Monday, May 20, 2019

Paul Morland - The Human Tide

Contemporary books on population are often, at best, frustrating. At worst they are apologies for anti-human policies that see people as the origin of all our problems - whether poverty, food or environmental. So I was pleasantly surprised that early on in this new book by Paul Morland he puts a case that population growth is not a bad thing:
But for all the caveats, proper acknowledgement should be made of the great achievement that is the vast multiplying of human numbers and the provision of billions of people with a standard of living and health care and education which the wealthiest of earlier ages would have envied.
By this, Morland distinguishes himself from a myriad of other authors who contend that population growth is in itself bad. This is not to say that he dismisses population growth or ignores some of its consequences. Much of the book is a study of how population change has taken place across the world at different times. I won't repeat Morland's arguments here, but his conclusion is roughly that societies go through a fairly predictable pattern of slow, gradual growth interrupted occasionally by events like the Black Death, followed by a rapid acceleration that is associated with the transition to an industrial economy, followed by a slow decline in fertility and mortality. The latter, he says take place on time-scales "which once took generations [but] now take place in decades."

This is very interesting, and for those who are arguing against the tide, that population growth is not the origin of poverty, hunger or environmental disaster, the book contains many, very useful, facts and figures about the likely demographic future. However Morland comes unstuck with his argument that demographic change is at the heart of the vast majority of historical change. His book is, as he explains, "about the role of population in history". He says that "demography is a factor which itself is driven by other factors, numerous and complex, some material, some ideological and some accidental." But despite saying this, often he falls back on an argument that population change is the most important factor. For instance Morland writes:
As soon as a country of many hundreds of millions starts to get going [economically], even moving from abject to moderate poverty for its average citizen, the weight of numbers starts to count. The United States... is not the largest economy in the world because its people are very much richer than people in the individual European countries or Japan, but because there are so many more of them.
Later he says:
Germany's burgeoning population at home allowed it eventually to field great armies on the battlefields of the Eastern and Western Fronts in both world wars. Britain's mass emigration meant it could raise a smaller army from its home population but could call on the assistance of a worldwide network in wartime, for food, equipment and men.
Both of these examples do not stand up to real historical analysis. The population of the US matters, of course, but US power in the 20th and 21st century arose from a host of historical factors that are far more important that sheer numbers of people. The decline of European colonialism, the rise of a more modern industry over that of Europe, the exhaustion of Britain (in particular). Britain could call on resources from around the world not because of emigration, but because of colonialism and Imperialism. One million Indian troops fought for Britain in World War One - not because of emigration, but because of colonial history, a factor that helped fuel the Independence movement.

Morland is repeatedly guilty of putting a mechanical argument about population ahead of a deeper understanding of economic development, political change and ignoring colonialism and imperialism (an issue which leads to a particularly crude analysis of the origins of the Israel/Palestinian conflict0. At times this is surprisingly crude. To argue, for instance, that war in Yemen (indeed war or violence in general) is due to young populations is to be guilty of crude causation. Or to write that "The fact [Woodrow] Wilson was in a position to impose his ideas [at Versailles] reflected the triumphant growth of America's population". Demographics was not the reason - economic power was, and that is not the same as having lots of workers.

It is important to stress that Morland is no conservative. His argument is that population growth is not the threat that so many think it is. This is, he argues, because larger populations can be supported by planetary resources and will provide more people to do work to improve the planet and the economy. Unfortunately there's not enough here to back that up and I suspect many readers will be unconvinced. He also points out that we are not living through a population explosion, but a trajectory which will see the levelling off of population growth in the not to distant future. As countries become more wealthy, more urban and, crucially, make sure women are provided with real choices about their own fertility, population will plateau and likely decline. In this, fertility choices are closely linked with economic and political realities.
Fertility rates...are especially low in countries where women are encouraged to get an education and a career but where birth outside marriage is frowned upon. They are much better in countries where attitudes to women in the workplace are more positive and provision is made to allow both female and make workers to combine careers with parenting.
Later, he concludes that "the human tide is best managed by ordinary human beings themselves". Having looked at failed examples of state fertility management in places as varied as the former USSR, China and the US, it's hard not to agree.

Unfortunately I find it hard to recommend Paul Morland's book. The useful nuggets of information are drowned out by crude arguments which don't stand up to scrutiny. A more useful book on population in my opinion is Ian Angus and Simon Butler's Too Many People? which locates demographic change squarely in the context of the economic and political system.

Related Reviews

Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population
Pearce - PeopleQuake, Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash
Thornett - Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism
Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Julian Rathbone - The Mutiny

There have been plenty of novels set during the Indian "Mutiny" of 1857. In fact, it was a George MacDonald Fraser novel Flashman in the Great Game that first taught me about this seminal moment in British Imperial history. It shouldn't be a surprise that 1857 has had such a hold on accounts, fictional and non-fictional of British history - it was a tremendous shock to colonial arrogance at the time, and accounts of the barbarity were wildly discussed and stoked, in the popular press. How could formally subservient people suddenly rise up and violently assault their benevolent rulers?

Of course, British rule was anything but benevolent, something that Julian Rathbone skilfully shows in this, his final novel. Rathbone was not afraid of being unorthodox in his books and this one uses a combination of fiction, historical factor, letters and author asides to draw a brilliant portrait of British India on the cusp of rebellion and then during the uprising itself. With a cast of hundreds and a viewpoint that jumps rapidly between different locations, people and even times, it's not a book that everyone will enjoy. Rathbone appears to be using the story mostly to tell the history, rather than letting the history be the backdrop. As a result, characters occasionally make rather irrational choices, simply to make sure they are in a particular place.

In the first half of the novel we follow the fortunes of a couple of families of British officers based in Meerut. When the uprising begins the children's' servant takes them away to escape the bloodshed, ending up near Cawnpore where one of the mothers eventually arrives to try and rescue them. It's convoluted but allows Rathbone to describe the reality of a country in complete upheaval and then look at the barbaric reality of the revolt and the British response.

Rathbone doesn't shy away from the violence arguing that brutality took place on both sides. At least he tries to show why the petty racism, day to day humiliation by the British could lead to violent retribution. He also argues that the main spur to revolt was not a desire to kick out the British, but a reaction against attempts to forcibly Christianise the population. He also spends a lot of time on the detail of the violence which some readers have found difficult, but I thought made the tension at the heart of the book much more real. The besieged people on both sides had a lot to lose.

There are few happy endings to any of the story threads here. Rathbone skilfully weaves history and fiction together (helpfully providing a list at the end explaining who is real and who isn't) and thus cannot escape the fact that things did not end well for the majority of those Indians who rose up. His afterword argues that there was a a lot of good about British rule in India post 1857, though this doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. It is a clever book clearly based on a close knowledge of the historical sources, but unafraid to give a fictional spin on real events (there's a couple of clever allusions to Flashman and the characters Flashman - in both the Fraser and Hughes versions - might be based on). I wouldn't describe it as an enjoyable read, but certainly it's a good one. It might even encourage further reading about the reality of British rule in India.

Related Reviews

Farrell - The Siege of Krishnapur
Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857
Wagner - Amritsar 1919
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Penny McCall Howard - Environment, Labour & Capitalism at Sea: 'Working the Ground' in Scotland

Working at sea in the fishing industry is 115 time more dangerous than the UK average. It' i a startling statistic, that is usually explained by the idea that the sea is "dangerous". But Penny McCall Howard's important book is a detailed examination of why this is an incorrect explanation. More than that, it is a brilliant anthropological study of the lives of those on the west coast of Scotland who making a living from the sea. Howard shows how human labour is part of shaping an ecology which is far wider than just the "prawn monoculture" they fish.

