Tuesday, July 17, 2018

James Hobson - Dark Days of Georgian Britain

History bookshelves groan under the weight of books devoted to kings and queens, famous generals and well known figures. Rarely do ordinary people get a look in, and it is even rarer to find a book devoted to their struggles. This is particularly true of the Regency, a period in English history where, if one was to focus on the output of television drama departments, everyone lived in a country house.

So it is with pleasure that I review James Hobson's Dark Days of Georgian Britain. Hobson begins with two quotes to illustrate his central thesis, one from Jane Austen's Emma where the titular character is described as living twenty-one years "with very little to distress" her. The other from Karl Marx noting that "the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle". It's an excellent juxtaposition, for the book deals with, both the actuality of those class struggles and the society that bred them.

The Regency period was not one were it was pleasant to be poor. England was in a period of transition. It was rapidly moving towards a society where the urban population would outnumber the rural, and the transition was painful for the majority of the countryside's population who were being forced from their land into poverty. It was, as Hobson, explains "a new society; one where it was every person for themselves and previous mutual obligations between the rich and poor were dissolving." The rich, of course, justified these changes as being either natural or inevitable. The poor existed so that there could be rich people, though the wealthy seemed to work hard to make life worse for the lower classes. As Hobson concludes,
Two sets of conflicting ideas existed. Britain was still a community-minded society where the rich felt the need to help the poor under certain conditions. However it was also one where market forces and laissez-faire economics were all the rage, and were used to condone the suffering of the poor. A more fatalistic view of suffering was developing as Britain industrialised.
Whether these changes were laws to maximise profits from agriculture, or changes to the game laws to prevent the poor catching and eating food, ordinary people resisted. Mass protests, demonstrations, riots and occasional strikes shook the establishment. Hobson looks at a number of these, including food riots and in two excellent chapters he discusses the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 though a discussion of the "establishment cover up" and the role of women. The latter is particularly interesting, highlighting the way that the role of women in the protest was considered shocking to the press and establishment, despite the attacking militia having no qualms in attacking both sexes indiscriminately. However many of these women had deep roots in radical movements that would continue long after the massacre; Mary Fildes was knocked off the platform at Peterloo, and slashed at by a member of the yeomanry but went on "to be an activist for women's contraception and supported the Chartists in the 1840s."

Not all of the chapters focus on resistance. Several look at wider contexts, such as the ideological role of charity, the disgusting Prince Regent, Crime and Punishment and so on. Some of these, such as the chapter on the Irish, remind the reader that divide and rule was a conscious strategy of the ruling class two hundred years ago, and there are some appalling stories of how this racism led to repression and exploitation of immigrant communities on a huge scale. Other chapters, such as the ones on adultery and suicide, show how society was beginning to change, but how it retained many dubious older prejudices.

Hobson's running theme through the book is the similarities between then and now. Economic discontent, racism towards immigrants, under employment and low pay and a ruling class only interested in their own wealth. It's not a bad thing to highlight, though perhaps what is missing is a attempt to explain why it is that capitalism encourages this sort of behaviour. Hobson's book is a good read, entertaining and shocking by turns. On occasion I was frustrated at the poverty of references. For instance Hobson writes about the "Stale Bread Act" and a quick look on the internet brings few references, and I would have liked more information. Also on occasion chapters finish two quickly, leaving questions unanswered. I was, for instance, surprised that Hobson did not write more about Oliver the Spy whose extensive career and unmasking at the hands of brave journalists tells us a great deal about the nature of the period. These, minor, criticisms aside, Dark Days of Georgian Britain is a great readable antidote to all those costume dramas.

Related Reviews

Hammon & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer
Reid - The Land of Lost Content
Navickas - Protest and the Politics of Space and Place
Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For

Friday, July 13, 2018

Greg Grandin - Fordlandia

In the 1920s Henry Ford decided to build a city in the Amazon. He was not the sort of person who was shy of self-promotion so he named it after himself. The purpose was to ensure a safe, cheap supply of rubber for Ford's car factories in North America, but Ford's real dream was the transformation of a section of the Amazon into a recreation of a highly stylised small town America. Doing this required a few things. Firstly it needed an enormous amount of money, something that the Ford corporation had in vast quantities. Secondly it needed land that could be transformed into rubber plantations and urban areas and, most importantly, it needed a large number of people who would work for Ford.

