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

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Facing the End of my Romanian journey

I’ve been engrossed these past few days in a book about Romania called Children of the Night – the strange and epic story of modern Romania by Paul Kenyon (2021) which is a gripping and superb read - even if the sub-title is rather misleading since the book is not about contemporary Romania. It actually ends on Xmas day 1989 - with the trial and summary execution of the 2 Ceausescus just a few days after the dramatic scenes in the television studio.

The opening pages follow Vlad Tepes and his 2 sons making an unfortunate visit to the Ottoman Court in the 15th century - but the book is devoted to the century which separates young Princess Marie’s train journey in 1893 to her future in-laws in Bucharest from the violent events of 1989. It paints a vivid picture first of the personalities at he Royal court and then of the dominant characters during the turbulent politics of the inter-war period as the country descended into right-wing and ultimately Fascist rule.

The Romanian communist party at the time consisted only of a few hundred people but the country’s common border with Russia (and western indifference) ensured that it was quickly under Soviet domination – broken only in 1958 when the Soviets withdrew their troops and the country moved to a more independent role save when Ceaucescu stupidly subjugated the country and its people to the misery of IMF tutelage and the forces of Big Capital in the 1980s.

I had not expected the book to be so captivating – with the interwar period in particular being largely unknown to me.

And reading it encouraged me to go back and update the text of Mapping Romania which I had produced in 2014 – you’ll find the new version here. But I’ve changed the sub-title from “Notes on an unfinished journey” to “Notes on a 32-year journey” since it looks to be ending. Although the cost of living is still reasonable here in Romania, I am a bit isolated - with few friends but 3 daughters in the UK who are keen for me to return. Despite the huge problems of the NHS, I would prefer to put my (eventual) trust in it rather than the non-existent Romanian health system. I've set January as the provisional date for my return.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The F word again

One of the rarer of blogging pleasures is, for me at any rate, provoking a reader to write a comment. Apart from family and friends, I have only one such reader – who happens to be a fellow-blogger, Arthur Bough, aka Boffy – an economist whose blog contains detailed  Marxist exegesis and an excellent leftist blogroll.

He’s been good enough to include me in his blogroll on which he clearly keeps an eagle eye – ever ready to join battle. My last post on Paul Mason’s latest book on Fascism struck a nerve – with Boffy’s opening shot being an accusation that the Ukraine War seems to have revealed Mason in his true colours as a strong supporter of NATO. As an old supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament this was (bad) news to me.

But I take the line that we shouldn’t allow our prejudices about authors to interfere with our judgement on the coherence of a book’s argument (eg I have enjoyed Niall Ferguson’s recent books). And I find Mason consistently worth reading – not least for the breadth of his reading and the way he integrates useful references into the body of his text.

And, further, my post had actually been about Mason’s most recent book on Fascism – not his earlier one on PostCommunism which Boffy had critiqued extensively (in a series) to which Boffy refers again in his comments

Boffy’s basic argument seems to be that Mason’s support these days for a Popular Front is hypocritical as Stalin and the Comintern held the line so strongly against any common front with Socialists (although Mason reveals that, for some reason, Stalin conceded to Georgy Dmitrov when the Bulgarian leader told him to his face that this was unacceptable). But Mason was, of course, a Trotskyite and, as such, always opposed to Stalinism. As always happens in leftist disputes, I am therefore left a tad confused.

And this is perhaps the point at which I should come totally clean - and confess that I have always had an inclination toward the liberal rather than radical side of social democracy. I may have been a regular reader of New Left Review from its very first edition in 1960 but, when push came to shove, it was Gaitskell and Crosland I supported in the struggles for the soul of the Labour Party – although, in 1979, I appeared on platforms with Tony Benn and never shared the popular vilification of Jeremy Corbyn – whose 2017 electoral platform electrified me. Perhaps I’m simply becoming more radical as I grow older – but the way Corbyn was vilified by the UK media (including The Guardian) and put under military and MI5 surveillance proves to me that UK democracy is non-existent. This is a revealing and harrowing hour-long interview with Corbyn about that experience from Declassified UK which has attracted 1400 views – so much are voters starved of basic political power. How can a country imagine it’s democratic when the duly elected leader of the Opposition Party is the subject of sustained abuse from the country’s newspapers? Basically the message is

we allow you to vote every 4-5 years – but only if we agree with the harmless remedies your party supports”

If I had my time again, I would return to the spirit I showed in 1977 when I penned a thoroughly critical long article exposing the fragile foundations on which democracy was built.

