what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Fighting Fatalism

Hayek was bad enough – with his belief that markets would solve any problem. But the complexity theorists seem to have driven the last nail into Free Will’s coffin. 

My generation believed three things which kept its sanity -

1.     Governments had effective machinery and tools at its disposal to deal with most problems

2.    Political parties reflected public feelings and had some influence over governments formed from its leading members

3.    Enough fuss and pressure from society – whether media, public opinion, voluntary organisations or trade unions – would get results

We no longer believe any of these things – indeed anyone who offers such judgements is seen as old-fashioned if not eccentric…..

A combination of globalisation, privatisation and neoliberalism has sucked the lifeblood not only from governments but from political parties – leaving social movements to perform as a colourful, pantomime distraction.

Fortunately, however, there are still a few voices left – bravely articulating detailed messages which point to a better way. People like Yanis Varoufakis and George Monbiot and, for those prepared to do some really serious reading, authors such as Mariana Mazzucato  - with her latest “Mission Economy – a moonshot guide to changing capitalism” to which the great blog Crooked Timber is devoting a discussion series from which I’ve taken an extract -  

She starts from the view that at present both capitalism and governments are dysfunctional. In Chapter 2 she identifies the four sources of the problems of capitalism as (1) the short-termism of the financial sector (including the deeply problematic issue that, given the role of financial institutions, its profits are privatized but its losses are socialized, as we saw in the 2008 financial crisis); (2) the financialization of business; (3) climate emergency and (4) slow or absent governments.  

In Chapter 3, Mazzucato points at New Public Management theory as the culprit for the widespread myth that failures of the public sector are more serious than failures of the private sector, which has been used to justify the massive increase in privatizations and outsourcing. And this, Mazzucato argues, has led to a reduction of the capabilities in the public sector, which in turn makes it harder to change weak or bad policies. The main problem with the government right now is not its size, but rather that its capacities, skills and expertise have been diminished, which has also demoralized public servants.

What we need instead, is ‘Moonshot thinking’, which entails that governments should have an ambition that is so inspiring and concrete, that it motivates all to contribute to reaching that goal; this is what Mazzucato calls ‘a public purpose’ – the most essential thing a government should have, and which will motivate its partnership with business. Innovation and commercial success will happen along the way. 

Chapter 4 describes the Apollo program in the 1960s as an example of what governments can accomplish if they have a clear mission that all are contributing to. At that time, the mission was “bring a man to the moon and safely back to earth” – in the historical context of the Cold War (not an unimportant detail, perhaps!). The Apollo program was driven by mission-oriented innovation, full with great risks and many failures from which lessons were learnt. At the early stages, poor communication within NASA seemed its weakest point; apparently this problem was addressed so successfully that the dynamic communications set-up within NASA was later copied by businesses. There were many other problems with the Apollo program, and Mazzucato argues that solutions were found by organizations and people willing to experiment, rather than picking supposedly good solutions in advance. Talented and hardworking people, risk taking and adapting, are key aspects of a successful mission. 

Chapter 5 explains how mission-oriented thinking looks like by applying it to several missions for our times: the Sustainable Development Goals, the American and European Green New Deals, accessible health, and narrowing the digital divide. In all of these missions, the aim is to catalyze collaboration between many different sectors, and to change our view of the government as regulating and correcting markets and being a lender of last resort to being the creator and shaper of markets, and an investor of first resort willing to take the high risks that are needed for long-term thinking, and who aims to crowd in private funding and collaborations. 

Chapter 6 sketches how the political economy of this capitalism-with-a-public-purpose would look like. Mazzucato writes that there are 7 pillars that a political economy that can guide a mission-oriented approach should have:

(1) a new approach to value;

(2) markets as being co-created and shaped by the government;

(3) organizations that have the capabilities to co-create for the public purpose, including taking risks, experimenting and learning;

(4) an approach to finance that does not start by asking what the budget is, but by “what needs to be done” and as a derivative question asks how to pay for it;

(5) fighting inequality not only be redistribution but first of all by predistribution;

(6) reimagine the relation between government and businesses as a partnership around a common goal; and

(7) new forms of participation, debate, discussion and consensus-building. 

