Tuesday, September 25, 2018

David Jones - Before Rebecca: Popular Protests in Wales 1793-1835

The Rebecca Riots against road tolls are perhaps the best known part of Wales' radical history. But Before Rebecca lays out how the economic development of the principality saw a series of radical challenges to authority and struggles against poverty, hunger and over wages which set the scene for the better known struggle. Historian David Jones' 1973 classic is a readable account of these conflicts which span the period from when Wales was basically an agricultural society to the development of the first major industry around Cardiff and Swansea in the first decades of the 19th century.

Students of British working class history will see many similarities between Wales and England. The mid-1790s saw powerful and sustained food riots which, as EP Thompson, emphasises show more than a simple rebellion against high food prices, but also the development of a moral economy as communities fought against the free-market in food, setting their own prices or forcing traders and shop keepers to sell at a "moral" price.

But the core of the book is the story of the riots, strikes and mass protests that were associated with the development of the coal and iron industries. On several occasions these became major struggles that required local authorities to request military assistance, and as Jones explains, in June 1831 thousands of workers marched under a red flag to protest conditions in the industrial town of Merthyr. One June 2nd, a group of soldiers from the Highland found themselves surrounded and when the crowd tried to seize their weapons, they opened fire killing many and injuring dozens. The rioters proceeded to take control of the town and keep out reinforcements. Jones argues that while unsuccessful, the "rising" was part of shaping a working class radical tradition in South Wales that lasted long into the next century. Despite the scale of the Merthyr massacre it is barely known outside of the region, yet deserves to be remembered alongside Peterloo.

Jones tells excellent history and has an eye for amusing and inspiring anecdotes.
Although there was much discontent in [Carmarthen in 1830], few of the leading inhabitants showed much interest in the problem of maintaining order. Only thirteen permanent constables had been appointed. The London police constable who had been sent to the town on a previous occasion, had not been given support and had died of drink.
Women played a central role in all of the struggles he describes, and he tells us that:
Some authorities complained bitterly that women did little or nothing to restrain the wild activities of their menfolk. The most troublesome rioters were often females, particularly country widows and single women who worked at the pits. Armed with sticks, pans, and expressive language, women in this and later decades [early 19th C] terrified bailiffs, enclosure officials, blacklegs and policemen. They were found in the front ranks of a crowd, taunting males with their lack of manhood. Even when they were not involved in disturbances their support was frequently implicit and appreciated.
But the part I was most struck by was actually in one of the appendices. This was the account of a food riot that took place in April 1801, and in particular the address made by the judge Mr Justice Hardinge when sentencing three men to be executed for their role. These men had, in the words of Hardinge led "unimpeached, and perhaps virtuous lives" and during the riot "no acts of personal cruelty" took place. Yet the judge sentenced the men to death and in his address highlighted that the real reason was their attempt to subvert the free-market. His duty was, during trying times of poverty, war and economic difficulty to oppose the "worst of all tyrants" - the mob. But crucially Hardinge explains:
Nothing is more unjust, than to be inflamed against a market, because the general price of it is dear. One may suppose a particular tradesman dishonest in his avarice. A market is governed by such principles of mutual convenience between the buyer and the seller, that it cannot be fairly accused of artifice, or oppression. 
He follows this with a defence of the market's ability to set a fair price, ten continues
Your object was a reform of the market, - the act was plunder; - and the punishment is death. 
Thus Samuel Hill, James Luke and Aaron Williams had their "virtuous lives" ended for daring to challenge the supremacy of the free-market in their desperation to feed their families in the midst of hunger and poverty. I don't think I've ever read a clearer example of the way that the state organises to protect the interests of the ruling class. For this, and countless other examples, I highly recommend David Jones' brilliant history and look forward to finding more of his work.

