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, August 19, 2017

Stories

I’m not a great reader of novels – the interactions and fate of fictitious characters pale against those of the real people I find in histories…..And, if I want good prose, I find it in essays, travelogues and short stories – although I grant you that it’s only in stories (short and long) that the inner life of people can be treated in depth…..
Perhaps that’s why I’m so partial to short stories – produced by the likes of William Trevor, Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Vladimir Nabakov, Joseph Miller and……Joseph Roth

Seven years ago, however, one post here did actually pay tribute to about 75 novels which had taken my fancy – only one third of which, interestingly, were British….And, of those, most were Irish or Scottish since I have found their style of writing much more lively than that of English novelists…..It’s not just the older generation I’m referring to (such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Edwin Muir and Robin Jenkins) but also the younger writers (such as Andrew Greig, James Meek and James Robertson on the Scottish side – and Sebastian Barry and John McGahern on the Irish).

Too many contemporary English writers seem to be unable to shake themselves out of their limited middle-class environment – eg Ian McEwan, although this is not something you could say about his acerbic mate Martin Amis. Sebastian Faulks and Louis de Bernieres are two exceptions who deal with big issues – the latter giving us “Birds without Wings” about the tragic exchange of population in early 20s Anatolia. And Lawrence Durrell still thrills me – despite the reputation he has unfairly been given for “over the top” writing…… 

When I was a teenager in the late 50s, it was the modernist fiction of Aldous Huxley and HG Wells which grabbed my fancy – with Evelyn Waugh for light relief (books such as “Scoop”). Joseph Conrad I read when I wanted something more exotic - and DH Lawrence for the emotional side of things.
The 60s brought the “angry young men” with writers such as Alan Sillitoe, John Bratby and Kinsgley Amis – the 70s the university realists – eg Malcolm Bradbury and Howard Jacobson
By the 80s EM Foster and Thomas Hardy were big – as films brought their books to life. On the contemporary front, Fay Weldon's journalistic prose made the woman's case....

There’s a nice little overview of the writing of the 1945-90 period here; and a more substantial survey here. It’s always interesting to see what foreigners make of British literature and I found the analysis and set of notes of The Desperado Age – British literature at the start of the third millennium (2006) revealing – if a bit forced. The author is Lidia Vianu (2006) who was then Professor of English literature at Bucharest University.

Lists of personal favourites are rather self-indulgent and pointless – unless including some sort of justification for the choices….which might just persuade us to give some of the texts a whirl…. 
It’s in that spirit that I now update that earlier post. 
In 2010 I hadn’t quite adjusted to my Romanian base – so had missed a baker’s dozen of superb books - Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy (originally written in the 1950s but only widely available from 2010); Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy (written in the 60s but receiving a new lease of life after the film); and Gregor von Rezzori’s brilliant three semi-autobiographical books drawn from his time in Romanian Czernowitz (now in southern Ukraine) – first written (in German) between the 50s and 70s but issued by NYRB only recently.  
Rebecca West’s massive and stunning Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – a journey through Yugoslavia  was first published in 1941 and is actually four books in one – about Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia – but received a huge boost from the 90s Yugoslav conflagration. It’s not, of course, a novel but, 75 years on, it is a gripping read - and still repays study.

I would stand by my 2010 list – with the embarrassing exception of Paul Coelho! And I also don’t know how Jason Godwin crept onto the list…. Otherwise the mix of South American “magic realism”; French romanticism and nihilism; Irish, Israeli and Egyptian realism; and Scottish whimsy stands up well……
My tributes to the likes of John Berger and William MacIlvanney demand their addition – as do JM Coetze and Svetlana Alexievitch 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

In Praise of Journalists

A “journalistic scrum” has become a sign of the times – reflecting globalization; the 24 hours new cycle; the merging of news-collecting with the entertainment industry; technological change; and the growth in the journalistic profession.
A recently-issued book by a German journalist of the 1920s and 1930s has had me musing about the journalistic craft down the ages…….