And Bill Mitchell is a leftist Australian economist whose Reclaiming the State – a progressive vision of sovereignty in a post neo-liberal world (2017) I’m trying to find the time to at least skim. 

Sunday, July 25, 2021

When it all gets too much

Every generation goes through a cycle – marvelling excitedly in youth at the speed with which the world is changing; experiencing the pace of change later as more of a challenge; and, in a final period of nostalgia, regretting and resenting it.

My generation of baby-boomers may, however, be the first to be required to recognise the need for urgent change in its later years. 

I was in my mid 30s when some books started to appear which sent a shiver down my spine. Two which made such an impression on me that I remember them to this day were James Robertson’s The Sane Alternative (1978) and “The Seventh Enemy” by Ronald Higgins (1978). The first was very much influenced by the more technical “Limits to Growth” which had been produced by The Club of Rome in 1970. The second looked at six looming issues - viz of the population explosion, food shortages, raw materials exhaustion, environmental degradation, nuclear power; and abuse of science and technology. But then suggested that the real enemy was the seventh – us, the human race! Higgins’ book is no longer available but you can get the gist from this BBC documentary.

 They were early harbingers of the sense of crisis which has come over most of us in the new millennium. It wasn’t, however, difficult for corporate interests to subject such texts to a barrage of criticism and ridicule – as long as things were going well and human inventiveness could be summonsed as the genie in the bottle.

But the global financial crisis of 2008 and the reality of global warming has seen a deluge of titles in the last decade reminding us that what goes up generally come down, often in calamitous crashes – written by people such as Jared Diamond, Thomas Homer-Dixon and Michael Greer.

Wherever we look today, there are crises – and it is most decidedly not just a question of perception. It’s for real.

The normal human response when you confront an unpalatable situation is to stick you head in the sand – to shut off the reality. I readily confess that that’s the way I deal with things – either that or walking away…But there’s no way of walking away from the situation the world now confronts – however feverishly billionaires try to buy up remote land in places like New Zealand. 

Even more reprehensible than our personal responses is the deliberate encouragement of such weak behaviour by ideologues who give us rationalisations to justify our crassly irresponsible myopia. I’m talking, for example, about the Think Tanks which push Hayek’s doctrine of leaving the market to solve all problems – let alone the Big Dirty Money which funds the climate deniers.

It’s those resources and algorithms which are behind the astonishing growth of the Fake Reality which has some two thirds of Republican voters in the US believing that the last Presidential Election was stolen 

the country remains intensely divided over the election and the 6th January events at the Capitol. Like the election audits, trials of the rioters would bring out and deepen these divisions, further radicalizing the Republican base. So too would acts of violence. The Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Bois are just a few of the better-known paramilitary organizations that acted violently on January 6. There are many others. Some are national and many are local. Some are well known and many remain covert. 

Now that the election has been stolen and the thief responsible has begun to propose dramatic changes to the country—and now that the deep state has proven that voting is useless in blocking them—how will members of these organizations and their sympathizers respond?

It seems plausible that at least some will respond with violence. The intelligence analyst Katrina Mulligan noted shortly after the Capitol attack that the country had just witnessed “violence with a political goal in mind: Preventing the lawful certification of presidential election results to disrupt the peaceful transition of power”:

There are troubling indicators, such as a shared grievance, a strong group identity, and recruitment and training, that America could be in the early days of a violent political movement that will endure. This movement brings together conservatives, Christian nationalists, Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists, and ultranationalist groups such as the Proud Boys. While these groups united around Trump, they also have shared racial grievances that will continue to unite them. 

Members of these violent groups see a political dispensation gaining force under an illegitimate president that privileges minorities and immigrants, which they understand as part of an elite plot to “replace” them as central participants in the country’s politics.

