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, January 31, 2018

Roman Romania

Two venerable Romanians “shuffled off their mortal coils” this month – first ex-King Michael who had been forced to abdicate at gun point by the Communists in December 1947; some 10 days later at age 101, the more significant figure of Neagu Djuvara, émigré, academic, journalist and still active historian. Having fought on the Eastern front, he was briefly charged to explore surrender possibilities with Russia before the communist takeover forced him to seek refuge in Paris…..

Djuvara returned to Bucharest in 1990/91 to an academic and writing career (his Brief Illustrated History of Romanians is one of books on my short list of “beautiful books”) and was, fairly exceptionally for this highly politicized and divided country, warmly regarded by all shades of opinion 
He was a critic of what he perceived to be an excessively pro-Western attitude in Romanian politics,..
He also wrote about what he called the "American hegemony" and its premises, analysing the influence which the United States and its foreign policy have had on the World and, more specifically, on Europe. He characterised the efforts of the United States to establish what resembles a hegemony in Europe and other parts of the World as a "Seventy-Seven Years' War" waged throughout most of the 20th century.
Neagu Djuvara can be seen as a populariser and "de-mystifier" of history, having published books aimed a younger audience as well as books seeking to explain the historical basis for mythical figures such as Dracula or Negru Vodă. He also published memories from his exile, recounting his life and work in Paris and Africa

More recently, he was constantly warning of the dangers of Romania’s demographic decline
" For me, the greatest drama that Romania is currently experiencing is that the young people want to leave this country, and if they go abroad and find work there they will not return to Romania. We, my generation and all my predecessors, the three or four generations that preceded me and who studied abroad, none of them was going to stay there after finishing their studies. He was returning with that intellectual baggage and, in his eyes, with the image of other urban landscapes than in Bucharest, and trying to do the same thing at home. But they never thought about leaving or leaving the country. So my message is: "Young people, if you can, even if you do it worse in our country, it is a supreme duty to return and rebuild Romania " .

He would have enjoyed the bluntness of a long article on his country – Romania Redivivus - in the current edition of "New Left Review" which argues that 
..... Of all East European countries, Romania is endowed with the greatest variety of natural resources. The Carpathian Mountains which wall off the northwestern province of Transylvania from Wallachia, in the south, and Moldavia, in the east, boast some of the last primeval forests of Europe. The Danube Delta offers a fabled reservation of endangered bird and fish species. The Ploieşti oilfields contain the oldest commercial well on earth—Bucharest’s streets were the first to be illuminated by kerosene—and still hold unknown reserves, closer to ground level than in any other country ringing the Black Sea. The fertility of the soil is legendary.
 The Rape of the Country; But little of the country’s potential wealth has found its way into the hands of its people. Arguably the last real peasantry to be found within the EU works what was once the breadbasket of the Ottoman Empire: two in five Romanians live in the countryside; one in three survive off agriculture; many have never left their villages and only a minority have access to mechanized farming equipment.
The value of their land, however, has not been lost on Brussels, which has overseen the funnelling of Romanian wealth westward for a genera­tion. Prior to its EU accession in 2007, entire sectors of the economy were picked off by multinationals.
- The Romanian banking system was taken over by Société Générale, Raiffeisen and the Erste Group.
- Its energy sector fell to Österreichische Mineralölverwaltung of Vienna and C˘eské Energetické Závody of Prague.
- Its steel manufacturing went to Mittal, its timber production to the Schweighofer Group, its national automobile, the Dacia, to Renault.
- Much of what isn’t yet owned by Western concerns has been laid bare for their disposal. In 1999, the Canadian mining company Gabriel Resources won dubious rights to excavate Roşia Montană, the largest open-pit gold mine in Europe. Its exploitation requires the stripping away of its status as a unesco her­itage site, the demolition of four surrounding mountain peaks and a handful of nearby villages, and the carving out of a pit half the size of Gibraltar for holding cyanide-laced run-off; the Romanian state is being sued by Gabriel Resources for $4.4 billion in profit losses for forestall­ing this process.
- By 2010 the largest private owner of trees in Romania was Harvard University, which six years earlier had started buying up enormous swathes of forest that had themselves been seized by mafia intermediaries on bogus claims of pre-communist ownership; sold off to Ikea, tens of thousands of acres were sawn down, probably never to be recovered.
- In 2012, residents of some fifty villages in the Banat, the fertile corner of western Romania that brushes up against Serbia and Hungary, woke up to find that their ancestral plots of land had been seized through another legal subterfuge by Rabobank of Utrecht.9 There are dozens of such cases. Few have been compensated. 
The tentacles of the Deep Security State. Meanwhile, beneath the surface of democratization, the authoritarian tenor of Ceauşescu’s rule persists in Romania’s powerful security forces. The Securitate, the most ruthless police force in the Warsaw Pact, has been rebranded and is now run by a generation of operatives whose aver­age age is 35, trained at special intelligence universities. They are, in many cases, the children of the 16,000
Securitate members who pro­vided the backbone of the Romanian state after 1989, having emerged as the undisputed winners of the ‘revolution’ of that year. At least nine of these new services exist. The predominant one, the Serviciul Român de Informaţii (sri), monitors Romanians internally; with some 12,000 operatives, it has double the manpower of any equivalent agency in Europe and, with military-grade espionage equipment, conducts upwards of 40,000 wiretaps a year.10 The older generation of Securitate agents managed the privatization schemes of the 1990s; they are now shielded by the younger cohort from legal oversight.
This interlocking of economic influence—four out of the five richest Romanians have a Securitate background—and legal inviolability—Romania’s judiciary is too dependent on the sri to prosecute it—allows the deep state to operate with impunity. The security services have vast stakes in telecom­munications and big-data collection. They oversee their own ngos, run their own tv channels and have their people on the editorial boards of the major Romanian newspapers and across the government ministries.
The permeation of the state by these networks comes to light only occa­sionally. In October 2015, a nightclub fire in Bucharest killed sixty-four, more than half the deaths due to infections contracted later at a local hospital. Why? The hospital’s disinfectants, concocted by a company called Hexi Pharma to which the government had granted a monopoly"

