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

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

A Challenge to Conventional Finance

The curious title which the blog has had for the past year or so is a tribute to those who have managed to escape a monoculture (or “tunnel vision”) - generally by having moved from one territory to another; be that intellectual or geographical.
Being an outsider seems to give one’s writing a bit of an edge – as I argued earlier this year with some examples
Robert Skidelksy’s name should probably be added to that list – it’s not just his family background (he lived in China until he was almost 10) but the fact that he is both an historian and an economist.
I’ve been a fan of his ever since I came across his Interests and Obsessions – historical essays (1994) in a second-hand bookshop a couple of years ago. It’s a delightful collection of essays on different aspects of British life in the last century or so – including quite a few profiles. He is the definitive biographer of Keynes – his 3-volumes on the man come in at more than 1000 pages.

So I didn’t need a lot of convincing to buy his Money and Government – a challenge to mainstream economics (2018 – full access by clicking the title) even although several chapters have short appendices of formulae (for me the ideal place for them!)
David Graeber (another excellent writer) has a long and very positive review from which I’ve taken some excerpts at the end of the post

Before I get on to that book, here’s an example of Skidelsky writing – from a book review he did a few years ago for NYRB on the impact of computerised systems

The aim of all control systems is to control human behaviour, including the way we think. Priests and political leaders have long used religion and ideology for this purpose, since it economizes on the use of force and terror. But it is only in the last hundred years or so that the attempt to control behaviour by controlling the mind has achieved scientific status, largely through the explosion of calculating power that computers have made possible. In one of his many fascinating chapters, the author shows how CBS originated in the needs of the military for battlefield control, before they were applied to the needs of business.

Unlike the machine assembly line for Ford cars, the human assembly lines in giant retail organizations like Walmart and Amazon pose special problems. The stacking and retrieving of customers’ orders requires the attention of a “panoptic monitoring regime to pick up on…human waywardness [on the part of the employees] and correct it without delay.” The model is that of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, the circular prison he designed with an inspection tower at its centre, where a single watchman could observe the inmates without them being able to tell if they are being watched. Bentham himself thought of the Panopticon as an unprecedented way of obtaining power of mind over mind. What has made computerized business systems universally applicable is the joining of Taylorian scientific management (breaking down jobs into small tasks) with the panoptical control made possible by digital technology.

In 2016 Skidelsky edited a book with the fascinating title Who Runs the Economy? The role of Power in economics from which, I suspect, this text is taken

Adapting Steven Lukes (1974), one may think of ideas as a form of ‘soft power’, which structures our debates about reality. Alternatively, and more comprehensively, they may be seen as shaping our consciousness –the way we interpret our world. But just because ideas are produced in institutions, we cannot ignore questions about the hard power behind the soft power. Who finances the institutions from which ideas spring? Who finances the dissemination of ideas in popular form –media, think tanks? What are the incentives facing the producers, disseminators, and popularisers of ideas even in a society in which discussion is ‘free’? In short, what is the agenda of business? It is reasonable to see business as the hard power behind the soft power of ideas, not because the business community speaks with one voice, or because there are no other centres of hard power (e.g. government) but because it is the main source of the money without which the intellectual estate would wither and die……

Assertion of the independence of ideas is a necessary modification of crude Marxism, which I dare say Marx himself would have accepted. Nevertheless, in the Marxist scheme, the intellectual class, like the state, attains only ‘relative autonomy’; and ideas rarely overturn the perception or promotion of self-interest, however much they may modify its expression. Practical men like nothing better than to have their prejudices dressed up in scientific language. Ultimately the ideas in power serve the interests of the class in power; under capitalism, this is the capitalist class.

Skidelsky is 85 but is extraordinarily prolific – he has just produced What’s wrong with economics – a primer for the perplexed 2020) and was an active member last year of a small advisory group to the OECD Sec-Gen which helped produce an amazing little document Beyond Growth – towards a new economic approach; (OECD Sept 2019) which basically questions the entire raison d’etre of the OECD for most of its existence!

