what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, February 17, 2020

No-Man’s Land

Watch him when he opens
His bulging words – justice
Fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace,
peace, peace. Make it your custom
to pay no heed
to his frank look, his visa, his stamps
and signatures. Make it
your duty to spread out their contents
in a clear light

Nobody with such language
Has nothing to declare
Norman MacCaig (1910-1996)

As usual, the last post – explaining the blog’s strange title - got a bit out of hand…
I was trying to make the point that boundaries – whether between countries, fields of study, professions, classes, religion or political party – are usually heavily protected.

But that those able and willing to cultivate cross-border connections are often hugely rewarded – not just with monetary profit but with new insights.
Just look at the Hanseatic League and the intellectual and cultural – let alone commercial - richness of towns and cities which lay on trading routes.

The first table in the last post looked at a small number of academic fields and then identified no fewer than ten separate sub-fields in a single one of them (Economics), That second table goes into important detail about the distinctive operational assumptions each of the sub-fields tends to bring to the subject.
Another recent post – 57 Varieties of Capitalism – looked at the very different treatment three broad schools in 11 different academic disciplines gave to the subject of capitalism.  

Academic disciplines (and their sub-fields) are like countries – protected generally with barbed wire, passports, visas, customs etc. This is why I honour those who try to break out from their narrow specialisms and to look at the world with a different lens – Albert Hirschmann memorably called this “trespassing” and wrote an entire book about it in 1981. He was one of a very few academics who attempted this straddling act – JK Galbraith was another….
Of course, straddling borders can be painful and it can arouse suspicions – with loyalties often being questioned. Consider the Jews!
Journalists too (some of whom are to be found in academia) are often treated with suspicion when they enter a country undergoing turmoil. But, as generalists rather than specialists, they offer us fresh vistas…

The coverage of recent years of the centenary of the First World War has given “No-man’s Land” the image of devastation but, in using the title “Exploring No-Man’s Land” I am trying to celebrate and encourage those who dare to venture into such territory.

Recommended Reading
Crossing Borders – stories and essays about translation; ed LS Schwartz (2018) - the link gives a rather jaundiced review of the book from LARB 
Essays on Trespassing – economics to politics and beyond; AO Hirschmann (1981) A master of the craft
Border – a journey to the edge of Europe; Kapka Kassabova (2017) very poetic exploration of the borderland between Bulgaria and Greece

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Explaining the blog's title

The blog was ten years old last autumn – making it one of the longest-running (english-speaking) blogs of its kind.  It first saw the light of day as "Carpathian Musings" because the blogging started in my mountain house in that area but, after a few winters spent in Sofia, I realized that the title was no longer a precise description of its source.
The blog was therefore, for 5 years or so, called “Balkan and Carpathian Musings”.
But neither the word "Balkan" nor "Carpathian" are keywords people use when they are googling on the topics the blog deals with - such as "the global financial crisis", "organisational reform", "social change", "capitalism" - let alone "Romanian culture", "Bulgarian painting", "transitology"etc.... 
So clearly the blog needed a name which better expresses its content and objectives. I realise, of course, that the way to increase the profile of a blog or website is to manipulate the algorithms – but this costs money I’m not willing to pay…
Let’s be clear, I’m not interested in raising the profile as an end in itself…..I have no illusions about my significance. But I am confident that my blog (and website) is an almost unique “resource” or, if you prefer, “library”…..Not perhaps so much of my writing – but of the insights of others whose books and papers I’ve taken the time and trouble to seek out and whose significance I’ve both recognized and wanted to pass on……Two crucial but not necessarily connected factors!!

So, let me try to explain why, for the past few months, I’ve been running with the title “Exploring No-Man’s Land”. The images of battlefields this summons up are quite deliberately chosen.
First, an accident of birth had me straddling the borderland of the West and East ends of a shipbuilding town in the West of Scotland – with class, religious and political tensions simmering in those places. 
Then political and academic choices in my late 20s brought me slap into the middle of the no-man’s land between politicians and different sorts of professional and academic disciplines.
Then, when I was almost 50, I became a nomadic consultant, working for the next 25 years in ten different countries
Previous posts have tried to give a sense of how that experience has made me who I am….

