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

Sunday, October 27, 2019

For new readers

The clocks went back an hour during the night – as they did ten years ago as I was starting this blog which then bore the name of “Carpathian Musings”.
Blogs are unusual in beginning …. with the author’s latest thoughts – random and unsystematised.
But we are used to books having a clear logic to their structure – which is why, a few years back, I decided to produce an annual version of the posts. The masthead, after all, clearly states that 
“old posts are as good as new” 

and that readers should not expect the blog to offer “instant opinions on current events”    

Four years ago I started the habit of doing a bit of prior editing of the year’s posts for their annual edition; and last year they had more of a thematic structure…..for the first time, they departed (a bit) from their usual chronological order. And this more obviously seems this year a good idea - since there have been so many posts about Brexit…..I will therefore be working on that in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, however, I offer the present version of the 2019 posts as they currently stand – all 220 pages - starting in January. 
For new readers, this will show you what you have been missing!
I still have to think of a title….

Saturday, October 26, 2019

A Rare example of inter-disciplinarity

Readers know how distasteful I find the ever-increasing narrowness of academic disciplines. The very second post this year's blog posed a question which has bothered me for years –  

Why so little energy seems to be spent attempting to get consensus on the way forward for the deficiencies which have been so visible over the past decade in the economic system which we know, variously, as “globalization” or, increasingly, as “capitalism”.
The UN had its fingers burned when, in 2009, it organized the first and only Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis. The G77 group of 130 developing countries tried to insert text that mandated a major role for the UN in dealing with the crisis and backed a comprehensive set of reforms, but northern countries including the US and the EU played a blocking game. Joseph Stiglitz was the author of what remained a Preliminary Report

That post praised the Club of Rome for having the courage to produce Come On! Capitalism, short-termism, population and the destruction of the planet; (Club of Rome 2018) -  superbly summarized in this article in the fascinating Cadmus journal. And went on to say that I understood the reluctance of professionals to get engaged in such work – knowing how aggressively they would be accused of “leftism”, “populism”… and even greater crimes….

I am, of course, aware of The Great Transition Initiative which encourages individuals to comment on a monthly question and paper. It’s perhaps only nerds that me who read it – but at least it is reaching out to form a network…
The Next System is also a good source of well-written material - project of the US Democracy Collaborative. It had an initial report – The Next System Report – political possibilities for the 21st Century (2015) and references to good community practice in various parts of the world. It has since followed up with a series of worthwhile papers.

But, thanks to the current issue of the journal Political Quarterly, I have just learned of a very worthwhile endeavour called The International Panel for Social Progress (IPSP) - a bottom–up initiative launched by a group of researchers from different disciplines, whose first congress was held in 2015 in Istanbul.
While its basic structure and operational principles are similar to those of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), its remit is rather different. The aim of the IPSP is to

‘harness the competence of hundreds of experts about social issues’ and ‘to deliver a report addressed to all social actors, movements, organizations, politicians and decision-makers, in order to provide them with the best expertise on questions that bear on social change’.

It may not offer an agenda for change - but it does something which is actually even more important - it offers an impartial and wide-ranging picture of social, economic and technical trends as you are likely to get from any other single source. 
The IPSP is not the first panel to analyse social and economic issues of pressing relevance. Various international organisations regularly monitor, for example, labour market conditions (ILO), or the dynamics of inequality and poverty (World Bank), or social inclusion, across the globe (UN Sustainable Goals). But the IPSP

does not just talk the talk when it comes to interdisciplinarity, it actually provides a shining example of what social scientists can do when they pool their skills, freely crossing disciplinary boundaries and combining quantitative analysis and qualitative approaches.

You can download and read the Executive Summary as well as each chapter here -

Part I deals with socio-economic transformations, focusing on economic inequalities, growth and environmental issues, urbanisation, capitalist institutions of markets, corporations and finance, labour, concluding with a reflection on how economic organization determines wellbeing and social justice. Here is its chapter on social trends

Part II focusses on political issues, analyzing the current trends in democracy and the rule of law, the forms and resolutions of situations of violence and conflicts, the mixed efficacy of supranational institutions and organisations, as well as the multiple forms of global governance, and the important role for democracy of media and communications. It concludes with a chapter on the challenges to democracy raised by inequalities, and the various ways in which democracy can be rejuvenated.

