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!

Friday, October 31, 2014

The undermining of cooperation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 24, 2014

Are we going to Hell?

In a couple of weeks it will be 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell.
Celebrations, I suspect, will be muted. How far we have fallen since those heady days – when so many intellectuals and politicians were celebrating not only the defeat of communism but “the end of history” 

There was always a significant minority of people who dissented from this Panglossian view and tried to remind us of the cyclical nature of things; and to warn of the arrogance, indeed hubris, involved in our assumptions about “progress” - what John Gray called recently “melioristic liberalism”
Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind.According to this view, evil, if any such thing exists, is not an inbuilt human flaw, but a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be permanently improved…………….
Gray’s is one of four articles in the past week from different parts of the world (and standpoints) which argue that western civilisation is doomed. An Indian – Pankaj Mishra gives the most measured analysis  – summonsing names such as Alexander Herzen, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Raymond Aron to the discussion
The most violent century in human history, it was hardly the best advertisement for the “bland fanatics of western civilisation”, as Niebuhr called them at the height of the cold war, “who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence”.
Niebuhr was critiquing a fundamentalist creed that has coloured our view of the world for more than a century: that western institutions of the nation-state and liberal democracy will be gradually generalised around the world, and that the aspiring middle classes created by industrial capitalism will bring about accountable, representative and stable governments – that every society, in short, is destined to evolve just as the west did.

Critics of this teleological view, which defines “progress” exclusively as development along western lines, have long perceived its absolutist nature. Secular liberalism, the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen cautioned as early as 1862, “is the final religion, though its church is not of the other world but of this”. But it has had many presumptive popes and encyclicals: from the 19th-century dream of a westernised world long championed by the Economist, in which capital, goods, jobs and people freely circulate, to Henry Luce’s proclamation of an “American century” of free trade, and “modernisation theory” – the attempt by American cold warriors to seduce the postcolonial world away from communist-style revolution and into the gradualist alternative of consumer capitalism and democracy.
The collapse of communist regimes in 1989 further emboldened Niebuhr’s bland fanatics. The old Marxist teleology was retrofitted rather than discarded in Francis Fukuyama’s influential end-of-history thesis, and cruder theories about the inevitable march to worldwide prosperity and stability were vended by such Panglosses of globalisation as Thomas Friedman. Arguing that people privileged enough to consume McDonald’s burgers don’t go to war with each other, the New York Times columnist was not alone in mixing old-fangled Eurocentrism with American can-doism, a doctrine that grew from America’s uninterrupted good fortune and unchallenged power in the century before September 2001.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 briefly disrupted celebrations of a world globalised by capital and consumption. But the shock to naive minds only further entrenched in them the intellectual habits of the cold war – thinking through binary oppositions of “free” and “unfree” worlds – and redoubled an old delusion: liberal democracy, conceived by modernisation theorists as the inevitable preference of the beneficiaries of capitalism, could now be implanted by force in recalcitrant societies. Invocations of a new “long struggle” against “Islamofascism” aroused many superannuated cold warriors who missed the ideological certainties of battling communism.
Intellectual narcissism survived, and was often deepened by, the realisation that economic power had begun to shift from the west. The Chinese, who had “got capitalism”, were, after all, now “downloading western apps”, according to Niall Ferguson. As late as 2008, Fareed Zakaria declared in his much-cited book, The Post-American World, that “the rise of the rest is a consequence of American ideas and actions” and that “the world is going America’s way”, with countries “becoming more open, market-friendly and democratic”.
One event after another in recent months has cruelly exposed such facile narratives. China, though market-friendly, looks further from democracy than before. The experiment with free-market capitalism in Russia has entrenched a kleptocratic regime with a messianic belief in Russian supremacism. Authoritarian leaders, anti-democratic backlashes and rightwing extremism define the politics of even such ostensibly democratic countries as India, Israel, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Turkey.
The atrocities of this summer in particular have plunged political and media elites in the west into stunned bewilderment and some truly desperate cliches. The extraordinary hegemonic power of their ideas had helped them escape radical examination when the world could still be presented as going America’s way. But their preferred image of the west – the idealised one in which they sought to remake the rest of the world – has been consistently challenged by many critics, left or right, in the west as well as the east.
John Gray’s article picks up the argument -
It’s in the Middle East, however, that the prevailing liberal worldview has proved most consistently misguided. At bottom, it may be western leaders’ inability to think outside this melioristic creed that accounts for their failure to learn from experience. After more than a decade of intensive bombing, backed up by massive ground force, the Taliban continue to control much of Afghanistan and appear to be regaining ground as the American-led mission is run down. Libya – through which a beaming David Cameron processed in triumph only three years ago, after the use of western air power to help topple Gaddafi – is now an anarchic hell-hole that no western leader could safely visit.
One might think such experiences would be enough to deter governments from further exercises in regime change. But our leaders cannot admit the narrow limits of their power. They cannot accept that by removing one kind of evil they may succeed only in bringing about another – anarchy instead of tyranny, Islamist popular theocracy instead of secular dictatorship. They need a narrative of continuing advance if they are to preserve their sense of being able to act meaningfully in the world, so they are driven again and again to re-enact their past failures………………….
Der Spiegel then weighs in with a long piece about the economic aspects of thecrisis

