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!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Why academia is irrelevant

The snow has at last reached Bucharest – although it’s fairly wet. We walked yesterday to Strada Doamnei (just off Piate Universitate) which has 3-4 second-hand bookshops but got no further than the first which has a uniform price (7 euros) for its entire stock – most of which are large expensive (and heavy!) glossies in English. We staggered out with 9 real bargains – including a superbly crafted and illustrated account of an art dealer’s life (focussing on his trading with van Goghs and Cezannes); a large and well-illustrated book on Antique Prices; and one on Chinese Art.
The American Association of Political Science has just held its Annual Conference – and a fascinating summary is available here Nothing could confirm more strongly my allegations against the pointlessness if not damage the discipline of political science has done to the study of politics. The article also put me on to a great website of an academic, inspired by C Wright Mills, who is trying to make his work relevant to public concerns and who uses the concept of public sociology for this purpose.
I had no sooner finished reading that than I came across an article in the latest issue of New York Review of Books on the role performance indicators play in making academic writing so irrelevant.
Some of the most telling testimony on the damage to British scholarship inflicted by the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) carried our every 7 years has come not from an academic but from Richard Baggaley, the European publishing director of Princeton University Press, and an acute observer of the quality of British scholarly output.
Writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement in May 2007, Baggaley deplored what he saw as “a trend towards short-termism and narrowness of focus in British academe.” In the natural and social sciences this took the form of “intense individual and team pressure to publish journal articles,” with the writing of books strongly discouraged, and especially the writing of what he calls “big idea books” that may define their disciplines. Baggaley attributes this bias against books directly to the distorting effects of the RAE. Journal articles are congenial to the RAE because they can be safely completed and peer-reviewed in good time for the RAE deadline. If they are in a prestigious journal, that is the kind of peer approval that will impress the RAE panelists.
The pressure to be published in the top journals, Baggaley wrote, also „increases a tendency to play to what the journal likes, to not threaten the status quo in the discipline, to be risk-averse and less innovative, to concentrate on small incremental steps and to avoid big-picture interdisciplinary work.
„In the humanities the RAE bias also works in favor of the 180–200-page monograph, hyperspecialized, cautious and incremental in its findings, with few prospects for sale as a bound book but again with a good chance of being completed and peer-reviewed in time for the RAE deadline. A bookseller at Blackwell’s, the leading Oxford bookstore, told me that he dreaded the influx of such books as the RAE deadline approached”.
A further set of practices, above and beyond the RAE, that push British academics toward “short-termism and narrowness of focus” in their research are the reporting and auditing burdens imposed on them by its sister bureaucracies such as the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and by the administrators of the academics’ own university. This is the “pressure for internal and external accountability” to which the Universities UK refers in its report, and is known collectively as the “audit culture.” The audit culture requires academics to squander vast amounts of time and energy producing lengthy and pointless reports, drenched in the jargon of management consultancy, showing how their chosen “processes” for the organization of teaching, research, and the running of academic departments conform to managerial “best practice” as laid down by HEFCE, the QAA, or the university administration itself. Words like “quality” and “excellence” have become increasingly empty. For the handful of British universities that are world-class—Oxford, Cambridge, and the various components of the University of London foremost among them—the HEFCE system is especially dangerous, because the reputation of these universities really does depend on their ability to do first-rate research, which is most threatened by HEFCE’s crass managerialism. In Britain there are scholars who will continue to produce exceptional work despite HEFCE and the RAE. But by treating the universities as if they were the research division of Great Britain Inc., the UK government and HEFCE have relegated the scholar to the lower echelons of a corporate hierarchy, surrounding him or her with hoards of managerial busybodies bristling with benchmarks, incentives, and penalties.
I need to emphasise that I'm not an academic but simply someone who was exposed in the 1960s to social science writing - and had high hopes of its potential contribution to social improvement efforts. Not only has this not happened - but those in academia have given us a double whammy of obfuscation and Candide-like justification of the status-quo.

Gerry Stoker said it was important for the discipline to grapple with the criticism that it has become irrelevant, but he also said that there were "tricky issues" that made it difficult for scholars to become more relevant without sacrificing key values. "Truth and evidence and reasoning are not in the forefront of political decision making," he said, and yet political scientists revere those things. In the political sphere, "we are competing with ideology, pragmatism, interests," he said. And Stoker also said that the discipline doesn't reward relevance. A young scholar is more likely to be promoted for "the novelty of methodological contribution" than for "research that actually has an impact."
A Swedish colleague Bo Rothstein was even tougher - he described his experiences teaching at Harvard University, where he was tremendously impressed with the 20 seniors in his seminar on comparative politics. One day he asked how many were planning to go to graduate school in political science and was "stunned" to find out that the students -- many of them idealistic about changing the world -- had to a person ruled that out in favor of law school. Their view was that "to be relevant, you have to have a law degree."
In Sweden, Rothstein said, this would be viewed as a terrible thing. "No such persons" like those Harvard seniors he taught "would dream of going to law school," which they would see as "boring and technical." But while American universities tell those who want to change the world to go to law school, they attract other kinds of students to grad school. "I was not at all impressed by the graduate students" at Harvard, he said. "They wanted to stay away from anything relevant."
Political scientists are too focused on developing theories about government, ignoring the huge impact -- a life-and-death impact, he noted -- that government has. Tens of thousands of people die each year because they can't get safe water or health care from corrupt governments, but political scientists prefer to theorize about the governments rather than thinking about how to change them with the goal of getting them to provide their people with water and health care.
As an example, Rothstein cited a session he attended on "clientelism" in Africa, a form of corruption that is widespread and damaging. Rothstein said he asked the presenters about comparisons to countries that have moved past clientelism, and that they had no answers. "The discipline is organized" such that African area studies scholars will simply compare various forms of the practice and "never ask how you can get out of clientelism," since that would require looking outside their region and focusing on solutions, he said. "The discipline is organized to avoid interesting comparisons of issues," rather than "on actual people."

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Good resolutions

The good weather continues. Christmas was passed in the quiet and isolated way which I find the only way to deal with it in Europe. Food was burnished walnuts, the glorious Recas Riesling-Pinot Gris wine whose praises I have already sung; and green bean and smoked sausage stew. Only today did we have the more normal Sarma (sour cabbage boiled in mince with dill).
This is the time of the year when thoughts turn to Good Resolutions for the coming year. However corny some of it may sound, I still recommend the 40 tips I came across in late 2009.
And please have a look at the updated version of Just Words?. This now has more than 100 words; a more explicitly radical agenda; a more extended bibliography; and a recognition of the role of poetry, caricature and novels.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

a missing social democratic vision

The mild weather continues. David Marquand – whose stuff is always worth reading – had a piece in Open Democracy the other day, emphasising that the Labour rethink under its new leader, Ed Miliband, needs to be deeper than so far evident. From his Scottish base, Gerry Hassan agrees and reminds us that, neither under Labour nor the nationalists, has Scotland bought into the neo-liberalism. However, as he has argued on previous occasions, these is no sensible vision being articulated there to deal with the continuing grip of neo-liberalism. Germany has managed to retain an industrial base; still has its commitment to indigeous industry and a financial system which supports that; and is weathering the present financial crisis well. I would be curious to know what the SDP and leftist vision is there.
In the meantime, I would urge everyone (but particularly those still convinced that private sector management and models have anything to offer the public sector) to have a read of a 2000 article on the management of government by the management guru Henry Mintzberg. In this he argues that it was not capitalism which won in 1989 - it was "balance" ie a system in which all three sectors were strong. The push to privatise everything will, he asserted, lead to the same disease of communist societies. His discussion is particularly helpful for the distinctions he draws - first the 4 different roles of customer, client, citizen and subject. Secondly the 4 types of organisations - privately owned, state-owned, non-owned and cooperative.
Then four models/metaphors of state management - government as machine, network, performance control and normative. In between he explodes the 3 basic management myths.

