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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Democratic Discontents

Warning! This is a long post!
Questions about the capacity of government in general and the political system in particular has been prominent recently on the blog. Three years ago, Gerry Stoker published a book which tried to address this issue - summary of argument here. British government is one of the most studied in the world. For a relatively small country, its combination of history, empire, flexible constitution, liberal politics and (global) language has given its outpourings about the nature and effects of its various political and administrative structures and processes a global impact.

And yet I am struck with the absence of realistic and critical studies of the efficacy of the British governance arrangements at this point in the 21st Century. I have thought long and hard – and can produce only four analyses which might be read with benefit by the concerned and perplexed in that country. Two are 10 years old – the other two 5 years old.

We have, of course, countless academic studies of the operation of the British Parliament, of political parties, of voting systems, of local government, of devolved arrangements, of the civil service, of public management (whether Ministries, core exectuve, agencies), of the Prime Minister’s Office, of the European dimension etc – and a fair number of these are reasonably up-to-date. But most of it is written for undergraduates – or for other academic specialists who focus on one small part of the complex jigsaw. There is so very little which actually tries to integrate all this and give a convincing answer to the increasing number of citizens who feel (like Craig Murray recently) that there is no longer any point in voting; that politicians are either corrupt or hopelessly boxed in by global finance and corporate interests.

I used the epithet “realistic” above in order to distinguish the older studies which painted a rather ideal picture of the formalities of the system (what the 19th century Walter Bagehot called the “dignified”parts) from the more rounded studies of the “hidden”(Bagehot), informal processes which were encouraged by the seminal 1970s book about the British budget process – The Private government of public money by the outsiders Heclo and Wildavsky.

A “Critical” study or analysis is a more complex term – since the word can mean “carping” to the man in the street or textual deconstruction to an academic. When I use the phrase critical study (as Humpty Dumpty might have said) I mean one which tries not only to describe a system but to assess how well it works (begging the obvious question - For whom?!) Despite the knowledge which academics in political science, sociology or public management can bring to the subject, several major factors seem to conspire to prevent social scientists from making any critical contribution to our understanding of the health of the governance system.

First is the strength of academic specialisation - which has discouraged and continues to discourage the sort of inter-disciplinary approach needed to explore the question of the capacity of a governance system. Then there is the aloofness of the academic tradition which makes it difficult for specialists to engage in critiques which might be seen as too political. Not, however, that this prevented people like Peter Self from lambasting the nonsenses of market thinking in government in the 1980s. And this blog has already mentioned the powerful critique of the effect of commodification on some public services carried out by Colin Leys in Market-driven Politics (2003) and by Alysson Pollok in NHS plc (2004).
Rod Rhodes is a more typical example – a leading public administration academic who invented the phrase “hollowed-out executive” to describe the loss of government functions in the last 30 years - but who chose to keep his critique incestuous both in the language and outlets he used. He played a major role in developing the “network” understanding of government – but then allowed anthropological and phenomenological assumptions to overwhelm him.
The blandishments of consultancy are a potential counter pressure to this tradition – which gets a small minority of academics too engaged with peripheral issues which so excite civil servants and Ministers.

A final factor explaining the lack of academic contribution to the understanding of the nature of our current democratic system is the contempt in which academics who write for (and become popular with) the wider public are held in the academic community - and the damage which is therefore done to one’s academic career if one chooses that path. I remember how the charismatic historian AJP Tayor was treated. And it’s interesting that Zygmunt Baumann began to write his books only after he retired from academia. Major developments in public management have, of course, encouraged academics like Norman Flynn to present and assess them for a wider public. And the same has happened in the field of constitutional theory – eg Anthony King’s The British Constitution (2007). But the first is a bit long on descriptions and the second on historical figures. And both are very partial pictures of the governance system.

This is getting to be a long post – so we need to be clear why it is important to have a systematic, up-to-date and plausible statement about how (well) our governance arrangements (or architecture) work. First as a check (or benchmark) for the myriad iniatives which governments have inflicted at large cost on an increasingly confused public and public servants. This is widely accepted as a major problem – the new Prime Minister, for example, had promised not to inflict any more changes on the health service – and yet, within a few weeks, he was making plans to introduce one of the biggest organisational upheavals ever seen.

But a second, even more powerful reason why a critical study is needed is that the British public no longer feels that it is worth engaging in democratic politics. “They are all the same – promising one thing, doing another – looking after themselves”. In the 1970s some academics helped pave the way for the neo-liberal revolution by demonstrating in addition (in the new field of implementation studies) that the machinery of bureaucracy made it very difficult to implement political decisions; the popular phrase was “the overloaded state”. Margaret Thatcher completed the hollowing out of democracy by her infamous slogan – There is no alternative (TINA)
Consistent with the post-modernist mood,Gerry Stoker places the problem firmly within our own minds -
A propensity to disappoint is an inherent feature of governance even in democratic societies. I think that a substantial part of the discontent with politics is because the discourse and practice of collective decision-making sits very uncomfortably alongside the discourse and practice of individual choice, self-expression and market-based fulfilment of needs and wants. As a result too many citizens fail appreciate these inherent characteristics of the political process in democratic settings.
Making decisions through markets relies on individuals choosing what suits them. The political processes that are essential to steer government struggle to deliver against the lionization of individual choice in our societies. Democracy means that you can be involved in the decision but what the decision is not necessarily your choice yet you are expected to accept the decision. As a form of collective decision-making politics is, even in a democracy, a centralized form of decision-making compared to market-based alternatives.
Mass democracies face a potential crisis because of the scale of discontent surrounding the political process. Discontent comes in two main forms: disengagement from politics and frustrated activism. If the twentieth century saw the establishment of mass democracy the scale of discontent surrounding the political process in these democracies runs the risk of making these systems unsustainable in the twenty first century.
Some Journalists have made an honourable effort over the decades to give the wider public some critical overviews – starting with Anthony Sampson who famously tried to track the operations of the system over 4 decades finishing his last, angriest version only months before his death in 2004. Andrew Marr had a book in the mid 1990s on the failure and future of British democracy. So did Simon Jenkins (Accountable to None – 1996).
But it was a campaigning (rather than mainstream) journalist who produced in 2001 the most revealing and critical study Captive State - the corporate takeover of Britain which gave us the real detail, for example, behind Gordon Brown’s horrendous Private Financial Initiative (PFI) and it is therefore Monbiot’s book which is my first nomination – despite being now 10 years old and concentrating its attention on only part of the picture (the political-business interface). Part of the critique, of course, of our governance arrangements is how the corporate ownership of the media has muzzled the critical journalistic voice – Will Hutton is very eloquent about that in his latest book.

Some politicians, of course, do produce books which advance our understanding of the whole process. I speak not of Tony Blair – and that whole self-justifying political autobiographical genre - but the writings of people such as RHS Crossman (on whose notes on Bagehot I grew up); John McIntosh (who was my tutor); Leo Abse (whose book Private Member was a marvellous psychological study of politicians); David Marquand; and, of course, the monumental diaries of Tony Benn. And New Labour had some honourable people in its ranks – who accepted that their critical or maverick approach denied them office. Chris Mullin was one - and has given us 2 wry reflections of politics and government in action. But, over 50 years, not a single title which deserves the epithet “critical”.

Tony Wright is an academic who for more than a decade operated quietly as Chairman of the prestigious Select Committee on Public Administration and helped produce a raft of critical reports on various aspects of governance operations. How retired from parliament, he has become a Professor (of Politics) and I look to him for some of the missing critique. Pity he can’t get together with George Monbiot to produce an expanded and updated version of the GB book!!
So far I’ve discussed academics, journalists and politicians. But what about the shadowy world of political advisers, Think Tanks and NGOs? As we might expect from such a concentration of putative brainpower, three of my 4 recommendations come from this stable. Political Power and democratic control – the democratic audit of the United Kingdom was commissioned by the Rowntree Trust and produced in 1999 - by Stuart Weir and David Beetham. Weir followed it up in 2009 with a short spoof constitution of the UK. These focus very much on the centralisation of power.

My third nominee for useful study of government capacity is ubiquitous (advisor) Chris Foster’s British Government in Crisis (2005)
which extends the analysis to the administrative aspects which Flynn describes but which (as befits someone who was a senior Price Waterhouse employee) fails to mention the interstices with the business world.

