Thursday, August 30, 2018

Joe Haldeman - All My Sins Remembered

***Spoilers***

Joe Haldeman served two tours in Vietnam as a US combat engineer, where he was severely injured. It is probably fair to say that his experiences hang heavy over his novels, particularly Forever War which was rejected by numerous publishers in the 1970s, none of whom thought a science fiction retelling of Vietnam would sell. It did, and remains one of the most magnificent novels to come out of that war.

The title of All My Sins Remembered might be seen as an illusion to Hademan's own combat experiences. Certainly it is a book that deals with how extreme experiences can shape people and destroy them. The hero Otto McGavin is an operative for a shadowy organisation, the Confederación, that claims to keep the peace in the galaxy. Otto's speciality is that he can take on the personality and the body of others, allowing him to infiltrate enemies as a perfect spy. He comes to the Confederación a Buddist, firmly believing in the organisations' Charter that will protect the galaxy's inhabitants. The truth is much harsher. Agents are needed to investigate crimes, rob the innocent, fan the flames of rebellion or murder politicians and a host of other dirty tricks.

Through a series of connected short stories we follow Otto as he investigates the disappearances of some fellow agents, attempts to stop a interplanetary war and infiltrates a shady religious organisation that is attempting to find out a secret from an endangered alien species that can seemingly move planets at will.

It's not a complex novel, but its well and tightly written - there's more than a few contemporary science fiction authors who could learn from Haldeman's ability to describe the terrors of a alien jungle at night in a short few paragraphs. But Haldeman also manages to add into this an amusing tale of how a group of idealistic Communist settlers fell foul of the jungle's monsters and create a contempoary network of feudal states in cities around their stranded spacecraft.

Between each mission Otto is interviewed by his handlers, who are clearly growing concerned by his post traumatic stress. The ending is brutally abrupt, with a very subtle twist, and is an interesting metaphor for how states use and abuse their footsoldiers. Otto's idealistic hopes of serving the greater good of the galaxy are, of course, dashed. His organisation existed to serve itself, not anyone else. While hospitalised after a mission Otto muses to himself on becoming a cog in a machine: "You can posit and argue and posit and argue, but if the Confederación asked you to unplug yourself from that machine and die, you unplug yourself and die, if you could move your arms."

Related Reviews

Cixin - Death's End
Scalzi - Old Man's War
Heinlein - Starship Troopers
Arkady & Boris Strugatsky - Roadside Picnic
Aldiss - Non-Stop

Monday, August 27, 2018

Peter Binns, Tony Cliff & Chris Harman - Russia: From Workers' State to State Capitalism

Having spent some of the Russian Revolution's centenary year reading books about 1917, the years 2018 onward bring a whole host of opportunities to read about what happened afterwards. I thought it would be useful to recap on the development of the International Socialist traditions views on Russia in the aftermath of the revolution.

This short 1987 collection of essays brings together four short pieces by leading British Marxists of the International Socialists and the Socialist Workers' Party. Only the first, an introductory piece by the Palestinian Jewish Marxist Tony Cliff is new for this piece, the others are from various other socialist journals and books. Cliff's piece is short and the meat of the argument is presented by Chris Harman's pieces which deal with the defeat of the Russia Revolution and the nature of Russia and its satellite states. The first Harman piece How the Revolution Was Lost (online here) is one of the clearest arguments about why Russia, first through isolation and the defeat of the post-World War One European Revolutionary movements and then the development of a new bureaucratic class, led to the defeat of the Revolution itself. It's a classic article that I have read numerous times and which I highly recommend to socialists.

Harman's second piece can be seen as a basic introduction to the idea that defines the International Socialist tradition, that Russia was State Capitalist. Because of the origin of the articles as separate pieces there is some duplication, but again, Harman's argument is clear and accessible and like the following Peter Binn's article he returns first to a study of what capitalism is, before showing what Russia was/is. Harman shows how the basic dynamics of capitalism existed in pre-1989 Russia (and the Eastern bloc countries), showing how they could not possibly be socialist:
whereas under pre-capitalist societies production is determined by the desires of the ruling class and under socialism by the desires of the mass of the population, under capitalism the nature and dynamic of production results from the compulsion on those who control production to extract a surplus in order to accumulate means of production in competition with one another. The particular way in which the ruling class owns industry in Russia, through its control of the state, does not affect this essential point. That is why the only meaningful designation in Marxist terms of the society that has existed in Russia for the last forty years [Harman means since the 1920s] is 'state capitalism'.
Peter Binn's piece The Theory of State Capitalism (which can be found online here) is an extremely good short introduction to the idea. Like Harman he develops this through a study of capitalism, with frequent references to Marx's Capital. Crucially he shows how accumulation is a central feature of the economy of Russia, and this is because Russia is not an isolated economic system but one in intense competition with the Western Powers. This competition, like the competition between rival capitalists, drives the economic accumulation. Binns shows that this is true by showing how even within the developed capitalist powers, where the concentration and monopolisation of capitalism has meant that frequently only a single multinational dominates its sphere of production, yet these remain capitalist systems. State ownership, and indeed the existence of state planning, does not undermine this dynamic.