We all know about George Orwell who established his reputation in the late 1930s with Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and “The Road to Wigan Pier” (1937). 
But the Hungarian, Arthur Koestler, had been a prolific journalist for the Berlin-based Ullstein press since the early 30s before he burst on the British scene with his Darkness at Noon (1940) reflecting the totalitarianism of the times. Ernest Hemingway also started in European journalism in the 20s and wrote up his experiences of the Spanish Civil War - but was always the novellist. Martha Gellhorn made her name as a war correspondent (see her pieces here); was married to Hemingway for 8 years - and was the better journalist of the two

Victor Serge led one of the most amazing lives as an anarchist in France, Belgium and Russia in the first part of the 20th century.  Memoirs of a Revolutionary is perhaps his most famous bit of writing (published posthumously in French in 1951) but he wrote extensively from the early 1920s about his experiences in Russia from 1919 (where he was initially hired by Maxim Gorky)

Vassily Grossman is another writer who mixed journalism and novels – becoming famous in Russia for his work as a journalist at the Soviet front (A Writer at War gave us a taste of this in 2005) but having his best work “Life and Fate” – modelled on “War and Peace” - banned and smuggled out of the country to be published 20 years after his death only in 1985

Joseph Roth was a less politically involved journalist – but a master of the feuilleton, a peculiar form of journalism that was especially popular in European newspapers in the early 20th century. Roth described it as “saying true things on half a page” and considered it “as important as politics are to the newspaper. And to the reader it’s vastly more important.” In his confident, controversial way, he added,
“What people pick up the newspaper for is me. Not the parliamentary report. Not the lead article. Not the foreign news….I don’t write ‘witty columns.’ I paint the portrait of the age.”
I am currently enjoying his The Hotel Years  which brings together 64 of Roth’s feuilletons, nearly half of which were published in the Frankfurter Zeitung – of which he was a star reporter in the 20s and 30s. Each of these little essays is a pleasure to read, and regarded collectively they present an invaluable portrait of life in Europe between the two World Wars.

And this we owe to a few brilliant translators …. In this particular case the poet, critic, and translator Michael Hofmann. Without him, the reader of English would hardly know Roth at all. The Hotel Years is the 14th of Roth’s books that he has translated. (Among the others are The Radetzky March, commonly considered Roth’s masterpiece, and Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, a significant work of scholarship that serves as an essential companion to all of Roth’s other writing.
Hofmann’s commentary is insightful and especially helpful in establishing a context for Roth’s life and work. In the introduction to What I Saw — a collection of feuilletons written in Berlin during the years of the Weimar Republic, and the first book of Roth’s journalism to be published in English — Hofmann describes Roth as “a maximalist of the short form.” In these reports from Berlin, as in the pieces collected in The Hotel Years, “What is small is inevitably made to seem vast, and vast things are shrunk into a witty perspective.” The literary journal The Millions has a good review of the book -

"Roth is perpetually engaging, whether he is decrying the Third Reich, criticizing clich├ęd notions of Russia, enumerating the unpleasant realities of travel, or simply commenting on the quirks of a hotel cook. They are works of satire, driven by Roth’s bristling sense of irony and his unsparing eye for detail. He was a keen observer of everyday life, and he had an ingenious knack for capturing a person or place with a few brief sentences. His essays reveal an obsession with physical descriptions and a fascination with the habits and appearances of the people he encountered, as demonstrated in “The Dapper Traveler:”
 The traveler is clad in a discreet gray, set off by an exquisite iridescent purple tie. With complacent attention he examines his feet, his leather shoes, and the fine knots in the broad laces. He stretches out his legs in the compartment, both arms are casually on the arm rests to either side. Before long the gray traveler pulls out his mirror again, and brushes his dense, black parted hair with his fingers, in the way one might apply a feather duster to a kickshaw. Then he burrows in his case, and various useful items come to light: a leather key-holder, a pair of nail scissors, a packet of cigarettes, a little silk handkerchief and a bottle of eau de cologne.
So much attention and enthusiasm are given to these kinds of details that it often seems as though Roth is creating a world rather than describing the one that already exists. Taken out of context, in fact, many of the pieces in The Hotel Years could pass as fiction. Some resemble sketches for novels, travel notes, diary entries. It is remarkable that they were published in newspapers — not because they are uninteresting or poorly written, but because they are so different from the kind of work one expects from a journalist.In an essay on the German city of Magdeburg, Roth explains his writing in the following way:
"What can I do, apart from writing about individuals I meet by chance, setting down what greets my eyes and ears, and selecting from them as I see fit? The describing of singularities within this profusion may be the least deceptive; the chance thing, plucked from a tangle of others, may most easily make for order. I have seen this and that; I have tried to write about what stuck in my senses and my memory."
"There is, of course, a transitory nature to this kind of writing. It is short and often very specific, tightly bound to the time and place in which it was written. Roth travelled across Europe, lived in hotels, and wrote essays that were inspired by what he refers to as “the great blessing of being a stranger.”
He is whimsical and frivolous at times, prone to exaggeration, and indulgent of superficial details that fail to leave the reader with any lasting impressions. But many of his essays endure, as mere ephemera do not.

