Monday, December 30, 2019

Georges Duby - The Age of the Cathedrals: Art & Society 980-1420

Georges Duby's The Age of the Cathedrals is a classic work that shows how the development of feudalism transformed the sacred art of the time, in particularly how it manifested through the art and architecture of cathedrals, but also monasteries, churches as well as the actuality of worship. Duby shows, in great detail, how social changes were reflected (and encouraged) by artistic changes. But he also roots his explanation in an understanding that society was one of class inequality and struggle. Thus, in a passage I first read when Nortre Dame Cathedral was destroyed by fire in 2019, we can see both Duby's beautiful prose and his clarity of understanding:
By definition, a cathedral was the bishop’s church, hence the city’s church; and what the art of cathedrals meant first of all, in Europe, was the rebirth of the cities… They were lodestones drawing wealth. After a long period of obscurity, they became the principal centres, north of the Alps, of the most advanced culture. But for the time being virtually all of their vitality still came from the surrounding fields…Thus, although cathedral art was urban art, it relied on the nearby countryside for the major factor in its growth, and it was the efforts of countless pioneers, clearers of land, planters of vinestocks, diggers of ditches, and builders of dikes, all flushed with the success of a flourishing agriculture, that brought cathedral art to its fulfilment. The tower of Laon rose against a backdrop of new harvest and young vineyards; the image of the oxen used in ploughing, carved in stone, crowned those towers… The facades of the cathedrals in Amiens and Paris showed the turning of the seasons by depicting different types of peasant labour. It was only right to honour them in this way, fort it was the work of the harvester sharpening his scythe, of the vine-grower pruning or layering his vines or spading about them, that had made the edifice rise little by little. The cathedral was the fruit of the system of manor lords – in other words, of the peasants’ labour.
As society changed, art reflected these changes:
Within the ruling class, a split widened between the warriors... and the churchmen, who took over all the charismatic missions that had belonged to royalty. This is what matters, particularly for anyone interested in the conditions with which social structures surround the birth of works of art. In the course of the eleventh century the local lords seized most of the royal prerogatives... They thus deprived the kings of the benefits hitherto conferred by the position of supremacy...in doing so they limited the extent to which the sovereigns could play a role in artistic creativity, fostered instead by the muted yet decisive emergence of the new class of lords.
Thus art would be representative of the interests and needs of these new classes. But religion couldn't lose one of its primary roles - to offer hope in the heartless world - and so "eleventh-century art helped to reveal God's face. It shed light. It claimed to offer man the sure means of coming back to life bathed in light". This came through architecturally as Cathedrals became massive spaces of light, instead of massive towers and heavy columns, big windows, open spaces and thin beams allowed light to fill the void.

A few hundred years of artistic evolution and social change later, things and developed further. Art was now more show, don't tell. It had become, in the view of artists and patrons, "a means of dispelling the mysteries of the world and revealing its inner order... Art... became an illustration, a narrative, a tale....intended to provide an immediately intelligible relation of a story... of God, but also of the knights of the Round Table, and the conquest of Jerusalem". Duby continues:
In the fourteenth century, creativity turned into the pursuit of fancy. As a result, its major objective was not to provide a space conducive to prayer and suitable for processions or psalmody as before, but one designed for display. Thus painting, the most appropriate medium for suggesting visions, raised itself at that very moment in Europe to the highest rank of the arts.
But if art reflected the system, it also was part of shaping it. Emphasising the interests of one or other class against the masses - shaping their ideas, helping to control and manipulate them. In the 13 the century when feudal society had reached "fulfilment" the "two dominating orders, churchmen and men of war, gathered around the king in whom priesthood and knighthood were joined" and so "royal liturgies accordingly installed that equestrian figure in the cathedral". Art in the places of religion now sent a message about who God's representatives were on Earth. Poignantly, Duby points out that "nothing is known of peasant death". The fears, hopes and dreams of the nobility were written large in their art and architecture. The peasantry had to look at these, and donate money for the privilege of pilgrimage. Cathedral art (and feudal art in general) was a message from one side to the other.

Duby's book is fascinating. But I found it a slog. The Age of the Cathedrals is one of those books that I read, but felt I was only scratching the surface of its insights. Lacking an in-depth knowledge of the history of the period, or the detail of the Bible I was only really able to accept what Duby was saying, not follow through his ideas. I suspect that other readers will get much more from what is a deeply sympathetic, materialist account of the linkage between art and society.

Related Reviews

Lacey & Danziger - The Year 1000
Faith - The Moral Economy of the Countryside: Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England
Bloch - Feudal Society: The Growth of Ties of Dependence
Lindsay - The Normans and their World

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Nick Ashton-Jones - Landscape, Wealth & Dispossession Part 1: Humanity

The first part of Nick Ashton-Jones projected six volume study of the British Landscape and the way it has been shaped and used by various human society. It begins with an examination of the underlying geology of the British Isles and an overview of hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies until the Roman era.

I've been asked to review this, and the succeeding volume, for a journal and I'll post a link to that article here when published.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Bruce Pascoe - Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture

Dark Emu is a remarkable book that deserves to be widely read and discussed. Firstly it is a fascinating discussion of the history and culture of Australia's Aboriginal people before European colonial arrival. But it is also a brilliant, and very readable, account of how that history was distorted, covered-up and forgotten in order for the colonial powers to develop their own political and economic structures that benefited a new capitalist order.

