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!
The sculpture which heads the blog can be found in the "City Garden" next to the Sofia City Art Gallery - and is by a famous monumental sculptor used in the post-war period - Nikolai Schmirgela, born in 1911...it is a memorial marking the allied bombing raids on Sofia....

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

In Praise of the Free Spirit

Institutions are conservative (Donald Schon coined in 1970 the lovely phrase “dynamic conservatism”) and, despite the rhetoric in recent decades about “innovation”, don’t tend to favour original thoughts or ideas – so those seeking support for their ideas from university promotion boards or from lending agencies are  generally disappointed and learn to dumb down. I grant you that the Web came out of the state scientific system but most significant innovations these days have come from youngsters pottering in garages and using their own cash….
And a remarkable number of the books which have made an impact in the last 100 years were not written by those with university sinecures…..

George Scialabba is not exactly a name to conjure with – but he is probably one of the greatest of our contemporary polymaths/public intellectuals. I apparently downloaded a short book of his - The Divided Mind – a year or so ago but did not appreciate then the other collections of his essays which have been available since 2006 and which point to a very rare writer who has at least 5 crucial qualities –
- Breadth of reading
- Humanist perspective
- Generosity of analysis
- Elegance and clarity of writing
- Significant chunks of quotations to allow the reader to make his/her own judgement

He may be known to an increasing number of American readers as a critic and essayist but is – as this review points out –  
 a building manager at Harvard, the school from which he graduated in 1969. The facts of his vocational life are quite relevant, in a very homely, obvious way, to the splendid work that he does.There are almost no professors who do Scialabba’s kind of work, nor any journalists. It is not the case today, nor has it ever really been the case, that one got tenure by knowing the collected works of thinkers like Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, George Orwell, Leszek Kolakowski, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Gray, both Trillings, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Academia is simply too segmented by disciplines, and besides, many of these writers matter not for any scholarship they wrote but because of how their writing influenced a broader audience. No, the only people who read public intellectuals current and past are professional journalists or book critics, and obsessive, usually left-wing amateurs. The book critics stop at a certain level of difficulty. "Times" critics might review the English political philosopher John Gray, but would their readers be interested in Kolakowski?
So it’s largely left to the obsessive amateurs.What most amateurs lack, however, are the skills. George Scialabba has the time, the freedom, and the passion of the amateur—and he also has the perspicacity, and the pen, of the Harvard alumnus. It’s a wicked combination. 
What does Scialabba want, besides that you read good, important books? Just turn to the book’s dedication, which reads: “For Chomsky, Rorty, Lasch—three answers.” I can’t imagine there are too many people who would be willing to spend their lives sitting on that three-legged stool. First, as noted, there are very few people alive who know the works of all three writers well. What’s more, while I am attracted to both Rorty and Lasch, it’s hard to imagine anyone’s allying with both Rorty and Chomsky—the former with his affirming, and ultimately patriotic, pragmatism and the latter with his curdled, bitter skepticism.

A review of one of his earliest collections of essays (2007) pinpoints his writing style -
He writes in what William Hazlitt -- the patron saint of generalist essayists -- called "the familiar style" and he is sometimes disarmingly explicit about the difficulties, even the pain, he experiences in trying to resolve cultural contradictions. He challenges the aura of mystery and mastery which seems to be sought by those who aspire to intellectual authority.