"……..For Roth, writing was not merely a way to make a living, it was a way of life. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, he left the country and never returned. 
“Very few observers anywhere in the world seem to have understood what the Third Reich’s burning of books, the expulsion of Jewish writers, and all its other crazy assaults on the intellect actually mean,” he wrote at the time. “Let me say it loud and clear: The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination…”
Six years later, at the age of 44, Roth died in Paris from the effects of alcoholism. It is frustrating to think of what he might have written had he lived longer, but not because the body of work that he left behind is lacking. As the present publication of “The Hotel Years” proves, much of Roth’s writing has been neglected. Although he has come to be remembered mostly for his novels, his journalism is equally as impressive".

Who is it, I wonder, who best embodies this sort of work these days? 
There have always been war correspondents – although I was fascinated by this article which explains why no british journalists were on the Waterloo battlefield 200 years ago. Robert Fisk is for me the greatest of these - with his The Great War for Civilisation - the conquest of the Middle East.

As the writing craft has become the subject of university course in recent decades, its practice has perhaps become more precious – although this collection does give a very positive flavour of what has been produced in recent years.
Travelogues have always been popular but globalization giving an added zest in recent decades..…with another interesting trend (at least in the UK) being for novelists such as James Meek, John Lanchester and Andrew Greig to give extensive treatment to political and economic matters….

For my money, three names stick out from the rest of the bunchChris Hitchins despite his apostasy, was a powerful and extraordinarily well-read writer…..Clive James’s wit may sometimes be a bit forced (not least in his television coverage) but the range of his (European) reading and analysis has rarely been bettered, with Cultural Amnesia as the jewel in his crown,
Geert Mak is my final choice – not only for his tour de force In Europe – travels through the 20th Century; but for the creative focus he used on his village (in “An Island in Time – the biography of a village”); his city (“Amsterdam – a brief life of the city”) and his country “The Century of my Father”)

 A Joseph Roth Resource

A Michael Hoffman resource

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Thinking Institutionally

A little book has been engaging my thoughts this past week – On Thinking Institutionally – published a decade ago by Hugh Heclo, now a retired American political scientist with form for an interest both in political institutions and in European aspects of political culture. I remember his name vividly from the 1970s from the book he wrote jointly with that great doyen of political analysis (and of the budgetary process) Aaron Wildavsky – The Private Government of Public Money

Heclo’s book looks at our loss of respect for institutions. Way back in the 60s, Penguin books had published a series of popular paperbacks with the series title “What’s Wrong with…….?” – in which virtually all British institutions were subjected to a ruthless critique. When I was in Germany for a couple of months in 2013, I noticed a similar rash of titles. And France has been flooded in recent years by the literature on its doom…..

I like a good critique like anyone else – but there comes a point when critical analysis of an institution become so overwhelming as to threaten the possibility of ever trusting that entity ever again. A few years ago, we seemed to reach that point in Britain when the “expenses scandal” hit the political class – was it a coincidence that this happened just when the global economic crisis required some determined political action?
For whatever reason, trust in our institutions – public and private – has sunk to an all-time low. This is the issue with which Heclo’s book starts – indeed he gives us a 5 page spread which itemises the scandals affecting the public, private and even NGO sectors in the last 40-50 years – arguing that mass communications and our interconnectedness exacerbate the public impact of such events. 
The past half-century has been most unkind to those discrete cohering entities, both formal and informal, that "represent inheritances of valued purpose with attendant rules and moral obligations." Today, people almost universally denigrate institutions, including those of which they are members.
Attacks on institutions come from our hyper-democratic politics but stem from the Enlightenment with its unshakeable confidence in human reason; its subsequent obsessive focus on the self; and, latterly, its belief that an institution has no value beyond that which an individual can squeeze from it for personal gain.
In the last 60 years our education system  has designated institutions as, at best, annoying encumbrances and, at worst, oppressive tools of the past. Students are taught to believe what they like and express themselves as they see fit. Even people understood to be conservatives—at least in the way we conceptualize political ideology today—assail institutions. Free market economics places a premium on self-interest and assumes institutions stifle innovation and entrepreneurship.
 But institutions provide reference points in an uncertain world. They tie us to the past and present; furnish personal assistance; and institutionalize trust. They give our lives purpose and, therefore, the kind of self-satisfaction that only the wholesale rejection of them is supposed to provide.
How, then, do we protect and promote them? Heclo says that first and foremost we must learn to think institutionally. This is very different from thinking about institutions as scholars do. It is not an objective and intellectual exercise. It is a more participatory and intuitive one. To think institutionally you need a "particular sensitivity "to or an "appreciative viewpoint" of institutions.
To be more specific, the exercise moves our focus away from the self and towards a recognition of our debts and obligations to others. To think institutionally is to do something much more than provide individuals with incentives to be part of and promote institutions. It calls on them to modify their behavior. In this way, Heclo challenges rational choice's assumptions about institutional maintenance vigorously. 

Heclo argues that acting institutionally has three components. The first, "profession," involves learning and respecting a body of knowledge and aspiring to a particular level of conduct.
The second, "office," is a sense of duty that compels an individual to accomplish considerably more for the institution than a minimal check-list of tasks enumerated within a kind of job description. 

Finally, there is "stewardship." Here Heclo is getting at the notion of fiduciary responsibility. The individual essentially takes the decisions of past members on trust, acts in the interests of present and future members, and stands accountable for his actions.

I have a lot of sympathy for this line of argument – against “the quick buck”…. instant gratification….. tomorrow’s headlines…..we need cultures which respect partnership, timescales for investment and the idea of “stewardship” which Robert Greenleaf tried, unsuccessfully, to cultivate…..The quotation, indeed, which graces the first page of my Dispatches to the post-capitalist generation is from Dwight Eisenhower’s last address in 1960 
We . . . must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

Heclo’s book, I concede, is in the tradition of Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott and tended to attract the attention of clerics and university administrators – some of whom produced this interesting symposium 
Thinking institutionally is a lonely pursuit. Its practitioners are unappreciated and considered naive. They expect to be taken advantage of by those who care nothing for institutions, only for themselves. But that does not mean we should not do it.

Readers wanting a sense of Heclo’s writing style are directed to page 750 of The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions (the link gives the entire “Hand”book!) where Heclo has a short essay on the topic. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Confessions of a Social Democrat

Cards on the table? For most of my life I’ve been a “mugwump” – with my mug on one side of the fence and my wump on the other. Hiding inside one of Scotland’s Regional political leaders of the 70s and 80s was someone who sometimes thought he was an anarchist.
I was a sceptic on much conventional wisdom and power - a reader of New Left Review no less – who saw no personal future in parliamentary activity nor went along with the “militants” in their increasingly oppositionist tactics of the late 70s and 80s….

Support for community enterprise was where I put my energy – and then, as I moved continents and roles, in helping to strengthen the capacity of new institutions of civil service and municipal power in central Europe and central Asia.  
As the extent of New Labour’s capitulation to the power of finance capital became clear (from the publication in 2000 of George Monbiot’s The Captive State – the corporate takeover of Britain) my sympathies grew with those struggling against financial, commercial and political power alike – but I still resisted a “leftist” label – even recently….
Like a lot of my generation, I hankered for the “golden age”….when, as Crosland assured us in his powerful Future of Socialism (1956), capitalism had been tamed…..