My final nomination is another product of a british Foundation – Rowntree again. Power to the People (2006) was the result of an independent inquiry (which in true british tradition invited evidence and organised dialogues) and can therefore reasonably be seen as a mainstream diagnosis and set of prescriptions. I would fault it only because of its basic assumption that, if the system is made more transparent, representative, decentralised and accountable, everything will be OK
After all this scribbling, then we are left with a central question – is the British problem one of political centralisation? of government overreach? A failure of the political class? Adversarial politics? Civil service incompetence? Corporate takeover? Or, as Stoker argues, misunderstanding? At one or time or another in the past 5 decades each has been proposed as the key problem - and led to frenetic initiatives. Little wonder that I am sympathetic to systems approaches or to constraints on initiatives!
So far, so parochial! A key question I would like some help on is the extent to which this concern is a British/Anglo-saxon phenomenon – or a wider European issue. I will try to say something (much briefer) about this in my next post.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The naked Emperor

I started the morning reading a couple of the “peak oil” blogs – those who not only accept that the sort of lives modern capitalism has created for us is unsustainable but have adopted a minimal and more traditional way of life. The title of the first blog is a bit discouraging - the arch druid report - but the content is very good!
I then wasted an hour trying to get Amazon to bring back the 22 objects in my basket – most of which have vanished (with my wishlist). I could not understand what the first guy was saying – he and his accent were both so thick – and he eventually just left me hanging. The woman who came next was also awful and almost refused to help me because I could not immediately give her the postal code on top of the rest of the address. Her only advice was to contact my server company. I hung up on her – but realise that I should have been more sympathetic. They are treated like shit – so why should they behave otherwise. On the other hand, I have been very impressed with the patience and skills of those on the helpline at Vodaphone here when I needed help!
Then onto The Guardian’s initial coverage of the 250 US Embassy cables given recently to WikiLeaks – of which we will hear a great deal more this week. Simon Jenkins’post seems to me to strike the right note -
Anything said or done in the name of a democracy is, prima facie, of public interest. When that democracy purports to be "world policeman" that interest is global. Nonetheless, the Guardian had to consider two things in abetting disclosure, irrespective of what is anyway published by WikiLeaks. It could not be party to putting the lives of individuals or sources at risk, nor reveal material that might compromise ongoing military operations or the location of special forces.
In this light, two backup checks were applied. The US government was told in advance the areas or themes covered, and "representations" were invited in return. These were considered. Details of "redactions" were then shared with the other four media recipients of the material and sent to WikiLeaks itself, to establish, albeit voluntarily, some common standard.
The state department knew of the leak several months ago and had ample time to alert staff in sensitive locations. Its pre-emptive scaremongering over the weekend stupidly contrived to hint at material not in fact being published. Nor is the material classified top secret, being at a level that more than 3 million US government employees are cleared to see, and available on the defence department's internal Siprnet. Such dissemination of "secrets" might be thought reckless.
The revelations do not have the startling, coldblooded immediacy of the WikiLeaks war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, with their astonishing insight into the minds of fighting men seemingly detached from the ethics of war. These disclosures are largely of analysis and high-grade gossip. Insofar as they are sensational, it is in showing the corruption and mendacity of those in power, and the mismatch between what they claim and what they do.
Few will be surprised to know that Vladimir Putin runs the world's most sensational kleptocracy, that the Saudis wanted the Americans to bomb Iran, or that Pakistan's ISI is hopelessly involved with Taliban groups of fiendish complexity.
We now know that Washington knows too.
The full extent of American dealings with Yemen might upset that country's government, but is hardly surprising. If it is true that the Pentagon targeted refugee camps for bombing, it should be of general concern. American congressmen might also be interested in the sums of money given to certain foreign generals supposedly to pay for military equipment.
The job of the media is not to protect power from embarrassment. If American spies are breaking United Nations rules by seeking the DNA biometrics of the UN director general, he is entitled to hear of it. British voters should know what Afghan leaders thought of British troops. American (and British) taxpayers might question, too, how most of the billions of dollars going in aid to Afghanistan simply exits the country at Kabul airport.
No harm is done by high-class chatter about President Nicolas Sarkozy's vulgarity and lack of house-training, or about the British royal family. What the American embassy in London thinks about the coalition suggests not an alliance at risk but an embassy with a talent problem.
The money wasting is staggering. Aid payments are never followed, never audited, never evaluated. The impression is of the world's superpower roaming helpless in a world in which nobody behaves as bidden. Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, the United Nations, are all perpetually off script. Washington reacts like a wounded bear, its instincts imperial but its power projection unproductive. America's foreign policy is revealed as a slave to rightwing drift, terrified of a bomb exploding abroad or of a pro-Israeli congressman at home
Note the key sentence - Insofar as they are sensational, it is in showing the corruption and mendacity of those in power, and the mismatch between what they claim and what they do. Which takes us back to the questions which have been worrying me these last few months – (a) the apparently inherent incapacity of our modern “democratic systems”; (b) the implications of this for the so-called discipline of public management; and (c) for the work of instition-building in transition countries.
A google book I encountered on the first theme is The Climate Change Challenge and the failure of democracy (2007)
The sketch is a Mark Behar (BG 1950s) I have hanging in my bathroom!

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Last month we saw a charming exhibition – “Iarna in Pictura Romaneasca” – some 80 winter landscapes by 20th and 21st century Romanian painters - and were quite taken with several, particularly those of Dan Hatmanu and Cornelia Dedu. I was particularly pleased to see at last some examples of modern realist Romanian painings since they are so hard to see in any of the commercial galleries I stumble across here. It seems so much more difficult to find them than in Sofia. A visit to the Cartelesti bookshop got us the latest issue of the small, free but elusive art mag Anticart which generously reproduced all the paintings. Although its website proved impossible to access, the search did allow me to find another excellent site containing the exhibition albums of many contemporary Romanian painters. I've reproduce the Dedu painting which originally caught my eye - and you can see lots more of this painter (who shares my year of birth!) on that site.

A good review (from a radical stance) of Hutton's book here.

Friday, November 26, 2010

wine and the Commons

I discovered a stunning red wine yesterday – a 2008 Feteasca Regal – available from the barrel at 2 euros a litre in the Tohani wine shop on Una Maia. I don’t normally go there - it looks too posh compared with the places in the Matache market area which I frequent. Tohani is a commune in my favourite wine area here - Dealul Mare - the area east of Ploiesti running to Buzau but I have been diverted from its wines by the great Riesling-Pinot Gris I found recently in the Recas wine shop round the corner from the Dealul Mare one at the Matache market. The Tohani shop was offering a Riesling from the barrel – but lukewarm! However their (Merlot) rose was tasty and will bring me back to the place. I worry at the moment about our future wine supplies – because the Chinese are just beginning to discover European wines. Their wines are actually more like liquors so it will hopefully take some time before their palates adjust. At the moment the wines they buy are top of the range French and are bought as status symbols rather than for enjoyment.
Another discovery was the cultural magazine available online from the Romanian Cultural Foundation – although nothing has appeared in 2010. A 2006 issue focussed on Bucharest – and had quite a few articles bemoaning the destruction of the archiectural legacy.

When you actually look, it’s amazing what is actually available on the theme of alternatives to the monstrous economic path we stumbled down some decades back. And during the night I actually discovered an example of what my previous post had been asking for – someone who has retired and is now using his experience, time and other resources to try to develop a more appropriate system.
I’m a businessman. I believe society should reward successful initiative with profit. At the same time, I know that profit-seeking activities have unhealthy side effects. They cause pollution, waste, inequality, anxiety, and no small amount of confusion about the purpose of life.
I’m also a liberal, in the sense that I’m not averse to a role for government in society. Yet history has convinced me that representative government can’t adequately protect the interests of ordinary citizens. Even less can it protect the interests of future generations, ecosystems, and nonhuman species. The reason is that most—though not all—of the time, government puts the interests of private corporations first. This is a systemic problem of a capitalist democracy, not just a matter of electing new leaders.
If you identify with the preceding sentiments, then you might be confused and demoralized, as I have been lately. If capitalism as we know it is deeply flawed, and government is no savior, where lies hope? This strikes me as one of the great dilemmas of our time. For years the Right has been saying—nay, shouting—that government is flawed and that only privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts can save us. For just as long, the Left has been insisting that markets are flawed and that only government can save us. The trouble is that both sides are half-right and half-wrong. They’re both right that markets and state are flawed, and both wrong that salvation lies in either sphere. But if that’s the case, what are we to do? Is there, perhaps, a missing set of institutions that can help us? I began pondering this dilemma about ten years ago after retiring from Working Assets, a business I cofounded in 1982. (Working Assets offers telephone and credit card services which automatically donate to nonprofit groups working for a better world.) My initial ruminations focused on climate change caused by human emissions of heat-trapping gases. Some analysts saw this as a “tragedy of the commons,” a concept popularized forty years ago by biologist Garrett Hardin. According to Hardin, people will always overuse a commons because it’s in their self-interest to do so. I saw the problem instead as a pair of tragedies: first a tragedy of the market, which has no way of curbing its own excesses, and second a tragedy of government, which fails to protect the atmosphere because polluting corporations are powerful and future generations don’t vote.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

