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

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Progressive Dilemma

The eminent British journal The Political Quarterly has given us for 80 years the most elegant and insightful writing on British politics. 
Given the current desperation of the British left, it is understandable that the journal's current issue focuses on “Progressivism” and contains a fascinating account of the nature and course of that bundle of ideas in America and Britain over the past century 
In the US and the UK, progressivism went badly wrong in its politics: Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalist campaign of 1912 divided American reformers fatally, as did Lloyd George’s postwar Coalition in Britain after 1918.Now, even after Brexit, a progressive alliance seems further away than ever. The story of the ‘Progressive Dilemma’ remains one of unrealistic projects, invariably disappointed.

The article Dilemmas and Disappointment; progressive politics 1896-2016 (paywall) is from historian Kenneth Morgan and is well worth reading – not least for the amazing purchase price of 15 euros for internet access to the journal’s entire archives.
A book on “Britain and Transnational Progressivism” also gives a fascinating picture of the progressive  strand and its impact on, for example, the West of Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th century

A couple of months ago I wrote about various political labels – mentioning that my father had, in the 1950s, been a member of a local political group called “progressives” or “moderates” who sat as overtly apolitical councillors …I saw them as “fuddies and duddies” and myself as the van of a newer. more multi-coloured European Left – although I resisted the siren calls of both the 70s/80s “hard left” and Bliar’s New Labour. 
What a pity that EU membership did not seem to lead to any broadening of perspective as a result - the "single market" was very much a Thatcher-driven issue to which the British left generally had an angry reaction; and the positive stance taken by New Labour to the entry of new member states from the east is a stance now regretted by many in the Labour party.....Quite what the intellectual legacy of EU membership will be for the UK is, for me, a moot question... 

The question I have been wrestling with for some considerable time is where should I be putting my political energies? As I have lost my voting rights, this translates into the question of what vision and programme of politics should I be espousing in my writings?

The P2P Foundation is one which has struck chords recently. Every day my mailbox receives at least a couple of interesting posts from them eg https://blog.p2pfoundation.net/yochai-benkler-on-advancing-towards-an-open-social-economy/2017/01/24 which introduced me to the work of this legal scholar of the internet. 
Their posts have also made me aware of the potential of what they call “platform cooperativism” about which I have some reservations - which are well reflected in another of their posts https://lasindias.blog/platform-cooperativism-a-truncated-cooperativism-for-millennials
One of the problems I have is their language – and the feeling that they are unaware of the wider experience of “mutuality” expressed in the work, for example, of Paul Hirst.

So bear with me......I’m hoping to write about this shortly……….

BARGAIN OF THE YEAR - The Political Quarterly online (with the entire archives) can be accessed for as little as 13 pounds a year

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Diaries, Memoirs and Blogs

Amongst my most treasured possessions are some notebooks of my grandfather and father from the 1930s as they trekked and camped in north-western Scotland (these came to me in 1990); and my mother’s tiny common place book (extracts accompany this post) which came to me on her death in 2005…..
She was the wife of a Scottish Presbyterian Minister from the late 1930s and the friendship and hospitality which I remember at our home (as well as the stringencies of the times) are evident in the quotations chosen by my mother….they express sentiments which profoundly affected my upbringing (the photo below is from her 100th birthday celebrations. 
Although I know that both of my parents were very proud of the distinctive path I chose for myself, I’m not sure if they would altogether approve of the element of egocentricity which a blog implies….    

My first ever diary (which I rediscovered recently) was about a bike trip from London to Toulon but I started the habit only in my 40s when I was a reforming politician in Europe’s largest Region. For 16 years I actually held down a position at the heart of policy-making and, in the 1980s, kept a large A4 diary into which I would paste relevant cuttings, papers and articles and scribble my thoughts on project work.
I still have 5-6 of these diaries - others I donated to the library of the urban studies section of Glasgow University (when I was a Fellow there for a couple of months in the early 90s) in the fond belief that some researcher of the future might find these jottings about the strategic management of Europe’s largest local authority of interest (!).  

