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, September 16, 2015

Fatalism - democracy's default position?

I have become a sucker in recent years for “intellectual histories” – what you might call “stories about stories” - or trying to identify the common strands in how we try to make sense of “what happens”. I can’t quite remember why I decided to order David Runciman’s The Confidence Trap – a history of democracy in crisis from World War I to the Present (2013) – perhaps because he is such an elegant reviewer for London Review of Books - but I had not expected it to bring old debates to life with such verve. After the initial surprise with the “executive” style of the sparse narrative (with lots of binary contrasts) I quickly got hooked on his counterintuitive approach to the seven turning points he examines 
1918, when democracy was confronted with the catastrophic consequences of an unanticipated war;
1933, when it had to cope with a global slump
1947, when Europe was being divided and the cold war was developing in the aftermath of World War II;
the Cuban missile crisis in 1962;
oil shock and stagflation in 1974;
 - short-lived triumphalism in 1989;
the financial crisis of 2008.

The book’s beginning - with an analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic work “Democracy in America”, the first volume of which was published in 1835 (Tocqueville had travelled to America from France in 1831) – sets the tone for the various intellectual dialogues Runciman sets up in the book 
 “The person who first noticed the distinctive character of democratic hubris—how it is consistent with the dynamism of democratic societies, how democratic adaptability goes along with democratic drift—was Tocqueville.” Neither an optimist nor a pessimist, Tocqueville “did not share either the concerns of the traditional critics of democracy or the hopes of its modern champions.” Runciman does not share these concerns or hopes either, and yet with Tocqueville he seems convinced that the rise of democracy is the great political fact of modern times.

His basic argument is that “democratic regimes” deal with challenges better but that this very success has probably sown the seeds of future failure. Modern democracy seems, he argues, to develop a “fatalism” which finds expression in two very different types of behaviour - first that of “resignation” (“this too will pass”); and, second, that of “recklessness” – when some sort of strong action seems called for…

I made de Tocqueville’s journey 156 years later (from Scotland) – courtesy of the German Marshall Foundation – to explore (on a 6 week fellowship) how local communities (eg in the Pittsburgh area) were dealing with the effects of the closure of their steel mills. I was lucky enough to be “embedded” in the various municipal organisations with interests in community enterprise (including a brief period in the Chicago mayor’s office at the height of one of their schools’ crises) and soon found myself overwhelmed by the role of charitable Foundations in this sort of work. Like de Tocqueville, I could feel the energy in the air.... 
I came as a sceptic but identified no fewer than nine features of their local development process as "worthy of study and replication" 
- more pluralistic sources of Local Funding (the scale of corporate and tax-free grants to Foundations)
- networking of people from the private and public sectors (eg Community Leadership scheme)
- scanning for strategic work : the active, participative role played by the private sector in the process of setting the regional agenda in places like Chicago was impressive
- coaching : the way community economic development skills were encouraged
- marketing : of voluntary organisations
- affirming : affirmative action in Chicago Council was handled very systematically in areas such as hiring and sub-contracting
- negotiating : the flexibility of the planning system allowed local councils to strike deals with developers to the direct advantage of poorer areas.
- persevering : the realism about timescale of change
- parcelling into manageable units of action: the British mentality seemed to prefer administrative neatness to permit a "coordinated" approach. American "messiness" seemed to produce more dynamism.

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