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

Monday, February 26, 2018

Bringing the State “back in”?? – a story about Academic Tribes

Books are a frequent trigger for the musings here – last autumn, a small book actually inspired me to pose no fewer than 16 critical questions about the operation of the modern state. The questions included the following -
- Why is the state such a contested idea?
- Where can we find out how well (or badly) public services work?
- How do countries compare internationally in the performance of their public services ?
- Has privatisation lived up to its hype?
- what alternatives are there to state and private provision
- why do governments still spend mega bucks on consultants?
- If we want to improve the way a public service operates, are there any “golden rules”?

Rather than answering the questions directly, I chose to give a brief summary of how each question had been treated; and identified 2-3 books which I considered made the best job of answering each question – ensuring that each title had a good hyperlink.
The results are attractively tabulated in the pamphlet - Reforming the State”.

I was conscious, however, that I had left the first – and most difficult - of the questions unanswered namely - what do we really mean when we talk about “the state”?
I was actually in a good position to give a coherent answer – for 50 years my focus has been on the workings of local and central government from a position as both a lecturer on public management issues (17 years) and local and regional politician actually managing programmes (22 years); and, finally, a similar number of years as an international consultant to some 10 national governments.
But, despite all this, I felt inadequate to the task – and didn’t even try to answer the question….I just left it hanging…..

Let me try to explain why………
When I started in academia and local politics (both in 1968), things were simple – at least in my teaching role. Public administration was basically legalistic – the first books with a managerial bent only started to appear in the early 70s (Peter Drucker was the only management book easily available then!!). But American material from President Johnson’s 1964 War on Poverty programme had started to trickle over from the Atlantic – particularly Dilemmas of Social Reform (1967) – coinciding with the student revolutions of 1968. 
“Participation” became all the rage – even the British government felt obliged to start its own (small) community development projectI lapped all of this up – not least because, with the help of the Rowntree Foundation, I was managing a community action project whose work fed into the ambitious social strategy some of us developed a few years later for Europe’s largest Regional authority…..Here is an early paper which expresses how I was in those days trying to make sense of what I saw as a huge "democratic deficit" in the Local State. In this I was assisted by the political science literature on the structure of power in US cities which has started in the mid 50s
Urban sociologists and a few geographers suddenly found the city a site worthy of their critical attention. Land-use was changing dramatically as heavy industry collapsed – to the detriment of the people in areas which, for a time, were called “traditional industrial regions”. The academics started to explore embarrassing concepts such as industrial ownership; to talk of the “ruling class” and “workers”; and to focus on how “the local state” treated the poor….
But the language many of these young academics used was Marxist; the concepts pretty tortuous; and so interest in the locality fairly quickly faded….   

Bob Jessop is probably the best-known writer on the State – producing The Capitalist State - Marxist theories and methods in 1982; and State Theory – putting capitalist states in their place in 1990. Both are difficult to read – his conclusion to the second book and this article on State Theory – past, present and future are probably the best things to look at to get a sense of his contribution – particularly the last and most recent which can be seen as a flier for his latest book of the same title. .. .

In 1985 an interesting article mapped the thinking about “the state” in the period from the end of the war to the late 70s – at least from the American perspective (so there was hardly any reference to Marxist texts). The article was by a political scientist (with a political sociology bent) but the title she chose, Bringing the state back in, was rather curious since this was precisely the period when Margaret Thatcher was making privatisation fashionable (and soon global) and the phrase “The Washington Consensus” was just about to be coined. It was indeed only in 1997 that the World Bank rowed back from its apparent mission of sinking the State - and published its apologia in The State in a Changing World.  So all I can imagine is that Skopcol was allowing the state "back into" some academic debate…..since it was at the time definitely being evicted from the political scene

But the same title was reprised by Bob Jessop in 2001 who used it, however, to take a completely different approach – with his sub-title “revisions, rejections and redirections” giving a good sense of the drift of his (largely incoherent) analysis. This seemed to focus almost entirely on disputes between European Marxist sociologists – and certainly ignored the corpus of work which political scientists on both sides of the Atlantic were doing on issues relating to the state eg “Varieties of Capitalism . This succinct 2007 article by Vivien Schmidt showed the sort of analysis about the state which the Marxists had missed….. In the meantime a famous American sociologist had been developing this very useful Reading Guide to theories of the state

Even so, you can see how different all this is from the questions I was exploring last autumn – questions, of course, which don’t seem to be of any interest to the sociologists nor even (strangely!) to the academic political scientists – although there are a few exceptions such as Matt Flinders.
The questions I posed last autumn have been of interest mainly to a (declining?) tribe of public management theorists… people such as Chris Hood and Chris Pollitt, a political sociologist (Guy Peters) and, to a lesser extent, political scientists such as Rod Rhodes. Rhodes achieved quasi-guru status in his particular tribe by virtue of his development first of the “Hollowing-Out” thesis of modern government; and then of his anthropological approach to political science – best expressed in his 2010 book with Mark Bevir - The State as Cultural Practice which basically seems to tell us that “it’s all in our minds”!!