Related Reviews

Donnelly - Captain Rock: The Irish Agrarian Rebellion of 1821-1824
Thompson - Customs in Common

Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Joseph Choonara - A Reader's Guide to Marx's Capital

Anyone considering reading Karl Marx's great work Capital will be faced with several obstacles. The first of which is the daunting size of the book itself - volume one runs to around 1000 pages depending on which edition you get. The second is the number of people who will inform you that the book is impenetrable, difficult or simple impossible to read. Famously Harold Wilson is supposed to have said that he "'only got as far as page two - that's where the footnote is nearly a page long.'". Wilson exaggerates - the footnotes of that length come much later. But while Capital is not nearly as difficult to read as the critics say (and usually these comments only come from critics to the right of Marxism) reading the book is easier if you have some guidance.

Joseph Choonara's recent guide is designed to be read by individuals or groups of individuals tackling Capital for the first time. Choonara has written a number of highly accessible books and articles on Marxist economics and this introduction is an excellent guide to Marx's book based on his own experience running Capital reading groups for students and workers. He breaks Capital down into chapters that should be read together and then highlights key points from each section. It's clearly written, emphasises the key points of Marx's ideas and suggests further reading for those who want to understand specific points. Choonara is not afraid of pointing out where Marx's work is unclear. Crucially Choonara emphasises that key to understanding Marx's book is understanding Marx's method in Capital.

Marx begins, Choonara explains, by "stripping away complicating featires of reality to grasp its driving forces in their purest and simplest form". He then moves "from the abstract to the concrete". It's very easy to see this in action in Marx's work and Choonara gives a number of examples.

Take the example of money, the section where Marx takes the reader through an argument about the universal equivalent for exchanging commodities. Choonara explains:
Marx's sequence of steps is not necessarily a historical argument about how money emerged. Money could come about through any number of processes. It is an argument about how, in a capitalist society in which commodity production becomes general, a universal equivalent is a logical necessity. It is not possible to imagine a capitalist mode of production without money.
Understanding Marx's approach helps clarify the process of argument which, in turn, makes the book easier to follow. Secondly Choonara doesn't discuss Capital in isolation from Marx's other work. Unlike some writers on Capital he highlights the continuity in Marx's work. As Choonara writes:
Rather than seeing the transition as one from a young humanist Marx who spoke about alienation to a mature Marx concerned only with a 'scientific' understanding of capitalist structures, it is better to see the process as one of a deepening and refining of the concept of alienation.
This helps place Capital not as a isolated masterpiece, but as the result of a life of revolutionary activity and thought on the part of its author. Joseph Choonara's book is an excellent introduction to Capital and I wish that it had been available 25 years ago when I first became active in revolutionary politics.

Related Reviews

Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism
Choonara & Kimber - Arguments for Revolution
Marx - Value, Price and Profit

Marx - Capital

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

James S. Donnelly, Jr - Captain Rock: The Irish Agrarian Rebellion of 1821-1824

When I wrote 'Kill All the Gentlemen' I felt obliged to apologise in the introduction for my neglect of the similar radical history of rural Wales and Scotland - that was out of necessity for the book would simply have been too long. I also failed to discuss Ireland in any detail. There the parallels with English rural history are not as simple, but nonetheless, as this important account shows there are similarities but also major differences.

Donnelly is discussing a relatively narrow period of agrarian rebellion, barely three years, but to understand it he has to locate it in the context of Ireland's wider rural history and in particular it's nature as a British colony. This fundamentally shaped the country's agriculture. British landlords (usually absentee) delegated the collection of rents and management of estates to a lower grouping of middlemen. They also were ruthless at using their legal powers to evict and punish those who failed to pay rents (in cash or kind). In addition the country operated with a dated system of tithes that heavily punished all levels of the agricultural population and, finally, the Westminster government used sectarian politics to keep down the majority Catholic population. Life, even when yields were high and prices good, was one of appalling poverty for the mass of the population.

