Friday, August 23, 2013

Utsa Patnaik & Sam Moyo - The Agrarian Question in the Neoliberal Era: Primitive Accumulation and the Peasantry

In the early 1970s, Walter Rodney wrote How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. His argument was that Europe had underdeveloped Africa in the interests of their own developing capitalist economies. Patnaik and Moyo's short book is a further development of this thesis. In particular though they argue that neoliberalism continues to make the Global South's agriculture subservient to the interests of the developed world.

The way that neoliberalism has opened up the economies of the developing world to the interests of capital is nothing new. From an agrarian point of view, neoliberalism has two major impacts - the removal of "price support mechanisms" that have helped peasants sell their goods in the face of cheaper commodities from other countries and secondly, a "sustained attack on peasant-owned or occupied land in the name of 'development'."

The case of India will help us understand what happens. After independence, the Indian agrarian economy "was protected for nearly 40 years and output of foodgrains per head slowly climbed back to 183kg per head by the early 1990s." Output per head had peaked at 200kg around 1900 and fallen to 136kg in 1946. But India was opened up to neoliberalism in 1991 and since then, the gain of the last forty years has been "wiped out". Consequences are shocking:

"No mass peasant suicides owing to debt took place before 1991 in India. Since 1996 as global primary prices fell and under the WTO discipline, protection has been virtually removed; indebtedness-driven farmer suicides started from 1998. Total recorded farmer suicides between 1998 and Dec 2008 were 198,000; specifically debt-driven suicides have claimed over 60,000 peasant lives over the last decade.

Neoliberalism has, in the interests of big capital, reconstructed the agrarian economies of countries like India. The authors argue that this is in order to fuel the continued accumulation of capital in the developed world.

"The entire thrust for free trade in agriculture, as promoted by the Bretton Woods institutions and through the WTO has as its primary aim the re-opening of the lands of the global South to meet the increasing demands of the North."

Controversially though, Utsa Patnaik in his opening essay argues that this is not new. Rather than an agricultural revolution in Europe fuelling the birth of capitalism, he says that agriculture proved inadequate to the task. While Enclosure and the Clearances laid the basis for the industrial workforce to enter the factories, it could not feed them.

"In 18th century England there may well have been a revolution in the social relations of production, but the resulting capitalistically organised agriculture showed little success in meeting the challenge of industrialisation from the point of view of raising the productivity of land and labour to the extent required."

Patnaik's detailed figures seem to show that yields in Europe did not grow enough to feed the industrial workforce and that these economies were then dependent on colonies for their cheap foodstuffs as well as markets. Africa, Asia and South America were thus refashioned in the interest of the needs of the developed world. This is part of a wider argument with those, such as Henry Bernstein, whom Paitnaik believes suggest that development of capitalism in poorer countries no longer requires the surpluses from domestic agriculture. On the contrary, Paitnaik suggests that it was never domestic agriculture that brought about capitalist transformation, rather a global exchange that relied on the higher yields obtained in colonial countries to fuel industrialisation, which in turn left the rest of the world underdeveloped.

Today the authors argue, little has changed. The reaction to the 2007/2008 food crisis was a "new scramble for land in Africa" to feed a price bubble in food and biofuels. Neoliberalism and the food crisis has also created a speculative bubble in land prices further impoverising and driving more peasants from the land. A process that Moyo refers to as a resuscitation of the land commodification agenda. Today, as Paitnaik argues,

"corporate subjugation of peasant production is nothing by the imperialist domination of our peasantry for the purpose of export production and it pauperises the peasantry and the labourers."

Contemporary land grabs and the dispossession of peasants from their lands are merely the latest stage in a process that began in England in the 17th century. But the peasantry of the Global South has "nowhere to go". 

What is the alternative? Both authors argue that what is primarily needed is a break from the neoliberal agenda. This much is obvious and their book provides ample evidence for why this is necessary. Less clear is a longer term strategy. The ability of the state to subsidise sections of the economy and offer reforms is a key strategy. For instance, Moyo concludes that what is needed are:

"New regional integration strategies based on holistic agrarian reforms and aimed at collectively reversing the decline of domestic food production and food consumption, including protection from external shocks and dependency are crucial. These have to counter current market based functional regionalism by building a popular regional industrial policy framework that systematically reverses the current opening up of the region."

