what you get here

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

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

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Writing again

The issue of good writing has had me in its grip since my post on No Man’s Land 2 weeks ago....I confess that I have a folder on the subject - with a 100 page “commonplace” collection of comments and links  about the matter....
I’m glad, however, that I hadn’t released it on a unsuspecting audience - since I’ve just discovered a quite brilliant extended essay on ”Economical Writing” written in 1983 by one Donald McCloskey who underwent an identity change a couple of decades later and is now the redoubtable Professor Deirdre McCloskey.
I recommend the piece partly because it is so beautifully written and structured – a veritable exemplar of the advice it offers - with just one exception. Some of the references are dated or too American. Harry G Johnson, for example, may have strutted the globe like a Colossus in the 70s and 80s but, very sadly, only older economists will now recognise the name.
But the piece should also be read since it is one of the few which superbly captures the travails of writing    

That essay, in turn, alerted me to several important texts on writing style about which I was totally ignorant – not least one by the glorious English writer Robert Graves The Reader over your Shoulder which Graves and Alan Hodge actually published in the war years of 1944. The inimitable Paris Review had this to say about the book - 

Modestly subtitled “A Handbook for Writers of English Prose,” the book was never merely that. The Reader Over Your Shoulder has been called the authors’ contribution to the war effort. It would be too much to say that they thought good English could save the world. But to Graves and Hodge, clear and logical prose was not a mere nicety: “The writing of good English is … a moral matter, as the Romans held that the writing of good Latin was.”

The title sums up their theme, stated early in the book: “We suggest that whenever anyone sits down to write he should imagine a crowd of his prospective readers (rather than a grammarian in cap and gown) looking over his shoulder.” By imagining readers’ questions, the authors say, “the writer will discover certain tests of intelligibility.” These tests, outlined in part 1, consist of forty-one principles for writing, twenty-five devoted to clarity and sixteen to grace of expression. Each principle is carefully defined, then illustrated by snippets of writing that fail the test.

In part 2, Graves and Hodge reverse this process. They analyze more than fifty short passages by eminent contemporary writers, applying line by line the principles laid out in part 1. But they don’t just point out shortcomings. They actually rewrite the passages. This took a lot of nerve, considering that they were correcting people like T. S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, John Maynard Keynes, Cecil Day-Lewis, Ezra Pound, Stephen Spender, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. (One of their friends suggested as a subtitle “A Short Cut to Unpopularity.”)

Their purpose was not to sneer at the mighty, but to show that occasionally even the best writers are careless or inattentive. In choosing their samples, the authors explain, they simply took up a book or article by each writer, then “read on at our usual speed until we found ourselves bogged in a difficult passage. This passage became the subject of our analysis.”
Each sample—whether from a prime minister or a popular novelist—is subjected to the same forty-one principles. There should be no doubt in the reader’s mind as to who, what, when, where, how much, how long, and so on. No word or phrase should be ambiguous or out of place. Sentences should be linked logically and intelligibly. Ideas should follow one another in a natural order. Metaphors should be handled with care. Nothing unnecessary should be included, nothing necessary omitted.

Another delight unleashed on me by McCloskey’s essay was Unended Quest – an intellectual autobiography; Karl Popper (1974 – updated 1992)
In the meantime I had resumed my reading here in Ploiesti of David Runciman’s little bombshell - How Democracy Ends (2018) whose references to other relevant texts reminds me a bit of Matt Flinders’ In Defence of Politics. Runciman's book has been nicely reviewed here  - and here
One of my new subscriptions had an interesting take on the  new US radical mags
 If the intellectual at the think tank was the assistant to the legislator, here she has become the willing tool of the activist......Last year, in a report on “new public intellectuals,” the Chronicle of Higher Education referred to The Point as being the “least left-wing” of the intellectual magazines that had emerged in the first two decades of the 2000s. The phrasing consolidated a common misunderstanding.