old men should be explorers

I mentioned on the Tuesday post that I had written a note ten years ago about making better use of my life. Before I come to that, let me put my life in perspective. In the 1970s and 1980s I got too caught up in political activity – neglecting my academic position and using my political position (which paid 20 euros a working day) to encourage community enterprise. It was what we might call pro bono work – and I entered my 50th year an exile with virtually no money in my bank account. Fortunately my parents’ minimalist way of life had taught me not only how to survive but to celebrate life on a pittance (I require only wines, a good cooker and books!). And the intellectual challenge of post-communist governance (how I hate that term!) reform, new cultures and consultancy fees were more than enough to sustain me (in all senses) over the next 2 decades. For the first time in my life, I was persuaded to put my (hard-earned) cash into investments – and saw them duly climb, fall and climb again. Ultimately I could not accept what lay behind it all – and pulled all my money from this rotten system just before the post-2005 decline and felt very flush. This was just after I had set out (and briefly explored) the following questions in a note -
• why I was pessimistic about the future and so unhappy with the activities of the programmes and organisations with which I dealt – and with what the French have called La Pensee Unique, the post 1989 “Washington consensus”
• who are the organisations and people I admire
• what they are achieving - and what not
• how these gaps can be reduced
• the role of an individual such as me in that
Part of the problem, I feel, is the sheer richness of analyses, writings and organisations – all dealing with part of what is a systemic problem. Those struggling valiantly with local initiatives often don’t have the time or patience to make sense of what they often see as over-shrill or theoretical writings; and those dealing with the large picture can sometimes be impatient with what they perhaps see as the naivety of the practitioner.
Having explored the various questions I then turned to what I should be doing – as an isolated individual.
A noticeable phenomenon is that, when some politicians retire and no longer have the competitive pressures on them, they become more critical about the domestic and global systems they accepted when they were in office. The same is true of many officials. There must be a great potential amongst those who have
• Time (now retired)
• money
• Education (higher than any previous generation) and potential understanding (because of the impact of the NGO critique)
• An interest (satisfaction in making a contribution)
• Conscience (“I’ve taken – now I should give a little back”)
• A greater chance of persuasion by virtue of their patent lack of vested interest – and being late converts
• networks

Surely a significant number of retired officials, academics and consultants in UK and some other countries can be encouraged to come together; learn from one another – and develop ways of communicating and acting to make their concerns about national and global systems more influential?
Ten years on, I pose the question again. What are people such as doing to make a difference - as the world around us implodes?
Moving to more urgent contemporary concerns, Cicero's songs offers a very good take on the European crisis here.
The fundamental problem is the economic structure of most of the European economies. The standard model of these economies has been to pay for today's bills with cheques drawn against the future. Instead of saving up for things today and acquiring them later, we have chosen to acquire them today and pay for them in the future. To a degree, it has worked: the levels of average prosperity in the present day would stagger most of our forefathers. Yet, there has always been a critical piece of small print: growth needed to continue, and not just economic growth, but population growth too, so that the costs were painless enough for the next generation to carry.
Yet about 40 years ago, the oil shocks created inflation that was not the result of economic collapse or war, but for several years was a normal part of business. In the face of this, real assets, especially property, held their value in real terms, but looked like they were appreciating sharply in nominal terms. Property became more and more popular, and banks began to prefer not only lending to property purchasers, but also lending against property to finance other asset purchases. All the time the central banks, trying to "even out" the cycle, provided excess liquidity in the downturn, while failing to tighten sufficiently in the upturn. Since this helped to erode money as a store of value, property began to look like a one-way bet.
At more or less the same time, we lost sight of another basic issue. People began to retire earlier and earlier, believing that the inflated asset-largely property- values that supported this decision were normal. Even as life expectancy increased into the eighties, people began to stop working in their mid fifties. The time a pension had to cover went from a few years to several decades. The cheques we were drawing against the future grew ever larger.
It was not just in the private sector that saving became a dirty word: States too began to hand out increasingly extravagant welfare packages: for millions of people, it was not economic to work. Skills rotted, and both Western Europe and the USA acquired a burden of the unemployable unemployed who nonetheless made a substantial call on the public purse.
It was a long time coming, but the property bubble finally burst. The result was not merely the failure those of banks most directly involved in property, but also those banks exposed to the ABS market- which in practice meant pretty much all of them.
The impact in Europe was twofold. Those countries most exposed to property: the UK, Ireland and Spain saw large parts of their banking system evaporate. Domestic rescue plans were initiated and guarantees were issued. Meanwhile those countries with large state debts based on an unaffordable welfare state found that their access to the capital markets closed. Populations to pay for the welfare are generally falling- and resistance to immigration is making the problem even worse.
At first it was the poorly structured economies that fared worse: Greece was forced to address its long term deficit. However, the absolute breakdown of the Irish property market increased Irish government liabilities to several times the Irish GDP. The deficit yawned to over 30% of GDP.
At this point the anti Euro crew will argue that had the Irish been able to devalue their currency, then the crisis would have been resolved, because the bubble would have burst far sooner if the demand for Punt, as opposed to Euro, assets had reflected the smaller size of the Irish economy alone versus the Eurozone as a whole. Furthermore, the Irish could have mitigated the crisis, as the UK has done, by devaluing their currency.
Mitigated, perhaps, but as the experience of the UK, which can devalue its currency, shows it is certainly not solved. Devaluation is only ever a temporary solution, and if it is used- as it has been in the UK- simply to avoid painful structural adjustment then it ends up permanently reducing the economic potential of the entire economy as people simply build in higher inflationary expectations. Arguably the reason for the instability in the Eurozone's periphery is a function of the fact Germany- the core Euro economy- has been undergoing a long and difficult restructuring, and has emerged extremely competitive, indeed too competitive for the other unrestructured economies to cope with.
Now the breakdown of the property based savings and welfare system is creating a second meltdown: not only a meltdown of the banking system, but also of the states that have issued guarantees to that banking system.
It is a meltdown that will lead to sovereign defaults, and not just in Europe. The policy of competitive devaluation can not work where China- the worlds largest surplus economy and the worlds manufacturing base- maintains its own artificially low currency level. Without the unlikely prospect of a dramatic Chinese revaluation, even the breakup of the Eurozone and drastic devaluation by the most insolvent economies will not solve anything. The Germans will remain efficient, the Chinese will remain efficient and investors will be more fearful than ever about the prospects of the ex-Euro countries.
The only solution is to do what the Baltic states have done: make a drastic cut in costs by an "internal devaluation", in the case of the Baltic by around 25%. That means wages fall by 30% and house prices by 50%, and the overall level of costs by about 15%. The Balts did in last year. The Greeks propose to do half as much over five years, the Irish by 15%- not 25%- over 3 years. Not enough, and the result is that these Euro-delinquents will require a rescue that is beyond the ability of the rest of the Eurozone to finance. A debt default is therefore now very likely. Only this is where we can criticise the ECB and the European Council: we still do not understand how such a default will be handled.
But after the inevitable default happens, we are in a whole new ball game, and no one knows what happens then. One thing is for sure, very few of my generation and none of the following one will be retiring from work at 55.
The age of austerity that looms before us is set to be measured in decades rather than years