Part III is devoted to transformations in cultures and values, focussing on cultural trends linked to ‘modernisation’ and its pit-falls, as well as globalisation, the complex relationship between religions and social progress, the promises and challenges in ongoing transformations in family structures and norms, trends and policy issues regarding health and life–death issues, the ways in which education can contribute to social progress  and finally, the important values of solidarity and belonging.

The report offers a refreshingly balanced view of the state of social progress and the perspectives for change. It embraces neither a ‘doom and gloom’ perspective, nor neoliberal optimism. Societies do face significant problems, and the report hides none of them: inequalities are reaching unprecedented levels; in large parts of the world human development shows no signs of improvement; corporations are becoming increasingly powerful; automation leads to the disappearance of good jobs in a number of sectors; low-intensity violent conflicts show no sign of decrease throughout the world; liberal democracies are facing major challenges.

Reading, or even approaching, a scientific report consisting of three volumes, with a total of 850 pages and written by a panel of more than 260 authors, certainly looks like adaunting task. One is tempted to give up without even trying. And yet, such a first impression would be misleading. Not only is this an important contribution summarizing an impressive intellectual endeavour, it is also a genuinely interesting and engaging read.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The “Light” that Failed

Communism was, of course, for that special generation of Western intellectuals from the 1930s-1950s “the God that failed” and there is indeed an entire book with that name, published in 1949, with contributions from Arthur Koestler, Andre Gide, Richard Crossman and Stephen Spender.
The last post may have borne the same title – but the God in this case who has disappointed the region in which I live – at least according to the title of “the long read” in yesterday’s The Guardian - is not Communism but Liberalism.
It was, typically, a long post which took some time to reach its point since I found Krastev and Holmes’ 2018 article Explaining Eastern Europe – imitation and its discontents a much more satisfactory analysis than the Guardian “long read” with which I had started the post.

Let me therefore try to summarise what I found the three most original and important points of that analysis – and remember I have lived in the countries concerned for the entire 30 years period (apart from the first year – and the 7 years I spent in central Asia).
I will then explore briefly the question whether Liberalism has indeed failed the wider region.

- 1. The newer members of the EU feel their inferior status. When, a couple of years ago, a friend used the term “colonial”, I resisted it but I now realise he was right both literally (in a scale of economic takeover which is nothing short of exploitative) and in the extent to which they have had to comply with EU legislation. As a consultant I was very aware of the utter insensitivity of my colleagues with their perceptions of “best practice” – in which the EU systems were as much as fault as the individual arrogances….I don’t think outsiders can begin to understand how much this has hurt proud and well-educated people    

The imitator’s life inescapably produces feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, dependency, lost identity, and involuntary insincerity. Indeed, the futile struggle to create a truly credible copy of an idealized model involves a never-ending torment of self-criticism if not self-contempt.

What makes imitation so irksome is not only the implicit assumption that the mimic is somehow morally and humanly inferior to the model. It also entails the assumption that central and eastern Europe’s copycat nations accept the West’s right to evaluate their success or failure at living up to Western standards.

- 2. Krastev and Holmes, secondly, explore what the expectations were in the beginning, emphasising the importance of the word “Normality” – and how these have changed….

If, in the immediate aftermath of 1989, ‘normality’ was understood largely in political terms (free elections, separation of powers, private property, and the right to travel), during the last decade normality has increasingly come to be interpreted in cultural terms of identity – racial and sexual and of multiculturalism. 
As a result, Central and East Europeans are becoming mistrustful and resentful of norms coming from the West. Ironically, eastern Europe is now starting to view itself as the last bastion of genuine European values.

There’s a parallel (of a sort) with the Brits who feel that they joined in 1973 a “Common Market” or economic union which, as the European Union, has developed into something very different…

- 3. A Very different “Open society”. Perhaps no phrase has changed its meaning within a decade as greatly as this one

In 1989, the open society meant a promise of freedom, above all a freedom to do what had been previously forbidden, namely to travel to the West. 
Today, openness to the world, for large swaths of the central and eastern European electorate, connotes not freedom but danger: immigrant invasion, depopulation (by scale of emigration of their country’s qualified young professionals), and loss of national sovereignty.

We rarely hear the voice of ordinary people in this sort of geo-political analysis but
Aftershock – a journey into Eastern Europe’s Forgotten Dreams 2017) is based on interviews with people the author, young American journalist John Feffer, met in the early 90s and then, 25 years later, went back to interview. The interviews can actually be accessed here   

But let me return to the question of whether it is Liberalism that has failed the central and eastern Europeans…..
It has become quite fashionable to argue against liberalism – I first noticed this some five years ago and the trend has intensified recently with books such as “Why Liberalism Failed

My argument in the 90s was that it was neo-liberalism which was the false god – with bodies like the World Bank pushing for the minimal state
Certainly “conditionality” was always a demeaning relationship for a country to have with bodies such as the EU, the IMF and the World Bank but I have to say I saw it at the time as a not unreasonable process - and was therefore struck with this section of the Krastev and Holmes article -

Thus the rise of authoritarian chauvinism and xenophobia in Central and Eastern Europe has its roots not in political theory, but in political psychology. It reflects a deep-seated disgust at the post-1989 “imitation imperative,” with all its demeaning and humiliating implications. [End Page 118]
The origins of the region’s current illiberalism are emotional and pre-ideological, rooted in rebellion at the humiliations that must necessarily accompany a project requiring acknowledgment of a foreign culture as superior to one’s own. Illiberalism in a strictly theoretical sense, then, is largely a cover story. It lends a patina of intellectual respectability to a desire, widely shared at a visceral level, to shake off the colonial dependency implicit in the very project of Westernization.

This is indeed a fascinating argument – if not quite an attack on Liberalism in itself. Its focus on psychology actually reminds me of the Romanian tutor, Zevedei BarbuI had at University in 1963/64 who had written “Democracy and Dictatorship – their psychology and patterns of life” (1956) a book whose three parts were entitled “The psychology of Democracy”, “The psychology of Nazism” and “The psychology of communism” respectively. This must have made use of Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950) 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 eg Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and JT Talmon’s The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy(1952). They were all required reading on the small Political Sociology class I took under Barbu 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). 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.

It’s an interesting reflection on our individualistic and egocentric times which have seen such a huge expansion in psychological book titles that such political psychology seems to have disappeared?
Except they haven’t – but they’ve morphed their focus into studies of left and right voting behaviour if Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” and Lakoff’s “Moral Politics” are anything to go by.
Rather different from studies of the authoritarian personality!
Or, indeed, from the writings of Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch or Richard Sennett about whom I wrote recently

background reading
1989 at 30; an interesting 30 page essay which focuses a bit too much on the earlier period
A recent (and rare) global history of the area
A famous English historian living in California offers useful insights on a younger one let loose in central europe
interview with Krastev -

Thursday, October 24, 2019

The God that failed – in central Europe

In just a couple of weeks it will be the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall – with the precise date of any single country’s “liberation” from communism varying according to local events. Here in Romania it will be partly the Timisoara protests of early December but you can actually witness for yourself the dramatic collapse of the regime two and half minutes into this video of the supportive demonstration of 21 December 1989 which had been organised for Ceausescu. The trial and summary execution of the Ceausescu couple on 24 December stirs uneasy memories in the country.

What celebrations there are in the region as a whole will be somewhat muted – with at least one academic conference taking place in Prague in mid-December with a range of topics for discussion.
The trigger for today’s post was an excerpt from one of what may be an avalanche of books about the extent to which the past 30 years have realised (or not) the hopes and fears of the citizens of central and eastern Europe.
The new book is called The Light that Failed – a reckoning and has two highly qualified authors – Ivan Krastev, a high-profile Bulgarian political scientist based in Vienna and his own Think Tank in Sofia, and Stephen Holmes, professor political science and law and specialist in liberalism and post-communism their arguments got a preview in an article in last year's "Journal of Democracy"
This excerpt is a useful intro -

In the first years after 1989, liberalism was generally associated with the ideals of individual opportunity, freedom to move and to travel, unpunished dissent, access to justice and government responsiveness to public demands.
By 2010, the central and eastern European versions of liberalism had been indelibly tainted by two decades of rising social inequality, pervasive corruption and the morally arbitrary redistribution of public property into the hands of small number of people. The economic crisis of 2008 had bred a deep distrust of business elites and the casino capitalism that, writ large, almost destroyed the world financial order
Focusing on the corruption and deviousness of illiberal governments in the region will not help us understand the sources of popular support for national populist parties. The origins of populism are undoubtedly complex. But they partly lie in the humiliations associated with the uphill struggle to become, at best, an inferior copy of a superior model.
Discontent with the “transition to democracy” in the post-communist years was also inflamed by visiting foreign “evaluators” who had little grasp of local realities. These experiences combined to produce a nativist reaction in the region, a reassertion of “authentic” national traditions allegedly suffocated by ill-fitting western forms. The post-national liberalism associated with EU enlargement allowed aspiring populists to claim exclusive ownership of national traditions and national identity.
The wave of anti-liberalism sweeping over central Europe today reflects widespread popular resentment at the perceived slights to national and personal dignity that this palpably sincere reform-by-imitation project entailed……

Almost a year ago I had a series of posts which tried to do justice to feelings in Romania after almost 30 years

- the so-called “revolution” of 1989 was nothing of the sort – just a takeover by the old-guard masquerading in the costumes of the market economy and democracy
- Which, after 30 years, has incubated a new anomie – with the “mass” and “social” media dominating people’s minds
- So-called “European integration” has destroyed Romanian agriculture and industry - and drained the country of 4 million talented young Romanians
- After 30 years, there is not a single part of the system – economic, political, religious, cultural, voluntary – which offers any real prospect of positive change
- Even Brussels seems to have written the country off
- The country is locked into a paralysis of suspicion, distrust, consumerism, apathy, anomie
- No one is calling for a new start – let alone demonstrating the potential for realistic alliances

But I think Krastev and Holmes are right to emphasise the psychological aspects of the humiliation involved in having to copy a foreign model. This is actually better explained in an article of theirs earlier this year in the Eurozine journal.

The process was called by different names – democratization, liberalization, enlargement, convergence, integration, Europeanization – but the goal pursued by post-communist reformers was simple. They wished their countries to become ‘normal’, which meant like the West. This involved importing liberal-democratic institutions, applying western political and economic recipes, and publicly endorsing western values. Imitation was widely understood to be the shortest pathway to freedom and prosperity.
Pursuing economic and political reform by imitating a foreign model, however, turned out to have steeper moral and psychological downsides than many had originally expected.
The imitator’s life inescapably produces feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, dependency, lost identity, and involuntary insincerity. Indeed, the futile struggle to create a truly credible copy of an idealized model involves a never-ending torment of self-criticism if not self-contempt.

What makes imitation so irksome is not only the implicit assumption that the mimic is somehow morally and humanly inferior to the model. It also entails the assumption that central and eastern Europe’s copycat nations accept the West’s right to evaluate their success or failure at living up to Western standards.
In this sense, imitation comes to feel like a loss of sovereignty.
Thus, the rise of authoritarian chauvinism and xenophobia in central and eastern Europe has its roots not in political theory, but in political psychology. It reflects a deep-seated disgust at the post-1989 ‘imitation imperative’, with all its demeaning and humiliating implications.

And Krastev and Holmes’ Eurozine article goes on make a second crucial point of huge cultural significance –

In the eyes of conservative Poles in the days of the Cold War, western societies were normal because, unlike communist systems, they cherished tradition and believed in God. Then suddenly Poles discovered that western ‘normality’ today means secularism, multiculturalism and gay marriage. Should we be surprised that Poles and their neighbours felt ‘cheated’ when they found out that the society they wanted to imitate had disappeared, washed away by the swift currents of modernization?

If, in the immediate aftermath of 1989, ‘normality’ was understood largely in political terms (free elections, separation of powers, private property, and the right to travel), during the last decade normality has increasingly come to be interpreted in cultural terms. As a result, Central and East Europeans are becoming mistrustful and resentful of norms coming from the West. Ironically, as we shall see below, eastern Europe is now starting to view itself as the last bastion of genuine European values.

In order to reconcile the idea of ‘normal’ (meaning what is widespread at home) with what is normatively obligatory in the countries they aim to imitate, eastern Europeans consciously or unconsciously have begun to ‘normalize’ the model countries, arguing that what is widespread in the East is also prevalent in the West, even though westerners hypocritically pretend that their societies are different. Eastern Europeans often relieve their normative dissonance – say, between paying bribes to survive in the East and fighting corruption to be accepted in the West – by concluding that the West is really just as corrupt as the East, but westerners are simply in denial and hiding the truth.

There is a third and even more powerful reason why the Eurozine article tells the story better. And that is because it emphasises that recent events have utterly transformed our emotional response to the phrase “open society” -

The dominant storyline of the illiberal counterrevolution in central and eastern Europe is encapsulated in the inversion of the meaning of the idea of an ‘open society’. In 1989, the open society meant a promise of freedom, above all a freedom to do what had been previously forbidden, namely to travel to the West. Today, openness to the world, for large swaths of the central and eastern European electorate, connotes not freedom but danger: immigrant invasion, depopulation, and loss of national sovereignty.

The refugee crisis of 2015 brought the region’s brewing revolt against individualism and universalism to a head. What central and eastern Europeans realized in the course of the refugee crisis was that, in our connected but unequal world, migration is the most revolutionary revolution of them all. The twentieth-century revolt of the masses is a thing of the past. We are now facing a twenty-first-century revolt of the migrants. Undertaken anarchically, not by organized revolutionary parties but by millions of disconnected individuals and families, this revolt faces no collective-action problems. It is inspired not by ideologically coloured pictures of a radiant, imaginary future, but by glossy photos of life on the other side of the border.

Hungary and Poland seem at the moment the only countries to be pursuing a strong agenda of illiberalism which have transgressed EU standards of Rule of Law – although both Bulgarian and Romanian judicial systems remain under the aegis an annual cooperation and verification system which has indeed just reported.
But the combination of an ageing population, low birth rates and an unending stream of emigration is arguably the source of demographic panic in central and eastern Europe.

Anxiety about immigration is fomented by a fear that supposedly unassimilable foreigners will enter the country, dilute national identity and weaken national cohesion. This fear, in turn, is fuelled by a largely unspoken preoccupation with demographic collapse. In the period 1989–2017, Latvia haemorrhaged 27% of its population, Lithuania 22.5%, and Bulgaria almost 21%. In Romania, 3.4 million people, a vast majority of them younger than 40, left the country after it joined the EU in 2007.
More central and eastern Europeans left their countries for western Europe as a result of the 2008-9 financial crises than all the refugees that came there as the result of the war in Syria.

The extent of post-1989 emigration from eastern and central Europe, awakening fears of national disappearance, helps explain the deeply hostile reaction across the region to the refugee crisis of 2015-16, even though very few refugees have relocated to the countries of the region. We might even hypothesise that anti-immigration politics in a region essentially without immigrants is an example of what some psychologists call displacement – a defence mechanism by which, in this case, minds unconsciously blot out a wholly unacceptable threat and replace it with one still serious but conceivably easier to manage. Hysteria about non-existent immigrants about to overrun the country represents the substitution of an illusory danger (immigration) for the real danger (depopulation and demographic collapse) that cannot speak its name……..

To protect this besieged majority’s fragile dominance from the insidious alliance of Brussels and Africa, the argument goes, Europeans need to replace the watery individualism and universalism foisted on them by liberals with a muscular identity politics or group particularism of their own. 

This is the logic with which Orbán and the leader of PiS in Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, have tried to inflame the inner xenophobic nationalism of their countrymen. The ultimate revenge of the central and eastern European populists against western liberalism is not merely to reject the idea of imitating the west, but to invert it. We are the real Europeans, Orbán and Kaczyński repeatedly claim, and if the west wants to save itself, it will have to imitate the east.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Scepticism and Satire - Glossaries to help the fight against the power elites

I’ve just uploaded a new version of my little book Just Words – how language gets in the way – and would invite you all to dip in….
History is assumed to consist of hard events like wars and revolts. But such events don’t just happen – they are caused by what goes on inside our minds – not just feelings of ambition, fear, greed and resentment but the stories (theories) we use to make sense of events.
And their meanings are conveyed by the words we use.
And words have more power than we realise.

All too often, words (and metaphors) can take over and reduce our powers of critical thinking. One of the best essays on this topic is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English language”. Written in 1947, it exposes the way certain clichés and rhetoric are calculated to kill thinking – for example how the use of the passive tense undermines the notion that it is specific people who take decisions and should be held accountable for them.

Having spent more than half my adult life in foreign parts, I’ve become very familiar with the difficulties in conveying meaning and in developing mutual understanding. And with how slippery words can be.
And it’s not just a linguistic issue – it’s cultural.  You learn – but all too slowly - how easily very different meanings can be attributed to words you assumed were clear. This all-too-brief Anglo-EU translation guide take some common phrases and shows the very different meanings which Brits and non-Brits attribute to them.
Less well known is a marvellous guide to civil service jargon which reveals how corporation man (and woman) use phrases to “cover their backs” and play power games.

- For Information Don’t even think of commenting on this but if anything goes wrong I’ll remind everyone you knew what was going on.
- Give me a steer on that I don’t know how to decide on this one. Please make a decision for me and I’ll nick any good ideas you have.
- Happy To Discuss There’s a whole lot more here than meets the eye and that I haven’t told you. Should ring alarm bells.
- Hope This Is Helpful I’m well aware that it is not helpful at all. Please don’t contact me again.

This is all very innocent amusement but can often slip into mere entertainment with any deeper lessons removed. A lot of people in Britain indeed are concerned that satire has gone too far and may have been a factor in the corrosion of public trust in government and politics
So today I want to explore whether it is possible for those with serious messages to present them in a humorous way.

Fifty years before Orwell, Ambrose Bierce was another (American) journalist whose pithy and tough definitions of everyday words, in his newspaper column, attracted sufficient attention to justify a book “The Devil’s Dictionary” whose fame continues unto this day – with almost 2000 definitions. A dentist, for example, he defined as “a magician who puts metal into your mouth and pulls coins out of your pocket”. A robust scepticism about both business and politics infused his work.

Not so well known (at least in the anglo-saxon world) is The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas  - a short satirical work collected and published in 1911–13 from notes compiled by Gustave Flaubert during the 1870s, lampooning the clichés endemic to French society under the 2nd French Empire. It takes the form of a dictionary of platitudes - self-contradictory and insipid (at least 500 of them).
It was translated and made available to an American audience by the famous Jacques Barzun only in the 1950s – with a definitive version appearing in 1967. I’ve just come across it. The idea of a spoof encyclopaedia had fascinated Flaubert all his life. As a child, he had amused himself by writing down the absurd utterances of a friend of his mother's, and over the course of his career he speculated as to the best format for a compilation of stupidities.

John Saul’s A Doubter’s Companion – a dictionary of aggressive common sense (1994) is, however, in a rather different class. It’s in what the author called the

“humanist tradition of using alphabetical order as a tool of social analysis and the dictionary as a quest for understanding, a weapon against idée recues and the pretensions of power”.

Its entries are not so pithy – many taking an entire page…..and much more didactic.

This glossary of mine is written in that same humanist tradition of struggle against power –  and the words used to sustain it. It explores first more than 100 words and phrases used by officials, politicians, consultants and academics which I’ve personally noticed in the course of government reform - and offers provocative definitions which will hopefully get us into a more sceptical frame of mind.
But I’ve included hundreds more picked up by others eg The Devil’s Financial Dictionary by Jason Zweig published in 2015 but of which I became aware only recently.

And I’ve included two annexes – the first a spoof by Anthony Jay (author of Yes, Minister) Democracy, Bernard, it must be stopped; the second a much more serious bit of advice about how we might fight the insidious doctrine of neoliberalism.

Further Reading;
-      The Development Dictionary; Wolfgang Sachs (2015)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

What Might Have been

This evening should see the definitive British parliament vote on Brexit and we have today also learned that the government intends to have all stages finished in TWO DAYS.

Normally international treaties – and this is such a treaty, under law – must be before parliament for at least 21 sitting days in order to be ratified. This minimum time period is laid down in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (Crag) of 2010. But this provision is lifted for the purpose of the WAB, to allow the 31 October deadline to be met.

Amazing how governments can play fast and loose with convention. That’s the beauty of the country having no written constitution……
MPs were given the 220 pages of the Bill only yesterday evening – although Friday evening saw a rough guide. No serious person now believes a word that comes from Johnson’s mouth or pen. So the text will need line by line attention – and much consultation. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, put it nicely when she wrote

“MPs had more time to debate the Wild Animals in Circuses Act (affecting 19 animals) than they will to decide the future of 65 million people”  

On such a critical day, I don’t want to play the usual guessing pantomime which passes for political comment. I want simply to indicate why those who simply ”want to get Brexit over” are in for a bitter, bitter disappointment and why the air will, in a few years, be full of bitter recriminations.
And, in this argument, I want to bring into play the words of the longest and strongest Brexit supporters – Richard North and his son Pete who also has a blog from which I give you these facts

- countries do the highest volume of trade with their immediate neighbours.
- Just under half our trade is done with the EU.
- Much of our exports only exists because of the facilitation measures inherent in the single market.
- Frictionless borders is a product of regulatory harmonisation.
- The EU is a regulatory superpower.
- If you want to do business with a regulatory superpower then you follow its rules.
- It doesn't have to take your position into account. 
- The cost of non-tariff barriers far exceeds the cost of tariffs. 
- The EU is the largest contiguous regulatory block in the world, extended by way of its own FTAs and external agreements. 
- There is no likely combination of new FTAs that could ever offset the loss of the single market.

