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

Wednesday, September 30, 2020


William Davies is a writer I have grown to respect whose third book “Nervous States – democracy and the Decline of Reason” (2018) is a highly original analysis of how feelings seem in recent years to have overwhelmed western societies.

It is perhaps best seen as a trilogy with “The Happiness Industry – how the Government and Big Business sold us Well-Being” (2015) and “The Limits of Neoliberalism – authority, sovereignty and the logic of competition” (2014) being its predecessors.

“Nervous States” was one of the first books I read from the latest Amazon arrival and certainly encourages me to read his earlier two books. There have been surprisingly few serious reviews of the book – LRB, certainly, didn’t take it seriously and the Jacobin review from which I initially quote disappears up its own arse in the second half. The Point mag (to which I am currently subscribed) has a very good interview with the author (translated from Die Merkur) which does justice to the richness of the book. 

But the first question and answer in the New Yorker’s interview gave a good sense of the book’s originality 

What was it in the seventeenth century that changed how we organize our society, and that we’re now at risk of losing or have already lost today?

A different mentality, a different political project, emerged in the second half of the seventeenth century, which was one that essentially trusted a certain group of people—and this is the same group that is routinely denigrated as being some kind of élite or liberal élite nowadays—to set aside their own personal opinions or feelings or preferences in order to observe and report on the state of the world in an objective, impartial fashion.

We’ve taken that for granted for some time, that this is possible, and this is something that is present not only in the institutions of the state, such as public administration and the judiciary, but it’s also something that scholarship, academic science depends on, that journalism to a greater or lesser extent depends on.

There needs to be some kind of trust: these people are not acting in their own private or political interests when they’re doing this but are able to park their feelings, their own perspective. One of the claims I make in the book is that this is a peacekeeping mentality.

 The Jacobin’s review starts well - 

A veteran scholar of neoliberalism, Davies has drawn on a wide set of genres — history, philosophy, political science, medicine — to explain the “decline of reason” subtitle of his book.

In the seventeenth century, a twin set of abstracted languages were born: the abstract system of signs set up by modern commerce and science and the system of “abstract” representative government. Each of these moments has its own protagonists in Davies’s book. Not just Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes and Francis Bacon but, arguably, the first technocrat William Petty’s “political arithmetic” - as inventors of the modern state, commerce and modern science.

Then there is the anti-rationalist camp, in which we find Friedrich Hayek, Sigmund Freud, Gustave Le Bon, Napoléon, and Donald Trump, who together initiate the much-lamented “decline of reason.”


Modernity’s twin system of representation (modern science and the representative state) has seen a dramatic loss of legitimacy in the last thirty years.

- Science has lost its glow and has retreated into a citadel of expertise.

- Party-politics and parliaments, in turn, have lost their attraction, with decreasing memberships and increasing popularity for referendums from populists.

The result is a two-pronged “crisis of representation,” both on scientific and political fronts.

 Davies is very good on how trade led to the development of the system of trust which allowed bills to be issued and exchanged; and subsequently to the wider system of trust of middlemen and experts. I was less convinced by his attempt to explain the new emotionality and polarisation which has crept into politics with reference to bodily functions…..I don’t know why he doesn’t run with the story told so well in “Fantasyland – how America went haywire – a 500 year history” which I wrote about only last week

For me, the crucial issue is that the expertise that guides decision-making is completely detached from popular control. 

The knowledge used for central bank policy, for instance, is determined in tight-knit think tanks, not open public assemblies.

One of Davies’s central players in this story is the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek - one of the earliest voices to recognize the distinct role emotions play in our economic lives. In Hayek’s view, if one wanted “to understand economic and social changes,” one was


“far better off consulting the people who actually make the changes happen — the consumers, entrepreneurs, managers — than experts looking at these events from some presumed position of neutral objectivity.”

This, of course, is the “tacit knowledge” celebrated by the likes of James C Scott,  Ivan Illich and anarchists such as David Graeber…….

Monday, September 28, 2020

A Public Admin Manifesto

 Strange how the public mood changes. The 90s were times of celebration – all was going well for the West. The new millennium started with a more cautious mood – turning to fear after 09/11 and the Iraq War. Since the financial crash of 2008 we have been fed a relentless diet of vilification of both government and business. I like a good critique like anyone else – but there comes a point when critical analyses of institutions become so overwhelming as to make it impossible ever to trust them again. For some time my view has been that we were overdoing the critiques…..

