Tag Archives: leadership

The Impact of Amalgamations on Services in Icelandic Municipalities

The objectives of reforming sub-levels of the public sector have historically been driven by the will and need to amalgamate municipalities. The reasons given for amal­gamating have primarily been size-efficiency and capacity, as well as quality and quantity in services. This is shown, for example, in a recent study of selected European countries where these objectives are of high importance with regard to amalgamations in 11 European countries (Steiner et al., 2016). Baldersheim and Rose (2010) have described these objectives as “the consolidationist argument”. The basic argument is that, due to scale economies, increased size of political-administrative units will lower average costs (i.e., cost per capita) of providing municipal services and therefore increase the capacity to redistribute economic and organizational resources more effectively. What this means is that increased size yields lower average cost, which gives opportunities to provide services of more quality and quantity and distribute them more equally within all neighbourhoods and between neighbourhoods.

Whether these objectives are realized after amalgamation in a new municipality is, however another question which has often been hard to answer in empirical studies. In the study of 11 European countries by Steiner et al. (2016) the most important outcomes of amalgamations tend to be improved service quality and to some extent cost savings. Case studies evaluating the impact of municipal amalgamations seem to be rare. However, Eythórsson and Jóhannesson (2002)[1] evaluated the impact of 7 different amalgamations out of a total of 37 municipalities in Iceland from the 1990’s. The evaluation covered various aspects such as democracy, administration, services, economic development and cost-efficiency. Among other things, their results indicated that services tended to improve and cost-efficiency tended to be realised, at least to some extent. Important aspects in this context were found to be equality between different parts of the municipality, as well as time from amalgamation. Even though, in general, quality and quantity in services increased after amalgamation, this did not seem to be the case for all parts or neighbourhoods of the municipality. People and local leaders in the more peripheral and less central parts were more discontent with the development of services in the new municipality. The time perspective seemed to matter, at least in some service fields. In the case of Iceland, there was some evidence that improvements in economic development and in infrastructure took time and that no positive signs could be detected until at least five years after the amalgamation.

These almost 20 year old results indicate that the impact of municipal amalgamations often turns out to be more complex than general approaches may show. Therefore, we find it relevant to analyse newer material to try to determine whether this is the case with amalgamations a decade or decades later – in times when lessons could have been learned from previous cases in order to try to prevent inequality in service provision. This article attempts to answer the question what impact municipal amalgamations have had on municipal services, especially looking at service quality, service capacity, service efficiency and equality in services between the centre and the periphery in the municipality. The analysis is based on material from two separate research projects: firstly,  from 2015, survey among elected local politicians in Iceland and, secondly, data from a survey conducted in 2013, where the respondents were citizens in eight amalgamated municipalities, which had been amalgamated in and around the middle of the first decade of the 21st century.



The municipal level in Iceland

Municipalities in Iceland have a long history, dating all the way back to the 11th century. When the Danes took control over Iceland in 1662, they whittled down the autonomy of municipalities and then totally abolished them by law in 1809. Later on, in the 19th century, when the Icelanders began asserting their rights of independence, the local government system was re-instituted by law, in 1872, this time including a regional governmental level – Amt (county, administrative province), similar to an earlier structure in Denmark which was reformed in 2007. This regional experiment was not successful, and the Amts had already been abolished in 1904.

The main historical pattern of structure indicates that the number of municipalities gradually increased slowly until the middle of the 20th century when it reached a peak of 229 municipalities, after which a slow decrease set in, but not significantly until after 1990. Since 2013 the number of municipalities has remained 74.

The rapid changes since 1990 were directly and indirectly facilitated by two referenda on municipal amalgamations – the first in 1993 and the second in 2005 – and their implications. The referendum in 185 municipalities in 1993 (especially) and the referendum in 66 municipal­ities in 2005 contributed to the reduction of the number of municipalities from 196 in 1993 to the 74 today. However, this reduction has not managed to change the main characteristics of the municipal structure – small municipalities and a relatively fragmented system with an average population of approximately 4,500 and a median of about 900. This is illustrated in figure 1.



Figure 1. The patterns of municipal structure in Iceland 1950 – 2015.


The figure shows a fragmented municipal structure, despite the reduced number of municipalities by almost 2/3 in two decades. From the beginning, amalgamations were meant to strengthen the municipal level by producing larger local units which could take over extensive new functions from the state. The partial failure to carry out a complete reorganisation of the structure led to a setback; thus, this way of making progress was defeated to a certain extent (Eythórsson 1998; Eythórsson 2009).

Twice during these twenty years, extensive functions and responsibilities have been decentralized to the municipal level, the primary school in 1996 and the handicap services in 2011. In the case of the primary school, the heavy burden of running the schools for many of the smallest or smaller municipalities pushed them into amalgamations. As far as the handicap services were concerned, problems were only solved by means of inter-municipal cooperation, since a large majority of the municipalities did not have the capacity to run these operations by themselves.

Iceland has a two-tier administrative system, national and local. A regional level as an elected instance is absent. Therefore, the lower level is ill-equipped to take care of tasks allocated to the median instance in some of the other Nordic countries. While the local level in the Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway is responsible for 60-70 percent of public expenditure, the local level in Iceland is only responsible for about 30 percent.

The local government system is characterized by a high proportion of small muni­cipalities. More than half of them have a population of less than 500 while just above 10 percent have more than 5000. More than half the municipalities have limited capacity to provide services cost-efficiently and with reasonable quality. That is, at least, what the critics have said when they have advocated more municipal amalgamations (Eythórsson, 2014).