David Marquand's attack runs deep -
At stake now are the future of our public culture and, on a deeper level, of our civilisation. In the last few weeks we have seen four significant steps towards an insidious barbarism: the Health White Paper promising yet more marketisation in health care; the the proposal to hold elections for police commissioners; the decision to withdraw state funding for undergraduate teaching in the humanities and social sciences, and to create a market in higher education; and Michael Gove’s plans to flood the education system with academies and ‘free schools’, and in doing so to emasculate local government’s role in education.
None of these is earth-shattering on its own. Cumulatively they represent a profoundly destructive attack on the public domain of citizenship, service, equity and professionalism, which is fundamental to any civilised society. The whole point of electing police commissioners is to subordinate professional judgement to populist pressures – inevitably fanned by vicious media storms. The health reforms are designed to turn doctors into market traders, to open up the health-care system to profit seeking private providers and to turn patients into customers. Universities will become even more like private firms, complete with grotesquely overpaid chief executives, than they are already. Increasingly, they will stand or fall by their ability to compete for custom in a market-place dominated by a crass instrumentalism. Most academics will try try to hold firm to the values of disinterested enquiry, democratic public reasoning, humane learning and intellectual excellence, but the pressures of the market-place will be against them. And if Michael Gove achieves what he has set out to do, local government – already far feebler in this country than in the US or most of the rest of the EU – will become an institutional ghost. The barbarians are no longer at the gates. They are well inside them.
But the gates were stormed long ago. The Coalition is following where New Labour led – just as New Labour followed where Thatcher led. And, like New Labour and Thatcher, it is doing so, not because its members are wicked people, but because it is hard to do anything else in a culture from which the language of the public good and civic duty has been banished. The Labour movement can and should play a part in rescuing that language, but it can’t do so by itself. Labour people must reach out to other traditions – including some on what used to be called the ‘right’ – and learn from the wisdom of thinkers like Edmund Burke and Isaiah Berlin as well as from socialists like William Morris and social democrats like Tawney.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Draft Sceptic's Glossary


Incredibly warm for this time of the year here – 11C and a cloudless sky. 15 years or so ago the snow smothered the cars here. Strange that it is now the UK which is freezing! Is this the warming of the Gulf Stream?

Remember the little contest for the 50 books to form your library? The guy who set it has now given us his list.
I’m happy to report that you can now access the results of my last week’s musings on words at the latest paper Just Words? on my website . It is still very much at draft stage - but now able and needing to get feedback. So please read and tell me what you think.
I knew that there was an element of mere play in what I was doing with my definitions – for example suggesting that the word “capacity” so beloved of consultants could be interpreted simply as “something other people lack”! But – as many people have argued – play can liberate some powerful thoughts! And something very powerful has been driving this latest venture forward – at one stage I lost control of the process and began (very correctly) to question what I was trying to do. Was this just an exercise in superficial cynicism? Or was it a more profound exercise in scepticism?
Yesterday I suddenly remembered that I had a copy on my shelves here (as distinct from my real library at Sirnea) of A Doubter’s Companion – a dictionary of aggressive common sense produced in 1994 by the genius who wrote Voltaire’s Bastards – the dictatorshop of reason in the west, one of the really profound critiques of soi-disant expertise.

It’s a French edition I had picked up at a second-hand sale in Brussels and is not quite in the style I am trying to create for my glossary but it did remind me of the
 “humanist tradition of using alphabetical order as a tool of social analysis and the dictionary as a quest for understanding, a weapon against idée recues (Flaubert actually issued a Dictionnaire des Idees recues in 1880) and the pretensions of power”. 
Saul contrasts this approach with that
“of the rationalists to the dictionary for whom it is a repository of truths and a tool to control communications”. 
This crystallised my thinking! Which is why I gave the draft its subtletly and ambiguous title – Just words? “Just” means both “merely” and “fair”!! And the subtitle “reclaiming the language” has, for me shades of the Greenock poet WS Graham.

Three powerful forces have created verbal gymnastics which need to be exposed –
- first the need of governments to avoid admission of failure – better to imply a new condition had arisen by inventing a new phrase!
- the professional interests which surround each new definition.
- The last decade or so has seen a third force - governments have fallen even further into the hands of spin doctors and corporate interests and a powerful new verbal smokescreen has arisen to try to conceal this.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Time of year

I don’t normally like this time of year. It is, bluntly, when I am at risk (if in Christendom) of dipping (like a lot of others) into the depression zone – so much emphasis on families (difficult when you have made a mess of that), bright lights and selling. Twenty years ago I could put some of this down to the darkness (in north Europe they invented a useful term - sensory affective disorder (S.A.D. to explain how dreich some of us felt) And, certainly for most of the past 20 years, the exotic locations in which I have often passed this time of year have kept my spirits high – particularly when there were no celebrations taking place (Central Asia). But a small flat in Bucharest can get a bit claustrophobic – and some downs have been experienced during this artificial season. But not now that I am in semi-retirement; financially secure (absent bank meltdowns); and pursuing my own intellectual agenda, I can better enjoy the excuse the period offers to be in relaxed mode. This afternoon a visit to the Carteresti bookshop netted a wonderful new book on the Wooden Churches of Northern Olteniei; and JM Coetze’s Inner Workings – literary essay 200-2006. The latter has quite a few reviews of central European writers of the first part of the 20th century – and confirmed my fascination for this general part of the world – what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In the past couple of days my glossary (including introduction) is now 10 pages – and boasts the title Just Words? Reclaiming the language of social purpose. At the moment I am wrestling with post-modernism. I suppose if post-modernists have done anything, they have made us more aware of language. After all, they spend their time deconstructing texts! And they have been active in the field of public administration – Postmodern Public Administration (2007), is one taken at random. The trouble is that they play so many word games amongst themselves that what they produce is generally incomprehensible to the outsider. Despite their critiques and claims, therefore, I do not consider them helpful companions.
Before the post-modernists came along, M Edelman’s book The Symbolic Use of Politics was published in 1964 but then ignored – not least by myself. I have never found Chomsky an easy companion – but clearly books like his Language and politics (1988) are highly relevant to this theme. One of the most insightful texts for me, however, is Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisation - a fascinating treatment of the writing about organisations which demonstrates that many of our ideas about them are metaphorical : he suggests the literature uses eight "images" viz organisations as "political systems", as "instruments of domination", as "cultures", as "machines", as "organisms", as "brains", as "psychic prisons", as "flux and transformation" and as "instruments of domination".

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bucharest antique fair


An antique fair sets up on Parcu Kisselev most weekends – and I have always found it rather pathetic – full of shady characters. Sad – as I have spent so many happy hours browsing the stalls of the puces in places such as Berlin, Brussels, Glasgow and Zurich. As it was such a lovely day today – and I knew the Xmas stalls would also be up – we went out and hit gold. First a large snow mountain painting with a superb old frame - bought apparently in a Puces in Aachen (signed R Sagner. We got it for 100 euros (frame alone worth that); then a heavy cast-iron bell for the Sirnea door with a colourful Wallony type cock (25 euros); and, finally, a very large cast-iron frog (30 euros) - which will keep the stone duck company we picked up in a fantastic open-air stone carver's gallery on the border between Drama (Greece) and Bulgaria! Between times, we hit the normal Bucharest selling technique – when I was criticised for not spotting the 2 supposedly original sketches contained in a Steriadi Catalogue. “It takes some brain to learn to identify such things”, the gypsy guy apparently said ironically - as if we were not worthy to look at such precious things that only connaisseurs would appreciate. He wanted an incredible sum for the catalogue - about 400 euros! The aggressive, arrogant attitude we encountered several times in similar dives in Bucharest. Clearly apologies are due for disturbing such “cultural elites”!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Definitions


