Friday, November 26, 2021

Jeff Sparrow - Crimes Against Nature: Capitalism and Global Heating

The failure of COP26 was no surprise to most environmental activists - the domination of the Global North and the insidious role of fossil fuel corporations undermined any chance of success. Yet the real reason COP26 failed was that it is a capitalist institution and capitalism itself is a system of ecological destruction. 

Australian socialist Jeff Sparrow puts capitalism at the centre of his new book on the environmental crisis. On its own this would be important. Despite the success of Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything, too few such books actually get capitalism. But Sparrow also introduces two other key themes that are frequently neglected even in anti-capitalist environmental writing - workers as the agency for change and their role in creating a democratically planned economy.

Sparrow opens by highlighting the enemy, and setting out the great conundrum of mainstream ecological politics:

At the very moment we need collective heroism and unparalleled determination, we're told we're criminally worthless; mindless consumers obsessed only with material satisfaction, too lazy and stupid even to recycle, selfishly reproducing without through to the ecological impact of our children, and almost genetically predisposed to selfishness and avarice.

The chapters that follow take apart each of these criticisms and argue that far from being the problem, ordinary people are the collective force that can put capitalism, and the capitalists, in the dock for their "crimes against nature".

Capitalism is a system of generalised commodity production, which has evolved in a particular way. However its evolution has not arisen out of blind chance, but from the conscious decisions of politicians and capitalists. Sparrow shows one way this happens in his opening chapter through a discussion of the way that cars have become the dominant method of travel in the Global North. As a 2010 NASA study showed motor vehicles are the "US's greatest contributor to global warming". Yet this need not have been the case. Cars were original rejected by the vast majority of people as being dangerous, polluting and the playthings of the rich. The US car industry had to fight a battle to make this mode of transport acceptable. The fossil fuel companies also had to fight a battle to displace electric vehicles from their dominant position, and they organised to destroy the low carbon, mass public street car systems. 

As cars came to dominance they reshaped cities, work and leisure. The car came to symbolise freedom from dirty, congested urban areas, even as it created those spaces. Public transport became stigmatised. Walking became criminal. As Sparrow concludes:

Had the desire of working Americans for safety been prioritised, and their enthusiasm for public space been respected, transport might have been designed on the basis of public good rather than private enrichment. If that had happened, the planet would look very different today. Instead a relatively small number of entrepreneurs successfully campaigned to reorganised the country - and subsequently the world - so that their particular business model might succeed.

It is a story that is repeated time and again. Sparrow shows how the plastic and packaging industry worked the same public relations game, inventing the "litter bug" as the chief scourge of the environment, rather than the packaging companies moving towards disposable containers. It was a path the car companies had trod when they made "jaywalkers" guilty for accidents on the road caused by their own cars.

But a real strength of Sparrow's book is that he shows a deeper dynamic to how capitalism transformed our relations to the environment. The enclosure of land in England for capitalist agriculture transformed our relationship to the landscape - creating a nation of wage labourers, instead of peasant producers, separated and distinct from the nature that humans shape to fulfil our needs. As he points out, "capitalism disenchanted the land, profaning the previously sacred ritual by which people had once related to their environment. New priorities were forced, painfully and brutally on the bulk of the population, in ways that made environmental stewardship impossible and facilitated the crisis that we now face". This is particularly obvious in the way indigenous land management schemes were destroyed by colonial capitalists. Drawing on writers like Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe, Sparrow shows how colonial agriculture destroyed historic ecosystems and traditional food production, in ways that undermined the very viability of the landscape as a place to support human life.

Car companies, packaging manufacturers and fossil fuel barons are symptoms of a wider structural problem with society. They are the public, and most obvious face, of capitalism's crimes. But to extend Sparrow's book title - they are merely the most obvious criminals, while the wider system of organised mafia is embedded in society.

Outside COP26 protesters demanded Climate Justice. Sparrow shows how capitalism's environmental crisis has created millions of victims, but also pushed the blame onto those who have done the least to destroy the planet. He shows how the Malthusian myths of overpopulation are used to blame the very existence of people, and racist ideas were at the heart of early attempts at environment protection. These are very powerful chapters.

But I wanted to finish by highlighting the importance that Sparrow attaches to the working class as a force for change. He does this in two excellent chapters that highlight the way that workers can be won to a vision of defending the environmental alongside their working conditions and how their struggles can form the basis for the collective reorganisation of society for democratic planning of production. Sparrow explains the first by telling the inspiring story of Australian trade unionists in the 1970s who introduced Green Bans and successfully protected many of Sydney's green spaces as part of collective, militant action. Sparrow then shows, through a discussion of William Morris' News from Nowhere how a democratic planned economy could work - a centralised organisation with decentralised local, mass participation. It's an inspiring vision of a post-capitalist world. He concludes:

As Morris knew, if we don't believe that the world might be different, we're stuck with the world as it is. If we can't imagine a fairer society, we can't protest injustice. A democratic and planned economy offers us an alternative model of what life might be like - and thus a banner under which to fight today.

Such a vision is badly needed in the 21st century. The banal platitudes on offer from politicians and billionaires at COP26 give no hope, while the environmental movement all too often sees the future as a better, fairer, greener capitalism. Socialists have to raise a vision of socialism, that rejects the top-down nature of Stalinism, but emphasises mass participation, democracy and freedom as a way of inspiring a radical, revolutionary struggle. If I have one thing to add to Jeff Sparrow's inspiring, educational and very readable work - we have to also build the socialist organisations that can help make that alternate reality. Jeff Sparrow's excellent book helps make that task easier for all of us and joins a growing number of works by revolutionary socialists on the environment. Read it.