This has been reduced to 74 in more than 80 different amalgamations, almost all of which were voluntary. The largest years, counted in number of amalgamations, were 1994 and 1998, when there were 13 and 12 amalgamations respectively (Karlsson, 2015).

As for a description of the tasks and main premises of the municipalities in Iceland, the main tasks are the following:[2]

  • Education (primary school, kindergartens and music schools)
  • Social services (except elderly care)
  • Youth leisure and sports
  • Health care (health care centres)
  • Culture
  • Fire department and public disaster protection
  • Hygiene
  • Planning and construction
  • Traffic and transportation
  • Environmental affairs
  • Industrial affairs (economic development etc.)

Education is by far the largest expenditure post, followed by social services, and youth leisure and sports, which are also considerable posts. Local government expenditures constitute around 30 percent of total public spending – which is low in comparison with the other Nordic countries where the local level expenditure is between 60 and 70 percent. Municipal revenues are mainly through Income tax (58%) and the rest is through Real estate tax (12%), contributions from Equalisation fund (12%) and other income (18%).[3]



Amalgamations and services. Some theoretical reflections

The so called consolidationist argument on the impact of municipal amalgamations claims that increased size of political-administrative units will lower costs of providing municipal services and increase capacity to redistribute economic and organizational resources more effectively (Baldersheim & Rose, 2010). This leads to, or at least can lead to, improved service quality. Even though this is a widespread argument, only few studies exist on the outcome of such an approach, at least in the case of the Nordic countries. However, the consolidationalist view was clearly stated before the big amalgamation reform in Denmark in 2007 (Kjær and Mouritzen, 2003). In an Icelandic evaluation study on amalgamations in the 1990’s by Eythórsson and Jóhannesson (2002), some indications of this causal connection appeared, but they were not fully confirmed by the results. However, the authors found that all economic gains in terms of lower cost were used to improve services. In a new Norwegian anthology on municipal reforms (Klausen, Askim & Vabo eds., 2016), Borge puts this view forward in the context of Norwegian municipal amalgamations. Comparatively, provision of public services is likely to generate scale economies in step with agglomeration economies and thus lower average cost. Even in a bigger European context this has been investigated. In a study on the outcomes of municipal amalgamations in 15 European countries Steiner (et.al) found that one of the absolutely most important outcomes from municipal amalgamations was “Improved professional quality” (Steiner (et.al.) 2016 pp. 36-37).

Some findings connect gain of scale economy and agglomeration with service improvements. Rosen and Gayer (2008) suggested that scale economies were present in public services such as fire departments and libraries. Similar results were addressed in a general study for Britain, where this seems to be the case in the provision of health care services, water supplies, and telecommunications (Burridge, 2008). Furthermore, scale economies are present in primary and upper secondary schools, both regarding overhead and teaching cost. However, diseconomies of scale became apparent in teaching when quality was taken into account. Similar findings were obtained by Duncombe and Yinger (2007) and Duncombe et al. (1995). It has also been argued that an urban population contributes to social benefit in terms of agglomeration economies. „In the presence of agglomeration economies, average production cost is generally lower, which in knowledge-based industries increases profits, returns to shareholders and the real wages of highly skilled labour“(Karlsson, 2012, pp. 125–126). Thus, agglomeration economies are similar to scale economies in being a source of economic growth and higher welfare.

Results from empirical literature do not all point in the same direction, both in national and international comparisons. A result suggesting a net positive return following an amalgamation because of scale economies, might be detected in something other than lower average cost, such as better services. Better or more services might, however, either be delayed or not provided to part of the population.


The centre-periphery dimension

Both citizens and political elites in municipalities often tend to oppose amalgamation reforms, not least if the reforms are initiated by central government – from above. But there is a difference in this between large and small municipalities, on the one hand and between smaller, peripheral and larger central municipalities, on the other hand. Results from studies on both Swedish and Icelandic municipalities have shown that the strongest explanatory variable for resistance against amalgamation is each municipality’s expected status in the new/potential municipality (Brantgärde, 1974; Eythórsson, 1998). The potential loss of status and power is something that does not seem to be acceptable for either citizens or local leaders in municipalities with little chances of getting the central place status. In this sense there are centres and peripheries within the new municipalities. This different positions can easily impact attitudes towards the service provided in a new municipality –  those who feel they have lost status and power as a consequence of an amalgamation might also have similar attitudes to the services, both service quality and quantity. The study by Eythórsson and Jóhannesson (2002) showed precisely those patterns.


The time perspective

The time factor is known in economic theory. The rigid behaviour of individuals or institutional units can create a time delay in the outcomes of economic events, such as in the case of price elasticity in the short versus the long run (McGuigan, Moyer, and Harris, 1999, p. 105). Therefore, the impact of inputs might have to wait to show up and be realized by citizens in the community.

The time perspective can be play an important role in the context of a municipal amalgamation and its impact. Whether the amalgamation was implemented a short time ago or a long time ago, is in many cases a question of the opportunity for reorganisation to come into effect. This has for example, been found in evaluations of amalgamations. Eythórsson and Jóhannesson (2002) discovered a time-related impact in their evaluation of seven different amalgamations in Iceland in the 1990´s. The increased service deliverance capacity gained by the amalgamation and to invest in infrastructure was found to have an impact on economic development, but the improvements often did not begin to take effect until 5-10 years after the amalgamation.

