Monday, March 24, 2008

Jonathan Swift - Gulliver's Travels


Few readers can have failed to have heard the basic tenets of Gulliver's Travels. Written in the 1700s, it follows the voyages of Lemuel Gulliver as he, through a series of misfortunes, finds himself at a variety of stragen lands, populated by even stranger creature.

Most people will have heard of Lilliput - the first land that Gulliver arrives at, where the inhabitants are tiny - six inches or so - but have built a complex civilisation. Gulliver befriends Lilliput's King and in a series of conversations illuminates both his one country's society and the newley discovered one.

The author of course, uses the differing scale between Gulliver and the inhabitants of Lilliput to great comic effect. Some of this is moral questioning, some of it is humourous. Some of it is simple bawdy slapstick - as in the musings that Gulliver gives to the problem of his excretment for a civilisation of such small people.

Eventually, Gulliver upsets the status quo - society can deal with a giant, but not one who breaks social taboos (even accidently). He is forced to flee Lilliput.

The next destination for Gulliver is much less well-known. His voyage to Brobdingnag - a land of giants, as large to Gulliver as he was to the people of Lilliput, allows for further humour, social discourse and comments on the nature of Gulliver's own society. If the children's version of Gulliver's Travels omit the problems of Gulliver's waste in Lilliput, they surely omit the description of the maids in the royal court of Brobdingnag, who appear to use the naked Gulliver as a type of sex toy.

As Gulliver makes further voyages his becomes less of a proponent of the superior nature of English society with it's class system, laws and religious codes, and becomes more and more cynical about human nature. I won't give away the ending, but by the time that we (and Gulliver) reach the end of his voyages, our traveller has effectively given up all hope for man-kind, as well as any desire to spend time with them.

Jonathan Swift's book has, I suspect, spent too much time being read as a humourous account of fantastic voyages. It is really a powerful social critique of human society. From our petty religious squabbles (mirrored by the Lilliputten wars over which end of an boiled egg to start at) to the incomprehensibility of lawyers and our legal system to a society where lying is unknown, this pokes fun at every aspect of our lives. It entertained hundreds of thousands when it was first published and even now has the power to bring a wry smile to anyone out there who reads it today, in our more enlightened times.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Lester R. Brown - Plan B 3.0, Mobilising to Save Civilisation


Lester Brown's book on climate change is unlike many of the myriad of books that have been produced about the subject. His book is geared towards the international strategies that are needed to tackle the problem - or at least limiting emissions so that global temperatures do not rise about the 2 degree mark, and runaway climate change becomes inevitable.

Of course to do this, Brown has to set out the scale of the problem, and even those who have read widely on the subject will once again find themselves scared and nervous. When you read about the 400 million people in India and Bangladesh who are reliant on the waters of the Gangees River, you can only imagine what will happen if that river becomes seasonal. Brown paints a picture of a world where untold millions will suffer drought, famine, disease and war as climate change accelerates.

If Plan A is "business as usual", Brown's Plan B is nothing less than the restructuring and recreation of almost every aspect of society. From how we generate and use energy, to how we grow our crops, to how we travel in our cities. In every case where Brown shows us how our existing setup is leading us straight into catastrophe, he gives counter, real-world examples showing how it's possible to change things to be better and more climate friendly.

Brown points out that the solutions he offers will also benefit mankind. A low carbon world is one that needs high levels of employment. Solving the climate threat should bring wealth and improved conditions to millions of people around the globe.

There are a couple of problems with his strategy. The book finishes with a call for political action, but this is limited to lobbying politicians for environmental taxes. In reality, the changes that he proposes - reducing car use, phasing out oil and coal power stations and so on, will bring down the wrath of the most powerful corporations upon us - and their allies in government. Look at how the car and oil companies have blocked legislation aimed to make cars legally more petrol efficient.

This book has many great ideas, it falls short because it underestimates the entrenched interests of capitalism to resist change - and thus underestimates the power of the movement we need to build to save the planet.

Plan B 3.0 can be purchased through the normal channels. I got mine through Bookmarks, but you can download it for free from the website of the Earth Policy Institute.

Related Reviews

Monbiot - Heat, How to stop the planet burning
Pearce - The Last Generation

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Mary Beard - The Roman Triumph


Unusually for a classical historian, Mary Beard seems to be adept at bringing to life complex periods of history. Her humourous and immensely entertaining blog, uses the past to shed light on the present and often explains the past through the lens of current events.