It was three years ago when I first realised the danger we were in – a little book with the harmless title On Thinking Institutionally (2008) opened with a 5 page spread itemising the scandals affecting the public, private and even NGO sectors in the last 40-50 years – arguing that mass communications and our interconnectedness exacerbated the public impact of such events…… 

Today, people almost universally denigrate institutions, including those of which they are members.

Attacks on institutions come from our hyper-democratic politics but stem from the Enlightenment with its unshakeable confidence in human reason; its subsequent obsessive focus on the self; and, latterly, its belief that an institution has no value beyond that which an individual can squeeze from it for personal gain.

The book – by Hugh Heclo - went on to explain that “acting institutionally” had three elements. 

The first, "profession," involves learning and respecting a body of knowledge and aspiring to a particular level of conduct. The second, "office," is a sense of duty that compels an individual to accomplish considerably more for the institution than a minimal check-list of tasks enumerated within a kind of job description. 

Finally, there is "stewardship." Here Heclo is getting at the notion of fiduciary responsibility. The individual essentially takes the decisions of past members on trust, acts in the interests of present and future members, and stands accountable for his actions.

I have a lot of sympathy for this line of argument – against “the quick buck”…. instant gratification….. tomorrow’s headlines…..we need cultures which respect partnership, timescales for investment and the idea of “stewardship” which Robert Greenleaf tried, unsuccessfully, to cultivate…..

One of my favourite quotations is from Dwight Eisenhower’s last address in 1960  

We . . . must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

I do, however, have two questions -

-     -  How did we reach this sad point?

-      - What can we do about it?

How did we Get Here?

Way back in the 60s, Penguin books had published a series of popular paperbacks with the series title “What’s Wrong with…….?” in which virtually all British institutions were subjected to a ruthless critique. And it wasn’t only in Britain that a more critical mode of thinking was developing at that time – as I tried to explain in a post on Post-Modernism at the beginning of the year. It was, however, 1990 before The Condition of Postmodernity appeared.  

Later, in the 90s, Michael Power drew our attention in the UK to what he called an Audit Explosion of bodies (many of them statutory) set up to monitor what public bodies were up to.

Little wonder that the global expert on expert, John Keane, started, in 2009, to suggest that this was a dangerous turn and to designate it Monitory Democracy When I was in Germany for a couple of months in 2013, I noticed a rash of critical titles. And France was also flooded a few years ago by the literature on its demise…..

Perhaps one of the most thorough discussions about blunders in government was this long paper in 2015 on Comparative Blunders

What can we Do About it?

Last year a group of fifteen scholars from different sub-fields, countries, and generations launched a manifesto for a more ‘positive’ strand of research for the field entitled Toward Positive Public Administration – a manifesto 

In our contemporary “monitory democracies” , as the broad social trust and public deference underpinning input legitimacy have eroded, the legitimacy of government institutions and actions depends more and more on simple and simplified accountability processes.

Government’s every move is scrutinized, assessed and often found wanting. The thickening of transparency and accountability, the advent of social media, and the expansion of specialized scholarship has led to an enormous amount of energy being directed at pinpointing and dissecting instances in which governments fail our expectations. By now, there is a vast body of investigative reports, media exposés, and scholarly studies on government ‘disasters’


Many of the stinging criticisms of government are channeled through traditional and social media, where opinion leaders, politicians, journalists and media personalities lambast and satirize governments, oftentimes with good reason. There are indeed many examples of policy failure or disaster with comical or tragic outcomes. Public administration scholars have identified various reasons behind those apparent failures


On the whole, public, academic and even public service discursive routines are not equally attuned to spotting and naming successes as they are to finding faults and blaming public officials and agencies for them. There are several mechanisms at work to sustain this.

- the human propensity for negativity bias.

- the inclination of citizens, career civil servants, and political officeholders think in stereotypical terms and perceptions about each other rather than in more informed understandings

- the political opportunity structure of bureaucrat-bashing, whose lure even parties that regularly are in government find difficult to resist.

- constant negative reports in the media may feed a ‘spiral of cynicism’


This is as such not a new disciplinary ambition but a reformulation of the classic ambition of the field. In Wilson’s (1887) seminal paper the objective of the study of administration is to “discover (…) what government can properly and successfully do (…) with the utmost possible efficiency”.

