what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

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

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Stealing the world

I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Shaxon’s Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (2011).It describes how the City of London is at the heart of a colossal corrupt system which had its origins in the activities of US gangsters seeking to launder crime proceeds to make them legitimate. To do this the British colony of Bermuda was first used but when that became too hot they moved to the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. Despite its tiny population (30,000) these mosquito ridden islets are nominally home to 800,000 registered companies all of them paying virtually no tax. Cayman is now the world's 5th largest financial centre hosting three quarters of the world's hedge funds and $1.9 trillion on deposit, four times as much as New York banks. Even critics of conventional wisdom such as Paul Krugman have admitted that they failed to spot what was going on -
I was vaguely aware of the existence of a growing sector of financial institutions that didn’t look like conventional banks, and weren’t regulated like conventional banks, but engaged in bank-like activities. Yet I gave no thought to the systemic risks.
Wealthy people own about $11.5 trillion in offshore tax havens- one quarter of all global wealth. In 2006 700 of Britain's biggest businesses paid no tax at all in the UK. Shaxon also relates how the British Establishment have regarded the tax havens UK has long sheltered in the inner ring of Jersey, Gernsey, Isle of Man and its residual overseas territories in the Caribbean – where any pretence at democracy has long since gone. A whole chapter is devoted to how anyone who voices the slightest criticism in Jersey is hounded for their life by policy-makers who not only benefit from the financial deals but don’t even bother to hide the conflicts of interest.

He argues that tax havens – which the International Monetary Fund estimates to hold more than a third of the world’s GDP on their balance sheets – have fundamentally undermined the world’s economic system. Not only has the legitimate, on-shore financial system become progressively deregulated to compete with offshore – helping to cause the 2008 crash – but tax avoidance keeps poor nations reliant on aid. He explains:
Offshore business is, at heart, about artificially manipulating paper trails of money across borders. To get an idea of how artificial it can be, consider the banana. Each bunch takes two routes into your fruit bowl. The first route involves a Honduran worker employed by a multinational who picks the bananas, which are packaged and shipped to Britain. The multinational sells the fruit to a big supermarket chain, which sells it to you. The second route – the accountants’ paper trail – is more round-about. When a Honduran banana is sold in Britain, where are the final profits generated, from a tax point of view? In Honduras? In the British supermarket? In the multinational’s US head office? How much do management expertise, the brand name, or insurance contribute to profits and costs? Nobody can say for sure. So the accountant can, more or less, make it up. They might, for example, advise the banana company to run its purchasing network from the Cayman Islands and run its financial services out of Luxembourg. The multinational might locate the company brand in Ireland; its shipping arm in the Isle of Man; ‘management expertise’ in Jersey and its insurance subsidy in Bermuda.

Say the Luxembourg financing subsidiary now lends money to the Honduras subsidiary and charges interest at $20 million per year. The Honduran subsidiary deducts this sum from its local profits, cutting or wiping them out (and its tax bill). The Luxembourg’s subsidiary’s $20 million in extra income, however, is only taxed at Luxembourg’s ultra-low tax haven rate. With a wave of an accountant’s wand, a hefty tax bill has disappeared, and capital has shifted offshore. What are the implications of this? Most importantly, our banana multinational has managed to avoid paying the Honduran government – or indeed any government – any tax. About two-thirds of global cross-border world trade happens inside multinational corporations. Developing countries lose an estimated $160 billion each year just to corporate trade mispricing of this kind. In 2006, the world’s three biggest banana companies, Del Monte, Dole, and Chiquita, paid only $235,000 tax between them – despite combined profits of nearly $750 million.
The book describes how all of this has happened in the last few decades - and the role which the establishment in 1957 of Eurodollars played. As one of the reviewers put it -
Whatever became of the UK coalition's zeal to bring bankers to heel? The same thing that wrecked Gordon Brown's supposed plan to close global tax loopholes – and brought all parallel efforts to dust. Simply, the threat to scarper offshore if too many displeasing measures are inflicted.
Simply, the impossibility of getting international action in a world where States like Delaware compete with offshore havens to register companies whose activities are guaranteed secrecy – and therefore not only pay no taxes but wriggle out of all regulatory requirements. And trigger off a "race to the bottom".
The City of London, seeing its imperial glories fade, used the leftover connections of empire to construct a web of influence and cash around the globe (with the Bank of England playing head spider). The Swiss, sitting pretty, had lessons of neutrality, secrecy and cupidity to impart to a wider audience. Enter bright sparks who might have invented spaceships or life-saving drugs, but in fact invented the eurodollar market – a continent of opportunity without actual territory or policing, because it existed somewhere over there, somewhere offshore. And, of course, enter the tax havens that helped make the whole edifice possible: enter anywhere where transparency lay covered in mists and democracy was up for sale to the highest bidder: enter the havens of opportunity.
In both the book and on video he voices his astonishment that so few academics and journalists have explored this field. And it takes a great deal of courage to expose and challenge the power which is involved. The sections of the book devoted to some of these people is very inspiring.
It's not easy to see how the genie can be put back in the bottle - but at least with books like these there is no longer any excuse for ignorance. People are getting organised. Here's a useful update on latest moves from a tax justice network. Shaxson had an excellent discussion about the various issues on Open Democracy a year ago - and Richard Murphy - one of the key reformers who previously worked with one of the Big Accountancies) - is optimistic

Monday, March 26, 2012

Cultural toursim in Bulgaria

A year ago I announced that I was trying to draft a booklet on realist Bulgarian art to encourage visitors to visit the great galleries here - and gave a link on my website to the concept as it then stood. Thanks to the recent regional tour and a kind offer of assistance from the Curator of the Dobrich Gallery, I have been working on the draft again – and have just uploaded a new version to the website. This one gives a small amount of info on about 150 painters who have taken my fancy.And yesterday I found another charming little private gallery (Loran) exhibiting works from the mid century.

The caricaturists 
The Bulgarian tradition of caricaturists is a very strong one – starting (I think) with Alexander Bozhinov a hundred years ago and including people such as Ilyia Beshkov, Marco Behar and Boris Angeloushev. One of them, indeed, Rayko Aleksiev so annoyed the communists that he was arrested on their coming to power and died in prison under suspicious circumstances. A Gallery is named after him.
One of my prize possessions is a copy of a 1954 magazine called New Bulgaria with each of its 18 pages covered with 3-4 amazing pencil caricatures almost certainly doodled by Bulgaria’ most loved graphic artists – Ilyia Beshkov. I was happy to pay 250 euros for it – after all I got 50 sketches for about the same price as the going rate for one (admittedly larger) caricature of his!
And in one of Sofia’s many street stalls, I bought last week two 1962 issues of an art magazine Izkustvo – one of which had excellent Beshkov reproductions – to add to the rather worn 1941 issue I have of another cultural newspaper Shturschel (?) which has a Beshkov reproduction on its front page.

