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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!

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Revenge of History?

We have become fat, lazy and careless…..taking the levels of financial and institutional security enjoyed from the 1950s through to the 1990s too much for granted ("we" being the citizens of the core European states and the US) 
And whatever lessons the post-war generation learned about the killing fields of Europe in the first half of the 20th century have clearly not been properly absorbed by their descendants….Nuclear war was a real and evident threat until the late 70s and seemed to have disappeared with the demise of the Soviet Union.

For many, therefore, the last 6 months have been a rude awakening - as the final vestiges of public trust in (government) leadership came crashing down and we found our attention being directed to the last time we confronted such uncertainty - the 1930s. But at last a sense of history is beginning to develop again. A couple of articles crystallised this for me – first one by Tobias Stone which actually appeared last summer - 
During the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme I was struck that it was a direct outcome of the assassination of an Austrian Arch Duke in Bosnia. I very much doubt anyone at the time thought the killing of a minor European royal would lead to the death of 17 million people.My point is that this is a cycle. It happens again and again, but as most people only have a 50-100 year historical perspective (from parents and school) they don’t see that it’s happening again.
As the events that led to the First World War unfolded, there were a few brilliant minds who started to warn that something big was wrong, that the web of treaties across Europe could lead to a war, but they were dismissed as hysterical, mad, or fools, as is always the way, and as people who worry about Putin, Brexit and Trump are dismissed now.

The other article Why Elites always Rule took me back to my university days in the early 1960s when I first encountered (and was impressed by) the work of the elite theorists Robert Michels, Mosca and Pareto; and of other central Europeans such as Schumpeter (of “circulation of the elites” fame) who had been writing a few decades earlier – on the central issue of how the masses might be controlled in an age of democracy……
I also remember Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power making a big impact on me when its English translation was published in 1962.

By the 1960s, however, far from fearing the masses a lot of us in Europe and America were celebrating them – whether through the fashion for “participation” let alone community action, direct action or community development    
Major political and economic events in the 1970s punctured that optimism and ushered in a celebration not of mutuality but of egocentricity, greed and commodification. Adam Curtis’ The Century of the Self captures the process superbly…….

(each section in the 2 tables represents a decade - starting with the 1930s - with what I take to have been the key themes eg "deindustrialisation" is the first of the themes of the 1980s...)  

I don’t like conspiracy theories but it does seem fairly clear now that a lot of very big money started in the late 1940s to fund a large number of new think-tanks devoted to pushing this new neo-liberal agenda. I remember when I first encountered in the 1970s the pamphlets from the British Institute for Economic Affairs. Their ideas (such as road pricing) were presented with quite ruthless elegance and were quite shocking - but had a coherent logic which allowed me to present them to my surveyor students as examples of the usefulness of economic thinking and principles…
Philip Morkowski’s 2009 study The Road from Mont Pelerin details (in its 480 pages!) how exactly the think tanks managed to achieve this ideological turnaround and to capture most powerful international bodies such as The World Bank, The International Monetary Fund, OECD and the EC. 

The Financial crash of 2008 should have been the catalyst to a rethink but, despite the valiant efforts of people such as Joseph Stiglitz and Mark Blyth, it has taken Brexit and Trump to challenge the assumptions of the neo-liberal machine……  

I don’t think it helps to throw labels around – whether "populist", "racist" or "fascist". (I try not to use any word which ends in “ist” since objecting a few years ago to being called a leftist)
Populist parties started to worry some people around the year 2000 – as you will see from this academic article but intellectual, political and business elites were so trapped in their bubbles that they didn’t spot it coming. Jan Werner-Mueller’s recent little What is Populism? is one of the few books which have so far been written about it and builds on this earlier pamphlet

We do not necessarily have to accept that "what goes around, comes around" ie that history is cyclical. But I suspect that it is a more fruitful approach than the one which has been prevailing in recent decades - namely that it's linear and takes us through innovative change to a better world......

I was impressed that some academics have tried to remedy our myopia and have put together a Trump Syllabus with a fairly extensive reading list -

In that same spirit I offer these hyperlinks -

Key reading


The title of this post I now see is one quite frequently used - eg 2 contemporary books by leftists (Seamus Milne and Alex Callicos) and also of this useful article    

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