On the face of it, therefore, there isn't an economic case for leaving the EU. If only this were just an economic question.
Brexit, though, touches on a range of issues which come into conflict with the direction of travel of the EU. It is said that the EU wishes to be a federal superstate. EU scholars say that ambition ended with Lisbon with a recognition that member states to not share that aim. To a large extent they are right. It's only really the mouth foamers such as Guy Verhofstadt who still speak to that goal.
But the EU is still an incomplete project and one that is still guided by its founding dogma of "Ever closer union". Economic integration is a tool of political integration. As rules are harmonised authority over them is centralised which diminishes the power of national parliaments to reform or repeal laws according to their own values and political manifestos.
If we take democracy to mean the ability of peoples to organise and take power to direct the institutions then the EU does not qualify. It is a benign dictatorship - but a dictatorship nonetheless. There can be no democratic choice against the treaties.

The EU may never become a federal superstate with homogenised law throughout but it will continue to weaker member state sovereignty and lay down the parameters in which member states must operate. Primarily the objective is to liberalise trade within the borders of the EU so that national borders are increasingly meaningless. Superstate it may not be but it is most certainly a supreme government with the power to overturn laws of member states.

The effect of such rapid integration on the UK has been profound. Economically and culture it has made a deep and lasting impact. It has transformed the culture of politics and government. All levels of government below the EU are constrained by it and must give over much of their resources and time to implementing agendas devised in Brussels and above. The people can be overruled and their decisions nullified.
That the EU has a parliament does not make it a democracy. Elected representatives turning up to rubber stamp initiatives devised by the EU machinery is a figleaf of consent but one lacking a legitimate mandate. Especially when you consider the Euro election turnouts.

52% of British citizens who bothered to vote were not convinced by the economic arguments – or, rather, were prepared to set them aside for the issues of “political sovereignty” (for which read “immigration” and a clear understanding that European Court decisions now trumped British justice). There may have been some uncertainty about which of the 2 European Courts had the most influence but they knew that they didn’t like the situation)

So far, Pete North isn’t saying anything we haven’t already heard….it is the next part of the argument which Pete (and his Dad) have been hammering (to little avail) for the past decade – namely that unpicking the legal implications of EU membership and negotiating acceptable trade deals will take a decade; and that a far better arrangement is to go with EFTA. This would, of course, keep the UK under the aegis of the European Court of Justice – although, in theory, this could be negotiated about further down the line. Pete north’s post goes on -

There are two types of Brexiter. There are those who hold these economic realities to be true and those who deny those realities. The latter believes that leaving without a deal has manageable consequences and an exaggerated economic impact. I therefore have as much difference of opinion with them as I do remainers.

As mentioned much of our high tech just in time economy is a product of regulatory harmonisation and much of our trade with the EU only exists because of it. An overnight departure, subjecting us to the full force of tariffs and third country controls (as defined by the Notices to stakeholders) is a hammer blow to the UK economy with grave ramifications for jobs. Thus far this has been disregarded as "project fear" - with Brexiters ever keen to remind us that this isn't just an economic question.
On the latter point I do not disagree but the economic question is not one we can afford to ignore. In the bluntest of remainer terms, you can't eat sovereignty. Bills have to be paid. Mortgage payments have to be made. Politics impacts our lives.

I do not pretend to be a trade expert - but don’t need much convincing that few politicians understand the transformation which has taken place in the role of regulations in the past decade…Anthony Barnett is one of the UK’s most independent-minded and thorough journalists and confessed in 2018 that it was only then that he started to appreciate its significance.   
I wrote about this earlier this year, referring to some of the discussions which have been taking place in academic circles about the “Regulatory State” – particularly “The Rise of the Unelected Democracy and the new separation of powers” by Frank Vibert (2007)

The EU has for the last two decades used global standards as the basis of its regulations and the base framework of regulatory cooperation in its external relations. Globally we are moving toward a single regime of standards, leaving only the USA and China as the sticks in the mud. Were we to secure a deal with the USA according to their system of standards, even if it doubled the volume of trade done with the USA (which not FTA has ever done) it wouldn't come close to mitigating the loss of the single market.

