what you get here

This is not a blog which opines 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, June 7, 2023

Power – its "hard" and "soft" aspects

Power impacts on us in so many ways – at the office, at university, when we seek authorisation 
for a document, even when we go shopping. It can be exercised benignly or harshly. 
What redress do we have when we feel we are being unfairly treated – do we meekly accept?
Or do we agitate and protest? 
Power is a topic which crops up fairly frequently on tne blog .but I’ve reached the stage 
I would like to know how my thinking on such an important issue has changed/developed
 over time – so I’ve crafted one of my tables to explore this.

It’s never easy to formulate how you understood things when you were young – although, in my
 case, I do have the evidence of things I wrote almost 50 years ago, particularly an article
 - “Community Development – its administrative and political challenge" - and a little book 
The Search for Democracy – a guide to and polemic about local government in Scotland" (both in 1977). 
Both had been written after a decade of experience first as a community activist and then 
of a political strategist trying to reform bureaucracy from the inside. 
A careful rereading of both documents gives me this summary of how I then understood power 

Our society is hardly what one would call a participatory democracy. The term that is used - "representative" democracy - is official recognition of the fact that "the people" do not take political decisions but have rather surrendered that power to one tor several) small elites - subject to quinquennial (or infrequent) checks. Such checks are, of course, a rather weak base on which to rest claims for democracy4 and more emphasis is therefore given to the freedom of expression and organisation . whereby pressure groups articulate a variety of interests. Those who defend the consequent operation of the political process argue that we have, in effect a political market place in which valid or strongly supported ideas survive and are absorbed into new policies. They further argue that every viewpoint or interest has a more or less equal chance of finding expression and recognition. This is the political theory of pluralism.5

Community development is an expression of unhappiness with this view of the operation of the policy process. At its most extreme - in some theories of community action - it argues that the whole process is a gigantic confidence trick. In its more liberal version it merely wants to strengthen the voice of certain inarticulate members of society. There is, I think, a relatively simple v. a:-in which to test the claims of those who argue that there is little scope for improvement in the operation of our democratic process and that any deficiencies art attributable to the faults of individuals rather than to the system.' It involves looking at how new policies emerge.

The assumption of our society, good "liberals" that most of us essentially are, is that the channels relating governors to governed are neutral and that the opportunity to articulate grievances and have these defined (if they are significant enough) as "problems" requiring action from authority is evenly distributed throughout society. This is what needs to be examined critically - the concept of grievance and the process by which government responds to grievances. "Problems" emerge because individuals or groups feel dissatisfied and articulate and organise that dissatisfaction in an influential way which makes it difficult for government to resist.

"Grievance" or "dissatisfaction" is not. however, a simple concept - it arises when a judgement is made that events fall short of what one has reason to expect. Grievance is a function of expectations and performance - both of which are relative and vary from individual to individual - or. more significantly, from group to group

The process whereby "problems" are brought to the attention of government can be represented in a diagram you’ll find in the article. From the recognition of these eight stages flow various questions:

1 Do all groups in our society have the same expectations about government or (say) the social services?

2 Do all groups share roughly the same level of critical perception of their own achievement?

3 Is the capacity to articulate grievances equally distributed in society?

4 Is the capacity to organise that articula­tion equally distributed?

5 Is the process by which the political system picks up signals a neutral one?

6 is the process by which civil servants define problems and collect information a random one?

7 Does the way our decisions are taken and implemented affect the chance of their subsequent success? 9

Community development grew in the 1960s as, increasingly, negative answers were given to these sorts of questions" and - perhaps more significantly - confidence grew that the situation could be changed.

The table below starts with a post about how aspects of power have been been understood in the UK in some of the literature since the start of the new millenium and then widened the focus to look at how more cosmopolitan figures in Europe and the US have theorised about the subject; and at the more hidden aspects of financial power. 
Amitai Etzioni classified power in terms of “coercion, incentives and moral persuasion” – 
sticks, carrots and seduction we might call it. And if you’re wondering what “moral persuasion” 
is, Joseph Nye’s concept of "soft power"  explains it very well

Recent Posts on power

The post

The take-away

How it advances understanding about power

Who Runs Britain?