Memoirs have been given a bit of a bad name by the egocentricity of politicians - although some time back I identified some 20 life-accounts which gave superb analyses of times and lives. And I failed to include such things as Count Harry von Kessler’s amazing memoirs from the 1880s through to the second world war (he was an amazing cultural figure) and the rather more depressing ones of Viktor Klemperer covering the Nazi period.…I suppose the best contemporary exponent of the Diary in the UK is…. Alan Bennett who is excerpted from time to time in the London Review of Books….
Nowadays the energy people used to devote to their diaries tends to find its outlet in blogging…..although books made from blogs do tend to be frowned upon
Not that this discourages me as you will see from the list at the top right corner of this blog…….
I personally have made a good living from words – both spoken and written – although the balance between the two changed significantly after 1992. In the 70s and 80s it was the spoken word which earned my modest keep (as a social science teacher) - although the papers, journal articles and even a small book I wrote from my experience as a political manager also helped develop a wider reputation.
From the 1990s, the written report was the lynchpin of the project management system which lay at the heart of my work universe - as a well-paid consultant in the EC programmes of Technical Assistance to ex-communist countries. My job was to transfer experiences – and perhaps lessons – from government systems and agencies of Western Europe to those in Central and Eastern Europe and central Asia. 
Fortunately I had a bit of preparation for the role – being a member in the last half of the 80s of various European working groups working on urban issues.
The work in “transition countries” the 90s and noughties was a real eye-opener - giving me a vantage point to identify the various patterns in systems of local government and Civil services. Suddenly I was seeing similarities in the powerful influence of informal processes in Austrian and Dutch systems – let alone Italian and Romanian!

Even so, switching roles and developing new skills wasn’t easy – and it took me almost a decade before I was able to produce the coherence of In Transit – notes on Good Governance (1999) and essays such as - transfer of government functions; civil service systems;  decentralization; and Training that works! How do we build training systems which actually improve the performance of state bodies?. This material forms the “Lessons from Experience” section of my website - Mapping the Common Ground

As I was starting to phase out my project management work in 2010 or so, I started blogging - using my work experiences and reading since the 60s as the main focus of posts which now number almost 1,200. Some of these I’ve used to produce E-books – on such topics as “crafting more effective public management”; and cultural aspects of Bulgaria; Romania; and even Germany;

But for some time I have been trying to produce a little book from the many posts I’ve done which bemoan global social, economic and political trends….It was actually in 2000 I first wrote an essay expressing concern about global trends and asking where someone of my age and resources should be putting their energies to try to “make a difference”….
Seventeen years later I’m still not sure what the answer to that question is – although it’s clearly in the area of mutuality …….but rereading and editing the posts (which cover a decade) has made me realize that it’s actually quite useful to see the process of one’s thinking “longitudinally” - as it were. Tensions between lines of thought can be seen – if not downright contradictions. Far from being a nuisance, these help to clarify and develop…And one post tried to put a lot of the economic books into a typology – allowing me to see gaps in coverage….
On the other hand, blogging requires a very different set of skills from that of writing a book which flows and has coherence…..

At the moment the book bears the title “Dispatches to the post-capitalist Generation” (an early version is here) and has sections entitled “Our Confused World”; “How did we let it happen?”; “The Dog that didn’t bark (covering the decline of the political party); and “What is to be done?” (a question I’ve used for quite a few of my papers in my lifetime)    

The other thing I’ve realized as I reread the draft is that my blog is at least partly a tribute to those writers who have kept me company at one time or another on my journey of the past 60 plus yearsMy earliest memory of what I might call “seminal” books are those of Bertrand Russell – and then the titles of the 1950s – Tony Crosland’s revisionist “Future of Socialism” (1956); and two New Left counterblasts - Conviction (1959) and “Out of Apathy” (1960). 
University – particularly the political and economics streams I opted into from 1962 – was the profoundest influence on my mind. The key influence may have been Karl Popper’s The Open Society – but there were others such as historian EH Carr and scholar of religion Reinhold Niebuhr….