Ford famously built his empire by paying workers much more than the competitors. In theory they were paid enough to be able to purchase the cars they made. But Ford also made sure that his workforce conformed to a very strict set of standards. Alcohol was frowned upon, and often forbidden. Trade unions were strictly banned and Ford's hired thugs were prepared to use the utmost violence to prevent any hint of workers organising. Inspectors were sent to workers' homes to quiz the family on propreity and behaviour, even their sex life came under examination. While Ford liked to argue that he was the epitome of the good capitalist, at home and in the workplace he strictly controlled his workers' labour.

Ford has gone down in history for a number of things. He is credited with the transformation of factory work. Everything that could be done to improve efficiency was done. Today workers in call centres have their toilet breaks timed. In Ford's factory's workers had every movement calculated and analysed. The pay might have been good, but the relentless hard work meant turnover was high. Ford took his beliefs to all the logical, and illogical, extremes. According to Grandin he once sacked 700 orthodox Christians for taking a day off to celebrate a holiday. He believed that cow's milk was unhealthy and forced soy milk and food made from soy substitutes on his guests. Gardin writes, and  quotes one contemporary journalist, Walter Lippmann:
The industrialist's conviction that he could make the world conform to his will was founded on a faith that success in economic matters should, by extension allow capitalists to try their hands "with equal success" at "every other occupation." "Mr. Ord is neither a crank nor a freak," Lippmann insisted, but "merely the logical exponent of American prejudices about wealth and success." 
Importing this to the Amazon was fraught with peril. The rubber trade had brought capitalism to the rain-forest. But Ford brought it on an enormous scale. The heart of this book is the story of the consequent clash. Nature and people had to be shaped in Ford's image, and both resisted!

Firstly the people. Many of those that Ford's employees wanted to work for them in the Amazon had little or no experience of working to the regimes that Ford wanted. Some had no experience (or need) for money and wanted goods in kind - Ford refused to allow this, and so the workers refused to work for him. Others didn't want to work continuously, just enough to earn some money before returning to their own land. Still others wanted to bring their whole families with them. A year or so into the project, when Fordlandia was beginning to work, a huge riot destroyed nearly the whole complex. The trigger was management's insistence that workers had to queue in a canteen for food, rather than being served by waiters, behind this though was intense anger at the regime, the strict clocking in and out, and so on. One of the notable pictures in the book is of a clocking machine destroyed by the rioters.

Secondly nature. Like so many capitalists before and after Ford believed that he could simply force nature to do what he wanted. There's a famous quote from Fredrich Engels where he warns, "Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us..." This was very much true in the Amazon. The stripping of the land required far more work and money than Ford expected and, because he ignored local advice and refused to hire experts, his operations were repeatedly beset by problems. In particular, he and his managers, did not understand that rubber plantations cannot work in South America because of the native pests and diseases. This is why Henry Wickham had to steak Brazilian rubber seeds for plantations in Asia which were free from these threats. Ford's plantations repeatedly failed, costing millions. As Grandin explains, "The Ford Motor Company, with the endorsement of a well respected pathologist with experience on three continents, had in effect created an incubator" for disease.

Today Ford's plans seem unbelievable. He wanted to strip bare a massive area of the rain-forest and build a huge plantation, serviced by a town modelled on his vision of small-town America. Building an electric plant and a dock is one thing, but cinemas, bandstands and an 18 hole golf course seem utterly bizarre. But behind this, as Grandin explains, was Ford's own vision of society. He believed that men like him could transform the world into a system that would provide peace and prosperity through the control of workers and nature. Ford's pride and arrogance failed. Fordlandia was a disaster and as it declined, the aged Ford retreated further and further into his own artificial world populated with antiques and fake town life.

Ford, it should be emphasised, was not some benevolent eccentric. He was a ruthless capitalist, who drove his workers hard and held some extremely offensive views - particularly his Antisemitism, though his racism also affected his (and his company's) attitudes to the Brazilians. His attempts to shape people and nature where of course celebrated by Hitler's Nazis, a group that Ford famously courted.

In the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx and Engels wrote about capitalism's globalising vision:
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
With Fordlandia, Henry Ford literally wanted to create the Amazonian world into the very image of an imagined America. At the same time he wanted to entrap the people into his factories and transform nature into something that could readily guarantee his profits. The story of his failure is brilliantly told by Greg Grandin, and I highly recommend this well-written, gripping history.

Related Reviews

Jackson - The Thief at the End of the World
Goodman - The Devil and Mr. Casement

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Richard Fortey - Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind

When I was much younger, sometime in the 1970s, I had a picture book of animals and rather fascinatingly to me it had a drawing of a living fossil, the Coelacanth fish. I was captivated by the idea that animals that had been alive in the distant past were still alive today. Around the same time I also watched that terrible film The Land that Time Forgot but I don't think I ever believed that there was anywhere were dinosaurs continued to exist.

The Coelacanth jumped into my mind as soon as I saw Richard Fortey's book. Many years later I was still fascinated by the idea that animals could survive into contemporary times. While this is not a history of evolution Fortey does tell the story in a roughly linear way, and so we begin with very early animals and plants to understand how some examples of these remain alive today.

The first thing to point out is that Fortey never uses the term "living fossil". As he explains, no living thing remains still, a species is in a continuous process of evolution, but with some we can see something very similar to their historical ancestors. Sometimes this is because an organisms "niche" the "place where it fits in, earns a living, reproduces" remains constant and so little change takes place. Quite a few of the organisms in this book are like that, particularly bacteria and so on. Others may have evolved elsewhere but found in radically different environments today. Cacti, Fortey points out "are now specialists for life in arid conditions in the Americas, but did they originate in damp forests in Gondwana?"

Despite my youthful enthusiasm for the Coelacanth, I was particularly fascinated by the examples of lifeforms that are close to those that existed very early on in Earth's evolutionary history. Of these the Stromatolites must be the most amazing example in this book. They look like "flat-topped cushions and low pillars, or even giant mushrooms expanding upwards like plush stools".  They are built up by tiny organisms, year after year, and so are not a single organism, but a "whole ecology". Usually such microscopic organisms would be eaten away, but in the special conditions where they are found today, a warm shoreline in Australia, would be consumers are absent. Fossil stromatolites have been found from as far back as the Archean era, up to 3.5 billion years ago. They are found in many different places around today's globe (Fortey recounts finding them in Spitsbergen as an undergraduate) and must have been very common. Seeing pictures of them today gives us a tiny insight into what life was like very early on in its evolutionary career.

As with Fortey's other writings this is highly personalised. His career has taken him to many places to
see many things and this helps make his books highly readable. Unfortunately this book's illustrations are reproduced very badly - in black and white, on paper - and much of the detail is lost. Luckily the internet allows readers to quickly find more useful examples.

Fortey ends the book with a discussion of how these creatures in their niches or Time Havens, face the pressures of environmental change. He points out though, that even if catastrophic climate change wipes out the vast majority of living things on Earth, small bacteria will still be there and that "the wheel of life will have turned full circle". It's a great book that gives an unusual insight into evolutionary history.

Related Reviews

Fortey - Trilobite!
Fortey - The Earth: An Intimate History

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Neil Rathmell - 1549

This is an unusual novel that deserves to be better known. Neil Rathmell tells the story of Kett's Rebellion of 1549, a major upheaval that shook Norfolk as tens of thousands of peasants revolted against rural poverty and the attacks on their communities. Rathmell tells the story from two perspectives; the first from Robert Kett's rotting corpse who recounts the history of the rising backwards to an audience of rats. Kett has been cruelly executed and his remains hung to remind the population of the folly of rebellion, but after death he celebrates the struggle and the value of resisting inequality and oppression.

