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

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Toward the End

Faithful readers will know that, at the start of the new millennium, I started to express my own personal anxieties about the direction globalisation was taking us all – and to muse about where a guy with my age and experience should be putting his energy and resources (not least time)
The global crisis of the past 6 years confirmed my worst fears – but I still haven’t found an answer to my simple question. In the meantime I’ve continued to try to identify the people who are writing seriously about the various issues involved……

Several years ago I was very impressed with the work of people such as Richard Douthwaite and, in the past couple of years, with the (rather more apocalpytic) books and blogs of JM Greer and Dmitry Orlov - see also here.
The latters’ recent blogspost have been reassessing the scale of the global crisis (in its various forms - fuel, economic and environmental) here – and here, suggesting that things have now gone beyond the point of no return.

Before I give you a flavour of these posts, let me share with you the eloquent final thoughts of a seasoned campaigner which were found on his laptop after his death
As I survey my life, which is coming near its end, I want to set down a few thoughts that might be useful to those coming after. It will soon be time for me to give back to Gaia the nutrients that I have used during a long, busy, and happy life. I am not bitter or resentful at the approaching end; I have been one of the extraordinarily lucky ones. So it behoves me here to gather together some thoughts and attitudes that may prove useful in the dark times we are facing: a century or more of exceedingly difficult times.
How will those who survive manage it? What can we teach our friends, our children, our communities? Although we may not be capable of changing history, how can we equip ourselves to survive it?
I contemplate these questions in the full consciousness of my own mortality. Being offered an actual number of likely months to live, even though the estimate is uncertain, mightily focuses the mind. On personal things, of course, on loved ones and even loved things, but also on the Big Picture.But let us begin with last things first, for a change. The analysis will come later, for those who wish it.
Hope. Children exude hope, even under the most terrible conditions, and that must inspire us as our conditions get worse. Hopeful patients recover better. Hopeful test candidates score better. Hopeful builders construct better buildings. Hopeful parents produce secure and resilient children. In groups, an atmosphere of hope is essential to shared successful effort: “Yes, we can!” is not an empty slogan, but a mantra for people who intend to do something together — whether it is rescuing victims of hurricanes, rebuilding flood-damaged buildings on higher ground, helping wounded people through first aid, or inventing new social structures (perhaps one in which only people are “persons,” not corporations). We cannot know what threats we will face. But ingenuity against adversity is one of our species’ built-in resources. We cope, and faith in our coping capacity is perhaps our biggest resource of all.
 Mutual support. The people who do best at basic survival tasks (we know this experimentally, as well as intuitively) are cooperative, good at teamwork, often altruistic, mindful of the common good. In drastic emergencies like hurricanes or earthquakes, people surprise us by their sacrifices — of food, of shelter, even sometimes of life itself. Those who survive social or economic collapse, or wars, or pandemics, or starvation, will be those who manage scarce resources fairly; hoarders and dominators win only in the short run, and end up dead, exiled, or friendless. So, in every way we can we need to help each other, and our children, learn to be cooperative rather than competitive; to be helpful rather than hurtful; to look out for the communities of which we are a part, and on which we ultimately depend.
 Practical skills. With the movement into cities of the U.S. population, and much of the rest of the world’s people, we have had a massive de-skilling in how to do practical tasks. When I was a boy in the country, all of us knew how to build a tree house, or construct a small hut, or raise chickens, or grow beans, or screw pipes together to deliver water. It was a sexist world, of course, so when some of my chums in eighth grade said we wanted to learn girls’ “home ec” skills like making bread or boiling eggs, the teachers were shocked, but we got to do it. There was widespread competence in fixing things — impossible with most modern contrivances, of course, but still reasonable for the basic tools of survival: pots and pans, bicycles, quilts, tents, storage boxes.
 We all need to learn, or relearn, how we would keep the rudiments of life going if there were no paid specialists around, or means to pay them. Every child should learn elementary carpentry, from layout and sawing to driving nails. Everybody should know how to chop wood safely, and build a fire. Everybody should know what to do if dangers appear from fire, flood, electric wires down, and the like. Taking care of each other is one practical step at a time, most of them requiring help from at least one other person; survival is a team sport. 
Organize. Much of the American ideology, our shared and usually unspoken assumptions, is hyper-individualistic. We like to imagine that heroes are solitary, have super powers, and glory in violence, and that if our work lives and business lives seem tamer, underneath they are still struggles red in blood and claw. We have sought solitude on the prairies, as cowboys on the range, in our dependence on media (rather than real people), and even in our cars, armored cabins of solitude. We have an uneasy and doubting attitude about government, as if we all reserve the right to be outlaws. But of course human society, like ecological webs, is a complex dance of mutual support and restraint, and if we are lucky it operates by laws openly arrived at and approved by the populace.
 If the teetering structure of corporate domination, with its monetary control of Congress and our other institutions, should collapse of its own greed, and the government be unable to rescue it, we will have to reorganize a government that suits the people. We will have to know how to organize groups, how to compromise with other groups, how to argue in public for our positions. It turns out that “brainstorming,” a totally noncritical process in which people just throw out ideas wildly, doesn’t produce workable ideas. In particular, it doesn’t work as well as groups in which ideas are proposed, critiqued, improved, debated. But like any group process, this must be protected from domination by powerful people and also over-talkative people. When the group recognizes its group power, it can limit these distortions. Thinking together is enormously creative; it has huge survival value. 
Learn to live with contradictions. These are dark times, these are bright times. We are implacably making the planet less habitable. Every time a new oil field is discovered, the press cheers: “Hooray, there is more fuel for the self-destroying machines!” We are turning more land into deserts and parking lots. We are wiping out innumerable species that are not only wondrous and beautiful, but might be useful to us. We are multiplying to the point where our needs and our wastes outweigh the capacities of the biosphere to produce and absorb them. And yet, despite the bloody headlines and the rocketing military budgets, we are also, unbelievably, killing fewer of each other proportionately than in earlier centuries. We have mobilized enormous global intelligence and mutual curiosity, through the Internet and outside it.
We have even evolved, spottily, a global understanding that democracy is better than tyranny, that love and tolerance are better than hate, that hope is better than rage and despair, that we are prone, especially in catastrophes, to be astonishingly helpful and cooperative. We may even have begun to share an understanding that while the dark times may continue for generations, in time new growth and regeneration will begin. In the biological process called “succession,” a desolate, disturbed area is gradually, by a predictable sequence of returning plants, restored to ecological continuity and durability.
When old institutions and habits break down or consume themselves, new experimental shoots begin to appear, and people explore and test and share new and better ways to survive together. It is never easy or simple. But already we see, under the crumbling surface of the conventional world, promising developments: new ways of organizing economic activity (cooperatives, worker-owned companies, nonprofits, trusts), new ways of using low-impact technology to capture solar energy, to sequester carbon dioxide, new ways of building compact, congenial cities that are low (or even self-sufficient) in energy use, low in waste production, high in recycling of almost everything.
A vision of sustainability that sometimes shockingly resembles Ecotopia is tremulously coming into existence at the hands of people who never heard of the book. Now in principle, the Big Picture seems simple enough, though devilishly complex in the details.
We live in the declining years of what is still the biggest economy in the world, where a looter elite has fastened itself upon the decaying carcass of the empire. It is intent on speedily and relentlessly extracting the maximum wealth from that carcass, impoverishing our former working middle class.
But this maggot class does not invest its profits here. By law and by stock-market pressures, corporations must seek their highest possible profits, no matter the social or national consequences — which means moving capital and resources abroad, wherever profit potential is larger. As Karl Marx darkly remarked, “Capital has no country,” and in the conditions of globalization his meaning has come clear. The looter elite systematically exports jobs, skills, knowledge, technology, retaining at home chiefly financial manipulation expertise: highly profitable, but not of actual productive value. Through “productivity gains” and speedups, it extracts maximum profit from domestic employees; then, firing the surplus, it claims surprise that the great mass of people lack purchasing power to buy up what the economy can still produce (or import).
The first sketch at the top is one I found in several drawerfuls of Ilia Petrov rough sketches. I suppose its from the 1944 period here.....The aquarelle is one of several (from the 1970s) I have from Vassil Vulev (when I met him a couple of years ago) who's still going at 79/80