A couple of years ago I listed the 50 or so books which have made an impact on me here – and here
In what I call the “restless search for the new”, we would do well to pause every now and then and cast our minds back to such books and try to identify the “perennial wisdom” embodies therein…. Intellectual histories are quite rare - notwithstanding the great efforts of people like Russell Jacoby, Peter Watson, Mark Greif, George Scialabba and even Clive James..... perhaps the direction in which I should be taking this draft??????

Sunday, February 19, 2017

"What is Truth?" asked Jesting Pilate.....and would not stay for an answer..

I first came across the term “post-truth politics” last summer – but hadn’t appreciated the scale and nature of the “denial of facts” on the blogosphere until the Trump campaign hit us full blast in the autumn.
"Political correctness” has apparently become everyone’s favourite hate but seems now to be degenerating into a mindless post-modern contempt for anything that smacks of evidence

This is not an easy topic to discuss in a civilised way - so let me put my own cards squarely on the table…….  
I have quite strong memories of the 1980s as the issues of feminism, racism and sexism first moved in from the margins…..I was heavily involved in issues of community development and the social exclusion which affected low-income people - and wasn’t too impressed with the new language of “the glass-ceiling”….
So I understand the concern about “progressives” becoming (progressively) more focused on social aspects of power and equality – to the neglect of the economic..…And I have been no fan of the rise of academic ghettoes (particularly in the (North American) universities accompanying the development of women’s, black and gender studies.
The backlash to “political correctness”, for me, was always a disaster waiting to happen.     

But even so, I watched open-mouthed last night the antics of a self-centred, loud-mouthed, hyperactive effeminate called Milo Yiannopoulis (yeah – pull the other one!) who is apparently the epitome of a new breed of libertarian publicists who out-do Oscar Wilde in their urge to shock. Although he’s apparently an editor (of one of Breitbart website series) he’s also a wag and "provocateur” on the same level as the characters in the Little Britain series of more than a decade ago

Jill Lepote gaves us recently in The Internet of us and the end of facts the best history lesson I’ve seen of the whole post-truth phenomenon (be aware, it’s the last para of the excerpt which counts).
She starts with a childhood incident when she found herself challenging someone she knew had stolen something she valued (a bat) -    
The law of evidence that reigns in the domain of childhood is essentially medieval. “Fight you for it,” the kid said. “Race you for it,” I countered. A long historical precedent stands behind these judicial methods for the establishment of truth, for knowing how to know what’s true and what’s not. In the West, for centuries, trial by combat and trial by ordeal—trial by fire, say, or trial by water—served both as means of criminal investigation and as forms of judicial proof.
 Kid jurisprudence works the same way: it’s an atavism. As a rule, I preferred trial by bicycle. If that kid and I had raced our bikes and I’d won, the bat would have been mine, because my victory would have been God-given proof that it had been mine all along: in such cases, the outcome is itself evidence. Trial by combat and trial by ordeal place judgment in the hands of God. Trial by jury places judgment in the hands of men. It requires a different sort of evidence: facts. A “fact” is, etymologically, an act or a deed. It came to mean something established as true only after the Church effectively abolished trial by ordeal in 1215, the year that King John pledged, in Magna Carta, “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned . . . save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
In England, the abolition of trial by ordeal led to the adoption of trial by jury for criminal cases. This required a new doctrine of evidence and a new method of inquiry, and led to what the historian Barbara Shapiro has called “the culture of fact”: the idea that an observed or witnessed act or thing—the substance, the matter, of fact—is the basis of truth and the only kind of evidence that’s admissible not only in court but also in other realms where truth is arbitrated.
Between the thirteenth century and the nineteenth, the fact spread from law outward to science, history, and journalism. What were the facts in the case of the nail-polished bat? I didn’t want to fight, and that kid didn’t want to race. I decided to wage a battle of facts. I went to the library. Do they even have baseball in Italy? Sort of. Is my name the name of a baseball team? Undeterminable, although in Latin it means “hare,” a fact that, while not dispositive, was so fascinating to me that I began to forget why I’d looked it up.
I never did get my bat back. Forget the bat. The point of the story is that I went to the library because I was trying to pretend that I was a grownup, and I had been schooled in the ways of the Enlightenment. Empiricists believed they had deduced a method by which they could discover a universe of truth: impartial, verifiable knowledge. But the movement of judgment from God to man wreaked epistemological havoc. It made a lot of people nervous, and it turned out that not everyone thought of it as an improvement. For the length of the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, truth seemed more knowable, but after that it got murkier.

