Friday, April 09, 2021

Venus Bivar - Organic Resistance: The Struggle over Industrial Farming in Postwar France

Until reading Organic Resistance I had a crude explanation for why it is that the food culture of European countries like France was so much better than we have in England. The reason was, I believed, because the processes of enclosure that took place in England with the development of capitalism lead to the complete defeat of the peasantry and with that, the systematic undermining of rural variations in food. In contrast, I thought, the process had been far less thoroughgoing on the continent, where the peasantry lasted longer and local food prospered, and indeed was protected, into more recent times.

It turns out that I was only half-right. As Venus Bivar's excellent account of the post-war transformation of rural France explains, the process is actually more complex. But also very illuminating for those grappling with the politics of France, the European Union and food itself. We also learn that what characterises French agriculture is not the localised artisanal food holiday makers and second home owners enjoy, it's actually mass produced export food.

Peasant agriculture survived much longer in France. At the end of the Second World War France society was still very rural, with 36 percent of the adult population working in farming (compared to 5.5 percent in the UK). The French government, in close alliance with US foreign policy, drove a programme of rapid industrialisation in the French countryside. Bivar explains that:

Between 1955 and 1975.. the active agricultural population was cut in half, and 40,000 to 50,000 farms disappeared every single year.... the average size of French farms almost tripled, from fifteen to forty-two hectares... By the end of the 1980s, just 6 percent of the active French population was still working in agriculture

The process was "ruthless". Bivar includes enough tragic accounts from farmers and their families who lost out in this process, to make the reader realise that what was taking place in a very concentrated time frame was very similar to the much more elongated process that took place in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the process in France was more than simply the engrossment of farms into larger units. There was a transformation in agriculture itself. Farms became larger, yes. But they also became mechanised, dependent on chemical pesticides and fertilisers, and producing crops for the export market. As Bivar summarises:

Farmers lost their land, took on crushing amounts of debt, compromised their health with the application of chemical inputs and left behind their communities - all in the name of modernisation. Technocrats, neo-corporatists farm unions, the EEC, and the Credit Agricole [bank] all worked to further the modernization agenda, and in doing so placed a series of demands and constraints on agricultural France, the most extreme being the near abrogation of property rights.

The enclosure of English agricultural lands had finished by the 20th century. Its industrialisation began in the 19th century, but World War Two was the moment when British farming embraced the internal combustion engine. But British farming spent WW2 providing for an war-economy, while France had no state support or foreign aid. When this came after WW2 ended it came very fast and was very thorough-going. 

Early in Bivar's book there are a couple of remarkable maps, before and after "remembrement" of a small village. The before map, shows what look like medieval strip farming, and the post-map shows these strips joined together in huge fields. The "remembrement" process pictured could easily be mistaken for similar maps made during the English enclosure movement. Essentially this all but destroyed the French peasant food economy. It also destroyed the rural environment. As Bivar highlights:

much of the remembrement that was carried out disturbed the natural systems that had previously managed water and wind. Banks and hedgerows were destroyed while rural engineers implemented massive irrigation and drainage projects: 'Remembrement overturned the old inherited order of the fields, substituting it with the real-world checkerboard of the surveyor.'

So how come French farming today is know for organic, high-quality, low volume, locally produced cheese, wine and bread? The story of this, is another key part of Bivar's book. It is summed up in a fascinating advert that the author includes. It is one that at first glance looks like a modern advert against animal cruelty, highlighting the cramped conditions of animals. Titled "The life of a chicken in 1962" it contrasts battery chicken production with the lives of organic free-range animals. Sadly the whole text of the advert isn't translated, but Bivar gives us the highlights including references to "degeneration" and "civilisation". These words hint at the murky origins of the organic movement in France, lying as they do among far-right and sometimes fascist movements that sought to protect the French nation's purity and defend the interests of farming communities under threat from industrial production. 

