Sunday, May 29, 2016

Elaine Graham-Leigh - A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change

Like the author of this interesting book on food and climate change I have been struck by the way that the question of diet, and in particular meat eating, has become central to debates on tackling climate change. In her introduction Elaine Graham-Leigh notes the many ways that advocates for non-meat diets are inserting this message into the climate movement. Slogans that argue that only vegetarian diets can save the planet, or that genuine environmentalists are vegan are common place. But the argument has also reached higher levels, with NGOs, governments and politicians frequently advocating this approach.

Graham-Leigh's book is a challenge to this approach. She rightly argues that the danger is that it fails to address the real causes of climate change, will not actually have the desired effects and most importantly, it shifts the focus of blame for climate change onto predominately working class people.

Unusually for a book on the environment, class is a central part of Graham-Leigh's book. She notes that "as with discussions of austerity, it seems that those who have the least are the ones who have the greatest responsibility to be restrained in consuming it". Graham-Leigh illustrates this by quoting Jonathan Porritt in 2004, who argued that meat-eating was a "moral outrage and a threat to ourselves... and future generations" but that his real problem was with "cheap meat". She argues that "the concentration here on price suggests that what is problematic here is not bourgeois meat consumption, but consumption by the poor, who would not be able to afford to do it if it were priced 'properly'."

This leads to an important insight by Graham-Leigh:
What we are seeing here is the general panic about obesity becoming a vehicle for expressing ruling-class fears about the demands and appetites of the poor, fears which are particularly pointed at a time when working-class living standards are under attack.
Much of the environmental movement sees consumption (of commodities, not just food) as the driving force of environmental destruction. Because of this focus, tackling climate change becomes a question of demanding that people purchase less, eat less, waste less. While there can seem to some logic to this, it misunderstands the nature of capitalism and how the system causes environmental damage.

At the heart of this book is an explanation of how capitalism's need to accumulate for the sake of accumulation drives environmental destruction. Contrary to popular belief, and the hopes of those who advocate consumerism as a solution to environmental problems, production under this system is not driven by consumer demand, but by the desire to maximise profits. The book has some fine examples of how corporations have manufactured needs in order to sell new commodities. Notable among this is the example of the way that processed foods, frequently highlighted as particularly damaging to the environment and health, are preferred by capitalists because the processing itself adds layers of profits.

Thus Graham-Leigh shows how the "choices" people make about what food to buy and eat are not made in a vacuum, but are the result of the nature of the system and government policy. It is also the result of the food system itself, dominated by the interests of supermarkets, which causes enormous amounts of waste at all stages of the food system. Once again, rather than the problem being workers buying too much food and then throwing it away, it is a food system whose major components have a "business model [which] is based on procedures which entail wastage".

The book is an important Marxist contribution to contemporary debates about food and climate change. If I have one criticism it is that Graham-Leigh deliberate ducks the question of the "future socialist society" in her final chapter. She argues that it is "counterproductive... to prescribe what a different society after capitalism might look like". While we cannot "prescribe" it, we can at least argue on the basis of historical experience what some elements of that society might be, and how they can be part of an alternative to capitalism. Of particular importance in this regard is the idea of democratic planning, which I think holds the key to how future societies could deal with the question of feeding the world in a sustainable way. I think it's a shame that Elaine Graham-Leigh didn't explore this a little bit more, as it weakens what is an otherwise important book.

Purchase this book from Bookmarks, the Socialist Bookshop

Related Reviews

Paarlberg - Food Politics
McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Lymbery - Farmageddon

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Ashley Dawson - Extinction: A Radical History

This short book is a brilliant and powerful argument which locates the "Sixth Extinction" in capitalism, and its solution in anti-capitalism. This is an important argument, and one noticeably lacking in most commentaries on the bio-diversity crisis. Elizabeth Kolbert's otherwise excellent and popular book documents the scale of the crisis, but fails to argue that the problem is the system we live under. Ashley Dawson, on the other hand, documents the role that humans have played historically in causing extinction, but argues that the emergence of capitalism has made this far, far worse.
As Europeans subjugated and colonized 'virgin' lands, they dramatically augmented processes of environmental degradation and extinction. The expansion of capitalist social relations through European colonialism and imperialism pushed what had previously been regional environmental catastrophes to a planetary scale. In addition, by transforming nature into a commodity that could be brought and sold, capitalist society shifted humanity's relations with nature into a mode of intense ecological exploitation unimaginable in previous epochs.
The second part of this quote is important, because Dawson argues that it is the commodification of nature under capitalism which, in part,  renders many solutions to the biodiversity crisis as limited, or short term. In an excellent discussion of "rewilding" Dawson notes that the problem with this is that because capitalism is driving a global ecological crisis, rewilding parts of the world can only lead to shrinking islands of nature. But in addition, Dawson also argues that this sort of strategy is also shaped by the needs and perceptions of the developed world. The danger is, that we recreate "European savannas" featuring endangered "charismatic megafauna" and the rest of the world is left to ruin.

