what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Critical German Redoubt

Grand Hotel Abyss – the lives of the Frankfurt School (2016) is the sort of book which has me salivating….it is the story of the individuals who came together in Germany in 1923 in an unusual multi-disciplinary institute; and used what came to be known as “critical theory” to try to make sense of the social, political and economic turbulence then being experienced in Europe and Russia…... Evicted by the Nazis after only a decade, they then moved to the States where their survey work focused initially on trying to understand the Nazi takeover and then on the cultural aspects of their adopted country – at least until 1949 when Adorno and Horkheimer returned to Frankfurt, managing to attract a young Juergen Habermas to their ranks. The denazification process was, understandably an initial focus of their work there but, as the political momentum for this quickly faded, their focus on understanding the new forces of capitalism was renewed.

Such figures, however, as Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm stayed behind to plough their distinctive radical furrows in the USA – which bore fruit in the heady 60s when their writings indeed were far more influential in 60s Germany than those of Adorno and co at the Frankfurt school. I vividly remember the anger of the Marxist students at Berlin’s Freie University when I spent 2 summer months in Berlin in 1964 – and it was Marcuse’s “One-Dimensional Man” which was one of the crystallising text for them.
Adorno died in 1969 but the Institute operates to this day – if with little of the global influence it had in its heady days….. For those who want their analysis in small bites, the excellent Aeon magazine has article about the school with the appropriate title – How the Frankfurt school diagnosed the ills of western civilisation 

The author of Grand Hotel Abyss, Stuart Jeffries, is one of many who have penned the history of this group – although he may be the first English journalist so to do. Many Germans have been down this road eg The Frankfurt School – by Wiggershaus (1995); and at least 2 American scholars – with The Dialectical Imagination (Martin Jay 1973); and Rethinking the Frankfurt School – alternative legacies of cultural critique; ed JT Nealon and C Irr (2002).
Jeffries’ book has an excellent bibliography – which lists (some of) these books – but, as I discovered them, I wondered why he had not thought to offer a comment in (say) the Introduction to help us understand what exactly his new book offers that is different and distinctive….. I should imagine that he feels that a journalistic approach will clearly be more accessible than an academic’s – but have to confess that I find his language, on occasion, a bit elliptic if not cryptic….

In these times, however, it’s useful for a British audience to be reminded that, for almost a hundred years, this Institute has been articulating a different way of seeing and thinking……
But I often had the feeling in the first half of the book that he would have preferred to be writing about Walter Benjamin…….  whose various writings are generally much more lucid than those of his colleagues at the School – eg Early Writings 1910-1917; Reflections – essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings (1978); and Selected Writings volume 2 part 2 (1931-1934) – perhaps because Benjamin was actually a journalist

I was also disappointed that, apart from a solitary paragraph, the book failed to make the connection with the group of New Left writers who have been active in Britain from 1960 to the present – particularly with the “cultural wing” which found expression in the British Centre for Cultural Studies from 1964 until its demise in 2002. British Cultural Studies – an introduction by Graeme Turner (1990) offers a good treatment of their work.
Admittedly, the Frankfurt School had a 40 year start on the Brits but, for some reason it’s the French whose influence permeates UK cultural studies (as Turner’s book shows) – with only Gramsci challenging this. Germans such as Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas simply made no impact on the Brits…Why is this I wonder? The Frankfurt School and British cultural Studies – a missed articulation is an interesting article which explores this question……

Let me finish with an excerpt from an interview with the author of Grand Hotel Abyss (and recommend that you read the full interview) 
What legacies has the Frankfurt School left us? And which thinkers do you regard as its inheritors?They were certainly attentive to how culture changes us and can be a force for change. In the 1930s Benjamin imagined that cinema, for instance, by using jump cuts and close ups, would change our perspectives on reality and so might have a revolutionary potential; a few years later, Adorno and Horkheimer wrote of Hollywood as if it were a totalitarian tool of oppression akin to the Nazi film studio UFA. One Frankfurt School legacy, then, then is to make us think about the politics of culture. For them, art is never just for art’s sake, and entertainment is never just entertaining. By taking the politics of culture seriously, the Frankfurt School opened up new lines of thinking. Without them, all the stuff that happened in a little corner of Frankfurt’s twin city of Birmingham (the now-defunct Centre for Cultural Studies) wouldn’t have been conceivable and our approach to culture would have been very different.
To be sure, the likes of Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams saw culture very differently from Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. They followed the Frankfurt School in seeing culture as a key instrument of political and social control, but, unlike the Germans, appreciated how the culture industry could be aberrantly, even rebelliously decoded, by its mass consumers and that popular sub-cultures might subvert the culture industry in a form of immanent critique.
Further Reading

