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, August 19, 2014

Surfing in the Carpathians

"How can I know what I think until I read what I write?" is a lovely quotation (from Henry James) which sits at the masthead of a rather specialised economics blog by a German Professor. It very much summarises the spirit of this blog and today’s in particular.

For a couple of days I’ve been wanting to do a post on the “Manual for Counter-technopols” which was an Annex in a sadly-forgotten book called The New Zealand Experiment produced in 1995 by Jane Kelsey.
I was reminded of it as I read Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste.

The Manual is a list of injunctions for those who wanted (in the 1990s) to fight neo-liberalism. Twenty years on, the phrases still resonate eg –
- Resist marketspeak – maintain control of the language, challenge its capture, and refuse to convert your discourse to theirs. Insist on using hard terms that convey the hard realities of what is going on.
Be realistic and avoid nostalgia—recognise that the world has changed, in some ways irreversibly, and the past was far from perfect. Avoid being trapped solely into reaction and critique. Many neo-liberal criticisms of the status quo are justified and will strike a chord with people. Defending the past for its own sake adds credibility to their arguments and wastes opportunities to work for genuine change.
Be proactive and develop real altematives – start rethinking visions, strategies and models of development for the future. Show that there are workable, preferable alternatives from the start. This becomes progressively more difficult once the programme takes hold.

The Manual can be read in its entirety in the link – but, somehow, failed to move me. It was too general, too vague….too rhetorical. 
So, as the dawn come up over the mountains at 05.00 today, I started to surf for inspiration and hit first a review in Book Forum of Utopia or Bust  which is a look at some of the key left theorists about the global crisis - by Benjamin Kunkel who, I remembered, had written the recent great review of Thomas Piketty’s current blockbuster to which I referred a few days ago. Kunkel – like other great reviewers of the London Review of Books – is actually a writer.
The publisher of his latest book is one of several fascinating small publishers who are coming to my attention - Zero Books (Not to be confused with Zed books !)

From there, I was led on to Poor but sexy – culture clashes in Europe West and East  by a Polish writer Agata Pyzik who writes for the Guardian’s new East Network which had rather passed me by.

My study faces due east and the morning sun (when it appears!) always hits my eyes. At 10.00 I can’t help but notice that the skies are cloudless – but with quite a chilly breeze making it impossible to sit on the open terrace for more than 5 minutes. I began to realise that I don’t write very much about Europe these days; and manage to come across a new website – the European Cultural Foundation and an interesting booklet on the Dwarfing of Europe which in turn led me to a worthy-looking journal on things European founded by a Bulgarian – EUInside with this useful overview of a recent forum in Croatia

From there, just a quick flick of the wrist to Wolfgang Streeck’s most recent book Buying Time - a sense of which he gave in a New Left Review article

On days like this, I wonder whether I shouldn’t call this blog – Surfing in the Carpathians. It reminds me of the great book Europa Europa by Hans Magnus Enzensberger which contained an essay entitled “The Seacoast of Bohemia”

Monday, August 18, 2014

Confessions of a Dilettante Gadfly

From 1968 to the early 1980s I had a pretty relaxed life – paid to read and regurgitate to polytechnic students whatever took my fancy in the burgeoning social science literature of the time – variously urban and regional management; and certain aspects of political studies. At the same time I was a serious “political bureaucrat” ie able to use a position as a Chairman of municipal and Regional social policy systems to give direction to an army of officials.
That gave me the opportunity to draft various papers describing the radical changes some of us were trying to make to our public management systems – influenced by a critique of “legalistic professionalism” which was beginning to come from the left, right and centre. Key names in these diverse “schools” were Saul Alinsky, Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire and those associated with the British CDP work of the early 1970s; James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock of the Public Choice school; and a raft of management gurus who started (with Russell Ackoff) by celebrating corporate management and ended (with Tom Peters) by celebrating chaos.   

