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!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Migration and mobility of labour

A feisty reply from a young Bulgarian this week to the recent comments about Bulgaria from the Leader of the British Independence Party .
Speaking last week on BBC's Question Time, Nigel Farage apparently slammed Bulgaria as “a country in a terrible state, where the judiciary is not independent and the mafia basically runs the economy” and from which therefore Bulgarians would be wanting to flee when Britain lifts its current restrictions on the entry of Bulgarian and Romanian workers in exactly one year. That this was no isolated comment can be seen from this article published recently by one of his colleagues in the European Parliament.
What was impressive about Ralitsa Behar’s open letter was not just its clarity of argument but its civilised courtesy (and that she focused on this marginal figure rather than the UK Government which is apparently considering a negative campaign to disourage further immigration from these 2 copuntries). She concedes the scale of the political and administrative problems countries such as Bulgaria and Romania have (she cleverly resists the temptation of suggesting that they are not dissimilar to those of other, older member countries who will not be mentioned here!!), corrects some of the factual errors in Farange’s (good English name that!!) outburst but basically takes exception to
Such statements such as "If I was a Bulgarian, I would be packing my bags now, wanting to come to Britain" are bold and somewhat inappropriate. And since you were focusing on the problems in our country and why we would choose to come live in your country, let me tell you why I chose to "pack my bags (after successfully obtaining her degree from the University of Edinburgh), wanting to go back to Bulgaria".
Firstly, Bulgaria is a country with great potential. I am a firm believer that young people, who study abroad should come back to Bulgaria to pursue their career goals. Having a degree from a foreign university, I realised that my know-how would be much more needed here, than in the UK. After all, we are the future of our country and I believe that we are the ones who can bring this country forward.
Her open letter was published on Sofia Weekly and it (and the positive response it has had) is well worth reading. 

I can sympathise with her arguments since I too felt the need to migrate twice in my life - first to London (England for us Scots has always been another country) after completing my degree at Glasgow University but felt compelled (for the same reasons she has expressed so well) to return to Scotland where I had a marvellous opportunity (for 25 years) to help reshape government systems. Sadly the political route I had chosen could offer me none of the security a family man required – and the (much-maligned) European Union gave me the chance in the last 22 years to reinvent myself as a nomadic “consultant”. Now my home is here - in the Balkans and Carpathians. 

And I am not the only example of emigration; many European indeed are escaping the European gloom to further shores. And a recent survey showed that almost half of Brits would like to leave the country! (although I'm a bit dubious about the size of the sample, there's little doubt that a lot of English people are now deeply unhappy about the quality of their life in the country and imagine what life (particularly retirement) would be like elsewhere). That, of course, is a very different (and more privileged) position from the stark survival realities which most often have faced emigrants over the ages.
Again Scotland has its own bitter experience of that - which is reflected in the work of many Scottish artists - the painting which heads the post is one painted in 1883 about the pain of leaving a loved home (Lochaber)  

The UK has an appropriately elitist (if not downright class) and hypocritical view of immigration. Those who shape opinion have always recognised the great contribution it has made both to its intellectual life (in the first part of the 20th century); eating habits (as Italians, Indians and others have arrived in different waves); and to the economy. 
From the comfortable homes of the middle (and “chattering” classes) it has been easy to recognise the last of these – less easy for those on the margins of work. And the populist attack on immigration has been an increasingly difficult temptation for politicians to resist! So it has become a major issue in the increasingly simplistic and polarised process which passes these days for political discourse in England.
And “experts” have also underestimated the immigrant flows in recent years. The Office for National Statistics apparently (??) predicted fewer than 20,000 eastern Europeans would enter each year after the 2004 wave of new EU members (to which UK gave open entry) but its figures show that about 350,000 were working in Britain last year. The latest census has now revealed that Polish is now the UK’s second language!
Projections which are now being made about immigration from Bulgaria and Romania inot Britain (reflecting the poor state of the current UK economy) when that becomes easier in 2014 are now being viewed with some cynicism   
For more technical overviews see here and here. And here is a good post from a UK Migrants' Rights website

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Neglected old masters

There are two Bulgarian painters I consider hugely neglected and underrated – Marin Ustagenov (1872-1937) and Nicolai Boiadjiev (1904-1963).
Both were superb painters of the human body – as I saw for myself for one of them when, exactly 2 years ago, Sofia’s City Art Gallery organised the first ever exhibition of Boiadjiev’s paintings –

In 1958 he had been expelled from the Union of Bulgarian artists for his refusal to work on prescribed themes and focussed instead on drawing. His work never seems to come on the market.
The painting on the left is Boiadjiev's "Righteous Job"

Until yesterday I had been able to view any of Ustagenov’s paintings in the flesh – only in a great book which was published here in 2005. The photo is of one of the reproductions in the book.

