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

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Pageants and national values

After the bruising words and events of the past 4 plus years, it was important to see the better side of the United States on display yesterday at the Presidential Inauguration.

The optimism was perhaps a bit forced this time, the usual nationalist note more questionable. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one heckling Biden’s rhetorical flourishes. The colourful figure of young poet Amanda Gorman was a superb counterpoint – almost an ironic comment on that aspect…. 

Such events (and the State of the Union Message) are important opportunities for countries to remind themselves of – if not refresh - their values. An opportunity, however, which most countries flunk.

Take, for example, the glitter and pomp of the British Queen’s Speech marking the start of a parliamentary session - when the UK government’s programme is presented. What we actually see are the ermine robes of Lords and Ladies – reminding us that, although the feudal element of the system may now be gone (if very recently), these Lords and Ladies have been elevated to their position by a thoroughly rotten system of appointments - in the gift of a few people…..And of course it’s actually no longer the only show in town – with the Scottish Government since 1999 presenting its own distinctive programme to Scottish society 

In a few days (January 25th) we’ll see Scots all over the world coming together to celebrate the Scottish values we’ve long seen as embodied in the life of our national poet, Rabbie Burns. A ploughman and then customs off,icial, Burns wrote in revolutionary times; understood its hypocrisies; and sympathized with its struggles against injustice. Not for nothing did the Russians also take him to their hearts.

It’s puzzling, therefore, that more countries don’t follow suit and have annual celebrations of poets who embody national values such as Shakespeare and Goethe  - or even better for my money, Bert Brecht. 

Governments always find it impossible to distinguish their own short-term political agenda from the deeper issue of national identity – witness the mess Gordon Brown made of the debate about British identity. 

For my money, the only country which has managed to create a mechanism which gives the opportunity for a proper expression of moral values is…..Germany whose apolitical Presidential addresses have, since Richard von Weizsaecker, had great power

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Democracy in America II

The previous post was my first response to the January 6th storming of the Capitol in Washington USA – which represented the logical culmination not only of four years of Trump rule but of at least 2 decades of onslaught against the democratic system in the country. This started with the “Florida hanging chads” of 2000; continued with sustained gerrymandering and voter restrictions; and culminated in the 2010 Supreme Court decision which allowed corporations unlimited funding of election campaigns.

 Such an attack on citizen rights raises three questions -

        what sort of debate has this onslaught raised about the state of American democracy?

        Where can we find a coherent agenda for rescuing American democracy?

        with a realistic chance of success?

My googling unearths the following -

1. Only one such conversation seems to have been taking place – at the State of American Democracy website supported by the Ford, Germeshausen and Park Foundations, The Heinz Endowments and the Wallace Global Fund viz the great and good. This has led to a book Democracy Unchained – how to rebuild government for the people; ed David Orr et al (2020) which, so far, I've not been able to find to assess

2. There have, over the past decade, been a fair number of critiques of the system – eg Wolin's “Democracy Inc” (2008) I mentioned in the last post and Wendy Brown's “Undoing the Demos” (2015) but I've been able to identify only 3 recent books which set out strong and coherent agendas for electoral and political change.

The first by a Stanford University academic associated with the Journal of Democracy who has been monitoring the West's democratisation assistance over the past 30 years (including an abortive effort in Iraq) and has at last turned the analysis back onto the US itself in  Ill Winds – saving democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese ambition and American complacency ; Larry Diamond (2019)

David Daley is an activist and journalist who has just produced Unrigged – how americans are battling back to save democracy; (2020)

And  the Harvard Law Review recently produced this book-length analysis of The Degradation of American Democracy (Nov 2020)

The elements which need to figure in any serious reform of the contemporary American democratic system are summarised in this table of mine - 





Scale of campaign donations – money buys votes


- The scale of corporation and Foundation contributions is particularly offensive.