Many of the classic works of anthropology are written by observers who maximise their distance from their subject. In his classic studies of the Nuer people of Southern Sudan, E.E.Evans-Pritchard wrote detailed accounts of his subject's lives, but always remained an observer. Howard too is an outsider, but she doesn't remain aloof from the fisher communities that she is writing about. An accomplished sailor she works with the men (they are all men), joining their small fishing boats or working on trawlers. As such, this is an intimate account of labour at sea, and how it is shaped by wider environment and economy. Howard explains her framework:
I focus on people's labour as what ties environments, people and tools together as they work to make dishing grounds productive. I take a phenomenological approach that focuses on people's experience of their own labour, including the results of that labour, and the aspirations and hopes that they pour into it. As a result, this book challenges the popular conception of the sea as a hostile wilderness...I explore the more complicated reasons why human-environmental relations at sea are fraught with ruptures, tensions and contradictions, tragedy, unfulfilled hope and even desperation.
Howard says that in the communities she studied, fishers feel in "a state of siege".  One fisher told her that "if you are trawler-man you think everyone is out to get you". This should be of no surprise - one of the consequence of heightened environmental awareness in the general population is an understanding that we are facing a biodiversity crisis and this is commonly understood to be particularly an issue for sea-life. Indeed the week I write this review the Guardian carries an article by George Monbiot which has the unfortunate headline "Stop eating fish. It’s the only way to save the life in our seas". It's hard to see any of those who Howard writes about here as seeing this as anything else as an assault on their livelihoods.

Howard begins with the nature of labour at sea, tracing it's impact on the environment, the process of shaping the "grounds" themselves and how wider, social relations, transform that experience. In one anecdote, she notes how an experienced fisher complains about having to go to the toilet at sea in a bucket, while the owner has spent tens of thousands on new navigation equipment to improve his chance at a profit.

All workers become intimate with their environments - whether it is a computer network, a phone call centre, the fields an agricultural workers frequents or fishers who "work the ground". The word "ground" is important. Howard says that she has noted more than 80 uses of the word - which means far more than, say, the sea-bed. Instead "what linked these places was the productive labour that took place in them. The ground was a place that afforded fishermen better catches and where they found their work to be productive. The affordances of grounds were not static and they were historically inextricably connected to the labour expended there."

Crucially, she continues, "fishermen re-shaped the affordances of grounds through their work and developed new tools in order to further develop the affordances of grounds." It brought to mind Marx's statement that "Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature".

Howard shows how fishers have a complex relationship with the grounds they work. To understand their labour as simply bringing fish on-board a ship in a net is to misunderstand the intimate relationship with the sea. This is not a romanticised view of life on-board ships, rather its the way that years of experience allow the fishers to develop very clear understanding of the sea, its tides, its depth and the seabed. Using this information (often obtained through careful watching of equipment screens, but also through feeling the vibrations of the boat and its equipment) workers are able to make decisions about how, where and when to fish. Some areas might bring a bigger catch, but be risky for expensive equipment, other places might bring smaller fish in bigger quantities which require more labour to prepare. All of these decisions take place in the context of the wider, capitalist, market which might mean a fish that was extremely valuable one week is almost worthless the next. Grounds then, "are places where affordances are intentionally developed in particular social and economic context, and through often improvised actions with particular conditions of satisfaction."

Howard draws on the work of environmental geographer Neil Smith who argued that humans "create nature". Howard shows how fisher's labour transforms the environment. For instance, she quotes one fisher saying "if you come across a piece of ground with a lot of skate, first you have to fish them off, and that's when you will find you start to get a good fishing of prawns." Howard continues: "Trawler skippers saw themselves as intervening in ecosystems to make them more productive of the prawns or crabs they fished for."

Thus those critics who might simply see the fishing industry as exploiting a pristine environment are incorrect. Fishers are part and parcel of shaping the ecology that they labour in. In fact, fishers almost always see their labour as making a positive contribution. That is not to suggest that the consequences might not be destructive, but to show how the actual catching of prawns is the result of wider social interactions. This was drawn out for me by Howard's discussion of the working practice of the skippers of the boats she worked on. They would often keep up a constant radio and 'phone chatter with other skippers, sharing information with others. So the work was intensely co-operative - a "community of practice" as Howard puts it. But skippers could also conceal and hide information. They might be fearful that someone else would undermine their catch at the market, or get fish that they might want. So wider capitalist social relations shape the relations between the working boats and their crew. Something also seen in Howard's brilliant discussion of technology - as alluded to earlier, technology at sea is usually about maximising profits, not improving the lives of those who work there. I don't have space to draw this out further, but Howard's conclusion is important. Technology, she explains, arises out of and then shapes, the industry:
The effects of technologies must be examine din the context of the transformation of sea creatures into valuable commodities with a variable price in faraway markets, and the alienation of fishing crew from any ownership relation with a boat and from the sea as a source of reliable livelihood.
This is also true of the relations between workers. Technology allows the better exploitation of the environment. But it also means that the job becomes more deskilled, and boat owners can employ cheaper labour. The final chapters of the book look at what this has meant for communities and crew, particularly through the hiring of immigrant workers on very low wages. Class differences have, as Howard is careful to emphasise, always existed in the fishing industry. So the system of shares that determines pay rates on many boats doesn't arise out of some historical communal system, but out of a system of multiple ownership of boats. Today that means that crew will often receive low pay for long hard work, and sometimes get nothing if the trip itself is not profitable. It is a system open to exploitation, but one where it is difficult for workers to organise collectively.

This returns me to my starting point. The horrifically high level of deaths and injury in the fishing industry is not the result of accidents. It is a consequence of the job "as currently organised" where boat owners cut corners on maintenance and safety to maximise profits, or crew must risk going to sea in a extreme conditions in order to make enough money to pay rent or loans. Returning to the work of Neil Smith, Howard shows how the "ideology of nature" means that the natural world is seen as outside the lived reality of people - something to be used and exploited. But capitalism makes the sea more dangerous for workers. As Howard points out the idea of a "hostile and dangerous sea naturalises the deaths of those working on it, no matter what the real cause." Deaths are seen as a result of the sea itself, not the system that exploits those who work it in the quest for profits.

Howard's book is a remarkable piece of work. It's a first rate piece of Marxist anthropology that puts human labour at the centre of a discussion about ecology. It shows how the biodiversity crisis in the oceans is related to wider social relations, and emphasises again how the fight to prevent environmental destruction requires challenging the priorities of the system - not just changes to our diet. For radical environmentalists and Marxist ecologists this should be a required read, and I'm pleased to see that a cheap paperback is to be published soon.

Related Reviews

Smith - Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space
Carson - Under the Sea Wind
Clare - Down to the Sea in Ships
Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Lymbery - Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were

Friday, May 10, 2019

Steven King - Writing the Lives of the English Poor: 1750s-1830s

Steven King's book is a detailed, academic, textual study of an archive of 26,000 letters written by claimants for poor relief to parish officials. I've written a review for another publication and will link it here when it is published.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Jim Bell - The Interstellar Age

Voyagers One and Two were launched in 1977 and, by a lucky chance of birth, this has meant for much of my life their missions have been a major scientific influence. I was far too young to even know of their encounters with Jupiter and Saturn, though the images they returned were part of the background scientific knowledge for me as I entered my teens and my close interest in astronomy and space sciences. I remember Voyager 2's arrival at Uranus and Neptune in 1986 and 1989, though the latter was overshadowed, in my family, by the massive political upheaval in Eastern Europe taking place that year. The sense of wonder that the two probes brought was enormously influential and, it was only by another lucky chance of timing that the Voyager 2 was able to visit all four of these planets in one trip. In my university studies I was able to draw on some of the Voyager data for a, distinctly, amateur piece of work of the atmospheric physics of gaseous planets.