He had been a war artist during the Balkan and First World Wars; studied at Munich and became one of the first Bulgarian restorers. 
He participated in the restoration of Boyana Church and Monastery Zemen and was still working on this at his death. After the 1944 Communist takeover he was, presumably because of his religious themes, declared an enemy of the people; his heirs harassed ; and the study of his work removed from the curriculum at the Academy of Arts – "airbrushed from history".
But the Loran Gallery (Oborishte 16 in the Embassy area of Sofia) has at last done him proud – with an exhibition (which ends in the middle of February). And, also for the first time they have enabled us to see many of his paintings online
Congratulations Loran Gallery – about which I have blogged before 

People here tell me that a lot of archival material on Bulgarian artists has been lost. I'm not quite sure what they mean about this. Some painters lost a lot of their artwork during the 2nd World War - Vesselin Tomas, for example, through not being allowed by Germany to take them back home and others through allied bombing of Sofia. But if we mean documentation of lives and friendships we do have artists such as the great caricaturist Ilyia Beshkov who produced diaries with drawings....  An issue for further exploration with some art historians here perhaps....

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The best writing on the global crisis

The intuition of the older generations beats hands-down the arrogance of the post-war generations. They shunned debt – and knew that the products of manufacturing industry were the real thing. My generation thought that it knew better. At any rate it wanted better and made a Faustian deal. It’s payback time now – and few writers are able to explain what has happened, let alone how we cope with the new world.
Some of my previous posts have referred to the accounts of people such as Howard Davies and Robert Skidelsky – the first of whom looked briefly at 39 possible explanations (!!) for the recent global collapse. I've also given space to the more radical accounts of Paul Mason and Yanis Varoufakis who put the events in a deeper context; and covered the more apocalyptic writers such as William Greer and Dmitry Orlov who not only give their own explanations but also spell out the scale and details of the changes we need to make in our own personal lives if we are to survive. 
It should be noted that only 2 of these writers could be designated an academic (Skidelsky and Varoufakis)

But this week I came across perhaps the most impressive bit of analysis and writing – from Tim Morgan who writes strategic papers for a consultancy. They are all clear, challenging and well worth reading. The latest is called Perfect Storm and basically attributes the global crisis of the past 4 years to four factors -
  • The madness of crowds
  • The "globalisation disaster"
  • Self-delusion (eg statistical lying)
  • Seriously diminishing returns from the exploitation of fuels on which our growth has depended for the past two centuries
I’m only half way through the paper but let me share some excerpts from his gripping introduction -
With 24-hour news coverage, the media focus has shifted inexorably from the analytical to the immediate. The basis of politicians’ calculations has shortened to the point where it can seem that all that matters is the next sound-bite, the next headline and the next snapshot of public opinion. The corporate focus has moved all too often from strategic planning to immediate profitability as represented by the next quarter’s earnings.
This report explains that this acceleration towards ever-greater immediacy has blinded society to a series of fundamental economic trends which, if not anticipated have devastating effects.
The relentless shortening of media, social and political horizons has resulted in the establishment of self-destructive economic patterns which now threaten to undermine economic viability.
We date the acceleration in short-termism to the early 1980s. Since then, there has been a relentless shift to immediate consumption as part of something that has been called a “cult of self-worship”.
The pursuit of instant gratification has resulted in the accumulation of debt on an unprecedented scale.
The financial crisis, which began in 2008 and has since segued into the deepest and most protracted economic slump for at least eighty years, did not result entirely from a short period of malfeasance by a tiny minority, comforting though this illusion may be.
Rather, what began in 2008 was the denouement of a broadly-based process which had lasted for thirty years, and is described here as “the great credit super-cycle”.
The credit super-cycle process is exemplified by the relationship between GDP and aggregate credit market debt in the United States (see fig. 1.1 of the report). In 1945, and despite the huge costs involved in winning the Second World War, the aggregate indebtedness of American businesses, individuals and government equated to 159% of GDP. More than three decades later, in 1981, this ratio was little changed, at 168%. In real terms, total debt had increased by 214% since 1945, but the economy had grown by 197%, keeping the debt ratio remarkably static over an extended period which, incidentally, was far from shock-free (since it included two major oil crises).
As figure 1.1 shows, this changed dramatically in the 2 decades following – with the percentage of debt hitting almost 400% in 2008.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Behind the blog

So many blogs, books and papers about the state of the world/one’s country! So little time! How to identify what’s worth reading? That’s the main aim of this blog.

I’ve been getting a lot of hits in the past few days – and therefore feel the need to introduce myself to new readers.

This blog doesn’t peddle any political line. It’s written by someone who has been lucky enough to be able to paddle his own canoe for more than 40 years and to write things as he saw them – no matter the jarring effect it might have on his readers. I’ve been a “maverick” insider since an early age, for 22 years an influential political strategist in a powerful Scottish Region, helping to change the way it operated and writing critically about that experience
And, for the last 22 years, I’ve led various teams of consultants in transition countries in efforts to pass on our understanding of what makes for systems of “good government or good governance”. And written critically about such programmes – my website has some of the papers. I vividly remember one of my (Prussian) superiors expostulating to one of the papers - "we do not pay you to think..... but to obey!" I kid you not - this from a Berlin consultancy. Please note that I am a great admirer of Germany - as you will see from searching my various posts on the country!

And all during this period, I’ve been reading avidly to try to understand how organisations get so perverted – and how we can prevent that. The blog tries to share the best of that writing

My heroes are
I believe in people coming together at a local level to work for the common benefit - principles enshrined in communitarianism (about which I do have some reservations). I spent a lot of time supporting the work of social enterprise in low-income communities. None of this went down all that well with the technocrats or even members) of my political party - and the national politicians to whose books I contributed (Cook and Brown) soon changed their tune when they had a taste of power.
But, above all, I am a passionate sceptic or sceptic pluralist as I put in a blogpost in September 2011 - see, for example, my Just Words?