By coincidence, I'm rereading Tobias Jones' "The Dark Heart of Italy" (2003) and am struck by the uncanny parallels of the insights of that book about the Italian system with the current situation here in Romania - not least the systemic corrupt-ness, amorality and politicisation....

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Alternatives....how the media could actually help the development of the good society

I’m encouraged by two new discussion initiatives just announced by The Guardian – the first promises to 
….. investigate real-world examples of people doing things differently. We’ll meet councillors who are extending local government far beyond collecting the bins; housing activists turning themselves into property developers; and energy bosses who actually ask customers how their companies should be run. Much of the reporting will be from Britain, but we’ll also look at other parts of Europe (including Germany) and further afield.Stack them all together and the grand lie of Thatcherism is exposed. There are alternatives. We can do things differently.

The opening piece skewers what passes for political and economic debate in Britain – 
With Britain already having suffered one lost decade, a murmuring catastrophism has set in among our intellectuals. Mainstream-left politics remains stuck between two cliches. Either: well, we used to do things differently (cue sepia-tinted nostalgia for the establishment of the NHS and huge public borrowing). Or: the Germans do it, and it’s done them no harm (along with wistfulness for a proper industrial policy)

The New series is, sadly, not very easy to find but can be accessed here. I've tried unsuccessfully to  register for updates so each time have to try to remember the title (The Alternatives) and search for it - a pity since this article on social investments is a great example of the sort of information the mainstream media doesn't gives us and which many of us thirst after.....
.
The second initiative broadens the focus to Europe as a whole, with Natalie Nougayrède promising
……it would build bridges and engage more closely with readers throughout Europe and those in the wider world who want to keep in touch with European concerns. We know people across Europe are eager to share insights about a region whose destiny is currently being redefined. We want to offer them the space and opportunity to do that.

The first of the series can be read here.
The Guardian has tried at such a venture at least once before – with the support of Le Monde and Der Spiegel as I remember but it seems to have gone down like a lead balloon. Language seems to trap at least the anglo-saxons very much in our own intellectual concerns and bubbles. I had the idea recently of trying to plug into the French and German blogging community to try to find some people there who might be willing to share with us some of the books and debates which have excited their attention in recent years - offering my own annotated list in exchange Our Future – an annotated bibliography.
But I simply can't navigate my way through the european blogosphere to the gems which must be there and asked for help. The one reply I received referenced the Social Europe website and the sadly dead Zygmund Baumont (who wasn't a blogger).