 Even before the Capitol attack a number of terrorism researchers saw the conditions for “incipient insurgency” emerging in the United States. David Kilkullen, an elite combat soldier who helped shape strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote that “the main long-term impact” of the violence launched against the Black Lives Matter protests last May and June might “be its radicalizing effect on a tiny minority of participants who join more violent groups as a result”.

.....Before our eyes, calls to “stop the steal” of 2020 are evolving, with the help of Republican-controlled legislatures in crucial states, into a movement to in effect “steal back” the presidency in 2024. 

But I’m also beginning to wonder about the Complexity Theorists – whose argument that the world is too complex for human interventions to work sustains our natural inertia. 

Albert Hirschman was a brilliant polymath of a developmental economist (whose intellectual biography has just come out) who explored the arguments such people use in The Rhetoric of Reaction – perversity, futility, jeopardy (1991)    

- the perversity thesis holds that any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.

- The futility thesis argues that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.”

- the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment. 

Have a look at any argument against a proposed reform - you will find it a variant of these three. But such fatalism offends my sense of what we used to call “free will” (and now “agency theory”). Powerful people exist – whether in corporations, international agencies or governments – who can and do influence events. Our job as citizens is to watch them carefully and protest when we can..

In the 1930s it was not difficult to identify the enemy…Today the enemy is a more voracious and complex system which we variously call “globalisation” or “neoliberalism” and only more recently “capitalism” - whose disastrous consequences the activists of Porto Allegro had exposed……although it took the crash of 2008 to prove the point…

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Angrynomics – a model for future books

Mark Blyth is a political economist I greatly respect – his interdisciplinary range is rivalled only by sociologists such as Wolfgang Streeck and economic historian Adam Tooze. And the new little book Angrynomics he has co-authored with Eric Lonergan is a model not only of clarity and presentation but of how to help readers find their way through the torrent of reading with which we are delugedI suggested recently that – given the apparent reduction in our attention span - publishers should be offering shorter texts. Angrynomics is a superb exemplar……reviewed nicely here -

A fascinating new book, Angrynomics, by Eric Lonergan and Mark Blyth, analyses what has been happening, and gives a highly plausible explanation. They set up three versions of capitalism, beginning around 1870.

·         Capitalism 1.0 was the liberal laissez-faire version that had its heyday before 1914. Under this system, governments did not manage the economy; they assumed that the markets would do it for them. But the first world war destroyed the international cooperation that made the system work and required heavy government intervention to produce the armaments that armies needed. And then the Great Depression showed that markets do not automatically correct. And it produced its own “angrynomics” in the form of fascism.

·         Capitalism 2.0 emerged after the second world war. Economic policy was designed to avoid the excesses of the 1930s by keeping unemployment as low as possible, with the help of fiscal policy. To keep this system stable, banks were highly regulated and capital flows were tightly controlled. This model was highly successful until the early 1970s; growth was high, living standards of the poorest rose sharply and inequality fell. The period was known as the wirtschaftwunder in West Germany. But it broke down, the authors say, because low unemployment empowered trade unions and led to a wage-price spiral. The system also enraged the owners of capital who suffered high taxes and low returns, and were unable to move their money. They started to finance conservative politicians and thinktanks who argued for a change in approach.

·         This led to Capitalism 3.0, what some call the neoliberal model. This was marked by the reduction of high tax rates, “flexible” labour markets and the decline of trade unions, along with the rise of privatisation, globalisation and free capital movements. For a while, this system was heralded as the “great moderation” because it produced a long boom with low inflation. But Capitalism 3.0 was also marked by an uncontrolled banking sector, which eventually brought ruin in 2007 and 2008. 

One of the delightful things about the book is its (rare) use of a Socratic-type conversation between the two authors (the other being a hedge-fund adviser!). I am surprised that this device is not used more – the only previous example I can think of is the fascinating “Life – and how to survive it” (1996) by therapist Robin Skynner and comedian John Cleese.

This, the authors rightly assert, set the stage for “angrynomics”, usually known as the populist movement. Voters had gone along with Capitalism 3.0 while it seemed to deliver growth but for them, “flexible labour markets” meant less job security, while globalisation meant a squeeze on their real wages. When the banking sector caused a crash, the bankers were bailed out but poorer voters suffered from austerity in the form of lower social benefits and squeezed public services. 