Cultural Tourism
This got me surfing the net to try to find some information about these art journals of the early and mid part of the century. I drew a blank but did come across some interesting material on the Bulgarian cultural heritage - not least some grim experiences one young painter had during the the Communist period. How artists coped during communist repression is a fascinating subject - some (like Boris Denev and Nikolai Boiadjiev refused to toe the official line on painting and almost stopped painting); many other moved into theatre design and cinema). Things had eased by the 1980s largely due to the influence of PM Zhivkov's daughter who was a great art afficiando!
I unearthed an interesting paper on how the communist heritage could be used as part of a cultural tourist strategy (which missed this human dimension) and another paper (by the same Dobrich author) on how Bulgaria might develop a strategy for cultural tourism.
Also an interesting example of how some of the treasures here are ignored even by the locals.

The gouache above may look a little like a Beshkov - but is actually one of the V Vulev's I bought a few days ago in Vihra's Gallery

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"Europeans can't blog"

It appears that Europeans can’t blog - or at least the economists can’t – which I find surprising in view of the number of such blogs I can find. The argument, however, is that
European blogs are still very much “unconnected”. That is, they use hyperlinks far less than their American counterparts - or do it but in a way that doesn’t create two-way debate. In brief, Europe has bloggers, but no blogosphere: it lacks a living ecosystem to exchange and debate
Linking to some newspaper article, even with a discussion section, does not create a two-way discussion (…) and linking to articles on your own blog is nice, but not really a sign of an interlinked blogosphere.
The article recognisese that the language barrier does make a European discussion more difficult – but makes two other interesting points. First that there are few European blogs dealing with economics which aggregate relevant blogs in the way this fascinting American one does . And that the culture of open discourse is underdeveloped in Europe. Especially the last aspect is problematic because it is hardest to change but arguably the most important. As they phrase it, "European economists seem to prefer to spread knowledge rather than stir debate".
The discussion sparked by the article led me to this excellent blog portal on European issues which actually links to 900 blogs on EU-related matters.
The new LSE blog on European politics and policy makes a point which I have made here myself -
I also do not see a relevant EU-focussed academic blogging community. There is so much EU research out there, so many specialists on a wide range of EU topics, but they are not out here debating their research and their specialist topics, neither with each other nor with the rest of the world. The don’t bring the academic debate on EU affairs to the digital public and they therefore miss the great chance of making academic research on EU matters more connected to reality and reality more connected to what we find out in often years long research process.
For me, the EUROPP blog is a chance to foster academic involvement online, in the EU blogosphere and beyond. This will only work if those writing here are aware what is written elsewhere in the digital sphere, if they react by linking and debating what was said by others, by going to other blogs, fora, Facebook discussion threads and if they involve in the discussions where they happen instead of just leaving self-sufficient texts here on this blog.
Good blogging is quite easy if one takes the time to do a little research and to understand the dynamics of these discussions In this sense, blogging is like academic work: Cite others, add your own thoughts and knowledge – and once you know roughly what you have found or what you want to say, go to fora where the debate is already going on.
The EU blogosphere is like one of the academic conferences you can go to, and the state of this conference is not bad at all – but I’d say it could be much better with the involvement of more academics.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Back to Capitalism

The big issue when I was becoming politically aware in the 1950s was about company ownership. Managers, it was argued, were replacing owners as the key decision-makers – “corporation man” seemed to have replaced the “robber baron” as society’s concern. But they were a harmless breed – with, so it was argued, a more civilised set of objectives than the raw pursuit of profit and repression of labour which had characterised the latter. James Burnham was a key figure in the recognition of the role of managers; this 1946 essay by George Orwell played an important part in bringing Burnham's thesis to wider attention. 
And, with the scale of publicly-owned companies and the new confidence of post-war Keynesians, intellectuals started to argue that the left could live with what remained in private hands.
CAR Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, published in 1956, was the elegant expression of the new view that patterns of company ownership were no longer of interest to socialists. After fifty years, however, ownership is back as a political issue.  
Will Hutton has figured several times on this blog as the guy who has most closely mapped the DNA of European capitalism. Recently he has been chairing a British Commission on changes which are needed to this model and outlines the results in an article here  -
There is a worldwide debate trying to define what 21st-century capitalism could be. Some countries, such as Singapore and Israel, have developed small state entrepreneurial capitalism as their answer. Then there is Germany and the Nordic countries' stakeholder capitalism; the democratic development capitalism of Brazil and India; China's self-described "socialist market" capitalism; and government activism even works in the US – witness the revival of the car industry. Nowhere can you find a modicum of economic and social success without some form of public and private partnership, directed financial systems, corporate ownership structures driving engagement and stewardship and effective social safety nets.
This reality is now being increasingly recognised, not least because of the financial crisis whose origins in excessive faith in market forces was caused by the Anglo-Saxon right's ideas. Last week, I launched the conclusions of the Ownership Commission which I have chaired for the last two years. A group of us, including the president of the CBI, and the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, concluded that an indispensable precondition for a sustained British recovery was a new and more systematic attempt to secure better ownership of British business assets.
We must have more plural and diverse ownership structures, in particular more medium-sized family firms, co-operatives and employee-owned companies, and the public limited company needs to become less fixated with short-term profit goals. We need to ensure the tax, legal and regulatory system triggers the maximum amount of ownership engagement and stewardship and, where it falls short, to devise new means of filling the gaps.
Plc shareholders, we advocate, should, as far as possible, pool their voting rights in new not-for-profit mutuals better to engage with the companies they own. We think company directors should be better enfranchised to think of the sustainable, long-term entirety of their business rather than the next hour's share price. We want the absurdities of the tax and regulatory system that hold back co-operatives and employee-owned companies to be swept away. We want medium-sized firms to be able to build more quickly their capital and their balance sheets – to create the equivalent in Britain of the German Mittelstand, the amazing cluster of largely family-owned companies that drive Germany's innovation and export success. We propose a dramatic and fast scaling-up of existing support along with new measures, such as banks being able to get Treasury indemnities for new lending.
Ownership policy driving plurality, engagement and better stewardship should be one of the anchors of any framework for recovery, in effect the creation of a British variant of north European stakeholder capitalism, as business secretary Vince Cable, speaking at our launch, recognised and endorsed. But it is only a precondition. Britain has to reshape its financial system so that it backs business. The state has to become an active economic player, constructing the system of institutions and direct support that will drive particular industrial and business sectors forward. We have to spend hard cash on infrastructure and R&D. And Britain's fraying social safety net needs repair, not further destruction.
We need a better capitalism and this budget should have decisively begun its creation. Instead, it will be a fudge, betting all on lowering the deficit. A missed chance for Britain and the first notes of the requiem for this coalition.
The discussion thread is interesting and one of the discussants posed a series of excellent questions -
1) How is capital going to be regulated when capital is free to roam though wires, to evade taxes, entice governments with corruption and blackmail governments with disinvestment to reduce wages, taxes and err … regulation? Waves of capital move around the world to where conditions are better for accumulation leaving joblessness and devastation. Global wages and taxes drop in relation to economic output and this damages demand, capacity, employment and the health of the global economy.

2) How are gigantic corporations going to be regulated? The Forbes 2000 had revenues of $32 trillion in 2010 (global GDP is $60 trillion). Their profits rose by 67% since 2009!! How many people do they employ? – only 80 million or 1% of the global population. How much do they return back to society for what they turnover? – not much. How many small businesses disappear annually as the process of oligopolisation relentlessly continues in capitalism? How can we have a global economy where decent wages – unsupported by private debt and government spending - can sustain a level of capacity that can provide decent levels of employment in this world with this hideous type of economy? How is this destructive process of oligopoly going to be reversed?