The final part of Dawson's book is a discussion about what a radical conservation movement would look like:
An anti-capitalist movement against extinction must also address the fundamental economic and political inequalities that drive the slaughter of megafauna. The extinction crisis should be framed in the context of a new wave of extractivism that is denuding many poor nations, shunting their minerals, flora and fauna to consumer markets in industrialised nations.
In other words, environmental questions cannot be separated from ones of social and economic justice. This means radical demands to dismantle fossil fuel corporations, force the developed world to pay for its pollution and oppose the commodification of nature. But ultimately it means a challenge to capitalism itself. With every day bringing more and more evidence that the planet is on a path towards global ecological catastrophe, and less and less evidence that anything is being done about it, it's hard to fault this revolutionary conclusion.

While Dawson doesn't outline how this revolution will take place - I would argue that only the global working class has the power to challenge the nation states and the multinational corporations - his book is a very important tool in winning people to anti-capitalist environmentalism. As he points out, "the only true conservation is a radical conservation".

Related Reviews

Kolbert - The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics
Smith - Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Colin Forbes - Tramp in Armour

Colin Forbes was the pseudonym of Raymond Sawkins, a prolific writer of thrillers and war novels Tramp in Armour was one of his first, and in its time was an extremely popular novel. Like many war novels of the 1970s it is an improbable tale of daring British soldiers pitted against a ruthless enemy. Forbes spares no blushes in telling his tale, characters are introduced and killed off in a relentless series of set-pieces.

Sargent Barnes, the commander of one of the British Expeditionary Forces few Matilda tanks is trapped behind enemy lines as German panzers' sweep across Belgium and France. Desperately trying to regain contact with the British, Barnes and his crew must make their way to Dunkirk. So far, so good, but Forbes keeps the story running by giving the reader a series of near unbelievable adventures. Barnes' tank must hide under a bridge as a German convoy drives overhead; Barnes has to hide a tank in a haystack as a German convoy drives past; Barnes has to avoid detection by over-flying German planes.

All of this might seem quite silly. Yet Forbes' story telling is surprisingly compelling, even if at times somewhat laughable (at one point Barnes swims in ice-cold water with "clenched teeth" as a result of his wounds). I was surprised to remember much of the plot from reading this as a boy, testament to Forbes' storytelling - or maybe the mindbogglingly unlikely events.

Oddly the book reminded me most of a computer game. In fact the climax is rather like the final boss in some first-person shooter, where the player has mown down hordes of identikit troops and suffered unbelievable injuries, but still continues. I'm surprised it was never made into a film in that era when war-films were simply "goodies" versus "badies". It's no work of art, but it has a certain something... you'll probably find it on the shelf of a tired hotel somewhere in Yorkshire... you could do worse than read it on a rainy Sunday.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Vandana Shiva - Soil Not Oil: Climate Change, Peak Oil and Food Insecurity

I found Vandana Shiva's Soil Not Oil a frustrating read. On the one hand it has some extremely clear, and eloquent explanations of what climate change means to the people of the world, and how the domination of big-business is destroying peoples' lives together with the planet. It also is a important contribution to the debate about climate change because it is written by a leading activist from India, and all too often people from the Global South are seen as being passive victims of environmental disasters, rather than agents for solving the problem.

But on the other hand I found Shiva's explanations weak and unconvincing. On occasion the book descends into unnecessary mysticism, but more frustratingly, Shiva is unable to offer any sort of road-map for getting where we need to be. For instance the author as absolutely right to argue that
the transition from oil to soil is a political transition. It is a transition from undemocratic political structures - which impose globalization and a fossil fuel infrastructure on society and force the large-scale uprooting of peasants and indigenous peoples - to a decentralized democracy in which local communities have a say in what happens to their land and their lives.
But Shiva fails to offer any argument for how this transition might come about.

She quotes the a chief minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, saying "That 63 percent of the population continues to depend on agriculture for its livelihood is a sign of backwardness... From agriculture to industry, from villages to cities - this is what civilization is."

As Shiva points out, there is nothing inevitable, natural or evolutionary about people moving from rural areas to cities, it is a product of economic and political, as well as historical processes. Nor is it, as the chief minister suggests, necessarily progressive. But there is a danger of fetishising the peasant lifestyle, or even, in the case of her discussion about urban areas, low technological solutions. As she concludes:

India can lead the world to a post-oil future of low carbon dioxide emissions because it is still primarily an agrarian economy based on peasants and small farmers.
This is a dangerous proposition, because it suggests the only alternatives are the highly unsustainable economies of the developed world, or the rapidly disappearing localised, small scale agrarian economy.

