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!

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Problem of Identity

A recent post criticised “political labelling” but ducked the perfectly legitimate question of the descriptor someone with my set of values and commitments might find more acceptable. 
I object to being called a “leftist” simply because, despite my dislike of big business, I am a firm believer that “power corrupts” and always needs an institutional challenge and balance….
“The Open Society and its Enemies” was in the early 1960s one of the key books which influenced me….

So central state power needs to be balanced with citizen power - properly served by five other systems –
- strong parliaments;
- strong municipalities;
- diversely independent media;
- independent judicial systems; and
- real structures of accountability.

Parse most European systems and it’s only the northern ones which come through positively from any ratings….the British one certainly doesn’t fare well….

And excesses of economic power should be dealt with not only by appropriate structures of anti-monopoly legislation but by the encouragement (via laws and funding) of cooperatives and worker participation. 

Balance” is the key…and that is achieved by state actions which draw from what we might call the “Acton” toolkit (in honour of the English Lord’s quip about “absolute power corrupting absolutely”).
England is perhaps unfairly termed “perfidious” since the “balance of power” principle it pursued for so long served Europe well…..and is one which deserves more honour as a serving ideology for our times…..That’s why I was so taken with Henry Mintzberg when, in 2000, he started to use the term “rebalancing society

My father was, in the 1950s, part of a group of local dignitaries who used the label “moderate” when they fought in the municipal elections – neither left nor right….interestingly they faced not only Conservatives and Labour but an increasingly vociferous groups of liberals…….If “Progress” had not got such a bad name recently, I might be tempted to use the term “progressive” of myself….. 

I am an “agnostic” in matters of religion and “sceptic” vis-à-vis anything which passes for conventional wisdom or arouses new enthusiasms (hence my distrust of the “identity politics” of the past few decades) – but these terms don’t do justice to the values I hold of equality, fairness, openness and challenge….   

So help me!! What am I?

Friday, December 2, 2016

The charm of wine boutiques!

Markets are fascinating things – whether it's farmers harvesting and distilling grapes and distributing the bottled product to supermarkets and wine boutiques – or artists crafting their materials to delight us in galleries with their canvasses or sculptures. All the choices to be made – and the different activities and roles involved in bringing such things as wines and paintings together with customers and clients. ........Since a cycling trip through France as a teenager, I’ve always appreciated wines – but been happy until recently to settle for whatever was available cheaply in the nearest shop…

Bulgaria has made me more aware first of the scale of artistic endeavor – the annotated list of Bulgarian artists in the latest edition of Bulgarian Realists is now almost 300 (without even starting to give serious consideration to contemporary artists!) – and, now, of the scale and variety of its wines… ..
But it’s been a gradual process of learning about its wines - ever since the first stunning taste of a Targovishte Muscat at Balcik in 2002 - on our way back from a trip to the Aegean!
What has helped my education, of course, are the annual wine fairs here in Sofia – with more than 70 Bulgarian vineyards offering a sample of their wares….almost 500….and the lovely little annual catalogue of Bulgarian Wine which gives notes on a sample of those vineyards......But all that can be a bit overwhelming….
So I’ve been delighted to find these days that young Assen’s Vinoorendo has been joined by no fewer than 3 other wine shops - first Rumen’s Winebar 52, Alabin St where we had a lovely evening last week tasting 5 of the Santa Maria selection – for 5 euros

Then I stumbled across Tempus Vini at 81, Tsar Boris – open just 2 months ago and Yassen always poised with an open bottle to welcome us.
And yesterday morning I noticed Enjoy Wine 19, Ivan Shishman st - whose Ivo welcomed us not only with amusing quips but with a couple of tastings. Most of Yassen’s wine stock is Bulgarian – and the same is true of Enjoy Wine (which organizes not only wine tastings but trips to vineyards)

If you have money, it’s not difficult to part with it in such places – as the owners share their information and passion for the various bottles on offer!