But here’s what David Graeber had to say about Money and Government – a challenge to mainstream economics

What it reveals is an endless war between two broad theoretical perspectives in which the same side always seems to win—for reasons that rarely have anything to do with either theoretical sophistication or greater predictive power. The crux of the argument always seems to turn on the nature of money. Is money best conceived of as a physical commodity, a precious substance used to facilitate exchange, or is it better to see money primarily as a credit, a bookkeeping method or circulating IOU—in any case, a social arrangement?
This is an argument that has been going on in some form for thousands of years.
Technically, this comes down to a choice between what are called exogenous and endogenous theories of money. Should money be treated as an outside factor, like all those Spanish dubloons supposedly sweeping into Antwerp, Dublin, and Genoa in the days of Philip II, or should it be imagined primarily as a product of economic activity itself, mined, minted, and put into circulation, or more often, created as credit instruments such as loans, in order to meet a demand—which would, of course, mean that the roots of inflation lie elsewhere?

To put it bluntly: QTM is obviously wrong. Doubling the amount of gold in a country will have no effect on the price of cheese if you give all the gold to rich people and they just bury it in their yards, or use it to make gold-plated submarines (this is, incidentally, why quantitative easing, the strategy of buying long-term government bonds to put money into circulation, did not work either). What actually matters is spending.

Nonetheless, from Bodin’s time to the present, almost every time there was a major policy debate, the QTM advocates won. In England, the pattern was set in 1696, just after the creation of the Bank of England, with an argument over wartime inflation between Treasury Secretary William Lowndes, Sir Isaac Newton (then warden of the mint), and the philosopher John Locke.
Newton had agreed with the Treasury that silver coins had to be officially devalued to prevent a deflationary collapse; Locke took an extreme monetarist position, arguing that the government should be limited to guaranteeing the value of property (including coins) and that tinkering would confuse investors and defraud creditors. Locke won. The result was deflationary collapse.

According to Skidelsky, the pattern was to repeat itself again and again, in 1797, the 1840s, the 1890s, and, ultimately, the late 1970s and early 1980s, with Thatcher and Reagan’s (in each case brief) adoption of monetarism.
Always we see the same sequence of events:
(1) The government adopts hard-money policies as a matter of principle.
(2) Disaster ensues.
(3) The government quietly abandons hard-money policies.
(4) The economy recovers.
(5) Hard-money philosophy nonetheless becomes, or is reinforced as, simple universal common sense.

How was it possible to justify such a remarkable string of failures? Here a lot of the blame, according to Skidelsky, can be laid at the feet of the Scottish philosopher David Hume.
The one major exception to this pattern was the mid-twentieth century, what has come to be remembered as the Keynesian age. It was a period in which those running capitalist democracies, spooked by the Russian Revolution and the prospect of the mass rebellion of their own working classes, allowed unprecedented levels of redistribution—which, in turn, led to the most generalized material prosperity in human history. The story of the Keynesian revolution of the 1930s, and the neoclassical counterrevolution of the 1970s, has been told innumerable times, but Skidelsky gives the reader a fresh sense of the underlying conflict……

Economic theory as it exists increasingly resembles a shed full of broken tools. This is not to say there are no useful insights here, but fundamentally the existing discipline is designed to solve another century’s problems. The problem of how to determine the optimal distribution of work and resources to create high levels of economic growth is simply not the same problem we are now facing: i.e., how to deal with increasing technological productivity, decreasing real demand for labor, and the effective management of care work, without also destroying the Earth. This demands a different science. The “microfoundations” of current economics are precisely what is standing in the way of this.

Any new, viable science will either have to draw on the accumulated knowledge of feminism, behavioral economics, psychology, and even anthropology to come up with theories based on how people actually behave, or once again embrace the notion of emergent levels of complexity—or, most likely, both.

Intellectually, this won’t be easy. Politically, it will be even more difficult. Breaking through neoclassical economics’ lock on major institutions, and its near-theological hold over the media—not to mention all the subtle ways it has come to define our conceptions of human motivations and the horizons of human possibility—is a daunting prospect. Presumably, some kind of shock would be required. What might it take? Another 2008-style collapse? Some radical political shift in a major world government? A global youth rebellion? However it will come about, books like this—and quite possibly this book—will play a crucial part.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Links I liked

Food Supply and tourism have been two of the many flows (of goods and people) badly hit by Covid19. And who better than Michael Pollan and Chris de Bellaigue to give us the lowdown on this – Pollan with a devastating story about the health of the meat-processing industrial workers in the New York Review of Books which has shades of Upton Sinclair about it; and de Bellaigue with an article in The Guardian about the serious consequences for the livelihoods of local people of the silence which has descended on many tourist hot-spots.
The World Economic Forum got into the act with this typically glossy collection of pieces about the pandemic’s “Challenges and Opportunities” 
And TNI did typically better with this little book about the role played by big finance in exacerbating climate breakdown, along with innovative micro and macro level solutions for building a green, just and democratic finance sector fit for the future

