Sunday, December 31, 2017

Eric Holt-Giménez - A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism

There is a growing movement of people thinking about how their food is grown, what it contains and its impact on their health and the environment. Often this is tied up with an individualistic view of improving the world - the idea that you can save the world by simply choosing the best food with the least impact on the planet. Eric Holt-Giménez explains he wrote A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism precisely to argue that this approach is inadequate:
This book is intended as a political-economic tool kit for the food movement - from foodies, farmers, farm justice activists, and concerned consumers to climate justice and environmental activists. It is a basic introduction to the economic system of capitalism as seen through the lens of the food system.
In this, Holt-Giménez succeeds admirably. His book is an accessible account of how capitalism works from a Marxist perspective that is focused on the food system, from those who work in the industry, to those who grow the food and how multinational corporations and the profit motive shape the type of food that is produced and how it is grown.

One explain the author gives is the story of the fashionable superfood quinoa. This is an ancient South America staple "poor people's food" which was discovered by wealthy foodies and rapidly became transformed into an expensive export. The locals who had relied on this food for years suddenly couldn't afford it having to switch to "cheap imported bread and pastas for nourishment" and the crop's agriculture was transformed. No longer part of a "complex cropping and animal husbandry rotation system" quinoa instead was grown in huge mono-cultural fields. In turn this displaced the llamas from the grazing areas they've lived on for millennia. Thus the "quinoa boom" gives wealthy western consumers access to a healthy food stuff, but only by breaking up traditional and sustainable food systems in South America - and forcing those peasants to eat less healthily.

The central story here could be applied to thousands of examples from around the globe. In its drive to maximise profits the food corporations transform agriculture into an unsustainable, unhealthy system at the expense of those who produce the food and the planets eco-systems. Much of Holt-Giménez's book explains how this happens and why this is, and one of its strengths is that he never forgets that food is produced by human beings labouring, usually in extremely low paid, exploitative roles. I was struck that the author focused on the peasantry not just as victims of the capitalist food system - people who are impoverished, driven off their land, living in poverty or, forced to migrate in their millions in the hope of better lives - but also as the people who can remake the food system along equitable and sustainable lines.

This focus on the workers and peasants of the system means Holt-Giménez can discuss aspects of food that are seldom acknowledged by liberal foodies - including the racism and sexism at the heart of the exploitative relations between "big food" and "big agriculture" and those who work in them. There is also some useful material here on the importance of immigrant labour to the production of food and while the examples are predominately from North America the same could be said of the UK and Europe (and no doubt many other parts of the world).

Because Holt-Giménez uses a Marxist framework to explain the capitalist food system he has some real insights that might be missed by no socialist authors. One of these is the centrality of the question of what Marxists call "socially necessary labour time". This, in short, explains how the price of manufactured commodities under capitalism is shaped by a rough average of the amount of human labour that goes into producing something. Looking at the example of organic food, Holt-Giménez points out that it should be much more expensive as it involves more human labour - despite the farmer using less expensive "external inputs" like chemical fertliser. So organic food is more expensive, not lots more expensive, because the price is determined "by the socially necessary labour time to produce a similar conventional product". Capitalist agriculture wants to drive this down, to maximise profits, but only at the expense of those working in the system.
Ever since peasants were pushed off the land and made dependent on wages, agricultural labour has been paid far less than its social value (what it costs to reproduce a farmworker's capacity to work), much less what it adds to the price... of food products.... The low cost of immigrant labour works like a tremendous subsidy, imparting value to crops and agricultural land... The effect of criminalizing immigrant labour is to drive down its cost while passing the vale of immigrant labour power up the food chain.
Calls to "fix a broken food system" are misplaced says  Holt-Giménez. What is needed is a radical reconstruction of the food system in terms for farmers, consumers and the planet. He concludes:
Capitalism is the silent ingredient in our food. It means that the 50 million people living in poverty in the richest country on earth - many of whom grow, harvest, process and serve our food - can't afford to be foodies because they're too busy worrying where their next meal is coming from... It is also the food manufacturers' quest for profits that pushes people to consume unhealthy junk foods high in sugar, salt, fat, artificial flavours, and other additives. If we care about people as much as we do about food, and if we really want to change the food system, we'd better become fluent in capitalism.
Holt-Giménez's book explains this system very well - from land-grabs to the centrality of fossil fuel and the persistence of the peasantry. If I have one criticism it is that I felt Holt-Giménez did not go far enough in explaining how a socialist food system, one that arose from a revolutionary movement might work. I wonder if this is because of the failures of the forced collectivisation that took place under the Soviet Union. However a truly collective, democratically organised food industry would work very differently to the Soviet disaster, and would certainly offer the change of a sustainable, equitable and healthy food system. Our vision, as Holt-Giménez points out, must be far more than a fixing of the broken system. But then I think we should try and spell it out more. I have tried in some of my own writings to explore this, and perhaps in the future we'll need a "Foodie's Guide to Socialism". That criticism aside, Eric Holt-Giménez's book is a very important guide to capitalism for those who want to eat healthier, better, more sustainable and with more regard for those who work at every level in capitalism's broken food and agricultural system.

Related Reviews

Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Lymbery - Farmageddon
GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery
Graham-Leigh - A Diet of Austerity

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Peter Watts - Echopraxia

Despite enjoying the first volume of this short series by Peter Watts, I found Echopraxia to be utterly incomprehensible. The story follows the adventures of a biologist Daniel Bruks who is caught up in a space mission to investigate events described in the first book, Blindsight. That novel was marked by some interesting discussions on the nature of consciousness and humanity, as well as a relatively clever first contact plot.

Echopraxia on the other hand is a constant stream of events that are impossible to understand as a story line. Things happen to characters for no apparent reason and are never explained. Characters are two dimensional cut outs that don't engage the readers sympathies. The reason for the space mission is unclear and what the characters are actually doing in space is never explained satisfactorily and in places the author inserts random bits of techno-babble seemingly to keep the reader convinced that this is actually a very clever piece of hard science fiction

The first volume is a decent piece of writing. The second is over-complicated, confusing and in places unreadable. Read the first if you like very hard science fiction and skip the second.

Related Reviews

Watts - Blindsight

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Kohei Saito - Karl Marx's Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature & the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy

Kohei Saito's book Karl Marx's Ecosocialism is a detailed examination of the way that Marx's ideas of what we would today call ecology developed and evolved. Kohei Saito engages closely with all of Marx's work - from his published writings, his unpublished (until recently) notebooks, as well as the margin notes and comments that were made in other peoples' writings. Importantly, Kohei Saito also examines the works that Marx himself read to show how Marx was aware of, and increasingly put the question of the "metabolic interaction" between human society and nature into his critique of political economy.

Key to this is Marx's own understanding of the law of value and his theory of alienation, developed earlier in his life. In places this can be a challenging read, but it is important and very rewarding. I recently selected it as one of my reads of 2017 and hope others will engage with Kohei Saito's work.

I am writing a longer and more detailed review of this
book for a different journal, hence the brevity of this piece. I'll post a link to that when it is published.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Joanne Paul - Thomas More

Thomas More was one of England's most important philosophers. A prolific writer and thinker, his writings and ideas are often neglected today with most people knowing him for his role in Henry VIII's court and his most famous work Utopia. So Joanne Paul's new book that explores and rescues More's work is to be very much welcomed.

More's ideas were very much rooted in established ideas, as Paul explains:
More was heavily influenced by the memento mori medieval tradition, which sought to remind people of their death as a way of dissuading them from sinful living. Fore More, the fleeting nature of this life and of what it contains puts one in mind of what is eternal: notably, our equality and commonality. As we are all essentially the same before birth and after death, we should remember these lessons in our daily lives, avoiding the temptation to feel pride in worldly things; after all, our ownership of them doesn't last very long.
But More was also shaped by the changing world that he was living in. Paul points out that the "unsettled world" of the War of the Roses, the "rebellions of the 1490s" would have played their role in shaping his ideas about society. But More was also challenged in his world view by the reformation, and Paul's book makes it clear that More's response to that showed just how well-rounded and thought through More's ideas were.

