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!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Plague on all your Houses!

It's a very serious stage in one's life (particularly that of a political activist) when one feels it necessary to advise friends to have nothing to do with politicians and political parties. What is the alternative? A life of quietism and religious commitment?
I am indebted to my friend Ivan Daraktchiev for the short story ‘Tale of The Staircase’ by Hristo Smirnenski (1898-1923) which has apparently been much quoted in the Bulgarian Parliament over the past 2 decades. A man of the people who goes to represent his people to the king is stopped at a staircase by a devil At each step the devil asks him for a gift to move ahead. The devil asks first for his ears; then for his eyes; and finally for his heart and memory. So in the end when he meets the King he speaks the language of the King as he cannot hear the cry of his people, cannot see the naked bleeding bodies of his people and also has no memory about their suffering. Thus the man of the people becomes the man of the state. 
The key part of the story goes as follows -
"I have no gold. I have nothing with which to bribe you... I am poor, a youth in rags... But I am willing to give up my life..."The Devil smiled: "O no, I do not ask as much as that. Just give me your hearing.""My hearing? Gladly... May I never hear anything any more, may I...""You still shall hear," the Devil assured him, and made way for him. "Pass!" 
The young man set off at a run and had taken three steps in one stride when the hairy hand of the Devil caught him. "That's enough! Now pause and listen to your brothers groaning below."The young man paused and listened - "How strange! Why have they suddenly begun to sing happy songs and to laugh light-heartedly?..."
Again he sets off at a run.Again the Devil stopped him. "For you to go three more steps I must have your eyes."The young man made a gesture of despair. "But then I shall be unable to see my brothers or those I go to punish.""You still shall see them..." The Devil said. "I will give you different, much better eyes." 
The young man rose three more steps and looked back."See your brothers' naked bleeding bodies," the Devil prompted him."My God, how very strange! When did they manage to don such beautiful clothes? And not bleeding wounds but splendid red roses deck their bodies..." The young man proceeded, willingly giving everything he had in order to reach his goal and to punish the well-fed nobles and princes.
Now one step, just one last step remained and he would be at the top. Then indeed he would avenge his brothers."Young man, one last step still remains. Just one more step and you shall have your revenge. But for this last step I always exact a double toll: give me your heart and give me your memory."
The young man protested. "My heart? No, that is too cruel!"The Devil gave a deep and masterful laugh: "I am not so cruel as you imagine. In exchange I will give you a heart of gold and a brand-new memory. But if you refuse me, then you shall never avenge your brothers whose faces are the colour of sand and who groan more bitterly than December blizzards." The young man saw irony in the Devil's green eyes."But there will be nobody then more wretched than I. You are taking away all my human nature.""On the contrary, nobody shall be happier than you. Well, do you agree: just your heart and memory?"The young man pondered, his face clouded over, beads of sweat ran from the furrowed brow, in anger he tightened his fists and through clenched teeth said: "Very well, then. Take them!" ...
And like a swift summer storm of rage and wrath, his dark locks flying in the wind, he crossed the final step. He was now at the very top. And a broad a smile suddenly in his face, his eyes now shone with tranquil joy and his fists relaxed. He looked at the nobles revelling there and looked down to the roaring, cursing, grey ragged crowds below. He gazed, but not a muscle of his face quivered: his face was radiant, happy and content. The crowds he saw below were in holiday attire and their groans were now hymns.
Only the Greens (and particularly the Germans) have properly recognised and tried to deal with the problem of the corruption of leadership (the iron law of oligarchy)
The pessimism I feel about the performance capacity of governments relates to my experience and understanding of (a) the UK system since 1968 and (b) the so-called transition countries of Europe, Caucusus and Central Asia in which I have worked and lived for the past 20 years. I have a more open mind about the situation of the Scandinavian countries (in one of which I have briefly worked and lived); of Federal Germany and of the consensual Netherlands (although consensual Belgium and Austria have been disasters). But the UK system has become ever more centralised and adversarial in my lifetime - and these two characteristics seem to me to affect the chances of policy success in that country –
  • Policies are imposed – rather than negotiated or thought through
  • They are often very poorly designed (eg the poll-tax; rail privatisation; the whole Stalinist target system – with all the counter-productivities that involves)
  • Ministers have a high turnover rate (Ministers of Finance excepted)
  • Implementation is very poor (see agency theory)
  • Morale of public servants is low (political hostility; targets; frequency and number of new initiatives; crude management)
  • Changes in government lead to cancellation of programmes
Such governance arrangements as a whole do not excite much interest in Britain – but issues relating to the operation of the political system (and of what is felt to be the disenfranchisement of the citizen) do. Concerns about the British political system were so great that a completely independent inquiry was established in 2004 (funded by the Rowntree Trust) reporting in 2006 and leading to the establishment of a campaign in late 2009 to try to extract commitments from parties and candidates to electoral reform and greater citizen influence in government. Here is one important comment and discussion thread about the process – which has disappeared without a trace

A highly ironic report on the operation of the British system was published by Stuart Weir and Democratic Audit to coincide with the launch of the campaign 

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