From the monthly archives:

June 2010

Market Liberalism against Democracy

by Henry Farrell on June 22, 2010

“Charlemagne”: writes about European Commission officials.

bq. I would not be astonished if a majority of the [British] public assume that EU officials are primarily motivated by pay, perks and privileges. Actually, from Mr Farage’s point of view, I suspect the truth is still more worrying. EU officials, in my experience, want “more Europe” because they want “more Europe”. … EU officials live in a world in which nationalism is the great evil. … They are often highly educated, in a geeky sort of way … The town’s defining ethos of anti-nationalism is often admirable. EU officials are easy to get on with, and a decent bunch in my experience. But it brings problems: I find a lot of people in this town at best naive about how much integration public opinion will accept, and at worst a bit hostile to democracy. Get a Brussels dinner party onto referendums, and hear people rave about the madness of asking ordinary people their opinions of the European project.

I found this pretty interesting because I was thinking about writing a piece last week about how Charlemagne himself represents a political tendency that is “a bit hostile to democracy.” The occasion of this critique was his “linking”: to a “piece”: that he wrote under his own name before he worked for the _Economist_ which is all about how one _needs_ to have restraints on national level democracies for the European project to work.
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Blog recommendation

by Chris Bertram on June 22, 2010

Anyone who has been involved in university adminstration and management, as I have for the past four years (freedom at the end of July!), will know the frustration of reading communications from university leaders (Vice-Chancellors, Presidents, Provosts etc.). There are several flavours: bland corporatespeak, official pronouncements aimed at politicians, implausible (also bland) reassurances aimed at students, parents and alumni, general expressions of commitment to “the highest standards” in research, education etc. When a British VC writes for a national newspaper, expect an illocutionary act aimed at the political class (in times of resource scarcity) rather than a genuine and open engagement with the problems facing higher education. Happily, there is at least one university leader who can write about higher education in a way that’s aimed at thinking adults who might have opinions of their own (which he, in turn, might actually be interested in). Step forward Ferdinand von Prondzynski, President of Dublin City University, Ireland, who has a blog: “A University Diary”: .

What kind of crisis?

by John Q on June 21, 2010

Some thoughts on the nature of the European crisis, which I’m writing up for an opinion piece. Comments much appreciated

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The incomparable Terfel

by Chris Bertram on June 21, 2010

I used to blog about opera a fair bit here at CT, but I’ve tended to let that go over recent years, after all, I lack the competence of a proper music critic. Still, I would like to report that Saturday’s premiere of WNO’s production of Die Meistersinger, with Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs, was the most stunning and energizing operatic performance I’ve ever attended. Started and 4, finished at 10, but those hours went awfully quickly. The music was wonderful, Terfel is an awesome presence on the stage, and the chorus – especially in the final act – was simply amazing. The staging, especially in Act 3, was also breathtaking. When you add in that the venue is probably the best one in the UK for opera, it all came together for a terrific evening capped by an energetic standing ovation from the audience. The production will be broadcast (a concert performance) as part of this year’s Proms (Radio 3 and BBC4) so if you are somewhere you can catch it, do so. If you can get hold of any tickets for the remaining performances in Cardiff or Birmingham, do so (and sell your most prized possessions to acquire them). Today’s papers have a couple of reviews: “Andrew Clark”: in the FT and “Andrew Clements in the Guardian”: . What would you have to do to get unqualified enthusiasm from those guys? (UPDATE: Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph, a much better judged review.)

Stinky Pete as Existential Hero

by Henry Farrell on June 21, 2010

Haven’t seen the new one yet (it will be the four year old’s first movie in the theatre, so we are trying to figure out a family expedition, so that everyone can enjoy him enjoying it), but its arrival reminds me that I’ve been meaning for ages to post on how _Toy Story 2_ maps out the major themes of Ishiguro’s _Never Let Me Go._ They both are driven by the same basic idea – of highly intelligent, potentially autonomous creatures who define their happiness entirely in terms of the happiness of others. In _Never Let Me Go_, this makes the (liberal) reader quite queasy. In _Toy Story 2_, this is treated as an entirely happy and natural state of affairs. Perhaps it shouldn’t be – and that so many people take the social relations in _Toy Story 2_ for granted, suggests that NLMG‘s clones’ acceptance of (and even joy in) their status is less socially unrealistic than some of its critics think.

There’s an article to be written on this (perhaps taking Gene Wolfe’s chilly little short story, “The War Beneath the Tree”:,+beneath+the+tree%22&source=bl&ots=d01op1lBBu&sig=3z2oDPQu93QmvgwOGa4MP7GKELQ&hl=en&ei=NLgeTLGDMYK0lQf96Nn9DA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CB4Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=%22war%2C%20beneath%20the%20tree%22&f=false in along the way. In the meantime, from this perspective, Stinky Pete is perhaps the only character in _Toy Story 2_ who is genuinely free, even if he _is_ stuck in a box for most of the movie.

Update: “Tom Houseman”: has similar thoughts.