Jim Bell's history of these missions is "the story of the NASA men and women who flew the forty-year Voyager mission" and it is a profound journey for many reasons. On a personal level it answers some long troublesome questions. For instance, I never understood why the decision was taken by NASA to divert Voyager 1 to Saturn's moon Titan. This meant that the first probe would be unable to visit Uranus and Neptune which always seemed to me to be a major mistake given that Titan was, at least in the Voyager images, distinctly uninteresting. As Bell explains though, scientists knew Titan had an atmosphere and speculation about this, and the possibilities it implied were a point of major discussion in the 1980s. Bell quotes one Voyager scientist as saying that had Voyager 1 failed, the second craft would still have forgone the chance to visit Uranus and Neptune for a glimpse at Titan. However Uranus and Neptune proved far more exciting than expected, but have now only received one visit from a spacecraft. Hindsight, as they say, is wonderful.

More importantly Bell shows just how amazing the missions and the resultant science is. For instance, Voyager actually uses a tape machine to story data and images, before returning them to earth. Few of my tape recorders lasted beyond the 1980s, so to have one, albeit a much more expensive version, survive for the whole of the mission is incredible. Equally impressive is the way that the scientists continually updated the probe's software to compensate for minor damage, fuel limitations and the harsh environments around the gas giants.

Bell has a good chapter on the science behind the famous golden record that sits on both craft. This message to alien civilisations is unlikely ever to be read, but should it be, it has a fascinating store of information designed to maximise information about our civilisation, and instructions on how a relatively scientifically advanced alien society might access the information. I enjoyed the descriptions of which images were selected - in order that they could tell much more about us than simply contained in visual form (eg, an image of a stuck snowmobile tells the aliens that we, acknowledge mistakes, and have a planet that is covered in some form of white stuff). Sadly I doubt these records will ever be found, but they are likely to remain some of the few records of our civilisation long after we have gone. I do, however, consider that Jim Bell's belief that we'll eventually catch up with Voyager and put them in museums a fantasy. As an aside it is notable that despite the scientific endeavour, real world interests influenced the contents of the record. The recording company behind the Beatles was unable to agree copyright exclusions to allow their music to be added to the record - a fantastic example of how capitalism's need to profit from everything shapes the world!

Jim Bell puts across the science of Voyager and our solar system well and in an accessible form. I was inspired to read it partly because I enjoyed Alan Stern & David Grinspoon's book on the New Horizons mission so much. That is a very different book which focuses more on the trials of getting New Horizons off the ground. Voyager had much less of those difficulties and had more planetary encounters. But both missions demonstrate how, even at remarkably low cost (Voyager cost the US taxpayers a few cents each), we can learn a great deal from short flybys. Voyagers One and Two, like New Horizons, have inspired millions of people. It's an impact we should consider more, rather than the penny pinching that such science often gets. For me, reading this felt like I was coming home to events that had shaped me, and my old enthusiasm for the study of the universe returned - and I do hope that Uranus and Neptune are visited someday soon.

Related Reviews

Stern & Grinspoon - Chasing New Horizons
Brzezinski - Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Race
Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon
Clegg - Gravity: Why What Goes Up, Must Come Down

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Talat Ahmed - Mohandas Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience

One of the most exciting things about radical politics in the UK in 2019 has been the emergence of mass protest movements against environmental destruction that take their inspiration from historic non-violence, direct action and civil disobedience struggles. Figures like Martin Luther King Jnr and Mohandas Gandhi loom large in discussions about the most effective way to campaign. So I was very pleased to pick up Talat Ahmed's new book that looks at probably the most famous proponent of non-violence, Mohandas Gandhi.

Talat Ahmed traces the development of Gandhi's politics from his experiences as a youth in India, the experiences that shaped him in England while he trained to be a lawyer and then the sharper experiences in South Africa were he encountered systematic racism for the first time. Ahmed shows how Gandhi's politics evolved relatively early into a highly structured religiously inspired vision that placed a highly developed moral code at the heart of everything that Gandhi did and argued for. In particular Gandhi's activism transcended the traditional barriers within Indian society. For instance. he fought hard for the rights of the dalit community, the caste popularly known as untouchables. Gandhi also argued for unity between religious communities, even at time of great unrest and ethnic conflict.

But Ahmed also argues that Gandhi's approach was limited by his approach to wider social conflict.  She writes:
Gandhi abhorred violence, particularly if resorted to by ordinary people, and certainly if it was part of a class struggle against exploitation and oppression - foreign or domestic. This was true in South Africa, Chauri Chaura, Mappiula [Rebellion], the Quit India movement and the naval mutinies. On each occasion, Gandhi lectured ordinary people, the subalterns, for not having understood the principles of his satyagraga strategy, And on each occasion, those who wielded power and had a monopoly on violence to mete out the full power of the state with no regard for passive resistance were absolved somehow of responsibility. 
She concludes that "By treating violence and non-violence as abstract moral precepts, Gandhi effectively left the mass of people defenceless in the face of colonial state brutality and violence."

It is clear from Ahmed's book that Gandhi had a horror of struggle escalating out of control, particularly if it began to challenge the basis of bourgeois society. In fact, Gandhi's vision of India after the British had left was very much one of bourgeois capitalist democracy. Gandhi was "a leader precisely because he also possessed the ability to unite the myriad of class forces... in Indian nationalism". Thus those struggles which brought together different religions as part of a mass struggle were often rejected by Gandhi if they went too far. Gandhi himself, under pressure from the growth of the left, had some ambiguity towards capitalism. Ahmed quotes a response from Gandhi to the Indian Communist M.N. Roy's arguments in favour of the Bolsheviks:
I am an uncompromising opponent of violent methods even to serve the noblest of causes... I desire to end capitalism almost if not quite as much as the most advanced socialist or event communist. But our methods differ, our languages differ.
But the problem was not just about method and language. It was also about vision, and ultimately this meant that Gandhi undermined struggles that could have advanced Independence and the struggle against an enormously unjust Indian society. Some examples that Ahmed gives are quite stark - for instance Gandhi calling off struggles when they develop into strikes, or when his supporters riot against policemen who have killed protesters.

Despite Gandhi being forever associated with Indian Independence, Ahmed explains that the British authorities credited other forces for being the final catalyst for change. Clement Attlee, for instance, said that the "principle reason" for the British deciding to leave India was the "erosion of loyalty to the British crown among the Indian army and navy" resulting from the more radical movements. Attlee went on to describe Gandhi's role as "minimal". This is not to say that Gandhi had no significance - indeed he helped create a mass movement against the British, but that Gandhi's strategy, at crucial points, was not enough to drive things through because he had elevated non-violence to the level of a unbreakable religious belief, rather than a tactic.

Talat Ahmed's book is a highly readable, critical, introduction to Gandhi's life and politics. Its importance is underlined by her hope that it will "help activists today grapple with the real life and complex and contested legacy of this enigmatic and contradictory 'non-violent revolutionary'" and to encourage today's activists "to go beyond what Gandhi ever thought possible and engage not only in 'experiments in civil disobedience'" but to build the sort of movements that can fundamentally transform society. Since the bloody legacy of Britain's Partition of India is two countries armed with nuclear weapons, this is a vision that has never been more important.