 OK - here's the punchline -
Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, fundamentalism and postmodernism, the religious right and the academic left, met up: either the only truth is the truth of the divine or there is no truth; for both, empiricism is an error. That epistemological havoc has never ended: much of contemporary discourse and pretty much all of American politics is a dispute over evidence. An American Presidential debate has a lot more in common with trial by combat than with trial by jury, which is what people are talking about when they say these debates seem “childish”: the outcome is the evidence. The ordeal endures.

The title of this post is the opening sentence of one of Francis Bacon's most famous essays

Monday, February 13, 2017

We, the people?

I almost threw a book at the television screen at the start of Trump’s inaugural address last month when he said that this “is the day power transfers..... to you, the people”. How could that be? He didn’t talk during the campaign about strengthening democracy; and, in any event, any serious programme would involve things like citizen juries, participatory budgets etc and would take time to implement properly….
On Inauguration Day power passed only to...... Trump – and we are therefore left with the clear conclusion that he confuses “the people” with himself – as did a certain French monarch when he was famously reported as saying “L’Etat, c’est moi!!” 
Or was it perhaps more of a promise that the “real” America he addresses (and assured in that same speech “never to let down”) could be confident that theirs were the only voices/votes he would bother about?? The rest – particularly journalists, judges, civil servants, politicians, experts, academics, protestors – he would simply ignore and bypass. One article this week put it thus - 
Trump’s inaugural address carried the stamp of hot ambition even in its (opening) salutation: ‘Chief Justice Roberts, President Carter, President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama, fellow Americans and people of the world, thank you.’
What were the people of the world doing here? It has been conjectured that Trump was greeting a blood-brotherhood ..that encompassed the followers of Farage, Le Pen, Orban, Wilders and others. Just as likely, given the grandiosity of the man, he meant to suggest that the fate of the world was so implicated in his ascension that it was only polite to say hello.
 The next section, however, seemed to see the American people as deciders for the world: ‘We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people. Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for many, many years to come.’ This was immediately followed by an attempt to divide friend from enemy within the US.
 “Against me, the establishment (‘Washington’); with me, the people – or rather the people who matter. In the new era of globalisation, ‘politicians prospered but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs.’ For the people, for once, this inauguration day would be a day of celebration, and Trump would rejoice with them: ‘January 20th 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.’

 “People power” a la Suisse is all very well – if a bit tiring. But the Swiss have an active citizenry - who can afford to give their time to debate and referenda. Letting a “demagogic kleptocrat” loose who has declared war on those who occupy “the public space” which is the crucial link between the people and rulers.... is something else.....

I have never been a fan of the word “populism”.– on the grounds that it is clearly a derogatory term which is used to cut off discussion…..In a post before the Trump victory I offered some of the elements which I think might reasonably be attributed to the term. Jan Werner-Mueller’s recent little What is Populism? is one of the few books which have so far been written about it and builds on this earlier pamphlet.

But this short video (from last summer) manages to punch home the key elements and, in so doing, to persuade me that almost all the conditions are now in place in the USA for a significant breach in the democratic process…..See also Umbert Eco's classic 1995 article on "Ur-fascism" which identifies 14 elements of the condition......