While googling about the idea of wine markets, I came across this superb blog by a Prof of Political Economy who clearly takes his wines seriously – while making the whole subject of the wine market fascinating….. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

In Praise of the Documentary

I have come late to the work of documentarist Adam Curtis. I had registered a year or so ago his The Century of the Self (2002) which told the story (as Curtis puts it) of “how those in power have used Freud's theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy"; and shows how the man who effectively invented the PR industry which then went on to take over the machinery of state propaganda……. was Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays.
And his documentary Bitter Lake (2015) about the role of Saudi Arabia in post-war politics was a mind-blowing piece which brought forth this post earlier this year with its acknowledgment that -  
Good documentaries require a rare combination - knowledge of the subject, experience of filming, appropriate selection and editing of text, images and music, and appreciation of how to fit them together

His latest (3 hour) production - Hypernormalisation - hit our screens last month – with Curtis himself setting the scene in his blog thus -
We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless migrant crisis, random bomb attacks. And those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed - they have no idea what to do. 
This film is the epic story of how we got to this strange place. It explains not only why these chaotic events are happening - but also why we, and our politicians, cannot understand them.It shows that what has happened is that all of us in the West - not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves - have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world.
But because it is all around us we accept it as normal. HyperNormalisation is a giant narrative spanning forty years, with an extraordinary cast of characters. They include the Assad dynasty, Donald Trump, Henry Kissinger, Patti Smith, the early performance artists in New York, President Putin, intelligent machines, Japanese gangsters, suicide bombers - and the extraordinary untold story of the rise, fall, rise again, and finally the assassination of Colonel Gaddafi. 
All these stories are woven together to show how today’s fake and hollow world was created. Part of it was done by those in power - politicians, financiers and technological utopians. Rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, they retreated. And instead constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang onto power.
And it wasn’t just those in power. This strange world was built by all of us. We all went along with it because the simplicity was reassuring. And that included the left and the radicals who thought they were attacking the system.
The film shows how they too retreated into this make-believe world - which is why their opposition today has no effect, and nothing ever changes. But there is another world outside. And the film shows dramatically how it is beginning to pierce through into our simplified bubble. Forces that politicians tried to forget and bury forty years ago - that were then left to fester and mutate - but which are now turning on us with a vengeful fury.

Curtis is not to everyone’s taste – with some annoyance being expressed at the randomness of his narratives - which do jump around in a rather tantalizing if not conspiratorial way….with music and odd image clips (from BBC Archives). Indeed there is a short mocking video here which does capture his style….. .
But I personally like the way he tries to capture recent intellectual history – and, in particular, builds bridges across the huge abysses that increasingly separate the social science disciplines…. We need a lot more of this….

Close readers of this blog may have noticed that it has occasionally mentioned the fascinating period of American intellectual history in the 2 decades after the second world war whose personalities and books in the late 50s and early 60s helped shape my own thinking people like JK Galbraith, James Buchanan, Ivan Illich…

 An Adam Curtis Resource
The google search I did for articles and interviews about his work unearthed quite a few gems – my favourite being this long interview with him, the second of a series (the first being a fascinating account of how he came to stumble on his particular type of documentary)
"all watched over by machines"….https://vimeo.com/groups/96331/videos/80799353

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Not with a bang ....but a whimper......

Last year I drew attention to the fact that, despite their prolific output, economists seemed to have some difficulty in making sense of more global trends – 
It’s significant that the best expositions of the global economic crisis and its causes rarely 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) and his A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005); John Lanchester and James Meek (novellists and writers); Susan Strange, Susan George or Colin Crouch (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. 
"Eclectic" is the key word; few economists are trained these days in political economy - which roots the study of economics in the wider context of history and political analysis...... 