Fascism Resource

Why do I get the feeling that Fascism is pigeon-holed academically? There seems to be something deviant about people who show interest in the field – is this unfair?

Interview with Paul Mason on his latest book

Three Faces of Fascism; Ernst Nolte (1966) This book by a German historian about French, German and Italian fascism attracted a lot of criticism at the time – for being too sympathetic

The regime model of fascism (2000) a long academic article which compares Austrian, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Romanian and Spanish forms of Fascism.

Studying Fascism in a post-Fascist Age Roger Griffin (2011) a fairly personal article about the academic field written a decade ago

Visualising Fascism – the 20th century rise of the global right ed J Thomas and G Eley (2020) A curious book co- edited by an historian who has specialised in Germany which focuses more on the aesthetic side of the subject.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Paul Mason on Fascism

I’m one of these snobs who has disliked the casual ease with which people have tossed off the “fascist” epithet. And I’ve turned my nose up to the various titles about the new “Fascist threat” which people like Madeleine Albright have alleged when Trump won the US Presidency (I grant that her family history clearly entitles her to its use).

But Paul Mason’s “How to Stop Fascism; ideology, history, resistance” (2021) has made me think again. The book throws a powerful historical light on to the growing right-wing presence in our political life – although reviews are fairly thin on the ground. Recent election results in Sweden and Italy suggest that this is not a time for us to relax our guard. Mason has a fairly unique blend of practical and theoretical experience which makes him an ideal guide to the subject.

If you’re a regular reader, you will know that I respect learning - but not academics whose ultra-specialisms make them a strange combination of the opinionated and narrow-minded. Somehow, operating inside a university department is bad for both your brain and your voice – and the only exceptions are those who have swapped countries or disciplines.

As a breed, I prefer journalists – who are “on the ground” but in a position to interpret the bookish expert for the general reader; the link gives my various posts on the subject including this one on the best “journalistic writing” which tries to give a sense of both the sources of income and the focus of the writing. There are more than 50 names in the table – spanning many countries and periods.

Paul Mason is one of them – he is not an academic although he is extraordinarily well-read by virtue of his time as a left-wing activist. His various books focus on trade unions, post-capitalism and, now, Fascism and have this knack of producing examples at the appropriate moment of relevant historical experience.

The book has three parts – the first looking at the “thought architecture” of modern fascism and the five forces which Mason considers to be driving the far-right – neoliberalism; digital technology; decaying democracy; climate warming; and the COVID pandemic.

The second part asks what were the potential turning points which might have averted Mussolini’s rise to power in 1920s’ Italy; and Hitler’s a decade later in Germany when the “left” failed so abysmally to come together to save the Weimar Republic. Coincidentally I had just finished reading The Gravediggers – the last winter of the Weimar Republic which devotes a few pages to every day from mid November to January 30th 1933 as Hitler tried to persuade the German President to make him Chancellor. The Nazi vote had actually dropped in 1932

Part III of Mason’s book consists of a chapter which offers Mason’s own attempt to construct a new theory of Fascism which takes account of the various threads which have dealt with the issue - from the immediate post-war use of the “totalitarian” concept and the various psychological efforts of people like Erich Fromm (“Fear of Freedom”) to the more recent, more academic analyses of the far-right. Here Mason’s own blend of practice and theory is a huge strength.

The final chapter sketches out how a new Popular Front might be established.

Monday, November 7, 2022

On not succumbing to fatalism

We’re told these days that it’s virtually impossible to change people’s minds – that we all suffer from “confirmation bias” viz screening out arguments which don’t confirm what we already believe about an issue. This has become the latest conventional wisdom of pop psychology - but needs to be strongly questioned. Believe that and all argument is pointless. But argument can be productive – if conducted the right way.

Respect is what makes the difference – walk away from anyone whose tone is dismissive or belittling.

Pity they don’t teach rhetoric at schools any more – we could all do with some basic lessons in logic and argumentation. I’m delighted that an increasing number of authors are rising to the challenge and offering good texts on the subject.

It helps to show you’re listening – and one of the “tricks” is to summarise what (you think) your interlocuteur has just said. It proves you’ve made the effort to listen and are treating them with respect

Take a lesson from the radio chat-show presenters eg James O’Brien of LBC who recently asked a Brexit supporter why he had felt so good about the results of the 2016 Referendum – “what”, he asked, “was the single thing that you felt would be so marvellous that the UK would no longer be required to do?”