And the LRB article I quoted from above then goes on to spell out very dramatically how the much-vaunted Obama legacy could so easily be used to muzzle dissidence and protest - 
The national security state that Obama inherited and broadened, and has now passed on to Trump, is so thoroughly protected by secrecy that on most occasions concealment will be an available alternative to lying. Components of the Obama legacy that Trump will draw on include
- the curtailment of the habeas corpus rights of prisoners in the War on Terror;
- the creation of a legal category of permanent detainees who are judged at once impossible to put on trial and too dangerous to release;
- the expanded use of the state secrets privilege to deny legal process to abused prisoners;
the denial of legal standing to American citizens who contest warrantless searches and seizures;
- the allocation of billions of dollars by the Department of Homeland Security to supply state and local police with helicopters, heavy artillery, state-of-the-art surveillance equipment and armoured vehicles; precedent for the violent overthrow of a sovereign government without consultation and approval by Congress (as in Libya);- precedent for the subsidy, training and provision of arms to foreign rebel forces to procure the overthrow of a sovereign government without consultation and approval by Congress (as in Syria);
- the prosecution of domestic whistleblowers as enemy agents under the Foreign Espionage Act of 1917;
- the use of executive authority to order the assassination of persons – including US citizens – who by secret process have been determined to pose an imminent threat to American interests at home or abroad;
- the executive approval given to a nuclear modernisation programme, at an estimated cost of $1 trillion, to streamline, adapt and miniaturise nuclear weapons for up to date practical use;
- the increased availability – when requested of the NSA by any of the other 16 US intelligence agencies – of private internet and phone data on foreign persons or US citizens under suspicion.
 The last of these is the latest iteration of Executive Order 12333, originally issued by Ronald Reagan in 1981. It had made its way through the Obama administration over many deliberate months, and was announced only on 12 January. As with the nuclear modernisation programme in the realm of foreign policy, Executive Order 12333 will have an impact on the experience of civil society which Americans have hardly begun to contemplate. Obama’s awareness of this frightening legacy accounts for the unpredictable urgency with which he campaigned for Hillary Clinton – an almost unseemly display of partisan energy by a sitting president. All along, he was expecting a chosen successor to ‘dial back’ the security state Cheney and Bush had created and he himself normalised.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Great Disruption?

We have seen such massive changes in our lifetime that I find it odd that key people in Brexit and Trump’s victory talk of the need for “Leninist and Maoist approaches” to help “destroy all of today’s establishment” - 
“Lenin,” Stephen Bannon is quoted as saying “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.

The Great Disruption (2014) was an entertaining examination of the scale of recent technical change – and its social and political impact. Many would say that 1789 marks the start of Europe and the modern age’s relentless focus on challenging tradition with reason; others trace it further back – to the Scottish Enlightenment of a few decades earlier; the industrial revolution of the same period; or to the Protestant Reformation two centuries earlier (Martin Luther’s 95 theses were nailed to Wittenburg’s church door all of 500 years ago this October!!)

And yet each passing generation seems to feel that it is being hit afresh with change. The different words – “revolution”, “modernisation”, “reform”, “change”, “reinvention”, “innovation”, “disruption” – reflect the confusion as events have played out in the post-war period.
The Turbo-Capitalism we have seen in recent decades may have undermined people’s confidence in government capacity and integrity; and in routine and formal political activity - but technology and the social media have given people an outlet for expressing their anger and grievances……

Brexit and Trump’s victory seem to show that it’s possible to “take back control”….…..suddenly there seems an opportunity to stop the previously irresistible onward charge of globalisation. But how real is this? Human agency may be back in fashion again after the apparent fatalism of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA doctrine (“There is No Alternative”)
But is this all sleight of hand? We are used to being told by the change managers about the need for thorough preparation for significant change, for implementation strategies…….  But noone had given any thought to the possibility of Brexit winning or prepared any strategies; and the first 3 weeks of Trump rule has consisted of only bluster and ill-considered executive orders    

“Change” is a word that has had me salivating for half a century. According to poet Philip Larkin, “Sexual intercourse began in 1963…” – at roughly the same time my generation began to chafe under the restrictions of “tradition” - so well described in David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain and Modernity Britain 1957-1962.
The notion of “modernization” (as set out in a famous series of “What’s wrong with Britain” books published by the Penguin Press in the 60s) became highly seductive for some of us - …. Coincidentally 1963 was the year Harold Wilson delivered his famous speech about the “white heat of technology” to an electrified Labour Party Conference, presaging one of the key themes of the 1964-70 Labour Government.