Central to this was the sense of the "commonality" the collective society to which everyone belonged. More built upon other ancient thinkers to argue that the collective interest was challenged, or undermined, when individuals started to put their own interests first (pride). This meant that an individuals obsession with earthly riches, or private property, was a problem for the whole of the community as it undermined its unity.

As Paul explains, More was in favour of equality, but did not necessarily think that people were equal.
Part of his [More's] critique of the absurdity of social hierarchy was that it was based on the wrong qualities: birthright rather than merit. For More and his fellow humanists, virtue was what should distinguish people in the commonwealth. This was vera nobilitas - 'true nobility'. Inequality of social position, especially in political rule, could be justified, bit not on the grounds of any material difference between people, such as the random circumstances of birth or the artificial value placed on gold.
For such as short book, Paul does an excellent job in locating More's developing thought in the context of those thinkers around him, and those available to him - particularly the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. I would have liked to have some discussion about More's class position - it is fascinating, for instance, to note that his ideas and debates about private property come in the context of the beginnings of a new rising class of landowner - the beginnings of the bourgeoisie.

The start of a new order (already making itself felt through enclosure in agricultural areas) that put private gain before collective interest was surely a key factor shaping More's ideas. Famously More commented that "sheep... devour men". But More was explicitly not a revolutionary - in fact he despises anything that upsets the smooth workings of the system. As Paul points out, in Utopia More has one of his characters say "the active citizen ought to play his part in the stage play of politics without upsetting the performance, even though he might see through it."

It's this obsession with unity that undoes More when he comes to the Reformation. Unable to side with Henry VIII's changes precisely because he doesn't want to shatter the unity of the church, he ends up becoming an obstacle  that has to be removed. Paul summarises More's thinking:
A citizen 'cannot give his consent' to Henry's supremacy... because 'many foreign places do not affirm;' this supremacy. In other words, as he had indicated to [Thomas] Cromwell, the problem was that England was only a small part of Christendom: the power of deciding over the headship of the church lay with the general council as a representative of the whole body of Christendom.
I was left with the feeling that More was actually a man whose ideas were in advance of the political and economic development of the society he was part of.  More couldn't yet break with a feudal approach to the king and church, one that allowed the mass of the people full participation in society even though he knew it was a worthwhile aspiration.

Developing these ideas would be the task of later thinkers and activists. Having written myself on the Digger Gerrard Winstanley's vision of Utopia, I was struck, as Paul has been, on the similarities of Winstanley and More's ideas of Utopia. But I think Winstanley goes much further than More does - precisely because the society that Winstanley is living in has developed economically much further. Which is why Winstanley places so much emphasis on economic production, unlike More who focuses on ideas.

A small weakness with Paul's book is that she decouples More to a certain extent from the changing economic system he was living in and focuses on his ideas abstracted from society. The Reformation had very real economic roots and neglecting them can lead us to understand the process through individuals and not their interactions with world around them.

The final section of Paul's book looks at the legacy of More's ideas in the Early Modern and modern periods. She notes that More has been adopted by many people, with leading Marxists often claiming his as the first socialist. This I think is unfair, as More wasn't really a communist in the sense that Winstanley was a century later. But More was responding to the changing world around him, and he wanted a better commonwealth for all. So in that sense he remains important to us today. Joanne Paul's excellent and readable introduction will hopefully give a new generation reason to read and debate Thomas More.

Related Reviews

Duffy - Stripping of the Altars
MacCulloch - Reformation
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Hoyle - The Pilgrimage of Grace
Winstanley - The Law of Freedom

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Miranda Kaufmann - Black Tudors: The Untold Story

In the months before I read Miranda Kaufmann there was a twitter outcry from right-wingers who objected to the portrayal of some Ancient Romans in a documentary about Roman Britain, as being dark skinned. Despite the assurances of a number of well qualified historians they seemed unable to believe this well established fact.

I suspect these same individuals would be hugely outraged to read Miranda Kaufmann's new book Black Tudors which makes it clear that during the Tudor period English people would not have been surprised by, or unused to seeing black people, particularly Africans, on their shores. Indeed, as the stories she focuses on here make clear, black and non-white people, played a large variety of different roles within Tudor society - from servants and prostitutes, to highly qualified sailors and weavers. Kaufmann begins by making a very important and clear statement about the perception of non-white people in Tudor England:
When the Black Tudors encountered Tudor Englishmen, they found a people who, though certainly xenophobic on occasion were deeply curious about the world beyond the seas. Most English men and women knew little or nothing of the world beyond their parish boundary. A 'stranger' was simply someone from outside the parish. Tudors were far more likely to judge a new acquaintance by his or her religion and social class than by where they were born or the colour of their skin, though these categories did on occasion intersect.
Furthermore, and this will surprise more than a few bigoted twitter users. The idea that black people only came to England as slaves and as a result of slavery is completely incorrect. Instead the opposite is true and one of the fascinating things is that many black people in the Tudor period appear to have come to the British Isles precisely because they understood that there were no slaves there. Racism, in the sense that we understand it today, did not exist, and people were treated (whatever their skin colour) in terms of what position they occupied, or should occupy in society.

As Kaufmann continues:
Social class governed society. Everyone, from the King... through the aristocracy, to the gentry, yeomen and husbandmen, down to the lowliest vagrant, occupied a particular place in the 'Great Chain of Being'. When Africans arrived in England as ambassadors, they were treated as such, but when they arrived aboard a captured ship, they found themselves at the bottom of the pile.
Kaufmann explores this through the stories of a few select individuals. The shortage of records from the period means that Kaufmann must at times speculate about the people she records, but the facts she has unearthed tell as fascinating story. There's Diego an escaped slave who joined the ship of Captain Drake, helped him raid the Spanish and then returned to Plymouth with him. Later he travelled on Drake's circumnavigation of the world. Diego was wounded on the trip (and eventually died) but he was not a slave. In fact Kaufmann provides evidence from witnesses that Diego had "made a contract with Francis Drake". In other words he was being paid a sailor's wage. There are plenty of stories like this about other black sailors and other black men and women who played a role in Tudor society.

But it is important to say that Kaufmann is not sentimental, nor does she pretend that colour did not matter. It's clear in the case of Anne Cobbie, a prostitute described as a "Tawny Moor with Soft Skin" that Tudor men sought her out because of her complexion and her body. Kaufmann uses the discussion of race, sex and Tudor prostitution to re-emphasise her central point though - that race was not a barrier to involvement into Tudor society. She writes:
Both African men and women were punished by the church courts for having sex outside marriage. In February 1593, Joanna Bennett of Grays Thurrock, Essex, was brought before the Church court at West Ham and charged with 'having carnal knowledge and abusing her body with a certain blackmore now dwelling in the town'. The following January one Agnes Musby did penance for 'fornication with Paul, a blackemore'... These relationships show a very physical acceptance of Africans into Tudor and early Stuart society.
Surprisingly I found that the accounts of specific individuals were more interesting for the way that the author used them to show just how many black people there were in England in the period. She shows this through discussions of Shakespeare s work, analysis of wills, baptism and marriage records and so on. The importance of this is summed up by Kaufmann:
Historians have often argued that the racialised chattel slavery that developed in Colonial America was based on a mind-set imported from England. But the experiences here show that slavery was not an inevitable result of the Anglo-African encounter. Coupled with evidence of free Africans in early Virginia, this book adds weight to the conclusion that American slavery was something that emerged in the very specific economic and social circumstances of the early colonies.
I agree with this conclusion, and the value of Kaufmann's book is precisely that it does support this argument. However what I felt the book didn't do was explain what, precisely, did lead to the racism that developed in the UK and the United States. If it did come from such "specific economic and social circumstances" how did it develop? Who pushed it and why? I think the answer lies in the way slavery and capitalism were linked - the need to justify slavery and stop the unity of black and white that would oppose the barbaric trade.

Miranda Kaufmann's book is an excellent and accessible book that demonstrates that racism and prejudice were not automatic in the encounter between Europeans and Africans. If it didn't go far enough to explain where that racism did come from, that certainly isn't enough to stop me recommending it to others.