Given such a personal history, you will appreciate that yesterday’s post was pretty significant for me – in being prepared to recognize that social democracy enjoyed the peak of its power at a particular conjuncture of circumstances which are unlikely to appear again.
Or to express this more precisely - that I should have been more aware that ideas fit particular interests – which have varying degrees of power backing them up……

Put in even more personal terms, I have occupied in my life a very specific academic and political “slot” which has given me the power and interests to pursue specific “reformist” ideas….. 
I have always seen myself as a “realist” in the Niebuhrian sense – but one who perhaps has been too carried away by my ideas and interests to look critically enough at the wider context in which I was living - and at the power of other interests!
I have never been a fan of conspiracy theories but have had to wake up to the fact that what we have called, variously, “globalization”, “neoliberalism”, “managerialism” etc are ideas which have been pushed in sustained and well-funded efforts by Think Tanks to influence academics….    

People are now aware both of (Buchanan) these efforts and also of the potential of technological changes for what is called the “sharing economy” or “the commons” – to such an extent that talk of the end of capitalism is rife….I’m not sure, however, if we have yet given social democracy the funeral rites which are its due……..  
I think it’s time for another list of these internet links which this blog has become famous for producing (I joke!). As on previous occasions, I have annotated them to help you steer the appropriate course. And, like you, I still have to dip into them. They are on the list simply because they seem to be essential reading…  
So happy reading – and let’s see whether some of us can’t perhaps share our reactions?


A “Social Democracy” Resource

Written a year before New Labour took power, this was indeed a prescient book – as well as being so clearly written

A neglected treatment of the ideas of this major British “revisionist” of the 50s and 60s who wrote the seminal “Future of Socialism” (1956). Must be the definitive analysis!

Its sister book – a great read. Here’s a fascinating review of Crosland’s work written in 1963 by the famous Lewis Coser

The Primacy of Politics – social democracy and the making of Europe’s 20th Century; Sheri Berman (2006); The book was the subject of a great seminar whose introduction says – “Like the social democrats who are the heroes of this book, she takes a classic set of arguments and interrogates and updates them, making claims about what works and what doesn’t, what’s relevant to our contemporary situation, and what isn’t. Second, in so doing she decisively demonstrates the importance of ideas to politics”.

Social democracy in power – explaining the capacity to reform; (2007) A paper comparing fiscal, employment, and social policies of six social-democratic governments in Great Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark revealing three distinct types of social democratic governments

A critical assessment by a self-avowed Marxist of the performance of these parties in Australia, Britain, Germany and Sweden which argues that these parties are now impediments to the task of building a better world. This will come, the book argues, from alternative left and global social movements…

The Berman and Lavelle books are reviewed here

An unsurpassable 965 page blockbuster!

A useful short paper written to assess implications for South Korea

Social Democracy After the Cold War; B Evans and I. Schmidt (2012) This 350 page book can be read in full by clicking the link...

Welfare State and Social Democracy (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung 2012) Very thorough (160pp) treatment of the German situation (in English)


Probably the most up-to-date global assessment



Rethinking German political economy – call for papers (2017); This is a great resource I found while googling,,,,, 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The sovereign myth ....and the future of social democracy

For the past few years, the refrain of the MSM has been that there could be no returning to the heyday of social democracy But, since Corbyn, Trump and the recent British election, the talk is of little else…..The grip of neoliberal thinking seems at last to be broken. Globalisation is no more….