The need for reform of our institutions (and the power structures they sustained) became a dominant post-war theme and I eagerly absorbed the writing which was coming from American progressive academics in the 1960s (such as Warren Bennis and Amitai Etzioni) about the new possibilities offered by the social sciences; and listened spellbound on the family radio to the 1970 Reith Lectures on “Change and Industrial Society” by Donald Schon – subsequently issued as the book “Beyond the Stable State”. In it, he coined the phrase “Dynamic conservatism” and went on to talk about government as a learning system and to ask what can we know about social change.
From that moment I was hooked on the importance of organisations (particularly public) and of institutional reform……

In those days there was little talk of management (!) and only a few Peter Drucker books…..Toffler’s Future Shock came the very next year (1971) by which time I had started to proselytize the “need for change” in papers which bore such titles as “Radical Reform of municipal management” and “From corporate planning to community action”…..One of these early papers picked up on the theme of “post-bureaucracy” and anticipated that future systems of (public) management would look very different from those previously known…..
It was a decade later (1982), however, when Tom Peters first burst on the scene with his celebration of entrepreneurial management “In pursuit of Excellence” - presaging the demise of large corporations such as IBM and General Motors….
It was to take another decade for this to be reflected in the Clinton/Gore Government Reinvention agenda and 1997 for the start of the British Modernising Government agenda….  All this coinciding with the dot.com revolution……

These days, what I would call Kerensky liberals suddenly - since Brexit and Trump’s victory – are feeling a bit outflanked by a motley crowd of Bolsheviks, Leninists and Maoists….and are trying to understand the revolutionary doctrine being preached by the likes of Trump’s key adviser - Stephen Bannon – who talks of “tearing down” institutionsDer Spiegel makes a good attempt here - 
In November, the news website BuzzFeed published a 50-minute audio clip of remarks made by Bannon via Skype in 2014 that provides a strong glimpse into his world view. They were made at a conference at the Vatican of representatives of the religious right in Europe.
Exactly 100 years ago tomorrow, Bannon began, the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked World War I. Until that day, there had been "total peace. There was trade, there was globalization, there was technological transfer Seven weeks later, I think there were 5 million men in uniform and within 30 days there were over a million casualties."
 He went on to say that the world is once again at such a point, "at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict." He blamed it on "a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism."Bannon described, first, a system of "crony capitalism" of the elite that only created wealth for the establishment, allowing that he knew what he was talking about from his own background. He said there's a desperate need for a renaissance of "what I call the 'enlightened capitalism' of the Judeo-Christian West," with companies that create jobs and prosperity for all. (although he has also said that the more hard-nosed it is the better!!) 
The second threat, he said, comes from the secularization of society. He noted that the "overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize" millennials under 30. He said Breitbart had become the voice of the anti-abortion movement and the traditional marriage movement.
The third threat, and perhaps the greatest, Bannon preached from the computer screen, is Islam. "We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism." But this war, he warned, is "metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it." He said a "populist revolt" of "working men and women" is now needed to battle Wall Street and Islam at the same time, an international Tea Party movement modelled after Britain's right-wing populist UKIP, which he knows well. The U.S. Republican Party establishment, on the other hand, he described as a "collection of crony capitalists."
An international alliance of populists united in their hatred of the elite, appealing to the workers and brought together by a common enemy -- only with the Muslims replacing the Jews this time. It all makes Bannon, and Trump along with him, sound like a fascist.
But are they? Times are different today, as are the means, paths and goals. There's no longer a need for masses of brown shirts or a screaming Goebbels. The masses are on the internet today and they read Breitbart and follow Trump on Twitter. The manifestations today are modern and the ideology has also been modernized. But the attitudes themselves seem to be enjoying a renaissance.

In future posts I want to explore these issues more deeply

update; regrettably, I had not appreciated that in 1999 Francis Fukuyama no less had produced a book with the same title -  The Great Disruption – human nature and the reconstitution of social order which had tracked the breakdown since 1965!

The painting is one of the few I always remember ........which got away (damn!!!!) It's the amazing Bulgarian,Tony Todorov, who also painted the one heading the previous post....

