Saturday, April 27, 2019

Alan Thornett - Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism

I've known Alan Thornett for many years, most recently through work in the environmental movement as part of the Campaign Against Climate Change's trade union group. Alan Thornett is a longstanding socialist, a committed anti-racist and fighter for women's rights. We have, over the years, engaged in various debates over some of the subjects in this, his latest book, and he wrote a friendly but very critical review of my book Land and Labour. I highlight this because in this review of Thornett's book I will take issue with many of his arguments and suggest that he has a wrong approach for a socialist towards dealing with environmental disaster. These are, however, arguments between people who want to see an end to environmental destruction and to see society move towards a socialist model. They are part of clarifying our mutual understanding of our politics and our strategies.

Thornett begins by arguing that "breaking with the legacy of the 20th century will require big changes organisational and political... it means a serious re-examination of the strategic conceptions that the left has being applying to the ecological struggle for the last three decades". Thornett shows how historically the left has not taken environmental issues seriously, except in a few individual cases and he rightly argues that this is in part a legacy of those regimes that labelled themselves socialist, but acted in a way that copied the capitalist states. However Thornett's main ambition in this book is not just to highlight historical errors of the left, but to argue that key strategies and politics of the contemporary left are mistaken. It would be fair to say that I am one of the people he disagrees with here. In the introduction to the book Thornett writes:
Since modern humans migrated out of Africa about 180,000 years ago, we have had a disproportionate impact on other species. We destroyed the planet's large animals... in what was a major global extinction event... More recently, as human maritime capability developed along with colonial expansion, sailors ate their way through vulnerable species... In the 18th century [I think Thornett really means the 19th century when the majority of the bison where killed] between 30 and 60 million bison roamed North America's great plains. The construction of the railroad network and accelerated human settlement led to a remarkable mass slaughter of the bison, taking it close to extinction... We are the only species to have invaded every habitat on earth and capable of destroying the planet many times over... If we ignore the impact we are having on the planet, we will destroy all other species that live on it and ultimately ourselves.
There are, I suggest, two problems with this approach. Firstly Thornett repeatedly uses the word "we", suggesting the human society today is the same as it was in the 18th century and 180,000 years ago. He also ignores the different historical contexts of these events - hunter-gatherer communities killed megafauna as part of their livelihoods which is not the same as the systematic destruction of bison as part of a genocidal approach to the indigenous population of the United States. However I am particularly concerned with the use of "we" as it implies that all humans are equally to blame for today's environmental crisis, just as they were all to blame for megafauna extinction. For instance, the hunting to extinction, of megafauna in Australia by bands of hunter-gatherers, is in no way the same as the contemporary "Sixth Extinction" caused by capitalism - for example as a result of industrial agriculture.
Over population
This approach characterises Thornett's wider approach which is to argue that over-population is a key problem for the environment and for the left. He argues that the left has failed to understand and respond to the environmental situation: "major issues remained to be resolved for Marxism and the ecological struggle, in terms of both analysis and response". Thornett begins by criticising those on the left who argue that the solution to capitalism's destruction of the planet is the struggle for socialism.
The standard 'solution'; advanced by most on the radical left in this regard, is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism - by implication within the next 12 years because that is how long we have to do it. It is what I call 'one solution revolution'.... Capitalism is the problem and its overturn is the solution - and not just as a long-term perspective, which is a different matter - but as an immediate solution to global warming. Such an approach is maximalist, leftist and useless. We can all, as socialists, vote to abolish capitalism with both hands, and this is indeed our long-term objective. But as an answer to global warming within the next 12 years it makes no sense.
It is true that some on the left, and some socialist organisations, do have a position similar to that Thornett describes here. But in my extensive experience, those are organisations that have the least involvement with environmental politics, and the least developed understanding of Marxism and ecology. Thornett caricatures the whole left (excluding himself) as having this position. He writes, "The practical upshot of a maximalist approach of this kind is to deprioritise the struggle for changes in the here and now, and so demobilise the left".

But this is plainly not true. For instance, Socialist Worker placards on climate demonstrations often say "System Change not Climate Change" and, as Thornett explicitly notes "One Solution Revolution". But they also call for One Million Climate jobs and other reforms. Thornett has closely worked with socialists from a number of different traditions (including the SWP) to develop these strategies to deal with climate change under capitalism; so his argument here is a mis-characterisation of much of the radical left.

By downplaying slogans that highlight the need for a socialist alternative to capitalism Thornett makes a error about how socialists should approach the struggle to deal with ecological disaster. The starting point must be that capitalism is the problem, not, as Thornett implies the existence of humans or the use of industry and technology. Global environmental crisis is the result of the development of a system of generalised commodity production based on the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation. Despite Thornett noting the work of Marxists like Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, his own book fails to emphasis this aspect of capitalism. The reader could be left with the impression that Thornett believes that the problem is simply the existence of human society (of whichever form).

In my view, socialists who reject, as utopian, the slogan 'System Change not Climate Change' for the environmental movement fail to see that the demand is not simply about the result, but also a strategy for getting a sustainable world. This isn't simply about whether or not socialism is the solution to the environmental crisis. Understanding that capitalism is the problem helps orient the movement. To argue anything else is to give ground to the idea that capitalism can solve the crisis - and if the last 40 years have taught us anything, it is that it can't and won't. It is only mass action that can force through reforms on the scale we require. Thornett's alternative - to eat less meat, to take individual responsibility for our personal footprint (which socialists don't worry about this?) and so on are thus fundamentally inadequate. Even Thornett's preferred strategy - the use of taxation against oil companies to "bring down carbon emissions rapidly" would fail unless it is backed up by powerful forces that can make the oil companies obey. The tragic lessons of experiments in radical reformism over the years has been that the capitalists are prepared to use the full power of their state to restrict any attempts to stop the accumulation of capital. 