Podcasts and Videos     
LRB’s Talking Politics, with David Runciman, has been running podcasts with discussions about what changes Covid19 might cause
And BBC Radio 4 has a series called Rethink which is exploring that same issue. Their first episode had a short session with the Pope but I wasn’t too impressed with the first full episode this morning – which includedTony Blair, Kevin Rudd and other political leaders
The Democracy in Movement by 2025 (Diem25) have also been running a video series (called “Another Now”) on Covid19 which brings much more interesting characters – such as Anthony Barnett who recently produced Out of the Belly of Hell about the stepping stones of the past 50 years.

The episode with Barnett, Rosemary Bechtler and Yanis Varoufakis was one of the best bits of viewing I’ve seen – with Barnett arguing strongly that four of the forces his extended essay refers to could bring a new “humanisation” which has so far been lacking. Varoufakis was more sceptical, maintaining that what was need was a programme on which countries and parties could agree….
Previous posts have referred to the notion of “critical junctures” – a phrase which pops up in these discussions with the question on everyone’s lips being whether in fact we are living through such a turning point which will see significant change in our lifetime.
Humanity at the moment seems more like the famous frogs being slowly boiled in water and not noticing any significant change…..

In the last few days, I’ve been making progress on the book I’ve been trying to put together on “the global crisis” (however defined) – incorporating key points from Barnett’s essay. A crucial question is what we are going to do about the multinational company which, for the past 50 years, has been allowed to fixate only the interests of shareholders – at the expense of the interests of employees and wider society. The prestigious British Academy is currently exploring that issue – under the chairmanship of Colin Mayer who has the gem of a presentation here (text can be read here)

My faithful readers will know that the British Labour Party, having heavily lost the December election, selected a new Leader in April – who was previously the party’s Brexit spokesman. He has just been presented with the result of an internal inquiry which was carried out on the handling of the election. It’s a fairly savage indictment – using phrases such as “toxic atmosphere” – and its 150 pages can be read in full here

The last post contained an updated list of useful journals which included quite a few which hadn’t figured in the previous list of 3 years ago. One was a leftist journal called Soundings whose current issue runs an interesting article about the New Left in Britain

For those who missed the Progressive Governance Conference last week, here’s one of the youtube highlights – Adam Tooze

I generally don’t give the current incumbent of the US Presidency any air time and would reckon that nothing would shock us about his behaviour but an article in NYRB has me very concerned  

The Watergate scandal left many Americans wondering if they could ever trust their government again. In October 1978, hoping to restore public confidence in federal institutions, Congress created new mechanisms for oversight and new agencies to administer them, including the Office of Government Ethics, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

It further established a cadre of inspectors general at large federal agencies. Public servants like me who have worked in these agencies or inspector general offices think of 1978 as the 1776 of our anticorruption work.
Jimmy Carter, who signed the Inspector General Act into law, saw the new inspectors general as a tool to “root out fraud and abuse.” As his chief domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat later put it, “For him, Watergate was not simply the break-in and the cover-up. It was the abuse of power, the misuse of the IRS and the CIA against domestic enemies.”

If Donald Trump’s goal is to abuse power, he may have special cause to fear the seventy-four inspector general offices. They investigate wrongdoing and audit the performance of federal agencies and government programs to detect problems or identify systemic risks that could harm the public. They are supposed to be nonpartisan and independent; as a line of defense against the various forms of corruption that can infect government agencies, they have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. But that tradition is being tested as Trump seeks to gain control over these watchdogs.

The article goes on to record the scale of firings there have been

Saturday, June 20, 2020

An Update of “Journals worth reading”

As the number of newspaper titles shrinks, the number of weekly, monthly and even quarterly journals seems to increase. It’s 3 years since I last tried to identify quality journals which might be of interest to my readers – so today I will update that.
I started that earlier post by posing the following question - which (English language) journals would pass a test which included 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