Snow has eventually come to Bucharest - and I crunched my way to the old market nearby, availing myself of the opportunity of a tasty warm vin fiert (Gluhwein)
Working on my Devil’s Dictionary is a very useful exercise in cutting through the verbal guff about subjects on which so much hot air has been expended. The management literature of the 1980s and 1990s gave people the sense that dramatic positive changes were going on in commerce – a movement from Theory X management to Theory Y at the very least. It all concealed the reality of a dog-eat-dog world. That’s why Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power was so welcome to me – a recognition (if somewhat overdone) that, generally, “plus ca change plus cést la meme chose”. A lot of my draft entries therefore suggest that the title should rather be “The Cynic’s Dictionary” – except that I do not see myself as a cynic. Here are a more draft entries -
Audit; a placebo to give the impression that all is well. Something both overdone and underdone – overdone in volume and underdone in results. A process more feared at the bottom than at the top as frequent recent scandals (auditors signed off on the accounts of Enron and those banks which subsequently almost collapsed). See also “Law”
Law; “the spider's webs which, if anything small falls into them ensnare it, but large things break through and escape”. Solon
Communications; the first thing which people blame when things go wrong; parsed - “I communicate; you listen; he/they misunderstand”.
But drafting it has also challenged my own prejudices. I was preparing to draft a cynical entry for “open government”. "A contradiction in terms”, I confidently started. Then I realised it has been some time since I had checked what was happening under this rubric; ran a google search and came across an interesting European site on use of public sector information and what looks to be definitive overviews of the position of freedom of information in the US and in the UK.
The contrast between the two countries seems quite striking – with the many contributors to the American book being the grassroots practitioners actually using the incredible amount of data available about government activities in the US (which seems to have a proactive system) and suggesting that bureaucratic silos are being broken up more effectively by a demand-led process whereas the academics of the British book plot patiently the resistance of the state to the inquiries which come in the reactive, supply-led 2005 british system. But at least there is a blog which plots the progress And a recent independent report does show just how far Britain has to go,

Friday, December 17, 2010

The language of Deceit


Ambrose Bierce was an American journalist in the latter part of the 19th Century whose pithy and tough definitions of everyday words, in his newspaper column, attracted sufficient attention to justify a book “The Devil’s Dictionary” whose fame continues unto this day. A dentist, for example, he defined as “a magician who puts metal into your mouth and pulls coins out of your pocket”.
Words and language are what distinguish us from animals – but commercial, bureaucratic, political and intellectual systems have powerful interests in keeping us passive and unquestioning and have developed a language for this purpose. One of the best attacks on this is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English language”. Written in 1947, it exposes the way certain clichés and rhetoric are calculated to kill thinking – for example how the use of the passive tense undermines the notion that it is people who take decisions and should be held accountable for them.
The importance of demystifying complex language was continued by C Wright Mills in the 1950s and 1960s who once famously summarised a 250 pages book written in tortuous syntax by the sociologist Talcott Parsons in 12 pages! And a South American priest Ivan Illich widened the attack on the mystification of professionals with his various books which eloquently argued against the damage done to learning by formal schooling methods – and to health by doctors and hospitals.
In 1979 some British citizens became so incensed with the incomprehensible language of official documents, letters and forms that they set up a campaign called “The Plain English Campaign”. It was its activities in making annual awards for good and bad practice that shamed most organisations – public and private - into reshaping their external communications. Their website contains their short but very useful manual; a list of alternative words; and lists of all the organisations which have received their awards.

It is 50 years since I started to read the literature about government and its endeavours seriously – as a student of politics and economics just as the social sciences were flexing their muscles and popular management texts appearing (we forget that Peter Drucker invented the genre only in the 1950s). And I entered the portals of (local) government in 1968 – keen to identify what that growing literature might have to say about improving the practice and impact of government endeavours. At first I was amused at the verbal pretensions – then angry. “Governance” was one of the first terms to attract my ire. Only recently have I realised how deliberate much of it is. As governments have fallen in the past few decades even further into the hands of spin doctors and corporate interests, a powerful new verbal smokescreen has been put in place to try to conceal this. “Evidence-based policy-making” is typical – first the arrogant implication that no policy-making until that point had been based on evidence; and the invented phrase concealing the fact that policy is increasingly being crafted without evidence in order to meet corporate interests! Sadly, a once worthy venture – the European Union – has developed such powerful interests of its own that it too is part of this significant obfuscation with its use of such phrases as “subsidiarity”. More than 10 years ago, I prepared a glossary for a small book which contained a few ironic definitions – and I managed to slip a few more into one of the EU-funded publications I left behind recently in Bulgaria (you can see it at pages 7-11 of key paper 22 on my website ). While you’re there – have a look at “Democracy, Bernard? It must be stopped!” (number 17) which is written from the same concerns about the emptiness behind the rhetoric about democracy and government. At the beginning of the year I referred to the management guru Russell Ackoff’s great collection of tongue-in-cheek laws of management – Management F-Laws – how organisations really work. As the blurb put it –“They're truths about organizations that we might wish to deny or ignore - simple and more reliable guides to managers' everyday behaviour than the complex truths proposed by scientists, economists and philosophers”. An added bonus is that British author, Sally Bibb, was asked to respond in the light of current organizational thinking. Hers is a voice from another generation, another gender and another continent. On every lefthand page is printed Ackoff and Addison's f-Law with their commentary. Opposite, you'll find Sally Bibb's reply. A short version (13 Sins of management) can be read here. A typical rule is - "The more important the problem a manager asks consultants for help on, the less useful and more costly their solutions are likely to be". And I have also mentioned a couple of times the spoof on the British Constituion prepared recently by Stuart Weir.
It is people like Ackoff, Jay, Orwell, Pierce, Voltaire and Weir who are the inspiration for the new revised Devil’s Dictionary I am now working on - of about 60 words and phrases which occur frequently in the discourse of government and big business and are used to mask the worsening of social and political conditions. One I crafted today was - Bottleneck; "what prevents an organisation from achieving its best performance – always located at the top"

Thursday, December 16, 2010

They always shoot the messenger!


Some people have been asking why Wikileaks Assange is being selected for attack rather than those responsible for the leaks in the first place – ie those who designed a system which distribuyed information to 2 million American civil servants let alone the single civil servant who actually downloaded the material onto a stick and sent it to Wikileaks. Why shoot the messenger they ask in an injured tone. But don’t they realize that it is ever so? This was brought home to me today when I happened to download a 2006 paper called The Cynical State by Colin Leys which examines the dishonesty at the heart of modern policy-making (the phrase “evidence-based policy-making” was clearly invented to conceal this trend!). The paper starts with the lying we saw in the run-up to the Iraq war -
Hoon (Defence Minister), Blair, and Blair’s chief press officer Alastair Campbell had all subsequently told further lies about the compilation of the dossier. Campbell told the Hutton Inquiry that he had had no input into the dossier. The evidence showed he had had extensive input. Hoon told the parliamentary committee on defence that he had had nothing to do with it either. The evidence showed he had been involved as much as anyone. Most famously, Blair told the House of Commons that it was ‘completely and totally untrue’ that there was disquiet in the intelligence community over the 45-minute claim, but a senior intelligence officer told the enquiry that he and one of his colleagues had submitted a written report about their disquiet.
Of course commentators who supported the attack on Iraq were willing to condone all this. But Lord Hutton condoned it absolutely too. The only behaviour he criticized in his final report was that of Andrew Gilligan, the BBC journalist who had broken the story, and the BBC director general and chairman who had backed him against furious attacks by the Prime Minister’s office. All of them were forced to resign, while Blair and Hoon were totally absolved. John Scarlett, the senior intelligence official who had agreed to ‘sex up’ the intelligence service’s original draft of the dossier at the behest of the Prime Minister’s office, was promoted to be head of the secret service. What is more, Hutton’s decision to put all the evidence on the internet, but then to condemn the whistleblowers and exonerate the liars, meant that members of parliament and the electorate were being asked to become complicit in official mendacity.
‘Transparent’ government, he seemed to say, just means that MPs and voters must accept being lied to and that no one should be penalized for doing so. Like ëvidence-based policy-making", another example of comforting bureaucratic (whether government or commercial) words and language being used to hide discomforting realities - as somone once said, "the more he talks about honesty, the more I count my silver teaspoons"!
I still have 6 vacant places for the 50 core books for my library. As I thought about my choice, I realised that it had been a bit pretentious to suggest that I had selected the others for „the light they threw on the European dilemmas of the last century”. This thought had actually occurred to me as I surveyed the list which had emerged! The list was actually a bit of a mix of books which had made an impact on me at my formative stage (Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies is certainly one to be added) and which I think still stand the test of time (where perhaps Popper now falls) and, on the other hand, more recent books which seem to me to capture well the dilemmas of modern life.
If a library is to be 50 books – rather than 5,000 – it would need to consist of encyclopaedias and voluminous Collected Works (eg Orwell's) to ensure its frequent use. And these are not the sorts of „real books” which you curl up in a corner with – lost in another world or with the scales falling from your eyes! So I’m not sure if this particular listing makes sense. For a start I think we need to distinguish the various types of writing – novels from tracts; poetry from essays; short stories from travelogues; etc
And we also need to distinguish the various motives for reading – understanding and insights; distraction of characters and good plots; good writing; flavour of new worlds; etc! As a good Presbyterean, I’ve generally felt some guilt when opening the pages of a novel – perhaps that explains why I tend to prefer short stories! And I’m one of these stupid people who has never shaken off the belief that, inside the cover of this latest book, lies an intellectual key to the social concerns which have had an unhealthy influence on me. And I have always taken a dubious pleasure from iconoclastic writing which exposes the deficiences of „conventional wisdom”. Ivan Illich came at a critical stage for me – and the little boy who dared to expose the Emperor’s nakedness has always been one of my heroes.
I am currently rereading Colin Leys Market Politics - neoliberal democracy and the public interest (2001) which, in many ways, brings Robert Michels 1911 Political Parties up to date - and which should therefore be considered for one of these 6 vacant places. It sets out in very clear terms (a) the dramatic changes in the British political system under the onslaught of globalisation and (b) the process of "commodifying" public services to which it has led. Sorry for the jargon - but, in this case, I think it's a justifiable term!
Certainly these remaining books have to be iconoclastic - daring to challenge and expose the conventional wisdom which is sustaining the corrosive politics and commercial (sharp) practices of the world's various elites (including the intellectuals who have so betrayed us). Another book deserving of consideration is Richard Douthwaite's Short Circuit from which I quoted recently. In a few simple pages it explains the critical events in the early 1970s which spun the world out of control - and then goes on to give numerous examples of how we might be able to bring the world back under our control. Of course this cannot be done through political parties - it can and is being done only through direct action. I don't necessarily mean by that term the street violence we are increasingly seeing. I rather mean that change will come from the decisions we take as individuals, families and neighbours in our life style and purchases, currency, and bank system. We can choose not to buy the products that are flown half way around the world (eg Chinese garlic!) when there are better local products. We can choose to put our money in cooperative banks which make loans available (at low interest rates) to local companies. We can even choose to create our own local currencies.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Oprescu destroys more of Bucharest's heritage


