what you get here

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

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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

New Hope in Britain – if not Europe?

For a year, many of us had virtually given up hope for Britain. The 2015 election had been bad enough in its granting the Conservatives an outright majority - but the commitment its manifesto had given to holding a referendum on EU membership; the speed with which it was held; and its 52-48 result last June knocked most ex-pats into depression.
The sudden announcement in mid-April by a PM (who still had to prove herself) of a General Election – when she was more than 20% ahead in the polls of an utterly disorganized Labour Party (and after Labour had  just lost more than 300 local authority seats) seemed to doom that party to extinction.
Talk of a 100 seat Conservative majority seemed generous to the Labour party – For once my predictions (like most people’s) were wrong – I had foreseen a Tory majority of 95…..
And yet, astonishingly, someone written off not only by the MSM but even by his own parliamentary colleagues proved to be very popular once he was actually given air time by that deeply prejudiced media. As did the policies with which the party ran. The result on 8 June saw the Labour party’s share of the vote hit 40% - its largest percentage increase since 1945.
My fellow blogger Boffy records his reactions here and this article indicates some of the immediate reasons for the astonishing result. As an initial Corbyn enthusiast, journalist Owen Jones is a good bell-weather since he subsequently reneged on his support – his honest reaction and the subsequent discussion thread reflect the current discussion which is now gripping Britain.The New Yorker gives here an amusing and good outsider’s take

But it is this post from one of the 20-odd blogs I had identified a couple of weeks ago which gives one of the most profound and thought-provoking analyses.

The rest of Europe is focusing on the British Government’s discomfort - and the chaos which seems set to ensue from a badly-wounded Leader and government hanging on to power only through a loose alliance with a poisonous partner.
More significant for me is the opportunity this presents at last for a proper discussion about the sort of agenda “progressives”, everywhere, should be pursuing. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the Labour party had quite a radical agenda - significant parts of which (such as withdrawal from the EU) I did not support. But I was a strong supporter of what we might call the populist part of the agenda relating to the need for greater dialogue and popular participation – not least in the economic sector.  

I know we cannot return to that period – not least because the right-wing media and scribblers have tarnished it so in the popular imagination but we need to shout from the rooftops that it was a time when important ideas of the 1960s were being consolidated.
The New Spirit of Capitalism; by L Boltanski and E Chiapello (1999) is a critical analysis of managerial texts which tells us so much about the Zeitgeist….. It is a bit turgid and needs to be read in conjunction with Management Gurus – what makes them and how to become one by Andrzej Huczyinski (1996); and The Witchdoctors – making sense of the management gurus (1996).

In the meantime, neoliberalism has come…..and may not yet be gone…..but the tide is ebbing and just needs a strong push from an alternative philosophy….People like Mark Blyth, Elinor Ostrom and Wolfgang Streeck have laid part of the foundations – as I tried to point out in my survey in April of Thinking beyond CapitalismNot so well known, perhaps, is the shape of the possible organizational alternatives – not merely cooperatives and social enterprises but the sort of structures set out in  Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations
Sadly, Corbyn's Economic Advisory Committee was put in cold storage after the last leadership challenge in 2016.......(with several of its members delivering withering comments on the lack of direction). So the party's much praised 2017 Manifesto does need a rigorous assessment if it is to form the basis of the next manifesto for what could be a victorious General Election!!

And we still don’t have enough people working at a progressive common agenda globally – although I have been encouraged recently by the burgeoning literature on “the commons” – to which the greens have made such a significant (if unrecognized) contribution.
What I would now hope for is for the British Labour party to resist the siren call of tribalism and to reach out to others who have been trying to build a different world from a variety of encouraging initiatives.    

Friday, June 16, 2017

Getting Government Reform taken seriously

We are increasingly angry these days with politicians, bureaucrats and government – and have developed an appetite for accounts and explanations of why our democratic systems seem to be failing. The Blunders of our Governments; and The Triumph of the Political Class are just two examples of books which try to satisfy that appetite.
The trouble is that the academics and journalists who produce this literature are outsiders – so it is difficult for them to give a real sense of what scope for manoeuvre senior policy-makers realistically have. Political Memoirs should help us here but never do since they are either self-congratulatory or defensive – with the Diaries of people such as Chris Mullen, Alan Clark and Tony Benn being exceptional simple because they were outside the magic circle of real power.

Two rare and brave attempts by politicians to pull aside the curtain of power in a systematic and objective way are How to be an MP; by Paul Flynn and How to be a Minister – a 21st Century Guide; by John Hutton
Various problems make it exceedingly rare for British senior civil servants to publish memoirs.

This leaves the important category of consultants and think-tankers to turn to – with Michael Barber’s How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy (2015) and Ed Straw’s Stand and Deliver – a design for successful government (2014) being recent examples. John Seddon’s Systems Thinking in the Public Sector – the failure of the Reform regime and a manifesto for a better way (2008) and Chris Foster’s British Government in Crisis (2005) are older examples.
Barber’s should be the most interesting since he has made such a name for himself with his “deliverology” but I find it difficult to take him seriously when he doesn’t include any of the other authors in his index. 
Straw’s is an angry book which fails even to include an index – let alone mention of Seddon’s or Foster’s books. 
The Unspoken Constitution was a short spoof published in 2009 by Democratic Audit which probably tells us as much about the British system of power as anyone….

And, however, entertaining “In the Thick of it”; and the British and American versions of “House of Cards”, they hardly give a rounded account of policy-making in the 2 countries.

Curiously, those wanting to get a real understanding of how the British (and other) system of government might actually be changed for the better are best advised to go to the theories of change which have been developed in the literature on international development eg the World Bank’s 2008 Governance Reform under Real-World Conditions – citizens, stakeholders and Voice; and its People, Politics and Change - building communications strategy for governance reform (2011) - in particular the fold-out diagram at the very end of the 2008 book

The diagram gives the lessons of New Labour's efforts to reform public services - showing what it identified as the key forces of change. Consultants leached off the process - as you can see here

Monday, June 5, 2017

Twenty good sites for those looking for serious analysis

My last post was a bit too pessimistic in suggesting that those looking for alternative analyses to the rubbish perpetrated on anglo-saxon MSM would find it a difficult task. There are quite a few “alternative news” sites – The Conversation is a non-profit which tries to combine academic insight with journalistic skills; the US Counterpunch has a stronger tone.

And it is analysis – rather than description – we need these days.
Having explored a few weeks ago the question of which (English language) magazines would pass a test which included such criteria as
- Depth of treatment
- Breadth of coverage (not just political)
- Cosmopolitan in taste
- clarity of writing
- skeptical in tone

 I decided to run the same criteria on anglo-saxon blogs and, using the "blogrolls" of some of the best, came up with about 20 sites which satisfy most of the criteria - 

Stumbling and mumbling; an economist who is intrigued by dilemmas and attempts to find patterns in social science

http://potlatch.typepad.com; Blog of William Davis who is  Reader in Political Economy at Goldsmith’s, London and also Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre. But he hasn't posted for a year!

http://memex.naughtons.org; Naughton is one of the best writers on IT matters

The memory bank; Fascinating site of anthropologist Keith Hart which also contains full text of his book on Money

http://www.enlightenmenteconomics.com/blog/; The blog of Diane Coyle, a literate economist

http://www.coppolacomment.com/; The blog of Francis Coppola, a highly literate banker

https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/; A Marxist economist who makes sense

http://averypublicsociologist.blogspot.ro/; One of the most thoughtful, referenced and well-written of political blogs - which used to be called “All that is solid”. It's explicitly sympathetic to the Labour Party and the unions but never hesitates to call nonsense out,

http://neweconomics.org/; the site of the New Economics Foundation

PRIME -  Policy Research in Macroeconomics (PRIME) is a network of macroeconomists, political economists and professionals from related disciplines who seek to engage with a diverse audience in order to de-mystify economic theories, policies and ideas

Book Forum; is a site I’ve strangely neglected from including in previous roundups. It’s a daily list of  academic articles selected, however. from too narrow a range of US academia .

http://www.progressonline.org.uk/; site of the soft left think tank.

http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/; Blog of Richard Murphy – who has advised Jeremy Corbyn.

http://speri.dept.shef.ac.uk/comment/; site of political economy unit at Sheffield University

http://publicpolicypast.blogspot.ro/; academic historian of modern Britain

Sceptical Scot; this site has started to develop - and we need a break from the anglo-saxon focus!

Hard Leftist blogs

Interesting that Bookforum is the only US site to pop up in this test!! Not sure why… perhaps because most of them are tribal and, paradoxically, too mainstream? Of course, there are exceptions – such as the superb and highly idiosyncratic Brainpickings – which totally avoids any hint of current affairs and gives us timeless excerpts from the classics…..

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Passing Thoughts

My partner complains that I now spend all day with my bum in a chair and my face in the laptop and there is no doubt that our minds and body must be affected by our new style of communication……
One of the interesting literary sites to which I’m now subscribed is Brainpickings which turns out to be run by a young Bulgarian now working in New York and who shares her working methods here. I’m not sure if her "wobble board" and other devices quite fit the needs of an old fogey like me but I was sufficiently intrigued with her mention of the “Pocket” app to give it a test run…At the moment, my library facility is simply a “copy and paste” of relevant URLs which I insert in a word file. We’ll see what value this organizer can add……

It was Adam Curtis who made me realize last year that I should be paying more attention to documentariesGood documentaries require a rare combination - knowledge of the subject; experience of filming; appropriate selection and editing of text, images and music; and appreciation of how to fit them together, One of the best websites for challenging documentaries must be Thought Maybe – which I thoroughly recommend.
You might also like this list of the best 50 documentaries of all time - from the excellent Sight and Sound journal. Trouble is, I feel, that they take 30 minutes to say what can be said in 5 at most…

Mainstream media and blog sites are so awful in their slavish repetitions of political conventional wisdom that a search for “alternative sites” seems a suitable response. But where to begin? A few weeks back I reported on my findings about readable journals
Yesterday’s post identified (for me) some new UK sites of which Another Angry Voice was most promising – if a bit shrill. And, by definition, “alternative” sites and mags are….well… “tribal” ie closed to the idea of plurality, generosity or cooperation. Google “anarchist”, “revolutionary”, “green” and other epithets and see if I’m wrong.

Which is why I’m currently more disposed to read the stuff which comes from the commons network eg this paper on policy options for the EU which came in today 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Britain's "Ceausescu moment"?

Something strange is going on in British politics – the electorate seems now to be developing a mind of its own! 
The British political class has always seen its electorate as reliable (if not malleable) - until the last week or so. For the past two years the "Leader of the Opposition", Jeremy Corbyn, has been undermined by attacks from New Labour Loyalists and subjected to a relentless barrage of ridicule by the mainstream media - and the polls have consistently showed the party and its new leader slipping further in public support....even as its membership numbers hugely increased.....
Theresa May, the new Prime Minister after the Brexit vote, had stated on numerous occasions that she intended to lead the government through to its legal term of May 2020 but, ultimately, could not resist the temptation of an incredible 20% lead in the polls and suddenly, on 18 April, called a General Election for 8 June. 
As if by magic, the opinion polls (for what they are worth) started to show dramatic changes – with Labour gaining a full 10 points at the expense of UKIP and LibDems and the Conservative voting intentions dropping a few points.

The subsequent publication of the two main party manifestos was very much to Labour’s advantage  with detailed policies attracting support – whereas the Conservatives seemed to be offering only a much-repeated mantra of “strong and stable leadership” (and yet more cuts). See this useful comparison .of the various manifestos. 
And Jeremy Corbyn's higher profile has also worked to his advantage - showing him as a man of integrity...... 

And yet the Prime Minister seems scared of debating with her opponents – steadfastly refusing all but the most carefully managed of appearances and discussions. Astonishingly, at last night’s highly publicised debate in which her Home Secretary substituted for her, the studio audience openly laughed at her invitation to “Judge us on our record”! (and don't just watch the short video" read the text!!)

This could be a veritable Ceausescu moment - suddenly, there seems to be a contest – although I can’t share the optimism of my leftist friends. Too many of the leftist votes are stacked up where they won’t make much difference. Tony Barnett has a good overview hereBut the incident also reminds me of Brecht’s poem – electing another people

This article suggests that independent writers are having an unusually large impact on the election….
Highly partisan, semi-professional political blogs are being shared more widely online than the views of mainstream newspaper commentators. Websites run by a publicity-shy English tutor in Yorkshire, an undergraduate student in Nottingham and a former management consultant in Bristol are publishing some of the most shared articles about the UK general election, ranking alongside and often above the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent.

The three sites are Another Angry Voice; Evolve Politics; and The Canary - with the first being particularly well organised thematically eg this post which deals with the accusation of Corbyn and the Labour.party being ideologues. The article has been picked up by one of my favourite bloggers, Craig Murray, (who apparently gets 800,000 hits a month on his blog)

They represent an interesting development - a rebellion at last against the distorted prejudices being peddled even by once-respected British newspapers.......People have been talking for several years about the coming obsolescence of newspapers. At last I can see what they mean.....

I don't like sites which are too partial - but most newspapers pretend to an impartiality they don't actually have - for reasons varying from editorial control. corporate funding to journalistic laziness. It's about time we had a proper discussion about how journalists and the media can better hold those with power in the public and private sectors to account.
A starting point would be an end to the ceaseless drivel and drisel of "news" - and a strengthening of diagnostics and narratives about products, policies, companies, parties and countries  

Update; The Economist is normally too glib and superficial for me but this overview of the election campaign gives an excellent historical perspective....  
and this site confirms that talk of a possible Labour upset is...simple nonsense......I predict a Tory majority of 96