And yet…….The Crooked Timber blog alerted me to this piece on what the author calls “the sovereign myth 
One of the defining organizational facts about the state as we know it ….is that it is integrally connected with transnational finance. In part, but it’s an important part, the modern state is a creation of the bond market, and so is the modern democratic state.
Medieval mercantile cities had long been able to borrow money at better interest rates than other political units. In early modernity, states that were relatively representative and relatively commercial learned that they could do the same. First Holland, then England, gained crucial advantages in international competition from their ability to borrow cheaply; the credit market trusted representative governments that incorporated important parts of the commercial classes much more than they trusted absolute monarchs. And Britain’s ability to out-borrow France eventually contributed to the bankruptcy of the latter state and the onset of the Revolution. 
This is uncontroversial but, from many ideological perspectives, uncomfortable. It means that the growth, stability, and expansion of powerful states governed by representative democracy was in part a creation of the credit market, bondholders, and international finance. That’s not a world in which democratic decision makers ever had unconstrained sovereign decision-making authority over public finance, even in the powerful core states of the international system. It also means that the representative state emerged out of a kind of market competition for creditworthy providers of government.
The representation of those who would have to be taxed in the future to repay the debt was taken as much more credible than a king’s prediction that his son would probably find the money somewhere. Moreover, the innovative financial instruments that characterize modern financial markets were often created by, or around, public or quasi-public entities like the Bank of England and the Dutch East India Company.
And once these processes got underway, the validity of transnational debt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was often enforced at gunboat-point by powerful states.Thus, imagined histories of democratic sovereignty over the economy cannot survive contact with the actual history of the emergence of democratic states.

I was in the mood for this sombre message since I had just emerged from reading The Roch Winds - a treacherous guide to Scotland which is as thought-provoking a vignette on the state of one of Europe’s small countries as you can find. 
much of the book is dedicated to a forensic analysis of the nebulous cluster of hopes and dreams that constitute ‘Civic Nationalism’, the ideology that increasingly sets the parameters of Scottish political discourse. In the ongoing absence of any effective opposition to the SNP’s complete dominance at Holyrood and beyond, commentary of this quality is badly needed to puncture Scotland’s self-satisfied political consensus.…….its legislation moving at stately pace through its quiet committees, its doors open to trusted representatives of Scotland’s established civic institutions, the very design of its hemispherical parliamentary chamber facilitating respectful rational exchanges.

The Scottish nationalists who have been in government in devolved Scotland for more than ten years are very good in contrasting their consensual approach with the bitter antagonisms which are evident in the Westminster parliament. But an excellent, extended review makes the point that –
Westminster is a ‘tax-and-spend’ parliament, responsible for raising the money it distributes, whereas Holyrood is ‘grant-and-spend’ assembly, responsible only for distributing funds guaranteed by Westminster’s block grant.Holyrood is protected from the elemental political forces that buffet the British Government, which carries the burden of raising the money it spends in a competitive global economy.
Politics at this level is bound to be confrontational, the angry exchanges at the dispatch box reflecting the impossibility of reconciling the divergent interests of the extra-parliamentary constituencies that fight to determine how money is spent and raised. Westminster’s power to set tax rates and pull the fiscal and monetary levers that shape the environment in which business operates subject it to pressures exerted by powerful financial and corporate interests to which the Scottish Parliament is not subject.

Of course I know that the ruthless face of finance capitalism has been evident for several years in the whole tragic saga of Greek debt but The Roch Winds is particularly powerful in its description of how, for the few days immediately before the Scottish referendum of 2014, that ruthless face presented itself when a poll was released suggesting a possible victory for the yes campaign. One of the book’s authors wrote an Open Democracy piece which tells this wonderful story –
Between 1929 and 1931, a minority Labour government tore itself to shreds in a desperate attempt to keep Britain in the Gold Standard international monetary system. Winston Churchill – then Chancellor of the Exchequer – re-established Sterling at the centre of a revived Gold Standard in 1925, revaluing it at pre-war levels despite the devastation which the First World War had inflicted on the British economy. Labour, seeking to reform rather than overthrow British capitalism, offered little in the way of an alternative.
Within the party’s social democratic orthodoxy, the stability of the international economic architecture and high finance had to be secured before Labour could focus on its own supporters amongst the industrial working class.
 Industrial areas experienced great hardship as Britain struggled on maintaining relatively liberalised trade and a highly uncompetitive currency valuation. The fiscal situation was also hindered, and the Labour government ultimately fell due to an internal feud over further cuts to unemployment benefit.
 Yet the rules of the game were dramatically changed just days and weeks after this collapse. The incoming (largely Tory) National Government took Britain off the hallowed Gold Standard, raised tariffs, subsidised industry and set about arranging preferential Commonwealth trading.Sidney Webb, the leading Fabian intellectual who had served as the Secretary of State for Dominions and Colonies in the Labour administration, responded to the situation with the exasperated cry of: “they didn’t tell us we could do that!”    