Make the well-off pay?

by John Q on June 20, 2010

I’m still thinking about policy responses to the latest phase of the crisis, though I suspect events are moving faster than I can think about them. Anyway, I thought I would try a little arithmetic on the question of whether, and how, the fiscal hole opened up by the crisis could be filled[1]. The first question is Who Should Pay? The finance sector, taken collectively, was both the biggest beneficiary of the neoliberal era and also bears most responsibility for the crisis. But at most it will be possible to recoup some of the money that has already been spent on bailouts for the banks, not to mention what will have to be spent in Europe in coming months [2].

The big class of beneficiaries of the neoliberal era have been those in the top quintile of the income distribution, a class that includes me and a fair chunk of CT’s contributors and readers. Since no-one much thinks of themselves as “rich”, I’ll use the term “well-off”. Particularly in English-speaking countries, this group has benefited both from an increase in the inequality of market income and from less progressive taxation.

So, can the well-off be made to pay for the crisis, and should they?

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Chutzpah alert

by Chris Bertram on June 19, 2010

Sometimes an _ad hominem_ attack just seems right. Such is the case with George Monbiot’s latest piece on Matt Ridley, the Dawkinsite pop-science author. I’ve been aware of Ridley in his journalistic capacity for years, but I had no idea that he also had a parallel career in banking. Monbiot on Ridley’s _The Rational Optimist_ :

bq. In the book, Ridley attacks the “parasitic bureaucracy”, which stifles free enterprise and excoriates governments for, among other sins, bailing out big corporations. If only the market is left to its own devices, he insists, and not stymied by regulations, the outcome will be wonderful for everybody. What Ridley glosses over is that before he wrote this book he had an opportunity to put his theories into practice. As chairman of Northern Rock, he was responsible, according to parliament’s Treasury select committee, for a “high-risk, reckless business strategy”. Northern Rock was able to pursue this strategy as a result of a “substantial failure of regulation” by the state. The wonderful outcome of this experiment was the first run on a British bank since 1878, and a £27bn government bail-out. But it’s not just Ridley who doesn’t mention the inconvenient disjunction between theory and practice: hardly anyone does. His book has now been reviewed dozens of times, and almost all the reviewers have either been unaware of his demonstration of what happens when his philosophy is applied or too polite to mention it.

Definitely worth a short post at CT, then, to make this connection more widely known.

Corrupt academia

by Henry Farrell on June 18, 2010

Via “Trudy Lieberman”: at _Columbia Journalism Review,_ an “excellent story”: on the dubious linkages between medical academia and drug companies.

bq. Richard Page thinks Multaq is an excellent new drug for treating atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heartbeat that affects more than 2 million Americans. And Page, chairman of the department of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, should know. He co-authored a large, international study that led to the drug’s approval by the Food and Drug Administration last year, a move that could mean hundreds of millions in sales for Sanofi-Aventis, the company that makes the drug. But in putting his name on the influential paper, Page allowed Sanofi-Aventis to dictate the terms. He vouched for the accuracy and completeness of the study despite not seeing the raw data. The company, which paid for the study, collected that information and performed the analysis without an external audit for accuracy or completeness. Page says it comes down to trusting the drug company. “These companies, if they were falsifying data, wouldn’t be kept in business if that were found out,” he said. “I was satisfied and remain satisfied that the study was conducted in an appropriate way.” … In the Multaq case, Page and all six co-authors had financial ties to Sanofi-Aventis at the time of the study. Two authors worked for the company and owned its stock. Page and the four other authors moonlighted as consultants or speakers.

Genteelly corrupt relationships are a really big problem for medical research. The “Boston Review”: has an “excellent forum”: on this broad topic up on their website, including a quite preposterous “defense”: by “Thomas P. Stossel”: of medical-industry research ties against _any_ suggestion that formal standards, requirements of transparency etc might be helpful.


by John Holbo on June 18, 2010

I’m reading Lessing’s Laocoön, An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (how’s by you?) Consider:

It is an intrusion of the painter into the domain of the poet, which good taste can never sanction, when the painter combines in one and the same picture two points necessarily separate in time, as does Fra Mazzuoli when he introduces the rape of the Sabine women, and the reconciliation effected by them between their husbands and relations, or as Titian does when he presents the entire history of the prodigal son, his dissolute life, his misery, and his repentance. (91)

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McLemee on Veeser on Said

by Henry Farrell on June 18, 2010


bq. And so, two or three generations of young radical intellectuals have now had the pleasure of discovering that they are ever so much more radical than Edward Said. It must be very pleasant for them, but none of them has yet amounted to a replacement. With H. Aram Veeser’s _Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism,_ we have a different sort of Oedipal drama on display. The stakes are less political than personal. It is an insightful book, but also a strange one, charged with an ambivalence towards its subject that is perhaps as intense as Said’s toward the works he discussed in _Orientalism_ or _Culture and Imperialism._

Envisioning unreal utopias

by Henry Farrell on June 17, 2010

John Gray on the disappearance of utopian dreams of social reform in science fiction “here”: His taste in SF is excellent and he has several good lines.

bq. The role of science has been to gauge the limits of the species, with new technologies and extra-planetary environments being used as virtual laboratories for an ongoing thought experiment. If the mainstream novel employs the lens of the commonplace career – birth and education, marriage and divorce, ambition and failure – SF has pursued the inquiry by abducting the human animal and placing it in alien environments.

is particularly nice. It captures real (if not universal) differences without fetishizing the one as better than the other.