The insularity of the British discussion – with Perry Anderson being a rare exception

Included a detailed reading list of the key books on the subject from 1999 to 2018

We need to talk about power

The discussion becomes more cosmopolitan

Steven Lukes (UK and US)

Amitai Etzioni (US)

Joseph Nye (US)

A Challenge to Financial Power

A tribute to the originality of Robert Skidlesky and David Graeber

See the previous post on rentier capitalism

Against Binary Thinking

Theory Y was right!!

We need to become less cynical

On our Own


How I understand the world – and

a draft agenda of change

Jeremy Gilbert’s “Common Ground” (2014) is one of the few books which tries to break out of the left-right conflict

Leaders we Deserve

Klaas’ “Corruptible – who gets power and how it changes us” is a psychological look at the topic and based on a global search which ignores the huge literature on the topic

Few said it better than Robert Michels 100 years ago – in “Political Parties” which looked at how trade unionists and social democrats were seduced by power

Speak Memory

Key reading for me since the 1960s

Another great reading list

On Power


Why are so many books on the subject deeply disappointing

Deepening our power

Forget electoral ref – enact direct democracy!orm

I take 2 lessons from the table - first that my thinking about power has deterioted - the analysis
of 1977 was much sharper than the more recent stuff! And second that I have been too inclined 
to repeat myself- and too reluctant to take the time to read the books I have referenced. 
For example, the process of drafting this post has unearthed another few critical books 

British Politics – a critical analysis Stuart McAnulla (2006)the book may be 17 years old but it is, for me, simply the most honest analysis of the perversities of the British system

Political Traditions and UK politics Matthew Hall (2011) Very good on the continuing power of tradition on UK politics

Who Runs the Economy – the role of power in Economics https://vdoc.pub/download/who-runs-the-economy-the-role-of-power-in-economics-7a8c1cfqh4u0 ed Robert Skidelsky and Nan see this podcastCraig (2016) A rare discussion of the most profound weakness of modern economics

How Westminster Works – and why it doesn't; Ian Dunt (2022) a brilliant analysis which exposes the superficiality of British politics and the role played in that by political journalists who focus on the Lobby and neglect the work of Select Committees. For a useful discussion see this podcast

But what can I do? Alaister Campbell (2023) Tony Bliar’s spindoctor emcourages citizens to protest. Pity that comes just as the UK government is cracking down on protest!

Monday, June 5, 2023

What's in a Name??

Christopher Betts put it rather nicely - 

Scholars have made various attempts to capture the essence of the model which governs 
the UK economy . The two with most traction are “financialisation” and “neoliberalism”.
Neither concept quite suffices  - rather the UK economy is a quintessential case of “rentier capitalism”.
To understand rentier capitalism, one first needs to understand rent. Rent is income generated 
by virtue of exclusive ownership or control of a scarce asset of some kind. A rentier is the recipient 
of this income: the individual or, more commonly, corporation that controls the asset. Rentier 
capitalism is an economic order organised around income-generating assets, in which overall 
incomes are dominated by rents and economic life is dominated by rentiers. Fundamentally 
orientated to “having” rather than “doing”, it is based on a proprietorial rather than entrepreneurial 
ethos. That, in short, is the UK since the 1970s.
But my fellow-blogger Dave Pollard expressed it even better in his most recent post

In a recent extraordinary essay, the historian blogger Aurélien analyzed the types of activities that make up our economy, and how the pursuit of each type of activity dictates our political priorities. There are, for him, four types of activities that make up our economy and the pursuit of each type of activity dictates our political priorities.

  • in boom times, creative and productive activities prevail, the economy is strong, and political regulations, laws and incentives are oriented towards the encouragement of sustainable, value-creating activities.

  • But when the resources that drive the economy (especially energy) become costly or 
  • scarce, and the economy falters or stagnates, economic activity shifts toward unsustainable 
  • extractive, rentier and predatory activities, most of which are actually useless, unnecessary
  • and even value-destroying.

  • And he continues -
Pre-industrial economies were extractive - people mined, cut down trees, hunted and gathered crops, or planted small gardens. This was fine as long as the population remained small enough that the resources extracted had time to self-renew. But as the human population grew, these resources were increasingly depleted. The first victims of this were the large mammals across the world, rendered extinct through overhunting. Now, we are facing shortages of affordable resources of all kinds.

Beginning with the Enclosure Movement in the 18th century, global economies shifted towards value-destroying activities. This began with the dismembering of usury laws, the rise of banks, and the shift of the upper caste from industrialists to rentiers, renting properties to farmers and home-owners, and charging interest on loans, instead of doing anything productive.

Simultaneously, with the availability of currencies to transact new kinds of activities, predatory economic activities soared. Military confiscations and pirates have existed as long as militaries have, of course, but now human societies also had to deal with gangsters extorting payments and tolls, theft of cash, and the requirement to pay bribes to get things done. And the top caste, ever seeking ways to acquire more wealth without having to earn it, established an entire new “professional-managerial” class, exploiting the increasing complexity and unmanageability of the economy by creating do-nothing jobs for themselves and their children — as ‘managers’, lawyers, consultants, auditors, specialized ‘trainers’, lobbyists, and marketers.

None of this activity actually produces anything of value, and most of it merely adds unnecessarily to the cost of products and services - but the top caste were able to persuade legislators that these activities merited the highest professional salaries, and that these activities should actually be included in GDP, rather than subtracted from it. At one time, just as one example, the music “industry” was about making and playing music, and the proceeds went mostly to the musicians. But then the “industry” was taken over by an oligopoly that intermediated between the musicians and the public, and extracted, in the form of fees, royalties, and markups, almost all of the proceeds, leaving most musicians impoverished. And now, as Aurélien laments, there is more money to be made as an IP lawyer suing musicians for copyright violations, than there is in the creation of music itself. That’s where we find ourselves today.

Aurélien suggests that the mindset that allows this “arises when society loses faith in the
 future and in our ability to construct it”.

We have entered a period where politics in the widest sense has become nothing but extractive
and consists essentially of seeking opportunities for personal, professional and financial 
benefit from the conflict, stagnation and decline of current societies. For we live in a society 
where, for the first time in several centuries, it seems impossible to seriously imagine a better
 world for all, or even most.
Once the economy became so perverted towards non-productive activity, it was inevitable 
that our political system would become likewise perverted to reward such non-productive activity. 
Aurélien explains:
If you are a Minister in charge of an important function of government, it makes sense 
for you to starve this function of resources, rather than improving it. Why? Because the
 worse the system performs, the greater will be the demand by those with money for alternatives.
  • Once a postal service loses a monopoly on certain deliveries for example, an entire field 
  • of extraction opens up for lawyers, financiers, advertising agencies, logistic consultants and others to promote the development of private-sector alternatives. 
  • Likewise, the more you can inculcate the feeling among the general population that things 
  • are getting worse  and services will inevitably decline, the more they will accept this state of affairs, and feel there is no alternative to paying more for worse service.
So: Step 1: Shift the economy, and how it is measured, so you and your top caste colleagues 
get paid exorbitantly for doing nothing of value. 
Step 2: Use your wealth and power to bully governments to change government policies and
 laws to reward extractive, rentier and predatory economic activities above all others, and 
then to deregulate and cut taxes on profits from such activities. 
Step 3: Propagandize the public to believe this is “progress” and “the free market at work” 
and to relentlessly lower their expectations of what both corporations and governments can and should do for them.

I find this a very clear and succinct analysis of what’s happening – 
not just in the UK but in Europe as a whole. 

