

the third a powerful canvas (1965) from of Bulgaria's first women industrial landscape artists - Maria Stolarova (who's still going strong - but with still-lives);

and the last - a 1950s Nikola Tanev

Those wanting to see more of examples of Socialist realist can consult Socialist construction in the work of Bulgarian artists (Sofia 1954) one of the many resources available in my Bulgarian Encounters – a cultural romp

Monday, March 23, 2015

40 billion pounds' worth of social sciences????

I have a love-hate relationship with the social sciences – grateful for the vistas its literature opened up to me at university in the early 1960s in Scotland when it was still possible to roam widely amongst the disciplines…..still able to feel the energy of the disputes and the freshness of what people such as Durkheim, Michels and Weber were saying…..since then things seem to have closed over a bit – not least, perhaps, because of the “instrumentalist turn” the social sciences took in America as brilliant minds turned their attention in the aftermath of the second world war to social and organisational problems. First corporate planning and management with contributions from people such as Russell Ackoff - then PPBS and the “War on Poverty”.

I was gripped by the stuff and failed to appreciate the hubris involved…….although people such as Aaron Wildavsky; Peter Marris and Martin Rein; Etzioni; and Donald Schoen were exemplars of a more sceptical and humanistic approach……From 1968 I pursued a dual track of political involvement and fairly interdisciplinary academic reading – for 15 years having the freedom to roam the library stacks and inflict monologues on political issues on polytechnic students who were following Degrees courses in Land Economics and Engineering.

From the mid 1970s I had become an almost full-time (Regional) politician but was confronted in 1983 with the need to make a serious contribution to a new full-time Social Science Degree at my Polytechnic. By that stage I had changed my loyalties from economicsto politics/public admin - but could not take the narrowness of what I was expected to teach seriously……after 2 years I got out….  And as the universities increased in number and size, the pretensions of economics, management and even psychology grew enormously (Sociology was a bit of an outrider). Their claims – and language – grew a bit outlandish…..and I, for one, lost sympathy with it all….

In 1978 Stanislaw Andreski had written a magnificent critique called Social Sciences as Sorcery which, significantly, has long been out of print despite the fond memories it produces in many who who have read it…I was trying to find a similar attack on the pretensions of modern social science but could find only the rather puffy  Profscam – Professors and the demise of higher education (1988). 
I had hoped that Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly – how to succeed in the social sciences would have some of the same punch and weight as Andreski but, despite some disparaging remarks about the factory conditions of university life, it ultimately disappoints. It reviewed quite well – but you would expect that!

My surfing, however, did reveal that social scientists are deeply concerned about their lowly status in academic and political circles. So concerned that (in the UK)  they have launched a Campaign for social science (with booklet)…….which has attracted some media coverage. The need for a shake-up was explored in this article
The first thing to have in mind, as background, is the astonishing size of the social science literature. Few people appreciate this. The Thomson Reuters Web of Science database (which is by no means exhaustive of the entire global academic output) lists more than 3,000 social science journals. The journals classified as economics alone contained approximately 20,000 articles last year. This implies that one new journal article on economics is published every 25 minutes – even on Christmas Day.
This iceberg-like immensity of the modern social sciences means that it is going to be difficult to say anything coherent and truly general across them. Nobody walking the planet has read more than 1 per cent of their published output. Most of us have not read 0.1 per cent. Such facts should give all of us – whether or not we agree with Christakis – pause for modesty in our assertions.“The social sciences have stagnated,” he says. “They offer essentially the same set of academic departments and disciplines that they have for nearly 100 years: sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology and political science. This is not only boring but also counterproductive, constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling the creation of new and useful knowledge.”

Lack of interdisciplinarity, narrowness and impenetrable language are the common criticisms - which can be found in many publications throughout Europe and North America. Key reports and books include -

More than a million academics are employed (full-time) in British Universities these days – and about 50,000 of them are social scientists with a similar number (according to the UK campaign’s 2015 report “The Business of People”) employed in government and commerce…….
The report proudly claims that they contribute an astonishing 40 billion pounds’ worth of value to the economy – a claim which reveals the very philistinism of which they accuse those who attack social science…..
An excellent critique of what is a quite disgraceful document can be found on Open Democracy