I was the son of a Presbyterian Minister (or “son of the manse” as we were known) and received my education in a state school which still then possessed the positive features of Scotland’s Democratic Tradition……now, sadly, much traduced.
It would have been easier for my parents to send me to the secondary school just a few blocks from our house but, as home was a manse (owned by the Church of Scotland) in the exclusive “West End”, that school was fee-paying. And my parents (although no radicals) would never have contemplated taking a step which would have created a barrier with my father’s congregation who were stalwarts of the town’s lower middle classes with modest houses and apartments in the centre and east of the town.
Thus began my familiarization with the nuances of the class system – and with the experience of straddling boundaries which was to become such a feature of my life. Whether the boundaries are those of class, party, professional group intellectual discipline or nation, they are well protected if not fortified…..And trying to straddle such borders – let alone explore them – can be an uncomfortable experience.

When I became a young councillor in 1968 (for the Catholic-dominated Labour party), I found myself similarly torn I developed loyalties to the local community activists but found myself in conflict with my (older) political colleagues and officials.
And I felt this particularly strongly when I was elevated to the ranks of magistrate and required to deal with the miscreants who confronted us as lay judges every Monday morning – up from the prison cells where they had spent the weekend for drunkenness and wife-beating……..
The collusion between the police and my legal adviser was clear but my role was to adjudicate “beyond reasonable doubt” and the weak police testimonials often gave me reason to doubt….I dare say I was too lenient and I certainly got such a reputation – meaning that I was rarely disturbed to sign search warrants!

And, on being elevated a few years later to one of the leading positions in a giant new Region, I soon had to establish relations with - and adjudicate between the budgetary and policy bids of - senior professionals heading specialized Departments with massive budgets and manpower.

It was at that stage that I developed a diagram for my students to make sense of the “conflict of loyalties” to what I saw as 4 very different pressures (audiences) to which politicians are subjected – 
- local voters (if the electoral system is based on local constituencies);
- the party (both local and national)
- the officials (and laws) of the particular government agency they had entered;
- their conscience.

Politicians, I argued, differ according to the extent of the notice they took of each of the pressures coming from each of these sources – and the loyalties this tended to generate. And I gave names to the 4 types which could be distinguished – “populist”; “ideologue”, “statesman”,  “maverick”.
The effective politician, however, is the one who resists the temptation to be drawn exclusively into any one of these roles. Each has its own important truth - but it is when someone blends the various partialities into a workable and acceptable proposition that we see real leadership.

And I would make the same point about the different professional and academic disciplines.
Each generates its own way of looking at the world – as you will see from the table below which looks only at seven academic disciplines

The core assumptions of academic subjects
Core assumption
Most Famous exponents (not necessarily typical!)
Struggle for power
Durkheim, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, C Wright Mills,Robert Merton,  Herbert Simon, A Etzioni, Ralf Dahrendorf
Rational choice
Adam Smith, Schumpeter, Keynes, P Samuelson, M Friedmann, J Stiglitz, P Krugman
Political science
Rational choice (at least since the 1970s)
Robert Dahl, Gabriel Almond, David Easton, S Wolin, Peter Hall, James Q Wilson, Bo Rothstein, Francis Fukuyama
Mackinder, David Harvey, Nigel Thrift, Danny Dorling
Public management
mixed for traditional bodies - rational choice for New PM
Woodrow Wilson, Chris Hood, Chris Pollitt, Guy Peters, G Bouckaert,
shared meaning
B Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Claude Levi-Strauss, Margaret Mead, Mary Douglas, Chris Shore, David Graeber
Political economy
draws upon economics, political science, law, history, sociology et al to explain how political factors determine economic outcomes.
JK Galbraith, Susan Strange, Mark Blyth, Wolfgang Streeck, Geoffrey Hodgson, Yanis Varoufakis,

And, of course, each of these seven fields has a variety of sub-fields each of which has its own specific “take” even before you get to the eccentricities of individual practitioners – let me remind you of this table about 10 sub-fields in Economics which I used in a recent post

Pluralism in Economics
Name of “school”