Economic crisis in the 1820s triggered the Rockite rebellion. But the rebellion itself, argues Donnelly, was shaped by a number of other factors that have been neglected by other historians. It isn't enough to simply locate the uprisings in the context of economics, they have to be understood through the prism of sectarian politics and the influence of millennialism. These millennial ideas
assisted in integrating within the same movement Catholics whose material interests frequently clashed, namely landless labourers and cottiers on the one had and the larger farmers on the other. Acceptance of the prophesied ruin of Protestantism was concentrated among the lowest strata of Catholic rural society, but many middling and some substantial farmers also gave credence to this millennial vision.
At times Donnelly emphasises that the Rockite movement was, to some extent, a cross-class alliance. But much of the book shows that this was a mass movement of the poorest. Time and again, the most radical, the most active and the most punished of those who rebelled came from the lowest orders. And while sectarianism played a major part in the struggle, there were some incidents when Catholic landowners were targeted by the rebels. Again, this should not surprise us. The millennial ideas that spread like wildfire through the rural population originated with the writings of Signor Pastorini (a pseudonym for Charles Walmesley) but they fit with a situation in which Protestantism could legitimately be seen as the religion of the ruling and oppressive class. Indeed, when the British sent troops to put down the rebels, they were

commonly cavalry units drawn from England and Scotland; they marched to Protestant churches in the south and southwest, helping to fill edifices long mostly bereft of parishioners and reminding the Rockites that the troops had come to serve the interests of a Protestant church and state bent on the oppression (economic, political, and religious) of Irish Catholics.
Millennial ideas could co-exist with everyday demands. Donnelly quotes one prisoner's testimony that "talked of Pastorini and said that next year would be a year of war. He talked of many other things and said that the price of labour was too low."

The troops were needed because the Rockite rebellion was a mass movement of extreme violence. Incendiarism, assault, murder and robbery were all weapons used by the rebels against their enemies. Particularly at the start of the outbreak the rebels led assaults of homes and sometimes police stations to capture weapons. Short of ammunition they would attack churches for the lead on the roof as material for bullets. Often these attacks were mass affairs involving hundreds of attackers. While the movement used terrorism, it was not a minority affair.

Much of Donnelly's book explores the various tactics of the Rockites. Many of these have parallels with agrarian disturbances in England - the posting of warning notices, the pseudonym of Captain Rock disguising the real names, the firing of buildings and assaults on individuals. There are even, though Donnelly doesn't make the connection himself, examples of what EP Thompson called the Moral Economy. But the truth was that these events were far more violent than comparable events in England. I do not recall one mention of rural rebels in England destroying a Church for instance. Donnelly points out though that this was less about sectarianism and more about "more immediate grievances and mundane objectives" such as lead from the roofs. Incendiarism took place on an enormous scale, over a prolonged period, and the murder (and occasional rape) of enemies was also unprecedented.

Authorities were unable to do much about rebellion on this scale. The repression was brutal and extremely violent, though it failed to restrain the rebels, about 600 people were transported and 100 executed. Indeed, the rebellion itself was very successful. Rents and rent arrears were frequently reduced or annulled, evictions were reversed and so confident were the rebels that they would intimidate those who had taken up tenancies of evicted families, even up to seven years previously. Many hated landlords, their officers or their families were killed, injured or driven from the local area. Donnelly argues that longer term "Captain Rock" scared the landowners enough that they were wary of ever using mass evictions again.

This is an excellent account. It locates a few years of radical agrarian rebellion in the wider economic, political and colonial context. While there are parallels with events in England, Scotland and Wales, particularly in the practise of the Rockites, the context is quite different. These struggles did not end rural Irish poverty - but it was alleviated it somewhat though with an economic upturn the movement was to disappear. What Captain Rock shows most though, is that no matter how oppressed, downtrodden or poor people are, there is always the potential for mass rebellion, and the violence of that rebellion is proportional to the violence of the exploitation and oppression.

Related ReviewsKee - The Bold Fenian Men
Kee - The Most Distressful Country
Woodham-Smith - The Great Hunger

Leo Carew - The Wolf

The popularity of George RR Martin's series has given a new lease of life to the fantasy novels that focus on the interactions of groups and indivduals rather than simply following a diverse group of characters on a quest to destroy a ring/sword/amulet. These books have at their heart machinations and intrigue, and like the court of Henry VIII, violence, betrayal and romance are more common than magic and battle.

Leo Carew's debut novel The Wolf is clearly aimed at fans of Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. It deals with a fantasy feudal version of the British Isles, where the northen part of the country is the realm of the Anakim, a fearless warrior race, taller and stronger than humans whose bones form near impenetrable armour. To their south are more anatomically modern humans the Sutherns, whose short lives contrast with the centuries lived by the Anakim. The two races have competed militarily for decades and the book opens with the latest in a long line of bloddy battles where the Anakim's Dark Lord is killed and his son, Roper, comes to a tenuous power.

Much of the book deals with Roper's attempts to strengthen his position in the face of more experienced and stronger contenders for the throne. He manages to play of various forces against each other, and prove himself in battle. While these political intrigues were well thought through at times they lacked depth and believability - I simply failed to believe that Roper would have escaped assassination or murder of the battle field. Roper's marrage of convenience to the daughter of one of his allies brings a rare female character into the story - though their relationship is woodenly described. But Leo Carew has at least tried to include a lot of strong female characters even if they are peripheral to the main action.

The reader is clearly meant to identify with the Anakim rather than the short-lived Sutherners who repeatedly invade their lands. There's less detail about their lives and intrigues, though one, Bellamus comes across as marginally less nasty than the others simply because he takes the time to try and understand his enemy. Bellamus' skills at war-craft and his blunt interpersonal skills seem modelled on Jon Snow from Martin's books. Sadly Bellamus' back story and his courtly intrigue really didn't work.

While the book is very readable, and the battle scenes in particularly are extremely well described, the political machinations are too black and white. Roper is too good and his Anakim enemies too bad, as are all the Suthern opponents to make it seem real enough. While entertaining I was unsatisfied by the novel though I will return to the sequels to find out what happens next.

Monday, September 17, 2018

James S.A. Corey - Abaddon's Gate

As with its predecesor, volume three of James S.A. Corey's Expanse Series begins almost immediately after the end of the previous novel. The various factions of humanity that are spread through the solar system have launched fleets towards the alien ring structure that has been constructed at the edge of the solar system. These fleets vary from highly powered military craft to smaller vessels with religious and cultural figures in case of first contact.

Jim Holden and his crew who were at the centre of the first two books are pointedly not on their way to the ring, until a suspicious combination of events forces them to join the fleet where they are suddenly thrust into prominence, and simultaneously through the ring.

I'm beginning to understand the popularity of these novels. They feel like well written space soap operas. Characters come and go, plots build to climax and then vanish leaving a blank slate for the next book. Sometimes characters return, but usually there is a great cleansing that removes many of the second tier characters for the next episode. All the key characters remain in place ready to be re-used in the future. This book resolves some outstanding questions about the aliens, but creates many more and leaves them unanswered.

If this sounds like a criticism, it isn't. Abaddon's Gate and its prequels are not great literature, but I don't think the two experienced writers behind the Corey pseudonym intend it to be. If you like science fiction on a grand scale and some intensely described action scenes, as well as a plot line that is clearly worked out on the hoof, then The Expanse will be your cup of tea.

Related Reviews

Corey - Leviathan Wakes
Corey - Caliban's War

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Robert Kee - The Bold Fenian Men

When I travelled to the north of Ireland last year I enjoyed reading volume one of Robert Kee's history of Irish Nationalism The Most Distressful Country. In my review I remarked that I looked forward to reading the second volume and a follow up trip to the Antrim coast this year provided the excuse to read that. Unfortunately, while there is much of interest in The Bold Fenian Men it failed to give me the same satisfaction as the first volume.

The period covered by volume two, roughly 1850 to the Easter Rising of 1916, and I think that in part this is the source of the problem. Kee notes with irony, that for most of the period the landowners and businessmen that exploited the majority of the Irish population were themselves Irish. In fact, Kee emphasises that the development of capitalism in Ireland was very much an Irish affair. Britain was the colonial power, that sucked the wealth and population from the country, but capitalism in Ireland was run by Irish capitalists and landowners. Thus the growth of popular Irish nationalism is caught in a trap - on the one hand the mass of the population at various times demanded Irish independence, but also the Irish ruling class also wanted, at various times, their own version of independence or home rule. Kee seems unable to distinguish between the two class interests and thus, his book at times seems confused and inadequate.

