Friday, October 30, 2020

Andreas Malm - Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the 21st Century

Andreas Malm's 2016 book Fossil Capital was an important exploration of how capitalism developed into a fossil fuel system. In explaining fossil fuel capitalism Malm placed the question of human labour alongside that of energy and thus showed that the central question for environmentalists was anti-capitalist politics. His 2017 The Progress of this Storm was a polemical defence of Marxist politics for the struggle against fossil capital. With his latest book Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency Malm argues that the twin crises of Covid-19 pandemic and climate change demand an "ecological Leninism" that can wield "War Communism" in order to end capitalism and reconstruct a world where accumulation doesn't drive disease spillover and environmental breakdown.

It's a tour-de-force that asks difficult questions and doesn't shirk from giving difficult answers. Malm begins by asking a relatively simple question which has troubled the minds of many environmentalists since Coronavirus exploded across the globe: "Why did the states of the global North act on corona but not on climate?" Malm shows that there are many answers, some of which are simple (Trump doesn't believe in climate change) others more plausible (acting on climate change is 'bewilderingly complex'). But none of them stand up to scrutiny because, as Malm points out the answer lies in understanding the nature of the system itself.

Simply put, with all their limitations and failures, governments were prepared to temporarily shutdown their system to deal with Covid-19. But acting on climate change required action on a whole different level. Covid-19 did not, as Malm eloquently puts it, "emanate directly from the chimneys of accumulation" like carbon dioxide does. CO2 is the direct resultant of capitalist accumulation in a fossil fuel system and thus "there are interests at stake in its continued release". So,

an enemy of higher order must be overcome, and not for a month or a year or two: the shutdown of fossil capital would have to be permanent. 

And this requires "a more thoroughgoing breakdown of private property" one that would "bury forms of capital for good. It would be something more akin to war communism".

But the question of the different treatment of the Covid and climate change should not blind us to an important reality. Malm points out that both crises have their origins in capitalism. The first half of the book is a devastating critique of how capitalism drives pandemics. There are multiple ways that this happens. The principle one is the transformation of land use by agribusiness. There are a myriad of ways that this can drive potential spillover - the process, known to scientists as Zoonosis - whereby disease leaps boundaries from one small reservoir among wild animals into domestic animals and thence onto humans. One of these, and one that I'd not considered, is the hunting of bushmeat - which Malm points out is actually driven by elite consumption. Another is the way biodiversity lose can concentrate the potential for disease evolution. But most importantly there's the question of deforestation. 

We should be very clear that it is deforestation driven by the interests of big business that is the biggest problem and the biggest driver of disease. As Malm explains:

In the new millennium, it is the production of commodities that chews up tropical forests. It negates diversity on every front. No more than four commodities - beef, soybean, palm oil and wood products, in descending order of impact - accounted for four tenths of the dramatically sped-up tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2011.

Quoting Marxist writer Rob Wallace, Malm points out that "'opening the forests to global circuits of capital' is in itself 'a primary cause' of all this sickness." 

Those of us in and around the environmental movement in the 1980s and 1990s will recall that opposition to deforestation was the principal issue motivating campaigners in those decades. But despite this deforestation accelerated in the decade afterward. Those campaigns ("buy an acre of the amazon" or "sign this letter") in the 1980s failed to stop deforestation in any way. It's a point that Malm could have made to emphasise his central point - that without a challenge to capital we are lost in preventing environmental collapse or the emergence of future pandemics.

What is the answer? Here Malm raises what is likely to be the most controversial aspect to his book - ecological Leninism and War Communism. But, and I think this is tremendously importance, Malm is placing Leninist theory and practice at the heart of discussions about what to do. He begins by raising an argument that Lenin made in September 1917. In the midst of World War One, Lenin pointed out that everyone recognised that Russia faced disaster, but no-one, except the Bolsheviks were prepared to do what was necessary - lead a revolution. The problem for everyone else is that they wanted to leave the system intact, but it was the system that was causing war, famine, poverty and rebellion.

Similarly those who (on the left as well as the right) who say that the answer to Covid is a vaccine and  better healthcare or put their faith in geo-engineering and sustainable technology, are making the same mistake. Humanity will survive Covid-19 on this strategy. But Covid-21 or 22 is just around the corner. Similarly trying to fix climate change within a fossil fuel capitalism is also impossible as there's no way (as Malm shows) of extracting CO2 from the air and making a profit. The only solution to more pandemics and climate change is a challenge to the system.

Lenin's practice then, of "turning the crises of symptoms into a crises of the causes" is apposite here. And in doing so, we have to abandon the utopianism of some on the radical left. Malm challenges those anarchists who say that the problem is the state, by making the point that what Covid shows is that a state that can plan, offer healthcare, mandate shutdowns and, presumably protect jobs, income and welfare, is absolutely required. Here then is the War Communism of the title. Its a state system that directly takes on the polluters and the deforesters. Its a system that can implement the urgent changes that are needed to stop future spillovers and act on climate change. It won't be easy, but as Malm points out:

As any transition is hard to conceive without popular-democratic ferment, tensions along a vertical axis may ensue. All this is, of course, prely in the realm of speculation, but we now face the more imminent problem of authoritarian degeneration in periods of symptomatic treatment such as lockdown. Some bourgeois states - those on the far right - will have no compunctions about extending their repressive powers towards proto-fascism. 