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A Celebration of writing about Italy

Italian readers have, in recent weeks, been consistently second in the highly prestigious league table of readers of “Balkan and Carpathian Musings” (surpassed, it has to be said by far, by Russians).  As it happens ,we shall be spending several weeks in Italy from mid March – first 5 days in Rome, then ditto in Naples and, then more than a week  in Palermo, using the Italian trains to make the connections from Rome. I will, therefore, just miss the elections - which I am, however, following on such sources as Prospect and Jacobin magazines.  
Our purpose, however, is to savour the country’s landscape and (past) glories – although La Bella Lingua – my love affair with Italian, the world’s most enchanting language has whetted my appetite for learning at least a few words of the language.

Italy has of course, over the ages, attracted some superb writers (let alone artists) to visit and wonder at its history, paintings, sculptures and buildings – writers whose journeys and commentaries are recalled, for example, in Sicily – a literary guide for travellers. Although I’m not quite sure what such knowledge adds to our appreciation of Italian vistas, I do appreciate book lists and, therefore, pass on this list of the “top 10 books about Italy” which includes a couple I own - The Oxford Companion to Italian Food; and Peter Robb’s “Midnight in Sicily”.  
I have, over time, accumulated a nice little library of books about the country and made a special journey a couple of weeks ago to my snow-bound mountain house to retrieve it. It includes titles such as – John Berendt’s  naughty exposure of Venice society in the late 1990s - The City of Falling Angels; and The Dark Heart of Italy; by Tobias Jones – whose elegant text tries to capture the essence of the country and the way it has become politicised.

Two more detailed and brilliantly-written studies I brought down for rereading are The Pursuit of Italy – the pursuit of a land, its regions and their peoples; by biographer David Gilmour (2011); and Italy and its Discontents 1980-2001 by historian Paul Ginsborg (2002) whose focus on the family, civil society and the state uses a range of contemporary local sources not normally seen in such books…….Ginsborg has lived in Italy as a Professor of history for some 30 years and gives us with this offering probably the most incisive and encyclopedic take on the country. There can be few other English-language analyses of foreign countries to rival this one! 

Resident for almost 30 years, translator Tim Parks’ Italian Ways- off and on the rails between Milan and Palermo (2014) is highly readable - as well as useful for those venturing on its  trains.
Two people who hail from Australia have produced 3 books which give us not only cultural insights but the very tastes, sounds and smells of the country -
Rome – a cultural, visual and personal history; Robert Hughes (2011) – art critics are usually the worst of writers but Hughes’s prose was, by contrast, electrifying . Sadly now deceased, this book of his brings the city alive……

John Dickie’s Mafia Republic - Italy’s Criminal Curse is a lively read – but the one book of my batch which really disappointed me was the florid Naples Declared – a walk around the bay; by Benjamin Taylor who has a nervous tic of throwing in comparisons with North American sites……
Latinist Mary Beard, on the other hand, has given us very recently SPQR – a history of ancient Rome; which brought to mind Robert Harris’s novels about Roman figures (particularly Cicero) and intrigues - “Imperium”, “Lustrum” and “Pompeii”. And, speaking of novels, I’m glad to see that the English editions of Albert Moravia’s novels are once again (thanks to NYRB) easily available. I always appreciated his modernist touch (and his naughty book “The Two of Us”)
Of course I have several generic travel guides – 2 for Naples, the DK Eyewitness one and the TimeOut City Guide; and the DK Eyewitness Guide to Sicily – but these rely on visuals and tips about accommodation, eating and travel which rapidly date 

But the best briefing about the country freely available – thanks to the London Review of Books – are the writings of the incomparable Perry Anderson who has written, over the years, no fewer than four major and incisive commentaries on Italian society -