3) How will bank failures be avoided in the future? How will the risk taken by banks be minimised with regulation without thwarting investment and damaging the real economy in a system where hundreds of trillions of capital must be *constantly reinvested* by these banks that must inevitably take risks in these investments. If this investment halts for a second we will all starve.
Credit bubbles like the one burst in 2008 are not a peculiarity; they are the norm in capitalism. Every panic of the 19th century and every crisis of the 20th century was a result of overextension of credit. And curbing credit bubbles is not a solution. It simply causes permanent stagnation unless a dynamic economy is sustained by healthy demand. Once more this is the real issue. The recent bubble did nothing but to mask the real failure of the economy which we are now facing when we contemplate restricting unsustainable credit. Without this bubble we would have had much less economic activity and much higher unemployment.

4) In the short term, how is the debt crisis going to be resolved? Where is growth going to come from when the debt stimulus *still* being pumped is removed from the already anemic economy. What levels of unemployment one needs to expect if deleveraging the local debt or the global total debt (in the order of 300% of global GDP) is seriously attempted.

5) How will capitalism deal with the fundamental problem of "growth". The system "needs" an exponential growth rate that matches the rate with which the productivity of labour naturally increases thanks to competition that forces streamlining and automation in order to .... keep employment stable. This is simply ridiculous.
Regarding the glossing over German, Swedish, Danish, Finnish and Northern Yeti welfare Capitalism: it is declining together with the decline of capitalism: benefits and wages drop, poverty and inequality increase in these places. Welfare was funded by trade surpluses, natural resources, high productivity plus quite a lot of local debt in many cases. And also by the debt and trade deficits incurred by other countries,but the party is over!
I am afraid, this is a truly intractable problem of a system that meets its own contradictions. And such vague articles do not even start to address the problem.
Here’s a fascinating interview with a sharp Greek economist on the background to the Eurocrisis.
And also a good piece on another localist Greek initiative

And the painting (a gouache) is one of three of Vasil Vulev I bought on Thursday - when I was also fortunate enough to meet the painter himself.

Fine example of 1980s art

Hats off (again!) to Vihra Pesheva of Astry Gallery here who has mounted another wonderful celebration of an older Bulgarian artist. This time it is a extensive collection of the work of Vassil Valev from the 1980s. Valev was born in 1934 in a village near Burgas – and his oil and aquarelle work from this period focusses on that. He was Director for a time of Targovishte Art Gallery and is now still a Professor. His intro on the website says simply -
I was born in the village where I spent my childhood and teen years. Many of my stories relate to the village: Cow yards, neighbours gossiping, rural suburbs, rural toil. Even my landscapes from Sofia are the suburbs rather than the noisy city centre. The characters in my paintings are working people, often elderly, those suffering…
AsVihra puts it – "Bulgaria’s period under the socialist regime still arouses complex emotions. The art from this period is, variously, denied, ignored or treated as a collector’s genre rather than appreciated individually. But it is part of our cultural heritage and Vassil Valev’s work offers a rare depth". Whether showing tobacco harvesters, Iraqi nomads or family groups, the works (often gouache) show a deep human sympathy.
Vihra does not have a lot of space in her small gallery - but this time her exhibition offers not only the oils on the wall but a collection of unmounted aquarelles in folders. The average price is about 500 levs. Some of them, for me, have the Ilyia Beshkov touch.
All this in addition to the display of oils and small scupltures in the entrance area from other living artists always makes her gallery a joy to visit.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

An interesting conversation in Dobrich

Dobrich in some 30 kilomtres inland from Balchik and has the look and feel of a town double its official size of 93,000 citizens. Its central square is one of the largest I have ever seen – and is adorned by various large buildings, one of which (previously the Court of Justice built under the "occupation") now houses the extensive art collection – which you can find listed on the town’s excellent (English) website (at the end of its list of cultural centres)
While we were admiring the small special exhibition of Vladimir Dmitrov- he Master’s work, we were approached by the Gallery’s Director, Evelina Handzhieva who speaks excellent French and, very graciously, gave us a personal tour of her domain. It started with a group of schoolkids who were receiving some interactive training in the process of paper-making – the gallery, uniquely, has a collection of paperworks produced by the participants of a recent international event held here.
Separate sections are devoted to the gallery’s collection of sculptures and prints – and to local artists as well as old masters - such as this rare work of Ivan Mrkvichka (1856-1938),
one of two Czechs (the other is Jaroslav Vesin) who are credited with setting Bulgarian painting on its modern path.

The breadth of the collection is one of the widest I have seen (with a nice mix of older and contemporary). The exhibition space is so extensive that the tour took more than an hour – with Daniela being loaned a coat to protect her against the cold (no heating again).

I was very taken with this contemporary work by Plaven Valchev (born 1951).
I have been nicely received in all of the Regional galleries I have visited in Bulgaria – but this was the first time I was able to have a proper conversation about the problems of running galleries here at this time. Over a cup of tea, Evelina (like all the Directors here I’ve met an artist herself) explained that it is the Ministry of Culture who set a formula which dictates the number of staff to which regional galleries are entitled. So much for local government autonomy!! And, in Dobrich’s case, with such an huge palace, the staff of 12 (including 2 cleaners and 3 attendants) is simply insufficient. There is no surveillance system - so security is labour-intensive.
As was evident from the number of brochures, the Director is highly proactive in seeking out opportunities for marketing and funding (A Swiss Foundation was mentioned) and the Gallery’s CD lists the various international exhibitions (eg China and Slovakia) which have been mounted with the support of Embassies here. But it is an uphill struggle – a good venture of bussing tourists from the beaches nearby during the summer fizzled out.
It is not easy to produce a winning formula for such a problem. But one thing is clear for me – it requires local solutions and this means removing the dead hand of central control – and encouraging networking between galleries (national and international), hotels, businesses (eg the new owners of the rich agricultural land and the golf courses!!) and educational establishments.
Don't get me wrong - national financial support needs to be maintained (otherwise the galleries could be at more risk)) but on the basis of more imagination......
This is a detail of the Valchev painting

Monday, March 19, 2012

Artists' Paradise

Bulgaria's North-East (like most of its other extremities) is pretty poor. It has known better days. The Black Sea was like a mill pond yesterday – and the blue skies and sun had Balchik’s small promenade full. The small town which clings to the white sandstone cliffs is popular with both Bulgarians and Romanians – it is only 30 kilometres or so from the border and did indeed belong to Romania for almost 30 years. After the Second Balkan War, in 1913, the town, styled Balcic, became part of the Kingdom of Romania and was much loved by its Queen Mary. It was regained by Bulgaria during World War I (1916–1919), but Romania restored its authority when hostilities in the region ceased. Quite a lot of the Romanian bourgeoisie built villas - many of which have collapsed due to the soil subsidence which is a problem in the area.
But in 1940, just before the outbreak of World War II in the region, Balchik was ceded by Romania to Bulgaria. When we were last here - 10 years ago (on the way back from a trip to Turkey) - our landlady lowered her voice to speak Romanian.
The town’s art gallery has apparently paintings from that period by Romanian artists – who were charmed by the strong muslim air the town had in those days. The gallery’s website understandably uses the language of "occupation” when it talks about “the group of eleven Romanian artists who have painted Balchik during the occupation of Dobroudzha”. The group includes two favourites of mine - Alexandru Satmari and Samuel Mutzner. Many Bulgarian artists have taken the air here - not least Mario Zhekov (I don't think the villa shown in this painting of his survives) - and the area also boasts famous cliffs further north.
Sadly, however, the permanent collection was closed - due to reconstruction (as with Shumen, the charming young woman could offer no firm date for its re-opening). But a few of the Romanian paintings were on display - as well as a temporary exhibition of paintings by an 84 year old Nedelcho Nanov - mostly miniatures of the area painted variously in the 1960s and 2000s.
He is now based in Sofia - and this "Interior" was, for me, particularly intriguing.