The review continues by reminding us of how 
Scottish Labour’s uninspiring defence of the Union throughout the referendum – which has cost them a Scottish working class vote that no longer has faith in the status quo – was rooted in the belief that Scotland’s public services can only be maintained within the context of British capitalism.During the Blair and Brown years Labour maintained public spending – and Scotland’s block grant – by means of a Faustian pact with finance capital: the City was allowed to let rip in return for the tax revenues it generated.
New Labour’s perceived impurities continue to be exploited ruthlessly by the SNP and the wider Yes movement, for whom ‘any effort to sustain the welfare state in the cesspit of British capitalism [is] like conducting surgery in a sewer.’The SNP have sought to claim the mantle of a purer social democracy once proudly championed by a more virtuous ‘Old Labour’, but for Gallagher et al this is just another illusion: the compromises of the New Labour era were the most recent manifestation of Labour’s continual battle to broker some form of social democratic state in the teeth of the private sector’s hostility. 
During the post-war golden era ‘Old Labour’ might indeed have had it easier: reliable economic growth generated the tax revenues necessary to fund public services, and strong unions were able to force decent wages. But it soon morphed into a messy business of incomes policies, ‘beer and sandwiches at No 10’ and currency devalutions: social democracy is always necessarily compromised, a fractious struggle to broker a truce between capital and labour.
And it has only got harder in more recent decades, the globalisation and financialisation of the world economy limiting the capacity of nation states to draw tax revenues from business, and weakened labour movements forcing governments such as those of Blair and Brown to supplement low wages with tax breaks, minimum wage legislation and easy credit. 
The 2008 crash pitched social democracy into full-blown crisis, forcing states to borrow heavily to prevent wholesale collapse of the banks, and to run up debts that must be repaid on terms dictated by finance capital, including tight controls on public spending and the maintenance of cheap, flexible labour markets.For the authors, austerity is a permanent condition enforced by vast corporate and financial interests that nation states are no longer able to control.
Any social democratic government prepared to work within the terms set by global capital will be subject to the same pressures:Labour’s inability to respond to austerity was due to the fact that under its social democratic principles it could [not] challenge it, since it was not prepared to operate outside conditions which were profitable for capital. A Scottish state governed by the SNP would have to face up to the same challenges that social democratic parties everywhere, not just Labour, are struggling to see beyond. 

A future post will try to explore the implications for social democracy......

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Where - oh where - has Hans Christian Andersen's little boy gone?

The last post made a rather casual suggestion that “public administration reform” efforts have been analysed in very different ways in “developed” and “developing” countries respectively….I went so far indeed as to suggest there was a state of apartheid between two bodies of literature which are perhaps best exemplified by using the words “managerial” and “economic” for the literature which has come in the last 25 years from the OECD (using largely the concepts of New Public Management) whereas the UNDP and The World Bank use the language of “capacity development” and “politics” (the WB in the last decade certainly) in the advisory documents they have produced for what we used to call the “developing” world (mainly Africa).
In fact probably at least four bodies of literature should be distinguished - which can be grouped to a certain extent by a mixture of language and culture. I offer this table with some trepidation – it’s what I call “impressionistic” and perhaps raises more questions than it answers -

The Different Types of commentary on state reform efforts
Source
Culture
Occupational bias of writers
overviews which give a good sense of status of reform
Anglo-saxon;
adversarial
Academic
Eg Chris Pollitt; Chris Hood, Mark Moore, Colin Talbot
International Public Administration Reform – implications for Russia Nick Manning and Neil Parison (World Bank 2004)

West European;
consensual
Lawyers, sociologists

Eg Thoenig; Wollman

Public and Social Services in Europe ed Wollman, Kopric and Marcou (2016)