I suspect that most people who pick up Dark Emu might believe, at best naively, that Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers before the arrival of Europeans. Using primary and secondary sources Bruce Pascoe shows that this is completely erroneous and, Pascoe argues, prevents us developing a clearer understanding of both historical Aboriginal society and how that relates to contemporary political, environmental and social politics:
Arguing over whether the Aboriginal economy was a hunter-gather system or one of burgeoning agriculture is not the central issue. The crucial point is that we have never discussed it as a nation. The belief that Aboriginal people were 'mere' hunter-gatherers has been used as a political tool to justify dispossession. Every Land Rights application hinges on the idea that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people did nothing more than collect available resources and therefore had no managed interaction with the land... If we look at the evidence... and explain to our children that Aboriginal people did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did alter the course of rivers, did sew their closes and did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity it is likely we will admire and love our land all the more.
Contrary to perceived wisdom, Aboriginal, pre-contact society was not just one of nomadic hunter-gatherers, though, as Pascoe points out that does not mean there were no communities like this.
It may be that not all Aboriginal peoples were involved in these practices, but if the testament of explorers and first witnesses is to be believed, mos Aboriginal Australians were, at the very least, in the early states of an agricultural society, and, it could be argued, ahead of many other parts of the world.
But the crucial thing is that Aboriginal societies were dynamic - they changed and evolved. And in most areas, by the time of European arrival, Aboriginal communities had developed complex systems of agriculture, aquaculture and villages.  For instance, Pascoe describes the work of archaeologist Heather Builth who shows how a complex system of fish traps at Brewarrina, in NW New South Wales, supported a community of about 10,000 people in a "more or less sedentary life in this town". With such a large population, people would have needed to store food and Builth shows how food was smoked and stored and "formed the basis of trade with regions in New South Wlaes, South Australia and other parts of Victoria".

The evidence for complex human society (particularly agriculture) from archaeological sources as well as records of early European colonists and explorers is incredible. What is even more shocking is the way that this evidence is dismissed, ignored and hidden. Part of the reason for this is the racism of the European eyewitnesses. There is an incredible example of this from the accounts of James Kirby who , in 1843, explored an area which not not yet seen European colonisation. He describes (using racist language) an ingenious fishing device whereby people fished with an rod in tension that when triggered by a fish, "threw the fish over the head of the black [the Aboriginal fisher], who would then in a most lazy manner reach back his hand, undo the fish, and set the loop again". Kirby interprets this in the most racist way. Rather than be amazed at the semi-automated fishing system, he says he has "often heard of the indolence of the blacks and soon came to the conclusion after watching a blackfellow fish in such a lazy way, that what I had heard was perfectly true".

All human societies transform the landscape they inhabit. This is not usually recognised about the Aboriginal people because of the inherent racist assumption that they were savages who existed simply through an negative relationship with their environment. Again, the opposite is true. In one of the most fascinating sections of the book, a section that has particular resonance given the recent horrific wildfires in Australia, Pascoe shows how Aboriginal agriculture frequently relied on regular firing of the bush to encourage conditions for improved farming. Europeans, on arrival, feared fire and so they didn't use it to clear land. Ironically this encourages the conditions for more power fires, and undermined the fertility of the land itself: "Changing the timing and intensity of fires radically changed the nature of the country, so that what had been productive agricultural land became scrub within a decade." Fire was "part of a planned program of cropping or". This has implications for how we understand the Australian landscape. Pascoe quotes archaeologist Rhys Jones:
What do we want to conserve, the environment as it was in 1788 or do we yearn for an environment without mas, as it might have been 30,000 or more years ago? If the former then we must do what the Aborigines did and burn at regular intervals under controlled conditions. 
But this also has implications for continued agricultural practices that, driven by the desire to maximise profits, encourage environmental degradation and make fires more likely.

Pascoe doesn't pretend that Aboriginal societies were without conflict. Though he does point out that judging Aboriginal society by standards of European "civilisation" means that you miss the democratic, sustainable, non-hierarchical society that was able to provide for the needs of thousands of people for centuries. Nonetheless I think Pascoe is guilty of some naivety when it comes to understanding why, for instance, European societies were brutal and exploitative, and Aboriginal societies were not. It is clear, for instance, that class society had not developed in Aboriginal communities - historical development elsewhere in the world demonstrates that the invention of agricultural allows the creation of a surplus which can (I emphasise can) lead to the development of class society. When European colonialists arrived and smashed up Aboriginal society any further development was ended. What Pascoe makes clear is that had this development not been prevented, the peoples of Australia may well have begun the long historical road to further evolution of society - the had clearly already begun to develop complex agricultural based societies. But it is not inevitable that any future development would have retained social mores that made Aboriginal society so different to that which supplanted it.

Pascoe's use of source material shows what had long been hidden. Aboriginal societies, prior to the arrival of Europeans, were complex and extensive. But I am not sure how unique this is. Pascoe makes some reference to other pre-capitalist, indigenous societies. This could have been developed more and I think would have illuminated the way that capitalism has only succeeded through the destruction of other modes of production. Unfortunately for the limited analysis of this aspect of his argument Pascoe relies on the work of Gavin Menzies, whose work has been discredited.