But it is the scope of his reading that has impressed the American cognoscenti and led to one of the best of the academic blogs (“Crooked Timber”) dedicating one of their famous seminars to his 2009 book What are Intellectuals Good For?
But before you pursue that link, I want to present an excellent review which epitomises the fairness with which Scialabba apparently conducts his work -
Scialabba belongs to a tradition of generalist essay-writers and “citizen-critics” (his term) of the democratic left whose forebears include Albert Camus, Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, George Orwell, and Ignazio Silone—to mention those Scialabba refers to most often. In the book’s title essay, Scialabba describes this species of intellectual. They “wrote in the vernacular, with vigor and clarity, for the general, educated reader. Their topics were large, their interests wide; however small their actual, engaged audience, their writings opened out, and so helped sustain at least the idea and the hope of a public culture.”
He quotes Irving Howe’s description of one group of such writers: “The kind of essay they wrote was likely to be wide-ranging in reference, melding notions about literature and politics, sometimes announcing itself as a study of a writer or literary group but usually taut with a pressure to ‘go beyond’ its subject, toward some encompassing moral or social observation.”
 Reading several of Scialabba’s essays together, one can sense his particular intellectual vocation. It is what Matthew Arnold, writing about Edmund Burke, called a “return . . . upon himself.” Scialabba writes:“To perceive as readily and pursue as energetically the difficulties of one’s own position as those of one’s opponents; to take pains to discover, and present fully, the genuine problems that one’s opponent is, however futilely, addressing—this is disinterestedness as Arnold understood it”.
Scialabba is forever returning upon his own arguments, subjecting them to the most serious critiques he can find or invent. Again and again, he comes back to the cases against his own democratic, modernist, and socialist convictions: the nagging questions raised by elitist critiques of democracy, the conundrums of the liberal-communitarian debate, the new griefs that arrive with modernization, the unarguable successes of the parties of social inequality and war and imperial power...... 
We are saturated with words and images produced by “anti-public intellectuals” of the public relations industry; corporations and the wealthy have accumulated overwhelming political power; the “decline of print literacy” saps what sources of public thought might remain. Thus our most evident intellectual need is for writers who can research, expose, debunk. It might seem obvious, for example, that Reaganomics was bad for ordinary Americans—this, if nothing else, a contemporary left-wing intellectual ought to be able to affirm with confidence. Unfortunately, some undeniably honest and intelligent people affirm the contrary. One who is determined to see ‘all sides of every question’ must then learn how to distinguish among ways of measuring median family income, job creation and job loss, unemployment, and several other economic indicators, along with the basics of monetary theory.
For a literary intellectual, this is quite a chore.The chore becomes a Herculean labor when we consider not just the specialized vocabulary and research methodologies of economics but also those of ecology, public health, nuclear physics, chemical engineering—and so forth.
“To be, or at any rate to seem, an expert on everything,” Scialabba writes, “is now not a challenge but an invitation to vertigo.” None of us today can “‘put together’ all of culture.” The scope and complexity of our problems and the quantity of information necessary to the serious investigation of our situation are so great that generalist intellectuals cannot hope to “make social relations transparent,” as Merleau-Ponty called on them to do. Literary intellectuals cannot be the legislators of our world because they are simply “ordinary citizens without politically relevant expertise.” And without relevant expertise, how is one to make a useful contribution to a public world in which rulers rule by obfuscating and in which questions of justice must be formulated and answered in technical vocabularies? 
Scialabba argues, against his own example, that the only useful thing to do is to abandon the ideal of the humanist intellectual and become an expert in some area of public debate. Social criticism has necessarily “grown far more empirical, more specialized,” than it was in the day of writers like Macdonald and Orwell. The newer kind of intellectual this situation calls for does not display the “pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle” (Howe’s words, from a passage Scialabba quotes more than once) of the older literary intellectuals but simply aims to teach citizens “how to read the newspaper.” These empirical intellectuals are not artful in their composition of ideas; the most we can ask is that their writing be “[l]ucid, penetrating, austere, unaffected.” 

The contributions of the seminar can be read here

His website is here

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A model for People Power??

I know that some of my (many) global readers who share my critical/sceptical stance on power structures have had their hopes raised recently by my homeland and will have been hugely encouraged by the electoral landslide in Scotland which wiped out the representatives of the British political system on May 7th – with all but 3 of the 59 Scottish parliamentary seats in Westminster being taken by the Scottish Nationalists.
For 60 years Labour has been the establishment party in Scotland – on 6th May they had 40 seats – reduced overnight to one. In many cases, rock-solid Labour majorities of more than 10,000 votes were transformed into Nationalist strongholds with majorities of equivalent size.
If ever there was an example of “people power”, is this not it?