Related Reviews

Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857
Davies - Late Victorian Holocausts
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried
Wagner - Amritsar 1919

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Alan Thornett - Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism

I've known Alan Thornett for many years, most recently through work in the environmental movement as part of the Campaign Against Climate Change's trade union group. Alan Thornett is a longstanding socialist, a committed anti-racist and fighter for women's rights. We have, over the years, engaged in various debates over some of the subjects in this, his latest book, and he wrote a friendly but very critical review of my book Land and Labour. I highlight this because in this review of Thornett's book I will take issue with many of his arguments and suggest that he has a wrong approach for a socialist towards dealing with environmental disaster. These are, however, arguments between people who want to see an end to environmental destruction and to see society move towards a socialist model. They are part of clarifying our mutual understanding of our politics and our strategies.

Thornett begins by arguing that "breaking with the legacy of the 20th century will require big changes organisational and political... it means a serious re-examination of the strategic conceptions that the left has being applying to the ecological struggle for the last three decades". Thornett shows how historically the left has not taken environmental issues seriously, except in a few individual cases and he rightly argues that this is in part a legacy of those regimes that labelled themselves socialist, but acted in a way that copied the capitalist states. However Thornett's main ambition in this book is not just to highlight historical errors of the left, but to argue that key strategies and politics of the contemporary left are mistaken. It would be fair to say that I am one of the people he disagrees with here. In the introduction to the book Thornett writes:
Since modern humans migrated out of Africa about 180,000 years ago, we have had a disproportionate impact on other species. We destroyed the planet's large animals... in what was a major global extinction event... More recently, as human maritime capability developed along with colonial expansion, sailors ate their way through vulnerable species... In the 18th century [I think Thornett really means the 19th century when the majority of the bison where killed] between 30 and 60 million bison roamed North America's great plains. The construction of the railroad network and accelerated human settlement led to a remarkable mass slaughter of the bison, taking it close to extinction... We are the only species to have invaded every habitat on earth and capable of destroying the planet many times over... If we ignore the impact we are having on the planet, we will destroy all other species that live on it and ultimately ourselves.
There are, I suggest, two problems with this approach. Firstly Thornett repeatedly uses the word "we", suggesting the human society today is the same as it was in the 18th century and 180,000 years ago. He also ignores the different historical contexts of these events - hunter-gatherer communities killed megafauna as part of their livelihoods which is not the same as the systematic destruction of bison as part of a genocidal approach to the indigenous population of the United States. However I am particularly concerned with the use of "we" as it implies that all humans are equally to blame for today's environmental crisis, just as they were all to blame for megafauna extinction. For instance, the hunting to extinction, of megafauna in Australia by bands of hunter-gatherers, is in no way the same as the contemporary "Sixth Extinction" caused by capitalism - for example as a result of industrial agriculture.
Over population
This approach characterises Thornett's wider approach which is to argue that over-population is a key problem for the environment and for the left. He argues that the left has failed to understand and respond to the environmental situation: "major issues remained to be resolved for Marxism and the ecological struggle, in terms of both analysis and response". Thornett begins by criticising those on the left who argue that the solution to capitalism's destruction of the planet is the struggle for socialism.
The standard 'solution'; advanced by most on the radical left in this regard, is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism - by implication within the next 12 years because that is how long we have to do it. It is what I call 'one solution revolution'.... Capitalism is the problem and its overturn is the solution - and not just as a long-term perspective, which is a different matter - but as an immediate solution to global warming. Such an approach is maximalist, leftist and useless. We can all, as socialists, vote to abolish capitalism with both hands, and this is indeed our long-term objective. But as an answer to global warming within the next 12 years it makes no sense.
It is true that some on the left, and some socialist organisations, do have a position similar to that Thornett describes here. But in my extensive experience, those are organisations that have the least involvement with environmental politics, and the least developed understanding of Marxism and ecology. Thornett caricatures the whole left (excluding himself) as having this position. He writes, "The practical upshot of a maximalist approach of this kind is to deprioritise the struggle for changes in the here and now, and so demobilise the left".

But this is plainly not true. For instance, Socialist Worker placards on climate demonstrations often say "System Change not Climate Change" and, as Thornett explicitly notes "One Solution Revolution". But they also call for One Million Climate jobs and other reforms. Thornett has closely worked with socialists from a number of different traditions (including the SWP) to develop these strategies to deal with climate change under capitalism; so his argument here is a mis-characterisation of much of the radical left.

By downplaying slogans that highlight the need for a socialist alternative to capitalism Thornett makes a error about how socialists should approach the struggle to deal with ecological disaster. The starting point must be that capitalism is the problem, not, as Thornett implies the existence of humans or the use of industry and technology. Global environmental crisis is the result of the development of a system of generalised commodity production based on the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation. Despite Thornett noting the work of Marxists like Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, his own book fails to emphasis this aspect of capitalism. The reader could be left with the impression that Thornett believes that the problem is simply the existence of human society (of whichever form).

In my view, socialists who reject, as utopian, the slogan 'System Change not Climate Change' for the environmental movement fail to see that the demand is not simply about the result, but also a strategy for getting a sustainable world. This isn't simply about whether or not socialism is the solution to the environmental crisis. Understanding that capitalism is the problem helps orient the movement. To argue anything else is to give ground to the idea that capitalism can solve the crisis - and if the last 40 years have taught us anything, it is that it can't and won't. It is only mass action that can force through reforms on the scale we require. Thornett's alternative - to eat less meat, to take individual responsibility for our personal footprint (which socialists don't worry about this?) and so on are thus fundamentally inadequate. Even Thornett's preferred strategy - the use of taxation against oil companies to "bring down carbon emissions rapidly" would fail unless it is backed up by powerful forces that can make the oil companies obey. The tragic lessons of experiments in radical reformism over the years has been that the capitalists are prepared to use the full power of their state to restrict any attempts to stop the accumulation of capital. 


This brings me to another key difference - the question of population. Thornett argues that the a key problem is the growing population and its environmental footprint. He notes that the footprint of people is different depending on where they are in the world, but writes that "African faces the most
dangerous situation". He argues that strategies need to be developed that will reduce population growth and encourage smaller families. Again he implies, perhaps inadvertently, that others on the left wouldn't agree. For instance he says that "policies that involve lifting women out of poverty in the poorest parts of the globe and enabling the to control their own fertility through the provision of contraception and abortion services, need to be supported". But I don't know anyone on the left who would disagree. The problem is that this won't stop environmental destruction.  

Later Thornett writes, "how can rising population and women's reproduction be separated? One determines the other." But this ignores the question of social context. Women have children based on all sorts of factors - but most importantly the number of children they have is linked to wealth. But whether a society can support a particular population is determined by the nature of that society. It's a point made well by Karl Marx:
overpopulation is…a historically determined relation, in no way determined by abstract numbers or by the absolute limit of the productivity of the necessaries of life, but by the limits posited rather by specific conditions of production…. How small do the numbers which meant overpopulation for the Athenians appear to us!
When we look at the causes of environmental disaster we have to point out that the problem is simply not caused by population growth in Africa (and to do this, as Thornett does, is to open the door to racist arguments about the developing world). Thornett does write:
I am not arguing that rising population is the root cause of the ecological crisis... That is the fault of the capitalist system of production and the commodification of the planet - although pre-capitalist systems of agriculture were already degrading the ecology and the biodiversity before capitalism arrived. What I am arguing is that rising population is a major contributory factor. 
But if this is the case, the starting point is not population, but the nature of capitalism. The structures of capitalism and the nature of accumulation mean that population growth in the developing world is not the problem. But Thornett moves further into dangerous territory when he argues that
The question is not simply whether capitalism is ecologically destructive, but whether the ecological crisis can be reduced to capitalism.... If the problem is simply capitalism, this implies (in reverse) that its removal would resolve - partially at least - the ecological crisis. But there is no evidence that this would be the case. In fact, major existential challenges would continue to exist, and the ecological struggle would have to continue long after capitalism had left the scene.
Clearly there will be ecological issues to resolve once capitalism has been defeated, but that will require a system being put in place that is capable of dealing with the disaster. In other words a society that is not based on the competitive accumulation of capital. But here Thornett appears to suggest the problem cannot be reduced to capitalism, in which case you can never prevent ecological crisis, which is a very strange conclusion to draw for a Marxist.