The caricature is one of the great William Hogarth's - "Academics"

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Apocalypse Soon???

It’s Davos time again - a (generally missed) opportunity for “movers and shakers” to come together and discuss the state of the world – even although I understand that quite a few campaigners for a more just world can and do cough up the 40,000 euros registration fee. Somehow I don’t think they will be hearing the sort of frank and tough analysis you can find on John Ward’s blog - to which I drew readers' attention last September .
He surpassed himself a few days ago with an incredible summary of present socio-economic trends - putting together the various developments in a menu he calls The Top Ten Takeaways.
  • Slurp; The money we used to earn from giving our money to banks has been taken away.
  • Tax. Every type of tax we pay (using everything from personal allowance caps to upped speeding fines) has been increased.
  • Welfare. The credits, services, and subsidies that save most of us money have been reduced, and in some cases removed.
  • Quantitative Easing. The currencies we use to buy goods and services are having their value eroded by sovereign debt, QE, and in some cases direct money printing.
  • Energy. The forms we use to cook, heat, drive and light up the darkness are increasing in price at a rate far beyond anything justified by either demand or conservation.
  • Credit. Aside from the odd piddling and wastefully managed government scheme here and there, credit to purchase durables and property has largely dried up. By definition, this reduces one’s current and future standard of living.
  • Food. Media owners and distributive opinion leaders are giving us clear warnings about the price of food being hiked substantially in the near future. They just haven’t explained why yet.
  • Wages and salaries. Aside from the top 3-5%, the great majority (over 80%) of ‘middle class’ consumers have seen their real salaries eroded since around 2003. That fact applies whether we’re talking the US, the UK, or Greece.
  • Market fraud & manipulation. QE has indirectly caused those with a bearish view about stocks in 2010 to have been proved expensively wrong. The Libor rate was manipulated after 2007 globally to save the banks and cheat the investor. The price of gold has been capped, and that process is now becoming all-encompassing in the light of central banker plans for the metal. Because of smoke, mirrors and bollocks on the subject of sovereign debt, the bond market yields are artificially low, further reducing a fund’s ability to create decent returns for the retired….already hit by slurp, QE and capped gold.
  • Both upstream and downriver, governments are reducing the individual’s ability to save for later life, and/or live off what they have saved. The UK has once again removed some tax advantages from pension savers. The US has effectively embezzled at least half of its public sector pension funds. Free healthcare is being phased out for the elderly. The Greek and Spanish national pension reserves have ceased to exist. Every French bank is guaranteed by the taxpayer: when they start falling over, French citizens will be powerless to stop their State pensions dwindling back to nothing. UK pensioners have been told they will lose inflation indexing, and probably winter fuel allowances/free prescriptions.
Listen to the vast majority of mainstream Western politicians, and you will find very few who would even admit that this process is taking place, let alone speculate about what its ramifications will be. Bromides like ‘We’re all in this together’, ‘Yes we Can’, ‘Your friend in hard times’ and so forth offer nothing beyond onanist drivel spurting across the airwaves to placate the proles. Honourable and honest exceptions like Austin Mitchell, Ron Paul, and Alexis Tsipras are straight with those who bother to listen. But as the American Spectator wrote this week, ‘Obama’s empty inaugural address offers nothing but more blind leadership’. It’d be a nice turn of phrase – if he really was a leader.
 What they calculate is this: to compete with Asia and South America, we need to cut wage costs; to pay off debt we need to inflate currencies; to take on credible new debt, relaunch currenci(es), and repair the banks’ balance sheets, we need gold to be almost completely appropriated by the sovereign banking system; to reduce political incompetence we need to have more technocrats and fewer elections; and to ensure no opposition to any of this gets off the ground, we need a two-speed, heavily regulated internet via which ISPs and the security services can monitor what everyone’s up to 24/7.
Then, they figure, we can get some serious growth under way, keep the East in check, reduce taxes caused by debt, write off the banking system’s debts, and return to Business as Usual….provided our view holds sway in 90% of all public media.
I’m not for a second suggesting it’s a fully written up plot hatched by the Elders of Davos, because the world doesn’t work like that…and the egos involved here are so Viagrad out of shape and proportion, there’s no way you could get even a fraction of these truly disturbed materialists to sign up to such a plan, even if it existed. But a general direction is there for all to see, and there is a growing Right Commentariat which thinks it just dandy as a potential road to salvation.
The discussion thread is also interesting with one respondent linking us to a fascinating financial consultant’s report entitles Perfect Storm which contains apocolyptic stuff you never expect to see in such publicly available reports.
Another giving his own summary of events -
The greedy money worshippers have realised that the law doesn’t see fraud and white collar crime as something to either understand or bother about. So there is no cultural restraint on wholesale theft by financial people. If they get caught, they can pay the lawyers and bribe the lawmakers. Who is going to stop them.
They are not happy with stealing all the money, they want it all. They know the middle classes are not organised, so they will take all their savings from them, and make them take on unpayable debts. The middle class is doomed. There will only be two classes, the proles and the gentry. SOme of the proles will do anything they are told for a few crumbs off their master’s table, and they will be commoner-law enforcement and the like. We will get a Brute-Squad before long.
Everything is connected; the privatisation of NHS is part of the same theft of wealth; the reduction in welfare is to allow them to keep paying for a massive, supine public sector (they need the votes); the strangulation of small, independent business is to force everyone to work for large, bullying corporations and forget their freedoms; the planned conversion of coins and notes into debit cards is to allow them to tax and seize all your money; the weakness of leadership in government is to stop anyone acting on their grievances; the useless infantile press and tv who want raise a peep in objection; the stealth taxes on energy, transport, leisure, VAT, inspection charges, licenses, red-tape.
I think this has been a long time coming, but is basically opportunist. I reckon the bankers can’t believe how this has fallen into their laps, but now they are going all-in for everything. Westminster won’t stop them, it is up to the lukewarm frogs.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Back in Sofia