Monday, February 24, 2014

French letters

The writings of Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) have always given me pleasure – not so much her novels as the various parts of her autobiography (particularly the travelogues which give such an amazing sense of immediate post-war Europe in all its dereliction and ideological struggles)
Apart from her continuing loyalty to Sartre, I knew of her liaisons with Nelson Algren and Claude Lantzman (the latter still alive) but had not heard of her letters from 1947-64 to Algren  - Beloved Chicago Man (published only in the 1990s). Algren was a tough realist writer in Chicago she had gone to meet while on a USA tour in 1947 with Sartre who at that moment was dallying with an actress in New York. 
I picked up an original hardback version last week in Sofia’s second-hand English bookshop and was pretty quickly hooked on its almost 600 pages.

It is a quite stunning collection of letters (but one-sided) which compares in its powerful portrayal of love only (in my humble opinion) with Oriana Fallaci’s A Man (see also here). And they're written in her English - which, although quite excellent, contain delightful French constructs from time to time which only deepen the delight. Beloved Chicago Man  -
is a revelation. Simone de Beauvoir’s letters to Nelson Algren are, from beginning to end, among the most beautiful sustained pieces of writing that I have read. They begin with the long, frequent, ecstatic communications of 1947 to 1951, chronicle the terrible coming apart and then the lasting attachment of the Fifties, and wind down with the occasional warm messages of the early Sixties. Her (famous) novel The Mandarins - published in 1954 - deals clumsily with the emotions so stunningly expressed in the letters.
This is a 2006 article on the relationship which, in its own cinematic American way, gives a terrific sense of what was actually going on. de Beauvoir was in what became the famous open relationship with Sartre (who was a lecherous little dwarf) and found herself "de trop" for the moment in New York - and therefore in the mood for some distraction in Chicago. She had not, however, bargained for falling in love - but still cut her visit short when Sartre indicated he needed her in Paris. When, however, she got back to France, it was to discover that the actress was with Sartre. She immediately sent a wire to Algren offering to return to him!  It was only some years later that Algren found out all about this - and was not a happy man!
If they hadn’t been such profound writers, capturing so brilliantly the truth of their lives and times, the names of Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir would already be buried like their love. Like the loves of so many Indians and intellectuals, pickpockets and philosophers who danced along the shore of the secondhand sea (a reference to the beach where Algren had a summer shack)And the story we like to tell—the hustler’s heart hustled by the very best, a woman who said she couldn’t, wouldn’t, tell a lie—would be long drowned in the sand.
Partly, Beauvoir and Algren were victims of the myth in which they collaborated. By not talking, by not pointing out her lies, Algren remained a gentleman for a long time. His books, which told the truth as far as he could see, remain rooted in their time. Hers describe parts of the life of a “modern” woman, the parts that backed up Sartre’s ideas about freedom and responsibility, about morality without a God. Algren had to understand that she was “flying blind,” that the only net beneath her trapeze act was being held up by Sartre, that her stories were part of the future and his were part of the past.
So who had the last laugh in our Dunes love story? Simone de Beauvoir is buried next to Sartre in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, wearing Nelson Algren’s ring, connected forever to the smartest men she knew.
Nelson Algren would most likely laugh at the irony of millions of people buying her books, stacking them like tourist memorabilia on their shelves, finding almost all of them impossible to read (I don't agree with this judgement!!)Sartre would have thought of all the people he knew existentially—they had no reason for being but themselves. It was up to every individual to do what he or she perceived needed to be done. They all did the best they could.
If, for even a tiny moment, any one of them believed in God, it would be hard not to see a Divine Sense of Humor at work. When sand slides into a house, it seeks no comfort or revenge, has no contempt or jealousy, satisfaction or guilt. The Dunes bury everything: beach houses, roads, forests, Hepburn, Mitchum, Tracy, dolls and books, everything.
To get a sense of how well de Beauvoir could write, read this extended excerpt from her notes on her travels around the USA called - America Day by Day