Capitalism

This brings me to another key difference - the question of population. Thornett argues that the a key problem is the growing population and its environmental footprint. He notes that the footprint of people is different depending on where they are in the world, but writes that "African faces the most
dangerous situation". He argues that strategies need to be developed that will reduce population growth and encourage smaller families. Again he implies, perhaps inadvertently, that others on the left wouldn't agree. For instance he says that "policies that involve lifting women out of poverty in the poorest parts of the globe and enabling the to control their own fertility through the provision of contraception and abortion services, need to be supported". But I don't know anyone on the left who would disagree. The problem is that this won't stop environmental destruction.  

Later Thornett writes, "how can rising population and women's reproduction be separated? One determines the other." But this ignores the question of social context. Women have children based on all sorts of factors - but most importantly the number of children they have is linked to wealth. But whether a society can support a particular population is determined by the nature of that society. It's a point made well by Karl Marx:
overpopulation is…a historically determined relation, in no way determined by abstract numbers or by the absolute limit of the productivity of the necessaries of life, but by the limits posited rather by specific conditions of production…. How small do the numbers which meant overpopulation for the Athenians appear to us!
When we look at the causes of environmental disaster we have to point out that the problem is simply not caused by population growth in Africa (and to do this, as Thornett does, is to open the door to racist arguments about the developing world). Thornett does write:
I am not arguing that rising population is the root cause of the ecological crisis... That is the fault of the capitalist system of production and the commodification of the planet - although pre-capitalist systems of agriculture were already degrading the ecology and the biodiversity before capitalism arrived. What I am arguing is that rising population is a major contributory factor. 
But if this is the case, the starting point is not population, but the nature of capitalism. The structures of capitalism and the nature of accumulation mean that population growth in the developing world is not the problem. But Thornett moves further into dangerous territory when he argues that
The question is not simply whether capitalism is ecologically destructive, but whether the ecological crisis can be reduced to capitalism.... If the problem is simply capitalism, this implies (in reverse) that its removal would resolve - partially at least - the ecological crisis. But there is no evidence that this would be the case. In fact, major existential challenges would continue to exist, and the ecological struggle would have to continue long after capitalism had left the scene.
Clearly there will be ecological issues to resolve once capitalism has been defeated, but that will require a system being put in place that is capable of dealing with the disaster. In other words a society that is not based on the competitive accumulation of capital. But here Thornett appears to suggest the problem cannot be reduced to capitalism, in which case you can never prevent ecological crisis, which is a very strange conclusion to draw for a Marxist.

In other sections of the book Thornett deals with other issues such as transport and jobs, as well as a discussion of the relative weaknesses of the British trade union movement on ecological issues. In the section on food he argues that we need a transition to a lower meat diet. I've dealt elsewhere at length with this question, and won't repeat those arguments here. But I do want to note that Thornett's figures are incorrect. On page 176 he argues that GHG emissions from meat production "are greater than the emissions generated by the entire world-wide transportation system". But this is not true, as the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation [FAO] has pointed out here. Readers might suggest that Thornett is correct not to rely on figures from the UN which might have a vested interest in denying this, but Thornett does rely on FAO figures on the previous page. Similarly Thornett quotes the figure of 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions being due to livestock production, but this figure comes from a report that the FAO admitted was flawed and the correct figure is nearer 14.5 percent. Thornett does then use this figure a few pages later (p186) but attributes it to "meat production" which is incorrect as it is from the whole "livestock sector" which includes more than meat production. More worryingly Thornett uses the infamous figure from the film Cowspiracy that 51 percent of all worldwide CO2 emissions comes from livestock. But this figure has been widely discredited, as Danny Chivers, author and lead external carbon analyst for Christian Aid and ActionAid has written:
The 51 percent number comes from a single non-peer-reviewed report by two researchers—a report littered with statistical errors. This study counts the climate impact of methane from animals as being more than three times more powerful as methane from other sources, adds in an inappropriate chunk of extra land use emissions and incorrectly includes all the carbon dioxide that livestock breathe out.
I highlight these inaccuracies because if the left is to win an argument around the environment we must be absolutely rigorous in our use of evidence, or risk undermining our own arguments.

In his conclusion Thornett writes that the left cannot reduce its arguments around environmental disaster to propaganda for socialism. That is true but no serious ecological Marxist makes this error. But the environmental crisis is an existential threat to humanity caused directly by the nature of capitalism. Unfortunately Alan Thornett's book undermines the struggle for a sustainable world because it obscures the real problem.

Related Reviews

Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Angus - A Redder Shade of Green
Wallis - Red Green Revolution

Burkett - Marx and Nature
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Malm - The Progress of This Storm

Dee Brown - The Fetterman Massacre

Dee Brown is the celebrated author of one of the most famous books on the Native Americans - Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. It is a classic of its time and a painful read as it depicts the story of the genocide of the Indigenous people of the Americas at the hands of the US government. It was a formative book for me, though perhaps superseded today by other works such as Nick Estes' Our History is the Future. However I was keen to read Brown's Fetterman Massacre as it centres on a notorious incident in December 1866 when Captain Fetterman's force of US Army troops was massacred by an army of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors under the leadership of Red Cloud.

Red Cloud's war was a response by the Native Americans to the incursions into their territory by the US Army and settlers from the East. Brown's book focuses on a small aspect of the widr conflict, following Colonel Henry Carrington who built and setup Fort Phil Kearny to protect travels and settlers on the Bozeman trail. Carrington, together with a tiny military force and a few civilians, setup an isolated fort and attempted to maintain it's position in the face of increasing hostility from the local indigenous people. Carrington himself was a bit of an idealist, and he was in a difficult position - isolated, under-supplied and lacking in experience (he himself had never commanded in action). He was also under pressure from the likes of Fetterman to take a more aggressive attitude to Red Cloud's forces.

Brown artfully mines the documentary evidence to show how Carrington came to understand the weakness of his position and how the expedition begins to approach disaster. Fetterman himself is experienced in fighting battles, but only for the Union against the Confederacy. He has little experience of fighting the highly mobile, guerrilla, forces that Red Cloud commands. Probably more dangerous for Fetterman is his own racism and prejudices which lead him to see the Native Americans as easy enemies for the trained US troops. Famously Fetterman declared "With 80 men I could ride through the Sioux nation" and it is ironic that when he and his command perished in a brutal, but brief fight, casualties were almost exactly eighty.