At times Kee does comment on the contradictions caused by class to nationalism. For instance, in his limited discussion of James Larkin and the Dublin strikes in 1913 he notes the reports of the appalling housing conditions of the majority or the Dublin working class... "in looking for underling reasons why some of the Dublin working class were soon to diverge politically form the policies of the Nationalist Party, it may not be insignificant that the Corporation at this time was solidly Nationalist,m and Messrs O'Reilly, Corrigan and Crozier were enthusiastic supporters of Home Rule."

Thus the success of the earlier struggle over Land rights by the Irish poor, led to a corresponding decline in support for that nationalist movement. Kee seems surprised by this, but it seems to me not necessarily surprising. The poor had won significant gains, and while this struggle was in place and led by the Nationalists it had encouraged support for that cause. In the aftermath, Independence or Home Rule was not on the agenda and the movement declined. Discussing later nationalist movements Kee highlights the involvement of a wide variety of middle and (occasionally) upper class Irish nationalists. He stresses that what they had in common "was a passionate belief that Ireland should be in a position to defend her constitutional rights against every threat in the probable event of the Home Rule Bill becoming law." But in his list there are no representatives of the working class or their organisations.

This is not to say there isn't anything of interest in The Bold Fenian Men. Kee does at least record the amazing bravery of various nationalist movements. He also notes the way in which the ruling class is prepared to ignore or subvert democracy when their interests are threatened. In particular Kee highlights the way that the Orange Order was able to mobilise and threaten armed insurrection, mutiny and rebellion if Home Rule went ahead; supported to a great extent by various English politicians and military figures. Sadly it is all too clear that the Irish nationalists had too much faith in constitutions and parliamentary democracy, even as their opponents pledged to undermine these to protect their interests.

Ultimately Kee's book is flawed because his starting point is nationalism, not the wider class dynamics of Irish society. There is little here about the way that Britain is exploiting Ireland in the period, in fact, the British Parliament comes across as a relatively benign institution that is moderating the debate about Home Rule. In reality, Britain was a colonial power that has its own interests and the debates about independence were ones that reflected class struggle in Ireland and the competing interests of different capitalists. His dismissive account of the Easter Uprising of 1916 only underlines his mistaken approach.

Related Reviews

Kee - The Most Distressful Country
Woodham-Smith - The Great Hunger
Mitchell - A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly

Monday, September 10, 2018

James M. McPherson - Abraham Lincoln

James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom is one of the best works of history that I have ever read, so I was extremely pleased to find this very short biography of Abraham Lincoln in a second hand bookshop recently. It followed on nicely from Walter Johnson's history of slavery and the rise of capitalism River of Dark Dreams that I'd finished the previous day.

Despite it's short length (my edition has less than 80 pages including references and index) McPherson's book does an admirable job of covering the key strands of Lincoln's life and ideas. In the context of Johnson's book it's notable that Lincoln's two trips to New Orlean's carrying farm produce in 1828 and 1831 helped shape his views fundamentally; as Lincoln himself said about another trip to Louisville "there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me".

But McPherson argues that while Lincoln's anti-slavery position was a key issue, it wasn't his only one. Lincoln seems more defined by his belief that a properly run system would allow everyone to better themselves should they chose to. As McPherson explains while reporting a debate that Lincoln took part in 1860 that helped push him towards selection as a Presidential candidate:
"I am not ashamed to confess... that twenty-five years ago I was a hired labourer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat-just what might happen to any poor man's son/." But in the free states an ambitious man "can better his condition" because "there is no such thing as a freeman being fatally fixed for life, int eh condition of a hired labourer." The lack of hope, energy, and progress in the slave states, where most labourers were "fatally fixed" in the condition of bondage, had made the United States a house divided. Republicans wanted to keep slavery out of the territories so that white farmers and workers could move there to better their conditions without being "degraded...by forced rivalry with negro slaves." Moreover, said Lincoln, "I want every man to have the change-and I believe a black man s entitled to it - in which he can better his condition."
In other words Lincoln wanted an efficient and benevolent capitalism that would benefit all - black or white - and getting this required the end of slavery.