What is Missing?
I’ve sent away for The Italians by John Hooper (produced in 2016 by the Economist’s correspondent in Italy) which I think is the only major title currently missing from my library. It will be interesting to see how much it builds on Ginsborg's unparalleled analysis.....
I also like the sound of A Literary Tour of Italy by Tim Parks. Thanks to Vlad and the newly re-opened English Bookshop – the smallest Carturesti bookstore – these 2 titles should be with me by the start of March…
I’m not a great reader of novels – The Leopard sits forlornly unopened on my shelves but this list of Italian novels tells me I should read Ferrante if I am spending some days in Naples…..

Musical Interlude

I must confess that I hadn’t heard of the Icelandic composer Johann Johannson who has just died at the tragically young age of 48 - but I was very taken with this Song for Europa to which I owe to an amazing US radio station - KEXP - an affiliate apparently of the University of Washington…..
I also liked his Free the Mind

Listening made me realise how much I appreciate some of the more atonal music – I have always loved Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht. And the Finnish composer Arvo Paert never fails to touch me eg “Tabula Rasa” and Credo

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Crafting effective public management - why so few practitioner perspectives?

If you want to understand a subject, would you rather have one written from a theoretical standpoint – or from a practitioner’s? Most people, I suspect, would choose the latter….and yet, in reality, land up with the former. Who, for example, trusts political memoirs? For an understanding of politics we look to academics – or at least to those few who write clearly and coherently. And I have to say these rarities tend to be found in history departments rather than departments of politics (or of social sciences such as economics, geography). Although there are honourable exceptions such as David Runciman, Mark Blyth and Danny Dorling)

Management literature is slightly different – despite its pretensions, it is hardly a social “science”, offering an inter-disciplinary approach. Which means a highly selective one which uses case-studies to weave plausible narratives and “theories” (ie tell stories). And that’s before we encounter the large number of autobiographies by - and hagiographies - about the business elite.

Tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of books have been produced in recent decades about efforts to reform state structures globally. When I started my own reform efforts in the early 1970s we had only Peter Drucker (and perhaps Machiavelli) to guide us – there were literally no books available on the question of managing government bodies…..Now we are swamped by the literature – which I tried to summarise recently in a booklet Reforming the State” (which is actually a trailer for a couple of books I am putting together to try to give a practitioner’s view of reform).

For every thousand of academics writing about public management reform, there will be at most one with practical experience. I actually know of only a handful of consultants who have written about their craft – Michael Barber, John Seddon and Ed Straw – all of whom are strongly selling their particular version of the truth Why is this?…..Are we consultants just too busy? Or perhaps too overwhelmed by the complexity of everyday events to feel able to offer theories? Or perhaps lacking the necessary discipline in writing and language???

Crafting Effective Public Administration – reflections from central europe (2018) is my attempt to meet this huge gap in the literature. It’s been almost a decade in the making and opens with an account of the circumstances which led me to develop this strange passion for organizational interventions…..It then moves to an overview of the writing about reforming government systems before outlining how reform got underway in the UK and US from 1965-1995. Then follow some 60 pages of “Notes on key readings” which can be skimmed or skipped for a first reading…
“State Building in “impervious regimes” 1995-2015” is the paper I presented to  a NISPAcee Conference at the Black Sea in 2011. “Back to the Balkans - Why are the new EU member states so impervious to public concerns?” are some more recent thoughts I had on training and Structural Funds in the Lower Danube area.
…It is in fact one of two texts I'm writing on the subject - the next one summarises my various reform efforts of the past 50 years and tries to draw the lessons from them....

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Roman Romania

Two venerable Romanians “shuffled off their mortal coils” this month – first ex-King Michael who had been forced to abdicate at gun point by the Communists in December 1947; some 10 days later at age 101, the more significant figure of Neagu Djuvara, émigré, academic, journalist and still active historian. Having fought on the Eastern front, he was briefly charged to explore surrender possibilities with Russia before the communist takeover forced him to seek refuge in Paris…..