In the aftermath of the radical upheavals of 1968, a new generation of leftists entered the countryside and splits within the organic movement, together with growing acceptance of organic food as an alternative to mass produced food transformed the situation. Today organic food is associated with environmentalism, the left (in its widest sense), yet as Bivar artfully explains, this certainly was not the case and the real story is much murkier, going back to the Vichy regime and French antisemitism.

Post-war France saw enormous struggles over the country's identity. This led to a turn to the EEC and EU as a solution to rural problems that could not be fixed internally. As Bivar writes:

Throughout the decade, the threat of domestic unrest, precipitated by recurring waves of agricultural protest, loomed large in a nation whose history was famed for its periodic outbursts of rebellion. The Fourth Republic, preoccupied by the war in Algeria, struggled to maintain stability on the home front without diverting precious resources from its military operations. As the colonial situation worsened, the French state grew increasingly incapable of addressing the mounting concerns of its farmers. Accordingly, European integration, and specifically the integration of agricultural markets, grew more and more attractive as a means of assuaging rebellious farmers.

In the aftermath of WW2 the French state created an industrial agricultural system that made the country one of the biggest food exporters in the world. At the same time they destroyed rural communities and traditions. In the vacuum, the far-right was able to fill a political space and in doing so created an organic farming movement that today is celebrated globally. The contradictions of this process however, including the active participation of farmers in rebellious protests, have left a number of fascinating legacies that are brilliantly unpicked by Venus Bivar in this book.

Its a remarkable work that packs a lot in, but remains readable and accessible to the lay reader. It's wouldn't be a bad book to pack for those planning a camping trip to France post Covid. It might not be the first choice to read while sipping French wine and nibbling some local cheese, but it will illuminate the political and economic forces that have shaped the landscape and the food you are munching.

Related Reviews

Isett & Miller - The Social History of Agriculture
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Wise - Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food

Monday, April 05, 2021

Christopher Isett & Stephen Miller - The Social History of Agriculture

This is an excellent materialist history of agriculture through human history. The authors have taken representative examples from numerous different historical eras and given a excellent general picture of the varied ways that humans have farmed - but their emphasis is on how the social and economic framework of different societies shape agriculture. As such they also look at the way that farming shapes society and vice-versa.

The opening chapters look at pre-capitalist societies. There are excellent overviews of Ancient Roman slave agriculture, Sumerian society and Han China, this is followed by a study of Early Modern farming, with material on Feudal Europe as well as the Inca and Pre-colonial West Africa. These few examples demonstrate that the authors have produced a truly global history. The arrival of capitalism transformed production and also transformed agriculture. The authors note:

Until the arrival of capitalist industry in the eighteenth century, the extraction of rural surplus via the control of land and labour remained at the centre of all economies and their political systems.

Given the approach it is no surprise that the authors focus on class and social relations. Though they do not neglect the nature of agriculture - from technology and equipment, to types of crops and different methods of farming. In fact the transformation of these practices through the interaction between societies, technological development and the rise of capitalism are key to the book. As this passage demonstrates, they shown a keen awareness of the dynamic nature of agrarian communities:

While African peasants met their basic food and fibre needs without recourse to markets, this is not to say they were 'primitive' or 'irrational.' Quite the opposite; our point is that African peasants found ingenious and practical ways to meet their needs without resorting to sales and purchases. With most or even all of their production unaffected by the requirements of market exchange, and thus not subject to cost-cutting pressures, they developed crop rotations that fulfilled their needs directly. They mixed animal husbandry with crops when possible and always engaged in polyculture. They adopted New World crops especially maize and manioc, when these appeared and where they proved suitable. Furthermore, communities endeavoured to provide the basic social conditions necessary to maintain and regenerate families. They compensated for comparatively simple tools and methods by sharing labour and decisions, while providing all members with farmland and access to surrounding resources.

The authors demonstrate how the arrival of capitalism changed these societies. Colonialism and the slave trade forced a complete transformation of society. But where capitalism developed agriculture was a key part of the transformation, shaping how society fed itself but also creating the capital that made capitalism possible.