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Let's talk about Scotland

It was 21 years ago that Czechia and Slovakia split from one another – to each’s great surprise. I was there in 1992/93– and can vividly remember the political impasse in Prague and then the celebratory noises in Bratislava. Most of my friends were Slovak – and they all seemed to regret the split despite the feelings about Czech arrogance
For the past few years, it is the Slovaks who have had the most to celebrate – with both their economy and politics. It was all so quickly done – deals by the senior politicians - with no opportunity given to ordinary people to express an opinion.
In this sense it is not at all like the Scottish situation whose referendum in September this year has been scheduled for more than 2 years.

I’ve just had the thought to drive to Scotland – via Slovakia – and chat to my friends along the route (including those in Belgium) about the situation.
The relationships are, of course, a bit different – both in scale and history. Scotland has less than 8% of the UK population (compared with Slovakia’s 33% share of the CS citizenry) – and Scotland has been a significant player  for 300 years in the story that is British capital and Empire (whereas Cz and Slo were linked as a nation for only 70 years).

I left Scotland and the UK in 1990 – but did participate (somewhat ambivalently) in the 1979 referendum – which was slated to give Scotland the devolution the country obtained only in 1999. My inclination this past year has been to vote yes - like the vast majority of Scots, I simply feel the political class in London is a different ideological race. And the tactics these past few weeks of the Westminster (and Brussels) "so-gennanten" leaders certainly make me feel a bit “stroppy”. The suggestions of cretins such as the EC President (Barroso) and the UK Finance Minister that there could be no currency link ; or easy negotiation to EU membership  is pure shock tactics…..and so counterproductive. 
These idiots don’t know my countrymen – who will simply come off the fence – and vote yes.

The only reason the “No” vote (which a few months ago was so strong) is collapsing is because the UK is now ruled by neo-liberal feudalists who, for Scots, are aliens at 2 removes. 
The PM (who is not so desperate as his Labour counterpart) has now invited English people to write to their Scottish relatives to convince them to stay in “the Union”. Here is one interesting effort
And also a lovely tongue-in-cheek list of 76 things for the English to apologise to the Scots about

We now appear to be entering the third of four phases of the referendum campaign before the actual hustings in August. Each phase has been dictated by the Nationalists. In the first phase, their task was simply to get people to accept that a two-year campaign was not too much and that the running of the country would not be neglected. Labour leader Johann Lamont's justified criticism of this simply failed to resonate.This was followed by the elaborate countdown to the white paper, which seemed to confer Arc of the Covenant status on this mystical document. It weighed in at more than 600 pages and the No campaign attempted to smear it as being overly heavy and grandiose.
Yet there was a sense that voters, even those who might never get round to tackling it, were impressed that their intellects were being taken seriously at a time when the No campaign seemed not to be taking them seriously enough in trying to persuade us that Scotland would resemble 1970s Albania if it voted for independence.
Following publication of the white paper, the numbers began slowly to shift. The third phase has seen the Westminster political and coffee-house set begin to sit up straight and pay attention. This has been accompanied in Scotland by the long-awaited engagement at street level with the referendum issues. Here again, the Yes campaign has got its act together far more effectively. It ought to be acknowledged, though, that the No campaign faces several social and cultural handicaps here that it is powerless to overcome. Its leaders know, as do the rest of us, that organising rallies and public meetings in the shadow of the union jack risks them being hijacked by the scarecrow element of Ulster loyalism and the British far right.
Two weeks ago, I visited the Yes campaign website searching for an open event that I could attend, preferably off the beaten track. Between the end of January and 1 March, there were more than 200 happenings, a mass engagement that touched every nook and cranny of the kingdom. Seeking a similar event to attend on the No campaign website, I could find only a handful.I informed a friend of mine who is close to some senior members of the No team that, if this pattern were to prevail until 18 September, it would be the difference between victory and defeat for his people.
Within a few days, a glut of fresh activity appeared on the No horizon, but I was not convinced. Yes are engaging with the common people of Scotland in pubs, fairgrounds and town centres all over the country. In some of those places, the No response, in the absence of organising their own event, has been to try to have them ejected under spurious anti-politicisation laws.
Here is one Guardian writer (Jonathan Freedland) also trying to support the No campaign.
But the place to find the real argument is the pages of the great Scottish Review – here and here.