Thursday, June 1, 2023

World without Work

A couple of articles with this title (here and here) inspired me to rehearse the history of commentary on this subject. It was Charles Handy’s 1984 book “The Future of Work” which first warned me that the familiar contours of our world were moving under our feet; that the notion of life-long jobs wa;s gone for ever and which introduced us to the term “portfolio life”. And I vividly remember the impact on me of Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine (1988) which drew on the evidence of the new information technology industries to underline the threat the future held to our notion of a normal working life….

We have all subsequently taken advantage of the speed, choice and capacity with which we have been richly endowed by the new information facilities - but perhaps been a bit slow to recognize the scale of its consequences. Google's driver-less car and the speed with which companies such as Uber and Airbnb have scaled up brought it all home to us….But people like Frithjof Bergmann and Jeremy Rifkin – the latter with his “the End of Work (1995) were amongst a few at the time who appreciated what Handy was onto……Since then there have been quite a few books with the title “The Future of Work (2004), David Bollier (2011), Jacob Morgan (2014) to which I should have been paying more attention…..

But, very suddenly it seems, the scale of the impact of IT and robots on jobs previously thought safe from automation has hit people and the prospect of the majority of people living without paid work is now beginning to both excite and frighten….Race against the machine (2011) is perhaps the most famous of the books about this....The air is thick with talk, for example, of the necessity of a Basic Income; and of the writings of both Keynes and Marx on this subject…..Inventing the Future – Postcapitalism and a world without work (2015) is typical of the titles which are now appearing. You can read it for yourself in full here

I’m currently in the middle of Future Politics – living together in a world transformed by Tech by James Susskind (2018) which must be one of the first popular books to explore the likely impact of the new world of algorithms and artificial intelligence

The premise of ‘Future Politics’ is that relentless advances in science and technology are set to transform the way we live together with consequences that are both profound and frightening. We are not yet ready for the world we are creating. Politics will not be the same as it was in the past.

For Susskind, three changes are of particular note: increasingly capable systems that are equal or superior to how humans function; increasingly integrated technologies that are embedded in the physical and built environment (the internet of things); and an increasingly quantified society, whereby details of our lives are captured as data and processed by digital systems. Those who control the technologies will exercise power over us, set the limits of our liberty, and determine the future of democracy. One of the problems is that the engineers devising and implementing these technologies rarely engage with consequences of these developments.

So, it is up to the rest of us to correct this deficiency and take responsibility for understanding and analysing the implications of this transformed world. We must, says Susskind, engage with political theory if we are to think critically and develop appropriate intellectual tools to tackle these digital developments. With this as the agenda, Susskind sets out to examine this future under the headings of power, liberty, democracy, justice and politics itself, devoting sections of the book to each of these subjects in turn.

In Part Two, Susskind devises three categories for discussing future power: force, scrutiny and perception-control (p. 89). The big tech companies, and government agencies who work with them, will be in control of developments and thus possess the power, while the rest of us will be relatively powerless. Susskind writes:

The shift from law enforced by people to law enforced by technology means that power will increasingly lie in force rather than coercion, with self-enforcing laws that cannot be broken because they are encoded into the world around us.” (p. 105)

This is a really important insight. The following chapter on scrutiny is also perceptive and helpful as Susskind brings more distinctions into play: this time between scrutiny as intimate, imperishable, predictable and rateable (p. 127). The cumulative impact of this scrutiny will construct a world unlike anything we have experienced hitherto. Where we go; what we do; what we purchase; what we write, read and say; let alone who and what we know, and our work and ambitions will all be the subject of scrutiny (p. 129).

Further Reading
Automation and the future of work; Aaron Benanov (2020)
How to Run a City like Amazon and other Fables; ed M Graham…. J Shaw (2019)

automation and the future of work HMSO 2019

The People v Tech – how the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it); Jamie Bartlett (2018)
Living Together – the future of politics in a world transformed by technology; James Susskind (2018) 
A World without Work? (Values and Capitalism network 2018)
The Future of Work (ILO 2015)
A World without Work (The Atlantic 2015)
The Second Machine Age; Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (2014)