More destruction here of irreplaceable monuments. Sarah’s blog tells me today that I wish I had known – I would have risen from my sick bed, taken a dozen eggs and thrown them at the police. More pictures of the destroyed heritage are here
A visit to the Anthony Frost English Bookshop last week – and this time not just browsing but to buy some books since Amazon can no longer receive my orders. I have to wonder if this is not connected with the hack-atack to which the site is now subject – in view of Amazon’s craven removal (under American pressure) of Wikileaks from its computers. For the moment, I am happy to use the technical difficulty (which Amazon informed me yesterday they cannot solve) as an excuse to boycott the internet shop for their role in this affair. And, certainly, I was able to pick up at this great bookshop (just past the National Gallery, hidden by Biserica Kretzulescu) 3 books which either are not available on Amazon – or cost more (not least when postage is considered). So the past strikes back!
I am amazed there is a market here for the high quality stock they have - certainly the staff are great but it is a pity they don’t seem to have the space for events.
A great bird’s eye view of Bucharest to which my attention was drawn by the Survival Guide for Expats.
There is also a December/January issue of the Inyourpocket Guide to Bucharest
Nicusor Dan, president of the association Salvati Bucurestiul, tried to stop the demolitions of Friday night and Saturday morning on Berze/Stirbei Voda. The foreman didn't have copies of the demolition order and the police were called. Unfortunately a little later, police arrived from sector 3 saying they had the order from Oprescu to continue the demolition and if he didn't get out of the way and let the demolition team do their job, he would be fined and charged with disturbing the peace... The police stood guarding the site to stop anyone trying to prevent this outrageous and illegal destruction. By 13h30, the work to murder the house was under way again, the official papers arriving at...um...14-14h30.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Desert Island Library


Paul Mason, one of the BBC economics correspondent (all of whom do excellent blogs), is running a lovely Christmas challenge at the moment – the 50 books which your library has to have.
The challenge was apparently first made in 1930 by an American journalist who received a letter from a friend who wrote:
"As for the library, I want no more than fifty books. And none of them modern; that is, no novels that are coming off the presses these last ten years. Are there fifty intelligent books in the world? If you have time send along a list of fifty books, I promise to buy them and have them beautifully bound. I am consulting you as I would my lawyer. I have not time to develop a literary consciousness at my age. So if you were cutting your own library down to fifty books, which books would you keep?"
He has made the challenge more difficult by preventing us from consulting our shelves or the internet – so I did my best last night but have now had the time to reflect more and consult some booklists; What follows is therefore a slightly updated version of the entry I posted on his site (number 81 I think)
A library should be for consulting – the glories of novels, short stories, poetry, essays should be available there but also art and human knowledge. With only 50 books allowed, novels (of any sort) will have to be excluded - which means no “Buddenbrooks” (Thomas Mann) or “Candide” (Voltaire) let alone any of the powerful South Americans (Jorge Amado's "Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon", Allende’s “Eva Luna”, Marquez’s , “Love in the Time of Cholera” or Llosa ‘s “The War of the End of the World”) or Yehoshuova’s “The Liberated Bride” from Israel.
However, some books come in multi-volume collections eg Lewis Crassic Gibbon’s “Sunset Song”; Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandrian Quartet”; Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy”; and Naguib Mahfouz’s “Children of the Alley” and therefore give good bangs for bucks. Perhaps they might be allowed to stay.

And remember what Nassim Taleb calls Umberto Eco's "antilibrary" concept - that read books are less valuable than unread ones - a library should be a research tool. Collections of essays, poetry and short stories also give much more reading per book (unless it’s War and Peace) - so the collected poetry of Brecht, TS Eliot, Norman McCaig and WS Graham would be the first four books; as well as the Collected Short Stories of Nabokov, William Trevor, Carol Shields, Heinrich Boell and Alice Munro; and the essays of Montaigne.

If allowed, I would also have a few collections of painters eg the Russian Itinerants or Scottish colourists. Chuck in an Etymology and a couple of overviews of intellectual endeavours of recent times such as Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and Peter Watson’s “A Terrible Beauty” - and I would then have space for 35 individual titles.

My basic criteria would be (a) the light thrown on the European dilemmas of the last century and (b) the quality of the language and the book as a whole.
The books I would keep (or try to find again) are
Robert Michels; Political Parties (1911)
Reinhold Niebuhr; Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932)
Joseph Schumpeter; Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942)
Arthur Koestler; The Invisible Writing (1955)
Leopold Kohr; The Breakdown of Nations (1977)
Gerald Brennan; South from Granada (1957)
JK Galbraith; The Affluent Society (1958)
Ivan Illich; Deschooling Society (1971)
Robert Greene; 48 laws of power (for the breadth of the stories from the medieval world including China)
Tony Judt; Postwar History of Europe since 1945
Richard Cobb; Paris and Elswhere
Vassily Grossman; Life and Fate
Roger Harrison; The Collected Papers (in the early days of organisational analysis)
Clive James; Cultural Amnesia (on neglected European literary figures particularly of the early 20th century – written with verbal fireworks)
JR Saul; Voltaire’s Bastards – the dictatorship of reason in the west
Amos Oz; Tale of Love and Darkness
Claude Magris; Danube
Julian Barnes; Nothing to be Frightened Of
Michael Foley; The Age of Absurdity – why modern life makes it impossible to be happy
Toby Jones; Utopian Dreams
Michael Pollan; The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Nassim Taleb; The Black Swan – the impact of the highly improbable
Roger Deakin; Notes from walnut tree farm
Geert Mak; In Europe – travels through the twentieth century
Donald Sassoon; A Hundred Years of Socialism – a history of the western left in the 20th century
Theodor Zeldin; The Intimate History of Humanity

Of course Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Machiavelli’s The Prince should be there – and at least one book on the Chinese contribution to the world.

This leaves 6 empty spots - about which I shall think carefully!

This time last year, I was in the mountain house (also with minimal snow) and thinking about the useful literature on public administrative reform!