Peasant lifestyles are dominated by human and animal labour, long, backbreaking work that often offers little reward, particularly because it cannot be separated from the wider economy. A genuinely sustainable and socially just society has to offer more than simply what exists today. So while Shiva's examples about sustainable agriculture, particularly her Navdanya network, demonstrate the real benefits and potential of multi-cropped, organic, low carbon agriculture, they are limited because she fails to address the question of how we get that in a way that offers more than what exists at the moment.

Shiva is right to argue that adopting "an obsolete, outmoded, unsustainable model of development imported from the West" would be a disaster, but the alternative is extremely nebulous. At one point she suggests that what is needed is to "rewrite the rules of trade to favor the local". While this would indeed be a good idea when contrasted to what the IMF and WTO do to economies in the Global South, it is a limited answer when we consider the power of the multinationals and their governments and what they will do to protect the status-quo. In addition, I remain skeptical that a purely local economy is the way forward? Why can't we have a globally integrated economy, but built in the interests of people and planet, not profits.

Part of the problem, I felt, was that Shiva argues that what is taking place in India is the destruction of an already existing sustainable agrarian economy. Rightly, she wants to protect that from the ravages of the IMF and neo-liberalism, but she then falls into the trap of seeing this in idealistic terms. We have to have something more than this.

Ultimately I think the weakness of the book lies in the failure to identify capitalism as the problem. Shiva discusses globalisation, but not capitalism. It is the nature of the capitalist system itself that has left the Global South in poverty at the expense of the profits of the multinationals. Thus it is wrong to argue that what humanity needs to do is "make a choice". What we need to do is end capitalism and replace it with a socially just, democratic, sustainable world.

This review has focused on the disagreements I have with Shiva's book, partly because of other work that I have been engaged in. But this is not to dismiss the work entirely. There is much here of interest to those discussing agriculture and sustainability, as well as questions of economic development. Vandana Shiva is an eloquent and passionate campaigner for a better world and readers will find here much of interest, but it needs to be seen as part of a much wider debate.

Related Reviews

Patnaik and Moyo - The Agrarian Question in the Neo-Liberal Era
Bernstein - Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change
McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Bello - The Food Wars

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Nick McDonell - The Civilization of Perpetual Movement: Nomads in the Modern World

Any interesting, if occasionally dry and over-academic discussion of the role of nomadic people in the modern world. An emphasis on them as political actors, rather than a simple economic category.

I've been asked to review this for another publication so I'll post a link to that review here when it's published.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Peter Linebaugh - The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day

Peter Linebaugh's writing is always wonderful. His easy, lyrical style that seemingly plucks randomly from the history of humanity's struggle against oppression and exploitation, always builds up to a powerful statement of the need for radical change. This short collection of his essays around the theme of May Day is a great read that celebrates our historic struggles, but also Linebaugh's own involvement in the building, and rebuilding, of the left.

In here is the story of the Haymarket martyrs, who were framed for a bomb thrown in Chicago during militant protests that terrified the local ruling class. "Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards" said the Sheriff, and on "Black Friday" November 11, 1887, four innocent men were hung.

Here are also the stories of the immigrants who fought, protested and struck for the right to be properly paid for their labour and the right to dignity at work. The struggles of indigenous peoples, from the Native Americans to the Zapatistas. Here are also Frederick Engels, Karl Marx, Lenin, and Rosa Luxemburg, who Linebaugh quotes on May Day thus:
The brilliant basic idea of May Day is the autonomous, immediate stepping forward of the proletarian masses, the political mass action of the millions of workers.
 Linebaugh criticises Engels for neglecting, in his great work, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific the struggles and existence of the indigenous peoples, but goes on to celebrate Engels for recognising that "the preservation of the commons depends on an international struggle". Such gentle and powerful criticism is a hall-mark of Linebaugh's writing. The final essay collected here is Linebaugh's retirement speech from his university. A powerful denunciation of neo-liberal destruction of education, libraries and books. A celebration of workers who built the university, their struggles and an explicit call for revolution. How the Dons must have squirmed in their seats, and how understated is Linebaugh's comments on his own contribution to the struggle, to scholarship and to education.

One of those who died for the Haymarket events, August Spies, said "There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today". We still wait, and struggle, for that time, but we don't forget those who went before. As Linebaugh finishes, "let the sober vow be recognized again, to unite with the workers of the world. We have the World to gain, the Earth to recuperate".

Buy this book - from your local radical bookshop, not from a multinational - and enjoy Linebaugh's trip through the history of May Day and then rise, refreshed, to fight again.

Happy May Day everyone. Solidarity.

Related Reviews

Linebaugh - Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance
Linebaugh - The Magna Carta Manifesto
Linebaugh - The London Hanged
Hay, Linebaugh, Rule, Thompson and Winslow - Albion's Fatal Tree
Linebaugh and Rediker - The Many Headed Hydra

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