"The future", Malm continues is

ecological war communism, in a figurative sense, this being 'only an analogy - but an analogy very rich in content'. It means learning to live without fossil fuels in no time, breaking the resistance of dominant classes, transforming the economy for the duration, refusing to give up even if all the worst-case scenarios come true, rising out of the ruins with the force and the compromises required, organising the transitional period of restoration, staying with the dilemma.

The lessons of Leninism aren't just about revolution and organisation of course. Malm touches on the importance that the fledgling Communist state gives to the protection of nature, a choice whose legacy means that Russia today still has the largest areas of untouched nature in the world.

This book was written early in the first wave of Covid-19. I read it in the early stages of the UK's second wave. While the material is frightening, the clarity of politics at the heart of Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, was a breath of hope. The challenge for all of us is to rebuild the political organisations that can drive through the change that is required. Andreas Malm's book provides ammunition for that struggle. Its a task we cannot fail at.

Related Reviews 

Malm - The Progress of This Storm: Nature & Society in a Warming World
Malm - Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Burkett - Marx and Nature
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the crisis of the Earth System
Dawson - Extinction: A Radical History
Dawson - People's Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Habib Ayeb & Ray Bush - Food Insecurity & Revolution in the Middle East & North Africa

For revolutionary socialists the perhaps the most inspiring events of the last decade were the Revolutions that took place in the Middle East during the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. The term Arab Spring obscures a much more deep rooted and revolutionary process and books like Habib Ayeb and Ray Bush's recent publication are important because they explore the revolutionary dynamics at the core of these mass movements. Ayeb and Bush's book focuses on a key aspect of the struggles, but one that is often ignored - the role of the peasantry. They focus on events in the two key countries for the events - Egypt and Tunisia.

One of the central demands of the Egypt Revolution in January 2011 was the call for Bread Freedom and Social Justice. This echoed demands from Tunisia in December of the previous year. The authors argue that this shows the "issue of sustained access to affordable food" was at the centre of the revolutionary outbreaks. The slogan, "carried the rural and peasant signature of popular risings" and shows the "similar origins and progressions" of the revolutions in the two countries. Indeed Ayeb and Bush go further and argue that both revolutions had at their heart agrarian demands. The Tunisian revolution famously began when Mohamed Bouaziz self-immolated outside a police station following repeated harassment. This short description however masks how Bouaziz and his family had been activists in long standing social movements about land, food and the right to work and sell produce. These, and similar groups of activists also helped create the conditions were mass protests didn't just explode in response, but networks existed to drive the revolution forward.

Similarly in Egypt the authors argue that the roots of the other throw of Mubarak in 2011 lie much earlier - in particular in movements that arose in the early 1990s against the "counter-agrarian reform Law 96" which had a number of implications for peasants and small farmers, but most significantly it drove the dispossession of small-farmers from their land. While the movement was ultimately unsuccessful, it did leave a legacy. Ayeb and Bush explain:

It is significant that the persistence of rural struggles and networks for change in Egypt's countryside after the 1990s were more fluid than those centred in urban struggles. There emerged and important network of social resistance to state brutality that was orchestrated through the mis of security forces, police and military in the countryside.

They continue by detailing a history of rural struggle in the period between small-farmers and peasants against landowners and landlords, and security forces. The repression was significant, but not all powerful.

Rural locations were ripe for intimidation and violence, imprisonment and torture and harassment of the poor. But this did not prevent resistance, direct action and even the use of the courts to try and hold landlords to account and to at least slow the return of feudalism.

While I disagree with the use of the word "feudalism" here, it is important to acknowledge, as the authors do, that there was a significant history of agrarian class struggle that helped lay foundations for the events of 2010 and 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt.

In fact from the1970s onward both Tunisia and Egypt saw a sustained period of neoliberalism that systematically destroyed many rights and protections that peasant produced had. The authors detail how in Egypt, for instance, attempts to protect and encourage food self-sufficiency in Egypt had led to the Nasser government protecting and nationalising land. But through the 80s and 90s, both countries saw the dispossession of small producers on a huge scale, a transition to agriculture aimed at the export market and the destruction of farming that could feed the countries. 

On the one hand, the state abandoned its social role in favour of the most disadvantaged strata and classes. On the other hand, the state mobilised all its means, especially financial, to serve the dominant economic and political groups. In agriculture this meant the end of support and subsidies for small farmers and peasant agriculture and the financial, fiscal and political support for agribusiness and capitalist agriculture oriented towards export.

Thus the agrarian policies of both Tunisian and Egyptian governments laid the basis for mass discontent. The focus of the authors on the forgotten recent history of the peasantry and small-farmers in the two countries fills a gap for those trying to understand the revolutionary process in the Middle East. However at times I did feel that because the authors focused on rural issues and the peasantry they ended up neglecting other forces in society. For instance the implications of the "War on Terror" and the Palestinian question as issues that drove discontent with Mubarak. Ayeb and Bush mention, for instance, the strikes in Mahalla, but only in passing yet these struggles and others are closely linked to wider agrarian issues. The authors argue that the mass protests (particularly in Tahrir Square) involved millions of people including peasants, as well as workers and the urban poor. However this isn't developed and I'd have liked more material on the role of the peasantry in the overthrow of Mubarak and the wider movement - what was taking place in the villages and rural areas. This felt undeveloped in the book.