Djuvara returned to Bucharest in 1990/91 to an academic and writing career (his Brief Illustrated History of Romanians is one of books on my short list of “beautiful books”) and was, fairly exceptionally for this highly politicized and divided country, warmly regarded by all shades of opinion 
He was a critic of what he perceived to be an excessively pro-Western attitude in Romanian politics,..
He also wrote about what he called the "American hegemony" and its premises, analysing the influence which the United States and its foreign policy have had on the World and, more specifically, on Europe. He characterised the efforts of the United States to establish what resembles a hegemony in Europe and other parts of the World as a "Seventy-Seven Years' War" waged throughout most of the 20th century.
Neagu Djuvara can be seen as a populariser and "de-mystifier" of history, having published books aimed a younger audience as well as books seeking to explain the historical basis for mythical figures such as Dracula or Negru Vodă. He also published memories from his exile, recounting his life and work in Paris and Africa

More recently, he was constantly warning of the dangers of Romania’s demographic decline
" For me, the greatest drama that Romania is currently experiencing is that the young people want to leave this country, and if they go abroad and find work there they will not return to Romania. We, my generation and all my predecessors, the three or four generations that preceded me and who studied abroad, none of them was going to stay there after finishing their studies. He was returning with that intellectual baggage and, in his eyes, with the image of other urban landscapes than in Bucharest, and trying to do the same thing at home. But they never thought about leaving or leaving the country. So my message is: "Young people, if you can, even if you do it worse in our country, it is a supreme duty to return and rebuild Romania " .

He would have enjoyed the bluntness of a long article on his country – Romania Redivivus - in the current edition of "New Left Review" which argues that 
..... Of all East European countries, Romania is endowed with the greatest variety of natural resources. The Carpathian Mountains which wall off the northwestern province of Transylvania from Wallachia, in the south, and Moldavia, in the east, boast some of the last primeval forests of Europe. The Danube Delta offers a fabled reservation of endangered bird and fish species. The Ploieşti oilfields contain the oldest commercial well on earth—Bucharest’s streets were the first to be illuminated by kerosene—and still hold unknown reserves, closer to ground level than in any other country ringing the Black Sea. The fertility of the soil is legendary.
 The Rape of the Country; But little of the country’s potential wealth has found its way into the hands of its people. Arguably the last real peasantry to be found within the EU works what was once the breadbasket of the Ottoman Empire: two in five Romanians live in the countryside; one in three survive off agriculture; many have never left their villages and only a minority have access to mechanized farming equipment.
The value of their land, however, has not been lost on Brussels, which has overseen the funnelling of Romanian wealth westward for a genera­tion. Prior to its EU accession in 2007, entire sectors of the economy were picked off by multinationals.
- The Romanian banking system was taken over by Société Générale, Raiffeisen and the Erste Group.
- Its energy sector fell to Österreichische Mineralölverwaltung of Vienna and C˘eské Energetické Závody of Prague.
- Its steel manufacturing went to Mittal, its timber production to the Schweighofer Group, its national automobile, the Dacia, to Renault.
- Much of what isn’t yet owned by Western concerns has been laid bare for their disposal. In 1999, the Canadian mining company Gabriel Resources won dubious rights to excavate Roşia Montană, the largest open-pit gold mine in Europe. Its exploitation requires the stripping away of its status as a unesco her­itage site, the demolition of four surrounding mountain peaks and a handful of nearby villages, and the carving out of a pit half the size of Gibraltar for holding cyanide-laced run-off; the Romanian state is being sued by Gabriel Resources for $4.4 billion in profit losses for forestall­ing this process.
- By 2010 the largest private owner of trees in Romania was Harvard University, which six years earlier had started buying up enormous swathes of forest that had themselves been seized by mafia intermediaries on bogus claims of pre-communist ownership; sold off to Ikea, tens of thousands of acres were sawn down, probably never to be recovered.
- In 2012, residents of some fifty villages in the Banat, the fertile corner of western Romania that brushes up against Serbia and Hungary, woke up to find that their ancestral plots of land had been seized through another legal subterfuge by Rabobank of Utrecht.9 There are dozens of such cases. Few have been compensated. 
The tentacles of the Deep Security State. Meanwhile, beneath the surface of democratization, the authoritarian tenor of Ceauşescu’s rule persists in Romania’s powerful security forces. The Securitate, the most ruthless police force in the Warsaw Pact, has been rebranded and is now run by a generation of operatives whose aver­age age is 35, trained at special intelligence universities. They are, in many cases, the children of the 16,000
Securitate members who pro­vided the backbone of the Romanian state after 1989, having emerged as the undisputed winners of the ‘revolution’ of that year. At least nine of these new services exist. The predominant one, the Serviciul Român de Informaţii (sri), monitors Romanians internally; with some 12,000 operatives, it has double the manpower of any equivalent agency in Europe and, with military-grade espionage equipment, conducts upwards of 40,000 wiretaps a year.10 The older generation of Securitate agents managed the privatization schemes of the 1990s; they are now shielded by the younger cohort from legal oversight.
This interlocking of economic influence—four out of the five richest Romanians have a Securitate background—and legal inviolability—Romania’s judiciary is too dependent on the sri to prosecute it—allows the deep state to operate with impunity. The security services have vast stakes in telecom­munications and big-data collection. They oversee their own ngos, run their own tv channels and have their people on the editorial boards of the major Romanian newspapers and across the government ministries.
The permeation of the state by these networks comes to light only occa­sionally. In October 2015, a nightclub fire in Bucharest killed sixty-four, more than half the deaths due to infections contracted later at a local hospital. Why? The hospital’s disinfectants, concocted by a company called Hexi Pharma to which the government had granted a monopoly"

By coincidence, I'm rereading Tobias Jones' "The Dark Heart of Italy" (2003) and am struck by the uncanny parallels of the insights of that book about the Italian system with the current situation here in Romania - not least the systemic corrupt-ness, amorality and politicisation....

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Two worthwhile Guardian initiatives

I’m encouraged by two new discussion initiatives just announced by The Guardian – the first promises to 
….. investigate real-world examples of people doing things differently. We’ll meet councillors who are extending local government far beyond collecting the bins; housing activists turning themselves into property developers; and energy bosses who actually ask customers how their companies should be run. Much of the reporting will be from Britain, but we’ll also look at other parts of Europe (including Germany) and further afield.Stack them all together and the grand lie of Thatcherism is exposed. There are alternatives. We can do things differently.

The opening piece skewers what passes for political and economic debate in Britain – 
With Britain already having suffered one lost decade, a murmuring catastrophism has set in among our intellectuals. Mainstream-left politics remains stuck between two cliches. Either: well, we used to do things differently (cue sepia-tinted nostalgia for the establishment of the NHS and huge public borrowing). Or: the Germans do it, and it’s done them no harm (along with wistfulness for a proper industrial policy)

The New series is, sadly, not very easy to find but can be accessed here.
The second initiative broadens the focus to Europe as a whole, with Natalie Nougayrède promising
……it would build bridges and engage more closely with readers throughout Europe and those in the wider world who want to keep in touch with European concerns. We know people across Europe are eager to share insights about a region whose destiny is currently being redefined. We want to offer them the space and opportunity to do that.

The first of the series can be read here.
The Guardian has tried at such a venture at least once before – with the support of Le Monde and Der Spiegel as I remember but it seems to have gone down like a lead balloon. Language seems to trap at least the anglo-saxons very much in our own intellectual concerns and bubbles. I had the idea recently of trying to plug into the French and German blogging community to try to find some people there who might be willing to share with us some of the books and debates which have excited their attention in recent years - offering my own annotated list in exchange Our Future – an annotated bibliography.
But I simply can't navigate my way through the european blogosphere to the gems which must be there and asked for help. The one reply I received referenced the Social Europe website and the sadly dead Zygmund Baumont (who wasn't a blogger).

Perry Anderson is about the only character with the linguistic ability to supply us Brits with extensive analyses of post-war and contemporary debates in France, Germany and Italy. His stunning study The New Old World (2009) can be read in its entirety here (all 560 pages) and is easily the best read on what it is to be European – about a third being a survey of the literature on the “European Project”; another third being insightful and acerbic analyses of the political and intellectual currents of the “Core” European countries (with the noticeable and dismissive exclusion of the UK); and the final section (“The Eastern Question”) devoted largely to Turkey.