In 9 minutes, the caller could not identify a single thing and kept repeating that he had signed up only to “a common market” which, of course, the Single Market gave him. A Master Class in the sort of relentless questioning to which Brexit supporters need to be exposed – with the one reservation that O’Brien’s face hardly shows the respect required!

Monday, October 31, 2022

This Too will Pass – patterns of decline

The beauty of doing a series of posts is that it gives you a chance to consider them with a critical eye – with what we might call “peripheral vision”! - and to see how they might be made more “rounded”. That’s what I’ve been doing with this last series – producing a 30 page paper which incorporates material I had written previously about both Brexit and the issue of Decline which, sadly, has become rather fashionable.

The result is a paper entitled This Too will Pass – patterns of decline

update; I thought I had completed this paper (about UK decline) but found myself drafting a conclusion  reflecting on the frenetic nature of change which took me onto "accelerationism" and then the 2015 book "Inventing the Future - postcapitalism and a world without work" which I had dismissed when I first tried to read it but now find a good read.

The updating has allowed me to argue that there are several elephants in the room in any attempt to understand the current malaise of the UK. One of these is the state of the British Labour Party with another being the way that party has been portrayed by the ideologues who own the british press Just three companies controlled 90% of the UK newspaper market in 2021 – up from 70% in 2015. How can the UK call itself a democracy in such a condition?

Further Update; John Harris is one of the few UK  journalists to break out of the "Westminster bubble" to focus on what people outside London are feeling and saying. He's also the host of the "Politics Weekly" podcastHere he is in Grimsby recently reporting on the calamity of life in that town   https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/vieo/2022/oct/31/the-town-where-brexit-died-but-hope-survives-video

Saturday, October 29, 2022

How can Britain survive? part VI of a series

 The UK has experienced 2 major shocks in the last 6 years – Brexit and Covid – on top of 40 years of relentless neoliberalism. The series has been trying to explore the effect this has this had on the UK’s social, political and institutional health,

I have to say that I find a surprising paucity of material about this. I’ve mentioned The Neoliberal Age? Britain since the 1970s (2021) but this is really the intellectual history of an idea and doesn’t, unfortunately, try to explore the effect that it has had on our social, political and institutional lives. 

One of the few authors who, clearly and strongly, frames Brexit as a consequence of the global financial crisis of 2007/8 is sociologist William Davies whose essays can be accessed in both the Guardian and the London Review of Books but collected in This is not normal – the collaps hee of Liberal Britain (2020) which he nicely introduces thus

There are various preoccupations throughout this book -

  • the abandoning of liberal economic rationality,

  • the declining authority of empirical facts,

  • the main-streaming of nationalism,

  • the hatred of ‘liberal elites’,

  • the effect of big data and real-time media on our politics,

  • the new mould of celebrity leaders,

  • the crisis of democratic representation.

These are all linked in ways that I’ve endeavoured to show. The over-arching theme is of a shift from a liberal polity based around norms, laws, expertise and institutions to a neoliberal one based around algorithmic surveillance and financial calculation.

The task for the kind of ‘real-time sociology’ that I was engaged in with these essays is to straddle the fast-moving world of the news cycle (which has grown significantly faster in the twenty-first century) with the search for underlying structures and conditions. This is not unlike the kind of ‘conjunctural analysis’ that Gramscians have long aimed at, and for which Stuart Hall’s work has been the model. Hall always encouraged us to pay attention to the new and unprecedented, and not simply view history as a predictable unfolding of underlying mechanics. Many of the essays in this volume perform a kind of brokerage service, moving between unfamiliar and shocking political events and familiar social and political theories, including many of the classics – Marx, Hirschman, Arendt, Foucault, Weber. In scurrying back and forth between my Twitter feed and my bookshelves, the hope is that we can understand what’s going on, without either wishful thinking or denial of the genuine conjunctural novelty.

And it is really odd that the best (weekly) analysis of the condition of British politics comes not from a journalist or political scientist but from another sociologist – this time of the organisational sort whose blog has been following Brexit for more than 6 years - namely Chris Grey’s Brexit and Beyond. What makes his blog remarkable is the forensic logic with which his weekly post dissects the various arguments of that week – replete with copious hyperlinks and reminders of the typologies of previous argumentation. Just look at the incisive power with which Grey assesses the possibilities and constraints facing the UK’s latest Prime Minister

The other analysis I’ve picked out is Reckless Opportunists – elites at the end of the establishment; Aeron Davies (2018) based on 20 years of researching elite figures in five areas associated with the modern Establishment:

  • the national media,

  • the City,

  • large corporations,

  • the Whitehall civil service and

  • the major political parties at Westminster.

Over that time, I have interviewed and observed over 350 people working in or close to the top. The book is organised in four parts. Part I surveys the elite state of play in Britain as it is now. Chapter 1 argues that the Establishment, as it has been conceived, is coming to an end. Chapter 2 looks at how elites, by trying to get ahead, have destabilised the very institutions on which their power is based. Part II looks at how leaders have adapted to get to the top.

Those most suited to pleasing their assessors get there first.

That means PPE degrees and MBAs rather than qualifications in law or engineering; media management and accounting skills instead of creativity and entrepreneurship. Sellers now trump makers, and bluffers outrank experts.

Part III reveals some of the ways elites stay at the top once they get there. As Chapter 5 shows, joining the club means sharing its culture and ideas, and adopting dominant norms and positions, no matter how nonsensical.

Chapter 6 looks at the secrets and lies that underpin elite power and control. Some are systematic and organised, and some are simply the lies leaders tell themselves. Chapter 7 shows that leadership has been transformed into a numbers game because numbers can be tallied up in a way that ideas can't. And because elites co-create the game, they can also change the rules as and when they need to.

Part IV focuses on exit strategies and how canny elites survive when it all goes wrong. As Chapter 8 shows, leaders follow far more than they lead. It's safer that way. And when the going gets tough, the tough join the herd. Chapter 9 is all about mobility, because the modern leader must be ready to up and go whenever things start falling apart.

Staying ahead no longer means staying on top of one organisation or nation but floating across several. The conclusion tries to join the dots and briefly explores what solutions there might be to the current problems of leadership

Friday, October 28, 2022

The revolutionary english - part v of a series

A few years back, I had occasion to comment that the Brits have a reputation for respecting tradition which is totally undeserved. Their government style (at least since the mid 1960s) has been one of the most revolutionary – putting even Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of “waves of creative destruction” to shame. Brexit is simply the most recent example A few others -

- In the mid 1970s the system of local government was decimated – the average British local authority covers 150,000 people - more than 10 times the European average

- the system has been subject several times since then to massive upheavals

- about two thirds of British civil servants now work in relatively independent Agencies

- virtually everything that can be privatized or contracted out has been so dealt with, with almost no services returning to the municipalities as has been the trend, for example, in Germany

- the National Health Service has been subjected to a never-ending series of organizational upheavals over the past 40 years

- in the mid 2000s, New Labour totally changed the political structures of English local government, encouraging the concentration of power in the hands of a few Cabinet members or a directly-elected mayor.

I supported some of these changes so it’s not the nature of the change I want to draw attention to – it’s rather their frequency and intensity; and the fact that British governments were able to force change through with so little effective opposition. That simply can’t happen in Europe where

  • the French, for example, are notorious for the strength of their protests about basic rights

  • German Governments bound by constitutional constraints and a Federal structure of power-sharing; and

  • the Italians bound by inertia.

Not for nothing did a British conservative Minister describe the British system as one of elective dictatorship.And, in the 1980s, an American political scientist drew attention to this in a book about French and British styles of centralisation subtitled “British dogmatism and French pragmatism

I have in this series been trying to understand what has brought a country so admired just a decade or so ago to its knees. The last post suggested that the rot always starts at the head – and the first real sign of things going badly wrong was probably the British decision in 2001 to thrown in its lot with the Americans and invade Iraq – although there were signs of hubris a few years earlier with the Kosovo war.

More than half of all British Prime Ministers were educated at Oxford University (30 out of 57) – and most of them at private schools such as Eton Little wonder they have such a sense of entitlement – with Boris Johnson being in a class of his own. Chums – how a tiny caste of Oxford Tories took over the UK (2022) uses one journalist’s experience at the University to explore how and why the establishment split over Brexit - and the radicalization of the Conservative Party by a relatively small band of right-wing ideologues who happen to have been educated at Oxford. It’s a fascinating story

But I said I wanted to look at the recent and sharp decline of Britain from various perspectives. Polly Toynbee is a Guardian journalist and David Walker was, for a time, Director of one of the sections of the abolished Audit Commission and they have jointly written books which have tried to assess (as objectively as possible) the performance of both Labour and Conservative governments of the past few decades. In 2020 they gave us The Lost Decade 2010-2020 And what lies ahead for Britain; Polly Toynbee and David Walker which has only now come into my possession.

And then there is the UN rapporteur on poverty and human rights Philip Alston’s report on the UK which came out in 2018.

a fifth of the population lives in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line,1 and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. Various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%. For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.