I have been out of Scottish politics for 25 years; was never a “mainstream” labour activist (to put it mildly); and was never disturbed personally or politically by the upsurge of Scottish Nationalism which started in the 1960s with the discovery of North Sea Oil (establishment Labour figures clearly had a better "nous" than me - since they treated them viciously - I treated them as a bit of a joke) . Readers can therefore assume that what follows is as objective an assessment of that question as they are likely to obtain elsewhere…….. The basic facts are –

Just 8 months ago, a massive 85% of the Scottish electorate voted by a 10% margin to remain in the United Kingdom
- What reputation the Nationalist government which has ruled since 2007 enjoys for “social democracy” it actually owes to the Lab/Lib Coalition which ruled Scotland from 1999
- It was during this time that all the distinctive social democratic policies were developed and implemented such as community land ownership; free care for the elderly; free University tuition fees; and continued public water and health systems
- All supported by the block UK tax transfer which is made to Scotland.
- The Nationalist Government which has ruled Scotland since 2007 (initially a minority one) has never used the powers for marginal tax increases
- And refused to take part in the broad Scottish coalition which pushed (successfully) for the significant devolved powers enjoyed by the Scottish government and Parliament
- Far from articulating a social democratic position, their leaders until recently had policies for marginal taxation for multi-national companies and “entrepreneurs” such as Donald Trump
- The Scottish Nationalist Party (despite its soft leftist image) has never articulated a coherent statement of its political philosophy (the 600 page manifesto for the 2014 referendum published by the Scottish Government was pasted together by civil servants)
- The upsurge in Nationalist support came in the 12 months preceding the September 2014 Independence Referendum and seems to have been due in large measure to a an amazing outburst of independent leftist organisations in Scotland such as  Common Weal  and National Collective 
- the SNP candidates attracted 1.5 million votes on 7 May - compared with Labour's 700,000 - and took 50% of the overall vote  
- this compares with the SNP vote in the 2010 General Election of 491,300; and Labour's 1,035.000
- in 5 years, that is, the SNP vote increased by 300% (1 million); and the Labour vote declined by 300,000   

Let my English friend Boffy spell it out for you -
The SNP argument was that they would be able to blackmail a Labour government -but, the Tories were able to use that threat of blackmail to rally a large enough block of nationalistic sentiment, in England, behind them to win a majority. 
The SNP believed that they could blackmail a Labour government, and instead led their ctiizens into another Tory government, the SNP now have to try to delude them into a belief that this Tory government “must” listen to them.
But, of course, the Tory government has no reason to listen to the SNP at all. In fact, what the one-party SNP regime in Scotland has now created, ironically, is a situation where a Scottish voice in government is pretty much excluded. In conditions where there are a large number of Scottish MP's from Labour or the Tories, there is always a good chance that some of those Scottish MP's will themselves be Ministers. In fact, in the last Labour Government, it was Scottish MP's who occupied the position of Prime Minister, Chancellor and other top jobs.
Because, today there are virtually no Scottish Labour or Tory MP's, the chances of any of them being in government, is thereby automatically excluded! In more ways than one, the delusions of the SNP have led the Scottish people into a dead end that has also excluded them from any voice in government. SNP MP's in Parliament will just be onlookers.  If they really had the courage of their convictions, they would follow the example of Sinn Fein, and refuse to take their seats. 
The fact, that the SNP currently purport to be pro-European, whilst wanting separation from the rest of Britain, simply exposes the illogicality and contradiction of their arguments and position even more. If, as the SNP claim, their problems arise not from capitalism, but from the fact that decisions are made in Westminster rather than Holyrood, how much greater would their problems be if decisions were made in Brussels rather than Holyrood, and under conditions where Scottish representation in the corridors of power would be even smaller than they are now, in Westminster? 
The Tories understood these economic and political realities, which is why Cameron is already rushing to offer the SNP "fiscal autonomy".  Jeremy Hunt let that cat out of the bag on Newsnight, whilst Cameron and other Tories have tried to make out that they do not propose to give Scotland fiscal autonomy.  They intend to make the SNP demand it, so as to give it to them as an apparent concession, so the SNP will have to take the blame.  If the SNP have to raise the finance required to cover Scottish spending, particularly in conditions where North Sea oil revenues are declining, and the ability to use them to bolster state finances are likely to disappear completely, the SNP will have little more scope to actually change anything in Scotland than a sizeable metropolitan council in England. It will have less ability to do so than does London. 