Wolfgang Streeck is Director of the Max Planck Institute and an unlikely scourge of capitalism – but his texts are becoming ever more apocalyptic. He has just published another - How will Capitalism End? - a summary of whose basic thesis can be found in this 2014 New Left Review article
The NLR is the favoured outlet for Streeck’s long, clear and incisive articles eg one in 2011 on “The Crisis of Democratic Socialism”  which led to the short book Buying Time – the delayed crisis of democratic capitalism (2013). 
His latest book, however, explodes any idea of the inevitable arrival of a socialist paradise –On the contrary, his is a dystopian vision in which capitalism perishes not with a bang, but a whimper. Since, he argues, capitalism can no longer turn private vice into public benefit, its “existence as a self-reproducing, sustainable, predictable and legitimate social order” has ended. Capitalism has become “more capitalist than is good for it”. 
The postwar marriage between universal-suffrage democracy and capitalism is ending in divorce, argues Streeck. The path leading to this has gone via successive stages: the global inflation of the 1970s; the explosion of public debt of the 1980s; the rising private debt of the 1990s and early 2000s; and the subsequent financial crises whose legacy includes ultra-low interest rates, quantitative easing, huge jumps in public indebtedness and disappointing growth.
Accompanying capitalism on this path to ruin came “an evolving fiscal crisis of the democratic-capitalist state”. The earlier “tax state” became the “debt state” and now the “consolidation state” (or “austerity state”) dedicated to cutting deficits by slashing spending. Three underlying trends have contributed: declining economic growth, growing inequality and soaring indebtedness. These, he argues, are mutually reinforcing: low growth engenders distributional struggles, the solution too often being excessive borrowing.  
The book finishes by exploring five systemic disorders – “stagnation, oligarchic redistribution, plundering of the public domain, corruption and global anarchy…..” which Streeck talks about here and which are (very briefly) defined in this summary

Curiously, however, the book seems to give little coverage to automation…on which a recent article called Four Futures offers an insightful perspective – reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books – a review which also carried a good piece on The Supermanagerial Rich

Other Relevant Reading
David Harvey eg

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Leftist, anarchist or fatalist???

I started this post with every intention of analysing the deep gloom which has descended on “progressives” not just this year but since it became clear that neoliberalism – far from dying since 2008 - seemed to be enjoying a second coming. I discovered, however, that this required a bit of a diversion into the issue of political labelling.....so bear with me.... 

Despite my 20 odd years’ experience as an elected politician, I have never been happy with political labels…..from the very beginning (in the late 60s) I could see how my (older) Labour colleagues were closer to officials than to their constituents. And the sympathy I quickly developed for community development also gave me a slightly anarchistic approach in matters of political ideology.
I was lucky, of course, to be able to occupy a senior role at an early age - slipping into position after the Labour party locally had experienced a few years of electoral defeats - and had the luxury, after the first few elections, of knowing that my party had a fairly impregnable grip on power on the massive new Strathclyde Region which had been set up in 1973/74.

But, equally, the knowledge that the poorer citizens of this Region suffered from the UK’s worst rates of deprivation drove a few of us to set up what were at the time (mid 1970s) unique deliberative structures (at both community and regional level) which brought officials, councillors and community activists together in a creative and utterly non-partisan spirit
To this day I consider these were the best things I ever achieved…… although the community business movement which I helped set up in the late 70s were a close second….

I’ve been out of politics for the past 25 years - and out of sympathy with British (and European) political parties for the past 15 of these. It was George Monbiot’s Captive State (2000) which first alerted me to the scale of the corporate takeover of the British state – which has intensified globally since then…..
Since the 1980s I’ve had strong “green” sympathies but vividly remember, five years ago, being deeply offended when an article I contributed to a magazine feature marking the anniversary of the 2001 Twin Towers attack was given a “leftist” health warning. This is how I reacted at the time - 

Four separate issues arise from this -
- First, do the editors not realise that use of such a label for one (only) of the articles is effectively an invitation to their readers to ignore it or treat it with suspicion? What does this say about freedom of expression?
- Second, criticism of the logic and effects of “neo-liberalism” has come from a great variety of quarters – not least the ordo-liberalism which has been the backbone of the post-war German economy.
- Third, it has been recognised for a long time that the left-right labelling makes little sense. Wikipedia has an excellent briefing on this. And I recommend people do their own test on the political compass website - which uses two (not one) dimensions to try to situate people politically. 
Finally, there is the issue of whether I deserve the label which has been thrown at me – either from the article or from the range of beliefs I actually hold. The references in my article are impeccably mainstream academia (Colin Crouch; Henry Mintzberg) and a final section clearly signals that I have no truck with statism. 
All my political life I have supported community enterprise and been opposed to state ambitions and the “evil” it brings in, for example, the adulterated Romanian form. My business card describes me as an “explorer” – which refers not so much to the nomadic nature of my life in the last 20 years as the open nature of my search for both a satisfactory explanation of how societies and economies work; with what results; and the nature of relevant mechanisms for adjusting what societies judge (through democratic processes) to be unacceptable trends.
I readily admit to having been attracted in my youth to the British New Left’s analysis of British inequality in the late 1950s - but I was profoundly influenced at University by people such as Karl Popper and his The Open Society and its Enemies, Schumpeter (his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy and Ralf Dahrendorf; and, at a more practical level, by Andrew Shonfield and Tony Crosland who were also writing then about the benefits of the “mixed economy”. More recently I have generally been a fan of the writings of Will Hutton (whose stakeholder analysis of UK society was disdained by Tony Bliar on becoming PM).
As an academic I was influenced by the critical analysis of UK and US political scientists in the 1970s which went variously under the terms “Limits of the State” or “problems of implementation” and the softer end of the “public choice school” of institutional economics. But, unusually, the anarchistic/libertarian sweep of Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire also got to me in the 1970s (which is why I am (unusually) located in the south west quadrant of the political compass).
I therefore not only disdained the injunctions of the dominant left and right extremes of British politics of the 1980s but, as an influential Scottish regional politician, used my role to create more open processes of policy-making. Indeed community activists and opposition politicians were more important partners for me than members of my own party. I held on to my leading political position on the huge Regional Council simply because I belonged to neither the left or right factions amongst my colleagues but was their natural second choice! The definitions I give in my Sceptic's Glossary reveal the maverick me.

It is "big business" and its abuses of power I have always been hostile to.........

The next post's analysis of the "apocalyptic" turn which progressive comments have taken in recent months and years should be read in this light......  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Sofia's Annual Wine Fair

My fourth annual Bulgarian wine fair this past weekend in Sofia and what a feast if not feat!!
More than 200 wines tasted by yours truly in 3 days. And a hugely popular event as you can see from the pics.
I'm not prepared these days to pay more than 5 euros for a very good Balkan wine and twelve wineries caught my palate for their "best value" wines. Plus half a dozen old favourites........I've selected them by Region...................

Danube Region
Bononia – this was the first year’s tasting for this new Vidin vineyard, Their Istar Sauvignon and Traminer were amongst the best – for 5 euros.
Gulbanis winery is actually nearer Veliko Tarnovo and offers several award-winning whites – particularly the Moscata Bianco 2015, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay – all for 4 euros

Black Sea
BOY AR from Pomorie whose Dimyiat was only 3 euros.
Dives winery is also at Pomorie and had a Sauvignon as well as a Muscat and CS rose – all for 4 euros
This was also the price of the Miskets, Pinos Gris and Gruner Veltliners from Varna Winery
The Zelanos whites from its winery just outside Burgas were a bit pricier at 7 euros

Eastern Thrace
"Angel’s estate" wines offer a great SB and Chardonnay for 4 euros
Domain Marash is near Yambol and offered a lovely Muscat at just under 5 euros; and a tasty CS rose for 5 euros
villa Yambol had a great Muscat for only 3 euros; and a CS rose for only 2.5 euros!!

The Malkata Zvezda vineyard is in the Rhodopes near the Greek border and offered a Traminer; Chardonnay and Rose each for 5 euros.