Local leader survey in 2015

The data we use in this part of the empirical study are from a net-survey sent to the whole population of elected local councillors in Iceland in the summer 2015. This was a part of the research project „West Nordic Municipal Structure“.The same survey was even sent to elected local councillors in Greenland and the Faroe Islands (Eythórsson et al., 2015). Little more than half – 263 out of a total of 504 councillors answered in the Icelandic part and they build the database we are using. In our analysis, we only use answers from councillors in municipalities, which have been part of an amalgamation for the past 20 years. In the Icelandic case, this means less than half of all municipalities. Table 1 below shows the age and gender distribution among those who participated in the survey and compares it with the actual distribution in the population of all local councilors in Iceland.







Table 1. Participation in the 2015 survey among Icelandic local councillors by gender and age.


Looking at age the distribution is very similar which indicates that there is quite equal respresentation in the survey. When it comes to gender there is a little deviation – women participated more in our survey than men did. The difference is however not great.

In the survey, we asked several questions on municipal amalgamations and their impact on services and administration. In this article, we present a fourfold analysis. Firstly, we asked whether amalgamations had made the service provision more efficient. The second question was about service quality, whether it was higher or lower; thirdly, we wanted our respondents to evaluate whether service quality was equal in all neighbourhoods (areas) in the municipality. The fourth question related to a general evaluation as to whether services and administration were more professional after the amalgamation.


Status/position and centre/periphery

The following table clearly indicates how answers from municipal service centres and peripheral parts differ significantly. Here we see far more differences than in table 2, where we analysed perceptions of services by the time since amalgamation factor. Status or position has a clear impact on local leaders’ perception of service development. In all four questions, the difference between centre and periphery exceeds 1 on the 1 – 7 scale. However, in three questions, the scores are quite high in both groups, which tells us that efficiency, quality and professionality has increased with amalgamations as perceived by the leaders.  In the question on equal quality, the pattern is the same as in others, but the scores are lower. In the centres, the score is just above the middle of the scale (4.37), but in the peripheries it is well below (3.29).



Table 2. Icelandic local councillors’ attitudes towards four statements on the impact of municipal amalgamations on services/administration by status/position. (Means on a 1 – 7 scale. N = 86 – 91).


 The time perspective

Therefore, with this in mind, we looked at whether the time factor could have an impact on local councillors’ perceptions of services. In table 1 below, we see the results. In three of the questions the scores are rather high – well above 5 on the 1 to 7 scale, which indicates a positive impact of the amalgamation. The differences in scores between three time periods do not show any significant variations and the correlation coefficients show little and insignificant correlation. The only question with slightly divergent results is the one about equality between neighbourhoods in service quality. The local councillors gave more split responses to that statement – the total mean is in the middle of the 1 – 7 scale. The scores are not at all different between periods so the time factor is not present in that question either.


Table 3. Icelandic local councillors’ attitudes towards four statements on the impact of municipal amalgamations on services/administration assessed by time since amalgamation. (Means on a 1 – 7 scale. N = 111 – 117).

To conclude on this, the time factor does not have any impact on how the local councillors perceive the development of service quality after amalgamations.

To sum up, in general, local leaders evaluate the impact of amalgamations on services as being positive but leaders in the peripheries are significantly less positive than their colleagues in service and administrative centres. Their evaluation also shows us less confidence in service quality being equal in different parts of the amalgamated municipalities.


The citizens’ views

Since the above survey is from an elite study – that is, shows evaluations of elected politicians, we want to contribute with results on the citizens views. The results we present here are from questions we sent out to citizens over 20 years of age in eight municipalities in Iceland, which had been amalgamated from a total of 22 municipalities. This was sent out in spring and summer 2013. This was not based on a random sample – we used the snowball method by distributing to Facebook friends in respective municipalities, asking them to forward the messages to friends in their municipalities, aged 20 years or above. This sampling method does of course not allow us to generalize from the results. Nonprobability sampling methods are used in quantitative studies where researchers are unable to use probability selection methods (Schutt, 2012). In our case, lack of funding prevented us from being able to make a probability sampling. However, we believe we can accept these results as an indication. Our main aim is to try to identify whether the results differ from those in the leader survey. Thus, we wish to present some results from this citizen survey, emphasizing, at the same time, that they have to be used with caution, avoiding excessive generalization.

The database consisted of totally 911 answers from citizens aged twenty or above, in the eight selected municipalities, since they had only a few years before gone through an amalgamation.[4] The respondents were asked questions on most service areas covered by the municipalities and whether they thought the services had improved or deteriorated since the amalgamation. We selected the results from questions on four different service areas, as well as the question on services in general. In this data set, we do not have the “time since amalgamation” variable but instead the “centre-periphery” variable, which is constructed the same way as in the leader survey from the section above.


Citizens, services and centre-periphery

Our first analysis is of the citizen’s views is in their evaluation of the development of services in general after the amalgamations. Here we found clear differences between the views in centre and periphery where 29 percent in the centres agreed or totally agreed on that the services had improved and not more than 18 percent in the peripheries had the same opinion. As many as 58 percent in the peripheries disagreed or totally disagreed on this – only 26 percent in the centres. This can’t be seen otherwise than showing obvious differences between centre and periphery where the impact of amalgamation on services is clearly seen as more negative in the peripheral parts of the municipalities.

When looking at the specific service areas we first pick out the two posts who are largest with respect to the total municipal budget primary school and social services, and, additionally, two voluntary posts which can be said to be among the most common and important sectors, sports and recreation and kindergartens.

