Monday, 24 June 2013

German Europe by Ulrich Beck

This is a succinct and very thought provoking essay looking at the current and short to medium term future of the EU from a largely German perspective and that makes it particularly fascinating.

Beck expertly describes a Europe that is seeing Germany becoming increasingly central to it not just economically, but politically too. This is a role taken up by the Germans in many ways reluctantly but there is a schizophrenia to their approach as of course nothing- particularly where it concerns Europe- is ever simple.

One of the key aspects of the German approach that hadn't occurred to me before and to which I am grateful to this book for highlighting, is the fact that Germany is in fact using it's own re-unification template- when an impoverished and 'errant' European state [the GDR] was absorbed and put back on its feet through sound 'Bundesbank' logic- as one to apply to the indebted and almost bankrupt southern states of the EU. Germany clearly sees the same treatment will bring them into line. The fact that these nations are much bigger, more diverse and- obviously- not German, seems to be escaping consideration in their neoliberal socio-economic strategies.

This is all of course compounded by Merkel being the consummate example of the 21st century phenomenon of talking a lot but doing nothing- importantly not through indecision though, but through a deliberate policy of political inertia. This is perhaps one of the most fascinating political developments in western politics as a whole- the concept of on the surface pleasing everyone all of the time and underneath just doing nothing- and this great little book crystallises that phenomenon very successfully.

So if you want an up-to-date snapshot of the current state of affairs in the EU, this is well worth a read.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Plutocrats by Christina Freeland


Maybe I came to this book too soon after reading Robert Frank's Richistan: A Journey Through the 21st Century Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich and the more recent  The High-Beta Rich: How the Manic Wealthy Will Take Us to the Next Boom, Bubble, and Bust: How the Maniac Wealthy Will Take Us to the Next Boom, Bubble, and Bust , which are snappier and more intriguing portraits of the New Rich.  Freeland doesn't have the journalistic lightness of touch that nonetheless reveals truths in a snapshot that Frank has, but having said that if you plough through the more 'flat' zones of this book, there are some interesting insights and ideas.

Unfortunately though, they are overwhelmed by the clear need for this book to have been edited further.  It's more than twice the length it should be, and has too many lengthy passage that quote mere facts and figures, as well as in places  being repetitive.  Although Freeland to her credit tries to maintain an objective distance from the plutocracy she's investigating, she still can't help slipping into little self-congratulatory snippets of useless information along the lines of 'I was having a breakfast meeting with the 3rd richest man in the world when he said...' and 'I was chairing a meeting at Davos when 'x' said something intriguing...' etc., as if just to let us know she herself is well keyed into the plutocracy, and actually is very pleased with herself about it.

As said above though, there are still some good observations in places.  After a slow, rather turgid start it picks up in the middle, fades again as yet another facts and figures analysis is done of the globalised elite from China to Mexico and then- unexpectedly- picks up again in the last couple of chapters. Freeland rightly observes that different socio-economic systems throw up different groups of elite- for 2oth century communism it was intellectuals, for fascism those in command of physical force and media coercion, and for liberal capitalism it is entrepreneurial chancers and institutional rent-seekers.  Towards the end she offers an almost-critique of the new plutocrats by way of showing just how much of a supra-national bubble they live in, and as with all bubbles, it will one day be pricked.

The fallout from that burst bubble will be something of course we will all have to deal with and outcomes are uncertain, although I suspect we may be finding out sooner rather than later.  Freeland on the whole though, can't help but come across as an apologist for the plutocracy- she lays great store on their charity works for example and hints that this may be a positive spin off of a rich-beyond-comprehension global elite- yet fails to point out the tax-efficiencies of such ventures and, of course, the self-selecting process that goes on with rich foundations being set up for pet causes.

One of the most illuminating interviews to my mind with regard to this issue, was with a young Silicon Valley billionaire, libertarian to the core, who decried taxation of any type, whinging that he was taxed too much and if he wasn't taxed at all, then he would have oodles of cash spare to dedicate to charity and other philanthropic initiatives of his choosing, rather than the evil government deciding what to do with his tax dollars.  It's difficult to tell whether Freeland reports this with irony [as say Robert Frank would], or with glassy eyed admiration. What's chilling about such statements, is that governments are supposed to be elected bodies in place to look after the interests of us all, and need to be trusted [and supported] to do that in a fair, equitable way.  The rich libertarian choice approach to social care, only leads to favoured groups and causes getting the cash and then not necessarily on a long term basis, as the rich have changing personal whims just like the rest of us...

