Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Emma Davis - A Rebel's Guide to Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai was one of the most fascinating and inspiring revolutionaries of the 20th century, yet today she is almost unknown. So it is marvellous that the latest in the excellent Rebel's Guide series is a short introduction to Kollontai's life and politics.

Born into the "progressive" aristocracy in Russia in 1872 she was unorthodox from a young age. She recalled she "criticised the injustice of adults and I experienced as a blatant contradiction the fact that everything was offered to me whereas so much was denied to the other children". Sent to Paris by her family who hoped it would distract her from an unsuitable marriage to an engineer, she discovered the works of Marx and Engels and began a lifelong commitment to revolutionary organising.

Key to Kollontai's life was the Russian Revolution and the politics of Lenin's Bolsheviks who led the workers to victory in 1917. Emma Davis describes who Kollontai's life was intertwined, even when living in exile, with these revolutionary politics. In particular Kollontai was one of the few who resolutely opposed World War One. Her 1915 pamphlet Who Needs War? was printed in millions of copies to agitate among workers and soldiers against the conflict.

But the most important aspect of Kollontai's activism and writing was her work on women's liberation and her development of ideas linking sex and society. Kollontai was a radical part of the women's liberation movement, but because she insisted that this movement had to recognise the class nature of women's oppression she was frequently at odds with the movement's middle class dominated leadership. This understanding of class also shaped how she understood sex. Following Marx and Engels she saw "bourgeois love" as arising out of the alienating nature of life under capitalism, and that relationships were both a solace and source of confrontation for workers. Davis quotes Kollontai:
Man experiences this 'loneliness' even in towns full of shouting, noise and people, even n a crowd of close friends and work-mates. because of their loneliness men are apt to cling in a predatory and unhealthy way to illusions about finding a 'soul mate; from among the members of the opposite sex.
But even attempts to challenge this through "experimental relationships" were doomed under capitalism, because as Davis explains, Kollontai thought
women were still subject to double standards. Men had a certain freedom to act without moral judgement from society; women did not. So Kollontai was scathing of those middle class proponents of 'free marriage' or 'free love' (having sexual relationships without the ties of marriage or partnership_ in the her and now who didn't recognise the inequalities of class and gender.
Women were at the forefront of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Kollontai, who by then was on the leadership of the Bolsheviks, became responsible for advancing women's liberation inside the new society. Revolutionary newspapers aimed at women were produced and Kollontai drove forward attempts to collectivise the production of food and childcare. She, alongside Lenin, challenged the fears of some that this was about the state taking away children, showing that this was about freeing women from the primary burden of childcare and reproducing the family. It is perhaps these sections of the book that are most inspiring as we learn about radical attempts to transform society, in the midst of appalling counter-revolution and civil war. Davis explains:
In her role of Commissar of Social Welfare Kollontai helped to write the groundbreaking decrees that opened the way for liberation. Hereditary laws were abolished, as was the authority of men in the family. Divorce was legalised and the distinction between 'legitimate; and 'illegitimate;' children was removed. Marriage ceremonies were simplified so any man of 18 and woman of 16 could marry through a short civil ceremony. Kollontai and Dybenko were the first couple married under the new law.
Given how backward pre-Revolutionary Russia was, these were amazing transformations. But the rise of Stalin and the isolation of Russia meant that these victories were rolled back. Sadly, as Davis shows, Kollontai was unable to break completely from Stalin and ended up in the 1940s praising his celebration of motherhood and traditional women's roles. But as Davis stresses, the key thing to remember about Kollontai was her revolutionary activism and organising in the run up to and during the Russian Revolution. As Davis says, "Kollontai's writings on sexual liberation point towards a world where people#s relations... are free from the obligations of economic necessity."

This Rebel's Guide is an excellent introduction to Kollontai's life and politics. I highly recommend it and hope that Emma Davis' book leads to many more activists and revolutionaries learning from and developing Kollontai's revolutionary socialism.