The grey sky ended at the Danube - as it tends to do on these runs down to Sofia. And the temperature was high for January – all of 12 degrees – one reason I had chosen Tuesday for the run since snow flurries are expected later in the week. The Balkans were beautiful with their snow caps glistening in the sun and blue skies but Vitosha mountain shrouded with clouds. The sight of Sofia in its plain - with the mountain towering over it - never fails to move me.
Leaving Bucharest I noticed that my horn wasn’t working, checked my lights and, discovering one front light also defective, pulled in to a garage. The superviser was friendly and spoke good English so, noticing a couple of Chryslers parked in the yard, I asked his advice about reliable cars. My faithful Cielo is approaching its 17th birthday (with almost 150,000 kms on the clock) and I have to replace it this year. Skodas and Dacias have been in my mind – as well as second-hand Audis. He warned against European engines (he didn’t like the Italian engines in the Chryslers) and recommended Japanese although Skoda was acceptable. I have been put off by finding people complaining so much about their experience of Audis.

After initial grey and rain, this morning has been bright here in Sofia – some of the coffee shops have actually already put some seats outside on the pavement! Protected, however, by awning. Stocked up with the great vegetables for which Bulgaria is rightly famous (as well as with Brussels sprouts which I simply can’t find in Bucharest - which also doesn’t have the great wholemeal bread so easily found here). Ginger seems difficult to find in both cities. And yes, I also bought wine - a box of the great St Ilyia white (from Sliven area) and of Brestovitza (Plovdiv area) Sauvignon.
For some reason, the galleries of all three of my gallery friends were closed! So this article on the outrage Matisse caused in New York a hundred years ago will have to do for cultural comment.

The painting is an Atanas Mitov - of Vitosha 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Why should Scots support the Union?

An update on the situation in a small and faraway country which has been growing disenchanted with its larger neighbour in the last 30 years and could shortly pose yet another problem for European constitutionalists – Scotland.
The prospect of a referendum on independence became inevitable when the Scottish Nationalists won, in May 2011, an outright majority of seats - all the more astonishing since the electoral system had been designed in 1998 to avoid any party winning such a majority. In the middle of last year the UK Prime Minister bowed to the inevitable and accepted that a referendum would be held - in 2014. Political grandees from the establishment parties have united to fight for the Union but, as a powerful  article argues today, with little conviction and fewer converts.
Labour has still failed to sell the union on its own merits. Events since then may even have rendered the task impossible. Unionists have talked loftily about dangers of break-up and separation in a world that is thirsting for continuity and stability.
Yet we conveniently overlook the fact that London has already broken away from the United Kingdom and now exists as a world super-state governed by the greed of unhindered capitalism and recognisable as British only by its taxis and bad service. As the world's most newly minted oligarchs continue to colonise the independent state of London, it becomes almost impossible for families on less than £250k to live decently there. Poor London families made homeless by the coalition benefit cuts are being evacuated as far north as Middlesbrough.
Last week, Goldman Sachs, one of the banks with its fingers in the till when global economic meltdown occurred, awarded an average bonus of £250,000 to each of its employees. The gap between the richest in our society and the poorest stretched a little more and we were reminded yet again that the UK government, despite its promises, allows greed, incompetence and corruption to be rewarded. (How many people do you think will go to jail for the Libor rate-fixing scandal?) Meanwhile, Westminster politicians are dividing the poor into categories marked "deserving" and "scum".
The most common wet dream of every Bullingdon Tory is the national lottery. And what a jolly wheeze it is: get the poor to fund our biggest capital projects in exchange for a cruel fairy story. Now they've doubled the stake to £2, confident that the benefit cuts are increasing their customer base daily. In Glasgow, the boss of a council-run regeneration agency was given a £500k pay-off at a time when the Citizens Advice Bureau is reporting almost 1,000 calls a day from people whose families have been impoverished by the benefit cuts. Life for millions of people under the most rapacious and reactionary government in 150 years has diminished. To prevent the peasants revolting, however, they have been treated to exaggerated displays of unity euphoria such as the Olympics and assorted royal jubilees.
Labour in the UK long ago gave up any pretence at being the party of the marginalised and the vulnerable. Instead, it throws rotten fruit at the SNP when it says what Labour should be saying. Alex Salmond last week painted a handsome picture of what a new Scottish constitution following independence would look like. Every Scot, he said, would have a right to a home and free education. There will be no nuclear weapons. And we'll decide who we're fighting and who we're not. Until Blair, Mandelson, Balls and Miliband hijacked the party, that was what I thought Labour stood for. Now they simply boo and hiss with the Tories and say it can't be done.
Earlier this month, the UK Treasury declared that, following a period of intense and prolonged analysis of the economic numbers, each of us would be £1 a year worse off in an independent Scotland. Put another way, for £1 a year you will never have to endure the economic privations of a Conservative government ever again. You will not be penalised for being poor or old and nor will you suffer the pain of watching your young boys being killed in illegal wars or occupations.
We won't be lacking friends, either. Of matters concerning oil and Europe in an independent Scotland, the Norwegian government officials I met in Oslo last month were very upbeat. "Come and talk to us before you commit to the EU," they said, "and let us advise you how to manage your oil fund and how to negotiate with the oil companies."
With each passing week, it becomes more difficult to support a union that doesn't really exist anyway. Morally, it may soon become indefensible to remain in a state that rewards corruption and promotes inequality when you have an opportunity to leave it behind.
However, as my friend and namesake, Alf Young, points out in this article, a declining number of Scots are, these days, disposed to vote for independence. And the voters will, in 2014, be faced with a very complex issue as the UK Prime Minister is now committed to giving the British voter a referendum on whether to stay in or exit from the European Union. So the Scots will not really know what they are voting for next year - Scotland, the UK or Europe?