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Enough is enough

I think I have at last come across the convincing narrative for these times – in a very accessible paper which documents the discussion last June in Leeds of the first Steady State Conference. The foreward indeed echoes the questions about the Why and How of social change to which I promised to return. Brian Czech, President
Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
Arlington, Virginia, USA
I owe the find to - a personal website which is worth keeping an eye on. And, if Enough is Enough gives the strategic arguments, let me strongly recommend Richard Douthwaite’s most recent book Short Circuit as one of the most definitive sourcebooks on the practicalities of change at a grassroots level - or, as Ed Mayo puts it "Douthwaite has undertaken the most extensive survey yet of community economics in the industrialized world".
I mentioned Douthwaite recently. His name came to my mind when I was thinking about the intellectual provenance relating to the criticism of consumerism. I remembered a couple of books he had written in the 1980s and 1990s – and a google search inidcated he was still growing strong – now at the Feasta Irish foundation. You can actually download the entire book (section by section) from the website! To encourage you to do that, let Ed Mayo complete his introduction -
Tudor Banus again - "livrevignes"
To fully appreciate the significance of this book, we need to ask ourselves why everything we hold dear seems to be threatened. As individuals, we face increasing insecurity in our working lives, on our streets and even within our homes. As societies, we face a ruthlessly competitive global economy, the threat of armed conflict, and a biosphere stressed to the point of collapse. In the face of all this, governments and businesses offer us, at best, a tattered, decaying safety net. Short Circuit's encouraging message is that the security we need can be found in our own communities by developing our local economies.
But why are communities and families fragmenting? Why are thousands of species disappearing and the world's climate becoming ever more unstable? Why is democracy slipping away, and ethnic conflict, poverty, crime and unemployment growing day by day? The root cause of all these problems often evades even the most intelligent and well-intentioned examination. The world economic system has become so complex, and the attitudes that it has given rise to so all-pervasive, that we now find it is extremely difficult to gain a clear perspective. However, there is a common thread running through these seemingly disparate crises: namely, a system of production and distribution that depends for its survival on endless expansion. This continuous growth has led to economic globalization, which essentially means the amalgamation of every local, regional and national economy into a single world system.
Economic globalization is not the result of superior economic efficiency. It is coming about because governments have been subsidizing international and long-distance trade for nearly two hundred years without stopping to assess the impact on society and nature. It is only through tax breaks, cheap fuel, and massive investments in the underlying transport and information infrastructure that apples from New Zealand displace French apples in the markets of Paris, European dairy products destroy local production in milk-rich Mongolia, and Dutch butter costs less than Kenyan butter in the shops of Nairobi. Even a child might ask, 'Why must food be transported thousands of miles, when it can be produced right here?' This is not efficiency but economics gone mad.
Globalization has also led to the growth of huge multinational corporations that have replaced the hundreds of thousands of small businesses, shopkeepers and farmers that traditionally generated most economic activity and employment. And since big firms, unlike small ones, can threaten to move their operations to countries where the fiscal environment is easier, almost every government's ability to raise an adequate amount in tax has been reduced. Consequently, by blindly subsidizing the process of globalization, the nation-state has promoted its own demise.
Moreover, by inducing people everywhere to rely on the same narrow range of industrial resources, the global economic system has greatly increased competition at every level. As a result, unemployment in the industrialized world has soared while, in the cities of the South, populations are exploding because millions of rural families are being drawn away from local self-reliance by the promises of the consumer society - only to be plunged into urban squalor and hunger. Meanwhile, wilderness areas and biodiversity are under increasing pressure as the demand for industrial resources grows.
The system that has emerged suits nobody: in the long run, there are no winners. Even at the highest levels of society, the quality of life is declining. The threat of mergers leaves even senior managers in permanent fear of losing their jobs. As for the burgeoning list of billionaires, try though they might to fence themselves off from the collapsing social order, they cannot hide from the collapsing biosphere.
It is therefore in everyone's interest that the process of globalization be reversed. The most effective way of doing this would be for governments to get together to curb the powers of the multinationals by negotiating new trade and investment treaties that would remove the subsidies powering globalization and give local production a chance. For example, if the hidden subsidies for fossil fuel use were removed, local and national economies would become much stronger. But such international measures would not in themselves restore health to economics and communities: long-term solutions require a range of small local initiatives that are as diverse as the cultures and the environments in which they take place.
Unfortunately, many people are opposed to the creation of stronger local economics for all manner of reasons. Some, for example, imagine that the aim of economic localization is complete self-sufficiency at the village level. In fact, localization does not mean everything being produced locally, nor does it mean an end to trade. It simply means creating a better balance between local, regional, national and international markets. It also means that large corporations should have less control, and communities more, over what is produced, where, when and how, and that trading should be fair and to the benefit of both partie.
It is also sometimes feared that localization will lead to repression and intolerance. On closer examination, however, it is clear that the opposite is true: the global economy is itself nothing less than a system of structural exploitation that creates hidden slaves on the other side of the world and forces people to give up their rights to their own resources. Localization is not about isolating communities from other cultures, but about creating a new, sustainable and equitable basis on which they can interact. In the North, being responsible for our own needs means allowing the South to produce for itself, rather than for us.
All over the world, campaigns against globalization are growing in strength as people see how it affects their lives, their high streets, and their neighbourhoods - and as they become more aware that there are alternatives. The significance of Richard Douthwaite's book is that he shows that globalization can be contained by using these alternatives in a coherent way. He also shows we can start to build alternative systems today without waiting for politicians to give us their blessing or for the world to burn.
When community initiatives work (and Short Circuit describes both successes and failures) they release the imagination of those involved and enable them to take further steps towards economic revitalization, stronger communities, and a healthier environment. But so far, as Richard Douthwaite points out, no community anywhere has implemented more than a few of the many techniques described in this book, so the potential for revitalization is dramatic.

I have a running dialogue with my steady state friends and colleagues. The subject is best described with the metaphor of a horse and cart. I say, if we want to succeed in replacing the outdated goal of economic growth with a steady state economy, we have to put the horse before the cart. The horse is the public opinion and political will needed for this change. Without this horse, I say, we have little hope of pulling a cart of steady state policies into the economic policy arena.
Many of my friends and colleagues, however, say otherwise.
They say I have it backwards. Citizens won’t be ready, they say, to support steady state policies unless it is clear in advance just what those policies are. Sometimes I think my friends and colleagues are right. Certainly one of the most common questions I get, after pontificating on the perils of growth and the need for steady state economics, is “Yes, but how do we do it?” When I describe the horse and cart, emphasising the horse, some of the audience don’t buy it. They want to know more about the cart before offering their horsepower.
I suppose we are all onto something. The horse and the cart may have to materialise more or less in tandem. Otherwise the horse may say “that’s enough of this” and walk away, as the grass may seem greener in more conventional “sustainability” pastures. On the other hand, even the sturdiest cart of steady state policies would mire down and rust without the horse of public opinion and political will to lead it into action.
The report, aptly titled Enough is Enough, provides more than just a cart of public policies for achieving a steady state economy.
Part One is mostly about the horse, describing why economic growth has become uneconomic — dangerously so — and describing the alternative: economic degrowth toward a steady state economy. However, the bulk of Enough is Enough is found in Part Two, which is all about the cart of policies. This constitutes the single most complete collection of steady state policy initiatives, tools, and reforms in the literature. That alone makes the report worth its weight in steady state gold. As if that were not enough, Part Three puts it all together into a plan to get the horse and cart moving together to begin the economic transition.
Enough is Enough is an extremely interesting and unique document. It puts the reader into the venue of a wonderfully orchestrated, interactive, and productive conference. One can almost hear the plenary talks from the podium in Part One, walk the halls to the diverse workshop sessions in Part Two, and reconvene with the conferees in Part Three.
Most conference proceedings, book-like or not, go quickly onto a dusty shelf.
I doubt this is the fate of Enough is Enough. Some of the graphics will be familiar to students and practitioners of ecological economics; others were developed at the conference or in the aftermath of this creative burst of energy. Beyond its academic uses, Enough is Enough has the potential to become a manifesto in the hands of policy reformers working on issues of environmental protection, economic sustainability, and social justice.
But most importantly, in my opinion, is that steady statesmen and ambassadors, present and future, won’t miss a beat when confronted with the challenging question of “Yes, but how do we do it?” With a sturdy cart of policies hitched to a horse of public opinion that grows stronger by the day, we are ready to set out towards the steady state economy

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Grave thoughts

When, years ago, I visited the Sapanta cemetery in Maramures, I could appreciate only the aesthetics - the beautiful blue and red of the carved wooden carvings with their naif small paintings and (generally) humorous celebration of the lives (and sometime the deaths) of the villagers who lay below. Now, thanks to the bookfare and a Baie Mare publisher, I am able to study the artefacts at my leisure – eg the one with a painting of a guy at a still and the lines -
Here I am Husar Ion
Lying under this cold stone
In life all knew me handy
With my still and good plum brandy
Come on men and raise a cheer
Come and fill your flasks right here
Drink it now and be so merry
Girls have brandy from the cherry
I’ll not see you, share your mirth
From my bed deep in the earth
I was reminded of the medieval inscriptions I admired decades ago in the churchyards in North-East Scotland. I googled – and was delighted to come across various googlebooks – this one printed in 1704 whose opening inscription is -
remember man, as thou goes by
as thou art, so once was I
as I am now, so shalt thou be
remember man that thou must die
Also an 1806 Collection of Epitaphs and Monumental Inscriptions with a preface by Dr Johnson and a delightful „Advertisement” (as the introduction is called) with the careful grammatical construction they had in those days.
The editor has preferred the melange to that of a classification of subjects, and, if he shall thereby occasionally beguile the serious of a smile or the volatile of a few moments’serious reflection, who, otherwise, would have restricted their reading to the department most in unison with their sentiments, his object will be fully accomplished.
The guy anticipated the critique of the internet – all of 200 years ago! The entire book can actually be downloaded here.
While in maudlin mood, let me mention an idea I had as I was musing on Boffy’s latest blog. As might be guessed from his long posts, Boffy is retired. Like me, he presumably devotes a fair amount of his time to his reading and writing. Those of us who have successfully reached and passed the magic milestone; and have an over-developed sense of injustice might benefit from combining our time, energies and resources. Someone must surely already have tried to put this into practice? I remember drafting a note about this more than 10 years ago!