Of course we have excellent studies of individual European nations – particularly France, Italy and Spain. ” How the French Think – an affectionate portrait of an intellectual people” is just the latest in a line which includes Theodor Zeldin and Rod Kedward. And writers such as Peter Watson, Simon Winder and Neil Mc Gregor have ensured that even books about Germany have been making the lists of best-sellers  
I’m not sure, however, if I would go so far as US intellectual Mark Lilla who wrote recently -

Ever since Madame de Staël wrote “De l’Allemagne” during Napoleon’s reign to celebrate the Germans as sensitive romantics allergic to tyranny (unlike the French), and Heinrich Heine responded with his own “De l’Allemagne” portraying them as brutal pagans capable of anything, Europeans have been trying to unlock the cultural codes of their neighbours—and, in so doing, unlock their own.

It would be interesting to know what books (if any) British visitors to European countries (whether for business or pleasure) use for their preparation – apart from the obvious travel books.

A few years ago I prepared this source book - German Musings – which would be of interest to anyone visiting that country…..

Monday, January 15, 2018

a reading list for the Davos set

The annual Davos festschmalz comes this year with a book bag - consisting of reading recommended by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckenberg.  This includes fairly predictable, mainstream stuff – eg Harari’s “Sapiens” and Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. 
Such lists make, of course, the (rather heroic) assumption that the Davos CEOs are inclined to read books – and an interesting challenge would be to come up with some titles which might persuade such privileged people to see the world a bit differently - and perhaps change their thinking? 
I suspect, for example, that participants might just allow their guard to fall for books written by people who know they are dying – eg the paean to social democracy penned by Tony Judt just before his death - Ill Fares the Land. And there were also these eloquent final thoughts of a seasoned campaigner found on his laptop after his death

So here’s my New Year challenge to readers - what short and thoughtful books might we recommend to challenge the smugness of the Davos set?

As it happens I have just collated last year’s blogposts which try to give a sense of how writers from the 1970s onwards have been dealing with what is now recognised as a systemic crisis in our economic order. Our Future – an annotated reading list identifies 250 books. Even more importantly, I make an effort to classify the books…..using a variant of the 6 distinctive “worlds” or “dimensions” developed by the Commons Transition people
·         political (democracy and the Commons)
·         economic (or Financial) 
·         work 
·         consumption/“4th Dimension”
·         conscience
·         citizens

Take the first dimension - as representative democracy has eroded in recent decades, direct democracy has attracted increasing attention – eg referenda, citizens’ juries, participatory budgeting or random selection of electoral positions. There is no obvious name to offer – although John Keane’s huge book on The Life and Death of Democracy is one of the best resources. Paul Hirst advanced the idea of “associative democracy” until his sad death in 2003. This drew on the thinking of figures such as GDH Cole…

But the very word "democracy" will put most Chief Execs off - they feel much more comfortable in the the management field where some gems an be found - eg Danah Zohar’s Spiritual Capital – wealth we can live by (2004) is an interesting critique of capitalism with a rather too superficial approach to its amelioration. The Ethical Economy – rebuilding value after the crisis by A Arvidsson and N Peitersen (2013) covers the ground better – it’s summarized here and critiqued here.
Henry Mintzberg is a well-regarded management guru who has been warning of business excesses for a couple of decades and produced in 2014 the highly readable Rebalancing Society – radical renewal beyond left, right and center.which is ideal for Chief Execs. 
Peter Barnes is a very fair-minded entrepreneur sensitive to the evils of unregulated capitalism whose Capitalism 3.0 (2006) is persuasive.
David Erdal's Beyond the Corporation (2011) is the inspiring story of an entrepreneur who passed his business to the workers..

They might also be persuaded to open some pages which bear a religious imprint eg a fascinating and totally neglected book is Questions of Business Life by Richard Higginson (2002) ananalysis of various critiques produced by a cleric from his work at an ecumenical centre for business people….
And then there is  Laudato-Si – the Papal Encyclical (2015). A summary is available here. Its entire 184 pages can be read here

Some outriders which I would strongly recommend are - 

The Lugano Report: On Preserving Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century” – Susan George (1999). A satirical piece which forces us to think where present forces are taking us…. 

Danny Dorling’s hugely underrated Injustice (2011) identified 5 “social evils” – elitism, exclusion, prejudice, greed and despair – and explores the myths which sustain them. The argument is that we are all guilty of these evils and of sustaining these myths......
More recently he produced "A Better Politics" - a great and persuasive read

Friday, January 12, 2018

"Development" Voices

From Poverty to Power is one of the most interesting blogs around – and, believe me, there are not many which can persuade these arthritic old fingers to do the clicking! (The Brexit Blog is one of the exceptions which also delights in its clarity of thought and expression…..)
“From Poverty to Power” is a remarkable blog which reduces “development” issues to easily comprehensible narratives - and which succeeds in drawing down helpful comments and, indeed, assistance from its global audience.

One of its latest posts – on the “ten top thinkers on development” – has attracted some ire from colleagues who objected to its gender imbalance. My own objections were rather different - 
“It’s rather misleading to title this post the “ten top development thinkers”, I huffed …and continued  “Fifty Key Development Thinkers (2006) captures some of the important names –not least AO Hirschmann and Robert Chambers who made a much bigger contribution to thinking than some of the names on this “top ten” list - which clearly bears a rather old-fashioned economistic stamp (by the way only 3 of those 50 thinkers were women).
I then recommended two particular books which cast a contrarian eye on the development inductry - Sachs' (Wolfgang) The Development Dictionary (2010) and Deconstructing Development Buzzwords (2010) I’m actually in the world of “institutional” development and working, since 1991, in central Europe and central Asia. “Development” has always been a loaded term and, indeed, politically incorrect from 1990 – despite the scale of EU Structural funding (tens of billions of euros).

Last autumn I did a series of posts about the academic literature on public management and made a point which I rarely see recognized – that writing on the subject has a "Continental" bias, with most of the dominant writing being anglo-saxon (whose influence strongly extends to central european academia). I’ve just uploaded a little book Reforming the State” on this subject, arguing that the “modernisation” effort here could benefit from some of the insights from the “development” field

Just before I had uploaded that (slightly self-serving) post, another reader had made this excellent point -  "The kind of thing that gets you noticed for such a list might be:
1. Come up with a big idea about development, preferably slightly controversial or counter-intuitive
2. Explain how if the idea was taken more seriously it could end poverty or at least change the development paradigm
3. Selectively collect evidence and anecdotes that support the theme of the book
4. Spin out a simple idea to be a full length book
5. Aggressively promote the idea and be prepared to “battle it out” with other leading thinkers to prove who has the best take in order to promote your idea and book
Maybe this is something men are more inclined towards on average than women. Mot seriously, there are lots of other thinkers, women and men who have done important work on advancing development thinking and practice – but they might not have gotten the same level of visibility or notoriety as those on this list". 

 Some decades ago I wrote a short book to try to demystify the way a new local government system worked. That made me realise how few books were in fact written to help public understanding!
Most books are written to make a profit or an academic reputation. The first requires you to take a few simple and generally well-known ideas but parcel them in a new way – the second to choose a very tiny area of experience and write about it in a very complicated way.

After that experience, I realised how true is the saying that “If you want to understand a subject, write a book about it”!! Failing that, at least an article – this will certainly help you identify the gaps in your knowledge – and give you the specific questions which then make sure you get the most out of your reading.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The 2017 posts

Since 2009 I have blogged consistently – on average 2-3 posts a week. But the last 10 weeks have seen only one post. Somehow, inspiration seems to have dried up. For someone whose very identity has, for almost 50 years, been tied up with the act of writing, this is a very serious matter……
I’m not the only blogger whose energies have been fading recently – other writers have drawn attention to an apparent decline. This may or may not be linked with the deep sense of pessimism which has gripped my generation at least in recent years…..