A long paper with the (long) title From Multiple Deprivation to Social Exclusion; a Case Study of Organisational Development and Political Amnesia  is a fairly rare attempt of an “insider” to record the 15-year journey by a group of determined politicians and officials in a Regional Council which covered half of Scotland and employed 100,000 staff. 
What we were trying to do attracted the interest of a few researchers – in particular the famous Tavistock Institute (its Institute for Operation Research with John Friend); the Institute of Local Government Studies (Birmingham) and a handful of individual scholars such as Harry Smart who produced in 1991 a book with the rather convoluted title Criticism and public rationality – professional rigidity and the search for caring government which includes a “Coda” written by me.
One of my assistants at the time was someone who later occupied some prominent positions, culminating in the Directorship of the renowned Schumacher College and who edited a large volume in which I make a contribution – The Making of an Empowering Profession 
And he recently produced a brief memoir - Supporting People Power in which, again, I figure

From 1983, however, my (very patient) employers began to expect more serious academic work from me – while I was still holding down several senior political positions. In 1985 I reached breaking point and was forced to give up academic work. For 5 fraught years I operated as a full-time Regional political bureaucrat - searching, at the same time, for a channel for my energies and experience. I was lucky – the Berlin Wall fell and the European networks I had been developing gave me an amazing opportunity to use my understanding and skills in central Europe as a free-lance consultant.

For the past 23 years, therefore, I have been “a gun for hire”…..able to use whatever spare time I had to pursue my reading…..to annoy a variety of senior EC officials with critiques of EC programmes and…to draft the occasional, more reflective musings about the various projects I’ve been lucky enough to run. A few years ago, I tried to pull some of this experience together in an autobiographical piece I called “The Search for the Holy Grail – some reflections on 40 years of trying to make government and its systems work for people

I suppose some people would say I’m a dilettante – operating like a gadfly. But my particular skills-set includes promiscuous, inter-disciplinary reading; communications; networking; and a good memory. I am annoyed by the number of high-profile writers operating within narrow intellectual frameworks - who clearly have little sense of what has been going in related disciplines; and/or fail to reference the work of others ploughing similar critiques.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Strange Omission

I mentioned the 41 page bibliography to be found at the back of Mirowski’s book – this is not as impressive as at it might seem to the casual reader. Indeed in anyone else’s book, I might suspect  such a list is a sign of self-doubt and a need to assert one’s status…. It’s pretty easy to compile a list – what is much more challenging is to summarise the key argument of each book or article and to make a judgement about how it compares in, for example, coherence with others. Even better if you can classify the various explanations and fit the books into such a classification – Howard Davies, for example, identified 39 different explanations of the financial meltdown

I’ve googled various phrases to try to find such an annotated bibliography of the global crisis – and cannot really find one - let alone one with a decent structure. By way of comparison, look at the annotated bibliography for “change agents” I put on my website a few years back

Two frequently referenced articles are Reading about the financial crisis – a 21 book review - a 40 page note produced in 2012 by Andrew Lo which, as he puts it in the introduction, 
underscores the desperate need for the economics profession to establish a single set of facts from which more accurate inferences and narratives can be constructed

And “Getting up to speed on the causes of the financial crisislooks at only 16 docs between 2007-09

A (very short) Financial Crisis reading List is offered by a blog but one which serves a very simple E-book - “Too Big Has Failed”. The short annotated list offered by the Pluto Press simply advertises a few books in that particular publisher’s stable.

Misrule of Experts (2011) is one of a large number of papers produced by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change which offers a useful analysis but hardly a bibliography - let alone an annotated one. And the same is true of the minority report produced by the FinancialCrisis Inquiry Commission in 2011 

Responsibilities, ethics and the Financial Crisis is a useful website……part of a 3 year Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project which brings together "philosophers, economists and social policy academics". It too has reading lists - but none of them annotated. 

So where, please, is there a real annotated bibliography of the events which are now shaping a generation – if not a civilisation ??? And can anyone offer a reason for this absence??

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste - part III

I said that Mirowski was important – the man clearly knows his stuff (see the 41 page bibliography at the back of his book). It’s just that he’s undisciplined in the presentation of his arguments and assumes too easily that his readers will understand the esoteric references to theoretical disputes in economics.
Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste rates almost as many serious reviews as Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster - Capital in the Twenty First Century to which the London Review of Books devoted last month a quite excellent review whose opening section must qualify as one of the clearest expositions of the disputes about economic value.
Useful reviews of the Mirowski book can be found in The Times Higher Education Supplement; Jacobin Magazine; and Logos JournalOne of the most balanced of the reviews is this one
Overall, therefore, this book may be tough going for many, but it also rewards the reading. The looseness of structure combined with the sense in which each element depends on the others means that the reader shouldn’t worry too much if they didn’t get it the first time. I certainly do not expect this to be everyone’s cup of tea: the way Mirowski approaches neoliberalism through a combination of polemical investigation into institutional and organisational connections between finance, government, and economics, as well as his tendency to give mostly ideological and psychological explanations for political phenomena, sometimes comes uncomfortably close to ‘conspiracy thinking’. I think Mirowski mostly stays just on the right side of that fine line, but then I am already an opponent of neoclassical economics – those who are more ambivalent about it will perhaps find this work too much.
For the politically more radical but less economically knowledgeable layperson, there is a wealth of insight to be gained here in the inner workings and thinking of some of the major players of the Western neoliberal order, especially in the United States, but you’ll have to earn it with hard work. There are some fascinating moments in the book where Mirowski contrasts the reality of the crisis with the utter refusal on the part of the economics discipline to view it as imaginable before the fact (we were supposed to be in ‘the Great Moderation’) or of any theoretical significance after the fact (in striking interviews with Chicago school economists). 
On the other hand, he sometimes overdoes the pervasive power of neoliberal thought: when he sees social networks as inherently neoliberal, or sees protest movements such as Occupy as hopelessly co-opted by neoliberal ways of thinking from the start, it seems a bit too much in the style of grandpa telling the kids to get off his lawn. Neoliberalism isn’t, and cannot be, all-powerful – even if the opposition has to date indeed been ineffectual.
For the purposes of economic thought, the takeaway from this book should be that “the relationship between the immunity of finance and the imperviousness of change in economic ideas has been direct” (357).
For the political left, the central message is that the strategy of neoliberalism to a crisis – any crisis – can be summed up as “short-run denialism… medium-term imposition of state-sponsored markets, and long-term recruitment of entrepreneurs to explore scientific blue-sky projects to transform human relationships to nature”, all of which “can only be imposed in those special moments of ‘emergency’ by a strong state” (357-358). These lessons, combined with Mirowski’s vision of neoliberalism as contrasted with merely ‘small government, free market’ thinking, are important to learn.
Mirowski has been fairly caustic about Wikipedia – and perhaps this is why his entry there is so brief and uninformative. I managed to find this overview and interview

Certainly the book has encouraged me to pull off the shelves some so far unread items such as the Penguin History of Economics; The Romantic Economist; and Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics; the User’s Guide

Friday, August 15, 2014

Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste - part 2

Reader – while you have been busy this last 24 hours or so, I have been sweating blood on your behalf! A few minutes ago, I reached (with a great sigh of relief) the last page of Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste and its pages will forever bear witness to my reactions and interactions – with savagely pencilled circles and slashes on almost every page.

The subject of this book could not be more important – the process whereby a doctrine (neoliberalism), assumed in 2008 to have been totally discredited, has managed not only to survive but to become the only game in town…

On your behalf I have (carefully) read 358 pages of text; glanced at 52 pages of notes; and noted with interest a 41 page bibliography. And I have also turned up at least a score of fairly long reviews – indeed even one special issue of a journal devoted to the book (available at the hyperlink of the book’s title) which, usefully, contains an author’s reply. The book's (mercifully short) conclusion poses 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 is the current topography of the Neoliberal Thought Collective?
·         What lessons should the left learn from the neoliberals, and which should they abjure?
·         What would a vital counternarrative to the epistemological commitments of the neoliberals look like?

But the book touches (and briefly at that) only on the second and fourth 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”.