Central to all four pieces is a study of the rise of the bureaucracy in Russia. This came initially from the reality of the young, isolated Revolution which had experienced a decimation of the revolutionary working class. But eventually this bureaucracy became a class for itself, organising in its own interests and striving to extract the maximum surplus from the workers and peasants.

A few years after this book was published, the State Capitalist regimes of Eastern Europe and the USSR collapsed. As pointed out by Tony Cliff, in none of these supposed "workers' states" did workers collectively lift a finger to protect them. I was struck reading this that the essential arguments where proved by the nature of the end of the Eastern States. While it suited the capitalists to label these as socialist and the process from 1989 to 1991 as "the end of socialism", in reality this was capitalism reforming itself to try and deal with its inherent contradictions. Why does this matter today? After all these regimes haven't existed for almost thirty years. Binns and Harman both make the point that firstly the clarity provided by returning to the basic ideas of Marxist theory helped ensure that some revolutionary socialists weren't distracted by the idea of "actually existing socialism" and secondly, because if the Revolution of 1917 could be defeated by counter-revolution and the rise of a bureaucratic class then future revolutionaries must guard against the possibility.

Related Reviews

Sherry - Russia 1917: Workers' Revolution and Festival of the Oppressed
Trotsky - Lessons of October
Birchall - Tony Cliff
Cliff - Trtosky 1923-1927: Fighting the Rising Stalinist Bureaucracy
Cliff - Trotsky 1927-1940: The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star

Friday, August 24, 2018

Matthew T. Huber - Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom & the Force of Capital

For those of us battling for radical action on climate change the role of the fossil fuel corporations within capitalism is a key issue. How they operate, why they behave like they do, and their role in maintaining fossil fuel capitalism is central to understanding why states have failed to enact the sort of radical action that is required. Matthew T. Huber's book is an attempt to understand, in the words of the publisher, "If our oil addiction is so bad for us, why don't we kick the habit?"

Huber begins by analysing the way that the oil corporations developed in the United States. It's a fascinating history of how the oil industry came to be closely associated with the US state and how it became central to the US economy. It's a story of dodgy dealings, strikes and repressive measures and state intervention. I learnt a great deal from this history and I would suggest that together with Andreas Malm's wonderful Fossil Capital, it is a very useful read for anyone trying to understand oil's centrality to capitalism. In this review I want to focus on Huber's central thesis. He argues, for instance, that while (say) the anti-war movement have traditionally seen oil as central to US Imperialism, radicals have missed its wider centrality to how capitalism (particularly in the US) functions:
Thus political resistance to the geopolitical games of imperial control over oil reserves must cast their critical sights toward not only the US military state but also the geographies of social reproduction that situate oil as a necessary element of 'life'. The cries of 'no blood for oil' assume oil is a trivial 'thing' but a more effective antipetroleum politics must struggle against the more banal forms through which oil-based life gets naturalised as common sense. (*)
Huber continues later:
The forces behind the New Deal attempted to rescue capitalism through the construction of a new way of life based around high wages, home ownership, and auto-centric suburban geographies predicated upon the provision of cheap and abundant oil. 
This new way of life, the American Dream, was based not simply on oil fuelling the system, but also the cheap goods, abundant food and materials that oil provided. What Huber describes as "a particular suburban landscape: a geography of mass consumption". The New Deal and the Second World War allowed the construction of this new "geography" and the export of this around the world through the Marshall Plan. The US, Huber argues, came out of the War as a "perfected petro-capitalist social formation" with a huge fossil fuel infrastructure for "mass production and mass consumption of petroleum". He continues by showing how everything from housing to food became fossil fuel industries.

While US society became dependent on oil, oil also dominated society. There's a fascinating discussion of the "oil shock" that took place as Middle Eastern countries increased their prices. The close links between the perceived "freedom" that oil gave and the American way of life came home to roost for the US government here. In one incident, in 1979, protesters rioted in Levittown, Pennsylvania, against government plans to limit petrol consumption by reducing speed on the roads. The government and the oil industry itself had built up an image of freedom associated with cheap oil (It should be noted that there are some amazing images in this book from oil company advertisements that closely link petrol with cars and a perception of freedom in a very capitalist way). But this comes back to haunt the US when cheap petrol is no longer available, or when there is a threat to the use of oil. Despite the US having vastly cheaper petrol than any other developed country, the price of petrol has become a major political issue for successive Presidents. This, combined with the reality of capitalism and environmental disaster today, means major issues for the US population:
By the 2000s the patterns of life and living in the US demonstrated a wanton disregard for energy efficiency, but overall, life under neoliberalism is characterised not by excess but by eroding wages, mounting debt, longer work hours, and nonexistent job security. Only in this social context can clamouring for cheap gasoline be understood.
Thus, for Huber, any threat to cheap petrol/oil becomes an existential threat to the American way of life, that must be resisted. While politicians and oil executives argue that climate change is a hoax, Huber suggests that "far more disturbing are the more entrenched and everyday forms of living, thinking and feeling that make cheap energy a 'commonsense' necessity of survival." This Huber argues poses a problem for Marxists. The struggle for an "emancipatory future" was he argues based on a vision of the endless energy available from fossil fuels, but using these is a threat to the future of humanity. So, a new strategy must be engaged upon, a "political struggle to produce new spatialities of social life... a struggle to make visible once again the social and collective forces that make any 'life' possible."