We begin by looking at primary schools. Here we see the same pattern as in the evaluation of services in general but here the differences between centre and periphery are not as marked. Still, the evaluation shows divided views and even in the centres only 34 percent agree on that services have improved since the amalgamation while 19 percent in the peripheries do. Quite a number – more than 40 percent do not see any change after the amalgamation. The difference is apparent and this indicates that the centre and the periphery evaluate this differently.

Next, we look at social services and here we see a pattern very similar to that of the primary school services. The people in the peripheries evaluate the change more negatively than people in the centres. 30 percent in the peripheries agree on that the services have improved, while only 15 percent in the peripheries do. We see a pattern here, the difference between centre and periphery is apparent.

Sports and recreation is a voluntary service post but nevertheless an important part of the modern living conditions most municipalities in Iceland try to provide for their citizens. Here, we continue to see similar pattern as in the other servies; people in the peripheral parts evaluate the development in this kind of services more negatively than people in the centres. Though, the views are in general rather positive compared with the others but still they differ between the central and peripheral parts.

The last question we look at relates to kindergartens – another voluntary service post but still necessary and most, if not, all municipalities try to provide it. The results continue to show us similar patterns – both negative and positive evaluations but more negative in the peripheries. A considerable proportion of the people in the peripheries see improvement in this post.

In table 3 we show the summarized differences between centre and periphery in all the services we asked about. Lets keep in mind that these figures just show us tendencies and we are not allowed to generalize too much due to our sampling method.



Table 4. Overview of the Icelandic citizen’s views on the impact of municipal amalgamations on the services by residence in eight amalgamated municipalities.


To sum up our results from the 2013 study, we conclude that the patterns we got are very similar to those in the local leader’s survey. The general pattern is that people coming from and living in the administrative and service centres are more positive towards the impact of amalgamations on services in general as well as on four selected service posts. Those who live the peripheral parts seem to be more negative, but we can hardly conclude from our material that there exists any deep discontent. It is interesting to see that the general evaluation of services seems to be more negative than that of specific service areas. In this section, we have to keep in mind that our analysis is grounded on a snowball sampling method, which limits our possibilities to generalize. Still, we see similar patterns here as in the analysis of survey results among local leaders where we made a total sample.



This article has attempted to analyse material from two separate databases from surveys where the respondents were asked about their perceptions of the impact of municipal amalgamations on the quality of services in their own municipality. The survey was conducted among elected local politicians in Iceland (2015) and the other research among citizens in eight municipalities, amalgamated in and around the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. In our analysis we have mainly been concerned with the possibilities of varying impact between different parts of the municipality – the centre and peripheral areas.

The results from the local leader survey have shown us that the time perspective appears not to matter with regard to perceptions of how municipal services are evaluated after amalgamations. On the other hand, the local leader survey shows significant differences between perceptions in the centre and the periphery. In all four questions asked about services, local leaders from the peripheral parts evaluate the impact more negatively than their colleagues in the centres, where services and administration are more concentrated. However, generally, the local leaders evaluate the impact of amalgamations on services as being rather positive. The analysis also shows us that service quality does not seem to be equal in different parts of the amalgamated municipalities. The centre-periphery divergence is apparent, though without any dramatic differences. Those are the most significant results gleaned from the local leader survey.

Results from the 2013 citizen survey have to be handled more carefully. As we have underlined earlier in the article, the sample in the citizen survey was non-random. Therefore, no generalisations can be made on the ground of the results. We are only allowed to talk about indications at the most. Although the questions in the citizen study were not exactly the same as those used in the local leader survey, they also focused on services and how the respondents perceived their development after amalgamations. To put it briefly, the results from the citizen part point in the very same direction as those from the leader survey. There is, for example, a significant difference in how people in peripheries and in the centres evaluate the development of services after an amalgamation.  All the tables above show people in the peripheral parts as being more negative or less positive than those in the centres. However, the perceptions seem to be mixed. In some cases, people in the peripheries see a positive outcome of an amalgamation and in others a negative outcome. The difference between the two groups is largest by far in the question where people are asked to evaluate services in general. When asked about specific services such as primary schools, kindergartens, social services and recreation and sports, the same pattern is also apparent but it is less evident than in the general evaluation. Again, it should be noted that the results from the citizen survey support the other results. Thus, there seems to be a good match between how citizens and the local leaders perceive the development.

The research project by Eythórsson and Jóhannesson (2002) returned a similar pattern. However, in that case only social services and primary schools were evaluated. In this study we have broadened the range and showed that when looking at several large and important municipal service areas, the rift between centre and periphery is very much in evidence. As for municipalities entering into amalgamations in the role of little brother, it is probably sensible to conclude that in those kinds of reforms you win some and you lose some.



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[1] See also in Eythórsson (2009) and Eythórsson (2011).

[2] Cf. http://www.samband.is/media/skyrslur-og-utgafur-hag–og-upplysingasvid/Enskur_Baeklingur_mars_2016.pdf

[3] Local Governments. Facts and figures. http://www.samband.is/media/skyrslur-og-utgafur-hag–og-upplysingasvid/Enskur_Baeklingur_mars_2016.pdf

[4] In the eight municipalities there were about 15500 inhabitants in 2013. Roughly 70% of them were 20 years or older. That means that our 911 respondents are about 8-9% of that population.

Outline of Fading Empire


It is strange.


No-one knows how to present a worldview; where to start, what to say, where to stop.


The Big Book of Worldviews is a collection of failures. In each section the writing slips away.


They say that when writing slips away it leaves the process stranded on the surface of the sentences like ghosts.


When I open the book I find bookmarks and food wrappers, grocery receipts and other bits of paper, elements of the transactional frames that oriented previous readings.


Sometimes I use them to block out words. Other times I arrange them across the floor into a path: I imagine my carpet a swamp and jump across it; one, two, three.


But I do not go anywhere.  


There is nowhere to go.


I never lose myself in The Big Book of Worldviews. I’m always of aware of hanging in the air looking at worlds as if I am not in one. The longer I stay there the less I exist.






























There was a time we would find cars stopped in the road. Each was sealed up tight.


People gathered to look at the occupants suspended inside, their hair and clothing drifting about like seaweed.


I would say: The crisis poured through the radio and drowned them. Someone else would say: There is no crisis.


And we would go back to silent looking.


Sometimes there were one or two; others an entire neighborhood.


We never knew what happened.


After a while, we got used to it.






























When people finally rose up, they swapped foreground and background. The security apparatus took control.  They put the former leadership on trial.  They defined enemies and disappeared them.


They appointed a nice man to represent them. The nice man came on television and told the people that he loved them.


The people wanted to believe him. 


The people were wrung out.  


The people wanted normal. 

The revolution disappeared into archives, works of art that migrated to galleries and film festivals, reference points for popular songs and a fashion of being photographed in the same clothes and poses as before. 

Everything is as it had been. No-one has what they wanted. Every overlap of realities is thrust and parry. Everyone watches everyone and waits for a mistake.















The Leader






The Leader sits in a chair. The Leader looks out a window.



That morning The Leader had been summoned to a meeting with the military high command.   He was surprised to see them in dress uniforms.

One said:   Those powers you granted yourself?  We don’t think so.

You can’t talk to me like that.  I am commander-in-chief.

Another: No you aren’t.


Later, the speech he gives will be the same speech as every other: democracy; enemies; emergency.


The crowd will be an orchestration based on the latest demographic information. Camera men and technicians will have compared angles and breadth of field against the event design. The way the crowd fills the screen will say: You, the nation, are watching: they, the others, are on the streets.


While the lighting designers make their final adjustments The Leader will rehearse the choreography of expansiveness and determination above an empty square.


A cue card will sit on the podium: Wait for the applause. Stand back. Let it sink in. 














Another night, the Leader watched himself on television.


Maintaining balance requires the temporary suspension of the pretenses of democracy until we can fashion an adequate framework for their return.


We are caught in Amorphousness.


Events hurtle forward.


We cannot act. We cannot fail to act.


As he watched the footage, the Event Choreographer gave him notes.





Now the Leader sits in a chair. None of this was supposed to happen





The Leader’s mind drifts.


Every afternoon, he passed by where she lived and every afternoon she was there. They looked at each other through windows.  


He wanted to stop and speak with her. But she made his mind go blank.


Rounding the corner he would imagine an alternate possibility.


I am here with nothing to say.  


That would not be good: at least not at first.


He kept walking.



















The nation watches TV. It says everything is grand but in ways that show something has changed.


Legitimacy is a machine that spins: its motion is easy to maintain but difficult to restart.




The Leader is indecisive in a shifting situation. The deep state does not care what the direction is, only that there is one. The military tries to remain invisible. But it is waiting.


The perimeters of power are complexes of metal barriers and riot police.




Beyond them, when the people inhale they become one: when they exhale they scatter again. The hive mind that links them is buzzing. What will happen if we do not lose?


It is hard to imagine beyond what exists so what exists becomes the horizon.




Once magical workers created revolution in factories and each top-down party claimed to understand that better than anyone else. But no-one believed them.


There is always something you cannot see and something you make up to replace it.













The Leader






The head of the Leader is between her legs when the news begins.


He hears his name and constitution then he hesitates: she pushes his head closer and sighs.


There is an announcement of a referendum her movements intensify clips edited from his speeches she lifts herself from the sofa.


He no longer controls his image.


O how he tries to not think about that.


She pulls his head up by the hair like John the Baptist.


Seriously?  she says, pushing him back.


It’s important he says as she is standing up.


Wait for sports as she is walking away.











Much later, the Leader lay in bed watching Conestogas and other characters from dime store novels move through a series of Los Angeles canyons and justifications of genocide and thinks: Those people played the game correctly.


















Then a team killed the referent. The war should be over.  The corpse was moved in hurried secrecy to an air base and flown from there to the capital. The order originated somewhere as if bureaucracy itself was acting on its own. 


When it arrives a group of high military officials enters the hum of the cooling system and neon buzz. They gather around a table in the center of the white cube and looked at the puffy bruised face poking out from the top of a strange green plastic bag.  


The refrigerated interior feels like the end of an era. 


Finally, one of the officials speaks.   There was a time when the head of the enemy on the end of a pike would be paraded through the capital in triumph.  


We have already had too much trouble due to breakdowns in packaging.  


This will not play well on TV. 


Gentlemen, we have reached a pass where achieving an objective is a mistake. A good objective must always race just ahead of us.  This situation can only be seen as an operational failure.   Our activities exceeded their ambit and have put us in an awkward position.



Later as a television story unfolds of surveillance technology and weapon systems, the strange green bag follows a ship’s anchor down and down through the depths of the ocean.  The order had originated somewhere as if bureaucracy itself was acting on its own.



