A year later, there was an appropriate follow-up All together now? One’s walk in search of his father and of a lost England; Mike Carter (2019). Both trace the horrific impact of growing poverty in the UK

Thursday, October 27, 2022

The Strange Death of Liberal England – part IV

The Strange Death of Liberal England was a famous book which came out in 1935 arguing that the Liberal party had been destroyed by its struggles over the House of Lords, the suffragettes, the trade unions and the Irish question - although its opening paragraph contains a significant line about "the terrible plutocracy of 1910-14". It was written by George Dangerfield, a British-American journalist in a fascinating modern style which makes it a great read..

Today. it’s not any particular political party which is under threat in the UK - but rather the entire fabric of its society. With another young, inexperienced (unhealthily privileged/rich) and deeply right-wing politician now in charge, he may or may not be able to stem, to an extent, the disastrous loss of confidence in the country’s capacity. This twitter thread argues that his Cabinet choices are hardly those of a man with an inspiring vision. Let me summarise what this series of posts has been trying to say -

  • the UK has, for the past 40 years, been increasingly in the grip of a mad scheme to “marketise” as many public services as possible

  • New Labour may have increased public spending on health and education for a few years but otherwise continued the Thatcherite doctrine of market freedom

  • 6 years of Brexit have destroyed the UK’s reputation

  • the lies and weaknesses of its political leaders have made the country the but of ridicule

  • Brexit has totally distracted since 2016 the UK machinery of government – with government unable to focus on anything except the political, legal and administrative consequences of that decision

  • the British government machine used to have a Rolls-Royce reputation

  • a decade of austerity has wreaked havoc on its institutional capacity

  • although it’s difficult to find evidence for such an assumption

It’s odd when we audit and measure everything which moves, to discover that indices of institutional health as so thin on the ground. Government may have given us League Tables which measure the performance of individual schools and hospitals -but seem to have difficulties letting us know how well the departments of State are doing with their task of managing the tens of thousands of schools and hospitals. In 2015, the Conservative government abolished the Audit Commission which had been auditing the affairs of local government and handed the job over to a private sector - which had proved itself incapable of revealing the truth about corporate business. True, we still have a National Audit Office with 800 staff but it’s accountable only to the UK parliament, not to government – with this being an example of one of their “overviews”. It’s nicely presented but the closest it gets to anything which might be called “performance assessment” is a box on customer satisfaction.

So we have to go elsewhere for material which might give us a sense of the effects of 40 years of what, rather reluctan tly, I have to call neoliberalism. The rot, they say, starts at the top – so I begin with one of the rare books which allowed a sociologist to interview the elite at the top of the industrial, financial and government sectors of the country in the new millennium - Reckless Opportunists – elites at the end of the establishment; Aeron Davies (2018)

It is the result of twenty years of intense research, over 350 interviews with the heads of corporations, senior civil servants, journalists, politicians and public relations firms. In response to Brexit, Aeron Davis wrote this slim but telling volume in less than three months. It is, in effect, a short anthropology of how the United Kingdom’s elite became clueless at governing.

Davis’s report is thus a frontline account of the way the political, industrial, financial and media elites are disabled by their own culture and methods from acting in the collective interests of the country. No one seems to trust anything or anyone else’. Davis observes that

self-interest and competition has left politicians willing to destroy their parties, civil servants their departments, chief executives their companies, and journalists their publications’.

He then sets out to explain how the new elites undermine the institutions they head. The reporting of quarterly returns by fund managers prevents long-term investment.

Within this world, leaders have to sell themselves continuously and rely on specialists in corporate affairs to attract investors. Communications teams spend 70 per cent of their time ‘keeping stuff out of the papers’. One result is the fading of rooted expertise and the rise of short-term consultants. This shift, echoed in politics and government, is leading to a massive loss of institutional memory essential to self-belief. It is not just bosses that come and go at speed. In 2009, Davis wanted to find out more about weapons of mass destruction decisions in Iraq, only to find there was only one person still in the department with the relevant knowledge. Of twenty-five permanent secretaries at the time, eleven had been in the post less than two years.

The parallel, insecure worlds of government and commerce, are run on ‘self-deception’, much of it embedded in the self-serving systems of ‘communication’. ‘Greater transparency’, Davis claims, only leads ‘to more mystification’. Finance directors manipulate the rate of return to serve the public listings of the share price, and when successful,move on before the consequences are realised. Many financial journalists are in effect ‘embedded’, writing to other specialists and reinforcing a small world that believes almost religiously in the free market.

The series will continue with a look at some other important books which explore the UK condition from a variety of perspectives