I have a feeling that there will be many others like me who worry about the sheer uncertainties involved in blithely voting "yes" to separation, with all the risks the subsequent negotiations with the UK rump and the EU would hold..... 
I have already confessed that I was an active campaigner during the 1979 referendum for a devolved Parliament - in the "No" camp - and then, in the privacy of the voting chamber, actually voted "yes"!
Devolution has been a success

Ilia Petrov

Had a great privilege yesterday – to visit the house and studio of llia Petrov (1903-1975) - one of the great Bulgarian artists. According to the text I have, he -
worked in the style of the artists of the 17th century , combining silvery tones of Velazquez, cold pink flesh of Rubens and created powerful female portraits and nudes – with sophisticated shades of greenish and bluish, working with sophisticated techniques so that even today , 50 years after their creation, his paintings look as if they are still not dry. His paintings are almost impossible to reproduce.

He was born in Razgrad; and studied at Sofia Art Academy 1921-26 – latterly under Prof. Nikola Marinov. He went on to specialize in Munich and gave an exhibition there in 1928. On his way back to Bulgaria he did an extended tour of German cities, France, Austria and Italy to become acquainted with European traditions. In the late 1930s, disturbed by fascism, he did a series of paintings on The War in Spain. 1941-1967 he was Professor at Sofia Art Academy. 1961 visited India
Art teacher (1928 - 1940) From 1940 lecturer , from 1957 to 1968 - professor of painting at the Art Academy, Sofia , Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts (1957-1962) and Rector (1965- 1968. The Art School in Sofia bears his name.

After the communist takeover in September 1944, he took an active part in the management of the Union of Bulgarian Artists and was its Secretary-General (1949-1951 and 1957-1959) and participated in the work of "Monument to the Soviet Army" in Sofia.
He also did quite a few works of historical revolutionary themes : “Guerrillas in action”, “Before the shooting ", " Partisan Song", " The Messenger " but his true virtuosity seen in naked bodies , where he remains one of Bulgaria’s greatest artists. A young student did  this copy of a famous self-portrait he did which hangs in the National Gallery here ….Shades of Lucian Freud!

Left a tremendous amount of paintings - portrait sketches, animals - some of which, as I can testify, are still to be displayed in public.

It was, in fact, the sketches that most interested me – and I emerged from the meeting with his nephew, with about 10 of them as well as the painting!

Monday, February 17, 2014

What is Populism?

The obvious question after yesterday’s post is - What is “populism”?
One academic, in a useful overview is quoted as claiming there were essential aspects.
  • First, the ‘people’ is of paramount importance. Here, a feeling of community is stressed, and horizontal cleavages (such as left-right) are played down while vertical ones are played up for the purpose of excluding particular groups, e.g. elites and immigrants.
  • Second, populists claim that the ‘people’ has been betrayed by the elites through their abuse of power, corruption etc.
  • Third, populists demand that the “primacy of the people” (p. 13) has to be restored. In short: the current elites would have to be replaced and in their place the new leaders (the populists) would act for the good of the ‘people’.
 This, for me is where things get interesting. My blog has referred several time to Robert Michels whose Political Parties – a sociological study of the oligarchical tendencies of modern democracy reminded us 100 years ago of the verity of Lord Acton’s words – “power corrupts – but absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The power of Michels’s words still comes back to me from my first reading of him as part of my University degree all of 50 years ago! (The entire book can be downloaded here - and a useful assessment is available here

Later in my course, however, I came across Schumpeter whose Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy persuaded me that democracy was actually - and not unreasonably - “a competitive circulation of the elites”. A few years later the global mood in 1968 took a more critical turn and encouraged a more active and participative role for citizens. Coincidentally that was the year I was first elected – hardly surprisingly I encouraged what was called “neighbourhood mobilisation” which was indeed institutionalised in a strategy which owed a lot to the American War on Poverty (and its milder UK equivalent).
Of course active citizens are no more representative than politicians – but they should, we innocently thought, at least keep politicians on their toes. That may have been true at a local level (although in too many countries, municipal systems have been denuded of power) – nationally the media were supposed to keep a bright torch shining on the misdeeds of those in authority – but, in the past couple of decades, have been almost totally bought out.

So where does that leave us? Disillusioned – and powerless? 
Not quite – rather talking of replacing the political elites – and random selection of citizens for limited terms in office.

But two questions -

  • why should those in power be willing to surrender that power by, for example, amending the electoral laws to allow that to happen – let alone to cut off their political funding?
  • And what have we learned from other efforts (eg the German Greens) to ensure that leaders (and other strange animals) do not emerge and corrupt the “general will”?

Future posts will try to explore some of the more anarchistic (perhaps better "fatalistic") ideas which have surfaced since the “Occupy” movement first started

In the meantime I couldn’t resist inserting this flier for an academic association specialising in ./…the study of elites

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Bulgarian populism and the protests

