Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mary Beard - SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Mary Beard's latest book is a excellent study of the Ancient Roman world. It is one that has much to offer everyone who reads it, from those who simply like history to those with an extensive knowledge of the texts that Beard discusses and the period covered. From discussing Roman sexuality to poetry; from political processes in the Roman world, to the rise of the emperors, Beard's book is informative, accessible and laced with the author's characteristic humour. Those on the left of the political spectrum will appreciate Beard's approach that argues that
for the most part the great divide in the Roman world was between the haves and the have-notes; between the tiny minority of people with substantial surplus wealth and a lifestyle somewhere on the scale between the very comfortable and extravagantly luxurious, and the vast majority of even the non-slave population, who at best had a modest amount of spare cash (for more food, for an extra room, for cheap jewellery, for simple tombstones), and at worst were destitute, jobless and homeless.
Referring to recent political movements Beard draws analogies with contemporary politics, writing that she will focus on the lives of the "99%" in particular chapters. This is a refreshing approach. All to often you can read history about Rome and conclude that this was a period when everyone but the slaves was wealthy and living a life of leisure. In actual fact, as Beard argues, the vast majority of the Roman population had to sell their labour power to survive, and they did so until they died, or became unable to work. Despite the free grain handed out for Roman citizens, there was no welfare state or pensions system. The majority worked until the end.

Children frequently failed to make it even to the age of ten, with over half dying before that birthday, though once birth and childhood had been successfully navigated, a Roman might have an age-span comparable to our's today. Beard is excellent in drawing out what this meant, for Rome, and for the women of Rome:
Simply to maintain the existing population, each woman on average would have needed to bear five or six children. In practice, that rises to something closer to nine when other factors, such as sterility and widowhood, are taken into account. It was hardly a recipe for widespread women's liberation.
The Rome in these pages is not the shiny marbled opulent capital of a relatively benign imperial power that we often get from Hollywood or novels from the period. It's a dirty, smelly, world, dominated by state violence and political confrontation. A world of hunger and poverty for many, class struggle and political tension. The Roman leadership understood this well, as illustrated by one example. During the reign of the Emperor Nero, a suggestion that all slaves should wear a uniform was rejected on the basis it would make clear precisely how many slaves there were. A piece of information that would have given everyone pause for thought.

Beard argues that there is an inherent difficulty with writing Roman history:
there is no single narrative that links, in any useful or revealing way, the story of Roman Britain with the story of Roman Africa. There are numerous microstories and different histories of different regions...But it is also because, after the establishment of one-man rule at the end of the first century BCE, for more than two hundred years there is no significant history of change at Rome.
Later she describes the Imperial period as one of a "remarkable stable structure of rule and... a remarkable stable set of problems and tensions across the whole period."

But if I had one issue that I found problematic with Mary Beard's book, it was her explanation of what the Roman Empire actually was. Undoubtedly there was stability in the Imperial period, but there must have been growing structural problems which meant that the Empire would eventually break down, or was ripe for collapse when a strong enough external force or forces arrived on the scene.

While Beard discuses in great detail what it meant to be Roman, for those who were in the Roman sphere of influence, what is lacking is clear explanation of the dynamics of Roman society. In fact, what was Roman society? What drove it forward? Was it the booty accrued from warfare? I find this an inadequate explanation. Was it the role of slavery? If so, then Beard's book doesn't really get to grips with this at all. Despite the excellent treatment of early Rome, there's nothing here that really clarifies the role of the slaves, or when Rome became a slave society. Was this a society that depended on the labour of the 99 percent? Or was it one that needed the slaves on the plantations and their mines? Was it both?

So while I enjoyed SPQR immensely and have absolutely no hesitation in recommending it to readers, there were important questions for me that weren't adequately answered.

Related Reviews

Beard - The Roman Triumph
Beard - Pompeii
Beard & Crawford - Rome in the Late Republic
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum

Sunday, April 17, 2016

K.M. McKinley - The Iron Ship

I almost didn't get past the first couple of paragraphs of this book after the use of the word "senescent" in the first line. Close to dismissing it as another over-written book of fantasy that needed a better editor, I decided to try a little more and ended up being sucked into what is actually a well thought our piece of fantasy, despite the occasionally over-descriptive prose.