Inflation may have fallen but real wages were not rising. And unemployment may have been low but many jobs were poorly-paid and had fewer rights. At the heart of all this, in the authors’ view, is that capitalism has tended to treat labour as a “commodity”, along with land and capital. But “labour is the only commodity capable of generating a social reaction to its movement in price”. When workers banded together in trade unions, and worked closely together in factories, they could use their negotiating power. Nowadays, with workers more dispersed, their frustration is expressed in the political sphere. 

But anger can be a dangerous thing. As Messrs Lonergan and Blyth argue, anger can find vent in “tribal rage”, like the hostility of rival football fans; it is often expressed as hostility towards some outside group such as foreigners, or religious or ethnic minorities. The alternative is “moral outrage” which protests against legitimate wrongs, such as the exploitation of the system by rent-seeking plutocrats. To quote the book: “The challenge for politics today is to listen carefully to, and redress, the legitimate anger of moral outrage while exposing and not inciting the violent anger of tribes”. 

As someone who has written a couple of books of economic history (Paper Promises and More), I would like to add another layer to the argument. The Capitalism 3.0 model was driven by monetary policy, which focused on low inflation, a target pursued by independent central banks. But globalisation by itself was driving inflation lower (as the former communist bloc joined the market-based economy) and technology cut the costs of manufactured goods. This created a feedback system whereby central banks cut interest rates in response to lower inflation, delivering capital gains to those who owned financial assets and those who had borrowed money to buy real assets like property. Higher debts made the system unstable, and when that stability resulted in a financial crisis, central banks propped up the system with lower rates and more liquidity. 

The lesson learned by many traders and bankers was that taking risks paid off in the long run. Each crisis led to lower rates and more debt until 2009, when the only way that the system could be made to work was for central banks to buy bonds outright, cut interest rates below zero, and all the rest. This system is very fragile. The US has just enjoyed its longest boom in history. But the Federal Reserve was only able to raise interest rates in baby steps, and had to bring them back down to near zero at the first sign of trouble.

Far from debt “not mattering”, it matters a lot. But the mistake is to focus just on government debt when it is the total of consumer debt, corporate debt, financial system debt that matters. This debt is very high and needs to be refinanced on a regular basis; the only way it can be sustained is with very low rates. This explains the puzzle in the first paragraph; why governments can borrow at low rates despite needing to issue so much debt.

In political terms, this matters because the system has undermined the interest of the middle classes as well as the working classes. In the 1920s, German hyperinflation wiped out the savings of the middle classes creating a well of support for Hitler. The corollary this time is the effect of low rates on pension pots; middle class people could once retire on a generous final salary pension. But such pensions have gone and their replacements (defined contribution pensions) are dependent on bond yields to generate income. These have plunged meaning that many middle-class people have pension pots that won’t pay a decent income; they must work longer or live in reduced circumstances. 

Anyway, enough of defining the problem: how to deal with it? The authors’ solutions are intriguing, but (in my view) skate over some of the practical issues.

·         One proposal is to take advantage of negative real interest rates. The government could issue bonds and use the proceeds to buy global assets, such as equities, setting up a National Wealth Fund. The expected return on those assets will be much higher than the yield on the bonds, and the profits from the National Wealth Fund could be distributed to citizens every 15–20 years. The obvious danger is that global equities have a prolonged slump, akin to that suffered by Japan where the stock market is still below its end-1989 level. The authors argue such an extended slump is unlikely at the global level. That may turn out to be right, but a more fundamental problem is that 15–20 years is a very long time to wait; it will not help people now. Angry voters, and the politicians they elect, can do a lot of damage in the interim. Another issue is that the authors propose distributing the proceeds to the “80% of households with the fewest assets”. Sounds fine, but we don’t have a register of assets by households, and the practical difficulties might be immense: the make-up of households (flat-sharing twenty-somethings, for example) can change quickly. Does a household with eight people get the same as a single person?