Friday, December 10, 2010

In praise of the generation past


Today – my father’s birthday – is a day for celebrating the older (European) generation – their decencies and strivings. We have not seen their like again! They went through more – were so much less selfish and egocentric – and their writings much more powerful than the simpering affectations which passes for modern writing. I say this in the middle of my reading of English historian Richard Cobb’s Paris and Elsewhere – having bought the lovely NYRB edition after recalling how the impact his writing about Paris had made on me in the 1970s. What a life he lived – and how well his sentences capture life in the mid 20th century. He first went to Paris in 1935 at the age of 15 and was captivated, living most of the next 20 years there and writing about various other urban settings such as Lyon, Lille and Brussels. He admired Simenon’s writings – and had the same fascination with la vie ordinaire des ordinaires. In Paris, as one obituary put it “he was poor, studied in the day and spent his nights in the bars and brothels that are lovingly described in his writings. He relied on subventions from his mother in Tunbridge Wells, also journalism and a position teaching English to Air France stewardesses. He was briefly married to an employee of the SNCF. Characteristically, Cobb used his wife's cheap rail tickets to study archives in the regions and consult with the erudits locaux who shared his historical interests. His style was at once insolent, erudite and parenthetic (sentences could be as long as paragraphs), and won him many admirers”. It’s clear who inspired the likes of Theodor Zeldin – and perhaps even Julian Barnes who is one of the few English writers I unreservedly admire. His descriptive power of Paris and Elsewhere as he describes amazing characters in his lodgings or whom he visited on Sundays surpasses that of most novellists (or indeed the fashionable travel writers) I have read. And they are so sympathetically done – clearly borne of much close character observation. He was very much his own man, utterly individualist, with no sense of a career - admitting that he stumbled into his life as an historian of France simple because he loved living in the country and speaking the language. I count myself lucky because I was able to follow my passions and rarely experienced the role of an employee - and feel so sorry for those who have been compelled to choose a career. For those who don’t know him, let the obituarists give you a sense.
His first book A Second Identity (about the importance of his French life) appeared in 1959 was followed by an armee revolutionnaire of books. Among the best were Promenades: a historian's appreciation of modern French literature (1980), which described favourite novelists such as Marcel Pagnol and Raymond Queneau; The Streets of Paris (1980), a dazzling essay on four arrondissements of Paris, extolling balustrades and courtyards of the 19th century, washable brothel-fronts of the 1930s and Tunisian shops of the 1960s, with photographs by Nicholas Breach; Still Life (1983), sketches from a Tunbridge Wells childhood; A Classical Education (1985), an unforgettable account of his friendship with a Dublin matricide; and Something to Hold Onto (1988), openly Proustian autobiographical sketches describing his relations, the book illustrator Frank Pape and the pleasures of the lavatory.
Cobb believed that a historian should get inside the threshold, step beyond the door, and write about private people and private places. Accents, clothes, family photographs and loneliness in cities interested him more than intellectual debates or economic graphs. He extended the frontiers of history so far that his books included descriptions of the tin trunks of French officials on the way to the colonies in a Marseilles hotel, girls in hotel rooms crouching over bidets in ''a rapid gesture of orthodoxy rather than of hygiene'' and the third army, of ''enormous, long-whiskered, dark-coated, red-eyed rats'', below the Germans and the resisters, which surfaced in Paris during the occupation. His unique ability to understand other people enabled him to make collaborators human and a childhood in Tunbridge Wells between the wars interesting.
The December 1 blog opined that “too much political discussion fails to recognise that politics (like life) is a series of individual choices, decisions and behaviour in a particular context. It is too easy to retreat behind abstractions”. I was therefore delighted to come across his justification of his modus operandi (which came to have such influence on historians such as Christopher Hill, Ralph Samuel and Edward Thompson) in these simple terms -
"I have never understood history other than in terms of human relationships; and I have attempted to judge individuals in their own terms and from what they say about themselves, in their own language. Most interesting of all, to me, is the individual unrelated to any group, the man, the girl, or the old woman alone in the city, the person who eats alone, though in company, who lives in a furnished room, who receives no mail, who has no visible occupation, and who spends much time wandering the streets. For, apart from everlasting problem of violence, the principal one that faces a historian like myself is that of loneliness, especially loneliness in the urban context."
"In history, intellectual debate can so often be a cover for over-simplification, lack of experience, insufficient culture, lack of involvement and of sympathy, and the impetus to compare and to generalize in cases where comparisons and generalizations are either irrelevant or positively misleading. Why, one wonders, when reading certain sections of Past and Present, why do historians spend so much time arguing, imposing definitions, proposing 'models', when they could be getting on with their research?"
It's not easy to get hold of his books now (Amazon have very few). This is where I need the British second hand bookshops! All credit therefore to the new York Review of Books for adding this collection to their series of classics!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hollowing out of democracy


Finance kills creativity in more senses than one. I’ve been worrying about the euro in recent days – talking to the bank, switching currencies, contemplating (with inflation risks) going back into investments since the minimal return on money in banks means that my assets bleed. It’s all vivid proof that money does not make you happy – it makes you worry. What makes me really angry is that, unlike a lot of people whose assets are the result largely of the property inflation, mine have been earned by the sweat of my brow. And were all at risk for a few hours 2 years ago when the Royal Bank of Scotland tottered on the brink of collapse. And still we are incapable of building back into place a banking system which both protects the savings of ordinary people and puts their money to productive use. When I spoke to my bank they sent me a prospectus for a fund which would have tied my money up for almost 5 years – subject to conditions which could have wiped out the minimal benefits I might have received (‘we reserve the right to change these conditions….”). Admittedly one of the funds offered was an environmental one (alternative power) but a closer examination revealed it was the big global players whose claims to environmental commitment are egenrally highly suspect and who often wipe out the real, smaller national players (there was no german company in the list). And another list I was sent invited me to put my money into agrobusiness and timber – the real criminals. So nothing has changed. And the behaviour of governments to the wikileaks has again confirmed the lack of any liberal principles there – with politicians and bureaucrats alike threatening companies who might have the most miimal link with Wikileaks. I should really boycott Amazon (who have still not solved my problem anyway) and Mastercard! A Guardian article expressed it well -
What WikiLeaks is really exposing is the extent to which the western democratic system has been hollowed out. In the last decade its political elites have been shown to be incompetent (Ireland, the US and UK in not regulating banks); corrupt (all governments in relation to the arms trade); or recklessly militaristic (the US and UK in Iraq). And yet nowhere have they been called to account in any effective way. Instead they have obfuscated, lied or blustered their way through. And when, finally, the veil of secrecy is lifted, their reflex reaction is to kill the messenger.
As Simon Jenkins put it recently in the Guardian, "Disclosure is messy and tests moral and legal boundaries. It is often irresponsible and usually embarrassing. But it is all that is left when regulation does nothing, politicians are cowed, lawyers fall silent and audit is polluted. Accountability can only default to disclosure." What we are hearing from the enraged officialdom of our democracies is mostly the petulant screaming of emperors whose clothes have been shredded by the net.
Which brings us back to the larger significance of this controversy. The political elites of western democracies have discovered that the internet can be a thorn not just in the side of authoritarian regimes, but in their sides too. It has been comical watching them and their agencies stomp about the net like maddened, half-blind giants trying to whack a mole. It has been deeply worrying to watch terrified internet companies – with the exception of Twitter, so far – bending to their will.
But politicians now face an agonising dilemma. The old, mole-whacking approach won't work. WikiLeaks does not depend only on web technology. Thousands of copies of those secret cables – and probably of much else besides – are out there, distributed by peer-to-peer technologies like BitTorrent. Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behaviour; or they shut down the internet. Over to them.
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I've used the word "hollowing out" myself on a recent post of our democratic system - so clearly we are going to see more of this analysis.
The painting is another Bosch - this time "Death of a Miser" which fits nicely not only with the first part of the post but with Julian Barnes' latest romp - Nothing to be Frightened of - which I've just finished and highly recommend. A wry, reflective book which I would put up there with Tobias Jones' Utopian Dreams and Michael Foley's Age of Absurdity.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Gloomy Saturday


The rain and wind have been battering us for almost 24 hours – but, so far, no sign of snow. Apart from my daughers and (the beauty of) the Scottish seascape and the dry humour which goes with it, this posting gives the only reason why I would want to make a visit to UK
I’m watching Orson Welles’ 1948 black and white version of Macbeth. He is very impressive (despite the stupid Statue of Liberty hat he wears latterly!) – and, despite (because of?) the low budget, so is the film. Touch of Eisenstein about it.
It’s good weather for Sassoon’s blockbuster – One Hundred Years of Socialism – the west European left in the 20th century (enlarge the book beyond the focus on parties and west Europe and it would be double its 1,000 pages!). It has already opened my eyes – eg how minimal trade union membership was in Britain in 1910 compared with both the scale of industrialisation and other countries (7% maximum compared with minimum of 30% in other European countries less industrialised); and the government experience in the 1920s of many other socialist parties in Europe – particularly the Swedes who emerged with the most coherent and visionary philosophy of gradualist social change. Pity he doesn’t spend longer on this – since my visits to Sweden and Denmark a couple of decades ago introduced me to some of the inspirational figures in the late 19th century who laid the basis for the Scandinavian model. The folk school was a key part of that. Others, like the British labour party, had no coherence and no capacity to learn from others or even from their own mistakes
It was therefore with particular interest that I read this post which puts in historical context our greater inclination to take seriously the ideas and warnings of the ecologists.
Another useful post from boofy about the ongoing EU crisis
And also on how central european economies are being hit.