Related Reviews

Saltmarsh - Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice
Malm - Fossil Capital
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the crisis of the Earth System
Extinction Rebellion - This is Not a Drill
Dawson - People's Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons

Robert Jordan - The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time 1)

I am not entirely sure why I picked up Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World. I certainly have no need to start reading a series of fantasy books that have at least fourteen titles in the series. Even less do I need books that are around 800 pages long. Nonetheless we all find our own forms of escapism, and these difficult times, plus the endless publicity given to the new Wheel of Time television series meant I did pick up the book and I eventually plunged in.

For those who don't know the Wheel of Time is a massive fantasy series set in a world were magic is a power which is mainly controlled by a group of female magicians called the Aes Sedai. If you can't pronounce that, and want to, The Eye of the World has a helpful, and inevitably long, glossary. Magic, here known as the One Power and since some distant event called the Time of Madness, only women can use it. The Aes Sedai seem to be divided into hostile factions and their reputation is fearful.

Like all such fantasy the story begins in a tiny village on the periphery of a medieval type world. While feudal in structure - there are kings and queens, as well as a capital. Two Rivers, the village's location where our heroes come from seems charmingly (and unlikely) democratic in the midst of such feudalism. There doesn't appear to be a local lord and power is vested in an elected village council. The village knows little of outside events and is mostly excited by the prospect of the annual fayre that marks the spring and the corresponding arrival of storytellers and fireworks. Jordan clearly thinks that rural lives were dull, isolated and mind-numbing.

No-one in this village goes anywhere and few visit, until a disguised member of the Aes Sedai turns up, just before the village is attacked by Trollocs. The Trollocs (that's their real name by the way) target the homes of three young men, who together with a local wisdom (a sort of female healer) and another woman, all escape with the Aes Sedai and her armed guide/tracker/knight.

Much of the novel is then a series of episodes as the small band of characters flee through the countryside, rarely stopping to question why or what they are doing. Their few questions are dismissed by Moiraine (the Aes Sedai) who seems to have many ideas about what is going on, but is not willing to share them. The one clear instruction she gives them, warning of strange dreams and to inform her immediately, the three young men immediately ignore. In fact they consistently behave irrationally. Ignoring advice, behaving stupidly, touching things that clearly shouldn't be touched, acting with reckless abandon for the collective and seemingly refusing to take anything that Moiraine or her military companion tell them. It's all remarkably odd, and the only characters who don't appear to be idiots are the two women Egwene and Nynaeve. The latter of whom only seems concerned to take the other idiots home with her before they kill themselves or wear the One Ring or something.

The whole thing appears half baked, and the plot difficult to follow. In fact much of the problem is that the book is too long. It takes ages for anything to happen and despite (or maybe because of) Moiraine's reluctance to tell anyone anything, random characters appear to expose loads of background lore and history. Much of this can be skipped.

The other problem is that the book is just aping the structure and characters of The Lord of the Rings without adding anything to the genre. There's no attempt to make the world real - just copying feudal tropes from other fantasy, that have no real social relations in them which might ground them in known human behaviours. It's simplistic and silly.

So there's a hero, a quest object and various people helping our heroes, each with a skill (including playing the flute and juggling believe it or not). The destination is less clear and there aren't enough random strange creatures to keep up interest, though unfortunately Jordan did seem keen to include a copy of the one character that LOTR could easily have ditched (thank you Peter Jackson) Tom Bombadil. In the Eye of the World he is called the Green Man, who thankfully plays only a little role, doesn't sing, and dies in the last few pages. The is even a pedlar driven insane by the Dark Lord, very similar though much less interesting, than Gollum.

So basically its Lord of the Rings done up with some improvements - there are women who have central, leading roles and are quite strong (though I dread to think how TV will depict them), but too much of it seems like a direct emulation. But like LOTR the world is too superficial and there is too little clarity on what is going on. Why is the Shire/Two Rivers ignored by the rest of the world. Don't they have to pay taxes? Why doesn't Moiraine make everything easier (and the book 200 pages shorter) by just explaining things? Why does everyone behave so stupidly? The biggest question really is why is fantasy such a conservative genre? Feudalism? Really?

The worst thing is that its compelling enough for me to order book two. I really should learn.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Richard Smith - China's Engine of Environmental Collapse

Richard Smith's recent book China's Engine of Environmental Collapse has provoked discussion on the left about the scale of the ecological crisis in China, and how the Chinese government is responding. It is a measure of the importance of the discussion that the book is being debated, and so I felt I needed to engage. Several years ago Socialist Review magazine published a shorter piece by me on China's environmental crisis, and I was keen to see how that stacked up against Smith's study of the crisis in China.

The first thing to say about Richard Smith's book is that it is detailed. He documents an environmental tragedy in China which is taking place on an enormous scale. The geographical size of China, its huge population and the scale of its economy mean that numbers are often staggering. To take a few examples Smith uses from the early pages of the book. In 2013 the Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources "conceded that three million hectares of farmland, an area the size of Belgium, was 'too toxic to farm." In 2016, 80 percent of "tested  water wells across the North China Plain (home to 400 million people) were 'so badly contaminated... to be unsafe for drinking or home use". In terms of the greatest threat to the global environment, climate change:

In 2018 China's CO2 emission were nearly  as much as those of the five next-largest emitters (the US, India, Russia, Japan and Germany) combined. Yet China's population was only 68 percent as large as the total population of those five countries, and its GDP was just 32 percent as large as their combined GDPs.

China is "by far the leading driver of global climate collapse" concludes Smith. 

