Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Stieg Larsson - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Given the popularity of this, the first of Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, a long review seems somewhat pointless. I arrive at it after millions of copies have been sold, films have been made and countless articles written praising Larsson's writing. That said this is one occasion when general popularity seems spot on. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is tightly written, the plot is gripping and the exploration of the darker side of Swedish society is compelling.

Sweden is supposed to be a model social-democratic society. Investigative journalist and publisher Mikael Blomkvist is supposed to sum this up. He writes to expose corruption and failure in the financial industry, he is left-wing and self-confident. But after he cocks up on a story and is sued for libel by the head of a massive Swedish company he's left to the dogs. Luckily for Mikael he's rescued by a somewhat eccentric proposal from a rather more benevolent multimillionaire capitalist.

Frankly I had less sympathy with Mikael that the author seems to want me to have. He's arrogant, brash and not particularly left wing. He's also cavalier with his sexual relationships in a way that seems to damage the people around him.

Which brings me to the real hero of the story, Lisbeth Salandar. Lisbeth has had an upbringing of violence and abuse. There are several difficult scenes in the book involving rape and violence against her, though through her skills she is able to have revenge. Through Lisbeth, Larsson is able to explore some of the ways in which even in a supposedly enlightened social democratic country domestic violence, rape and abuse are common, and are covered up, ignored or not deemed worthy of consideration and the authorities are often colluding in this.

The book was extremely readable, though I'm not sure I'd say I enjoyed it. The violence and abuse at its heart make for difficult reading, but then, that's clearly the authors intent.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Keir Martin - The Death of the Big Men and the Rise of the Big Shots: Custom and Conflict in East New Britain

This is a fascinating anthropological study of a relatively small society in East New Britain, a province of Papua New Guinea. While the study is very focused, I would argue that Keir Martin's book is an important work that should be read by anyone interested in how societies transform themselves.

The Tolai people of Eastern Britain that form the focus of this study have been studied on a number of occasions previously. This allows Martin to both examine their current situation (his field work took place in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption that had heavily damaged their traditional villages, and caused great upheaval) and show how communities like the Tolai undergo a constant process of change as a result of internal and external factors.

It would be very difficult in this review to give a detailed historic account of the Tolai communities. Martin himself acknowledges that his book represents a snapshot of their history and clearly at a point when enormous changes are taking place. Of particular interest to me were Martin's account of the way that the Tolai were changing their attitude to land as a result of greater integration into the global economy and the way that their traditional social relations where becoming transformed.

Martin's own words are much clearer than I can be in summarising the nature of community relations among the Tolai, so I will quote him at length:
Descriptions of the ways in which Tolai organise access to land have most commonly emphasised the role of the vunatarai in negotiating such access. The Kuana term vunatarai is used to refer to different types of descent groups, ranging from each of the two moieties into which the Tolai of the Gazell Peninsula divide themselves, down to village based lineage sections. These local lineage sections are commonly of the most relevance in discussing land rights. A man would acquire rights to lang by virtue ofhis membership of a matrilineage, often involving him moving to his mother's brothjer's hamlet upon marriage or his fathers death.This has never operated as a simple stable descent system however. There have always been a variety of different claims for both rights of access to land generally and membership of vunatarai specifically.
However this "matrilineal inheritance" system has been coming under pressure for "a long time" and Martin notes that Tolai themselves have been discussing a switch to a patrilineal system "for a century". Why is this?

When a society comes into contact with different social relations, or begins to transform its relations internally, new ways of organising social relations may become necessary. Martin notes (following earlier studies) that
changes in the material uses of land as a result of global economic integration are what spur people to look for new ways of organising access to land. These changes include the stewarding of cash-generating 'perennial crops', like cocoa, as well as investment in other 'assets' like permanent houses... that also further made land something to be fought over.
The question of land ownership intersects with wider questions of reciprocal interdependence between members of the community. Increasingly attempting to resolve questions of access to land are coming into conflict with customary obligations. Individuals and groups constantly have to alter and change how they relate to each other in order to meet obligations, but the demands of the external global economy distort this process. In part this is also because the authorities have attempted to undermine customary relations and emphasise non-customary (bourgeois) property relations. But this is also because individuals within Tolai society have been able to increase their own personal wealth and become a new focus within the community.

Thus the customs and traditions of the community which shape how individuals and groups judge each other, relate to each other and organise, are also in a state of change. As Martin explains
the position is not as simple as the resilience of traditional Melanesian kastom [custom]. Rather kastom itself is a king of shifting signifier whose meaning is fought over and whose changes in use and meaning reflect many of the changes in the ways in which social relations are being made amongst the dispersed Matupit community. In particular, the contextually shifting use of the term kastom in such disputes and discussions itself is a way in which the shifting boundaries of reciprocal interdependence and individual autonomy are marked.
Thus within disputes over land, or in relations between rich and poor, both sides can appeal to the same kastom and see justification for their actions in traditional relations.

At the heart of this is a very different approach to the question of ownership. The custom of buying land is known as kulia but this is not the same as the purchase of commodities under capitalism. Kulia, as Martin explains, is part of an ongoing cycle of customary obligations, not a single, isolated purchase. Historically it seems that land that was bought might even have reverted to the sellers after the buyer's death - in other words the original owners had an ongoing relationship with the land, even after it was bought.

This was breaking down by the 1960s when an earlier study noted that those controlling the land were "encouraged to think of land increasingly as a commodity" in part as a result of the large amounts of money tied up in the transfers, and as a result of cash crops which helped farmers see the land as a commodity. I was struck by the similarity of this with the processes described by Eleanor Burke-Leacock in her studies of Montagnais-Naskapi in north-eastern Canada whose entire social relations where transformed as a result of the use of traps to catch animal furs and those commodify both land and the animals themselves.

But Martin argues that the question of purchase land is neither a simple customary one, tied up with complex social obligations, nor is it one that matches the commodity exchange that we know in Western economies. He approving quotes the anthropologist M. Sahlins seeing "the distinction between fit exchange and commodity exchange... as the extreme points of a continuum". In other words kulia has been changed over several decades in the direction of increased "property/commodity terms". Crucially though, Martin does not see the Tolai people as naive in this regard. They are not passive victims of economic changes out of their control.
Papua New Guineans do not view land transfers as undergoing a historical process of inexorable commodification, nor as following an unchanging cultural logic of inalienability. Instead, people of this world region are as capable as any other group of people of judging that different kinds of transactions are morally appropriate in different contexts, and disputing about which transactions are appropriate in which contexts.
This seems to me a highly appropriate way to understand the social relations that groups of people create. Karl Marx pointed out that "Men make history... but not in circumstances of their choosing", but this does not mean that they don't attempt to understand and shape their world according to their own needs.

I've dwelt here very much on the question of land and customary relations. This partly reflects my own interests, but its worth highlighting that Martin's book explores the way that wider changes are understood by the Tolai people themselves. They understand the impact of the wider economy (and the role of colonialism) on their lives. It also arises in the awareness of the role of "Big Shot" individuals whose motives are more "commercial" in a way that is completely opposed to traditional "Big Men".

The role of Big Men seems to have evolved as a way of clans within Toali society protecting their own interests, as well as supporting and directing the clan within wider social situations. One way they did this was for the Big Men to use their position to encourage reciprocal interdependence. This can be contrasted with the Big Shots who use kastom for personal gain. Big Men seem to have to be constantly proving themselves to their community - Big Shots seem to like driving in nice cars and living a better life. The changes here brought to mind wider discussions in Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus' recent book The Creation of Inequality.

As is inevitable with such a detailed book, I've not scratched half of the fascinating detail that Martin has written about. I hope I've given a flavour of his work and would encourage others to read it. While this is also an academic study, Martin has written an accessible work that the general reader should be able to enjoy. It's also amusing (I wonder how many similar works use the takeover of Manchester United as a comparative example to the people of East New Britain) in places and the insights into the work of an anthropologist and Martin's time in Papua New Guinea are of interest themselves.

I also found it useful that Martin tested the ideas of wider thinkers, such as Marx and Engels, against his theories. I think they'd have approved in particular of his conclusion which points out that at a time when mainstream, Western, capitalist economics has once again failed us, understanding different ways of organising exchange within societies has never been so important.

Related Reviews

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

Cronon - Changes in the Land
Evans-Pritchard - The Nuer
Evans-Pritchard - Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Ian Kershaw - To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949

Part one of Ian Kershaw's two volume history of Europe in the twentieth century covers some of the most violent and barbaric periods in humanity's history. In particular Kershaw looks at why the First World War led to the Second World War - arguing that there are three key factors in the period after the end of of World War One. These are the rise of nationalistic movements across Europe, the crisis of capitalism (which he notes many contemporaries, not just those on the left, saw as the final crisis of the system) and the class struggle, particularly in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.

Kershaw's task then, is to argue why it was that in some countries fascist, or anti-democratic forces rose and in others they didn't. While Kershaw's history is readable and comprehensive (he never neglects events in countries that are not normally part of mainstream histories of Europe) he tends to deal with generalities that mean sometimes his analysis can seem shallow. One major problem I had was that Kershaw tends to lump the revolutionary left together with the anti-democratic practises of the far-right and fascist movements. This is because he argues they were both revolutionary movements dedicated to the over-through of the existing order and the creation of a new one. The problem with this analysis is that it assumes that the revolutionary organisation of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia, and other movements across Europe were opposed to bourgeois democracy without having a democratic alternative - neglecting the revolutionary democracy of workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants councils and Soviets.

Kershaw is too good a historian to argue that Lenin led inevitably to Stalin, or that Stalin's view of socialism was the same as those of thousands of ordinary revolutionaries. But this weakness means that his only alternative to the totalitarian states that rose in Germany, Italy and Spain (and he includes Russia as well) was parliamentary democracy. Parliamentary democracy was of course something worth defending in the face of fascism (notably something the Bolsheviks did at the time of Kornilov in the summer of 1917) but it was also a system that filed millions of people - as Kershaw shows in his careful studies of the reality of life in the 1920s and 1930s for millions of people across Europe.

At specific points in the period Kershaw is discussing, there was the potential for the left to break out and build a revolutionary alternative, or at the least the beginnings of one. Kershaw notes that the best moments for this were when the revolutionary left (essentially the various Communist Parties) and the social democrats united against a common foe. He bemoans the failure to do that in German and notes how important it was to stopping the growth of fascism in France. But his lack of clarity on the limitations of Stalin's politics means that he sees this unity inevitably failing as the left cannot find common ground other than opposition to fascism.

These important criticisms aside, Kershaw never pretends to be writing a revolutionary socialist history of Europe. What he has written is however very useful as he covers enormous ground, from the changing role of women, to the growth of trade unionism, the repeated failure of capitalism to escape economic crisis as well as fascinating summaries of popular music and the importance of the growth of radio and so on. Readers who have a detailed knowledge of particular periods, or aspects of European history will no doubt find omissions, but in as a general introduction this book is very useful. It's worth noting that while painting a general picture across Europe, Kershaw never forgets the role of the individual, nor the impact of these events on ordinary people. There are many anecdotes, funny, inspiring or painful that illuminate the big changes taking place.

There are of courses places we will disgree. I think Kershaw is probably too soft on the failure of senior members of the Catholic Church, particularly the Pope, to condemn the Holocaust. I think he gives to much credit to the Pope and underestimates the importance that him speaking out would have had. That said, no reader will be able to read Kershaw's detailed discussion of the two world wars, the rise of fascism and the Holocaust, or the impact of ongoing economic crisis on ordinary people without drawing parallels with Europe today. As we once again see the rise of the far-right in many countries and ongoing economic crisis I would argue that we need to build a stronger revolutionary left capable of working with much wider forces to build the struggle for a socialist alternative to capitalism. Ian Kershaw wouldn't necessarily agree with me on that, but his book is one full of insights that will encourage the reader to think more widely on how we can defeat racism and fascism today.

Related Reviews

Kershaw - The End
Beevor - The Second World War

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Roger Hutchinson - Martyrs: Glendale and the Revolution in Skye

Karl Marx wrote at length about the nature of capitalism. But he also described capitalism's birth "dripping in blood". In Capital, he described how, in order for capitalism to develop, it first had to destroy the historic relationship between people and the land. He wrote:
The spoliation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcel of capital, and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a “free” and outlawed proletariat.
In Britain, the Enclosures and the Highland Clearances are bywords for the violence and destruction of entire communities as land was repurposed in the interests of profit. What is less well known is that rural communities frequently fought back, and in the case of Scotland, where the Highland Clearances took place in a later era than the bulk of the English enclosures, this resistance had a major impact - forcing government intervention and eventually legislation that gave crofters more rights than they ever had. While this was too late for thousands who had been forced from their homes, sent over-seas or made to work in the factories of Glasgow, as Roger Hutchinson's recent book shows, the resistance meant that thousands of crofters were able to live in safer and more secure circumstances.

Hutchinson's book focuses on one amazing story of resistance in the 1880s, that of the community in Glendale in the western most part of the Isle of Skye who through prolonged rent strikes, physical battles with the police and eventually military occupation eventually forced their landowner to improve conditions and reduce over-crowding. One of the key issues was that families forced from their land elsewhere were causing over-crowding, but rather than blame these people, the Glendale crofters turned their wrath on the landowner.

The solidarity and unity of the community in the face of fierce repression is inspiring. Hutchinson notes that
The communal nature of their daily lives - the work at the peats, at fishing at fathering and shearing - had taught them since childhood to act together, to put aside petty individual differences in the interest of an essential common cause.
But those on rent strike were also not prepared to let anyone break their unity. Acting, as Hutchinson says with the "rough discipline of a revolutionary cell", they wrote in a notice posted in the Post Office
Any one of the tenants at Skinidin who will pay the rent, not only that his House and Property will be destroyed, but his life will be taken away or anyone who will begin backsliding.
The same notice informed the landlord that his animals must be removed from what was seen as communal land that could be used by the crofters, "at Whitsunday punctually, if not, they will be driven off with full force".

So strong was the movement that Glendale effectively became a no-go area for representatives of the law. The men and women of Glendale drove off fifty police officers under Sherrif Ivory, a man who never forgave them for his humiliation, with stones and the contents of chamber pots and prompted a Glasgow newspaper to publish a satirical poem based on Tennyson,

Missiles to the right of them,
Brickbats to the left of them,
Old wives behind them
Volleyed and floundered.
Stormed at with stone and shell -
Whilst only Ivory fell -
They that had fought so well
Broke thro' the Island Host
Back from the mouth of - well!
All that was left of them -
All the half-hundred

With Glendale effectively declaring autonomy from Britain, the government had to act. Leading figures, including John MacPherson who became one of the most important and eloquent spokespersons for the Crofters, were imprisoned though their court appearances helped them spread their message. The Glendale rent-strikers received support and solidarity from communities across Scotland and the eventual deployment of hundreds of marines and armed naval ratings (on two occasions) must rank as one of the most ridiculous and inappropriate uses of military power in an era in which the British government was not afraid to use over-whelming force against unarmed opponents.

The struggle was eventually victorious and was instrumental in forcing the government to introduce a Royal Commission into the situation. When this proved limited in its recommendations and the Glendale crofters found that their circumstances did not improve, they continued their fight. The Crofters Act failed to redistribute land as the now Highlands wide movement demanded. The Radical Crofters Party MPs who were elected to Parliament on the back of this movement refused to vote for it. But the Act did give enough to mean that the Glendale strikers were proved to have been paying too much rent and eventually, the land they were fighting for was nationalised and sold to the Glendale community.

Hutchinson neatly brings the story up to date, putting the Glendale victory into the context of other, more modern legislation aimed at supporting the Crofting communities of Northern Scotland. He doesn't however romanticise the period, or the lifestyle. This was a hard, physically demanding and poverty stricken life. But the Crofters were not weak willed, passive victims, they were men and women whose strong communities were frequently prepared to resist those sent against them by the greedy landlords. This wonderful rich history of the Glendale Martyrs and their resistance is a must read for anyone trying to understand Scottish history, as well as the larger changes that have taken place in British rural communities.

Related Reviews

Hutchinson - The Soap Man
Richards - The Highland Clearances
Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough

Friday, August 05, 2016

Hilary Mantel - A Place of Greater Safety

Hilary Mantel's talent for talking historical figures and making them real is put to superb use in this novel of the French Revolution. Focusing on three key revolutionaries, Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins, she weaves their personal lives and loves into the tangled story of the revolution itself. All three figures played central roles and Mantel brings to life the fierce debates that the revolution throws up - the question of violence in particular, deployed in defence of the revolution's gains.

Unfortunately this sharp focus on three individuals means that the mass who made the revolution remains just that - a mass in the background. Occasionally the crowd bursts into the story, but only to highlight the role of one or other of Mantel's heroes. This doesn't denigrate the story, but it means that those trying to understand the dynamics of the revolution may find the twists and turns of history hard to follow.

Ultimately the revolutionary leadership was successful or unsuccessful dependent on what the masses thought of their actions. That they remain a hazy mass off stage in this novel undermines the historical story.

Mantel remains ambiguous on the Revolution itself. Was it good or bad? Much ink is spilt telling the story (the King isn't even executed until page 604) but the reader is left to judge history on very much a personal level. Having made such excellent use of the historical material, famously writing that the more unlikely something seems to be, the more accurate it is, Mantel left me wanting more on what took place and why. For that, the reader should turn elsewhere.

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