Much of what is commonly understood about trade follows assumptions from the previous decade of globalisation when offshoring was the fashion and corporates moved around to exploit differences in tax regimes and labour standards. To some extent the EU has sought to close some of these holes by way of its own "level playing field" provisions and seemingly it has had an effect

But the talk is no longer about “offshoring” but of “nearshoring”

Anna Soubry says that she can’t find a single part of the Brexit bill that meets a promise made by the Leave campaign in the referendum.

Further Reading
The Odyssey of the Regulatory State; article by D Levi-Faur (2011)
The Rise of the Unelected Democracy and the new separation of powers” by Frank Vibert (2007) which, full disclosure, I still haven’t been able to complete

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Meaning of “it”

It was Bill Clinton who, during the Lewinsky impeachment, famously answered “it all depends what you mean by "is”. That is the stage we are reaching with Brexit

As you might anticipate from ex-Eton schoolboys, the UK government continues to operate with counter-productive petulance and high-handedness. It was the threat of a No-Deal and Johnson’s attempt at prorogation that produced both the Benn Act and Saturday’s postponement of a vote on the “Johnson deal”.
And the Eton arrogance was on display at the end of Saturday’s parliamentary proceedings when the Leader of the House – the fop Rees-Mogg – announced that the vote on the Johnson deal would take place on Monday and then flounced out without taking any questions. The Speaker of the House of Commons will actually decide whether it is appropriate for the House to resume consideration of the matter…..

A few hours later, PM Johnson – having stated in the House that he would not be seeking "to negotiate a delay" – sent not one letter to Donald Tusk of the European Council but three – the last of which baldly stated that no extension of the 31st October deadline was being sought.
He didn’t even bother to sign the first letter – which indicates the crassness of the man….. (The second letter is an explanatory note from the UK Ambassador to the EU)
Technically his third letter is inconsistent with the Benn Act – and is therefore illegal. So on Monday the court consideration of that point will be resumed.

The UK Courts are naturally very reluctant to get involved with anything that smacks of politics – but have a duty to uphold the Rule of Law – as they did unanimously on the attempted suspension of parliament at the end of last month.

A lot of British people are saying they “just want it all to be over”. What they don’t seem to understand, however, that no one really knows what “it” is. I know this sounds clever – but it isn’t. It’s the reality.
Theresa May’s 2018 deal was what is called a “soft” Brexit – remaining inside the Customs Union (CU) and Single Market (SM)
- Johnson’s is a “hard” Brexit – with the entire UK except for Northern Ireland being outside the CU and SM at December 2020. We  don't actually know what sort of trade arrangements will be attempted with the EU and others. If the EU negotiations on that score (by December 2020) are unsuccessful (or later if agreed), we could crash out with “No Deal”
-  No Deal” has the country crashing out on 31 October – with total uncertainty and with no trade deals negotiated and operating immediately under World Trade Organisation Rules
The publication on Friday of the detailed text of the new Johnson Deal confirms that he favours the American (ie minimal) regulatory model for trade agreement to which all british trade unions and what’s left of manufacturing industrialists are opposed

Further Reading
As I’ve indicated, there are only two blogs which give you the “unvarnished truth” on Brexit. Oddly, they are from opposite ends of the Brexit spectrum…..
- The first is that of the man who has argued for Brexit for many decades, the only person to have produced a blueprint for it (subsequently ignored by Brexiteers because it warned that it would decade at least a decade to unpick the country from all the EU legislation) -  Richard North’s EU Referendum blog which gives you here his assessment of what happens now
- The other blog is that of Chris Grey – The Brexit Blog – who gave us today this analysis which is what I have based this post on.
Readers who want to get a sense of what leftist Brexiteers think should keep an eye on The Full Brexit blog
As resort to the Courts is always possible, I will also be keeping an eye on the Constitutional Unit’s blog
For once, a political “correspondent” actually gave a good summary of the event viz https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/20/boris-johnson-saturday-drama-turns-to-farce-all-his-own-fault

And, as always, Boffy continues to challenge conventional wisdom - https://boffyblog.blogspot.com/2019/10/no-deal-is-better-than-johnsons-deal.html