So all in all a good book to read with a sceptical eye and perhaps selectively.  Ms Freeland would have done well to produce a book with half the pages and twice the punch, but at least the plutocracy is getting some serious analysis now, from even inside the camp.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Care to Dare by George Kohlrieser

Care To Dareis another one of those production-line leadership manuals full of psuedo-intellectual concepts, nice diagrams, and 'touchy-feely but go-getting' hyper-advice for maximising your business and personal contact spaces and nodal interests in order to maximise output and profit for your socio-commercial business model.

This is of course the kind of stuff beloved of US Business School acolytes and it's UK equivalent clones, this time produced by a troika of psych-business alumina with CV's that read as if sprinkled with global elite gold dust.  These people have succeeded in leadership themselves, and now want to teach you how to do it yourself, in the most sensitive of multi-layed super-cultured passion and practicality fused 21st century of ways.

The book is essentially the fusion of a number of seminars with its PowerPoint diagrams neatly integrated into the whole.  It is very well written, easy to absorb and for its field, superior to many others peddling these ideas.  The central concept- one of treating business leadership like a extreme outward bounds exercise, establishing base points [camps] and personal relationships that extend beyond the merely business orientated [essentially comradeship forged by sweat and hugs], is sustained with an undeniable and at times very persuasive verve.

Although a good read, books like this always leave me a bit uneasy though.  They promote the almost all-persuasive neo-liberal economic model these days that we are only defined by the work we do, and that our lives 24/7 must be absorbed by that work- either by doing it, or thinking about it/preparing for it/keeping oneself mentally and physically healthy for it. We are as humans as such only defined by the job we do- read as in earning an income producing a profit for someone else- but sweetens the pill with the idea that we are can all be leaders, but of course I have a nagging feeling only a few of the 'natural' ones ever really become successful at it.

And that's another problem I have I suppose.  Is it really possible to teach leadership? Basic concepts and pointers can be taught, sure, foundations can be established, but I have a feeling common fate- a person's conditions and influences from birth and certain, out-of-the-blue crystallising events- create the true leaders. They are forged either in childhood, or by some unexpected [and un-asked  for] leftfield event later in life. They can't really be knocked off a production line, and I have difficultly believing anyone can wake up one morning, pick up a book and decide they want to be a leader now, today.

Whatever, you can't deny writers of books like these making a buck or too, as they no doubt need the help to jet around the globe telling people in Bhutan how they too, can be business leaders.  So a good book for the MBA student and the scout group leader dreaming of being a CEO one day.  For the rest, I'd file under Bemusement.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt has to be admired for taking on a huge, complex and highly contentious intellectual area of investigation such as this, which is essentially not just an analysis of the social and moral philosophies of politics and religion, but also it's inherent psychological issues [and conflicts] too.

It's therefore not surprising that the book on occasion misfires but on the whole it is a cogent, at times thought provoking work. It is often a very dense,'academic' work though, that is probably more suited to a psych or political science student as it quite comprehensively assesses past and present intellectual thought in those areas.  In fact for me, as a relative layman more interest in the broader but still 'intellectual' issues pertaining to what it says on the book’s tin- why good people are divided by Politics and Religion- it only ever really got clearly addressed in the last thirty or so pages, which was a shame.

So a good course read more than anything else.  It's also written from an American perspective- which is painfully obvious at times, particularly when Haidt explores and supports [in a way] the libertarian argument for free markets in health care, which is embarrassingly over-simplistic- but he is at pains to give an explanation of certain issues and US-centric viewpoints/terms of reference to those readers outside of the US, which is good.  He's also honest enough to admit to being a 'failed' liberal who has moved into more of a 'conservative' appreciation of the socio-political situation in the 21st century west, which is admirable in it's honesty.  The book still feels a little inconclusive to my mind though, perhaps reflecting the authors own inner political uncertainties as he tries to resolve his new found RW neoliberalism with his more traditional Leftist past. It's a conflict that would have made for a great read actually, if he'd concentrated more on that as it's probably a process many more academics than would care to admit have actually gone through themselves this past thirty or so years, and real 'answers' to the books over-riding sub-text could have been developed rather than a surfeit of rather dry, specialist chapters, but there you go.  A lost opportunity perhaps.