These changes were marked by resistance and rebellion. The authors note several episodes of rural rebellion, including the French peasant revolts of the 1770s and the 1381 Peasant rebellion in England. The brutal processes that enclosed farmland as capitalism developed are certainly not ignored.

However I wasn't entirely convinced by the authors' framing of capitalist development and agriculture. The repeatedly argue that, in various parts of the world, agricultural societies tended to be inoculated against urban areas. So they argue in the Early Modern Period,

The peasants of France, then, raised output by devoting extra labour to the fields but had to contend with the demands of urban landowners and seigneurs. The peasantry provided the towns with textiles and foods but did not purchase items in return. 

But while the relationship between town and country might not have been equal in terms of material exchange. It certainly was not one way. Here I think that the authors overlook the dialectical relationship between the two. Historical accounts make it clear that there equipment and basic necessities were bought from urban merchants - salt or iron for instance. Chris Harman also points out, that:

At a minimum, the towns – and not just the large cities, but the many smaller towns – provided a market for the output of the improving farmers and some of the inputs that made improvement possible. These inputs were not necessarily just physical: also of importance was the spread of knowledge about how improvement was possible. One contributing factor to the economic advance of Bohemia in the century before the Thirty Years War was the circulation of books detailing the most productive agricultural methods.

As in their early chapters the authors explore the varied agriculture that arose globally with capitalism. There is a brilliant section on plantation slavery and it's relationship with emerging Atlantic capitalism, as well as studies of countries as varied as China and Japan, Russia, France and many areas of South America (including Cuba). These are all fascinating and I will return repeatedly to them when I need a quick summary.

The authors argue that the arrival of capitalism is the outcome of the class conflict between lords and peasants in feudal Europe. This application of the Brenner thesis, is, in my view incomplete and lacking in nuance (see this review for instance). However this theoretical limitation does not distract from the wider achievement of this book which is a significant contribution to our understanding of human history and agriculture. I highly recommend those interested read it together with Mazoyer and Roudart's book.

Related Reviews

Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Zabinski - Amber Waves
Chappell - Beginning to End Hunger
Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour
GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Wise - Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Namina Forna - The Gilded Ones

In her afterword, Namina Forna describes her first novel as an "examination of patriarchy". In contemporary fantasy writing this isn't as unusual as it might have been ten or twenty years ago, but this extraordinary young adult novel is much more than a book that places women centre of the story in a patriarchal male society. This is a novel intended, as Forna explains, to turn fantasy conventions upsidedown, but also to allow young black readers to see themselves in a novel. In a recent interview in the Guardian Forna explained that as a young woman and "Black Lord of the Rings fan" when she saw the films "no one on screen looked like me". 

Deka, the young woman hero of the story, grows up in a village were she is the most dark-skinned of the inhabitants. Her mother, now dead, was not a local and living with her father she has always been an outsider. As she approaches puberty she has to partake in a blood ceremony that will allow her to become an adult member of the village. If she bleeds red she'll grow up, if gold, she'll be declared a demon.

Deka bleeds gold. To her shame and the repudiation of the village she is declared unwanted. Disowned and then tortured and killed by the villagers and her father, she resurrects again and again. Like other "demons" she cannot easily be killed permanently. Eventually she is rescued and alongside others like her finds herself being trained at a special school in the capital where the emperor wants her to fight the deathshrieks - monsters that threaten the country.

This first book of a trilogy sets the scene well. Deka learns about herself, and her skills and discovers friends and enemies among other "demons". She also learns that the deathshrieks aren't the mindless monsters that she's been led to believe. There is a little bit of Harry Potter here - Deka goes to a special military school where she feels completely outside, both in terms of background and knowledge. But this is no pampered idyll. She is quickly forced to rely on friends as well as her wits, to survive and learn who she really is.