I don't like to be the bearer of bad news - but be prepared for all now to go downhill in Scotland.....unless a serious strategy can be created by those outside the Nationalist ranks who have worked so hard in the last two years.....

Expect nothing from the nationalist MPs................they are an undisciplined rag-bag of troublemakers who simply have naivety in common......The E-book I published last autumn - The Independence Argument – home thoughts from abroad has a detailed list of  the most significant books, websites and blogs on the issue. Only one of the 8 books which might be said to be in the "pro" camp conducts a serious analysis of the issue - and that is "Arguing for Independence - evidence, risk and the wicked issues" by Stephen Maxwell whose voice is sadly no more,,,,,,,

Gerry Hassan is an independent Scottish commentator and reflects here on the possible reasons for Scotland now being a one-party state

The repro is from my copy of Frans Masereel's superb "The City - a vision in woodcuts" (1925)

Must Labour Lose?

I had no sooner remarked on the absence of serious analysis of the results of the British General election of 7 May than I was almost overwhelmed by numerous analyses – but none of it, significantly, from newspaper sources. 
Ross McKibbin is an Oxford University political scientist whose well-informed pieces in the London Review of Books are always a joy to read – with hard analysis combining with good writing. The lead piece in the current LRB, his Labour Dies Again achieves the standard we expect from him

Henning Meyer is editor of the leftist Think Tank “Social Europe” which has produced some booklets on social democracy’s contemporary travails and his brief commentary on the lessons will reflect thinking in that quarter.

Mike Rustin is a London Sociology Professor and a well-kent face in the old-left crowd – so this critical piece of his (from the hard left stable of Lawrence and Wishart) contains few surprises….

Brendan O’Neill is Editor of Spiked – a libertarian journal whose provocative pieces always entertain and his Social Democracy is Dead, Don’t Mourn piece appeared while the final votes were still being counted in some places – hence perhaps the elements of triumphalism it contains…..The “Twitterati” he contemptuously refers to will certainly include Mike Rustin and the Soundings Kilburn Manifesto crowd whose language I also confess to finding a bit distasteful….

But the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute is a bit more hardnosed and less easy to dismiss and this analysis is a sound dissection of Miliband’s attempt to supply a convincing “story” during the past 5 years
None of Miliband’s attempts at creating an underpinning narrative for his agenda focused on empowering people through collective action.  Instead, Labour’s message was marred by a confusing mix of well-meaning managerialism and romanticised communitarianism.
Miliband’s only public critique of New Labour statecraft arose from his flirtation with Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour campaign.  Central to Blue Labour is the notion that the state, as well as the market economy, has dispossessed local communities of autonomy.  In 2011, Glasman described New Labour’s ‘embrace of the state’ as ‘manic’ and ‘almost Maoist’.  But the question of how communities can defend themselves against market forces is left bafflingly unaddressed.  Blue Labour has little to say about how the retrenchment of the state, through austerity, is the biggest threat to strong communities in Britain.
 Miliband adopted ‘responsible capitalism‘ in 2011.  By suggesting capitalism can be reformed, the concept sounded a bit lefty – New Labour suggested capitalism could be harnessed, but never tamed.  Yet it offered no substantive role for citizens in taking back control over a rampant economy. Rather, we look to capitalists themselves to lead the change.
 In 2012 Miliband introduced the odd ‘predistribution’ concept.  It presented government as both limited in its interventions – eschewing the politics of redistribution – and overtly technocratic, in that it suggested state managers know best how to create good citizens.
 Finally, Miliband gave us ‘One Nation Labour‘, the most blue of all his rhetorical ploys.  ‘One-nation’ is a traditionally conservative concept, associated with Benjamin Disraeli.  Indeed, David Cameron reclaimed the term in his first public remarks after his election victory had become clear.  It suggests a version of society in which our common humanity matters as much as social order (or more precisely, that achieving the latter is dependent on recognising the former).  It is, in a social democratic context, almost entirely meaningless.
‘One-nation’ presents the nation as an association, not a polity, and offered people looking to Miliband for hope nothing that they would not have already expected to hear from the Labour Party, even under Tony Blair.  The prominence given to the concept in subsequent Labour communications tells us that, essentially, Ed Miliband did not know what kind of government he wanted to lead.  It left him defenceless against the primitive appeal of austerity rhetoric. Labour lost this election to the Conservatives.  Conservatism has little ideological appeal in a post-crisis environment, as there is no order left to defend, but the Conservatives were extremely successful in perpetrating a politics of fear, against vaguely lefty otherness and incompetence, in order to acquire a vote share just about high enough (36.8%) to deliver a majority under our flawed electoral system. 
Yet the election was lost to the SNP too.  The SNP offered Scottish voters something that Labour did not: re-empowerment through transformed statehood.  One does not really have to take a view on the plausibility of the SNP’s approach (I made my views clear at the time of the independence referendum) to recognise its appeal.  Labour should be thankful the SNP’s nationalism restricts it to standing in Scotland alone – because it could well have demolished Labour candidates further south as well.
Ed Miliband should have done more to change the conversation.  But crippled as he was by an ambivalence towards the state, he failed to convince himself what he wanted to do with power – so it is little wonder he failed to convince the electorate.
The title I have given this post is actually the title of a Penguin Special produced in 1960 by Mark Abrams. The surprise of this election is not Labour losing (the polls never had good news for Labour) but the Tories winning an overall majority (even if a very small one). The Labour Party has been in decline for more than a decade….it certainly lost my affections in 2000 when I realised (largely through George Monbiot’s expose in The Captive State – the corporate takeover of Britain) the scale of the concessions New Labour had made to Big Business   