In other sections of the book Thornett deals with other issues such as transport and jobs, as well as a discussion of the relative weaknesses of the British trade union movement on ecological issues. In the section on food he argues that we need a transition to a lower meat diet. I've dealt elsewhere at length with this question, and won't repeat those arguments here. But I do want to note that Thornett's figures are incorrect. On page 176 he argues that GHG emissions from meat production "are greater than the emissions generated by the entire world-wide transportation system". But this is not true, as the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation [FAO] has pointed out here. Readers might suggest that Thornett is correct not to rely on figures from the UN which might have a vested interest in denying this, but Thornett does rely on FAO figures on the previous page. Similarly Thornett quotes the figure of 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions being due to livestock production, but this figure comes from a report that the FAO admitted was flawed and the correct figure is nearer 14.5 percent. Thornett does then use this figure a few pages later (p186) but attributes it to "meat production" which is incorrect as it is from the whole "livestock sector" which includes more than meat production. More worryingly Thornett uses the infamous figure from the film Cowspiracy that 51 percent of all worldwide CO2 emissions comes from livestock. But this figure has been widely discredited, as Danny Chivers, author and lead external carbon analyst for Christian Aid and ActionAid has written:
The 51 percent number comes from a single non-peer-reviewed report by two researchers—a report littered with statistical errors. This study counts the climate impact of methane from animals as being more than three times more powerful as methane from other sources, adds in an inappropriate chunk of extra land use emissions and incorrectly includes all the carbon dioxide that livestock breathe out.
I highlight these inaccuracies because if the left is to win an argument around the environment we must be absolutely rigorous in our use of evidence, or risk undermining our own arguments.

In his conclusion Thornett writes that the left cannot reduce its arguments around environmental disaster to propaganda for socialism. That is true but no serious ecological Marxist makes this error. But the environmental crisis is an existential threat to humanity caused directly by the nature of capitalism. Unfortunately Alan Thornett's book undermines the struggle for a sustainable world because it obscures the real problem.

Related Reviews

Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Angus - A Redder Shade of Green
Wallis - Red Green Revolution

Burkett - Marx and Nature
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Malm - The Progress of This Storm

Dee Brown - The Fetterman Massacre

Dee Brown is the celebrated author of one of the most famous books on the Native Americans - Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. It is a classic of its time and a painful read as it depicts the story of the genocide of the Indigenous people of the Americas at the hands of the US government. It was a formative book for me, though perhaps superseded today by other works such as Nick Estes' Our History is the Future. However I was keen to read Brown's Fetterman Massacre as it centres on a notorious incident in December 1866 when Captain Fetterman's force of US Army troops was massacred by an army of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors under the leadership of Red Cloud.

Red Cloud's war was a response by the Native Americans to the incursions into their territory by the US Army and settlers from the East. Brown's book focuses on a small aspect of the widr conflict, following Colonel Henry Carrington who built and setup Fort Phil Kearny to protect travels and settlers on the Bozeman trail. Carrington, together with a tiny military force and a few civilians, setup an isolated fort and attempted to maintain it's position in the face of increasing hostility from the local indigenous people. Carrington himself was a bit of an idealist, and he was in a difficult position - isolated, under-supplied and lacking in experience (he himself had never commanded in action). He was also under pressure from the likes of Fetterman to take a more aggressive attitude to Red Cloud's forces.

Brown artfully mines the documentary evidence to show how Carrington came to understand the weakness of his position and how the expedition begins to approach disaster. Fetterman himself is experienced in fighting battles, but only for the Union against the Confederacy. He has little experience of fighting the highly mobile, guerrilla, forces that Red Cloud commands. Probably more dangerous for Fetterman is his own racism and prejudices which lead him to see the Native Americans as easy enemies for the trained US troops. Famously Fetterman declared "With 80 men I could ride through the Sioux nation" and it is ironic that when he and his command perished in a brutal, but brief fight, casualties were almost exactly eighty.

Tragically for Carrington he became the scapegoat, despite Fetterman having repeatedly broken discipline and disobeyed commands. Carrington had warned of disaster and the Army bureaucrats had ignored him. Red Cloud could claim a major victory, that would not be surpassed until the Battle of the Little Big Horn a decade later.

While this is a great compact read, it lacked nuance and I felt the voices of the Native American people were drowned out, as was the wider context of the battle. Dee Brown's work is sympathetic to the Native American people but he also carries with him the legacy of an earlier era - he uses the racist term "half breed" for instance. That said, the work is in no way a celebration of the US Army and tells a fascinating, if horrible, history.

Related Reviews

Estes - Our History is the Future
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Philbrick - The Last Stand
Cronon - Changes in the Land
McMillan & Yellowhorn - First Peoples in Canada
Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance

Fagan - The First North Americans

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Victor Lavalle - The Ballad of Black Tom

***Contains Spoilers***

I've never really had much time for the works of H.P. Lovecraft - all those over-long descriptions of eldritch horrors tended to put me off. But plenty of people are, and Victor LaValle is one such fan, though his distaste at Lovecraft's racist views is highlighted by his dedication - "For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my complicated feelings".

But in this short novel LaValle gets his revenge on Lovecraft by taking his genre and characters and turning them into a brilliant critique of a racist society. Set in a Lovecraftian New York, LaValle's short novel begins with Tommy, a small time wheeler-dealer who is constantly trying to make ends meet, in particular to help out his father. Tommy is also a talentless musician who dreams of the big time, but isn't good enough (indeed his one shot at the big time was terminated after one song when the band ditched his efforts).

Tommy is picked up by a wealthy, white, businessman Robert Suydam who wants him to play at a party - a party that is part of summoning the nameless horrors that exist "outside". New York here is not our New York, but a close parallel where magic is real. This 1920s "Jazz Age" world is different, but much the same. Crooked, racist cops kill Tommy's father in a painful scene that is reminiscent of countless accounts of US police killings of poor black people today. Suydam wants to fix this, but not through a Civil Rights movement:
Your people are forced to live in mazes of hybrid squalor. It's all sound and filth and spiritual putrescence... But what if that could change? ... When the Sleeping King awakes he will reward us with dominion of this world. And all your enemies will be crushed into dust.
So Suydam dreams of releasing the nameless horrors of the other world in order to free humanity, and, in particular, free the oppressed and downtrodden. It's an excellent setup, that neatly skewers Lovecraft and inverts the horror genre. But the book is more than a great idea - its brilliantly written, gasp out loud horrible in a couple of places, and nicely paced to an excellent climax. Most interestingly is the trajectory of Tommy who goes from a relatively harmless hustler (who defaces a book of magic to prevent it being used for evil) to full on monster; driven, not by a glimpse of the nether-world, but by racist violence.

I suspect those who know Lovecraft's work well will get a lot more out of this than I did. I did not know, until after I'd finished it, that some of the characters, principally Suydam and the detective Malone, are straight out of what two writers describe as Lovecraft's "most bigoted story". But even if you don't know Lovecraft's work I'd recommend this short novel as an excellent addition to the growing body of fantasy and science-fiction that is tackling big questions of racism, oppression and bigotry.