I think that Huber is right here, but I am more optimistic that this can, and will happen, because activists are already offering visions of a sustainable world beyond petroleum. What is needed, and I think the harder question, is how to we get the social movements that can challenge both the power of fossil fuel capitalism and through their activity create the basis for those new forms of society. I think there is a slight danger in Huber's approach which might end up with blaming the victims of the system for inaction on climate change. History has shown that workers have frequently rebelled against a system, or aspects of that system, despite it not being in their immediate interest (the struggle by workers in the munitions industry against World War One is one example).

These aren't questions that are discussed by Matthew T. Huber's book, but they do follow on from his arguments. While the work is very focused on the United States, and should be read in conjunction with Anderas Malm's book, it is an important work and environmentalists and socialists will get a lot from reading it.

* I'm not sure that the UK war movement did see oil as a "trivial" thing, but that's a discussion for another day.

Related Reviews

Malm - Fossil Capital
Marriott and Minio-Paluello - The Oil Road
Nikiforuk - Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent
Heinberg - Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils our Future
Klare - Blood and Oil

Monday, August 20, 2018

Mike Wendling - Alt Right: From 4chan to the White House

The election of Donald Trump as US President allowed a tidal wave of far-right politics to enter mainstream political discussion. Suddenly the far-right, fascists and Nazis had confidence to openly talk about their ideas. On occasion this led to violence, such as with the Charlottesville protests when Trump fanned the flames by stating that there were "fine" people on both sides of the fascist and anti-fascist protests. A white-supremacist drove a car into a anti-racist protest on that day, killing Heather Heyer, and injuring many more.

But this new "alt-right" did not come from nowhere, rather they had been growing in confidence and numbers for a number of years prior to Trump's candidacy. They represented both a new political force, emboldened and strengthened by Trump (whom they saw as 'their man') as well as an established group that had existed below the radar, usually grouped around a few blogs and websites, that had allowed them to develop their ideas and organisation (such as it is).

Mike Wendling has done us all a favour by doing the dirty work investigating the origins and individuals behind the alt-right. While an accessible work, his book is not an easy read, as the reader has to wade through a quagmire of racist, misogynist and bigoted views that often have little relationship to reality. Wendling deserves an award for this work, if nothing else, because it highlights how a large section of people think and if anti-racists are to challenge these ideas and the individuals that propagate them, then they need to understand.

At the heart of the story is an internet subculture that will be unfamiliar to many. Wendling sees the /pol section of 4chan as key to the development of the alt-right (he calls it their 'home turf'). A relatively free-flowing, un-moderated section of the internet, its style is highly alienating to outsiders, and difficult to engage with from a progressive position. From here individuals were able to build links (both unconsciously and consciously) with a wider world of "men's rights" activists, neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists and so on. These networks are both terrifying and fascinating, and Wendling let's us see inside the mindset of those at the heart of them.

Wendling explains some of the short-hand, codes and in-jokes common to the internet base of the alt-right. Many activists just waking up to the threat from these inviduals, will find them useful for getting an understanding of their environment. But importantly he also shows how they organise and how individuals are carefully trying to shape a movement. This is particularly true of the neo-Nazis, who have learnt how to inject their politics into the wider alt-right movement. No one should see these fascists as stupid - they actually have a cleverly thought out strategy. As Wendling explains:

Hardcore white supremacists aren't joking when they express their thirst for racial confrontation. But the Daily Stormer's online blitzkriegs gave the alt-right a blueprint for trolling projects that would go beyond anti-Semitic hate campaigns....first a prominent alt-righter pinpoints a specific target. They could a politician, a journalist, or a feminist activists, l... Next the ringleaders include some version of plausible deniability. The Daily Stormer, as it dances so close to the law, is forced to routinely make its anti-violence pose explicitly. Alt-rights with big Twitter followings don't have to wage anywhere near the line of violence; simply drumming out a few rude messages will rally the troll army, For people on the receiving end of the storm, the experience ranges from unpleasant to downright frightening.

Often this spills over into actual violence. And while specific sites, tweeters and bloggers may distance themselves from those who act on their suggestions, the racist, sexist and bigotted rhetoric claims many victims.