Part 6 of Boffy’s series of posts puts it all in an even longer historical context -
The idea that Miliband lost the election because he was too left-wing is risible. Not only was Miliband's political stance to the right of successful Labour leaders such as Wilson or Attlee, but it was even to the right of Tory leaders like Heath, or even Home, and Macmillan before him, who in the post-war period governed within the social democratic consensus of Buttskellism. Even those Tory leaders saw no reason not to follow a Keynesian policy of deficit spending, even when Britain's debt to GDP ratio was 250%, rather than the 70% it is today. Heath even nationalised industries like Rolls Royce when they ran into trouble, a measure that would have been anathema to Miliband's outlook, let alone that of the Blairites.

So is it too late to take the Labour Party back? Certainly those contending for its leadership inspire no confidence. The implication of John Harris’ latest post seems to be that a grass-roots revolution is possible…

Friday, May 22, 2015

is British journalism dead?

My first draft for this post went as follows – “If ever people needed proof that British journalism and newspapers are no longer capable of serious analysis and comment, they got it in the days immediately after the General Election earlier this month…..with prominence being given to the disgusting “spin” we were given by the Bliarites of the Labour Party that its electoral failure was due to its rejection of “New Labourism” and its overly “leftist” stance”  

This was then to point to the best analysis I have so far read of the results – being not in a newspaper but in one of Britain’s most sustained (and left) blogwriters – Boffyblog which is currently running a series of posts to help us interpret the results. Part 3 gives us the basic facts
in England, Labour gained exactly as many additional seats as did the Tories – 24. In addition, Labour's vote share, across the UK, rose by twice as much as did the Tories, 1.5% points for Labour as opposed to 0.8% points for the Tories, despite the huge fall in Labour's vote in Scotland.Labour's failure to gain a majority, therefore, most certainly cannot be placed at the door of the party having moved too far to the Left. It gained seats in England, on the basis of its mildly left stance, just not enough to compensate for the seats it lost in Scotland.
The loss of seats in Scotland, most certainly could not be put down to standing on too left a programme, given that the SNP swept the board on the basis of a much more left-wing populist stance.