The photo is of Helensburgh in Sotland - and is an elevated view of what I could see most days from my home town of Greenock on the river Clyde.

Monday, January 14, 2013

different municipal styles

Over the past 6 years, I’ve basically spent most of the winters in Sofia and the summers (apart from 2008) in the Carpathian mountain house – with 6-7 weeks each year in Bucharest. So I’m in a good position to compare and contrast two (neighbouring) countries which are enjoying only their second brief period of freedom after half a century of communist control and several centuries of Ottoman domination. Each has its reasons for feeling different eg Romanian a romantic language in a sea of Slavs; Bulgarian still Cyrillic in its lettering.
Romania is aggressive – both in the size of its buildings and in social behaviour – Bulgaria much more modest in these respects. For more on the differences, see this post.
Yesterday I noted another difference - under the control of Sofia municipality, the Sofia City Art Gallery (to which this blog has often paid tribute) flourishes. Under the control of Bucharest municipality, 5,000 paintings apparently languish with nowhere to be displayed – apart from 2 rooms donated by ArtMark which manage to display about 15 of them. A rich Romanian émigré with an empty palace in the city offered the Bucharest mayor the palace rent-free to give the paintings an outlet – but the offer was turned down. Too much trouble for the lazy mayor whose favourite hobby is demolishing such old buildings
Bucharest and Sofia appeared recently at the very bottom of the list of livable European cities - but Sofia at least tries and has indeed many features which make it highly attractive. It's where I go to cycle. swim and wander pleasurably visiting friends in small galleries!
The gouache is a Zhelezarov - of Sofia's women's market 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Gladwell and Diamond - a Health warning

I enjoy the essays of Malcolm Gladwell – as I enjoy essays as an art-form (and his book The Tipping Point). But I had failed to spot the ideological baggage he carries.
His original training was apparently in a school funded by the tobacco industry; he has received considerable amounts from the corporate lobby (which shows in quite a few of his arguments) and he now earns most of his money from huge speaking fees from multinational companies.

Another populiser, Jared Diamond, has also come in for some serious criticism for making life comfortable his readers by using a “blame the victim” meme in his books about the collapse of civilisations.
After a successful slave rebellion formally freed the Haitians from their French masters, the French still managed to bully the Haitians into paying them the huge indemnity for “lost property”—that is, freed slaves—in exchange for diplomatic relations. By 1900, 80 percent of Haiti’s annual budget was consumed by these payments, which did not end until 1947. By then, Haiti had paid France about $21 billion in contemporary US dollars. In explaining Haiti’s social collapse, Diamond ignored 120 years of illegitimate debt payments as well as the long history of US interference in Haitian affairs, including America’s decades-long support of dictatorship under the Duvalier regime.Diamond’s blindness to imperial power was of a piece with the assumption embedded in his subtitle: Failed societies (a reified abstraction) have somehow chosen to fail. In the wake of the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, the New York Times columnist David Brooks revealed his attachment to the same point of view: Haitians’ attachment to voodoo and other primitive superstitions, Brooks believed, had immeasurably exacerbated their suffering in the wake of the disaster. Once again, Diamond’s work revealed its resonance with neoliberal conventional wisdom. As the anthropologist Frederick K. Errington wrote, Diamond’s two books constituted a “‘one-two punch.’ The haves prosper because of happenstance beyond their control, while the have-nots are responsible for their own demise.” One could hardly imagine a more comforting account of global inequalities.
Ignoring class and other social divisions among the victors as well as the vanquished, Diamond overlooks the complex political conflicts involved in imperial policy—which included decisions about how to use guns and steel as well as how to make alliances with native elites. As the anthropologist Michael Wilcox writes: “A more appropriate troika of destruction [than ‘guns, germs, and steel’] would be ‘lawyers, god, and money.’”

