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!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

economic aspects of social transformation

A few blogs back I promised to do a short literature review of those who have diagnosed various malaises of contemporary capitalism and are trying to set out ideas for dealing with them. Who is writing about this – and what change visions and processes do they suggest? What commonalities are there? What gaps? These ideas focus variously on economics and political systems – and on individual psychology (not just the Zohar book I mentioned last Thursday but the underestimated Life – and how to survive it from Skynner and Cleese).
The visit to my mountain house distracted me from that endeavour – not just some work around the house but new book arrivals particularly Richard Nisbett’s Geography of Thought which had me gripped for a few hours and then chasing reviews since his thesis that Asians think differently from us is so challenging. Of course I was familiar with the literature on culture (eg de Hofstede; and Trompenaars) but this argument is even more fundamental and links to the recent literature which critiques our categorisation and celebrates holism.
A post in Daniel Little’s excellent blog Understanding Society brought me back to the issue of the social transformation we need – and in particular this passage -
The past thirty years have witnessed the systematic disassembly of the institutions of social democracy in most countries. And the consequences are predictable: more inequality, more deprivation, more severe disparities of life outcomes for different social groups.
What is truly surprising is that there has been so little continuing exploration of alternatives in the intervening two decades. Democratic theorists have explored alternative institutions in the category of deliberative democracy (link), but there hasn't been much visioning of alternative economic institutions for a modern society. We don't talk much anymore about "economic justice," and the case for social democracy has more or less disappeared from public debate. But surely it's time to reopen that public debate.
Perhaps it might be more precise to say that what work there is receives little exposure? Daniel’s post has given me the necessary incentive to make an initial list of some of the economic work.

1. The moderates
Since When Corporations Rule the World (1995) David Korten has been critiquing the operation of companies and setting out alternatives – using both books and a website. He has just published a new book – Agenda for a new economy - much of which can be accessed at Google Scholar. Peter Barnes published in 2006 a thoughtful critique and alternative vision Capitalism 3.0 based on his entrepreneurial experience - all 200 pages of which can be downloaded from here. At a more technical level, Paul Hawken published in 2000 an important book Natural Capitalism which showed what could be done within existing frameworks. And Ernst von Weizsaecker has long been an eloquent spokesman for this approach see the 2009 Factor Five report for the Club of Rome.

In the UK, Will Hutton has been giving us a powerful systemic critique of the coherence of neo-liberal thinking and policies since The State We’re In (1995) although his latest - Them and us (2010) – is weaker on alternatives and fails to mention a lot of relevant work as I spelled out in my review. William Davies published a useful booklet Reinventing the Firm (Demos 2009) which has echoes of Korten.
These are some of the contributions from what we might call the moderate school (politically).

2. The greens
Perhaps the most readable material, however, comes from the Green corner. And, in particular, from an Irish economist Richard Douthwaite whose 2003 book Short Circuit – strengthening local economies for security in an unstable world is a marvellous combination of analysis and case-studies of successful community initatives. And people at the Centre for the advancement of the steady state economy are doing a good job – as is evident from their latest publication Enough is enough (CASSE 2010).

3. The radicals
And then there are the indefatigable writers on the left who are stronger on description than prescription – although David Harvey’s latest book The Enigma of Capital does try to sketch out a few alternatives. And Paul Kingsnorth’s One No – many Yeses; a journey to the heart of the global resistance movement gives a marvellous sense of the energy a lot of people are spending fighting global capitalism in a variety of very different ways.

The pity is that there is not enough cross-referencing by the authors to allow us to extract the commonalities and identify the gaps. Each writer, it seems, has to forge a distinctive slant. Douthwaite is one exception. I've just to started to read the latest Korten book on google and his intro establishes the basic need -
Leadership for transformation must come, as it always does, from outside the institutions of power. This requires building a powerful social movement based on a shared understanding of the roots of the problem and a shared vision of the path to its resolution.
This definition contains three of the crucial ingredients for the social change on the scale we need.
But there are others, one of which has to be an understanding and development of the leadership qualities the task requires. The Zohar book is one of the few which explores this - and also the Robert Quinn book I keep plugging away at. Alaister Mant's Leaders we deserve is another neglected masterpiece. Too many good ideas are killed by the personalities of the leaders. Which neatly brings us back to Daniel Little's reference to "deliberative democracy". Clearly the Anglo-Saxon adversarial system of politics affects the way we talk about public issues. But too little of this particular literature (eg William Isaacs' Dialogue currently lying on my desk with The Appreciative Inquiry Handbook )refers to European practices - which are nearer their ideal. It was, after all, the German Greens who tried to deal with the problematic issue of leadership. And let me notice in passing that too many British writers echo contemporary debates in America simply out of laziness (language). Despite the command I have of French and German, I am as guilty as the rest - as is evident from my library and bibiographies. (Although I did buy a short Jacques Attali book last year on the crisis).
And there was a time when people like Colin Crouch drew our attention to the different types of capitalism - but this (and the deliberative democracy theme) seems to have disappeared. Are our attention spans so short? Or is this down to the media need for fashions?
Basically I am trying to suggest that there is a lot of thinking going on - but it is not easily shared and stored. What can be done about this?


  1. I saw your comment on the understanding society blog. i would go further than you. there is a ton of thinking on this topic---i could give you a list of 100 books you didnt mentionm, or websites with 1000's (i think). of course it is true if you go to a good academic library and say, look at econ, there is much much more on standard topics.

    but some of this reminds me of people talking about say, energy and transportation----plenty of people have been riding bikes or using mass transit for years. you go visit someone and their group who never gave the idea a thought, and then they bring up 'maybe we should consider alternatives-----its sad there is so little discussion of this'. and then they say lets hop in the car, go to a restaurant and catch a movie. thats like 'sunday morning christianity'. we gave at the office, we gave the idea a thought.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Sure we have a lot of hypocrisy! Maybe, despite my experience, I'm just too innocent. I am a great reader and don't see too many decent overviews (Douthwaite and Kingsnorth are quite rare)- let alone attempts to trace commonalities and gaps. Are you saying the venture is not worthwhile?

  3. I think that sort of bibliography with brief descriptives for the non-academic would be invaluable.

    It can be lonely doing alternative work, few conferences or symposiums to link up at.