Other parts of his series do something which almost no journalist bothers these days to do - put the results in the context of how the Labour leadership since 1979 has tried to find a plausible strategy (or "narrative" as the post-modernists would put it) for the country’s economic difficulties which had evicted them from power

I will return to that important argument shortly – but I have first to make a detour since I realised that I was not on solid ground in simply asserting that British journalists are no longer capable of independent analysis. I only read one newspaper - the liberal-leaning Guardian  and am beginning to realise that I have been taking its integrity and fairness too much for granted. 
I simply don’t read other British newspapers – so have no basis for saying there are no independents left. 
Of course I know the corporate structure of these newspapers gives little hope of finding unbiased coverage – but I can’t just assume that. 
Who knows – perhaps I would be surprised if I actually took the time and trouble to do a proper analysis?? 
An idea for a quick bit of research and future post???

As long as I can remember I have been a Guardian reader. I know that the Financial Times is supposed to have better European coverage but my left-wing sympathies made me assume I would get fairer coverage in The Guardian. And, certainly, the way it has in recent years dealt with first the scandal of phone-tapping by the Murdoch press; and then the Wikipedia leaks has demonstrated great courage….

But I became increasingly uneasy when I saw how the paper dealt with Craig Murray’s allegations of American-British collusion in torture in Uzbekistan (duly vindicated by Wikileaks) and the outright propaganda of journalists such as Polly Toynbee…and (in Scotland) Severin Carroll. The speed, therefore, with which Guardian journalists moved to feed us the new Labourist spin has shocked me……Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised – the Guardian has always supported the “Liberal way” – the only journalist apparently allowed to tell it from an open and radical stance has been John Harris
So where to go for honest, unbiased analysis??? 

Before I go, let me give you another bit of Boffy’s independent analysis – dealing first with the “myth” that, under Michael Foot, the Labour party was unelectable – he reminds us that it was the breakaway of the (new labour) SDP which caused a drop in electoral support which was however restored; and that the 1983 election was lost because of the upsurge of nationalist sentiment which came from the Falklands War…..
Apart from a very short spike in support for the SDP at the end of 1981, coinciding with the Crosby By-Election, Labour remained above both the Tories and the Liberal/SDP, with an average poll rating of about 40%. Labour suffered a temporary reduction in support due to the betrayal of the SDP, but the main reason it lost in 1983, was not Michael Foot, nor the SDP, nor its programme being the longest suicide note in history, as Golding described it, but the willingness of Thatcher to see the loss of thousands of lives in the Falklands War, and the Tories ability to whip up nationalist hysteria on the basis of it.  
Cameron has won today, for similar reasons. The SNP declared a political war on England on nationalistic grounds, and the Tories responded in like manner, by unleashing English nationalism in response. Nicola Sturgeon, simply fulfilled the same role for Cameron that Galtieri performed for Thatcher.
What is more, this nationalistic sentiment played into the existing nationalistic sentiment that existed, in places, and was manifest in support for UKIP, a nationalism whose focus was not necessarily directed against Scotland, but against the EU, and migrants. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Call to Arms!

I have been reading these past 2 days an important tract which appeared last year and which pillories the state of British government - Stand and Deliver. It suggests that the performance of the British government system is so poor as to require a total overhaul and indeed formal “Treaty”. The BBC gives good coverage to the author in this piece
His more radical ideas are based around bringing in new feedback systems into the working of governments.He likens government at present to a gardener planting seeds, telling people what the garden will look like but then never actually checking whether or not they have grown as planned (instead spending lots of time checking on the sharpness of a spade or the water efficiency of a hose). That is in contrast to the private sector, which checks on the outcomes of spending continually.
A similar discipline needs to come into government, he says. There has been progress with the National Audit Office, the Office for National Statistics and select committees, he says, but he wants them all brought under the umbrella of the second chamber (the House of Lords at the moment) becoming a "Resulture" able to score policies and kill off those ones which are not working.

I call this a “tract” since it is not the normal “run of the mill” academic, political or technocratic treatise. Its author is thoroughly familiar with the political and technocratic worlds (less so the academic) and is very angry with what he has experienced……
So it is a very individual take on the British system of government – despite his consultancy experience in other countries and his emphasis on the need for “benchmarking”, only the Swiss system really seems to rate for him.