Africa and Asia
clientilist
Foreign consultants

Eg Tom Carothers


Central and East European
clientilist
Local consultants
Poor Policy Making in Weak States; Sorin Ionita (2006)
(Youngs et al 2009) 
A House of Cards? Building the rule of law in ECE; Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (2010)

South European?
clientilist
Local consultants


People in Central Europe wanting to get a sense of how a system of government might actually be changed for the better are best advised to go to the theories of change which have been developed in the literature on international development eg the World Bank’s Reports of 2008 and 2011 which I reference in the third line of the table. The paper by Matthew Andrews which starts part 2 of the first book weaves an interesting theory around 3 words – ”acceptance”, ”authority” and ”ability”.
Is there acceptance of the need for change and reform?
·         of the specific reform idea?
·         of the monetary costs for reform?
·         of the social costs for reformers?
within the incentive fabric of the organization (not just with individuals)?

Is there authority:
·         does legislation allow people to challenge the status quo and initiate reform?
·         do formal organizational structures and rules allow reformers to do what is needed?
·         do informal organizational norms allow reformers to do what needs to be done?

Is there ability: are there enough people, with appropriate skills,
·         to conceptualize and implement the reform?
·         is technology sufficient?
·         are there appropriate information sources to help conceptualize, plan, implement, and institutionalize the reform?

My previous post had quoted extensively from Sorin Ionita’s Poor Policy Making in Weak States. Ionitsa had clearly read Matt Andrew’s work since he writes about Romania that

constraints on improving of policy management are to be found firstly in low (political) acceptance (of the legitimacy of new approaches and transparency); secondly, in low authority (meaning that nobody, for example, knows who exactly is in charge of prioritization across sectors) and only thirdly in low technical ability in institutions

A diagram in that World Bank paper shows that each of these three elements plays a different role at what are four stages - namely conceptualisation, initiation, transition and institutionalisation. However the short para headed “Individual champions matter less than networks” – was the one that hit a nerve for me.

The individual who connects nodes is the key to the network but is often not the one who has the technical idea or who is called the reform champion. His or her skill lies in the ability to bridge relational boundaries and to bring people together. Development is fostered in the presence of robust networks with skilled connectors acting at their heart.

My mind was taken back more than 30 years when, as the guy in charge of Strathclyde Region’s strategy to combat deprivation and, using my combined political and academic roles, I established an “urban change network” to bring together once a month a diverse collection of officials and councillors of different municipalities in the West of Scotland, academics and NGO people to explore how we could extend our understanding of what we were dealing with – and how our policies might make more impact. Notes were written up and circulated……and fed into a process of a more official evaluation of a deprivation strategy which had been formulated 5 years earlier.

The central core of that review (in 1981) consisted of 5 huge Community Conferences and produced a little red book called “Social Strategy for the 80s” which was of the first things a newly-elected Council approved in 1982. It was, for me, a powerful example of “embedding” change

It is a truism in the training world that it is almost impossible to get senior executives on training courses since they think they have nothing to learn – and this is particularly true of the political class. Not only do politicians (generally) think they have nothing to learn but they have managed very successfully to ensure that noone ever carries out critical assessments of their world. They commission or preside over countless inquiries into all the other systems of society – but rarely does their world come under proper scrutiny. Elections are assumed to give legitimacy to anything. Media exposure is assumed to keep politicians on their toes – but a combination of economics, patterns of media ownership and journalistic laziness has meant an end to investigative journalism and its replacement with cheap attacks on politicians which simply breeds public cynicism and indifference. And public cynicism and indifference is the oxygen in which ”impervious power” thrives!

The last of the assessments for central europe I have in my files is Mungiu-Pippidi’s from 2010 (!!) and most of the papers in that box of my table talks of the need to force the politicians in this part of the world to grow up and stop behaving like petulant schoolboys and girls. Manning and Ionitsa both emphasise the need for transparency and external pressures. Verheijen talks of the establishment of structures bringing politicians, officials, academics etc together to develop a consensus. But Ionitsa puts it most succinctly –

 ”If a strong requirement is present – and the first openings must be made at the political level – the supply can be generated fairly rapidly, especially in ex-communist countries, with their well-educated manpower. But if the demand is lacking, then the supply will be irrelevant”.