What distinguishes The Point from the other magazines mentioned in the story (Jacobin, the Nation, n+1, Dissent, the Baffler) is not where we fall on the left-right spectrum, but rather how we picture the relationship between politics and public intellectual life—or, to use Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s helpful phrase, “thinking in public.” Whereas the other magazines have framed their projects in ideological and sometimes in activist terms, we have attempted to conduct a conversation about modern life that includes but is not limited by political conviction. This has meant, on the one hand, publishing articles that do not abide by the dictum that everything is “in the last analysis” political. (Some things, we believe, are in the last analysis poetic, some spiritual, some psychological, some moral.) It has also meant publishing a wider range of political perspectives than would usually be housed in one publication. This is not because we seek to be “centrists,” or because we are committed to some fantasy of objectivity. It is because we believe there are still readers who are more interested in having their ideas tested than in having them validated or confirmed, ones who know from their own experience that the mind has not only principles and positions but also, as the old cliché goes, a life. If the Jacobin slogan indicates a political truth, it inverts what we take to be an intellectual one: Ideas Need Resistance....

In our eagerness to advance what we see as the common good, we rush to cover over what we share in common with those who disagree with us, including the facts of our mutual vulnerability and ignorance, our incapacity to ever truly know what is right or good “in the last analysis.” This is the real risk of the strategic approach to communication that sometimes goes by the name of “political correctness”: not that it asks that we choose our words carefully but that it becomes yet another tactic for denying, when it is inconvenient for the ideology we identify with, what is happening right in front of our eyes—and therefore another index of our alienation from our own forms of political expression. The journalist Michael Lewis, embedded with the White House press corps for an article published in Bloomberg in February, observed that a “zero-sum” approach is spreading throughout political media, such that every story is immediately interpreted according to who it is good or bad for, then discarded, often before anyone has paused to consider what is actually happening in the story. 

The photo is of my village in the winter - just 200 metres from my house

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Most of us are Pirates these days!

I am not a great subscriber….I tend to leach off the freebies
Recently, however, I took out digital subs for both LRB and NYRB. And the rates of a slightly more academic journal I have loved since the 70s – "Political Quarterly" – are so reasonable (15 euros for not only 4 quarterly editions but also the entire archives) that I was also seduced by them last year. 
For a few months even I managed to get the full daily edition of "Le Monde" – until they cottoned on to the fact that my payment had not actually gone through…

So it’s not altogether surprising that, these past few days, I’ve been looking again at the list (which was one of several annexes of To Whom it May Concern – the 2019 posts) of the journals I considered worth reading.
And that I actually took out yet another sub.
Have a look at the updated list below and see whether you can guess which new title I succumbed to!!

The list which I had compiled all of three years ago had started with a not altogether unjustified crack about the superficiality of newspaper coverage. That, in turn, raised the question of which (English language) journals would pass a test  with such criteria as –
- Depth of treatment
- Breadth of coverage (not just political)
- Cosmopolitan in taste (not just anglo-saxon)
- clarity of writing
- sceptical in tone

My own regular favourite reading includes The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian Long Reads and book reviews,  – and the occasional glance at the New YorkerNew Statesman; and Spiked.

Other titles which might lay some claims to satisfying the stringent criteria set above are -
Aeon; an interesting new (since 2012) cultural journal
Arts and Letters Daily; daily internet roundup from books and articles 
Book Forum; a bit too US centred for my taste…..
Brain Pickings; a superb personal internet bi-weekly endeavour which gives extended excerpts from classic texts about creativity etc. One of the best
Current Affairs is a fairly new American radical journal which looks to be very well-written eg this take-down of The Economist mag and this article on development
Dissent; a US leftist stalwart whose recent analyses of ecological issues have been exemplars of typology
Eurozine; terrific stuff from a European network of 70 odd cultural journals
Jacobin; a new leftist E-mag with a poor literary style
Literary Hub; a literary site with original selections and frequent posts
London Review of Books; couldn’t do without it!
Los Angeles Review of Books; great addition to book reviews from global cites (eg Boston, Dublin) 
Monthly Review; an old leftist US stalwart with well-written and solid analysis
Mother Jones; more journalistic US progressive
N+1; one of the new and smoother leftist mags
New Humanist; an important strand of UK thought
New Left Review; THE rather academic UK bi-monthly journal which I’ve dipped into ever since it started in 1960 
New Republic; solid US monthly
Prospect (UK); rather too smooth UK monthly
The American Prospect (US); ditto US
Public Books – an impressive recent website (2012) to encourage open intellectual debate
Quillette – a very new journal emphasising “free thought” whose pieces are very well-written 
Resurgence ; UK Green mag
Sceptic; celebration of important strand of UK scepticism
Slate; more right wing internet venture
Social Europe; a european social democratic E-journal whose short articles are a bit too predictable for my taste
The Atlantic; one of my favourite US mags
The Baffler; highly original leftist US bimonthly running for 30 years which I’ve only  noticed recently
The Critic - a new journal (since the end of 2019) opposed to the cosy “left-liberal consensus” it considers disfigures the british chattering classes. A bit parti-pris
The Conversation; a rare venture which has academics writing more journalistically 
The Nation; America's oldest weekly, for the "progressive" community
The New York Review of Books; a fortnightly I’ve been reading avidly for the past 30 years
The New Yorker; very impressive US writing
The Point – a relatively new venture (5 years) which advertises itself as “the magazine of the examined life”
Washington Independent Review; a new website borne of the frustration about the disappearance of so many book review columns