Post 2011 the authors show that repression has held back movements in urban and rural areas. However they point out that there is an ongoing need for further struggles. Poverty, inequality continue to blight rural communities in both countries and, in particular, neoliberalism continues to concentrate wealth and land in the hands of a small minority of landowners. There remains a real need to struggle against poverty and inequality as well as a sustainable, sustainable food system for countries in the Middle East.

At the heart of this is a critique of the way that colonialism and imperialism have underdeveloped and destroyed (and continue to do so) the agricultural systems of countries like Egypt and Tunisia. They conclude:

There cannot be any successful emulation of Western development models in Egypt and Tunisia or elsewhere in the Third World. Instead a new system of self-reliance, of 'becoming aware' is necessary for Egypt and Tunisia to establish a successful alternative to the policies and outcomes of imperialism. The new alternative requires a process of partial delinking from the world economy, for a political agenda of sovereign states to work in solidarity and to also develop incrementally a strategy for socialism that would necessarily involve the empowerment of the peasantry.

I would have liked to have this fleshed out further. What might socialism in the Middle East mean for small, agricultural producers? What would the freeing up of resources by a workers and peasant government in Egypt (for instance) mean? Indeed while removing the economic and political shackles placed on the peasantry of the Middle East is crucial, making them part and parcel of governing a socialist society is the key to their emancipation. Here I think that we might learn much from the experience in Russia in the immediate aftermath of 1917.

Despite my criticisms there is much of interest in this book and the authors are to be congratulated for making sure this neglected aspect to the Arab Spring is highlighted. For those trying to understand contemporary Middle Eastern politics, and argue for a sustainable, socially just agriculture there is plenty of material here to mull over.

Related Reviews

Alexander & Bassiouny - Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers & the Egyptian Revolution
El-Mahdi & Marfleet - Egypt: The Moment of Change

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Arthur I. Miller - Empire of the Stars

The life of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was as remarkable as the astronomical objects he investigated. Born into a relatively wealthy family in Lahore in 1910, by his teens he was already showing an amazing talent for mathematics and science. At the age of 19 he won a scholarship from the Indian government to study at Cambridge University. Having already published several scientific papers he got on the boat fully expecting to be one of the elite students at Cambridge. While on the boat, he had a stunning insight. It was a moment of theoretical clarity that would define his career, and possibly also his whole personality. 

In short, Chandra (as he was known) worked out that a white dwarf star had a theoretical limited mass. A star that exceeded this would collapse on itself. Today, the idea of stars collapsing to form black holes is common place. They've been observed, worked out and are part of wider culture. Then, however, the idea was revolutionary and challenged accepted ideas in theoretical physics and brought Chandra into conflict with the scientific establishment.

Arthur I. Miller's book is a study of Chandra's life and work, but places at its heart the theoretical debate between Chandra and Arthur Eddington, then the most famous and popular astrophysicist in the world. Chandra's time at Cambridge wasn't easy. It was an alien environment and there is no doubt that he suffered from racism there. There is a telling anecdote in Miller's book, recounted by Chandra. Candra's uncle C.V. Raman a renowned Indian physicist, was walking with Ernest Rutherford in Cambridge when Raman saw that the students always seemed to be playing tennis. Raman asked "Do they ever do any work?" to which the distinguished Rutherford replied, with a laugh, "My dear Professor Raman, we don't want bookworms. We want governors for our empire". Which this sort of approach at the heart of the university, Chandra was doomed to clash with his peers and the academy.

He was also hampered by the way his ideas challenged the scientific status quo. Astrophysics was in a state of flux. Theoretical developments in quantum mechanics, relativity and nuclear physics were turning established ideas on their head. Things exploded at an infamous meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1935. Chandra presented a paper and Arthur Eddington, who Chandra new as a friend, teacher and confident launched into a violent, ill spirited, rude attack, publicly ridiculing his ideas and Chandra himself. Chandra was completely taken by surprised and utterly unprepared for what he saw as a betrayal and mistaken science. There is no doubt that Eddington behaved bizarrely and badly - though he continued to be friendly to Chandra. The moment was life-defining for Chandra who never got over the event. Years later he would recall it, and never forgot that most of his friends failed to stand by him.

Chandra was eventually proved right. Eddington's models fell to pieces under new scientific investigations, ideas and mathematics. But the debate marked an break and likely also contributed to Eddington's increasingly esoteric ideas. In my view there is no doubt that Eddington was also motivated by a desire to crush a challenger, and this was shaped by a racist colonial attitude to those from India. Chandra himself was so shocked, partly because he had rarely experienced this, and the atmosphere at Cambridge drove him to move to the United States.

In the US Chandra was accepted much more widely and there's no doubt he was much happier there. But Miller points out that his experience wasn't all carefree. In part there was US racism, though this wasn't quite as bad in the northern colleges were Chandra worked. It did have its moments though, such as when Chandra and his wife were refused entry to a New York Hotel. Miller is particularly good at drawing out two aspects of Chandra's life - the first is his constant quest to find new areas and materials to study. Innovative thinking, brilliant mathematics and complete grasp of the theoretical material. But Miller also shows how Chandra personally was shaped by his experiences. Chandra was frequently frustrated that his early work went acknowledged for many decades. This frustration however being contradicted when Chandra was frustrated that his Nobel Prize focused on precisely this aspect of his work.

The story is compelling and those interested in the history of science will find it fascinating. Chandra, in many ways, represents the new atomic era surpassing the old 19th century science. But the book suffers because the author isn't sure whether to make it a biography of Chandra or a history of the science of black holes. As such it tends to fall between the two. I also found Miller's explanations of some of the key concepts a little complicated (though to be fair the science is difficult). That said there is much material of interest here and I found it an enjoyable read.

Related Reviews

Green - 15 Million Degrees
Greene - The Elegant Universe
Clegg - Infinity
Cathcart - The Fly in the Cathedral
Panek - Seeing and Believing

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Callum Clayton-Dixon - Surviving New England

The story of European colonialism in Australia is often told as being essentially about the peaceful arrival of settlers who set about farming the empty and fertile landscape. In these narratives, where the aboriginal people make an appearance, it is usually peripheral. In colonial histories the people who had lived in Australia "since the first sunrise" were uncivilised tribes that made little impact upon the lands around them and could be safely assimilated into European "civilisation". As authors like Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe have shown, however, the aboriginal people of Australia were far from uncivilised. The carefully husbanded the land, had extensive and complex societies and were accomplished farmers as well as hunters and gatherers. 

But they also resisted. They organised collectively to defend and protect their land from the Europeans who despoiled, murdered, raped and dispossessed the original population. This story of resistance is one that has rarely been told, so Callum Clayton-Dixon's new book Surviving New England is an important account of the neglected history of the "first forty years of the colonial apocalypse" in Australia. Drawing on original archival material and contemporary newspaper accounts Clayton-Dixon has found a plethora of material that tells a story of aboriginal resistance. The material tells a colonial story, but the author shows how it actually tells the story of a collective fightback against colonialism.

Resistance included the stealing of animals, the killing of settlers and their animals and the destruction of European infrastructure. On occasion, from the 1830s to the 1860s this effectively became guerrilla warfare that held back colonial encroachment further into tribal lands.

For Clayton-Dixon, the book is also a deeply personal one. His discovery of the forgotten history of resistance in New England Tableland is in part spurred by his discovery of his own family history - tracing his ancestry back to the aboriginal people of the area. Clayton-Dixon is part of a project to revive the Anaiwan Language and the book is thus a contribution to reasserting the history of the people of the region.

The book is not an easy read. Settler violence against aboriginal people was systematic. It was not committed by a few racist individuals. It was part of a systemic approach to colonial expansion. When contemporary accounts decry the violence of the aboriginal people against settlers they very rarely acknowledge what was happening to the people, their land and their culture. Clayton-Dixon quotes a 1840 report by the Aborigines' Protect Society, which uses "New England as a specific case":

The sheep stations of the settlers are extending, and proportionably diminishing the resources of the natives, thus producing a warfare which reflects most injuriously upon the interests of the first, and threatens the extermination of the last... The land is wholly and unreservedly the settler's- the native is wholly and unreservedly dispossessed... Justice is hard to administer, famine is decreed to one party, and the fruits of spoliation to another... The native attacks the settler's flocks-the settler retaliates, and perhaps a native is killed. The settler had only exercised an acknowledged right when he defended his sheep, thought it were against the hard necessities of the aboriginal disturber of them, and his crime is thus reduced to one of self-defence! This is the state of things brought about by a system of colonisation, which presents the alternative of famine or murder to the natives...

Let us be clear that the strategy of the colonial authorities was the utter destruction of aboriginal people and their culture. Those that weren't murdered would be "assimilated" into European culture. The "seeds of assimilation" as Clayton-Dixon calls them "were sown very early on. Their growth would be accelerated by the sheer intensity and rapidity of the Tableland's colonisation". Aboriginal people were encouraged to work on farms and in industry, often out of necessity, but also making them dependent on Europeans for food, tobacco, clothing and, tragically, alcohol. But this was the end of a process whose beginnings were rooted in violence.

It is "virtually impossible" says the author to get "even a rough estimate of how many Aboriginal people were killed as a result of frontier violence" but it "must have comprised a sizeable proportion of the Tableland's relatively small Aboriginal population". Violence wasn't simply murder. It was also the poisoning of people and the destruction of the natural resources that kept them alive (for instance the use of waterways to wash sheep contaminating water supplies). 

Reading the contemporary, murderous accounts, it is inspiring then to read of the resistance. In one account from 1839 the writer inadvertently gives a sense of the fear with which the colonialists felt from the resistance. The aborigines "now think that they can do just as they please with the people at out-stations... I wish you would send up a few pounds of gunpowder and buck shot, and about a dozen good muskets, as we must not be sacrificed by these merciless savages without using every effort to avert it". The same year "settlers complained that Commissioner Macdonald and his men lacked the capacity to effectively check Aboriginal resistance". For years settlers had to carry weapons with them, for fear of the aboriginal people who could "disappear in a moment  amongst the rocks from the whites".

Sadly the resistance was eventually defeated. Disease, superior firepower and the loss of so much land undermined even the most determined fight-back. But as Clayton-Dixon reminds the reader the resistance was important: "Our ancient society was plunged into absolute chaos, and the traumas of this early period remain cared deeply into the land and its people. But because of our ancestors' struggles, their staunch resistance, their unyielding determination to survive, we are still here".

Today Australia's neo-liberal government rules in the name of capital. The Australian people, the land and the environment are trampled over in the interest of profit. Callum Clayton-Dixon's book is an important reminder of a different tradition - one of resistance to the transformation of the land into a space for the creation of profit. Its a tradition that we must remember - in order to make sure that there is justice today for those whose ancestors were murdered, raped and dispossessed so that they can "restore the deeply spiritual and reciprocal relationship with country that our old people maintained since the first sunrise."

Related Reviews

Gammage - The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia
Pascoe - Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture
Moorehead - The Fatal Impact
Estes - Our History is the Future
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Cronon - Changes in the Land
McMillan & Yellowhorn - First Peoples in Canada

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Richard Morgan - Broken Angels

The recent tv series Altered Carbon has introduced Richard Morgan's work to a new generation of science fiction fans. The first season was based on Morgan's first book to feature Takeshi Kovacs, Broken Angels being the second book which bears no relationship to the second season. This however didn't stop the publishers slapping a Netflix logo on the cover of the reissued paperback. The Kovacs trilogy are set in a relatively near future. Humanity had colonised Mars were they found remnants of an ancient civilisation which gave them the key to interstellar travel. The "Martian" artefacts also gave humanity all sorts of other technology, including the ability to store human consciousness in "stacks" that plug into the spinal cord. These mean that people can be transferred between bodies, resurrected after death and beamed across interstellar distances.

But much of Martian life remains an enigma, and some of their technology hasn't been understood, or as some of the characters might cynically point out, been utilised in order for humanity to murder each other in more efficient and spectacular wars. Kovacs, a super soldier with special powers, is on Sanction IV were he is part of a military force putting down a popular uprising. Here he comes into contact with a group of former mercenaries and archaeologists who've been exploring Martian ruins in the hope of finding tech that can yield them big money from the corporations. This time they've struck it big. They've found a Martian spaceship. The first of its kind and now Kovacs is in a race to get to the ship before one or other warring factions, or the corporations behind them get there first.

Brilliantly paced, dark and cynical, there is a lot to Broken Angels. Kovacs is a sort of cross between a Terminator and Philip Marlowe, though he's probably got more of a conscience than either of them. Here he manages a small military team that's slowly dying after the corporation that sponsored them has nuked the local area to clear off any rival claims. To add to the tension there's a rapidly evolving nanobot super weapon that is hunting down Kovacs team and they get to explore an alien spaceship.

I first read this when it came out in the early 2000s. I have to say that it's improved with time. Perhaps I'm even more cynical now about how corporations run roughshod over culture, environment and people in the pursuit of profit. I hadn't remembered much of the plot - so I enjoyed the background argument between different archaeological factions about whether or not the Martians were warlike. I also though Morgan portrays well the way that academics can get sucked into the corporate maw. 

The set piece action scenes are well done, Morgan carefully balancing these with the quieter periods as they explore the spaceship or wait for the archaeologists to do their work. The tension is kept high as everyone is slowly dying from radiation. As is now traditional there is the obligatory plot twist which in this case is done very well. 

For a science fiction action novel there's a decent amount of cynical anti-capitalism and raging at the corporations and the grey suits standing up for the free market in the face of war and alien spaceships. If you can stand the gore and the pointlessly graphic sex scenes you'll probably enjoy this.

Related Reviews

Morgan - Black Man
Morgan - Market Forces
Morgan - Woken Furies
Morgan - Steel Remains
Morgan - Cold Commands
Morgan - Dark Defiles

Friday, October 09, 2020

Chris Smaje - A Small Farm Future

What sort of sustainable society does humanity need to survive the environmental and social crises we face? It is a question that is being grappled with by many different groups of people - from industrialists and technocrats to politicians and, most importantly, activists on the ground. This latter group are simultaneously challenging the status quo and trying to shape an alternative.

One key aspect to the current ecological crisis is agriculture. In the last decade food production has become an increasing preoccupation for many in the environmental movements. Part of this arises from a crude link drawn by some activists between consumption and ecological damage: "go vegan to save the world". But in most part it is because the capitalist food system is inherently destructive to the environment, the land, natural resources and those who labour in the industry.

So Chris Smaje's new book then is an intervention into contemporary debates. A practising farmer he is able to link his experiences of working in agriculture, running a small holding and selling produce to a wider critique of society. His title, A Small Farm Future, is an intervention into a long standing discussion about the nature of agriculture. Smaje says that we need to urgently move away from a capitalist economy that puts growth and accumulation before any other interest and return to a society that is inherently agricultural where farming is based on small units (specifically the family).  

Smaje argues that a small farm future "would probably look a lot like the diffuse, rural world of premodern agriculture, oriented to skimming energetic flows rather than mining energetic stocks." It is well known that small-farm production, even as it is squeezed within capitalist production, can have better yields, be more sustainable, be cheaper and more resilient than industrial agriculture. 

But Smaje warns "nobody wants to turn the clock back to the hardscrabble life of toil retained in folk memory from the small farm past." 

The idea that it is the very nature of capitalism that is so destructive is common place within environmental movements today. What is more controversial is the question of small farm agriculture itself. The debate, which Smaje touchs on, goes back a long way. For instance in the late 19th and early 20th century left-thinkers like Karl Marx, Karl Kautsky and V.I. Lenin grappled with the surprising persistence of the peasantry. Classical Marxism suggested that the peasantry would fade away. Obviously it hasn't, and understanding why underpins aspects of Smaje's book. I've written elsewhere on this subject and won't be diverted. But one thing that is important is that much of the left argued that small farm, peasant agriculture was to be overcome because it was inefficient, poor and dominated by oppressive back-breaking work - it is also often characterised by the oppression of woman and children for their unpaid labour.

Smaje's argument for a return to small scale farming then begins by making it clear that he thinks that these problems with peasant agriculture can (and must) be overcome. We cannot have production that places extra burdens on women or children's labour for instance. I think he makes some good points. 

We should probably start thinking about a small farm future with a lot of people spread out over rural landscapes to skim their energetic flows, and apply our minds to how we might ease their burden by providing a modicum of more concentrated energy. There are jobs on the farm where they'd certainly want machine power, but the extreme mechanisation of modern agriculture is driven more by profit margins in a competitive fossil-fuelled economy than by any rounded view of what counts as rewarding human work.

Refreshingly Smaje has a focus on labour. Both the work of the people farming, and other people around the world. He wants a society that scraps our alienated labour under capitalism and replaces it with one where people enjoy their work. He also wants others to be properly rewarded:

In a SFF, it's unlikely you'd be able to drive to the supermarket and buy wine from somewhere like South Africa that's furnished by the multitudinous and often poorly paid labours of estate workers, packers, drivers, miners, roughnecks, merchant seamen and so forth. But you might be able to make some wine yourself from the fruits in your garden, and so might all those workers who certainly can't while they're working for you. Overall, if we get it right the energetic deintensification of a SFF may enhance aggregate human welfare - possibly even in the richer countries if we learn to appreciate the virtues of making wine instead of buying it.

Smaje's SFF vision is one of high labour use to create low energy farming that is both sustainable and produces nutritious, high-quality food. Surprisingly despite the focus on high levels of labour his conclusion is for about 15 percent of the labour force in Britain to be employed in agriculture, a figure that would rank it around current participation for countries like Mexico, Tunisia and Ukraine. It would be, he points out,

a profound change from the present, but not an unimaginable one in global perspective. It would also be a source of fulfilling, low-carbon employment in a crisis-wracked society.... With seven million direct food producers, plus home gardeners, the model implies considerable ruralisation and localisation of food production. 

I've no great disagreement with societies being more localised - Marx and Engels certainly believed that difference between town and country should be abolished if society was to be more sustainable. But what about technology and industry? Smaje asks if we could "retain some of the benefits of modernity while producing the kind of low-energy, distributed agriculture that characterised historical models." Of course modernity, industrialisation, technology and science has brought many profound improvements for society, including agriculture. But Smaje is arguing that the problem is not these successes but the nature of the society that produces them. Under capitalism technological innovation is not to improve lives and protect ecology, but to maximise profits - whatever the technocrats tell us. That said Smaje thinks things will change profoundly, and his vision of a SFF is definitely not a technological utopia. He says:

I doubt, for example, that a small farm society would have the capacity to produce the computer on which I'm writing these words. For those of us who think the ability of global industrial society to keep churning out such products will be increasingly limited anyway, or who measure human progress by criteria other than the ease of cut-and-past editing; that's not a major worry. But if I had to furnish my livelihood largely from my local ecological base, I'd be sorry to see my chainsaw go. A serious debate on how to secure a realistic industrial base, for a sustainable human ecology and a convivial economy is sorely needed, but it's scarcely happening currently-  mostly because of a the 'progressive' ideologies that police all hints of economic 'backwardness'.

I also would be wary of an future society whose adversion to technology rejected MRI scanners and cancer treatment. But Smaje is right to critique those who see sustainability and social-justice simply arising out of technological innovation. Such eco-modernism should not detain us here. But thinking about how a more socially just society might use have both a small farm base and wider industry is important. But we need to turn the question on its head. What is important is what is produced and why. We don't want a society that can "produce the computer" used to right these words. That society produces technology with short-lifespans, using cheap materials, low wages and with built in obsolescence, because it is driven by profit. A more rational society would produce computers with long life-spans that don't constantly need to be replaced by newer tech. Might we also share such equipment rather than everyone need their own devices?

Which brings me to the biggest question of them all. How do we get there? Firstly, let's be clear what Smaje isn't saying. He does not believe that a SFF can arise out of small movements by enlightened individuals that gradually return to the land and build oases within capitalism. Instead we need, he argues, a different kind of politics, a "small-farm, agrarian populism... that enable[s] people to provision themselves locally and take care of themselves collectively in the challenging circumstances that are now upon was."

I think this is naive. Partly he underestimates the way that the capitalist state exists to protect the status quo, and the way the system will undermine and destroy this approach. In fact, we see it to a certain extent now as communities of small farmers in places like Africa and South America are systematically undermined by agribusiness with the complicity of local governments usually driven by the imperialist interests of the richest economies.

But there is a second problem with Smaje's plan. He rightly argues that we cannot continue with the capitalist mentality that dominates today. In which case we need to transform the ideas in our heads, throw off the "muck of ages" and destroy our old prejudices. This won't come about through a populist movement (however big and however progressive) if it doesn't have mass participation in challenging the institutions of of capitalist society. One of the reasons that socialists argue for revolution is precisely because it is in the process of overturning the old order and creating a new one that people transform themselves. Smaje highlights the usefulness of Karl Marx's ideas for understanding the problems of capitalism. But he rejects Marx's vision of social change - in part because of the countries that pretended to be Marxist while exploiting and oppressing their populations.

But the Marxist vision of social transformation - one where the mass of people take control of the "means of production" and democratically run society by rationally planning production collectively - is one that would offer the framework to remake farming anew. I have no doubt that within such a society we'd see an end to industrial agriculture for all the reasons that Smaje makes. I'm not convinced that in countries like the UK small scale farming will return on the basis of the family productive units which Smaje argues for. But there is no doubt that the future will be more localised, more democratic and more sustainable.

These criticisms aside Chris Smaje's book is important. Because he is an anti-capitalist farmer he has important insights those of us critiquing industrial agriculture and discussing alternatives. While I might disagree with his vision, the important thing is that Chris Smaje is asking the right questions. As he says, there is not enough of this, and his book is an important contribution to these debates.

Related Reviews

Chappell - Beginning to End Hunger
Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour

GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery
Shrubsole - Who Owns England?
Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis

Wise - Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Cronon - Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Marshall Sahlins - Stone Age Economics

First published in 1974, Marshall Sahlins' Stone Age Economics remains a touchstone for modern anthropology. While in places it is dated - Sahlins uses language like "primitive" to refer to pre-class societies in history and in contemporary times - and sections of it are very difficult for the non-expert, I still found the book interesting and relevant.

Sahlins book tackles an argument that remains common-place today. The standard view of hunter and gatherer societies is that they were hard and difficult. As the author explains:

Almost universally committed to the proposition that life was hard in the palaeolithic, our textbooks compete to convey a sense of impending doom, leaving one to wonder not only how hunters managed to live, but whether, after all, this was living? The spectre of starvation stalks the stalker through these pages. His technical incompetence is said to enjoin continuous work just to survive, affording him neither respite nor surplus, hence not even the "leisure" to "build culture". 

It's an argument that is rooted in the view that only modern, capitalist economies, can provide the commodities and lifestyles to give people happy, decent, long lives. It is also, as Stone Age Economics is dedicated to showing, entirely false. As Sahlins explains:

A good case can be made that hunters and gatherers work less than we do; and, rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society. 

For workers who are working harder and longer than they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago, some of the accounts in Stone Age Economics might bring a wry smile. Take one study of aboriginal people in Arnhem Land, Australia. The average length of time each person put into the finding and preparation of food was four or five hours a day. Sahlins notes (about the Bushmen of southern Africa) that their food collecting was "more efficient [in ratio of provider to supported population] than French farming in the period up to World War II). In summary, Sahlins writes that "hunters and gatherers of the ethnological present... suggest a mean of three to five hours per adult worker per day in food production". Notably, he points out, less than unionised industrial workers at the time - bankers hours as he jokingly summarises. These figures are even more favourable than early agriculturalists.

But it is not just in terms of time "working" that these studies are interesting. Sahlins' overview of dozens of studies of hunter-gatherer communities around the world shows that they often could have produced more food than they did. In other words, motivation is not about getting a surplus, or controlling it. Rather people were driven by the desire to feed family and community - not obtain resources, food or commodities for the sake of it. 

In an interesting critique of those who argue that communities will ruthlessly exploit natural resources for personal gain, to the disadvantage of all, Sahlins quotes anthropologist Joseph Spencer [1966] on early shifting agriculture:

Light areal density patterns of population are naturally associated with many groups following shifting cultivation because of their intrinsic social system... This cultural tradition cannot be interpreted in terms of the carrying capacity of the land, so that the social phenomenon, rather than the literal carrying capacity of the land itself has assumed the dynamic role of controlling population density.

Indeed Sahlins emphasises (49) that "archaic economies" do not have a tendency towards overpopulation, and it is society itself that shapes things like population size. 

This is not to say that all these societies are perfect. Sahlins' summary of anthropological surveys shows that at times of stress (natural disaster, famine) the social relations that prevent theft or encourage sharing and gift giving  can break down. But these are the exceptions and the studies indicate that it is on the rare occasion of external shock that this happens and that communities tend to organise to avoid such outcomes where they can. Nor is everyone necessarily equal in how they provide for the wider group. Some people can hunt, others aren't very good. Some have other talents. What matters is that the system evens itself out. There is fascinating material here on the division of labour between men and women in pre-class hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies. Women's oppression is not a thing in these societies.

Readers will be fascinated by the glimpses of other social organisation that are so different to our working lives under capitalism. In particular I liked the emphasis on rest as part of life. But what Sahlins emphasises time and again is how social relations are utterly different. We cannot understand hunter-gatherer communities by looking at them through the lens of contemporary economic thought. For instance, take Sahlins focus on the "Domestic Mode of Production". Here he concludes:

For the domestic groups of primitive society have not yet suffered demotion to a mere consumption statues, their labour power detached from the familial circle and, employed in an external realm, made subject to an alien organisation and purpose. The household is as such charged with production, with the deployment and use of labour power, with the determination of the economic objective. Its own inner relations as between husband and wife, parent and child, are the principal relations of production in society.... How labour is to be expended, the terms and products of its activity, are in the main domestic decisions. And these decisions are taken primarily with a view toward domestic contentment. Production is geared to the family's customary requirements. Production is for the benefit of the producers. 

The latter half of the book tries to unpick some of the realities of how such societies work - the question of obligations that arise out of gift giving is a big issue. Sahlins breaks down how trade between groups, which have gift giving at their heart, leads to the establishment of what we might call rates of exchange. A pot for two spears. These might vary from place to place (more pots for spears, closer to their centre of production). But the rate gets established on the basis (Sahlins argues) that people offer more than their worth. Trade in these contexts was not about profit, but creating relations that benefit all.

Sahlins says you cannot understand exchange "in its material terms apart from its social terms." A Bushman put it better, "The worse thing is not giving presents. If people do not like each other but one gives a gift and the other must accept, this brings a peace between them. We give what we have. That is the way we live together".

This was even true of the rise of early social differences. Big men might be chiefs. But they did not garner vast wealth for themselves. Gifts from their people enabled the display of largesse, or the building of public works, or support for those without. "To be stingy is to sink in public esteem" said one scientist of the Manus. "Meanness, indeed, is the most despised vice, and the only thing about which the natives have strong moral views" said another of the Trobriand.

Such relations are alien to the capitalist mindset. Or rather the mindset that develops under capitalism. But they are also alien to the way that society organises and individuals relate to each other under capitalism too. For instance the way that people share without grumble, help each other and donate to the common pot in order that everyone can benefit simply does not happen in a society were we are atomised and forced to compete at every level. Those who claim that human nature means we cannot work collectively for the common good are proved wrong by Sahlins' work which proves that for most of humanity's history (and indeed for communities that continued into contemporary times) the opposite was true. 

While in places this book is difficult and readers without detailed knowledge of the source material might find his references unclear, this remains both a classic work of anthropology and a deeply important book about ourselves.

Related Reviews

Lee - The !Kung San: Men, Women & Work in a Foraging Society
Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance

Bellwood - The First Farmers
Martin - The Death of Big Men and the Rise of the Big Shots
Flannery and Marcus - The Creation of Inequality
McAnany and Yoffee - Questioning Collapse
Scott - Against the Grain

CJ Sansom - Lamentation

In this sixth volume of the adventures of Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake, readers are thrown deep into the courtly machinations as Henry VIII rapidly approaches the end of his life. As various factions (influenced by different religious interests) battle for position Shardlake is pulled back into the regal orbit - a place he feels distinctly uncomfortable. Not least as he is battling with his own beliefs. Queen Catherine Parr, whom Shardlake has helped in earlier volumes, and who he has formed a certain attachment to, recruits the lawyer to find a missing manuscript. The Queen's book, Lamentation of a Sinner, has the potential to destabilise relations with the king and provoke a backlash against the protestant reforming cause. 

Sansom has rooted this volume in his deep knowledge of the rule of Henry. He also makes the world seem real. Whether or not the meeting between a relatively lowly lawyer and the Queen of England would have proceeded as Sansom describes is unknowable. But Sansom has the skill to make it seem believable and thus draw the reader in. I particularly like the sense of wonder that Shardlake feels as he enters rooms in Whitehall that are reserved for the royal family. Also interesting is how familiarity begins to breed indifference as these surroundings become normal. 

At first the book seems like a locked room mystery. Lamentation was taken from a locked cabinet in the Queen's private bedchamber. Exploring how this happened and who took it draws Shardlake into a murky encounters with dangerous radical reformers and forces at court that will stop a little to get their way. 

Unfortunately, while it's an enjoyable read, the book relies too much on its context and not enough on the plot. The ending felt like a major let down, and a bit of a get out clause. Sansom seems more concerned with fitting the story into wider court machinations than satisfying the reader. Nonetheless the book is fun, and there's plenty of background - Shardlake's struggle's with his servants, his battles with court and, of course, the scenery of Tudor London all around them. If you've made it to volume six, you'll probably enjoy it. If you are new to Shardlake it's not the best starting place.

Related Reviews

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