Short points

by Henry Farrell on February 10, 2011

Am too busy writing a paper to blog, but if I were blogging, I’d be writing about …

(1) My happy discovery that George Scialabba’s website has an “Atom feed”:, which is mentioned nowhere on the page, but which allows you to keep up with new Scialabba As It Arrives. Apparently, his website has been speaking xml all its life without knowing it …

(2) My “review”: of Evgeny Morozov’s “The Net Delusion”:ttp:// (short version: when it’s good, it’s very, very good. And when it’s bad, it’s horrid). [UPDATE: Cosma Shalizi emails to tell me that one of my criticisms of Morozov – viz. that it is impossible to later disentangle individual voices from the roaring of a crowd – is in fact wrong).

(3) The “Reformcard”: effort to grade Irish political parties’ commitment to reform, whenever they get around to issuing manifestos. I will say that I am a little sceptical about the term ‘reform,’ which is frequently employed as a more or less direct euphemism for ‘cuts and marketization’ – I’ll be interested to see how it’s measured in practice.1 While Ireland could surely do with reform, it is likely to suffer far more ‘reform’ than could possibly be beneficial, regardless of who gets elected. Update 2: commentators tell me that the reforms that the site will emphasize are purely institutional ones.

(4) Scott McLemee’s “thoughts on international politics and zombies”: As “xkcd”: pointed out recently, we’re all a little overexposed to zombies and other Internet trochees. So here’s a bit from Francis Spufford’s _Red Plenty_ (coming out in the US in a few months!) that freshens up (if that’s the right word) the metaphor nicely.

bq. But Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded. Then the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on. That was Marx’s description, anyway. And what would be the alternative? The consciously arranged alternative? A dance of another nature, Emil presumed. A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

1Far worse though, is ‘painful reform,’ which is invariably used as a term of approbation by those expecting to suffer _no pain whatsoever_ (and quite possibly anticipating substantial profits or consultancy fees) from the ‘reforms’ being tabled.



sg 02.11.11 at 12:15 am

I think Mclemee’s speculations about the explosion of zombie material in the 1990s are off base. For my money, it’s a reflection of HIV fear and growing public health awareness.


nnyhav 02.11.11 at 2:58 am

A zombie is haunting Europe …

and YM man-houris


geo 02.11.11 at 4:49 am

Apparently, his website has been speaking xml all its life without knowing it …

Begorra! …


John Quiggin 02.11.11 at 8:18 am

The use of “reform” with positive connotations is invariably tendentious. If everyone agrees that a change is desirable, it doesn’t need a favorable description, so “reform” can only mean “change I favor and others foolishly oppose”


Daragh McDowell 02.11.11 at 11:19 am

Henry – just on the Reformcard site. They’re basically eschewing ‘economic’ reforms and are focused on electoral and structural-political reforms ie what do with the Seanad, changing the electoral system, beefing up local government etc.


JosephCurtin 02.11.11 at 12:12 pm

@ Henry

Thanks for mentioning As Daragh points out our site has nothing to do with the kind of reforms that your intuition would have it. We are concerned with fixing the broken institutions of governance under five key areas:

– Open Government;
– Local Government;
– Electoral Reform;
– Parliamentary reform; and
– Public sector reform.

The background is that Ireland has been on a thirty year cycle of crisis since independence. The institutions themselves, and the rules which govern the interaction between various constituencies, are not fit for purpose. The reforms we include will do nothing whatsoever to aid Ireland in emerging from the current crisis but may help avoid a repeat circa 2040.

Indicators have been chosen by our independent panel of leading academics based on the empirical and research evidence, and to correspond to clear deficiencies in governance.

All contributors to the project are doing so on a pro bono basis. We have found that commentators can be divided into two categories: those who believe that our country will always be broken, and cynically doubt the merits of the project or the motivation of those involved; and those who believe that our country can be governed better and are willing to do something about it.


Hektor Bim 02.11.11 at 2:14 pm

public sector reform sounds like one of the possible uses of “reform” cited above.


Henry 02.11.11 at 3:57 pm

Joseph – will be happy to take a look again at the project when the manifestoes come out.


Shay Begorrah 02.11.11 at 6:11 pm

The words “public sector reform” also make me suspicious but the agenda on the site is unconnected with the financial/staffing level aspects and seems free of small state prejudice. I would suggest they change

I would agree on the inherently negative connotations of “reform”, I studied Latin (in the loosest possible sense of the words), for a time in secondary school and one of the most useful parts was Roman history. In particular Sulla’s reforms, which needless to say entailed making government more efficient and effective until it was so efficient only one man was required to make decisions.

Ever since then I have associated “reform” with oligarchy.

Benefits of a classical education.


bert 02.11.11 at 6:53 pm

re #4.
(I favour full ITV: the Invariably Tendentious Vote.)


JosephCurtin 02.11.11 at 7:03 pm

Thanks Henry – we hope to go live with scoring next wednesday.


El Cid 02.12.11 at 4:50 am

Eduardo Galeano said of Uruguay’s (and the whole putrid chain of US-backed anti-liberal/left coups) attack against labor and writers and people and organizations who had fought for social reforms and more power for working people,

“People were in prison so that prices could be free.”

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