Wendling's book is excellent at highlighting where the alt-right came from, how it has organised and the links it has made. There's also plenty here about particular obnoxious individuals. I was less convinced though that the book actually helps us understand why people become right-wing, let alone commit racist terror. There are some big questions - similar to those about why people voted for Trump - that deserve an attempt to answer. What is it about modern society that alienates people so much that they accept racist ideas? What makes people sexist, or accept deeply backward and reactionary views about women, gay people or the Jewish community? Indeed, to put it bluntly, what is the social base for fascism and why does it grow in confidence at particular points in history? Wendling doesn't really attempt to answer this, and thus he has no strategy for dealing with the far-right. In fact, he displays a worryingly blasé attitude to the alt-right following Trump's election - suggesting that they are a spent force. Nor does he discuss any of the other far-right and fascist movements operating globally. It would have been interesting and useful to explore the links between some of the people described in Alt Right and say, UKIP or the EDL/FLA in the UK, or the fascists in Hungary, Germany and France.

The problem is that 21st century capitalism fails to deliver for the vast majority of people. A tiny minority live in unparalleled luxury, while the majority are denied decent jobs, homes and education. At the same time governments, even ones that are nowhere near as right-wing as Donald Trump,  are happy to play the race card, or scapegoat Muslim people or migrants, in order to divide and rule. Across the globe far-right organisations and fascist parties are making inroads into government, as well as strengthening their fascist street movements. They need to be opposed by mass anti-racist movements and we need to have struggle for better housing, jobs and education - through challenging the system that uses racism and bigotry to divide and conquer.


Related Reviews

Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Guerin - Fascism and Big Business
Lipstadt - Denying the Holocaust

Brian Aldiss - Non-Stop

*Warning Spoilers*

Brian Aldiss' Non-Stop is a extraordinarily fine science fiction novel that has barely dated since its initial publication in 1958. Since reading it I've discovered that it's subject matter - a generation star ship - was not uncommon at the time, and others had written similar stories. But few of those have the fame, or the lasting power of this book. The book is centered on Roy Complain, a hunter in the Greene tribe. It should spoil no future readers to know that his tribe appears to be all that is left of the humans on board a generation ship whose social order has broken down.

Roy is self-centered, rude and rebellious against the strict rules of the Greene tribe and, facing social demotion following the death of his wife, he leaves the safety of the tribe to explore the space-ship with a small band. Leading this group is the priest Marapper who has dreams of power and, having worked out the nature of their confinement, hopes to map it to the command centre and become the ruler of the ship.

The story follows the group as they explore and discover the reality of the ship. Aldiss tells a sparse story. His descriptions aren't detail, but allow the reader to fill in the gaps. It's probably for this reason that the book hasn't dated anywhere near as much as some 1950s novels. Only in a few places did I notice anachronistic technology described as though it was from the amazing future.

But the real story here is how the regression of a large group of people cope with their interaction with a highly technological environment. Aldiss paints a wonderful world where the ship's flora and fauna has got out of control, and where a hunter-gatherer community can survive by harvesting plants, hunting dogs and cannibalising what they find in locked rooms from their ancestors. Rather unwittingly Roy finds himself at the heart of a revolutionary movement against the ship's rulers, though he seems to be doing this mostly because he is attracted a woman he encounters. Unusually for a novel of this era, and fair-play to Aldiss, I was struck by the positive portraits of women. Roy's misogyny and that of the society he comes from causes some interesting clashes in his explorations.

It's a classic novel that no connoisseur of science fiction should fail to read.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Charlie Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour

Charlie Clutterbuck's new book is an important intervention into discussions about the future of the British food system. I urge everyone, whichever side of the "Brexit" debate you may find yourself, to read and digest it. Clutterbuck is a scientist and researcher with long experience of UK farming and soil science and has close links to the trade union movement. Deliberately, on the part of the author, Bittersweet Brexit is not a debate about the rights and wrongs of leaving the EU, and nor will this review be. For the record, I voted to leave the European Union (EU) in the Referendum - not because I'm opposed to immigration, or right-wing - but because I see the EU as a capitalist institution that needs to be broken up - Clutterbuck voted the other way, though I can perfectly understand his reasoning.

The argument of his book, is that Brexit offers a unique opportunity to transform British agriculture in order produce healthy, sustainable food that rewards those who work the land, and produce the food. As Clutterbuck explains while dealing with the question of the limitations of our current food system:
The contradiction... that the problem is not overpopulation, but overproduction - has still not been addressed. We need to produce 'better, healthier and greener food'. And we can. Leaving Europe may be our opportunity to do so.
He continues:
But it will be a battle. Consumers will still want cheap food. That won't stop any time soon. Yet cheap food costs the earth... We cannot rely on individual consumers to do this. If ever there was a case for state intervention, this is it... It means we have to have political answers, not individual ones, however well-meaning.
Much of the book is a clear explanation of why the food system is like it is. Clutterbuck highlights the role of the EU in this, but it is not a problem simply of the EU. British agriculture is part of a capitalist food system that is geared, not towards feeding people, but towards making profits for the food corporations, farmers and capitalist companies. Unfortunately this system only benefits the most wealthy - large landowners, big farmers and food multinationals. It does not help the workers, agricultural labourers, small-holding farmers and those who consume the food. Clutterbuck argues:
The biggest opportunity in the Brexit process is to redirect the £3bn EU CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] funding... We need to subsidise labour in the food sector to keep food prices down, which customers demand. This will fund local produce and rural communities.
He argues that the £3bn annually could give 300000 UK national farm-workers and farmers an extra £10,000 each per year. This would stimulate local economies, strengthen the position of small farmers and "attract younger workers into the sector". Clutterbuck also argues that it would "help replace migrant workers with permanent workers".

This last point needs developing. Firstly British agriculture (and other sectors of the economy) are highly dependent on immigrant, or temporary workers from other parts of the world. This is why the CBI has recently raised concerns about immigration targets after Brexit which could damage the economy further. In particular, one of the most problematic areas of British agriculture at the moment is what Clutterbuck calls "plantation farming", this is the monoculture cropping prevalent in the south-east which produces crops like fruit and is highly dependent on immigrant labour. This method of farming is highly unsustainable and relies on low-wages etc. Clutterbuck offers some suggests for the future - obviously he wants higher pay, and suggests (presumably in the case of hard Brexit that stops most immigration) that the country employs"students to pick the harvests as many people used to do."
 Open Borders

I'm not sure I agree entirely here. Firstly I think that if we are going to fight to shape agriculture after Brexit, then the union movement and the left must fight to shape the type of immigration policy that we need, and this could and should be one of open-borders that allows employers to use seasonal workers from wherever they come, and workers to work where they need to. This might even include students. But whoever they are they should be paid a proper wage with proper rights (such as holiday and sick pay). Second, I don't think we should give an inch to the right wing who want to simply argue for "British Jobs for British people". Agriculture (as with much of the British economy) has historically been highly dependent on workers from over-seas. The problem with British agriculture (and for clarity, Clutterbuck does not say this) does not come from immigration. It comes from the way that land and capital ownership is distributed. As Clutterbuck rightly highlights:
The distribution of ownership of land in the UK is more unequal than the distribution of wealth. A mere 7 per cent of the population own 84 per cent of the wealth. Of the 60 million acres in the UK, 69 per cent is owned by 0.6 per cent of the population, giving Britain the most unequal concentration of landownership in the EU, bar Spain. Half of Scotland is owned by just 432 landlords.
Some sections of British (agricultural) capitalism are, as the CBI link above shows, highly concerned about a hard-Brexit. Clutterbuck points out that in 2016 many food companies and representatives of the National Farmers Union wrote to the UK government saying:
'Migrant workers and tariff-free access to the single Market are vital for the industry... For our sector maintain tariff-free access to the EU single market is a vital priority. It is where 75 per cent of our food exports go, so all our farming and food businesses wish to achieve this outcome'.
Clutterbuck highlights the hypocrisy of this: "I heard not a tweet from any of these characters about the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB)... The same NFU and the Fresh Produce Consortium wanted to pay migrant workers only the minimum wage... Apparently it was essential to their business to pay as little as possible."

Throughout this book Clutterbuck highlights exactly how difficult leaving the EU will be in terms of the way rules and laws apply to our food system. Literally thousands of pieces of legislation will need to be re-written, re-considered, or scrapped and redrawn. This includes trade deals, health and safety legislation, rules about pesticides and additives and so on. A crucial theme of his book is which aspects should be protected, which improved and which scrapped. Readers will no doubt disagree on some, but they are all worth serious consideration. The alternative, as the author explains, will be trade deals with other countries that may well have even worse consequences for producers and consumers. One aspect that Clutterbuck does argue for is a more sustainable British food system that does not rely so heavily on imports.

As he points out, free trade does not provide food security, it only helps the profiteering multinationals and it is certainly right to think about how Britain could produce better, healthier and more varied food (Clutterbuck highlights how the present system reduces some products such as fruit and vegetables to a tiny number of varieties). But I'm wary of a strategy that calls for "a new branding of Britishness", as this approach can feed a nationalistic direction with all the dangerous potential that means in the era of Trump and the alt-right. "Buying British" won't on its own give us a sustainable food system - that will come through challenging the multinationals, the landowners, supermarket domination and the capitalist system itself.

Clutterbuck finishes the book with a series of demands that we should be fighting for, and the need for a "coalition of red and green, of unions, NGOs, to local initiatives, businesses and interested political parties, to build a new red-green food economy to challenge power bases."