However, in a social and political climate of overbearing, if not venomous, criticism of government, there is a great urgency to revisit this classic disciplinary ambition and systematically focus on positive contributions of governments and governance. If the study of failure, breakdown, and crisis can tell us what to avoid and what to terminate in designing institutions and managing processes, the study of positives in public governance can teach us what to embrace, support, and emulate.

And there is a linked Successful Public Governance site which announces the publication of various journals and books including one with the absolutely glorious title - 

'Great Policy Successes: How Governments Get It Right in a Big Way at Least Some of the Time. Or, A Tale About Why It’s Amazing That Governments Get So Little Credit for Their Many Everyday and Extraordinary Achievements as Told by Sympathetic Observers Who Seek to Create Space for a Less Relentlessly Negative View of Our Pivotal Public Institutions' - by Mallory Compton and Paul 't Hart 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Dethroning of Reason

For 60 years we have been arguing about how rational we are….It was 1959 when Charles Lindblom published an article entitled The Science of ‘Muddling Through’  disputing the view that strategic decision-making in organisations did (or even should)  consist of an exhaustive process of optimisation - and arguing instead that strategy was more akin to “a never-ending process of successive steps in which continual nibbling is a substitute for a good bite”.

Lindblom’s writings were more focused on government but “struck a chord” in the business world too. Cyert & March’s A Behavioural Theory of the Firm (1963) explored this idea from a number of angles, but one of the first clear articulations was by Henry Mintzberg in his publication Patterns in Strategy Formation (1978). Here Mintzberg framed the ‘adaptive mode’ in sharp contrast to a ‘planning mode’ which was considered a “highly ordered, neatly integrated [approach], with strategies developed on schedule by a purposeful organisation.”

By that stage, I had ten years of political experience as an elected Councillor under my belt. First in the shape of the community action I encouraged - inspired by the work of not only of Saul Alinsky but of the anarchist thinker Ivan Illich whose Deschooling Society I would frequently call into play. And then, in 1971, came the chance of some managerial responsibility when I became (for 3 years) a Chairman of the new Social Work system then being established in Scotland….

It was a tension I not only recognised but celebrated in a paper I wrote for the Local Government Research Unit I had set up in 1971 – “From Community Action to Corporate Management”

In 1980, James Quinn published Strategies for Change in which he studied how companies actually went about formulating strategies. He found that they proceeded by trial and error, constantly revising their strategy in the light of new learnings, which he called “logical incrementalism”. Critics felt this sounded suspiciously like just having no strategy, but Quinn strongly denied this, arguing that there were great benefits to formalising the process.

In 1985, Of Strategies, Deliberate and Emergent, Mintzberg honed his views on what he now called Emergent strategy. He playfully argued that strategies should grow initially like weeds in a garden, not cultivated like tomatoes in a hothouse. That the process can be over-managed and

 “sometimes it is more important to let patterns emerge, than to force an artificial consistency upon an organisation prematurely”.

 Mintzberg contributed more than anyone over the years to this idea, later referring to it as “The Learning School”

At this time I had enrolled in the country’s first (part-time) course in Policy Analysis – at Strathclyde University and led by Lewis Gunn – in which Lindblom figured as a major character. Indeed my thesis was on “organisational learning” – just a few years before Peter Senge’s seminal “The Fifth Discipline” (1990)

The “Policy and Society“ journal devoted a special issue in 2011 to Lindblom’s “Incrementalism at 50” and the debate continues as you can see in “Policy Failure and the Implementation Gap”. 

Indeed the growth of Behavioural Economics since the millennium was at one stage the most promising evidence that we were developing a more balanced view of the role of reason (click the phrase and, from p219, you will get a 25 page list of the most popular books on the topic!).

But then fake news came into the picture – and we quickly lost any remaining sense of what was real; and to scorn anything that smacked of rationality. Kurt Andersen is one of many who would argue that this is the inevitable consequence of post-modernist thinking

William Davies’ “Nervous States – democracy and the Decline of Reason” has just come into my hands and looks an excellent analysis of how feelings seem to have taken over our mind.  

Friday, September 25, 2020

Whatever Happened to Planning?

