Friday, January 31, 2014

N.A.M. Rodger - The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649

The history of the British Isles has been shaped by its island nature. Yet for much of the period covered in this book, there was no formal navy. Indeed, for a large part of this time frame, Rodger's points out that the various monarchs struggled to find the finance to maintain even a few standing ships that might be used in defensive or offensive roles. Rodger is obliged to list the various ways that in times of need, the British, or English state needed to make shipowners and their crews take on a naval role.

This lack of a permanent navy tended to leave monarchs misunderstanding, or downplaying the role of naval forces in their military endeavours. Time and again Rodger's points out that a monarch missed excellent opportunities for military victory simply because they failed to deploy their ships in more than a supporting role.

We know little of the early navy, though the author does an excellent job in telling us what we do know, and summing up the evidence for what may have happened in the past. Ships tend not to survive well, though we can summarise that for much of the first few centuries covered in the book, English monarchs, traders, raiders and fishermen used a variety of ships similar in design to those of Northern Europe. Ships of "viking" design survived in some parts of the British Isles, surprisingly late,

"longest in the West Highlands and parts of Ireland, where the Lords of the Isles and other chiefs maintained large fleets of them throughout the Middle Ages.... The Highland 'galleys'... carried into the sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries that naval traditions of the Viking world. Though adapted to use the stern rudder, these galleys were in other respects unchanged examples of a building tradition which was by then more than a thousand years old."

Maintaining ships is a costly business. Few monarchs before the late Middle Ages could do more than hold together a token force in permanence. Most of those relied on commandeering ships from others in times of need. The biggest problem, was providing food, water and other supplies for the navy when it was required, and Rodger's spends fascinating chapters detailing how this became a major part of operations. Later, the role of individuals in the 16th and 17th centuries in filling their own pockets as part of the victualling process is examined, this wasn't always seen as the corrupt practise that we would think today. Indeed many of those in leading naval positions in the Elizabethan and Stuart era died having pumped large amounts of their own cash into the King's ships.

Other than the technological and political history, Rodger's looks at the lives of the sailors aboard these ships. Rarely did naval sailors earn the wages or have the quality of life of their comrades on merchant or fishing vessels. Life was hard, and few would volunteer, and Rodger's looks at the historic role of the press-gang in making sure there were enough men to man the ships. There is also, the occasional story of rebellion or mutiny as men refused to continue to work (and fight) for short wages.

It might seem that Britain achieved a navy because successive monarchs and states gradually came to understand the importance of this military power. Oddly this doesn't seem to have been the case. The navy rose and fell, in part based on the whim of the monarch, or his finances. It also depended on the threat form overseas, or whether there was opportunity for plunder from Spanish convoys. Henry VIII is often portrayed as the founder of the modern navy, paid in large part from the one-off monies from the abolition of the monasteries. Yet after Henry's death, the navy receded in importance again, rising to new heights with Elizabeth, then declining in the run up to the Civil War era.

At the heart of the book is the story of the Armada, and Rodger's ends a few cherished myths in this excellent chapter. But the real story is how, by the end of the Feudal era, Britain was in no position to have the navy it needed without fundamental change.

"the early Stuart Navy was not merely a decayed and corrupted version of the Elizabethan Navy, but a force attempting to respond to a new threat. Certainly it was under acute strain from human and administrative failings, but it is not sufficient to explain the Navy's weakness simply in moral terms.... the basic problem would have remained, unless the political system had been able to supply an income sufficient to sustain a modern war. Many of the Navy's difficulties were not unique to it, but were symptoms of strains that were falling on government and society in general... The historian's rhetoric of 'corruption' and 'reform' has obscured many developments which might be equally well thought of as growing pains. The question in 1630 was whether the Navy and the English constitution could grow and change fast enough."