That’s a tough test – but my new list has quite a few new titles for your consideration…..
3 Quarks Daily; my daily fix - an amazing site which offers carefully chosen articles which suit my demanding taste perfectly
Aeon; an impressive cultural journal (online since 2012) whose articles are about big issues and have real “zing”
Arts and Letters Daily; the last list missed this great daily internet service which highlights an article and book – even although it’s long been essential viewing for me
Book Forum; has gone downhill – used to offer an amazing daily service which gave links from mainly US academic journals…..
Boston Review; a new mag which I rate very highly for originality
Brain Pickings; a superb personal endeavour from a Bulgarian woman now living in the States which, every week, gives extended excerpts from classic texts about creativity etc. Recently, however, I’ve found it a bit too predictable
Current affairs; a fairly new bi-monthly and slightly anarchistic American mag
Dissent; a US leftist stalwart 
Eurozine; a network of some 90 European cultural mags which gives a great sense of the diversity of European writing
Jacobin; a new leftist E-mag with a poor literary style. Indeed, with its large print, different coloured paper and photos, it’s more like a comic!
Lettre International; a fascinating quarterly published in German, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian and Romanian.
Literary Hub; a great literary site with daily selections and frequent posts
London Review of Books; my favourite for the past 40 years to which I generally subscribe
Los Angeles Review of Books; relatively new and trying too hard to run with the politically correct 
Monthly Review; an old US stalwart with good solid analysis
Mother Jones; more journalistic US progressive
N+1; a centrist mag published only 3 times a year
New Humanist; an important monthly strand of UK thought
New Left Review; THE UK leftist journal - running on a quarterly basis since 1960. Always worth a look 
Prospect (UK); rather too smooth centrist UK monthly
The American Prospect (US); ditto US
Public Books – an impressive recent website (2012) to encourage open intellectual debate
Quillette; a "free-thinking" contrarian and libertarian journal 
Resurgence and Ecologist; dependable UK Green mag
Sceptic; celebration of important strand of UK scepticism
Scottish Review; a fantastic weekly with humanistic takes on what’s happening
Social Europe; a european social democratic E-journal whose short articles are a bit too predictable for my taste
Soundings; if you want to keep up with UK leftist thought, this is the journal for you – issued only 3 times a year
Spiked; a libertarian net-based journal with challenging articles always guaranteed to be anti-PC
Sydney Review of Books; still can’t make up my mind
The Atlantic; one of the US oldest mags (founded in 1857)
The Baffler; great writing. Apparently founded in 1988, it surfaced for me only recently
The Conversation; a rare venture which uses academics as journalists 
The Nation; America's oldest (1865) weekly, for the "progressive" community
The New Republic; Progressive US monthly which has been publishing for more than a century
The New Yorker; very impressive US writing
The New York Review of Books; simply can’t do without it
The Point;  a quiet mag to which I’ve taken out a trial sub
Washington Independent Review; a new website borne of the frustration about the disappearance of so many book review columns
Words without Borders; a journal of translation which I’m experimenting with

Academic journals
I would not normally deign academic journals with a second glance since theirs is an incestuous breed – with arcane language and specialized focus which breaches at least two of the above five tests. But Political Quarterly stands apart with the superbly written (social democratic) analyses which have been briefing us for almost a century and to which I have recommenced an (internet) sub.
Parliamentary AffairsWest European Politics and Governance run it close with more global coverage.

My own regular favourite reading includes The Guardian Long Reads and book reviewsLondon Review of Books and the New York Review of Books – and the occasional glance at the New Left Review and New Statesman.
This choice betrays a certain “patrician” position – partial but not too “tribal
A concept with unrealized potential, I feel, is that of the “global roundup” ” with selections of representative writing from around the globe. Courrier international is a good, physical, Francophone example – the others being “virtual” or E-journals eg Arts and Letters Daily a good literary, anglo-saxon exemplar; with Eurozine taking the main award for its selection of the most interesting articles from Europe’s 90 cultural journals

I found this list of previous posts about journalists when drafting this piece -
The archive on journalism

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Learning to Learn

For 17 years I was allowed to call myself a “lecturer” which I could have included in my Sceptic’s Glossary as “someone who spouts words”. It was patently a higher status (and rewarded) job than “teacher” who is expected to work with pupils (with at least a year’s full-time training for that task) and to produce results (however questionably measured).
In the 1970s a Lecturer had a lot of freedom – in terms of both choice and scale of holidays (3 months’ summer vacation for example)
Initially, I enjoyed that freedom…..although not so much with engineering students who took an understandably dubious attitude to the “liberal studies” programme in which I was initially employed - beautifully skewered in the Wilt series of novels by Tom Sharpe.
The work I particularly enjoyed was that with “mature students” - whether at the “adult education” classes of the Workers’ Educational Association; or in the Open University where I was a part-time tutor in its opening period….
In the 1970s, planning students at the famous Glasgow School of Art also proved to be a captive audience for musings about my practical experience as a reforming politician in a bureaucracy. Those were the days of Norman Dennis…..
I may not have helped them in their examinations – but at least I gave them a foretaste (and forewarning) of the games they would face in their future careers.