This is a world of magic in the process of transformation. A new world of science, technology and capitalism is encroaching on the old ways. Money is driving forward new ideas that challenge the established order. Centred on a group of brothers and sisters, the novel is set in a world were historic highly-technological civilizations have vanished. Their ruins promising wealth and power to those who can understand the surviving artifacts. But it is also a world where dangerous magic lies just out of the barely controlled borders.

I was most struck by the sense of change taking place in the book. Here's a sample that captures the mood, that could have been written about characters in the French Revolution,
Guis's family was the newer sort of aristocracy, Gelbion Kressind buying the manse from a bankrupt baronet some thirty years back.... His argument, often and vehemently aired, was that there was nothing special about the old money families. They had come from nothing, so why should they sneer at those newer to high rank who had come from nothing in their turn?
In reality these new aristocrats were coming from industry and capitalism. The titular vessel is a project driven by one of the world's wealthiest individuals, but its a ship whose voyages will still take place within the magical realm dominated by the old order.

I was disappointed that the iron ship made little enough appearance in the novel, only being launched near the end. So I will have to wait for the follow up books, though hopefully they'll be edited with a touch more severity. But McKinley has created an interesting world, with well rounded characters (with some strong female roles as well as the obligatory male wizards and soldiers).

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Robert Paarlberg - Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know

This is not an anti-capitalist critique of the world's food system. In fact, in places it celebrates the successes of the system, and argues that solutions lie very much in reforming and improving existing practices. Nonetheless, for those trying to understand the problems of world agriculture, and its failings, it offers much useful information and data.

Much of Paarlberg's criticisms of the food system have been written about elsewhere. He points out the problems inherent with using too much fertilisers, too much pesticides, too many anti-biotics, as well as the limitations of a critique of capitalist agriculture that simply argues for a return to small scale farming. He notes as well the domination in certain aspects of world agriculture of a few massive corporations (four companies control 80 percent of US beef, for instance. Though he argues this does not have the impact that some suggest, for instance, quoting a US Department of Agriculture 1989 survey that there was "no significant effect on supermarket prices from increasing industry concentrations". Continuing that "Instead of controlling consumers, modern supermarkets compete with each other to attract customers by offering an ever growing array of affordable food purchase options". At best I suggest this is a naive vision of the role of supermarkets, which in the interests of maximising profit have helped distort food production and distribution, as well as consumer choice because of their large capital that can force farmers to comply.

Paarlbery believes that there must be a role for science and technology in feeding the world. He doesn't believe the problem lies with population. This means he rejects what he sees as simple solutions (such as organic only farming) pointing out that this can mean higher emissions of greenhouse gases and larger land use. But to be fair, he also understands the benefits of organic agriculture.

The problem I think is that Paarlberg's analysis doesn't begin from questioning the role of power in society and international relations. For instance, he notes that there are "food circumstances" between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two countries occuopying the same island. The problem he suggests is governance. In "poorly goverened Haiti 45 percent of all citizens are undernourished, versus just 15 percent in the better-governed Dominican Republic". No one would suggest that governments do not matter, but to ignore the way taht Haiti has been a victim of colonialism and imperialism for the last 150 years, is to misunderstand the way that capitalism ultimately shapes the food choices that people (and governments have).

Paarlberg suggests that "eating habits worldwide will continue to converge towards common sets of practises, including an increased reliance on foods purchased at supermarkets; increased consumption of packaged and process foods...a wider range of affordable eating choices, both healthy and unhealthy... but choices available will continue to expand for nearly all. Individual diets will continue to move away from, being ones geographic or economic destiny, toward being instead a result of conscious choice."

I'd suggest that this is not a positive vision. As even Paarlberg notes this "will destroy the natural environment". But it also will not challenge the very real problems with the food system, diet and health. Because the author doesn't attempt to challenge the way that agriculture reflects the priorities of the economic system and the most powerful economies within that, he fails to grasp the limitations of a system that creates hunger and obesity in vast amounts.

Strangely much of the information in the book does imply a critique of the current system. Paarlberg is not a vicious right-winger only interested in the profits of agri-business. His book is very much an attempt to understand what is happening in the world food system and to improve things. He sees both the threat from mass hunger and mass-malnutrition as being two parts of the same coin, but in my opinion he fails to explain what is the root problem. For readers trying to understand the system this then is a book which has much information to help form your own opinion, but for ultimately it is an apology for the status quo and its conclusions are thus limited.