Related Reviews

Snowden - Before Colour Prejudice
Richardson - Say it Loud
Fryer - Staying Power

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Kim Stanley Robinson - New York 2140

What will life be like for people when global warming has melted the ice caps and climate change has transformed the world's environment? The vast majority of scientists conclude that the temperature rises we can expect by the end of the current century will mean a colossal human catastrophe, unless there we radically reduce the amount of carbon emissions. These changes will mean disaster for millions of people with water shortages, heat waves, flooding, extreme weather and famine following. Millions of people will suffer and there will be a corresponding catastrophe for the Earth's flora and fauna.

Runway climate change - the result of global warming causing processes that feedback and lead to more global warming - could, in some scenarios lead to levels of warming that make Earth uninhabitable for humans. But before that takes place, there will be millions of people living, and struggling, on a hotter world.

This then is the premise for Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel. He focuses on the city of New York after two major "pulse" events have led to significant sea level rises that have destroyed much of the world's coast lines and turned cities like New York into collections of island skyscrapers. People have learnt to adapt - to sea the basement floors and build farms on the top of the towers. Many of the towers in Robinson's New York of 2140 are run by a sort of collective democratic leadership.

Capitalism still exists, and Robinson brilliantly shows how the system adapts to these changes. New financial markets are opened up with wealthy speculators betting on the way that water levels change the value of the markets. Robinson uses much of this to discuss the way that capitalism leads to economic and environmental crisis, and how governments are prepared to let ordinary people suffer in order to bail out the banks and the system.

The story follows a group of people living the Met tower - a couple of computer experts who have tried to hack the financial system to bring capitalism down, a policewoman who is trying to find out who kidnapped them, a financial speculator who is obsessed with new ways of making himself rich in the era of high water levels and various other characters including a couple of kids who find treasure worth billions. One rather lovable chatterer is Amelia who pilots a blimp and has an enormous "cloud following" of viewers who watch her nature films. These characters all gradually come to the conclusion that the system is broken and is heading for a major economic crash, and the time is right to change things.

Reading this as an environmental activist and a Marxist I had three problems with the book. At this point I should emphasis that Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favourite authors, but there are major problems with this novel. Firstly the world he depicts, post climate disaster, is simply to good. This is basically early 21st century capitalism with higher sea levels and no ice-caps. You don't get any sense of how the warming that has lead to the pulse events has impacted the rest of the world. Even the stories of the Netherlands being destroyed and replaced by a floating city state seem to imply that everything is OK really. The refugees who make it to the Met come across as slightly lost migrants, rather than people who have seen their entire world collapse. In fact we hear next to nothing about what is taking place in the rest of the world. Surely there are wars, famines and disasters?

In other words, Robinson's future is too nice. There's no real sense that global warming has led to phase shift of the planet's ecological system. Things are just a little bit worse than they were. It's not a scientifically accurate picture of what could happen and it downplays the crisis we are in the midst of. In addition, Robinson's belief that technology is the solution seems naive too. New York 2140 is extremely high-tech, the environmental disaster having apparently spurred innovation to solve the problems of the world.

Secondly the economics just don't work. While reading this I was suddenly struck by the idea that this was actually not a revolutionary work (despite the mass involvement of ordinary people in a capital "strike" that puts the economy into crisis). It's a book about how Keynesian economics must replace neo-liberalism if we're to have social and ecological justice. The big, radical idea at the heart of the book is to nationalise the banks. It's inadequate in the context of Robinson's world and its not enough if we want to really challenge real-world capitalism.

The final problem I had is that the story doesn't go anywhere. There are some brilliant bits - a very well described riot in the aftermath of a huge storm, and a comic chapter about polar bears and blimps - but the story is weak and ends by getting the reader to believe that Washington really is an OK place if only you get the right people elected.

To be a little blunter, I think this is the book that Robinson wrote after reading Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything and seeing Trump elected instead of Clinton. Klein's book is a great read in terms of understanding the scale of the environmental crisis and its roots in capitalism. But she fails to put across a revolutionary challenge and falls back on a Keynesian solution - where neo-liberalism ends and the state is more directly involved. These are laudable aims, but as a solution to exploitation, oppression and environmental crisis it is inadequate. In Robinson's homage to New York, even a highly flooded one, it underpins a very weak novel indeed. Sadly you can imagine someone reading this and concluding that climate change isn't actually that bad.

Related Reviews

Robinson - Shaman
Robinson - Years of Rice and Salt
Robinson - Aurora
Robinson - 2312
Robinson - Icehenge

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Eamon Duffy - The Stripping of the Altars

This is a fascinating and comprehensive account of the impact of the English Reformation on the people of England in particular how they practised their religion and how they understood their world. Eamon Duffy is a master at mining church records for the minutiae of everyday life, as his wonderful book The Voices of Morebath showed. In The Stripping of the Altars he takes this to a new level, giving an over-view of a couple of centuries of change.

A key point that Duffy makes is that there is no "substantial gulf" between the religion of the clergy and the elite and the mass of the population. While the more well off may have had better religious books, nicer churches and so on, the actuality of how they worshipped and what they believed was near identical. Nor was this a period where the mass of the population was kept in ignorance while the ruling class had all the knowledge - one of the main arguments here is that there was wide knowledge of church doctrine. For instance, on the "eve of the Reformation" there were some 50,000 Books of Hours in circulation, many of them produced in cheap editions in continental "factories" aimed at a mass audience.

Duffy uses the phrase "traditional religion" to describe religious beliefs and practises before the Reformation. His detailed reconstruction of what this entails is fascinating. For instance, he shows how the life of rural villages was dominated by a "liturgical calendar". This had major implications for economic (agricultural) life, as there were "almost seventy days in the year when adults were obliged to fast" and numerous feast days when work was not permitted and the laity were expected to attend services. For the whole population the religious dynamic, its calendar, its sequence of religious services, the way that the church prepared its followers for life, and death, was central to how people lived. As Duffy notes, "for townsmen and countrymen alike, the rhythms of the liturgy on the eve of the Reformation remained the rhythms of life itself."

Duffy distances his analysis from those who saw within the traditional church a tendency to hold onto older, "pagan" practises. He shows how many beliefs, such as superstitions or astrology, where incorporated into religious practice. He also shows how the Protestant suppression of many aspects of traditional worship (Duffy uses a fascinating example of religious plays) helped to undermine wider knowledge of religious doctrine. Take the example of The Kalender of Shepherdes,  a book translated from French in the early 1500s. It was a "beautiful and an unmistakably lay book... an extraordinary mixture of calendrical, astrological and medical lore, together with orthodox religious instruction imaginatively presented". As Duffy points out, many clergy would have found the mix uncomfortable, but the popularity of the Kalender was in its ability to create an
assimilation into popular culture, by commercial publishers for a mass audience, of the official educational programme of the Church.... the Kalender certainly found a readership which would have considered unpalatable many more over didactic treatises, for it was common place of the time... that the people were often resistant to catechesis.
The pre-Reformation traditional religion that Duffy describes was an all encompassing explanation for the world as it was and how it would be. It's focus on death was not a morbid obsession with human mortality, but a response to a religious view that placed the afterlife as a key question for the living, and indeed often saw the dead as remaining connected to the living community. This is the importance of the question of indulgences that were exchanged for prayers etc. Some of the most fascinating aspects of Duffy's book are the chapters were he examines what death meant for people of the late Middle Ages and how it affected their everyday lives.

The second half of the book is a look at how the English Reformation played out. Here I felt the work wasn't as strong as the first half. This is not because Duffy's use of the historic material is weaker, in fact his detailed examination of what the Reformation meant in practice, in terms of changes to religious practices, the removal of feast and Saints days, changes to books and bibles and the physical alterations to religious spaces is fascinating and detailed. The weakness arises more out of Duffy's failure to see the Reformation as being linked to the changes taking place in the English economy. He does note in places the class content to the Reformation, and the way that how the Reformation proceeds is closely linked to the class interests of individuals. In places he does come close to this, so I would be wrong to completely dismiss Duffy's analysis here. For instance he writes
There can have been few if any communities in which Protestants formed anything like an actual numerical majority. The influence of the reform usually stemmed from the not always very secure social and economic prestige of its more prosperous or articulate adherents.
But this is to ignore the fact that the real influence of Protestants was making itself felt at a different level in society - some of the key figures in the English state. This is why the Reformation could proceed even though Henry VIII was a traditionalist at heart and why it could be reversed briefly under Mary's reign. When revolt did break out against the changes, such as the Prayerbook Rebellion or the Pilgrimage of Grace, what mattered for the ruling class was the mobilisation of armed bodies of men. Thus we have to see the Reformation in terms of the different class interests it represented and sadly I felt that Duffy is a little weak on this.