However this does not discredit the arguments that Pascoe is making. In fact, I'd suggest that Dark Emu is one of the most important contributions to understanding the Aboriginal history that has been hidden and forgotten. It is also a powerful critique of contemporary Australian society - a society where the very land burns because profit is more important than people.

Related Reviews

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

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Stephen King - The Institute

With The Institute Stephen King makes a big return to his classic form. The novel is a page-turner, building up from an unassuming start as disgraced policeman Tim Jamieson arrives in the small-town of Dupray, South Carolina. Here King excels at describing the lives of ordinary working class people as Tim gets to know the people and community. 

Thousands of miles away, and seemingly unconnected, Luke Ellis's parents are killed by intruders and he is kidnapped. Luke is a child prodigy who also has some unusual powers - he can move small things just with the power of his mind. Luke wakes in The Institute, in a room that is almost a total facsimile of his home at his parents'. Here he discovers a brutal regime that tortures children to develop their special powers, and, when appropriate, passes them on to an even shadier section.

I was less gripped by the subplot that centres on the aims of The Institute than I was by the story of rebellion by Luke and his friends. Luke's escape and his eventual meeting with Tim is gripping, but the climatic resolution seemed a little contrived. I'm not sure that the authorities would be so quick to believe Luke's outlandish story - though I did like the idea that the Institutes' forces could be defeated by the townsfolk.

But what makes the book so compelling, and indeed characterises the best of King's work, are the small details that make the impossible so believable. In this case The Institute is deprived of funding, is run down and badly managed. Anyone who works in the public sector will recognise King's depiction of a failing bureaucracy that has grown stagnant.

But the real meat of the story is the rebellion of the children, born out of their mutual solidarity. In a world where the US government does put children in cages, the points that Stephen King is making are not exactly subtle but the fear of powerful quasi-government organisations is real. A real return to form, and existing fans of King will enjoy this tightly written novel.

Related Reviews

King - The Stand
King - Under the Dome
King - The Gunslinger
King - The Drawing of the Three
King - Wizard and Glass
King - The Wastelands
King - Wolves of the Calla
King - The Wind Through the Keyhole

King - The Dark Tower

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

W.H. Hudson - A Shepherd's Life

Many people have recently re-read W.H. Hudson's book A Shepherd's Life because it is mentioned early on in James Rebanks' more recent account of shepherding life. In that book Rebanks notes his pleasure at discovering Hudson's book because he wrote about people like him. I also saw this, but my interest had already been piqued by mention of Hudson's book in Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé's class work of history Captain Swing.

Hudson's book is fascinating partly because it combines many literary forms. It is very much a celebration of the landscape, people and animals of Wiltshire where the author spends much of his time. Several chapters are detailed accounts of the landscape itself, a living, breathing space which Hudson wishes more people could experience. In fact he argues that children waste time in schools when far better lessons would be learnt if they could explore the countryside.

The book is also historic. Hudson, writing in the first years of the 20th century is also describing a changing rural landscape. One of the first anecdotes he has is of a boy, working in a field scaring birds, running to see Hudson cycle past. Hudson stops, thinking something is amiss, but the boy simply wanted to watch him go past - bicycles presumably still being a novelty.

Much of these experiences are told through the conversations that Hudson has over many years with Caleb Bawcomb, a man who worked for fifty years as a shepherd. Caleb learnt his craft from his father Isaac, and Hudson tells many stories relating to both their lives - from the art of shepherding, to that of training a dog or the reality of poaching in the villages. The latter carries a strong sense of class struggle about it, as the villagers frequently united to both poach and protect those who stole. But what interested Hobsbawm and Rudé was Hudson's mention of the Swing riots and the treatment of those who took part. Hudson writes:
The incident of the unhappy young man who was transported to Australia or Tasmania, which came out in the shepherd's history of the Ellerby family, put it in my mind to look up some of the very aged people of the downland villages, whose memories could go back to the events of eighty years ago. I found a few, "still lingering here," who were able to recall that miserable and memorable year of 1830 and had witnessed the doings of the "mobs." One was a woman, my old friend of Fonthill Bishop, now aged ninety-four, who was in her teens when the poor labourers, "a thousand strong," some say, armed with cudgels, hammers, and axes, visited her village and broke up the thrashing machines they found there.
He continues:

Some more of the old dame's recollections will be given... showing what the condition of the people was in this district about the year 1830, when the poor farm-labourers were driven by hunger and misery to revolt against their masters—the farmers who were everywhere breaking up the downs with the plough to sow more and still more corn, who were growing very fat and paying higher and higher rents to their fat landlords, while the wretched men that drove the plough had hardly enough to satisfy their hunger.

Hobsbawm and Rudé particularly note the story of a curse on the Ellerby's of Doveton. Ellerby, the father of Caleb's employer had, according to tradition, allowed a innocent man be transported for his involvement in the Swing movement. From Australia, a letter, containing a fragment of a bible verse was supposed to have cursed the family to be childless from then onwards. The story is of interest, mostly because it was remembered so long after the events, part of a folk tradition that kept alive the injustices of the past.