Tragically for Carrington he became the scapegoat, despite Fetterman having repeatedly broken discipline and disobeyed commands. Carrington had warned of disaster and the Army bureaucrats had ignored him. Red Cloud could claim a major victory, that would not be surpassed until the Battle of the Little Big Horn a decade later.

While this is a great compact read, it lacked nuance and I felt the voices of the Native American people were drowned out, as was the wider context of the battle. Dee Brown's work is sympathetic to the Native American people but he also carries with him the legacy of an earlier era - he uses the racist term "half breed" for instance. That said, the work is in no way a celebration of the US Army and tells a fascinating, if horrible, history.

Related Reviews

Estes - Our History is the Future
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Philbrick - The Last Stand
Cronon - Changes in the Land
McMillan & Yellowhorn - First Peoples in Canada
Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance

Fagan - The First North Americans

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Victor Lavalle - The Ballad of Black Tom

***Contains Spoilers***

I've never really had much time for the works of H.P. Lovecraft - all those over-long descriptions of eldritch horrors tended to put me off. But plenty of people are, and Victor LaValle is one such fan, though his distaste at Lovecraft's racist views is highlighted by his dedication - "For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my complicated feelings".

But in this short novel LaValle gets his revenge on Lovecraft by taking his genre and characters and turning them into a brilliant critique of a racist society. Set in a Lovecraftian New York, LaValle's short novel begins with Tommy, a small time wheeler-dealer who is constantly trying to make ends meet, in particular to help out his father. Tommy is also a talentless musician who dreams of the big time, but isn't good enough (indeed his one shot at the big time was terminated after one song when the band ditched his efforts).

Tommy is picked up by a wealthy, white, businessman Robert Suydam who wants him to play at a party - a party that is part of summoning the nameless horrors that exist "outside". New York here is not our New York, but a close parallel where magic is real. This 1920s "Jazz Age" world is different, but much the same. Crooked, racist cops kill Tommy's father in a painful scene that is reminiscent of countless accounts of US police killings of poor black people today. Suydam wants to fix this, but not through a Civil Rights movement:
Your people are forced to live in mazes of hybrid squalor. It's all sound and filth and spiritual putrescence... But what if that could change? ... When the Sleeping King awakes he will reward us with dominion of this world. And all your enemies will be crushed into dust.
So Suydam dreams of releasing the nameless horrors of the other world in order to free humanity, and, in particular, free the oppressed and downtrodden. It's an excellent setup, that neatly skewers Lovecraft and inverts the horror genre. But the book is more than a great idea - its brilliantly written, gasp out loud horrible in a couple of places, and nicely paced to an excellent climax. Most interestingly is the trajectory of Tommy who goes from a relatively harmless hustler (who defaces a book of magic to prevent it being used for evil) to full on monster; driven, not by a glimpse of the nether-world, but by racist violence.

I suspect those who know Lovecraft's work well will get a lot more out of this than I did. I did not know, until after I'd finished it, that some of the characters, principally Suydam and the detective Malone, are straight out of what two writers describe as Lovecraft's "most bigoted story". But even if you don't know Lovecraft's work I'd recommend this short novel as an excellent addition to the growing body of fantasy and science-fiction that is tackling big questions of racism, oppression and bigotry.

Related Reviews

Solomon - An Unkindness of Ghosts
Tidhar - Central Station

Monday, April 22, 2019

Hanna Jameson - The Last

It has been three years since Donald Trump's election which means that those authors who were inspired to write post-apocalyptic fiction in the wake of his inauguration are now having it published. Hanna Jameson's The Last is very clearly modelled on events after Trump, or a similar US President (who remains nameless in the novel) causes a nuclear war to break out. The question of the Presidency, and who voted for "him" is a running plot-line through the book which centres on a small group of residents trapped in a hotel in the Swiss mountains in the aftermath of the war.

Jon Keller is the focus of the book. He's torn by angst having failed to reply to a last text message from his wife, and attempts to deal with the trauma by investigating an apparent murder that took place just before the end of civilisation. What makes the book great is the exploration of how individuals cope with what has taken place - one character, a doctor, points out that everyone is in mourning - not just for their loved ones, but also for the lives they have lost. So while disaster aficionados will enjoy the parts of the book that deal with survival in the aftermath of the collapse of civilisation, there's much more than just the usual hunting for food and fuel. On occasion Jameson links the too together rather well, as when she depicts characters, particularly Jon, trying to use their phones to call home or conserving batteries to listen to MP3's one last time.

Unfortunately I felt the book was weakened by am unbelievable ending, but the various threads (and the murder mystery) are tied up rather well despite this disappointment. Highly recommended for those people who are thinking through the end of the world.

Related Reads

Robinson - New York 2140
Morrow - Is this the Way the World Ends?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Nick Estes - Our History is the Future

In 2016 a protest encampment at Standing Rock in the US state of North Dakota became a symbol of resistance to fossil capitalism. The camp, which arose out of indigenous peoples' movements, became a focus, in the dying days of the Obama administration, of bottom-up organisation against the expansion of oil pipelines. Quickly it gathered support and brought together disparate groups of people - from the indigenous communities to environmental activists, NGOs and even former members of the US military. The camp saw down brutal repression to become, at least in the short term, victorious. Perhaps just as importantly the "water protectors" helped inspire other campaigners across the globe. I remember speaking at a protest march against fracking at Barton Moss in Salford in the UK and a great cheer went up when I mentioned Standing Rock - a cheer that celebrated their struggle, not my speech!

Nick Estes' new book is subtitled "Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance" which neatly sums up his central argument: the protests that took place at Standing Rock are part of a long continuity of indigenous resistance towards a settler state that has sought to exploit the US's natural resources and people in the interest of profit and, to do this, has needed to destroy the indigenous peoples. This saw a genocidal war against the Native Americans, culminating in them being forced into smaller and smaller reservations, together with laws that codified their oppression. All this was justified through racism. Estes' book is a history of all this, which is at times difficult to read as well as inspirational.