Related Reviews

McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Patel - Stuffed and Starved
Bello - Food Wars

Lymbery - Farmageddon

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Paul McMahon - Feeding Frenzy: The New Politics of Food

In the aftermath of the global food price crisis in the late 2000s a plethora of books were published trying to make sense of what had taken place. Food commodities were supposed to be the most stable, and with various trade protections, there should not have been massive price rises. Paul McMahon's Feeding Frenzy is one of the better books published in recent years on food politics, not least because he resolutely refuses to blame individuals as the problem. He also puts the politics of food in the context of climate change and international trade and argues that the current food system is failing hundreds of millions of people.

A key argument in this book is that population levels are not the problem when it comes to hunger. As is common in books of this ilk, McMahon gives us a whistle-stop tour of the ideas of Robert Malthus and his supporters today, who argue that "too many people" means too many mouths to feed. But even excluding land that is currently forested, or protected by national parks, McMahon tells us there are "1.3 billion hectares of grassland and open woodland suitable for agricultural expansion, a large area equivalent to 80 per cent of all crop fields today". Further, it would be entirely possible to produce even more food, if current agricultural land was used more efficiently. As McMahon points out about Africa this is isn't done because:
The unproductive state of agriculture in Africa and other poor regions is a product not of geography but of political, social and economic failures. The real reasons include poor infrastructure, dysfunctional markets, lack of knowledge and skills, limited access to finance and technology, unclear land rights, harmful regulations and tax regimes, unbalanced trade arranges, and governmental systems that do not serve the interests of the rural poor.
However McMahon understands that there is a problem here. There exists the potential to feed many more people than we currently do, and to feed everyone well who today, but that barriers are political and economic. People starve not because there isn't enough food, but because they are poor. And while we may have the potential to feed billions more, doing it in a sustainable manner is more problematic. Much of this book then is an examination of the nature of modern agriculture and his conclusions are bleak:
the modern agricultural revolution has come at a price. It has been built on cheap and abundant energy, mostly in the form of fossil fuel. Hydrocarbons mot only power the tractors on the farm, and the ships and trucks that carry food around the world, but they are a major input for the production of fertilisers and agro-chemicals.... modern farming can destroy the natural resources on which it depends. Aquifiers are pumped dry; land is poisoned by chemicals; over-ploughed soil washes away; the inappropriate use of pesticides and antibiotics breeds resistance pests and diseases. Farming.... is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions...
So what is McMahon's solution? At one point in the book I almost cheered when he wrote that he was going to defy convention and not tell the reader what their diet should be. Instead, McMahon is highly critical of the economic system that shapes modern agriculture. He argues that "free trade" is not the answer, and even quotes former US President Clinton bizarrely arguing that "food is not a commodity like others". Whether or Clinton has suddenly become a major critique of capitalist food system, I doubt, but McMahon's point remains solid. It is neo-liberal policies in agriculture, dominated by the most powerful nations and enormous corporations that are distorting the world's food system, and turning it into a highly inefficient way of feeding people. Industrial farming is not designed to feed people, but to maximise profits:
Profitability in farming is driven not by high yields but by good margins - the difference between the price a farmer gets and the costs of production. High-input, mechanised farming systems emerged during a time of cheap energy, which kept costs down.
McMahon argues that there are signs that investors are moving towards better economic systems, but frankly I think this is pie in the sky. What investors want is a return, and while it might be profitable to change things while oil prices are high, that may not be a long term strategy for them. I do agree with him when he says that "if we are going to make the transition to a sustainable and just food system this means altering the political and economic framework in which we all operate". And I certainly do agree that the start is to insist, as he does through the book, that governments must take a leading role.

But we have to go one step further. Unless we challenge the powers of the massive agricultural corporations, and unless we stop neo-liberal capital itself, we will see the profit motive destroying land and food. Reforms can limit this, but we have to put the food system and farming back into the hands of those who work the land, produce the food and distribute it. That requires a revolutionary change and while Paul McMahon's book provides much powerful fuel for this argument he pulls up short of a more radical conclusion.