Perry Anderson is about the only character with the linguistic ability to supply us Brits with extensive analyses of post-war and contemporary debates in France, Germany and Italy. His stunning study The New Old World (2009) can be read in its entirety here (all 560 pages) and is easily the best read on what it is to be European – about a third being a survey of the literature on the “European Project”; another third being insightful and acerbic analyses of the political and intellectual currents of the “Core” European countries (with the noticeable and dismissive exclusion of the UK); and the final section (“The Eastern Question”) devoted largely to Turkey.

Of course we have excellent studies of individual European nations – particularly France, Italy and Spain. ” How the French Think – an affectionate portrait of an intellectual people” is just the latest in a line which includes Theodor Zeldin and Rod Kedward. And writers such as Peter Watson, Simon Winder and Neil Mc Gregor have ensured that even books about Germany have been making the lists of best-sellers  
I’m not sure, however, if I would go so far as US intellectual Mark Lilla who wrote recently -
Ever since Madame de Staël wrote “De l’Allemagne” during Napoleon’s reign to celebrate the Germans as sensitive romantics allergic to tyranny (unlike the French), and Heinrich Heine responded with his own “De l’Allemagne” portraying them as brutal pagans capable of anything, Europeans have been trying to unlock the cultural codes of their neighbours—and, in so doing, unlock their own.
It would be interesting to know what books (if any) British visitors to European countries (whether for business or pleasure) use for their preparation – apart from the obvious travel books.

A few years ago I prepared this source book - German Musings – which would be of interest to anyone visiting that country…..

Monday, January 15, 2018

a reading list for the Davos set

The annual Davos festschmalz comes this year with a book bag - consisting of reading recommended by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckenberg.  This includes fairly predictable, mainstream stuff – eg Harari’s “Sapiens” and Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. 
Such lists make, of course, the (rather heroic) assumption that the Davos CEOs are inclined to read books – and an interesting challenge would be to come up with some titles which might persuade such privileged people to see the world a bit differently - and perhaps change their thinking? 
I suspect, for example, that participants might just allow their guard to fall for books written by people who know they are dying – eg the paean to social democracy penned by Tony Judt just before his death - Ill Fares the Land. And there were also these eloquent final thoughts of a seasoned campaigner found on his laptop after his death

So here’s my New Year challenge to readers - what short and thoughtful books might we recommend to challenge the smugness of the Davos set?

As it happens I have just collated last year’s blogposts which try to give a sense of how writers from the 1970s onwards have been dealing with what is now recognised as a systemic crisis in our economic order. Our Future – an annotated reading list identifies 250 books. Even more importantly, I make an effort to classify the books…..using a variant of the 6 distinctive “worlds” or “dimensions” developed by the Commons Transition people
·         political (democracy and the Commons)
·         economic (or Financial) 
·         work 
·         consumption/“4th Dimension”
·         conscience
·         citizens

Take the first dimension - as representative democracy has eroded in recent decades, direct democracy has attracted increasing attention – eg referenda, citizens’ juries, participatory budgeting or random selection of electoral positions. There is no obvious name to offer – although John Keane’s huge book on The Life and Death of Democracy is one of the best resources. Paul Hirst advanced the idea of “associative democracy” until his sad death in 2003. This drew on the thinking of figures such as GDH Cole…

But the very word "democracy" will put most Chief Execs off - they feel much more comfortable in the the management field where some gems an be found - eg Danah Zohar’s Spiritual Capital – wealth we can live by (2004) is an interesting critique of capitalism with a rather too superficial approach to its amelioration. The Ethical Economy – rebuilding value after the crisis by A Arvidsson and N Peitersen (2013) covers the ground better – it’s summarized here and critiqued here.
Henry Mintzberg is a well-regarded management guru who has been warning of business excesses for a couple of decades and produced in 2014 the highly readable Rebalancing Society – radical renewal beyond left, right and center.which is ideal for Chief Execs. 
Peter Barnes is a very fair-minded entrepreneur sensitive to the evils of unregulated capitalism whose Capitalism 3.0 (2006) is persuasive.
David Erdal's Beyond the Corporation (2011) is the inspiring story of an entrepreneur who passed his business to the workers..

They might also be persuaded to open some pages which bear a religious imprint eg a fascinating and totally neglected book is Questions of Business Life by Richard Higginson (2002) ananalysis of various critiques produced by a cleric from his work at an ecumenical centre for business people….
And then there is  Laudato-Si – the Papal Encyclical (2015). A summary is available here. Its entire 184 pages can be read here

Some outriders which I would strongly recommend are - 

The Lugano Report: On Preserving Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century” – Susan George (1999). A satirical piece which forces us to think where present forces are taking us…. 