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Rise and Fall......

A lot of claims have been made in recent weeks for writers who anticipated Trump’s rise to power. First it was Richard Rorty – in a long-forgotten book published in 1998. Then the son of Neil Postman, who had written in 1985 a powerful critique of the effect of modern television - Amusing Ourselves to Death – popped up to claim that his dad had seen it all coming. The son’s article referred us back to Brave New World – issued in 1935….

But the boldest (and perhaps most credible) claim was made last week by one of my favourite bloggers (John Michael Greer) for an amazing book written a century ago by Oswald Spengler – Decline of the West 
The conventional wisdom of our era insists that modern industrial society can’t possibly undergo the same life cycle of rise and fall as every other civilization in history; no, no, there’s got to be some unique future awaiting us—uniquely splendid or uniquely horrible, it doesn’t even seem to matter that much, so long as it’s unique.
The theory, first proposed in the early 18th century by the Italian historian Giambattista Vico and later refined and developed by such scholars as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, that civilizations rise and fall in a predictable life cycle, regardless of scale or technological level. That theory’s not just a vague generalization, either; each of the major writers on the subject set out specific stages that appear in order, showed that these have occurred in all past civilizations, and made detailed, falsifiable predictions about how those stages can be expected to occur in our civilization.
Have those panned out? So far, a good deal more often than not. In the final chapters of his second volume, for example, Spengler noted that civilizations in the stage ours was about to reach always end up racked by conflicts that pit established hierarchies against upstart demagogues who rally the disaffected and transform them into a power base. Looking at the trends visible in his own time, he sketched out the most likely form those conflicts would take in the Winter phase of our civilization…..
 Those left out in the cold by these transformations, in turn, end up backing what Spengler called Caesarism—the rise of charismatic demagogues who challenge and eventually overturn the corporate-bureaucratic order.These demagogues needn’t come from within the excluded classes, by the way. Julius Caesar, the obvious example, came from an old upper-class Roman family and parlayed his family connections into a successful political career.
Watchers of the current political scene may be interested to know that Caesar during his lifetime wasn’t the imposing figure he became in retrospect; he had a high shrill voice, his morals were remarkably flexible even by Roman standards—the scurrilous gossip of his time called him “every man’s wife and every woman’s husband”—and he spent much of his career piling up huge debts and then wriggling out from under them. Yet he became the political standardbearer for the plebeian classes, and his assassination by a conspiracy of rich Senators launched the era of civil wars that ended the rule of the old elite once and for all.

Arguments about “rise and fall” have never gone down all that well with opinion-makers who tend to have a vested interest in “progress” and Greer’s long post gives a detailed rebuttal of the sort of logic used by those who would counter the argument of “declinists” 
Thus those people watching the political scene last year who knew their way around Spengler, and noticed that a rich guy had suddenly broken with the corporate-bureaucratic consensus and called for changes that would benefit the excluded classes at the expense of the affluent, wouldn’t have had to wonder what was happening, or what the likely outcome would be.
 It was those who insisted on linear models of history—for example, the claim that the recent ascendancy of modern liberalism counted as the onward march of progress, and therefore was by definition irreversible—who found themselves flailing wildly as history took a turn they considered unthinkable…… And, as Spengler sketches out the process, it also represents the exhaustion of ideology and its replacement by personality. 

A good sustained analysis of Decline of the West which appeared in 1983 argued that Spengler
….. knew that men are generally disdainful of experience and that, driven by limitless and uncontrolled hope, they like to conceptualize the future in terms of what they consider the desirable rather than the likely course of events.
In counterpoint to these, in his view, irrational trends, he remarked that optimism is naive and in some respects even vulgar, and that it surely stands for cowardice when one is afraid to face the fact that life is fleeting and transient in all its aspects.

You can dip for yourself into the 1000 plus pages of the original 1918 book here

The painting is one of my favourite Bulgarian artists - Tony Todoroff

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Revenge of History?

