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!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Good viewing in Sofia

Some great exhibitions recently here in Sofia
You don’t often get to see collections of Nikola Tanev’s paintings – the last one was 5 years ago at the National Gallery. But last month the Finesse private Gallery put on a fascinating collection some of which I;ve put on flickr

Spassov, Angel (1884-1974) was a well-known  sculptor – one of many greats produced by Bulgaria although the current exhibition at the Bulgarian Union of Artists on Shipka St also shows what a good painter he was…A great catalogue on his work was recently issued by Pleven Gallery

And the National Gallery has just opened a rare exhibition of industrial landscapes which cover not only the communist period but the early part of the century too. Here are some examples from my flickr collection.

The first is a Zlatyu Boiadjiev (from 1945);

the second a Petar Dochev;

the third a powerful canvas (1965) from of Bulgaria's first women industrial landscape artists - Maria Stolarova (who's still going strong - but with still-lives);













and the last - a 1950s Nikola Tanev
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Those wanting to see more of examples of Socialist realist can consult Socialist construction in the work of Bulgarian artists (Sofia 1954) one of the many resources available in my Bulgarian Encounters – a cultural romp

Monday, March 23, 2015

40 billion pounds' worth of social sciences????

I have a love-hate relationship with the social sciences – grateful for the vistas its literature opened up to me at university in the early 1960s in Scotland when it was still possible to roam widely amongst the disciplines…..still able to feel the energy of the disputes and the freshness of what people such as Durkheim, Michels and Weber were saying…..since then things seem to have closed over a bit – not least, perhaps, because of the “instrumentalist turn” the social sciences took in America as brilliant minds turned their attention in the aftermath of the second world war to social and organisational problems. First corporate planning and management with contributions from people such as Russell Ackoff - then PPBS and the “War on Poverty”.

I was gripped by the stuff and failed to appreciate the hubris involved…….although people such as Aaron Wildavsky; Peter Marris and Martin Rein; Etzioni; and Donald Schoen were exemplars of a more sceptical and humanistic approach……From 1968 I pursued a dual track of political involvement and fairly interdisciplinary academic reading – for 15 years having the freedom to roam the library stacks and inflict monologues on political issues on polytechnic students who were following Degrees courses in Land Economics and Engineering.

From the mid 1970s I had become an almost full-time (Regional) politician but was confronted in 1983 with the need to make a serious contribution to a new full-time Social Science Degree at my Polytechnic. By that stage I had changed my loyalties from economicsto politics/public admin - but could not take the narrowness of what I was expected to teach seriously……after 2 years I got out….  And as the universities increased in number and size, the pretensions of economics, management and even psychology grew enormously (Sociology was a bit of an outrider). Their claims – and language – grew a bit outlandish…..and I, for one, lost sympathy with it all….

In 1978 Stanislaw Andreski had written a magnificent critique called Social Sciences as Sorcery which, significantly, has long been out of print despite the fond memories it produces in many who who have read it…I was trying to find a similar attack on the pretensions of modern social science but could find only the rather puffy  Profscam – Professors and the demise of higher education (1988). 
I had hoped that Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly – how to succeed in the social sciences would have some of the same punch and weight as Andreski but, despite some disparaging remarks about the factory conditions of university life, it ultimately disappoints. It reviewed quite well – but you would expect that!

My surfing, however, did reveal that social scientists are deeply concerned about their lowly status in academic and political circles. So concerned that (in the UK)  they have launched a Campaign for social science (with booklet)…….which has attracted some media coverage. The need for a shake-up was explored in this article
The first thing to have in mind, as background, is the astonishing size of the social science literature. Few people appreciate this. The Thomson Reuters Web of Science database (which is by no means exhaustive of the entire global academic output) lists more than 3,000 social science journals. The journals classified as economics alone contained approximately 20,000 articles last year. This implies that one new journal article on economics is published every 25 minutes – even on Christmas Day.
This iceberg-like immensity of the modern social sciences means that it is going to be difficult to say anything coherent and truly general across them. Nobody walking the planet has read more than 1 per cent of their published output. Most of us have not read 0.1 per cent. Such facts should give all of us – whether or not we agree with Christakis – pause for modesty in our assertions.“The social sciences have stagnated,” he says. “They offer essentially the same set of academic departments and disciplines that they have for nearly 100 years: sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology and political science. This is not only boring but also counterproductive, constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling the creation of new and useful knowledge.”