A trip north to Kavarna - which was also a painter's haunt - was, however, disappointing. The town has been built back from the sea - and a curious remote stretch of road leads to the sea and to an eerie ghost town of half-finished modern blocks of tourist flats. The one positive feature of the town was its gleaming new sports facilities.....
A forest of wind turbines as we approached the town suggested a progressive mayor - but turned out to be linked to horrific new golf courses and the usual allien complexes of the rich associated with them. There was even a special Italian/Bulgarian furniture chain standing at the side of the road out of Balchik catering for these aliens. "Green" electricity is apparently more expensive than the local!
Tomorrow we hope to see the Dobrich Art Gallery collection the way back to Sofia (they assure me that it is possible to see the permanent exhibits!). That gallery offers a first for Bulgarian regional galleries – a blog!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Breakdown of the social agreement

Winston Churchill was the source of great quotes – one of which was “If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” Pity he didn’t say something about what happens to political beliefs after you become 60! Of course, a lot depends on the context – both personal and social. And I don’t suppose I am alone in having moved even more left in the past decade.
I have always had a fairly critical perspective on the power structure – but could never join the more radical left in its specific prescriptions. I was too sceptical about social engineering. I profoundly believed in social progress coming from a balance of power. My mistake was to imagine that the power elite accepted the new balance of power which had been forged by the middle of the last century.

An important article on the Social Europe site by an adviser to the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees puts the failure of the European social democratic movement to make any real electoral headway in a useful historical context -
The current deep ideological and political crisis on the broad left can only be understood in the context of the rather socially peaceful post World War II period, the heydays of the social welfare state and the existence of a class compromise between labour and capital in Europe. This historic compromise was the result of a very specific historic development, in which capitalist forces gave concessions to the well organised working class in Western Europe to damp its radicalism and win workers’ support in the cold war against the Soviet Union. However, in the dominant trade union and labour movement these historic specific achievements gradually formed the basis for a generalised social partnership ideology which became more and more delinked from the analyses of the power relations on which it was built. Thus, it also led to a certain depoliticisation and deradicalisation of the trade union and labour movement. The historic role of the Social Democratic parties became to administer the class compromise, rather than to mobilise the working class for further social progress. This is very well illustrated by the fact that the political and ideological crisis really hit those political parties as the class compromise started to disintegrate from around 1980 – and capitalist forces launched their neoliberal offensive.
What we have seen in Europe over the last 30 years is therefore governments which have pursued some kind of neoliberal policies whether they have been right wing, centre or so-called centre-left governments. The Social Democratic Parties in the EU member countries have, without exception, supported all the neoliberal constitutional amendments of the EU, and the entire construction of a Singel Market, which in reality has been a systematic project of deregulation, privatisation and undermining of trade unions and social welfare.

Most of the European trade union confederations are clinging to what in EU language is called the ‘social dialogue’. This means that they act as if the post World War II class compromise is still intact, and that bi- and tripartite cooperation between labour, capital and the state is still the most effective way of promoting the interests of workers. That the class compromise has come to an end, and that the social forces with which they seek dialogue are attacking public services, wages, pensions and the very fundamental trade unions rights day and night, do not seem to weaken most European trade union organisations’ belief in social partnership and social dialogue as the main way forward…..
The European social model, such as we know it from its heyday, has at any rate been abandoned in reality by the European elites, even if they continue to pay lip-service to it.
A solution to the crisis, built on solidarity, will require massive mobilisation in order to change the balance of power in society. Only if the trade union and labour movement is strong enough to pose a threat to the existing economic order, will the speculators and their political servants start to give in. That is why support for those who are now fighting to contain this cutback policy is so crucial. The restructuring of the political left seems to be part of the task. Either the trade union and labour movement will manage to defend the social progress gained via the welfare state, or it risks being left with a right-wing authoritarian and socially degraded Europe. A great part of the social progress of the last century is at stake.
Open Democracy is running a special series at the moment on various aspects of the global crisis – and I recommend one contribution which carries the marvellous title Alternative Finance Radicals – infusing rebellion with entrepreneurial activity. Two reasons make it a worthwhile read – first the number of links it gives to relevant work elsewhere (a rare generosity these days); and, second, its arguments for the need to break down the barriers which separate people who could be working fruitfully together -
Left-wing, rebellion-based approaches make bold stands against systems perceived as unjust, while entrepreneurial creativity-based approaches seek to make those systems redundant by bypassing them. Both are forms of subversion, although the latter tends to require a keener engagement with the mainstream. Financial activism, traditionally associated with economic justice ‘activists’, should also be thought of as including those who are proactively building new models outside of the traditional activist ‘scene’. Perhaps the ideal is a hybrid radical, well-versed in the micro-level practicalities of alternatives, and possessing an entrepreneurial flair infused with the rebellious spirit of critical theory. Encouraging hybrid radicals entails overcoming silos, and that’s part diplomatic mission, and part a co-ordination problem. It’s also about articulating a common vision that cuts across different networks with different immediate priorities and internal languages.
Two useful blogs I came across today are by Marxist economists – Michael Roberts writes in a clear and forthright manner and gives important data on the global crisis as it is affecting Europe. Another, Critique of Crisis Theory, is theoretical and much harder going – but the link I have given contains a fascinating account of one man’s intellectual journey over the past 40 years.
Until now, Boffy’s Blog was my only Marxist voice – and his latest commentary on ageing, the health service and the public spending cuts in the UK is a good example of the baroque treasure you often get on his site.

For a more concrete example of how corporate power deals with its so-called partners, have a look at this great John Harris video on what it’s like to be the owner of a “tied” pub in the UK (tied, that is, to a brewery giant)