The last couple of days I’ve been recalling some of the giants of the Planning field – particularly John Friedmann, born in Vienna in 1926 and part of the infamous brain-drain from Nazi Germany - who died recently at the ripe old age of 91 and whose glorious Insurrections – essays in planning theory (2011) I have been enjoying. It is one of these rare collections in which an author illustrates his professional life with a selection from his key books, each introduced with an explanatory note, In one he writes -   

I believe that I may have been among the small number of postgraduate students to sit in on the first ever seminar in planning theory. It was at the University of Chicago, and the year was 1948. Our instructor was Edward Banfield who was later to become a professor of urban politics at Harvard. At the time he taught us, he was still working on his doctorate in political science.

 “Planning” had a certain resonance in Britain in the 1960s – the winds of change and “modernisation” were blowing hard. Indeed the first three jobs I had after leaving University were all in the planning field (and the first serious teaching I did in the early 1970s was also in that territory) although what status it might have had soon vanished. Norman Macrae was Editor of “The Economist” at the time and wrote this fascinating post-mortem in 1970 of the country’s brief love affair with the concept

My first job after leaving university was in the planning department of a Scottish County Council where I was expected to predict a small rural town’s requirements for shopping space – without ever visiting the place…..I then moved to become a tiny cog in a new Manpower Research Unit which the Labour government – inspired by the French planning system - had set up. There I spent my time reconciling two different sets of manpower statistics – relieved, on Friday afternoons, by a cocktail party…..I soon left that for the private sector – an economic consultancy where I did some work on Irish regions – without, inevitably, ever visiting them!

In 1968 I got the job I had been hankering after - a “lecturer” at the local polytechnic which consisted for the first 15 years of “liberal studies” rather than academic work – although in the 1970s, planning students at the famous Glasgow School of Art proved to be a captive audience for musings about my practical experience as a reforming politician initially in a town of 60,000 and then as one of the leaders of a Regional strategy which covered half of Scotland. Those were the days of works critical of planning – from the CDP stable and from writers such as Norman Dennis and Jon Davies…..

I may not have helped the students in their examinations – but at least I gave them a foretaste (and forewarning) of the games they would face in their future careers.

Just how critical I was of the Local State is evident in the long academic piece Community Development – its administrative and political challenge which the well-known campaigner Des Wilson kindly invited me contribute in 1977 to “Social Work Today” which he was editing at the time.

By the stage, all wind had gone out of any sails left on the SS Planner – and a couple of years later Margaret Thatcher duly became Prime Minister and her market ideology prevailed not only for the 18 years of subsequent Conservative rule but, arguably, thereafter. Certainly “planning” virtually disappeared from our vocabulary - although we were still allowed to talk of “strategies”.

This is the first of what may be several posts about the significance of the changing fortune of key concepts in the English language – such as “change”, “development”, “government”, “management”, “public administration”, "rationality", “reform”, “reinvention”, “transformation”.

Monday, September 21, 2020

How America Lost its Mind

Polarisation has got so bad in the US that some people are now calculating, in all seriousness, the prospects of civil war breaking out in the country.

A common language is sometimes a “false friend” – concealing mutual misconceptions – and although I was pleasantly surprised (if not impressed) when I eventually got to the USA in the late 1980s, I am aware that this is not a very easy country to understand. Not for nothing did Martin Amis use the title “The Moronic Inferno” in 1987 for his analysis of its cultural aspects*.

When, five years ago, I first read “The Puritan Gift”, I was struck with how US Business Schools seemed in the 1970s to have destroyed the original puritan spirit - but a long article I came across at the weekend - “How American Lost its Mind” by Kurt Andersen (based on his 450 page book “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History” 2017) – made me realise that things are a lot more complicated.  The article focuses on the last 60 years and shows how both left and right have contributed to the present madness. 

Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.
We Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and the miraculous

 Andersen suggests that two factors proved to be the final catalyst for the current madness

- the relativism that came into vogue in the 1960s.

- the digital technology revolution of the 90s

Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today - with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.

What I particularly appreciated about the argument was first its balance – it’s not seeking to allocate blame but rather to seek to understand the various factors which seem to have reached a point of no return (it’s noticeable that Andersen has no solutions to offer - apart from courage and the voice of reason)

I also liked his use of key books to mark the trail of the past half century or so – although, generally, these track the leftist path. The Right’s path tends to be identified more by religious, listening and viewing habits…..Not, however, that the Centre should be forgotten – with The Social Construction of Reality appearing in 1966

….one of the most influential works in their field. Not only were sanity and insanity and scientific truth somewhat dubious concoctions by elites, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explained—so was everything else. The rulers of any tribe or society do not just dictate customs and laws; they are the masters of everyone’s perceptions, defining reality itself.

To create the all-encompassing stage sets that everyone inhabits, rulers first use crude mythology, then more elaborate religion, and finally the “extreme step” of modern science. “Reality”? “Knowledge”? “If we were going to be meticulous,” Berger and Luckmann wrote, “we would put quotation marks around the two aforementioned terms every time we used them.” “What is ‘real’ to a Tibetan monk may not be ‘real’ to an American businessman.”

When I first read that, at age 18, I loved the quotation marks. If reality is simply the result of rules written by the powers that be, then isn’t everyone able—no, isn’t everyone obliged—to construct their own reality? The book was timed perfectly to become ‘a foundational text in academia and beyond.

I’m reminded of the great Russian saying –

“Don’t fear your friends - because they can only betray you. 

Don’t fear your enemies – because they can only destroy you

But fear the indifferent – because it’s they who allow your friends to betray you and your enemies to destroy you”

I’m a great fan of intellectual histories – and, although this is clearly a popularised version, it seems to offer a rare insight into how the development of mainstream American thinking over several centuries has brought us to this point of open conflict. 

A few weeks ago, Andersen published a sequel to the 2017 book which explains how conservative forces, horrified by what the 1960s had released, get their act together to forge an agenda and bankroll a reaction which brought us neoliberalism “Evil Geniuses - the unmaking of America, a recent history” (2020). I’ve seen the story told many times of the role of the Mont Pelerin Society and the neoliberal ThinkTanks it spawned – but this is the first time I’ve seen such a clear explanation of the connection with the polarisation of American society…..  …..And it’s a nuanced story too – giving due recognition to the ant-government streak I so well remember in the 1960s and early 1970s - which attracted even a "young leftist" like me to writers such as Saul Alinsky and Ivan Illich.    

More to the point it drove the US Young Democrats of the late 1970s and 1980s (like Clinton and Hart) to break with the “oldies” who had been carrying the torch for the New Deal and to side with the new economic right….,   It was, after all, a Democratic House which gave Reagan the licence to drive forward deregulation

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Demons and Demos

 Democracy has been on the skids for some time - but it took the events of 2016 (Brexit; Trump) to disturb people from their deep slumber. I remember an article in 2003 by Rene Cuperus which warned of the serious decline in party membership in Europe; noted the beginning (in the Netherlands) of what became known as populism; and ended with an observation made by Ralf Dahrendorf that same year that 

many people were losing faith in elections; voters no longer trusted political parties (“the party game is becoming a minority sport”); party programmes based on ideology had lost much of their strength; and the people no longer view parliament as a representation of themselves and entitled to take decisions on their behalf. Dahrendorf concluded: “Everybody who values freedom should put reconsidering democracy and its institutions at the top of their agenda.”

Making amends for the silence of the past 15 or so years, there has been a flood since 2017 of books about the breakdown of liberal democracy starting with Eatwell and Goodwin’s little Pelican book National Populism – the revolt against liberal democracy (2017) which inspired a post (and great reading list) almost 2 years ago to the effect that - 

- Talk of “populism” seems to surface whenever things seem to be slipping from the control of “ruling elites”

- Such talk has occurred every 30 years or so in the past 150 years – the 1880s in the US and Russia; the 1930s in Europe and Latin America; the late 1960s globally; the start of the new millennium in Europe 
- as a professional and intellectual discipline, Political Science has adopted a rather disdainful view of democracy and a “scientist” approach to its methodology - marginalising those few academics with serious interests in notions of the “public good” being embedded in government programmes

- The US tradition of populism has never died - whereas the European tradition is sceptical at best (with the exception of the French whose celebration of revolt seems part of their DNA)

- But the younger contemporary American academics seem to have lost their sense of history and have produced rather aggressive celebrations of liberalism 

 The People v Democracy – why our freedom is in danger and how to save it by Yascha Mounk (2018) was the book I had in mind when I wrote the last comment. I have to confess I have shunned the book until now - on the basis that I couldn’t trust anything written by someone who had, for several years, been the Director of a Tony Blair-funded ThinkTank.