With an effort, I have done a final bit of editing to the collected 2017 posts (all 76 of them) which bears the title Common Endeavour? – the 2017 posts (2018) and runs to 183 pages
The introduction reminds us all of the benefits of blogging and there is a special bonus in the annex in the form of a sceptic’s glossary of about 100 key words used in political and administrative discourse. The year is best summarized as follows -

Blog traffic has been increasing here – hitting 10,000 in April for the first time (a 3-fold increase since last year) and, in May, the 200,000 mark for the entire period since 2010. August saw another 10,000 hits….although it dropped thereafter, reflecting what I understand to be a general drop in readership of blogs this year,,,,And, in the final ten weeks, some disenchantment with blogging
     - Native English speakers account for only one third of readers (most from the US) – with Russian and Ukraine readers coming in (in the past year) at a strong 15% share. It’s not idle speculation to feel that part of this latter interest may be a reflection of official Russian oversights of western blogs and accounts – although I don’t get any comments on posts from that source - perhaps because it’s not been my policy to comment on Russian politics and Putin’s intentions? But why the strong interest from Ukrainian readers? After all, recent posts have, if anything been even more “reflective” than usual, trying to put recent events in a fifty-year timescale…..  
·       -  Readers in France, Germany, Bulgaria and Romania account for some 20% in total of the traffic – the latter two for obvious reasons. I’ve blogged quite a bit on Germany (indeed put a little E-book up on the list at the top-right corner of the blog) and am pleased to find readers from that source – and from France.

A new Feature
With two thirds of my readers not having English as their first language, I have perhaps become more conscious of the need for an inviting intro to posts which now try to “position” the subject in the wider commentary……So a new feature is the “Further Reading” resource with which book notes in particular now end… 

Early posts couldn’t help touching on the first shocking weeks of bully boy Trump’s occupation of the White House but, thereafter, ignored the idiot. Political misbehaviour in Romania caused more of a public backlash there and was duly the subject of a few posts.

For several weeks from mid-March, I ran a series of posts which started with an observation about   how badly served we are by the hundreds of economics books which jostle for our attention. The opening post suggested some tests we might apply to screen books out – with the drawback that we actually need the book in our hands to make the call! Follow-up posts used some diagrams……which also help guide the reader through the maze of books……
More than 100 key books were identified, briefly explained - and hyperlinked. And will all be useful in the task which lies ahead – of severe editing of the present draft of Dispatches to the post-capitalist generation

This May post shows the encouragement I now take from the increasing respect being shown to the concept of “The Commons”

June saw the British electorate join the US electorate in bloodying the nose of pundits and the Establishment…but, in the event, also giving progressives back a little bit of hope…….  Hence a couple of posts on social democracy….

Mid-Summer saw various posts connected with discussions I was having with a young Bulgarian journalist about an interview (which appeared at the end of August) which raised difficult questions about progress here in Bulgaria and Romania since 1991 and the curious silence of the past decade about the subject of “transitology” which so consumed the chattering classes in the 90s. The issues about political and institutional behavior which were first raised in the 50s by Edward Banfield; and then in the early 90s by Robert Putnam; remain.

But the most important series of posts started in September with “Close Encounters with bureaucracy” as I tried yet again to make some sort of sense of the efforts I’ve been making for nigh on 50 years to make state bodies more responsive to citizens….I started as a newly-elected young radical, working with community activists to help make their voice heard by a traditional municipality in the West of Scotland; graduated fairly quickly to positions of authority – not least for 16 years shaping the social strategy for Europe’s largest regional authority. All the time working as a public management academic in a local Polytechnic – and writing profusely and being published in UK journals, 

That was the base from which I sprang in 1990 to reinvent myself as a consultant in institution-building in central Europe and Central Asia – and keeping up with the academic outpourings on public management…..For 25 years I have worked in almost a dozen countries on these issues.
In recent years I have been trying to make sense of all this experience - which culminated last spring with a draft of almost 200 pages bearing the title Crafting Effective Public Management. The book's core consisted of (i) surveys of the literature of admin reform 1975-2000; (ii) my critical assessment of the approach and tools used by international bodies and consultants in the challenge of institutional development in "transition countries"; and (iii) my blogposts on admin reform ....

Early last summer, however, I realised that I had missed some of the more profound learning experiences - the new draft therefore has a very different format and content which still requires further work. Its sections are chronological and try to do justice to the shape and significance of the various projects. It also includes my sceptic's glossary; and the recent series of posts which used a dozen questions to try to capture the best writing on public management. As a result, it's currently heading for the 300 page mark!
Its present title No Man's Land reflects the reminder which the summer interview gave me of the importance of the feeling of "being on the margin" I've always had.....