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!

Friday, September 20, 2019

Another World is Possible

I increasingly marvel at the miracle of my laptop – an instrument that allows me to access the work of the world’s best brains even when their bodies are dead.
The last two posts reflect what has been a frenetic process of interrogating some hundred or so writers about what they think of the prospects for “a better world”….

It all started with my alighting on a piece entitled “How to be an anti-capitalist today” - written by Erik Olin-Wright in the radical American journal Jacobin which you will be able to read only by entering the “Jacobin” site and inserting Olin-Wright’s name in their search engine. It’s a cunning obstacle they’ve created to prevent people like me sharing the article widely….
I was impressed with the clear typology he laid out in the article which he expanded into a later paper on the “strategic logics of anti-capitalism” – namely “smashing capitalism, dismantling capitalism, taming capitalism, resisting capitalism, and escaping capitalism”. Some of this language may offend my readers’ tender ears but, whether they like it or not, each represents a distinctive option in the wider portfolio of choices of dealing with a nasty system…

I realised I had perhaps been too dismissive in my reaction to his Envisioning Real Utopias (2009) when I had come across it on the internet a few years ago – and had written it off largely on the basis of it devoting only a few pages to the amazing phenomenon of the Mondragon cooperatives. But there were also some aspects of the sociological lingo (referred to in a withering review at the timewhich I found off-putting He does, however, admit in the Preface (the entire book is available just by clicking on the title) that it is almost impossible to satisfy both the general and the academic reader. Here he is on the structure of the book -

This framework is built around three tasks: diagnosis and critique; formulating alternatives; and elaborating strategies of transformation. These three tasks define the agendas of the three main parts of the book.
Part I of the book (Chapter 3) presents the basic diagnosis and critique of capitalism that animates the search for real utopian alternatives.

Part II then discusses the problem of alternatives. Chapter 4 reviews the traditional Marxist approach to thinking about alternatives and shows why this approach is unsatisfactory.
Chapter 5 elaborates an alternative strategy of analysis, anchored in the idea that socialism, as an alternative to capitalism, should be understood as a process of increasing social empowerment over state and economy.
Chapters 6 and 7 explore a range of concrete proposals for institutional design in terms of this concept of social empowerment, the first of these chapters focusing on the problem of social empowerment and the state, and the second on the problem of social empowerment and the economy.

Part III of the book turns to the problem of transformation – how to understand the process by which these real utopian alternatives could be brought about.
Chapter 8 lays out the central elements of a theory of social transformation.
Chapters 9 through 11 then examine three different broad strategies of emancipatory transformation – rupture transformation (chapter 9), interstitial transformation (chapter 10), and symbiotic transformation (chapter 11). The book concludes in Chapter 12 which distills the core arguments of the book into seven key lessons.

Olin-Wright devoted his life to trying to understand the capitalist system and how it might be tamed. His university keeps a full range of his papers accessible here – and they are a real treasure trove for the serious researcher – and activist.
Associations and Democracy; J Cohen and J Rogers (1995), for example, was the first of a series of books he helped develop under the “Real Utopias Project” banner (the others can be accessed on his site). And Taking the social in socialism seriously (2004) is a superb exposition which shows him testing out the ideas which went into “Envisioning Real Utopias” a few years later….

Sadly, he died in January of this year – with very touching tributes to his work as an inspiring teacher (see resource at end). But, before his untimely recent death, Wright went on to write a booklet (of 70 pages) with the rather curious title “How to be an anti-capitalist for the 21st Century” (2018) which you can read in its entirety by clicking the title. An expanded version is now available as a book and was nicely reviewed in The Guardian only last month.
He took copious notes at his presentations and discussion – and, unlike a lot of other radicals, gave a lot of thought to the process of change as is evident in Pathways to a cooperative market economy (2015)

Inevitably I no sooner post a table than I realise I have missed an important title. The Capitalism Papers – Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System (2012) is a very readable but oddly neglected book by a great American journalist (and ecologist) who goes under the amazing name of Jerry Mander. Typically, however, he fails to mention Olin Wright – who I rather belatedly now realise was the foremost thinker of this genre…


Thursday, September 19, 2019

For serious activists only

We are swamped these days with brave new radical writing which – given the populist mood in so much of the world – seems to have an element of whistling in the wind about it.
My purpose in both the last post and this one is to take a step back and to try to identify what I might call the “perennial progressive” books – whose analysis remains fresh over time and whose programmes for where we should place our energies are credible.
Too many books are strong on the dismantling of the present and weak on the description of what should come next.
Restakis and Wainwright (in the table below) are good examples of a focus on a positive vision….as are Bregman, Cumbers, Dorling, Gibson-Graham, Olin Wright and even the Labour Party…

I have a little book on my shelves Utopia or Bust – a guide to the present crisis by Benjamin Kunkel (2014) which you can also flick by clicking the title…At one level it is superb – a nice 20 page introduction to profiles of 6 leftist writers and a 7 page Guide to Further Reading.
For me an ideal structure….we need more of this. But I’m let down by his choice of the individuals for profiling – three of them are fine (David Harvey who was one of the first to diagnose Neoliberalism; Robert Brenner and David Graeber) but the other half are cultural theorists (Jameson, Zizek and someone called Boris Groys). OK the book's author is actually a novelist and is turned on by that sort of stuff - but I have to say I was tricked by his sub-title  

Today I am looking at books written after the crash. A couple of years ago I did an annotated list of the key  titles of the past decade - there were 50 of them - trying to make sense of the new economic world in which we find ourselves. 
But this is not an updating – although several new titles are in the table….this is a prioritising – in other words a short-listing of the essential books anyone seriously interested in making sense of our contemporary world needs, in my opinion, to dip into 

I have selected 20 individuals for very short profiling – although clicking the title will often give you the entire book.
There are far fewer Americans in this list and more Europeans….I’m not sure what that says….

AFTER THE CRASH (names are in alphabetical order)


Title of relevant book

What they bring to the table
Arrighi, Giovanni
All activists need to take the trouble to read at least one serious overview of the global political economy. Gilpin’s “Global Political Economy” is clear but a bit outdated; and Panich and Gindin’s “The Making of Global Capitalism” also very clear but too oriented to the American Empire
Blyth, Mark

Blyth is a political economist who trained as a political scientist and uses his understanding of early political scientists to blow the case for austerity apart.
Bregman, Rutger
Journalist whose little book has got a high profile. It certainly is written very well but is very light and focuses mainly on universal income and the short working week. Example of great marketing
Collier, Paul

Development economist whose book I found so interesting I devoted 5 posts to it
Cumbers, Andrew
Renewing Public Ownership – making space for a democratic economy (2014)
Political economist makes the case – rarely heard in 2014 – for “the people” owning natural monopolies and other assets
Davey, Brian

Davey trained as an economist but has moved on to community work and here treats the economic discipline as a set of religious beliefs which need to be demystified and questioned.
Dorling, Danny
A geographer who can both use statistics and write very well tells some home truths. His Injustice – why social inequality persists (2010) was the best treatment I had read since Tawney
Economist and feminist. In some ways, an update of Douthwaite (1996) - although not quite so well written
Kennedy, Paul
A sociologist’s treatment which earns high points by stating in the very first sentence that it has “stood on the shoulders of so many giants that he is dizzy” and then proves the point by having an extensive bibliography with lots of hyperlinks…It can be read in full here
Korten, David
The latest in the grand old man of activism’s series of books not only critiquing our economic system but setting out a more sensible path
Labour Party (UK)
A discussion document from the Shadow Cabinet during the 2017 election campaign
Laloux, Frederic
A rare book by an organisational consultant which places the cooperative company (in its various guises) in the wider context of organ types. A must for the activist - can be downloaded in full from the link
Mander, Jerry
Highly readable but strangely neglected analysis from the great American journalist and ecologist – who also wrote “Four Arguments for getting rid of Television”!
Mason, Paul
Mason is a high-profile journalist bursting with ideas and this is a well-written which does justice to both history and the implications of the new high-tech world
Mazucatto, Mariana
The Entrepreneurial State – debunking private v public sector myths” (2013)
 A long-overdue reminder of the key role played by state investment
Mintzberg, Henry

The Canadian management guru who was warning in 2000 of capitalist excess and then had the courage to produce this pamphlet.
Mulgan, Geoff
This should be an important book but is written at too high a level of generality … no entries in the index for “cooperatives” or “ownership” and no mention of Jeff Gates’ “The Ownership Solution” of 1998 despite a credit Gates gave Mulgan in his “The Ownership Solution”
Olin-Wright, Erik
One leftist made some withering suggestions that Wright operated too long in an academic sociological bubble and should have mixed more with other disciplines and perspectives…
His university keeps a full range of his papers accessible here – and they are a treasure trove for the researcher.
Parker, Martin, Fournier V P Reedy
A fascinating collection of entries illustrating the richness of thinking about alternative futures – past and present
Restakis, John
Written by an activist with a degree in religion! This is one of the most persuasive books about the essential contribution the cooperative spirit can make not only to our economic life but its quality. Useful summary here    
Srnicek and Williams
Sociologists who favour the “accelerationist” strategy
Wainwright, Hilary
one of the very few clearly-written documents on the subject
Streeck Wolfgang
a collection of this German sociologist’s key articles, many from New Left Review. Superbly written but weak on future of work and environment
Tirole, Jean

Nobel prize winner 2014..French Economist. This is political economy as it should be practised – taking the themes of interest to us all and reasoning seriously with us about them.

I will try in future posts to draw all of this together and perhaps even make some suggestions.... 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

My Brains Trust - part I

I liked the idea of the little “brains trust” Paul Collier gathered round him when he was writing “The Future of Capitalism”. One of the critical remarks I have made about what is otherwise a great book is that it doesn’t mention a lot of writing which essential to the question – a few of which I point to in the first link.

And this has given me the idea of providing my own “Brains Trust” -  ie of individuals and books I would invite to help me understand better the heated debates (taking place throughout the world) about how our present economic system might be brought under control
These posts frequently comment on this dreadful failure of those who write books on the subject to “stand on the shoulders of giants” ie to reference (let alone properly discuss) the ideas of the thousands of other writers who are contributing to this critical debate    

The best way to deal with this is via what has perhaps become this blog’s most famous feature - its tables.  
My invited guests start with those who were writing “Before the Crash” – a large selection of which I wrote about more than two years ago. I have divided my guests up in this way for several reasons but mainly because our collective memories fade so quickly these days - and some of the younger generation will therefore not even have heard of these authors and books, 
Sadly, quite a few of the authors are now dead – but their spirit and inspiration live on!

BEFORE THE CRASH (in alphabetical order)


Title of relevant book

What they bring to the table
Daniel Bell
Bell was a sociologist -  with wide-ranging tastes

Hazel Henderson

One of the first critiques of economics – and still going strong
Ronald Douthwaite
Short Circuit – strengthening local economies in an unstable world” (1996)
Very practical – but also inspirational….23 years on, it hasn’t really been bettered
Amitai Etzioni

Another sociologist whose writings have ranged widely
Marlyn Ferguson
An amazing bridge between the 60s and our times
Jeff Gates

This is an important book of almost 400 pages which, sadly, gets forgotten perhaps because its analysis and message is a moderate one.
Susan George

The Lugano Report: On Preserving Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century” 1999
A political scientist gives us a satirical piece which forces us to think where present forces are taking us….
Paul Hawken
A persuasive vision of how green technology could revitalize capitalism
Paul Hirst

“Associative Democracy. New forms of economic and social governance” (1994)
Hirst was a political scientist
Revisiting Associative Democracy; ed Westall (2011). An overdue assessment of the relevance of Paul Hirst’s ideas more than a decade after his death
Albert Hirschman

One of the most famous of his many books was called “Trespassing” since that is what he did to other disciplines – particularly political philosophy as you can see here
He was that rare animal - a much appreciated development economist! Two excellent appreciations are Albert Hirschman and the social sciences – a memorial roundtable ; and
David Korten

Korten was one of the first to embark on serious activism as a result of his early disillusionment
Robert Kuttner
An academic/journalist who has written 360 pages about the limits and about 40 on the virtues…Given the celebrationism of the time, this was very courageous
Ernst Schumacher
He was  an economist – employed in the UK Coal Board in the 1950s and is the inspiration for the Green movement
Richard Sennett
Sennett remains one of the few intellectuals capable of matching Daniel Bell in the lucidity of their expositions (and breadth of reading) about social trends…..
Susan Strange
Strange helped create the discipline of International Political Economy and wrote superbly (another of her books is “Mad Money”
Lester Thurow
Thurow was a remarkable leftist economist who had critiqued  the economics discipline in 1983 (in Dangerous Currents) and shook conventional thinking with this book

An obvious question is what criteria I used to pick less than 20 individuals from the tens of thousands (in the English language) who have written critically about what has been happening in our world. That’s not an easy question – since it begs a more basic one about how I came to remember these particular writers and titles from my reading of the past 40 years. Most of them are in my library here in the Carpathian mountains – with a few also from the internet…So the vagaries of recall are certainly a factor – as well as the selectivity of the unconscious which will push me away from dogmatic stuff…
And clarity of language is always a consideration 
Apart from the prescient books of the 1970s, what amazes me is the number of fascinating books which were appearing just before the millennium. We really seem to have been wasting the past 20 years….

The last few years, of course, have opened the floodgates of critical writing and the
 next post will bring the story up to date with another table…..