Central to Lincoln's story, not least because he died quickly after it ended, is the question of the Civil War. Lincoln emerges from McPherson's autobiography (and indeed Battle Cry of Freedom) as an astute leader capable of being flexible to win the war. In 1865, the last year of the war, Lincoln "devoted more attention to his duties as commander in chief than to any other function of the presidency". But the key question is slavery and McPherson argues that the emancipation proclamation "freed [Lincoln] from the the agonising contradiction between his antislavery convictions and his constitutional obligations".

Thus it was decision born of practicality, not principle. In 1861, as McPherson emphasises, Lincoln revoked a military order from one of his generals freeing slaves because it would have driven Missouri into the hands of the Confederacy. But once it looked like the war might be lost, Lincoln declared slaves free to be free (except in slaves states that had remained in the Union) in order to help win the war, and recruited 200,000 black soldiers to fight on the Union side. The nature of the Proclamation meant that the end of the war would not end slavery, so Lincoln also pledges to abolish slavery. McPherson argues that by 1863, Lincoln's Gettysburg address could proclaim "a new birth of freedom" because it was clear that post-war US would end slavery.

So McPherson's Lincoln is a leader who is prepared to use the emancipation card as a tactic, despite his principled position against slavery. Once played though, he refused to reverse the decision, "no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done". It is notable, as McPherson emphasises, that Lincoln said this expecting to lose his re-election. Military success changed this, but it does underline the weak position that Lincoln was in in taking his stand. It is also notable that the decision to emancipate the slaves and give them the vote, led directly to his own death by assassination at the hands of the racist John Wilkes Booth.

This is a long review of a short book. But I wanted to draw out the way that McPherson locates Lincoln's actions in the Civil War with his anti-slavery politics and his commitment to the existing system. Lincoln was able to hold an unsteady coalition together to defend the Union in the firm belief that doing so would create a benevolent capitalism that would benefit everyone. Lincoln is thus not a principled revolutionary, but a bourgeois liberal pragmatist who wants to win the Civil War to shape the direction of the US economic system, but whose hand is forced by his need to mobilise the slaves of the South and the free blacks of the North. It's this nuanced analysis by McPherson that makes this short book so worthwhile for understanding the struggle against slavery, the US Civil War and the nature of the state that emerged - one that has yet to fully throw off the racism that slavery required.

Related Reviews

McPherson - Battle Cry of Freedom
Johnson - River of Dark Dreams
Horne - The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism
Blackburn - The American Crucible

Monday, September 03, 2018

Walter Johnson - River of Dark Dreams: Slavery & Empire in the Cotton Kingdom

This marvelous work of history is a must read for anyone trying to understand the dynamics of slavery in the United States in the pre-Civil War period. Walter Johnson locates slavery as playing a central part in the development of a particularly racialised and oppressive capitalism in the slave states. But he also shows how the slave economy was part of shaping capitalism in the remainder of the country too. In telling this tale, Johnson never forgets the role of ordinary people and, specifically, the slaves themselves:
The history being made in the South was not the history that the slaveholders and cotton factors told themselves they were making, but another sort of history entirely. It was a history being made by their black slaves. And through that real history was evident every day in the physical labour with which those slaves created "the country", it was yet hidden from view by the forced conversion of their labour into wealth credited to the substance of their masters and by a stage-prop sovereignty designed to convince them they were alone in the world.
The labour of the slaves shaped the very environment within which cotton was produced. They stripped down the wooded lands, damned the streams, created the space within which slaves could plant the cotton, harvest and prepare the product for export. The "steamboat economy" of the Mississippi might today be remembered for the glamour of the ships plying the river, but it was created by the blood and sweat of the slaves themselves. As Johnson puts it, "The commercial geography of capitalism and slavery in the Cotton Kingdom was shaped in dialectical interchange with the ecology of the Mississippi Valley."

Writing within a Marxist framework Johnson is able to simultaneously demonstrate the way that the labour of the slaves created enormous wealth, transformed the physical landscape and, at the same time, created the basis for a political and economic crisis. Constantly the slaveholders were fearful of rebellion - the shadow of Haiti hung over everything they did - and the fact that only extremely violent oppression of the slaves enabled the slaveholders to extract the wealth they required, meant that rebellion as an individual or a collective act was never far away. But Johnson also argues that the slave economy was so locked into wider capitalist networks, that it also faced other potential threats. In a magnificent chapter on the steamboats, Johnson shows how there is a crisis of over-accumulation as more and more ships are built. The ship owners fear the hit to their profits as more and more craft pile into the Mississippi for a slice of the profits.