But a reference to Polish philosopher and MEP’s Ryszard Legutko’s “The Demon in Democracy - totalitarian temptations in free societies” (2018 Eng – 2016 Polish version) had piqued my interest last month. It duly arrived and proved provocative enough to have me give it a close read – and then, at last, to turn to Mounk’s book which proved to be as shallow as I had first felt. One of my first encounters with European Catholicism (as distinct from the Scottish variant) was as a teenager on a bike ride through France in 1960 just weeks before starting University. Even 60 years later I still remember the impact the discourse of a French catholic royalist made on me at the Auberge de Jeunesse we were staying at…It was the first time I had come across a world view completely different from my own….

I had the same sense while readingThe Demon in Democracy” - with the important difference that Legutko’s thesis is much more aggressive than I recall my catholic discussant’s of sixty years ago. He makes little attempt at a defence of traditional values - but rather launches a ruthless onslaught on the “liberal democracy” embodied in modern progressivism.

Basically he argues that “liberal democracy” has the same dangerous and universalist utopianism as that of communism; and that he should know because he’s lived under both regimes….One review of the book caught the argument well, I felt, with this summary 

In pre-liberal society, the burden of proof was on the reformers to show why their proposals would make their society better, not on the conservatives to show why the existing arrangement was good. The mere existence of a given social hierarchy meant it had existed for some time and this meant that great care and caution had to be applied in determining whether its reform was prudent. This cautious attitude toward reform was the by-product of an understanding of society as something that man did not construct and hence as something man could not simply reconstruct. Society and the inequalities with which it is coeval (Legutko mentions family, schools, and churches as manifestations of these inequalities) are, at their most fundamental level, inheritances man cannot fully grasp and before which he stands largely in awe.


In modern liberal-democratic society, by contrast, every institution must increasingly justify itself before the standard of equality if it is to retain its legitimacy, whether legal or social. But because inequality inheres in the very nature of society, there will always be hierarchies to level in the eyes of the liberal-democratic egalitarian.

Indeed, it would seem that the more the cause of liberal-democratic equality progresses, the more indignantly the remaining instances of inequality are felt. Thus “equality resembles a monster with an insatiable appetite: regardless of how much it has eaten, the more it devours, the hungrier it becomes.

 And I confess I have some sympathy with that – the demands of the “identity politics” activists are excessive….out of proportion. At my age I actually can’t easily “bend a knee” but, even if I were fit, I wouldn’t do it. It’s just too…..conventional….

It’s the way I reacted in cinemas at the end of a film in the 1950s when the strains of “God Save the Queen” started. I would sit….ostentatiously….Or these days….with any Brit not sporting a poppy in November being considered persona non grata…..

 But Legutko goes over the top – it’s his argument that’s excessive and out of proportion. The American Left may be a bit out of control – but to confuse it with "liberal democracy" is crass and is simply evidence (yet again) of this strange Manichean habit to which we seem increasingly prey......

To be continued…..

 Further Reading


The Demons of Liberal Democracy; Adrian Pabst (2019) I think the similarity of the title is coincidental

Colin Crouch on Ralf Dahrendorf;






Friday, September 18, 2020

Crowds and Power in Sofia and Bucharest - III

 How, 30 years on, is post-communism doing?

I’ve been living in Bulgaria and Romania since 2007 – for a decade I enjoyed crossing the Danube, with the last 100 km stretch of the drive on the highway through the Balkans and the sight of the Vitosha mountain which dominates Sofia always bringing a particular thrill.  

The last post focused mainly on the Sofia street protests of the past 3 months – with a brief reference to the fact that only in Romania has the Crowd succeeded in toppling governments – three times in 30 years…and twice in the past five years.

This post looks at what two recent books by well-known authors born in these countries have to say about the “progress” the two countries have made since 1989 and considers the prospects for effective change


In the 1990s there was an interesting body of literature known as “transitology” which was effectively a retraining scheme for those in redundant Soviet and Eastern European studies University Departments as they tried to adjust to the new reality of “liberal democracy” and “free-market capitalism”.

The integration of many of these countries into the European Union seemed to leave the others in a state of suspended animation – still “transiting”.