Related Reviews

Porter - Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography

Prasad - A Rebel's Guide to Martin Luther King
Hamilton - A Rebel's Guide to Malcolm X
Mitchell - A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly
Brown - A Rebel's Guide to Eleanor Marx
Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Orr - Sexism and the System; A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx

Monday, July 08, 2019

Adrian Tchaikovsky - Walking to Aldebaran

You know that thing when, as a child, you wanted something so very badly that it hurt? But when you got it, it wasn't what you wanted to have at all? Well Gary Rendell, the British astronaut at the heart of Adrian Tchaikovsky's short novel Walking to Aldebaran really really wanted to go to space. He was lucky enough to have his dream come true, when an alien artefact is found far out in the solar system. When a robot probe investigates it is found to defy several laws of physics, and so a multi-nation human mission is sent to explore it. 

The artefact, nicknamed after the frog it resembles, turns out to defy any attempt at understanding - physical laws, time and motion all seem to break down in unpredictable and inexplicable ways. Gary finds himself a loan survivor of the exploratory team, and stumbles around the frog in an attempt to get home. In doing so he discovers various weird, wacky, dangerous and insane aliens and puzzles. While Tchaikovsky is brilliant at describing the aliens that survive in the artefact, the book's real wonder for the reader is what the artefact is. Is it an abandoned alien portal? Is it a dead space-ship? Is it something else entirely while the species exploring it are doing little more than a hedgehog might using a tunnel under a motorway? 

There are many reasons I loved this book. Firstly it's really tense and creepy. Secondly I love novels of first contact, space archaeology and science-fiction twists. But I also liked how Tchaikovsky made all the characters real and balanced the contemporary story of Gary in the artefact with the story of how he got there. I loved the idea that the multi-national crew all learnt Danish as part of a rebellion against their bosses back on Earth - the author's description of the crew and their interactions was done brilliantly.

While the basic concept of the book might not be that original, this is an excellent twist on the tale that packs more into it then many 500 plus page novels.

Related Reads

Monday, July 01, 2019

Lucie Green - 15 Million Degrees: A Journey to the Centre of the Sun

Despite being interested in astronomy for decades I have, like many other amateur astronomers, neglected my studies of the Sun. In part, as the author of this excellent guide to our nearest star makes clear, this is because looking at the Sun is both dangerous and difficult without specialist equipment. But I think a bigger issue is that I don't think I really understood what a wonderfully complex and fascinating body the Sun is.

Lucie Green is a longstanding solar scientist. She is also a well known broadcaster and an excellent communicator of complex scientific ideas. This latter point is important because to understand the Sun requires some getting to grips with some fundamental physics and the concepts are not always easy to understand. So the opening chapter begins with an account of the development of our understanding of electromagnetism - we need to know this because it helps us understand the information we are receiving from the Sun via the light we receive (both visible and other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum). Knowing this helps us understand what's going on inside the Sun. Green then takes us through the history of studies of the Sun and shows how we have built on several centuries of observations and science.

This is science on a massive scale. The Sun itself is big - even just on the scale of what we can see. But the Sun's outer atmosphere (invisible to human senses) extends beyond the Earth itself, and the influence of the Sun, in terms of the solar wind, extends a very long way indeed beyond the outermost planet. I recently enjoyed Jim Bell's account of the Voyager missions The Interstellar Age, and Green explains just why the ongoing science obtained from those two ageing craft is so important. But the Sun is also huge in terms of the energy it produces and the length of time it has been doing this for. Even with my own knowledge of nuclear physics and astronomy I was still fascinated by Green's account of the Sun's formation and the fusion in its core. We are, Green explains, fortunate that our modern scientific era, and especially the space age have coincided with a particularly fascinating era of the Sun's cycles. But we have been, since around 1985 observing the Sun leaving it's "Grand Maximum State" and the Sun is likely to become relatively dimmer in coming decades. Here Green explains precisely why, contrary to the heartfelt beliefs of various commentators on climate change science, this will have no serious impact on global temperatures. One thing that becomes very clear is just how many of the processes that we observe are the result of complex magnetic interactions throughout the different layers of the Sun - I was quite amazed to find out that we have managed to observe the magnetism of other stars, though disappointed not to be told more about how! Despite Green's ability to communicate complex ideas I did struggle to follow some of the descriptions of what was taking place - my advice to other readers is not to worry too much if you can't understand all the detail - the big picture is very much the key issue.

