Wednesday, December 28, 2016

GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery

GRAIN is a non-profit campaigning organisation that supports small farmers, peasant movements and fights for a more socially just agricultural food system. It has been at the forefront of these movements and has produced some important studies into the nature of modern agriculture and how that impacts on farmers, communities and the wider ecological systems. As such this book is a welcome addition to the literature that is attempting to understand how modern agriculture drives climate change and is impacted by it.

Agriculture today is a prime driver of environmental destruction.
Food is the world's biggest economic sector, involving more transactions and employing more people by far than any other. These days food is prepared and distributed using enormous amounts of processing, packaging and transportation, all of which generation GHG emissions... With transportation accounting for 25 per cent of global GHG emissions, we can use the EU data to conservatively estimate that the transport of food accounts for at least six per cent of global GHG emissions.
GRAIN continue by highlighting the waste of the agricultural systems, the emissions from processing, packaging, deforestation, and way that the destruction of soil is helping driving climate change.
A wide range of scientific reports indicate that cultivated soils have lost between 30 per cent and 75 per cent of their organic matter during the 20th century, while soils under pastures and prairies have typically lost up to 50 per cent. There is not doubt these losses have provoked a serious deterioration of soil fertility and productivity, as well as worsening droughts and floods.... it can be estimate that at least 200 to 300 billion tonnes of CO2 have been released to the atmosphere due to the global destruction of soil organic matter. In other words, 25 per cent to 40 per cent of current excess of CO2 in the atmosphere comes from the destruction of soils and its organic matter.
GRAIN argue that what needs to happen is a complete transformation of the food system in a way that puts the "world's small farmers" back in the driving seat and limits the influence and power of the massive agricultural corporations that push fossil fuel intensive monoculture farming as the alternative. GRAIN writes that there are three shifts that need to occur:
The first is a shift to local markets and short-circuits of food distribution, which will cut back on transportation and the need for packaging, processing and refrigeration. The second is a reintegration of crop and animal production, to cut back on transportation, the use of chemical fertilisers and the production methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by intensive meat and dairy operations. And the third is the stopping of land clearing and deforestation...
But this is not a manifesto for "eat local". GRAIN understand that the changes needed involve the complete transformation of the food system and a struggle against the multinationals. This is not simply about individuals eating better, but requires "a structural scaling back of 'Big Food' and 'Big Retail' and those who finance them". Interestingly GRAIN also do not fall into the trap that has become all to prevalent within the environmental movement recently in arguing that everyone needs to stop eating meat to save the planet.

The scale of corporate influence is enormous. Since the 1960s, an area roughly the size of the European Union has been given over to just four crops, soybean, oil palm, rapeseed and sugarcane. But these crops are not about feeding people, they are about maximising "return on investment". In contrast, despite the pressures from corporate farming, small farmers continue to provide most of the food that people need. Partly because they are more productive when compared to monocropped giant farms, and partly because they are focused on feeding local communities, not maximising profits. GRAIN conclude:
The data shows that the concentration of farmland in fewer and fewer hands is directly related to the increasing number of people going hungry each day.
Most of this book focuses on the way that the interests of the food multinationals is facilitated and protected by national governments and international legislation. An emphasis on the increase in free trade and removing barriers to the operation of corporations dominates legislation such as TTIP. The World Bank, the IMF and other institutions have driven policies in the last forty years that have decimated small farmers in the interests of multinationals. In several of these essays GRAIN explores how this has taken place. Excellent chapters on REDD+ and GMOs show how feeding the world and reducing emissions has become secondary to profits. Indeed, despite claims that neo-liberal policies would reduce malnutrition and ensure food security, the opposite has happened:
global supply chains make consumers more susceptible to food contamination. A small farm that produces some bad meat will have a relatively small impact. A global system built around geographically concentrated factory-sized farms does the opposite: it accumulates and magnifies risk, subjecting particular areas to industrial-style pollution and consumers globally to poisoned products.
This book covers an extraordinary amount of ground, and my copy is covered in highlights and pencil markings. In terms of a polemic against the role of corporate power in the agricultural system, and an emphasis on the importance of bottom up farming, it's one of the best I've ever read. I did feel that it was limited in an argument about what can be done. For instance, I felt that some more detailed examples of the way that, even within the limits of the capitalist system, peasant struggles for food sovereignty and over land ownership can bring real victories would have been useful. Ending corporate influence will however mean much more than a few such victories - it will mean dismantling the multinationals and the governments that support them. Campaigning against TTIP and other trade "deals" is important, but we must go further. Increasingly as capitalism leads us towards climate disaster, our movements will have to challenge the system, rather than just the symptoms. This is the logical conclusion of GRAIN's detailed work, but it isn't reflected within the book.

I wish I had had a chance to read The Great Climate Robbery when writing my own piece on Food, Agriculture and Climate Change for International Socialism. In that piece I tried to explore further how workers and peasants might struggle for a more sustainable food system. GRAIN's work underlines the importance of that struggle and I encourage people to read it.

Support independent left-wing publishing and book selling. Buy The Great Climate Robbery here.

Related Reviews

Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis

McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Lymbery - Farmageddon

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Christopher Hill - Liberty Against the Law

How did the rise of capitalism in England affect those communities whose lives were not previously dominated by the capitalist mode of production? What did the ruling class need to do to ensure that private property was protected from those who had little or none? How did people try to resist, or adapt to these changes? These are the important themes in Christopher Hill's book Liberty Against the Law.

Hill argues that for capitalism to develop the system, or rather those within the system who governed and ruled it, needed to put in place a set of laws and regulations that undermined old traditions, laws and customs which dated back to "time immemorial" and impose a new set of rules that better fitted the new order.

An infamous example of this, studied at length in a number of chapters here, was the 1723 "Black Act". This Act criminalized poaching and severely restricted the rights that the rural population had to utilize the free nature that was around them - from the hunting of deer and rabbits to the wider use of the forests. This act, Hill argues, was "part of a single policy, consequent on Parliament's victory of 1688-9, of making the world safe for English merchants and landlords to increase in wealth and so to contribute to the new power of the English state".

The victory of Parliament over the Crown was crucial as it meant that the new ruling class, dominated by the interests of merchants and landowners, could set about constructing a new order that benefited them and as Hill argues, "the most important liberty to be defended was the sanctity of private property". But while Parliament changed laws that benefited those with property, it refused to abolish those rules that hit the poor.

Parliament refused to abolish tithes; big landowners voted security of tenure for themselves by abolishing feudal tenures and the Court of Wards but specifically refused to grant similar security to copy-holders. Such changes in the law as occurred between 1641 and the early eighteenth century increased popular hostility towards it. Why should the lower classes respect laws which asserted property rights against traditional popular customs in the villages?

At the same time, the countryside was being transformed in the interest of capital and landowners. Enclosure was consolidating land into the hands of the wealthier section of the population. Peasants were being driven off their traditional lands and common rights were being destroyed. Villages were increasingly polarised. Not everything was down to economics, but all of it had a common aim, the recreation of society in the image best suited to capitalism. Acts enforced a particular type of marriage, over the relative freedom hitherto enjoyed by the rural poor. Nature was commodified, land parcelled up.

Resistance took many forms. Riot, protest, petition were all common, as were songs and ballads that denounced the new order. Radicals interpreted the bible and then fought for the right to worship in their own way. Pirates replaced the violence and terror of the Navy with the liberty and democracy of self-organised vessels. Smugglers (poor man's pirates) avoided tax and helped keep prices low for the poor. Poachers risked judicial murder to provide cheap meat for their families and communities, and on occasion, fought pitched battles with the hired thugs of capital. Hill studies all these groups and charts popular attitudes through the poetry, plays and songs of the times. It's a fascinating examination of the period, perhaps merely a century in length, when the capitalist state was created and consolidated.

Related Reviews

Hill - The World Turned Upside Down
Hill - God's Englishman

Hill - The Century of Revolution
Yerby - The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change

Monday, December 19, 2016

Ian Birchall - The Spectre of Babeuf

The story of the French Revolution has been the subject of countless books and articles, but the story of Gracchus Babeuf has rarely been told in the English language, so this reprint of Ian Birchall's 1997 book looking at the French revolutionary is enormously welcome.

Babeuf was, in his own words, "born in the mud" and was approaching his thirties when the Revolution broke out. In the political and economic instability of the era, Babeuf began to develop his own radical ideas. A voracious reader, Birchall explains that a key influence for Babeuf, and many other radicals at the time, was the French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But Babeuf began to go much further, and his ideas develop in ways that few others would take for many years. For instance Babeuf's views on women's equality which were rooted in his deep commitment to "human equality" where far ahead of other thinkers at the time:
Babeuf's belief in the equality of women, and his insistence that the differences between the sexes were rooted in education, not nature, set him apart from almost all the other thinkers of the revolutionary period... who stuck much more closely to Rousseau's belief in the subordination of women. It is not simply chance that Babeuf's considerations on women and collective farms should come in the same letter. By proposing collective production he was breaking with the model of the family as a unit of production... It was this... that enabled him to envisage the true equality of women.
Another example is Babeuf's firm and principled position on anti-Semitism, setting himself apart of many others at the time.
Time "to shake off the fanatical prejudices which for so long have made this peaceful people the unfortunate victim of persecutions by all sects".
Through his writings and his (mostly short-lived) newspapers, Babeuf began to build up a network of other radicals who were, to a greater or lesser extent, linked to his own ideas. Some of these would help to form the basis for the famous "conspiracy of the equals", a still-born attempt to take the Revolution to a new level in the aftermath of the Terror. Babeuf's vision was a world of freedom and equality, an era of "common happiness".

I was struck by the parallels with another great, and often forgotten revolutionary - Gerrard Winstanley. Both of them were revolutionaries who were developing their own independent ideas in the midst of periods of great social and political upheaval. Both were self-taught and both felt that their revolutions had stalled, or failed to go far enough. As a result, both attempted to take things further - Winstanley through a piece of direct action designed to usher in a new order; Babeuf through a conspiracy designed to transform the top of the revolution and pull the rest of the population in behind. Missing for both Winstanley and Babeuf was the "agency" that could radically change society.

Birchall points out that Babeuf was "clearly groping towards a concept of class struggle, although often he saw it merely in terms of rich and poor". Unlike Winstanley though, Babeuf did live when there was a growing section of society, the working class, who would become the force that could create a new world. But though the workers collectively weren't yet strong enough they did play a significant role in events during Babeuf's lifetime. It's noticeable, for instance, that Babeuf's writings were popular among some of the larger factories.

Because the workers were not yet a class for themselves, Babeuf did not yet have the language of class struggle that later thinkers like Marx and Engels would develop. But he clearly was groping his way towards it. There is a lovely quote from Babeuf that Birchall uses which gives us an indication of where Babeuf was heading. Among supporters of the French Republic there were two groups:
One wants the republic of a million, which was always the enemy, the dominator, the extortionist, the oppressor, the leech of the twenty-four million others; the million which has revelled for centuries in idleness, at the expense of our sweat and labour; the other party wants the republic for these twenty-four million, who have laid the foundations and cemented them with their blood, who nourish and support the fatherland, supply all its needs, and defend it and die for its safety and glory.
Elsewhere Birchall points out Babeuf was coming to view a future society that was moving away from the "Communism of Distribution" that characterised the Utopia of visionaries like Winstanley, towards a "Communism of Production" that would be closer to that of 19th and 20th century revolutionaries. As one of Babeuf's contemporaries summarised,
What do we mean by community of labour? Do we want all citizens to be tried to the same occupations? No; but we want the various tasks to be divided so as to leave not a single able-bodied person idle; we want the increase in the number of workers to guarantee public abundance, while diminishing individual effort; in return we want everyone to receive from the nation enough to satisfy their natural needs and the small number of artificial needs that all can satisfy.
Babeuf's conspiracy of the equals was stopped before it went anywhere. Birchall argues that it was much better planned and organised, and supported than many historians have given credit for. Certainly Babeuf and his co-conspirators, came close to winning the case that ultimately led to the execution of some of the revolutionaries. Sadly Babeuf is probably remembered too often for this conspiracy, in which he displayed some niavety and was the culmination act or a group of radicals who did not yet understand the ability of the working class to change the world, and themselves, but operating in a world were the working class had not developed enough.

But Babeuf deserves to be remembered for so much more. In fact, as the author points out, the tragedy is that Babeuf was executed in 1797 at only 36. Where his thinking and political activism had gone had he not been found guilty of conspiracy we can only speculate, but reading this biography one feels that it might have been quite profound. Nonetheless, as Ian Birchall's excellent book shows us, we still have much to learn from the revolutionary life of Gracchus Babeuf.

Related Reviews

Birchall - Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
McGarr & Callinicos - Marxism and the Great French Revolution
Jaures - A Socialist History of the French Revolution

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Andrew Charlesworth - An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain 1548-1900

Rebecca rioters in 1843
This short "atlas" describing rural protests is a surprisingly useful book for those trying to understand the dynamics of protest in Britain's rural areas and, in particular, how communities responded to the development of the capitalist mode of production and the changes that took place in the countryside as a result. The book is broken up into small sections, many authored by key historians of the subject. In fact many of the authors within have had other works reviewed on this book, or have written key texts on their subject I'll get around to sooner or later. Some of the links are below.

The book focuses on what are described as "direct collective action", such as mass protests, food riots, demonstrations and so on. These range from riots against high prices of food, to demonstrations against militia recruitment and turnpikes. The book covers many forgotten events (who today has heard of the Midlands Revolt of 1607, or the 1596 rising?) but sometimes is short on detail. One thing that does come across though is that despite the beliefs of the authorities at the time or often simple analysis by historians since, most rural "direct collective action" was not simply blind rage and frustration and landowners or the wealthy. Many of the protests were heavily organised attempts to protect the interests of the mass of the rural population, to fight unjust laws and pricing, or even to protest at symbols of wealth that represented the enforced changes communities were experiencing.

One of the latter examples is the sustained protests that took place from 1640 to 1740 which targeted deer parks. In part these were protests against the loss of land or access to common rights. But mostly:
Where forest communities opposed the presence of deer parks, they were resisting the social and economic repercussions of landscapes created for pleasure and social prestige. Indeed, deer parks were singled out for attack immediately before and during the Civil War partly because they were symbols of aristocratic power.
These protests often involved hundreds of individuals and lead to the loss of thousands of deer. Many of the parks never recovered.

While the book has much of interest and is a good summary of events like the Rebecca Riots or the Swing protests, I found the maps confusing and of little use - not least because they were often based on limited knowledge. That said, this is a key work for those, like myself, immersing themselves in this topic.

Related Reviews

Turner - Enclosures in Britain 1750 - 1830
Hunter - Set Adrift Upon the World

Sharp - In Contempt of All Authority
Yerby - The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change

Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For

Monday, December 05, 2016

David Lewis-Williams - The Mind in the Cave

This fascinating book is an attempt to answer a surprisingly complex question. Why did our Paleolithic ancestors make cave art? The beautiful images reproduced here frequently show a startling attention to detail, use of colour, the natural shape of the rocks and were often made in near complete darkness. But why was this done? David Lewis-Williams argues that this was not art in the sense that we understand it. Nor was it necessarily representational, but the art filled a social function for the communities that made the images.

Lewis-Williams begins with a fascinating history of the study of these images. I was surprised to find how important Marxism had been to this study, and the author's analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches, including that of famous thinkers like Claude Levi-Strauss is a useful introduction to their ideas.

Lewis-Williams argues that while art varies in terms of meaning and use through history, and indeed how we perceive things such as the colour spectrum is socially determined, there is one universal for anatomically modern humans, which is that we all (and we all have) experience a the same "full spectrum of consciousness". Describing the various stages that people go through in altered consciousness states, Lewis-Williams points out that "all people experience the states characteristic of the autistic trajectory. And they experience them in terms of their own culture and value system; this is what has been called the 'domestication of trance'."

Lewis-Williams argues that this means that we can trace some universals to the images on cave-walls, and understand them in terms of how various cultures have related to states of altered consciousness. Discussing the San people who made rock painting into the modern time, as part of  shamanistic religion, he points out that
Much of the painted and engraved imagery, even that which appears relastic' is shot through with these metaphors and shows signs of having been 'processed' by the human mind as it shifted back and forth along the spectrum of consciousness. The same metaphors necessarily structured the explanations of images that San people provided. The San explained the images in their own terms, not the languages of anthropologists.
So the images made by the San people represented things that meant some thing to them collectively, which is not necessarily the same thing that we might "see" when we look at them. But because altered states, or trances, produced visions that the mind interprets in terms of how the world is understood, the images painted would be of things (or shapes) that originated in their world view.
Art, cosmos and spiritual experience coalesced. The San fused the 'abstract' experiences of altered states with the materiality of the world in which they lived.
So the paintings made in the "social space" of the caves were the result of interactions between the social ideas of the group and their world-view. Lewis-Williams argues that this meant that the images were more than images, they were insights into a spirit world, or actual embodiments of that world over-lapping with the contemporary world. He writes that a "set of animals already carried... symbolic meaning for west European anatomically modern communities. It now became important for those people to fix their images of another world, belief in which was one of the key traits that distinguished them from the Neanderthals."

Lewis-Williams argues that it was the process of doing this, creating the art, that paved the way for new social relations that "we consider fully modern". I remained unconvinced by this conclusion, as I think the "images" are more likely to represent the cultural output of a community and thus reflect social relations rather than create them. But as Lewis-Williams correctly points out, we cannot every know a correct answer when trying to understand what the images mean. His book however is a fascinating insight into the reasons that humans have created cave-art and painting through history and by hunter-gatherer communities in modern times. It is well worth a read.

Related Reviews

Mithen - After the Ice: A Global Human History
Stringer - The Origin of Our Species