But it is John Michael Greer’s weekly blogpost which really puts the boot in on the intellectual naivety which has been assaulting our ears and eyes since the middle of the last century. Greer has been too easily cast as an “apocalyptist” but has written some profound books for which his latest post is a good taster. To many, the scenarios he paints about the next century may seem far-fetched - but few people would have predicted from the optimism which greeted the dawn of the 20th century that it would have gone so badly. Why do we think we are any different?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The scourge of Neophilia

I’ve been busy this past week – and here’s why….
Last Friday I suddenly decided to see if another suitable rented flat was available in central Sofia - now that my tenancy of the past 2 years is ending. The third time I’ve had to move in 7 years – my flat has been so popular that the different owners wanted it for themselves!
I’m very particular – liking only “period” accommodation, with space, “character” and original features. And ideally in a less than fashionable area.
The fates were smiling……it took me less than an hour to find the place – and I make the move tomorrow…..

I’ve also been busy putting the finishing touches to the new website.
I’ve written before about the scourge of neophilia 
Our fixation with novelty, for example, means that we click out of a blog if it is has not been updated - instead of scrolling down to look at “older posts” which may actually be far more interesting than this week’s!
But we don’t hesitate to read the same posts if they appear in a new book! So - as my blog works from the present backwards….I thought it useful to reverse the sequence and offer the posts of the past 5 years in book form – in 5 volumes to be precise…. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

A five-letter word which sends shivers around the world

One of my closest friends has been working in Sierra Leone for the past 18 months – as Team Leader of a civil service reform project in Freetown. He is back home in Brussels at the moment but scheduled to fly back in a few days – to take up a project extension of 12 months.
Remember that this is the country in the eye-storm of the Ebola pandemic where deaths are doubling every month – as set out in this powerful piece in the current issue of LRB

I remonstrated with him but he had a powerful argument. He has earned the confidence of senior civil servants there – and they need the unique blend he has of experience, common sense and  analytical skills. I don’t anyone in my line of work who is able to come up so readily with “stories” which make so much sense about the perversities which are perpetrated by the leaders of modern organisations (whether private or public). I worked – very briefly – in The World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1990/91 and was generally very impressed with how much its European Office (in Copenhagen) was able to achieve with minimal resources. But it had its weaknesses – a few of its nationals appointed (on patronage) were disastrous and that, according to a leaked report in today’s Guardian, seems to be the case for its African desk.

I remember his (unrepeatable) comments from our skype conversation a couple of months ago.
I salute a brave man
And wish him a safe return.......

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Through a Glass ....Darkly

We don’t need anyone these days to tell us that we’re in a mess. Nor to explain why. The libraries are groaning with books on globalization, deregulation, privatization, debt, greed, corruption, pollution, austerity, migration.
I’m reminded of a wave of books in the 1970s which were early harbingers of this sense of crisis - The Seventh Enemy (1978) was a typical example. It described the 7 main threats to human survival as the population explosion, food shortage, scarcity of natural resources, pollution, nuclear energy, uncontrolled technology - and human nature.
The author’s experience of government and international institutions convinces him that the most dangerous was the moral blindness of people and the inertia of political institutions.

A lot has happened in the subsequent 46 years – new pressing issues have been identified –but who would gainsay his identification of the “seventh” enemy? These days, there would probably be a majority in favour of stringing up a few bankers, politicians and economists – “pour encourager le autres” – were it not illegal…

If, however, the problem has been defined, diagnosed and satisfactorily explained – why do we remain so confused and divided if not, in many cases, apathetic about the action we should be taking?

Over the years, I’ve read and collected books and articles to help me identify the sort of agenda and actions which might unite a fair-minded majority.
Like many people, I’ve clicked, skimmed and saved – but rarely gone back to read thoroughly. The folders in which they have collected have had various names – such as “urgent reading” or “what is to be done” – but rarely accessed. Occasionally I remember one and blog about it.

Only now with the new website – have I the incentive to attempt a more serious trawl, a more sustained read and more systematic search for a common agenda.

I’ve started to uplaod a couple of dozen of "key readings" – most reasonably well-known names but a few outliers….one of which is From Chaos to Change – entering a new era – a remarkable, detailed manifesto for change written by a Dutch veteran of earlier struggles, Joost van Steenis, who is one of only a few activists to have taken and time and trouble to write not one but several detailed manifestos. It can be downloaded in its entirety from the site.

I've made a casual reference to the new website on which I;ve been working feverishly over the past few weeks. It is actually now up and running - but not quite officially open to visitors. You can, however, peek in - its name is Mapping the Common Ground - ways of thinking about the crisis 
This post is actually the text of the introduction to what I was going to call "the library" but I may now entitle "Readings for social change" - which will probably be one of two separate libraries, the other   being "Readings for organisational change"?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Writing as Power

It’s rather a coincidence that the Nobel Prize for Literature is announced the very day I wanted to complete a post about the question which has been exercising me these last few days - namely what makes for good writing.
I have been editing about 20 of the pieces I have written and put on the old website in the past 5 years - and discovered a short paper I had done for some students (at the Central Asian University in Bishkek) on how to write a paper.
Of course, that’s not quite the same thing as writing a novel! But some of the same questions about standards and power seem to apply. What exactly are the qualifications of the panel for deciding who will gain this prestigious (and generous) award? And what precise criteria do they use? I’m generally fairly bewildered by the awards – although I’m not a great fan of novels. But I do like quality writing and have to say that I have read only 3 of the Nobel prize-winners of the last 10 years – Pamuk, Vargas Llosa and Coetze. Few of the other 7 seem all that deserving…..

Anyway, for the past week, I have been doing three things
·         Writing a 1-2 page “blurb” for the 15 Papers or Essays (which are on average 60 pages long)
·         Writing a slightly longer intro to the 8 E-books which will be on the new website in a week or so
·         Re-formatting all of the material

This has involved recollecting the circumstances which brought this writing into being – and reflecting on my writing style and structure. So I’m now hooked on a major rewrite of the paper on writing reports – which is directed at officials and students facing a stroppy boss or supervisor and interested in the process of creation. Normally I sit with the laptop and let the keys do the thinking – as the phrases and sentences appear on the screen, I question them and am led into some unexpected but fruitful fields. Just as happens when I’m doing a presentation to a group and ask them initially to give me some questions…… In both cases, ideas appear which I hadn't previously thought of...
But this time, I operated even more creatively…some months ago I had bought a very large artist’s sketchpad which can stand on the floor like an easel. With a fine felt pen I just scribble phrases in large script and then tear the page off and leave on the floor like a post-it note….
Alternating between this and the laptop has proved to be quite effective….

By a further coincidence, I was reminded of Steven Pinker’s recently published book - The Sense of Style – the thinking person’s guide to good writing - which asks -
Why is so much writing so bad? Why is it so hard to understand a government form, or an academic article or the instructions for setting up a wireless home network?
The most popular explanation is that opaque prose is a deliberate choice. Bureaucrats insist on gibberish to cover their anatomy. Plaid-clad tech writers get their revenge on the jocks who kicked sand in their faces and the girls who turned them down for dates. Pseudo-intellectuals spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook. But the bamboozlement theory makes it too easy to demonize other people while letting ourselves off the hook. In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon's Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
The kind of stupidity I have in mind has nothing to do with ignorance or low IQ; in fact, it's often the brightest and best informed who suffer the most from it.
I once attended a lecture on biology addressed to a large general audience at a conference on technology, entertainment and design. The lecture was also being filmed for distribution over the Internet to millions of other laypeople. The speaker was an eminent biologist who had been invited to explain his recent breakthrough in the structure of DNA. He launched into a jargon-packed technical presentation that was geared to his fellow molecular biologists, and it was immediately apparent to everyone in the room that none of them understood a word and he was wasting their time. Apparent to everyone, that is, except the eminent biologist. When the host interrupted and asked him to explain the work more clearly, he seemed genuinely surprised and not a little annoyed. This is the kind of stupidity I am talking about. 
The “curse of knowledge” is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows—that they haven't mastered the argot of her guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail……. 
 This is good stuff and what follows echoes exactly what my own draft said all these years ago -
How can we lift the curse of knowledge? The traditional advice—always remember the reader over your shoulder—is not as effective as you might think. None of us has the power to see everyone else's private thoughts, so just trying harder to put yourself in someone else's shoes doesn't make you much more accurate in figuring out what that person knows. But it's a start. So for what it's worth: Hey, I'm talking to you. Your readers know a lot less about your subject than you think, and unless you keep track of what you know that they don't, you are guaranteed to confuse them. 
A better way to exorcise the curse of knowledge is to close the loop, as the engineers say, and get a feedback signal from the world of readers—that is, show a draft to some people who are similar to your intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us. Only when we ask those people do we discover that what's obvious to us isn't obvious to them. 
The other way to escape the curse of knowledge is to show a draft to yourself, ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar. If you are like me you will find yourself thinking, "What did I mean by that?" or "How does this follow?" or, all too often, "Who wrote this crap?" The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader. Advice on writing is not so much advice on how to write as on how to revise.
 Steven Pinker is an eminent psychologist and has a good interview on the book in the current Slate Magazine.