This is not the first time I have here accused academics of confusing us all (and themselves) with their failure to talk across disciplinary borders – here is a hint about how the State is treated by the various academic disciplines…..


Core assumption
Most Famous exponents (not necessarily typical!)
Struggle for power
Durkheim, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, C Wright Mills,Robert Merton,  Herbert Simon, A Etzioni, Ralf Dahrendorf

Rational choice
Adam Smith, Schumpeter, Keynes, P Samuelson, M Friedmann, J Stiglitz, P Krugman
Political science
Rational choice (at least since the 1970s)
Robert Dahl, Gabriel Almond, David Easton, S Wolin, Peter Hall, James Q Wilson, Bo Rothstein, Francis Fukuyama
Mackinder, David Harvey, Nigel Thrift, Danny Dorling
Public management
mixed for traditional bodies - rational choice for New PM
Woodrow Wilson, Chris Hood, Chris Pollitt, Guy Peters, G Bouckaert,
shared meaning
B Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Claude Levi-Strauss, Margaret Mead, Mary Douglas, Chris Shore, David Graeber
Political economy
draws upon economics, political science, law, history, sociology et al to explain how political factors determine economic outcomes.
JK Galbraith, Susan Strange, Mark Blyth, Wolfgang Streeck, Geoffrey Hodgson, Yanis Varoufakis,

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Memories of political sociology

My last post was bout the recent book - Grand Hotel Abyss – whose title refers to the accusation of the Marxist philosopher Gy├Ârgy Lukacs (and others) that the Frankfurt School “lived in a beautiful and comfortable hotel on the edge of an abys”.

I am indebted to a reviewer on the Amazon site for the further clarification that -
- they were Marxist or neo-Marxist theoreticians who lived a comfortable academic life but, with the exception of Marcuse, kept aloof from party politics and political struggle; part of the reason for this was that both in the United States and later in Germany they did not want to provoke the government or imperil funds they received from some wealthy supporters or research contracts they received from government departments;
- they contented themselves with analysis and understanding, but did not believe it was possible to change society because they thought the working class was not capable of revolution (explained partially in psychoanalytical terms by Erich Fromm);
- they distrusted the political left for an authoritarianism that was as bad as that of the Right; - in exile in America, they saw some similarities not only between the control mechanism of Hitlerian fascism and Stalinist communism but even between them and those of Roosevelt’s America – it was merely that Goebbels and Zhdanov were more open about what they were doing;
- they thought that capitalism was no longer likely to self-destruct; - the task now was to study these control mechanisms that kept it in place - mechanisms which went far beyond merely economic ones and that to understand them required a wider interdisciplinary cultural approach
This approach was the essence of Critical Theory. Not least by giving the book its title, Jeffries seems to agree with many of these charges, although he values many of the insights, critiques and influences of the School. Jeffries shows us the divisions within the Frankfurt School – notably that between Marcuse on the one hand and Adorno and Horkheimer on the other over the student revolt of 1967 to 1969, and that between the older founding generation with its profound and radical pessimism and the younger, more cautiously optimistic one, represented by Habermas, who, as Jeffries’ chapter heading has it, pulled the School “back from the abyss”.
The pragmatic Brits were impervious to the writings of the Frankfurt School – although they were, for reasons I fail to understand. seduced in the 80s by the charms of such Gallic poseurs as Sartre, Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida and the improbably-named Lyotard.
But Adorno was in fact one of the authors, in 1950, of a famous book The Authoritarian Personality (1950) which was one of the first of a stream of books produced in the immediate post-war period to try to make sense of the power of the totalitarian model.
Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and
JT Talmon’s The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy; (1952) were required reading on the small Political Sociology class I took under Zevedei Barbu - a Romanian who had defected in 1948 from the Romanian Legation in London (despite being an avowed communist who spent a couple of years in prison for the cause) 
-  and who had himself produced in 1956 Democracy and Dictatorship, attempting to explore the insights from combining both social psychology and sociology….You can read the entire book at the link but, be warned, the mixture of the depth and (linguistic) width of his reading; personal style; and awareness of the scale of his ambition does not make for easy reading. This is an original work which requires slow reading!!  The opening pages describe the contents in detail - and my advice is to select what seem to be relevant sections for you....