We have become fat, lazy and careless…..taking the levels of financial and institutional security enjoyed from the 1950s through to the 1990s too much for granted ("we" being the citizens of the core European states and the US) 
And whatever lessons the post-war generation learned about the killing fields of Europe in the first half of the 20th century have clearly not been properly absorbed by their descendants….Nuclear war was a real and evident threat until the late 70s and seemed to have disappeared with the demise of the Soviet Union.

For many, therefore, the last 6 months have been a rude awakening - as the final vestiges of public trust in (government) leadership came crashing down and we found our attention being directed to the last time we confronted such uncertainty - the 1930s. But at last a sense of history is beginning to develop again. A couple of articles crystallised this for me – first one by Tobias Stone which actually appeared last summer - 
During the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme I was struck that it was a direct outcome of the assassination of an Austrian Arch Duke in Bosnia. I very much doubt anyone at the time thought the killing of a minor European royal would lead to the death of 17 million people.My point is that this is a cycle. It happens again and again, but as most people only have a 50-100 year historical perspective (from parents and school) they don’t see that it’s happening again.
As the events that led to the First World War unfolded, there were a few brilliant minds who started to warn that something big was wrong, that the web of treaties across Europe could lead to a war, but they were dismissed as hysterical, mad, or fools, as is always the way, and as people who worry about Putin, Brexit and Trump are dismissed now.

The other article Why Elites always Rule took me back to my university days in the early 1960s when I first encountered (and was impressed by) the work of the elite theorists Robert Michels, Mosca and Pareto; and of other central Europeans such as Schumpeter (of “circulation of the elites” fame) who had been writing a few decades earlier – on the central issue of how the masses might be controlled in an age of democracy……
I also remember Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power making a big impact on me when its English translation was published in 1962.

By the 1960s, however, far from fearing the masses a lot of us in Europe and America were celebrating them – whether through the fashion for “participation” let alone community action, direct action or community development    
Major political and economic events in the 1970s punctured that optimism and ushered in a celebration not of mutuality but of egocentricity, greed and commodification. Adam Curtis’ The Century of the Self captures the process superbly…….

(each section in the 2 tables represents a decade - starting with the 1930s - with what I take to have been the key themes eg "deindustrialisation" is the first of the themes of the 1980s...)  

I don’t like conspiracy theories but it does seem fairly clear now that a lot of very big money started in the late 1940s to fund a large number of new think-tanks devoted to pushing this new neo-liberal agenda. I remember when I first encountered in the 1970s the pamphlets from the British Institute for Economic Affairs. Their ideas (such as road pricing) were presented with quite ruthless elegance and were quite shocking - but had a coherent logic which allowed me to present them to my surveyor students as examples of the usefulness of economic thinking and principles…
Philip Morkowski’s 2009 study The Road from Mont Pelerin details (in its 480 pages!) how exactly the think tanks managed to achieve this ideological turnaround and to capture most powerful international bodies such as The World Bank, The International Monetary Fund, OECD and the EC. 

The Financial crash of 2008 should have been the catalyst to a rethink but, despite the valiant efforts of people such as Joseph Stiglitz and Mark Blyth, it has taken Brexit and Trump to challenge the assumptions of the neo-liberal machine……  

I don’t think it helps to throw labels around – whether "populist", "racist" or "fascist". (I try not to use any word which ends in “ist” since objecting a few years ago to being called a leftist)
Populist parties started to worry some people around the year 2000 – as you will see from this academic article but intellectual, political and business elites were so trapped in their bubbles that they didn’t spot it coming. Jan Werner-Mueller’s recent little What is Populism? is one of the few books which have so far been written about it and builds on this earlier pamphlet

We do not necessarily have to accept that "what goes around, comes around" ie that history is cyclical. But I suspect that it is a more fruitful approach than the one which has been prevailing in recent decades - namely that it's linear and takes us through innovative change to a better world......

I was impressed that some academics have tried to remedy our myopia and have put together a Trump Syllabus with a fairly extensive reading list -

In that same spirit I offer these hyperlinks -

Key reading


The title of this post I now see is one quite frequently used - eg 2 contemporary books by leftists (Seamus Milne and Alex Callicos) and also of this useful article