However, the main argument seems to me to say more about John Gray than it does about the genre he is writing about. [click to continue…]

We’ll be hosting one of our book events on Erik Olin Wright’s new book, Envisioning Real Utopias (UK) in the Fall (probably late September), so I thought I’d let people know that the book is out (and excellent) so you can get hold of it and read it in time, if you want to.

Erik has spent a long time working on the book, and even longer on the ideas (I remember a meeting in 1994, in which he announced his decision to name the broader project of which this is a part the “Real Utopias Project” — predating, I think, Rawls’s use of the phrase “realistic utopianism”). At the core of the RUP (more details here), and of the book, is a recognition that the anti-capitalist left has been strong on critique of capitalism, but weak on the presentation of feasible alternatives, and in particular on providing the kind of detail about those alternatives that demonstrates both how they would realize egalitarian values and makes them open to scrutiny and critique. Envisioning Real Utopias is both a manifesto and a guidebook, if you like: an argument for taking institutional design seriously, and a guide to how to do that. Its a book that sociologists will want to read, but also, frankly, that everyone in political theory and philosophy should be reading too (even if they do not think of themselves as egalitarians). To be honest, I’ve been living close to the book so long that it I realize my endorsement may not be unbiased. Here, then, is what Swift says about it on the back cover:

Hugely rich and stimulating, Envisioning Real Utopias is may books in one: an incisive diagnosis of the harms done by capitalism; a masterful synthesis of the best work in political sociology and political economy over the past thirty years; and innovative theoretical framework for conceptualizing both the goals of progressive change and the strategies for their achievement; and inspiring story of actually existing challenges to capitalism that have arisen within capitalism itself; and a compelling essay on the relation between the desirable, the viable and the achievable. Anyone interested in the future of leftist politics has to read this book.

I agree.

And here is Erik introducing the book:

Envisioning Real Utopias from West Coast Poverty Center on Vimeo.

Familiarity with the canon

by Chris Bertram on June 16, 2010

David Williams writes at The Daily Texan:

bq. On May 22, the State Board of Education voted 9-5 to reform its secondary-school social studies curriculum, emphasizing that the content of these guidelines serves to enable students to “appreciate the basic democratic values of our state and nation.” While these reforms have been broadly condemned by liberals across the country, it is important that both liberals and conservatives together become more broadly familiar with the texts now firmly in the curriculum. Specifically, we should take a closer look at Charles de Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas. …

Read the whole thing, as they say.

Money for old rope?

by Maria on June 16, 2010

BoingBoing has an interview with John Robb, a security consultant whose book, ‘Brave New War; the Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization’, is about the idea of open-source warfare. Robb comes across as a classic, Washington idea-salesman, tarting up what may still be sharp insights into the kind of gee-whizz, tech-determinist hyperbole that might result from a drunken gene-merge of Wired and Jane’s:

“Back in 2004, the US military was getting trounced in guerrillas in Iraq. Worse, the US military establishment didn’t know why. Didn’t have a clue. To correct this, I began to write about how 21st Century warfare actually worked on my blog, Global Guerrillas. Essentially, I concluded that guerrilla groups could use open source organizational models (drawn from the software industry), networked super-empowerment (freely available high tech tools, network information access, connections to a globalized economy), and systems disruption (the targeting of critical points on infrastructure networks that cause cascading failures) to defeat even the most powerful of opponents, even a global superpower.”

Call me parochial, but isn’t this just the sort of thing Michael Collins was doing 90 years ago?

Apart from lower coordination and communication costs and bigger, juicier systems to disrupt, is there a substantive difference between the ability of a small, clever and determined group of people to humble a global super-power today as compared to 1919? Or, as we might say in the language of my current employer, are the modern and forward-looking insurgents of today “utilizing south-south networks to share best practice and enable technology transfer and empowerment at the grassroots to forge alternative development pathways”? [click to continue…]

“Unjustified and unjustifiable”

by Chris Bertram on June 15, 2010

I was thirteen at the time of Bloody Sunday, so I can remember it just about. It is hard to know what to think about today’s report. On the one hand, it is a kind of justice, however inadequate, for the relatives; on the other, it has taken nearly forty years. And the British government has spent £200 million to tell us what we all knew anyway: that British paratroopers murdered fourteen civilians in cold blood and that a subsequent “inquiry” (Widgery) was a whitewash. Still, it is one thing knowing the truth (as we already did) and it is another to have it publicly acknowledged. Will there be prosecutions? Doubtful.