Nevertheless, this is a powerful and useful book for activists and people concerned about climate change and the food they eat. It deserves a read.

Related Reads

Meek - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Lymbery - Farmageddon
Bello - The Food Wars

Patel - Stuffed and Starved

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Seán Mitchell - A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly

The excellent Rebel's Guide series from Bookmarks Publications continues with a timely publication of Seán Mitchell's A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly. This examines Connolly's life, his revolutionary activity and his politics.

Connolly was born in Scotland to an Irish immigrant family where, Mitchell points out, his early life in one of the poorest parts of Britain, his long monotonous, low paid work as a child and his seven years service in the British Army must have shaped Connolly's revolutionary politics. Mitchell shows that Connolly:
beyond his leading role as a labour agitator Connolly was also a self-educated revolutionary who understood the importance of ideas and theory. He was an avid reader and a prolific writer, publishing not only pamphlets and articles but also plays, poems and songs. He was one of the great popularisers of socialist ideas in the English language, but to communicate with immigrant workers in the US he taught himself rudimentary Italian, and was an avid student of Esperanto - the 'universal' language that many radicals of this time believed would one day unite workers around the globe.
Connolly spent time in the US, as an organiser for the IWW union and revolutionary activist, clashing with American socialist Daniel De Leon over how trade unionists should organise and fight.

But Connolly is most famous for his central role in the struggle to build socialist organisation in Ireland, and the struggle against British Imperialism. Here Mitchell's book is particularly good at making clear that Connolly never separated the two questions. Mitchell writes:
Connolly's Marxism led him to the understanding that the Irish National Question was a social question: 'The whole age-long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself in the last analysis into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the sources of production, in Ireland' (Connolly, Labour in Irish History).
Unlike some in the Republican movement then, Connolly never saw the Irish bourgeoisie or landowners as allies in the fight for liberation. Mitchell explains:
The Irish bourgeoisie, according to Connolly, were not to be trusted. Even if rhetorically they supported independence, in the end they had 'a thousand economic strings in the shape of investments binding them to English capitalism as against every historical attachment drawing them towards Irish patriotism' (Connolly, Labour in Irish History).... As he wrote elsewhere, 'No amount of protestations could convince intelligent workers that the class which grinds them down to industrial slavery can, at the same time, be leading them forward to national liberty' (Shan Van Vocht, August 1897).
As the centenary of the Easter Rising is marked this Easter weekend, all sorts of people that Connolly would probably have damned had he been alive today, are trying to link themselves to that historic struggle. Connolly was executed in the aftermath of the Rising, and Mitchell's book ends with a short account of the uprising, its mistakes, and Connolly's role at the centre of the fighting. Mitchell argues that the Rising had a "reasonable chance of success", and quotes Connolly to show that this was not simply a nationalist rising, but one for the Irish working class, "not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist".

The murder of Connolly by the British State will remain a testament to the brutality of the capitalists when trying to protect their wealth and system. Mitchell's book is a wonderfully concise introduction to the life and struggles of a man who was prepared to suffer poverty, personal tragedy and eventually death in the fight for a better world. This Rebel's Guide will both inspire and encourage readers to delve deeper into Connolly's writings.

Order A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly direct from the publishers here.

Related Reviews of other Rebel's Guides

Brown - Eleanor Marx
Campbell - Rosa Luxemburg
Orr - Sexism and the System - A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
Birchall - Lenin
Gonzalez - Marx
Bambery - Gramsci
Choonara - Trotsky

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter - The Long Earth

While this novel is based on an intriguing concept, millions of parallel Earth's that are subtly different (though Homo Sapiens has not evolved on any of them), it never quite came together for me. The best parts were those that dealt with the degeneration of civilisation as millions of people discovered that with the aid of a simple piece of engineering, they can move (step) to another Earth. The spirit of adventure, exploration and the desire for a better life undermine the viability of many countries. In turn the minority that cannot step let their anger and jealousy flourish.