Smith argues that there are two key problems to understand why an allegedly socialist country is so environmentally destruction. The first is development. China has compressed industrialisation into a period of 30 years which took the US a century. The second is that the nature of Chinese society makes it impossible for its ruling class to enforce their environmental laws. The economic model is driving production for the sake of production - particularly of infrastructure like damns, high speed rail and urban areas. China is, according to Smith, a "highly organised and effective developmental party-state that could not only furnish labour and control labour costs, but could also clear land and concentrate resources" to drive forward economic development. 

Regional heads of government hope to attract investment by the constant expansion of infrastructure. Manufacturing can take advantage of low wages and appalling working conditions to maximise profits and the inability to enforce environmental laws means that pollution, waste disposal and emissions are effectively unrestricted. Even "green" development, such as the building of solar farms etc, is often ineffectual because the energy isn't connected to the grid, not maintained or built in unsuitable areas, simply to attract centralised funding.

It's a terrifying picture, and the greatest strength of Smith's book is to open our eyes to the environmental catastrophe in the country. Should Chinese economic development continue it will bring enormous disaster. There are, for instance, no sustainable ways to meet the rising demand for electricity in China.

Why does this happen? As I said Smith is trying to explain why such a highly centralised state, with dictatorial powers, is unable to curb pollution. Here Smith says that the problem is that the particular nature of the Chinese bureaucracy is at fault. Discussing the Chinese Premier, Xi, he says

Xi's limitations begin with his comrades and nominal "subordinates"... Xi cannot systematically compel subordinate officials to stop squandering resources and polluting the country and the planet, because, for all his nominal authority as head of the most powerful police state in history, in reality power is widely shared through the 90-million-member ruling Party .This means that most of the time he can't force subordinate officials to give up their ruinous practices when to do so would undermine their economic interests.

Xi is "powerless" Smith argues, to alter the "systemic growth drivers" which are "if anything more powerful and more eco-suicidal than those of 'normal' capitalism in the West". 

On the same page, Smith continues, 

Xi's overrising concern, like that of Mao and Deng Xiaoping before him, is not to build and ecological civilisation, but to make China rich and power, to restore its "greatness" to "catch up and overtake the US" and become the world's leading superpower. Like Stalin and Khrushchev, Chinese leaders have always understood that in the context of a hostile global imperialism, economic and military parity, if not superiority, are the only guarantors of power. The Soviet Union was doomed by its failure to win the economic and arms race with the US. This lesson was not lost on Xi. As China itself became deeply enmeshed with, and dependent upon, global capitalism, it became vulnerable. 

Here, while trying to show the speciality of Chinese bureaucratic rule, I actually think that Smith shows how much China's ecological destruction is the result of its integration into the world, capitalist, economy. In fact, I think it's clear that the dynamic of production in China is very similar to that operating (and destroying the environment) elsewhere in the world. For instance, when discussing how urban development allows mayors to get rich Smith says,

The real "miracle" in urban China is that mayors don't just get rich once off this theft. In many cities they've turned their monopoly of power and property into a perpetual motion machine of dispossesssion-demolition-construction-dispossesssion-demolition-construction on the same piece of land, with all the dislocation, waste (and profit) that entails.

Its difficult to see how this differs from the accumulation for the sake of accumulation that marks production in the rest of the world, even if the specific example might seem unlikely (though maybe not impossible). Thus it seems to me strange, and a distraction, that Smith constantly tries to hunt out differences between the Chinese and capitalist ruling classes to prove a point. He writes that 

Beijing can't systematically enforce its writ against resistance from below because it can't systematically fire insubordinate bureaucrats. They're not just employees like in capitalism,. They're Communist Party cadres, members of the same ruling class the leader ins Beijing, and do they are not powerless themselves. 

Smith concludes that the problem is the "collectivist nature" of China's ruling class. This seems to me to let the economic system off the hook, and by extension downplay the role of China in the global economic system and its environmental destruction. Recently I read Tony Cliff's State Capitalism in Russia. There Cliff argues that the nature of Russia's behaviour arose out of its position in a wider economic system in competition with the West. It wasn't the specific organisation of Russia's ruling class that was the problem - but what those rulers were made to do by economic realities. I think the same is true of China today.

Nonetheless I do agree with Smith's conclusion. Tinkering with the market and China's system will not solve the problem. What is needed is for the Chinese masses to rise up against the bureaucratic system and put in place a system of collective, democratic, ownership and control of the economy "to prioritise the needs of society and the environment". Richard Smith doesn't see the Chinese workers as the problem, rather they are the solution. It's this, combined with his expose of the reality of China's environmental disaster makes his book a useful read and separates it off from the normal "blame China" approach of many environmental commentators.

Related Reviews

Watts - When a Billion Chinese Jump
Lafitte - Spoiling Tibet
Shapiro - China's Environmental Challenges
Au Loong Yu - China's Rise: Strength and Fragility
Gittings - Changing Face of China

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Jessica Bruder - Nomadland

Nomadland is a remarkable work of journalism. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, thousands of Americans, and thousands more around the world, found their savings valueless and lost their jobs and homes. In a more rational society peoples homes and livelihoods wouldn't depend on the whims of bankers or an unaffordable medical bill. But under capitalism there is no reason why the closure of a plant, or the dip of a stock exchange shouldn't throw families onto the streets.

Jessica Bruder's book looks at a specific phenomena that mushroomed in the aftermath of the financial crisis - the thousands of Americans who moved into vehicles and began living through seasonal work - sometimes with Amazon, sometimes in agriculture, and sometimes in other service industries like managing camp sites during the holiday period. Many of the people who took to their vans were single, some already had experience of such a life - there is a long tradition of people in the US living in cars and moving from Walmart carpark to Walmart carpark. Most however were older, people who should have retired or were reaching pension age, who'd lost their incomes and needed cheap accommodation and work. Some employers relished using older workers - they were more reliable. The workers sometimes revelled in their status, though I tended to suspect that older workers were less likely to complain and protest at the low pay and tough conditions. More pliant, perhaps.

What Bruder manages to bring out is the human aspect of this extraordinary situation. That in the richest economy in the world, people would suddenly loose all stability in the live is a damning criticism of capitalism. But tragedies like these are always the result of many different individual experiences, and Bruder condemns US capitalism by highlighting some individual stories. But this is also a story of resilience. Of hope, of friendship and of collective organisation. That doesn't mean resistance necessarily, but communities come together to share skills, knowledge, food and dreams. 

Its a work of journalism, but there is almost a level of anthropology here too. Bruder moves into a van, follows her friends and joins the gatherings. She takes a job in the beet industry, quitting quickly after the work is too painful. Few others have the choice. She highlights how Amazon and other employers manage to turn this new transient workforce into a profitable asset. The van dwellers aren't looked down upon, they are seen as a source of cheap labour and workers who will willingly subject themselves to the hard work, painful repetitive tasks and on occasion, thank their employer for money to camp cheaply. Of course this is not new. Bruder points out the phenomena of vehicle dwellers was well known in the 1930s during the Great Depression - then too capitalism adapted, selling special vehicles and finding uses for the cheap labour. That phenomena was shortlived. Today its seems permanent.

Bruder uses an apt quote from Kurt Vonnegut:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves... Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and old. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters.

Vonnegut bends the stick too far, but there is much truth here. But readers looking for stories of rebellion and resistance won't find them in Nomadland, because that's not what Bruder is documenting. She's showing how American capitalism throws people onto the scrapheap, but on the scrapheap those people gather themselves together and try to organise to keep going. 

Of course, all this happens in the prism of US politics. Bruder doesn't explore in great detail why there are few black people living in vans. The reality is that while the police do move people on, the mainly white van dwellers are treated relatively well compared to how black homeless people are. There's no doubt that a black couple pulling up on the side of a road and trying to spend a few nights outside a Starbucks are likely to be treated much more roughly. 

Beautifully written, with empathy for the people she is writing about, and genuine warmth for their communities, Nomadland is a condemnation of how America treats working people. The subtitle of some editions of Nomadland is "Surviving America in the twenty-first century". Let's hope their collective struggles can move beyond survival and fight for a better future.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - Fighting Back - The American Working Class in the 1930s
Wuthnow - The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small-Town America
Grandin - The End of the Myth

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Chris Saltmarsh - Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice

I started reading Chris Saltmarsh's new book Burnt on the eve of the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow. As part of the COP26 Coalition many of us were organising demonstrations to highlight the failure of the COP process and demand Climate Justice. This crucial theme has often been neglected by environmental movements, and Saltmarsh makes it clear why it is so important in his introduction:

At the foundations of climate injustices is class. The inequitable impacts of climate change are distributed most reliably along the lines of wealth and economic power. The poorest and working-class - whether you live in California, Andhra Pradesh, Puerto Rico or anywhere else - have more in common in the face of climate change than executives of fossil fuel companies and other capitalists profiting from disaster.

These themes ran through the protests outside COP26 and in many other towns and cities in Britain. Refugees, migrants, anti-racists groups and people from the Global South spoke passionately about how capitalism's climate disaster was destroying their lives, in the interests of profit. 

Saltmarsh's book is the latest of a number of works that argue that socialism is the only answer to the climate crisis. He sets his stall out clearly, and early.

If our economy were owned and democratically controlled by workers and the public, sectors like energy, water, transport, housing, food, health and social care, education and manufacturing could all be run for the benefit of society and not shareholder profits. Together we could manage the transition to a zero-carbon society quickly and fairly... I make the case for a socialist climate justice politics oriented around a Green New Deal and propose a strategy for achieving it into the 2020s and beyond.

Socialists who have been active in the environmental movement will be relieved that these arguments are more and more common. In fact, my feeling was that the general sense of the COP26 protests, had an anti-capitalist core. Though there was less clarity on what "system change" meant in practice, and even less on how we might get there. So Saltmarsh's book is welcome.

He beings with an examination of why "capitalism is both the root cause and the biggest barrier to change", arguing that "it is capital's insatiable drive for more and more accumulation by exploiting workers and the environment which keeps us on this path". Unlike some recent left books on the environment, Saltmarsh is also clear that while the neo-liberal era of capitalism has made things worse by encouraging unrestrained corporate degradation of the environment, "climate change existed before neoliberalism". The problem, we must emphasise, is not a particular manifestation of capitalism, but the nature of capitalism as a whole.

Much of the book is an exploration of how we could create a sustainable world - the type of industries and jobs we need, and how a just transition of the economy must not fail ordinary working people. Saltmarsh is also an activist - and clearly we have both, unknowingly, been on many demonstrations together! He has some important critiques of how the environmental movement has organised. For instance, he notes that some direct-action camps are "typically only a temporary impediment to the powers of state and capital." I agree. I think, for instance, that the camps at fracking sites in the UK were important in raising the issue of fracking as a problem. But it was this, combined with growing movements that involved much wider forces - including trade unions - that made the issue a major political issue for the government. Borrowing Naomi Klein's term for the movement against fossil fuel expansion, Saltmarsh points out

When Blockadia has been most successful, it has frustrated fossil capital's relentless drive for extraction in some of the most socially and ecologically egregious cases. But its victories have generally been relative and precarious, downscaling or delaying construction... for each fossil fuel project Blockadia faces own, there are so many more forced through despite activists' best efforts, or subject to no organised opposition at all.