The answer to the question I posed earlier    is...... most curiously, The Point – as well, after a hiccup, as The New Yorker – the latter offering last week a 4 month internet sub (with archival material) for only 6 dollars. I have to declare, however, that - after a full week - I’ve still not been able to activate access to that delight. Serves me right for succumbing to an offshoot of the Conde mulinational!!!! 
But the digital version of “The Point” is already available - for only 31 dollars a year……..

I confess that I still have fond memories in the 1980s of "The Encounter" mag which was shockingly revealed later in the decade to have been partially funded by the CIA and which as a result shut up shop in 1990....I still have some copies in the glass-covered cabinet in the mountain house study (on the left of the pic).......
The entire set of 1953-1990 issues are archived here – and the range and quality of the authors given space can be admired. European notebooks – new societies and old politics 1954-1985; is a book devoted to one of its most regular writers, the Swiss Francois Bondy (2005) 

A generation of outstanding European thinkers emerged out of the rubble of World War II. It was a group unparalleled in their probing of an age that had produced totalitarianism as a political norm, and the Holocaust as its supreme nightmarish achievement. Figures ranging from George Lichtheim, Ignazio Silone, Raymond Aron, Andrei Amalrik, among many others, found a home in Encounter. None stood taller or saw further than Francois Bondy of Zurich.
European Notebooks contains most of the articles that Bondy (1915-2003) wrote for Encounter under the stewardship of Stephen Spender, Irving Kristol, and then for the thirty years that Melvin Lasky served as editor. Bondy was that rare unattached intellectual, "free of every totalitarian temptation" and, as Lasky notes, unfailing in his devotion to the liberties and civilities of a humane social order. European Notebooks offers a window into a civilization that came to maturity during the period in which these essays were written.

Bondy's essays themselves represent a broad sweep of major figures and events in the second half of the twentieth century. His spatial outreach went from Budapest to Tokyo and Paris. His political essays extended from George Kennan to Benito Mussolini. And his prime metier, the cultural figures of Europe, covered Sartre, Kafka, Heidegger and Milosz. The analysis was uniformly fair minded but unstinting in its insights. Taken together, the variegated themes he raised in his work as a Zurich journalist, a Paris editor, and a European homme de lettres sketch guidelines for an entrancing portrait of the intellectual as cosmopolitan.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

In Praise of the Outsider

Universities are a frequent whipping-boy in these posts…….mainly for the compartmentalisation of the social sciences; the obfuscating nature of the prose which results as they disappear up one another’s arses; for the dominance and unjustifiable arrogance of the economists; and for the managerialist grab of the past few decades
This, of course reflects the prevailing neo-liberalism - which threw the idea of “learning for learning’s sake” completely out of the window and turned, instead, to a clear and strong insistence on vocational relevance

I’ll readily confess, however, that my cheap shots conceal the mixed feelings I still have about my own (ultimately painful) 17-year experience of academia….
I never allowed myself the discipline of keeping my nose to the intellectual grindstone - I was too busy proselytising - but I’m always secretly delighted when someone calls me a “scholar” (which happens!)   
What I object to, however, is the narrowness of the world which not only envelops the normal scholar but is then automatically transmitted to post-graduates - who are forced to spend years on a sub-sub-sub field of a discipline. Little wonder that we are so badly served with books about key issues – such as the global financial crash..
I try, occasionally, to explore why specialists write such inferior books compared to those who have resisted groupthink and who approach an issue more creatively…..from a multidisciplinary point of view. I find myself using the metaphor of a bridge, border or network.
Perhaps “outsider” is a better term (??) since it better conveys the sense of not belonging to the group – of being on the periphery…..Indeed the word “periphery” better conveys the sense of the messages and pressures from diverse sources which help avoid "groupthink"…  