Related Reviews

Solomon - An Unkindness of Ghosts
Tidhar - Central Station

Monday, April 22, 2019

Hanna Jameson - The Last

It has been three years since Donald Trump's election which means that those authors who were inspired to write post-apocalyptic fiction in the wake of his inauguration are now having it published. Hanna Jameson's The Last is very clearly modelled on events after Trump, or a similar US President (who remains nameless in the novel) causes a nuclear war to break out. The question of the Presidency, and who voted for "him" is a running plot-line through the book which centres on a small group of residents trapped in a hotel in the Swiss mountains in the aftermath of the war.

Jon Keller is the focus of the book. He's torn by angst having failed to reply to a last text message from his wife, and attempts to deal with the trauma by investigating an apparent murder that took place just before the end of civilisation. What makes the book great is the exploration of how individuals cope with what has taken place - one character, a doctor, points out that everyone is in mourning - not just for their loved ones, but also for the lives they have lost. So while disaster aficionados will enjoy the parts of the book that deal with survival in the aftermath of the collapse of civilisation, there's much more than just the usual hunting for food and fuel. On occasion Jameson links the too together rather well, as when she depicts characters, particularly Jon, trying to use their phones to call home or conserving batteries to listen to MP3's one last time.

Unfortunately I felt the book was weakened by am unbelievable ending, but the various threads (and the murder mystery) are tied up rather well despite this disappointment. Highly recommended for those people who are thinking through the end of the world.

Related Reads

Robinson - New York 2140
Morrow - Is this the Way the World Ends?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Nick Estes - Our History is the Future

In 2016 a protest encampment at Standing Rock in the US state of North Dakota became a symbol of resistance to fossil capitalism. The camp, which arose out of indigenous peoples' movements, became a focus, in the dying days of the Obama administration, of bottom-up organisation against the expansion of oil pipelines. Quickly it gathered support and brought together disparate groups of people - from the indigenous communities to environmental activists, NGOs and even former members of the US military. The camp saw down brutal repression to become, at least in the short term, victorious. Perhaps just as importantly the "water protectors" helped inspire other campaigners across the globe. I remember speaking at a protest march against fracking at Barton Moss in Salford in the UK and a great cheer went up when I mentioned Standing Rock - a cheer that celebrated their struggle, not my speech!

Nick Estes' new book is subtitled "Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance" which neatly sums up his central argument: the protests that took place at Standing Rock are part of a long continuity of indigenous resistance towards a settler state that has sought to exploit the US's natural resources and people in the interest of profit and, to do this, has needed to destroy the indigenous peoples. This saw a genocidal war against the Native Americans, culminating in them being forced into smaller and smaller reservations, together with laws that codified their oppression. All this was justified through racism. Estes' book is a history of all this, which is at times difficult to read as well as inspirational.

I won't dwell here on Estes' account of the military repression of the indigenous people. Instead I want to highlight Estes' argument about the way that the US state made the repression and attempted destruction of the Native American way of life a central part of its approach towards those communities. He explains:
The design and development of the carceral reservation world was well under way by the time Cheyennes, Lakotas, and Arapahos made Custer and his Seventh Cavalry famous. In 1876 Indian Commissioner John Q. Smith envisioned US Indian policy as having three central goals: to concentrate remaining Indigenous peoples onto fewer reservations, to allot remaining lands, and to expand US laws and courts' jurisdiction over reservations... the latter two goals were achieved through the disintegration of political and social structure, and the carving up of the remaining communally held lands. The fur trade may have introduced the capitalist market, but it never made the Oceti Sakowin [this is the correct name for the people commonly called the Sioux] truly individualistic, and communal land practices and social customs still prevailed. This was the final frontier.
He continues that "reservations thus became sites where social engineering was used to break communal organisation".

While the use of military force against the indigenous people declined it never disappeared and there were other ways of destroying communities. The creation of dams is a case in point, which Estes shows were frequently built to generate energy, and often located in land or reservations that historically was of importance to indigenous people. Take the Garrison Dam which "inundated the For Berthold Reservation" drowning 152,360 acres of land belonging to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations. But the dam was modified by the Army Corp of Engineers to ensure that the "majority-white border town of Williston, North Dakota" lost no land. The dams location was chosen to avoid damage to other towns whose residents were mainly non-indigenous. No such care was taken for Native American people, and these dams, which were part of the "Pick-Sloan" project of the late 1940s where described by one historian as destroying "more Indian land than any single public workers project in the United States".

The question of land could not be separated from wider social questions - poverty, racism, unemployment and lack of decent housing. Este thus describes as succession of social movements that arose where indigenous people fought back for justice - in the late 1960s these took a more radical turn as a new generation of young people challenged both their elders and put forward more powerful demands from the government. To me, at least, here is a forgotten history of those who, alongside the black, gay and women's movements of the 1960s, created a revolutionary "Red Power" movement, which is remarkably inspiring. But the struggle is by no means over. Estes points out:
Anti-Indianism has also been reinforced under neoliberalism - the restructuring of politics and economy towards privatisation...But the role of the US state in reproducing anti-Indianism has also increased since the mid-twentieth century, including through the expansion of the military and prisons... Native inmates [in South Dakota] make up 30 percent of the total [prison] population while only constituting about 9 percent of the state's population. The rise in incarceration rates directly correlates with increased Native political activity in the 1970s.
Estes is clear that justice for indigenous people will not be solved via the US government in its current form. Clearly there needs to be more funding for schools, hospitals, housing and so on. But at the heart of US society there is a great injustice - the creation of the US state required, and requires, the systematic oppression of the indigenous population. Capitalism will not be able to fix this, as it will require challenging the very nature of the US state. This is also true of many other countries who built their wealth through colonialism and imperialism, and the systematic oppression (and decimation) of people in Africa, Asia, South America and Australasia. Estes details the strong internationalism of the indigenous communities, who have created international movements (eg solidarity between Palestinians and Native Americans) to fight for justice.

Real justice will arise when society can accept that indigenous peoples must have the right to solve problems in their own way. Estes notes that one vision for this was Lenin's argument for the "right of colonised nations to secede and declare independence from their colonial masters" but he cautions, while it is a view that has been taken up  by many in the "Asian, African and South American contexts" it is "entirely absent in North America, except among radical Indigenous, Black, Asian, Caribbean and Chicanx national liberation movements".

The logic of capitalism means the destruction of natural resources and people in the interests of wealth accumulation. One barrier to the continued search for profit has always been, and remains, the resistance of indigenous people. As Standing Rock showed these struggles can ignite further alliances, and such unity raises the potential for a radical challenge to capitalism. I hope that occurs, for otherwise we will not see, what Estes calls "the emancipation of earth from capital".

Nick Estes' book is a powerful read. I learnt a great deal from it - not just about the history of indigenous people in what is called "Turtle Island", but also about what liberation means for them. These struggles, in the face of the most brutal, racialised repression from the US state, are inspirational, but also hold up hope that a better world is possible.

Related Reviews

Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Cronon - Changes in the Land
McMillan & Yellowhorn - First Peoples in Canada
Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Fagan - The First North Americans

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

CJ Sanson - Sovereign

The period of Henry VIII's rule in England has furnished plenty of material for authors of historical fiction. For CJ Sansom it is the perfect backdrop to his stories of mystery and detection - plenty of plots, murders and scheming. But the specific social changes taking place allow a remarkably varied set of stories. In the first book Sansom sets up a locked room mystery (well locked monastery mystery) in the context of the dissolution of the monasteries. In the second, Dark Fire, he skilfully weaves the story of Thomas Cromwell's fall around a hunt for a lost chemical weapon.