Whatever, worth a look for the good bits scattered through it, just don't expect an overly thought provoking piece of intellectual journalism if you pick it up. Haidt cannot be faulted for his erudition [and nerve], however.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Fix by Damien Thompson

The Fix is a fascinating 21st century investigation into addiction, which has of course been eternally part of the human condition.

What Damien Thompson so successfully charts however, is the argument that western contemporary culture has produced a society in which its participants are particularly susceptible to succumbing to their addictive impulses; as Thompson points out often, their continual search for and hanging on to things that materially replace people in our lives.

Our materialistic economic system has of course made it all the more possible for us to indulge in these impulses, and a culture that encourages us to celebrate who we are by what we wear, possess and achieve as economic actors within an individualistic, free-for-all capitalist economy produces addictions, splurges and a need for a fix from cupcakes as much as cocaine and alcohol.

I must admit I had approached this book with a bit of scepticism- I'd expected another relentless reiteration of the 12 step programme- but it is refreshingly far from that.  Thompson has the guts and gumption to actually offer a much needed critique of that programme, developed of course by AA and picked up by hundreds of 'addiction' causes across the world.  This is brave and much needed.  Now don't get me wrong, AA and the wider twelve step programme is a vital, very effective system for dealing with substance abuse, that is beyond doubt. Even the simplistic criticism that the programme merely substitutes one addiction [to the programme] in place of the substance [notably alcohol or drugs] is pretty hollow, as it is clearly better for the person to be 'addicted' to a mental self-improvement programme than a corroding physical one.

The Twelve Step Programme does have it's limitations though and Thompson outlines them well.  It need not necessarily suit everyone and it's 'one-size-fits-all' approach can be over-bearing and in many cases counter-productive. The reliance on an outside agency to 'save' you from your addiction has it uses, but again, may not be as effective in the long run as the 12 step hype may lead one to believe. In fact the 12 step programme can also be decidedly anti-social and too 'life-structure' dictating, a dark underside rarely mentioned. Thompson also points out one of my greatest reservations about the 12 Step programme too- the argument that if you don't get it, you are a still suffering and your incapabilities to do so are just a symptom of the mental debilitations of your addiction.  I have never thought this circular logic was ever particularly useful and even a little sinister, and it's quite heartening to read a writer like Thompson, a recovering addict himself, so deftly explore his own reservations too in this area.

The bottom line that emerges from this book, is that essentially, addiction needs to be tackled from within ourselves.  Of course it is a connection with the outside world and its influences that makes us addicted to something in some way at least at some time in our lives, but that addiction is always more of a result of a 'lack' in our lives, even as a retreat from that life, as we cling to our [largely technically pointless] iphone upgrade to the detriment of real relationships with the real people around us.  In that way, addiction is as much a social as a 'spiritual' illness. But only we, as an individual person, can face up to our addiction, face it down, and deal with it in the long term.  Of course group help can assist and is often vital, but at the end of the day, the will and continual strength is entirely up to us as that one, capable individual.  The buck stops inside our own heads.

This is an extremely unfashionable viewpoint at the moment I know, in our largely hollow, 'group-hug' culture, but it is unfortunately an unpalatable truth, and this book goes some way to explain why.  Give it a go.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Winner Takes All by Dambisa Moyo

Winner Take All: China's Race For Resources and What It Means For Us is an interesting book which tackles the on-going development of China as both a political and economic global power in the 21st century, but is so packed full of facts and figures in places it should perhaps be approached as a study textbook- full of juicy hard info to pile into an essay on globalisation- than a simple cover-to-cover work of academic 'journalism.'

That's not to say there aren't some great insights in this book, you just have to plough through chapters of dry facts and figures to find those nuggets and, tellingly, it's only the last couple of chapters that really get to any 'intellectual' analysis of the issue.