This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule.  The answer was: if any action can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it.  And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.


It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the course of our argument we give one interpretation after another; as if each one contented us at least for  moment until we thought of yet another standing behind it.  What this shows is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call “obeying a rule” and “going against it” in actual cases.


Hence there is an inclination to say: every action according to the rule is an interpretation.  But we ought to restrict the term “interpretation” to the substitution of one expression of the rule for another.



















The Splice














Sometimes the film breaks and the actors and actresses find themselves in the projection booth or wandering the hallway by the popcorn machine.


I herd them back toward the booth and tell them that if they stay put, I can get them back to their plotlines.


I admit that I may look at an actress and think that I would be just as open to physical expressions of gratitude as the next guy…but they look so bewildered and vulnerable.


Even I have limits.  


I make the splice and rethread the film. As the projector starts up again, I look away because getting absorbed in a loop is an intimacy not easily shared with a stranger.



































The television broadcasts game shows for their rules given in advance, commercials because you do not burn down the store if you do not like a dress, programs about the Leader for how it makes him sad to see his children unhappy and brief reports of clashes and casualties.




Beyond TV the streets go pop pop pop.


Paramilitaries move through neighborhoods.


Everywhere the teetering is palpable.


The Leader feels weightless as a balloon.



































Do not look be fooled by shiny young things.


Do not be taken in by their promises.


They are dreamers. 


They do not know.


The Leader loves you.





















Drone Operator












When I put on the goggles I become a god who watches over people in distant places. I get to know them through their patterns. I feel close. I do not want them to disappoint. My vengeance is implacable when they do.


On the way home I stop at the supermarket. The cashier asks me how my day has been. I do not know what to say. This morning I killed some people. So I smile.


I am quite apart.


When I need to get away I drive up into the mountains to the series of names that mark the edge of the world. Every time I stop I see snipers. They wave at me. I wonder who they are and where they come from.


I dream in infra-red.






























In my dreams I sense my extension.


I am subject and object, predator and prey. 


I am a meteor that shatters bodies and buildings.

I am the hell from war movies.


I am superimposed layers of time.


I am an infrared space of blood and spatter.


I am an anglerfish in an oscilloscope among maps of waveforms.


I am body parts that reassemble and dance.


I hear them howling into storms of noise.


I hang in the air and look at the world as if I am not in it.


The longer I stay the less I exist.





















I see everything there is flickering infrared.


I see the incantations of time.


I see the capital flows and voices that bounce between the satellites.


I see the mass dream, the spaces in which it is open and where it is policed.


I see city streets and moving cars, geographies of fracture and pain.


I see the transient gardens that teargas makes as it drifts through the air.


I see the neighborhood I am from flickering infrared.





















Drone Operator





I watch barometric pressures form into aerial equations.


I adjust the tin foil on the rabbit ears.

Through intermittent squalls I monitor the arrangements of share prices.





Everything is lining up.





The electricity cuts out so I go walking.


The ground beneath my feet is peeling skin.


I stop by Asbestos Mountain to watch the wind, filigreed & black.




The sound of every passing tanker is a swirl of devils.


I pull my scarf around my face.





When Christmas lights repeat my house I go inside.


I pour a shot of whiskey and turn on the TV.


There is nothing on except game shows and war.























The Leader loves you from a billboard over a locomotive of cylinders, rods and diamonds with open metal spinning flower wheels that shudders a plane of smoke and indeterminacy through a network of electrical cables, cracking towers and tongues of fire. The Leader’s love is dense with tags. Here I am.




































The Leader’s actions inadvertently revealed that power is held by the state: appointees control continuity; change is superficial.


That was not what the people wanted. It brought them onto the streets.


Now the perimeter of power is in the shifting battles among the barriers and tear gas.


The police break unauthorized cameras and observers.


The Nation watches official footage stream from their TVs.


Both People and Nation make themselves within circulations of images. Each image moves through a climate that aligns it with premises. The world is made from derived conclusions. The city intertwines them into accidental arrangements. 


Everywhere is the sense that something is slipping away. Everywhere is an image that circulates through particular spaces. Everywhere is ineffable. 



































Everyday life is walked across a net.  The ground on which the net was laid is dissolving. Everyone continues their routines. The net pulls around them.  They struggle to get out but their thinking is circular. No-one has a plan.



























Journal of Failed Institutions

English Abstracts







An analysis of the implosion of traditional (Marxian) revolutionary theory by the withdrawal of consent in the context of overlapping top-down repetition based media environments. A description of how this rendered largely invisible the crumbling Marxist Imaginary. How this enabled such indications as did surface to be contained in the language of loss of faith. The implosion, which had multiple centers and which was spread over a considerable duration, crystallized at certain moments as something that had already happened.  There follows a brief consideration of the implications of a collapse of a sense of horizons that lay beyond the immediate.  The question is posed of beginning again.  The author has no sense of who he is talking to.  The considerations are vague.




This critical piece outlines the problem of analytic writing in a situation of ideological paralysis.  The position of the reader as one hanging outside the world affected by paralysis, reading sentences that assimilate it back into a meta-register that is not affected is discussed, along with the problem of how that register assimilates everything back into a version the same.  The more vexing question of how to proceed in the face of the above is outlined. But awareness of the contradiction between that project and the stated problem of analysis progressively undermines the writing and grinds the paper to a halt. 