But my enjoyment faded as the academic Degree Machine cranked up its requirements and I found myself suddenly having to prepare course structures into which lectures and seminars fitted logically and seamlessly – without any special help being on offer. It was simply assumed that, having learned my subject, I would have the relevant skills to design course programmes, deliver lectures and organise seminars to ensure that students would read the relevant material and get through examinations successfully.

It took universities until the 1990s to wake up and make sure that lecturers were properly trained in these skills.
I had been winging my way for too long to be able to submit to the new requirements; got utterly depressed; and, after 3 years of winter misery, resigned in 1985….
Clearly, most teachers know how to teach kids – although I don’t quite know where the balance of argument currently lies between those who advocate “top-down” learning and those who favour a child-centred approach.

But adult learners clearly need a different approach – one that helps them discover things for themselves…as is expressed so well in this video – “10 things polyglots do differently”. 
It was 2005 before I got the opportunity to learn about the very different world of training adults – first in Kyrgyzstan where I was leader for two years of an EC-funded programme of capacity development for local government; and then in Bulgaria where I also led a programme to help prepare regional staff to comply with the requirements of EU membership.

I learned a lot from both experiences – starting with an intensive attempt to understand the needs of those in charge of the new municipalities of the small central Asian state and to provide relevant support. One of the results was this Roadmap for Local Government in Kyrgyzstan which I very much enjoyed preparing – as you will see from the way I pulled out the metaphor in the title (see the diagram at pages 76-77)
And I was able to use that in the very next project – benefitting from the insights of a Polish trainer in my team to produce one of my best papers - Training that works! How do we build training systems which actually improve the performance of state bodies?

So who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks??

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

My Day

A couple of days ago I enrolled for the “Progressive Governance Digital Summit 2020”  and watched the first few hours of the event which is supported by the usual leftist suspects – the New Statesman, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Heinrish Boll Stiftung, ESP et al .
This is the first such virtual conference in which I have taken part – its Zoom facility (which is new for me) gives the opportunity not only of viewing but of fixing chats. It’s very much the younger generation on show - starting with a guy for whom I have a very healthy dislike Yasha Mounk, ex-Director of the Tony Blair Foundation and author of the very slick “The People v Democracy – why our freedom is in danger and how to save it” (2018)

The Conference strategy paper was sent only in the first hour after some confusing references to it by the introductory speaker - and is actually a very good read. It focuses on the present pandemic and explores six different scenarios – named as  
1. New Golden Age
2. Varieties of Localism
3. Radical Individualism
4. Welfare Technocracy
5. National Populism
6. School Trip (by which is meant a minor irritant)

But the subsequent presentations annoyed for their superficiality and for the sheer impertinence of youngsters barely out of their nappies daring to lecture us all. There was not even a pretence of putting up a token wrinklie.
Jeremy Cliffe of New Statesman was a typical example – with a wiste of a moustache and using Robert Unger to impress us with talk of “high-energy politics”.
With that one exception so far, the speakers are mostly academics - exuding the confidence that comes from being tenured and speaking mainly to students  - and clearly fail to understand how counterproductive they are. 
They turn the rest of us into proponents of defunding university social science!! (see update below)

Apart from that, my day was occupied in taking an axe to the text I have been labouring on for the past few weeks and coming up with a different structure for what is effectively a taster for the full version of “Dispatches for the Next Generation – a bibliograph’s notes on the past half-century”. I was helped in this by this table I found myself doodling…..