Friday, December 3, 2010

writing for inspiration and conspiracy


As someone trained in the social sciences - and keen to know what its various disciplines had to contribute to social improvements - I have done my best to keep up with thinking and writing in relevant fields. At least insofar as I can penetrate the dreadful language in which so many social scientists write! Regular readers will know that I am dubious whether the various disciplines in fact deserve to be called “sciences” at all – most of the time they are a collection of hypotheses, opinions and downright ideologies. And the jargon and obfuscated style of writing is simply a stratagem to hide that basic fact. I find it significant that Stanislaw Andreski’s 1972 book Social Sciences as Sorcery has not been allowed a reprint! Here's one quotation which perhaps helps us explain its disappearance!
"The attraction of jargon and obfuscating convolutions can be fully explained by the normal striving of humans for emoluments and prestige at the least cost to themselves, the cost in question consisting of the mental effort and danger of 'sticking one's neck out' or 'putting one's foot in it'. In addition to eliminating such risks, as well as the need to learn much, nebulous verbosity opens a road to the most prestigious academic posts to people of small intelligence whose limitations would stand naked if they had to state what they have to say clearly and succinctly."
The years that students spend in these disciplines may teach them a particular jargon and way of looking at the world; but the more important thing it teaches them is the strange mixture of obedience and arrogance required of those who wish to join the elites of their society. I sometimes think that if we really wanted to change society for the better, we first need to teach people – academics, bureaucrats and citizens alike - certain simple skills of thinking, writing and communicating. I’ve admitted several times here that one of the reasons I do this blog is because the discipline of writing helps me identify questions I would otherwise not be aware of.
And I’m composing this particular post because, in the last couple of days, I’ve come across both good and bad examples of writing. First an example of the sort of writing I encountered a lot in post-Soviet countries – piling voluminous fact upon interminable statistic to subjugate the reader into unquestioning silence. It purports to be a study (more than 500 pages) of corruption in the public sector of EU member countries (funded by the EU) but seems rather to be a (very detailed) description of the relevant sections of the various laws which govern corruption. I say “seems” since I do not have the patience to persevere with it after looking at the conclusions on Austria – widely known as one of the most corrupt members – which are so facile and badly written they would not have been allowed into even a newspaper. They did, however, survive the editing process of the EU!
An example of good report writing – at least in terms of the structure of the report – is the Review of Impact and Effectiveness of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives published recently by the Institute of development Studies. I haven't had time to read it yet - but I like the way each section has a basic question as its heading. This gives me a lot of confidence - since everyone (writer, editor and reader) has a reference point by which to judge the text!
Thirty years ago I wrote a short book to try to explain in simple terms for the general public why some major changes being experienced by local government were necessary and trying to demystify the way the system worked. That made me realise how few books were in fact written for this purpose! Most books are written to make a profit or an academic reputation. The first requires you to take a few simple and generally well-known ideas but parcel them in a new way – the second to choose a very tiny area of experience and write about it in a very complicated way.
After that experience, I realised how true is the saying that “If you want to understand a subject, write a book about it”!! Failing that, at least an article – this will certainly help you identify the gaps in your knowledge – and give you the specific questions which then make sure you get the most out of your reading.
My first real publications were chapters in other people’s books and national journals – which described the experiences in community development and more open policy-making processes some of us had introduced into Europe’s largest municipality. I was “sunk”, however, when one journal then asked me to write one page every 4 weeks. I just couldn’t compress my thoughts that way. Although I was reading a lot, I couldn’t write in abstract terms – only about my own experiences, trying to relate them to the more general ideas. I did four pretty good pieces – but then had to pull out. The effort was just taking up too much of my nervous energy. How much I admired the talks of someone like Alaister Cooke – who each week would take a simple incident and weave around it an insightful essay on an aspect of the American political process! Julian Barnes is one of a few who seems to have this gift these days – although my October 2009 blog recognised what Malcolm Gladwell does.
George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, however, remains my bible.
A rare blog on this issue of the construction of coherent writing can be found here
By the way - "inspire" is the breathe in (life) and "conspire" is to breath with (others). We need a lot more of the oxygen of clear expositions and collective action to achieve the decent life (which some of us have had the luck to experience from time to time).

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Rubbish Amazon


After 6 days and about 5 E-mail and 3 telephone conversations (2 at my expense), Amazon are no closer to sorting out the problem I have now ordering their books. Basically all but the most recent books in my basket have disappeared and cannot therefore be ordered. Even when I copy and paste, most of the books disappear and I am left with only 1 or 2 to order. What really annoys me is the lack of continuity in the service support. Every message tells me that I cannot reply to it – and I have to start each complaint afresh. I've tried typing in what a good customer I am - 800 books in the past decade - but their system just goes round and round - not up anywhere! So much for the new service economy!! And the public sector is supposed to ape this sort of call-centre approach?? We should get a life! Come back bureaucracy! All is forgiven!
I was looking at one of my favourite China blogs and came across an intriguing post on the current Belgian crisis from an Indian journalist who has just arrived there from a 6 year posting in Beijing.
The last time elections were held in Belgium in 2007, the country was without a government for almost 300 days. Many believe that before long Belgium is likely to split into separate nations. From an Indian perspective, Belgium’s woes are puzzling. In India, we balance 22 official languages and almost all Indians are multilingual. The diversity that citizens negotiate on a daily basis is moreover scarcely confined to the linguistic. We are a country of lily-white Kashmiris and coffee-hued Malyalis; of fish-eating Bengalis and herbivorous Gujratis. In our “Hindu” country, there are almost as many Muslims as in all of Pakistan. With no single language, ethnicity, religion or food, India’s existence is immensely more complicated than Belgium’s. And yet, somehow, they are unable to function as a nation. The Walloons rarely bother learning Dutch and the Flemings can’t find it in their hearts to live next to French speakers. Meanwhile, the rich north of the country resents spending its hard-earned money to support what they see as the lazy, left-leaning unemployed of the south.
More worrying is what Belgium’s dysfunctionality says about Europe as a whole. Europe is the birthplace of the “nation state.” Carved out of the multi-cultural fabric of the empires that once cut across the continent, modern European countries are based on the idea of one ethnicity, one religion, one language, one nation. Such homogeneity is, of course, an ideal rather than a reality; Spain with its Catalan and Basque minorities being an obvious exception, yet the fundamental idea of “oneness” that underpins European nation states makes negotiating diversity particularly problematic for them. The creation of the European Union (EU), a hugely ambitious project, could have conceivably helped provide solutions to this problem. The EU is polyphonic with 23 official languages and its ideal of “unity in diversity” is identical to that of India. Driven by the idea that in a new world order Europe must find strength in cooperation, thereby ditching old tribal identities, opening up once insular borders to outside influences and demonstrating solidarity with others within the region, the EU could potentially be a model for a post nation-state world and new multicultural identities. But unlike India, which despite occasional communal violence and serial coalition governments, faces the twenty first century with confidence and strength, the EU is floundering. Popular support for the project remains weak. Decades of Europe-wide institution building have largely failed to create a European identity. An even greater failure has been the ability to integrate and absorb non-European ethnicities and religions. Islamophobia is fast on the way to becoming accepted as a mainstream sentiment. Moreover, even the ideal of “solidarity” has been exposed as hollow by the German reaction to the sovereign debt crisis in Greece. The EU faces challenges from every direction. The current turmoil in Belgium exemplifies many of these and the future of this small country might be an indicator of things to come for the EU as a whole. Belgium is a proof of how difficult resolving the cultural gulf between north and south Europe will be. Even within a single country, large-scale transfers of wealth from north to south, in this case Flanders to Wallonia, are so deeply unpopular that they threaten the dissolution of the nation. But, if the Flemish find it impossible to help their own countrywomen, expecting Germany to pay up for the debts of Greece and Portugal is highly unrealistic. Whether Belgium makes it through the next few years intact is unlikely to have major repercussions around the world. But the manner in which Belgium’s future plays out could be a reflection of what path the EU as a whole may go down, the economic and geo-strategic consequences of which will certainly be weighty. In the short term, Belgium’s shenanigans will only be an embarrassment. From July 1, Belgium has taken over the rotating presidency of the EU. Always quick to present itself to others as a model of regional cooperation, the EU is thus presided over by a country that can’t even get its own two communities to co-operate enough to have a government.
Boffy has another good blog on the financial crisis. The painting is by one of Belgium's most famous - James Ensor