Humans act within…
The economy is…..
Old “neo-classical”
optimise narrow self-interest
A vacuum
New “neo-classical”
can optimise a variety of goals
A market context
Stable in the absence of friction
use rules of thumb
A macro-economic context
Naturally volatile
act in their self-interest
Their class interests
Generally stable
do not have predetermined patterns
Their class and historical interests
Volatile and exploitative
have subjective knowledge and preferences
A market context
Volatile – but this is generally sign of health
have changeable behaviour
Instit envt that sets rules and social norms
Dependent on legal and social structures
act “sensibly” but not optimally
An evolving, complex system
Both stable and volatile
exhibit engendered behaviour
A social context
act ambiguously
Social context
Embedded in the environment
This is an excerpt only – the full table is from Ho-Joon Chang’s “Economics – a User’s Guide” but can be viewed at diagram at p61 of The Econocracy – the perils of leaving economics to the experts; Earle, Moran and Ward-Perkins (2017)

Please understand, I’m not trying to confuse – rather the opposite….I’m trying to liberate!
Once we become aware of the very different worlds in which people live, our world suddenly becomes a very richer place – in which we have choices about the particular lens we use to make sense of it all…
I remember the first time I really became aware of this – when I did the Belbin team test. And The Art of Thinking by Bramsall and Harrison (1984) very usefully sets out different types of strategic thinking..

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Links I liked

I confess that I surf too much and collect too many hyperlinks and excerpted text which I am too lazy to read - let alone post about. The result is that the file which I label “rawtext” is currently 180 pages long….Don’t take my word for it – thanks to pcloud you can actually view it for yourself here (and it does contain some great material – including paywalled text from my LRB and NYRB accounts!)
One blogger deals with this by posting a weekly “Links I liked” - a great way of honouring good reads without having to spend a few hours on a post…
It’s in that spirit that this post is written – but also in the vague hope that it might flag up material for me to return to in future posts…….

My mail is generally the first thing I turn to when I open the PC - Dave Pollard’s blog has a feed to which I subscribe and his latest post is a typically thoughtful one about “good questions”
For a variety of reasons (not least technology) we do tend, these days, to be very self-centred – which makes “good listening” something we have to work at according to a podcast inspired by a book called “You’re not Listening”. That, in turn, took my thoughts back to the idea of good conversations, encouraged by the likes of Theodor Zeldin and the Conversation CafĂ© people.

Another feed I get is from Oxfam’s resident blogger, Duncan Green, which duly alerted me to Global Megatrends – mapping the forces that affect us all (Oxfam 2020) which looks a must-read!

Another feed from “Reviews in History” told me of Thatcher’s Progress – from social democracy to market liberalism through a market town (2019) an interesting-looking book by Guy Ortolano which explores how the national mood changed in the 1970s. Googling the title alerted me to an intriguing blog which invites authors to apply the “page 99 test” viz looking at a single incident on that page and briefly explaining how it relates to the book’s wider analysis.

Having exhausted the contents of the mail, The Guardian newspaper is my next destination. Their ‘Long Read” is generally a useful source and so it was with today’s which dealt with the crucial issue of food and its adulteration - a terrific article which alerted me to a fascinating blog  

Michel Albert (who died, sadly last year) was a Frenchman I have admired since I first came across his “Capitalism v Capitalism “ in the heady days of 1990 and random googling brought me today to Occupy theory, the first of a 3 volume series Michael Albert wrote to mark the Occupy movement, the others being Occupy Vision and Occupy Strategy. But it turns out, after some confusion on my part, that it’s a different Albert, this one being still alive; one of the architects of the participatory economics movement; and author of what looks to be a great memoir - https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/remembering-tomorrow-introduction-by-michael-albert/

I know that the UK left the EU a couple of weeks ago - but the question of what attitude “progressives” should take to the EU still exercises me. Lexit was the position adopted by British leftist Leavers to which I didn’t pay much attention. Busting the Lexit Myth was a pamphlet issued in 2018 by Open Europe which attracted a fairly withering response from  https://www.labourleave.org.uk/the_lexit_mythbuster_that_never_was
And I’m sorry that I also missed England’s Discontents – political cultures and national identities; Mike Wayne (Pluto 2018)