And I have probably been insufficiently sensitive to the system in which social scientists are trapped…Academics are now under pressure to publish - with their Departments rewarded financially for those who have high ratings from what’s called “peer-reviews”. 
Those who accept the “conventional wisdom” in their fields and write in jargon will generally score well in these ratings. 
But go off piste and/or write in plain language the (wo)man in the street can understand and you’re in trouble. 
One of the concluding chapters of The Econocracy – the perils of leaving economics to the experts by Earle, Moran and Ward-Perkins (2017) explains this very well.

Some exceptional people have not been prepared to accept this - and I want to pay tribute to those who have challenged the conventional wisdom and produced books written for the common (wo)man…..
The list starts with some ex-academics - David Korten, calling himself an “engaged citizen”, is the best known. I remember the impact his first book made when it first came out all of 25 years ago. The introduction is quite gripping – you can see for yourself
Then someone whose name is almost unknown - who decided to opt out completely from the academic rat-race….Harry Shutt is a freelance indeed “dissident” economist. That means someone with none of the institutional ties that break a man’s soul. Shutt earns his keep by project work - and writes books he actually wants to on subjects he chooses and in language he hopes will be understood by his readers. That shows in two of his books which have just come to my attention and which I incorporate into one of my famous tables…..

Titles which deserve more readers

Book Title

Status of author
Focus of book
When Corporations rule the world; David Korton (1995 and 20th anniversary edition)
Free-lance writer
Ex Harvard Business School Prof. One of world’s most respected ant-globalists
One of the first (and still amongst the few) books to explore the unusual aspects of the structure of the global company and analyse the damage it inflicts on us all
The link gives the complete book

If you read nothing else read, the introductory chapter

Free-lance economist
A wide-ranging book to help the general reader put contemporary events in a proper historical context - and to challenge what Shutt calls the “organised indifference” which ruling interests try to encourage
Still worth reading, 22 years on!

A short book (just 150pp) which focuses on events since 1990 and should be read in conjunction with his first book
Google excerpts only for his 2 books
I would love to see a further update
Parecon – life after capitalism; Miichael Albert (2003)
The strange title word refers to “participatory economics”.
The link gives the entire book – which argues for an alternative way of thinking of economics

University economist
this is an rare intro to political economy which uses Canadian examples
Google excerpts only
One of the clearest textbooks I’ve seen,

University administrator who was US Cabinet member
One of the early books about the tension between capitalism and democracy – well summarised here

Link gives the entire book

Indian-german academic

A book written by someone steeped in the critical literature and its activist circles whose background (presumably) allows him to pose questions and see things others don’t
Link gives the entire book
prolific leftist activist

Google excerpts are unusually extensive
The book is more academic than the others (certainly with denser references) but the opening pages “situate” the book nicely in the wider lit – always a plus for me
another clearly-written exposition..

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Should I buy this book?

A year or so ago I devoted an entire post to the need to ration the production of non-fiction books. When I’m browsing in a bookshop and come across an interesting title, I ask three questions –

1. Can the author clearly demonstrate (eg in the introduction or opening chapter) that the book is the result of long thought and not just an inclination to jump on the latest bandwagon? 
Put bluntly why, despite these other previous efforts, does the author still feel compelled to inflict another book on us??? This is so important that I would ideally like an entire chapter on this – particularly if it’s on a subject which attracts a lot of interest.....