The Reformation took a long time. The changes that were driven through did not simply abolish the beliefs in peoples heads. The resurgence of Catholicism under Mary saw many worshippers gladly return to traditional practises. In many examples digging up the statues they'd hidden, rescuing the church cloths and candlesticks and re-writing their wills in ways that reflected their traditional beliefs. But the Reformation did eventually transform England's Church because it was closely linked to the development of a new economic system. Duffy sees the Protestant Church's success as being mostly due to the way that ordinary people responded, "By the end of the 1570s, whaever the instincts and nostalgia of their seniors, a generation was growing up which had known nothing else, which believe d the Pope to be Antichrist, the Mass a mummery, which did not look back to the Catholic past as their own, but another country, another world."

This is true to a large extent. But England kept the Protestant faith as its official religion because its proponents where the new ruling class. For that to be cemented for good eventually required a revolution and the shattering of monarchical power for good.

Despite the weaknesses I think that Eamon Duffy's book has, I have no hesitation in recommending it anyone who wants to understand more about the Reformation and what it meant for ordinary people. It brings alive the lives and struggles of those who lived in villages across England whose world was shattered by the changes.

Related Reviews

Duffy - Voices of Morebath
MacCulloch - Reformation
Wilson - The People and the Book
Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

Monday, December 04, 2017

Leon Trotsky - The History of the Russian Revolution

I chose to re-read Leon Trotsky's The History of the Russian Revolution over November 2017, exactly one hundred years since the all to brief triumph of the Revolution it discusses. Doing so allowed me to reflect on what that Revolution meant, but also how it has been portrayed, interpreted and understood since.

You don't have to read much of Trotsky's book to see how inadequate the coverage of 1917 has been for the centenary. Trotsky's work is a masterpiece of literature, powerful writing combined with a Marxist clarity that gives an unrivalled historical perspective on the events of the Revolutionary year. As a result The History of the Russian Revolution reads like a novel, in fact its very structure feels at times like a fictional account as the author builds tension towards the climatic seizure of power. The book teams with passages that are quotable, but take this section describing the situation as power decisively shifts away from the "compromisers" and towards the Bolsheviks:
Kerensky... was confidently calculating that in case of danger the Central Executive Committee, in spite of all family misunderstandings, would come to his aid in time. It was so in July and in August. Why should it not continue so? But now it is no longer July and no longer August. It is October. Cold and raw Baltic winds from the direction of Kronstadt are blowing through the squares and along the quays of Petrograd.
Junkers in long coats to their heels are patrolling the streets, drowning their anxiety in songs of triumph. The mounted police are riding up and down, prancing, their revolvers in brand-new holsters. No. The power still looks imposing enough! Or is this perhaps an optical illusion? At a corner of the Nevsky, John Reed, an American with naïve and intelligent eyes in his head, buys a brochure of Lenin’s entitled 'Will the Bolsheviks Be Able To Hold the State Power?' paying for it with one of those postage stamps which are now circulating in place of money.
These two paragraphs demonstrate a couple of things about Trotsky's book. First is the way he manages to get across a real sense of the balance of class forces and how they shift and change throughout 1917. Secondly is the way that Trotsky builds tension and drama - the raw winds blowing from the base of the revolutionary sailors at Kronstadt towards Petrograd aren't just about the weather, and secondly Trotsky's ability to build narrative tension as the crisis deepens in Russia.

But it is Trotsky's historical account that is most important. Despite portraying himself in the third person (a writer's master stroke in my opinion) Trotsky eschews any attempt at an independent historical narrative - this is polemic. But it is polemic for two reasons - the first, and most obvious is that it is designed to arm and give confidence to socialists who are trying to build revolutionary organisation and look to the Russian Revolution for inspiration.

Closely linked to this is Trotsky's battle with Stalin. The History of the Russian Revolution was written towards the end of the 1920s and finished in 1930 and comes immediately after Trotsky's defeat by Stalin and his exile. Thus the book has to be understood as reassertion of Trotsky's principle political arguments against Stalin, in particular Trotsky's argument that "socialism in one country" was impossible. Thus some of the most important sections of the book do not actually deal with 1917 but with the historical context of Russia's economic development to the revolutionary years.

Trotsky explicitly sets this out in several appendices which he hopes that a tenth or hundredth of his readers will read in addition to the main account. Trotsky was setting out on his new task of finding handfuls of supporters who could rebuild the international socialist movement. His focus on the role of the Bolsheviks' here and how they related to the mass movements on the streets is a key part of the story and his polemic.

But the majority of readers will, as Trotsky acknowledged, read this book for its unrivalled historical account of 1917. It is a long and detailed book, which seems to have penetrating insights on every page. But it's length shouldn't intimidate - Trotsky's writing is clear, passionate and at times very funny. Take his hilarious thumb nail portraits of the Russian generals who would go on to form the basis of the counter-revolutionary White Terror:
An army is always a copy of the society it serves – with this difference, that it gives social relations a concentrated character, carrying both their positive and negative features to an extreme. It is no accident that the war did not create one single distinguished military name in Russia. The high command was sufficiently characterised by one of its own members: “Much adventurism, much ignorance, much egotism, intrigue, careerism, greed, mediocrity and lack of foresight” – writes General Zalessky – “and very little knowledge, talent or desire to risk life, or even comfort and health.” Nikolai Nikolaievich, the first commander-in-chief, was distinguished only by his high stature and august rudeness. General Alexeiev, a grey mediocrity, the oldest military clerk of the army, won out through mere perseverance. Kornilov was a bold young commander whom even his admirers regarded as a bit simple; Kerensky’s War Minister, Verkhovsky, later described him as the lion heart with the brain of a sheep. Brussilov and Admiral Kolchak a little excelled the others in culture, if you will, but in nothing else. Denikin was not without character, but for the rest, a perfectly ordinary army general who had read five or six books. And after these came the Yudeniches, the Dragomirovs the Lukomskies, speaking French or not speaking it, drinking moderately or drinking hard, but amounting to absolutely nothing. First time readers might be surprised that some of the most fascinating chapters are those that deal not with the revolution but with the ruling class that was overthrown - Trotsky showing why their regime was ripe for collapse.
But ultimately this is a description of a year of revolutionary upheaval that involved millions of people in action. Trotsky never loses sight of that key fact - that the revolution was made by ordinary men and women, and he celebrates this fact at every stage. In fact by focusing on the ideas, slogans and demands of the factories and streets Trotsky is able to get to the heart of why the Bolsheviks were able to lead the working class to victory. This is a celebration of mass democracy, participation and revolutionary dynamism.

No other author does it as well as Trotsky's history and no one trying to understand 1917 can avoid reading this book. I first read this as a young socialist some 25 years ago. Re-reading it again a quarter of a century later I was struck by how fresh it felt, but also, how much of it I had retained and learnt from. Perhaps that's Trotsky's true legacy.

In the course of 2017 I've read or re-read a number of books related to the Revolutionary Year of 1917. Those reviews can be found here.

Related Reviews

Trotsky - On Britain
Trotsky - Lessons of October
Trotsky - 1905
Trotsky - An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe

Cliff - Trotsky: Towards October

Monday, November 27, 2017

Rachel Carson - Under the Sea Wind

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is probably the most famous ecological work every published. Its clarity and its clarion call for action, as well as the way it located environmental crisis in a system that prioritised "the right to make a dollar" helped kick-start the modern environmental movement. Yet Carson was also a author of a whole number of works that looked at the ecological systems she was most familiar with, in particular a trilogy of books about the sea. Carson had worked as a scientist for the US fisheries bureau before becoming a full time writer and her knowledge of the sea and its ecology shines through in this book from the trilogy.