Sovereign is more ambitious. It is set during Henry VIII's Great Northern Progress in the aftermath of the two, linked, northern rebellions that took place from 1536 to 1537 (though Sansom only mentions the Pilgrimage of Grace neglecting the Lincolnshire Rising). The Progress was a mass display of power by Henry designed to cow the population and force supplication. In this it was an immense success, though as Sansom seems to understand, its importance today is mostly remembered for being the period when Catherine Howard's alleged infidelity was discovered.

Matthew Shardlake, the lawyer hero of Sansom's Tudor novels joins the Progress on the instructions of Thomas Cranmer who sets him the difficult task of bringing a rebel safely back to London. The rebel has evidence of a conspiracy against the King and Shardlake is thus risking his life to complete the mission. As always with these novels the level of detail is astounding and Sansom's knowledge of the political twists and turns of the Tudor court is excellent. I found the denouement of the novel somewhat of a let down, but Sansom certainly managed to tie all the threads together well.

One thing that I think Sansom does extremely well is to demonstrate how the King was the centre of the universe for Tudor society. Characters repeatedly ask each other if they have seen the King, or discuss being in his presence. Shardlake himself is terrified of meeting Henry when petitions are presented and, in a nicely comic passage, is terror is replicated among even more experienced court followers who have to rush to the toilet after the audience is over. Henry was the centre around which everything revolved, but he was also both human and horrible, and Shardlake experiences with a rather unpleasant awakening.

It's an excellent book, though my attention did wane after 500 pages and the last 100 or so felt like I was reading simply to get to the end. That said, it's entertaining and I'd second Sansom in his recommendations of books on the Northern Revolts - see below.

Related Reviews

Sansom - Dissolution
Sansom - Dark Fire
Hoyle - The Pilgrimage of Grace and the politics of the 1530s
Moorhouse - The Pilgrimage of Grace
Fletcher & MacCulloch - Tudor Rebellions
Fraser - The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Kim A. Wagner - Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear & the Making of a Massacre

I am posting this review on the centenary of the Amritsar Massacre which took place on April 13 1919. On that day Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to fire over 1,600 (they counted) bullets at a densely packed, unarmed, crowd killing hundreds and injuring hundreds more.

In Britain the run up to the anniversary has seen debates about what took place and whether or not there should be an apology from the British government. Reading Kim A. Wagner's excellent study of the events before and after the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh I'm struck by how ill-informed much of the discussions have been. For those wanting a clearer understanding of what took place in Amritsar in the Punjab one hundred years ago, there is no better starting place than Wagner's book.

Wagner begins by taking the reader through what is perhaps the most influential account (at least for British audiences) of the massacre - the depiction in Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi. It is a powerful sequence and tells at least a partially accurate account of the day. But Wagner argues that:
Presented without any real context in the movie, the Amritsar Massacre functions simply as a grim vignette to illustrate the power of Gandhi's message of non-violence. The speaker at Jallianwala Bagh is giving voice to the doctrine of Satyafgraha, or soul-force, when he is silenced, quite literally, by British bullets. The massacre is thus depicted as the inevitable result of the clash between Gandhi's righteous struggle and the oppression of colonial rule... Yet the violence unleashed... is entirely embodied by Edward Fox's Dyer: a man seemingly incapable of emotions, who appears as nothing so much as an automaton.
Wagner, in contrast, locates the massacre not as an "inevitable result" of the growth of the independence movement, nor, the consequence of Dyer's mistakes or personality but in the paranoia, fear and racism of the colonial rulers. The story really begins in 1857 when the Great Rebellion, which began as a mass mutiny of colonial troops, nearly destroyed British rule in India. It was a sobering, never to be forgotten, event for the British - India was the key lynch-pin of the British Empire, a vast source of natural resources and the destination was many of the outputs of British Industry. It was also key to a wider network of Imperial relations and losing India could have easily lead to the further unravelling of the Imperial project.

The 1857 rebellion was a bloody event and the British escalated the violence with their collective mass punishment. But the pure fact that it happened left the British terrified. Following World War One the British once again feared rebellion. India had provided vast quantities of troops and resources for the war and many Indian veterans believed that the aftermath would bring reforms and improvements at home. Nothing of the sort took place and growing discontent began to fuel the independence movement of figures like Gandhi. Elsewhere in the world revolution and rebellion where threatening Imperial domination. Most significant was the Russian Revolution which had a major anti-colonial component, but perhaps more important for the people of India were rebellions in Ireland and Egypt which threatened the British.

Its notable that the British in India feared Russian "Bolshevism". Wagner quotes many British people in India who reference the Bolsheviks in 1919 and in the events of April the British certainly imagined shadowy revolutionaries organising violent insurrection. This factor alone put the administration on edge as key figures in Amritsar began to organise the Independence struggle.

But Wagner also emphasises that racism was a central factor in the events that took place. To understand this one has to understand the deeply ingrained racism towards the Indian people by the British. Wagner has many examples, but this particular contemporary account stuck out for me:
Mrs Montgomery told me once she nearly trod upon a krait - one of the most venomous snakes in India. She had been ill at the time, suffering from acute facial neuralgia, 'so that I didn't care if I trod on fifty kraits. I was quite stupid with pain and was going back in the evening to my bungalow, preceded by a servant who was carrying a lamp. Suddenly he stopped and said "Krait, Mem-sahib!" - but I was far to ill to notice what he was saying and went straight on, and the krait was lying right in the middle of the path! Then the servant did a thing absolutely without precedent in India - he touched me! - he put his hand on my shoulder and pulled me back. My shoe came off and I stopped. Of course if he hadn't done that I should undoubtedly have been killed; but I didn't like it all the same, and got rid of him soon after.
What I think existed among the British in India in the post-war period was a racialised paranoia, that meant that people like Dyer (and almost everyone else) saw rebellion everywhere and could only interpret crowds of Indian people as a dangerous, irrational uncontrollable mass. When local leaders were arrested and deported and the local population organised to try and present a traditional petition to the local government on April 10 1919, the British resorted to gunfire to keep the crowds back. This in turn provoked violent rioting which left several British people dead or badly injured and from then on, Dyer's actions were inevitable. He arrives in the city spoiling to teach the masses a lesson and does precisely that. Dyer, it should be noted, was an odious Imperialist, who never wavered in his self-belief after the massacre and was celebrated by the British-Indian establishment, even as he was punished by the British government. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, Dyer acted to collectively punish the city in the most brutal fashion, to try and stop further anti-British anger. This led to the infamous crawling order, and:
The very same day Dyer gave his racialised and righteous colonial sermon in church, a striking example of what 'justice in the hand of authority' actually entailed was made... By erecting the whipping post in the street where [Mrs] Sherwood [a victim of the anti-British riots on April 10] had been attacked, Dyer was explicitly drawing on a long tradition of executing criminals, and afterwards gibbeting their bodies on the site of their crime. Not only was the public punishment intended to serve as a deterrent, it also transformed the physical space into a permanent reminder of the power and vengeance of the state.
The crawling punishment inflicted
by the British after the massacre.
In the aftermath the British struggled "to find the evidence of the rebellious conspiracy that they were convinced had been the cause of the unrest". Wagner show that they were more successful in keeping quiet the extent of the massacre and word barely trickled out. One senior government official claimed he'd only heard about the scale of the events when it was raised in the British House of Commons in December 1919 by the radical Labour MP J.C. Wedgwood who claimed that "This damns us for all time. Whenever we put forward the humanitarian view, we shall have this tale thrown into our teeth". The shadow of Amritsar would certainly hang over the rest of British colonial history. As Wagner points out, when the British fired on a football match at Croke Park, killing thirteen, it was called the 'Irish Amritsar'. Even that arch-Imperialist Winston Churchill described the events as "monstrous", but in doing so, he began a process of depicting Amritsar as an isolated event, that bucked the trend of benevolent British rule. It is this argument that has dominated the airwaves and newspaper papers around the anniversary, but it is one that is singularly defeated by Kim Wagner's meticulous book.

