Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Heather Rogers - Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution

As the scientific reports on the reality of global warming grow ever more frightening, Heather Rogers' book Green Gone Wrong explores the myths and realities of the solutions that we are offered. Her starting point is that most people want to do something about climate change, to reduce their carbon footprint, and so she examines some of the options that we are given. Some of these, such as using a car that is more efficient, or powered by electricity, are limited she points out, partly by the cost of the vehicles. Being Green in this situation is the realm of the wealthy. However she also points out that there is a structural problem with the economics of cars and car companies that prevent low emissions, or more efficient cars becoming mainstream.

To explore this further she examines the ways that the automobile industry destroyed public transport in the US, by buying up the tram companies. In their quest for profits, they first ensured that the public had to rely on cars. Now, in a situation where most Americas need a car, they only sell ones that maximise their profits. Sadly these are not the ones that reduce fuel use, or run on sustainable energy supplies. The barrier is not technology - far better cars are the norm in Europe. The barrier is profits. Switching away from the large comfortable, fuel guzzlers that the advertisers have sold to the US market for so long, would reduce profits in the short term. That is something that the industry is not prepared to tolerate. So emissions continues to rise.

Surprisingly, there are parallels with agriculture. Consumers are told that buying organic, or buying Fair Trade items will improve the planet and the lives of those working the fields. Travelling around the US and South America, Rogers finds the reality is far from the glossy brochures. The image of organic foods being the realm of small farmers living on decent incomes is rarely true in the States. While often the food is far better, margins are tighter and overheads high. More importantly, the industry is squeezed by the big multinationals, who in the US as well as the rest of the Americas have reshaped agriculture, not to provide nutrition and decent food, but to maximise profits.

In South America, far from the eyes of almost any consumers, Rogers finds organic farming that is far from organic, with suppliers using pesticides and other chemicals. She explains the problems and limitations of the bodies that approve the logos, for organic or fair trade foods. Too few inspectors, open to bribery and shadowy business deals. She also finds farmers and indigenous people, who are lied to, promised the earth and stolen from. Many of these tales are tragic. She returns occasionally to the story of one group of indigenous people, the Dayaks, farming their ancestral lands, and often trying to prevent the logging of their forests. One group of Dayaks have confiscated chain saws from the loggers. In a misunderstanding of the scale and strength of their multinational foes, they clearly believe that the saws will form a bargaining chip that will enable them to protect their lands.

Despite what is on the label, Rogers concludes that in some cases, "Fair Trade status binds these growers to a single processor and trader because the cost of certification is so high. Despite how it may look from afar, the system meant to ensure ethical standards and ecological well-being can deal small farmers out from the start."

Conclusions like this point directly to the real enemy. As Roger's explains vested interests lobby to ensure that "control over greenhouse gas emissions [are left] to market forces." Saving the planet is only possible in this economic system, if it is profitable. And the efficiencies made, in reducing energy use, or emissions are, under the current way of organising society, channelled back, worsening the problem. Rogers' quotes an activist at the Land Institute:

"When the Wal-Marts of the world say they're going to put in different lightbulbs and get their trucks to get by on half the fuel, what are they going to do with that savings? They're going to open up another box store somewhere. It's just nuts."

Rogers avoids the trap that many environmentalists make of simply believing that consumers have the power to change things. She points the blame at an economic system that has the accumulation of wealth as its motor. While she doesn't dwell on the alternatives to this, she certainly finds the real enemy. Shopping is not the answer, because the products we buy are open to corruption and bribery, but also because shopping is part of that system, "we can vote with our wallets all we want, but the people with the most money - precisely those who lavishly benefit from a system built on ransacking nature - will inevitably control the most votes."

Rogers is a excellent and readable writer. He book is part travelogue and part critique of capitalism. As in her earlier work on capitalism's waste problem, Gone Tomorrow, she stops short of arguing that a democratically, planned economy can be the heart of the solution to the environmental crisis we face. Nonetheless, both books are a powerful read and a damning indicment of a system that'll destroy the planet in its quest for larger profits.

Related Reviews

Rogers - Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage
Monbiot - Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning
Carbon Trade Watch: The Carbon Neutral Myth
Foster - Ecology Against Capitalism
Bello - The Food Wars 
Böhm & Dabhi (eds) - Upsetting the Offset: The Political Economy of Carbon Markets

Monday, April 23, 2012

Franz Mehring - Karl Marx: The Story of his Life

Unsurprisingly, Karl Marx is one of those figures in history who attracts biographers. Some of these are sympathetic, some are hagiographies, others are attempts to explore Marx's thought by understanding him as a man, and others are attempts to justify all sorts of contemporary ideas by appealing to the great man himself.

One of the most recent biographies was the 1999 book by Francis Wheen. It is certainly an accessible read, and in parts is a good introduction to Marx's life and times. Wheen is not a Marxist and he struggled here, and in a later book, to explain some of Marx's concepts. Wheen also was obsessed with Marx the man, portraying him as a grumpy old man, who spends lots of time in dark rooms, writing impenetrable texts, and forming lifelong feuds with former friends over minor points of doctrine.

Franz Mehring on the other hand, was a dedicated Marxist and one of the leading members of the German socialist movement in the run up to World War One. Along with his comrades, Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, he fought to retain the genuine, revolutionary socialist tradition through the war years, when most of the socialist movement had capitulated to the needs of the German ruling class.

His biography is very important, because it is both a sympathetic account of Marx's life and an attempt to explain and reassert Marx's ideas. Unlike Wheen's book, Mehring does not dwell on Marx's private life. It is not that Mehring thinks it unimportant. Marx's lifelong friendship and collaboration with Frederich Engels clearly was extremely important to his ideas, and his ability to get them down on paper. 

Similarly, Mehring doesn't dismiss Marx's marriage. Jenny Marx shared in many of Marx's struggles through his life and the descriptions of their joint suffering when one of their children dies are deeply moving. Jenny Marx pre-deceased Karl by barely a year, and while Mehring doesn't dwell on this part of their lives in detail, it's heart-rending to realise that Marx was too ill to attend her funeral. His despair at her death remains with him in that dark final year.

For Mehring, far more important than the private tribulations of the Marx family, is Karl Marx the activist, the revolutionary fighter. Its difficult to reconcile this Marx with those critics who complain that the great socialist did not know workers, because he lived on donations from his rich friend. Marx and his family certainly knew poverty, but more important, Marx knew hard work. While he never turned a lathe or laid bricks, his life was one of constant writing, meetings and argument. His editorship of several newspapers during times of revolutionary upheavel were certainly difficult jobs, but essential to his life. Marx was not a revolutionary who sat back and commentated on events, he took part and actively engaged and tried to shape movements; often at risk of prison, or worse punishments.

Anyone who has been around the socialist movement for any length of time will recognise the debates and discussions that Marx and Engels engage in. In particular, the rows, polemics and arguments during the rise and fall of the First International seem eerily familiar. But again, this is Marx in his element, part of the struggle, trying to change the world.

Franz Mehring
Mehring takes time to explain Marx's developing thought through the book. In fact, placing his ideas at the core of the work makes the book far superior to other biographies. Marx's ideas developed and changed over time, as he learnt from the world outside and the experience of struggle. The first chapters on Marx's earlier philosophy are a little hard going as the explore the works of figures like Hegel, but Mehring shows how Marx breaks from these as he watches the struggle of workers, living and fighting in the real world. 

At each stage in Marx's life, Mehring examines his life and his work. So he takes us through the debates with other writers, the writing of the Communist Manifesto and Capital. The detail of the Paris Commune and Marx's brilliant polemic The Civil War in France is a fascinating chapter. Here we see Marx learning from the movement, but also actively engaging in solidarity. His home became a refuge for those fleeing the persecution of the Commune and his daughters married Communards.

Mehring describes some of the feuds Marx engaged in. Marx was no saint and like many socialists since, he was wrong occasionally and he was prone to believe false rumours about those he disagreed with or disliked. Mehring criticises his subject when describing the debates Marx had with Bakunin for instance, and has many good words to say about that class fighter, despite his critique of anarchism.

The Karl Marx in these pages is a fighter - a man angry at injustice, but thoughtful and inspiring. Someone prepared to fight his corner against all comers, but in no way monolithic in his thought. The author too comes through as deeply familiar with his source material and knowledgeable about obscure letters and newspapers. This is clearly the culmination of a lifetimes work. Like Marx, Mehring was a revolutionary who fought to change the world. If at times this book errs a little into the history of Germany and Prussia, it is in part because Mehring is engaged in debate and argument with his own comrades, as well as describing the background to Marx’s life. 

For those who want to know Karl Marx better, as well as understanding his ideas, I can think of no finer biography.

Lloyd Biggle, Jr - All the Colours of Darkness

Spoilers ahead:

On of the fascinating things about reading science fiction is the way that, despite deploying fantastical ideas, it dates so rapidly. Nonetheless, well written SF can still be immensely readable, decades later, despite its technological limitations.

That certainly is true of Wilson Tucker's The Long Loud Silence that I reviewed recently. Sadly it's not as true of Lloyd Biggle's All the Colours of Darkness which was written in 1963. This novel deals with the invention of a teleporting system and uniquely perhaps, the technological angle works really well, despite the book being half a century old.

The Universal Transmitting Company's breakthrough stands to make its directors' fortunes. Step into a booth in Manhattan and instantaneously you arrive at your destination, anywhere in the world. While hinting at the consequences for the freight, railroad and airline industries, AtCoD mostly concentrates on a detective plot around this technological marvel. On the first day of operation, several "passengers" go missing, but these persons have no public records, no relatives and no one, but the teleport operators, notice their passing. Our hero, is detailed to find them.

Despite owning the book for a couple of decades, I hadn't realised that detective Jan Darzek is a character in a whole series of novels, I doubt I'll look them out, because once the reader has exhausted the possibility of teleportation as a plot device, this is fairly mundane stuff. It is true that Biggles does well with the mystery of the unknown (aliens are, unsurprisingly involved) and there is a final treat at the end of the book. Biggles finishes the novel by posing his hero a major personal dilemia. Smacking slightly of those episodes of Star Trek that featured "Q", this raises the story a little above others of its genre.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Peter O'Donnell - Modesty Blaise

There have probably been a hundred James Bond impersonators. Few of them match Ian Fleming's style and writing ability. Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise is, in some ways, a far more interesting character than Fleming's Bond. O'Donnell can certainly write and his stories of the female agent and her sidekick Willie Garvin read well and have a certain humour that is lacking in most fiction like this.

Written in the mid-60s, at first it's hard not to see this book as being influenced in some ways by the growing women's movement. Its strong, central female character is unusal in the secret agent genre. But in reality, the stereotypes here are as terrible as any Bond girl. Modesty Blaise knows how to use a gun and is an expert in unarmed combat, yet at the end of every operation she cries to herself, while her male Garvin gives her a shoulder to rest upon.

The extraordinary detail about guns, knives, explosives and unarmed combat here, practiced by women and men, hides a much more annoying set of cliches. Women are emotional, men are strong. Even when Modesty tells her lover that he must agree to follow her orders when on an operation, he points out that when they're in bed, she is happy to follow his. Here is a female assassin, dressed in tight clothing and shimmering stockings designed to titulate. O'Donnell frankly spends rather a lot of time describing his heroine's underwear.

The actual story is fairly standard fare. A shipment of diamonds is to be robbed by an eccentric arch-criminal. His use of technology and an evil female hench-women is standard Bond, as is the climax which is stuffed full of technological wizardry and just-in-time solutions.

Modesty Blaise is famous for being a long-running cartoon and book series. Perhaps the novels improved over time, but don't fall into the trap of beliving that this is anything other than James Bond in a dress.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Gunnar Brulin & Malin Klingzell-Brulin - Food for Thought: On Food, Power and Human Rights

Swedish journalists and trade unionists Gunnar Brulin and Malin Klingzell-Brulin have here attempted to produce a book that helps us understand the networks of companies, industries and individuals that are behind the food that we see on our plate. Based in Sweden, and working in conjunction with the Food Workers' Union, they trace some of the strands backwards from Swedish shops to the many different parts of the world were workers are producing food, and more often than not organising to protect and improve their conditions.

We meet for instance, the workers of Coca-Cola in the Philippines, who are fighting the increased casualisation in their industry. The women who work for Nestle in Brazil, who are fighting an epidemic of Repetitive Strain Injuries caused by bad working practices. The authors travel to interview tea workers in India and trade unionists everywhere fighting to establish workplace recognition and building networks.

Anyone who has been involved in the union movement for any length of time will recognise the situations described here. We may never have been to the developing world, but many of us understand the difficulties getting a union off the ground, enthusing people to come to meetings, sitting in long debates with management, distributing leaflets outside factory gates. Partly based on their links with the International Union of Food Workers, the authors paint a picture of the importance of international solidarity, of workers who work for a Transnational Corporation understanding what their colleagues do and need half a globe away.

In many ways this is exciting, though the book is too short for us to learn much about many of the places and people we are introduced too. The story also shows the links between the climate crisis, the financial crises and the food crises. A system which means that 800 million people go to bed hungry every day. Further, the authors, or the union leaders that they interview are very radical, talking of sustainable industries and agriculture, dignity, democracy and empowerment. They challenge the company priorities, though there is an occasional tip of the hat to a business that is seen as more progressive than another - Coca Cola over it's rival Pepsi, which doesn't work with the unions at all.

But the problem for me is that there is little sense of a workers movement fighting for change here. There is organising, and the occasional mention of a strike or protest. But much emphasis is placed on working with the bosses in the interest of everyone. Coca Cola is mentioned because its management seem to have recognised the need to work with the trade unions. Is this why there is barely any mention of the death of trade unionists working for the company in South America? Rather we are told who easy it is for western trade unionists to raise questions of an ethical nature with their management.

This is a well produced book, that highlights the reality of the struggles that take place behind the food that we eat. Whether its coffee, chicken, pork or prawns this is the modern food system. The reality is that western food is built on a pyramid of casual, underpaid labour, that occasional relies on children, that frequently sacks trade unionists and that needs to be fought every inch of the way. As the authors detail well in the appendices, there are a tiny number of undemocratic, powerful and rich corporations controlling almost all the world's food.

If we're to have decent jobs, healthy and sustainable food than we'll need fighting trade unions. When this happens, it is clear that everywhere workers take an interest in the bigger picture. Brulin and Brulin show that this is beginning to happen but the bureaucratic approach taken by the cosy Scandinavian union's described here will not blunt the teeth of the capitalist tiger. We need much more than this.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

E.E.Evans-Pritchard - The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People

The Nuer of the Southern Sudan live in the country that borders the Nile river and other tributary rivers. Their life revolves around their cattle, which form both a major source of their food and a mainstay of their social interactions. They are also fishermen and farmers planting crops of millet on small islands that rise above the wider marsh.

Evans-Pritchard's book was first published in 1940 and is considered a classic of social anthropology. It is the first in a series of extensive studies of the Nuer made by the author. The very first chapter deals with his first visits to the area and the difficulties he has in positioning himself for these studies.

From Evans-Pritchard's descriptions, the Nuer in the 1930s seemed to practice a life that must have been very similar to that of the first agriculturalists. In fact their modes of organising society seem to be almost a bridge between what might be called a hunter-gatherer society and full, permanent agriculture.

This is particularly interesting because of the lack of class in their different communities. Class society could only come about when agricultural arrived as it was only then that there could be a surplus of food to support non-productive members of the population. But this was not immediate; there would have been plenty of transitory societies where agricultural was increasingly dominant but were the old, egalitarian, aspects hand not been lost.

This is described in great detail in this study. As the blurb on the back puts it, the Nuer's "economic life is related to the absence of chieftainship and to their democratic sentiment."

This is not to say that the Nuer lived a life in perfect Utopia. Food shortages were common, war, feuds, adultery and occasional murder are part of their society. But this was based on very different attitudes to the world around them, and each other.

In part this is reflected in their attitudes to leadership. There are leaders, but they are not permanent ones whose every word must be obeyed. Evans-Pritchard describes the tut a "chief man of his family and joint family" who "takes the most prominent part in settling the affairs of these groups, but he cannot ... be said to have political authority... A joint family decide on the advice of their tut to change camp... but other joint families decide not to move till another day. Leadership in a local community consists of an influential man deciding to do something and the people of other hamlets following suit at their convenience."

Much of this book is spent in great, perhaps labourious, detail exploring the particular lines of kinship, the particular way that feuds and social relations are followed through. Most of this is only going to be of interest to the student of anthropology, though for the lay reader, nuggets continually shine through. I was struck by the authors explanation of the way that the Nuer have an entirely different conception of time. For them there are more spacings of time in the morning, when they are busiest looking after cattle than in the afternoon. Because of the lack of written records their history never grows beyond a few memorable generations. Evans-Pritchard points out that for the Nuer, the "distance between the beginning of the world and the present day remains unalterable" and was shown the tree under which humans came into being.

Private property played a different role for the Nuer. To them, cattle were everything, they enabled someone to get married, to atone for crimes to help a family member setup home. But the accumulation of cattle was meaningless. Once a Nuer male had enough cattle he would marry again or pass them on. Nuer would, it is true, get more than they needed of certain things, such as good fishing spears. But these would be taken from them by people who needed them and no crime was ascribed. Strict protocols governed the Nuer's life. "I have never heard of a Nuer stealing a cow from a fellow tribesman merely because he wanted one" points out Evans-Pritchard. Though the Nuer were perfectly happy to steal from a neighboring tribe.

One thing that struck me about the descriptions of Nuer life was the lack of discussion about the role of women. All the examples quoted above were based on the authors conversations with men, and it is clear from examples in the book to do with marriage, that women had a subordinate role in Nuer society. It is possible that this topic is covered in more detail in the later volumes of Evans-Pritchard's work. Clear divisions of labour existed in Nuer life. But often these were not based on sex, but on age groups. Age groups played a much more important role in Nuer society, though the examples of Age-Sets given in the final chapter here, are all about men. It would be illuminating to read further on this question.

I could write much more, but I would rather encourage people to read further. In summary, what Evans-Pritchard's detailed studies show, is that people who have different modes of production have different social organisation which consequently shapes different ideas in peoples heads. Trying to get the heads around these ideas, is very difficult for those who view from outside. This is why it is so wrong to described pre-capitalist, or even pre-class modes of production as "primative". They're anything but. It is for this reason that the author spends so much time looking at the details of inter-tribal relations and the like. But for most of us, we can simply delight in reading about a different way of organising society, not because we want to return to such a way of living, but because it shows that human-nature is not fixed and may well change again.

Related Reviews

Evans-Pritchard - Kinship and Family amongst the Nuer
Burke-Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wilson Tucker - The Long Loud Silence

Waking in a dirty, run down hotel, Corporal Gary finds that his drunken binge has left him in a really bad fix. While he slept off the alcohol the United States has been attacked. Nuclear weapons and germ warfare have left the Eastern States of the USA plague ridden and deadly. Desperate to return to his beloved army, Gary finds that the bridges across the Mississippi have been destroyed. The river now forms an internal border, the existence of the plague on the eastern side has left a few survivors, but these are carriers. Should they cross the river they'll spread the disease and decimate the rest of the Americas.

Given this short science fiction novel was written in the early 1950s, it has dated very well indeed. Wilson Tucker has written a short, tight and very readable novel that examines what happens when people are suddenly cut off from their own support networks. The United States government forgets the survivors in the east. When they try and cross into the safe areas they're mercilessly gunned down. But the radio tells stories of another enemy spy prevented from entering.

To say much more would ruin the plot. If you want to get the spoilers, the Wikipedia entry has a fairly comprehensive breakdown of what happens. Tucker portrays a dog-eat-dog world. But one with surprising amounts of human solidarity. Given its early publication date (1952), I was surprised to see a polygamous relationship at one point. Tucker may well have been ahead of the curve when compared to some other SF writers of his era.

One final point. The original story had a darker, bleaker ending according to Wikipedia. Interestingly, given that this barely ends on a positive note, I think I'd have preferred his original one. Wilson Tucker was a new author for me, but one I shall return to on the strength of this novel.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Francis Pryor - Seahenge: A Quest for Life and Death in Bronze Age Britain

Readers may remember the excitement near the end of 1999 when a wooden circle was discovered on a Norfolk beach. Surrounding a central, uprooted tree stump, a circle of timber looked like a wooden Stonehenge. Quickly the media dubbed it Seahenge and the name has stuck. This irritates some students of archaeology, as the circle is not a henge in the sense that Stonehenge is. Rather the timber circle was actually made of planks, touching to form a continuous wall. It's only after thousands of years of action from water that we see the timber reduced to stumps, and the appearance of a henge.

Francis Pryor's book is much more than an exploration of what Seahenge was, and what it was for. It is a deep, semi-autobiographical trawl through the way that studies of the Bronze Age have changed during the last hundred years. Pryor is now one of the foremost archaeologists of the Bronze Age, and he has helped over see a changing view of the way that the people of that era lived, worshipped, farmed and died.

This book begins with Seahenge, but rapidly looks at a number of sites that Pryor has concentrated on. In particular, the Flag Fen site near Peterborough, which Pryor has been instrumental in excavating, exploring and bringing to the attention of the public. As he discusses his involvement with these sites, he teaches the reader how he, looks at the Bronze Age landscape. For Pryor, it is not enough to look at a site or a find in isolation, you have to understand it in the context of the wider world of the people who lived there, or buried the item in the ground. This means looking at the importance of boundaries, roads, paths and the edges of water. Pryor shows us how Bronze Age people might have seen the world around them, based on the layout of their farms and the positions of their buildings. His archaeological research is practical, and his statements, while they occasionally border on whimsy, frequently are based on experience. Pryor knows that you can't have a central chimney on a Bronze Age round house, because he's tried it and had to flee the recreation as it filled with dense smoke. Pryor begins with Seahenge, but he finishes there too. You cannot explain Seahenge without understanding the wider Bronze Age experience, and this is one of the reasons that the book is so strong - the author is giving us the intellectual basis to understand Seahenge. You cannot explain a monument (if that is the right word) like this, without this. It would be like trying to sum up the Magna Carta, or Karl Marx's thought in a single sentence.

This is a practical book, in the sense that Pryor is a hands on writer. He talks as he works, we learn the detail of how to excavate a trench. One of the things I particularly like is the way that Pryor never forgets everyone who is involved in a dig. From the driver of the JCB to the people who work the metal detectors, Pryor sees archaeology as a collective effort, a democratic one too, if his descriptions of the working meetings are anything to go by. This is reflected in Pryor's own view of history:

"At the end of the second season in 1972 I gave a paper at a conference in Newcastle, in which I described the emerging picture of well-regulated life in the Bronze Age. No sooner had I stepped down from the stage than half a dozen academics declared that such order and organisation could only be due to the presence of a powerful political elite, who controlled those otherwise unruly prehistoric Fen folk. I don't know why, but this assumption irritated me. Why couldn't they control the way they behaved themselves? Why do some always have to look for a ruling class, just because ordinary people seem to be running their lives efficiently and well?"

There are some interesting bits here. Pryor discusses the neolithic revolution, the moment in human history, when agriculture transformed our ways of life and pushed us in the direction of class society and the accumulation of ever greater wealth. He points out that this was less of a revolution than a gradual process, agriculture having its roots in early experiences, even of hunter-gathering communities. While the transformation was revolutionary, it was not a process that happened overnight, nor was it simultaneous everywhere. This view feels more natural, though I think Pryor underplays the importance of the term revolution in this context. The development of agriculture and the transition to a life dominated by sedentary life, rather than movement was a culmination of what had happened before, but it was also a break from it. Humans constantly develop their forces of production, sometimes they transform their situation into a new mode of production. Hunter-gathering had elements of agriculture to it, but it is a fundamentally different system to one based on agriculture.

But these are really the minor quibbles of a Marxist obsessed with early farming. Pryor's book is one of the best introductions I've ever read into Bronze Age history and archaeology. If it doesn't make you want to read more, or visit the stones of Carnac in Brittany, or Flag Fen itself, then I really cannot imagine what will. Most of all though, Pryor is a writer who likes people. Those that lived, worshipped and were sometimes buried at the sites he describes are real, rounded individuals who lived in the midst of a landscape they tried to shape and understand. For this reason alone, Pryor is an archaeologist who, it feels to me is on the right side.

Related Reviews

Pryor - Britain BC 
Pryor - Britain AD
Pryor - Britain in the Middle Ages
Pryor - The Making of the British Landscape