A year ago
I commented on a promising European initiative by the Guardian – a new site which
as well as drilling down into different nations, we are also keen for the site to reflect – and inspire – more wide-ranging pan-European debates about the future of Europe as an idea and as a project, something that feels particularly urgent in this time of economic, political and social flux”.
My comment was that
"The barrier to our understanding of development in other European countries is not just linguistic. It stems also from the intellectual compartmentalisation (or apartheid) which universities and European networks have encouraged in our elites. European political scientists, for example, have excellent networks but talk in a highly specialised language about recondite topics which they publish in inaccessible language in inaccessible journals. What insights they have about each other’s countries are rarely made available to the wider public. The same is true of the civil service nationals who participate in EC comitology or OECD networks – let alone the myriad professional networks. We talk about gated communities – but they exist virtually as well as physically.
The potentially exciting thing about this venture (as I understand the proposal, it will be a blog site) is that we would hear from than the voices of politicians and journalists. Several of the (ex-pat) respondents on the discussion thread offered to write. Others suggested big names (eg Umberto Eco; Julian Barnes; Claudio Magris; Hans Magnus Enzensburger. I mentioned Geert Mak and Jan Morris). On reflection it would be good to have the contributors to this site being those who know their subject without necessarily being a professional specialist and who can write elegantly (without necessarily being a journalist).
Spiegel and le Monde are easy partners since they already have English versions. But there are a few European level ventures worth plugging into the venture eg Sign and Sight which translates outstanding articles by non-English language authors and Eurozine which is a network of 75 European highbrow journals and translates interesting articles into at least one major European language. I've added these two to the Links on the right-hand column on this blogsite".
Sadly, the hope of the site has not been realised. It has, indeed, an abandoned look about it - sign of the times perhaps as the national shutters go up.....
I'm in Ploiesti at the moment and a nice Romanian site has a good post on one of its small museums.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Uzbek Connection

I had no sooner blogged earlier in the week about media restrictions – and inserted a link to a good Craig Murray lecture and interview on the topic than he posted the news that these 2 videos had been removed from the site of the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin (the only two videos from the Conference on Free Expression (!) to be subject to this treatment)
One of the discussants on the discussion which followed suggested that this might be connected with some uncomplimentary things Craig had said about German politicians and foreign policy somewhere else in Berlin at the same time, namely -
The former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has also roundly criticized the relationship between Germany and the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan. Speaking at the High Level Hearings on Uzbekistan, held in Berlin on 1 March, Murray said that Termez was the first military base Germany had taken over beyond its own borders since the end of World War II. “It is ironic that Germany’s first overseas military base is being used to reinforce the totalitarian system in Uzbekistan,” said Murray.
He also revealed his contempt for the hypocrisy of European and particularly German politicians who try to justify their cooperation with Karimov by citing dubious ‘progress’ in Uzbekistan’s approach to human rights.
It would be more honest, Murray said, if politicians in the EU and Germany admitted that they cooperate with Karimov because of the military base in Termez which is essential to them in supporting their military campaign in Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan finds itself in a very advantageous position because of the war in Afghanistan, said Scott Horton, editor of the influential Harper’s magazine, at the same Hearings in Berlin Uzbek - Greater security is not all that Karimov has gained by cooperating with NATO, said Horton. A company belonging to his elder daughter Gulnara makes money from supplying goods to NATO troops in Afghanistan, he claims. “All goods that are imported are processed through Gulnara’s company; it’s a win-win situation,” Horton said.

It was, therefore, highly ironic that, on Monday, I was suddenly asked by a German company if I would take over as Team Leader of an EC project with the Uzbek Parliament!
Part of me was keen to see the country again – not least to visit Khiva and Bukhara and to take the proper opportunity this time to see (and perhaps acquire) some of the country's fascinating art work.
But another part of me, however, questioned whether I could ethically justify this – given how much more repressive the regime has become in the decade since I last lived and worked there. Since I left the country in 2002, several hundreds of people were massacred at Andijan (in 2006); and Craig Murray has exposed the scale of torture And, given the opinions I have about the "political class" everywhere (let alone in Uzbekistan where they are mere ciphers), could I really sleep at night if I was part of a project supposed to be strengthening it????
At a more personal level, I have read cases since I left the country of foreigners driving cars being arrested and held to ransom for several thousands of dollars. I drove myself around Tashkent and the countryside 1999-2002 and had no trouble with the police. But I had a red Cabinet Office pass – which commanded deep respect.
I had to respond immediately – and sent an ambivalent reply, asking whether the team has the same sort of official pass I had a decade ago. I heard no more! So fate solved my ethical dilemma! And, to date, I have had no response from the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy to my query.


And, three weeks on, a story appeared which indicates the strength of the set of cards which Uzebistan has as countries such as the UK prepare to pull out of Afghanistan. And how the UK prostitutes itself to ensure a base in this Dictatorship....

setting priorities in municipal services

Razgrad's Ivan Petrov Gallery proved worth the wait. Housed in a superb, modernised and specially-designed building (with EC funding) in the heart of the town right next to the well-kept mosque, it has an enthusiastic Director, Todor Todorov, who personally showed us round the collection on display. This included about 6 Danail Dechevs, a Tanev, a Boris Denev, several Vladimir Dimitrovs and two painters so far unknown to me - Maxim Tsankov (1877-1965) and Kosta Petrov (1894-1973).
Unfortunately Vodaphone here in Romania does not give me the capacity to upload a photo from my camera - that will have to await my return to Bulgaria (on Sunday we go to a workshop at Balcik on the Black Sea for a couple of days. The art gallery there is also well worth a visit - as befits an area which has  attracted so many painters.)  In the meantime I post another example of Dechev's work which has smaller capacity.
Razgrad's permanent exhibition also includes an excellent graphics collection.
The gallery’s catalogue is the best I have seen – with coloured reproductions and English as well as Bulgarian notes on the paintings and painters. It also has a website – although still, clearly, in the process of construction.
Razgrad's gallery, therefore, must go to the top of my unofficial list of best housed, managed and documented regional galleries in Bulgaria - with Stara Zagora a close second. Russe is the worst. Of course, these are not necessarily the best criteria - for example the poorly-housed Targovishte Gallery was abuzz with a group of school-kids - and the unheated Skitnik gallery in Sliven sponsors an annual Plein Air summer school. Such local acess and use should clearly be the core of the mission of any art gallery.

I find these differences an interesting example of the effects and importance of local government - although I've made the point here before that the proper maintenance of older paintings which are part of a country's national patrimony has national significance. The lack of heating which threatens so many paintings in Bulgaria's regional art galleries is a disgrace - but perhaps it is too easy to put this down to lack of municipal funding. I found it curious that one of the galleries I visited had  7 staff.  Of course I never like to recommend job-shedding but, in this case, perhaps lack of heating simplyshows a poor sense of budgetary priorities!

The Razgrad Gallery is the only one I have seen which has used Regional Funds to make such a major refurbishment - which shows both official initiative and political support. I still have to visit Balcik, Burgas, Dobrich, Veliko Tarnovo and Pleven Galleries - and pay homage at Svishtosh to Nikola Tanev. I doubt, however, whether I will find a better gallery!