Dissent magazine is a US leftist journal whose articles can be accessed in full. Try, however, to copy the url of an article you like and you will be blocked. Excellent approach which I wish more journals would use.......
Naomi Klein has a powerful article on the Green New Deal which explores the intellectual and moral as well as political challenge it poses

But for those of us born and raised inside this system, though we may well see the dead-end flaw of its central logic, it can remain intensely difficult to see a way out. And how could it be otherwise? Post-Enlightenment Western culture does not offer a road map for a way to live that is not based on an extractivist, nonreciprocal relationship with nature.
This is where the right-wing climate change deniers have overstated their conspiracy theories about what a cosmic gift global warming is to the left.

It is true that many climate responses reinforce progressive support for government intervention in the market, for greater equality, and for a more robust public sphere. But the deeper message carried by the ecological crisis—that humanity has to go a whole lot easier on the living systems that sustain us, acting regeneratively rather than extractively—is a profound challenge to large parts of the left as well as the right.
-       It’s a challenge to some trade unions, those trying to freeze in place the dirtiest jobs, instead of fighting for the good clean jobs their members deserve.
-       And it’s a challenge to the overwhelming majority of center-left Keynesians, who still define economic success in terms of traditional measures of GDP growth, regardless of whether that growth comes from low-carbon sectors or rampant resource extraction.

Some other hyperlinks
Podcasts is a medium I have tended to ignore. And the BBC archives are the best for English speakers see, for example
-       Arts and Ideas https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02nrvk3
-       free thinking BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0144txn


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

In Case you missed this

Since my subscription for a dedicated website ran out a year ago, I’ve been using the Dropbox facility to supply the URL of any paper I upload to the blog. 

But a spell using an old PC has made me appreciate Dropbox's deficiencies….....which include its reliance on a limited number of operating systems.
My old HP uses Windows Vista (no longer supported by GoogleChrome) which is not one of the operating systems used by DropBox. When I’ve tried to access the files on my blog which has been using Dropbox, I get a useless frozen opening page with neither a download facility nor column to allow scrolling down

Pcloud, however, allows access to Vista and therefore, in turn, to the downloading and scrolling facilities - so I have installed it experimentally….
The year may so far have seen only 15 posts but they have been significant ones - with definitive posts detailing the best reading on a variety of key subjects - eg capitalism (here and here); admin reform; and postmodernism
I have therefore been so cheeky as to upload them in pamphlet form - to allow reading from the beginning of the year....You will see that the last few pages are the notes for future posts

Postscript; The experience has made me realise that those using Windows XP or Vista must have been experiencing the same problems.....so I have now adjusted the urls to the pcloud genre which should allow downloading for those on XP and Vista.
Let no-one say I don't take care of my readers!!

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Neutralising Democracy

The pensions, special conditions and remuneration of eurocrats serve to insulate them from the general public – making them a breed apart. And I’m not just talking about the officials and the politicians – it’s also the judges, generals etc (whose pay levels have a profound knock-on effect on the relevant systems of countries like Romania and Bulgaria)
Let alone the hundreds of thousands of consultants and officials who work in bodies (like municipalities and institutes) funded by the hundreds of billions of euros of European funding. The morally corrupting effect of the special interests this develops was strongly argued by Robert Michels more than a hundred years ago

Most people are familiar with the Yes Minister" television series  screened by the BBC in the 1970s – less so with this magnificent short satirical article by its author, Anthony Jay - ”Democracy, Bernard, it must be stopped!” - the best analysis of power I know (apart from Lord Acton’s “Power tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely”).
The article takes the form of the advice given by Sir Humphrey (the retiring Head of the Civil Service) to his replacement – who, amazingly, turns out to be the guy who 30 years previously was the hapless Bernard. It captures the mechanisms which have been used over the past 50 years to undermine democracy far better than any book.