Western Thrace
Karabunar operates near Plovdiv and, in what they called the Bulgarian Heritage Original Collection, offered a Misket; a Dimyat and Mavrud Rose – each for 5 euros….
Zagreus also has its vineyard near Plovdiv but offers organic wines at great prices – white Mavrud; rose Mavrud at 3.5 euros each ,

Struma Valley
Zlaten Rozhen has its vineyards at Melnik and its Sandanski Misket has become a favourite of mine (5 euros); at the fair I had my first taste of its Chardonnay and Viognier – also 5 euros

old favourites
Black Sea Gold – Pentagram, Ponti 3.5 euros
Ethno – 3 euros
St Ilia (Sliven) – 3.5 euros
Targovishte (centre) – 3.5 euros
Santa Maria (south-east) – 4/5 euros

Here's last year's notes by way of comparison......and 2013

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Our Amnesia

Most of the material I come across about political economy is pretty abstract – individuals rarely figure (except those such as Thatcher, Reagan and Hayek) – rather forces…(such as neo-liberalism or globalisation).The material lacks what the literature has taken to calling “agency” ie actors who cause things to happen; or a narrative about how exactly these individuals achieved the changes being described.  

I am serialising an edited version of the article about the “Watergate Babes” simply because it restores “agency” to the narrative. It shows that things are not pre-determined but come from human choices……. I remember the Johnson Presidency – the literature on the “War on Poverty” (particularly Dilemmas of Social Reform by Peter Marris and Martin Rein; “Blaming the Victim” by W Ryan; Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky) and was duly influenced by such writings of JK Galbraith as The New Industrial State..

This next part of the edited article reminds us of this context in which the new elements in the Democrat Party changed focus all of 40 years ago; and the intellectual sources they drew on in a changed narrative….
How the thinking changed……After Humphrey’s loss to Nixon in 1968, Democrats formed the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, also known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which sought to heal and restructure the party. With the help of strategist Fred Dutton, Democrats forged a new coalition. By quietly cutting back the influence of unions, Dutton sought to eject the white working class from the Democratic Party, which he saw as “a major redoubt of traditional Americanism and of the antinegro, antiyouth vote.”
The future, he argued, lay in a coalition of African Americans, feminists, and affluent, young, college-educated whites. In 1972, George McGovern would win the Democratic nomination with this very coalition, and many of the Watergate Babies entering office just three years later gleaned their first experiences in politics on his campaign.
 ……Meanwhile, by 1970, both civil society and large American institutions seemed out of control. The National Guard shot antiwar protesters at Kent State, showing that the fissures over Vietnam were only getting worse. The Penn Central railroad had collapsed in the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Corrupt corporate executives mismanaged the nation’s train system under an outdated regulatory system. Inflation was spiraling upward, and the ongoing corporate problems of important institutions—such as Pan Am and Chrysler—were becoming more and more evident. Plus, Japanese imports began displacing American jobs.
But the new political class didn’t pin the blame for social and economic problems solely on Wall Street or corporate management—as populists like Patman did—but on a broader malaise. In 1974, Charlie Peters, the publisher of the hot new magazine The Washington Monthly, wrote: “Yesterday, Penn Central. Today, Pan Am. Tomorrow? The American system is in trouble and we all know it.” Inflation and a wave of corporate problems intermingled, indistinguishable from the claims of the counterculture. “We’ve grown fat and sloppy,” Peters continued. “General Motors and the Post Office each have over 700,000 employees. One turns out lemons. The other loses packages … The old organizations—public or private—simply aren’t doing the job.” 
A key influence………And the most important architect of this intellectual counterrevolution, the one who engaged in a direct assault on traditional anti-monopoly policy, was the libertarian legal scholar Robert Bork. His book The Antitrust Paradox undermined the idea of competition as the purpose of the antitrust laws. Monopolies, Bork believed, were generally good, as long as they delivered low prices. A monopoly would only persist if it were more efficient than its competitors. If there were a company making super-charged monopoly profits, bankers would naturally invest in a competitor, thus addressing the monopoly problem without government intervention. Government intervention, in fact, could only hurt, damaging efficient monopolies with pointless competition and redundancy. In an era of high prices, a theory focused on price seemed reasonable………. 
On the Democratic Party’s left, a series of thinkers agreed with key elements of the arguments made by Jensen, Stigler, and Bork. The prominent left-wing economist John Kenneth Galbraith argued that big business—or “the planning system” as he called it—could in fact be a form of virtuous socialism. Their view of political economics was exactly the opposite of Patman’s and the other populists. Rather than distribute power, they actively sought to concentrate it. Galbraith for instance cited the A&P chain store, which, rather than the political threat Patman had decried, Galbraith declared should be recognized as a vehicle for consumer rights and lower prices. His theory was called “countervailing power.” Big business was balanced by those subject to it: big government and big labor. Inserting democracy into the commercial arena itself through competitive markets was “a charade” and “the last eruption of the exhausted mind.” Anti-monopoly measures had never worked; they were a “cul-de-sac” for reformist energy, leading away from the real solution of public ownership of industry. 
For younger Democrats, the key vector for these ideas was an economist named Lester Thurow, who organized the ideas of Galbraith, Stigler, Friedman, Bork, and Jensen into one progressive-sounding package. In an influential book, The Zero-Sum Society, Thurow proposed that all government and business activities were simply zero-sum contests over resources and incomes, ignoring the arguments of New Dealers that concentration was a political problem and led to tyranny. In his analysis, anti-monopoly policy, especially in the face of corporate problems was anachronistic and harmful. Thurow essentially reframed Bork’s ideas for a Democratic audience.
 …….Henceforth, the economic leadership of the two parties would increasingly argue not over whether concentrations of wealth were threats to democracy or to the economy, but over whether concentrations of wealth would be centrally directed through the public sector or managed through the private sector—a big-government redistributionist party versus a small-government libertarian party. Democrats and Republicans disagreed on the purpose of concentrated power, but everyone agreed on its inevitability. By the late 1970s, the populist Brandeisian anti-monopoly tradition—protecting communities by breaking up concentrations of power—had been air-brushed out of the debate. And in doing so, America’s fundamental political vision transformed: from protecting citizen sovereignty to maximizing consumer welfare. 
Early spotting of neoliberalism in the Democrats’ society………..In 1982, journalist Randall Rothenberg noted the emergence of this new statist viewpoint of economic power within the Democratic Party with an Esquire cover story, “The Neoliberal Club.” In that article, which later became a book, Rothenberg profiled up-and-coming Thurow disciples like Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, Bill Clinton, Bruce Babbitt, Richard Gephardt, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Paul Tsongas, and Tim Wirth, as well as thinkers like Robert Reich and writers like Michael Kinsley. These were all essentially representatives of the Watergate Baby generation. It was a prescient article: Most Democratic presidential candidates for the next 25 years came from this pool of leaders. Not all Watergate Babies became neoliberals, of course. There were populists of the generation, like Waxman and Miller, but they operated in an intellectual environment where the libertarian and statist thinkers who rejected Brandeis shaped the political economy.
 ……..In their first five years, the 1975 class of Democrats categorically realigned American politics, ridding their party of its traditional commitments. They released monopoly power by relaxing antitrust laws, eliminating rules against financial concentration, and lifting price regulations. 
The Watergate babies accepted Reagan’s demolition of controls; When Reagan came into office, one of his most extreme acts was to eliminate the New Deal anti-monopoly framework. He continued Carter’s deregulation of finance, but Reagan also stopped a major antitrust case against IBM and adopted Bork’s view of antitrust as policy. The result was a massive merger boom and massive concentration in the private sector. The success of the Watergate Baby worldview over the old populists can be seen in what did not happen in response to this quiet yet extraordinarily radical revolution:
There was no fight to block Reagan’s antitrust restructuring. He reversed the single most important New Deal policy to constrain concentrations of economic and political power, and… nothing. Antitrust was forgotten, because no one was left to fight for it. ….. And in response to the end of the Cold War, the administration restructured the defense industry, shrinking the number of prime defense contractors from 107 to five. The new defense-industrial base, now concentrated in the hands of a few executives, stopped subsidizing key industries. The electronics industry was soon offshored…….
A West Wing generation learned only Watergate Baby politics, never realizing an earlier progressive economic tradition had even existed.