One thing that modern readers might be amused by is Hudson's account of the decline of birdlife in the countryside, and the way that the military use of Salisbury Plain was destroying life, landscape and farming. Though in the case of bird decline the cause is somewhat different to today's ecological crisis:
Wiltshire, like other places in England, has long been deprived of its most interesting birds—the species that were best worth preserving. Its great bustard, once our greatest bird—even greater than the golden and sea eagles and the "giant crane" with its "trumpet sound" once heard in the land—is now but a memory. Or a place name: Bustard Inn, no longer an inn, is well known to the many thousands who now go to the mimic wars on Salisbury Plain... The stone curlew, our little bustard with the long wings, big, yellow eyes, and wild voice, still frequents the uncultivated downs, unhappily in diminishing numbers. For the private collector's desire to possess British-taken birds' eggs does not diminish; I doubt if more than one clutch in ten escapes the searching eyes of the poor shepherds and labourers who are hired to supply the cabinets.
Well written, the book was amazingly popular and helped to inspire some of the earliest social movements around protection of the countryside and the back to the land movement. I didn't particularly think that Hudson romanticised the countryside - there's plenty of poverty, low pay and hunger here. Though because he fictionalised some of the accounts and changed of people and locations the reader should be wary of taking things too literally. Nonetheless, as other books have pointed out, it is possible today to visit the places that Hudson writes about and corroborate much of the story.

Related Reviews

Horn - Life and Labour in Rural England 1760 - 1850

Horn - The Rural World - Social Change in the English Countryside 1780 - 1850
Rebanks - The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District
Hobsbawm and Rudé - Captain Swing

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Kassandra Montag - After the Flood

After the Flood is the latest bestseller inspired by the contemporary environmental crisis. The novel is set in the near future when a catastrophic flooding event caused by masses of water leaking out of the centre of the Earth has flooded almost all the land except for the tops of what used to be mountains. What's left of humanity has become entirely dependent on the sea, and farming of the small amounts of remaining land. Pockets of people have formed dozens of communities, increasingly dominated by "raiders" whose violent, pirate-like behaviour means they can steal what they want and menace for goods to sustain themselves.

The book focuses on Myra who survived the rapid flooding of the interior of the United States, but whose husband, when the water finally arrived, ran off with her daughter Row. Myra herself was pregnant with her second daughter Pearl. When we first meet these two they are surviving by fishing and then trading their catch for other necessities. The author, Kassandra Montag, sets up the context very well - we get a sense of small communities on the edge of existence, threatened by external violence, and eking out an existence on what is left from the collapse of civilisation.

Myra has given up hope of seeing Row again, but by chance learns of her survival, likely as a breeding material for one of the pirate gangs. Her journey to find her, which involves becoming part of a crew on a boat capable of the long distance voyage, make sup the rest of the book.

Since I'm partial to novels about the collapse of civilisation, I was looking forward to reading this, but I found myself frustrated. I thought the characters tended to be one-dimensional, and behave unrealistically. I liked Pearl particularly, though her strange habit of collecting snakes made no sense at all and I thought that her mother treated her appallingly. Pearl's fear that her mother was more concerned with her first daughter than her well-being certainly felt true, though Montag has Myra deny it through the novel. I didn't however feel convinced by any of the characters motivations and while the action sequences were fun, they seemed to only exist to hold together a rather less enjoyable story based on the characters' relationships.

But the biggest problem was that the premise of the book was utterly implausible and no-one seemed to question it. The cracking open of the Earth's crust and the release of vast quantities of water (utterly vast if we're talking about covering almost all the continental United States) defied plausibility, physics and belief. This undermined everything else about the novel. Sadly I was left disappointed by this latest attempt to help us think through the consequences of climate change.

Related Reviews

Wyndham - The Kraken Wakes
Robinson - New York 2140
King - The Stand

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Ken Follett - World Without End

Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth is one of the most popular novels around today - a blockbuster that grew famous through word of mouth and has now spawned a TV series and a computer game. Set in the fictional town of Kingsbridge it follows the trials and tribulations of a families as the town's Cathedral is built in the Middle Ages.

World Without End is a sequel set a couple of centuries later, and it is a sequel very much in the same vein. In many regards the book tells a very similar story. Many of the main characters are very similar to characters in the first book, and the story hangs around the building, or rebuilding of part of the Cathedral. The two main characters, Caris and Merthin, are on-off lovers, whose lives revolve around two central issues - the first is the Cathedral, the second the arrival of the Plague. Caris is a young woman who refuses to let her gender hold back her desire to succeed in the world. Accused of witchcraft by a rival, she becomes a nun to escape execution. In the nunnery she uses forward thinking medical practices to treat the sick and prevent infection. Her attitudes and approach incur further wrath from the hierarchy.

As I noted in my review of the first book, the author structures the book like a mini-series or soap-opera. Chapters invariably end on cliff-hangers and characters tend to come and go, revolving around the key people. Again, like Pillars of the Earth, the book focuses very much on working people and their lives though in this case the actual feudal relationship between lord and serf in terms of land use is much more explicit. The rich aren't simply oppressive - they are exploitative too. Follett tries to show how the decimation of the population by disease led to the breakdown of serfdom, though out of dramatic necessity he accelerates the process a great deal. Nonetheless he reflects real history here. I was just disappointed the book finished before the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 when the people of Knightsbridge might have got some collective revenge.

Unfortunately the author tends to imply that the behaviour of the lords against their peasants is based on personality rather than resulting from their position inside society's structure. There were exceptionally cruel lords like Ralph in the book, but all lords had a oppressive, exploitative, violent relationship to the peasantry.