Wagner's conclusion is very different to the mainstream:
Taking succour in Britain's past glory requires that colonial violence and events such as the Amritsar Massacre be glossed over... A British apology for the Amritsar Massacre in 2019 would, as a result, only ever be for one man's actions, as isolated and unprecedented, and not for the colonial rule, or system, that in Gandhi's words, produced Dyer.
The reality of course is that the British Empire saw many massacres. From Ireland to India, from Africa to the Far-East, British rule was based on divide and rule, systemic racism and the regular use of extreme violence. The very unity between Muslim, Hindu and Sikh that was displayed in Armritsar in the period undermined the whole Imperial project. However weak the British state might be today, it stands on that colonial history, and the only real apology will come as a result of a fundamental challenge to a system that continues to oppress and exploit millions.

Related Reviews

Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857
Davies - Late Victorian Holocausts
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried
Macrory - Signal Catastrophe
Holmes - Redcoat
Dalrymple - Return of a King

Friday, April 12, 2019

Farah Mendlesohn - The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein

I have an ambiguous relationship with Robert Heinlein. On the one hand, I read and re-read many of his novels from childhood through my teenage and later years. For some reason, on a lone cycling trip through France at the age of 18 the only book I took with me was Stranger in a Strange Land which I read several times; re-reading it in later years. Several other novels have stuck with me for various reasons. Time Enough For Love I enjoyed mostly for its interludes which described slices of life of Lazarus Long whose long existence enabled him to experience many different times, places and loves; Glory Road I enjoyed as a teenager for its swords and sorcery, only later coming to view it as faintly ridiculous and I read Farnham's Freehold a couple of times and on each occasion spotting something that angered me more. Friday was, for many years, a favoured tale of pure adventure with a strong female lead that was unlike much else in the science fiction genre.

That Heinlein's books could be read and sometimes enjoyed over such a period is a sign of his innovation and strength as a story-teller. What became much clearer was that there was an ambiguity to his writing which was at times, frankly revolting. As a teenager I remember finishing To Sail Beyond the Sunset and for the first and only time in my life, defacing the book in anger at what I saw then as the complete degeneration of Heinlein's politics.

Looking back now I find myself much more at odds with Heinlein. Farnham's Freehold is frankly a racist book and parts of Time Enough for Love or Stranger in a Strange Land make me very angry indeed; my last reading of Stranger in 2005 left me aghast in some places, notably the infamous line put in the mouth of a female character that "Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's at least partly her own fault". Then I saw Stranger as reflecting Heinlein's trajectory towards reactionary politics. But now I am not so sure.

Because I retain some of the enthusiasm for Heinlein from my younger years I was drawn to Farah Mendlesohn's new book on Heinlein's writing. It is not a biography, rather a thematic study of almost all his writings. Having read it I found myself warming much more to Heinlein as a thinker, even though I felt, as I think Mendlesohn does too, that at times he was extremely and dangerously naive. Mendlesohn illustrates this well when studying the racial politics of Farnham's Freehold. She argues that Heinlein thought it would be an anti-racist work because it inverts slavery, making white people the slaves and black people, in a post nuclear war USA, the masters. Instead it is a novel that racists would enjoy - in particular (spoiler) because the black slave owners turn out to be cannibals. Heinlein's failure to grasp what racism is, lies at the root of this contradiction.

But the point that Mendlesohn makes is that this reaction would have upset Heinlein. He was, particularly for his time, very progressive. He had, for instance, a "deep-down belief in justice and in sexual and racial equality"; and wrote about topics that today are quite common within science fiction but were rarely talked about (or were even taboo) at the time - including gender, race and trans-questions. His language might today seem clumsy, but it was innovative - particularly when one looks at his attitude to "family" which rejects the western norm. This is, of course, why some of his books, like Stranger became icons of counter-culture - his characters have sex, take drugs and resist authority. But he did, as Mendlesohn says, "drift to the right" and in part I think this is because he was cynical about social movements. His engagement with politics was, in the context of the US at least, one that was relatively mainstream - attempts to launch radical movements were still born and floundered on what I think was a limited understanding of how society worked.

Mendlesohn writes that while "Heinlein's political opinions changed over his forty-year writing career, it is important to understand that his underlying beliefs did not". I think this is an illuminating point. Whatever Heinlein is doing there is a very emphatic "right and wrong" to his core beliefs. One of the problems that people often identify with Heinlein's books is that they feel like lectures at times - with characters extolling a particular world view. Time Enough For Love does this is several ways - with the interludes with Long's sayings interspersed with other tales where he gives waxes lyrical on a theme (slavery, racism, gun ownership) etc. Here Heinlein's characters (and we must assume Heinlein himself) have a particular vision of a better society, though it is rarely different at an econoimc or political sense, rather as the result of different personal relationships.

In discussing For Us, the Living (which I have not read) Mendlesohn says that
there is a clear sense in this book of the communitarianism still current in American life in the 1930s. In For Us, the Living civic duty is focused on contribution, and respect for the individuals social liberty; privacy is absolute, childrearing is no longer solely an occupation for women... and sexual jealousy is a mystifying illness.
It all sound very attractive, but there is no sense of how to get there. Heinlein writes about revolution in several of his books. But they are not Revolutions that socialists like myself would recognise. They are top down movements, led by small groups of people, or other intelligences, which Mendlesohn (in my opinion, mis-characterises, as being like Bolshevik organisation). But without mass involvement in such movements how will people transform themselves and "rid itself of the muck of ages" as Karl Marx argued. Heinlein provides no answers.

As the quote above indicates, Heinlein's attitude to sex and sexual relations is inseparable from his wider attitudes to interpersonal relationships and the family. In these he is firmly in the progressive camp; though Mendlesohn points out he "dives gender equality from gender roles". As a young reader of Heinlein in the 1980s and 1990s I found his discussions on such things exciting and innovative; but I found his attitude to incest troubling. Time Enough for Love and its follow-ups are, essentially a long tale about the hero eventually getting to have sex with his mother. However Heinlein dresses this up, it is odd and I was surprised that Mendlesohn didn't discuss it further.

In many ways its easiest to characterise Heinlein as a classic Libertarian, though that word is inadequate. It is possible at every stage to cherry pick Heinlein's "good" policies - he opposed the draft his whole life, he celebrated differences etc, but mostly he appears to be politically adrift. Indeed this is a point that Mendlesohn makes very well when discussing his attitude to racism:
There is never any question which side Heinlein stands on the debate... but we also need to be aware of the lack of nuance and sensitivity to the oxygen he breathes. Heinlein understands and opposes enslavement and colour prejudice, but he does not really see that racism has a wider infrastructure. He does not understand what we now frame as systemic racism.
I think this sums up Heinlein extremely well. He has instincts (some good and some bad) but he has no real framework to understand or explain them. Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing and the world is a different place to the one Heinlein was writing in. His novels are full of mansplaining white characters, which can be hard to stomach today. But on the other-hand he had many innovative ideas which certainly shaped science-fiction but had wider influences too. For me Mendlesohn's book was in someways a way to understand my own thoughts about Heinlein, an author who had a influence on me. I think her insights into his motivations and the ideas that informed his writing clarify those writings and put them in a wider context. Farah Mendlesohn's book is thus a stimulating read for fans of Robert Heinlein (and those who used to be) and an excellent piece of literary criticism.

Related Reviews

Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land
Heinlein - Starship Troopers

Rhinehart - The Dice Man