Friday, March 30, 2018

Iain Ferguson - Politics of the Mind: Marxism and Mental Distress

Iain Ferguson begins his examination of the politics of mental distress with a look at how people in Britain are suffering:
In 2012, more than 50 million prescriptions for anti-depressants were issued in the UK, the highest number ever. In some parts of the country, such as the North West of England, one in six people are now prescribed anti-depressants in an average month.
Later he adds
In June 2017, the Guardian newspaper reported that prescriptions for 64.7 million items of antidepressants were dispensed in England in 2016 - a staggering 108.5 percent increase on the 31 million... dispensed ten years earlier.
These shocking figures tell us two things, argues Ferguson. Firstly people in the contemporary UK are experiencing extraordinary levels of stress, depression and other forms of mental distress. Secondly, the dominant approach that the health service has to this crisis is to offer drugs. Later in the book Ferguson explains that there is good reason to question whether the application of drugs like this is in any way a solution.

But the majority of his book is to try and understand the history of how medical science has approached the question of mental illness and distress and what this tells us about today's practice. In addition he argues that a health policy informed by Marxism can offer a better approach that harks back to earlier forms of treatment.

Despite it's short length there are very useful sections on Freud, Lacan and more recent thinkers such as the psychiatrist R.D. Laing. The attempts by such scientists to understand mental health contrast strongly with the medical approach that simply sees mental distress as rooted in biology. The medical model of mental health, the "increasing medicalisation of everyday life" leads to the private interests of corporations rather than a "humanitarian or altruistic concern" shaping approaches to healthcare. Ferguson quotes Richard Bentall:
When considering the role of the pharmaceutical industry in psychiatric research... Drug companies are no more driven by the desire to do good than the manufacturers of automobiles, canned soup or other household products.... They are willing to use any and every method to promote their products...who have learned (or been taught) to look to the medical profession for solutions to a wide range of physical, social and existential ills.
In contrast Ferguson stresses a number of strategies that involve putting the patient's situation in the context of their wider history, relationships and experiences. He also emphasises the importance of the growing movements of "mental health service users" whose experiences and needs are often sidelined in discussions about treatment. These come together in an excellent chapter "new challenges to psychiatric hegemony". Here Ferguson challenges the dominant medical approaches and celebrates alternatives that have a more social  approach:
A model for mental distress which recognises - and provides empirical evidence for-the casual role played by early life experience, poverty, inequality, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression in the genesis of mental health problems is a huge step forward from a model which locates such problems primarily in faulty genes or biochemical deficiencies. The fact also that the new paradigm does not discount genes, brains and biochemistry but rather emphasises the interaction between our brains and our environments... allows for a much more dialectical understanding of mental distress.
But this takes place in the context of a health service that has been decimated by years of Tory cuts and the scapegoating of mental health service users. So Ferguson cautions against simply dismissing existing treatments - we need to fight to protect existing services, and make them better. Not allow austerity measures to be given progressive cover.

Ferguson goes further. He shows how capitalism distorts out lives and undermines what makes us human. Mental distress may be encouraged by poverty, racism, sexism or oppression. But the very system is irrational. Our lives are taken from us, wasted and our skills underutilised - we are atomised, made to compete with each other when we are used to cooperating and working together; a tiny minority get rich on the backs of everyone else's labour. If you wanted to design a system that created mental distress you couldn't find a better one than capitalism.

But Ferguson also points out that when people collectively challenge their situation and fight back against capitalism they often find their mental health is improved. On a small scale, it's why protests and pickets are often so happy - we are challenging our enemies and working together. He quotes an eyewitness to the Egyptian Revolution describing how everyone had a "new sense of agency". They were, albeit briefly, masters of their future. It's a small glimpse into how the world might be a better place one day. In conclusion I'd like to finish with a quote from a famous study that Ferguson uses in his book. Its a study of depression in women in the 1970s, and the authors conclude:
While we see sadness, unhappiness and grief as inevitable in all societies we do not believe this is true of clinical depression.
Iain Ferguson's book is important because it looks at what we can do in the here and now to improve people's mental distress but how we can also envisage a society where that doesn't happen.

Read an interview with Iain Ferguson about his book here.

Related Reviews

Swain - Alienation
Slorach - A Very Capitalism Condition: A History and Politics of Disability

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

James S.A. Corey - Caliban's War

Volume two of James S.A. Corey's Expanse series continues almost where the first book left off. It maintains the fast pace of its predecessor but has a somewhat darker tone. While there is plenty of action and set piece battles these takes place in the context of the political battles going on between Earth, Mars and the Belter systems.