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Adversarial and consensual systems


It's Independence Day here in Romania - hence the picture - which is taken from a wonderful blog which celebrates cultural aspects of RomaniaTrue Romania organised by a school in Ludus in Translyvania!
Remember that one of the main questions behind these recent musings is – can we really offer advice to (say) the Bulgarians and Romanians about how to develop the capacity of their governance architecture and operations when the countries from which we come have made such a mess of things in our own backyards? As a Brit I tend to assume, for example, that it is normal for one party to take all government posts – even although it has polled only 40% of the votes cast and perhaps only a quarter of voters. More to the point, I am accustomed to the political arena being an adversarial process from which truth is assumed to emerge from imputation of motives, hostile questioning and a clash of personalities. The Scots, it is reasonable to claim on St Andrew’s Night, are not quite as bad at this as the English – the Scottish Parliament which reassembled (or as we say “reconvened”) in 1999 after a gap of almost 300 years gave us European-style coalitions, committee deliberations and conversations instead of altercations. Although on the hustings it is clear that the old bitterness between Labour and the Scottish nationalists has not gone away. One of the reasons I never joined Tony Bliar and Gordon Brown in Westminster in 1983 was that I could not take the adversarial nonsense which was and remains the protocol of british political life. In the early 1970s I annoyed people both in my own party and the Liberals (who then controlled Greenock Town Council) by persuading the local Liberal Provost to join with me on some initiative I have now (sadly) forgotten. I just knew that the bipartisan approach was the more effective. It was the same when I joined up with the leader of the UK Liberal party (Jo Grimond) a year or so later on a(nother) Rowntree Foundation initiative which linked an urban ghetto in my constituency with some work in the marvellous Shetlands Islands. And few things gave me so much pleasure during my work on Strathclyde Region in the 1980s as collaborative work with the Conservative opposition on issues and strategies of social injustice and exclusion. I was naïve enough to believe that what mattered was (what I judged to be) the integrity of the individuals I dealt with – but so many of the elected representatives of my own party (whether the John Reids, Jimmy Wrays, George Robertsons (the latter groomed at an early stage let me assure you for his NATO role!) were so obviously looking out for themselves and mouthing the rhetoric of tribal loyalties to get them there. At age 33, I had gained one of the most powerful positions in Scottish political life – the Secretary of the ruling Labour group which controlled the gigantic Strathclyde Region. Jo Grimond referred to me once wryly as its Gauleiter; and our colleagues used the equally ironic term “gang of four” to describe the four of us who held the top positions! Those were exciting days and I was able to use my position not only to encourage community enterprise but also to introduce a more consensual approach to policy-making – the “member-officer group” which had a group of backbench councillors and middle-level officials examine fields which (generally) ran across departmental lines; take evidence and make recommendations.
I considered myself left of centre and, in in the early 1980s, the main trade union offered me their support to replace the renegade Labour MP in my shipbuilding town. But the party had a quite mad set of policies – including withdrawal from Europe. The manifesto was famously called “the longest suicide note in history” (it was 700 pages long!). I was reluctant to give up the influential position I had on the Region for the uncertainty and isolation of London; unable to defend the indefensible of the party manifesto and therefore withdrew from the contest. Neither Gordon Brown nor Tony Bliar, it is worth noticing, had any qualms about accepting the terms of the labour party manifesto under which they both reached the UK Parliament in 1983. But then, Bliar was a lawyer – and Brown had set his sights since his early 20s at becoming Prime Minister. I was a contributor (with a critical piece on the operation of Labour groups!) to Gordon Brown’s famous 1975 Red Paper when he was still student Rector of Edinburgh University – a good paper here describes his career. I found a good quote on political ambition recently
Our system obliges us to elevate to office precisely those persons who have the ego-besotted effrontery to ask us to do so; it is rather like being compelled to cede the steering wheel to the drunkard in the back seat loudly proclaiming that he knows how to get us there in half the time. More to the point, since our perpetual electoral cycle is now largely a matter of product recognition, advertising, and marketing strategies, we must be content often to vote for persons willing to lie to us with some regularity or, if not that, at least to speak to us evasively and insincerely. In a better, purer world—the world that cannot be—ambition would be an absolute disqualification for political authority.
These personal vignettes may seem a distraction from the main theme – of the capacity of government – but too much political discussion fails to recognise that politics (like life) is a series of individual choices, decisions and behaviour in a particular context. It is too easy to retreat behind abstractions. Of course there was an element of cowardice in not wanting to give up the (relative) security of my Glasgow position for the loneliness and uncertainty of being one of 600 Westminster MPs – but I have never regretted the decision. Temperamentally I anguish over issues – and would never have been able to give the instant opinions the career required. I am an agnostic in more than religion! And, in continuing at the Region until 1990 or so, I was able to help set up and embed policies which the new Scottish Parliament has continued.
I always felt that the British system was too polarised - not only in class and political terms but in the way it forced both politicians and officials to choose between local or national government. Why not both – a la France? Local politicians there can also be national deputies – despite the backlash against the cumul des mandates. And officials in some countries can move between national and local positions – ensuring a better mutual understanding.
Consensuality, of course, has various dimensions – and perhaps one of the most crucial differences is that between policy on the one hand and the spoils of office on the other. Countries such as Austria, Belgium and Netherlands have long been famous for their spoils system – with Ministries and appointments of officials being shared out according to the share of the poll. The Dutch Pillar system has declined in importance but the spoils system in Austria and Belgium led to deep corruption. Scandinavian consensuality, on the other hand, seems to be based on moral respect. The ruling party is willing to listen to and negotiate with others. From my stay in Beijing, I know that some of the Chinese government elite are certainly interested in the Scandinavian perspective. And both in practice and in academia the Swedes and Norwegians have carved their own way – separate from the anglo-saxon social sciences.
The Norwegian academic Tom Christensen's various papers - with their concern about the effects of administrative reform on democracy, for example, are typical. And the Swedish Quality of Governance centre offers more useful reflections on government capacity than its British counterparts.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Democratic Discontents


Warning! This is a long post!
Questions about the capacity of government in general and the political system in particular has been prominent recently on the blog. Three years ago, Gerry Stoker published a book which tried to address this issue - summary of argument here. British government is one of the most studied in the world. For a relatively small country, its combination of history, empire, flexible constitution, liberal politics and (global) language has given its outpourings about the nature and effects of its various political and administrative structures and processes a global impact.

