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, April 26, 2019

Six Questions about the new draft

The book has now expanded to 140 pages – each of which seems to have half a dozen hyperlinks. That makes almost 1000 of them. The book still needs a proper conclusion – but can be accessed in its current state here. It's been constructed from the notes I have made over the years  as I tried to make sense of what “experts” were saying in the hundreds (indeed thousands) of books which have deluged us about “the crisis”. Your eyes may glaze over when you come across some of the lists which appear from time to time - so let me anticipate some of your questions….

1.   Why should we read it? After all, you’re the guy who said we needed to ration non-fiction books!
And that’s precisely why I have taken so long to write this damned thing…..at least 10 years. When I wrote that post, I offered the reader some tests to apply to any new non-fiction book. These included explaining what was distinctive about it; annotated reading lists; typologies showing the variety of perspectives the field offers; and visuals and other material to make the text less boring

2.   If you’re so critical of economists, who do you mention so many Economics books?
The majority of well-written books about the global crisis are actually not written by economists! There’s a table in this section (page 46 or thereabouts) which gives examples of the key books about the global crisis in 9 other disciplines apart from economics

3.   OK but why inflict so many titles on us?
Three reasons – First, anyone who wants to be taken seriously in discussions needs to be aware of some of the key names and titles in “the literature” – even if you only flick a few pages to get a sense of their style
People, secondly, differ in their tastes – and I’ve tried to structure the lists by various categories to allow you to find what suits you…For example, p43 gives you access to 8 introductory books which are great reads in themselves….
I would agree, finally, that academics are too good at throwing bibliographies at us. Indeed they overwhelm us with them – whether in footnotes, brackets or end-pages. It’s almost a virility test with them. I get very frustrated with this – since all these lists do is to flaunt their superiority – they don’t actually tell us anything interesting about each book. And that’s why I decided to try not just to list the more interesting of the books – but to add a few notes to give readers a sense of whether it was their sort of book..

4.   Surely neoliberalism has been discredited?
You would think that, as the deregulation which was its hallmark blew up in our faces, this would have led to a rethink but as Colin Crouch first showed in 2011 (and Philip Mirowski in 2013) the doctrine of commercialising anything that moves has actually strengthened. Most people are still scratching their heads to try to understand how this happened and why it seems so difficult to put an alternative agenda together…

5.   Why can’t progressives unite around an agreed agenda for change?
There are a lot of egos at stake! But also so many different perspectives. And it is a notorious fact of history that progressive forces tend to fight one another more than “the enemy”. Understand that, and we will be half way to achieving consensus

6.   Why should I trust anything you say?
If this is the first time you have come across my material, this is precisely the question you need to pose..The only answer I can give is that you will see from the blog I have had for 10 years that I try to keep an open mind on issues – painfully aware of the legitimacy of the different ways of seeing things

Thursday, April 25, 2019

"A Pluralist “Reader’s Digest” Guide to the Global Crisis"??

One of the great features of British newspapers – apart from the cartoons – used to be the “Parliamentary Sketch”. 
Television cameras were allowed to show the proceedings of the British House of Commons only from Nov 1989 – prior to which a rather special sort of journalist attempted (from the early 19th century) to put some flesh and bones on the rather dry reporting of political news.
You might have thought that the arrival of a dedicated television channel would have killed the parliamentary sketcher’s occupation but, instead, it gave it an enormous boost.

Simon Hoggart was The Guardian’s man in the place for 20 years until his sad, early death in 2014 – but his words live on in his collection House of Fun (2012) which I picked up recently in my second-hand bookshop in the Bucharest centre. Each entry is about 2 pages – and is a real gem as you can see from some of the excerpts given when you click the title…And John Crace has given the art of the parliamentary sketch a real edge in the past few years…..

I suddenly realized that my “Dispatches” book has the same structure – even if it’s missing a bit of the humour! A short entry – focusing on an idea or book rather than a politician – which can be dipped into almost at random…….although I have tried to give it a certain logic…..
And that led, in turn, to another of these dangerous, creative leaps….My book can perhaps be seen as a thoughtful “Reader’s Digest” Guide to the global crisis.

My generation is a bit sniffy about the Reader’s Digest – and its ideological purity is indeed questionable….But its original instinct is not all that different from that of Allen Lane who brought us the Penguins in the 1930s……

So what do you think? Should I stick with my “Dispatches……” title – or call the book “A (pluralist) Reader’s Digest Guide to the Global Crisis”?

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Changing the World?

I have long known that the trick – for any daunting task - was to break it down into small, manageable parts. .But I hadn’t until now really tried to apply this technique to the various unfinished texts which haunt me on my laptop….But, a year or so ago, I started to use a simple matrix (or table) in my blog – and this seems to be supplying the discipline to identify what exactly is still missing from the Dispatches to the next generation draft……

As I have read through each of the book’s separate sections, I’ve been able to check that each post actually adds value – and is taking the narrative (such as it is) forward.
So, when I came to what was supposed to be the concluding section, it was so obvious that……..there was absolutely no conclusion.
And, indeed I noticed this morning that I had so far not even given the book a clear set of objectives – against which I could satisfy myself about the relevance of the text – let alone its satisfactory conclusion…

Rather hurriedly, therefore I offer these reasons for reading the book -
- It puts the crisis in its proper context – social, historical and moral
- It is clearly written
- Its guided hyperlinks allow you to select the further reading which seems appropriate eg this unique list of books worth reading
- It’s written by someone who understands your uncertainties and confusion
- It will allow you to hold your own in any conversation by referring knowledgably to the title of one (or two) of the almost 200 books referred to in the text….

But the result is that I have to announce a bit of a delay for the next part in this series about Dispatches to the next generation - as I try to work out what the book is about; and draft an appropriate conclusion!

I have another trick when I am facing a difficult challenge – I try to distract myself by reading something completely different. So I started to read Robert Quinn’s Building the Bridge as you walk on it – a guide for leading change – which is one of these curious books which can’t quite be classified. This one falls in the gap between “management literature” and “self-help guides” since it argues that leaders who want to change an organization have to change themselves first.

And I quickly realized that it perhaps supplies the peg on which I could hang my book’s conclusion…It was, you should know, written for an American audience which, for some reason, seems to need high-falutin’ phrases to describe what for me are straightforward processes
Some 20 years ago I developed an “opportunistic” or “windows of opportunity” theory of change for the struggle against what I started to call “impervious regimes” – those which are so confident of the lack of challenge to their rule that they become impervious to their citizens –

Most of the time our systems seem impervious to change – but always (and suddenly) an opportunity arises. Those who care about the future of their society, take the time and trouble to prepare for these “windows of opportunity. And the preparation”, I went on “ is about analysis, mobilisation and trust.
- It is about us caring enough about our organisation and society to be willing to speak out about the need for change.
- It is about taking the trouble to think and read about ways to improve things – and helping create and run networks of change-agents.
- And it is about establishing a personal reputation for probity and good judgement such that people will trust you and follow your lead when that window of opportunity arises”.

I think this is what Robert Quinn ,means when he talks, in his “Building the Bridge” book, about “Entering the fundamental state of leadership”. I spent 2 decades between 1968 and 1990 going from initial community action work to developing and managing for a huge Region what was the country’s first Deprivation strategy – compare for example the typology and references in this 1977 paper on Community development – its political and administrative challenge with the experience described, 20 years later, in Organisational Development and Political Amnesia

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Invitation to a lucky Dip

Being part III of the marketing for Dispatches to the next generation
I generally write for myself – to help me make sense of things.
I am not one of these natural story-tellers….who weave tales which seduce listeners. That’s why so many of my texts lie around in an unfinished state – it’s not that I lack the discipline or patience to complete them….I simply don’t have the skill…..

But this is a different sort of book – more like a collection of essays you can dip into at any point whenever the mood takes you….not having to bother about the story line or the history of – or connections between – the various characters who figure in the story….

So, take heart, this is not a book to daunt you – but rather….to get you moving…

Part III – sketches for a future world



In which I make an early attempt to distinguish books according to their place on the political spectrum

A list of what I consider the most interesting books since 2010 – 50 of them!

Some individuals to inspire us to action

I’m generally disappointed by the books on how we might change things, but this is one person who makes sense

presentation of a useful typology – with examples

Small is still Beautiful

How a 1970s idea has grown

A concept which has become fashionable in recent years

A reminder of the importance of workers’ cooperatives

And of the importance of this ethic

Change requires both perspiration – and inspiration. And these are inspiring examples….

The comeback of an old Scottish discipline

How people reacted to a book which caused quite a stir in 2016

Few authors appreciate – or do justice to – the scale of the “social economy”

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Salad days??

It is approaching Easter in Romania – Friday 26th to be precise will be Good Friday here….
As a lapsed Christian, this has no particular meaning for me and I have never been able to agree with TS Eliot’s statement that April is “the cruellest month”. That, for me in the mid 1980s in Scotland, was rather November when I was afflicted for 3 consecutive winters by what the scientists then had started to call the S.A.D syndrome (better known to Churchill as his “black dog”).
This was a simple reflection of the career quandary which had trapped me as I tried for more than a decade to straddle both an academic and political career – killing my chances, in the process, of success in either…..Students drove me out of academia and I was soon jobless – still with my prominent political position but the time to reflect on what had gone wrong and how I might avoid future bouts of depression.
I had the beginnings of a European network - which I cultivated further – but it was the fall of the Berlin Wall which presented me with the opportunity – seized with both hands - to be the "consultant" I  then became for the next 25 years….(see my Just Words for a definition of that term!)

But nowadays this time of the year tends to be marked by 2 rather different but significant and linked events.
The bad one is the onset of pollen allergy…..with all that entails with sneezing and stuffed nose
The good one is the arrival of nettles, lettuce, spring garlic and onion, radish, red pepper et al in the markets here – particularly the Obor one a few tramstops away. Allowing the concocting of nettle stew with mamaliga; and of wonderful salads with the freshly-picked greens with grated carrots, bread crumbs, olives, walnuts, apple vinegar, goat cheese and olive oil….

Far from being a cruel month, April was (in the late 1980s) when I emerged from what was almost like a hibernation. Ever since then, however, I have had great sympathy for those who suffer – the most prominent Brits being Stephen Fry and Alastair Campbell. At the time Philip Toynbee was about the only prominent person admitting to the condition (I remember reading his “Part of a Journey – autobiographical notes 1977-79”) although Dorothy Rowe’s Depression – the way out of your prison;(1983) became, deservedly, a best-seller.
Of course, as I have slowly slid into retirement, it is not surprising that the black dog sometimes barks. So Matt Haig’s recent book was a useful reminder for me – although I was disappointed with its self-indulgence and think that Hari’s Lost Connections (2018) is a more useful read – with

chapters on the suggested reconnections focus on: a) other people, b) ‘social prescribing’, c) meaningful work, d) meaningful values, e) sympathetic joy and overcoming an addiction to the self, f) acknowledging and overcoming childhood trauma, and g) restoring the future.

This is a good review – and this a video of the author making a presentation about the book which I found yesterday and which I simply cannot put down, it is such a gripping read as he traces his journey from a decade of popping pills, followed by several years of asking questions, reading research and tracking down what seemed to be the people and places to help him answer the questions....On the way he targets myths, medics and the pharma companies and comes up with deeply political answers about the power of collective action.....I hope to do a separate post on the issue soon....
Was it neurologist Oliver Sachs who started (in the mid 90s) what has become the genre of literary medical writing? I was aware of his “The Man who mistook his wife for a hat” but never read his works. It was Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal which alerted me a few years back to the new genre – well represented by Edinburgh GP Gavin Francis’s Shapeshifters (2018) which I picked up last week from “Carturesti and Friends”
And it’s appropriate that it should be Francis who reviews another book which came from Vlad’s place – The Novel Cure – an A-Z of Literary Remedies - a delightful compendium of reading recommendations for those suffering from various travails….The Guardian even has a book clinic in the same vein….The authors of “The Novel Cure” have a website https://thenovelcure.com which serves up new offerings but, sadly, my PC denies me access……

It gives me the thought that someone should do a non-fiction version.......using indices of social and economic malaise to suggest the most accessible non-fiction reads???????

Resource on Depression (starting with the oldest)
One of the few books which was around in those dark ages, Rowe was a journalist and “agony aunt” and has a very easy tone

Life – and how to survive it; John Cleese and Robin Skynner (1996)
definitely one of the most helpful books of the decade ! A therapist and leading British comic (!) have a Socratic dialogue about the principles of healthy (family) relationships and then use these to explore the preconditions for healthy organisations and societies: and for leadership viz -
- valuing and respecting others
 - ability to communicate
- willingness to wield authority firmly but always for the general welfare and with as much consultation as possible while handing power back when the crisis is over)
- capacity to face reality squarely
- flexiblity and willingness to change
- belief in values above and beyond the personal or considerations of party.

Malignant Sadness; the anatomy of depression; Lewis Wolpert (1999)
Looks quite excellent

A much praised book, I must confess that I found its discursive style off-putting. Solomon is an essayist – although fully one third of the (large) book consists of notes. But no attempt is to break the relentless text up into headed sections to give us a hint of where the text is going

The Compassionate Mind; Paul Gilbert (2009)
This is also a bit forbidding with almost 600 pages but us well structured

Reasons to stay alive; Matt Haig (2015)
A bit too self-indulgent – but read for yourself Its short

Rip it UP – the as if principle; Richard Wiseman (2016)
One of the quotes which adorn my blog is from William James - “I will act as if what I do makes a difference”. In this entertaining and original book, Wiseman sets out a philosophy that encourages us to discipline our minds

Lost Connections; Johann Hari (2018) I came to this book prepared (by Hari’s reputation for plagiarism) to dislike it but was completely won over……

Friday, April 19, 2019

On being serious in letters

Being part II of  of the introduction to Dispatches to the next generation – the short version

I thought it would be useful to try to write a blurb for this book – on the basis that it might give me a checklist against which I could check whether the text actually fulfilled its promises – or what I thought the book should cover…..
This is a book”, I started “about the ways we have tried to think about the economic crisis which has gripped us over the past decade”…..I paused to look at the words….”Hang on! That’s not true” I said to myself…”It’s a book about how I have tried to think about the crisis”.
The royal “we” on these occasions tends to creep in unconsciously - perhaps to protect us against accusations of subjectivity, perhaps to add an air of abstraction.

I must have forgotten that, when I first compiled this short version a couple of years ago, I had chosen the title quite deliberately to convey the sense that the book would indeed try to strike a more “personal” note or “tone” than is normal for such subjects.
I was trying, after all, to gather my thoughts together “as if” I was leaving a letter behind for my children…In such an endeavour, I was following the lead of people like Ernest Callenbach who had left behind such a letter – or Alain Touraine or Yanis Varoufakis who had penned highly personal books inspired by the thought of loved ones….

Focus of the posts in Part II

What the reader takes away
Specialists have such a narrow focus – and are so used to talking to students and other academics - that they have lost the art of communication. I recommend a dozen books which actually bring economics to life
A unique table I’ve developed which plots books and authors according to both their academic discipline (I selected nine) and ideological position
Other Ways to make sense of it all

This introduces a good “typology” ie a way of classifying the very different approaches and the reasons for their divergent conclusions

Application of the typology – with examples of the books and writers who have made sense to me

When you come across an author who holds your interest, you start to ask why others can’t do the same….
PostWar Mood music – how the intellectuals made sense of our economic system
This is my annotated list of important books – from the 1950s to the start of the crash. Be warned - there are about 50 titles

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Making sense of it all

It was in 2000 or thereabouts that I first started to feel that the world had taken a wrong turning – a short paper called Guide for the Perplexed captured these thoughts….
The global economic crisis of 2008 just confirmed those initial feelings. It was at this stage I started the blog – using it to record notes on my readings.
 Then one day, I had the bright idea to gather the posts in one file – just to see if there was an underlying pattern which might be of wider interest…In 2015, this was a 115 page file called Ways of Seeing…the global crisis – which consisted mainly of a critique of our political and intellectual elites. But it was a couple of years later before I realised how badly served we were by most books on the crisis and when I started to develop my own annotated list of the key books – which suggested that the “crisis” actually began in the 1970s…That’s a list with almost 100 books – which you will find in Part II of Dispatches to the next generation – the short version.

As the book has developed more or less of its own accord, it is about time for it to be given some aims – against which it might better be edited. And I have not forgotten the advice I have given to authors (and publishers) about needing powerful arguments to convince us that yet another book should be inflicted upon them

So, rather belatedly, here are the reasons why I offer the book
It puts the crisis in its proper context – social, historical and moral
It is clearly written
Its guided hyperlinks allow you to select the further reading which seems appropriate eg this unique list of books worth reading
- It's written by someone who understands your uncertainties and confusions
- you can use the book lists to make you appear more knowledgeable!  

Let me try to persuade you it’s worth dipping into -

I love what I imagine was the Victorian habit of giving sub-titles to their book chapters which offered explanations of what the reader might reasonably expect to find in them. And I’ve discovered that they are a good discipline for anyone trying to edit his own text……… In this next section therefore –
- An indictment is read
- Different ways of looking at the world are sketched out
- Some explanations are offered for our discord
- The scale of moral collapse and greed is exposed
- A staircase tale about the devil is recounted
- It is suggested that Management and Economics have become the new religion
- A letter to the Younger Generation is discovered
- History is revenged


Bottom line?

Seeking the common ground
How I saw the world in 2014

Frame analysis, tropes, memes,
Different ways we try to make sense of the world

Wicked problems
Pity no one has yet applied frame analysis to the global economic crisis
Corporations, politicians, greed, lying, growth, spying, inequality
Has human nature changed?
Corruption, accountability
A famous Bulgarian parable
The new religion

Management, economics, faith
the high priests of the latest religion

Egocentricity, universities
How ethics has been marginalised
Hope, mutual support, organisation
Sound dying words
Spengler, Toynbee
Explain the significance of the table used as a frontispiece

In a following post, I’ll give you a taster for the second part of the little book – which is by way of being what the academics call a “literature review” ie not just a list of books but brief comments which give a sense of what sort of value it adds to the discussion..
As I cast my critical eye over the book as a whole, I realise that although part 1 is strong on judgements, part II is probably too descriptive and insufficiently opinionated!