A recent article has put these sorts of books in a wider context
The more the healers (and their “conditions”) proliferated, the harder it became for customers to figure out where to focus their limited time, money, and attention. It made sense that by 2000, our biggest guru wasn’t a writer but a new pope, Oprah Winfrey, whose brand lay in the power to ordain others. Like that other millennial guide, ­Malcolm Gladwell, she was a curator rather than a creator.Some think it was The Tipping Point, Gladwell’s 2000 argument for the power of social connections, which made it safe for techies and business types—and, more generally, men—to read about bettering themselves. “The whole idea of showing that there is a counter­intuitive way of looking at information, to make you understand yourself in a completely different way—that’s been game-changing,” one commentator  says.You could argue that the marriage of self-help and social science began a few years earlier with Daniel Goleman, a bridge between self-help’s New Age past and its journalist-driven, label-defying present. A Harvard Ph.D. and a science reporter for the New York Times, his ­Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ spent more than a year on the Times best-seller. 
postscript; John Gray has just written an interesting piece on Gladwell's latest book about David and Goliath. Gray suggests that -
One of the features of Gladwell’s genre is a repeated effort to back the stories he tells with evidence from academic sources—a move that has attracted some of the most virulent attacks on his work. Yet Gladwell has more in common with his academic critics than either he or they realize, or care to admit. Academic writing is rarely a pursuit of unpopular truths; much of the time it is an attempt to bolster prevailing orthodoxies and shore up widely felt but ill-founded hopes. There are many examples of academics who have distorted fact or disregarded evidence in order to tell an edifying tale that accords with respectable hopes.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

How the arts helped shape Romanian identity

A trip to the National Art Gallery yesterday expanded my list of significant Romanian Realist colourists of the early 20th century - and deepened my understanding one of my favourites - Jean Alexandru Steriadi (1880-1956).
A great series slowly taking shape here is that on Romanian graphic art. Some years ago, I bought 2 volumes of “P” (which includes hundred of artist's Stefan Popescu's sketches) for only 5 euros. They have now progressed to S – and have devoted an entire volume to the drawings of Steriadi whom I have known only as a painter. They give a great sense of social life in the early part of the 20th century. Sadly I can’t find any reproductions online but will photo some shortly and put them online.

A special exhibition entitled - The National Myth - How arts define Romanian identity  is based on a perspective put forth by historian Lucian Boia, in his book ”History and Myth in National Consciousness” and sets out to identify some of the prevailing themes of the mythology of Romanian history: its Latin character, its territorial unity and the fight for independence.
The exhibition evokes the creation of the Romanian nation state, as it looks at the main stages of that process: the 1848 Revolution, the 1859 Union of the Romanian Principalities, the accession to the throne of Carol 1st as King of Romania in 1866, the 1877- 1878 War of Independence, the proclamation of Romania’s kingdom in 1881 and the 1918 great union. Historian Lucian Boia.
Lucian Boia says: “I am convinced that without myths, we stand no chance. A myth holds both truth and exaggeration, but it is ultimately a construction that is absolutely necessary in the life of every community. Maybe today’s general lack of orientation can be explained by the rejection of faiths and grand projects, be they utopic.”
Carol Popp de Szathmári, Theodor Aman, Nicolae Grigorescu, Ioan Andreescu, Ştefan Luchian, Nicolae Tonitza, Oscar Han, Camil Ressu are all on display – and many more
The militant role of art throughout the 19th century is evident in the works that bring to the fore portraits of 1848 revolution heroes, allegories embodying the ideals of union and independence, documentary-type scenes, and especially historical scenes.
Beside the glorification of national history, which began in the latter half of the 19th century and extended to the better part of the 20th century, artists show a drive for subjects of the rural world and its traditions. The national ethos overlaps the countryside and the idealized image of the Romanian peasant. This has fuelled the huge popularity of painter Nicolae Grigorescu’s works. They were seminal for the evolution of Romanian fine arts.
Lucian Boia: ”The 19th century is very interesting, because we witness a mutation. The Westernising process occurred, which was very interesting and rapid. In the early 20th century, people here still dressed according to Eastern fashion codes, especially the Turkish one, they used the Cyrillic alphabet, just like Slavic Christian Orthodox peoples and spoke Greek. Several decades later, they picked the latest Paris fashion trends and began writing in the Latin alphabet, while the cultural language was French. This rapid Westernisation of the elite demonstrated its great capacity to adapt to new historical and cultural realities. The Romanian nation also saw its birth. I’m mainly talking about national belief. Many of the paintings on view show Romanians’ traditional civilisation. By creating bridges with the West, Romanians also feel the need to keep something that preserves their identity. This is traditional rural civilisation. It is striking to realise that up until the early 20th century, Romanian painting virtually had no urban landscapes. The peasant’s figure is pervasive and the characters and objects it is associated with become powerful symbols of Romanian identity:
 A great book goes with the exhibition (for 17 euros) but, like all the Gallery publications, is in Romanian only. When money is short for translation, you normally find brief CVs in a few foreign languages. But not this book or Gallery! They are simply too lazy! 
Three new names came to my attention during the visit (details from the internet) –

Octav Bancila (1872-1944) earned a scholarship at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (1894-1898) and travelled in France and Italy.

Had his first solo exhibition in 1900.

Cycle of works addressed the theme of peasant revolts that took place in the country.

From 1916-1937 he was professor at the "School of Fine Arts" University.



Francis Siraco (1877-1953) was born in 1877, in Craiova, in a family of craftsmen, originating from the Banat. 
A passion for drawing took him to Craiova Graphic Institute which taught lithography technique. Şirato however decided to concentrate on painting and, in 1898, leaving for Germany in Düsseldorf. Lacking sufficient resources, fails to attend the Academy of Art there. Is forced to work in an engraving workshop. In 1899 he returned to the country, and next year is part of the "National School of Fine Arts" in Bucharest.
In 1907, his painting is not noticed, but his drawings attract attention. They appear regularly in the magazine "ant", some of them inspired peasant uprising of 1907. Before World War I, between 1908 and 1914, the exhibit "Artistic Youth" being among the first members of this association. Şirato find some impulse in Cézanne's painting, with its balanced architecture, as well as Romanian folklore.
During the war, Şirato made several drawings depicting cycles of war dramas, works it presents the personal exhibition in 1921. With this exhibition ends the first period of the artist's work, particularly valuable in graphics, and increasingly devoted to painting. In 1920, join the group "Romanian Art", in which sets up in 1924. The following year founded, together with painters Nicolae Tonitza and Stephen Dimitrescu and sculptor Oscar Han "Group of Four". The Group has not made a specific program, the four united a common understanding and a close friendship art
In 1917, became curator at the National Museum of Folk Art, and later, in 1932, appointed professor of "Academy of Fine Arts" in Bucharest, standing out as a good teacher. In 1946, the painter, who many years ago had won awards at international art events (Barcelona, ​​Brussels, Paris, New York), is awarded the "National Award for Painting". In 1947 his personal exhibition enjoys great success. This was, however, his last exhibition. Francis Şirato has a rich publishing activity, has written numerous articles and reviews of art in "Sburatorul", In 1938 he wrote a monograph devoted Nicolae Grigorescu.
Ion Theodorescu-Sion (1882-1939) was the third new name whose paintings made an impression. He was born to a poor family, his father a railway worker and mother from peasant stock. He 
is well-known for his traditionalist, primitivist painting. Initially an Impressionist, he dabbled in various modern styles in the years before World War. He had one major ideological focus: depicting peasant life in its natural setting. In time, Sion contributed to the generational goal of creating a specifically Romanian modern art, located at the intersection of folk tradition, primitivist tendencies borrowed from the West, and 20th-century agrarianism.
Initially scandalized by Theodorescu-Sion's experiments, public opinion accepted his tamer style of the mid to late 1910s. Sion was commissioned as a war artist, after which his standing increased. His paintings alternated the monumental depictions of harsh rural environments and their inhabitants, with luminous Balcic seascapes and nostalgic records of suburban life.
The painting which heads the post is one of his 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Guide to the Blog

I established this blog some 4 years or so ago in order –
  • To try to make sense of my various endeavours in the fields of social justice and organisational change in Scotland (in the 1970s and 1980s) and of institution-building in transition countries where I have lived for the past 22 years.
  • To have a record of some of the good and insightful writing I come across
  • To share some of my passion for places, wine and painting
In my blogpost of 9 January 2012 I tried to take stock of the extent to which my posts were actually contributing to these three objectives.
Lessons from my own institutional endeavoursThe early part of the blog covered the Scottish policy initiatives with which I was associated between 1970-90 such as social dialogue, open-policy-making and social inclusion – which were excerpted from a long paper available on my website.
More recently, the blog has focussed on my concerns about the technical assistance and institutional building work I have been involved with in transition countries in the past 20 years – which are captured in the paper I gave at the 2010 Varna Conference of NISPAcee.
In autumn 2011, I had a string of 15 or so posts trying to make sense of the training work which has been the focus of recent assignment.
However my more ambitious venture to bring all of this together in one paper is not yet realised. A very early draft can be seen on my website.

Sharing the insights of others - In the din of communications, many sane voices are drowned out. And there are also a range of linguistic, professional, academic, commercial and technical filters which get in the way of even the most conscientious efforts to seek truth(s). We have slowly realised how the google search engine has an element of “mirror image” in its search – giving us more of what it thinks we want rather than what is actually available. And the specialisation of university and professional education also cuts us off from valuable sources.
I’ve been lucky – in having had both the (academic) position and (political) incentive for more than 15 years to read across intellectual disciplines in the pursuit of tools to help the various ventures in which I’ve been engaged.
I belong to a generation and time which valued sharing of knowledge – rather than secreting or mystifying it which has become the trend in recent decades. And copy and paste and hyperlink now make this sharing much more possible than it was in the past!
Most of the blogposts contain several such links – in a single year probably 1,000 links. That’s not bad!
Life’s passions - Clearly the blog has shared several of my passions – eg painting, places, reading and wine – and has given a good sense of the enjoyment from simple activities such as wandering.
Originally the Carpathian reference in the title was to location only – it did not promise any particular insights into this part of the world. But, in the past year, my musings have broadened to give some insights into life in this part of the world…
That was a year ago. What about the last year? Has the focus of the blog changed in any way? A quick analysis revealed that the last year has seen very few posts on the first of the three original objectives. Almost half of the posts have been sharing the reading I’ve been doing – and one in four posts are now about events in Bulgaria and Romania (like the last one) and about art and paintings in these two countries.
Every now and then I let off about such subjects as privatisation; corporate power; media and democracy; and europeanisation (lack of).
And I actually did about 10 posts on Scotland (inspired no doubt by the short visit I made last May) 