Under the Sea-Wind is a lovely piece of writing. Carson takes a number of key animals who live on, in or above the sea and describes their lives. Looking at individuals she uses a novel style narrative often naming the animal after its scientific name, but this is no work of fiction. Her descriptions of the lives of birds, fish and other animals like crabs are beautiful and often tragic, but this is no Watership Down. Her animals don't speak or have human characteristics; they shape and are shaped by the ecology they inhabit.

That said, some of the stories here are truly epic. We encounter the mackerel first as a tiny living thing, no more than a few living cells clumped together. As it grows it's life radically changes, initially eating other small sea creatures before it can feed on larger prey. Carson describes the luck that keeps our individual fish out of the belly of other predators, and we see how the huge shoals protect the individuals from death. But we also see the cyclical nature of life. The death of animals is usually the life of others.

This is no less true of humans and one of the good things about Under the Sea Wing is that Carson does not pretend the sea's creatures live isolated from human contact. In fact, humans, particularly fishermen are as much part of the world that these animals inhabit. Whether its the harbours that provide hiding places for young mackerel and some of their predators, or the fishermen whose nets threaten large numbers of the fish.
The fisherman who lived on the island had gone out about nightfall to set the gill nets that he owned with another fisherman from the town. They had anchored a large net almost at right angles to the west shore of the river... All the local fishermen knew from their fathers, who had it from their fathers, that shad coming from the channel of the sound usually struck in towards the west bank for the river when they entered the shallow estuary, where no channel was kept open. For this reason the west bank was crowded with fixed sighing gear, like pound nets, and the fishermen who operated movable gear competed bitterly for the few remaining places to set their nets.
Here we see the impact of human interaction with the sea, the potential for over-fishing and the consequent destruction of the ecology. But here is also the importance of the sea to human communities.

Over and again I was struck by how Carson emphasises the contentedness of life in the sea. There's a beautiful chapter early in the book where a bird is hunting crabs and other seashore life. In turn the crabs are eating fleas, but is scared by a fisherman walking on the beach. Fleeing into the surf the crab is eaten by a sea bass, which is then eaten by a shark. Some of the bass' body floats back to the beach where the meat is eaten by beach fleas.

When environmental NGOs campaign to save the tiger or the panda we can forget that these creatures are part of a wider network of interactions. These interactions are never one way, but rather cause numerous onward effects. The crab feeds off the fleas, and sometimes is eaten by a fish. But the fish in turn can be food for other animals or the fisherman casting their nets. Carson gives us the Sea as it really is - a network of interacting animals and plants, whose ecology can be distorted and broken by outside forces. It's a beautiful piece of writing that has much to teach us about how we think about the environment today.

Related Reviews

Carson - Silent Spring
Levins & Lewontin - The Dialectical Biologist
Lewontin & Levins - Biology Under the Influence

Peter Watts - Blindsight

I'll admit to making a mistake with Blindsight. I bought it thinking it would be a 'hard' science fiction of first contact with a mysterious alien ship along the lines of Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Ramaa book that amazed and inspired me many years ago. Blindsight is actually that, but it is much more - it is a novel that probes human psychology as much as speculating about alien culture. Unfortunately for those reading for a SF narrative this rather obscures the story. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it might not be what was expected.

The novel begins with a shower of shooting stars, thousands of objects fall and burn across Earth's skies in a clearly artificial way. Subsequent analysis shows these objects were making some form of survey and Earth's population prepares for some sort of alien contact. Years pass, and nothing happens until a strange object is found in the Kuiper belt. The ship Theseus is sent to study this object which turns out to be a massive and very alien craft called Rorschach. Theseus is crewed by a highly trained and very specialised crew. In this future Earth many social problems have been solved (women are now on an equal footing socially and economically with men) and humans are habitually engineered. Our rather unreliable observer Siri (who is supposed to be super reliable) has, for instance, only half a brain. The other half was removed to cure childhood epilepsy and this apparently makes him a near perfect observer. Another crew member has four human personalities in their brain (nicknamed Gang of Four) and yet another is a long extinct species of vampire. Siri has a detailed backstory that explains his personality, but also gives much context about the future world.

All of this allows the author Peter Watts to wax lyrical on the nature of humanity, intelligence and the reality of evolution. This is particularly important when discussing first contact because Rorschach turns out to be really really alien. It defies analysis and understanding. It is deadly to Earth's explorers yet does not act particularly threatening.

As a novel the book is relatively successful, though at times I found the structure difficult (though this turns out to be deliberate) and the musings on life, the universe and everything feel contrived at times. Some of the references seem likely to date quickly (who really uses the word sneaker-net these days) and character nicknames seem contrived in places.

But that said, the story does carry the reader along. If the suspenseful first exploration of the alien craft had some of the atmosphere of the first Alien film then the finale felt a lot like the sequel Aliens. The story is framed within an interesting future history which makes much on how society might change and how humans might allow themselves to develop.

If I'd bought this as a separate novel I might not have rushed to get the sequel. But my edition of Blindsight comes bound together with it's sequel Echopraxia and I'll likely read that soon. It's not what I expected and probably not to everyone's taste, but Blindsight has some great ideas.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Paul Lund & Harry Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell

The bravery of merchant seamen is often overlooked, and despite the horrific realities of the Arctic convoys during World War Two the experiences of those sailors was often discussed only through accounts of the naval escorts.

In 1942 PQ17 sailed from Iceland to the Soviet Union carrying vital supplies intended to alleviate the Russian military crisis during the siege of Stalingrad. What took place afterwards was a disaster of the highest magnitude but was the subject of silence and cover-up by the British government and military.

It was only after the war, and partly because German accounts of the convoy turned out to be more truthful than allied ones, that questions were asked. In the late 1940s and 1950s it became a major issue for the British media who demanded to know why the convoy had been decimated.

Paul Lund and Harry Ludlam's account from the 1970s draws heavily on the accounts of those involved. Paul Lund himself was on board the ASW trawler Lord Austin a small escort ship that was part of the convoy. The book is fascinating in part because it is more than a military history.

PQ17 was a heavily escorted convoy, though it lacked an aircraft carrier. At that time, the greatest naval threat was the Tirpitz and her associated naval ships. Much of PQ17's route was within reach of German air attack, but the Tirpitz was seen as a particular threat because it could easily outgun the escorting warships. Misinformation at the admiralty led to the convoy being ordered the scatter hundreds of miles south-east of Spitzbergen. The escorts were ordered to break off eastwards to engage the surface threat, though this was non-existent. For days afterwards the merchant craft came under sustained air and u-boat attack. Thousands of tonnes of shipping were destroyed and hundreds of men and women lost their lives. Despite the bravery of the armed merchant craft, little could be done to protect the individual ships or small groups and they were easy pickings.

Later analysis would lay the blame squarely at the desk of the First Sea Lord. That would be little comfort to those that were killed or frozen in the cold waters. And while this book finishes with the story of how the truth came out, most of it is an account of those harrowing experiences. I was struck by a number of things reading this. One was the way that the u-boats often surfaced and assisted (sometimes in a minimal way) survivors of life boats and rafts. The other was how many people did survive, picked up by other ships or making extraordinary journeys to land. But perhaps most fascinating are the little bits of social history that come through the personal accounts. Take this description of conditions on Austin after she had picked up dozens of survivors.
On Austin we turned to looking after out guests... They were men of mixed nationalities, Americans from both north and south, and Argentines, Poles, English and Chinese... All were given a double tot of run and then began the problem of feeding and finding sleeping room for eighty-nine extra bodies. The Chinese were very helpful, offering to give a hand in the mess and the galley, and refusing to sleep anywhere but under the whaleback on deck. The survivors as a whole were quite cool. cheerful and fatalistic... We had to improvise nine sittings for meals.. and there was a desperate shortage of cutlery. The white Americans did not like eating or even mixing with the coloured seamen and in the confined space quarrels sprang up between them.
PQ17 forming up off Iceland
Once again we are reminded that World War Two was won by the sacrifices by men of many different backgrounds and nationalities, but that racism was a real experience too.