Finally some thoughts from John Lanchester in London Review of Books (who combined some time ago to give helpful explanation of the global meltdown) about the UK coalition government’s economic policy -
To the historian, especially of the 1931 crisis, the whole thing is sadly familiar. There is the same paralysis on the part of the Labour Party (which might now wonder whether a four-month leadership election was really a good thing) and everywhere the same ramped-up rhetoric: the country is on the edge, going bankrupt, capital will flee, and it is all Labour’s fault. And this time, as in 1931, there is much that is spurious. The country is not on the verge of bankruptcy. There is no evidence that the bond market was reacting against British debt, despite the best efforts of the Conservative Party to encourage it to do so. Our fiscal position was never like that of Greece, which had cooked the books and was struggling to cope with short-term government debt, though Osborne et al insisted it was. Why was it necessary to take such drastic action at all? Our debt ratio was much higher after the Second World War and neither Attlee nor Churchill felt any obligation to do what Cameron, Clegg and Osborne have done.

The importance of the cuts is not economic but political and ideological. First, they restore an apparently coherent, specifically Conservative and politically useful identity to the Conservative Party, distinguishing it from Labour. For the last 20 years or so the Tories have not had such an identity. They tried a traditional law-and-order Toryism for a few years, but the electorate found it unattractive. Then under Cameron they committed themselves to a form of New Labourism, a commitment that ended willy-nilly with the financial crisis. And, unlike Brown, who did eventually devise a fairly ordered response to that crisis, the Conservatives were all at sea. Neither Cameron nor Osborne came out of it with an enhanced reputation. But the ‘deficit’ gave them an opportunity; and the bigger the cuts the bigger the opportunity.
The cuts have to be big in order to confirm the Conservative explanation of what happened. That they saved the country from the brink, from disaster, from national bankruptcy – in other words from Labour’s incompetence and profligacy – is a line the Conservatives use well and often. And it is an explanation which historically the electorate has found acceptable. The notion that the state should conduct its own finances in the manner of a prudent household has always been thought plain common sense by many voters (though no one in the Treasury would agree), even if in the last 20 years the electorate has conducted its affairs anything but prudently. Thus from the point of view of a rather rudderless Tory Party the very hugeness of the cuts is an advantage: they magnify the crisis and Labour’s recklessness in causing it. Further, they restore a sense of authority to the Conservative Party and to its interpretation of British politics and society, something it has lacked for a long time. That the cuts are promoted by a coalition government including the soft-hearted Lib Dems is an added advantage. It shrouds the Thatcherism of the exercise in a cloak of fairness.
Second, the crisis allowed the Conservatives to transform a crisis of the banks into a crisis of the welfare state. This, they hope, will enable them to restructure government and ‘shrink’ the state and its welfare systems once and for all, something they have been trying to do for the last 30 years.

Monday, November 22, 2010


A delightful day yesterday at the Annual Book Fair held in the huge Pavilion Expo beside the grotesque Stalinist Press House – which was „hoaching” (as we say in Scotland) with people. Shows that the intellectual habit is still alive and well here - despite the generally appalling nature of TV (although there are still some BBC3 type TV programmes). Fours hours passed before we dragged ourselves, rather wearily, from the scrum (and noise) weighed down by plastic bags with the results of our raids. The first two stalls took some time to negotiate – they were a Greek publisher and the Italian Embassy respectively and were not busy. But in the first I was seduced by a superbly produced book on Balkan poetry (with heavy velvet paper and old grey photographs) - 520 pages (all in Romanian) for 10 euros! And, although the Italian Embassy wasn’t selling books, it was displaying interesting editions of (some of) their older writers and had someone on duty happy to talk to us. They had, however, no Albert Moravia!
I was also very pleased with a new book on Bucharest – from village to metropolis (Romanian and English) by Giuseppe Cina, an Italian Professor of Urban Planning at Turin Univeristy; and a collection of the water colours of Romanian buildings by Gheorghe Leahu (both published by Capicel). I snapped up a book with Dan Dinescu’s black and white photos of Maramures; the land of wood which I had long lusted after – reduced to 2.5 euros – and, on opening it at home, immediately regretted not having bought 4 copies (for gifts). A book with the Sapanta cemetery painted headstones (actually carved from wood) completed the Romanian part of the haul. Wallony Region had a nice display – with copies of their great Espace Nord series (Belgian authors of the mid 20th century) on special offer. The final purchase was bought with some guilt – since we have so little space in the Bucharest flat – but I simply could not resist the 500 glorious pages of Cooking with Herbs and Spices (Hermes House) despite already having one book on each already - but up in the mountain house!
My visit to China at the beginning of the year – and the preliminary reading I did for it – has developed my interest in the country at both political and literary levels. A combination of the antics of the political class of the West and Daniel Bell’s books (The Canadian who has taught at a Beijing University for the past 15 years) have made me more sympathetic to the idea that the political model which could emerge there. ChinaBeat offers one of the best perspectives on modern China and this post has an interesting (if jaundiced) summary of a recent book.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

All in our Minds?

Good old boffy continues his incredible commentary – with several pages of original take on the economic crisis. The reading which goes into his blog is quite remarkable – his posts are more like mini lecture and replete not only with classic marxist references but also with up-to-date quotations from a range of financial commentators. Was this guy a marxist trader?? Pity Taleb (of Black Swan fame) doesn’t blog. Boffy’s recent posts put the crisis in historical perspective; suggest that the UK housing market has a lot further to fall (60% has been wiped off the value of houses in Ireland and Spain); and argues that the UK Coalition presents a deliberately distorted, populist view of the crisis which runs counter to the needs of big capital.
My own post of yesterday was inspired by the book Injustice which I had just finished reading. Unlike Will Hutton’s book which comes up with a range of policy prescriptions, Dorling’s book is what I would suppose we would call post-modern – with the basic argument that it is our minds which we have to sort out!

We have allowed ourselves to accept the need for elitism, inequality, greed etc and there is little point in producing policy prescriptions until we have shaken off our prejudices. Hence the moral passion and ridicule he pours into his analysis. The recent economic literature on „happiness” which demonstrates that increased wealth gives increased happiness only at low income levels was all very interesting but hardly calculated to inspire revolution. The more recent arguments of Wilkinson and Dorling showing the effectiveness of those societies which are more economically and socially equal is far more powerful – since it begins to lay the moral ground for the attack on the immoralities of the wealthy and powerful. And the attack will come not from government or political parties but from ordinary people. I read an example this morning – of some Manchester United fans who got so sick with the way big capital has transformed their club that they set up their own team and structured it in a cooperative way more similar to that of German clubs. The article refers to other examples in other walks of life.

The UK government is being very clever in the rhetoric it has suddenly started to use – of transforming public services into mutual societies - apparently looking to the unlikely Chavez-led Venezuela for encouragement! I know that New Labour did try to put more support systems in place for community enterprise – and should read this up to see whether enough has been done to make a reality of this rhetoric. Boffy had a useful recent post on this as well. But basically all of this is peripheral as long as elitism is honoured in tax and educational policies.
Another think tank which has sprung up on the equality issues is here.
The lithograph is Tudor Banus' "Saunabibliotech"

Saturday, November 20, 2010

our present moral bankruptcy

I usually enjoy the Economist blog (about Eastern Europe) but a recent post – giving the surprising news from the World Bank that the economies of the most recent members of the EU had managed the global crisis very much better than anticipated - grated. It grated since (however true its comment) it implies that the solution to our problems is for the lower paid to make the sacrifices (as they generally have in countries like Romania) - whereas the truth is the exact oposite. It is the pig-swilling greed of the wealthier which has contaminated our social systems in the past few decades; brought most of us (except them!) low; and which must now be brought under effective check.
Since the mid 20th century, various maverick voices such as Leopold Kohr (The Breakup of nations); JK Galbraith (The Affluent Society 1958); EJ Mishan (The Costs of Economic growth 1967); Ernst Schumacher (Small is Beautiful 1973); and Marlyn Fergusson (The Aquarian Conspiracy 1980) – to mention the main names - have warned us against the blandishments of consumerism.