But this seems only to offer a more friendly version of capitalism on a localised level. While blunting the neoliberal axe may be a good thing, the problem for the people of the Global South as well as their counterparts in the North is an economic system that places them secondary to the pursuit of profit. While food sovereignty is a worthy aim, in and of itself it cannot protect the poorest sections of society against a system geared on the pursuit for profit. Ultimately capitalism, whether the neoliberal system, or more localised is built on exploitation.

State lead intervention to assist and develop the agrarian economy is needed. But what is more urgently needed is a movement from below that can challenge capitalism, in the North and the South and begin to create an agricultural system based on providing for need not profit.

Related Reading

Bernstein - Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change

Larry Niven - Ringworld Engineers

*Spoilers Alert*

While engaging in my own writing tasks I recently decided to re-read Larry Niven's Ringworld series in its entirity. I've reviewed a couple of these previously (back in 2006 for Ringworld and 2007 for the finale here).

The Ringworld Engineers is the second of Larry Niven's book about this enormous alien ring that orbits a far off planet. Readers of the first (and by far the best) of the series will know that when humans Louis Wu and Teela Brown arrive, along with the Kzin Speaker to Animals and the Puppeteer, civilisation on the Ringworld is in decline. Across millions of square miles a previously high tech civilisation has fallen apart. Ringworld Engineers begins the telling the story of how the "fall" happened and who is responsible. In particular, we learn that the Ringworld itself is under threat of destruction as its moving out of its orbit and threatens to brush against the sun.

One of the reasons Ringworld worked so well was precisely because the collapse of civilisation gave the whole novel a sense of mystery. The reader doesn't know who built it or how. The hook that hangs the second novel together is whether Louis Wu and the others can save the Ringworld, while risking the lives of billions of billions.

Niven's writing has matured by the time he penned Engineers. Though in this one, as with the sequels, he begins a somewhat awkward fascination with inter-species sex. This apparently develops as a way that the Ringworld's myriad of different, but linked species, can prove their friendliness. It makes for some odd encounters and slightly eye-brow raising sequences.

On the subject of sex, one of the improvements over the first novel, is that Niven is much better at writing about female characters. The only two women in Ringworld described at any length are basically there to show of Louis Wu's sexual prowess and intelligence. One of them indeed was specifically a prostitute employed on a spaceship (who turns out to be a liar too) the other was the lucky Teela Brown who appears to only be able to survive with a male companion. I never quite knew how tongue in cheek Niven was when he wrote that Teela took up with a walking cliche at the end of the first book. That said, both these novels are of their time. SF these days rarely have quite such obvious sexist limitations as the 1970s. Though sadly things haven't changed rnough.

Engineers is a fast paced novel. Not quite as sharp as the first, it has none of the flabbiness that the remainder of the series has and the ending ties the story into Niven's wider Known Space universe. There are some brilliant set piece scenes too. For instance Chemee's (as Speaker to Animals is renamed) attempt to prove himself as a proper Kzin by capturing an enormous Battleship; Louis Wu's exploration of a city whose families via against each other for limited resources and knowledge. It's an echo of medieval Bologna whose inhabitants erected towers to outgun and impress each other. Wu arrives with the secret to repairing their broken technology and upsets the whole power structure.

The fallen Ringworld civilisation gives a great backdrop to this story, indeed the Big Dumb Object of the title is the best thing about this series.

Related Reviews

Niven - Crashlander
Niven - Ringworld
Niven - Ringworld's Children

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Mike Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World

Ever so often you come across a book which profoundly shakes you. Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts is one of those. On every page there is a fact or figure that makes the reader rage with anger; every chapter is a ringing denouncement of capitalism and colonialism. It should be required reading for all those politicians, journalists and armchair generals who profuse to know what to do about the "Third World".

In the late Victorian era, a period stretching from roughly 1876 to 1900, a series of droughts and famines hit large areas of the world. Various studies, both contemporary and more recent, paint a truly appalling picture of the resultant deaths. A study by the medical journal The Lancet in the immediate aftermath suggested that 19 million Indian people died during the 1896-1902 famine. The totals from all the events, allowing for the variance of scientific debate suggest between 31.7 and 61.3 million died.

Mike Davis argues that these were not merely environmental disasters. Changing weather patterns were caused by the complicated ENSO changes of air-pressure and ocean temperatures. The El Niño effects certainly could be associated with dramatic changes in rainfall, or wind patterns that brought crop failure or flooding to large areas. In late Victorian times politicians and apologists for colonial policies made much of the supposed links between these weather patterns and regular famines. But Mike Davis argues that the economic policies and the particular nature of colonialism (specifically in the British Empire) made, in places as diverse as Brazil, India, the Philippines, Korea, Africa and China, the famines far worse. As Davis suggests, of the victims:
They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed many were murdered... by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill.
I've written elsewhere about the Irish Potato Famine and the way that British rulers application of the principles of Free Trade condemned thousands to starvation while grain was shipped out to be sold at a profit. What Davis describes is a similar process on an enormous scale:
Although crop failures and water shortages were of epic proportion.. there were almost always surpluses elsewhere in the nation or empire that could have potentially rescued drought victims.
It is worth repeating this simple fact. That (with the possible exception of Ethiopia in 1899) Davis argues that there was almost always enough food or other supplies that could have helped the starving peasants. The people didn't just starve - sometimes they sold their children into slavery in the hope they would survive, or killed strangers and committed cannibalism, or ate tree bark and mud. But their deaths, or many of their deaths, could have been avoided.

Take the official report on the Bombay famine of 1899-1902, which concluded that "supplies of food were at all time sufficient and it cannot be too frequently repeated that severe privation was chiefly due to the dearth of employment in agriculture." In neighbouring Berar, commissioners said that "the famine was one of high prices rather than a scarcity of food."

The problem was that the hungry couldn't afford to eat. It was rarely that there wasn't food. For instance Davis argues that the problem in the case of India was that the British had transformed the old social relations. Under British rule, profit was king, but so was private land. The British destroyed the old economic relations that gave peasants access to communal land and resources like wells. They broke up the old social obligations that meant Chinese rulers stockpiled grain for famine outbreaks. They scrapped the requirements to build or maintain flood defences or dams, because they were considered native, and not valid scientifically. All these facts helped make famine far worse when it arrived. Indeed some of the most shocking descriptions here are when Davis contrasts the way that before colonialism, societies in India, Africa or China dealt far better with drought than under the Imperial era.

Indian Famine Victims 1877
But there was a reason the British behaved like this. Over the 19th century the peasants of South America, Africa, China and the Indian subcontinent became attached to a world market. In a case study from India, Davis describes how the real local power was the Manchester cotton barons who effectively, through their representatives in the Raj, imposed a cotton market on some of the most arable land in India. By changing the local taxes, getting rid of previous local government structures and altering property relations, the British turned the area into a vast cotton factory which produced wealth for the cotton owners of Lancashire, but poverty for the native Indians. When famine came the peasants had no crops to eat, but nor did they have enough money to buy food. The logic of the market was then to abandon them to their fate.

And the vast infrastructure that the Empire builders created, the roads and rail-roads didn't serve to bring food to the hungry, it took it to where the profits were to be made. In the 1870-80 famine, according to official reports, In Bombay and Madras Deccan, "the population decreased more rapidly where the districts were served by railways than where there were no railways." It was easier to take the food away with trains. Davis also writes on how modern industry failed the hungry:
The newly constructed railroads, lauded as institutional safeguards against famine, were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought-stricken districts to central depots for hoarding (as well as protection from rioters). Likewise the telegraph ensured that price hikes were coordinated in a thousand towns at once, regardless of local supply trends.
This is not a happy book. When Mike Davis describes the vast celebrations for Queen Victoria's Jubilee that involved enormous feasts at a time of vast hunger, most readers will feel sick. I certainly did. But the really sad thing is that nothing has changed. Capitalism's distortion of agriculture through the creation of cash crops and the domination of large multinationals leaves millions still in a precarious place, and as Mike Davis suggests, all the evidence is that global warming will make El Niños worse in the future.

Anyone interested in the confluence of the environment and the economy and the impact upon human beings should read this book. But so should anyone who wants counter-arguments to those who suggest that Empire was a good thing for the majority of people in the world.