My only quibble is with his title – there are a lot of style books out there but I don’t think that’s what he’s actually talking about. He seems rather to be addressing the more crucial issue of how we structure our thinking and present it so clearly that the reader or listener understands and is actually motivated to do something with the insights…..

Once we stop thinking about the words we use, what exactly they mean and whether they fit our purpose, the words and metaphors (and the interests behind them) take over and reduce our powers of critical thinking. One of the best essays on this topic is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English language”  Written in 1947, it exposes the way certain clichés and rhetoric are calculated to kill thinking – for example how the use of the passive tense undermines the notion that it is people who take decisions and should be held accountable for them.

Fifty years before Orwell, Ambrose Bierce was another (American) journalist whose pithy and tough definitions of everyday words, in his newspaper column, attracted sufficient attention to justify a book “The Devil’s Dictionary” whose fame continues unto this day. A dentist, for example, he defined as “a magician who puts metal into your mouth and pulls coins out of your pocket”. A robust scepticism about both business and politics infused his work – bit it did not amount to a coherent statement about power.

My own Just Words - a glossary and bibliography for the fight against the pretensions and perversities of power looks at more than 100 words and phrases used by officials, politicians, consultants and academics in the course of government reform which have this effect and offers some definitions which at least will get us thinking more critically about our vocabulary – if not actually taking political actions.

And the Plain English website is the other source I would recommend. It contains their short but very useful manual; a list of alternative words; and lists of all the organisations which have received their awards.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The comedy of words

I am a great reader – and fairly prolific writer. Indeed at one point, my secretary in the 1980s called me “paperback writer” in an allusion to the Beatles song. And I have indeed tried my hand at various times with (self-published) little books – one written in the 1970s around 30 or so questions about a new system of local government (for community activists); the second a more autobiographical piece drafted for more therapeutic purposes to help me make sense of my life; and the last - In Transit - a collection of papers I put together to give to people I was working with in central Europe and Asia. This last I suppose was a calling card of a sort.   

Every now and then I try to pull my thoughts and experience together – for example in a paper such as The Search for the Holy Grail – some reflections on 40 years of trying to make government and its systems work for people but I lose patience too easily and move on to other things – leaving this one unfinished. A presentation at a prestigious Conference, however, does wonders for concentration and I therefore had more success in 2011 with this paper about the deficiencies of the capacity-building work in ex-communist countries - The Long Game – not the log-frame

What I don’t understand about most academic and bureaucratic writing is that it is so lifeless….it seems designed to cast a disinfectant over our living souls and kill the bugs of creativity and insight… I have been exceptionally lucky since 1970 - in holding first political positions (and then consultancy roles) which allowed me to observe the processes of government at first hand; and then being allowed the freedom to reflect quite openly about this to those who cared to read such reflections…  
I have always found two collections of essays particularly inspiring – those of the development writer Robert Chambers and those of Roger Harrison - the organizational development consultant.

Both produced collections whose essays were preceded with detailed notes explaining the conditions in which the essay was drafted and indicating how the writer had adjusted his thinking…..

And this morning, I stumbled across another name we should honour for the quality and openness of his mind - and writing. Neil Postman died in 2003 but I still remember him for his critique of television - Amusing Ourselves to Death. It was actually a tribute I came across
I sense a dwindling number of people in the academic world who are unclassifiable. Neil Postman, who died in 2003 was one, and now we can say he will always be one. Such figures—with reputation but no real discipline—have a tendency to make people think. Postman had that.He was expert in nothing. Therefore nothing was off limits. Therefore one’s mind was always at risk, from a joke, a headline, an idea, a person walking through the door. The only way to respond to such strange conditions was with ready humor. And humor would bring you more ideas.
Now what discipline, what department is that?Everyone who knew Postman—and I include perhaps a hundred thousand who only heard him speak—knew him first through humor, which was the reflection in person of the satire in most of his books, each of which is a pamphlet, an essay between covers: The Disappearance of Childhood (1982) was satire about the infantalization in American culture. Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) was satire about entertainment and what it was doing to us. Technopoly (1993) was satire on the “surrender of culture to technology.” 
In these days of grey specialisation, such qualities deserve celebration!
His, of course, was not the only voice to warn against the new technology….

The activist with the wonderful name of Jerry Mander had wowed us a few years earlier with Four Arguments for Getting Rid of Television and I was delighted to see, during this morning’s surfing, that he is still going strong – with The Capitalism Papers (2012) which got a nice review in Dissident Voice