In the 1980s some of us got hooked on community enterprise and business (as we called it then); the social economy (as we discovered the French called it); or social enterprise (New Labour’s phrase) – which got some support from the EU and other governments. Somehow, however, the political point got lost. The ventures were seen mainly as a way of helping marginalised people back into the economy. Only the Greens (and writers such as Richard Douthwaite) kept the more fundamental critique alive – but the energy the Greens have had to devote to the Energy and ecological questions has also diverted them from the larger issues of our economic system.

The literature became more personalised – how to reduce one’s ecological footprint and live simply. Very commendable – but basically being a modern version of Voltaire’s retreat to cultivation of one’s garden (Candide). In the last few years, the critique has come back – with books such as Oliver James’ Affluenza (2007) – arriving just in time for the latest global crisis. The publication in July 2009 of The Spirit Level – why equality is better for everyone seems to have crystallised the contemporary discussion in Britain – and Daniel Dorling’s Injustice – why social inequality persists is a rather tougher ride which gives historical perspective whereas The Spirit Level gives the comparative view.
Dorling’s book has the same caustic humour and philosophy as JK Galbraith’s The Affluent Society which introduced to the phrase about private wealth and public squalour. Tragic that – after such warnings – we have reached this same point of having to persuade so many people of the declining returns from private consumption and the benefits of collective consumption ie state spending on public goods such as railways!
Thanks to Tudor banus for "Inondation"

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Things fall apart?

When I walked to the Matache market on Tuesday, I was amazed to fiind the right hand (Gara de Nord) side almost stripped of all buildings (everything between the hotel and the white highrise in the photo). The Turkish kebab service and antique shops had vanished – exposing both a decrepit tenement I had seen a family enter a few weeks back - and a very new villa.
Symbol of a wider picture? A Zeitgeist seems to be building up (I think that can happen to spirits!) – that a very historic blow has been dealt the financial and economic system which has developed in my lifetime and which we have learned to hate in the past decade. My amazingly regular and prolific marxist blogger has posted some interesting stuff and my friends and namesakes at Scottish Review have also sober comment on the Irish crisis.
It's all appropriate mood music for my reading of Daniel Dorling's Injustice - why social inquality persists the power of whose moral critique is reminding me of RH Tawney's Equality written (I think) in the 1940s which played a very powerful role in the development of the mid-20th century UK Labour Party - but which (typically) it is difficult to find on Google. Instead, I offer some Yeat's lines -

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Intimations of mortality

Yesterday was a practical and aesthetic rather than an intellectual day. First an attempt to get some information about the role of the Embassy in the event of my decease here leading to an unpleasant telephone encounter with an arrogant young Romanian (Anca) in the consular section of the British Embassy. She informed me there was no need to come to the Embassy and that she was capable of giving me the relevant information over the phone. This she was not – when I wondered how the Embassy would know who to inform in Britain when they had no information about me, it was I who suggested that perhaps it would be a good idea if I registered with them. And she did not take kindly to a question about who the „authorities” were in London to whom the Embassy would pass the information about my death and what they would do with it. I remarked that she did not have a customer-friendly approach – to which she (typically for this sort) replied that she had come to work with a positive attitude (it was 09.15) and thought she did a good job! I duly made a complaint on the Embassy website (although it gave me no confirmation of the sort one normally gets!) and on the larger UK site – which did confirm receipt. My next task was to make an online registration – which did, however, not seem to fit my case of being resident in the country (It asked me when I would be arriving and leaving); was not designed to deal with the case of both Daniela and me deceasing at the same time (space for only one „next of kin”!); and was a global data-base rather than one of the Embassy here in Bucharest (presumably they are cpable of accessing it?).
Then on to the CEC Bank where we have one of our two local deposits. Although a joint account, it is D’s name which leads the account and we were worried that her relatives might be able to claim a higher right. This time, a very friendly and helpful (older) woman – who confirmed our anxiety. Rather than lose 250 eurpos in interest, we will return in mid-January when the investment matures and switch the account name. Then off on the search for a fotoiu cover – which led us through the string of art and antique shops and in the charming, restored Gabroven St in the old town. Most of the art shops had modern kitsch stuff – but there was one small place which I would deign with the name painting gallery with reasonably original modern stuff (including a painting of what looked very like Sirnea – but overpriced at 500 euros).
Then the 21 tram throu Mosilor street – with sadly decaying terraced merchant houses - to the Obor market. Apparently the street is so called (old man) because the annual celebration of dead people (Mosii de iarna in late October) linked to a huge fair which was held then at Obor (which is a Romanian word for fair (which, in Slav, is known by the wonderful word „Trg” – hence the towns of Targoveste in both Romania and Bulgaria)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

what we have lost

As yesterday’s blog indicated, I have developed the habit, in my village redoubt, of keeping scrap vegetables for the cow. And, of course, the wood stoves and system allow me, in the colder seasons, to dispose of cardboard wrappings in the fire. Even some of the plastic bottles are used for the various tasks an older house requires – receptacles for varnish; paint; or simply tap water against the occasional interruption (in august) of supply. But Daniela reminds me that this is nothing compared with the level of ecology practised in villages in earlier years – with various types of refuse (even human faeces) being separated and recycled on the ground. I was reminded of the part of Fred Pearce’s powerful The Rivers run Dry http which reveals how the ancients stored rainwater in a variety of ways (and how even dew can help reclaim land from deserts)
Both Alaister McIntosh and William Blacker in their very different ways) remind us of how easily we lost our innocence and autonomy and slipped into the easy dependence on the convenience goods and fast travel - and the complacent acceptance of (indeed contribution to) the detruitus which goes with the modern world. The Romanians are particularly bad offenders in the way they strew the remnants of picnics around beauty spots. I still have vivid memories of my father coming home - and pausing to pick up any litter on the street near the house. That simple gesture of social responsibility (as well as his bee-keeping and my mother's autumn jam-making) gave far more powerful and sustainable lessons to me than all my father's sermons!
I have always refused to buy anything associated with Coca Cola - initially because of the way they hook kids on high sugar and contribute to obesity but latterly for the way their entry to the bottled water market destroyed good local products (using recyled glass bottles) with their plastic crap. I confess that I am an addict to carbonated water - of course I should drink tap water but this was not really an option in some of the places (like Baku) in which I have lived. I was therefore delighted to see recently the Paris mayor introducing carbonated wayter fountains where people can take their bottles for free topping up.
I had such mixed feelings as I sped smoothly up the (resurfaced) road which links Rasnov across the mountain to Predeal and the main Brasov-Bucharest highway. A few months ago its potholes made the journey an uncomfortable one – the resurfacing (which was still going on) will knock almost 10 minutes off the 15 or so kilometres (at the cost in all probability of a few extra lives a year). Is this really what progress is all about?
Of course life was tough then - but we were generally healthier!!
I noticed today that Paul Kingsworth whose inspiring One no and Many Yeses I have referred to several times recently has now given up hope for us all. He has a fascinating Dark mountain website which sets out a more pessimistic vision.
And a look back to my blog of a year ago!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

rural development and progress

Eventually I got around to walking the track which takes me from the house up to the hill opposite where a building is being constructed right on the ridge (shown here) – an encroachment on the landscape which should never be allowed in a civilised country. And outside I discovered a placard with the insignias of the Romanian Government and the EU! It’s one of these dubious investment of bloody SAPARD (The "s"had fallen off so it was announced as APARD). Proudly it told anyone interested that it was being erected in the interests of „rural development”. What a farce - since it will, in the first instance, detract from village life. It will raid an already plenished water supply (in the summer); take money from the pockets of the villagers who offer bed and breakfast; and cause the further deterioration of an already abysmal, pot-holed road which connects the village to the main road.
Of course, some might argue that, in a village of such old people, the arrival of professionals will give the village more political weight than it currently seems to have in its need for basic services. Perhaps indeed it explains why the electricity company has been installing lighting on the track at the bottom of my garden which is used only by the cows! Or perhaps we have literary cows - our friend Florie - Viciu's cow certainly always identifies the blue bag in which I bring her my vegetable scraps and gallops to me. The new lamp now floodlights my front approach (good if you are worried about thieves) but bad if you want to gaze at the stars!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Four basic questions

The glorious weather of the last few weeks here in the mountains seems at last to be changing. And I shall be heading down to the plains tomorrow – slightly ashamed at not having the fortitude to share the rigours of winter with my old neighbours. But my better half calls – and, now that the car is equipped for the winter (I spent most of yesterday at the garage as they rectified a few faults the car had developed as a result of the 10,000 kilometre battering I gave it in the early summer) we may well head to Sofia soon. The paintings and friends beckon.
In my recent (and rather long) lament about political impotence, I mentioned Will Hutton (and his latest book Them and Us – Changing Britain – why we need a fair society) as one of the people who has the wide inter-disciplinary reading necessary for anyone to have anything useful to say to us about how we might edge societies away from the abyss we all seem to be heading toward. I’ve used the verb „edge” because the calls for revolution which come from the old leftists are unrealistic (if not self-indulgent) but mainly because, historically, significant change has rarely come from deliberate social interventions. It has come from a more chaotic process. More and more disciplines are applying chaos theory in recognition of this – even management which is less a discipline than a parasite! So the call these days is for paradigm shift to help us in the direction of the systemic change the world needs to make in its move away from neo-liberalism. And close readers of the blog may recollect that I suggested that any convincing argument for systemic reform need to tackle four questions -
• Why do we need major change in our systems?
• Who or what is the culprit?
• What programme might start a significant change process?
• What mechanisms (process or institutions) do we need to implement such programmes?

Most books in this field focus more on the first two questions – and are much lighter on the last two questions. The first two questions require pretty demanding analytical skills – of an interdisciplinary sort which, as I’ve argued, the very structure of universities actively discourages. Hence the limited choice of authors – perhaps the two best known being Immanual Wallerstein and Manuel Castells. Both offer complex systemic views and, given the nature of their study, the writing style is not very accessible. Susan Strange made a great contribution to our practical understanding of Casino Capitalism as she called it - until her very sad death a decade ago.
Sadly, two other well-known names with a much more accessible writing style – Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein – tend to focus a lot of their energy on rogue states such as the USA.
William Hutton’s The World We’re In (2002) was as powerful and accessible of the limitations of the anglo-saxon model as you will ever read – and, with his stakeholder concept, carried with it a more optimistic view of the possibilities of reform. David Korten’s various books also offer good analysis – although his focus on the American corporation does not easily carry to Europe (See William Davies' recent Reinventing the Firm for a recent attempt). You can read Korten’s review of a Soros book here. Archdruid offers a contrary view here - although I’m not quite sure what to make of this particular blog – archdruid indeed!!
Most commentary on the recent global financial crisis has identified banks as the culprit – and those governments who made the move in recent decades to free banks from the regulation to which they have been subject. Marxists such as David Harvey have reminded us that government and banking behaviour is simply a reflection of a deeper issue – of surplus capital.
Hutton’s latest book (which I had abandoned a few weeks ago for its rather abstract opening treatment of fairness but dragged from the bookshelf at 04.30 this morning) does gives fairly good treatment to the first 3 questions but does not really even begin to answer the final question. And this is particularly pertinent for Hutton since the stakeholder analysis he brought with his 1995 book The State we’re In chimed with the times; did persuade a lot of people; and seemed at one stage to have got the Prime Minister's ear and commitment. It did not happen, however, and Hutton surely owes us an explanation of why it did not happen. The Management of Change has developed in the past 2 decades into an intellectual discipline of its own - and Hutton might perhaps use some it in a future edition of the book to explore this question. He might find Change the World: How Ordinary People Can Achieve Extraordinary Results particularly stimulating (I certainly did)
I would also have wished him to give us some comment on other takes" on our global problems eg the work of David Korten (above); Bill McKibben's Deep Economy: Economics as if the World Mattered; Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias (which instances the amazing Mondragon cooperatives); and David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism. Although he is very generous in his attributions of research work, Hutton is perhaps less so in his recognition of the work of others who are trying to answer what I’ve suggested are the four big questions. There are more and more people trying to understand the mess we are in - and how do get out of it - and more and more books each with its own underlying set of ideological assumption. Will Hutton is one of the few people able to help us make sense of it all.
Finally a site with superb photographs which capture many aspects of Bucharest and Romania.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Heritage again

It was the Paul Kingsnorth book which gave me the Keynes quotation which now stands this week in the Quotes which head the various links on the right-hand side of this site. And lo, a discussion thread a few days later gave me a link to a book most of which is being serialised online which echoes these principles in setting out a possible approach for the USA – see here. Please note that I originally put the wronk link - and this is now the correct link.
And, another heritage example from Srah in Romania.
How sad (and frustrating) to read HERE that Romanian Rail (CFR) has decided to close the railway stretch between Oravita and Anina (Banat) because it is 'unprofitable'... Not only is it one of the most spectacular mountain railroads in Europe and thus would be a great national loss, but there are villages which would be cut off without it, and increased unemployment would be added to these areas in the event of such a tragic, erroneous decision. The Oravita-Anina line is a national treasure with a proud place on the National List of Monuments - and yet even that doesn't seem to bear any weight when it comes to making money, as we have seen time and time again in Bucharest with the very frequent mutilation of patrimony and heritage.
Built in 1847-1863, it is the oldest railway on Roumanian territory and runs 33.4 km in 2 hours.... An exceptional technical achievement, it is one of the very steepest lines in all of Europe and with such stunning landscape that it is often compared to the Austrian line Semmering, on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites.
The Association for Roumanian Industrial Archeology / has appealed to CFR and other deciding foruns for the continual use of the Oravita-Anina railway... let's hope they are successful.
'Unprofitable'??? Doesn't the government realise the gold-mine this railway could be? Why, in a country of such natural beauty and tradition, is it so impossible to see the marketing possibilities?! It never ceases to amaze me how tourism is so very badly managed and commercialised. Here we have a railway line that provides transportation and trade to remote towns, offers jobs to those living in the villages envelopped in the most beautiful, awe-inspiring backdrops of stunning scenery. Not only the oldest railway in Roumania but also one of the steepest, it should be as much visited and admired at least as the Trans-Fagarasan in Transylvania. It provides jobs and symbolises a life-line to many Roumanians of this region in the Banat.
The ministries of Commerce, Tourism, Transport and Employment would be far better advised to work together and turn this superb line into a real honey-pot. If it is unprofitable then it is entirely the fault of these ministries who clearly lack vision, imagination and creativity (look no further that the plagerised logo for Roumania to advertise the absurd Carpathian Garden). Railways are fabulous tourist attractions, particularly if they are steam, slow, historical and running through marvellous landscapes such as the Oravita-Anina. Everyone loves them from children who adore watching the steam spiralling backwards and up, up and away, to train enthusiasts, trekkers who can't walk anymore and those who fancy a day out without having to drive, with history and awe-inspiring views thrown in. Hellooooooo?!!!! To close it would be a grave mistake, not only for patrimony, respect and heritage but also for what COULD be made of it. Elena Udrea has such a marvellous job. I would love to be the Roumanian minister of tourism! There is so much to optimise, so much to boast about and so very much to cherish. This stretch of railway line is just one of many...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Heritage and change - destroyers and builders

Yesterday I had my first set of winter tyres fitted on a car – not just because of my experience a few weeks back but because a law could be passed very shortly making it compulsory to have them at this time of year. And I didn’t want to be caught out with a mad scramble – and rising prices. Although I’ve had the car for 14 years, it;’s done only 120,000 kilometres since, for long periods (and particularly winters), I’ve been elsewhere on assignment and the car has just languished in the street (on one famous occasion for 2 years on a Brussels suburb street). This will be the first winter spent in Romania – which puts more pressure on to find a properly sized urban flat. But prices are still coming down. House prices on the outskirts of the capital have apparently halved – and flats in the city are forecast to drop another 20% over the winter. But I would still prefer Sofia – or Brasov – to Bucharest.
I’m glad to report that Maritsa has now returned home safely from hospital – no rest for her – I bumped into her in the farmyard in the light rain and got some cream from her for my experimental mushroom soup.