Her latest book, The Roman Triumph, examines what is actually quite a niche in Roman History. The Triumph, was the much emmulated procession through the heart of Rome to celebrate a general's military victories. While this might seem an unusual subject to make the subject of a complete book, Mary Beard argues that the Triumph "had an impact far beyond the commemoration of victory, and on aspects of Roman life as diverse as the apotheosis of emperors and the passion of erotic pursuit".

The author documents extensively how the Triumph became the subject of ancient historical study and poetry. Images of Triumphs were carved into sculpture and reliefs and lists of those victories Generals who celebrated the Triumph were carved into tablets and displayed at the centre of the Roman capital.

However the study of the Triumph is not simply a study of what happened, who celebrated them and the event's history. It is also a study of how we examine history, and actually what history is. In this regard, Mary Beard is remarkably critical of some modern historians who, it seems, often repeat unsubstantiated information about the Triumph as if it was historical fact. She describes a "process of conjecture, wild extrapolation, and over-confidence" being "how many of the "fact's" of the triumph are made."

There are many other fascinating aspects to this book. I found it interesting how the notion of "Invented Tradition" plays it's role in both the historical development of the Triumph itself and it's study through the ages. The role of the Triumph in creating an image of Roman, for the Roman people itself is also somethign that comes through the work. The Triumph wasn't "intended to reward private brigandage", only those victories that fitted the Roman ideal would be marked in public in this way - military victories in Roman civil wars rarely were celebrated by Triumph. "Romans only belonged on the winning side" of the ceremony is how Beard puts it.

For the Roman people, the Triumph wasn't always simply about celebration. It could be an occasion for sympathy towards prisoners or amusement at the lack of captured trophies.

While military leaders from Napoleon to Hitler have used parades to celebrate conquests, today military victory isn't marked in quite the same way, (though it's tempting to think of George Bush's "Mission Accomplished" display on the aircraft carrier in the Gulf as a mistaken Triumphal display).

What Mary Beard's book does though is remind us that we are part of a long history. A history that is often coloured by the times we live in, but a history that has shaped the our perception of ourselves. Through is insightful and entertaining book, she thus reasserts the importance of studying the past, if only to illuminate our own present.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Larissa Reissner – Hamburg at the Barricades


To live through a revolution is the dream of every revolutionary. To experience the overthrow of capitalism and the first steps down the road towards a new society is something that few have experienced in history. One of those who did is a little known revolutionary called Larissa Reissner.

Reissner took part in the Russian Revolution in 1917 and fought gallantly in the civil war that followed as the imperialist powers tried to crush the new born soviet powers. Of exceptional talents Reissner took part in a number of crucial battles. She travelled to Afghanistan, Germany and all over Russian writing, reporting and working for the Bolsheviks.

The importance of her work is described by the German revolutionary Karl Radek, who writes after her death “They [her articles] shall proclaim what the revolution meant for all peoples, for the West and the East, for Hamburg and Afghanistan, for Leningrad and the Urals”.

After Afghanistan, she went to Germany in 1923, there to witness the aftermath of almost 5 years of revolutionary upheaval. The left in Germany was immensely strong. The reformist Socialist Democratic Party had the alliegance on many workers, though had assisted in the defeat of the Germany Revolution that overthrew the Kaiser and ended World War 1. The Communist party was growing, but was tactically inexperienced and had made a number of mistakes.

Reissner documents the suffering of ordinary workers in Germany in the early 1920s. A time of mass unemployment and high inflation. This for her is the background to the central part of this collection of her writings – the abortive Hamburg insurrection of 1924. Hamburg had a powerful working class, an organised communist party and many armed workers dedicated to overthrowing the existing state. It also had hundreds of thousands sick of poverty, starvation and unemployment.

Reissner documents how a belief that the revolution had broken out across Germany led to a mass uprising and street fighting in Hamburg. She describes the snipers, the arresting of the police and the storming of government buildings. She also describes the orderly retreat and the backlash against those who took part.

The articles are brilliantly written. Reissner is clearly a brave and experienced journalist. Her articles spoke not just to the workers reading them in newspapers back in Russia, but the men and women she described. There is a beautiful article that describes how rising price levels affect different stratas in society – clearly written because she spent a day with the milkman, visiting those who could afford no milk, and those who could afford only the cheapest, through those who had money for the best quality.

While it is bound to be mostly remembered for the accounts of the street fighting in Hamburg, Hamburg at the Barricades is much more than that. Covering all aspects of German life at the time; from the boardrooms of the giant Krupps factories, to life at the coalface, where Reissner went to meet workers and discuss life in Russia with them, the book is a stimulating read and a fascinating insight into the process of revolution.

Hamburg at the Barricades can be read online here, as it's sadly out of print.