My first reaction as I read the opening pages was to try to remember when I had last read such an onslaught…… Simon Jenkins’ “Accountable to None – the Tory Nationalisation of Britain” (1996) and Thatcher and Sons (2006) were both powerful exposes of the excesses of the 1979-2006 governments; Christopher Foster’s British Government in Crisis (2005) was more measured and brought his particular rich blend of academia and consultancy. It took a search of the latter’s book to remind me of the title and author of the famous expose of civil service waste which had first attracted Margaret Thatcher’s attention - Leslie Chapman’s Your Disobedient Servant (1979). And 2005 saw the launching of the Power Inquiry into the discontents about British government……
Oddly, however, none of these books appear in Straw’s three page and rather idiosyncratic bibliography.

The book itself promises to give an “organisational” rather than political take on the subject – which suited me perfectly as this has been my perspective since I first went into “government” (local) in 1968 – absorbing the more radical challenge to hierarchies and power…..Faced in turn with the challenge in 1975 of becoming one of the senior figures on the new Strathclyde Region, I used my position to develop more open and inclusive policy-making processes – extending to junior officials and councillors, community activists. With a huge Labour majority we could afford to be generous to any opposition! And, even under Thatcher, the Scottish Office Ministers were conciliatory – “partnership” was the name of the game we helped develop and was most evident in the success of the “Glasgow” revival. Straddling the worlds of academia and politics, I was able to initiate some important networks to try to effect social change
It was this experience of cooperating with a variety of actors in different agencies I took with me when I opted in 1990 to go into consultancy work in central Europe – to help develop the different sort of government capacity they needed there……then, for 8 years in Central Asia. I was lucky in being allowed to operate there to take advantage of “windows of opportunity” and not be hogbound with the stupid procurement rules…but I became highly critical of the EC development programme as you will see in this 2011 paper The Long Game – not the Logframe

Throughout this entire 45 year-period, I have been keeping up with the literature on change and public management – so am intrigued by this book of Ed Straw’s which promises to bring an organisational perspective to the frustrations we all have with government systems…….  
It was published more than a year ago; has a dedicated website but, from my google search, seems to have gone down like a lead balloon. Tomorrow I hope to present his arguments and explore how well the book fares on the following tests -
-  “resonating” with the times?
-  a “convincing” argument?
-  demonstrated “feasibility”?  
-  opposition identified?
- sources of support?


Monday, May 18, 2015

Organisational Health - time to change the medicine if not the doctor......

I’ve been “doing development” for so long that I’ve just begun to realise how odd if not questionable an activity it is……preying on people’s dissatisfactions and hopes…..and, yet, more and more consultants, academics and development workers get paid good money to churn out reports and books which identify organisational deficiencies….and then develop programmes which order people what they should be doing – rather than helping the organisation’s staff to flourish……
Such change programmes have been scything through the private and public sectors in similar fashion for the past couple of decades – they are all controlled by the same type of person in the Corporate Consultancy or national/international Funding Body…… they make the same sorts of assumptions….use the same sort of models…..and generally fail…  
The private sector has generally been in the van - with the public sector taking another few years to pick up the same fads....We noticed this more than 10 years ago - when there were several books indeed about the phenomenon of the "management guru" and the emptiness of what they preached....
But it ll seemed out of everyone's control.....

I’m at last beginning to pick up a deeper sense that something has gone seriously wrong with the way we have "parsed" management and development in the post-war period….although there are huge political and financial interests in keeping a state of amnesia; a sense of bafflement amongst so called experts about the health of our organisations….
The Emperor has no clothes post referred to some recent critical assessments in both the field of public management and development to which I should add Toward a new world – some inconvenient truths for anglo-saxons 2014 lecture by Chris Pollitt (which, rather belatedly, recognises that a significant part of Europe - as well as the world) - has never bought the neo-liberal/Benthamite thinking of "New Public Management"); and A government that works better – and cost less?? By Christopher Hood and Ruth Dixon .
-  And this book on Reinventing Organisations also seems to be making waves in the private sector – taking us back to management books of the 1980s and echoing the work of maverick Richard Semmler….

Is it too much to suggest that there is a link here with the “slow food” and the “limits to growth” movements? All signalling a wider revolt against the way advertising, marketing and the corporate media has so insidiously, in the post-war period, developed a collective sense of dissatisfaction??

For the first part of my working life I was an “insider” working to improve a very large (public) organisation - with a strategy and structures which tried to use the energies of a range of people which the organisation’s “logic” had trained it to ignore….These were its lower-level officials, its more junior politicians and, above all, citizen activists we brought into new structures we established in the early 80s. I’m glad to say that this sort of work was so strongly accepted and “embedded” (to use an important concept in the change literature) that it has continued to this day in the structures and strategies of the Scottish Government….

But my role fundamentally changed after 1990 to that of an “Outsider” – the European Commission (and the small private “consultancies” it sub-contracts) funded me to appear in capitals and to “effect change”… using increasingly detailed prescriptions and tools which I wrote about with increasing frustration……What I enjoyed was identifying and working flexibly with people who wanted to change their institutions for the better – but the rigidity with which EC programmes are designed made that increasingly impossible….
It was a decade ago I first came across the notion of “good enough governance” which challenged the push global bodies such as The World Bank were making (at the start of the new millennium) for “good governance” - including the development of indices to measure the extent of progress “developing countries” were making in reaching the standards of public management apparently possessed by “developed” countries.

We need to explore this “good enough” concept in all our thinking but, above all, we need to have an outright ban on externally-imposed organisational change…..and a requirement that anybody proposing change should have to justify it to a panel of self-professed sceptics….

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Candide's Journey - an expose of journalism

I’m always intrigued by confessional-type books which sketch how the scales fell from a writer’s eyes and how (s)he began to “connect the dots” in their various worlds ie produce a coherent account of the exercise of power.
Voltaire’s Candide was, of course, a satire – I prefer less manipulative and anguished portrayals of “intellectual journeys”…..which seem to be quite rare….millions of autobiographies or memoirs which show what an interesting life the author had or interesting times they lived in – but few hints of the sorts of deep questions they might have been exploring…..let alone attempts to set out their “world views”, the assumptions which sustained them and how and why experience was forcing adjustments….
Almost before they start writing a book – be it political, financial, economic – authors have taken decisions about how they will “frame” and tell the story - and are writing the book to convince you of its rectitude. Don’t expect them to share their uncertainties with you….

Patrick Chalmers is a fellow Scot born in 1966 – the generation after mine – and, after graduating first in engineering then journalism, had several years of contract work before landing a job with Reuters in 1994. Happy to have such a job – initially on finance then EU affairs in Brussels – he was slow to recognise the interests he was serving although it was in Brussels he developed his Euroscepticism as he began to understand the extent of the “behind-the-doors” dealing and the power of the big business lobby…..a spell as a foreign correspondent in the Far East completed his disillusionment with the rhetoric of democracy and he resigned in order to seek a more honourable channel for his energies….Fraudcast News – how bad journalism supports bogus democracies is his (self-published) book which tells the story – with the final chapters updating his story and giving a quietly upbeat message about “alternative journalism”…..

We need more books like this….for the life of me I can’t at the moment remember others I’ve read of this genre – although I know they exist. Coincidentally, I’ve spent the past few days drafting possible text for a new introduction to the little E-book Crafting Effective Public Management which I uploaded a week or so ago. This latest effort of mine had collected my musings of the last decade about efforts to improve systems of government. This post earlier this month reflects my rather belated realisation of how few people seem to have had my experience of straddling “reform efforts” in so many countries and from a “practitioner” standpoint……Writers on this topic are academics – or employed by global institutions…..paid to  put walls around pretty gardens of increasingly specialized “knowledge”. Practitioners rarely have the time or temerity to challenge such gatekeepers…
It was some 15 years ago I started to pose serious questions about the conventional wisdom on the sort of “institutional change” which people in post-communist countries were being urged to make and the legitimacy of the bodies funding programmes of institutional reform….
I delivered a major paper Missionaries or mercenaries? on the topic to the 2007 Annual Conference of the NISPAcee network of schools of public administration; an update Play the Long Game – not the log frame! at the 2011 Conference; and have mused intermittently about public management reform, training and the use of structural funds in new member states – but realized only this week that I needed to pick out more explicitly the “theories of change” which have been implicit in the programmes of the past 4 decades…..