A second piece by the same author takes up the problems of writing in a situation of ideological paralysis using less self-undermining premises.  The earlier position regarding analysis is retained as a structuring assumption. The project then moves through a series of spaces shot through with interference.  The results are indeterminate as to genre.  The argument, if there is one, amounts to: this is a mapping of paralysis. But a map is subject to interpretation, and the work of interpretation recapitulates the problem of analysis.  Perhaps the rejection of analysis is self-blinding. No good alternatives present themselves. The paper breaks off.


























In the beginning claims they made were ethical. We will bring the greatest good. We will bring prosperity. We will make you safe. These claims cannot be falsified. They are a tone of voice that invites you to survey a landscape of wreckage and see it as other than it is.
























Event Choreographer



Q. How do you see your role as event choreographer?


For a major political event, the multitude that fills the screen is a composition based on the latest demographic information. The Nation sees itself watching. The Leader is a television Charlemagne.


In the control booth I conduct a symphony of video feeds and sound. My crew is most responsive. My movements, made continuous and unbroken, become the movement that links the many to the one to their destiny.


Of course, the importance of event design cannot be overstated: the set design and positioning of cameras, the hiring of the caterers and the small amounts of tranquilizers that we give spectators so they feel content during the expositions, don’t fidget about or show impatience, while allowing them to still get excited at the appropriate moments.


So we are meticulous in our preparations. Then we improvise.


It’s all about rhythmic continuity.  We do not impose it. We couldn’t if we wanted to. We find it. We bathe in it. The rhythm comes from the cycling of electricity and the pulses that move liquids through pipelines. These regularities are knit into the cadences of peoples’ speech.


People—communities—nations—-are figures spread out in time. These figures are rooted shared rhythms.


We merely condense and heighten them.

We do not exercise power. Power exercised is power made fragile.


We organize the dance of consent. 



Q. What do you think of the current unrest?



I do not watch events.



Q. Would you care to clarify?



We are not concerned with details.   We do not provide messages. We leave that to the private sector.

We encourage the multiplicity of positions. We encourage debate. At times that debate spills into the streets. This does not perturb.  



We do not want to dominate. Domination is inefficient. We simply maintain boundaries.  










































Rumor of Arbitrary Disappearances




He was moving among the exploding snakes of tear gas when they came.


He was pushed into the back of a car.


A rag was stuffed over his face.


When he awoke was blindfolded.


He could feel handcuffs and leg irons.


When they stood him up, they removed the blindfold.


Someone said: The decision taken here will be immediately carried out.


Now he has been walked to a gathering by a fire.


Standing on a beach watching shadows huddle around a table, he imagines himself feeling his way along the end of this dreamtime until he finds a seam and climbs through it to the space occupied by the story with respect to itself and becomes one with the narrator who sees without himself being seen.


He looks toward the edge of a black plastic sea.


A call will arrive: they will say “Keep an eye on him” and drive away in their cars. In the confusion he will use the key George Washington gave him to unlock the irons and slip away, running until he hits the edge of continuity like a bird hitting mirrored glass.


He stands flanked by two men with another behind him.


One of the people by the table turns and addresses him.


You have been chosen by lot.


It does not matter who you are.  


He watches the mouth of the Other move.


He can no longer speak their language.


Tranquility courses through him.  


Perhaps he has already escaped.


He cannot move his arms or legs.


He looks up into a night full of waver.





















































Everywhere you look you see Bartleby blocking traffic, Bartleby obstructing trade, Bartleby violating the prerogatives of private property, Bartleby inconveniencing with his I would prefer not to, Bartleby who does not want anything except to embarrass the regime.


























The State of Emergency Show




The set design and reddish-brown lighting gives the theater the feel of a tavern scene from a Pieter Breughel painting.


The actors sit around a table, drinking and playing cards.

Soon an actor stands and moves to the foreground. He says:


The State of Emergency Show started long ago and there is no end in sight.


We have reached the end of one cycle. Here another begins.



As you can see, we sit around a table playing a game of cards. Who speaks and what they say is determined by the game.


We are a map of the world. We restate what everyone knows using an ontology particular to ourselves.


Security representations exclude security: we map security back in.


The military writes itself into the landscape: we erase the landscapes around them.


We are a state of exception: we are coterminous with everyday life.



Feel free to come and stay as long as you like. Or go do other things and return.


We will still be here.


If you feel inclined to come up on stage, we will deal you in.


That is how we grow and change.



There are rumors that we drink heavily throughout our performance.


I assure you those rumors are greatly overstated.



The actor smiles and holds up a tankard in a toast.




The actor sits at the table.


The card game continues.



Soon another stands, obviously drunk. The other wears a general’s hat. He says:



We are the nervous system of the nation-state.


Our activity is the container within which social being unfolds.


We are the present that monitors the present.


Because the enemy is probabilistic we hold up algorithmic mirrors.


We wait for the enemy to appear.

We are continuous war.





































Elsewhere is a low-rise facility in which the new invisible proletariat moves metal tubes through work stations, cutting them to spec and bending them a few degrees to the left. Elsewhere is a resort where she lay on a chaise lounge watching walls of water move like solids until the surface tensions fracture and the wave collapses into a clap, each followed by another message to decipher as you reach for your mojito and look the length of her legs, your lingering on an arrangement of moles accompanied by a clap of collapse and she turns to look at you from behind sunglasses that erase her eyes and replace them with holes.


Elsewhere is the containers that arrive for famine relief filled with left plastic stiletto heeled shoes and millions of razor blades because you know how easy it is to break a heel in a drought and a gentleman needs to shave. 