Lack of interdisciplinarity, narrowness and impenetrable language are the common criticisms - which can be found in many publications throughout Europe and North America. Key reports and books include -

More than a million academics are employed (full-time) in British Universities these days – and about 50,000 of them are social scientists with a similar number (according to the UK campaign’s 2015 report “The Business of People”) employed in government and commerce…….
The report proudly claims that they contribute an astonishing 40 billion pounds’ worth of value to the economy – a claim which reveals the very philistinism of which they accuse those who attack social science…..
An excellent critique of what is a quite disgraceful document can be found on Open Democracy

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Seminal Books of the past - part II

Apparently I’m not alone in my interest in making a list of “the key books of the century”….I’ve just unearthed the first of what promises to be a series of posts on “the hundred most influential books since the war” – which appeared last month in the Time Literary Supplement and gave us 20 titles from the 1940s….It draws our attention to an interesting initiative of 1986 when
a diverse group of writers and scholars came together to try to assist independent East European writers and publishers both at home and in exile. The Chairman was Lord Dahrendorf, Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford (and prominent German politician!). Other members were the French historian Francois Furet; Raymond Georis, Director of the European Cultural Foundation, Amsterdam; Laurens van Krevelen of the Dutch publishing house Meulenhoff; the Swedish writer Per Waestberg, at the time President of International PEN; the European correspondent of the New Yorker, Jane Kramer; and the historian and commentator, Timothy Garton Ash.

The result, in 1995, was a book “Freedom for Publishing, Publishing for Freedom” which listed 100 key books, listed sequentially on the TLS blog. 

The very first book on the list for the 1940s is one I knew I had forgotten to put on my list – Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” (now rectified). 
I think I should also have included the writings of Max Weber and Raymond Aron……so reserve the right to produce a more definitive list which better reflects my particular criteria of impact, coherence and "sustainability" (ie "lasting power")

I have resisted the temptation to peek at the books the TLS blog gives for each of the following decades – until I have completed my own effort - and simply pass on this list of 20 key books for the 1950s. A few years ago, Time Magazine gave us an interesting annotated list of the 100 best nonfiction books

Of course all such lists are arbitrary – but the last post does give a good sense of the conflict and repression which was the European experience in the first half of the 20th century with the sense of liberation and assertiveness of the immediate post-war period – as well as the first warnings of the excesses of our way of life in the late 1960s.

I am having much more difficulty identifying “seminal books with a distinctive voice” for the last 40 years. I had little difficulty naming almost 40 books for the earlier 40-year period – but can find less than 20 so far for the period since 1973…..I can suggest at least two reasons for this deficiency -
-  First that the battle-lines on most disputes were drawn in the first part of the century – and we are now operating in the tracks made by more famous (and original) men and women…..
-   University growth, social science specialisation and bureaucratisation has killed off creativity….

Clearly such assertions need to be justified and I hope to post on this shortly.....

For the moment, let me simply list the books which came to mind as I tried to complete the list.....the Peters book is there not for its quality but simply because it reflected the "mood of the time". 
And, so far, I don't feel able to include a book covering the post 2001 anxieties about migration - although Chris Cauldwell's 2009 Reflections on the Revolution in Europe is a front-runner. Nor have I tried to touch the issues related to information and security........

So my tentative list for the post 1973 years includes -
Orientalism – Edward Said (1978)
The Breakdown of Nations – Leopold Kohr (1978)
The Culture of Narcissism – Christopher Lasch (1979)
In Search of Excellence – Tom Peters and Robert Waterman (1982)
Imagined Communities – Benedict Anderson (1983)
Casino Capitalism – Susan Strange (1986)
Manufacturing Consent – Noam Chomsky (1988)
The End of History – Francis Fukuyama (1989)
Reinventing Government – David Osborne and Ted Gaebler (1992)
Everything for Sale – the virtues and limits of markets – Robert Kuttner (1996)
Short Circuit – strengthening local economies in an unstable world - Ronald Douthwaite (1996)
The Lugano Report: On Preserving Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century – Susan George (1999)
Change the World - Robert Quinn (2000)
A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism – David Harvey (2005)

Then there are tens of thousands of volumes which management writers have given us – of which the better have been produced by people such as Henry Mintzberg,  Charles Handy and Ronald Dore

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Key Books of the 20th Century - Part I

For the past few days I’ve been engaged in a frustrating and probably useless task – trying to list the non-fiction books I think worthy of consideration as the "seminal books" of the last century….for English-speakers. This links to a table you will find on page 2 of the paper "Ways of Seeing...the Global Crisis" which tries to give a sense of the key debates of the post war period........

Any such list has to be arbitrary since league tables of book purchases or library loans are difficult to get hold of, unreliable and nationally biased. And note the dual (rather heavy) qualifications "I think" and "worthy of consideration"..... it is a list drawn up by a white male who had a Scottish university education (in politics and economics) in the early 1960s and is limited therefore by that interest in political economy – rather than, for example, psychology…. (although I have included the injunctions of Dale Carnegie and Benjamin Spock as well as the more thoughtful analyses of Carl Rodgers)
But "Mein Kampf" and the writings of Ann Raynd are excluded - despite the influence they had...... I simply can't view them as serious.....

My surfing did unearth some “mega-lists” generated from 107 "best of" book lists from a variety of sources eg this one which is, however, strongly biased to American reading….
As a starter, let me offer this list of 35 books – taking us to 1973. 

Political Parties – Robert Michels (1913)
Public Opinion - Walter Lippmann (1921)
Revolt of the Masses - Jose Ortega y Gasset (1930)
How to make friends and influence people - Dale Carnegie (1936)
The Managerial Revolution – James Burnham (1941)
Escape from Freedom - Erich Fromm (1941)
Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy – Joseph Schumpeter (1942)
The Open Society and its Enemies - Karl Popper (1944)
The Road to Serfdom - Friedrich Hayek (1944)
Baby and Child Care - Benjamin Spock (1946)
The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir (19949)
The Lonely Crowd - David Riesmann (1950)
The Power Elite – C Wright Mills (1956)
The Future of Socialism - CAR Crosland (1956)
The Hidden Persuaders – Vance Packard (1957)
The Affluent Society – JK Galbraith (1958)

The End of Ideology – Daniel Bell (1960)
The Fire Next Time - James Baldwin (1962)
Silent Spring – Rachel Carson (1962)
Capitalism and Freedom - Milton Friedmann (1962)
The Feminine Mystique – Betty Friedan (1963)
Unsafe at any speed - Ralph Nadar (1965)
The New Industrial State – JK Galbraith (1967)
The Costs of Economic Growth – EJ Mishan 1967
The Active Society – Amitai Etzioni (1968)
Deschooling Society - Ivan Illich (1970)
Future Shock – Alvin Toffler (1970)
The Limits to Growth – Club of Rome (1972)
Small is Beautiful – Ernst Schumacher (1973)

Somehow I think its going to difficult to find an equivalent number for the 40 years which followed!!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Raymond Williams - a voice never stilled

Raymond Williams is a name to conjure with – at least for a Brit of my generation. In 1959 he produced a book “Culture and Society” whose significance as I was starting university I was vaguely aware of but whose very “worthiness” disinclined me actually to read. My loss you might say from glancing at its last chapter and footnotes

His name was linked at the time to that of Richard Hoggart who – 2 years earlier – had published Uses of Literacy but, more importantly for my developing politicisation, was that he was part of the group of intellectuals which was then establishing the New Left Review journal and the author of the scintillating Mayday Manifesto 1967/68

Geoff Dyer’s introduction to the reissued “Politics and Letters” tells us why we should be reading Williams these days – and Culture and Society – then and now helps us understand the significance of that first book. I needed little encouragement since I recently got hold of a new version of his Keywords which I had first read in the late 70s….and which was perhaps an unconscious exemplar for my “Just Words - a glossary and bibliography for the fight against the pretensions and perversities of power”. I was glad to see that his book has become an inspiration for a new university project and website  

My morning’s surfing unearthed quite a few inspiring books about the man who died at the height of his powers - at the age of 66 -
Raymond Williams – a biography by Alan O’Connor
- "Border Country – Raymond Williams in adult education 1946-1961". A collection of his early writings....
I was particularly taken with the second book – since it is a very sensitive treatment of his works written by a Glasgow University Professor of Sociology I encountered all too briefly. Here he (Elridge) is reminiscing about the sociologists he knew......he's one of the old guard .......when he talks about Weber, you feel he actually knew him!!!!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

How governments have bought - and used up - time

It’s significant that the best expositions of the global economic crisis and its causes do not come from economists……..somehow the framework within which the modern economist operates precludes him/her from even the vaguest of glimmerings of understanding of the complexity of socio-economic events. Their tools are no better than adequate for short-term work…..
For real insights into the puzzles of the modern world, think rather David Harvey (a geographer); John Lanchester and James Meek (novellists and writers); Susan Strange and Susan George (political science); or Wolfgang Streeck – a Koeln Professor of Sociology. All have extensive and eclectic reading; a focus on the long-term; and the ability to provoke and write clearly. 

Streeck is also Director there of the Max Planck Institute and an unlikely scourge of capitalism – but his texts are becoming ever more apocalyptic. 
For my money, his analysis offers much more than everyone's current favourite Thomas Pikety - whose 700 page magnum opus I suspect few have actually read.

The New Left Review is the favoured outlet for Streeck’s long, clear and incisive articles eg one in 2011 on “The Crisis of Democratic Socialism” and then one last summer on “How Will Capitalism End?” introducing an English audience to the arguments of the short book Buying Time – the delayed crisis of democratic capitalism which had appeared in Germany in 2013. European Tribune offered the following useful summary -
Capitalism and democracy were a powerful couple during the "trente glorieuses" post-WWII years. Expectations of economic growth, full employment and increasing prosperity became so entrenched that the fundamental antagonisms between the two were overlooked, or even deemed to have been definitively relegated to the dustbin of history. This, indeed, was the dominant view of the Frankfurt School during Streeck's formative years.
The book's introduction, "Crisis theory : then and now" deals with this historically embarrassing mis-analysis. J├╝rgen Habermas, in particular, developed the notion of the "legitimation crisis", postulating that people expect governments to intervene successfully in the economy to try and ensure economic prosperity, and that failure would cause the validity of the capitalist system to be questioned, thus undermining its legitimacy.
Streeck presents his book as an attempt to rehabilitate crisis theory, explaining that the postulated legitimation crisis is now upon us... forty years later, having been pushed back by our governments' successive, and moderately successful, attempts at buying time.In fact, the end of the post-war boom indeed led to a legitimation crisis - but it was not the workers/ consumers / electors who revolted. It was capital.
The notion of "Late Capitalism" has been around since the beginning of the 20th Century. But the predicted demise of capitalism is late, and keeps getting later. The error committed by the neo-Marxian Frankfurt thinkers, in Streeck's analysis, was to have considered capital as a resource, more or less biddable and accountable to democracy. Of course, as they should have known, capital is an actor, particularly in class struggle.
Streeck outlines several phases in the attempts by governments to buy time for their socio-economic model subsequent to the boom years : 
Inflation In the 70s, productive investment started to fall short of what was required for full employment. Inflationary monetary policy was the first ploy to buy time, accommodating wage rises in excess of productivity growth. But the replacement of real growth with nominal growth lost its charm with stagflation in the late 70s, which put a squeeze on profits and threatened to lead to a capital strike. 
Public debt The monetarist revolution of Reagan, Thatcher and imitators put capital back in the driver's seat. The recession they provoked, with its mass unemployment, did however require additional revenue to keep the wheels turning, and governments resorted massively to borrowing.
Private debt In the 1990s and 2000s, slashing of public services and reduction of public debt was accompanied by an explosion of private debt. 
Each of these phases is seen by Streeck as a means of conjuring money out of nowhere, in order to enjoy the benefits of growth in excess of growth itself.
The financial crisis of 2008 is seen as the final reckoning, the democracy/capital nexus being confronted with its contradictions.According to Streeck, democracy and capital were forced by circumstances into an arranged marriage after WWII. But each successive crisis entailed the progressive emancipation of capital from democratic constraints. Self-regulated markets were alleged to function efficiently, and government intervention in economic matters was de-legitimised. This ideology is now so dominant that it is hardly even questioned after the massive nationalization of private losses which was imposed on the citizen/taxpayer as the price to prevent economic collapse in the recent crisis.

The expansion of the financial sector, and the ever-increasing mobility of capital, have made the capital markets a harsh and fickle mistress for democracy. In fact, Streeck identifies the fact that governments are now accountable to two distinct constituencies : their citizen electors, or people of the nation (Staatsvolk), and their creditors, or people of the market (Marktvolk). The characteristics of these two constituencies of what he calls the “debt state” can be portrayed thus -
Staatsvolk
Marktvolk
National
international
Citizens
investors
civil rights
claims
Voters
creditors
elections (periodic) 
auctions (continuous)
public opinion
interest rates
Loyalty
"confidence"
public services
debt service

Other useful resources on the book are -

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The C word

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….neo-liberalism…. greed……inequality…. corruption….. pollution…… austerity……… migration.
I’ve just finished a book by Jerry Mander - The Capitalism Papers – Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System (2012) (the link gives the entire text) which is as good a moral critique of the system which few dare to name as you’re likely to read – “Jerry!”, one of his friends, says – “I hope you’re not going to use the “C” word”!!

I wondered about this reluctance to talk about capitalism – and duly googled the word, unearthing quite a few treasures I have so far missed, two of them produced in 1999 and clearly major works. The New Spirit of Capitalism is a French contribution by L Boltanski and E Chiapello whose main focus is -
management literature, and the ways in which it shifted between the 1960s and the 1990s in tone, content, and the general set of assumptions about capitalism and the role of management. Boltanski and Chiappello, as their title suggests, draw directly on Weber’s classic analysis of “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. Put simply, Weber’s account maintains that the emergence of a full-scale capitalist economy depended in part on a change in the habits of commercially-successful merchants, master craftsmen and entrepreneurial farmers, whose forebears might have spent their profits on luxurious lifestyles and, if sufficient, on the land, titles and symbolic goods necessary to gain admittance to the aristocracy.
The pursuit of such worldly glories might always have diverted resources away from investment in further productive capital if the ideology of Puritanism had not motivated the proto-capitalist actively to avoid them in favour of dedication to the singular vocation of his ‘calling’.
Boltanski and Chiapello derive from this account the axiom that capitalism requires from its key agents a degree of dedication, hard work and self-sacrifice which does not come naturally or easily. As such, capitalism must always be animated by a ‘spirit’, an ideology which inspires and motivates not the entire population, but the key sections who must be committed quite explicitly to the project of capital accumulation if it is to carry on successfully.
 Boltanski and Chiapello identify three such ‘spirits’, the first being Weber’s; the second being the bureaucratic ‘spirit’ of the era of high Fordist industrialism (the ideology of the ‘company man’), and the third being the ‘new spirit’ of the highly flexible, network-intensive knowledge economy

The Cultural Studies journal gives a well-referenced review of the book which was only translated into English in 2006 and was in 2013 paid the tribute of a book-length analysis - New Spirits of capitalism? Crises, justifications and dynamics (2013) by Paul du Gay, Glenn Morgan. The language of both books is, however, a bit off-putting and presumably explains their lack of impact on the general public.

1999 also apparently saw the first appearance of what looks to be a blockbuster of a book - The cancer stages of capitalism by John Mc Murtry reviewed here whose author gave us, more recently, both a second edition and a summary of his argument. Again, however, I have a reservation about the writing style - I really do believe that poor writing reflect poor thinking.......
But my failure to register his book makes one wonder about the motives behind the high profile of writers such as Naomi Klein…..is it just her beauty that impacts I have to wonder………

Richard Sennett is a better known writer – although hardly a rabble-rouser…..I was disappointed by his book about cooperation but his The Culture of the new capitalism (2006) looks much more interesting and seems to link up with The New Spirit of Capitalism – see this review

The Great Recession is a Marxist treatment of profits and this particular post from the blog behind it gives the sort of longitudinal treatment of the subject which is so often missing from discussions
Those preferring more journalistic approaches could do a lot worse than read this Spiegel article about the world view of the new billionaires.

I’m reminded of a wave of books in the 1970s which were early harbingers of this sense of crisis - James Robertson’s The Sane Alternative (1978) and Ronald Higgins’ “The Seventh Enemy” (1978) were typical examples. The second 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 47 years – new pressing issues have been identified – but who would gainsay Higgins’ 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…

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 - for example this post of last September which listed books about "the crisis" which were waiting for me in a special pile few of which I have yet got round to...............
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.
I need to be more disciplined………………