Monday, January 7, 2013

A brave and overdue challenge to the Romanian Orthodox Church

For the past 50 odd years I’ve been an agnostic. My father was a Presbyterian Minister whose pastoral work and care I respected but I found no need to believe in a deity and found easy anthropological explanations for the Jesus figure and stories. Religions with more hierarchical systems aroused stronger feelings in me – by virtue of their power hierarchies and deferences, they succumb easily to corruption and the hypocrisy which goes with that. Catholic priest abuse of children was just the tip of the iceberg!
The Romanian Orthodox Church is a rich and powerful organisation here. The dulcet tones of its high priest – Daniel – can be heard endlessly on their Trinitas Radio Station here. Since his elevation to the post less than a decade ago, he has used a very effective business model to turn the Church into one of the richest organisations in the country. In seems to practice a rather exclusive approach to love and does not radiate the ethic I respect in Lutheran and other Presbyterian religions.
In 2009 a brave young village priest dared,however, to ask what happened to the money he raised from parishioners and passed to his superiors. What has subsequently happened to him speaks volumes not only about the Romanian Church but about police, media and politicians here. Weeks after his impertinent query, word came that he was to be moved to a monastery, His refusal led to his being sacked but villagers (Reviga in Ialomita County east of Bucharest I think) rallied round him – not least because his replacement promptly raised the amount of the church collection   
Dismayed at the injustice of an unofficial tax they couldn’t afford, people started coming to Pandelic for support—at first just a few, then more and more in the following months.
Pandelic started giving services to disgruntled believers in his own home, preaching the same faith taught by the church but free from the pressures that the institution exerted upon its faithful. Quickly the congregation swelled and before long nearly all of the village’s population of 300 were attending. As many people crammed into his living room as they could, and the rest stood outside, listening in through open windows. On the other side of the village square, the church lay virtually empty.
In Romania, almost all churches belong to the state, to be loaned to whichever religious institution represents the demands of its congregation. With this in mind, Pandelic set about fulfilling the necessary legal requirements to grant his congregation official status as an autonomous religion and, with this accomplished, relocated his services to the village church.
Around the same time, Pandelic was approached by the Romanian Liberal Party (PNL) who, seeing his local popularity, asked him to stand as their representative in an upcoming election. He agreed, saying he knew that “to have any extensive impact in church affairs in Romania, you need to be involved in politics as well.”
Things moved smoothly at first, with his political position widely supported and his congregation growing as Christians traveled for miles to experience this new movement for themselves. Then, early one morning in spring, Pandelic was awoken by shouts and violent battering on the front of his house. Opening his door in a dressing gown, he found a group of Orthodox officials accompanied by military police. They had with them a presidential order that barred Pandelic and his congregation from use of the village church.
As Pandelic contested his charges from his doorway, villagers, also woken by the shouts and banging of the police, emerged from their houses and gathered in front of the church, its doors locked behind them. There were over one hundred people when the police moved in with batons, beating all those who refused to disperse and leaving two hospitalised. With the steps cleared they broke down the doors of the church and for the next two days kept it occupied, until new locks and an alarm system had been installed.
Just days later, Pandelic was dropped by the PNL. In the press, MP Cristina Pocora was quoted as saying, “If the church has dismissed Casian Pandelic for violation and disobedience of church rules, then this man is neither my colleague nor a representative of PNL.” With the church’s support vital to secure votes in rural regions, the motives for the party’s U-turn on Pandelic were likely to have been formed under pressure from the ROC.
For now, it seems Pandelic is locked in a checkmate. With all legal and political avenues blocked by the ROC and a local media that remains largely indifferent, there is no platform from which his voice, and that of the community that stands behind him, can be heard.
Pandelic talks of other examples across the country, where priests have stood up against the ROC and their congregations have followed. The church, he says, “has always come down with a maximum of violence. They are very aware that discontent will spread and quickly undermine the authority of the ROC.” In a country desperate to move on from its communist legacy, this is a move in the wrong direction.
Quite astonishing is the apparent failure of the Romanian media to cover the story. UK journals put me on to it - and I still find it very difficult to get a Romanian reference from any google search. At my third attempt I found this useful interview from April 2012 tucked away on page 8 of the google search. It is from an interesting looking leftist journal I have never heard of - CriticAtac. All credit to them for recognising the importance of this issue. But they should now have a follow-up article to deal with the story in its wider perspective (eg comments from the Church and others) and bring things up to date.

postscript; Sarah in Romania has just posted this item about how another courageous individual managed to end a 10 year scam the Orthodox Church in Sibiu was inflicting on those applying for driving licences (and, again, the curious role of the police)