The book explores important themes in ways that don't feel imposed from outside. Sexism, oppression, violence against girls and women, as well as questions of race and skin colour are handled subtly. Ultimately this is a cracking feminist adventure story, that doesn't treat the young reader as a fool. That said, the issues that are raised, from young women going through physical and sexual changes to issues of social ostracism and racism are essential to the story. Some readers might find some of the themes challenging - there is quite a bit of gore! 

Reading this I felt enormously hopeful. I don't remember how old I was before I read a book that had a gay or lesbian character, let alone a young adult novel. While I wouldn't pretend that 21st century publishing is completely transformed, it is nice to know that young black and LGBT+ readers in 2021 will read at least some novels and find themselves inside.

Related Reviews

Novik - Uprooted
Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Alex Callinicos, Stathis Kouvelakis, Lucia Pradella (Eds) - Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism

In 2020 we saw the ecological and social contradictions of capitalism exposed. The Covid-19 pandemic, arising out of the inroads that capital was making into new environmental frontiers, came on the heels of decades of neoliberalism which have hollowed out social security nets. The anti-capitalist sense of the slogan "System Change not Climate Change" borne on countless placards during the Climate Strikes of 2019, seemed equally applicable to a system that offered little protection to thousands of working people. If ever there was a time for revolutionary ideas to take hold, this was it.

In the years preceding Covid-19's emergence onto the world stage, an explosion of interest in radical socialist ideas, centred on the left reformist projects of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, had inspired and excited revolutionaries in, and outside, those movements. Yet while both these politicians offered radical reformist visions, their projects determinedly veered away from revolutionary conclusions. Yet it is revolutionary ideas that have consistently helped understand the current crises. Marxist epidemiologist Rob Wallace has, for instance, become the go-to person to explain the interlinked ecological and capitalist crises. Leading British medical journal The Lancet has reflected these ideas in its commentary on the pandemic, borrowing Engels' phrase "social murder" to describe what has taken place.

So it is extremely welcome that the Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism should appear now. While young activists and militants are not its principle audience, there is much in it that will help develop movements trying to understand the systemic roots of racism, sexism as well as the economic, health and ecological crises. 

Edited by three leading Marxist theoreticians, the book is constructed around a series of short introductory pieces that mostly focus on an individual and their ideas, and longer framing pieces. The list of no less than 59 contributing authors is in itself impressive. While no doubt having to make difficult choices, the editors show the breadth of Marxist and Post-Marxist ideas since Marx and Engels' time. Importantly, given the explosion of interest in radical ideas around Black liberation, they have not neglected individuals and theories who have critically engaged with Marxism from the Global South.

Editor Lucia Pradella's chapter on Karl Marx concludes with a summary of the importance of Marx's great work Capital:

Marx's Capital thus provides us not only with possibly the most lucid analysis of the workings of the capitalist mode of production, but discloses the antagonism between two different social systems, the potential for a free society growing amid the misery of the present. Only by placing Capital in between these opposing systems, by using it as a tool of political organisation and social emancipation, can we grasp its "globality" both in theory and practice.

But in an important sense this summary also stands in for the Marxist revolutionary theory as a whole, and the Handbook thus serves as a guide to how Marxism has been used, understood and updated in the years since Marx's death.

One of the themes of the book is that Marxism is continually going through a process of development and renewal. Many of the chapters demonstrate how Marxists develop new ideas and concepts as a result of engagement with concrete situations: war, revolution, social movements and so on. Of course the lives and activities Marx and Engels themselves demonstrate this, but there are numerous other examples in the book. Pietro Basso's chapter on Amadeo Bordiga shows how he renews his ideas on Russia and socialist organisation post World War Two, though he is limited by lack of links with working class struggle. Tithi Bhattacharya's engaging chapter on Lise Vogel, who re-examined Marx's work to explore ideas around women's liberation after the re-emergence of the Women's Movement, is another example. Sometimes these developments are very sharp - Alex Callinicos describes "efforts to re-conceptualise Marxism itself" in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and betrayal of the social democratic parties at the start of World War One.

The process is not limited to Marxists either, but can also be seen in the work of post-Marxists, some of whom were using other ideas to engage and critique Marx from other directions - though usually coming to very different conclusions. In Arnold Farr's chapter on Herbert Marcuse, he writes:

With the help of Freud and the many social and political revolts taking place all over the world Marcuse was able to repackage the Marxian theory of revolution. The student protests of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the environmentalist movement, the hippies etc. were all examples of a revolt against repression, war, waste and oppression. These protests were proof that even in a repressive society and in a non-revolutionary time the instinctual structure of many human individuals cried out against this repression. People could still imagine a qualitatively better society. Hence, the development of revolutionary consciousness was still possible. With the critical contribution of psychoanalysis to Marcuse’s theory and the influence of contemporary struggles for freedom and a better society Marcuse was forced to rethink the nature of the working class. The Marxian and Marxist notion of the proletariat was no longer applicable.

Marcuse and others were simultaneously drawing from Marx and breaking it up. Farr continues:

Regarding the expanded working class. Marcuse argued: “The working class is still the ‘ontological’ antagonist of capital, and the potentially revolutionary Subject: but it is a vastly expanded working class, which no longer corresponds directly to the Marxian proletariat”

As mentioned the engagement with ideas emanating from the Global South is particularly useful. Part IV, "Tricontinental" looks at the revolutionaries whose ideas were developed in engagement with anti-colonial struggles and revolutions outside the richer world - rightly it begins with Lars T. Lih's chapter on Lenin, and a excellent piece by Irish Marxist Kieran Allen on James Connolly, but also engages with CLR James, Mao Zedong and Frantz Fanon. Having recently read Mike Gonzalez's illuminating book on the Peruvian revolutionary José Carlos Mariátegui, I was pleased that Gonzalez has a short chapter on this important figure here. Mariátegui's work should be read by anyone engaging with ideas around indigenous struggles, Latin American socialism and the nature of socialist society. 

As Viajy Prashad's framing chapter on Marxism outside Europe makes clear figures like Mariátegui were important not simply as activists, but as theoreticians that could make Marxism relevant to global struggles. Prashad demonstrates the dynamic development of Marxism in the Global South, making a point about Mariátegui that could be generalised to other thinkers and activists elsewhere, emphasising the importance of Marxism as a body of revolutionary ideas that needed to be used in an undogmatic way:

Marxism would have died an early death in places like the Andes if it did not take seriously the concrete conditions of the workers as well as the social aspirations of national self-determination... To improve the conditions of work and life as well as to capture the necessity of anti-colonial nationalism meant that Marxist-inspired movement had to merge the struggle of nationalism to that of socialism... It was these emancipatory demands - drawing on old messianic ideas and anarchism as well as Marxism - that would bring together the currents of anti-colonial nationalism and socialism in the colonies and semi-colonies into what we are calling Third World Marxism.

The process was not always easy, and remains incomplete in many cases. As Prashad says about India:

It took the Communist movement in India many decades to wrestle with the precise balance between the need for unity of all exploited people and for special emphasis on certain kinds of oppressions along lines of social division. The initial organizational route proposed by Indian Communism was to use the platform of class organizations openly to attack caste oppression, religious majoritarianism and feudal male chauvinism. But soon it became clear that this was insufficient.

Prashad makes an important point (one that this book is clearly designed to correct) that "one of the imitations of our understanding of Marxism is the assumption that “theory” is produced in Europe and in North America, while “practice” takes place in the Global South."

If Marxism continually renewed itself in the context of experience, there was also the role of the ideas themselves. Frédéric Monferrand's chapter on "Reading Capital in 1968" discusses the importance of Marx's key work for the 1968 generation, noting that the previous generation had found Marx's 1844 Manuscripts equally important. He makes important point though that engagement with ideas alone isn't enough, and while the 1960s and 1970s saw the publication of a mass of new material by Marx, it would "probably have come to naught if their publication did not intervene in a conjuncture that called for a profound renewal of Marxist theory and practice". 