While I enjoyed the book I had two problems with it. The first is the similarities in structure to the first novel. The other is sex. There is a lot of sex in the book, relatively graphic in places, though this isn't particularly a problem. The biggest problem I had was that Follett describes a number of rapes. Follett uses rape as a key plot device - by doing this he is showing the violently oppressive relationship of the local lord to those beneath them. The problem for me is that he describes the rapes much like the sex, and undermines the reality of the actual violence against the women. This marred an otherwise enjoyable, though very long read, which unusually focuses on the lives of those who are normally forgotten in books about the period.

Related Review

Follett - The Pillars of the Earth

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Fred A. Wilcox - Shamrocks and Oil Slicks: A People's Uprising Against Shell Oil in County Mayo, Ireland

This charming account of a campaign of local people to stop Shell building a refinery and gas pipeline through the glorious coastal landscape of County Mayo in Ireland is both a rage of anger at a world were profit is put before people and planet; and a celebration of the ordinary people who stand up and protest against this.

In the early 2000s Shell decided to exploit the Corrib Gas Field. Suddenly, local people found workmen and surveyors on their land and in their communities. They made extravagant promises about how Shell's plans would create jobs and bring investment to local communities. They dismissed concerns about the safety of the extremely high pressure gas pipelines that would be laid metres from homes and communities.

Many people welcomed the opportunity to raise some cash. Those who weren't willing to give up their land, or stop fishing the waters that they'd worked for decades, soon found that a shady coalition of politicians, priests, company representatives and the state would organise against them. In some cases this meant even wilder promises. In other cases it meant intimidation, like the couple who found Shell had set up cameras and searchlights pointing at their family home, while men in masks watched through binoculars.

The local campaign grew though, as serious concerns were raised about proposals, and fuelled in part by the violent tactics of the Irish police. Famously five protesters, the Rossport Five, went to jail for 94 days in 2005 for their refusal to abide by a court injunction to stop them protesting. The jailing made the local campaign national news.

Fred A. Wilcox's book is a moving study of the campaign. An American who left the US in disgust following the Vietnam War, he is surprised to find that Ireland too had problems of democracy, accountability and the role of multinational corporations. When socialists discuss social movements we often point out the way that the struggle itself transforms people. When engaged in any campaign, strike, protest movement or struggle people change as they learn new things about the world, their friends and neighbours, the state and the government.

Wilcox's book demonstrates exactly how this happens. In particular many participants are shocked by the violence of the police, and the shady security forces that threaten the activists. One fisherman interviewed has his boat attacked by armed, masked men. Others are badly beaten. Many other activists, who had seen local policemen as friends and neighbours are shocked by the violence used against their peaceful protests. There are obvious similarities with even more brutal events in Nigeria when critics of Shell's pipelines, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, were killed in 1995.

Anyone who has been involved in any sort of campaign will recognise what takes place. I was, however, struck by more contemporary parallels - particularly with the movement against fracking where fossil fuel companies often make extravagant promises to local communities, which rarely materialise. The campaigns too are similar.

I don't quite agree with Wilcox's framework for explaining the behaviour of the police. He, rightly, points out that seemingly ordinary men can do awful things to their fellow human beings. But I don't think that the use of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment or Stanley Milgram's electric shock experiments are particularly useful here. The Stanford Experiment has been heavily discredited, including in this excellent piece, and I don't think should form the basis of any left analysis of the role of the police (or other forces of the state). Instead it's better to understand the police as being far from ordinary. They can commit violence on behalf of the state precisely because they've been turned into a force for doing this. The vicious violence of the Nazi Holocaust and US soldier's in Vietnam (two other examples used by Wilcox) arises, not from ordinary people, but from people who have taught (through the dehumanising reality of radicalised war) to see others as sub-human.

This criticism aside, the experience of the campaigners who quickly learn how the capitalist system protects and supports the behaviour of the fossil fuel capitalism, is brilliantly told by Wilcox. Socialists also often point out that it is in the struggle that people learn that revolution is both possible and necessary - and its encouraging to see that some of the activists make that connection.

Sadly Shell wasn't stopped by these campaigners. But Shell didn't win either, selling the plant off a few years later. Ever wary about upsetting shareholders and concerned of their image, the local campaign in County Mayo made Shell's continued presence untenable. There's a lot to learn from these men and women, and thanks to Fred Wilcox for telling their story.

Jack Lindsay - The Normans and their World

For those of us brought up on a particularly British history education the Normans were something that happened to England in 1066 and very little else. For many of us, the Normans were "the French" and everything thing that entailed. We were even lucky enough to go on a trip to Normandy which meant that we could learn more about this, through the Bayeux Tapestry, and that other staple of British history - the D-Day landings.

Jack Lindsay's book is aimed at rounding out the story of the Normans. In the foreward he points out that he wants to "cast the net more widely" and so he begins with the Viking background to the Normans (and of course the importance of this to the English lords that would be defeated in the 1060s) and the importance of the Normans elsewhere in the world - particularly the Crusades and the history of Southern Europe.

It's a laudable plan, and really should fill in the gaps in history that my school education left me with. But the problem is that the book itself is very difficult. Lindsay fills every page with a myriad of detail, jumps back and forth between chapters in a way that obscures the whole picture and cannot decide whether he is telling a historical story or giving an account of the economic basis to the transition from Anglo-Saxon society to Feudalism under the Normans. Sadly I was bored by much of the book, despite finding that Lindsay was trying to deal with interesting topics - there was simply too much detail.