Except that the “integration” had not gone as planned – some countries (such as Hungary and Poland) had clearly reneged on their commitments and were challenging the “rule of law” canons; and others (such as Bulgaria and Romania) had been unable to satisfy the monitors that they had even got to the required judicial standards. Indeed Philippe Schmitter, one of the doyens of the field, went so far in 2012 as to talk of “ambidextrous democratisation


Bulgaria's world-renowned political scientist Ivan Krastev has (with US Stephen Holmes) written one of the surprisingly few books which attempt to assess the fortunes since 1989 of the eastern countries – although it’s primary concern seems more that of “the crisis of modern liberalism”. It’s entitled "The Light that Failed – a Reckoning - published last year, with the Bulgarian translation appearing next month.

The book starts with a chapter on the psychological effects on central European countries of the “imitation game” they were forced to play and the demographic shock as millions left the country for a better future elsewhere; followed by one on how Putin’s Russia moved on in 2007 from imitation to “mirroring” Western hypocrisy; a chapter on Trump’s America; and a final one which takes in China.


The authors argue that part of the nationalist reaction in Hungary and Poland was the shock of realising that the European "normality" they had hoped for had been transformed into an agenda which included homosexuality, gay weddings and rights for Romas. But their emphasis on the “psychology of imitation” totally ignores the brazen way west European countries and companies exploited the opening which the collapse of communism gave them to extend their markets in both goods and people - with the consequences touched on in the first post and brilliantly dissected by Alexander Clapp in a 2017 New Left Review article Romania Redivivus”.


Talk of “transitology” disappeared more than a decade ago and was absorbed into the Anti-Corruption (or governance integrity) field which grew into a "name and shame" industry - complete with league tables and Manuals. But the world seems to have perhaps grown weary even of its talk  

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi is a Romanian social psychologist - appointed, in 2007, as Professor of Democracy studies of the prestigious Hertie School of Governance in Berlin - with a unique understanding and knowledge of the issue. This was her blunt assessment in 2009 of the situation in Romania


Unfortunately, corruption in Romania is not only related to parties and businesses, but cuts across the most important institutions of society. Romanian media has gradually been captured, after having been largely free and fair at the end of the 1990s. After 2006, concentration in media ownership continued to increase in Romania. Three owners enjoy more than two-thirds of the TV political news market.

 As long as Romania was a supplicant for entry to the EU, it had to jump through the hoops of “conditionality” to satisfy Brussels it was behaving itself. When Poland, Hungary et al were let in in 2004, the pressures started to relax - but The European Union’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) replaced that conditionality in 2007 and Bulgaria and Romania are still subject of an annual check of their legal and judicial health. Mungi-Pippidi therefore concluded her 2009 assessment with a simple observation - 

At the end of day, “democracy promotion” succeeds by helping the domestic drivers of change, not by doing their job for them. Only Romanians themselves can do this.

 Her latest book  "Europe's Burden - promoting good governance across. borders" (2020) is a must-read for anyone who wants to know why a quarter of a century of trying to build systems of government that people can trust has had so little effect in ex-communist countries. It starts with a sketch of Switzerland’s political development which reminds us that Napoleon was the catalyst for a 50-year period during which the Swiss embedded the basic structures we associate with that country.

It is, however, Denmark to which most countries (according to Fukuyama) aspire to – although a study of its history suggests that, contrary to Dahrendorf’s optimism, that was more like a 100 year journey.


Her description of her own country, Romania, is quite damning –

·         From 2010-17 there were 600 convictions for corruption EACH YEAR – including 18 Ministers and one Prime Minister, Generals, half of the Presidents of County Councils and the Presidents of all the parliamentary parties

·         The Prosecution system became thoroughly politicised through its connection with the powerful intelligence system – the infamous Securitate which was never disbanded

·         The level of wiretapping used is 16 times the level of that used by the FBI

·         Romania heads the league table of cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights dismissed for breaching the right to a fair trial – with a half of its cases so failing

·         The annual CVM reports on the country are always positive and make no mention of any of this – on the basis that “questions about the intelligence services are outside our remit”!!

·         TV stations run by those convicted of corruption have provided damning evidence of the prosecution service threatening judges and fixing evidence


One of Romania's most famous political analysts gave an extensive interview a couple of years ago which was important enough for me to summarise as follows –

·         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 “social” media dominating people’s minds

·         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


Dorel Sandor has clearly given up on the politicians and confessed to a hopelessness for the prospect of any sort of change in his country


The stark reality is now that we do not have political parties any more. The Romanian political environment is in fact an ensemble of ordinary gangs that try to survive the process and jail and eventually save their wealth in the country or abroad. That's all! Romania has no rulers. It has mobsters in buildings with signs that say "The Ministry of Fish that Blooms".