But the rest of the story, based around a deep exploration trip into far-flung parallel Earths never grabbed me. The central story of why some of the non-Homo Sapien species were fleeing away from a particular parallel-Earth seemed flimsy, and our story's heroes spent so little time on some of the more intriguing other-worlds that I was constantly disappointed. All in all it was quite disappointing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ralf Hoffrogge - Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution: Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement

Ralf Hoffrogge's newly translated study of Richard Müller and his role in the development of the German revolutionary movement during and after the First World War is extremely important for students of this period. Hoffrogge argues that historical studies of the period have been dominated by the role of the precursors of the German Communist Party (KPD), the Spartakist League, which was led until 1919 by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. The domination of the KPD on the left from the 1920s onward and then the centrality of it to the story of East Germany meant that historians had every reason to emphasis its role.

Another aspect of this, was that those revolutionaries who did not fit into the narrative, or were critical of the KPD were written out of history. Richard Müller was one of these. Müller was an able and articulate trade union militant organising within the Berlin metal workers. A lathe operator within a crucial war industry he was able, together with his comrades, to build a powerful syndicalist movement. Initially not taking a position on the war, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards rapidly became the heart of growing discontent with the progress of the First World War, leading a number of strikes and protests.

By the end of the war, with the outbreak of the Revolution in Germany, Müller was a central figure in the revolutionary movement in Berlin. So much so, that with the creation of a network of workers and soldiers councils, Müller effectively became (briefly) head of the revolutionary state. Müller was a talented individual, and Hoffrogge ably documents his central role in the heady days of revolution and the months that followed. Müller fought to strengthen the role of the workers councils in the face of domination and betrayal by the "reformist" Social Democrats.

What becomes clear while reading this excellent book, is how unprepared revolutionaries were for events. While acknowledging the very real difficulties, one of the great criticisms of Luxemburg and Liebknecht was their failure to build an independent revolutionary party in the years before the German Revolution. Hoffrogge's book makes it clear how the lack of a clear-sighted party, rooted in revolutionary politics, was lacking. The author quotes a revealing account of the Revolutionary days, when revolutionary soldiers seized a large quantity of cash:
I found Comrade Vogtherr, the secretary of our caucus in the USPD, in distress. A group of soldiers had commandeered a whole truckload of banknotes and dumped the money in the USPD caucus room. Comrade Vogtherr asked me, "What should we do with it?" We didn't know either and finally we decided to put all of the money in a safe in the central bank. My job was then to ensure that the money was transported safely. So we brought the money to the Reichsbank and I would like to say now that we were absolute idiots for giving all of that wonderful money back to the capitalists. At the time we thought that we had the power and the bank belonged to us. That was a colossal mistake. Nothing belonged to us and - as before, the capitalists had the power.
This failure of revolutionary politics was a real limit for the movement, but it was also a failing for Richard Müller. For instance, he for "fear of economic collapse, energetically opposed so-called 'wild socialisation', and not only limited the powers of workers' councils to 'audit' their employers but also failed to give them a means to actually implement even that limited power against the inevitable resistance."

In the months following the failure of the January 1919 uprising, Richard Müller spent much time detailing out how a system of workers' councils might operate. While he emphasised the role of workers, from the bottom up, he was also guilty, as the above examples show, of not really understanding the role of the capitalist state, though Muller's politics were took much from Marx and others, including Lenin.

Muller's close links to the organised working class made it hard for the Communist Party to challenge him when he was critical. Muller even went to a meeting of the Communist International were Lenin helped broker a deal to heal the growing rift between Muller and others in the leadership. Sadly the distortions on the international Communist movement caused by the victory of Stalin sealed the fate for many of the best revolutionaries of Muller's era.

In his later life, Muller drifted eventually becoming a major Berlin landlord and living until 1943. Hoffrogge shows that Muller's actions as a landlord were hardly progressive and the KPD, rather gleefully, attacked him for his behaviour. In his later life Muller appears to have abandoned his revolutionary politics, perhaps though, this reflected the defeats he had suffered as well as his occasionally limited politics.

Hoffrogge's book is a detailed examination of how individuals make a real difference. He has rescued an individual who up until now was barely a foot-note in some of the best histories of the German Revolution, and that is reason enough to read, and learn from this book.

Related Reviews

Broue - The German Revolution 1919-1923
Fernbach - Selected Writings of Paul Levi
Reissner - Hamburg at the Barricades
Trotksy - Lessons of October
Hippe - And Red is the Colour of Our Flag