It's intriguing that I suspect many will pick up this book worried about the rise of China on the world stage, but will leave it with a feeling of a] if there is a problem, what is Moyo's take on tackling it from a Westerner's self-interested point of view [an issue she doesn't really tackle head-on] and b] that the West's problems lie fairly and squarely within our own systems, which are too short-termist and arrogantly/ignorantly based on increasingly creaking- and discredited- socio-economic models.

Because the overwhelming success of this book, for me, was a greater understanding of the political and socio-economic make-up of China, and very impressive it is too to be honest.  Modern China has managed, within a broadly communist framework, to develop a highly effective system of centrally controlled, command 'capitalism,' that is now completely out-performing the more laissez-faire, 'small-state' obsessed western systems and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  In fact China is a shining example of what well organised, 'Big' government can achieve; China is not an example- as western commentators would have us believe- of a communist state having to capitulate to the logic and efficiencies of capitalism, but of a communist state being intelligent enough to adapt the dynamics of capitalism to its own ends, and morphing it into a wholly different-and much more effective- economic model completely.  Just don't of course, expect to hear that from any one in- particularly- the West's 'Anglo-Saxon' establishment.

The bottom line is the fact that the Chinese government is not afraid to have a vision for it's country that stretches beyond the next 12-18 months.  China is prepared to PLAN- not just a few years ahead, but ten, twenty perhaps even fifty years hence, with a clear idea of where it wants the nation to be as this century unfolds.  This is in stark contrast to the West- the US and UK being the prime offenders- where the word 'vision' has become a dirty word and the idea of the state has been reduced from helping and improving the lives of it's citizens, to being merely an institutional prop for privately owned corporations. 

So I left this book very impressed by China's modus operandi, which holistically includes both it's domestic framework and global aims as one, national package.  Whether this was the aim of the book I'm not sure, but I certainly understood China much better after reading it.  It also made achingly clear just ineffective and out of time the West has become on the world stage; we are living on borrowed time, basking in past glories and what's left of the power base we gleaned from those glories, and now with a blindfold on and ear plugs in, we actually hold in our hands a busted flush and are trying to make a clearly inefficient free market economic model work, that is no longer fit for purpose.  It is up to us to change and adapt this century and the sooner we do it, the more chance we have of maintaining some influence in the world because countries like China just aren't going to stand still, particularly as it's political system becomes much more attractive to emerging nations than our currently broken one.

Monday, 17 September 2012

God [‘All That Matters’ series] by Mark Vernon

What a great little series of books 'All That Matters' is proving to be, looking as if it has great potential.

Mark Vernon's contribution is an excellent addition as a clear, concise yet still satisfyingly 'deep' round-up of the faith and concepts inherent in God- someone who, whether religious or atheistic, every human of course has an opinion about.

Vernon is peculiarly well suited to level-headed analysis of God, as he was once a C of E priest who however left as a confirmed atheist.  That in no way upsets the balance of this book though, as he skilfully offers a very fair, interesting and often intriguing assessment of the God Issue to date [and I can say this as a practising Christian]. 

In eight succinct chapters Vernon explores rather than just reports God's place in human conditions such as suffering, morality, evil and goodness, as well as more universal issues such as whether God is within nature [the Gaia concept], and whether God truly is Love as we are perhaps over-conditioned to accept without question.  There are many, many wonderful insights in this book that excited even a jaded so-and-so such as myself, but I found fascinating the idea that through the process of growing complexity, we are actually creating God, who will in fact come at the end of time.  However as God will then be all powerful and omnipotent across time and space at that point, He will flood back and be present all through history, and so He is here in an eternal Now.

This is a wonderful, profound concept of God and one to my mind compatible to the new discoveries in quantum physics which are- satisfyingly- throwing up more questions than answers.  Which only goes to show, that science and metaphysical 'spirituality' should be companions rather than the post-Enlightenment adversaries modern science has been intent on promoting.  Personally, this book only further shows both religion and science are the same side of the coin and have much to learn from each other, and it's time for the feuding to stop.  So a great read for anyone no matter what your position on spirituality- give it a go.