In the second interleaved story a Norfolk merchant falls in love with his brothers' wife. From this perspective the rebellion is a disturbance that reflects the upheaval in their lives, but is also distant and remote. It is chiefly noticed for the problems it causes for trade, though the family is more closely involved in the rebellion than either of the major participants initially realises.

Rathmell knows the history of 1549 well though it might not be the best place for someone new to the period to start as the novel's structure means the history is told backwards. Nonetheless, while strange in places, Neil Rathmell tells a good tale with a fascinating backdrop.

Related Reviews

Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England
Land - Kett's Rebellion
Flecther & MacCulloch - Tudor Rebellions

M. Jahi Chappell - Beginning to End Hunger Food and the Environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Beyond

A study of attempts to deal with poverty, hunger and malnutrition in Belo Horizonte, Brazil and what this means for food poverty, sustainable farming and wider questions of food sovereignty for the majority of the city's population.

I have been asked to write a full review of this book for another publication and when that is published I shall link to it from this post.

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Vergara-Camus - Land and Freedom
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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Stephen King - The Wind Through the Keyhole

Long term readers of this my reviews will know that I have a great love for much of Stephen King's work and particularly his Dark Tower books. Nearly four years after finishing that epic series I was finally able to return to them by reading The Wind Through the Keyhole a novel set between volumes four and five of the original series. The novel adds little to the actual series, but adds a great deal to the backstory of the Gunslinger and his companions. It also builds on the wider history of the world they inhabit.

Sheltering from a stark-blast, an enormously powerful storm that drops temperatures to freezing and shatters wood with high-speed winds, the Gunslinger is reminded of a story his mother used to tell him. As his companions huddle around a fire, he tells them the story of how he first retold that tale, and thus we are treated to a story within a story. The Gunslinger tells us of his adventures that took place after those described in the forth volume Wizard and Glass. They deal with a mission he is sent on to kill a skin-man, a shape-shifting creature that has been massacring the population of a small mining village near to Roland's home.

During an over-night shelter there, Roland tells tells a nervous witness to a massacre the story that his mother had told him, of a small boys adventure that leads him to become a Gunslinger. Readers hoping to find answers to the great mysteries of the other novels will be disappointed. The book contains little of that, though it does tie up some loose ends and certainly gave this reader a sense of a deeper knowledge of Roland's world and his motivation. Telling more would ruin much for future readers, so I'll leave it there, except to recommend the Dark Tower series once again to those who haven't read them.

Related Reviews

King - The Gunslinger
King - The Drawing of the Three
King - Wizard and Glass
King - The Wastelands
King - Wolves of the Calla

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Wilhelm Hasbach - A History of the English Agricultural Labourer

This classic study of English agriculture was first published by the author in Germany in 1894 and translated into English in 1908, where it was reprinted several times. I read the 1920 edition which has an introduction by the famous Fabian socialist Sidney Webb reflecting the left leanings of the writer.

Hasbach's History of the English Agricultural Labourer is a fantastically detailed work. Some of it is, without doubt dated, and on occasion the constant repetition of facts, figures and dates makes it tiresome to read. But Hasbach manages to show how, within the broad sweep of historical development, the peasant and then the labourer in England's rural economies had their lives transformed. The first chapter looks at the feudal manor as an organisation unit for labour and rent. But Hasbach is only interested in these feudal arrangements for how they frame the later development of capitalist agriculture.

Hasbach repeatedly emphasises that the rural masses were very much the victims of agricultural development in England. They were pushed from their land, had their wages constantly driven down, and faced all sorts of legal restrictions on their ability to improve their lot. Enclosure, for instance, didn't simply remove people from the land, destroying their homes and communities, but those that remained found their lots immeasurably reduced.
As for the great mass of the cottagers and squatters, it is obvious that to them division meant simply that the very backbone of their economy was broken. They had few friends, and many bitter enemies, and were unable to get their case represented in Parliament. They could do nothing, and went empty away....The wastes being divided, shelter and firing were no longer to be had for nothing. Men must either pay or go without. And in very few places was any compensation paid for this loss.
Hasbach sees enclosure not as a simple change to the organisation of the countryside which brought about mass depopulation, but also a transformation in the economic relations. New forms of labour are developed (which he explores in horrific detail) such as the gang systems. This is agriculture designed to maximise profit.

Hasbach looks at how many reformers tried to understand what these changes had done to the population and how things might be improved. A whole variety of strategies were looked at - from the creation of allotments, to the recreation of rural communities. One 18th century commentator, Richard Price who regarded "the agricultural changes mainly from an ethical, social and political standpoint" and had a rather romantic view of the "earlier stages of civilisation" based on small holding farming, argued that there was a need to "drive back the inhabitants of the towns into the country. Establish some regulations for preserving the lives of infants. Discourage luxury and celibacy, and the engrossing of farms".

This is an extreme approach, but it does highlight one problem of the time when discussing the conditions of the poor, one that Hasbach himself repeats, which is the lack of any believe in the poor themselves playing any role in the improvement of their situation. They are passive recipiants of government plans, or reforming strategies. As a result Hasbach also fails to highlight in detail any of the great acts of resistance by the rural communities. In fact, when he does comment on these events, it tends to be in a negative way.
The constant war which the pauper has to wage with all who em,ploy or pay him i destructive to his honest and his temper; as his subsistence does not depend on his exertions, he loses all that sweetens labour.
Later he continues
The demoralisation reached its height when labourers revenged themselves on obnoxious farmers by rick-burning. It was was not uncommon for several fires in one night to proclaim grimly and plainly to the propertied classes the destruction o the ancient concord of the village community.
But at times rick-burning etc became a genuine mass movement in the countryside that went far beyond simple revenge on obnoxious farmers, taking up questions of wages, village organisation and made attempts to democratically control aspects of peoples' lives such as by the removal of particular over-seers. This brief paragraph neglects the strikes, protests and other mass actions of the rural class struggle.


On occasion modern readers will smile at Hasbech's 19th century prejudices. Several times he suggests that part of the problem was that rural labourers were too ignorant to understand their position, particularly in regard to the employment of children. In others his language is very dated, as when he writes that "the prettier and livelier country girls sough situations in the towns and returned no more". But despite this, the book echoes with Hasbech's deep sympathy for the poverty and problems of the rural masses throughout history. This means that his discussions on the family wage, children employment, gang labour and the levels of wages don't ignore that behind all these things are real sufferings that he hopes can be alleviated. Thus he can write in the conclusion:
Up to the present time the two most important stages in the history of the agricultural labourer have been, first, his acquisition of personal freedom and second his severance from land and capital. The first was an historical process, desired by many but... intended by no one. The second was, on the contrary, definitely intended, end as well as means, by many people. They desired to place proletarian labouring class as the disposal of the farmer, believing that such as step was in the interest both of employers and the public.
Hasbach however, can only see the solution as being a return to some sort of closer relation between land and labourer. This means the redistribution of land and a vast increase in the numbers of small holdings. This Hasbach believes, will also bring the added benefit of strengthening protectionism against free-trade, which Hasbach saw as being a driver of the impoverishment of the rural masses.

These are conclusions that are tied up in 19th century economic debates and few will read this book to rediscover them. But Hasbach's book is a treasure trove of detail of the economic lives of the rural population of England, it never romanticises that life, even if it sometimes neglects the role of ordinary people in resisting the changes that took place.

Related Reviews

Whitlock - Peasant's HeritageHowkins - The Death of Rural England
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle

Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer
Hammond & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer
Fisher - Custom, Work and Market Capitalism

Friday, June 15, 2018

Mike Davis - Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx's Lost Theory

Mike Davis is the author of many excellent socialist books, two of which have been highly influential on me - Late Victorian Holocausts and Planet of Slums. I was also highly impressed with his book on Avian Flu, The Monster at the Door. Old Gods is a reassertion of Marxism in several collected essays. I've been asked to do a full review of it for a separate magazine and I'll update this post when that is published.

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Davis - Planet of Slums
Davis - The Monster at Our Door

Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts