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!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Economics - a rare example of good writing....

We’re so overwhelmed by the mountain of books and blogs available about economic issues that I’ve sought to give readers some tests they can use on material they come across - to help them more easily select the material worth spending time on……
One of the five things I look for is clarity of writing – from the simple argument that confused writing is a sign of a confused mind. Authors who rely on abstract language have allowed the language to take over their thinking.
A second thing I look for are signs that the author is able and willing to classify other specialists according to the different perspectives they bring – and generous in his attributions…      

I’ve just come across an excellent example of what I mean – from the Michael Robert’s blog The Next Recession who starts his latest post with a great name-check on the Keynesian economists who dominate leftist discussions there days - 
Keynes is the economic hero of those wanting to change the world; to end poverty, inequality and continual losses of incomes and jobs in recurrent crises.  And yet anybody who has read the posts on my blog knows that Keynesian economic analysis is faulty, empirically doubtful and its policy prescriptions to right the wrongs of capitalism have proved to be failures.
In the US, the great gurus of opposition to the neoliberal theories of Chicago school of economics and the policies of Republican politicians are Keynesians Paul Krugman, Larry Summers and Joseph Stiglitz or slightly more radical Dean Baker or James Galbraith. In the UK, the leftish leaders of the Labour party around Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, self-proclaimed socialists, look to Keynesian economists like Martin Wolf, Ann Pettifor or Simon Wren Lewis for their policy ideas and analysis.  They bring them onto their advisory councils and seminars.  In Europe, the likes of Thomas Piketty rule.
 Those graduate students and lecturers involved in Rethinking Economics, an international attempt to change the teaching and ideas away from neoclassical theory, are led by Keynesian authors like James Kwak or post-Keynesians like Steve Keen, or Victoria Chick or Frances Coppola.  Kwak, for example, has a new book called Economism, which argues that the economic faultline in capitalism is rising inequality and the failure of mainstream economics is in not recognising this.  Again the idea that inequality is the enemy, not capitalism as such, exudes from the Keynesians and post-Keynesians like Stiglitz, Kwak, Piketty or Stockhammer, and dominates the media and the labour movement.  This is not to deny the ugly importance of rising inequality, but to show that a Marxist view of this does not circulate.
Indeed, when the media wants to be daring and radical, publicity is heaped on new books from Keynesians or post-Keynesian authors, but not Marxists. For example, Ann Pettifor of Prime Economics has written a new book, The Production of Money, in which she tells us that “money is nothing more than a promise to pay” and that as “we’re creating money all the time by making these promises”, money is infinite and not limited in its production, so society can print as much of its as it likes in order to invest in its social choices without any detrimental economic consequences.  And through the Keynesian multiplier effect, incomes and jobs can expand.  And “it makes no difference where the government invests its money, if doing so creates employment”.  The only issue is to keep the cost of money, interest rates as low as possible, to ensure the expansion of money (or is it credit?) to drive the capitalist economy forward.  Thus there is no need for any change in the mode of production for profit, just take control of the money machine to ensure an infinite flow of money and all will be well.
 Ironically, at the same time, leading post-Keynesian Steve Keen gets ready to deliver a new book advocating the control of debt or credit as the way to avoid crises.  Take your pick: more credit money or less credit.  Either way, the Keynesians drive the economic narrative with an analysis that reckons only the finance sector is the causal force in disrupting capitalism.

So why, Roberts asks, do Keynesian ideas continue to dominate? Here he brings in Geoff Mann - director of the Centre for Global Political Economy at Simon Fraser University, Canada and his new book, entitled In the Long Run We are all Dead which argues that Keynes rules .  
…….because he offers a third way between socialist revolution and barbarism, i.e. the end of civilisation as we (actually the bourgeois like Keynes) know it.  In the 1920s and 1930s, Keynes feared that the ‘civilised world’ faced Marxist revolution or fascist dictatorship.  But socialism as an alternative to the capitalism of the Great Depression could well bring down ‘civilisation’, delivering instead ‘barbarism’  – the end of a better world, the collapse of technology and the rule of law, more wars etc.
So he aimed to offer the hope that, through some modest fixing of ‘liberal capitalism’, it would be possible to make capitalism work without the need for socialist revolution.  There would no need to go where the angels of ‘civilisation’ fear to tread.  That was the Keynesian narrative. This appealed (and still appeals) to the leaders of the labour movement and ‘liberals’ wanting change.  Revolution was risky and we could all go down with it.  Mann: “the Left wants democracy without populism, it wants transformational politics without the risks of transformation; it wants revolution without revolutionaries”. (p21).

Those wanting more detail can read this well-written paper (20 pp) by Mann entitled “Keynes Resurrected?” (2013) as well as his critique of Thomas Pikety

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Exemplary Critics

I’m a great fan of diagrams – apart from giving us a breathing space from text, they show that the writer is aware that we all operate with very different types of understanding
hAnd - even more than the act of writing itself - the process of designing a diagram will quickly throw up the flaws in your thinking…….
Six categories form the heart of the two diagrams from the Commons Transition people I referred to yesterday - I liked the selection of the worlds of “work”, “citizens” and “conscience” as key categories – we all behave differently in these spheres……and I understood the “politics” and “economy” labels – we have various assumptions and expectations in those fields….
It was the sixth category however – of “consumption/production” which utterly confused me. What exactly is it – and how does it differ from “economy” and “work”?? And why are “workers’ cooperatives” not included in the “economy” category (and “social enterprise” included not there but in “work”??)

There were actually two diagrams – one purporting to illustrate the “present capitalist paradigm”, the second “Beyond Capitalism” and containing illustrative names……
The first diagram, however, was also bereft of such illustrations and I therefore offered a simpler version of the diagram which included the names of writers I considered offered useful examples of the schools indicated (with appropriate hyperlinks)….
I readily concede that the names selected probably said more about the world of an ageing (male) Brit than anything else – even so, of the 23 names selected, only five are actually English.
I do, however, have to confess that all but two are male (although I generally quote people like Susan Strange and Susan George).

Let me introduce this exemplary group – in future posts I hope to say more about those who have written critically in the past 50 odd years about the economic and political system which has us in its grip…… I start at the top left corner of the diagram with some key names in the increasingly critical debate about the health of our democracies........
Sheldon Wolin was one of America’s most distinguished political scientists – producing in 1960 one of the most lucid and inviting political textbooks “Politics and Vision” (700pp). As a student of politics between 1960-64, it was his book (and Bernard Crick’s “In Defence of Politics”) which inspired me to pursue politics as a vocation……
He died in 2015 at the grand age of 93, having produced seven years earlier a withering critique of the American political system - Democracy Incorporated – managed democracy and the spectre of inverted totalitarianism
 Peter Mair was a highly respected Irish political scientist who died at the height of his powers at the age of 60 and is renowned for Ruling the Void – the hollowing of Western Democracy (2013) which encapsulated the increasing despair of serious political scientists about the post 2000 trajectory of democracy.
 Robert Michels started the critique a hundred years earlier with his “ Political Parties – a sociological study of the oligarchical tendencies of modern democracy” first produced in German in 1911.
 Jeremy Gilbert is a British academic whose  Reclaim Modernity – beyond markets; beyond machines (2014) was a contribution to the ongoing debate about the future of the British Labour party 
David Graeber is an American anthropologist who has written powerfully about the history of debt; about anarchism; and more recently about aspects of modern work…..
Mark Blyth is a Scottish-American political economist whose Austerity – history of a dangerous idea made a big impact when it first appeared in 2013 and even more so in his subsequent lectures…
Yanis Varfoukis is a Greek-American economist whose The Global Minotaur – America, the true origins of the financial crisis; and the future of the world economy (2011) ……
Wolfgang Streeck is a German sociologist who has produced a series of powerfully-written critiques of the modern economy, culminating in How will Capitalism End?
David Harvey is an English Marxist geographer who has been based in the States for the past few decades; and become famous for his courses on Marxism and capitalism. One of his most powerful books is A Brief History of Neo Liberalism (2005)
Guy Standing’s claim to fame is The Precariat – the new dangerous class (2011)
New Capitalism? The End of Work (2009) by Kevin Doogan is a surprisingly critical assessment of the writing which from the mid 1980s has warned of the increasing job insecurity which lies ahead. It’s worth reading for its summary of writing of this important field.
Barbara Ehrenreich is an American journalist who has famously worked undercover to bring to readers her experiences of just how grim working life can be eg “Nickel and Dimed”
Joseph Stiglitz was the World Bank’s Chief Economist until his challenges of its Orthodoxy proved too much for them to bear. Globalisation and its Discontents (2002) is one of the many trenchant books he has written to expose the emptiness of economics orthodoxy….
John Michael Greer is an American writer and one of the most prominent of what might be called the apocalypicists – who consider that the western world is on a “Long (if slow) Descent” to a simpler world…I’m using the word in a respectful way since a lot of their arguments are convincing – and Greer’s analysis of American politics is the most profound I’ve seen.
Dmitry Orlov is another such apocalypticist – a Russian engineer who came to the States in 1974 (when 12) and, on home visits, having seen the USSR collapse at first hand, has been suggesting since his     Reinventing Collapse; the Soviet Experience and American Prospects (2005) that a similar fate awaits the States… 
Michael Pollan is a Professor of English in the States who became famous for his writing on agro-business
Naomi Klein is a radical Canadian journalist who made an impact with her “No Logo” (1999) and “The Shock Doctrine” (2007) books about capitalism. This Changes Everything (2014)
Oliver James is a British psychologist whose various books (such as “Affluenza” 2001) reflect the concerns of a lot of people….
Pope Francis has become the remaining hope of a lot of progressives. On Care of our Common Home (2015) is an encyclical which lambasts the present economic system and doctrines… 
Christopher Lasch was an American cultural analyst whose The Culture of Narcissism (1979) caught well the self-centredness of America in the post 60s period. His penetrating critiques continued with The True and Only Heaven – progress and its critics (1991) and his posthumous The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995)
Edward Snowden is the whistle-blower par excellence – working for a CIA sub-contractor he unearthed and spilled the story of the scale of American hacking of private accounts…
Julian Assange is an Australian computer expert, publisher and activist who has been holed up in London’s Ecuador Embassy since 2102 for fear of extradition to the US for “trumped-up” charges by the Swedish authorities…. 
Danny Dorling is a British geographer whose Injustice (2014) rivals the moral power of RH Tawney‘s writing and whose A Better Politics – how government can make us happier (2016) is one of the clearest invitations to a better society

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Understanding the mess we're in

The left-right scale has a long history – the left label coming in the 20th century to designate people on the basis of their attitude to the economic role which the state should play in society. Since, however, the late 50s and the arrival of a more “self-expressive” spirit, an additional dimension was needed to indicate attitudes to the hierarchy/participation dimension (ie political power). 
The political compass website – which allows you to take your own test – labels these additional dimensions “left authoritarian” and “left libertarian”
Last year I came across a couple of diagrams from the Commons Transition people which I found very useful correctives to the normal simplifications we get about what is going in the world….  

It uses six dimensions – which it labels “politics”, “the economy”, “work”, “citizens”, “conscience” and “consumption” to identify a dozen key concerns which have surfaced about recent global trends. We can certainly quibble about the logic of the dimensions - and the labels used for the trends - but the diagrams are thought-provoking and worthy of more discussion than they seem to have obtained in the couple of years they have been available.

The first of the diagrams details the “Current Capitalist Paradigm” but, for my money, could be improved by adding some names of illustrative writers. 
I have therefore taken the liberty of producing a simpler version of the diagram which includes about 20 names – with hyperlinks in each case to key texts. Readers who are frustrated by the tiny lettering of the names around the perimeter should therefore simply click on the link (NOT the diagram above) and then click the particular name whose material they want to access.

The second diagram is entitled Beyond Capitalism and does include illustrative names. This too could, in my view, do with some additions (and deletions) and I hope to include an amended version in a future post. For example, it is a bit light on robotisation…..
For the moment, however, let me simply offer my readers the diagrams as a better way of mapping the literature to which we should be paying attention…..  

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Memorable Messages

I’ve set myself a rather challenging task – to sift through the 200 plus books which have popped up on my blogposts over the past eight years which relate to what we, rather egocentrically, call “the global crisis”; and to identify those which I would recommend to those members of the younger generation struggling tomake sense of the mess….
It’s challenging because I’m finding that I was too hasty in my reading the first time round – or, if I’m totally frank, that I was too lazy or distracted to do much more than flick the pages….But a trawl like this offers the great advantage of ……."compare and contrast"…

Plus .....I now know (or think I know!) what I’m looking for. A previous post set out some of the prerequisites I now look for in any book and, the more I skim the material I’ve collected, the more ruthless I feel about exploring the question of whether a book has the qualities required to change the way the reader looks at the world…..  
Bear in mind that I bring to the task no fewer than 60 years of quite intensive reading while trying to make sense of (those bits of) the world (I feel I should be making an effort to understand)…..When we do these lists of the century’s “key books”, I often wonder how many the compilers have included from a sense of duty – rather than from a sense of its felt impact…..
And so I did a little test – I asked myself which books had actually so impressed me that I had given them as presents to others or used in my project work of the past 25 years …..The common factor in the resulting list was "typologies" - the books all had a way of simplifying the complexity which faces us...

The typology
Author; source
Further detail
3 incentive types
Etzioni (1971)

Carrots, sticks, norm compliance

8 Roles in any effective team

Belbin (1981)
Plant, resource investigator, coordinator, shaper, monitor, teamworker, implementer, finisher, specialist
10 Rules to stifle innovation

Rosabeth Kantor (in her 1983 book “The Change Masters”
See later
7 Habits of Effective People
Stephen Covey (1989)
See later
Full book available on internet
4 Gods of Management
Charles Handy/Roger Harrison in Gods of Management (1984)

Zeus (boss culture); Appollo ((hierarchy - role culture); Athena (task culture); Dionysus (individual professional)
4 basic interpretive stances

Mary Douglas grid-group theory (1970s); Chris Hood’s “The State of the State”  (2000)

Hierarchical, individualist, egalitarian, fatalist
48 ways to gain power

Robert Greene in “The 48 Laws of Power” (1998)

Link gives access to entire book
6 global threats to capitalism
Susan George in “The Lugano Report – on preserving capitalism in the 21st century” (1999) – a powerful critique in the form of a spoof report produced by consultants for the global elite
Strongly recommend the new Introduction she wrote – accessible on the googlebook link

In one of my blogs I referred to the pleasures of the lists – the Seven Deadly Sins; Seven Habits of Effective People (Covey); Ten Commandments (God); and Ten rules for stifling innovation (Kanter) seem just about manageable. When I was working in Central Europe in the 1990s I used to buy multiple copies of the Covey book in the local language - Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian – since it was one of the few books I knew in English which was also available in the local language and was useful as a means of professional conversation. I know that the book is rather frowned upon in intellectual circles but I still think it's got something.....including the famous sketch of a woman which demonstrates so powerfully our disparate perceptions.....
The principles were/are -
- be proactive
- begin with the end in mind
- put first things first
- think win/win
- seek first to understand : then to be understood
- synergise
- "sharpen the saw" - ie keep mentally and physically fit

When I moved to Central Asia and Caucasus in 1999, I found that presentation of Rosabeth Kanter’s “Ten rules for stifling innovation” was a marvellous way to liven up a workshop with middle-ranking officials. 
She had concocted this prescription as a satiric comment on the way she discovered from her research that senior executives in US commercial giants like IBM, General Motors were continuing to act in the old centralised ways despite changed structures and rhetoric.

1. regard any new idea from below with suspicion - because it's new, and it's from below
2. insist that people who need your approval to act first go through several other layers of management to get their signatures
3. Ask departments or individuals to challenge and criticise each other's proposals (That saves you the job of deciding : you just pick the survivor)
4. Express your criticisms freely - and withhold your praise (that keeps people on their toes). Let them know they can be fired at any time
5. Treat identification of problems as signs of failure, to discourage people from letting you know when something in their area is not working
6. Control everything carefully. Make sure people count anything that can be counted, frequently.
7. Make decisions to reorganise or change policies in secret, and spring them on people unexpectedly (that also keeps them on their toes)
8. Make sure that requests for information are fully justified, and make sure that it is not given to managers freely
9. Assign to lower-level managers, in the name of delegation and participation, responsibility for figuring out how to cut back, lay off, move around, or otherwise implement threatening decisions you have made. And get them to do it quickly.
10. And above all, never forget that you, the higher-ups, already know everything important about this business.

“Any of this strike you as similar?” I would cheekily ask my Uzbek and Azeri officials.

Robert Greene’s 24 ways to seduce; 33 ways to conduct war; and 48 Laws of power are, also, tongue in cheek. The first to hit the market was the 48 Laws of power and I enjoyed partly because it so thoroughly challenged in its spirit the gung-ho (and unrealistic) naivety of the preaching which characterised so many of the management books of the time – and partly for the way historical examples are woven into the text. I’ve selected a few to give the reader a sense of the spirit of the book
• Never put too much trust in friends; learn how to use enemies
• Conceal your intentions
• always say less than necessary
• Guard your reputation with your life
• Court attention at all costs
• Get others to do the work, but always take the credit
• Make other people come to you
• Win through your actions, never through argument
• Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victims

I found a Russian translation of the book in Baku and gave it as a leaving gift to the Azeri lawyer in the Presidential Office with whom I had worked closely for 2 years on the project to help implement the Civil Service Law. He obviouly made good use of it as 3 months later he was appointed as Head(Ministerial level)of the new Civil Service Agency my work had helped inspire!

Luther’s 95 theses on the wall of the Wittenberg church may seem excessive – but, given the success of his mission, perhaps contain a lesson for the media advisers who tell us that the public can absorb a limited number of messages only!

Sarah Bakewell suggests in How to Live – or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty attempts at an Answer that Montaigne’s life can usefully be encapsulated in 20 injunctions –
• Don’t worry about death
• Read a lot, forget most of it – and be slow-witted
• Survive love and loss
• Use little tricks
• Question everything
• Keep a private room behind the shop
• Be convivial; live with others
• Wake from the sleep of habit
• Do something no one has done before
• Do a good job – but not too good a job
• Reflect on everything; regret nothing
• Give up control

At the very least, when I see such lists, it suggests we're in for some fun!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The End of Work?

Every now and then in my everyday life, I’ve had the sudden feeling that I was being granted a flash of insight into the future. In the late 1960s I had access to the writings of Americans such as Donald Schon and Warren Bennis who were beginning to sketch the flexible organization of the future - the title of Alvin Toffler’s 1971 book caught the spirit of the age to come – “Future Shock”.
Personally I was rather excited by the new organizational possibilities - exemplified in Charles Handy’s 1978 book Gods of Management which contrasted the familiar hierarchic or “Zeus” (club) culture with the Appollonian (role), Athenian (task/matrixh) and Dionysian (existential) ones.
Roger Harrison was a great organizational consultant who actually beat Handy to the idea of organizational cultures but Handy packaged it better. Harrison left us a superb set of “parting thoughts”
I had established a pioneer matrix structure a few years earlier in a very large organization -. Strathclyde Region – and our Member-officer groups broke from the conventions of municipal decision-making in various ways -
· its members (middle-level officials and councillors) were equal in status
· noone was assumed to have a monopoly of truth - by virtue of ideological or professional status
· the officers nominated to the groups were generally not from Headquarters - but from the field
· evidence was invited from staff and the outside world, in many cases from clients themselves
· they represented a political statement that certain issues had been neglected in the past
· the process invited external bodies (eg voluntary organisations) to give evidence
· the reports were written in frank terms : and concerned more with how existing resources were being used than with demands for more money.
· the reports were seen as the start of a process - rather than the end - with monitoring groups established once decisions had been made.
I had another flash of insight when I read an article in the early 1980s from an American economist(Alan Schick?) about the prospects for the privatization of the National Health Service – so much so that I sent the opposition spokesman for Health a warning note……..And it was Charles Handy’s 1984 book “The Future of Work” which convinced me that the familiar contours of our world were moving under our feet – it was this book which warned us that the notion of life-long jobs was gone for ever and which introduced us to the term “portfolio life”…
There’s a nice little video here of Handy presenting his (more recent) idea of the “second curve” during which he reminds us of the discussions he had in the 1970s about the purpose of the company - and the casual way people such as Milton Friedmann and his acolytes then introduced the idea of senior managers being given “share options” as incentives. Handy regrets the failure of people to challenge what has now become the biggest element of the scandal of the gross inequalities which disfigure our societies…..

A few years after Handy’s Future of Work, I vividly remember the impact on me of Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine (1988) - which drew on the evidence of the new information technology industries to underline the threat the future held to our notion of a normal working life….(she’s just producing another fascinating book on Surveillance Capitalism)

We have all subsequently taken advantage of the speed, choice and capacity with which we have been richly endowed by the new information facilities - but perhaps been a bit slow to recognize the scale of its consequences. Google's driver-less car and the speed with which companies such as Uber and Airbnb have scaled up brought it all home to us….But people like Frithjof Bergmann and Jeremy Rifkin – the latter with his “the End of Work (1995) were amongst a few at the time who appreciated what Handy was onto……Since then there have been quite a few books with the title “The Future of Work” – Thomas Malone (2004), David Bollier (2011),  Jacob Morgan (2014) to which I should have been paying more attention…..
But, very suddenly it seems, the scale of the impact of IT and robots on jobs previously thought safe from automation has hit people and the prospect of the majority of people living without paid work is now beginning to both excite and frighten….Race against the machine (2011) is perhaps the most famous of the books about this....
The air is thick with talk, for example, of the necessity of a Basic Income; and of the writings of both Keynes and Marx on this subject…..

It’s a book which has attracted a lot of attention and I shall give some excerpts and comments in future posts….

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

the concerned citizen is very badly served

You would think that, after the last decade of the global crisis, it would not be difficult to find a few impartial books clearly written by those familiar with the huge literature and which help the concerned citizen understand how exactly the crash happened; and whether any measures could realistically rekindle hope….  
We have thousands of books about the causes of the global economic crisis of 2007/08 which pin blame, variously, on banks, speculators and a score of other explanations - but few have actually been written which satisfy the five preconditions which the previous paragraph specifies - in relation to purpose, audience or knowledge ……Almost all are rather produced to argue an existing (partial) viewpoint; are written for students (to pass exams) or for other academics – rather than for the concerned citizen; and cover only those parts of the literature which the author’s job and/or inclinations require him/her to pay attention to…. (the last therefore excludes, for example, work which comes from the political economy (eg Susan Strange; Mark Blyth); or sociology (Wolfgang Streeck) fields…

I have a simple test for whether a book on the crisis is worth buying - go the Preface/Introduction and check how many of the key points are covered (award one point for each)–
- Does it say why yet another book is needed to add to the huge pile we already have?
- Does it argue that the book has something distinctive to say?
- is anything said about the audience the author is aiming at?
- Does it hint that there are different schools of thinking about the issue?
- No book can be comprehensive – does the author list what subjects (s)he has excluded?
- Is there an annotated further reading list in an annex?

I can’t say I was greatly helped when I googled phrases such as “best sellers in the global crisis” - I got a list of 100 books – but nothing to help me make a selection. 
I did, however, find this annotated list of 12 from someone who was writing his own book and recounted how difficult it was to get past the book buyers of the major companies, 
And there was a rare annotated list of 25 “must read” (mostly American) books on the crisis on an interesting website Planning beyond Capitalism - but its selection was understandably a bit light on books from other ideological stables…
Economics for Everyone in a very friendly-looking book which can actually be downloaded in full (all 360 pages!!) and has an excellent “further reading” list    
And here's an introductory course on economics whose 11 sections have some good reading (and viewing) material - with hyperlinks.....
I’m currently sifting all the references I’ve made in my thousand plus blogposts about the issue – to see if I can come up with a commentary which might help others in my position…The names which figure are the following (in no particular order) – Michael Lewis, Michael Hudson, Martin Wolff, David Korten, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Mason, Will Hutton, Paul Hirst, Andrew Gamble, Herman Daly, Susan George, Mark Blyth, Wolfgang Streeck, David Harvey, Michel Albert, Colin Crouch, David Marquand…

If asked to make a single recommendation, I would plump fairly confidently for Mark Blyth’s Austerity – the history of a dangerous idea But I’m sure there is another book out there which I could recommend to the concerned citizen?  

At least, people are now prepared to call the system by its name – “capitalism” – before the crisis, this was a word which rarely passed people’s lips. Now the talk everywhere is not only of capitalism but “post-capitalism”…….And an encouraging American initiative The Next System had an initial report – The Next System Report – political possibilities for the 21st Century (2015) which contains extensive references to writing I had not so far encountered and to good community practice in various parts of the world.  It has since followed up with a series of worthwhile papers.

Update; there's a useful bibliography here - if a bit outdated and American. And I've also just uploaded the "Economics for Everyone" book (all 360 pages) which I would recommend

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Bucharest's English bookshop closes its doors - hopefully temporarily

Tens of thousands of demonstrators on the Bucharest street are still hoping to shame the new Romanian government into wholesale resignation and it therefore hardly seems an appropriate time to devote a post to the closing of an independent bookshop - but the Anthony Frost English Bookshop in central Bucharest is no ordinary bookshop. It has been called “one of Central Europe’s best” – has been delighting bibliophiles for almost a decade and belongs to a very small number of places to which I have dedicated the phrase “oases of civilisation” or sanctuaries of originality
They are generally galleries or bookshops whose owners have a real art of creating an atmosphere in which people can quietly explore - whether by flicking, viewing or chatting.

All is hopefully not lost, however. The catalyst to the decision seems to have been the rent – the Orthodox church which own the premises clearly doesn’t understand the spiritual value of culture – or, more precisely perhaps, all too well understands the threat of foreign ideas…..
So Vlad will be exploring other locations and premises and I, rashly, promised to send him some ideas for broadening the shop’s appeal. I well understand that the focus on English-language books rather limits its clientele…..presumably it is only the passing foreign journalist who will drop in - not your typical (British/Commonwealth) tourist! 

Oscar Wilde, of course, got it right when he said - "I always pass on good advice.....it's the only thing to do with it…!!" In that vein, let me repeat what I have written to Vlad - 
There was apparently quite an emotional reaction to the news of the closing - confirming just how much we value the “experience” we are offered when we enter….the friendship, the range of books on offer, the music, the conversation, coffee…..Only in private art galleries in Sofia do I have this “elevated” experience ….
People only notice such things when they are gone…..Now that your customers have realized their loss, they have the chance to do something to bring it back….so let’s ask what THEY can do.
Your customers deserve a note thanking them for their custom – with an indication that you are hoping to open up elsewhere and an invitation to help shape a strategy….Perhaps Survey Monkey could be used to design a simple questionnaire?  
Perhaps key academics in the various cities in the country might be visited who are in a position to recommend key English texts – whether in language or management courses – for their students to buy from you?And reading circles are another good way in which those wishing to improve their English could help you boost the sales of selected books…..Britain these days needs all the friends it can muster – perhaps the British Embassy can be persuaded to get involved in a new strategy (clearly you would have to prepare very carefully for such an approach)  
This blogger mentions his feelings – touching on some public events in your bookshop which I hadn’t been aware of – so obviously data bases and social media are important. I had always wanted to come to an event – even contribute…….I realize that any display of paintings takes wall space you otherwise need for book shelves – and well appreciate that you’re in a zero-sum situation here….But linking up with some vineyards could be another way of attracting custom. There are not so many wine shops in central Bucharest….(I speak as an expert!).
Our Irish friends have a nice saying for such an occasion - "May the wind be at your back"!!

One of the books which I pulled from my shelves as I was scribbling this was a little book which bore the Frost English bookshop sticker - it was "Stop what you're doing a Read This!" - a manifesto from 2011 from a dozen writers about the importance of "gateways to reading" physical books - such as libraries and bookshops. However difficult in these populist times, this is the argument we need conducted........