I haven’t had an opportunity to refer to another great post which Sarah in Romania made a few weeks back. She shares our concern about the utter disregard the Bucharest city authorities (and most citizens) show for their architectural heritage which has so many gem; and this post danced on the grave of someone who was apparently one of the worst offenders – Stefan Damian. Thank goodness we still have people prepared to call a spade a spade! One of the main purposes of my blog is to reflect on the experience of trying to improve government – whether from an administrative or political aspect. The first twenty years of my life, I focussed on the political – the „what”. The last 20 years the focus has been on the „how”- on reforming the machinery of government. I’m still interested in the latter but, as the masthead quotation from JR Saul indicates, I think the value of technocrats is overrated and the role of citizens and the maligned politicians has to be asserted. And one of the things wrong with a lot of the reform writing is that it is too abstract. Change is a question of individuals – and we need more of the naming and shaming approach such as this Sarah in Romania post. I used it myself for the first time a few weeks back when I picked out a State Secretary and analysed his (outdated) declaration of interest form which appeared on the Ministry website.
We also need to celebrate more those who are trying to make a positive mark on life – and, as I noted on my friend Ion’s obituary, while they are still alive. One of the reasons I enjoyed Paul Kingsnorth’s book on the protests against the iniquities inflicted on the world by multi-national corporations is that it focussed on the individuals in different parts of the world who are risking their lives and livelihoods to protest against the destruction being wrought by people running these organisations. Business has been using the journal „portrait” for a long time to glorify their class – and most management books are little else than hero creation and worship. Only women like Rosabeth Kantor (with her marvellously mocking ten-rules-for-stifling-innovation and Shoshana Zuboff, it seems, are capable of resisting this inclination of business writers! But you don’t find such positive write-up of reformers – presumably because media ownership is so neo-liberal. And the publications of the reform movement tend to concentrate on ideas.
For example, I’ve wanted for some time to say something about one of the people I admire most – a Slovak friend of mine who, as Director of a training centre run on cooperative lines in a village, has utterly transformed an old palace, building up not only the facilities it offers (and the labour force) but commissioning local artists to create glorious murals to remind us of the place’s historical heritage and holding vernissages with painters from central europe, the Balkans, Central Asia etc. Walk into his huge office and he is almost lost amongst the books and paintings which are piled up around his desk. And his house is like a (living) museum – from all the artefacts he has brought back from his vacations throughout the world. He is such a lovely, modest man and I always feel a taste of heaven when I visit him at the Mojmirovce Kastiel.
And, while we’re on the subject of heritage, you must view this video - Prince Charles promoting his Transylvanian Trust – if you can stomach the posh accent which I fiind so difficult to take as a Scot. I’ve always felt sorry for this guy – a bit of a mummy's boy inevitably but his heart in the right place.
Stefan Damian has suddenly kicked the galeata. Bucharest is a safer place, structurally speaking... I would like to say I'm sorry and offer my sympathies to his family as one should do after the death of anyone, but since I am grieving for the assassination of beautiful houses and the slowly dying history and heritage in both bricks and mortar (and also because I may be many things but a hypocrite isn't one of them), I shall elegantly refrain, if you will excuse me. The article below from Vreau Dreptate reports on the mafia-controlled mass destruction of Bucharest bursting with patrimony and memories, history and stunning beauty - for money speaks louder than respect, homage or tears. Stefan Damian – who died recently – was one of guys who destroyed a great deal of what Ceausescu didn't manage himself and with just as much energy and absence of regret. See HERE in an extract from Romania Te Iubesc, Bucuresti Orasul Fara Istorie on Pro TV. The pix above is of the beautiful villa destroyed on str. Visarion. May its soul and the laughter that once resounded within its walls rest in peace. May those that demolished it be haunted all their days...
And HERE is one more article for you - a list of victims one by one, houses, villas, bijoux of architecture and bygone years - a city mutiliated by the very institution which is supposed to protect it.
Stefan Damian will be missed, but not by any lover of beauty nor national pride. HERE is an article from last February on the heritage Roumania's answer to the Demolition Man has left behind him...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Lament on the impotence of democratic politics

Craig Murray’s latest post looks at the latest 2 examples of the collusion between government and commercial interests (Vodaphone and BAE systems (the giant aerospace company); notes the lack of public interest; and draws the pessimistic conclusion that "Conventional politics appears to have become irretrievably part of the malaise rather than offering any hope for a cure. But political activity outwith the mainstream is stifled by a bought media”. It’s worth giving the larger quote -
Sadly the comments on Craig’s posting (219 comments at the last count!) failed spectacularly to address the issue – descending to the religious ravings which are becoming an all too familar part of such threads. My own contribution (at the tail-end) was a rather pathetic appeal for a bit more humility in such discussions.
Instead of asserting opinions, can people not perhaps in these discussions share more quietly and analytically some of the perspectives which are out there on the possibilities of political and social action? For example, I've just finished reading the inspiring 2003 book "One No and Many Yeses" by Paul Kingsnorth. At other levels there are the writings of David Korten and Olin Wright's recent "Envisioning Realistic Utopias". Political parties and corporations remain the last protected species - and we should focus our energies on exploring why this is so; why it is so rarely investigated - and how we change it
All this gets us into the same territory I was trying to map out recently when I posed the question about
what programme elements might actually help release and sustain people power in a way which will force the corruption of modern elites to make significant and lasting concessions?
But, coincidentally, one of my other favourite blogs has produced a review of David Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital which I recently referred to as possibly offering a more solid analysis of the problems we face. Harvey’s book is not an easy read - and this review sets the book’s main arguments in the wider conext of other leftist writers who have faced the fact that there is something systemic in the latest global crisis. At this point, be warned, the langauge gets a bit heavy! All this reminds me of Ralph Miliband (father of Ed) ’s Parliamentary Socialism ((1962)which argued the basic pointlessness of the social democratic approach (The other 1,000 page book which arrived recently is in fact Donald Sassoon’s One Hundred Years of Socialism!).

Strange how few books come from political or economic academics offering broad, critical analyis of current political and economic life. David Harvey is a geographer! And the best stuff on the role of pension funds (and how they might be changed) is by a Marxist intellectual not associated with academia – Robin Blackburn. Both Paul Kingsnorth and Bill McKibben – who write on alternative systems - are campaigning journalists. Will Hutton who casts a periodic eye over the philosophical infrastructure which underpins the Anglo-saxon economic system (Them and Us is his latest 400 page blockbuster) is also a journalist.

The only UK academic I know who has written blunt analyses about the nature of our political system is the political development scientist – Colin Leys – whose time in Africa has clearly given him an important perspective his British academic colleagues lack. Sociologists are the masturbators par excellence - altough Olin Wright is an honourable exception with his recent Envisioning Realistic Utopias from the USA. In America the only challenging stuff comes form speculators like Nassim Taleb and George Soros – although Nobel-winning Joseph Stiglitz is an enfant terrible of the Economics profession and of World Bank and IMF policies there; and Paul Hawkin made us all think a decade or so ago with his Natural Capitalism.

Of course all this reflects the economic structure of the knowledge industry – with rewards going to ever-increasing specialisation (and mystification) – and, more recently, the binding of university funding to industrial needs. When I was in academia in the 1970s, I was shocked at how actively hostile academics were to inter-disciplinary activity. And the only Marxists who have managed to make a career in acadamia have generally been historians – who posed no threat since they offered only analysis or, like Edward Thompson, action against nuclear weapons. I have a feeling that the first step in bringing any sense to our political systems is a powerful attack on how social sciences are structured in the modern university – using Stanislaw's Social Sciences as Sorcery (very sadly long out of print)as the starting point. Instead of ridiculing Macburger Degrees, we should be honouring them as the logical extension of the contemporary university system.
I wonder if French and German social scientists are any different. Jacques Attali (ex-Head of the EBRD) is a prolific writer – although his latest book Sept lecons de Vie – survivre aux crises has abolutely no bibliographical refereces so it is difficult to know his reading. And has anyone really bettered the dual analysis offered in Robert Michel’s 1911 Political Parties which gave us his Iron Law of Oligarchy and Schumpeter’s (1942) Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy – and its minimalist concept of democracy as competition between the elites? And does that differ significantly from the emergent Confucian Chinese model set out in Daniel Bells’s latest book??? I realise that these last few references are a bit cryptic and will return to the theme shortly.

What I suppose I am trying to say is that change requires (a) description of what's wrong (making the case for change); (b) explaining how we got to this point (an analytical model); (c) a programme which offers a relevant and acceptable way of dealing with the problems; and (d) mechanisms for implementing these programmes in a coherent way. We have a lot of writing in the first three categories - but I find that most authors think the task is finished when they produce at page 300 the outline of their programme. Craig's started his blog with a strong assertion -
British democracy has lost its meaning. The political and economic system has come to serve the interests of a tiny elite, vastly wealthier than the run of the population, operating through corporate control. The state itself exists to serve the interests of these corporations, guided by a political class largely devoid of ideological belief and preoccupied with building their own careers and securing their own finances.
A bloated state sector is abused and mikled by a new class of massively overpaid public sector managers in every area of public provision - university, school and hospital administration, all executive branches of local government, housing associations and other arms length bodies. All provide high six figure salaries to those at the top of a bloated bureaucratic establishment. The "left", insofar as it exists, represents only these state sector vested interests. These people decide where the cuts fall, and they will not fall where they should - on them. They will fall largely on the services ordinary people need
The 2 sentences of his with which I began this long piece strike to the heart of the issue which must be addressed -
Conventional politics appears to have become irretrievably part of the malaise rather than offering any hope for a cure. But political activity outwith the mainstream is stifled by a bought media.
The question is how (if at all) do we break out of this impasse? Or do we rather build an explicitly imperfect world on the Michels and Schumpeterian insight?
So thank you, Craig Murray, for sparking off this rant - which I have dignified in the title with a more musical Celtic word - lament!