Danny Dorling’s hugely underrated Injustice (2011) identified 5 “social evils” – elitism, exclusion, prejudice, greed and despair – and explores the myths which sustain them. The argument is that we are all guilty of these evils and of sustaining these myths......
More recently he produced "A Better Politics" - a great and persuasive read

Friday, January 12, 2018

"Development" Voices

From Poverty to Power is one of the most interesting blogs around – and, believe me, there are not many which can persuade these arthritic old fingers to do the clicking! (The Brexit Blog is one of the exceptions which also delights in its clarity of thought and expression…..)
“From Poverty to Power” is a remarkable blog which reduces “development” issues to easily comprehensible narratives - and which succeeds in drawing down helpful comments and, indeed, assistance from its global audience.

One of its latest posts – on the “ten top thinkers on development” – has attracted some ire from colleagues who objected to its gender imbalance. My own objections were rather different - 
“It’s rather misleading to title this post the “ten top development thinkers”, I huffed …and continued  “Fifty Key Development Thinkers (2006) captures some of the important names –not least AO Hirschmann and Robert Chambers who made a much bigger contribution to thinking than some of the names on this “top ten” list - which clearly bears a rather old-fashioned economistic stamp (by the way only 3 of those 50 thinkers were women).
I then recommended two particular books which cast a contrarian eye on the development inductry - Sachs' (Wolfgang) The Development Dictionary (2010) and Deconstructing Development Buzzwords (2010) I’m actually in the world of “institutional” development and working, since 1991, in central Europe and central Asia. “Development” has always been a loaded term and, indeed, politically incorrect from 1990 – despite the scale of EU Structural funding (tens of billions of euros).

Last autumn I did a series of posts about the academic literature on public management and made a point which I rarely see recognized – that writing on the subject has a "Continental" bias, with most of the dominant writing being anglo-saxon (whose influence strongly extends to central european academia). I’ve just uploaded a little book Reforming the State” on this subject, arguing that the “modernisation” effort here could benefit from some of the insights from the “development” field

Just before I had uploaded that (slightly self-serving) post, another reader had made this excellent point -  "The kind of thing that gets you noticed for such a list might be:
1. Come up with a big idea about development, preferably slightly controversial or counter-intuitive
2. Explain how if the idea was taken more seriously it could end poverty or at least change the development paradigm
3. Selectively collect evidence and anecdotes that support the theme of the book
4. Spin out a simple idea to be a full length book
5. Aggressively promote the idea and be prepared to “battle it out” with other leading thinkers to prove who has the best take in order to promote your idea and book
Maybe this is something men are more inclined towards on average than women. Mot seriously, there are lots of other thinkers, women and men who have done important work on advancing development thinking and practice – but they might not have gotten the same level of visibility or notoriety as those on this list". 

 Some decades ago I wrote a short book to try to demystify the way a new local government system worked. That made me realise how few books were in fact written to help public understanding!
Most books are written to make a profit or an academic reputation. The first requires you to take a few simple and generally well-known ideas but parcel them in a new way – the second to choose a very tiny area of experience and write about it in a very complicated way.

After that experience, I realised how true is the saying that “If you want to understand a subject, write a book about it”!! Failing that, at least an article – this will certainly help you identify the gaps in your knowledge – and give you the specific questions which then make sure you get the most out of your reading.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The 2017 posts

Since 2009 I have blogged consistently – on average 2-3 posts a week. But the last 10 weeks have seen only one post. Somehow, inspiration seems to have dried up. For someone whose very identity has, for almost 50 years, been tied up with the act of writing, this is a very serious matter……
I’m not the only blogger whose energies have been fading recently – other writers have drawn attention to an apparent decline. This may or may not be linked with the deep sense of pessimism which has gripped my generation at least in recent years…..

With an effort, I have done a final bit of editing to the collected 2017 posts (all 76 of them) which bears the title Common Endeavour? – the 2017 posts (2018) and runs to 183 pages
The introduction reminds us all of the benefits of blogging and there is a special bonus in the annex in the form of a sceptic’s glossary of about 100 key words used in political and administrative discourse. The year is best summarized as follows -

Readership
Blog traffic has been increasing here – hitting 10,000 in April for the first time (a 3-fold increase since last year) and, in May, the 200,000 mark for the entire period since 2010. August saw another 10,000 hits….although it dropped thereafter, reflecting what I understand to be a general drop in readership of blogs this year,,,,And, in the final ten weeks, some disenchantment with blogging
     - Native English speakers account for only one third of readers (most from the US) – with Russian and Ukraine readers coming in (in the past year) at a strong 15% share. It’s not idle speculation to feel that part of this latter interest may be a reflection of official Russian oversights of western blogs and accounts – although I don’t get any comments on posts from that source - perhaps because it’s not been my policy to comment on Russian politics and Putin’s intentions? But why the strong interest from Ukrainian readers? After all, recent posts have, if anything been even more “reflective” than usual, trying to put recent events in a fifty-year timescale…..  
·       -  Readers in France, Germany, Bulgaria and Romania account for some 20% in total of the traffic – the latter two for obvious reasons. I’ve blogged quite a bit on Germany (indeed put a little E-book up on the list at the top-right corner of the blog) and am pleased to find readers from that source – and from France.

A new Feature
With two thirds of my readers not having English as their first language, I have perhaps become more conscious of the need for an inviting intro to posts which now try to “position” the subject in the wider commentary……So a new feature is the “Further Reading” resource with which book notes in particular now end… 

Focus
Early posts couldn’t help touching on the first shocking weeks of bully boy Trump’s occupation of the White House but, thereafter, ignored the idiot. Political misbehaviour in Romania caused more of a public backlash there and was duly the subject of a few posts.

For several weeks from mid-March, I ran a series of posts which started with an observation about   how badly served we are by the hundreds of economics books which jostle for our attention. The opening post suggested some tests we might apply to screen books out – with the drawback that we actually need the book in our hands to make the call! Follow-up posts used some diagrams……which also help guide the reader through the maze of books……
More than 100 key books were identified, briefly explained - and hyperlinked. And will all be useful in the task which lies ahead – of severe editing of the present draft of Dispatches to the post-capitalist generation

This May post shows the encouragement I now take from the increasing respect being shown to the concept of “The Commons”

June saw the British electorate join the US electorate in bloodying the nose of pundits and the Establishment…but, in the event, also giving progressives back a little bit of hope…….  Hence a couple of posts on social democracy….

Mid-Summer saw various posts connected with discussions I was having with a young Bulgarian journalist about an interview (which appeared at the end of August) which raised difficult questions about progress here in Bulgaria and Romania since 1991 and the curious silence of the past decade about the subject of “transitology” which so consumed the chattering classes in the 90s. The issues about political and institutional behavior which were first raised in the 50s by Edward Banfield; and then in the early 90s by Robert Putnam; remain.

But the most important series of posts started in September with “Close Encounters with bureaucracy” as I tried yet again to make some sort of sense of the efforts I’ve been making for nigh on 50 years to make state bodies more responsive to citizens….I started as a newly-elected young radical, working with community activists to help make their voice heard by a traditional municipality in the West of Scotland; graduated fairly quickly to positions of authority – not least for 16 years shaping the social strategy for Europe’s largest regional authority. All the time working as a public management academic in a local Polytechnic – and writing profusely and being published in UK journals, 

That was the base from which I sprang in 1990 to reinvent myself as a consultant in institution-building in central Europe and Central Asia – and keeping up with the academic outpourings on public management…..For 25 years I have worked in almost a dozen countries on these issues.
In recent years I have been trying to make sense of all this experience - which culminated last spring with a draft of almost 200 pages bearing the title Crafting Effective Public Management. The book's core consisted of (i) surveys of the literature of admin reform 1975-2000; (ii) my critical assessment of the approach and tools used by international bodies and consultants in the challenge of institutional development in "transition countries"; and (iii) my blogposts on admin reform ....

Early last summer, however, I realised that I had missed some of the more profound learning experiences - the new draft therefore has a very different format and content which still requires further work. Its sections are chronological and try to do justice to the shape and significance of the various projects. It also includes my sceptic's glossary; and the recent series of posts which used a dozen questions to try to capture the best writing on public management. As a result, it's currently heading for the 300 page mark!
Its present title No Man's Land reflects the reminder which the summer interview gave me of the importance of the feeling of "being on the margin" I've always had.....