One of the reasons why the EU is not too concerned about us is that it is that they reckon that you can only reform a driver with a car that works. We are a two-wheeled wagon and two horses, a chaotic space, broken into pieces. What's to reform? So it's a big difference.”


But he was least convincing when he tried to offer a way forward


I have a list of what to do – starting with the need for an exploration of what sort of Romania we should be aiming for in the next few decades. Such a process would be moderated by professionals using proper diagnostics, scenario thinking and milestones.

It would be managed by a group with a vision emancipated from the toxic present.


I have a lot of sympathy for such approaches – embodied, for example, in the "Future Search" method. But effective social change rarely comes from such an elitist approach; any such effort would have to demonstrate exactly how it would propose to deal with the astonishing level of distrust of others in the country.

In 2014, only 7% of the Romanian population could say that “most people can be trusted” (compared with about 20% in Italy and 40% in Germany).


The revelation of the collusion between the infamous Securitate and the Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA) has understandably fanned the flames of paranoia for which the Romanians can be forgiven - given the scale of the surveillance of the population the Securitate enjoyed under Ceausescu. Little wonder half of the population are Covid sceptics



In the 1980s it was Solidarity in Poland; Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia; and reformers in Hungary who were challenging the power structure – I remember taking the opportunity of being in the country to visit the Party’s “White House” in Budapest in 1987 to talk with a spokesman for the latter.

Bulgaria and Romania, on the other hand, were monolithic and frozen societies – with the only sign of discord being the odd Romanian poet – and on the Danube where protestors against a chemical plant included a few establishment figures such as Svetlin Rusev.


But the street has become much more active in the past decade – even if it is the more educated and “entitled” who are prominent there. And it is “the Crowd” that the power elite has always feared – particularly in the last century eg the infamous “Revolt of the Masses” (1930). And who can ever forget the moment when the massed crowd turned against Ceausescu in December 1989 – within minutes, he had been hoisted from his balcony by helicopter and, within days, summarily tried and shot.


It’s noticeable that the figures whose words I’ve quoted – Dahrendorf, Canetti, Krastev, Mungiu-Pippidi and Sandor – all represent the intelligentsia. I was brought up to take their words seriously - but they are not activists!  

The sadly-missed David Graeber was one of the very few such people prepared to get his hands dirty… to work across the barriers that normally divide people and to try to forge new coalitions…


The Crowd needs people like Graeber who understand how to bridge such barriers…………..particularly between the “downtrodden masses” and the “entitled”

Where is Bulgaria’s Graeber? There are, actually, several eg Vanya Grigorova – the economic adviser of the labour union “Podkrepa” (Support) and leading left-wing public figure – who has been travelling the country to present her latest book on labour rights and how to claim them. A year ago she gave this interview to Jacobin, which positioned her on the side of social change in Bulgaria and the region.


Both Covid19 and the greater concern about global warming - as embodied, for example in the recent Extinction Rebellion – suggest that the “normality” being sought by the entitled is a will o’ the wisp.

The Sofia protestors would therefore be well advised to widen the scope of their agenda. After all, smaller countries generally seem better able to “do” change viz Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Singapore, Estonia, Slovenia – particularly when they have women at their helm who have a combination of trustworthiness and strategic vision!!


Especially for them I updated my list of essential reading for activists – adding my own “opportunistic” theory of change which emphasises the element of individual responsibility as well as the dynamic of the crowd viz


Most of the time our systems seem impervious to change – but always (and suddenly) an opportunity arises. Those who care about the future of their society, prepare for these “windows of opportunity – through proper analysis, mobilisation and integrity. It involves– 

·         speaking out about the need for change

·         learning the lessons of previous change efforts

·         creating and running networks of change

·         which mobilise social forces

·         understanding crowd dynamics

·         reaching out to forge coalitions

·         building credibility


I grant you that the time for preparation is over in Sofia; and appreciate that some of this may come across as rather elitist but the process it describes is still a crucial one – prepare, analyse, network, speak out, build coalitions, mobilise, no hidden games…..It’s a tough combination……