what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It generally uses books (old and new) and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours. So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A New Adventure

Most websites are institutional – and promotional. They are there to sell you products, services and, in some cases, ideologies. The new website I am planning will simply provide good material and writing to help and encourage people to work together for a better future.
I’ve had both a blog and a website for almost 6 years – almost 1000 blogposts and about 40 papers on a website focused mainly on issues of capacity building at both national and local levels in several countries but mainly in what we previously knew as the “Eastern bloc”.  
But my interests have always been broader – as is clear from the blog which has had several series devoted to training, capacity development and technical assistance; and to different aspects of Scotland, Bulgaria, Romania and Germany; and which has teased also out issues on such themes as political parties, universities, corporate power and the global crisis. A short post earlier in the year tried to explain this.

I’m running out of website capacity but, for 100 euros a year, could simply upgrade with no limits. But I’m thinking instead of setting up a free-standing, “unhosted” facility. It will hopefully force me to focus more clearly. It’s not so much a question of what I want to say – that’s a bit too self-centred…..and I’ve always tried not just to give credit to others but indeed to seek out the voices which were expressing what I felt more clearly. And that is one of my intentions – to try to distill the essence of the “concerned writing” of the past few decades…..
Compared with most others, I have experience at both high-levels (professional and political); and (in depth) in about 6 countries; and both extensive and broad reading. This is a fairly rare com- or rather decet (!) bination.
And that is indeed the problem – that the “tags” I want to use – such as “capacity development” and “community”, “municipality” – let alone “governance” and “social change” – are so dry, hackneyed….and, ultimately, meaningless. I accepted that my current website is a professional one – with a very limited readership. But I want the new one “to attract traffic”!

And that affects its name ....I have a lengthening list……in which “Conviviliaty” looms large…

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

New Website in the offing

I have decided to create a new website! I’ve actually had one since 2008 – a free one hosted by Freewebs to which I’ve uploaded almost 50 papers – mostly mine. But it has never had much of a profile (to put it mildly) and is now reaching the (very generous) 41 MB capacity which is its limit.
I eventually tracked down, in my electronic library, a large manual about building a website which UNESCO created in 2005 - but found this simple set of instructions much easier to follow – also this one 

I’m lucky in having access to the young Bulgarian who helped me design my book Introducing the Bulgarian Realists – how to get to know the Bulgarians through their paintings (which included a CD) and, more recently, to format my little E-book Mapping Romania - notes on an unfinished journey on the website
Now I’m busy briefing myself on the various technical options so that I can talk sensibly to him about the direction the site should take. Basically I just want an attractive site with papers, images and text which show my passions and encourage others to follow them……
Most websites are institutional – and are waving one sort of flag or another.
Blogs are more personal but do not, as far as I am aware, have the capacity to permit the uploading of the large quantity of papers, files, images and videos I would want.
I am unusual in being interested in such a wide range of things and in having amassed such a large library – physical and virtual……So this looks to be a fairly unusual sort of website…..

Any advice would be appreciated….

Management and economics as the new Religion

Epiphanies (or “Eureka!” moments) are memorable – and I therefore remember some ten years ago being in the flat I had for a couple of years in central Bishkek. I was flicking through a book I had picked from my kitchen shelf - Reformation –Europe’s House Divided - and suddenly realising that the intense disputations about religious doctrine in this period were remarkably similar to contemporary economic disputes. Other people, of course, have developed this theme of the religious role taken by modern management and economics – for example Susan George in her 1994 book Faith and Credit - a tough critique of the World Bank which was the subject of a brilliant satire here
In the early 90s, a book actually bore the title Economics as Religion  – and its Introduction can be read here 

You would think that “Management” offers an easier target since it patently has less reason to claim scientific status - not that this has prevented such claims being made! Charles Handy’s Gods of Management is actually about “cultures” of management and resists the temptation to explode the pretensions of management gurus.
It is not easy to find a book on “management as religion” – although there are several classics which have a go at the management gurus and one of them (Russel Ackoff) actually (and famously) wrote A Little Book of F-Laws 
Eventually my search produced a 1997 book The Faith of the Managers - when management becomes religion 

So much damage has been done to the arbitrary drive for “Efficiency” that one would have thought the time is overdue for a savage critique of the religion of management,
There is, of course, an academic discipline called “Critical Management Studies” one of whose foremost proponents is Chris Grey whose small book about studying organisations is a clear and powerful read. But the discipline as a whole is a let-down and rarely offers good insights - "Against Management" is a good example

Saturday, July 19, 2014

It's Good to Talk

In the late 60s I became a fan of “participative politics”. First in the small “ward” to which I was elected; then in 1971, as chairman of a major municipal Committee in a shipbuilding town of 70,000 people organising annual Conferences; and, in the early 80s , convening six large Conferences of community activists in a Region of two and half million people. Reports and actions followed. Focused, communal talking has, for me, been an important social glue.

I’ve now stumbled on the idea of “Unconferences” which apparently
sprang out of the experience that many conference goers have – that the real value of some conferences comes from the conversations over coffee and lunch rather than the lectures themselves. Lectures didn’t engage and often inhibited discussion – one person standing at the front of a room of peers holding forth.
Conferences reflect the power structure of an organization - the distinctive feature of “unconferences” is set out in this table 
Before I knew what was happening, I was in a world of “barcamps”, “brewcamps” and knowledge cafes  - all of which reminded me of the idea of World Cafes which I had last heard of almost a decade ago in a book called The World Café – shaping our futuresthrough conversations that matter (Berret-Koehler 2005) which described the dialogues taking place throughout the world by using an informal format (set out like a café) of small tables at which 4 people sit initially to discuss a question which has been carefully prepared. After 20 minutes everyone (save one) changes places – and the previous conversation is summarised.
But the world café site seem no longer active with their last high profile activity (in Prague) being last year 

Further thought took me back to the Search Conferences (described in this paper) of Eric Trist and Fred and Marlyn Emery 
There’s clearly some money to be made from this structured searching and its easy to be cynical.

Time was when you needed people for such events – but Open Source seems to have changed all that

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Missing intellectual fare

Where do we go for a journal which speaks to the increasing number of people who are alienated from politics, corporate power and the media; who want more than empty slogans; and who are keen to read well-written pieces by those whose reading is extensive enough to make them aware of their own limitations?

Not to newspapers whose deadlines make the required quality of writing and scope of reading impossible – although Le Monde and Die Zeit (a weekly) try hard. 
Sensible people go to the New York. London and Dublin Reviews of Books. While preparing this post, I came across this helpful list of the 50 “best literary” journals but they are American and limited to magazines judged to be literary. The Nation makes the cut but, for some reason, The New Republic and The Boston Review don’t. Not literary enough?

Over the past few years, I have several times commented on the lamentable choices for those of us looking for deep, non-partisan and well-written coverage of key issues facing Europeans. In 2011 I talked about “gated communities” 
The barrier to our understanding of development in other European countries is not just linguistic. It stems also from the intellectual compartmentalisation (or apartheid) which universities and European networks have encouraged in our elites. European political scientists, for example, have excellent networks but talk in a highly specialised language about recondite topics which they publish in inaccessible language in inaccessible journals. What insights they have about each other’s countries are rarely made available to the wider public. The same is true of the civil service nationals who participate in EC comitology or OECD networks – let alone the myriad professional networks. We talk about gated communities – but they exist virtually as well as physically.

In 2012 a blogpost talked of a “european failure of knowledge management” and blamed journalists - although it is clearly publishers who are at fault. Later that same year a post tried to express the need more clearly 
In my days, we had the magazine Encounter (Der Monat in Germany) which gave me stimulating articles by renowned French, German and Italian writers, for example, but was then discovered to have been funded by the CIA and soon folded. Where is its equivalent these days? Le Monde Diplomatique and Lettre International perhaps - except there is, sadly, no English version of the latter - and only a short version in English of the former (whose language is, in any event, a bit opaque).
In 2004 Carl Fredrikkson wrote an article about the need for a proper European public space where ideas were exchanged across national boundaries and Jan-Werner Muller returned to the issue earlier this year with an important article entitled The Failure of European Intellectuals?But I am actually asking for something simpler - clear and insightful writing about different European societies. The recent publication on The Inner lives of Cultures could give us only one European system!

 And, at the beginning of this year, a post entitled Indifference to European Differences posed a simple question
there are tens of thousands of journalists and academics churning out articles in (hundreds of) thousands of journals in the general field of politics and social policy. Can we not think of a way of making the better of these pieces more accessible - in various European languages?? That's the Eurozine concept - but they're selecting from a rather precious bunch of cultural magazines whose language doesn't take many prisoners!
One of the factors which gets in the way of even this simple idea is the specialisation of political, professional and academic silos - just have a look at the lists of academic magazines at publishers such as Elsevier,Sage or Wiley. Twenty- odd years ago journals such as Parliamentary Affairs, Political Quarterly, West European Politics and Government and Opposition offered civilised reading. Now, with the exception of Political Quarterly, you get highly specialised  topics with boring technocratic prose.

Of course, the weekly Courrier International and Project Syndicate bring us syndicated pieces from around the world – but these are from newspapers and therefore suffer from superficiality.
Perhaps I’ve been missing something….I google “lists” and come up with an interesting table of about 150 political magazines covering key countries. But nothing I didn’t already know.
By the way, the current edition Government and Opposition – on The Power of Finance - can be downloaded free – article by article (until mid-August). And the journal Governance does have a useful blog which picks out worthwhile articles.

I liked the way the original editors of The Nation expressed its philosophy way back in 1835
The Nation will not be the organ of any party, sect, or body. It will, on the contrary, make an earnest effort to bring to the discussion of political and social questions a really critical spirit, and to wage war upon the vices of violence, exaggeration, and misrepresentation by which so much of the political writing of the day is marred.
But where is the political equivalent of Granta?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Common Sense of Visionaries

We are all inspired by Stephane Hessel who, in his nineties, produced the short book (“Indignez-vous!”) about the global crisis and inequality which touched millions. But I hadn’t heard of Grace Lee Boggs who is apparently still campaigning in America at the age of 99. A journal devoted to art and politics called Guernica has a fascinating interview with this Chinese-American philosopher who has been refusing to stand still for nearly a century, mobilizing alongside various freedom struggles from civil rights to climate change campaigns. The opening chapter of her book – The next American Revolution; sustainable activism for the 21st Century - has echoes, for me, of Robert Quinn’s hugely underrated Change the World

Most of us operate with an “instrumental” or “agency” view of social change. We assume that “a” causes “z” and that socio-economic ills can therefore be dealt with by specific measures. But a couple of decades ago, an approach – variously called “chaos” or “complexity” theory – started to undermine such assumptions. Writers such as Margaret Wheatley and Quinn have shown the implications for management practice - but few activists have.
Lee Boggs puts it as follows
I think it’s really important that we get rid of the idea that protest will create change. The idea of protest organizing, as summarized by [community organizer] Saul Alinsky, is that if we put enough pressure on the government, it will do things to help people. We don’t realize that that kind of organizing worked only when the government was very strong, when the West ruled the world, relatively speaking. But with globalization and the weakening of the nation-state, that kind of organizing doesn’t work. We need to do what I call visionary organizing. Recognize that in every crisis, people do not respond like a school of fish. Some people become immobilized. Some people become very angry, some commit suicide, and other people begin to find solutions. And visionary organizers look at those people, recognize them and encourage them, and they become leaders of the future.
Quinn’s book was produced in 1996 and is an excellent antidote for those who are still fixated on the expert model of change – those who imagine it can be achieved by “telling”, “forcing” or by participation. Quinn exposes the last for what it normally is (despite the best intentions of those in power) – a form of manipulation – and effectively encourages us, through examples, to have more faith in people.
As the blurb says – “the idea that inner change makes outer change possible has always been part of spiritual and psychological teachings. But not an idea that’s generally addressed in leadership and management training.

Quinn looks at how leaders such as Gandhi and Luther King mobilised people for major change and derives certain principles for “change agents” to enable them to help ordinary people achieve transformative change. These principles include recognizing our own hypocrisy and fears; “going with the flow” and “enticing through moral power”

Monday, July 14, 2014

Balkan Struggles

Can a Greek historian (even if one who now teaches at an American University) cast aside his preconceptions and offer the English-speaking reader an understanding of “the Balkan Wars”? This is the question I have after reading Andre Gerolymatos’ The Balkan Wars: Conquest, Revolution and Retribution from the Ottoman Era to the Twentieth Century and Beyond

It was one of two books I bought recently to help me throw some light on the two 1912-13 Balkan conflicts in which first Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia united to fight (successfully) the Ottomans and then divided to fight one another. I quickly discovered that the book is mistitled and that the Balkan wars to which the title referred are in fact the various struggles (not least between brigands) and bloodletting which have characterised the area for centuries. It is none the worse for that wider focus. The second book – by a Serb – has the narrower focus.
this book is a work of cultural sociology in seeking to uncover the patterns of history that have led to constant conflict, the choices that led to cycles of endless acts of retribution, the cultural scripts of martyrdom, betrayal, and defeat that have led to the nursing of grudges. There are a lot of people who come off looking very poor in this book, whether it is exploitative Phanariot Greeks in areas like Moldova and Rumania; the Ottoman sultans (even when in reform mood); or the brigands whose oppressive and exploitative ways was a result of and contributed to chaos and anarchy throughout the Balkans. But towering above all this is the two-faced nature of the interest of the “Great Powers” in the region

We know little of these wars in the West – coverage of the ethnic cleansing of the 90s focused on older struggles, not on the events of 100 years ago. And there were very few commemorations in 2012 and 2013 – particularly in Bulgaria which risked (and lost) everything by its wanton attack after the cease-fire on its previous ally Serbia in order to try to win the disputed lands of neighbouring Macedonia. Illusions of a lost grandeur! Of course, with my interest in Bulgarian painting of that period, I come across frequent references to the time many of my favourite artists spent as war artists in this period….