Elsewhere is an arrangement of people wearing business suits who sit in lotus position along a low-tide line, eyes closed, jackets and ties adrift in the rising water, waiting for something to occur to them.

















The Leader

















Before The Leader was The Leader, he looked and looked for something until he forgot what that something might have been.


But he continued to search for this thing that he had forgotten and emptied himself out in the doing. He made himself a function. Now situations define him. He becomes what you want to see.


But I feel The Leader dissolving. Consent will not be orchestrated.   There was a referendum and no-one voted.   Such stubbornness and ingratitude after all I’ve done.

























We look for what is hidden in plain sight like those drone operators who find themselves in front of the infrared exoskeletons of the world they are from searching for the points where a bureaucratic reality intersects with the enemy’s horizontal surfaces.


There are no secrets. 


Consider the national security state.  We know that it is sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. We could map its extension, but the map would be endless. We could say what it costs, but the tally would be infinite. So there is no interest in knowing.


Concealment is needless expenditure.






The state allocates funds for our use, so we make the geography of institutions.


We gather data from e-book readers and cell phones to construct maps of the ways ideas move around.  


At first we said: We know who reads what and where. We have abstracted figures and made them actionable. If X performs the movements that associate him or her with an idea dangerous to the state, X becomes a target.


But Ideological Forensics declared that an outmoded approach.






Now I maintain the database on my own: I chart the dances of activation and forgetting, sedimentation and variation and watch the world being made and remade there.























The presidential palace is a network of barriers, a grove of antennae, a backdrop for broadcasts, a bristle of weapons systems, a knot of transmissions, a skein of referrals.


The presidential palace is simultaneous press conferences, gatherings of courtiers, images that were to be sent to mobile editing rooms replaced with the pre-packaged interactions provided by the helpful persons of the Press Office a real time saver, they say, we know how busy you are with all that breaking information and the doorways you must stand near in case the Important walks through.


The central square is jammed with people in the swelter and traffic and dust and the messages that transform it from one kind of space to another, from circulation to liberation, continuity to refusal by a reversal of polarities.


She is drawn to the swirling energies. A radiant moth she relays slogans. She moves discussion to discussion. She takes it all in. She works her way to the front lines of confrontation with the police. She looks around for informants. She thinks: Half of these people work for the FBI.

















Detail View















Like all of us he finds himself in an environment of video feeds, tracking signals and monitored written communications all packaged as benign concern. It’s for your own good. You’ll never go missing.


He is shaped by economic conditions and adaptation toward the elimination of what is unnecessary. The restriction of his movements is accompanied by increasing pressure.  


Late at night over a bottle of bourbon he plays a game of Russian roulette.   When he loses, no electronic devices will signal: no-one will be notified; no search parties sent out. He will become details spattered about a room, invisible as the corporate persons who hide among the tax havens.




















The Secret Lives of Generals




Accompanied by a wave of silence and another of flashbulbs, The Leader enters the press conference.


The prepared statement he reads is the same as every other: democracy; enemies; emergency.


The networks had preceded the event with grainy photographs by swimming pools and chains of compromising text messages.


The reporters want to know about the secret lives of generals.


The Leader talks about strides forward how we are all in this together.


But the secret lives of generals will not go away.


He adheres to the strategic line of not dignifying with a direct response


Inwardly, The Leader is pleased.


The press conference is being carried live.








What offended were not the indiscretions but their banality.


Risking everything should be beyond vanilla sex and protestations of undying love with interns who treat their situation like a Cotillion.


The Generals should be more something: more imaginative; more intelligent; more ruthless; more amoral.


That would justify the arrangements.


But The Generals did the same thing The Leader would have done.


It ran against his sense of hierarchy.











The Leader in a series of business suits steps down from a series of helicopters. 



The Leader is a lifestyle. 


He is in demand. 


The Leader is the guest of honor at parties. 


He is the center of attention. 


The Leader makes friends and influences people. 


He elicits the yes yes response.


The Leader reads Machiavelli on the weekend.


He drives a little red corvette.


The Leader is modest about his accomplishments. 


He struggles with golf.



The Leader is different because he loves you. 


The Leader loves you because he is you. 


















The Empire talks of freedom but relies on debt peonage to force open markets for agricultural overproduction.  So freedom means freedom from necessity for shareholders in the corporations that benefit from this arrangement.  The Empire is built on weapons sales. When a war breaks out involving those weapons, The Empire dispatches negotiators most attentive to detail and process to broker a slow end to hostilities. These negotiators act as if they know nothing of how the weapons systems used by the combatants came to be in that place.The Empire is a maze of bounded rationalities within which well-intentioned people carry out well-intentioned policies to the exclusion of feedback loops that would connect them to outcomes.  The Empire is spaces made of mirrors.The Empire devotes most of its resources to the elimination of The Enemy.  The Enemy is the consequence of the Empire’s actions.  The Enemy will never be eliminated. The Empire is a war on itself.


The Empire does not record its deterioration.  It leaves that to the servants who archive things. 















Interior Ministry Note:


This tract was found on the streets in front of the Presidential Palace.

We have it on reasonable authority that it was written by one of our people.


Outline of Fading Empire



















In the waning days the old stories do not hold.   In the waning days language becomes thin and ghostly. In the waning days none of this registers. In the waning days people cling to routines.


In the waning days, trapped inside obsolete maps that distinguish up from down and figure from ground people see the world as given in advance as what is slipping away.