The first two rules for neutralising democracy are:

1.Centralise revenue. The governing class cannot fulfil its responsibilities without money. We, therefore, have to collect as much money as we can in the centre. In fact, we have done this with increasing effect over the years, with three happy results. The first is that we can ensure that money is not spent irresponsibly by local communities. By taking 80 or 90 per cent of the money they need in central taxes, we can then return it to them for purposes of which we approve. If they kept it for themselves, heaven knows what they might spend it on.
The second happy result is that the larger the sum, the harder it is to scrutinise. The ₤6,000 or so spent by a rural parish council is transparent and intelligible, and subjected to analysis in distressing detail. By contrast, the three or four hundred billion of central government revenue is pleasantly incomprehensible, and leaves agreeably large sums for purposes which the common people would not approve if it were left to them. It also means that a saving of ₤1 million can be dismissed as 0•0000003 of annual expenditure and not worth bothering with, whereas it can make a lot of difference to the budget of Fidelio at Covent Garden.
The third result is that the more the government spends, the more people and organisations are dependent on its bounty, and the less likely they are to make trouble. 

2.Centralise authority. It goes without saying that if Britain is to remain a country of civilised values, the masses cannot be trusted with many decisions of importance. Local government must be allowed to take decisions, but we have to ensure that they are trivial. Meanwhile, we must increase the volume of laws made centrally. We have an enviable record of legislation growth, with hardly any laws being repealed, which it is now your duty to extend. If you are under pressure to provide statistics showing your zeal in deregulation, you will find many laws concerning jute processing and similar extinct industries which can be repealed without too much harm. …
You will also want to ensure that every Bill contains wide enabling powers, so that unpopular provisions can be brought in later as statutory instruments which MPs rarely read and virtually never debate. You should be able to achieve three or four thousand of these in a good year.

The rest of the rules flow from the first two –

3.Capture the Prime Minister
Given the promises a PM makes, it is not difficult to persuade him that he needs more revenue and power
4. Insulate the Cabinet
They must be kept, as far as possible, well away from any contact with the sweaty multitude. This means avoiding public transport by use of private cars, avoiding the National Health Service by private health care etc
5. Enlarge constituencies
In the name of democracy, we have increased constituency size to 50,000 or 60,000, so that no MP can be elected on voters' personal knowledge of him. They vote for the party, and if the party does not endorse him, he will not be elected. His job, therefore, depends on the Prime Minister's approval and not on the respect of his constituents; a splendid aid to discipline
6. Overpay MPs

Even when MPs depend on the party machine for re-selection and re-election, some are occasionally tempted to step out of line. This risk can be significantly reduced if rebellion means not only loss of party support but also significant loss of income.
7. Appoint rather than elect

Government appointment is critical for control of society - so that proper care can be exercised in their selection of the thousands of positions available in Quangos - and so that the incumbents, when chosen, will know to whom they owe their new eminence, while those hoping for such posts (as with honours and peerages) can be trusted to behave responsibly in the hope of favours to come
8. Permanent officials – rotating Ministers
We have built an excellent system of a few transient amateur ministers who are coached, informed, guided and supported by a large department of permanent, experienced officials who enable them to take the correct decisions.
9. Appoint more staff

There are three reasons for this: it increases the volume of government revenue, it extends the area of government control, and it enlarges the pool of voters who have an interest in preserving the system that employs them.
10. Secrecy

Our success is based on the principle that no information should be disclosed unless there is a good reason why it should be. From time to time, opposition parties press for a freedom of information Act, but oppositions become governments and it does not take long for a government to discover that real freedom of information would make their job impossible.

The satire concludes by casting an envious eye at the European system -

Beyond this, I can only point you towards the breathtaking achievements of our colleagues in Brussels. To be frank, I do not see any prospect of our rivalling them.
• Their commissioners, like our permanent secretaries, do not have to endure the ignominy of grubbing votes from the plebs, and, unlike us, do not have to pretend to be subservient to a political master.
Being answerable to 27 ministers from different countries, most of whom are hostile to each other, and would be even more hostile if they could understand each other's languages, gives them almost complete independence of action. They have also ensured that only the Commission can bring forward legislation, thus avoiding the tedious, irritating and ill-informed ministerial scrutiny we have to endure drafting Bills.
• And since the European electorate speaks so many different languages, it is impossible for genuine European political parties to form, thereby making any serious danger of democracy quite inconceivable.

Obviously, success on that scale is out of our reach, but we can look on Brussels as a guiding star which we must follow, even if we know we cannot land on it.