A Year Ago;
I offered a very useful annotated bibliography on the economic aspects of social change.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The way we live now

This blog has mentioned several times the advantages of the semi-nomadic life. Since renting the flat in Sofia last April, I’ve accumulated a fair number of books and paintings and may well end the rental shortly (the delight of the Carpathian mountains in spring beckons). So each trip north means a box of books, of clothes and a pile of at least 10 paintings. And therefore an opportunity to dip into some books as I travel. Yesterday I started to read, for the second time, Tony Judt’s short Ill Fares the Land (2010). The link gives the book's entire Introduction and is therefore well worth reading. It starts very powerfully "Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today," Judt begins - We are obsessed with money and have lost any sense of community.
In the 30 years following the Second World War, there was a widespread belief that the state could do a better job than the unregulated market. A benign welfare state would keep us from the poverty of the 1930s. It would protect us from cradle to grave. These assumptions underpinned Butskellism in Britain, the Great Society in the United States and European social democracy. In the 1970s, confidence in the state and a larger public realm fell apart. Since then, many have lost any sense of the state as either efficient or benign. Instead, we have come to believe, as Margaret Thatcher said, that: "There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families."
Judt pulls no punches. This new obsession with wealth, privatisation and the private sector is disastrous. The evidence of public squalor is all around us: "Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid and the uninsured: all suggest a collective failure of will." The first chapter, "The Way We Live Now", is a passionate argument against the rise of inequality, the collapse in social mobility and the "pathological social problems" that follow. "Economic disadvantage for the overwhelming majority," he writes, "translates into ill-health, missed educational opportunity and - increasingly - the familiar symptoms of depression." Inequality is "corrosive". "It rots societies from within," he says.
I suspect we can all save ourselves a lot of time by asking about the motives which spurred an author to write – mostly it has to do with academic reputation, money or hubris. When a man is on his death-bed and takes incredible trouble (and pain) to draft a book for posterity it will generally be worth reading. Here is how historian Judt explains its origins in the Introduction -
For thirty years students have been complaining to me that ‘it was easy for you’: your generation had ideals and ideas, you believed in something, you were able to change things. ‘We’ (the children of the ’80s, the ’90s, the ‘aughts’) have nothing. In many respects my students are right. It was easy for us — just as it was easy, at least in this sense, for the generations who came before us. The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s: it is not by chance that historians speak of a ‘lost generation’.

If young people today are at a loss, it is not for want of targets. Any conversation with students or schoolchildren will produce a startling checklist of anxieties. Indeed, the rising generation is acutely worried about the world it is to inherit. But accompanying these fears there is a general sentiment of frustration: ‘we’ know something is wrong and there are many things we don’t like. But what can we believe in? What should we do?
This is an ironic reversal of the attitudes of an earlier age. Back in the era of self-assured radical dogma, young people were far from uncertain. The characteristic tone of the ’60s was that of overweening confidence: we knew just how to fix the world. It was this note of unmerited arrogance that partly accounts for the reactionary backlash that followed; if the Left is to recover its fortunes, some modesty will be in order. All the same, you must be able to name a problem if you wish to solve it. This book was written for young people on both sides of the Atlantic.
The title of his book is taken from these lines of Oliver Goldsmith’s famous 1770 poem -
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.''
and, for me, one of significant things about the book is that each of its chapter headings echoes a famous book of the past century thus eg The World We Have Lost;  What is to be done?; Shape of Things to Come – thus subtly emphasising the recognition (as Google Scholar puts it) that we "stand on the shoulders of Giants”. Our selfish world has too few writers who properly spell out the relevant work by other writers and too many who pretend to have blazed a unique trail (modern book publishing seems to require such hyperbole). The academics go the opposite extreme of referencing so much and so generally that you are left with no real sense of intellectual development.
One extensive review summarised the book’s arguments thus -
He is the most important contemporary representative of a nearly extinct political tendency – the anti-communist, social-democratic Left. His manifesto is driven by his conviction that in rejecting social democracy 30 years ago the West stumbled badly, and by his hope that the social-democratic tradition can now be revived. His manifesto is sober but also urgent, written by a man who knows that time is not on his side, and for this reason deeply moving.

For Judt, social democracy is multifaceted and complex. Originally, social democracy was a response to the barbarity of communism, where the utopian socialist dream was moderated by a commitment to liberal democracy and where eventually a historic compromise with capitalism was struck. After the shock of the Great Depression, social democracy became, in addition, a distinctive form of political economy, inspired by Maynard Keynes. For a generation, under the Keynesian consensus, worldly wisdom triumphed over neo-classical academic orthodoxy. Social democracy was, accordingly, no longer merely one kind of politics but the animating spirit of an era lasting from 1945 until the election of Margaret Thatcher. During this era, social democracy was associated with a series of policy prescriptions: progressive taxation and the “mixed economy” of public and private ownership. It was also primarily responsible for the creation of the protective social-welfare state, its greatest achievement. Yet, for Judt, social democracy is even more than this. It is the most humane moral–political idea, in which, for once, both the two great values unleashed by the French Revolution – freedom and equality – are valued and pursued.
What went wrong for social democracy? Although Judt rather perfunctorily recognises that in the mid-1970s the social-democratic state hit unanticipated economic troubles, his explanation of the collapse places greater weight on cultural factors. By the 1970s, a younger postwar generation had begun to take the achievements of the postwar social-democratic era for granted, and even to chafe at the dullness of the security it had delivered. In addition, the New Left was by now more interested in the politics of personal identity – of race and gender, rather than class – than it was in defending the achievements of the postwar Left. Both factors made the social order vulnerable to an intellectual attack that was mounted by the Austrian émigrés – not only Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, but also Karl Popper, Joseph Schumpeter and Peter Drucker – who were mesmerised by the interwar collapse of liberalism throughout central Europe and who, grotesquely, mistook the creation of the social-democratic welfare state for a way station on “the road to serfdom”.
There is strength in Judt’s explanation of the fall of social democracy, but also weakness. Judt underestimates the degree to which the ‘stagflation’ crisis knocked the confidence of the conventional Keynesian economists, whose thought was premised on the idea that inflation and stagnation were the alternative illnesses to which the capitalist economy might succumb. He is also rather unbalanced about the legacy of the New Left. Even if there was a narcissistic tendency in identity politics, it is also true that the eruption of the ’60s helped trigger a vast cultural revolution that shook centuries-old habits of mind on issues related to gender and race. Not only did this transform Western sensibility unambiguously for the better, it also extended to women and non-whites one idea that Judt places at the heart of social-democratic values: equality.
For Judt it is because of the victory of neo-liberalism, especially in the UK and the US, that the land now fares ill. Most important for him is the toleration shown for the return to pre-Great Depression levels of inequality. Judt begins with tables taken from a remarkable recent study, The Spirit Level. They show that measuring almost everything we value – health, mental wellbeing, social mobility, trust, levels of crime – the more equal societies of north-west Europe perform notably better than the less equal societies of the UK and, especially, the US.

Because of the return of gross inequality, the participatory element of democratic politics has withered. For too long citizens have watched as the wealthy have fashioned the world according to their desires. Without the feeling of belonging to a common world, participation has no point. For Judt, the rise of the “gated” community is a potent symbol of the loss of this common world. Even political leaders – “pygmies”, such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, compared to their predecessors, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt – have become passive, leaving decision-making to the neo-liberal economic “experts” (the descendants of the Austrian school) whose central role has been to make the world safe for the bankers and brokers. The orthodox economists have, long ago, displaced political thinkers and convinced the world “there is no alternative” to their nostrums. Although discredited by the Global Financial Crisis, so far nothing has filled the void. At the coming of the crisis, Keynesianism made a return of sorts, but this was little more than a neo-liberal “tactical retreat”. At the moment of crisis everyone looked to government for action. Yet, according to Judt, no one is presently thinking afresh about the role of the state.