·         The other ideas include a tax (in the form of a royalty or licence) on tech companies to reflect the use they make of our data, with the proceeds paid out to all those who allow access to the data. Since most of these companies are American, it is not clear how Washington would react to this proposal (tech tax plans from France raised the ire of President Trump). Let us say it raised £20bn a year; with more than 50m adults in the UK, that would be £400 each. You would need to raise an implausible sum for this to generate a large income each.

·         The third idea is to borrow money (again at low rates) to invest in green projects such as wind power. Again, this seems entirely sensible; this is a good moment to invest in infrastructure. Whether it will assuage voter anger is another matter. 

To be fair, this is a short book and the authors write that “our aim has been to introduce these ideas, not to seek to prove them or make the case that nothing else matters”. More focus could, I think, have been placed on land and inheritance taxes: the latter were very effective at destroying the fortunes of the aristocrats who lorded it over British society before 1914.

But as I hope this essay has demonstrated, this is an excellent, thought-provoking book that should be read by anyone with an interest in economics or politics. Angrynomics is a new term to me but one that should be at the heart of political debate.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Henry Mintzberg replies

Mintzberg may be officially retired but is a very busy man as his website indicates – not least with the energy he has been putting into his Rebalancing Society – radical renewal, beyond left, right and center to wake the world up from its slumbers.

But not so busy as to be unable to reply to my cri-de-coeur. His reply may have been brief – but very clear. He has simply suggested that the Reformation serves as a possible example of what can be achieved and directed me to these remarks of his on the subject which I am reproducing in their entirety -

What is known as the Reformation began with words on a door in Germany and ended with a realignment of power in Europe. In 1517, with widespread outrage over corruption in the dominating religion, an obscure monk named Martin Luther challenged its prevailing authority by nailing a list of 95 theses (really grievances) to the door of one of its churches. His words spread within weeks, carried by the new social medium of the time, the printing press. A groundswell followed, as angry people in communities confronted the corruption. Eventually, new institutions formed and some existing ones reformed. Much of the world changed.

Can our world so change? That was Europe five centuries ago, concerning the corruption of one institution. Today we face corruption in many institutions, worldwide.

Is reformation on a global scale impossible? Well, the devastating effects of climate change are not only possible but existent. Income disparities are on the rise. And another great war is possible—and would be the last—with several loose cannons elected by people fed up with these income disparities. When disaster looms, the impossible can become possible, indeed necessary. 

STARTING ON THE GROUND, NOT AT THE “TOP”

Where, then, to begin?

·       At the top? The Reformation did not begin at any top, yet today that is where the preferred solutions focus: the established authorities are supposed to fix the establishment. Elect heroic leaders. Hold lofty conferences. Make 30-year plans. Pretend to fix capitalism. All to no avail. The record of heroic leadership is hardly stellar. Much of it has proved to be impotent when not autocratic. Have we not had enough of the leadership fix?

·       The lofty conferences on global warming seem to generate more of it, thanks to all the travel, let alone the talk (not to mention the swarms of private jets that descend on Davos every year to bemoan the warming). At home, politicians with four-year mandates proclaim 30-year plans. Why do we tolerate such nonsense?

·       Then there are the adjectival capitalism fixes—Progressive Capitalism, Caring Capitalism, Inclusive Capitalism, Sustainable Capitalism, even Democratic Capitalism (democracy being the adjective). Capitalism certainly needs fixing, but that will not fix societies broken by its own power. It is these societies that need fixing, by restoring balance across their sectors.

·       The change we require will have to begin on the ground, as it did in the Reformation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt caught the spirit of this when he was asked by an activist to champion a particular change. He replied: “I agree with you. I want to do it. Now go out and make me do it.” The message is clear: reforming established institutions may be the last step in reformation. The first ones have to be taken on the ground. 

PATHWAY TO REFORMATION

Consider these steps to reformation

Declaration of common cause => Reframing beliefs => Reversing wrongs and Renewing rights => Consolidating this activity => Reforming institutions 

The path to reformation is opened by a compelling statement of common cause that reframes what we believe, or have been made to believe, so that we can understand what is wrong and take action to make it right. If we believe that change must come from the top, then most of us will sit around waiting for it to happen. If we believe that the wealth of globalization trickles down to everyone, then we will take what we get. If we believe that democracy is about swinging between left and right, then we will not see the plural sector for the role it must play in buttressing the power of the public and private sectors.

It is the reframing of beliefs that galvanizes action. 

CONSOLIDATING ACTIVITIES

This table outlines a variety of actions that can be taken to address our problems.

We are, in fact, getting a great deal of it, more than ever before. “Blessed Unrest” by Paul Hawken estimated the number of social initiatives for such activities to exceed one million, on a wide variety of fronts: for social justice, sustainable environment, world peace, reformed education, and much more.

That book was published in 2007, yet consider what has been happening to the imbalance ever since. The more constructive activity we get, the worse the imbalance becomes. That is because, while the efforts for reformative change are scattered, the forces that exacerbate the imbalance work in concert, for self-interest—as when they promote conspicuous consumption. 

These efforts will have to consolidate, around a common cause, which I believe will have to be the restoration of balance. A clear focus of attention (such The Declaration of our Interdependence) is required to fuse a myriad of activities into a movement for regeneration. But this consolidation cannot center on any institution or plan; it has to happen as a groundswell of community activity, as in the Reformation, but this time networked worldwide. 

We shall have to recognize that imbalance in society is a root cause of the major problems we face—the social injustices, income disparities, decline of democracy, even much of climate change. How, for example, are we to reverse climate change as long as private power drives so much conspicuous consumption? In other words, if you are concerned about the climate, you had better put the rebalancing of society front and center.

The corruption of established institutions is far more widespread than at the time of Luther, and the dangers we face are far more alarming. We have glorified greed and excess long enough; it is time to value balance and benevolence. Our choice comes down to this: grounded reformation or global devastation. We can continue to plunder this planet, and each other, or we can make our way to reformation.

The clear implication is that the social media are the modern equivalent of the Gutenberg printing press. And we have noone to blame but ourselves - if we fail to seize the opportunity to bring down the systemic corruption of our existing institutions.

As the last post indicated, his table is indeed an extraordinarily useful tool.

In a future post I will perhaps explore how we can activate it and use it in our daily lives…..

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

An Open Letter to Henry Mintzberg

I have ambivalent feelings about management writers as a breed - but make exceptions for people such as Charles Handy, Henry Mintzberg, Gareth Morgan and Chris Grey.

Mintzberg and Morgan are the best known - Canadians and therefore less inclined to the fanciful nonsense that US proponents of the craft inflict on us – the other two are Brits. One of Mintzberg’s highly readable books was “Strategy Safari – a guided tour through the wilds of strategic management

Some years ago I wrote to him about an early draft of his very accessible booklet “Rebalancing Society – radical renewal, beyond left, right and center” (2015) and he was kind enough to respond and to refer to my comment in a following draft. 

He actively blogs and maintains an excellent website which continues to update the text of “Rebalancing Society”.

In the light of the series of posts I’ve been doing, I thought it would be useful to drop him another note and indeed to reproduce its content as an Open Letter. After the initial reference to our previous exchange the note went as follows - 

You rightly remind us that there are three sectors – private, public and social – and that it is the last that really matters. The actions that each and every one of us take are indeed of central importance - and the table you included in the 2015 version is an excellent tool for exploring the options open to us in all sectors.

However I’m not sure if your text properly takes on board the structure of power which, of all people, you so well understand has elements of “hegemony” (I hate the word but it can be a useful shorthand).

Trade unions, the working class, social democracy are, sadly, not the force they once were. 

As political parties lose their functions – and governments their usefulness to citizens – all that is left is the (withering) power of social movements and social enterprise to challenge the increasingly stronger power of monopolies and oligopolies. We are – in the dreadful language of the sociologists – losing our power of “agency”

In my youth, I was a very active (Regional) politician who helped set up community structures and businesses as part of a positive discrimination strategy which the Scottish government continues to honour – but I have lost my faith in political parties.

My question is – how do you persuade someone like me that there is a future in social movements – let alone in political parties or government?

I have to say that I don’t see enough recognition in the general literature of the importance of this issue of the structure of power and the need for an effective system of “countervailing power”.

Useful Reading

Reclaiming the State – a progressive vision of sovereignty in a post neo-liberal world Bill Mitchell (2017)

Monday, July 12, 2021

The Argument so far – part IV

 The last post indicated the reading I hope to do to stimulate the grey cells as I try to draft the concluding chapter of my little book about our current malaise. It made the important point that, before we start even flicking a book, we need to have some questions in mind. This will help us quickly identify where (if at all) the text actually tries to develop answers…..   

I confessed that I don’t find it easy to articulate such questions – and, typically, I found my exercise producing a list of statements viz  

·       Western liberal capitalism has legitimacy as long as its political and economic systems work

·       The economic system (capitalism) has always had its critics – but the global financial crash of 2008; climate change; and Artificial Intelligence have made the case for radical change unassailable

·       For the second half of the 20th century, the political system (democracy) seemed free from such challenges - but has recently come under fire for its failure to make its citizens feel that it represents any more their interests

·       Political parties have indeed surrendered almost all of their functions – which I once described as representation, manifesto implementation, extension of public insight and protection – and are left only with the selection of elites.

·       Most of the terms used in discussions – such as neoliberalism, inequality, populism, identity – are useless slogans which don’t contribute to anyone’s understanding of what’s at stake

·       The present situation suits “Individualists” down to the ground

·       It was 1979 when Christopher Lasch produced his “Culture of Narcissism” which anticipated the present focus on self

·       “Egalitarians” are at a loss – having lost their capacity to believe in solidarity and the engines of union pressure and of social democracy

·       The rest of us are utterly confused

·       The structure of power is basically out of balance – as Henry Mintzberg’s Rebalancing  Society – radical renewal beyond left, right and center so clearly sets out

·       But argument alone will not bring down the walls of privilege

·       The lesson of history is that force (or its threat) is needed to effect social change

·       Although history also tells us that it has to be non-violent

·       Where do we find and harness such force?    

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Querying the texts – part III of the current series

It’s taken a few days to gather together and skim some of the more recent books which might be useful as I try to draft the concluding chapter to the book I’ve been working on for the past decade – the one in which I try to understand the sense of crisis which has overtaken the West. The last two posts tried to give a sense of the book’s basic arguments.

I’m one of these people who tend to read everything I can lay my hands on – imagining that it will somehow give me the clarity my confusion requires.

Somehow I never learn that I need to start with questions – against which I can query the text. I have to discipline myself to articulate these questions

POWER is the big problematic for me at the moment. How – given the selfish individualism which has invaded our modern souls – is it possible for people to come together to force the system to change for the better. It was trade unions and the working class who for that brief period after the war forced a certain balance of power. The growth of the service sector and globalisation have undermined that.  

And what about a programme which would actually attract votes? That’s why I’ve included the books on socialism, social democracy and communitarianism.

The first column gives the book titles – in chronological order – starting with the earliest. The second column explains why I think they could be useful 

Title

First Impressions 

Why the Third Way Failed – economics, morality and the origins of ”the big society”; Bill Jordan (2010)

This, for a social democrat, is one of the most important questions – why did a consensual approach which rebuffs both left and right idelogies fail? Was it the absense of a serious approach? Or are we doomed to be tribal?

Unaccountable – how the elite brokers corrupt; Janine Wedel (2014)

Wedel is an anthropologist – and applies those skills to the contemporary political system of the USA

Rebalancing  Society – radical renewal beyond left, right and center Henry Mintzberg (2015)

One of my favourite little books which I’ve brought in as a measure for the other books. He’s basically got it all – strong analysis of what’s wrong; recognition of the importance of worker coops and social enterprise; and of the need for a shift in power 

Back to the future of Socialism Peter Hain (2015)

Most of the books in the table are by academics but this one is by that rarity – a thinking and caring politician. The title is a reference to the classic 1956 “Future of Socialism” and is a useful update

Reclaiming the State – a progressive vision of sovereignty in a post neo-liberal world Bill Mitchell (2017)

I like the look of this book – written by an Australian - which, unusually, argues for a more activist role for the state

Wrong Turnings – how the left got lost; Geoff Hodgson (2018)

Hodgson is both a political economist and social democrat and has a strong analysis here

Why the Left Loses – the decline of the centre left; R Manwaring and P Kennedy (2018)

The classic book on social democracy (Berman) was published 15 years ago. This is a more recent assessment from Australians which looks at the lessons from recent experience. See reading list here

Is Socialism Feasible? Geoffrey Hodgson (2019)

Hodgson is a political economist and social democrat who writes clearly and is prepared to face hard truths

From What Is to What If – unleashing the power of imagination to create the world we want Rob Hopkins (2019).

Hopkins is an environmental activist who founded the Resilient Towns movement.

The Demons of Liberal Democracy; Adrian Pabst (2019)

Pabst is a Third Way man who abhors left and right. I felt this would provide a challenging read

Winners take all – the elite charade of changing the world; A Girdiharadas (2019)

One of the problems progressives have is that the devil has stolen a lot of his tunes.

Goliath – the 100-year war between monopoly power and democracy; Matt Stoller (2019)

very important review suggests the author has swallowed the liberal competition ideas of economists too literally; and has underestimated the power of class struggle in the post-war US achievements

The Free Society in Crisis; David Starkey (2019)

Have included this curious book largely from admiration of the author’s courage in limiting his reading list to books that are more than 50 years old

The evolution of communitarian ideas – history, theory and practice Henry Tam (2019)

Communitarianism is an important strand of progressive thought

Tam is a very thoughtful and excellent writer who blogs here

The Third Pillar – how the market and the state leave the community behind Raghuram Rajan (2019)

an overdue analysis of the huge role which communiity bodies have to play in the future which was all too easily dismissed by the loose talk of ”The Third Way” and the ”Big Society”. 

Although we do have to ask why it is that ideas apparently attractive to mainstream opinion were never taken seriously....

The New Class War – saving democracy from the new managerial elite; Michael Lind (2020)

I want to like this book – but feel the argument that managerial power needs taking down is hardly likely in itself to lead to the rebalance of power we need

Twenty-First Century Socialism; Jeremy Gilbert (2020)

This is a short and very readable book. Gilbert is the author of Common Ground – democracy and collectivity in an age of individualism (2013)

Unrigged – how Americans are battling back to save democracy; David Daley (2020)

The book may have a focus on the US but the move to discredit democracy and disenfranchise voters is widespread (eg contemporary UK) as is evident from books with titles such as “Against Democracy” (2016)

Rentier Capitalism – who owns the economy? Brett Christophers (2020)

A British economist gives us a good sense of the curious direction the British economy has taken. Strongly influenced by the work of US economist Michael Hudson, famous for his “Killing the Host” and “J is for Junk Economics”

Authoritarianism and how to counter it; Bill Jordan (2020)

The sociology author of ”Why the Third Way failed” takes on the question of why voters have turner again to ”the hard men” and what we can do about it...

Share the Wealth – how to end rentier capitalism; Philippe Askenazy (2021)

Too many anglo-saxon economists dominate this field – so it’s good to get a French view (a translation of a 2016 book)

Mission Economy – a moonshot guide to changing capitalism; Mariana Mazzucato (2021)

This Italian economist now based in Britain is one of the few economists who has been prepared to argue strongly for public investment and an activist role for government – see also Bill Mitchell (below) and Andrew Cumbers

Consequences of Capitalism; Noam Chomsky and Mary Waterstone (2021)

Very disappointing book – based on recent lectures delivered by Chomsky. And it shows….with the narrative often jumping into distracting stories.

Post Growth – life after capitalism ; Tim Jackson (2021)

The elephant in the room….a suitable note on which to finish