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!

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.

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