It is clear that for him the damage done will not be easy to repair. Although the welfare state has proven somewhat resistant to the neo-liberal assault – even Margaret Thatcher could not abandon the National Health Scheme – privatisation has made rapid gains in many areas, especially social services and transport, where its influence has been negative, or worse. But the spirit of neo-liberalism has also paralysed the vital organs of the culture. Universities are now overwhelmed by an economistic language of “outputs” and “impacts”. We have taught the young to value nothing more than the pursuit of wealth. Even intellectuals do not escape his scorn. Most are conformist and afraid to dissent. Even when they are not, they prefer to speak about morally straightforward issues rather than the complexity of public policy. (Ouch!) No one now seems capable of expressing, or indeed of feeling, the appropriate anger. Perhaps dangerously, Judt calls on intellectuals and others to trust their “instincts”.

Judt knows that contemporary social democracy is feeble. Since the collapse of communism, the Left no longer believes that its goals are, in the words of Bernard Williams, “cheered on by the universe”. More deeply, it has lost its language; its crisis is thus “discursive”. But he is still convinced that a rebirth of social democracy is possible. In part this is because neo-liberalism has been discredited. In part it is because the quest for equality has not lost its grip on our moral imagination. And in part it is because we live at a time of unprecedented uncertainty – about the economic future, about the dangers of global warming, about the pace and unpredictability of change. The Right is certain to try to exploit the mood of deep uncertainty. Yet, there is on the Left a long tradition of fighting to conserve the human world from the forces that threaten it. If there is to be a return to social democracy, it is almost certain to be what Judt calls “a social democracy of fear”.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The European Commission Terrorists

Daniel Cohn-Bendit has been a breath of fresh air in European politics since 1968. Ensconced in the European Parliament for the past couple of decades (as a Green), his disparaging term for Commissioner Barrosso and his advisers has, apparently, been “The Chicago boys” - a nice conflation of mafia and the source of academic neo-liberalism. Recently, he has started to call them “The neo-liberal Taliban”  and Social Europe has a useful post outlining the various positions taken by the EC which justify this term. So, let’s look at the facts:
• According to the Commission’s reading, the deepest financial and economic crisis since the 1930s is simply a state debt crisis and has little to do with the crash of Lehmann Brothers and other banks. Yet, in reality, states were forced to step in to save the banks and their markets due to the meltdown in the financial industry. Many member states with previously reasonable debt levels assumed private debts and thus increased their public debt. But for the Commission, only the last link of the chain is important: austerity regimes must be established all over Europe to counter the “debt challenge”, to introduce “debt brakes” and the name for these austerity regimes is “economic governance”.
• Under the Troika regime, Greece has been asked to cut debts. The Greeks are willing to save money by cutting the defence budget but the Commission’s reaction has been negative: it recommends cutting pensions instead.
 The Troika regime is asking Ireland to cut salaries. The Irish trade unions have challenged the approach as neoliberal but the Commission’s maintains that it’s all just economics!
• The Commission’s country recommendations follow the same pattern: Belgium should see its long existing wage indexation as a cause of the debts and abolish it; Spain should let collective bargaining agreements extinguish without renewal; France should limit the rate of increase of minimum wages. The Commission will enforce these recommendations via a system of fines and sanctions.
• The recent White Paper on pensions claims to support workers’ mobility. What it actually seems to promote is the mobility of insurance companies and the uniformity of insurance products all over Europe.
• There is still no breakthrough on a Financial Transaction Tax, Eurobonds, strict regulation of financial markets, a split of the banking system etc.
• The so-called “reform agenda” is still under the banner of more smart regulation, more labour market reform, more flexicurity etc.

Europe needs to be protected against this neoliberal dismantling. The financial industry brought the system close to a breakdown and the “neoliberal Taliban” are bringing Europe close to collapse. They overlook the symptoms of growing euroscepticism all over Europe and they fail to deliver solutions. Whether or not austerity works, seems not so important for them.
Another interesting Social Europe post is here

A painting privilege in Shumen

Another workshop at Targovishte – and the morning swim and exercise we have now started in Sofia (just round the corner in at Rodina Hotel) left no time to pop in to see the Veliko Tornovo Gallery (about which I haven’t heard anything in any case). But I had learned that Shumen has an interesting gallery from this link I had accidentally come across. The town of Shumen (80 kms from Varna and the Black Sea) is a bit unprepossessing as you drive in – with decaying 1950s residential blocks. But its centre is a pleasant surprise, with one the largest pedestrian areas I have ever seen – with trees, a theatre, statues and a mountain range behind. Its upper side is graced with a series of old, large official buildings – of which a mock Italian palace (the police station) is perhaps the most interesting.  
The Elena Karamihaylova Gallery was known only by two elderly ladies and was initially a disappointment – since the second floor containing the permanent collection was closed for reconstruction. But conversations with 3 (of the 7) staff managed to convey our love of Bulgarian painting and the Director graciously presented us with an attractive pack containing 20 postcards of the paintings, a CD and a small booklet giving the history of the collection and short notes on the artists.
When, however, I mentioned the name Alexander Moutafov (who was apparently born in Shumen), it was literally the key to open an Aladdin;s Cave.
Valentina Velikova, the paintings expert, took us to the archives where we saw the collection (of 1,300 items) stored and filed. And she was kind enough to find and pull out for our inspection various portraits by Elena Karamihaylova and paintings by Nikola Tanev, Alexander Moutafov and Stanio Stamatov. Marvellous to have a chance to handle such work. And great that a small gallery should have developed such a nice pack. They are rare amongsdt Regional galleries in having a CD - only Kazanlak (so far on my travels) has offered such a product. It is so simple, cheap to creat - and so necessary given the large numbers of paintings which are doomed to spend their life in basement archives!

 During the journey, I had said that I did not think that Brits had made their home in this part of the country - but, on the way back to the hotel, we popped into a Lidl supermarket and got into conversation with a british couple who have been living in a village outside Shumen for the past 5 years. They told us that quite a few Brits were in the area.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Fighting Big Brother

A year ago I had a rather brief post about the decline of journalism (three of my readers have already beaten me to this today!!) and hinted about the role which media concentration and corporate power was playing in the restriction of our democratic freedoms. By sheer coincidence, I came across yesterday a gripping video on how precisely lobbyists and deregulation made this possible in the USA in the 1990s and early 2000s (with propaganda calculated to make George Orwell spin in his grave) - and with what results. There are some great interviews with media people who clearly have taken risks in being so outspoken – and a stunning interview with a Republican appointee who acts like a programmed Alien in her responses to some critical questioning. The video focuses on serious abuse of power which never made the news - vetoed by those who feared corporate power sponsors. Another video is here
Rather belatedly, perhaps, some centres have been formed to fight this – in the US the Center for Public Integrity; in the UK,,a Centre for the Freedom of the Media; and a more recent The Bureau Investigates

Two useful papers are Mapping global media policy; and Media pluralism and concentration; the UK case
For those who care about democracy, these are the organisations which deserve and need public support.

Craig Murray had posted a couple of videos from a recent Conference in Berlin on Freedom of Expression which show, for example, how the BBC elite has clearly made him a non-person because of his courage in exposing the lies and deciet which pass for foreign policy. I hope this link works - since the first link I put up quickly disappeared from the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy's site!! I have asked the Institute for an explanation of this.........

A dig at the Aid business

 I'm not a cynical person - it is rather scepticism I celebrate. But satire is a useful wepaon against the pomposity and hubris of large organisations - and I did enjoy a piece on the genesis of the aid business of which this is an excerpt -
In the beginning, the Donors said, “Let us make development in our image, and in our likeness, so that we may bring about changes in developing countries”. And other Government Departments replied, “Yes, but not too much change, and not all at once, who knows What might Happen.” And the Donors did reflect upon this, and after a time they did say, “Let there be Aid Programmes”.
And lo, having completed the appropriate paperwork and then randomly recruited staff members on the basis of spurious social connections, the Aid Workers did create a great many Aid Programmes upon the land, with rather fewer in the sea.
Now at first many Aid Programmes were formless and empty, there was darkness over any possible engagement with intended beneficiaries, and attribution of impact was absolutely nowhere to be seen. With naught else to look at, the Donors did peck at the financials like bureaucratic vultures.
And the Donors did say, “Let there be light on this programme”, but there was no light, merely quarterly reports cut and pasted from other endeavours. But the Aid Workers saw that the reports were sufficient to get the donors off their backs. They called the reports “evidence-based” and they did construct programme narratives, after a fashion. And there were visits and some more reports.

But upon reading the reviews, the Donors said, “Let all the programmes under this sky be gathered to one place, and let duplication and waste disappear.” But it was not so. Instead the Aid Workers did gather in the bar and Grumble about it over numerous beers. The next day, the Aid Workers said those programmes whose representatives had gathered in that bar formed ‘a new Coordinated Operational Network System, or CONS’. And the Donors did scratch their heads, and then said, “Well, Okay”.

Then the Donors said, “Let the programmes produce results: monitoring systems and impact-bearing evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, according to their various kinds.” But again, it was not so. The programmes produced reports bearing more narratives and nice photos on the front. But the content was heavily skewed according to pre-defined objectives and indicators that could have been copied off a cereal box.

And the Aid Workers saw that it was rather woolly and vague, and were satisfied. And the Donors saw that it was not Actually very good, but would at least keep the Right Wing Press off their backs for a little longer.
And then one Aid Worker did Stand up and Say, “Let our Programmes be shaped by those we seek to serve, and Let them tell us what is good and right, and let us shine a true light into these programmes of ours, so that a light may then shine forth from them. And let that Light be Truly called ‘Development’.”
But the other Aid Workers did say, “Shut up and sit down, What are you playing at, Dost thou wish to get us all into the Deep Excrement?”
Thankfully the Donors were too busy creating new Declarations of Aid Effectiveness, within which all new and existing efforts should be fixed, according to their kind, and so did not notice.
And so this Aid Worker did leave that place, and became a Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist.
The other Aid Workers blessed her departure and said “Come back when our next mid-term review is due, and verily your rates will be good.” And they were.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The amorality of Professions

I see that rule of law has not improved in Azerbaijan since I worked and lived in Baku between 2003-05. Those attending the Eurovision Song contest being held there in a couple of months should be told about the evictions which have taken place to house the stupid event. I went to work there (for 2 years) immediately after I had spent 3 years in Uzbekistan, For me, the repressive nature of the regimes which ruled the 2 countries was so similar - but the oil and geography ensured that Azerbaijan remained a Western favourite while Uzbekistan was increasingly demonised. These evictions are just a very public example of the way the authorities in that country trample all over its citizens' basic rights.
A good vignette about professionals
Sometimes you find real gems in discussions threads. Here's a great comment on the legal system from someone whose name I didn't note in a now-forgotten discussion thread. It could be used of any professional system -
Judges, lawyers, barristers and other professional morality men work consciously and unconsciously to create unnecessary needs and ensure that there is no other means of meeting them than through their profession. This they do in five ways.

• Firstly, they make truth, justice and authority inseparable from an abstract and extremely complicated code that only they are trained to understand. In this they are no different from scientists, doctors or politicians; or from the priests they took over from, who, before printing and wide-literacy, had sole access to the word of God.
• Secondly, and connected with their abstraction of truth, they create and use a nomenclature, or jargon, to describe both their own activity as well as normal life. Laws are couched in such obscure language that only those who have spent years learning the code are able to interpret and discuss them.
• Thirdly, going to court involves a series of ceremonial, formalised rituals, invested with all the mystique of a religion, that bewilder, terrify or pacify outsiders into further dependence and unnecessary “respect”.
• Fourthly, there is little and usually no provision for the independent litigant to represent herself. She is given little or no help or encouragement to defend her case. She is unprofessional, and so is treated, by judges and lawyers alike, as incompetent, untrustworthy and irresponsible. Witnesses are treated in a similar way: only professionals can give opinions; everyone else must stick to facts.
• Finally, “nobody is above the law.” This demonstrable lie ensures that justice cannot be done outside of court. This does not just include legal disputes, crime and so forth, but also marriage, divorce, buying a house and making a will, all of which are invalid without a trip to the lawyer.
I am reminded, as I read this, of the historical critique - The Third Revolution; professional elites in the modern world by Harold Perkins which I have referred to several times on this blog. And who better than Daumier to offer a graphic comment on the legal profession! Here is a wonderful video on the Daumier caricatures.
Bulgarian caricaturists such as Ilya Beshkov are worthy successors to Daumier - here is one I bought recently.
A year ago -
I had a good post about social change in which I referred to Robert Quinn’s book Change the world; how ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary results as an excellent antidote for those who are still fixated on the expert model of change – those who imagine it can be achieved by “telling”, “forcing” or by participation. Quinn exposes the last for what it normally is (despite the best intentions of those in power) – a form of manipulation – and effectively encourages us, through examples, to have more faith in people. As the blurb says –
the idea that inner change makes outer change possible has always been part of spiritual and psychological teachings. But not an idea that’s generally addressed in leadership and management training.
 Quinn's book looks at how leaders such as Christ, Gandhi and Luther King have mobilised people for major change – and suggests that, by using 8 principles, “change agents” are capable of helping ordinary people to achieve transformative change. These principles are -
• Envisage the productive community (ie imagine a better system)
• Look within
• Embrace the hypocritical self
• Transcend fear
• Embody a vision of the common good
• Disturb the system
• Surrender to the emergent system
• Entice through moral power

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sliven's excellent galleries

Sliven, with 100,000 inhabitants, is half the size of neighbouring Stara Zagora; also has a dramatic location with mountains rising sheer from behind; but has a more run-down appearance. I associate the town with two things – the painter Dobre Dobrev (198-1973) and excellent white wine (Vini Sliven which has become very difficult to find now in Sofia; Windy Hills I have not yet tasted)!
And the town has done Dobrev proud – with some 50 of his paintings on permanent display in a superb National Revival house. Here I found the painting which had so attracted me in the special exhibition mounted 2 years ago by the Sofia City Gallery - with the fingers of the man at the cafe so clearly drawn!
I was taken to the Gallery by Evelin who had been kind enough to show me round the Sirak Stitnik Gallery which is the town’s main gallery – with a collection just as good as that I saw the previous day in the neighbouring town.
Not only the country’s greats such as Tanev, Abadjiev and Boris Denev but a special exhibition of the graphics of a new painter for me - Kozuharev, Nikola (1892-1971).

He's famous apparently for his mythological and historical paintings but was also a war artist - covering the Balkan War and First World Wars - and some of these sketches were on display.
This painting is of the capture of Bulgaria's greatest freedom-fighter - Vassil Levski.
Unfortunately, there was no heating in the place - like the Russe and Targovishte galleries