I won't dwell here on Estes' account of the military repression of the indigenous people. Instead I want to highlight Estes' argument about the way that the US state made the repression and attempted destruction of the Native American way of life a central part of its approach towards those communities. He explains:
The design and development of the carceral reservation world was well under way by the time Cheyennes, Lakotas, and Arapahos made Custer and his Seventh Cavalry famous. In 1876 Indian Commissioner John Q. Smith envisioned US Indian policy as having three central goals: to concentrate remaining Indigenous peoples onto fewer reservations, to allot remaining lands, and to expand US laws and courts' jurisdiction over reservations... the latter two goals were achieved through the disintegration of political and social structure, and the carving up of the remaining communally held lands. The fur trade may have introduced the capitalist market, but it never made the Oceti Sakowin [this is the correct name for the people commonly called the Sioux] truly individualistic, and communal land practices and social customs still prevailed. This was the final frontier.
He continues that "reservations thus became sites where social engineering was used to break communal organisation".

While the use of military force against the indigenous people declined it never disappeared and there were other ways of destroying communities. The creation of dams is a case in point, which Estes shows were frequently built to generate energy, and often located in land or reservations that historically was of importance to indigenous people. Take the Garrison Dam which "inundated the For Berthold Reservation" drowning 152,360 acres of land belonging to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations. But the dam was modified by the Army Corp of Engineers to ensure that the "majority-white border town of Williston, North Dakota" lost no land. The dams location was chosen to avoid damage to other towns whose residents were mainly non-indigenous. No such care was taken for Native American people, and these dams, which were part of the "Pick-Sloan" project of the late 1940s where described by one historian as destroying "more Indian land than any single public workers project in the United States".

The question of land could not be separated from wider social questions - poverty, racism, unemployment and lack of decent housing. Este thus describes as succession of social movements that arose where indigenous people fought back for justice - in the late 1960s these took a more radical turn as a new generation of young people challenged both their elders and put forward more powerful demands from the government. To me, at least, here is a forgotten history of those who, alongside the black, gay and women's movements of the 1960s, created a revolutionary "Red Power" movement, which is remarkably inspiring. But the struggle is by no means over. Estes points out:
Anti-Indianism has also been reinforced under neoliberalism - the restructuring of politics and economy towards privatisation...But the role of the US state in reproducing anti-Indianism has also increased since the mid-twentieth century, including through the expansion of the military and prisons... Native inmates [in South Dakota] make up 30 percent of the total [prison] population while only constituting about 9 percent of the state's population. The rise in incarceration rates directly correlates with increased Native political activity in the 1970s.
Estes is clear that justice for indigenous people will not be solved via the US government in its current form. Clearly there needs to be more funding for schools, hospitals, housing and so on. But at the heart of US society there is a great injustice - the creation of the US state required, and requires, the systematic oppression of the indigenous population. Capitalism will not be able to fix this, as it will require challenging the very nature of the US state. This is also true of many other countries who built their wealth through colonialism and imperialism, and the systematic oppression (and decimation) of people in Africa, Asia, South America and Australasia. Estes details the strong internationalism of the indigenous communities, who have created international movements (eg solidarity between Palestinians and Native Americans) to fight for justice.

Real justice will arise when society can accept that indigenous peoples must have the right to solve problems in their own way. Estes notes that one vision for this was Lenin's argument for the "right of colonised nations to secede and declare independence from their colonial masters" but he cautions, while it is a view that has been taken up  by many in the "Asian, African and South American contexts" it is "entirely absent in North America, except among radical Indigenous, Black, Asian, Caribbean and Chicanx national liberation movements".

The logic of capitalism means the destruction of natural resources and people in the interests of wealth accumulation. One barrier to the continued search for profit has always been, and remains, the resistance of indigenous people. As Standing Rock showed these struggles can ignite further alliances, and such unity raises the potential for a radical challenge to capitalism. I hope that occurs, for otherwise we will not see, what Estes calls "the emancipation of earth from capital".

Nick Estes' book is a powerful read. I learnt a great deal from it - not just about the history of indigenous people in what is called "Turtle Island", but also about what liberation means for them. These struggles, in the face of the most brutal, racialised repression from the US state, are inspirational, but also hold up hope that a better world is possible.

Related Reviews

Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Cronon - Changes in the Land
McMillan & Yellowhorn - First Peoples in Canada
Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Fagan - The First North Americans

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

CJ Sansom - Sovereign

The period of Henry VIII's rule in England has furnished plenty of material for authors of historical fiction. For CJ Sansom it is the perfect backdrop to his stories of mystery and detection - plenty of plots, murders and scheming. But the specific social changes taking place allow a remarkably varied set of stories. In the first book Sansom sets up a locked room mystery (well locked monastery mystery) in the context of the dissolution of the monasteries. In the second, Dark Fire, he skilfully weaves the story of Thomas Cromwell's fall around a hunt for a lost chemical weapon.

Sovereign is more ambitious. It is set during Henry VIII's Great Northern Progress in the aftermath of the two, linked, northern rebellions that took place from 1536 to 1537 (though Sansom only mentions the Pilgrimage of Grace neglecting the Lincolnshire Rising). The Progress was a mass display of power by Henry designed to cow the population and force supplication. In this it was an immense success, though as Sansom seems to understand, its importance today is mostly remembered for being the period when Catherine Howard's alleged infidelity was discovered.

Matthew Shardlake, the lawyer hero of Sansom's Tudor novels joins the Progress on the instructions of Thomas Cranmer who sets him the difficult task of bringing a rebel safely back to London. The rebel has evidence of a conspiracy against the King and Shardlake is thus risking his life to complete the mission. As always with these novels the level of detail is astounding and Sansom's knowledge of the political twists and turns of the Tudor court is excellent. I found the denouement of the novel somewhat of a let down, but Sansom certainly managed to tie all the threads together well.