For all I may have criticised some small aspects of Charlie Clutterbuck's book here, I do embrace the sense of democracy and regaining of control of agriculture that is in his conclusion. He writes that:
As both a socialist and a soil zoologist, I believe that we should get right of the magic money trees that benefit the already well off, and plant many more real trees so that everybody can benefit from their fruits., We should be growing all sorts of plants throughout the land, in ways that are not demeaning to workers but promote the pleasures of working the land and save our inheritance. This may sound idealistic, but it is also very practical. We can show what and who we want to be through food. We can do that by cutting out food speculators and investing in our land - once we have 'control over our land'.
Taking control of the land should be a key vision for the labour and trade union movement post-Brexit. But doing that in a way that fosters internationalism, not puts up borders and keeps out migrants like the EU does is crucial. "Control over our land" should be about mass democracy - there are too many fences and barriers already to ordinary enjoying the land and working it, and longer term we need to take the land off the massive landowners so it can be used for everyone's benefit. Charlie Clutterbuck's book is an important look at the challenges we face, but one that can inspire real change as long as workers and their organisations are prepared to fight for it. I encourage people to read it.

Related Reviews
Chappell - Beginning to End Hunger

Holt-Giménez - A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Howkins - The Death of Rural England
Graham-Leigh - A Diet of Austerity
Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For
GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery
Lymbery - Farmageddon

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Perez Zagorin - Rebels & Rulers 1500-1660: Volume 1: Society, States & Early Modern Revolution - Agrarian & Urban Rebellions

Perez Zagorin's book was an enormous challenge for me to finish. This was not because it was boring or inaccessible, but because I found his conceptual framework completely unbelievable. In fact, on page 61 when he declares that "Early modern society was not a class society" I almost discarded it. Nonetheless, after a pause of some weeks, I did eventually finish the book because it covered some of the events I discussed in "Kill All the Gentlemen" and because I was interested to see where Zagorin's analysis would take him.

As far as I can see Zagorin is writing a polemic against historical revolution in general, and Marxists in particular. He writes, for instance, that:
The claim by Marxist scholars that the English and French revolutions were decisive events for the emergence of a capitalist order is far more a matter of faith than of historical proof or probability... The characterisations of the 'bourgeois revolution' are commonly vitiated by their verbal equivocations and mechanistic class analysis. When used by historians of Marxist persuasion, feudalism and bourgeoisie, for instance, tend to become terms of almost infinite elasticity designating widely divergent conditions and groups.
This is not the place to discuss the Marxist analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalistic, though I would highlight that a number of different Marxist historians (eg Christopher Hill), have made very detailed cases for the emergence of capitalism out of the changes that took place in the English Revolution. Despite referencing some of their work, Zagorin is keener to dismiss it out of hand, rather than engaging with the detail.

Having dismissed the Early Modern period as being a class society, he introduces the idea that instead this was a "society of orders". But constantly, Zagorin has to recognise that whatever label is given to society, this was one were there were definite economic groups of people in a hierarchical structure. Then he ties himself in linguistic knots:
Above all, the political system was a symbiosis between crown and elites, in which the first as supreme received loyalty, obedience,m and service, bestowing in return material and honorific rewards upon the second. Above all, the political system was a symbiosis between crown and nobilities; and, speaking generally, it was a especially nobilities or aristocracies that, under supreme and absolutist kings, constituted the dominant and governing class (I use the term class here without any particular Marxist connotations) in the early modern states.
Elsewhere references to "rich and poor" etc suggest that the concept of class might be much more useful than Zagorin would admit. Clearly the author would like to have his cake and eat it. Class doesn't exist, except when it does. All this would be simply frustrating, if it didn't lead into a complete confusion about what revolution was and is. In particular the comparative analysis Zagorin between revolution might be useful when talking about the English, French and American revolutions. It breaks down when applied to events in the 20th century when circumstances were very different, so while he spends a great amount of ink trying to decide whether the category of "Great Revolution" is useful or not, he fails to illuminate much about what those revolutions actually were.

For instance, when discussing the English Revolution, he argues that these cannot have been class conflicts because figures from both the aristocracy and the middling classes fought on both sides with Parliament and the King. Marxist historians of the English Revolution have tackled this crude argument in a number of places, but it simply fails to understand the very nature of class conflict itself. No revolution, as Lenin pointed out "is pure".

There is an illuminating comment from Zagorin when writing about Hobsbawn's "Marxism obsession" with "the transition from feudalism to capitalism". It is, Zagorin says about Hobsbawm, almost as if this transition "embraced everything significant in European change". Even the non-Marxist reader must surly, at this point, answer "Well yes, that is the point". If you don't see the transition from a society of lords and peasants to one dominated by the bourgeoisie and the working class as embracing everything significant in European change, then I am not sure what you understand by the word change. Despite the amount of writing about Revolution in this book, it is clear that Zagorin doesn't understand what the Revolution means: the transition from one mode of production to another, that transforms everything about society in the process.

The first half of the book deals mostly with the conceptual framework that Zagorin is proposing for use in the second half which is a study of various agrarian and urban revolts in the period covered. The problem is that his framework is inadequate by any stretch of the imagination. In one place he declares that "Calvinism and Puritanism were religious, not political movements", but that is to deny that religion in this period was highly political. It was precisely because religion was intensely political that there were multiple revolts around religious, as well as economic, issues through this period. Oddly enough the peasants involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace or the Prayerbook Rebellion understood this better than Professor Zagorin.

The latter half of the book then looks at various risings, and while there is interesting historical material about the European revolts it can be mostly found elsewhere. The fundamental problem is that Zagorin's historical analysis begins from a dislike of Revolution and those who see it as being the motor of history, but his lack of clarity on what revolution is, fundamentally undermines the whole of Zagorin's thesis, and sadly this book.

Sally Magnusson - The Sealwoman’s Gift

*** Spoilers ***

Sally Magnusson's novel The Sealwoman's Gift is one of those stories which seems so unbelievable, it cannot possibly be based on fact, and yet it turns out that the events at the heart of the story, and much of the detail did, actually take place. It seems extraordinary that pirates from the Mediterranean travelled as far north as Iceland and took hundreds of captives back to slavery in north Africa, but they did, and many thousands of coastal inhabitants from the countries of Western Europe were similarly captured. The novel is based on the true account of Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson whose real life capture alongside his wife, children and four hundred, is well attested to. While we don't know the name of Ólafur Egilsson's historical wife, in Magnusson's book she is called Asta, and her independent spirit is not diminished by the horrors of the voyage to Algiers. Instead she becomes emboldened despite seeing her son sold off and her imprisonment in the harem of Cilleby a wealthy merchant and slave trader.

The women in Cilleby's harem are imprisoned, but they don't suffer the violence of that their sons and husbands do as slaves. Instead they are left with menial, women's jobs, except when Cilleby selects them for sex. At the centre of the tale are stories, the Arabic stories of the Arabian Nights, or versions thereof, or the great Icelandic sagas that the women tell each other each night. Stories allow Asta and Cilleby to form a bond, which becomes mutual admiration and then love. While elsewhere Asta's husband, the pastor, desperately tries to get his government to raise the ransom that will return the captives home.

Several reviewers have called this a romance. I didn't get that. For me this is a story of how civilised, and brutal, 17th century European and Mediterranean society was. But also how there was already a continent wide trading and political network that allowed King's in Denmark to ransom slaves in Algiers. Events are beautifully portrayed, but they are heartrending. There is the brutality of separation and the rape and violence that comes with slavery. Despite the claims to civilisation that Cilleby makes, Asta points out, to his intense surprise, that his wealth and power is built on violence. I don't know enough about north African slavery to know whether the central romantic plot used here is even possible. It seemed unlikely, but not impossible.

But the real story is the compromises people make to survive, and stay sane. When rescue comes for Asta and her fellow captives it comes as a doubled edged sword, the solutions to which make this a novel that's a cut above the average.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Karl Marx - Capital Volume I

How can you write a review of Karl Marx's Capital? It is, after all, one of the most discussed books in the world, though I suspect that most of those who discuss it have never read beyond the introduction. It is much easier to write about why someone should read Capital - here it is quite simply that Marx's book is the clearest explanation of how capitalism works and what it does to those who labour and live in the system.

Reading Capital is a monumental task in itself. It is a big book, but not an impenetrable one. The first chapters are the most difficult because here Marx is outlining the basis of his explanation of how capitalism works, and without this the rest of the book does not hold together. That said, even these chapters are not impossible for anyone who has a grounding in basic Marxist economics, and to be honest, with lots of notes and careful reading these chapters are surprisingly accessible. I suspect that much of the fear that Capital is tough to read comes from the smokescreen created by Marx's enemies and those on the left who floundered and want to justify their own failure to complete the project.

At the centre of Marx's work is the role of people. Human's labour to change the world around them in their interests. Marx understands that this differs throughout history, through different "modes of production" but he begins with that fundamental fact, people create things through their labour.
Labour, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.
Because people create things through their labour, the "value" of a commodity (under capitalism) depends on the amount of labour. Upon this basic fact many have found themselves confused - and here I was immediately struck by one aspect of how Marx writes Capital. Marx takes up the counter-arguments to defend his thesis. Here, for instance, is Marx explaining how the specific instance of labour was not what determines an individual commodities' value, but its part within a wider, social, set of relations.
It might seem that, if the value of a commodity is determined by the quantum of labour expended during its production, the more lazy- and incompetent a man the more valuable his commodity is, because he needs all the more labour-time for its completion. But only the socially necessary labour-time is labour-time required for the constitution of some particular use-value, with the available socially-normal conditions of production and the social average-level of competence and intensity of labour. After the introduction of the steam-driven loom in England, for example, perhaps half as much labour as before was sufficient to change a given quantum of yarn into cloth. The English hand-weaver needed in order to accomplish this change the same labour-time as before, to be sure, but the product of his individual labour-hour now represented only one half a social labour-hour, and sank accordingly to half its earlier value.
Here there are two other things on view. Firstly Marx is anticipating arguments against his theory, and offering a defence. Secondly that he is rooting his arguments (and defences) within empirical facts from capitalism's short history. The former is interesting in part because Marx was not writing for academics but in part for workers and revolutionaries, so he is thinking through how his ideas will be challenged by his enemies. The second demonstrates why Marx spent so much time in the British Library - he was finding evidence, looking for patterns and proving his points. Capital thus comes into being filled with empirical tables and data, which perhaps helps to put some readers off, but does underpin Marx's own arguments with referenced data. But it isn't simply facts. Marx also demonstrates an enormous level of knowledge about different industries, which allows him to show how capitalism develops, and what it does to the people who work.

This brings me to an aspect of Capital that only really becomes obvious as you read it cover to cover. Marx is setting up an argument that flows through the book. He begins with the commodity because capitalism looks like an "immense collection of commodities". From here he takes the reader to the worker, labour and value. But then he quickly opens up wider fields. Early on (page 271 in my edition) he points out that a person can only sell their labour power if he has it at his disposal, thus "he must be the free proprietor of his own labour-capacity". An obvious point, that takes MArx through the social relations that capitalism creates, and how that affects workers' lives, but crucially one that also allows Marx around 700 pages later to discuss how it came to be that workers have the freedom to do this. This is the importance of Marx's latter chapters on "primitive accumulation" as they demonstrate how the capitalist system was created.

Marx's method in Capital is the subject of many brilliant articles and books. I was struck by how Marx argues his case. He makes a postulations, demonstrates its validity, examines it from all angles, tackles counter-arguments and then moves on, often returning to reiterate the point. Take the question of the commodity - he shows how labour creates things, and these things can be exchanged for quantities of other things, because they all have value as the are all the result of human labour and then he shows how one commodity could be a method of universal exchange, which leads him on to the reality of money. Thus money is not a theoretical idea introduced form outside, but one that flows out of the logic of Marx's method. Those radicals who you occasionally meet who say "we need to abolish money" need to read these chapters to understand the intrinsic nature of money to a system of commodity exchange.

But Marx's book is not a dry work of economics or philosophy. The foot notes are often full of dry jokes directed at those who Marx thinks inadequate. More importantly though the book drips with anger at what capitalism does to people. The famous chapters on "machinery" and the "working day" are full of details studies of the way that capitalism systematically immiserates people through its quest to maximise profit. Here's Marx on how factory labour dehumanises through its transformation of labour: "constant labour of one uniform kind disturbs the intensity and flow of a man's vital forces, which find recreation and delight in the change of activity itself." As Marx had argued years later, the nature of capitalist employment alienates humans from what makes them human - their labour. By contrast:
When the worker co-operates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species.

Reading Capital again I was also reminded at how central the question of ecology (though Marx does not use that word) is to Marx's thought. In fact it runs, like a green thread, through much of the work - forming the context to Marx's explanation of human labour and finally, being a fundamental aspect to the question of primitive accumulation.

Capital is one of those books that deserves repeated reading. I haven't time to mention all of the subjects Marx tackles - from the role of the family to the question of parliament (the permanent trade union of the capitalists". While readers might point out that Marx's necessary focus on contemporary  capitalism means lots of discussion about the cotton industry, other aspects are frighteningly contemporary (eg his comments on the London housing market). Reader will also find something new on each occasion they read the book. This time I was reading in the aftermath of writing my book on class struggle in the countryside. I was struck by how fresh and modern Marx's work on the dispossession of the English peasantry felt.
It is not enough that the conditions of labour are concentrated at one pole of society in the shape of capital, while at the other pole are grouped masses of men who have nothing to sell but their labour-power. Nor is it enough that they are compelled to sell themselves voluntarily. The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self evident natural laws.
In other words, the development of capitalism created a working class and then beat it into submission, and then makes it feel like capitalism is the natural way of things. Marx makes it clear that the working class have the power to transform society, precisely because of their centrality to the system. Nothing moves, functions, sells or buys without workers. Workers are also central to making sure the workforce is adequately educated and is healthy. But that gives the working class enormous power.

But because exploitation, and class struggle, are central to capitalism, workers can and will realise their power to change things. Workers will not lead a revolution against capitalism because they have all read Capital. But the socialist activists who will be an integral part of developing and shaping that revolutionary movement need to have the clearest understanding of how capitalism works, and Karl Marx's Capital is the clearest, and most detailed explanation of that system. All activists show read, and re-read, it.

Related Reviews

Marx - Value, Price and Profit
Marx - The Civil War in France
Molyneux - The Point is to Change it
Patterson - Karl Marx, Anthropologist
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Saito - Karl Marx's Ecosocialism
Fine & Saad-Filho - Marx's Capital
Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism