Thursday, September 29, 2011

John Sheail - Rabbits and their History

The history of rabbits in the UK might seem an unusal topic, but there is a surprisingly fascinating and complex story here. Rabbits first arrived on the British Isles at some point after the Norman Conquest. They began as a luxury food for the rich, but soon escaped the boundaries of their warrens and easily adapted to the British countryside. Over time, rabbits rapidly became an important part of  the rural economy and the natural ecology of the countryside, their meat helping to feed the population and their fur being a prized material for sale.

What John Sheail does well though, is to demonstrate how the history of the rabbit in the UK is one of an interaction between human society and nature. This is not a simple story of rabbits escaping their warrens and becoming accepted as a normal part of nature.

Rabbits could be a prized asset, yet their introduction often helped to destroy crops and woodlands. Their ability to procreate made it difficult, if not impossible to control their numbers. Whole areas of farmland were rendered worthless. A single collection of rabbits, unrestricted by property boundaries could, and frequently did, lay waste to crops. As a result of this, rabbits themselves became a battleground. Landowners might relish rabbits for the hunting parties that paid to shoot them, bagging dozens of animals in a day. The money from this could be much greater than the money obtained for farming the land, but the rabbits would alienated surrounding farmers. So poaching, hunting and trapping became something that also represented the struggle between farmers and landowners.

Dozens of laws aimed at restricting poaching are testiment to the landowners ability to use parliament to fight back, but the spread and growth of rabbits across the isles, meant that by the 20th century they were of epidemic proportions.

Much of Sheail's book deals with the back and forth nature of the battle for the right to hunt and eat rabbits and the defence of crops and land from them. He describes the, sometimes huge, artifical warrens built to house the animals (Henry VIII's estate owned an enormous auger, used to drill rabbit holes). He explains how gin traps worked, and why there was such an outcry at their cruelty and amusingly he discusses ferrets. He reports on the alleged use of crabs and lobsters (with lit candles on their backs) by rabbit trappers who used them to flush the animals out of their tunnels and called them sea-ferrets. He mentions evidence that toads were used in a similar way, but I find this somewhat unlikely.

Most interestingly he demonstrates how the introduction of myxomatosis destroying rabbits in their millions and almost driving them extinct had the consequence of changing, once again the nature of the beast. Rabbits today spend little time below ground, unlikely their more recent ancestors, and similar to the original animal introduced in medieval times. Their numbers are limited by the disease, and crops and agriculture are safer, but the example serves to show how rabbits are really a product of the social space that humans have created for them, rather than a natural evolution. The lack of suitable predators in Australia has shown the consequence of the introduction of the animals into an area offering almost unlimitless growth.

Sheail's book concludes by saying that the story of the rabbit has not ended. After all the interlinked nature of the shared history of humans and rabbit described so well in the preceeding pages will no doubt continue and develop.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Alan Bennett - The Uncommon Reader

I love Alan Bennett's writings. His recent article in the London Review of Books, defending libraries in the face of the cuts is a wonderful piece of polemic, that sums up this great writer.

So I finally got around to reading The Uncommon Reader, I was excited, ready to be carried away with it. Everyone else has read this short novel, so I won't go into detail. The plot is straightforward but slightly surreal - the Queen gets switched on to reading following an accidentally encounter with a mobile library (oddly enough, it gets cut eventually, like the ones in Manchester have). She rapidly gets sucked into the world of literature to the exclusion of much else. Her royal duties suffer, her relationships with staff and family suffer and the nation, it seems, don't like it.

Sadly, it just didn't quite work for me. Maybe I am too much of a revolutionary to think that the Queen is like this. Maybe I just don't do absurd. Maybe I didn't like the choice of books she reads. There's nothing wrong with the book, just not to my taste. And given my love for Alan Bennett's writings, that was a surprise. There certainly are some clever bits - the way the establishment organises to undermine the Queen's new love of writing is well written, but she gets her revenge and.... well I shouldn't give the end away.

Friday, September 23, 2011

John Molyneux - Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism

Whatever else it is remembered for, 2011 will remain the year that ordinary people once again took to the stage of history. The revolutions that shook Tunisia and then, most inspirationally Egypt have inspired millions of people around the globe. The protests, demonstrations and strikes in Europe this year have all had a little spirit of Egypt about them. Not a few times in recent workplace discussions have one or other trade union members said to me, words to the effect of "If they can do it in Egypt, we can do it here."

"It" in this context is stopping the austerity program imposed by governments across the world. The ruling class' response to the economic crisis. Their attempt to make working people pay, rather than the bankers and the wealthy. For revolutionaries, this is a truly exciting period. Millions of people have engaged in revolution. Millions more have been inspired.

But what is our strategy? Revolution is not an easy, nor a uniform process. There are twists and turns, moments when the movement goes forwards, stands still or must retreat. How should those, who are revolutionaries, who recognise the horrors of capitalism and want to build a new world, organise?

Marxism and Anarchism are the two major strands of anti-capitalist thinking. They have had, and continue to have, a stormy relationship. Anarchists, like Marxists hate capitalism - a society dominated by a tiny minority, who make the majority of us work for them, creaming off the wealth for their own use, and leaving us as little as possible. A system of war and racism, a system of alienation and poverty. A system that can only maintain its existence through the existence of the state, armed bodies of men, the judiciary and those others who hold us in our place.

The rejection of this state is natural for revolutionaries, as is the rejection of hierarchy and authority. Workers spend their lives being told that they must do this or that, by their "betters" or by someone with power over them. But this rejection of authority and hierarchy has dangers for those that want to organise against the system. Veteran Marxist John Molyneux here outlines the arguments against revolutionaries whose strategies to change the world are based on Anarchism, or often more recently called Autonomism.

Molyneux gives a potted history of Anarchism which I won't outline, and he gives a decent, if short critique of Anarchism's high points (the Spanish Revolution of 1936, when they joined the Popular Front government) and in the late 1870s. Most Anarchists I would argue, will be aware of the criticisms of these periods by Marxists, so I won't rehearse Molyneux's arguments here.

I want to briefly concentrate on two aspects of his arguments. The first is the role of the state, and implicit in this hierarchy. Firstly Molyneux puts that it is Utopian to believe that you can destroy capitalism and replace it with a stateless system over night. As the Egyptian revolutionaries have learnt since the fall of Mubarak, the system will come back to fight you and try to regain what it has lost. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, or the success of the Paris Commune in 1871, the old order didn't give up and go home. They organised to destroy the revolutions and the revolutionaries.

So organisation of revolutionaries is important. But so is the workers state in the aftermath of the revolution. The state is a force to maintain class rule. That's as true of the capitalist state as the workers state in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. Now Marxists don't believe that in a communist society, when the revolution has spread and embedded itself, that the state will continue to exist forever. Once the external threats to the revolution have vanished, so does the need for the state. Anarchists, in their hope that we can move from the system we live in now, to one without a state, leave out an intermediary step that is crucial if we are to win.

The rejection of hierarchy is another aspect to this. I've had my own experiences of organisations that are dominated by anarchist politics or strategies, and for all their criticism and suspicion "hierarchical organisations" like the SWP, they are often hierarchical themselves. This isn't in an organisational way, but a practical way. I remember many of the anti-capitalist mobilisations being dominated organisation by the same few individuals. Often ones (particularly in Prague in 2000) who had time and money to be able to drop out of normal society and spend a few months organising a protest. Such hierarchies are even less accountable than the ones that the anarchists claim to hate. They have no way of challenging these individuals, decisions are put off, or changed at future events with no reflection on the past and people come and go without any continuity to the organisational process.

Marxist organisations, as John Molyneux and I would be the first to admit, have their own weaknesses too. But certainly those in the Trotskyist tradition attempt to have accountability and the democratic process at their heart. This is because revolutionary organisation needs leadership, not in the sense of a know-all individual, but in the sense of a collective decision making process that results in agreement and movement together towards a common goal.

Molyneux's book is an excellent read. He doesn't patronise his subject nor the objects of his criticism. His starting point is that both Marxists and Anarchists want to change the world. He celebrates the heroes of Anarchism's past and the actions that they have tried to lead. But because the book is written in the spirit of a desire to "win" it is necessarily challenging towards those who call themselves Anarchists. Brief sections on decision making, differing attitudes to elections and direct action are also included.

One final point. I have no doubt that many people will read this review who class themselves as autonomists and anarchists. I urge them to read Molyneux's short book (it is after all, only £4). I don't do this out of a belief that people change their ideas overnight after reading a short 80 page book, but rather I do it because if you are serious about changing the world, then you need to be sure of your ideas. Our ideas, particularly for revolutionaries, are constantly being challenged. If you think you are an anarchist, then you should open up your ideas to the Marxist critique and see how they stand up. Perhaps you'll put some of your responses in the comments box below. A good polemic never did anyone any harm!

Related Reviews

Molyneux - Will the Revolution be Televised? A Marxist analysis of the Media

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Michael Klare - Blood and Oil

Subtitled "How America's Thirst for Petrol is Killing Us", Michael Klare's book is an excellent attempt to understand the history of the relationship between the United States and the sources of oil around the world.

Unfortunately, the book is somewhat dated. The copy I got from my local library is dated 2004 and thus he was writing only in the earliest days of the Afghanistan and Iraq occupation and before the Obama Administration. Nevertheless, I found it very useful, particularly from a historical point of view, as well as understanding the reaction of the United States government to the September 11 attacks.

Until the Second World War, the United States was the world's largest producer of oil. Indeed it was the world's largest exporter of oil too, helping, particularly during the war, to keep the wheels of modern warfare moving.

US oil companies had begun to work to start controlling the largest oil reserves by the 1930s. This meant of course, Saudi Arabia, where the world's largest oil fields remain. The Second World War put a new emphasis on oil, and the US moved quickly to shore up reserves. President Truman meet in private with the Saudi King just after the Yalta conference. Speculation is, that he offered US money and expertise to protect the Kingdom in exchange for priority access to oil. Since then, US foreign policy, military intervention and government priorities have, in large part been about protecting this link.

The later sections of Klare's book look at US policy in more contemporary times. In 2001 the US government issued a report into the future of US energy policy. This was an attempt by the administration to look into the problems of future oil dependency. As oil gets used at an alarming rate, with more and more countries placing more and more demands on the reserves, and regional instability affecting oil regions like the Middle East and South America, President Bush was concerned about whether there would be enough supplies.

Interestingly, though the report paid great lip service to energy efficiency savings, or alternative sources of fuel, in reality it was about increasing US dependency on foreign oil. The authors, headed by the oil man Dick Cheney, used the opportunity of the report to instruct the government to do everything it could to maintain the status quo. More money must be spent control foreign oil, the Alaskan nature reserves must be opened up to the oil companies and so on. Rather than discussing in detail how dependency could be improved by reducing oil use, the report concluded that foreign sources must be increased. More emphasis was placed on oil from Alaska, South America and areas around the Caspian Sea. Klare demonstrates that this is a drop in the oil ocean. These sources are minimal at best and do not offer the long time security that the United States needs. They are also contested sources, growing economies like China have enormous demands for oil, and they too have their eyes on these areas.

The title of the book reflects this concern. Klare shows how, over the years, countless American lives have been lost in the interest of protecting access to this strategic resource. The potential for further clashes and further wars remains there, so long as the dependency on foreign oil continues. Which brings me to the most disappointing aspect of the book. I felt that Klare's alternative vision, though radical missed the mark. He calls for the US to stop arming and supporting regimes like Saudi Arabia, which can only lead to bloodshed. "Severing" the links between the US's energy behaviour and their overseas commitments sounds like a radical statement. But it is impossible given the structure of US capitalism. Oil is a central feature of modern capitalist economies. Breaking from the dependency means challenging the priorities of the whole economic system and the powerful oil multinationals. You cannot separate US military interests and their commerical interests like this.

Klare does discuss alternative fuels and energy sources, though probably not in enough detail to convince most readers that a low oil economy is feasible. To be fair to him though, this is not the purpose of his book, and he certainly does a good job of proving the potential for conflict over oil in the future, in many areas of the globe. One final thought though. Oil will run out. What happens after that will be terrifying. Klare's final call for a rethink over energy is important, if human society is going to avoid collapse and runaway climate change.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Peter J. Reynolds - Ancient Farming

This short book is a useful look into what we know about how people in the neolithic, bronze and iron ages, farmed. Beginning with a section on the evidence that archaeologists use to try and piece together the lives of ancient farmers, the book moves on then to look at the development of agriculture and how farming itself took place.

The sections on the development of the earliest ploughs are some of the most interesting, in part because the work is informed by experimental archaeology and farming that takes place at the Butser Ancient Farm. Here they recreate ancient tools and experiment with how the worked. They also try and apply some of what the know of farming to the past, so for instance, archaeological sites with a post hole, surrounded by a depression in the earth may well be sites of ancient hay stacks. In the more recent past, these tended to be made in a similar way, built around a central pole fixed in the earth. Some of this the author points out, may be conjecture, but other evidence is more convincing. The scratch marks on ancient plough tips matching those made after farming with modern copies proving, with little doubt, that this was the original purpose for these tools.

The final chapter deals with the seasonal life of an ancient farming. Unsurprisingly it is very similar to life for many farmers today, in terms of the times of sowing, harvest and ploughing. The tools are different, the scale is different and today farming is driven as much by the profit motive as by the need to feed people, but there is much that remains the same. A useful introduction to this subject.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Colin Tudge - Good Food for Everyone Forever

Subtitled "A People's Takeover of the World's Food Supply", Colin Tudge's book is really a manifesto for what he calls, "enlightened farming". While the concept seems onerous, the reality, as the author explains, is much more straightforward.

Tudge begins by explaining that the food system we currently have, is dominated by Western corporations driven by their need to make profits, rather than feed people in the best possible way. This produces the contradiction of malnutrition and starvation for millions at the same time as obesity and unhealthy eating for others.

Tudge, argues that this can be different. He points to the need to break from the food system we have, by encouraging better practices, better crops and more farmers. In the industrialised world we should, he argues, we should arrive at a situation were one in ten workers is a farmer of one sort or another. Tudge is at pains to argue, that farming should not be the back-breaking drudgery that is often imagined by city dwellers. It can be enjoyable and stimulating, so long as the farmers have the opportunities to break free of economic constraints imposed by the wider system, particularly government policy dominated by the idea that technological solutions are all that is needed to feed the world.

Some of the most useful parts of the book are the parts were Tudge shows how mixed farming, or poly-culture is more environmentally sound, produces better yields and healthier crops. He shows how our reliance on technology has helped to deplete and damage the basis for farming systems, but he's careful not to throw the technological baby out with the bathwater. Organic farming should, he points out, be the basis for rational agricultural, but farming that specifically excludes technologies and developments such as pesticides or some fertilisers may undermine the abilities to produce the best food in the best yields. Tudge is also keen to challenge those who simplistically argue that vegetarianism would enable us to feed the world, and save the planet. He points out that mixed farming, and corresponding "traditional" diets have served us well for tens of thousands of years and animals on farms offer opportunities to improve other crops as well as produce meat, milk and eggs. No system of agriculture exists, Tudge says, that couldn't be improved without the right number and correct type of agriculture. But this is not a meat-eaters manifesto, this is about producing better food, in a way that is better for the planet and better for farmers

I also found Tudge's style very straightforward and easy to understand. His explanation of why a well managed farm with cows grazing grasses could actually reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, is a good example of this. It is encouraging that not everyone falls for the environmentalists' status quo.

There are problems though. In part this is with the manifesto style. Much of the first few chapters is taken up with philosophical musings on why people are not inherently evil, and change is possible. There is nothing wrong with this, as I am warrant to do exactly the same fairly frequently. The problem is, that this detracts from the more interesting and potentially more valuable arguments that Tudge is making about how farming might be. The second problem flows from this first. Tudge clearly identifies the main problem is the particularly modern system of capitalism that we see, and how it ruthlessly exploits, overproduces and undermines the best interests of everyone. His solution, he explicitly argues is not for revolution, but a "renaissance".

Tudge believes that early forms, the early United States' small-scale capitalism, is better and we need a return to this. There is of course a kernel of truth, small capitalists are less damaging than modern multinationals, but this is to ignore the continuity between the past and now. Tudge seems to view capitalism simply in terms of exchange of commodities, so he seems elements of capitalism even amongst ancient neolithic peoples exchanging hand-axes. But this is nonsense. Capitalism is a particular mode of production that was the result in the revolutionary transformation of the old feudal order a few hundreds years back. It grew out of that system, but was also the result of a break from it. Modern capitalism has developed from this, through a process of expansion, centralisation and concentration. To believe that we can simply retreat, without challenging the powers at the core of the system is more Utopian than some plans for revolution.

Nonetheless, Tudge offers many insights, and indeed the examples of those farmers trying out in practice, small localised mixed farming are fascinating and we can but wish them success, in the face of the powerful corporations and economic forces that threaten us all. All in all, I would suggest people read this. Too few of us in the industrialised world understand agriculture, still fewer have any understanding of how it could be improved. Tudge offers some interesting ideas, its a shame the book is to preoccupied with the philosophy of change, and not enough on the change we need.

Related Reviews

Tudge - The Secret Life of Birds
Walden Bello - The Food Wars
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Isaac Asimov - The Robots of Dawn

If I was in the habit of giving my posts titles, I think this one would be called "My Unhappy Return to Isaac Asimov". Sick in bed the other day and needing something light, I decided to re-read some Asimov. When I was 14 or so, Asimov was important to me. I lapped his short-stories up, and delighted in his scientific accuracy. I never liked the Foundation series, of which this novel is a peripheral part, as I found it clumsy and unbelievable.

I did like the Robots novels and short-stories. Asmiov was good at them, mainly I think because Robots needed no personality, and Asimov excelled at characters lacking in that - the dispassionate scientist, spaceman or detective.

The Robots of Dawn is a detective novel in space. The lead character, Elijah Baley, is summoned intergalactically once again, to a Spacer planet. Earth, in this future has been isolated, its overpopulated surface and attitudes of its inhabitants, being deemed unsuitable for expansion further into space. Descendants of those humans who did, live on a variety of (fairly boring) planets, in ways that are designed to make us reflect on our own lives, and what Earth has become. In this particular story, Baley visits the planet Aurora. One that is heavily populated by Spacer standards, but light from Earth's point of view. It is, however, dominated (teeming?) with Robots.

Note the capital R. Aurora sees Robots as equal with humans, even though they aren't really. One of them has had its life ended (Baley debates long and hard, and in exquisite detail, whether it is murder) and Baley is the only person who can work it out, and save the future of each, blah blah blah.

The problem is, that the setup seems manufactured, the ending is laughable, and the characters wooden. Asimov can't really write for toffee. In fact, much of the novel centres on sex. You kind of get the impression that he realised it was the 1980s and his readers probably knew about sex, so he injected it into a thin plot. He even uses the word masturbation. In the context of Robots. Nudge nudge. If you've read this, and the other Baley novels you'll remember there is a whole thing about toilets in them. It is like Asimov was trying to think about how he could capture the differences between human societies on different planets. "I know, I'll do a thing about toilet culture". Geeez.

He also tries hard at the who descriptive prose thing.

"Her gown, so simple as to be nothing more than a closely fitting sheath, was not black (as it would have been on Earth) but of a dull colour that showed no sparkle anywhere in it. Baley, no connoisseur of clothing, realized how well it represented mourning."

"A dull colour, that showed no sparkle" is a wonderful phrase and I may use soon.

The trouble is, that Asimov excelled on the whole scientific, logic conumdrum, which is why I think his short stories work so well. Take a longer novel and it gets out of control. Whole conversations are really just dialogues about the three laws of robotics. Fun occasionally, but not over and over. His realisation of the future is, decidedly flat. It reads like the 1950s that Asimov began in, not the mid-1980s. Today we are used to a particular sub-genre of SF going on and on about the detail of the technology, but Asimov did not even imagine personal communication devices. Star Trek had been doing that since the 1960s, but not in Asimov's far distant future. No, there you can ask if you might use your hosts land line.

Anyway, never re-visit your childhood heroes as they may disappoint. If you want to read Isaac Asimov, read his collections of short stories, particularly the three, "Early Asimov" books, which capture the delightful period of the late 1940s, early 50s when SF was about to go blockbuster and Asimov was a young kid with all the ideas.  He even had a bit of humour. And there was certainly no masturbation then.