Thus the slaveholders are part of a dynamic economic system whose ups and downs have real impacts on their profits and way of life. The fluctuations of the price of cotton in Liverpool are transmitted back over the Atlantic and up the Mississippi through countless middlemen, threatening the livelihood of the slave owners and the slaves themselves. Johnson shows how life on the steamboats were a microcosm of the "riverworld" itself, with "anxieties over race and class" among the passengers highlighting their distorted views of the wider world. Some of these sections are difficult reading: the parts dealing with the hysterical panic caused by black people with lighter skins being sat in the wrong place, or white passengers mistaking a black person for someone of their own colour, give a glimpse of the horrifying reality of racialised capitalism - which graded everyone through race and class. Adding to this horror are the devastating explosions of the steamships themselves, frequently caused by owners cutting costs to maximise speed (and thus profits) and leading to the deaths of thousands of passengers and their slaves.

Johnson shows how the nature of the slave economy undermined its own profitability by destroying the fertility of the soil. "Reformers" raged against this, arguing for a more liberal policy - not towards slaves - but instead questioning the short-termism of the slaveholders. Pamphlets and newspaper articles argue for a better use of fertiliser and waste, the mixing of cotton crops with animal husbandry to improve conditions, but never mention the treatment of the slaves. This after all, was an economy where "human life was turned into cotton". Johnson uses metabolic rift theory here to great effect demonstrating how the wider capitalist economy destroys both the natural world and those who labour on it.

The final section of the book put these discussions into the context of the wider world. In thinking through how they could protect their slave economy as it was threatened by abolitionists and revolutionary movements, greedy eyes looked out at South America and the Gulf of Mexico. Politicians, intellectuals and adventurers could get a lot of applause by arguing to force Cuba or Nicuragua into becoming part of the Mississippi slave economy. Debates between the expansionists and the reopeners were in part about the source of the slaves themselves (the reopeners wanted to restart the African slave trade) but were also about how best to expand the slave economy to bring more wealth back into the Mississippi. They wanted to be as independent of capitalism's wider networks as possible, so that Liverpool or New York couldn't put a stop to their profits.

But Johnson shows how their was a wider ideology here. For the slaveholders, their economy represented how society should be organised. Africans were uncultured, lazy and inferior. They needed white people to make them work to generate the maximum amount of wealth from the land. Without slavery, African people and land would fall back into ruin. As Johnson writes, "In the view of slaveholders, abolitionist history had destroyed 'the whole worth and value of the garden spots of earth' in Haiti and Jamaica, rendering land that had once been turned to the good of civilisation and the advancement of mankind back into a 'wilderness' dominated by 'barbarians'."

Johnson argues however that this white-supremacist ideology was not one that benefited all white people. He shows how carefully this sort of argument was used to try and bind all white people to the slave economy, against the slaves. Yet for many of the poorest white people this was not reality - in fact poverty and unemployment were the lot for many as slaves were used to do work for free. Hence, reopening the slave trade for the slaveholders was, in part, about trying to cheapen the cost of slaves so that poorer white people could own them.

The knots that the ideologues of slavery twisted themselves into while trying to justify the institution are horrible. But it was these beliefs that led to adventurers trying to invade Cuba, and ultimately to the secession of the southern states and the American Civil War. Walter Johnson's book is a brilliant investigation into the reality of slavery and the slave-economy. He shows how racist ideology was part and parcel of justifying its existence, and demonstrates its irrationality in the context of wider capitalism. He also celebrates the struggles of the slaves themselves who fought to free themselves from the madness of racialised capitalism. It's a book that tells us a lot about the development of the United States itself, and many of the current problems with racism, but it also shows how right Marx was to point to capitalism's birth "dripping in blood and dirt". I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Horne - The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism
Blackburn - The American Crucible
Rediker - The Slave Ship
Richardson - Say it Loud! Marxism & the Fight Against Racism