Globalism has failed. Monetarism has failed. The liberal politics of “less government, the market has the final say” has failed. The worldwide financial crisis, caused by the US, is a clear sign of this. Market fundamentalism, transformed into a religion by the financial and political establishment of the US, has suffered an abysmal defeat…. We say no to the world’s speculative capital, no to supranational corporations, which destroy market economies, no to Wall Street, and we say yes to more common sense, balance, and equity
What could be more sensible than that? And yet the words are taken from the right-wing Bulgarian Аtaka party’s 2013 manifesto. I found them a few days ago in an excellent overview of Bulgarian populism on Anna Krasteva’s blog. The article, written, in English, by a Bulgarian academic who lives in Sofia, continues
The populist rage is targeted mostly at international capital, which “drains” the national wealth: Ataka have estimated that 28 billion 257 million levs have been diverted from the pockets of Bulgarian tax payers into the treasuries of foreign companies selling food, clothes, electricity, banking services etc.“All institutions, all ministries, the fields of culture, healthcare, and education altogether receive 10 billion levs less than the foreign colonizers!“  (Аtaka 2013, 8).Anti-Europeanism is the other topic which attracts the critical pathos of populist negation. It strikes out in three directions.
  • The first one concerns the accusations of neo-colonialism: the EU “is becoming a new Soviet Union, functioning by force and against the constitution” (Аtaka 2013). The full version of the program bears the arrogant title Siderov’s Plan against the Colonial Yoke; the text begins with the story of “how we were enslaved after the fall of the Berlin Wall”.
  • The second criticism is institutional and is leveled at Europe’s institutional structure: “the fake figure of EU president has been imposed, which contradicts both national and international law”; this claim also targets the consequences of Bulgaria’s political strategy: “The Euro Pact invalidates the Parliament and the government, the elections, and democracy at large.”
  • The third direction has to do with Europeanization as a form of globalization: “The Euro Pact reinforces the power of the supranational and corporate oligarchy“. All of these criticisms converge in a cluster whose core conveys the message, “the EU is a threat to the national identity, sovereignty, and dignity”: “Bulgaria is threatened with a loss of identity and with extinction”; “Bulgaria is losing its sovereignty“.
Of course, the Ataka style is highly aggressive and intolerant – but I see no reason to fault this sort of the discourse which you will find in all current European “populist” parties. The romantic pull of the village and its traditions does seem stronger in Bulgaria than (say) in Romania - and the Romanian peasantry (unlike the Bulgarian) does seem to retain its loyalty to socialist/communist elements of political organisation......

In a long post just a couple of weeks ago, the same author has a rare and useful analysis of the protests which have now lasted here in Bulgaria for one year now.
I would identify three waves and three types of protests:
  • the anti-monopoly protests of winter/spring 2013;
  • the anti-oligarchy protests of summer 2013;
  • the anti-government student protests of autumn 2013.
The political geography of the winter protests was decentralized. Sofia did not win first place, but neither did it vie for it. I have called those protests ‘Varna Spring’ because the protesters in Varna outnumbered those in Sofia, as well as because their outrage was well-targeted – against the mayor and a business group. Not against business in general, but against criminal groups suffocating business; not against the elite in general, but against a mayor who had brought the city to its knees before behind-the-scenes interests; not against government in general, but against that which was devouring Varna’s Sea Garden and stifling the vitality and enterprising spirit of Bulgaria’s seaside capital (Krasteva 2013c). 
Just days after the winter protests, the government of Boyko Borisov resigned although the protesters had not demanded – nor even thought of demanding – its resignation. After six months of protests against the Oresharski government, protesters were still demanding its resignation but the government, Parliament, and even the opposition were now saying that the incumbents were likely to remain in power for some time to come. The political effect of the winter and the post-winter protests was opposite, but they were similar in that, paradoxically, both led to the opposite of the desired results.In terms of duration, the protest year 2013 is unprecedented in Bulgarian democratic history.
We remember from history how a trivial occasion – an African American woman’s refusal to surrender her seat to a white man – led to the abolition of racial segregation and a profound transformation of American society. The Bulgarian protests also started from a concrete occasion – the exorbitant electricity bills and the appointment of Delyan Peevski, a controversial media mogul, as chief of the State Agency for National Security (DANS) – but the protest wave outlived the occasion (Peevski did not remain in office for more than a day), rightly interpreting it not as an exception but as an inevitable consequence of the whole political system which became the target of its outrage.
This is a most useful update of a rather more general 2008 article on Bulgarian populism entitled Radical Demophilia by Conservative MEP Svetoslav Malinov  and should be put in the wider context of the collection of articles I referred to a few days ago on European populism, the general tone of the articles being (typically) elitist and disapproving. 
What, I have to wonder, is wrong with being in tune with popular opinion these days - let alone picking out the corporate and political elite for denigration?????

The painting is one of the favourite Socialist Realist ones I have in my collection. Of partisans, it gives a sense of the village against the enemy.......

Friday, February 14, 2014

A special day - for wine!

On the 14th of February Bulgarians celebrate the day of St. Trifon Zarezan. The roots of this holiday are hidden in the far distant past and probably is related to the Thracian god of the wine – Dionysius. The pagan customs messed with the Orthodox traditions and people invented an amusing legend about Trifon Zarezan.
He was a common wine-grower. One day he went to his vineyard to cut the vine outgrowths. He met his sister Virgin Mary and joked with her for that she had an illegitimate child. She decided to punish him. Virgin Mary went to Trifon’s wife and told her that Trifon had cut his nose. His wife rushed towards the vineyard to help hers husband but she saw he is fine. The woman told him what happened and Trifon started laughing. He said that this is impossible, but when he waved with a hand he really cut his nose with the pruning-knife. This accident gave him his nickname – “Zarezan” which means “truncated”. Real St. Trifon died as a martyr during the roman persecution over the Christians. But people didn’t want to relate his name with sadness and pain, so they crowned him with the nimbus of the wine and rejoicing.

“Russia is again Bulgaria’s biggest wine market. We used to sell the largest quantities of Bulgarian wine on this market in the past. The good news is that Bulgaria has regained its market in the average and the high price segment there. The same thing refers to the Polish and the Czech market. We managed to step back on these markets and sell successfully our produce. In the past, one-third of the wine market in Poland consisted of Bulgarian wines. Bulgaria used to sell more wine there than Italy, France and Spain altogether. Currently we are slowly regaining our position there. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian wine is slowly shifting from the low price segment to the medium and the high ones.”
A similar trend exists on other traditional markets in Western Europe. Bulgaria sells less, but more expensive wines there. The industry has the chance to penetrate large and new markets such as China and India. The wine export to China has been constantly on the rise over the past years. Bulgaria also attempts at positioning its wines in the USA, Switzerland, Singapore, Japan, Vietnam and China, within the frameworks of the EU programme for promotion of wines in third countries. 
The local wine sorts were neglected over the past decades when the curiosity of the Bulgarian producers and consumers towards foreign sorts such as Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Melbeek, etc, was huge. Now the country has the chance to find its niche in the world wine market with traditional vine sorts.
Bulgaria currently plants new plots with local vines such as Mavrud, Broad-leaf Melnik Vine, Pamid, and Rubin and we are to see the results in the nearest future, says Radoslav Radev.2013 was exceptionally favorable to Bulgarian wine-making. The grape yield was very rich and of an extremely high quality. A record-high quantity of wine (around 200 million liters) is expected to be produced this year as compared to 127 million liters produced in 2012. 
The painting is one in my collection - Tihorov from Veliko Tarnovo. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Collapse of an honourable profession

Politicians are – and have long been – a good scapegoat for a society’s problems. 
Spineless and avaricious…So what’s new?

Well, quite a lot actually. Fifty years ago, politics was important in Europe at any rate – ideas and choices mattered. 
It was actually almost an honourable profession – people like Bernard Crick argued thus in 1962 in a classic and highly eloquent “In Defence of Politics” which probably played some part in my own decision to go into (local, then regional) politics in 1968. (Daumier clearly had a different view of politicians in the early 19th century - which is why I've been using his caricatures to head this series of posts)

After a couple of years of community initiatives and three years of chairing an innovative social work committee, I found myself playing for 16 years a rather fascinating but unusual role – nominally the Secretary of a ruling group of politicians (responsible for some 100,000 local government professionals), I was actually trying to create a system of countervailing power - of advisory groups of councillors and junior officials challenging various conventional policy wisdoms; and of community groups in the huge swathe of poor neighbourhoods of the West of Scotland -  trying to demonstrate what “community enterprise” had to offer. 
Political studies had been one of the key parts of my Master's Degree - so I was aware of the literature about democracy (such as it was then) - and, more particularly, elites (Mosca; Pareto; Schumpeter; Lipset; Dahrendorf; Michels - interestingly none of it british!). 
But it was the experience of representing a low-income neighbourhood in a shipbuilding town which showed me the deficiencies of actual democracy and the reality of bureaucratic power. The local, working- class politicians who were my colleagues were pawns in the hands of the educated, middle class professionals who ran the local services. As a young middle class graduate, I saw an opportunity to challenge things - using my social science words and concepts - if not knowledge! 
I had been inspired by the community activism of people like Saul Alinsky (and also by the early years of the American War on Poverty) and indeed wrote in 1978 two 5,000 word articles for Social Work Today (on multiple deprivation; and community development). The latter critiqued the operation of democracy and appeared in a major book on community development.

Straddling power systems was not easy (part of the important balancing process I have spoken about) – but, because I was seen as honest (if eccentric), no one could unseat me from the post (for which I competed every two years - from 1974-1990) as Secretary of the ruling Cabinet and Group of 78 Regional Councillors.
I was also lucky also to have access in the 1980s to various European working groups – and get a sense of how politicians and officials interacted there. And, most of the time, still an academic. I was in the middle of a complex of diverse groups – political, professional, local, national and European. It was the best education I ever had!

But by the late 1980s I was beginning to see the writing on the wall – Thatcher was privatising and contracting out local government functions – and abolishing any elected agency which tried to stand up to her. Greed was beginning to be evident. Thereafter I have watched events from a distance. I left British shores in late 1990 and became a bit of a political exile! 
Despite my unease with Blair and the New Labour thing, I was still excited by their arrival in government in 1997. And able to draft, even in the early 2000s, papers which extolled the apparent openness and creativity of British policy systems
But most of it, I now realise, was sheer verbiage and spin. Yesterday's post summarised the key points of the 1995 paper which superbly analysed the various phases political parties have gone through to reach their present impasse.

George Monbiot’s 2001 book “The Corporate State – the corporate takeover of Britain” - exposing the extent of new Labour’s involvement with big business - was my first real warning that things were falling apart; that the neo—liberal agenda of market rather than state power was in total control. And a wave of urbane, smooth-suited and well-connected young wannabe technocrats powering through the selection procedures.
The scale and nature of political spin – not least that surrounding the Iraq war - destroyed government credibility like a slow poison. 
The global debt crisis and bank bail-outs shattered the myth of progress. 
And then the media made sure to rub politicians’ noses in the petty excesses of expenditure claims. 
Both political parties haemorraged members – and then electoral support.
There are still some lone voices prepared to defend the political class - but it is a pointless task.

The political party as we know it has exhausted its capital – but still controls the rules of the game. They decide the laws; who is allowed to run; what qualifies as a party – with how many nominees or voter threshold; with what sort of budget; and with sort of (if any) television and radio coverage…
Parties should be abolished – but it is almost impossible to do so because they will always come back in a different form…….

I’m just looking at a book which focuses on the fringes of the European party system – the populist parties – and which does a good job of setting them in the wider context.
We have governments that no longer know how to govern; regulators who no longer know how to regulate; leaders who no longer lead; and an international press in thrall to all those hapless powers. Political parties no longer represent, banks no longer lend……Current political and social conditions are paradoxical: as citizens and individuals we live lives that reflect the fact that we have more information and more access to information than ever before – while at the same time we have a great deal less certainty about our futures, both individual and collective. We are, some would argue, increasingly living in conditions of ‘radical uncertainty’. …..
Uncertainty returns and proliferates everywhere.’ As a result, one of the key variables that needs to be factored into how we understand both demands and mobilisation on the one hand and policies and institutions on the other is anxiety.Not the niggles and worries of everyday life, but rather the surfacing of deep turmoil in the face of an uncertain future whose contours are barely perceptible and thus increasingly frightening.
And, though the condition of radical uncertainty might have existed, objectively, in the past, it existed at times when there had been no experience or expectation of the predictability of the future beyond that imagined in the context of religious or magical beliefs. No experience of the desirability and possibility of controlling our fate. Radical uncertainty in a world in which everyone has come to prize autonomy and control is a different proposition all together 
The digital revolution provides an impetus for the transformation of populism from a set of disparate movements with some shared themes and characteristics into something that has the force of a political ideology. The accelerated quality of political time and social media’s capacity to broadcast failure and dissent mean that the digital revolution gives populist movements a steady supply of political opportunity that reinforces its coherence. ...
And in the face of the rather colossal set of forces and transformations that fuel populism’s growth, curbing its destructive potential is about more than fiddling with an electoral manifesto here and changing an electoral strategy there. Those things need to be done, but they are minimum survival tactics rather solutions. The problem is the manner in which populism as an ideology is capable of marshalling the uncertainties and anxieties that characterise our era and responding in ways that provide the illusion of reassurance. Illusory though it may be, it fills that gap between the expectations of redemptive democracy on the one hand and the lacklustre manoeuvring of panicked policy-makers on  the other. A gap otherwise filled with uncertainty and anxiety becomes  filled with populist reassurance.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Political Parties as Parasites

It was in Bulgaria where I first encountered the phenomenon of proportional voting which has become such a dominant feature of Europe’s political system. Two colleagues on my project were at the same time local councillors – but not elected. They had simply been put on the party list. 
Grounded as I have been in both the political theory and practice of accountability, they were not real politicians. They owed their position entirely to their party bosses (which they could as quickly lose). 
More to the point, they had not campaigned and sought the votes of local constituents; nor held “surgeries” to hear people’s complaints and problems and thereby get a sense of public feelings. I do realise that there are a variety of PR systems available, including the mixed -member system - but my basic point stands.

In various countires I have used a diagram with a quadrant – to show the 4 very different pressures (audiences) which good politicians needed to have regard to – the local community; the party; the officials (and laws) of the particular government agency they had entered; and their conscience.
Politicians differed according to the extent of the notice they took of each of the pressures coming from each of these quadrants. And I gave names to the 4 types which could be distinguished – eg populist; ideologue; statesman; maverick. I tried to suggest that the effective politician was the one who resisted the temptation to be drawn into any one of these roles. 
  • The "populist" (or Tribune of the people) simply purports to gives the people what (s)he thinks they want - regardless of logic, coherence or consequences. 
  • The "ideologue" (or party spokesman) simply reflects what the party activist (or bosses) say - regardless of logic etc. 
  • The "statesman" (or manager) does what the professional experts in the appropriate bit of the bureaucracy tell him/her - regardless of its partiality etc
  • the "maverick" (or conviction politician) does what they think right (in the quiet of their conscience or mind - no matter how perverted) 
Each has its element of truth - and it is when someone blends the various partialities into a workable and acceptable proposition that we see real leadership 
All this came back to me as I read a paper (from 1995) which, looking at the relationship of the political party to both society and the state, nicely tracks the historical trajectory of the politician. First “grandees” (above it all); then later “delegates” (of particular social interests), then later again, in the heyday of the catch-all party, “entrepreneurs”, parties, the authors argued, have now become “semi-state agencies”. The article has some simple but useful diagrams showing how the three entities of political party, society and state have altered their interactions and roles in the last century.
We are told that proportional representation gives citizens a much stronger chance of their preferences being expressed in the final makeup of a Parliament. 
But that fails to deal with the reality of the party boss. 
Politicians elected for geographical constituencies (as distinct from party lists) have (some at least) voters breathing down their necks all year round. 
Not so those from the party lists who only have to bother about the party bosses who, in the past few decades, have got their snouts increasingly stuck in the state (and corporate) coffers.
The classic mass party is a party of civil society, emanating from sectors of the electorate, with the intention of breaking into the state and modifying public policy in the long-term interests of the constituency to which it is accountable. The "catch-all" party, while not emerging as a party of civil society, but as one that stands between civil society and the state, also seeks to influence the state from outside, seeking temporary custody of public policy in order to satisfy the short-term demands of its pragmatic consumers. In short, despite their obviously contrasting relations with civil society, both types of party lie outside the state, which remains, in principle, a neutral, party-free arena…..In the third model, parties are less the agents of civil society acting on, and penetrating, the state, and are rather more like brokers between civil society and the state, with the party in government (i.e. the political ministry) leading an essentially Janus-like existence. On one hand, parties aggregate and present demands from civil society to the state bureaucracy, while on the other they are the agents of that bureaucracy in defending policies to the public….. 
Looking at the three models as a dynamic rather than as three isolated snapshots, suggests the possibility that the movement of parties from civil society towards the state could continue to such an extent that parties become part of the state apparatus itself. It is our contention that this is precisely the direction in which the political parties in modern democracies have been heading over the past three decades. 
(We have seen a massive) decline in the levels of participation and involvement in party activity, with citizens preferring to invest their efforts elsewhere, particularly in groups where they can play a more active role and where they are more likely to be in full agreement with a narrower range of concerns, and where they feel they can make a difference. The more immediate local arena thus becomes more attractive than the remote and inertial national arena, while open, single-issue groups become more appealing than traditional, hierarchic party organizations.
Parties have therefore been obliged to look elsewhere for their resources, and in this case their role as governors and law-makers made it easy for them to turn to the state. Principal among the strategies they could pursue was the provision and regulation of state subventions to political parties, which, while varying from country to country, now often constitute one of the major financial and material resources with which the parties can conduct their activities both in parliament and in the wider society.
The growth in state subvention over the past two decades, and the promise of further growth in the coming years, has come to represent one of the most significant changes to the environment within which parties act……subventions which are generally tied to prior party performance or position - whether defined in terms of electoral success or parliamentary representation – and therefore help to ensure the maintenance of existing parties while at the same time posing barriers to the emergence of new groups.
In a similar vein, the rules regarding access to the electronic media, which, unlike the earlier printed media, are subject to substantial state control and/or regulation, offer a means by which those in power can acquire privileged access, whereas those on the margins may be neglected. Again, the rules vary from one country to another, and in some cases are clearly less restrictive, and less important, than others; nevertheless, the combination of the importance of the electronic media as a means of political communication, on the one hand, and the fact that these media are regulated by the state, and hence by the parties in the state, on the other, offers the parties a resource which was previously inconceivable.
This is one of several posts I intend to produce to deal with the widespread public unease with and distaste for democratic politics as currently being practised globally.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Bulgarian Hopes

I was ashamed to find myself responding cynically at the weekend to Bulgarian friends who had expressed surprise at my lack of recent comment on the continuing Bulgarian protests and standoff. They’ve lasted a year - and had the President suggesting last week making voting compulsory.  
“No protest movement ever achieves anything” I announced in worldly tones.
“Any momentary progress is immediately clawed back – or numerous distracting stratagems (like war) brought into play” I might have added.
Shame on me! To forget and thus to denigrate the power of the working class efforts of the 20th century - or those of present-day Chinese – or of the social movements of the last quarter of the 20th century in Latin America (against fascist murderers and corporate America) – let alone the mass protests in Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany which led to the breaching of the Wall; and the “hopes of spring” in North Africa in recent years.

Of course it always seems to be a question of one step forward – and three back. But since when did we expect life to be easy?
The Feudal class is always with us – rubbing our noses in it……..looking greedily for opportunities for exploitation. Here we are, 25 years after the Fall of the Wall – and any serious retrospective would have to make it a disastrous call. People’s lives have been seriously blighted – and moral corruption seeps through everyone’s veins. Little wonder that more than half of the population in all the countries of central and Eastern Europe regrets what was let go…..

Gene Sharp has been one of the most quoted champions of the change process (after, that is, people like Gandhi; Martin Luther King; and Saul Alinsky
The American Sharp has come late to stardom - see the latest version of his From Dictatorship to Democracy  His work has clearly been useful to the activists of the various Occupy movements globally.

But can we really separate process from content?  A lot of foreign cash has actually gone into supporting these “revolutions” and the hand of corporate power is clearly evident in the agenda of privatising public resources which is now being pushed by the European Commission as part of a wider and scandalous WTO effort
The Violence of Non-violence is an article which suggests that this is an inevitable consequence of Sharp-like emphasis on process. And this is certainly borne out by my own experience 20 years ago in Romania when I took part in several weekend schools for young politicians. The young Americans leading these courses put all the emphasis on developing electoral skills, on marketing – and absolutely none on policy issues.

The Bulgarian protests will be a year old next week. They started over anger at the hiking of electricity prices and led quickly to the collapse of the Government but were fuelled by disgust over the behaviour of the political class as a whole. In the past few months, students and academic staff seemed to take a more prominent role in these protests and I don’t know how much the thinking has changed in the past year. A year ago I wrote that -
On the political side, demands have gone even further to seek an overhaul of the political system in Bulgaria. They have made clear that the system has to be changed in such a way that when the next party comes to power, it can no longer behave the way all governments in Bulgaria have for the past 24 years. There have to be checks on political power and mechanisms to prevent collusion between politicians, private economic interests and organised crime. Protesters are currently calling for a Constituent Assembly to be formed to change the constitution and develop mechanisms of direct involvement of citizens in government matters. There have been proposals of specific measures to be taken such as: cutting the number of members of parliament to 240; stripping them of immunity; establishing procedures for early dismissal; establishing 50 percent citizens' controlling quota in state institutions.
In short, a new system has to be established in which elected officials do what they are elected to do, and citizens are close enough to them to make sure they do it.
The idea of a Constituent Assembly smacked to me of the French Revolution but comes, Iunderstand, more from the Icelandic aftermath to its financial crash and utter loss of faith of the Icelandic people in its system of government. A Constitutional Council put a new constitution to a referendum at the end of the year - but it does not contain the radical proposals which Icelandic citizen groups suggested The Bulgarian proposals seems to draw on the work of the Icelandic citizen associations but Bulgarians should be aware of the limitations of the Icelandic process - and of the basic fact that constitutional debate and new settlements cannot be rushed if the people are to have any trust in the outcome.
Ivan Daraktchiev is the brains behind the Zaedno website (it means "Together" in Bulgarian) which gives one angle on the issues from someone who is Bulgarian but has spent most of his recent life in Belgium. He has just uploaded a key paper - The Revolution within Democracy - onto the English part of the Zaedno website and a comprehensive statement of the requirements of a radically different type of constitutional settlement can be found on page 6. To many it will seem utopian - and I hope to do it justice in a future post.