Rightly, he concludes, that movements are "putting out fires" while the system continues to supply fuel and matches. The alternative is a movement that can challenge capitalism itself. For Saltmarsh, initiatives like the Green New Deal are key strategic weapons in this battle - which can bring much wider social forces into a movement that can challenge capital. 

How to win is the key question. Saltmarsh is very clear. The "biggest barrier to climate justice is the resistance of capital". To this power, I think that we have to counterpoise another power - that of workers. Workers power has both the strength to stop capitalism and the potential, in its revolutionary movements, to create the institutions in society that can replace capitalism. In this they will have to challenge the capitalist state. 

Here Chris Saltmarsh and I probably disagree. Saltmarsh sees the capitalist state as "the only political body with the power to confront capital" and that we "need to use state power for climate justice". He also writs that "the state... is the most appropriate we have right now for addressing the climate crisis".  By state Saltmarsh explains he means the "set of interconnected institutions which govern a sovereign nation". But this is not correct. The state is not a neutral force, it is an instrument of class rule, and the capitalist state it exists to protect and extend capitalist instruments. This is why it is so hard to reform, or protest, fossil fuel capitalism. Fossil fuels are central to the capitalist economy, so deeply embedded in the system that politicians of every hue find themselves defending the industry.

The capitalist state cannot be captured by social movements - certainly not ones that try operate within the boundaries of their democracy, nor even by radical movements that seek to transform the state. In contrast, I think we need to build the sort of mass movement that can win urgent reforms now (including a Green New Deal) but recognise that because these go against everything capitalism stands for, these movements will have to grow into a direct challenge the capitalist system itself, and institute a workers' state. If COP26 taught us anything, it is that this is the sort of movement that we need - however daunting building it will be.

Saltmarsh concludes by saying that mass protest and social disruption should not be our "default action" but a weapon in our arsenal. Key, he says, is building "power by organising communities and workplaces, building local and international solidarities and working through political parties and trade unions" which, in moments of crisis, "can force the hand of the ruling class". 

While none of these things are wrong - as a strategic tactic, they are inadequate. Ultimately it will be a choice between capitalism or extinction, and as Rosa Luxemburg says the alternative can only be socialism. But that will not be wished into existence. It will arise out of a revolutionary moment.

Given that Saltmarsh's book is short, perhaps I have dwelt too long on my disagreements. It is, after all, one of the clearest socialist arguments I've read in some time around the environment. But writing in the shadow of COP26's failure, it is clear that the capitalists won't give up their system. We need socialism urgently. Despite my disagreements, I hope that Chris Saltmarsh's book provokes plenty of radical debate about how we get there, and I look forward to being on the same demonstrations as him in the future.

Related Reviews

Debating How to Save the Planet
Gates - How to Avoid a Climate Disaster
Malm - Fossil Capital
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the crisis of the Earth System
Klein - On Fire
Commoner - The Closing Circle
Marx – The Civil War In France
Engels - The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

Sunday, November 07, 2021

Tony Cliff - State Capitalism in Russia

If you are a socialist who spends enough time on social media it is very clear that there is a resurgence of what might be called neo-Stalinism - a celebration of the Soviet Union as a Communist society. This can manifest in something like a cult of Stalin and an absolute denigration of critics of the Soviet Union from the left - in particular vehement attacks on Trotskyism. For most of my political life this has not been a feature of any but the saddest of socialist sects. The period since the collapse of the Soviet bloc has seen the Trotskyist left try to rescue the real legacy of the Russian Revolution, and the right attempt to denigrate 1917 by suggesting that Leninism led directly to Stalinism.

However Trotskyism itself arose out of sharp ideological battles with the then dominant Communist Parties. From the 1930s, small groups of revolutionaries struggled to understand the nature of the Soviet Union and how this related to the fight for workers' power. These battles however were not just external, they were integral to the Trotskyist movement and, especially after Trotsky's death, revolutionaries argued among themselves about what sort of society the Soviet Union was. The socialist tradition that I belong to, saw Russia, not as Communist, nor as a type of workers' state, but rather as State Capitalist.

Annoyed by neo-Stalinism, I returned to Tony Cliff's classic work of Marxism, State Capitalism in Russia, in order to revisit debates and arguments about the nature of Stalinism. State Capitalism in Russia as a book evolved out of some earlier works. The one discussed here is Bookmarks' 1988 edition, published as the East European regimes were collapsing with an introduction and post-script by Chris Harman.

Cliff begins by discussing the extent to which Russia under Stalin was a break with the revolutionary society that sprang out of the Russian Revolution. Cliff demonstrates with a multitude of examples and statistics the immense gulf that there was between the two, and how this gradually developed through the 1920s. In September 1929, for instance, he quotes the Communist Party Central Committee resolving that workers' committees:

may not intervene directly in the running of the plant or endeavour in any way to replace plant administration; they shall by all means help to secure one-man management, increase production, plant development , and thereby, improvement of the material conditions of the working class.

It is a very different idea from the sense of workers' power at the heart of the Bolsheviks' arguments in 1917. Cliff finds many examples. These include the removal of safeguards for women's labour, the vast number of slave labourers in labour camps, the introduction of "turnover taxes" that Cliff argues "being an indirect, retrogressive tax, openly contradicts the original programme of the Bolshevik Party" and the "subordination of man to property" by the new economic regime whereby "it becomes clear that, in Stalinist Russia, the individual is rated much lower than property".