- Contributions should be individual and have a ceiling

Will be seen as threat to free speech

Voter restrictions

Huge – many southern (Rep) states have recently disenfranchised significant numbers of black voters

- Have proper electoral rolls

- remove bureaucracy from registration

Should be straightforward – but Supreme Court would see it as threat to State rights



More objective system to remaking of electoral boundaries

Highly political

Tone of broadcasting debate


Bring back Law which required balanced coverage in broadcasting

Will be seen as threat to free speech

Reform electoral college system

many countries have same “first past the post” system


Would require constitutional amendment and would be highly divisive


Restrict filibustering




Bring  element of PR into Senate elections

Massive – at moment large States (eg California)  have same 2 Senators as smallest

Gives Republicans currently a 40 million voter advantage in the Senate

Would require constitutional amendment and would be highly divisive

 In short, I get the sense that it has only been the events of January 6th that have finally triggered the realisation of many Americans that their system is so broken it requires  a “Truth and Conciliation” approach to reform. For a slightly different view, see  https://howtosavetheworld.ca/2021/01/21/not-so-extreme/

Monday, January 11, 2021

Democracy in America

America is an imaginary place....It exists as an image in each of our minds, nurtured partly by intellectual fare but mainly by the Holywood (and now Netflix) industry. Those of us who have encountered it are therefore often brought up short by something which challenges the myths with which we have been fed – in my case when, in the late 1980s, I had to concede that the country had more democratic energy than my prejudices had given it credit for.

But that was 30 plus years ago – since when a lot of us have lost that respect for the country's claim to democracy.

  • It's partly that money has replaced voice in the system - billions of dollars are sought by those running for public office in the country (with all the favours involved) with a 2010 ruling by the Supreme Court giving an additional boost

  • it's partly the institutional gridlock that is a feature of a system which divides political power between 2 Houses, a Presidency and a Supreme Court in an increasingly divided and litigious society

  • it's partly the turning of political discussion into a gigantic spectacle and entertainment industry

  • the narrowness of views allowed expression on the airwaves

  • and the sheer smugness of “a selfish ruling class bringing America to the brink of revolution” - to use the subtitle of Tucker Carlson's 2018 “Ship of Fools” book 

That, of course, is just one man's view – well-read perhaps but with values and attitudes which dispose me to be critical. I do expect a society to be open, inclusive and participative.

William Domhoff is an american academic who has made it his life's work to explore, in books and a website, the question of Who Rules America?

The last edition of his running commentary on the question was in 2014 and entitled Who Rules America – the triumph of the corporate rich. I particularly liked this part of his Intro -

The book draws on recent studies by sociologists, political scientists, and experts working for public interest groups and government agencies to update information on corporate interlocks, social clubs, private schools, and other institutions that foster elite social cohesion. It also contains new information on the tax-free charitable foundations, think tanks, and policy-discussion groups through which the corporate rich strive to shape public policy....

Although the corporate rich have always found ways in the past to circumvent attempts to limit campaign donations and make them more transparent, the 2010 and 2012 elections took these practices to astronomical levels.

In an effort to make the book more accessible to those with no background in the theoretical debates that animate the social science literature, all discussion of alternative theories are confined to a new last chapter. This approach allows readers to see how the empirically based argument unfolds without any brief critical asides that may be confusing or distracting. Th is change also may make it possible for readers to better form their own judgments about theoretical controversies because they will have seen the full empirical picture. It also allows readers to skip the final chapter without missing any part of the argument and evidence presented in the first eight chapters.

I would also point to a doyen of the american political science discipline – Seymour Wolin – whose history of political philosophy, "Politics and Vision", has been required reading on courses for some 50 years - and who produced in his nineties Democracy Inc – managed democracy and the spectre of inverted totalitarianism (2008), one of several books to raise the question since then of the extent to which capitalism is actually compatible with democracy.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Things go Up..and Down...and round-about

 A lot of clever people have devoted a lot of intellectual effort to suggest that all novels can be reduced to 6-7 basic plots which are all variants of the rags to riches story.

As usual, visuals say it all much more clearly and noone recounts it better than the sadly-missed Kurt Vonnegut who gave this hilarious short presentation (with spanish sub-titles) to demonstrate that the basic plots narrate how things go up and down.

His vertical axis measures good and bad outcomes; and the horizontal one time.

I won't give a spoiler to what is a fantastic presentation – suffice to say that Hamlet and a poor teenage orphan both figure in the plot outlines!

Regular readers know that one of the things this blog tries to do is to map recent intellectual history – that's one the reasons for the long annotated bibliographies which crop up in the posts.

So an obvious question is whether similar patterns can be identified in non-fiction books.

And a review in the current issue of the New York Review of Books alerted me to a book - namely Robert Shiller's “Narrative Economics – how stories go viral and drive economic events” (2019) - which explores how people have tried to make sense of what was happening to the economy – be it inflation, monopoly, boom and bust, inequality, automation, bubbles, or austerity.

With Vonnegut as inspiration, it didn't take me long to work out that non-fiction books also have plots and narratives. Things go up and down - and the authors spend most of their time describing why and how this has happened – with a few pages on what those in power should be doing to bring things back up again......Books about global warming will now add a comment about what the ordinary citizen should be doing....

And, of course, a note of panic has been discernible since the new millennium – just look at the titles - “The Long Descent”, “Extinction”, “The End of Progress”, “Requiem for a Species”, “Collapse”, “The Five Stages of Collapse”.

So most of the Vonnegut-type graphs slope downwards these days – only the likes of Stephen Pinker will have upward-sloping curves, with Branko Milanovic's Elephant curve being a complex outlier.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The edited version of 2020's posts

 Three weeks of blog silence – and the new year is more than a week old without a peep from the blog......

I often go into hibernation at this time of the year. The contrast between the general drabness of the days and the feverish attempts at celebrations gets too much – even when, in this part of the world, snow and bright blue skies sometimes sparkle.

But these past few weeks brought no such relief..

And perhaps I had been a bit hyperactive in the weeks before – with all the writing and reading....The body does sometimes need to be switched off....that much, at least, I have learned about myself! We do need sometimes simply to accept the inevitable – and not fight against it.....

At least I managed to complete the editing of this year's posts which I've entitled - Peripheral Vision – perennial musings.

Last year’s collected posts were rearranged thematically – with an explanatory intro to each of the sections which descended (in order of frequency) from those about capitalism through administrative reform and events in the Balkans to Brexit

Although Covid19 has been this year’s unwelcome guest, it has accounted in its own right for only about 15% of the posts in 2020 - which have been dominated by book reviews and examples of good writing of which this is a good example.

So I have decided against a thematic approach this year and let the posts speak for themselves, with their own rhythm, largely decided by the serendipity of my mailbox and the subsequent surfing it generates.

And a new feature – Snippets – has been introduced to ensure continued access to worthy links which would otherwise get lost in my large file of such links

Last year’s big subjects – capitalism and organisational change – have certainly not disappeared. They are as significant as the pandemic posts.

The blog hit the 1,500 mark in the autumn – which was celebrated with a selection of the year’s posts which included such topics as scepticism, groupthink, capitalism, Human nature, intellectual history - with hyperlinks to the world’s best English-speaking journals, the learning process, the role of the state and extinction…

And, as I look back at the posts, I have the sense they this year’s offers the best collection so far…..

The year saw me a bit fixated on the irrelevance of most books written by social scientists (except generic ones) but this serves only as a contrast with those written, for example, by David Graeber whose death has been such a tragedy for anyone with common sense.

It’s interesting that the blog has taken recently to using the title “Whatever happened to??” to explore the sudden (and strangely unremarked) disappearance of a topic which used to be on everyone’s lips…We need to think more deeply about who’s pulling the strings of such intellectual fashions

Classifications are, in any event, highly arbitrary – this year’s “book reviews” include books about democracy, offshore money, governance, global warming, organisational change and neo-liberalism. From which I take the message – beware of labels….and labelling people…..

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Are the Grown-Ups leaving us?

I readily confess that one of the first things I turn to these days in The Guardian after the main news items are the Obituaries pages which, as the paper puts it, “traditionally describe and celebrate the lives of the great and good, the famous and infamous”.

But The Guardian has a very nice additional feature – “Other Lives” – to which members of public write in order to honour 

another type of life that deserves noticing: people less in the public eye, or lives lived beyond formal recognition

My own father was such a person whom I celebrated a decade ago

Despite its rather sexist title, Britain is no Country for Old Men is one these rare sites which is generous in its praise of people doing remarkable work. And not just when they have died. – which is all too often the only time we publicly recognise good works

poignant article sparked off by John le Carre’s death has me musing about how well we prepare for our mortality. Freedland’s own father had died a couple of years’ earlier (in his mid 8os) and he wondered whether that was a factor in the strength of his reaction to the news of le Carre’s passing. The article finishes by referring to a feeling I’ve long had – that 

“we will have to face the future alone, without these older, wiser minds around to light the way….The grownups are leaving, one by one. From now on, it’s only us – guided by the lessons they taught us and the memories they left behind. And comforted by the thought that, perhaps, they once felt exactly the same way”.

The author is 57 and belongs, therefore, to the generation previous to mine (for what it’s worth I was 26 in 1968). The article's last sentence raises the very good question of nostalgia – for example are politicians the pygmies they are currently made out to be? Or do we judge them in less deferential ways – because of increased education, transparency and expectations??

We are certainly much more aware of our fragilities and vulnerabilities these days – not just as individuals but as a species. So perhaps it’s time to offer again a table I put up in 2019 – a brief overview of books about the approach of death

Books about Ageing and the approach of Death











 The American Way of Death; Jessica Mitford



Analysis of the crematorium business

Her updated version of 1996 can be read in full here

On Death and Dying; Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross

click to get the entire book



The book that gave us the “five stages of grief”

This extended interview with the author is quite superb 

The Coming of Age; Simone de Beauvoir

1970 French


Breaks all disciplinary barriers!

The classic

Excerpts available on this Amazon version

The Denial of Death; Ernest Becker


Cultural anthropology

A “psycho-philosophical synthesis” – all 330 pages

Hyperlink on title gives full book

The Loneliness of The Dying by Norbert Elias



A short rather general book by an underrated Anglo-German  

Note on his life and work. Click title for full book

The End of Age – BBC Reith Lectures by Tom Kirkwood



Link on the title gives podcasts

Recent book review by Tom Kirkwood

Ammonites and Leaping Fish – a Life in Time Penelope Lively



Interview here

First chapter can be read in summary form here

Nothing to be Frightened Of; Julian Barnes


Extended essay

Good on references

A rather gentle way into the subject nicely reviewed here

Somewhere Towards the End; Diana Athill



Marvellous writer covers latter stages of a long life

Click the title for the entire book

The Long Life; Helen Small



Written by a Professor of English language and literature

Compendium of writing about ageing over 2000 years. A good review here

You’re Looking very well – the surprising nature of getting old; Lewis Wolpert


Popular science

Professor of Biology

Age 80 when he wrote it

Good interviews here and here

got stick from this reviewer for having too many facts and quotations and insufficient analysis 

Immortality: the Quest to Live For Ever and How It Drives Civilisation” Stephen Cave



Philosopher who knows how to tell a great tale

Click on title for full book

good review here

Out of Time – the Pleasures and Perils of Ageing; Lynne Segal



Almost an update of de Beauvoir!

Good review here

Being Mortal – illness, medicine and what matters in the end; by Atul Gawande


Reflective medical

a very literate and humane American surgeon,

See comments in Intimations of Mortality and Facing up to our Mortality

Growing Old – the last Campaign; Des Wilson



was the most famous British campaigner of the second half of the century.

The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life; Raymond Tallis



retired British gerontologist, poet and polymath

See this Spiked Online review

The Worm at the Core: on the Role of Death in Life; by S Solomon, J Greenberg and T Pyszczynski



American psychologists update and popularise Becker’s thesis about our repression of death

see this interview

British philosopher John Gray reviewed

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium” Caitlin Doughty 



Review here

My Father’s Wake – how the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die; Kevin Toolis



Poetic but doesn’t deal with issues

With the end in mind – dying, death and wisdom in an age of denial; K Mannix



A “palliative” doctor profiles in depth her patients

A review here

The Way we Die Now; Seamus O’Mahony



A Consultant “Gastroenterologist” 


Other Resources

Joseph Epstein penned this magnificent ode to approaching 80


this first part of a series