Because the fragile balance between these three political entities has been fundamentally altered by the arrival of an alien intervention in the Solar System. At the end of the last book an alien molecule which seems to be able to self-replicate (and communicate faster than light) took control of Venus. In the few months that have passed Venus has been completely transformed into an incomprehensible structure.

Elsewhere, different factions of human society compete for their own interests. These imperialist maneuvers in space are reshaping the solar system, but bringing interplanetary war closer. When it does finally erupt, a cascade of events takes place that brings the key characters from Leviathan Wakes into the centre of events again - led by the somewhat wooden James Holden.

Other characters are less wooden, such as the rude and belligerent UN senior politician Avasarala who plays politics like chess (the game she calls it). The Martian Marine "Bobby" who watched her entire platoon get massacred by an alien living weapon is wooden, but in the way that soldiers are. The interaction between these two is one of the fun things about the book.

The novel itself races along. The authors have a talent for end of chapter cliff hangers, and because alternate chapters switch between viewpoints it means the reader finds themselves reading late into the night. While the plot isn't original, the story is tight and fun and sets up its fans for book three.

Related Reviews

Corey - Leviathan Wakes

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Gerald Horne - The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism

In the introduction to his latest book historian Gerald Horne makes clear the consequences of European settlement in the Americas:
Though disease spread by these interlopers is often trotted out to explain the spectacular downturn in the fortunes of indigenous Americans, genocide - in virtually every meaning of the term, including volitional acts by invading settlers - is the proximate cause of this towering mountain of cadavers. Thus, even when enslaved Africans chose suicide, which they were often forced to do, it would be follow to suggest that enslavers were guiltless.
It is a deliberately provocative conclusion and the tragedies that resulted from European colonialism is horrifically documented in Horne's book. But his book is more than a simple description of the genocide against indigenous peoples and African slaves. It explains the pattern of colonialism in the Americas through the development of capitalism.

While British colonialism came to dominate in North America, the initial thrusts were made by countries like Spain and Portugal. But the success of the Bourgeois revolution in England enabled that state to more effectively deploy its wealth to strengthen the position of its merchants in the Americas. The defeat of the aristocracy by the merchant class, as exemplified by the execution of Charles I and the consolidation of their power in 1688 meant that they were freed up to maximise their profits. This meant the transport of millions more slaves, their brutal exploitation on the plantations and the selling of the products of their labour back in Europe.

Not only did 1688 allow the merchants more freedom to engage in profit making, it also explicitly encouraged them to do this through the slave trade, which now was directly between Africa and North America, by-passing the Caribbean. Horne writes that
as slave owning became widespread, it became more difficult to limit slave trading to the aegis of the Crown, and one of the revolutionary demands of the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 in London was the deregulation of this hateful commerce and the entrance into it of 'private' traders.

Later Horne points out that later generations of Marxists and radicals hailed "the resultant growth of the productive forces" but the victory of the Bourgeois Revolution "was a staggering blow to Africans and Native Americans: it was the dawning of the  apocalypse".

If I have a disagreement with Horne's analysis here, it is only to say that not all Marxists "celebrated" the reality of the Bourgeois Revolution, just as there is a crude Marxism that sees history as a series of gradual steps upward there is also a Marxism, in the real tradition of Marx and Engels, that understands history as a series of transformations and capitalism's success as a defeat for millions of people. As Marx famously wrote in Capital:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.
But Horne does not limit his study to the economic causes of the Apocalypse. He also explains that there had to be a ideological justification for what took place. This means the development of "white supremacy" and racism. One of the running themes through the book is that slaves and indigenous people constantly rebelled. The ideology of white supremacy justified enslavement and repression, and drove a wedge between the slaves and the poorest whites. Horne shows how this can be seen in the historical record:
Pessimism reigned as the colonial elite could not unite the Gordian knot of bringing in more Africans to produce immense wealth while preventing them from rebelling and taking power - which finally occurred in 1791 in what became Haiti. The governor of Antigua remarked during this fraught seventeenth-century moment that his island, like others, was beset by 'great supplies of Negroes and no whites.'. 
To this Horne appends, "Note the term 'white' that was rapidly supplanting Christian to describe Europeans."

Capitalism's drive to accumulate wealth spelt disaster for millions of people, for entire ecosystems and whole societies. The very infrastructure of great European cities is built on the blood and sweat of slaves in the Americas. When trying to understand the nature of the United States today we cannot forget the invention and use of white supremacy to justify mass enslavement. But racism has deep roots in modern capitalist society and so while Horne finishes his book with a demand that there should be reparations to repair this historic crime, he also argues that there has to be a challenge to the system itself. It is not enough to debate with the American Civil Liberties Union "about the 'rights' of fascists" he argues, and instead it would be better to spend time talking with "potential and actual allies in Beijing, Moscow, Havana, Brussels , Pretoria and elsewhere". These are the sort of networks of solidarity that we'll need to end white supremacy and its capitalist parent once and for all.

Horne's book is a brilliant intervention into contemporary debates about racism. It is a powerful weapon that argues the problem is not just a far-right US President or a growing number of fascist protesters, but a system that is built on the back of slavery. I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Blackburn - The American Crucible
Rediker - The Slave Ship
Galeano - The Open Veins of Latin America
Forsdick & Høgsbjerg - Toussaint Louverture
Richardson - Say it Loud! Marxism & the Fight Against Racism

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

J.L.Carr - A Month in the Country

A few years after the end of World War One, Tom Birkin, a survivor of Passchendaele and a victim of shell shock find himself in the tiny village of Oxgodby with the job of restoring a medieval painting in the church. Tom arrives in Oxgodby in the pouring rain, yet the summer weeks he spends there turn into a idyllic summer that he can only contrast with the rain and mud of Flanders. The rainy arrival perhaps symbolises his transition into a new era of his life, but the story of what takes place in that summer is told in retrospect - Tom himself only understands it long after he leaves.

As he uncovers the painting he gradually understands that its a masterpiece, a painting of the last judgement, with the damned being condemned to hell and the others rising up to join the heavenly host. The symbolism here isn't difficult to spot, but Carr doesn't force it down the reader's throat, instead he uncovers it slowly, like Tom's restoration.

There are surprisingly few main characters, though Tom's close friendship with Moon, and archaeologist on a similar quest to find a lost grave in the churchyard is touching. They are both veterans of the War, though in very different ways. Moon spots, long before Tom does, that his friendship with the vicar's beautiful wife is becoming more than that and if there is any dramatic heart to the story it is what happens to the two of them.

Tom uncovers a painting; Moon finds a grave and everyone else in the village spends the summer getting the harvest in and going to Church or Chapel. While little happens in terms of a narrative, much takes place. There is a hilarious comic set piece in a music shop where the rivalry between Church and Chapel becomes very real. There's also a moment of pure pain when, without giving away the details, Tom is confronted full on with the consequences of the War. His screams of rage into the empty fields are truely tragic.

This is a beautiful novel - every page celebrates humanity with all its strengths and weaknesses. Despite being written in the late 1970s it feels like an autobiographical sketch by a survivor of the War. That it isn't is a tribute to the author's ability to make the past a living thing.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Randall Hansen - Fire & Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942-1945

In the excitement of the release of a book called Fire and Fury about Donald Trump's Whitehouse tenure, Randall Hansen's 2009 book of the same title became a surprise bestseller again as confused readers clicked the wrong online ordering button and purchased a book about the firebombing of Germany cities in World War Two. I wasn't confused like this, but having read a newspaper article about the book I hunted it down out of interest for the subject.

It was a worthwhile, if occasionally haunting, exercise. The reality of the Allied bombing campaign against Germany was not pleasant and Hansen uses eyewitness accounts to recount the reality of the mass bombing raids on cities like Hamburg and Dresden. He also tells the story of the smaller towns and cities that were systematically flattened by British Bomber Command, often long after any strategic justification had disappeared.

Hansen contrasts the approaches of Britain's Bomber Command with the US's Eighth Air-force. He argues that the approach of the latter was a strategic success, hampering Germany's ability to wage war and undermining her industry. His authorities for this are many, but include Albert Speer who was clear that repeated attacks on key industries such as ball bearing manufacture and oil, significantly undermined Nazi Germany. Bomber Command on the other hand had a strategy of blanket bombing and destroying whole cities. This arose out of a pre-war doctrinal belief that such bombings would utterly demoralise the population, kill civilian workers and stop Germany's ability to wage war. It also came out of a practical problem - Bomber Command was the only force capable of striking Germany after Dunkirk, and at repeatedly proved itself, in the early years of the war, inept at striking precision targets.

However what becomes clear is that despite mounting evidence that this strategy was having no impact upon Germany's war aims, Bomber Command's Arthur Harris pursued this strategy in the face of mounting criticism from his own military superiors. At times it seems that Harris misled the public and his commanders and liberally interpreted his orders to continue with his strategy of mass murder.

Harris may not have had all the hard facts to hand, but intelligence was available that proved his strategy a failure. Despite this, supporters of Harris continue to argue that his bombing of civilian cities was a success and a necessity. Let's quote Hansen on this.
On by one, the cities of the Ruhr were turned into ash and rubble The effects of these raids on production were minimal. Although two hundred thousand tons of bombs would fall on Germany in 1943... its wartime production increased dramatically... During the Battle of the Ruhr, the country faced nothing approaching a labour shortage. There were 1.4 million workers still employed in household service... By the end of 1943, the Reich still had six million Germans employed in consumer industries. The result was the overproduction of consumer goods. From October 1942 to October 1943, Germany produced 120,000 typewriters, 200,000 domestic radios, 150,000 electric blankets, 3600 refrigerators, ...512,000 pairs of riding boots...According to the official British historians... the Battle of the Ruhr - during which fifty-eight thousand tons of bombs had been poured on Germany - cost the area between one and one and a half months' loss of output. The price for Bomber Command in men and matériel was enormous.
In fact Speer made it clear that when Bomber Command did hit industrially crucial targets, such as oil depots or the famous dams, they failed to follow up on their attacks and cripple the targets. The result was, we should be utterly clear, a militarily failure that could have shortened the war, and the loss of thousands of servicemen and the deaths and injury of tens of thousands of civilians.

By contrast, despite limitations imposed on them by weather, and enemy action, the US strategy of targeting key parts of the German war machines had a considerable impact. What is unbelievable to me, from reading Hansen's book, is that Harris was allowed to get away with minimal criticism. His superior officers failed to challenge him in any meaningful way, particularly when he clearly interpreted orders in such a way as to continue to hit cities at a time when official strategy was to prioritise the final destruction of the oil industry. Hansen concludes, "After flattening dozens of cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians Harris should be held to account and not simply be forgive for making a 'bad call'... Churchill could have stopped area bombing and he did not; indeed, near the ed of the war, he urged it on.

Hansen is no bleeding heart liberal. He sees Harris' failure not as a war crime, but as a strategic error that was continued because Harris was unable to break from a strategy that was a "moral and strategic failure" and his high-command did not want to challenge him.  He concludes:
We cannot shy away from this conclusion out of fear of giving succour to the far right or of offending the Royal Air Force or Royal Canadian Air Force aircrew. On the contrary the freedom to write and speak the truth is what the aircrew were fighting for.
While I disagree with this exact conclusion - I think the war was fought for the imperial interests of Britain and the US, one can agree that those who celebrate the defeat of Fascism cannot hide the fact that Britain pursued strategies that failed to limit civilian deaths nor speed the end of the war.

Two further things need to be added. One is that Hansen notes in detail the failure of both the US and the British to use their air-power to limit the Holocaust. There's a heart-rending account from an Auschwitz survivor who saw Allied bombers flying over and prayed for them to bomb the camp to stop the mass murder. Hansen notes how much the Allies knew about the mass murder and concludes that while they may not have stopped the majority of the Holocaust, they could have in the latter years made a real difference. They ignored the targets in favour of area and precision bombing of military targets. That they did not try is a stain on the memory of the Allied forces.

Finally, one missing part is in Hansen's conclusion. If the US strategy of precision bombing was so effective, why did they do the opposite in Japan. The firebombing of Tokyo and the atom bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were precisely what they condemned Bomber Command for in Europe. I suspect that some of the difference in approach reflects a racist view of the Japanese, something that Ian W. Toll has shown was prevalent among US military strategy in the Pacific Arena.

Randall Hansen's book is an important contribution to discussions of military history and World War Two. It is impossible to read it, in my view, and believe that Arthur Harris was not a war criminal, though others may disagree. However everyone who reads this can only conclude that the strategy of mass bombing of cities was an utter failure that probably prolonged the war.

Related Reviews

Taylor - Dresden
Moorhouse - Berlin at War

Gluckstein - Fighting on All Fronts
Heartfield - An Unpatriotic History of the Second World War
Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Kershaw - The End
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried

James S. A. Corey - Leviathan Wakes

It's always dangerous diving into a novel that is part of an established series, particularly one like the Expanse universe which has already spawned various short stories, TV series and is unlikely to see a final book any time soon. However I enjoyed Leviathan Wakes a lot. It's not a brilliant piece of science fiction, but it has some great ideas and good characters. In particular it is good at describing a Solar System carved up into differing and contested spheres of influence between Earth, Mars and the "Belt".

The main story follows two groups - one a rough Belter policeman trying to find a kidnapped woman against the backdrop of a war begun by the second group, a crew of spaceship that have accidentally begun an interplanetary war. Throw into the mix a novel form of alien life, intergalactic politics and a neat disregard for any of the major laws of physics and this is a novel that allows spacecraft to swoop around each other guns blazing, and alien technology that can disregard the laws of thermodynamics and gravity at will. If this sort of thing bothers you then you should probably re-read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, if it doesn't then your in for a fast paced novel that draws some of its characters from the work of Raymond Chandler.

At times the plot is head together by some mind stretching coincidences and the aforementioned alien technology that can disregard the laws of science. But the writers whose collective pen name is James Corey are talented enough to get away with it, and the reader taht reaches the end is likely to be left wanting to read the eight follow up books.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Yuri Prasad - A Rebel's Guide to Martin Luther King

This year radicals will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of 1968, a year of global rebellion. One of the key events of that year took place on 4th April when the civil rights activist Martin Luther King was assassinated by a racist. King's death provoked a wave of furious uprisings, riots and protests.

Yuri Prasad's new book looks at King's political life within the Civil Rights movement. His focus is on how King's ideas changed as the struggle developed. Prasad explains that King never really set out to be the leader he became, and with the benefit of over half a century of hindsight, we can see an element of political naivety in King's early beliefs. As Prasad writes:
King admitted that he had conceived of the fight as being for reform of the system. He thought that, faced with the realities of black rebellion and racist resistance in the South, Washington could be persuaded to act to outlaw segregation, enshrine voting rights and create the conditions in which a true 'brotherhood' could grow. 
The Civil Rights movement did win spectacular gains, and King was at the forefront of some of those key battles. But King was also in a contradictory position - between the demands for radical, immediate change, and his need to keep the liberals and the black middle classes on board with his fight. These latter two groups were terrified of revolution, of too rapid a change and certainly didn't want to have their own interests challenged.

The reality of the racist resistance to the struggle for rights and the pressure from below helped push King towards a more radical position. One of the strengths of this little book is that it reproduces some of King's on words, and included is his letter from a Birmingham jail to those who opposed the protests and insisted he show patience and confine the struggle to the courts. The letter concludes "There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience".

After President Kennedy's assassination King argued that the movement had to give the new president space, and certainly the establishment thought "the battle against segregation was now reaching a conclusion". But now King buckled. Knowing he needed another victory to keep the struggle alive, he compromised and made a deal with Lyndon Johnson's administration to avoid the march on Selma becoming a confrontation with the police. Prasad quotes those involved at the time and their disgust.

The growing radical demands for "Black power" confused King, and when younger activists challenged him he felt hurt. But King was not someone to keep going in one direction simply because he had always done things in a particular way. Prasad shows King engaged with the growing radicalism and began to shift his own politics. Principally this involved his speaking out against the war in Vietnam at a time when few others had done so. This alienated many of his liberal supporters, but King was right to argue "I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government". He also began to tackle wider questions of class and poverty and in a powerful speech in support of striking refuse workers in Memphis he ended by calling for a city-wide general strike if management did not give in.

This new stage to King's politics was cut short by his assassination. Precisely what would have happened had King not died can only be guessed at, but Prasad does demonstrate that King was increasingly looking to challenge racism through a challenge to capitalism. King clearly was coming to understand that you couldn't end the former without breaking the latter. This focus on the evolution of King's ideas is what makes this short book very special. I highly recommend Yuri Prasad's book as a key read for the anniversary of 1968 and for the struggles against the racist system today.

Support radical publishing and buy the book direct from Bookmarks Books here.

Related Reviews

Younge - The Speech
Richardson (ed) - Say It Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism

My reviews of other Rebel's Guides 

Hamilton - A Rebel's Guide to Malcolm X
Mitchell - A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly
Brown - A Rebel's Guide to Eleanor Marx
Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Orr - Sexism and the System; A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Lyn Macdonald - Passchendaele: The Story of the Third Battle of Ypres 1917

I picked up Lyn Macdonald's Passchendaele quite by chance. I was looking for a history of the battle to read prior to visiting the World War One battlefields at Ypres. My random selection turned out to be extremely fortuitous - Passchendaele is the perfect book to read to understand the slaughter that was the Third Battle of Ypres. The strength of the book lies in the powerful testaments from those who fought in the battle. These eyewitness accounts are often horrific, tragic and emotional. But they contain a wealth of detail that means that the battle isn't simply an abstract tale of regiments moving here and there, and thousands being killed or maimed, but rather a deeply personal experience.

The battle for Passchendaele takes place in the context of the Ypres Salient, a bulge in the allied lines into German captured terroritry. Straightening the line out, and then pushing onwards cost the lives of thousands and was less about defeating the enemy than making sure that trench warfare continued. By the time of the Third Battle (the earlier two were conflicts that set the scene for the later confrontation) the British High Command had an ambition of moving so far forward they would capture the channel ports from the enemy and cut off their access to submarine bases, thus aiding the cross Atlantic supply convoys. It was a laudable aim, but in the context of trench warfare, the weather and the German defences it was fantasy.

I was struck that British politicians, particularly Lloyd George understood this instinctively. Field Marshall Haig however liberally interpreted his orders and turned preparations into a major offensive. Summer weather turned into a horribly wet autumn. Flanders turned into a sea of mud. Perhaps 40,000 bodies still lie under this mud, and our guide showed us six recent graves of soldiers who'd recently been found. Veterans recalling watching friends and comrades slowly drown in mud, begging to be shot will remain with me forever.

I wrote that the accounts of eyewitnesses (both soldiers and non-combatants such as civilians and nurses) were horrific. At the beginning of the book Lyn Macdonald apologises in advance, but reminds the reader that this is all true. It's an apt point to make. Almost exactly 100 years to the day when I visited Ypres, the Germans began their Spring Offensive of 1918. In a few days of intense fighting, they wiped out the limited gains the Allies had made towards Passchendaele. Tens of thousands of men were slaughtered in an utterly pointless few years of fighting. If you do ever visit Ypres, then I'd recommend Lyn Macdonald's book, but even if you cannot go to France and Belgium then read her book. It deserves a wide readership lest we forget the true horrors of what took place between 1914 and 1918

Related Reviews

Sunday, March 04, 2018

James C. Scott - Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

This fascinating new book takes a new look at an age old question of ancient history. Precisely when, where and why did early humans move from effectively nomadic existence to a sedentary one? Why did they make this transition that would lead to the first "states"? Traditionally historians argue the key issue is agriculture, and that farming led directly to sedentary life, and then to the rise of states and civilisation.

But this book by James C. Scott argues that while there is some truth to this, reality was often more complex. Of course the "neolithic revolution" was a fundamental transformation for human society. As Scott writes:
The domestication of plants as represented ultimately by fixed-field farming.. enmeshed us in an annual set of routines that organised our work life, our settlement patterns, our social structure... The harvest itself sets in train another sequence of routines: in the case of cereal crops, cutting,m bundling, threshing, gleaning, separation of straw, winnowing chaff, sieving, drying, sorting - most of which has historically been coded as women;'s work... Once Homo sapiens took that fateful step into agriculture, our species entered an austere monastery who taskmaster consists mostly of the demanding genetic clockwork of a few plants.
None of this is particularly new,  but the key question here is "why" did this happen? Scott answers this complex question with a number of points. Firstly he shows that domestication predates sedentary life. Animals and plants were used and managed even when humans were still living nomadic hunter-gatherer lives. He also points out that a transition to agriculture actually requires a lot more work from individuals.

Sometimes Scott is guilty of coming across as though he is the first author to highlight some of these things. But authors like MArshall Sahlins and Richard Lee showed in their studies of contempoary nomadic cultures that communities were well aware that agriculture requires more work per calorie. Its something I myself wrote about in Land and Labour. But Scott does well to show how blurred the distinction between nomadism, agriculture and sedetary life is.

Scott argues points to a number of societies that made the transition back to nomadic culture from sedentary society (the Dakota and Cheyenne nation of North America is a classic example though they did this when horses became available from Spanish colonists). He also argues, and I think rightly, that many early states were vulnerable because of their reliance on agriculture - and that the historical "collapse" of these societies is less the disasters that Jared Diamond has implied and more a transition back to earlier social organisation. In this context its good to see McAnany and Yoffee's book Questioning Collapse getting recognition.

Scott's book really excels when he talks about the nature of early states. I was particularly taken by his idea of "political crops" particularly wheat, barley, rice, millet and maize. These are easy to quantify, ripen at set times and the produce can be easily measured and transported (they're also relatively light for moving in bulk). Students of Karl Marx's Labour Theory of Value might be intrigued by the following example:
Units of grain served as standards of measurement and value for trade and tribute against which the value of other commodities was calculated - including labour. The daily food ration of the lowest class of labourers in Umma, Mesopotamia, was almost exactly two litres of barley measured out in the beveled bowls that are among the most ubiquitous archaeological finds.
I was less convinced of the role that Scott attributes to coercion in the early states. He writes that "when other forms of unfree labour [in addition to slavery] such as debt bondage, forced resettlement, and corvee labour, are taken into account, the importance of coerced labour for the maintenance and expansion of the grain-labour module at the core of the state is hard to deny."

Here I think Scott is slightly guilty of over-emphasising the coercive nature of the state. Writing about Mesopotamia again he says,
The dense concentration of grain and manpower on the only soils capable of sustaining them in such numbers... maximized the possibilities of appropriate, stratification, and inequality. The state form colonizes this nucleus as its productive based, scales it up, intensifies it, and occasionally it adds infrastructure... in the interest of fattening and protecting the goose that lays the golden eggs... one can think of these forms of intensification as elite niche-construction: modifying the landscape and ecology so as to enrich the productivity of its habitat.
Rightly Scott understands that the agricultural surplus is central to the functioning of the state. But to often he sees this as arising only out of coercion by the ruling classes. In other words the mass of the population don't really want to live in a "state" and have to be forced to do so. But precisely because residents would receive benefits from a state - protection from raiding, the organisation of food distribution, maintenance and building of irrigation systems etc - they might not necessarily all have to be coerced all the time. The ruling class doesn't only have a stick at its disposal, they also can dangle carrots.

That's not to say that everyone wanted to live in an unequal society. Agriculture gives human society a surplus which can lead to a class of society and the development of a state. But crucially it doesn't always. Flannery and Marcus' marvellous book The Creation of Inequality shows that early societies, both sedentary and nomadic resisted the development of inequality in numerous innovative ways. The rise of states was not inevitable, but when it did happen it eventually led to the erosion of the majority of other forms of social organisation.

All in all there is much of interest in this book, its easy to read, it made me rethink how and why the transition to agriculture takes place, and its full of fascinating details. Scott beings together a lot of material from many different sources. My slight disagreements about emphasis are not intended to prevent anyone from getting and enjoying this book.

Related Reviews

Bellwood - The First Farmers
Martin - The Death of Big Men and the Rise of the Big Shots
Flannery and Marcus - The Creation of Inequality

McAnany and Yoffee - Questioning Collapse
Childe - What Happened in History?
Harper - The Fate of Rome

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Alastair Morgan & Peter Jukes - Untold: The Daniel Morgan Murder Exposed

Private investigator Daniel Morgan was brutally murdered in 1987. Thirty years later, the case is "the most investigated murder in British history", yet despite this no one has ever been punished for their involvement in the killing. This remarkable book is the story of Daniel Morgan's family's struggle for justice. It is a book that exposes the rotten heart of the British justice system and forces the reader to confront ugly truths about our police forces.

At the heart of the story is the killing of Daniel Morgan. His brother Alastair and the rest of Daniel's family begin by trying to get justice but almost immediately they found themselves stunned by the inaction of the police and investigative failings. However it rapidly became clear that there was much more to the case, and as the family constantly put pressure on the police more and more dirt is exposed.

It is likely that Daniel was killed because he was about to expose major police corruption and collusion in criminal acts in a newspaper story. Anyone who has been paying any attention to British current affairs for the last thirty years knows that the behaviour of the police has increasingly come under scrutiny. It should come as no surprise that the justice system that failed so many people like the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four would have institutional failings. One of the formative political campaigns of my life was the struggle for justice for Stephen Lawrence, the teenager killed in a racist attack in South London. That the police were found to be institutionally racist out of that campaign was a real victory. What Daniel Morgan's case shows is that there was also deep seated corruption in sections of the force at the time and it is likely that this is the reason he was killed. This begs the question, as the authors point out, who knew in advance about this?
Yet rather than one issue of police corruption, Daniel might have uncovered many of them. Rather than the crime itself, he might have focused on the conspirators and discovered a network of corrupt police officers. The mention of a 'management committee' organising the murder and cover-up seems plausible. If there was a conspiracy to murder Daniel... then cover it up using police personnel, it would need to be carefully planned.
All the indications... suggest it was meticulously organised .The removal of incriminating evidence from all Daniel's belongings and the abortive media campaigns calling for more information suggest the conspiracy was in operation long after the murder too. Subsequent cover-ups may have escalated to hide the initial conspiracy... With the revelation of a network of corrupt police , dozens of trials could have collapsed and convictions been rendered unsafe. Senior officers may have decided then that burying the true story around Daniel was the lesser of two evils.
So the story's tentacles stretch far beyond the car park where Daniel was killed. There are multiple links to the News of the World phone hacking scandals. After the then PM Gordon Brown spoke in Parliament about the "criminality surrounding the News of the World" Alastair writes:
I was reeling. This was another example of how my brother's unsolved murder and its cover-up had spread so rapidly through so many institutions. I had warned about the dangers of leaving the corruption around Southern Investigations to fester decades before, and now another symptom of the rot was playing out"
I have deliberately avoided trying to retell Untold's story in this review. Partly this is because I would encourage readers to read it themselves, but if you would like a short summary then I recommend this Socialist Worker piece on Daniel Morgan's murder.

As a longstanding political activist I have no love of the police, nor any illusions in the British state. Yet I still found myself repeatedly shocked by Untold. Indeed this is one reason why I would encourage people to read the book, as it exposes the reality of British justice. There is no doubt, that without the dogged persistence of Daniel Morgan's family Daniel's killing would have been forgotten long ago.

If there is to be any justice for the Morgan family then it will only be the result of ongoing campaigning work. One way to help them is to read this book. Another is to visit the campaign website.

Related Reviews

Davies - Flat Earth News
Aspden - The Houding of David Oluwale
Alexander & others - Marikana

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Ben Fine & Alfredo Saad-Filho - Marx's Capital

A decade after the financial crash that marked the start of the Long Depression, capitalism has still failed to recover. Economic crisis, poverty, austerity combine with a staggering concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals. It is no wonder then, that the ideas of Karl Marx remain of interest to many people trying to understand the capitalist system, and the two hundredth anniversary of Marx's birth is likely to encourage further interest.

Fine and Saad-Filho' guide to Marx's ideas has been in print, in various forms, since the 1970s. The text I've read is from 2004 and I understand it has been much developed since the early versions. The authors are two leading Marxists and have attempted to condense the key points of Marx's thought into this short book. I suspect it's popularity in no small part lies with its length - many of Marx's works and the guides to them are long, detailed books and this short volume offers an easy start.

The authors look at several key aspects of Marx's work - in particular his Method and the origins of his philosophy; the Labour Theory of Value, commodities; the circulation of capital and its accumulation and the role of the falling rate of profit in creating crisis. These are good introductions, and worth reading. Later chapters, particularly those on finance capital and agricultural rent are harder.

While there is much of interest here, in my opinion the book is too difficult to act as an entry to Marx's ideas. The early chapters are accessible, but by the middle of the book the authors appear to be addressing students with existing knowledge of mainstream economics. Because the book is not a guide to specific volumes of Marx's work in self-contained sections, the authors miss key sections. For instance there is no serious discussion of Marx's concept of money as a universal commodity - a key and very important section of the early chapters of Capital - It's omission makes some of the later explanations harder to understand.

Importantly the authors take up some contemporary criticisms of Marx, though readers who have not read these elsewhere will be left unsure of the arguments as the authors do not spend time in explaining Marx's opponents in detail. They also argue for the continued relevance of Marx, particularly his theory of class and the role of the state.

But there are weaknesses. I thought the section on Marxism and the environment missed some key arguments, not least even a passing reference to metabolic rift theory - despite referencing John Bellamy Foster's work. Of more concern was the author's argument that "capitalism is also capable, not least through the development of new materials and through state regulation, of tempering or even reversing at least partly such environmental degradation". This is an odd conclusion that doesn't really chime with Marx's arguments or those who have written in the field of ecological Marxism.

The section on the environment is from the author's concluding chapter on "Marxism and the Twenty First Century". They argue that the "purpose of this final chapter is to argue for the continuing salience of Marx's political economy for the study of contemporary issues". Here for me was the real problem - what is omitted is a sense of Marxism as a guide to political action, the ideological tools for the ending of capitalism and the building of a socialist society by the working masses. This felt like a retreat into an academic Marxism that explained the approach of the early chapters. So while there is much of use for those trying to get to grips with Marxism here, I'd recommend readers starting elsewhere. Some suggestions follow.

Related Reviews

Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism
Roberts - The Long Depression
Marx - Value, Price and Profit
Allen - Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Engels - Socialism, Utopian and Scientific