He was a great teacher – it was he who introduced me to Weber, Durkheim and Tonnies – let alone Michels and Pareto – all of whose insights still resonate with me.
Indeed it was almost certainly Barbu’s lectures which led me to register at the LSE in 1964 for a one-year MSc in Political Sociology – focusing on the development of post-war democracy in Germany. But I had also been powerfully influenced by Ralf Dahrendorf whose “Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society” had come out in 1959 and who was just about to publish his “Society and Democracy in Germany” (1965) and, indeed, found myself registered with no less a figure than Ralph Miliband – of Parliamentary Democracy fame.

Sadly, I blew this opportunity – I was so lonely in London that I soon scurried back to the family hearth and then had 3-4 jobs (including, ironically, a couple in London) before landing an academic position back in the West of Scotland….  And I regret never establishing any personal link with Barbu – admittedly quite a private person in those days. As students we never knew of his background – we never asked, of course – but, as this vignette (which I discovered recently) indicates, he was not someone to flaunt his distinctive experience. 
Apparently he left Britain in 1973 – to take up a Professorial post in Brazil where he died in 1993 – somewhat marginalised it seems…....

However I’m glad to say that Barbu seems remembered in modern Romanian academia – with this 2015 intellectual biography and a 2014 tribute here (in Romanian)

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Critical German Redoubt

Grand Hotel Abyss – the lives of the Frankfurt School (2016) is the sort of book which has me salivating….it is the story of the individuals who came together in Germany in 1923 in an unusual multi-disciplinary institute; and used what came to be known as “critical theory” to try to make sense of the social, political and economic turbulence then being experienced in Europe and Russia…... Evicted by the Nazis after only a decade, they then moved to the States where their survey work focused initially on trying to understand the Nazi takeover and then on the cultural aspects of their adopted country – at least until 1949 when Adorno and Horkheimer returned to Frankfurt, managing to attract a young Juergen Habermas to their ranks. The denazification process was, understandably an initial focus of their work there but, as the political momentum for this quickly faded, their focus on understanding the new forces of capitalism was renewed.

Such figures, however, as Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm stayed behind to plough their distinctive radical furrows in the USA – which bore fruit in the heady 60s when their writings indeed were far more influential in 60s Germany than those of Adorno and co at the Frankfurt school. I vividly remember the anger of the Marxist students at Berlin’s Freie University when I spent 2 summer months in Berlin in 1964 – and it was Marcuse’s “One-Dimensional Man” which was one of the crystallising text for them.
Adorno died in 1969 but the Institute operates to this day – if with little of the global influence it had in its heady days….. For those who want their analysis in small bites, the excellent Aeon magazine has article about the school with the appropriate title – How the Frankfurt school diagnosed the ills of western civilisation 

The author of Grand Hotel Abyss, Stuart Jeffries, is one of many who have penned the history of this group – although he may be the first English journalist so to do. Many Germans have been down this road eg The Frankfurt School – by Wiggershaus (1995); and at least 2 American scholars – with The Dialectical Imagination (Martin Jay 1973); and Rethinking the Frankfurt School – alternative legacies of cultural critique; ed JT Nealon and C Irr (2002).
Jeffries’ book has an excellent bibliography – which lists (some of) these books – but, as I discovered them, I wondered why he had not thought to offer a comment in (say) the Introduction to help us understand what exactly his new book offers that is different and distinctive….. I should imagine that he feels that a journalistic approach will clearly be more accessible than an academic’s – but have to confess that I find his language, on occasion, a bit elliptic if not cryptic….

In these times, however, it’s useful for a British audience to be reminded that, for almost a hundred years, this Institute has been articulating a different way of seeing and thinking……
But I often had the feeling in the first half of the book that he would have preferred to be writing about Walter Benjamin…….  whose various writings are generally much more lucid than those of his colleagues at the School – eg Early Writings 1910-1917; Reflections – essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings (1978); and Selected Writings volume 2 part 2 (1931-1934) – perhaps because Benjamin was actually a journalist

I was also disappointed that, apart from a solitary paragraph, the book failed to make the connection with the group of New Left writers who have been active in Britain from 1960 to the present – particularly with the “cultural wing” which found expression in the British Centre for Cultural Studies from 1964 until its demise in 2002. British Cultural Studies – an introduction by Graeme Turner (1990) offers a good treatment of their work.
Admittedly, the Frankfurt School had a 40 year start on the Brits but, for some reason it’s the French whose influence permeates UK cultural studies (as Turner’s book shows) – with only Gramsci challenging this. Germans such as Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas simply made no impact on the Brits…Why is this I wonder? The Frankfurt School and British cultural Studies – a missed articulation is an interesting article which explores this question……

Let me finish with an excerpt from an interview with the author of Grand Hotel Abyss (and recommend that you read the full interview)  
What legacies has the Frankfurt School left us? And which thinkers do you regard as its inheritors?They were certainly attentive to how culture changes us and can be a force for change. In the 1930s Benjamin imagined that cinema, for instance, by using jump cuts and close ups, would change our perspectives on reality and so might have a revolutionary potential; a few years later, Adorno and Horkheimer wrote of Hollywood as if it were a totalitarian tool of oppression akin to the Nazi film studio UFA.
 One Frankfurt School legacy, then, then is to make us think about the politics of culture. For them, art is never just for art’s sake, and entertainment is never just entertaining. By taking the politics of culture seriously, the Frankfurt School opened up new lines of thinking. Without them, all the stuff that happened in a little corner of Frankfurt’s twin city of Birmingham (the now-defunct Centre for Cultural Studies) wouldn’t have been conceivable and our approach to culture would have been very different.
To be sure, the likes of Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams saw culture very differently from Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. They followed the Frankfurt School in seeing culture as a key instrument of political and social control, but, unlike the Germans, appreciated how the culture industry could be aberrantly, even rebelliously decoded, by its mass consumers and that popular sub-cultures might subvert the culture industry in a form of immanent critique.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A Celebration of writing about Italy

Italian readers have, in recent weeks, been consistently second in the highly prestigious league table of readers of “Balkan and Carpathian Musings” (surpassed, it has to be said by far, by Russians).  As it happens ,we shall be spending several weeks in Italy from mid March – first 5 days in Rome, then ditto in Naples and, then more than a week  in Palermo, using the Italian trains to make the connections from Rome. I will, therefore, just miss the elections - which I am, however, following on such sources as Prospect; and Jacobin magazines; and the inimitable LRB.  
Our purpose, however, is to savour the country’s landscape and (past) glories – although La Bella Lingua – my love affair with Italian, the world’s most enchanting language has whetted my appetite for learning at least a few words of the language.

Italy has of course, over the ages, attracted some superb writers (let alone artists) to visit and wonder at its history, paintings, sculptures and buildings – writers whose journeys and commentaries are recalled, for example, in Sicily – a literary guide for travellers. Although I’m not quite sure what such knowledge adds to our appreciation of Italian vistas, I do appreciate book lists and, therefore, pass on this list of the “top 10 books about Italy” which includes a couple I own - The Oxford Companion to Italian Food; and Peter Robb’s “Midnight in Sicily”.  
I have, over time, accumulated a nice little library of books about the country and made a special journey a couple of weeks ago to my snow-bound mountain house to retrieve it. 

It includes titles such as – John Berendt’s  naughty exposure of Venice society in the late 1990s - The City of Falling Angels; and The Dark Heart of Italy; by Tobias Jones – whose elegant text tries to capture the essence of the country and the way it has become politicised.

Two more detailed and brilliantly-written studies I brought down for rereading are The Pursuit of Italy – the pursuit of a land, its regions and their peoples; by biographer David Gilmour (2011); and Italy and its Discontents 1980-2001 by historian Paul Ginsborg (2002) whose focus on the family, civil society and the state uses a range of contemporary local sources not normally seen in such books…….Ginsborg has lived in Italy as a Professor of history for some 30 years and gives us with this offering probably the most incisive and encyclopedic take on the country. There can be few other English-language analyses of foreign countries to rival this one! 

Resident for almost 30 years, translator Tim Parks’ Italian Ways- off and on the rails between Milan and Palermo (2014) is highly readable - as well as useful for those venturing on its  trains.
Two people who hail from Australia have produced 3 books which give us not only cultural insights but the very tastes, sounds and smells of the country -
Rome – a cultural, visual and personal history; Robert Hughes (2011) – art critics are usually the worst of writers but Hughes’s prose was, by contrast, electrifying . Sadly now deceased, this book of his brings the city alive through his description of the contribution made by specific Popes to Rome's development - particularly their use of particular architects, sculptors and painters ……

John Dickie’s Mafia Republic - Italy’s Criminal Curse is a lively read – but the one book of my batch which really disappointed me was the florid Naples Declared – a walk around the bay; by Benjamin Taylor who has a nervous tic of throwing in comparisons with North American sites……
Latinist Mary Beard, on the other hand, has given us very recently SPQR – a history of ancient Rome; which brought to mind Robert Harris’s novels about Roman figures (particularly Cicero) and intrigues - “Imperium”, “Lustrum” and “Pompeii”. And, speaking of novels, I’m glad to see that the English editions of Albert Moravia’s novels are once again (thanks to NYRB) easily available. I always appreciated his modernist touch (and his naughty book “The Two of Us”)
Of course I have several generic travel guides – 2 for Naples, the DK Eyewitness one and the TimeOut City Guide; and the DK Eyewitness Guide to Sicily – but these rely on visuals and tips about accommodation, eating and travel which rapidly date 

But the best briefing about the country freely available – thanks to the London Review of Books – are the writings of the incomparable Perry Anderson who has written, over the years, no fewer than four major and incisive commentaries on Italian society -

What is Missing?
I’ve sent away for The Italians by John Hooper (produced in 2016 by the Economist’s correspondent in Italy) which I think is the only major title currently missing from my library. It will be interesting to see how much it builds on Ginsborg's unparalleled analysis.....
I also like the sound of A Literary Tour of Italy by Tim Parks. Thanks to Vlad and the newly re-opened English Bookshop – the smallest Carturesti bookstore – these 2 titles should be with me by the start of March…
I’m not a great reader of novels – The Leopard sits forlornly unopened on my shelves but this list of Italian novels tells me I should read Ferrante if I am spending some days in Naples…..

Musical Interlude

I must confess that I hadn’t heard of the Icelandic composer Johann Johannson who has just died at the tragically young age of 48 - but I was very taken with this Song for Europa to which I owe to an amazing US radio station - KEXP - an affiliate apparently of the University of Washington…..
I also liked his Free the Mind

Listening made me realise how much I appreciate some of the more atonal music – I have always loved Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht. And the Finnish composer Arvo Paert never fails to touch me eg “Tabula Rasa” and Credo

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Crafting effective public management - why so few practitioner perspectives?

If you want to understand a subject, would you rather have one written from a theoretical standpoint – or from a practitioner’s? Most people, I suspect, would choose the latter….and yet, in reality, land up with the former. Who, for example, trusts political memoirs? For an understanding of politics we look to academics – or at least to those few who write clearly and coherently. And I have to say these rarities tend to be found in history departments rather than departments of politics (or of social sciences such as economics, geography). Although there are honourable exceptions such as David Runciman, Mark Blyth and Danny Dorling)

Management literature is slightly different – despite its pretensions, it is hardly a social “science”, offering an inter-disciplinary approach. Which means a highly selective one which uses case-studies to weave plausible narratives and “theories” (ie tell stories). And that’s before we encounter the large number of autobiographies by - and hagiographies - about the business elite.

Tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of books have been produced in recent decades about efforts to reform state structures globally. When I started my own reform efforts in the early 1970s we had only Peter Drucker (and perhaps Machiavelli) to guide us – there were literally no books available on the question of managing government bodies…..Now we are swamped by the literature – which I tried to summarise recently in a booklet Reforming the State” (which is actually a trailer for a couple of books I am putting together to try to give a practitioner’s view of reform).

For every thousand of academics writing about public management reform, there will be at most one with practical experience. I actually know of only a handful of consultants who have written about their craft – Michael Barber, John Seddon and Ed Straw – all of whom are strongly selling their particular version of the truth Why is this?…..Are we consultants just too busy? Or perhaps too overwhelmed by the complexity of everyday events to feel able to offer theories? Or perhaps lacking the necessary discipline in writing and language???

Crafting Effective Public Administration – reflections from central europe (2018) is my attempt to meet this huge gap in the literature. It’s been almost a decade in the making and opens with an account of the circumstances which led me to develop this strange passion for organizational interventions…..It then moves to an overview of the writing about reforming government systems before outlining how reform got underway in the UK and US from 1965-1995. Then follow some 60 pages of “Notes on key readings” which can be skimmed or skipped for a first reading…
“State Building in “impervious regimes” 1995-2015” is the paper I presented to  a NISPAcee Conference at the Black Sea in 2011. “Back to the Balkans - Why are the new EU member states so impervious to public concerns?” are some more recent thoughts I had on training and Structural Funds in the Lower Danube area.
…It is in fact one of two texts I'm writing on the subject - the next one summarises my various reform efforts of the past 50 years and tries to draw the lessons from them....