2. Is there a clear list and comment on what the author regards as other essential texts? 
And I don't mean a long "bibliography" viz reading list which I see as little more than a sign of "penis envy"  My favourite writers have an endnote they call "SOURCES" which identify the books which the author has found particularly useful in her/his writing. We begin to get a sense of the author’s likes and dislikes - and perhaps even of their prose style

3. Is it written in an “inviting” style? Last year I held up Yanis Varoufakis’ writing style as an exemplar - for the sheer originality of his prose – showing a mind at work which is constantly active……rejecting dead phrases, clichés and jargon… using narrative and stories to carry us along…..thinking constantly about how to keep the readers’ interest alive…

There’s also a couple of other features I look for –

- a “potted version” of each chapter. Most think-tank reports have executive summaries. I don’t know why more authors don’t adopt the same approach for their chapters (eg this book on Defending Democracy).
- para headings, tables….and graphics. Readers can absorb only so much continuous text. And if the subject matter is difficult, it helps if, at least every couple of pages, there is a heading which gives a sense of the argument…

If the book survives these tests and is brought home, the post then goes on to give some hints about what we might call “active reading” – eg identifying some key questions to use in the book’s interrogation; scribbling comments; and writing these up to have a record of the book…
The basic message is reinforced in the conclusion with advice to publishers and authors when they write their “blurbs” -

- tell us what’s distinctive about your book; ie why you feel you need to add to what is already a huge literature on the subject
- “position” your book – ie tell us what you consider the key texts in the field (and why) and how your book relates to them. At best you can offer a typology of the different schools of thought on the issue
- convince us that you have not only read the “relevant literature” but that you have done so with a reasonably open mind; At best, offer an annotated list of key reading - with your preferences. This will give us a sense of your stance and fairness

A new book has just come out to which I can’t apply the tests – because it’s not yet in the physical bookstores – only on Amazon. It’s Capitalism on Edge - How fighting precarity can achieve radical change without crisis or utopia (2020) by Albena Azmanova who was a Bulgarian dissident in the 1980s and now teaches at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies, where she chairs the postgraduate program in international political economy.
She obtained her PhD at the New School for Social Research in New York and her recent work “aims at bringing the critique of political economy back into critical social theory, with publications tracing the metamorphoses of neoliberal capitalism”. As it happens I posted about a fascinating book about the Frankfurt school of critical social theory whose German refugees had helped found that famous New York School in the 1930s.

I can’t hold “Capitalism on Edge” in my hands and skim – as I would in a bookshop – but I do have cyber sources which allow me to apply most of the required tests….The sources are -
- 60 or so pages of Amazon excerpts which include not only the intro and a tantalising few pages from the opening few chapters and Conclusion - but also the notes and the entire bibliography (16 pages)
- 2 of her (rather academic) articles on related subjects here and here

Having looked at all of these quite closely (well, not the last two!!) my initial judgement is that the book fares reasonably well on the tests…
- it recognises that a non-academic audience does require a clarity which is not expected by an academic audience
- reference to other books is woven into the text itself, not just relegated to the end of the book
- it makes an effort (in chapter 2) to explain what’s distinctive about the book
- it could have made more of an effort with tables, graphics and summaries
- and, every now and then, the academic jargon shows up. What, for example, are to be make of “What places them in an agonistic dialogue of a meaningful disagreement about injustice?” or “structural antinomies that translate into historical patterns of social injustice within the trajectories of relational, systemic and structural domination????”

On balance, I would be tempted to buy it – but for the price - 25 pounds….Just for the paperback version!! That’s more than double the normal price.
But what, I can hear some of you say, about the content…the drift of the argument???
It’s all very well for you to sound off about the style, the presentation, whether there is an annotated bibliography or enough tables and graphics…….even the price. But we want to know how well argued it is……. whether it gives us an angle we hadn’t thought of??…..  

And to that question, I’m not so sure….I liked the challenge she raises to the grip ”inequality” has taken recently on our language - which she argues should be seen not as a symptom of capitalism’s crisis but rather of its unfailing good health! Why, she asks, do people seem more distressed by the rich than by the poor? That’s an interesting question…..

One of her basic theses is that “neoliberalism” has been replaced by what she calls “precarity capitalism”. I’ve never been happy with the word neoliberalism – but I need some persuasion that the new millennium saw a fundamental change in what I’ve called the Beast that drives the world. At one stage she suggests three reasons for this - the nature of discontent; the agent of change; the mechanism for change
Her conclusion talks of “socially irresponsible rule” and “discerns 2 main contradictions generated by contemporary capitalism’s basic drive for competitive production of profit” – what she calls “surplus employability” (AI Robots etc) and “acute job dependency” (the state’s inability to supply jobs) respectively.

At this point my eyes began to glaze over…….

But I’ve read less than a quarter of the book. This very thorough and sympathetic reviewer has read the entire book and given us 11 pages to think about