Related Reading

Davis - Planet of Slums
Davis - The Monster at Our Door
Woodham-Smith - The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-9
Bello - The Food Wars
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Kent Flannery & Joyce Marcus - The Creation of Inequality

Subtitled How Our Prehistoric Ancestors set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery and Empire this is a very important, and extremely well researched book that traces the development of human society from egalitarian hunter-gatherers to class divided, unequal societies like monarchies.

The authors argue that the first human societies where ones dominated by generosity, sharing and altruism. These societies also hand numerous internal checks to try and protect that egalitarian nature. For instance, both Eskimo and !Kung people have been shown to have used marked hunting arrows to determine who killed an animal. But the !Kung mixed up these arrows so no one really knew who had been the successful hunter. These two societies, and many other hunter-gatherer communities used ridicule and humour to downplay success and prevent anyone gaining a position above others. While successful hunters were cherished, they were expected to downplay their skills and share the fruits of their victories.

Flannery and Marcus have tried not to use studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers. Understanding that almost all of these groups are now changed by their contact with globalised capitalism, the authors instead have looked at records from the earliest encounters with hunter-gatherers. They then attempt to look at historical evidence for similar behaviour in the past. In fact, the greatest strength of this book is its rigorous attempt to find evidence for all aspects of the author's theories at different stages of human history and in different places.

As hunter-gatherers developed technology and skills, their social organisation developed as well. With the development of clan based societies, it was possible for inequality to appear. At first this was simply the difference between someone who had skills or experience over those who didn't. But with the rise of agriculture, the ability to store surplus food meant that "Big Men" could arise who could give others food. In time, some of these people, or even whole lineages could crystallise out into a wider class.

The authors then explore how these early unequal societies might become monarchies or other types of stratified groups, discussing how groups learn from each other, destroy each other, or even revert back to different social organisations.

This is a very important book, and I encourage everyone who has an interest in early human societies to read it. This review deliberately doesn't do the book, or the authors justice as I have written a more detailed and lengthier review for elsewhere.

My extended review of this book for the International Socialism Journal 140 can be read here.

Related Reviews

Stringer - Homo Britannicus
Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Engels - Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

Friday, August 09, 2013

Brian Richardson (ed) - Say It Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism

This collection of essays is an extremely important contribution to our understanding of racism, and a powerful tool for those trying to learn how best to fight racism and fascism today. The authors are all activists in the socialist and anti-racist movements in the UK and the essays are clear and easily readable. The book also has some powerful and inspiring photos of the history of British anti-racists struggles.

It would not be possible to cover all the different essays in this review. Instead I intend to concentrate on a few of them, but this is not to diminish the importance of the others. For those interested in finding out more, Socialist Worker has published some extracts, but I encourage readers to purchase the book, read it and discuss it further.

In his opening essay, journalist Ken Olende, examines the roots of racism. Marxists do not argue that racism is natural, instead the origins of racism can be located at a particular point in the development of capitalism. The mid-Atlantic slave trade of the 17th century onwards. After briefly demonstrating that "scientifically, race is a meaningless concept", Olende points out that before mid-Atlantic slave trade, there had been no systematic belief that people with darker skins were somehow inferior to white Europeans.

But racism arose as part of the need by the capitalists to justify slavery. It had enormous consequences for them. As the American Marxist Hubert Harrison wrote in 1911:
to the credit of our common human nature, it was found necessary to reconcile the public mind to the system of slavery. This was effected by building up the belief that the slaves were not really human: that they belonged to a different order of beings... One broad, general implication of this belief seems to be the denial of social, political and economic justice to all people not white.
Racism did not arise out of a great ruling class conspiracy. it was linked to wider social struggles, in particular, Olende argues, the joint struggles between black and white people at the bottom of American society in the 17th century. He writes that the:

Planter's fears of solidarity among the lower classes were a key factor that encouraged them to aggressively push a racist agenda. They were obsessed with effective exploitation. Race only became an issue where it complement their needs.

The introduction of racism against black people, firstly by the slave owning plantocracy and then by the wider capitalist class was not automatic. White people in Britain, as well as elsewhere were often at the forefront of struggles to protect escaped slaves, or indeed the emerging abolitionist movement. Olende also shows how the struggles of the slaves themselves were also crucial to ending slavery.

But since slavery ended racism has continued. This is because it plays a specific role in capitalist society. In particular it divides the working class. In her brilliant essay on How do we fight Racism today? Esme Choonara points out that studies have shown that were racism exists, both black and white workers suffer. This contradicts those who believe that white people benefit from racism. She quotes a study by sociologist Al Syzmanski who looked at the position of black and white workers in 50 states of America. He
found that 'the higher the black earnings relative to white, the higher white earnings relative to whites elsewhere in the US'. He concluded that "white workers appear to actually lose economically from racial discrimination.
Racism however is not static. After Slavery, it was consolidated through Empire, when Britain and other countries needed to justify their actions in the rest of the world. The rhetoric changed - instead of talking about sub-human people who could be enslaved, the populations of India or elsewhere were described as uneducated, unable to build civilisation and in need of European technology, intelligence and skills to develop. Instead their countries were pillaged in the interests of capitalism.

Racism, and racist rhetoric continues to develop. A number of essays in this book, in particular the very useful study of the development of Islamophobia by Talat Ahmed, look at how this has taken place in recent years. In 21st century Britain, racism is aimed at many different groups of people, but at its sharpest point, racist language and discrimination is used against the whole Muslim population in an attempt to divide and rule. Ahmed argues that this is a result of 30 years of demonisation of the Islamic world, by an imperialist system that needs to justify its actions around the globe. She traces the development of this rhetoric, from the Salman Rushdie affair in Britain, through the First Gulf War and more recently the aftermath of 9/11.

This is not to say that things have simply got worse. In fact in Britain, as several authors point out, mass anti-racist and anti-fascist movements have at times held back and defeated the growth of wider racist forces. Weyman Bennett's article on the way that socialists have worked with wider forces to break Nazi organisations in the 1970s and 1990s in the UK is very important. Hassan Mahamdallie looks in detail at the way the Family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence helped create a mass campaign that challenged racism in British society, particularly inside the police force. Editor Brian Richardson looks at the sad outcomes to this, as successive governments, particularly Labour ones undermined and blunted the work of that movement.

The final essay in this book by Esme Choonara is a reiteration of the importance of Marxism to struggles against racism today. She argues that racism originates within capitalism and is constantly renewed by it. She also points out how any understanding based on hierarchies of oppression, or notions that all white people are oppressors can only weaken the struggle against oppression. For instance, she quotes Guardian columnist Ally Fogg who, writing about the oppression of women "suggests that maybe we should stop saying that women are underpaid by 20 percent in the workforce and consider instead that men are 20 percent overpaid."

Such arguments will do nothing to unify a working class movement in the face of sexism. Similar arguments that suggest that white workers benefit from racism do not help create unity. Nor do they advance a wider critique of capitalism which uses oppression to divide those who have the power to challenge a system of exploitation and profit.

One of the themes of this book is that when ordinary people get together, as they did in the 17th century, or in the abolition movements, or in the struggles in the United States in the 1960s, or more recently in the UK, they can both challenge racism and radically transform people's ideas. Having a core of activists who understand the roots of racism and the way to defeat the system that breeds it, can make an enormous difference. This excellent book is a powerful weapon in bringing that about.

Related Reviews

Fryer - Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain
Snowden - Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks
Aspden - The Hounding of David Oluwale
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Hirsch - In the Shadow of Enoch Powell

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Roger Moorhouse - Berlin at War: Life & Death in Hitler's Capital, 1939-1945

Roger Moorhouse's history of life in Berlin during World War Two is an exceptionally readable and detailed account of the lives of ordinary people during the war years. It by turns horrifying and inspiring, and it deserves to be read alongside other social histories of the conflict, in particular Angus Calder's Peoples' War with which it compares very favourably.

 Moorhouse does not accept that the majority of ordinary Germans were complicit, or even supportive of the Nazi regime and its actions. Berlin, he argues, was not a city whose population was a "indoctrinated mass of Nazified automata, sleepwalking into catastrophe... Berlin was a city where minorities of active Nazis and active anti-Nazis flanked an ambivalent majority, who were often simply motivated by self-preservation, ambition and fear."

Berlin was not a strong city for the Nazis, even though it was their capital. It had never returned more than a third of its votes for the fascists and had a long history of left wing activism. Additionally:

the city was the natural home of the nation's elite and attracted a large number of intellectuals, lawyers and politicians, many of whom opposed the Nazi regime. Their opposition was in part political, but it was primarily based on higher ideals; on a fundamental objection to the regime's habit of riding roughshod over established legal and moral principles. As a result of these factors, Berlin gained a deserved reputation as a hotbed of resistance against the Nazi regime, with as many as 12,000 individuals involved in organised opposition.

Whether or not the presence of the "elite" helped create an anti-Nazi opposition during the war is debatable. Certainly the inspiring parts of this book are the accounts of the resistance that took place (on however small a scale) and those Berliners who protected or tried to protect Jews through the war. It is noticeable that for the most part it was not intellectuals and lawyers who did this, but working people (often from a left wing background). I was particularly struck by the story of a factory worker who caught the eye of a Jew she worked with and dropped her ID card near the woman at the end of her shift. Having an "Aryan's" ID card saved the woman's life, yet her saviour never once spoke or interacted with her. There are plenty of similar stories, though the horrific parts of the book deal in large part with those Jews who couldn't be saved.

Resistance took place on many levels. Indeed, the scale of the repression against those who spoke out meant that acts of resistance sometimes seem very minor, but involved enormous bravery. One example were the "Swing Kids" who danced to banned music in side rooms and toilets in music halls and fought the Hitler Youth who tried to stop them.

Moorhouse does describe one example of mass resistance, a protest by hundreds of non-Jewish women, whose Jewish husbands had been rounded up from their workplaces during the Nazis' Fabrik-Aktion. Their protests led to these men being released and even a couple being returned from Auschwitz. This is the only example of mass resistance that is known. But hundreds of people were involved in other acts. Moorhouse quotes a figure of 5-7000 for the number of Jews who went underground, each of them required the co-operation of an average of seven Germans to survive.

Some of the most fascinating parts of this book though, are the accounts of the lives of ordinary Berliners. In particular I was struck by how little enthusiasm the majority had for the war, their shock at the invasion of the Soviet Union and the way that air-raids took them completely by surprise. Even those who hated the Nazis seemed to believe the propaganda that the war would never reach them. For those who have read accounts of the Blitz or the German Occupation of France there are many parallels; the hunt for food, the stresses of rationing, the rumours and the hope that peace was around the corner.

Ian Kershaw's recent book The End looked in detail at the reasons that Germany kept fighting until the end. Its an excellent book which I reviewed here. Roger Moorhouse however looks at what kept the ordinary German going until the end of the war - how they survived and what they endured, as well as what some of them did to try and fight the Nazis. It's a powerful read, with some amazing photographs and I recommend it.

Related Reviews

Kershaw - The End
Calder - The People's War: Britain 1939 - 1945
Sereny - Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth
Cobb - Resistance: The French fight against the Nazis
Gildea - Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France during the German Occupation

Friday, August 02, 2013

Kim Stanley Robinson - 2312

With the recent death of Iain M. Banks, few left wing science fiction writers remain. Ken Macleod and Kim Stanley Robinson are two that spring to mind, and most socialist SF fans will buy and read pretty much everything they release.

So I have to admit that I am a bit disappointed by 2312. It is different to much of KSR's former works. Less explicitly about revolution for instance, when compared to Icehenge or the Mars Trilogy. While the future solar system that KSR imagines in 2312 is fascinating and well thought out, the story doesn't hold the different imagined worlds together well and some bits of the plot are frankly, illogical.

Lets look at the good bits. For most people (certainly those off planet Earth) life is post-scarcity. On Earth, most of the population lives in a post-capitalist world, thought quite how this works is not really explained much. Earth itself is badly damaged by global warming. The methane hydrates are on the verge of melting and having already experienced major sea level rise, the population of the planet faces future rises.

Out in space things are better. Venus and Mars are in the process of being terraformed. Humans have footholds on the major moons and asteroids, utilising solar polar lasered in from Mercury and "vulcan" asteroids. The post-scarcity economy means that technology is utilised to hollow out the solar systems bodies which are used to create self contained environments packed full of Earth's plants and animals. Some might be complete oceanic eco-systems, others African savannahs filled with lions and their prey.

Into this mix KSR throws a convoluted plot centred on a minor revolt by artificial intelligence and the solar system spanning investigation to work out what is going on. The reader could benefit from some clearer pointers, not least because there is SO much to the novel. Why do SF writers feel they need to produce 600 page blockbusters these days? 2312 would have benefited by being edited down by 200 pages. My other complaint is that KSR's hero, Swan, is so unlikeable that I kept hoping she would die and leave the author spending more time describing his ecological aware future. In addition, the AI's seem anything by intelligent, and the plot is very shallow for such a long book.

Frankly I wouldn't bother with this unless you are a KSR fan, and stick to his earlier work, or re-read the Culture novels.

Related Reviews

Robinson - Years of Rice and Salt
Robinson - Icehenge
Robinson - Shaman

Thursday, August 01, 2013

G.E. & K.R. Fussell – The English Countryman: From Tudor Times to the Victorian Age

English rural life has been much romanticised over the years. One of the strengths of G.E and K.R. Fussell's 1955 book The English Countryman is that it doesn't romanticise the lives of those who laboured their lives in the fields of England. The shepherd for instance, idealised in the words of the authors “as if the season were always spring or summer, and his work little more than watching the gambols of the young lambs in the sunshine.”

Reality was very different. The Fussells point out that “this is all very nice, but it takes no note of wild work in the winter snow; living with the ewes when they were lambing in the cold early months of the year; of the long hours of sheep dipping, tarring and attending to feet against the rot; of the hours spent in changing fold hurdles; the dusty, often itchy, work of shearing.” Nor does it allow for the loneliness of the worker far from companionship.

Life was no better for those who worked from home. The ploughman in early Stuart times who began work at 4am, and retired to bed fourteen hours later.

While trying to portray the reality of country life, the Fussells also capture the great changes that have taken place over the four centuries that their work covers. The new ploughs and other equipment or crop rotations. Particularly important in this period was the introduction of clover and turnips to rejuvenate the soil, allowing uninterrupted growth of food (for man and beast).

There is also the social change. Here the Fussells bring a useful over-view to the great agricultural transformation that took place as England moved from feudalism to capitalism. Under the former, tenant farmers were expected to pay tithes for almost everything. The authors explain how in the 1650s:
...there were tithes of hay and corn and the tithe lambs were taken on St. Mark's Day. The tenth or seventh calf was taken when it was due and if not a tithe calf then a shoulder when the calf was killed. A halfpenny had to be paid at Martlemas (11th November) if it was weaned and if it was sold the tenth penny. The wool was tithed when it was sheared either by the tod or by the pound. Pigs were tithed when they were ready to eat “for odds the Vicar gave or took a halfpenny on pigs. He took up the tithe eggs on the Wednesday before Easter, two eggs for every hen or duck, three eggs for every cock or drake. Twopence must be paid for every communicant at Easter...
The list continues for fruits collected, vegetables grown and honey sold. This was in addition to labour that the rural peasants were expected to give to their lord. Capitalism introduced wage labour, though in many cases it seems that farm workers were then exploited far more.

Working for a wage meant only being paid for days worked. Unwanted workers were left frequently to starve. The market which seemed to offer much to those with land and capital also brought the crisis of boom and slump, hitting the countryside hard, but most particularly those without land, or capital.

Sadly this history of the lives of the English Countrymen contains little on their own struggles for social justice. The Tolpuddle Martyrs get a passing mention, but little is said of other rural struggles like Captain Swing or other examples of rural insurrection. Certainly nothing on resistance to Enclosure. In fact, the image we get from the authors is closer to the idealised history they set out to deny:
The farmer's men carried on as the farmer did. His lot was hard and his reward was minute, but love of the work was ingrained in both and one could not have kept going without the other.
In their brief discussion of the English Civil War they deny that the majority of the rural population was bothered at all, referring to the “hundreds of other villages all over the country that were equally placid because armed activity was sporadic and localized at different times during the campaign. Unrest there must have been, though many rustic people took no part in the fighting at all except when they tried to protect their own goods from one army of the other.”

This is to deny the throwing down of fences and opening up of enclosed lands that took place on a large scale, and was, at least initially, supported by Cromwell himself. Or those movements, such as the Diggers, who wanted to transform rural social relations.

To deny the class struggle in agricultural history is to misunderstand the dynamics of change in the countryside. Sadly then, this history of the English country person is missing a crucial element. It is a useful description of scientific and technological change, with interesting quotes and anecdotes that give one half of the story, but it misses a much bigger picture.