He then goes on to a final one-page summary of the 6 reasons whyneoliberals have triumphed in the global economic crisis” -
·         Contrary evidence didn’t dent their world view
·         They “redoubled their efforts to influence and capture the economics profession
·         everyday neoliberalism” which had “taken root in our culture provided a bulwark until The  “Neoliberal Thought Collective”  (NTC) could mount further responses”
·         The NTC developed the black art of “agnotology” (see below) and -
·         coopted protest movements through a combination of top-down takeover and bottom-up commercialisation and privatisation of protest activities and recruitment

and… finally…..wait for it…..
·         The NTC has displayed an identifiable repeating pattern of full-spectrum policy responses to really pervasive crisis which consists of short-run denialism, medium-term imposition of state-sponsored markets and long-term recruitment of entrepreneurs to explore scientific blue-sky projects to transform human relationships to nature”…….

GOT IT?
I really am trying to be fair to this guy – but he really does hoist himself with his own petard.
And, dear reader, you should know that I studied economics for 4 years at university – and then attempted to teach the subject to students….
Furthermore, I pride myself on my vocabulary…..but I was stumped by so many words –
Ambagious, apophenia, “all the Finnegan that is needed”; perfervid, quiddity (a favourite); astralobe, scofflaws, epigones, fugleman, lucubrations, bombinate, deliquesce, Nascar, echolalia, echoic, ukase, catallactic, hebetude, cunctuation, coadjurancy, snafus, non-ergodicity, defalcation, hazmot, political donnybrooks

He was, however, kind enough to proffer (at page 226) a definition ofagnotology” (to which an entire section is devoted) - namelythe “focused study of the intentional manufacture of doubt and uncertainty in the general populace for specific political motives”.
And he does also explain a couple of other neologisms – “murketing” and “buycott” (both of which my automatic speller annoyingly tries to correct)
Dissention” at page 243 presumably is “dissension”. You see, Reader, the efforts to which I have gone for you!

I am glad to report that I am not the only reader to be appalled at Mirowski’s style – a year ago an Economist columnist took issue with the book for this reason and sparked off quite a discussion thread
The reader is still entitled to expect something better than the following (from Philip Mirowski's new book "Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste"): Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis. 
That is not just a mixed metaphor; it is meaningless and pretentious at the same time. One would nominate it as the world's worst-written sentence but it is only the opening clause. After a semi-colon, the author drones on for a further 32 words, from which Economist readers should be spared. Just a few pages later, Mr Mirowski produces another monstrosity:The nostrum of "regulation" drags with it a raft of unexamined impediments concerning the nature of markets and governmentality, and a muddle over intentionality, voluntarism, and spontaneity that promulgates the neoliberal creed at the subconscious level.
What happened to the editing process at Verso, which allowed this book to be published? All authors benefit from a trimming of their stylistic excesses. The odd flourish is fine and an attempt at humour in a work of financial analysis is usually welcome. But this does not consist of adding one clause after another, or piling adjective upon adjective.  Such leaden prose weakens any hope that the author might have of persuading the reader to slog through his 467-page attack on neoliberalism. George Orwell's rules of writing (which introduce The Economist's in-house style guide), are always worth repeating
One of the discussants in the subsequent discussion thread suggested four reasons for verbosity:
1) Try selling a one-page book. This despite the fact most of what I have read on economics in recent years, and indeed ever, could comfortably fit - too many books are just one interesting insight smeared over 400 pages ("Black Swan" anyone?).
2) Obscure language can hide deficient or trivial underlying thinking (think academic prose, esp. in the humanities)
3) Author's pseudointellectual wankerdom, and halo effect of "clever" language intended to boost persuasive effect. This is patently counterproductive.
4) Attempted argument by verbosity - while single-sentence phrasing would be just as informative, droning on about it from different angles for twenty hours of reading is intended to be more effective in helping the ideas (or lack thereof) sink in. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Dog that didn't Bark

A pile of journals and books was waiting for me on and under my neighbour’s table when I arrived back on Sunday at the mountain house – not just the blessed London Review of Books and (less honoured) New Statesman but the first couple of issues of a professional journal to which I am now resubscribing - Public Administration – an international quarterly. This used to be my staple reading in the 1980s and 1990s – along with The Political Quarterly and many others – but the increasingly narrow scope and leaden prose of such academic journals had driven me away about 15 years ago.
If only for their book reviews, however, they are an important way of keeping me in touch with what professionals in my field are thinking about – no matter how their choice of subjects are so often distorted by the competition for academic promotion. So the delights of The Political Quarterly have also started arriving – and I am also thinking of renewing my acquaintance with the journal Governance 
Amazingly Wiley publications which owns these journals is offering a 30 day free trial viewing of all of the Politics journals in their stable – about 100 – archives and all! So that will keep me fairly quiet in the next few weeks

My pile of books included half a dozen on Turkish matters (by coincidence I was invited last week into a bid for a project in the country) and a fat book called Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste – how neoliberalism survived the financial meltdown 
The book’s opening pages annoyed me no end. Most (of the considerable number of) reviews have been very positive but one caught my feelings exactly -
Mirowski’s aggressive yet obtuse writing style seems designed to alienate casual readers, cuts off discussions of potential alternatives out of the current morass, and ironically paints too positive a picture of where orthodoxy stands at the current moment.

But I will have to persevere since, like most people, I have been too casual in my use of the term and do need to understand why social democrats are so powerless in face of this phenomenon. Three years ago I wrote an article on this – called The Dog that Didn’t Bark which appeared in a special issue of Revista 22(a Romanian journal) which was commemorating 09/11
At that time, Colin Crouch was one of the few people who had devoted a book to the question (The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism)
Three years on, a lot more people have written about it and Philip Mirowski (the author of the latest) reviewed some of them in the journal I referred to recently.

Mirowski has helpfully put online one of the key sections of his book – the thirteen commandments of neo-liberalism - which allows you, reader, to see for yourself what I mean about the convoluted style. He can also be heard on some ipod interviews herehere and here
And Colin Crouch himself has returned to the charge in a (free) article Putting Neoliberalism in its place in the current issue of Political Quarterly.

I hope to write more about the book’s contents – and reception - shortly

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Behind my new website

Apologies to my readers – Vivacom, the Bulgarian internet provider I have been using these past few weeks, has been unable to give me access since the weekend. They simply are not able to process my request for increased capacity after I hit their limit (in only 3 months real time). I use it for my blog and downloading the odd paper – no videos. Visits to their branches are pointless – the telephone calls I make to their helplines don’t achieve anything except promises and, ultimately, admissions that they just have to wait for the request to be “processed”. When I come back in October, I will cancel my sub - and go wireless…. 

This week I’ve been busy with preparations for the new website, drafting for example this (rather long) intro -
The site has been created by someone who has, since the mid-60s, been involved in various forms of “development” efforts – first “community” and “regional” development in Scotland then “institutional” and “capacity” development in Central Europe and Asia – but who, with many others, now questions the very concept of development….Indeed the title I gave my second (more autobiographical) little book in 1995 was …. PUZZLING DEVELOPMENT
It was some 15 years ago that I began to feel the deep unease about the direction societies with which I was familiar seemed to be taking – increasing privilege, systemic corruption, centralization, ecological destruction, “consumerism”, poverty, privatisation and a failure of European vision were the things I listed in a paper I circulated amongst friends in an effort to clarify where I should be putting the energies and resources left to me. I itemized the people and organisations whose work I admired; regretted the lack of impact they were having; and then explored what channels we seemed to have for making more of an impact. A decade later – after the bursting of the bubble – I returned to the subject and beefed up the paper – the results of which can be read at Draft Guide for the Perplexed
WHAT BROUGHT ME TO THIS POINT - 2008 was supposed to bring us to our senses – to give us the sort of focus we last saw in the immediate post-war years when social, political and commercial energies were building a better world; greed and flashiness kept then in check; and “government” was an institution for whose efforts we had some respect if not pride.
Six years on from the most recent global crisis, such hopes and expectations are in tatters… the façade of democracy has been ruthlessly exposed by the latest debt crisis in Europe… and governments seem hell-bent on creating a dystopia of privatized public facilities, repression and gross inequalities which put JK Galbraith’s indictment 60 years ago of “private affluence and public squalour” in the shade.
A world of gated communities exists cheek by jowl with those inhabited by crushed spirits of millions evicted from the formal economy or in fear of that fate; politicians, politics and the media are despised as lapdogs of what an American President in 1960 presciently labelled the “military-industrial complex”. Welcome to post-modernity!
This website aims to examine this condition, explore how it has developed and how it might be tamed….The website believes in the importance of what the academics have taken to calling “agency” – that is, of people coming together to try to improve socio-economic conditions. Such efforts used to be national but now tend to be a combination of local, continental and global. Some of the effort is driven by anger; some by more creative urges - but hundreds of thousands if not millions of people are involved in activities which have been charted by writers such as Paul Kingsnorth and Paul Hawkin. They include a lot of social enterprise and cooperatives of which the oldest and most inspiring is Mondragon whose various ventures now employ more than 25,000 people in a mountain area of Spain.
But all this does not seem able to inspire a common vision – let alone a coherent agenda and popular support - for a better world.The knowledge base drawn on in this site is European of an anglo-saxon variety – so we cannot (sadly) speak much about, for example, the Latin American experience of development which, patently, has a lot to teach us.
Some of the conclusions which have brought me to the point of setting up this website -
Political parties are a bust flush - All mainstream political parties in Europe have been affected by the neo-liberal virus and can no longer represent the concerns of ordinary people. And those “alternative parties” which survive the various hurdles placed in their way by the electoral process rarely survive.
The German Greens were an inspiration until they too eventually fell prey to the weaknesses of political parties identified a hundred years ago by Robert Michels.
More recently, “Pirate” parties in Scandinavia and Bepe Grillo’s Italian Five Star Movement have managed, briefly, to capture public attention, occupy parliamentary benches but then sink to oblivion or fringe if not freak interest.
What the media call “populist” parties of various sorts attract bursts of electoral support in most countries but are led by labile individuals preying on public fears and prejudices and incapable of the sort of cooperative effort which serious change requires.
NGOs are no match for corporate power - The annual World Social Forum has had more staying power than the various “Occupy movements” but its very diversity means that nothing coherent emerges to challenge the power elite whose “scriptures” are delivered from the pulpits of The World Bank and the OECD There doesn’t even seem a common word to describe our condition and a vision for a better future – “social change”? What’s that when it’s at home? 
Academics are careerists - the groves of academia are still sanctuary for a few brave voices who speak out against the careless transfer by governments of hundreds of billions of dollars to corporate interests ……Noam Chomsky and David Harvey are prominent examples.
·         Henry Mintzberg, one of the great management gurus, has in the last decade broken ranks and now writes about the need for a profound “rebalancing” of the power structure - Rebalancing Society – radical renewal beyond left, right and centre
·         Economists who challenge the conventional wisdom of that discipline are now able to use the Real-World Economics blog.
·         Daniel Dorling is a geographer who focuses on inequalities eg his powerful Injustice – why social inequality persists.
 Think Tanks play safe – and….think
           Most Think-Tanks play it safe (for funding reasons) – although there are honourable exceptions. Such as -
·         Susan George, a European activist and writer, who operates from the Trans National Institute and, amongst her many books, has produced two marvellous satires – Lugano I and Lugano II
·         David Korton’s books and Yes Magazine keep up a steady critique.
·         Joseph Stiglitz, once part of the World Bank elite, writes scathingly about economic conventional wisdom.
·         The new Pope has the resources of the Vatican behind him; and is proving a great example in the struggle for dignity and against privilege.
How can a new website help? - It will identify the various efforts of the past decade to unite citizens under a common banner for the sort of civilization that rewards dignified work and effort. But it will also explore other, very different, visions – whether for political, community or individual effort – which challenge most of the conventional ideas about development and progress.