The other fascinating aspect to this book is the experiences of the survivors when arriving in the Soviet Union - both in terms of the different way of life, but also the social structures. Without pretending that the USSR in the 1940s was a socialist paradise it is interesting to see how the allied men found it surprising to see women playing a leading role in production. All the Russian ships on the convoy had female sailors for instance.

PQ17 remains shorthand for an immense naval disaster. Future convoys certainly learnt from events, but one can't help but feel that this should never have happened. Certainly that is the conclusion of many of those who took part. Lund and Ludlam's book is likely dated and more information is available, but in its accounts from survivors of life on a merchant ship in World War Two and their visit to the Soviet Union it remains extremely fascinating.

Related Reviews

Monsarrat - Three Corvettes
Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea
Turkel - The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Alun Howkins - The Death of Rural England

Alun Howkin's book The Death of Rural England is a sweeping history of the transformation of the English (and occasionally Welsh) countryside in the 20th century. It is a fascinating read, that never loses sight of the fact that the landscape is, and was, shaped by the labours of thousands of men and women and those people today, and their ancestors, remain an integral part of what makes up "the countryside".

The century that Howkin's covers saw enormous change, he points out that "since at least the eighteenth century rural society had been divided into landowners, farmers and labourers. By the 1990s the farm labourer had all but disappeared.... By the 1980s... the majority of country dwellers who lived in the rural areas... had nothing to do with farming as an industry". Why this happens has many factors - not least the full development of capitalist farming and the integration of farms into a wider, national, agricultural system. This was a process that begun in the 19th century and continued to develop, encouraged and accelerated by both world wars. But it was a system that retained many old traditions, often related to employment rights or relations. These often were eroded (or smashed) as part of the transformation of agriculture.

The later part of the 19th century had seen the growth of the first agricultural trade unions. These revived in the early 20th century, encouraged, as Howkin's writes, by a "new kind of rural worker - the railway men". In Lancashire rail workers were central to victories of agricultural workers, because they were "unionised, free from the threat of parson and squire, yet often the sons of farm workers... [they] brought the first signs of a new culture into the countryside of England and Wales".

Agricultural workers' organisations would prove central to ensuring that working people in the countryside could resist the impact of the sweeping changes that were taking place. In particular, the years between the wars, called the "Locust Years" saw enormous poverty in the countryside as workers suffered with the sudden withdrawal of government subsidies for farming. The unions were unable to stop the destruction and "between 1921 and 1931 about 60,000 workers left agriculture and between 1931 and 1939 a further 100,000". As Howkin's points out, for the farmers it was "reducing costs" but to the workers it was "the loss of livelihood and often a way of life".

Additionally we see the rise of mechanised farming. Tractors did not truly supplement animal labour until after the Second World War. Though that war was a key moment in transforming agriculture and I would argue, shifting it towards fossil fuel farming. But we shouldn't simply see the impoverisation of the agricultural labourer as arising out of mechanisation - it was primarily to do with the interests of capitalist farming.

Howkins points out the centrality of women to agricultural labour in this period. His writing is supplemented by many fascinating accounts by women of their own work. The "combined income" of the family was often what kept things going as wages were so low. Here's a description from the "daughter of a jobbing gardener, farm worker and (very) small holder" in Sussex in the 1920s:
With the money that he earned and the garden produce from our own plot of land, we were much better off than before. To supplement fathers income mother made jellies, jams, pickles and wines. They were much in demand... We children had the task of picking the wild fruits in season... We also had to take our turn stirring the great pans.... Some of the ladies in the village would buy a jar but most of it was packed into wooden crates and these would be collected by Carter Paterson the carrier and taken to the various universities that were attended by the young gentlemen of the village.
Howkins points out how the perception of rural England changes too. Increasingly it is seen (and portrayed) as a place of leisure and relaxation - the opposite of the towns and cities. He traces here the development of tourism and how this affected the countryside and argues that today, modern politicians fail to understand the countryside as a place of work and farming. The environmental movement too began to take an interest, especially post 1960s. By the end of the 20th century Howkin's argues, the countryside was in crisis and politicians had lost any view of how to solve things. He argues that the appalling failures of government during the BSE and Foot and Mouth crises reflect this, and that 2002 policy documents showed that Tony Blair's Labour also had not real idea about how to move forward:
The familiar countryside environment - originally a product of farming and damaged by years of intensive production and the social fabric of the countryside (which depends heavily on farming) is being put at risk.
Howkins' argues that in the "battle" between town and country, the town has been "victorious". Now the countryside is the plaything of the urban dweller and everyone else will become subsumed into that. I wasn't entirely convinced - I think it is entirely possible to imagine a re-emergence of "British" agriculture, but it will have to be based on an entirely different system to the highly subsidised, highly capital intensive and highly chemically based agriculture that currently dominates. It will take radical policies from future governments to achieve this, as well as a new approach to the countryside which sees it as more than simply the place that is not the town. Alun Howkin's book has shows us about how the modern countryside has arisen and gives a few pointers to how it could be different.

One small note: My edition of this book was purchased in 2015 and has a number of missing pages due to printing errors. I'm using this platform to record how disappointed I am that I was unable to get the publishers (Routledge's Taylor and Francis Group) to offer a PDF of the four missing pages, never mind a new copy.

Related Reviews

Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Paarlberg - Food Politics
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture & Food in Crisis
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Lavie Tidhar - Central Station

Somewhere about a third of the way through Lavie Tidhar's Central Station I realised that I had been missing a crucial aspect to the novel. The story was not slow in starting, it wasn't actually going to arrive. There isn't really a plot to speak of. Once I'd got my head out of my somewhat traditionalist approach I was able to open up to a fantastic depiction of a rather more hopeful future than we might currently predict.

The titular Central Station is the massive gateway to the world that dominates a future Tel Aviv. This is a Tel Aviv were the Israeli-Arab conflict has been solved in some unexplained way - Arabs, Jews and a plethora of others live side by side, in relative harmony. In fact, the city has become both point of intersection between Earth and space, and a place were people come from across the world in search of wealth, work... or any one of many other options. In one sense Central Station is a liberal fantasy of a multicultural future city, where people live happily together and technology has solved so many woes:
Central Station in spring, when the smell in the air truly is intoxicating. It is a smell of the sea, and of the sweat of so many bodies, their heat and their warmth, and it is the smell of humanity's spices and the cool scent of its many machines; and it is the scent of the resin or sap that sometimes drops from a cut in the eternally renewing adaptoplant neighbourhoods, and of ancient asphalt heating in the sun, and of vanished oranges, and of freshly cut lemongrass: it is the smell of Humanity Prime, that richest and most concentrated of smells; there is nothing like it in the outer worlds.
Ironically, given the setting, it seems that there are no longer any structural problems other than those of personal antagonism and history. Even the "question of Who Is a Jew had been asked not just about the Chong family, but of the robots too, and was settled long ago."

But things aren't perfect. Old robots, their technology and usefulness outdated, beg for spare parts from passers-by, and things feel frayed and dusty. Technology seems magnificent, yet collectors search desperately for old books to add to their collections. Workers fly through virtual reality in a fantastic cyber version of the Elite game, earning real money and fame to take back to the outside world. And a vampire comes. Not a blood sucking Dracula figure, but someone hungry for data, infected on board an interplanetary ship who makes it through quarantine onto Earth.