And yet I am struck with the absence of realistic and critical studies of the efficacy of the British governance arrangements at this point in the 21st Century. I have thought long and hard – and can produce only four analyses which might be read with benefit by the concerned and perplexed in that country. Two are 10 years old – the other two 5 years old.
We have, of course, countless academic studies of the operation of the British Parliament, of political parties, of voting systems, of local government, of devolved arrangements, of the civil service, of public management (whether Ministries, core exectuve, agencies), of the Prime Minister’s Office, of the European dimension etc – and a fair number of these are reasonably up-to-date. But most of it is written for undergraduates – or for other academic specialists who focus on one small part of the complex jigsaw. There is so very little which actually tries to integrate all this and give a convincing answer to the increasing number of citizens who feel (like Craig Murray recently) that there is no longer any point in voting; that politicians are either corrupt or hopelessly boxed in by global finance and corporate interests.
I used the epithet “realistic” above in order to distinguish the older studies which painted a rather ideal picture of the formalities of the system (what the 19th century Walter Bagehot called the “dignified”parts) from the more rounded studies of the “hidden”(Bagehot), informal processes which were encouraged by the seminal 1970s book about the British budget process – The Private government of public money by the outsiders Heclo and Wildavsky.
A “Critical” study or analysis is a more complex term – since the word can mean “carping” to the man in the street or textual deconstruction to an academic. When I use the phrase critical study (as Humpty Dumpty might have said) I mean one which tries not only to describe a system but to assess how well it works (begging the obvious question - For whom?!) Despite the knowledge which academics in political science, sociology or public management can bring to the subject, several major factors seem to conspire to prevent social scientists from making any critical contribution to our understanding of the health of the governance system.
First is the strength of academic specialisation - which has discouraged and continues to discourage the sort of inter-disciplinary approach needed to explore the question of the capacity of a governance system. Then there is the aloofness of the academic tradition which makes it difficult for specialists to engage in critiques which might be seen as too political. Not, however, that this prevented people like Peter Self from lambasting the nonsenses of market thinking in government in the 1980s. And this blog has already mentioned the powerful critique of the effect of commodification on some public services carried out by Colin Leys in Market-driven Politics (2003) and by Alysson Pollok in NHS plc (2004).
Rod Rhodes is a more typical example – a leading public administration academic who invented the phrase “hollowed-out executive” to describe the loss of government functions in the last 30 years - but who chose to keep his critique incestuous both in the language and outlets he used. He played a major role in developing the “network” understanding of government – but then allowed anthropological and phenomenological assumptions to overwhelm him.
The blandishments of consultancy are a potential counter pressure to this tradition – which gets a small minority of academics too engaged with peripheral issues which so excite civil servants and Ministers.

A final factor explaining the lack of academic contribution to the understanding of the nature of our current democratic system is the contempt in which academics who write for (and become popular with) the wider public are held in the academic community - and the damage which is therefore done to one’s academic career if one chooses that path. I remember how the charismatic historian AJP Tayor was treated. And it’s interesting that Zygmunt Baumann began to write his books only after he retired from academia. Major developments in public management have, of course, encouraged academics like Norman Flynn to present and assess them for a wider public. And the same has happened in the field of constitutional theory – eg Anthony King’s The British Constitution (2007). But the first is a bit long on descriptions and the second on historical figures. And both are very partial pictures of the governance system.

This is getting to be a long post – so we need to be clear why it is important to have a systematic, up-to-date and plausible statement about how (well) our governance arrangements (or architecture) work. First as a check (or benchmark) for the myriad iniatives which governments have inflicted at large cost on an increasingly confused public and public servants. This is widely accepted as a major problem – the new Prime Minister, for example, had promised not to inflict any more changes on the health service – and yet, within a few weeks, he was making plans to introduce one of the biggest organisational upheavals ever seen.
But a second, even more powerful reason why a critical study is needed is that the British public no longer feels that it is worth engaging in democratic politics. “They are all the same – promising one thing, doing another – looking after themselves”. In the 1970s some academics helped pave the way for the neo-liberal revolution by demonstrating in addition (in the new field of implementation studies) that the machinery of bureaucracy made it very difficult to implement political decisions; the popular phrase was “the overloaded state”. Margaret Thatcher completed the hollowing out of democracy by her infamous slogan – There is no alternative (TINA)
Consistent with the post-modernist mood,Gerry Stoker places the problem firmly within our own minds -
A propensity to disappoint is an inherent feature of governance even in democratic societies. I think that a substantial part of the discontent with politics is because the discourse and practice of collective decision-making sits very uncomfortably alongside the discourse and practice of individual choice, self-expression and market-based fulfilment of needs and wants. As a result too many citizens fail appreciate these inherent characteristics of the political process in democratic settings.
Making decisions through markets relies on individuals choosing what suits them. The political processes that are essential to steer government struggle to deliver against the lionization of individual choice in our societies. Democracy means that you can be involved in the decision but what the decision is not necessarily your choice yet you are expected to accept the decision. As a form of collective decision-making politics is, even in a democracy, a centralized form of decision-making compared to market-based alternatives.
Mass democracies face a potential crisis because of the scale of discontent surrounding the political process. Discontent comes in two main forms: disengagement from politics and frustrated activism. If the twentieth century saw the establishment of mass democracy the scale of discontent surrounding the political process in these democracies runs the risk of making these systems unsustainable in the twenty first century.
Some Journalists have made an honourable effort over the decades to give the wider public some critical overviews – starting with Anthony Sampson who famously tried to track the operations of the system over 4 decades finishing his last, angriest version only months before his death in 2004. Andrew Marr had a book in the mid 1990s on the failure and future of British democracy. So did Simon Jenkins (Accountable to None – 1996).
But it was a campaigning (rather than mainstream) journalist who produced in 2001 the most revealing and critical study Captive State - the corporate takeover of Britain which gave us the real detail, for example, behind Gordon Brown’s horrendous Private Financial Initiative (PFI) and it is therefore Monbiot’s book which is my first nomination – despite being now 10 years old and concentrating its attention on only part of the picture (the political-business interface). Part of the critique, of course, of our governance arrangements is how the corporate ownership of the media has muzzled the critical journalistic voice – Will Hutton is very eloquent about that in his latest book.
Some politicians, of course, do produce books which advance our understanding of the whole process. I speak not of Tony Blair – and that whole self-justifying political autobiographical genre - but the writings of people such as RHS Crossman (on whose notes on Bagehot I grew up); John McIntosh (who was my tutor); Leo Abse (whose book Private Member was a marvellous psychological study of politicians); David Marquand; and, of course, the monumental diaries of Tony Benn. And New Labour had some honourable people in its ranks – who accepted that their critical or maverick approach denied them office. Chris Mullin was one - and has given us 2 wry reflections of politics and government in action. But, over 50 years, not a single title which deserves the epithet “critical”.
Tony Wright is an academic who for more than a decade operated quietly as Chairman of the prestigious Select Committee on Public Administration and helped produce a raft of critical reports on various aspects of governance operations. How retired from parliament, he has become a Professor (of Politics) and I look to him for some of the missing critique. Pity he can’t get together with George Monbiot to produce an expanded and updated version of the GB book!!
So far I’ve discussed academics, journalists and politicians. But what about the shadowy world of political advisers, Think Tanks and NGOs? As we might expect from such a concentration of putative brainpower, three of my 4 recommendations come from this stable. Political Power and democratic control – the democratic audit of the United Kingdom was commissioned by the Rowntree Trust and produced in 1999 - by Stuart Weir and David Beetham. Weir followed it up in 2009 with a short spoof constitution of the UK. These focus very much on the centralisation of power.

My third nominee for useful study of government capacity is ubiquitous (advisor) Chris Foster’s British Government in Crisis (2005)
which extends the analysis to the administrative aspects which Flynn describes but which (as befits someone who was a senior Price Waterhouse employee) fails to mention the interstices with the business world.
My final nomination is another product of a british Foundation – Rowntree again. Power to the People (2006) was the result of an independent inquiry (which in true british tradition invited evidence and organised dialogues) and can therefore reasonably be seen as a mainstream diagnosis and set of prescriptions. I would fault it only because of its basic assumption that, if the system is made more transparent, representative, decentralised and accountable, everything will be OK
After all this scribbling, then we are left with a central question – is the British problem one of political centralisation? of government overreach? A failure of the political class? Adversarial politics? Civil service incompetence? Corporate takeover? Or, as Stoker argues, misunderstanding? At one or time or another in the past 5 decades each has been proposed as the key problem - and led to frenetic initiatives. Little wonder that I am sympathetic to systems approaches or to constraints on initiatives!
So far, so parochial! A key question I would like some help on is the extent to which this concern is a British/Anglo-saxon phenomenon – or a wider European issue. I will try to say something (much briefer) about this in my next post.