One thing that I think Sansom does extremely well is to demonstrate how the King was the centre of the universe for Tudor society. Characters repeatedly ask each other if they have seen the King, or discuss being in his presence. Shardlake himself is terrified of meeting Henry when petitions are presented and, in a nicely comic passage, is terror is replicated among even more experienced court followers who have to rush to the toilet after the audience is over. Henry was the centre around which everything revolved, but he was also both human and horrible, and Shardlake experiences with a rather unpleasant awakening.

It's an excellent book, though my attention did wane after 500 pages and the last 100 or so felt like I was reading simply to get to the end. That said, it's entertaining and I'd second Sansom in his recommendations of books on the Northern Revolts - see below.

Related Reviews

Sansom - Dissolution
Sansom - Dark Fire
Hoyle - The Pilgrimage of Grace and the politics of the 1530s
Moorhouse - The Pilgrimage of Grace
Fletcher & MacCulloch - Tudor Rebellions
Fraser - The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Kim A. Wagner - Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear & the Making of a Massacre

I am posting this review on the centenary of the Amritsar Massacre which took place on April 13 1919. On that day Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to fire over 1,600 (they counted) bullets at a densely packed, unarmed, crowd killing hundreds and injuring hundreds more.

In Britain the run up to the anniversary has seen debates about what took place and whether or not there should be an apology from the British government. Reading Kim A. Wagner's excellent study of the events before and after the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh I'm struck by how ill-informed much of the discussions have been. For those wanting a clearer understanding of what took place in Amritsar in the Punjab one hundred years ago, there is no better starting place than Wagner's book.

Wagner begins by taking the reader through what is perhaps the most influential account (at least for British audiences) of the massacre - the depiction in Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi. It is a powerful sequence and tells at least a partially accurate account of the day. But Wagner argues that:
Presented without any real context in the movie, the Amritsar Massacre functions simply as a grim vignette to illustrate the power of Gandhi's message of non-violence. The speaker at Jallianwala Bagh is giving voice to the doctrine of Satyafgraha, or soul-force, when he is silenced, quite literally, by British bullets. The massacre is thus depicted as the inevitable result of the clash between Gandhi's righteous struggle and the oppression of colonial rule... Yet the violence unleashed... is entirely embodied by Edward Fox's Dyer: a man seemingly incapable of emotions, who appears as nothing so much as an automaton.
Wagner, in contrast, locates the massacre not as an "inevitable result" of the growth of the independence movement, nor, the consequence of Dyer's mistakes or personality but in the paranoia, fear and racism of the colonial rulers. The story really begins in 1857 when the Great Rebellion, which began as a mass mutiny of colonial troops, nearly destroyed British rule in India. It was a sobering, never to be forgotten, event for the British - India was the key lynch-pin of the British Empire, a vast source of natural resources and the destination was many of the outputs of British Industry. It was also key to a wider network of Imperial relations and losing India could have easily lead to the further unravelling of the Imperial project.

The 1857 rebellion was a bloody event and the British escalated the violence with their collective mass punishment. But the pure fact that it happened left the British terrified. Following World War One the British once again feared rebellion. India had provided vast quantities of troops and resources for the war and many Indian veterans believed that the aftermath would bring reforms and improvements at home. Nothing of the sort took place and growing discontent began to fuel the independence movement of figures like Gandhi. Elsewhere in the world revolution and rebellion where threatening Imperial domination. Most significant was the Russian Revolution which had a major anti-colonial component, but perhaps more important for the people of India were rebellions in Ireland and Egypt which threatened the British.

Its notable that the British in India feared Russian "Bolshevism". Wagner quotes many British people in India who reference the Bolsheviks in 1919 and in the events of April the British certainly imagined shadowy revolutionaries organising violent insurrection. This factor alone put the administration on edge as key figures in Amritsar began to organise the Independence struggle.

But Wagner also emphasises that racism was a central factor in the events that took place. To understand this one has to understand the deeply ingrained racism towards the Indian people by the British. Wagner has many examples, but this particular contemporary account stuck out for me:
Mrs Montgomery told me once she nearly trod upon a krait - one of the most venomous snakes in India. She had been ill at the time, suffering from acute facial neuralgia, 'so that I didn't care if I trod on fifty kraits. I was quite stupid with pain and was going back in the evening to my bungalow, preceded by a servant who was carrying a lamp. Suddenly he stopped and said "Krait, Mem-sahib!" - but I was far to ill to notice what he was saying and went straight on, and the krait was lying right in the middle of the path! Then the servant did a thing absolutely without precedent in India - he touched me! - he put his hand on my shoulder and pulled me back. My shoe came off and I stopped. Of course if he hadn't done that I should undoubtedly have been killed; but I didn't like it all the same, and got rid of him soon after.
What I think existed among the British in India in the post-war period was a racialised paranoia, that meant that people like Dyer (and almost everyone else) saw rebellion everywhere and could only interpret crowds of Indian people as a dangerous, irrational uncontrollable mass. When local leaders were arrested and deported and the local population organised to try and present a traditional petition to the local government on April 10 1919, the British resorted to gunfire to keep the crowds back. This in turn provoked violent rioting which left several British people dead or badly injured and from then on, Dyer's actions were inevitable. He arrives in the city spoiling to teach the masses a lesson and does precisely that. Dyer, it should be noted, was an odious Imperialist, who never wavered in his self-belief after the massacre and was celebrated by the British-Indian establishment, even as he was punished by the British government. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, Dyer acted to collectively punish the city in the most brutal fashion, to try and stop further anti-British anger. This led to the infamous crawling order, and:
The very same day Dyer gave his racialised and righteous colonial sermon in church, a striking example of what 'justice in the hand of authority' actually entailed was made... By erecting the whipping post in the street where [Mrs] Sherwood [a victim of the anti-British riots on April 10] had been attacked, Dyer was explicitly drawing on a long tradition of executing criminals, and afterwards gibbeting their bodies on the site of their crime. Not only was the public punishment intended to serve as a deterrent, it also transformed the physical space into a permanent reminder of the power and vengeance of the state.
The crawling punishment inflicted
by the British after the massacre.
In the aftermath the British struggled "to find the evidence of the rebellious conspiracy that they were convinced had been the cause of the unrest". Wagner show that they were more successful in keeping quiet the extent of the massacre and word barely trickled out. One senior government official claimed he'd only heard about the scale of the events when it was raised in the British House of Commons in December 1919 by the radical Labour MP J.C. Wedgwood who claimed that "This damns us for all time. Whenever we put forward the humanitarian view, we shall have this tale thrown into our teeth". The shadow of Amritsar would certainly hang over the rest of British colonial history. As Wagner points out, when the British fired on a football match at Croke Park, killing thirteen, it was called the 'Irish Amritsar'. Even that arch-Imperialist Winston Churchill described the events as "monstrous", but in doing so, he began a process of depicting Amritsar as an isolated event, that bucked the trend of benevolent British rule. It is this argument that has dominated the airwaves and newspaper papers around the anniversary, but it is one that is singularly defeated by Kim Wagner's meticulous book.

Wagner's conclusion is very different to the mainstream:
Taking succour in Britain's past glory requires that colonial violence and events such as the Amritsar Massacre be glossed over... A British apology for the Amritsar Massacre in 2019 would, as a result, only ever be for one man's actions, as isolated and unprecedented, and not for the colonial rule, or system, that in Gandhi's words, produced Dyer.
The reality of course is that the British Empire saw many massacres. From Ireland to India, from Africa to the Far-East, British rule was based on divide and rule, systemic racism and the regular use of extreme violence. The very unity between Muslim, Hindu and Sikh that was displayed in Armritsar in the period undermined the whole Imperial project. However weak the British state might be today, it stands on that colonial history, and the only real apology will come as a result of a fundamental challenge to a system that continues to oppress and exploit millions.

Related Reviews

Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857
Davies - Late Victorian Holocausts
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried
Macrory - Signal Catastrophe
Holmes - Redcoat
Dalrymple - Return of a King

Friday, April 12, 2019

Farah Mendlesohn - The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein

I have an ambiguous relationship with Robert Heinlein. On the one hand, I read and re-read many of his novels from childhood through my teenage and later years. For some reason, on a lone cycling trip through France at the age of 18 the only book I took with me was Stranger in a Strange Land which I read several times; re-reading it in later years. Several other novels have stuck with me for various reasons. Time Enough For Love I enjoyed mostly for its interludes which described slices of life of Lazarus Long whose long existence enabled him to experience many different times, places and loves; Glory Road I enjoyed as a teenager for its swords and sorcery, only later coming to view it as faintly ridiculous and I read Farnham's Freehold a couple of times and on each occasion spotting something that angered me more. Friday was, for many years, a favoured tale of pure adventure with a strong female lead that was unlike much else in the science fiction genre.

That Heinlein's books could be read and sometimes enjoyed over such a period is a sign of his innovation and strength as a story-teller. What became much clearer was that there was an ambiguity to his writing which was at times, frankly revolting. As a teenager I remember finishing To Sail Beyond the Sunset and for the first and only time in my life, defacing the book in anger at what I saw then as the complete degeneration of Heinlein's politics.

Looking back now I find myself much more at odds with Heinlein. Farnham's Freehold is frankly a racist book and parts of Time Enough for Love or Stranger in a Strange Land make me very angry indeed; my last reading of Stranger in 2005 left me aghast in some places, notably the infamous line put in the mouth of a female character that "Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's at least partly her own fault". Then I saw Stranger as reflecting Heinlein's trajectory towards reactionary politics. But now I am not so sure.

Because I retain some of the enthusiasm for Heinlein from my younger years I was drawn to Farah Mendlesohn's new book on Heinlein's writing. It is not a biography, rather a thematic study of almost all his writings. Having read it I found myself warming much more to Heinlein as a thinker, even though I felt, as I think Mendlesohn does too, that at times he was extremely and dangerously naive. Mendlesohn illustrates this well when studying the racial politics of Farnham's Freehold. She argues that Heinlein thought it would be an anti-racist work because it inverts slavery, making white people the slaves and black people, in a post nuclear war USA, the masters. Instead it is a novel that racists would enjoy - in particular (spoiler) because the black slave owners turn out to be cannibals. Heinlein's failure to grasp what racism is, lies at the root of this contradiction.

But the point that Mendlesohn makes is that this reaction would have upset Heinlein. He was, particularly for his time, very progressive. He had, for instance, a "deep-down belief in justice and in sexual and racial equality"; and wrote about topics that today are quite common within science fiction but were rarely talked about (or were even taboo) at the time - including gender, race and trans-questions. His language might today seem clumsy, but it was innovative - particularly when one looks at his attitude to "family" which rejects the western norm. This is, of course, why some of his books, like Stranger became icons of counter-culture - his characters have sex, take drugs and resist authority. But he did, as Mendlesohn says, "drift to the right" and in part I think this is because he was cynical about social movements. His engagement with politics was, in the context of the US at least, one that was relatively mainstream - attempts to launch radical movements were still born and floundered on what I think was a limited understanding of how society worked.

Mendlesohn writes that while "Heinlein's political opinions changed over his forty-year writing career, it is important to understand that his underlying beliefs did not". I think this is an illuminating point. Whatever Heinlein is doing there is a very emphatic "right and wrong" to his core beliefs. One of the problems that people often identify with Heinlein's books is that they feel like lectures at times - with characters extolling a particular world view. Time Enough For Love does this is several ways - with the interludes with Long's sayings interspersed with other tales where he gives waxes lyrical on a theme (slavery, racism, gun ownership) etc. Here Heinlein's characters (and we must assume Heinlein himself) have a particular vision of a better society, though it is rarely different at an econoimc or political sense, rather as the result of different personal relationships.

In discussing For Us, the Living (which I have not read) Mendlesohn says that
there is a clear sense in this book of the communitarianism still current in American life in the 1930s. In For Us, the Living civic duty is focused on contribution, and respect for the individuals social liberty; privacy is absolute, childrearing is no longer solely an occupation for women... and sexual jealousy is a mystifying illness.
It all sound very attractive, but there is no sense of how to get there. Heinlein writes about revolution in several of his books. But they are not Revolutions that socialists like myself would recognise. They are top down movements, led by small groups of people, or other intelligences, which Mendlesohn (in my opinion, mis-characterises, as being like Bolshevik organisation). But without mass involvement in such movements how will people transform themselves and "rid itself of the muck of ages" as Karl Marx argued. Heinlein provides no answers.

As the quote above indicates, Heinlein's attitude to sex and sexual relations is inseparable from his wider attitudes to interpersonal relationships and the family. In these he is firmly in the progressive camp; though Mendlesohn points out he "dives gender equality from gender roles". As a young reader of Heinlein in the 1980s and 1990s I found his discussions on such things exciting and innovative; but I found his attitude to incest troubling. Time Enough for Love and its follow-ups are, essentially a long tale about the hero eventually getting to have sex with his mother. However Heinlein dresses this up, it is odd and I was surprised that Mendlesohn didn't discuss it further.

In many ways its easiest to characterise Heinlein as a classic Libertarian, though that word is inadequate. It is possible at every stage to cherry pick Heinlein's "good" policies - he opposed the draft his whole life, he celebrated differences etc, but mostly he appears to be politically adrift. Indeed this is a point that Mendlesohn makes very well when discussing his attitude to racism:
There is never any question which side Heinlein stands on the debate... but we also need to be aware of the lack of nuance and sensitivity to the oxygen he breathes. Heinlein understands and opposes enslavement and colour prejudice, but he does not really see that racism has a wider infrastructure. He does not understand what we now frame as systemic racism.
I think this sums up Heinlein extremely well. He has instincts (some good and some bad) but he has no real framework to understand or explain them. Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing and the world is a different place to the one Heinlein was writing in. His novels are full of mansplaining white characters, which can be hard to stomach today. But on the other-hand he had many innovative ideas which certainly shaped science-fiction but had wider influences too. For me Mendlesohn's book was in someways a way to understand my own thoughts about Heinlein, an author who had a influence on me. I think her insights into his motivations and the ideas that informed his writing clarify those writings and put them in a wider context. Farah Mendlesohn's book is thus a stimulating read for fans of Robert Heinlein (and those who used to be) and an excellent piece of literary criticism.

Related Reviews

Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land
Heinlein - Starship Troopers

Rhinehart - The Dice Man

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Melissa Harrison - All Among the Barley

*** Warning Spoilers ***

You don't have to read much fiction about the history of the English countryside before you encounter writing that is essentially about a fantasy rural idyll. In it, rural inhabitants live poor, but fulfilling lives, essentially in a balance with both the natural world and their compatriots, rich and poor, in the village. Disagreement - such as the failures of an absentee landlord or, the drunkenness of a labourer - usually resolve themselves through the internal democracy of the community; either that or happy accident. Weirdly these fantasies are nostalgic for something that never existed but are often tremendously popular.

Oddly enough a fair bit of non-fiction writing about the countryside falls into this trap too. Though there are also many exceptions. Ralph Whitlock's 1945 classic Peasant's Heritage mostly avoids the nostalgia trap, but has a telling comment about it's main subject, the agricultural labourer, the "English peasant ... the same man as his forefathers, the men who fought and won Agincourt, the men who made the face of rural England with crude tools and by hard work, and defended as passionately as they worked for it." A bigger problem is that books that are actually quite faithful accounts of working class life in the countryside are often stripped bare of their reality and turned, usually for the TV screen, into pastiches of their content. To choose two cases in point, Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie is often remembered as a sun-infused coming of age account in a Gloucestershire village, but few people remember the murder that takes place when a rich returnee splashes his cash around and is collectively set upon by the locals. Flora Thompson's wonderful memoir Lark Rise to Candleford is often read for their accounts of life and nature in her home village but she notes the exploitation and oppression at the heart of country life. As I noted in my review of it she writes:
The joy and pleasure of the labourers in their task well done was pathetic, considering their very small share in the gain". Later when discussing the elaborate (and extensive) feast given by the farmer to those who'd laboured on the harvest, a celebration that was even extended to any passing "tramp", Thompson has her father comment that "the farmer paid his men starvation wages all the year and through he made it up to them by giving that one good meal. The farmer did not think so, because he did not think at all, and the men did not think either on that day; they were too busy enjoying the food and the fun."
Life in the English countryside was, as I tried to show in my own book Kill All the Gentlemen, one of constant class struggle against poverty, exploitation and oppression.

I dwell on this because I want to contrast it with Melissa Harrison's wonderful novel All Among The Barley about life in East Anglia in the early 1930s. I did put a spoiler warning at the top of this review, but I want to repeat it. Do not read further if you don't want to have this novel ruined!

Having read a few pages I was ready to lump it in with all the other terrible books about life in the countryside where the sun always shines, and the much needed rain comes during the night. But quite quickly I began to notice that something wasn't quite right. The main character Edie Mather is writing, as an adult, about her childhood, and occasional references to an event that took her from her home village left me with a real sense of foreboding. The story unfolds slowly, framed around the arrival of Constance FitzAllen in the village. Constance is very much the glamorous modern urbanite. She wears trousers, drinks in the pub and is not afraid to impose herself on the rural community. She is writing a series of articles about the countryside and wants to know all about the traditions that make up family and farming life. Here, for me, is the genius of the novel. Harrison has taken that awful trope of countryside nostalgia and inserted one of its proponents into her novel in the act of creating the fantasy itself. Of course Constance finds what she wants to find, though often to the bemusement of the rural community and in the process she begins to transform Edie.

Edie has little to look forward to. She's good at school but there's little chance for her to do anything than become someones wife "pushing out babies" every year or go into service somewhere. So Constance's London glamour entrances her. The reality of hard work, poverty and a prospect of a forced marriage to a man who rapes her, with a background of economic crisis and crop failure, help to push Edie closer to Constance, until in the novel's climax we see what has been increasingly hinted at - Constance is a rather slick fascist, who is writing for a far-right publication and believes that England's farming communities need to be protected and returned to their traditional ways. Fantasies of idyllic rural communities based on traditional values and the family are a favourite of fascists - both in the past and today and Harrison cleverly manipulates this into the story - though it should also be remembered that the left has not been immune from this either - with William Morris a case in point.

But what is really clever is how Harrison shows Constance slowly winning people to her point of view. Slanders against the few local Jews, hostility towards agricultural unions and criticism of big government lead to splits in the community and eventually, an enormous chasm opening up in Edie's family. Frighteningly in 2019 the method will not be unfamiliar as we survey far-right politicians around the world. The novel's ending is brutal (with an implicit critique of Thatcherism) and I had to read it two or three times to fully get its enormity.

Melissa Harrison has written a marvellous book. It turns the genre on its head; skewers the invented history of the countryside and does it at the same time as being a faithful account of life in a poor rural community. But this is certainly my highlight of 2019 and I am not sure I'll read a better novel in the remainder of the year.

Related Reviews
Kerr Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Okbazghi Yohannes - The Biofuels Deception

On March 15 2019 up to 1.5 million students walked out of class to demand action in the face of looming environmental catastrophe. In the UK one of the most popular slogans was "System Change not Climate Change" reflecting the protesters' feelings that capitalism and its politicians had failed them. As Marxist writers like John Bellamy Foster and Ian Angus have shown, capitalism is at heart, a system that puts the accumulation of wealth above the general interests of people and planet. In the face of this, the capitalists have to find alternative ways of continuing to make their profits and, one of these is the use of biofuels.

Biofuels have been marketed by multinationals, governments and corporate think-tanks as a green way of producing energy. Because they are plants, the argument goes, they are effectively carbon neutral, sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then releasing the same amount back when they are burnt. Biofuels could produce electricity, propel cars and aeroplanes and essentially continue to allow the system to do what it has always done, without the climate catastrophe.

However, in this closely argued book, Okbazghi Yohannes argues that it is a desire to continue the system of accumulation that lies behind the drive for biofuels, not an interest in saving the planet from catastrophe. Yohannes explains:
The underlying motivation of those who call for biofuels is not to solve energy and food shortages or reduce climate change. Rather, the goal is to resolve the anarchy of agricultural production in the Global North, brought about by the green revolution and the consequence transformation of agriculture into a food-manufacturing system during the second half of the twentieth century - a transformation made possible by integration with the petroleum industry.

The Green Revolution produced a surplus of grain for the agricultural and grain trading corporations and it was these, rather than the oil companies that initially pushed the idea of biofuels. Yohannes continues by arguing that the contemporary capitalist state has become a proponent for biofuels through the influence of the food and fossil fuel multinationals. Both the US and the EU, together with other international organisations are pushing biofuels as a solution to climate and food scarcity, and encouraging policies that will facilitate further production of these crops.

The problem is, as the majority of Yohannes books is devoted to explaining, that biofuels are not a solution to hunger, environmental disaster or anything else. In fact they are likely to make these things worse. In part, the issue is the limitation of bourgeois economics:
The call by ecological economists to redesign capitalism in such ways as to establish a thermodynamic balance between what is bio-physically possible and what is ethically, socially and psychically desirable smacks of romantic petty-bourgeois utopianism.
The other issue is simple physics. Growing the quantities of biofuels that are needed to generate the energy and food suggested by their proponents would require enormous deforestation, vast quantities of water and, because the production, processing and transport of biofuels uses lots of energy, contributes significant amounts of carbon to the atmosphere. To take just one of numerous statistical examples, Yohannes points out that:
even after biofuel producers devoted 20 percent of the 2006 [US] corn harvest to ethanol production, it displaced only 3 percent of gasoline consumption. If the entire annual corn grown on 90 million acres is converted to ethanol fuels, the country may be able to displace only 12 percent of its annual gasoline consumption.

Yohannes reports one study as showing that one gallon of [biofuel[ ethanol needs 129,600 BTU of energy to produce, but only has an energy value of 76,000 BTU, so we are effectively wasting energy to produce energy. There are similar shocking statistics about water use, deforestation and environmental destruction associated with biofuel production.

No one could read this book and believe that biofuels are the solution to any of the social problems we face. But Yohannes doesn't simply argue against the biofuel strategy, he also argues for an alternative. It involves a recognition that the biofuel strategy arises out of a need for capitalism to greenwash its continued accumulation of wealth. This has partly been done by the covering up of the impact of biofuel production, for instance, in the aftermath of the food crisis of 2008, George Bush's administration suppressed a World Bank report that "showed the link between the food crisis and ethanol production".

But the state itself is not neutral, it exists, as Yohannes reminds us, to facilitate the accumulation of wealth, and he argues we are seeing a "transformation of the state as a geo-economic agent in the service of the bioproduct industrial complex and the transition to a post-petroleum bioeconomy". I'm not one hundred percent convinced that this is a global phenomena as I think the state is primarily concerned with making sure that the fossil fuel corporations can continue and that biofuels are a part of doing this, but I do agree that increasingly biofuels are seen as a key component for certain nation states and multinationals in terms of future accumulation.

This would be interesting enough, if Yohannes left it there. But the final chapter is devoted to showing how a rational, sustainable agriculture could develop. This, he argues, requires the direct producers taking control of the food system. Problems of hunger, environmental disaster and water shortages are the direct result of the insanity of production under capitalism. The alternative is the "masses of peasants and workers, who together must then begin to create a sustainable world". It's a vision of change that fits well with the demands of the school students.

Okbazghi Yohannes book contains a wealth of statistical data and information. At times this is a little overwhelming, but so is the environmental disaster we face. The information it contains makes a powerful argument, not just against biofuels, but for a new post-capitalist world. The task is for us to get there.

Related Reviews

Huber - Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom and the Force of Capital
Foster - The Ecological Revolution
Malm - Fossil Capital
Burkett - Marx and Nature
Klare - Blood and Oil
Nikiforuk - Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent
Heinberg - Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils our Future
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene