Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Ken Follett - The Pillars of the Earth

Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth is, to the surprise of the experts, one of the most popular novels in the UK. Its sweeping story has been made into a TV series, and even board and computer games and spawned two sequels. The plot covers a largely unknown period of English history, the turbulent 12th century when England was engulfed in Civil War following the death of Henry I's only male heir.

Follett's book is primarily centred on the monastery and settlement at the fictional location of Kingsbridge. There's a  complex web of characters most of whom are hard not to emphasis with, and principally the story looks at those involved in building a cathedral at Kingsbridge and those trying to stop them. What makes the novel work is that the personal antagonisms of various characters, including the vile Earl William and the pious Prior Phillip is in the context of feudal relations and Civil War. William's violence and raids on settlements around his castle are a natural part of feudal society, as are the inter-generational feuds. If the novel overly relies on the ideas of good lords and bad lords, it doesn't neglect that all lords relied utterly on the peasantry to survive.

In fact I suspect that this is one of the reasons for the success of the books. Unusually Pillars of the Earth focuses on the lives and struggles of ordinary people - mostly labourers on the cathedrals, but also their partners and families. While the elite have their role in the book it's often peripheral to the main action, and there are far more detailed descriptions of the lives, labour and food of ordinary people. This is actually quite unusual in novels and works well here, particularly a book that has the hard work of the building of a cathedral at the centre of its epic tale.

There are problems of course. To me the book felt like a soap opera in places - each chapter seeming to end on a cliff hanger that was rapidly resolved by the cleverness of one or other of the "good" characters. There are also a few unlikely coincidences and plot points that don't really make sense (would a grieving husband, having just buried his wife, really jump into bed with a complete stranger a couple of hours later, especially given they were both starving in the midst of winter?) I also found the rape scenes unnecessarily detailed - I get that the author is trying to describe the brutality of a particular character, but it was simply too much. I also skipped a three page sex scene, not out of prudity, but mostly because it was utterly peripheral to the plot.

Nevertheless Follett's book is entertaining. He gives an interesting take on key events in the period and the structure of the book keeps the reader engaged. It's also rare that a novel manages to make the transition from Romanesque to Gothic religious architecture an interesting and integral part of its plot, and it shows well how ordinary people were a central part of that movement.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Mark Lause - The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots & Class Conflicts in the American West

Countless western films, novels and artworks have portrayed the "cowboy" as a lonesome figure, surviving through his wits and ability to quick draw a six shooter. The reality, as this unique book shows, is that the cowboy was a worker. Badly paid, living a life of intense physical hardship, with seasonal and often highly skilled work. They were never loners. Looking after a herd of hundreds of cows was a collective effort and cattle drives required the support of lots of men.

These conditions led to a series of strikes. Cowboys didn't wait to form unions, if they acted at the right time of the season they had enormous power to force the large cattle companies to give them massive pay rises. These strikes were strong, numerous and spread as the cowboys moved along the trail. But they had an inherent weakness - being seasonal work the workers found themselves at the mercy of the employer the next year, and many blacklisted strikers found it near impossible to work again.

This is of course a story that is never told. In an of itself it would be interesting just as the story of an unusual and forgotten episode of working class history. But Mark Lause puts the strikes in the context of the transformation of the American West and, crucially, the development of US captialism and I would argue, the modern US state. One thing that is very apparent about these strikes is how violent they were. Gunfights were common, the assasination of strikers and their leaders was frequent, and many of the classic episodes of gunfights that occur in films are often repeated here in the context of strikers, or former strikers, being hunted down by posse's that were little more than lynch mobs.

Take this example of a "militia" setup by cattle owners in Montana, after a series of strikes. The vigilantes, called "Stuart's Stranglers" after their leader hunted down former strikers who they described as "like many a rebel and anarchist westerner" and perhaps killed up to 75.
The conduct of the Stranglers proved to be notoriously brutal. At one point, they captured a mixed race boy who could fiddle and forced him to entertain them for the evening. The next day they killed him. 'His being a fiddler hadn't nothing to do with his being a horse thief," one said. [Former strikers were often labelled rustlers so they could be executed without trial].... The perpetrators included the founders of the state of Montana. Their '3-7-77' warning - said to notify targets to buy the $3 ticket to the 7am stage to take the 77-mile trip from the area-remains part of the insignia of the state's highway patrol.
Picture via Wikipedia article for 3-7-77
There is a thus a direct link between the anti-working class, racist violence unleashed on the cowboy strikes and the modern police system.

Lause however highlights another aspect to this, which is that this takes place in the context of the larger cattle firms, and their associated industries like the railroads, carving up the American West into huge, enclosed, fenced off lands. The battle between the open-range and the fence builders is the background to many a western. But as Lause points out, in those stories, the small-holders often win. In reality, big capital carved up the west and those who resisted were turfed out, or killed.

There is much more to Lause's book. But I actually found it remarkably difficult to follow in places. In part this is because much of the book dwells on aspects of US history and particularly Labour history which is completely unknown to me. His descriptions of the way that various left organisations tried to develop working class parties was at times difficult to follow. While Lause carefully deconstructs the classic image of the US west, I found the alternative a little difficult to work out, at times Lause seems to focus on events which are difficult to place in the wider narrative.

That said there is a lot in this book for people trying to understand the development of US capitalism, and those who fought against it. I loved this account about Eleanor Marx Aveling's visit to Cincinnati in 1886, "as cowboy strieks swept the West":
The local socialists took her, her husband and another European visitor to see a ground of cowboys on tour there. The comrades lingered behind after the costumed performance and introduced themselves to one of the performers. "To our great astonishment," she recalled, the cowboy "plunged at once into a denunciation of capitalists in general and of the ranch-owners in particular." "Broncho John" Sullivan assured them that many of the cowboys had "awakened to the necessity of having a league of their own" - and that a Cowboy Union or affiliates of the Knights of Labor seemed likely.
Resistance to capitalist domination is a forgotten part of the American west, and many of the famous and infamous figures beloved of books and films played a part in that story. When trying to understand 21st century America, we cannot forget the racist violence that helped entrench the state in the first place - violence against the indigenous peoples, the slaves and the working class. Lause's book is an interesting, if challenging introduction to that.

Related Reviews

Cronon - Changes in the Land
Cronon - Nature's Metropolis
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Parkman - The Oregon Trail
McLynn - Wagons West

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Louise Raw - Striking a Light: The Bryant & May Matchwomen and their place in History

Louise Raw's book on the famous matchwomen's strike at Bryant and May is a brilliant work of working class history. But it is much more than an account of the dispute. Raw's argument is that up until now the strike itself has been completely misunderstood. Traditionally it has been seen as a strike led by a few outside socialist agitators, principally the Fabian socialist Annie Besant. In addition, the impact of the strike was negligible when compared to the much more important dock strikes that erupted in East London a year or so later. After finishing the book, to test Raw's hypothesis, I picked up a copy of Allen Hutt's "short" history British Trade Unionism, a 1941 book that is effectively an official Communist Party history. He has this to say about the strike:
In July, 1888, a Socialist-led strike of the girls at Bryant and May's match factory in the East End secured wide publicity, alike for the shocking conditions that it exposed and for the revelation of the number of Liberal politicians who were concerned as shareholders. The strike was successful.
To be fair to Hutt he does continue to say that the strike was the "light jostle needed" (quoting Engels) to kick start wider strikes. But his all to brief account makes a number of the mistakes that Raw's book demolishes. Firstly the strike was not led by Annie Besant. While it is true that Besant had published an important expose of conditions in the factory a few days before the strike began, she neither knew of its beginning nor welcomed the event. In fact, Raw's account makes it clear that Besant's middle-class politics preferred the idea of a well publicised boycott of Bryant and May, and perhaps legal action to expose the employers. She did not welcome the self-activity that the Matchwomen displayed, despite the women having some hopes in her.

Hutt himself seems to subordinate the strike to the publicity it generated to embarrass some liberal politicians. This is to downplay the role of almost 1,400 women in bringing out an entire factory and creating a huge political problem for the employers and politicians. The women, despite the vast majority of them being very young, were confident, politically astute and able to articulate their demands. Rather than being the tools of outside agitators as Bryant and May liked to believe these were women who had a history of struggle, organisation and engagement with radical political ideas.

Careful research by Raw shows how deep these traditions went. In 1871 Raw describes how the government (under Gladstone) wanted to introduce a tax on matches. This would have had a significant impact upon the already impoverished workers at Bryant and May. The workers "convened a mass meeting at the Victoria factory, passing a resolution 'unanimously amid great cheering' stating that 'we the matchbox makers and employees of ... match factories, resist to the utmost of our power by all legal means the imposition of this cruel tax upon our labour'." They then marched to Parliament to hand over a petition, and despite their peaceful intentions encountered the full brute force of the police trying to stop them. It is notable that Bryant and May's management simply intended to pass the tax onto their workers rather than challenge the government. 17 years later the workers would again march to Parliament, following the same route as in 1871*.

Popular legend would have the "match-girl" as a tiny, innocent, poor little girl freezing to death on the streets. The reality, as Raw demonstrates over and over, is that she was often a highly political figure willing to organise her comrades, fight the police and protest to try and improve conditions. This wasn't just true of the strike. Raw's research uncovers the latter-day history of some of the strike leaders who became key community figures prepared to fight for their neighbours and friends, as well as being trade unionists.

But conditions definitely needed improving. Despite the enormous profits made by Bryant and May, life in the factories was notoriously hard, and low paid. The work itself inflict tremendous suffering on the workers, with the phosphorous causing a painful bone disease known as Phossy Jaw. Despite the link between phosphorous and the disease the company sacked people who showed symptoms and downplayed the threat. The suffering must have been horrific. Raw quotes one contemporary account of a former Matchwoman who had completely lost her lower jaw.


The second strand to Raw's book is the question of gender and its role within the strike. Raw argues that you cannot understand the matchwomen's strike without understanding the wider position of women in contemporary society and in the trade union movement of the late 19th century. Despite a few exceptions women workers were not seen as part of the workers movement, in fact, the official trade union movement tended to see women workers as a threat that would reduce male wages or employment. This was closely linked with fixed ideas of gender roles within the family. As Raw writes:
The ideological victory of the concept of 'separate spheres', and all that went with it, had resulted from a long and sometimes hard-fought battle over ideas of sexual morality, the sexual division of labour, and gender itself: what it meant, or should mean, to be a man or a woman in the nineteenth century.
This meant too things. It meant that women who did work, like the matchwomen, were portrayed as immoral, violent and lacking in womanly qualities. But it also impacted on the labour movement and those who wrote its history. The result is, Raw argues, a "history of the figureheads of women's unioniusm rather than of the rank and file, and of these leaders' estimations of the female workforce, often as weak and undisciplined before the imposition of order from outside". Here is the origin of the myth that the strike was "Socialist-led" or organised by Annie Besant.

Raw's book rescues the Matchwomen from a "gender blind" tradition that cannot conceive that ordinary women could self-organise and defeat a powerful and rich employer. But her book is much more than this. While telling the story of the strike Raw also tells us the story of working class life in the East End - the extreme poverty, the appalling conditions at work and home, the arrogance of the middle and ruling classes who only saw violence and promiscuity. Against this Raw shows us a world of solidarity and self-organisation. Of women and men who fought as best they could for their neighbours, workmates, communities and their families.

The finest example of this is Raw's argument that there was no real separate between the action of the Matchwomen and the more famous (and more celebrated) strikes that followed. Against those historians who argue that there was a gap, or no interrelation between the events, Raw painstakingly pieces together the close community and family links between dockers, matchwomen and other workers. More recent historians might have believed that there were no links, but that was not true of trade unionists at the time.
Dockers' leaders Tom Mann and Ben Tillett were both unequivocal, indeed generous to an almost surprising degree, in attributing to the matchwomen's action the very beginnings of New Unionism. Tillett described the matchwomen's victory as quite simply 'the beginning of the social convulsion.
In my own studies of rural class struggle I've often noticed how  ruling class accounts of strikes begin with a belief that there must be some outside agitators starting the commotion. They cannot believe that the peasants and labrouers were able in and of themselves to organise, let alone threaten their wealth and power. This condensation is also true of the matchwomen, though in this case, it has also been copied by some labour historians who should have known better. Louise Raw's book is a brilliant rescue of the role of ordinary working class women in fighting to improve their lives. It is also a masterpiece of historical study - a model for those of us trying to understand and write about the struggles of the past. I urge you to read it.

* I would like to add a personal note to this. Louise Raw points out that the Matchwomen marched in 1871 and in 1888 to Parliament via Bow and Mile End. In 2003, when war in Iraq broke out, a march by thousands of school and college students followed the exact same route to Parliament to protest at Tony Blair's war. It was fairly spontaneous, and it is nice to know of the unconscious celebration of East London history.

Related Reviews

Tully - Silvertown
Marriott - Beyond the Tower
Wise - The Blackest Streets
Mayhew - London Labour and the London Poor
Fishman - East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914
Fishman - East End 1888

Monday, February 12, 2018

Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian

The history of the American West is one that is all to often cleansed of its violence. Even modern "Westerns" frequently sanitise the killing through ritual gunfights - highly choreographed shootings. The reality is, as one recent history book has shown, that the modern US is built on systematic violence, oppression and exploitation. So I was attracted to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian precisely because it was supposed to subvert the western genre completely.

It is certainly different. The novel follows the life of "the Kid" a young man from Tennessee who flees his home and joins up with a violent group of Indian hunters on the Texas-Mexican border. For weeks he, and his companions, travel through the deserts hunting down groups of Native Americans and brutally murdering them. These scalp hunters are portrayed as bloodthirsty, alienated, racist killers. Their motivation is initially financial though it becomes genocidal, and after the repeated bloodbaths they drown their sorrows in appalling orgies of drink and rape.

A quick google will show that some one has gone to the trouble of plotting this murderous route onto a map of the US. I'm not sure that the author intended the book to be read as such a literal journey (much like the route taken in McCarthy's other famous work The Road doesn't matter to the plot). McCarthy introduces a collection of vile and surreal characters into the story, and there is a desert showdown of sorts between the Kid and his nemesis, the Judge. But I found the novel's plot barely existed in reality - the tale existed to give the violence a backdrop, rather than the other way around.

Blood Meridian is widely considered one of the greatest novels of North American fiction so I approached reading it with some excitement. My initial enthusiasm was quickly tempered as I found the intensity of the first few chapters giving way to boredom - rather to quickly I found myself immune to the murder; simply taking it as another stage of the Kid's travels. It was only when I realised that this was surely the point, that I re-engaged with the book. Though the Kid and his band are desensitised to the violence, not simply because it is nearly continuous, but also because they have "othered" those they hunt. These are no longer Native Americans, they are animals to be killed for sport and profit.

Other reviewers have noted some deeper themes. The character of the Judge, his relationship to the others in the band, and in particular his violent attraction to young men, and his philosophical discussions are fascinating in themselves, though I liked more how McCarthy depicted the murderous band as being fascinated with the Judge's discussions of history, philosophy and science.

It's "based on true events" but its only real historical accuracy is to say that the West was won through brutal, systematic and racialised violence. Is it a good book? I am not sure. I was shocked, bored, and appalled by turns, and finally disappointed by the ending (though it benefits from a re-reading). I can't even say whether I'd recommend it, though McCarthy is certainly talented, but it is certainly an antidote to the anodyne nature of much of what passes for Westerns.

Related Reviews

McCarthy - The Road

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Andreas Malm - The Progress of This Storm: Nature & Society in a Warming World

Over the last couple of years there have been intense debates within left ecology about how best to understand the interrelation between society and nature, or even whether there is such a duality as "nature" and "society". Andreas Malm is author of one of the finest studies of the origins of fossil fuel capitalism and his new book is part philosophical study, part polemic and finally a trenchant defence of historical materialism and Marxism as the best tool to understand ecology and the origins of the current environmental crises.

Through the book Malm takes on a whole series of modern philosophical fads, demolishing them with wit and knowledge. In doing so he demonstrates (at least to this reader) that much of philosophy is a set of ideas that bear little relation to reality and offer nothing to those trying to get their heads around the creation of a sustainable future. Malm is an extremely erudite observer shouting "the Emperor has no clothes" at his theoretical targets. Though it must be said that some of these thinkers require little exposing. Take the ideas of Bruno Latour who writes bafflingly "objects have as much agency as persons - for do not hammers hit nails? Do not kettles boil water, knives cut meat" etc. Latour is a highly respected philosopher, but his ideas, when applied to climate crisis aren't simply comical, they become downright dangerous. Latour uses an example of two rivers, one above the other, prevented from intermingling by a human built dam. Malm explains "according to Latour, [this] shows the rivers have goals: the Atchafalaya to swallow the Mississippi, the latter to enter the former." Latour explains, the "connection between a smaller but deeper river and a much wider but higher one is what provides the goals of the two protagonists, what gives them a vector".

Once you are in the realms of seeing "nature" (or components of nature like rivers) as having agency, goals and "vectors" you are edging out society's role within environmental change. Malm's challenge to these ideas is both systematic and entertaining. But more importantly his alternative proves the clarity of the Marxist approach. He begins by trying to understand how it comes to be that one group of people from one country can extract coal from another, and use it to fuel their country's imperial ambitions. This is not because the coal has agency as some might argue, but because they are from a society that requires fossil fuels to further its interests. As Malm writes when discussing Ashley Dawson's Marxist study of extinction,
One emergent property comes into conflict with a whole planet of other emergent properties. This is the necessary and fundamental form of a Marxist account of ecological crisis, which does not exclude other drivers but centres on a feature unique for capitalist relations: the compulsion for perpetually expanding absorption of biophysical resources. Such a property cannot be found in nature. Any creature that had it would be fantastically maladaptive and quickly go extinct; capital has been able to maintain it into the twenty-first century only by establishing complete dominion over tellurian nature. But it cannot go on forever.
It is thus foolhardy as some academics have done to argue that nature no longer exists, but that society and nature have merged to form one. There is of course value to understanding that humans have always interacted with nature and changed it, Marx made the point that there is no "original" nature left anywhere, with the exception of some newly formed coral islands. But this is not to suggest that nature doesn't exist as separate to the human world. Malm quotes John Bellamy Foster approvingly on this subject, "there is no contradiction in seeing society as both separate form and irreducible to the Earth system as a whole, and simultaneously as a fundamental part of it. To call that approach 'dualist' - in the Cartesian sense - is comparable to denying that your heart is both an integral part of the your body and a distinct organ with unique features and functions."

The danger with an approach that sees nature-society as a seamless whole is that it doesn't allow for nature's autonomous behaviour. Again, as Malm writes "Since capital is a human creation, it follows that nature is intrinsically independent of capital, its production and management and domination - which can, from a capitalist standpoint, be highly unnerving".

As we watch the growing environmental crises, the view certainly is unnerving. As capital is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few rich individuals, while the majority suffer the ignominy of poverty, and wealth accumulates at the expense of the world's resources and its ecology, radicals need a theoretical framework that blows away the obscuring smoke and empowers the masses of the world the change it. Andreas Malm's book is a fantastic defence of Marxism as that theory and radicals everywhere should read, think through and argue about.

Related Reviews

Malm - Fossil Capital
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Burkett - Marx and Nature

Monday, February 05, 2018

Dave Goulson - A Sting in the Tale

This is a charming and entertaining book that at its heart has an important ecological message of interest to anyone concerned about a sustainable future, particularly, an environmentally friendly agriculture. Dave Goulson is a world expert on bumblebees, but he is also an enthusiast for the tiny creatures. He has the rare ability that experts often lack, of making his specialist subject both interesting and accessible. A Sting in the Tale begins with Goulson's childhood fascination with animals, plants and insects, his experiments with taxidermy and butterfly collecting, and his growing awareness of the natural world. It is a story that Goulson tells with wit, and a fair amount of self-deprecating humour, and intertwines it with the history of the study of the bumblebee.

There is an oft repeated quote about bees, attributed to Albert Einstein, (though Goulson argues Einstein was unlikely to have said it) which suggests that if bees die out, human society will rapidly follow. Goulson argues that this isn't realistic, but does explain how central bumblebees are to the pollination of key plants - including fruits, nuts and many other crops that we rely on. He explains in detail the evolution of bumblebees, their central position in plant ecology, and how they have been moved around the world to better serve the interests of agriculture.

I don't have space here to summarise everything about bumblebees that he writes about. The "cuckoo" bees that steal other bee nests, the way that bees use chemicals to detect whether a flower has recently been visited by another bee, how they use colour to avoid predators and so on. Though I feel I should mention that I was fascinated by Goulson's detailed explanation of bee reproduction and how this has, in evolutionary terms,  led to their collective behaviour. In short this is because female bees have more DNA in common with their sisters than their children, which helps create a collective interest.

But for me the key part of the book was the question of bees and agriculture. When writing my own recent article on capitalism and agriculture, I noted the way that a bee industry has developed around the almond industry in California. There, monoculture fields, high usage of pesticides and destruction of the sites (like hedgerows) that bees nest in has created fields devoid of insect life, and bees are brought in their millions across the USA to pollinate crops. Goulson shows how this industry has become global, with factories producing packaged nests for farmers to pollinate crops. Interestingly this is not particularly new, though it is on  massively expanded scale. When European farming moved to New Zealand in the 18th century, bees had to be sent over to pollinate the crops. In turn this had an impact on local ecology (though it created a reservoir of bees to potentially replace extinct species in the UK).

But this isn't simply historical - the introduction of bees for the tomato industry has meant farmers can increase profits massively and cut labour, but it can have a tragic impact on local ecology as bees displace "native" species. The problem isn't simply about the disruption of ecologies. But also that factory farming of bees can produce the perfect environment for the spread of disease. So industrial farming has both damaged the natural communities of bees and produced an industry that also threatens bees! As Goulson writes:
Whether or not a European disease is the cause of these terrible declines, the principle remains. Shipping bees around is inherently risky unless they can be guaranteed to be free of disease. Oddly, despite the commercial trade in bumblebees now being well over twenty years old, there is very little regulations. Honey bees cannot be transported between most countries unless they have been certified free of their major diseases, but no such regulations have been applied to bumblebees.
The book concludes with Goulson's role in trying to preserve and save bumblebees by expanding their natural habitats and educating people about the threats to them. One heartening fact is that farmers seem very keen on being part of the solution, demonstrating once again that rural communities aren't somehow anti-environment and only concerned with profit.

I have no difficultly in recommending Dave Goulson's book. It's an easy read, but full of fascinating information and real insights into ecology. I was annoyed at his tendency for unflattering and jokey descriptions of his students - "she had a very loud voice and an astonishing capacity for food" went one, and "a pretty and terribly well-spoken girl" for another. It felt patronising and unnecessary and detracted from the excellent writing. That aside A Sting in the Tale is a recommended read, and I look forward to reading Goulson's other writings.

Related Reviews

Sheail - Rabbits and their History
Rackham - The History of the Countryside
Lymbery - Dead Zone