Thrust of chapter arguments
Why do I feel strongly about this?
Supporting theories
1.Trespassing encouraged
Most senior execs are in the grip of groupthink
AO Hirschman
Chas Handy’s “The Second Curve”
2. Critical junctures identified
History is written by the victors. Events were often finely balanced. There’s too much fatalism around
3. Economics relegated
Basic model is badly flawed and needs urgent reinvention
Daly, Raworth,
4. The Elephant probed

Talk of capitalism and post-capitalism is too loose. Are we really clear what the core and marginal aspects of the system are – and can the beast be reformed?
Ronald Douthwaite,
5. A new social goal is sought for the commercial company
Shareholder value ignores other dimensions
Cooperative and social enterprises employ more people than we think – but have to struggle for legitimacy
Paul Hirst

Ed Mayo
6. Lessons of change explored

So much protest fails and few social enterprises have a multiplier effect.
How do we ensure that there is real learning?
Robert Quinn
7. Change agents and coalitions sought
Progressives are good at sounding off – and bad at seeking common ground
8. Conclusion

update on Progressive Governance virtual conference; in fact things improved from Wednesday evening with the arrival of Germany's ex-Green Minister J Fischer - and Thursday's discussion were quite excellent with the Leader of the Netherland's Labour party, Adam Tooze, Dani Rodrik and Paul Mason.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Links I liked

I had no sooner started a weekly ”Links I Liked” feature than I lost my connection to the blog.
Until then I had dumped any excerpts of useful material I had found on the internet (with the relevant link) in a special folder - and extracted only stuff that I knew I was going to use in a pending blogpost. The result was a file which kept on getting larger but which I rarely looked at. The ”Links I Liked” feature gave me the incentive to go back to the folder and put up useful stuff which is easier to find that rifling through a 200 pages file.....

This past week saw a couple of book reviews
The Boston review is an impressive new find for me – although their review of Foretelling the End of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures Since Karl Marx by  Francesco Boldizzoni was a bit opaque for my liking. It started well

The first four chapters move quickly through a series of proficient and deftly connected capsule summaries of thinkers across a range of fields, from economics to philosophy to sociology.
Although those who have spent more time with these authors may occasionally be frustrated by the glosses of complex arguments, the point is not to cast new light on any one idea, but to show, through volume and range, the many ways that people have thought about capitalism’s end, and the many ways they have gotten it wrong: thus far none of the predictions has proved correct.

And continued with a typology for which I’m always a sucker –

There are, Boldizzoni argues, four kinds of predictions.
-       There are theories of implosion, wherein capitalism collapses because of pressures that arise from the workings of its own logic.
-       There are theories of exhaustion, which predict capitalism will “die of natural causes”—it runs up against environmental limits, or moral advances enable people to move beyond it.
-       There are theories of convergence, wherein capitalism and socialism become more and more alike, appearing as mirror images of modern rationality and bureaucratic organization.
-       Finally, there is “cultural involution,” wherein capitalism kills off the non-economic values that made it work in the first place.

Some of these tendencies seem more significant than others: theories of implosion, for example, recur far more frequently than theories of convergence.....

The trouble is that I don’t know what a ”cultural involution” is when it’s at home! A google query didn’t really help but it did unearth a real gem of a book I will come to in a moment.. But I liked the sound of the Italian’s book – precisely the combination of potted intellectual biographies I like

The second review was a critical one of Rutger Bregman’s latest - Human Nature – a hopeful history - which came out of his previous extraordinarily well-written Utopia for Realists (you can see what I mean by clicking the title since it gives the entire book!)

I also like intellectual history – particularly of countries. So I loved “How the French Think” and consider that Perry Anderson’s The New Old World is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.
So the website Reading the Chinese Dream is a real find – thanks to this review in the New York Review of Books
The web site is 
devoted to the subject of intellectual life in contemporary China, and more particularly to the writings of establishment intellectuals.  What you will find here are essentially translations of Chinese texts that we consider important, together with discussions of related issues 
One of my regrets is that, despite my best intentions, I haven’t been able to access similar sites about European debates eg French let alone German. Eurozine is the only site which gives the occasional glimpse….
European Think Tanks, of course, are very active and many of them – such as the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung – offer bilingual material.
Time was when I was a great fan of the New Labour Demos Think Tank - which has become a rather bipartisan outfit these days and, like most London-based think-tanks, focused on England.
Scotland, after all, has had its own parliament for 23 years and therefore its own think-tanks – such as Common Weal which as just produced two interesting documents on Resilience Economics and Resilient Scotland  

Finally a quite remarkable book which came to my attention only today as I searched for a definition of the phrase “cultural involution”. It was published in France in 2004 – before, that is, the global financial collapse which it anticipates along with the ecological one - Convergence of Catastrophes by Guillaume Faye who, on further investigation, turns out to have been the sort of ultra-right winger with whom France has long been familiar
The English translation only saw the light of day in 2012 – which says a lot…..