One of the great strengths of this Handbook is that it introduces important figures to readers who may have not heard of them before. I must confess to being ignorant of the work of the Italian radical Mario Tronti, but I got a lot from Davide Gallo Lassere's chapter exploring the development of his radical ideas in the context of Italy's working class struggles. In other cases I was introduced to thinkers from outside my own political tradition. For instance I found the chapters on Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein, Daniel Bensaid, Harry Braverman and Paul Sweezy very useful. In other cases - for instance the chapter on Mao Zedong - someone from a very different revolutionary tradition to myself, I still found much of interest. Reading Kohei Saito's Karl Marx's Ecosocialism a few years ago, I was struck by how the work of Japanese Marxists had been neglected in the West. So I found his chapter (together with Ryuji Sasaki) on Kozo Uno very interesting. 

It should be noted that Sasaki and Saito's chapter is an excellent example of something that struck me as being very important about this work. While each article is written by authors who might be called "experts" on their subject, they are not hagiographies. Sasaki and Saito are very critical on their subject. Noel Castree's piece on David Harvey similarly engages fraternally with Harvey's work without failing to note (in a constructive way) the differences the author has. That said no Marxist reading this varied work would not find they had disagreements of emphasis or conclusion. I also suspect that most Marxists will also find figures that have been omitted that they feel should have been included. I was surprised that neither Tony Cliff nor Ernest Mandel had chapters given their importance in keeping the flame of revolutionary Marxism alive in the post-war years. I also felt more could have been made of Marx's importance to subjects - eg archaeology, anthropology and so on.

Having said that Camilla Royle's chapter on Marxism and Ecology shows how Marx's ideas have been central to an anti-capitalist understanding of ecological crises. As Royle shows, writers like Wallace, John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett and many others, have been able to use key ideas like the Metabolic Rift, to show the importance of Marxism to what may well be the defining feature of the 21st century.

But given the scale and length of this work, my criticisms are relatively minor. Readers will likely balk at the high price of the book, but this is a sad consequence of the academic publishing system - it will need to be ordered in to your library. But it is worth embarking on this because the most important thing about this book is that it places Marxist and post-Marxist ideas to a readers in a critical framework in order to facilitate the further development of those ideas. Most readers will find a great deal of value and, in many cases they'll discover that there is a great deal of relevance to contemporary struggles.

A few months into 2021 and we are already seeing global struggles and events that illuminate the limitations of capitalism and the importance of Marxism for understanding and fighting it. As editor Alex Callinicos concludes in his chapter on political economy:

The future of the Marxist critique of political economy is likely to depend on how successfully it captures not just the macro-patterns of crisis but also the complex transformations in production and trade that contemporary capitalism is currently undergoing. The search to elaborate and deepen Marx's extraordinary synthesis continues.

Related Reviews 

Callinicos - Imperialism and Global Political Economy
Callinicos - Making History: Agency, Structure and Change in Social Theory
Marx - Grundrisse
Marx - Capital I
Patterson - Karl Marx, Anthropologist
Foster - Marx's Ecology

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Terence Wise - To Catch a Whale

Terence Wise is best known today as the author of multiple books on military history. But in his younger years, after being demobbed in the 1950s, he travelled on the final three voyages of the factory whaling ship Balaena from 1957 to 1960. Wise had no connection with the sea, but a sense of adventure and a love of the outdoors, and his account tells the story of his learning to ropes to being a full blown whaling veteran at the end of his first voyage.

The Balaena was an enormous ship. Purpose built as the main processing vessel for a small fleet of hunting boats, it had a crew of almost 500 men. Most of these were essentially workers at sea. Men like Wise were almost exclusively employed to prepare the ship for the arrival of whales and process the whales themselves. Wise's main job was driving a crane, though he was also directly involved in cutting up and processing aspects of the whales and gives a detailed account of conditions and the work involved.

While this is a fascinating memoir of working life on a factory ship, I found it unpleasant in several places. Wise is acutely aware of problems with the whaling industry. While he didn't know it at the time, the British industry was coming to an end and he was on the final voyages of the Balanea. But from listening to older hands, it is clear that the number of whales has collapsed from a few years previously. In fact he describes an extended period in the middle of the voyage when no whales are found and how this plays with the minds of the crew on board. 

But Wise's awareness of whaling and his interest and curiosity about the whales themselves cannot hide the violence of the industry itself. The ship and its crew are coated in blood and oil, Wise vividly describes the stench and the vast number of whales being processed (when they are found). It reads like the massacre it is. Wise also comments on the criticisms of the industry - despite legal restrictions young and pregnant whales are taken, and there is clearly plenty of general destruction. The tenders bringing back whales to be processed actually use whale carcasses as giant fenders to protect the ships. There is also the pollution - rubbish and unneeded equipment, clothing, paint etc is simply dumped into the ocean.

So Wise's book should be chiefly read as an account of a (thankfully) forgotten industry. The mass industrial slaughter of whales ought to be consigned to the history books (and generally has - the much very different hunting of whales in places like the Faroes should not be confused with the industrial slaughter that Wise was involved in). As such, Wise's account is of most interest for its description of life as a whaler/worker on factory vessels. Much of it is a description of tedium, drinking, fighting and discussions about sex. The working conditions are dangerous and deplorable, and Wise at least notes that back on shore the trade unions wouldn't stand for it. Though he seems to think somehow the crew are above complaining.

Most of the men long for shore visits, and in Cape Town and the Caribbean they behave deplorably as they drunkenly cause chaos around the town. Wise at least distinguishes himself by trying to see some of the sites. But actually there are several unpleasant accounts here - Wise receives a Dear John letter on his return journey, though he doesn't seem to see the contradiction in criticising the adulterous affairs of sailors wives and his own visits to brothels. On one occasion he has sex with a 17 year old prostitute. The behaviour of the other crew is also sometimes unpleasant - there is at least one occasion when a group of men (not Wise) sexually assault and abuse a woman. Wise at least is appalled by this himself. 

So this is an un-sanitised account of the reality of the whaling industry as it entered its declining years. Sixty years later it reads best as an honest historical account. At times humorous and fascinating, at others deeply unpleasant.

Related Reviews

Richards - The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals
Kolbert - The Sixth Extinction
Philbrick - In the Heart of the Sea

Friday, March 19, 2021

Jonathan Sumption - Trial by Fire: The Hundred Years War II

There is a famous quote from Hegel from 1806 when he saw the Napoleon Bonaparte after his capture of Jena. "I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it."

I was put in mind of this while reading of the capture of the French King John II by the English after the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. At that point, the whole French administration fell apart. All the preceding tensions, caused by war, economic crisis and internal feudal rivalry, broke through. Before that, the king, through his very person was able to hold the French state together. With his capture and removal to England - despite his ability to communicate with his court and subjects, France was thrown into a unrivalled chaos.

Poitiers, or rather its aftermath, form a central part of volume II of Jonathan Sumption's epic history of the English-French Hundred Years War. It's in this moment that the French crisis is finally illuminated. But the roots go back many years to the initial English successes detailed in book one. The book begins with English forces, or rather bands and forces that identify with England, marauding the French countryside. The brutality was fighting and whole areas were stripped bare of food and people. When the small walled market town of Uzerche was captured, one account described the "murderers and robbers calling themselves English" who scaled the walls, killed the guards and opened the gates. Sumption continues:

One a Monday night they burnt down the buildings around the public square and plundered the richer houses. On the Tuesday they attacked the monastery, where many of the inhabitants had taken refuge, but failed to capture it. On the Wednesday they burned the whole quarter of the town by the river bridge and then withdrew leaving the streets strewn with corpses including thirty-two of their own number.

Sumption describes this as a "characteristic incident". Those that think the Hundred Years War was defined by military expeditions and battles like Poitiers, Crécy or Agincourt, ought to reflect that much of the war was conducted in the most brutal of fashions (Sumption repeatedly uses the word terrorist) by armed groups who fought under their own banners with "conveniently loose allegiance to Edward III". That said, terror tactics were not just down to the armed bands. The Black Prince's 1355-1356 campaign destroyed 500 villages, a dozen walled towns and made "serious" damage to the economy of south-west France. The Prince was "highly satisfied" by this.

While the detailed accounts of swirling allegiances and brutal fighting is hard to take in for the reader, I was struck by Sumption's sense of narrative in this, and the first volume. So Sumption details the different evolution of the English and French military, showing how the "privatisation" of the military in England gave them an organisational and disciplinary edge over the "innate conservatism" of the French forces. 

In France, years of economic mismanagement, military failure and inept leadership had left the country on the verge of collapse. Sumption details the growing discontent - both in sections of the ruling class, but most importantly at the base of French society, which led to "revolution" in Paris and the mass peasant explosion that is known as the Jacquerie. Sadly these accounts are marred by Sumption's desire to paint them as "mass fanaticism" which was similar to the "atmosphere of 1792 and 1870". Given the utter failure of the French state to protect the mass of ordinary people - its no surprise that thousands of the lower orders decided that things needed to change. 

The book ends seemingly with England in the ascendancy. The temporary peace deal had granted huge areas of France to England, yet it was built on sand. A proxy war in Spain had undermined the English military position and the economic situation was uneasy. Having returned to France from captivity, John II went back to England having failed to deliver all his ransom. His death there and the crowning of Charles V as France's new king marked a new period in the War and France's ascendancy. For the first time in years feudal rule is able to come back together under one person.

The length of these works might put many readers off. Those who persist will find them rewarding both in detail but also analysis. Jonathan Sumption is able to offer an overarching narrative that places better known events and battles into wider context. I look forward to volume III.

Related Reviews

Sumption - Trial by Battle: The Hundred Years War I
Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History
Barker - Conquest
Barker - Agincourt

Monday, March 15, 2021

Iain M. Banks - Consider Phlebas

Re-reading Consider Phlebas many years after I was first enthralled by it, I was immediately reminded how great the scope of Iain M. Banks' science fiction was. As the first Culture novel, Banks introduces not one, but two galaxy spanning civilizations and places them at war with each other. We learn the intricacies of the Culture by seeing them through the eyes of outsides - indeed hated enemies.

The book follows a crew of characters led by a changer Bora Horza Gobuchul who is an enemy of the Culture, but a temporary ally of their enemies the Idirans. Bora change adjust his body to mimic others and uses this in his role doing underhand jobs as part of the war. The book follows his adventures trying to capture one of the Culture's AIs that has been trapped inside a planet that was caved out by an ancient civilisation. Bora (and his crew) form a microcosm of the larger galactic conflict, an adventure that illuminates the wider galaxy. It's a tremendously satisfying space opera - there's plenty of massive scale action, including a brilliant set-piece as an enormous orbital habitat is destroyed by the Culture to prevent the Idirans capturing it. It symbolises the resources that the society has - and are prepared to sacrifice in order to win the war. But the scale allows Banks to play with all sorts of ideas - a race against time to loot some equipment and a fantastic card game played as the habitat rapidly approaches the end.

While re-reading Consider Phlebas it is hard to remember how I felt the first time I read it. Who are the Culture? Who are the good guys and the bad guys? What are these Minds? Some of these questions are also asked by characters in the novel itself. But they also go to the heart of what the Culture is, and themes that Banks would return to time and again in his later novels. I used to consider Bank's book Player of Games the best introduction to the universe he constructed, but on re-reading Consider Phlebas I am not so sure. It is less overtly political than Player but as the base for the rest of the superstructure it works extremely well. More importantly it's a cracking space opera that still feels fresh over thirty years since it was first published.

Related Reviews

Banks - Matter
Banks - Against A Dark Background
Banks - The Hydrogen Sonata
Banks - Surface Detail
Banks - The Algebraist