Readers of this blog who are interested in these things will find the author more fascinating than the book. Jack Lindsay was a committed Communist who was awarded the "Soviet Order of the Badge of Honour" in 1967. He wrote about 169 books - novels, history, poetry and biography - and clearly had an incredible well rounded knowledge. The source material for The Normans is filled with primary and secondary materials that demonstrate very detailed research. Lindsay's politics come through in his economic analysis:
The considerable orderliness of Anglo-Norman feudalism was thus the result of working out and applying a particular aspect of the feudal system under which land was the prim source of value and the extraction of profit from it (and from other value-creating sources) was done by non-economic methods: that is, through the lord's physical power to evict, kill and damage.
Lindsay sees Norman society as a qualitative step upward from the early feudalism of Anglo-Saxon society, celebrating it's "advanced" nature over other areas:
Normandy was one of the most advanced areas where the close link between land-holding and military service had developed; only a few other areas such as Flanders or Barcelona could be compared with it. It has even been called the cradle of feudalism: a term which is applicable enough if we take it to mean that in it the full logical conclusions of military tenures were first worked out in precise terms.
And rightly Lindsay emphasises the violence at the heart of Norman feudalism, seeing this as a break with what has existed before.
Under feudalism the lord deals with the producer in an open way, taking products, money or services directly by means of his superior power, whether that power is expressed nakedly through his retainers or in a legal and political form through feudal courts.
Having recently read Rosamond Faith's The Moral Economy of the Countryside: Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England it was noticeable how Lindsay too shows that there is a continuity and break with the earlier kin-based systems. But I felt that Lindsay emphasises the violent physical break, rather than the combination of this and the way that the Normans developed and used existing relations that Faith explains. Lindsay saying that there was a "sudden leap into fief Feudalism".

These debates are interesting and Lindsay marshals much material. Perhaps other readers and historians will get more from this, but I felt over-whelmed and bored by the vast amount of material, the feeling that the author wasn't able to selectively decide what information was necessary and, sometimes, a strange selectivity about what was important or not (only a single sentence about the killing of Thomas Beckett for instance). There's a lot here, but may be not the best introduction to the period.

Related Reviews

Faith - The Moral Economy of the Countryside
Bloch - Feudal Society: The Growth of Ties of Dependence
Parker - The Northmen's Fury

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

E. L. Doctorow - The March

An ambitious and unusual novel, The March is set during General Sherman's march across the southern states of America towards the end of the Civil War. His massive army is followed by huge numbers of freed slaves, many of whom have nowhere else to go, and others follow because they see the Army as their liberators. A key scene, and turning point for several of the characters is the moment the slaves are offered land to farm as their own by the liberating forces.

Living off the land, Sherman's troops destroy the areas they pass through. Crops are burnt in the fields, plantation homes destroyed and slaves liberated. This is war, but war with a cruel vengeance particularly displayed during the burning of Atlanta. Before the war can end Sherman has to destroy the last Confederate forces - so at the heart of the novel are some key, set-piece, battle scenes.

The story of The March is told through the eyes of some key individuals giving differing viewpoints - Pearl, the daughter of a white slave master and her black slave mother, grows up quickly in the midst of war. Disguised as a drummer boy she joins Sherman's army for safety but grows close to Emily Thompson, the daughter of southern landowning aristocracy, who has become the lover of Doctor Sartorius a brilliant surgeon looking after those injured in the battles. Comic relief is offered by two Confederate troops who switch sides on multiple occasions, one of whom is driven mad by the death of the other.

The brilliance of the novel is that it makes the march the main character of the book, described through the experiences of the various individuals we follow. The Union troops aren't heroes, in fact several of the leading military commanders are extremely unsavoury and characters have to be careful to avoid rape and murder. While the different viewpoints allow Doctorow to let us see everything, the twist that allows one character to be at Lincoln's deathbed seemed awfully contrived.

While it's not an easy book to read, it does give a sense of the brutality and chaos of the Civil War and the liberation that followed in the path of the armies. It doesn't attempt to show what happens next, but the hope of those liberated is a fitting finale - though overshadowing it all has to be the reader's knowledge that the legacy of slavery remains with us today.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Rosamond Faith - The Moral Economy of the Countryside: Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England

In this exciting new book Rosamond Faith sets out to answer an important, but often neglected question - why did peasants in the middle ages allow themselves to be exploited? If you pick up almost any book on the early feudal period you'll find whole sections that explain how the majority of the population was some form of peasant, and to a greater or lesser extent, they were obligated to give over a section of their produce to the lord, or labour on his lands for a set number of days a month. But, the oft ignored question, is why did they accept this as the status quo? As Faith points out "appropriation was not economically reciprocal: peasants do not need landowners in the same way that wage workers need employers".

In explaining this conundrum Faith utilises the concept of a "moral economy", a phrase most closely associated with the Marxist historian EP Thompson and developed by other thinkers like James C Scott, and she looks at the great transition that takes place in England after 1066 when a "new landowning elite, to whom these traditional constraints were unfamiliar, and who consciously set the relationship between lords and peasants on a new footing." The "traditional constraints" were the strict rules about when and were landlords could extract peasant labour for their own interests. Much of the book looks at what these rules were, and how they were transformed after 1066.

Faith puts an emphasis on feudalism having two aspects. One, which she links to the Marxist point of view, is one of economic structure. The other as a "set of legal concepts relating to holding land 'in fee' from a superior lord". While I don't think a Marxist framework precludes this second aspect, it is important (and it's worth highlighting) why Faith has such an emphasis. After the Conquest:
People came to write and think about these changes in terms of the formal relationships of the 'fee', of heritable land granted in return for service. Feudal tenure imposed the language of feodum, the 'fee' throughout rural society: even peasants had now to become accustomed to 'thinking feudally' and it took the efforts of skilled lawyer to devise ways in which peasant tenures could be differentiated from those of feudal tenures in general. Feudal language served lords well, of course, and much better than it served peasants, but it was not initially simply the language of oppression but a way of thinking about the entire social order.
This last point is crucial. What we see in the transition after 1066 is the construction of a new social order built on the smashing apart of the old order. But the new order had to reflect aspects of the old order for it to be legitimate in the eyes of those who were to be ruled. Before 1066 Faith argues that society in England was analogous the Scottish clan system which survived until much more recent times. This was a society where an "invisible network of obligations" existed.
These obligations "of the people of the scir to support its head, both materially with food and their armed support in war or out raiding, of the members of the warband to die defending their leader.... Lordship, then, was a very diverse form of authority exercised over land and people, and the area over which it was exercised was both an economic and a political entity.
But lordship wasn't a one way relationship. Faith calls it a "personal bond", and one where "the personal connection between two men, could be paired with the economic connection between landholder and tenant while stilling retaining its distinct identity: the earls granted leases to men who remained 'their men'....The link was a personal one - the willingness to fight could have had a good deal to do with this - and it was possible for a man to break this important bond by agreement".

Here is one of the key points. The link, relationship need not be permanent before 1066. It would be "broken by agreement". This "commendation" was the "antithesis of the "relationship intimately connected with landholding" that characterised the post-1066 period. Thus the willingness to partake in the relationship was because everyone involved felt they received something from the relation - including, as Faith emphasises, justice. The lord was responsible, not for providing courts or even rulings, but for ensuring that justice happened and those who did not have a lord had to find one or risk the whole system failing.

This is not to say that England, pre-conquest, was a society free of exploitation and oppression. But that there was, rather, a by-in to the system on behalf of the mass of the population that allowed the system to function. This should be emphasised because many peasant movements of the feudal era (and indeed later) used the idea of the "Norman Yoke" to symbolise the sense of a pre-existing society of universal freedom. While there is some truth, there is much more Utopianism about this vision of England before the Normans.

The Norman Conquest changed things forcefully, though it was presented "in terms of continuity". But we should not underestimate the transformation that took place. Before 1066 there was "no Old English law when it came to disciplining the peasantry", and the law of villeinage was introduced to correct this. But the key question was the introduction of the "concept of tenure" to England to bring the laws into alignment with Norman legal systems. This was "something new: legal rules to govern a lord's relations with people who owed him work". Post 1066 the relationship between individuals - between a free man and a lord, for instance, was superseded by the tenurial relationship between ruled and ruler, mediated through the land the latter owned.

What is so interesting about this book is the way it demonstrates that social relationships cannot be separated from wider political and economic relations, and that changing those relationships is not easy. It would be wrong to call the Norman Conquest a revolution - but it did revolutionise England's legal systems, and that in turn, transformed relations between people. These were most obviously those between individuals of different classes (and classes as a whole) but also, ultimately, between all individuals. Interestingly, just as other such changes latter in history required force to ensure they were adopted, the Normans had to use violence to weaken the old order and ensure they could introduce new laws. As the historian Marc Bloch wrote in his study of the transition:
No definite break with the past occurred, but the change of direction which, despite inevitable variations in time according to the countries or the phenomena considered, affected in turn all the graphs of social activity.
Faith argues that this had much further ramifications:
Ironically, it may have been only when the manor became fully effective as an economic unit with the resumption of demesne farming late in the 12th century that peasants would become capable of activating as a political community. In summoning their tenants from their own farms to work on their lord's land, landowners handed them a powerful and potentially subversive weapon... Collective action for a lord could evoke the possibility of collective action on their own behalf.
In struggling against their exploitation, the peasantry would have been inspired by a memory of things being different in the past. But they also used the situations created by the new system to their advantage when they could. Rosamond Faith's excellent book shows precisely how the arrival of the Norman's transformed England, and what that meant for ordinary people. It is a brilliant introduction to the period and one that I highly recommend as it puts the lives of ordinary people at the heart of history.

Related Reviews

Bloch - Feudal Society: The Growth of Ties of Dependence
Thompson - Customs in Common

Hilton - Bondmen made Free
Cohn - In Pursuit of the Millennium
Harman - Marxism and History
Gorgut - Poor Man's Heaven: The Land of Cokaygne and other Utopian Visions

Monday, December 02, 2019

Seth Donnelly - The Lie of Global Prosperity: How Neoliberals Distort Data to Mask Poverty & Exploitation

The end of 2019 has seen a growing "global revolt" in countries as varied as Hong Kong, Chile, Iraq, Ecuador, Catalonia and Lebanon. Driving those protests are a myriad of concerns, but one issue that dominates is the question of growing inequality, driven by neoliberal policies. Seth Donnelly's new book is not about these revolts, but is an explanation of the dynamics that have driven the impoverishment of the Global South and how the ruling class seeks to justify things.

The first part of the book looks at the "Lie of Global Prosperity". Donnelly begins with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000 - policies that set the ambition of drastically reducing inequality is spheres like hunger, poverty, education, child mortality and so on. The UN claims that this strategy has been universally successful, though as Donnelly points out:
It is ironic that the OECD member countries should take it upon themselves to design a campaign against global poverty, since it is their own neoliberal policies and financial asphyxiation of the Third World that has led to so much poverty, hunger and disease in the first place... most solutions proposed for meeting the MDGs are actually geared toward extending and maintaining the same unfair global order.
The reality is that the rich nations would have to pay a "small portion" of their wealth to eradicate inequality. Certainly the money spent by the United States on weapons alone would transform the lives of billions of people if used on health, education and sustainable agriculture. So claims to success in meeting the MDGs are, as Donnelly says, based "entirely on who is telling the story". Ideologically the United Nations are committed to free-market, neoliberal capitalism - and their argument for solving inequality rests very much on the idea that a "rising tide raises all boats". The problem for the capitalists is that this doesn't work, and so they've had to fiddle the figures. Donnelly explains:
The World Bank uses PPP [Purchasing Power Parity] to set the international poverty line... the original dollar-a-day line, set in 1995 using PPPs from 1985 was updated to $1.08 in 1993 with PPS from that year, and then was kicked up to $1.,25 with the publication of new PPPs in 2005. To date, the Bank;'s latest revision is $1.90 per day and is based on the 2011 PPP rates. Contrary to appearances, this new, nominally, larger figure does not mean that the Bank raised the poverty threshold; in fact, setting it at $1.90 per day actually lowered the threshold, conveniently erasing 100 million poor people overnight.
There is an accounting trick that means the World Bank and other institutions have effectively redefined poverty levels and a rate that reduces numbers of people classed as being in poverty. There are other tricks too that Donnelly details - essentially economists base their rates on commodity prices that may or may not be comparable between different countries in the Global South and the much richer North. Other mathematical tricks write out of history vast numbers of poor people. One example is from India. In 2007, the World Bank used a $1.25 PPP to place the "extreme poverty" rate at just above 30 percent. An Indian state run Commission calculated that 77 percent (836 miillion people) lived in poverty. Their level for the poverty line was 50 cents (20 rupees).

Of course, even this is a distortion because 20 rupees itself is relatively arbitrary. Is someone on 21 rupees actually much better off? Such sleight of hands mask the true horror of 21st century capitalism - that "71 percent of the world's population is in the low income category, with most living in severe poverty".

It's not just poverty of course. Donnelly shows how the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation changed the definition of hunger to be based on "fewer calories" and "created an illusion of progress" while millions of hunger and undernourished people disappear from official graphs and powerpoints.

The second half of the book is Donnelly's examination of the nature of capitalism and imperialism. It's a good account of how neoliberal policies have deregulated and dismantled institutional protections that fed, clothed and housed millions of people. He shows how the rich countries (primarily the US) have used their economic and military power to make sure that the global capitalist system channels wealth in their direction, while outsourcing production to lower cost areas. Imperialism is often used as short-hand for military intervention by powerful economies against weaker ones, but it is, as Donnelly shows, much more complex - economic leverage helps shape the world as much as the US army, navy and airforce. Donnelly writes that:
In essence the old imperialist system - in which the core countries extracted raw materialism, minerals and primary commodities from the periphery and then manufactured them into final products within the core country itself - has given way to a new, more complex system.
I'm slightly sceptical that this is a completely new Imperialist system. I think the world economy has always been complex, and we must not forget that global Imperialism isn't simply about rich nations versus poorer ones - there is competition between, say, member states of the EU and the US over differing interests even while US interests shapes the wider picture. This means that changes (such as emerging economies, or revolts in the global south) can change the bigger picture. As Alex Callinicos has written:
The combined impact of continuing slow growth in the core of the system and of a shifting global distribution of economic power is likely to create significant centrifugal pressures on the major blocs of capital that, it should never be forgotten, are in competition with each other. Maintaining both the political cohesion of the advanced capitalist world and US hegemony over it is not an automatic effect of a self-equilibrating system It requires a continue creative political effort on the part of the US, and in particular the successful pursuit of divide and rule strategies at the western and eastern ends of the Eurasian landmass where the two zones of advanced capitalism outside North America are to be found.

Such pressures are clearly behind some of the current political ruptures between the US and its traditional allies.

But Donnelly emphasises that "neoliberalism is a variant of global capitalism... a symptom of a bigger problem." This "problem" is global capitalism and to "struggle against neoliberalism without confronting global capitalism, or to struggle against capitalism without confronting twenty-first century imperialism is to tilt at windmills".

This is an extremely important point and hopefully the growing global revolt with move beyond fighting aspects of capitalism into confronting the system as a whole. Capitalism in the 21st century doesn't simply mean poverty and hunger, but the threat of complete ecological breakdown. Seth Donnelly's important book helps explain why, as well as the lies the capitalists tell to pretend things are okay.

Related Reviews

Harman - Zombie Capitalism
Callinicos - Imperialism and Global Political Economy