The chapters are like this, a semi-linked network of individual stories that weave in and out of each other, making a tapestry of a world, a future, but not really going anywhere. Take the bar that Boris Chong drinks in, run by a former lover. It isn't any different to a thousand bars that we might visit today in the 2010s. But that's not the point, this is the future. Things are different, yet they are the same. But for Tidhar, the type of future is important, it is where we might go if we only solve the problems we have today. Take the author's beautifully evoked dream of a day at the beach:
They had gone to the beach that day, it was a summer's day and in Menashiya, Jews and Arabs and Filipinos all mingled together, the Muslim women in their long dark clothes and the children running shrieking in their underwear; Tel Aviv girls in tiny bikinis, sunbathing placidly; someone smoking a joint, and the strong smell of it wafting in the sea air... the life guard in his tower calling out trilingual instructions - 'Keep to the marked areas! Did anyone lose a child? Please come to the lifeguards now! You with the boat, head towards the Tel Aviv harbour and away from the swimming area!' - the words getting lost in the chatter, someone had parked their car and was blaring out beats from the stereo, Somali refugees were cooking a barbecue on the promenade;s grassy part...
Its a beautiful future precisely because it seems so impossible if we look at the reality of Zionism today, the oppression of the Palestinians and racism in Israel. Yet it is a future, and Lavie Tidhar wants it to be real. Something as mundane as a multicultural day at the beach seems impossibly Utopian in today's context, and thus becomes a futuristic fantasy.

Lavie Tidhar's brilliance is partly to do with his ability to describe this future. Both the mundane and the weird. There are some amazing scenes (the part with the suicide clinc is genius for instance). But he also depicts a future so real and possible, yet unreal and impossible too. It certainly is a world worth fighting for, and that's the importance of the book; not the story or what happens to the characters, but the world they live in and what it says about the one we inhabit.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Connie Willis - To Say Nothing of the Dog

In Connie Willis' future world, time travel is possible, but it isn't profitable so corporations have abandoned it, and instead time travel becomes the realm of the historian. But there are catches. Nothing important can be brought back from the past and time travellers are simply not able to visit events of historical importance. The universe seems to have a way of protecting history - changes to the past invariably get fixed, and travellers that might interfere in critical events find themselves unable to visit them. So you couldn't go back in time to assassinate Hitler - you'd find yourself in Berlin at the wrong time, or hundreds of miles away at the right time.

This is the background to what initially seems to be two parallel stories. Ned Henry, a historian of the 20th century, is actually sent back to Victorian times to try and fix a problem caused by another historian. Simultaneously a rich philanthropist who is trying to rebuild Coventry cathedral as it was immediately before its was destroyed by Nazi bombs in World War Two. The two stories turn out to be closely linked as Ned's journey back inadvertently messes up the time lines, potentially changing the future.

It would be foolish to try and summarise the plot here - what I think that readers should do is to dig out the novel themselves and read it. In places it is hilariously funny, particularly in its depictions of the rigid class structured lives of the Victorians and their strange habits. But what really struck me is how clever Willis' plot is. Everything is tied together very satisfyingly at the end with the author never losing track of the multiple timelines and consequences of change. The detail is excellent - almost everything is significant and Willis brilliantly evokes the Victorian era, the Blitz and a university time-travel department run by a cash starved bureaucracy. I also liked the fact that Willis clearly has thought through time travel - our hero (and the reader incidentally) is unable understand the old English spoken when he travels briefly back to the building of Coventry cathedral.

This is a cracking read and I look forward to Willis' other works.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Judith Orr - Abortion Wars: The Fight for Reproductive Rights

Judith Orr's book could not be better timed. With abortion rights in Ireland the subject of an upcoming referendum and Trump's desire to roll back key abortion legislation, the issue is once again part of the political mainstream. Orr's new book charts the history of this fight and the context for today's renewed struggles with a focus on Britain and the US, but also surveying the situation across the world.

She begins the book by pointing out that despite abortion being a common part of women's lives, (about one third of women will have an abortion) it remains a subject very much surrounded by taboos demonstrated recently when a radical left MP in Dublin became on of the first sitting politicians to admit to having an abortion.

Throughout history women have tried to control their fertility. Abortion is one example of this, and in a fascinating chapter, Orr shows numerous examples stretching back to ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece of how women have tried to do this, often through the consumption of plants or drinks that had an abortive affect. She quotes a 2nd century writer on gynaecology describing a prescription that "expels a foetus of three months without any difficulty" and also a study from the 1960s of three hundred "pre-industrial" societies that showed how women worldwide often took drastic steps to end a pregnancy, including "climbing a rope then jumping, or being buried up to their waists, or having hot stones or event hot ashes placed on their bellies".

Such practises were extremely dangerous and no woman would do these on a whim, so no wonder then that historic writings show a "common theme of advice, shared knowledge and skills being reproduced about how to avoid or end unwanted pregnancies". In more modern times this has led to what Orr calls a "web of solidarity" as women (and men) have organised to assist women making the choice to have an abortion. When abortion is restricted or illegal women turn to more dangerous options and Orr has uncovered some horrific stories of the modern consequences of this. In a series of fascinating interviews Orr shows how the fear of backstreet abortions led women to organise to provide advice and assistance.

This is no more true than of Ireland and the story of how people in England organised to assist the numerous women who needed to travel to the UK for abortion is deeply moving. From these beginnings grew a movement that in the 1960s, amid wider radicalisation and struggles for women's rights, helped win the British 1967 Abortion Act. While Orr shows that this legislation (even before amendments) was never as wide as it should have been, it was still a significant victory. The struggles to win the act are amazing, but so were the movements to defend it, culminated in a massive mobilisation of the trade union movement in 1979 which "knocked back the anti-abortionists for years".

Despite the lies and rhetoric of the right and the anti-abortionists "abortion on demand is not a reality" and the vast majority of abortions take place early in a pregnancy. But there has been real success from the right in demonising abortion and creating a stigma around it. The fact that few people talk about abortion leads many to believe it is only a few who have one. This is why abortion rights movement could arise out of a mass movement for women's liberation, in part because it allowed women to discuss these issues and get organised around them. In one of the interviews in the book a woman recalls going to a women's meeting and being approached afterwards by many of the attendees to talk about their experiences or those of a friend or family member.

The link between women's rights and abortion rights is a key theme to Orr's book. She argues that abortion rights and the right of a woman to control her own body cannot be separated from wider women's rights.  She explains,
The experiences of women several millennia ago, through to the early campaigners and those who documented the lived experiences of working-class women, are still valid to this very day. They taught us that women cannot play a full role in society while they can't control their fertility. They also showed that whatever the law and state of medical knowledge, working-class women have consistently been denied the best available birth control and abortion services that wealthy women have always been able to access.
This class question is important. Orr shows how even with supportive legislation, poorer women still cannot access care as easily as those with money. One of the strategies of the anti-abortionists has been to make it harder for women to travel to centres, to need more medical "opinions" and multiple visits for what might actually be a relatively quick procedure. This is particularly the case in the United States and the sections on the challenges faced to women looking for advice or abortion in the US, and those who want to offer support and medical assistance are shocking.

While the book was upsetting in places and emotional, I was also left with a real sense of hope. Orr shows us that struggle by women and men has won real gains in many countries, and recent examples from places like South Korea and Poland are part of this. Despite Trump wanting to undermine legislation and right-wing populists around the world attacking women's rights there is a sense in Orr's book that if we learn from the past we can defeat the bigots today and make real gains in the future. In the British parliament in 1967 Labour MP Christopher Price summed up the struggle that had led to the Abortion Act:
The Bill will pass into law because of the demands of public opinion. When I have mixed with people both inside and outside the House who want the Bill, it has often occurred to me that this is not about abortion at all; it is part of the process of emancipation of women which has been going on gradually for over a very long period.
The public opinion behind the Bill is millions of women up and down the country who are saying 'We will no longer tolerate this system whereby men lay down, as though by right, the moral laws, particularly those relating to sexual behaviour, about how women should behave.
What was true in the 1960s is as true today, and Judith Orr's book is a powerful weapon in the hands of those who want to defend and extend the rights of women to control their lives and their bodies.

Related Reviews

Orr - Marxism and Women's Liberation
Orr - Sexism and the System
Rowbotham - Hidden from History

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Jonathan Watts - When a Billion Chinese Jump

I will admit that when I fixed picked up Jonathan Watts' book I did not have much hope that I would enjoy it. Books on the environmental crisis and China often fall into crudities about the country something George Monbiot once called a manifestation of old racist tropes about the "Yellow Peril". Happily Watts' book is far better than this and as well as being thoughtful it is also very readable. China is a rapidly developing economy and since this book was first published in 2010 it is likely that some of the figures given are now dated. However the trends that Watt shows remain the same, if not worse, and it is this that makes it very useful for understanding China's environmental crisis and its role within the crisis.

Unusually for an environmental work, Watts bases his writing on his travels and specifically his encounters with individuals, often ordinary people on the frontline of the impact and the battle against climate change. Here are Chinese workers, farmers and migrant labourers, as well as officials, bureaucrats and business leaders.

Almost every book about China, its economy, environment or people begins with the scale of the country and its population. China's enormous economic power and, crucially, its cheap labour has allowed the current regime and previous ones to literally move mountains in the pursuit of economic improvement. Needless to say that historically this has had a devastating impact upon Chinese environment, an impact that seems to be growing worse by the day. Often current practise has been shaped by what has gone before:
[China's] waterways are now blocked by almost half of the world's 45,000 biggest dams... China's president Hu Jintao is a trained hydro-engineer. His view of the world - now imprinted into the communist ideological canon as a 'Scientific Outlook on Development' - has been shaped by his knowledge of water and how it can be controlled.
Hu Jintao's Presidency ended in 2012, yet it is fair to say that this approach continues, along with an belief that technology and science can cure the threat of environmental disaster. Famously we see this with the Three Gorges Dam, designed to harness the massive waters of the Yangtze River yet it brought along with it massive environmental and social disruption, and Watts dams tend to attract heavy industry enthused by the possibility of cheap and accessible electricity.

Despite whole areas of China being famed for their beauty and ecological diversity, much is under threat from industrial, agricultural and urban expansion. The global biodiversity crisis is enormous, but "the situation is particularly grim in China, where the die-off is reckoned to be taking place a twice the speed of the global average. According to the China Species Redlist, it is accelerating."

Much of Watts book looks at the different aspects of China's environmental crisis - water shortages, air pollution, fossil fuel expansion and so on. But the reason the book is useful is that he doesn't simply focus on these and the human tragedies that flow from them. He shows how the environmental crisis is not new - there were plenty of environmental mistakes, disasters and errors made throughout the 20th century - but how the current crisis is closely linked with the rise of industrial production for consumerism. In part this is due to demands of the Chinese population, a large section of which has far more wealth than ever and wants to emulate the lifestyles of the West. There's a fascinating section where Watts interviews Kan Yue-Sai, a multi-millionaire who got rich through marketing cosmetics who prides herself in helping launch China's "consumer culture" and for whom environmental problems were simply buzzwords to spout during the interview.

But crucial to the immense destruction caused by Chinese manufacturing is the outsourcing of emissions from the developed world. Western companies, attracted by cheap wages, low costs and minimal environmental restrictions have effectively moved emissions and waste to China. Pan Yue, a minister for environmental protect told Watts, "they raise their own environmental standards and transfer resource-intensive and polluting industries to developing nations; they establish a series of green barriers  and bear as little environmental responsibility as is possible."

This is of course not to let China itself off the hook. Not every factory is manufacturing goods for the west, the coal mines being dug and the land being destroyed are assisting the development of China's economy too. But this does help locate the problem in the right place. China is attractive to the west because it has low costs and high wages, something that its own capitalists are keen to exploit.

Resistance

Thankfully there is resistance. The Chinese have to acknowledge 1000s of "mass incidents" and Watts sees the aftermath of them, as well as often coming across accounts of protests, petitions and movements that have (sometimes successfully) challenged environmental destruction. In part this, as well as the very obvious destruction, has led the Chinese government to implement various pieces of environmental legislation. Sadly these are all too often ignored, or bribes ensure that no one is ever prosecuted. But it would be wrong to say there is no awareness of the problem.

The problem is that China's headlong rush to industrialise is done, not in the interest of people, but of capital. The need to compete with the United States, and the potential for a minority of people to get extremely rich, helps to undermine environmental laws. The immense bureaucracy doesn't help, nor does the short term interests of capital. It's staggering to read, for instance, that 1/3 of China's wind turbines are not connected to the grid and simply rotate pointlessly. Without fundamental change, the situation will not improve. Take agriculture:
China is the new frontier for agriscience. With a fifth of the world's population to feed on a tenth of the planet's arable land, the temptations of biotechnology have been enormous. Urbanisation and industrialisation add to the pressures by taking land for factories, roads and housing blocks. With the population expanding and appetites growing, China faces and uphill struggle to feed itself. As Vaclav Smil noted: 'All of the world's grain exports together would fill less than two-thirds of the country's projected demand for food.
Alongside technical fixes for agricultural comes threats to the environment, and while Watts highlights a few examples of more environmentally sound farming, they are far and few between (and some of them don't work at all).

Those that suffer are inevitably the poorest. "The rich folk have already moved out... It has become a slum" notes one woman about their polluted town. Though few in the country except the very rich can escape the worst pollution. In one of Watts' more startling statistics, he points out that only 1 percent of China's population breath air deemed safe, for a country of over 1.3 billion, that's a lot of illness.

Jonathan Watts concludes by saying that China cannot save the world, but it forces us to "recognise we are all going in the wrong direction". He highlights that there are many in the country who are struggling for a sustainable future, but focuses on individuals to change their behaviour to solve the problem. This seems barely credible given the scale of the problem he describes, and I tend to agree more with an old man he meets on a train who, when discussing the environment points out "The problem of a corrupt bureaucracy cannot be solved by bureaucrats. We need a mass movement to clear them out. I think there will be one within five years". The old man hasn't been proved right yet, but if we're to survive the 21st century as a global society it increasingly looks like we should follow his dream.

Related Reviews

Lafitte - Saving Tibet
Shapiro - China's Environmental Challenges
Au Loong Yu - China's Rise: Strength and Fragility
Gittings - Changing Face of China

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Claire North - The End of the Day

Claire North's first two books focused on individuals with odd powers. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was about people who returned to the beginning of their lives with their memories intact upon their death. Touch was about people who could possess other peoples bodies at will. This book however is very different, it's about Charlie, who is employed by Death as her harbinger. Charlie has no special abilities except perhaps, a faith in individuals (which is greatly tested by some of the people he visits) and being good at listening, which is particularly useful as people tend to pour out their thoughts to him.

The plot is fairly thin, but the book is extremely readable. It's as much a comment on the state of the world, as on the lives of the people Charlie meets. Chapters are interspersed by random snippets of conversation which betray both the happiness and sadness of people's lives and their rage at the world around them. War, Famine and Pestilence, as well as their respective harbingers, stalk the land and North depicts how their abilities have changed with the modern world, but how the opportunities for disaster have spread. I was struck by the contemporary relevance of this in a small aside at the end as War looks at a small island in the South China Seas and the captain of the ship comments how "they" have put their flag on it. Its never mentioned who they are, but War is suitably pleased at what this means.

As Charlie travels the world meeting people and giving gifts the reader is often left wondering what happens next. Charlie is at pains to explain that his visit doesn't mean death is imminent, and his gifts often help the recipient live longer. This is a bureaucratic process run by a expertly staffed office in Milton Keynes (having visited the place I'm not surprised that Death's office is there), and when Charlie finds himself in difficult situations, he is helped out by the bureaucracy. Though his activities attract the attention of the authorities who like many, want to bargain with Death itself.

Oddly the thing that worked least for me, is that Death, and his harbinger, are simply accepted by so many people. The news reports on him occasionally; people are often completely unsurprised by his presence, or existence and crucially, the authorities track him.

At the end of the book what I remembered most was the anger. North's characters are angry at racism and poverty (there's an interesting scene with a Black Lives Matter demo); war and climate change are constant backdrops. Imperialist destruction of South America and the Middle East are repeatedly mentioned and the way that the profits come before people is behind some of the key scenes of the book. The first time that Charlie is caught on camera, for instance, is when he visits a family being forced out of their London home by a company that wants to build luxury apartments.

The End of the Day is not as good a novel as North's earlier books - the central idea just didn't quite work for me this time. But in turns tragic and funny, it is a book that made me think, which is no bad thing at all. It also contains a highly appropriate quote from Karl Marx if you can find it.

Related Reviews

North - Touch
North - The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August