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!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dealing with Sofia's Past

The day started early with the urgent chimes of the venerable Church Cyril and Methodius and the 5 disciples – whose birthday it apparently was.
I’m not normally in Sofia in summer – although the currents around the Vitosha mountain and the trees in its streets and courtyards do offer relief from the summer heat which has not been as evident as usual. Lots of rain – indeed severe hailstones at the beginning of the month. Cars were banged shapeless.
The flat I’ve been renting (from December 2012) is a West-facing attic flat in a very central (Khan Krum St) classic 1922 building – with a leafy courtyard, gratefully populated by cats who are well looked after by the city’s older citizens.

The Sofia City Gallery has now introduced entry charges - but at such a reasonable level I can forgive them. 1 euro for adults – 2 euros for a family ticket – and free for senior citizens. So I had no problems parting with 5 euros for a book about “unknown artists from one picture” which focuses on a famous 1952 painting by one Asen Vasiliev of some 20 Bulgarian painters examining and discussing a painting. The magisterial figure of Vladimir Dmitrova – known as “the Master” – dominates the group and the book identifies each of the painters, sketches their lives and gives an example of their work.

The book is exceptional, however, in being the first I know to detail (in English) the circumstances of the cultural crackdown in the late 1940s on Bulgarian painters. But it does so in the strange elliptical fashion I have begun to recognise as the true Balkan way…..
I know something about the events – and the artists affected…..starting in the early (but vicious) days of the September 1944 communist takeover with the unexplained death in prison of graphic artist Raiko Aleksiev and soon affecting such famous artists as Boris Denev, Nikola Boadjiev and (royal aquarellist) Constantin Shtarkelov – none of whom figure in the book. Instead the text focuses on Alexander Zhendov, a good communist satirist who strongly objected to the wooden bureaucrats who were foisted to lead the cultural struggle against modernism…..Other good communists such as the great Ilyia Beshkov are simply not mentioned………
The nepotic (or "Balkan") nature of the editorial process is still evident in many of the new art books produced here.....eg the large one celebrating 120 years of art produced by the Bulgarian Union of Artists a couple of years ago. The images are great but the text tells us little beyond of the dates of the various artistic Associations, some of the names of the key artists and vague hints of struggles and conflicts.....And some curious omissions - perhaps these were the more independent-minded artists who weren'y "belongers"?

I had hoped to see the exhibition in the Vaska Emanouilova Gallery – a largely unknown branch of the Sofia City Gallery in a lovely garden beside Boulevard Dondukova. It was supposed to be open – but wasn’t. Coincidentally, the Loran Gallery was showing paintings of Shtarkelov and Boadjiev and will mark September 9 1944 with an exhibition of banned artists.   

Going to the Dogs

I stayed in Koln last year for almost 3 months and was a regular visitor to its various bookshops and bookstalls. One post looked at the fairly negative picture of contemporary German society which was to be found then in the pages of the books on the shelves of these shops.
On the same note, Der Spiegel has a nice little feature in its current issue on the atmosphere in the towns and villages on the route of this year’s Tour de France, making the point that
Stacks of books at a local bookstore are dedicated to a new genre in French literature: the downfall. It includes titles like "Reinventing France," "France, a Peculiar Bankruptcy," "If We Only Wanted To, "When France Wakes Up," "A Dangerous Game in the Elysée," "Fellow French, Are You Ready for the Next Revolution?" "France, A Challenge" and many, many more.Around two dozen such titles were published last month alone. They always seem to have the same central message as well -- that things can't continue as they are and that France is in decline. It seems like the term "déclinisme" has already emerged as its own school of thought.
Two dozen sounds an amazing number….I well remember the blitz of critical books with titles such as “The Stagnant Society” which hit us in Britain in the early sixties. They clearly helped pave the way for the election of a Labour Government in 1964 after 13 years of post-war Conservative rule.
Nowadays, such books are just water off a duck’s back.
As a genre, I think I prefer the social histories – which give a better sense of perspective or books which plot the development of literature over significant periods of a country eg post-war Germany

Friday, July 25, 2014

Seeking common ground; puzzling development???

The website name – and its “tags” – are clearly crucial choices for a new website which actually wants to attract traffic. So far the tagwords I’ve suggested are
Capacity development, Civil service reform, citizen action, Community development, corporate power, democracy, democratization, governance, institutional Capacity, local government, machinery of government, media, modernizing government, protest, public administration reform, training, Central Asia, Bulgaria, Germany, Romania, Scotland, Bulgarian painting, Romanian painting, social democracy, social change….
You can see my problem!

I was pondering “Conviviality” as the website name not so much for of its epicurean connotations as the link with the writings of the sadly forgotten Ivan Illich of the 1970s – particularly his “Tools of Conviviality
I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members.
And I also have a weakness for words with a Latin root – such as “com-panion” (breaking bread with); “con-spiracy” (breathing with) etc Perhaps Illich is not so forgotten – The Atlantic Journal had a piece about him only 2 years ago  

But I’m really looking for a name which reflects my interest in establishing a “common ground” or agenda amongst social and political activists with which the power structure and elites can be challenged in a sustainable manner. “Exploring Common Ground” is an obvious one. And I’ve looked at various metaphors relating to borders – one of my favourite writers EG Hirschmann entitled one of his books “Essays in Trespassing” and the concept is discussed here. It seems increasingly difficult - and yet necessary - for people to cross intellectual disciplines/borders and the word "trespass" is such a negative one that "bordercrossing" might be better.
But "exploring/seeking common ground" has a head start on the other names......

Except that I recall the titles of the two little books I produced in the 90s - "Puzzling Development"; and "In Transit". 
I still like both - the first for the play of words - the first can be either adjective or verb!
And "in transit" connotes movement and travel - indeed I used it as shorthand for "transition". 
Unfortunately the website name is taken - but "Puzzling Development" is not - and, in my time, I have puzzled -
- regional development
- urban development
- community development
- institutional development
- capacity development

More recently, I have been daring to question the whole concept of development. Perhaps I should run with that one? Except that the direction I want to go now is seeking/exploring (the) common ground.....

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 20 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 such subjects as training, capacity development and technical assistance; and to different aspects of Scotland, Bulgaria, Romania and Germany. It has also teased 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. Its rather that I want to try to spend more time distilling the essence of the “concerned writing” of the past few decades which can be found (if you search hard enough) in a variety of places.

I have a lot of 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