In Cliff's analysis of the transformation of property relations under capitalism, he juxtaposes the punishment for crimes against property and persons. I was reminded of how English capitalism introduced the Black Act to do something similar in the 18th century. Cliff comments that:

This religion of property-worship subjects even the weakest members of the community - children - to it. As we have seen, the maximum punishment of kidnapping a child, is a mere three years' imprisonment, whereas the punishment meted out to a child for stealing is much greater.

Some, of course, could steal. Cliff shows how economically and politically a new class of bureaucrats developed whom he argues drove the restoration of capitalist relations in Russia, encouraging the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation. The first half of the book is a powerful depiction of how the Soviet Union broke from the past, the second half is a powerful use of the Marxist method to understand the new regime. Cliff writes:

The statistics at our disposal show conclusively that although the bureaucracy enjoyed a privileged position in the period preceding the Five-Year Plan, it can on no account be said that in the majority of cases it received surplus value from the labour of others. It can just as conclusively be said that since the introduction of the Five-Year Plans, the bureaucracy's income consisted to a large extent of surplus value.

Cliff points to the coercive nature of the relations between bureaucracy and worker. He notes how the industrialisation of Russia took place at a phenomenal rate, but this is comparable than the industrialisation of (say) England as capitalism developed. The key thing however are the social relations that underpin this development, and Cliff points to the human misery that has resulted in Russia from the way in which this industrialisation was driven. Cliff explains that: 

Every form of social production needs the co-ordination of the different people participating in it; in other words, every form of social production needs disciple. Under capitalism this discipline confronts the worker as an external coercive power, as the power which capital has over him. Under socialism discipline will be the result of consciousness, it will become the habit of a free people. In the transition period it will be the outcome of the unity of the two elements - consciousness and coercion.

Cliff continues that the difference in Russia is that there is no indication that the coercion element of Russian society is declining in favour of the consciousness element. As a workers' state developed you should see coercion "subordinated to elements of consciousness until such a time as social solidarity, harmonious relations between people and education will render coercion in the process of production completely superfluous.

So what sort of society was Russia after the First Five Year Plan if it wasn't a workers' state? It was at that point that 

the bureaucracy sought to create a proletariat and to accumulate capital rapidly. In other words, it was now that the bureaucracy sought to realise the historical mission of the bourgeoisie as quickly as possible. A quick accumulation of capital on the basis of a low level of production, of a small national income per capita, must put a burdensome pressure on the consumption of the masses, on their standard of living. Under such conditions, the bureaucracy transformed into a personification of capital, for whom the accumulation of capital is the be all and end-all here, must get rid of all remnant of workers control, must substitute conviction in the labour process by coercion, must atomise the working class, must force all social-political life into a totalitarian mould.

Cliff explains

Russia presents us with the synthesis of a form of property born of a proletarian revolution and relations of production resulting from a combination of backward forces of production and the pressure of world capitalism.

This last point is crucial. Under capitalism the drive to accumulation wealth for the sake of it, is caused by the competition between blocks of capital. In the Russian economy this didn't exist, but production in the Soviet Union was driven by competition with an externality - the Western economies. In particular this was military competition and Cliff shows how this transformed the Russian economy, driving accumulation. From a Marxist point of view, Cliff argues: 

The Stalinist state is in the same position vis-à-vis the total labour time of Russian society as a factory owner vis-à-vis the labour of his employees. In other words, the division of labour is planned. But what is it that determines the actual division of total labour time in Russian society? If Russia had not to compete with other countries, this division would be absolutely arbitrary. But as it is, Stalinist decisions are based on factors outside of control, namely the world economy, world competition. From this point of view the Russian state is in a similar position to the owner of a single capitalist enterprise competing with other enterprises.

He continues:

The fact that the Russian economy is directed towards the production of certain use values does not make it a socialist economy, even though the latter would also be directed towards the production of (very different) use values. On the contrary, the two are complete opposites. The increasing rate of exploitation, and the increasing subordination of the workers to the means of production in Russia, accompanied as it is by a great production of guns but not butter, leads to an intensification, not a lessening of the oppression of the people. The law of value is thus seen to be the arbiter of the Russian economic structure as soon as it is seen in the concrete historical situation of today – the anarchic world market.

Thus the nature of State Capitalist Russia arose out of the reality of proletarian revolution, and the isolation of Russia within a sea of capitalism following the failure of revolution elsewhere. The export of the State Capitalist regime to Eastern Europe did not end that isolation, because it did not create new workers' states from below, but was a top down process. The Soviet Union then became a new imperialist power, its economic priorities and nature determined by global competition.

Why is any of this important? The Soviet Union has, after all, long since vanished. There are two reasons. Firstly, as Chris Harman argued, State Capitalism was the theory that fuelled revolutionary practice. It demonstrated that revolutions had to be built from below, and arise out of the self emancipation of working people. They could not be exported from other states. Secondly it shows that Stalin was not a hero, but the living embodiment of a particular class interest that crushed working people in the interest of the bureaucratic class - certainly not a hero. Finally, State Capitalism in Russia demonstrated the power of Marxism and the Marxist method for understanding concrete situations. The book is a powerhouse of argument, bringing statistics, historical documents and revolutionary politics together. It is a testament to Tony Cliff's clarity of thought, and remains something that ought to be continue to be read by revolutionaries today - even those who have fallen into the trap of Stalinism's crude politics.

Related Reviews

Birchall - Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time
Cliff - Trotsky: Towards October
Cliff - Trotsky: The Sword of Revolution
Cliff - Lenin: All Power to the Soviets
Cliff - Lenin: Revolution Besieged
Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle, The General Strike of 1926

Carol & Frederik Pohl - Science Fiction: The Great Years

This collection of interesting science fiction is an insight into early pulp fiction, the editors deliberately choosing fiction that stood out from the rest. Frederik Pohl was a well known author, and he collaborated on this collection with his wife Carol, who says she had little knowledge of science fiction by Fred asked her to collaborate so that she would chose stories without any "sentiment about the old days". The result is a slightly eclectic collection of interesting stories that today seem slightly staid, but that's because so many of these were ground breaking works that set the tone and created some classic SF tropes.

Of the seven stories, a couple stand out. William Tenn's 1953 classic The Liberation of Earth is an entertaining account of how Earth's inhabitants cope with repeated "liberation" by far advanced alien civilisations who are themselves at war with each other. It's funny, cynical and if it hadn't been first published in 1953, I would have assumed it was commentary on the Vietnam War. In places it betrays its roots in early fiction of the 1930s, the alien Troxxt are "truly wormlike in form", but at other points it feels remarkably modern, as when the remaining humans remember that they were "helping to make the universe safe for democracy".

I also enjoyed C.M. Kornbluth's The Little Black Bag from 1950. An future accident with a time machine allows a medical kit to go back in time and a struck-off, alcoholic doctor gets hold of it and is able to do medical miracles. I was expecting a very different ending to Kornbluth's dark tragedy - but found it very entertaining. Kornluth's story and several others also give a sense of some preoccupations of the 1930s. A couple refer to the poverty, alcoholism and homelessness of America during the depression. Others are imbued with contemporary, mistaken, science fiction. Old Faithful from 1934 tells the story of an alien on Mars communicating with Earth. Mars is covered in canals, short of water and with an aging civilisation on the brink of collapse. 

The last story I'll mention is And Then There Were None (1951) by Eric Frank Russell. I've always enjoyed Russell's stories and can't remember reading this one. It's a fascinating combination of what Frederik Pohl calls, "out-Randing Ayn Rand" while injecting heavy doses of the non-violent resistance à la Gandhi. Except this is set on a planet that's been out of contact with Earth for many decades. It is a clever story, that mixes politics with entertainment.

Few of these stories are rare, and together they are a nice, if unchallenging collection. Fans of the genre will almost certainly have read some of them before, but dig this out for some classics. You can see some of the magazines they first appeared on this website here which also has a full index. The introductions from the Pohl's are more a glimpse into world of the science fiction community than analysis of the stories themselves, but they do contain entertaining bits, including the amusing info that their daughter was looked after by the musician John Cage during poker nights. Presumably he sang her to sleep very quietly indeed.

Monday, November 01, 2021

Ralph Whitlock - The Shaping of the Countryside

Ralph Whitlock is barely known today, yet he was one of the most prolific writers and commentators on subjects relating to the English countryside. A farmer, novelist, conservationist and broadcaster he was extremely well known. But today, barely a quarter of a century after his death and at a point when interest in the countryside, nature, ecology and agriculture is exploding again, he is barely remembered.

The Shaping of the Countryside was published in 1979 and covers themes very dear to my heart - in particular the way that the countryside has been shaped by centuries of human labour. Whitlock begins with the geological foundation of the British Isles, quickly moves to bronze and iron age history and the Roman Invasion. At each point he shows the contribution of those peoples to the physical shaping of the countryside, through deforestation, building and particularly agriculture.

Unfortunately despite a strong start - I was particularly drawn in by his comments about newcomers to his village who often desire the place to stand still, yet seem unaware of the continual change inherent to the countryside - I was disappointed by many of Whitlock's assertions and some of his political arguments. I also found too many factual errors to have real confidence in his writing.

Whitlock's biggest flaw is that he sees "progress" as positive. He makes some assertions around this that would today be concerned incorrect, such as his early equation of the arrival of Christianity allowing the development of the "arts of civilisation". In an extended, and accurate, discussion of enclosure he declares it a "necessary evil". This isn't to say that he is uncaring, or dismissive of the violence and suffering caused by the enclosure of land and the dispossession of the peasantry, but that he argues that "the detested enclosures were probably a necessary evil before Britain could become a great industrial nation". This is a problematic framework - enclosure freed up the peasantry to become waged workers (in towns or in the countryside) - but there was no inevitability that it needed to be perused in a way that was so detrimental to the people involved. That it did was because capital puts profit before people. For Whitlock the anti-enclosure protests or other social movements are worth acknowledging but they are going against the grain of history.

It is interesting to read his comments on industrial agriculture, which he again sees as necessary. Necessity for Whitlock is to do with the sheer amount of food that can be produced. The heavy application of chemicals, or battery farming are technical marvels for Whitlock. There is no sense of mass production of chicken being problematic for the animals, or the quality of the food (never mind the environment), instead it is simply about producing cheap food that turkey is no longer a luxury food, but one of the "commonest dishes". 

He makes some remarkably naïve comments about birds and agriculture. Starting by saying that he believes that farming and nature conservation is compatible, he argues that its ok to destroy hedges as long as other cover is made. He then claims that bird censuses ignore "vast numbers of birds which flock to the stubble fields in autumn... the bare fields are invaluable foraging-grounds". Where this crude approach true, we wouldn't be seeing the catastrophic decline in bird species that we have done over the last fifty years. Perhaps Whitlock's real target is revealed with his next paragraph which dismisses nature conservation as "an attractive way of earning a livelihood". While it is no doubt true that conservationists have not always been motivated by the right reasons, his suggestion of their "ulterior motives" seems to smack more of a belief that all conservationists dislike farmers by default, and only farmers knew best.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it is disappointing to read a farmer and "conservationist" from the 1970s with a belief in the powers of chemicals that would shame a contemporary multinational's brochure:

As fast as each new threat [weeds] develops, scientists produce a chemical weapon to help fight it. The race is now so fast and furious that not all the new chemicals have their possible side-effects thoroughly studied before they are released on the market. Constant vigilance is necessary.

I don't know about other readers, but I'd prefer chemicals used on my food to have been studied for dangerous side-effects before they are sprayed on fields. 

Whitlock writes in the early period of the European Common Market. He acknowledges that the future of the countryside depends in part on whether UK governments see the need to provide most food from abroad at home, but doesn't really understand that the dynamic shaping the countryside is now driven solely by the need to make profit. He makes some predictions about the future of rural villages, some of them borne out, others more fanciful, but the solution he pitches is as idealistic as some of those he critiques at the start of the book. Ultimately he looks forward to the future of the countryside as an unchanging one, where "the pageant of the seasons remains, and always will... the swallows will always come in April" at the same time as he misses the sights and sounds of the past - the "sound of bat on leather" the hammering in the smithy and so on. 

Unfortunately capitalist development put paid to these rural idylls, if they ever really existed and is currently putting paid to the natural world and its seasons variations. We'll need much stronger rural politics and visions than Ralph Whitlock offered in 1979 if we're to have any countryside to enjoy in the future.

Related Reviews

Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage

Friday, October 29, 2021

CJ Sansom - Tombland

Soon after my book Kill all the Gentlemen about rural class struggle was first published, I was suddenly inundated by readers telling me that I had to read the latest CJ Sansom novel, Tombland. Kett's Rebellion, one of the largest and most well known struggles of the "Commotion Year" of 1549 featured as a key part of Sansom's book. Well I was intrigued, but I was also ignorant of CJ Sansom's book and when I looked up Tombland I discovered it was no less than the seventh book in a series featuring his hero Shardlake, the crime solving lawyer of Early Modern England. 

Three years later and I've finally finished Tombland and the previous six books. Many are large tomes, but this one is the biggest yet and concludes with a lengthy historical essay. As with the earlier books Sansom has Shardlake involve a complex crime while being buffeted by wider social events. By this book readers will have learnt a great deal about Shardlake, his life and friends. Tired, more cynical and more angry now than in earlier works, Shardlake has weathered the years of Henry VIII and finds himself now in the tumultuous years of the minority of Edward VI.

For the English ruling class, 1549 was one of the worst years since the Peasant Uprising of 1381. Economic crisis, disastrous wars, religious changes and some of the worst weather in decades combined to create enormous discontent. In many parts of the kingdom rebellion broke out with large scale protest camps being established. In the south-west and Norfolk, two major rebellions exploded. The one in Norfolk being known to history by the surname of its leaders Robert and William Kett.

Kett's rebellion was triggered by rural discontent and enclosure and the poverty it caused. However its context was much wider discontent with society, and one of the great strengths of Tombland is how Sansom shows this discontent emerging almost unnoticed from the seats of power. Shardlake, arriving in Norfolk to investigate an awful crime, gradually becomes aware of simmering discontent towards "gentlemen" like himself. He is surprised by this, in his charmingly naïve way. When rebellion does break out, his natural sympathy with the underdog makes him useful to the rebels, who need a lawyer to run Kett's state within the state. Others are not so lucky and are imprisoned and treated badly.

By placing Shardlake at the heart of the rebellion Sansom is exploring a conundrum at the heart of many Early Modern Revolts - the active participation of the gentry in those revolts, sometimes in leading roles. He is also only slightly rewriting real history, as a gentleman lawyer did help Robert Kett at his tree of Reformation on Mousehold Heath during the rebellion. Why the gentry helped is not easy to explain, and I devote some pages in Kill all the Gentlemen to exploring this aspect of events like the Pilgrimage of Grace. Sansom shows how it arose in part because of the importance of personal oaths in the era. Having made a commitment to help, people could not simply break their promises. This is Shardlake's initial motivation, though the is drawn much deeper in than he expects.

Sansom describes the mass nature of the rebellion and the scale of the protest camps. He also explains how they are well run and managed by the protesters themselves. Some of this is conjecture, but Sansom does draw on all the studies and sources for 1549. At the time, and for centuries after, establishment figures in Norfolk liked to portray the rebels as anarchic and violent. The truth was different and Sansom explores this carefully. 

By placing Shardlake at the heart of the rebellion, he is able to witness key events that we know about. Students of Kett's Rebellion may find themselves able to anticipate certain plot points, though few liberties are taken with the real history. 

As such this is an excellent work of historical fiction set during a major event of the 16th century. However it didn't quite work as a Shardlake story for me. The problem was that the crime that Shardlake is trying to solve doesn't really work in the context of wider events. It felt like an excuse to have Shardlake in Norfolk, rather than an integral part of the plot. In part I suspect this is why the book is so long - it is some 250 pages before we get mention of Kett himself. 

Ultimately I was left a little unsatisfied by Tombland. I began reading all of the series because I wanted to read this novel about Kett's Rebellion. By the time I got to number seven, I wanted to read a Shardlake story and I didn't feel that I got that. Nonetheless this is a great read and an excellent evocation of Early Modern Rebellion. Few novels of the period have got that right, and even if its not as tight as the early books, Shardlake fans must read it.

Related Reviews

Sansom - Lamentation
Sansom - Heartstone
Sansom - Dissolution
Sansom - Dark Fire
Sansom - Sovereign
Sansom - Revelation