Rodgers sets much of the theme for the second volume of his work here. Increasingly placing the navy as both part of the new social and economic order and one that is helping to shape Britain's place in the world. By understanding the navy as having this role in British history, rather than the central feature that explains British dominance of the globe for the next few centuries, Rodger's creates a much more nuanced version of history. One in which British supremacy was not inevitable, indeed almost never occurred.

There are some minor quibbles. I felt that the international role of Britain's ships was neglected, particularly in terms of the establishment of early colonies, and trade. Despite the length I also thought that more detail in some of the key chapters (such as the Armada might have been worthwhile). That said, this together with volume two, is a fine work and readers will be eagerly awaiting the final part.

Related Reviews

Rodgers - The Command of the Ocean

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mary Beard & Michael Crawford - Rome in the Late Republic

The end of the Roman Republic and the transition to the Imperial era is a fascinating period of cultural and social change, civil war, and political chaos. As the authors point out, in a "swift and striking transformation, a political system founded upon principles fundamentally opposed to monarchy was replaced by a system monarchical in all but name."

Precisely why this change happened is the subject of enormous debate and Mary Beard and Michael Crawford's book is one of the single best short introductions to the material that I have read. First published in 1985 this 2012 edition has a new introduction and supplementary material where the authors in general stand by their original arguments.

Perhaps the most important part of the authors' approach is the sense of the Roman Republic as a society in constant change and development. This is not a static society that suddenly goes into crisis, but a one were all sorts of individuals and social groups are in constant motion. Take the famous "turning point" of the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC. Here a radical proposal to redistribute land to the landless poor was made by Tiberius. Unusually he made it to the popular assembly, instead of the Roman senate. Tiberius' method and his ideas brought murder upon him from other members of the governing elite, because

"By his use of the popular assembly, Tiberius gave that body the status of rival to the senate as a source.. of political authority.... the proposal concerning the Asian revenues [to finance redistribution of land] carried with it the implication that the people had some claim on the management of the fruits of the growing empire."

Elsewhere the authors argue that other factors in Roman society were changing, the "development... of moral and political philosophy in the late Republic, bringing with it new ways for the Roman governing class to understand and justify their own conduct." Rules of how Rome was to be governed, and by whom, became more codified, less reliant on custom, more on law.

Similar there was an explosion of culture (which "did not involve the poor or lower classes), though with the reign of Augustus, the authors suggest that this become less dynamic and tended towards a more uniform nature.

Key sections of the book look at social and cultural structures of Roman society. All of these in flux and changing - whether religious practice, or the closely related political process. All these changes were key to understanding what took place with the fall of the Republic. The authors argue hard that there is no single factor. Instead;

"The changes in late Republican society should not be seen just as the causes of the breakdown of the specifically Republican political system; they were also parts of the development of Roman society, which underwent no clean break between the 'fall' of the Republic and the 'advent' of Empire".

The problematic word "revolution" is always used in this context. The authors perhaps clarify this somewhat by pointing out there were two parts to the revolution. The first is the end of the republic, the second is the way that Augustus made himself the single ruler. That story is not part of this book, though it is illuminated by the material here.

This is an excellent short history, marred only by the unfortunate high price. Heavily footnoted and with an excellent summary of the material, it is a must for all students of the period. It is a history based on an attempt to clarify the different, and often competing parts, of Roman society and to understand how they related to each other. It also sees Rome as a evolving culture, whose development brought further, sometimes unexpected changes, that altered the interests and forces within society. Eventually the many internal contradictions broke through, and a new regime was needed, one that could solidify Roman society in its new form.

Related Reviews

Syme - The Roman Revolution
Holland - Rubicon
Everitt - The First Emperor
Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars
Beard - The Roman Triumph
Beard - Pompeii

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Alan D. McMillan & Eldon Yellowhorn - First Peoples in Canada

Perhaps the first thing that strikes readers of this history of the Canadian First Nations peoples, is the sheer variety of ways of life that existed before the arrival of Europeans. From the Arctic peoples who lived in extreme cold, hunted seals, fished and gathered very little food, to those living on the plains, hunting bison or engaging in farming and those living from the vast salmon runs of the West Coast, or hunting and gathering in the extensive forests of the east.

An extremely crude version of Canadian (indeed North American) aboriginal history would simply separate the periods into that pre-European arrival and then post-European time. Some First Nations people have their own version of this, the "Dog Days" versus the "Horse Days", remembering a time when positions were moved with the help of Dogs and then, after European's had introduced horses, a time when travel (as well as hunting) was changed.

But what this book demonstrates is that there is an enormously history of those who arrived in the Americas via the Bering land bridge some 12,000 years ago. They arrived in a "Terra Nullius", a land empty of people, but stocked full of flora and fauna. The authors discuss at length how the first people arrived - contrasting the tradition view of an overland crossing with a suggestion that many people would have travelled along the coast lines. Over the intervening time span, humans spread to every corner of the continent, and adapted to live in a myriad of different ways.

Over time, the aboriginal cultures developed and changed. Some died out, victims of hunger or conflict with other groups. This process accelerated as Europeans arrived, particularly as a result of the diseases that came with them, but also as a result of violence and war. Thus the societies that existing at the point of European contact were not ones that had been fixed for thousands of years. They were the result of the First Nations own history, a history that would have continued on its own path had it not been interrupted by European arrival.

Contact with the global economy transformed aboriginal life. In part the existence of metal tools, guns and horses had an immediate effect on life. But so did the particular nature of the relationship. Many Europeans on the west and east coasts wanted enormous quantities of furs or skins. Purchasing these from the native people, transformed those societies. Now they hunted not for food, or to satisfy needs, but to produce commodities for trade. In one case mentioned in the book, warfare took place that may have annihilated the St. Lawrence Iroquois, as a rival group the Stadaconans tried to monopolise trade with the French.

At the core of this book is a detailed examination of the changing life of different First Nations peoples. This is rooted in archaeology and anthropology, but also the culture and knowledge that we have from encounters with these people since European Contact. Indeed, each section begins with an extensive look at the history of the different groups, then finishes with a history of the time of European contact and finishes by bringing the history up-to-date by discussing the group's experience during the "global era".

I found this later part quite illuminating. The struggles of the First Nations people against the emerging nation state of Canada, were struggles for survival. They were also struggles to protect a heritage. Even in the 20th and 21st centuries, First Nations peoples continue to have to fight for their rights and compensation for how they were treated in the past. Even as late as the 1980s remnants of old Indian Acts several restricted the rights of "Indians" to move, to drink or to work. Much has changed, but much must still change. The First Nations people are not a living museum, they are a people with a rich history which continues to develop. The great strength of this book is to link that history to today, and present a continuity of struggle.

Related Reviews

Fagan - The First North Americans
Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance 
Cronon - Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists & the Ecology of New EnglandTully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties

Friday, January 17, 2014

Neal Stephenson - The System of the World

Finishing Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle feels akin to completing a long voyage. This is not simply because the trilogy weighs in at nearly three thousand pages; it also reflects the enormous scale of the work. Covering some of the most turbulent decades of European history, we see the end of the old feudal order being replaced with a mercantile, capitalist system. The kings and lords are pushed out and replaced, particularly in England, by the coiners, the merchants, the investors and the traders. This is a set of novels about the capitalism becoming entrenched.

Set mostly in England then, System of the World book covers the machinations of those caught up in the whirlpools and eddies of the time. Many of these hang around the court – the post Civil War court – aware of their diminished power, but clinging on to tradition in the hope of wealth, prosperity and promotion.  This final volume brings it all to a head. If the first volume, centred in large part, on the Royal Society dealt with the transformation of culture and science in the new era, volume II examined the impact upon the rest of the world. There we saw South America being stripped bare of precious minerals, slavery and empire.  Our heroes have traveled the globe now and in the final volume they congregate back in England. Some of them attempting, through the introduction of forged coins, to debase England's currency, undermine the economy and open the door to counter-revolutionary foes. Others to stop them, but most of them trying to make a future for themselves by fair means or foul.

The System of the World is the climax to a string of different stories, linked and inseparable, but each with their own characters and subplots. As is the nature of climaxes there is a lot of energy, excitement and drama here. Stephenson ties up lose ends and characters at the same time as taking the story forward. Unusally for the trilogy I found it slightly over long – in the early volumes the philosophical detours that took in science and alchemy, royal intrigues or historical information here seem a distraction. The book could have been a hundred or so pages shorter without losing anything.

Ultimately the book comes down to the fates of the principle characters we met in the early pages of volume one.  Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, faces his final and greatest challenge after breaking into the world’s greatest prison. Eliza, the woman he has loved for three decades, is pulling a myriad of strings to ensure her plots and sub-plots work out. Scientists like Newton, Leibniz and the fictional Daniel Waterhouse are on the brink of new discoveries that will open up the universe to human intellect. But their fire and steam machines are also set to open up the world physically to the search for profit. The era of the human slave may be ending in some parts of the world. That of the wage slave and machine is dawning. A new World System as the title, after Newton, indicates.

Stephenson’s trilogy is a masterpiece. Each volume different yet together making an enormously satisfying whole. I marveled at the author's knowledge of the period, his grasp of science and his sense of historical change. Despite the characters frequently being kings, great men, landowners, famous scientists and merchants, the real heroes, drawn in loving detail are the ordinary people of the 17th and 18th century. So I recommend these books to all those who like their fantasy sprinkled with historical change, science, improbable adventure and the dirty streets of London.

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Paul Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy

Paul Burkett, along with John Bellamy Foster has been at the forefront of both rescuing the ecological core of Karl Marx's work and developing it further. This 2005 book puts the case that Marxism offers both the best critique of existing ecological economics and the best alternative. Burkett argues that "Marxist class analysis can help answer many of the questions raised by ecological economists, at the same time that the substantive agenda of ecological economics can enrich the materialist dimension of Marxism"

Until recently, Burkett argues, ecosocialist (a term I consider slightly problematic in this context) economists have "crowded out any serious Marxist engagement with ecological economics" because of the domination of the "two contradictions' framework".  Behind this lies a critique of Marxism that it doesn't "adequately account for the natural and social conditions of production". Burkett's book is an attempt to seriously grapple with these and other critiques and prove them wrong.

The first part of the book is an excellent attack on the ideas of contingent valuation (CV). Essentially, this boils down to various attempts to quantify natures' contribution to economics by putting a price on different parts of the environment. In some of the cases examined here, this is partly an attempt by various economic theorists to explore ways that the economy can take better account of the natural world. In others, CV is an attempt to mathematically model the resource inputs and waste outputs of the economic process. Should any reader think this is purely an academic experiment, I direct them to those neo-liberal politicians who, at the 2011 UN Environment Conference in Rio de Janiero, attempted to push an agenda where such price tags became the mainstay of international ecological practice. Something I discussed briefly in this article (PDF).

The great strength of Burkett's book is that the way he uses Marx's ideas. In contrast to the academic jargon of the mainstream economists he is analysing, Marx's alternatives shine through with great clarity. Burkett begins by looking at how Marx's debates with the physiocrats (19th century economists who believed land was the source of all wealth) allowed him to develop on their ideas. Burkett writes that "Physiocracy represents an interesting hybrid of the different views held by present-day ecological economists on nature's value." He continues:

"What distinguishes Marx from both the physiocrats and the contemporary nature valuation debate is his definition of 'value' as capitalism's specific form of economic valuation. For Marx, real wealth or use-value is anything that satisfies human needs, whereas value is the specific social representation of use-value under capitalism... Marx thus insists that value relations, including the various tensions between use-value and exchange-value, be analysed in terms of capitalism's specific relations of production."

Here is the crux of Burkett's argument. However brilliant your economic model is mathematically, it cannot account for the destruction of the environment by capitalism, unless it examines the "relations of production". Because Marx begins with the human-nature interaction at the heart of production, but then analyses all aspects of the social relations that result, his method allows a much more nuanced understanding of the degradation of nature. Affixing prices to nature, or parts of the natural world, cannot solve ecological problems because it leaves untouched the need for capitalism to accumulate for the sake of accumulation, whatever the consequences.

Neo-liberal approaches to the environment that begin by giving nature a price, end up with the "introduction of market mechanisms and norms into new spheres of life that previously have been protected from markets." [John O'Neill 1997, quoted by Burkett] The solution then, for the likes of Sir Nicolas Stern, is the introduction of even more market mechanisms, and the commodification of further aspects of nature. Once again, against this approach, Marx's approach begins from the nature of production, not the existence of markets.

"the conditions required by human production and development are in no way, not even partially, external  to the market-orientated sphere where surplus value is produced and realised. They are part of an overall process in which use-value (human need satisfaction and development through the metabolic interaction of labour and nature) is subsumed under, and becomes a means of, the class-exploitative and competitive process of value accumulation. In Marx's dialectical view, the ecological and other social costs of capital accumulation are internal to the general metabolic process of human-natural reproduction (co-evolution) in its specifically capitalist form."

The problem is not that capitalist markets haven't gone far enough, but the nature of capitalist production itself.

I've concentrated on these early aspects of Burket's book here, because I think they are most pertinent to the debates socialists and environmentalists are having at the moment. Burkett's book deals in depth with a number of other related topics. Some of these are very challenging and I feel that readers who, like myself, lack a background in mainstream economics may struggle with some of the chapters. While I was fascinated by those economists who have tried to use an analysis of entropy in ecological economics, I found that even Burkett's clear explantions were not enough. That said, there is still much for the reader to get from these chapters, if he or she is willing to study them.

Later chapters too, will be more accessible if the reader is conversant with the works of various other economists, and I think that many readers who pick up this book hoping for enlightenment may stop before the end. This would be a shame, because in his final chapters Burkett once again takes up the argument that Marxism can offer both a critique of existing ecological economics and an alternative. Unlike many academic Marxists Burkett doesn't simply suggest that Marxism's strength is just its analysis of capitalism, he also argues that the centrality of class struggle is of primary importance. In particular Burkett looks forward to a revolutionary over-throw of capitalism. His final chapters demonstrate the way that, in Marx's words,

"socialised men, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature."

Related Reviews

Foster - Marx's Ecology
Foster - The Vulnerable Planet
Smith - Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

R L Stevenson - Treasure Island

Treasure Island-Scribner's-1911.jpg
While reading recently about real life pirates, I decided to read R.L. Stevenson's classic novel Treasure Island. Reading it was a fascinating experience. I'd never read it before, yet the story was as familiar as if I had read it half a dozen times. No doubt this is because it is one of the most dramatised books ever published, being made repeatedly into a film and play.

So there is little point in detailing more in this review. Though it is worth noting that many of the popular conceptions about pirates had their beginnings here. Wooden legs, parrots on shoulders, Yo Ho Hoing, black spots and treasure islands. The popularity of the book must in part lie in its writing - the story is gripping and exciting, yet the characters are also wonderfully constructed. Blind Pew is terrifying as he taps his way around, the moment he grabs Jim Hawkins genuinely scary... Long John Silver is delightfully ambiguous in his morals and Hawkin's climatic battle with Mr. Hands is as exciting as gunfight ever imagined on the silver screen. The only characters that annoyed me, are the uptight and holier-than-thou Squire and Doctor. Stevenson slotting in some minor English gentry to demonstrate how the plebs ought to behave.

So if you're only experience of Treasure Island is the Muppet version, you really should dig out a free online copy of the original and follow Jim Hawkins into the South Seas.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Karl Marx - Value, Price and Profit

Karl Marx's work is often decried as being difficult or inaccessible. While it is true that some of it requires careful reading, the basic concepts are actually fairly straightforward, and indeed, many books have been written to present these ideas in an accessible way. What is less well known, is that Marx's own writing can be extremely readable, and he was a master at clarifying and presenting complex ideas. Value, Price and Profit is a case in point.

First presented as a paper to a meeting of the International Working Men's Association in 1865, its subtitle, "Addressed to Working Men", betraying its intended use - as a tool to educate and arm workers. In it, Karl Marx presents the basic concepts of what is today usually known as the Labour Theory of Value.

Marx begins by debunking a commonly held belief, that rises in wages cause price rises. At the time he was arguing with a fellow traveller of the IWMA. But more recently the argument that workers cannot have price rises because of inflation has been used by various governments. In opposition to the "dogma" that "prices of commodities are determined or regulated by wages", Marx embarks on showing what actually causes prices to rise. In doing so, he takes the reader through the nature of a commodities value and what gives it that value.

What gives a commodity a value, is its "relations to all other commodities" and the thing that all commodities, whether newspapers, gold or wheat have in common is the human labour required to make them. In a wonderfully clear passage, Marx shows how what is important in giving commodities exchangeable values is the social labour that goes into creating them.

"To produce commodity a certain amount of labour must be bestowed upon it, or worked up in it. And I say not only Labour, but Social Labour. A man who produces an article for his immediate use, to consume it himself, creates a product, but not a commodity. As a self-sustaining producer he has nothing to do with society. But to produce a commodity, a man must not only produce an article satisfying some social want, but his labour itself must form part and parcel of the total sum of labour expended by society. It must be subordinate to the Division of Labour within Society. It is nothing without the other divisions of labour, and on its part is required to integrate them. If we consider commodities as values, we consider them exclusively under the single aspect of realised, fixed, or if you like, crystallised social labour."
Marx then goes on to discuss Price a "peculiar form assumed by value".  Marx goes on to show the origins of the capitalist's profit, lie not in the setting of a commodities' price, but in the difference between the value generated by a worker and that paid to the worker. Because a working men sells is his Labouring Power, there exists the potential to alter both the wages and the profits. But because what the capitalist is doing is paying a wage, but gaining far more from the worker than the wage is worth, Marx repeats that "that normal and average profits are made by selling commodities not above, but at their real values." These real values are determined by the "social labour" utilised in manufacturing the commodity by the worker.

Despite the short length of this work, Marx packs a lot in. He has a brief digression on the origins of the wage labour system being in the separation of the worker from his original means of subsistence and the revolutionary change embodied in the transition to capitalism. Marx also discusses briefly how rent, profit and interest are actually different terms for parts of the surplus value extracted from workers.

But Karl Marx was above all a revolutionary, and the conclusion of the book, after drawing out the nature of work under capitalism, is to point out a revolutionary way forward. The struggle between workers and capitalists has an effect. As Marx points out "if wages fall, profits  will rise; and if wages rise, profits will fall". But for the worker this cannot be enough. Capitalism can only seek to maximise its profits by making workers pay, thus in order to secure for workers the best possible situation, the wages system must be ended. Famously Marx concludes that

"Instead of the conservative motto, 'A fair day's wages for a fair day's work!' they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, 'Abolition of the wages system!'

In this context, Trade unions are "centres of general resistance" to capital, but the struggle is hampered by their lack of revolutionary struggle, their "guerilla war against the effects of the existing system". What is needed is a revolutionary movement and this short book by the greatest anti-capitalist of them all, is one of the best weapons to educate and clarify workers in understanding the nature of the beast we must destroy.

Related Reviews

Marx - The Civil War in France
Mehring - Karl Marx: The Story of his Life
Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy
Harman - Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis & the Relevance of Marx