One of the great things about the book is the way that Green links the Sun to our own lives and society. She shows how the Sun is responsible for life (and civilisation) but also the threats it can have to modern technology and society. The end of the book discusses the uniqueness of our Sun, when compared to the billions of other stars. Lucie Green concludes that while the Sun is not that unique in astronomical terms, it is in the sense that it is the one that we can study and that gave rise to life here. So I recommend 15 Million Degrees very much, not just because it's fascinating science, but also because it's subject, the Sun, is part and parcel of our life on this planet.

Related Reviews

Winterburn - The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy
Bell - The Interstellar Age
Clegg - Gravity: Why What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Holmes - The Age of Wonder

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Adrian Tchaikovsky - Children of Ruin

Children of Ruin is the sequel to Adrian Tchaikovsky's smash hit Children of Time and follows on directly from the end of that novel (excluding a tedious journey between stars). In CoT travellers from Earth seeded a planet with DNA to accelerate the development of a safe ecology for their colonisation. Unfortunately it ended up creating a species of intelligent spiders which, when Earth's technological society collapsed evolved on their own. Follow up missions led to war and the mutual collaboration. At the end of the novel they head off into space to investigate a planet from which human radio signals have been received.

Children of Time begins in parallel with the earlier novel telling the similar story of the failed attempt to explore and terraform an Earth like world. This time, arrogance, accident and technological sabotage also led to the creation of a hyper-intelligent community of octopuses, who in the absence of humans are able to utilise our technology to reach into space. Unfortunately, and in a somewhat crude Malthusian metaphor, the octopus civilisation growths too rapidly to escape over-crowding and pollution - leading to war.

Into this mix add a third, utterly alien (as intelligent octopuses and spiders aren't really alien) intelligence that absorbs all other intelligences into its collective mind. This is the complex mix that our human and spider heroes arrive to, and war, mutual incomprehensibility and a giant stalking alien made of stone and bits of shell, threaten to annihilate everyone. While it's all a bit of a rush, and suffers slightly from too many viewpoints, the plot is pulled together rather neatly.

As in the first book Tchaikovsky is able to use his aliens to make somewhat wry comments on our own civilisation. But I did feel that space-faring octopuses were a little over the top. Though it does mean that he get away with sentences that contain phrases such as "solar system of molluscs" entirely without a tongue in cheek. Tchaikovsky ponders a lot more in this book on intelligence, communication and social breakdown (as well as intelligent molluscs), which means the pace is quite different to the first book. I didn't quite enjoy it as much as the CoT, but its a satisfying sequel and fans of the first book should definitely get hold of it.

Related Reviews

Tchaikovsky - Children of Ruin

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Barry Commoner - The Closing Circle

Imagine a book that is written by a left wing scientist who is actively engaged in work with non-scientists to challenge environmental degradation. Imagine it is written in an engaging style, that explains complex ecological arguments clearly. The book highlights the impact of our economic system on the environment and how that then impacts negatively back on us. It challenges other popular explanations for environmental destruction - over-population and consumerism for instance, because it emphasises the way that the profit motive and the blind accumulation of wealth under capitalism destroys our ecosystems. This book offers a radical, but straightforward solution to contemporary environmental problems, but warns that without rapid and urgent action to transform the economy, humanity will find itself in a dangerous place. Its a book written to inspire collective action and social change through informed, politically engaged, social movements of citizens.

Its a book that could have been written today, but here I'm referring to a book first published in 1971 by Barry Commoner. In the 1970s The Closing Circle was a radical antidote to much of what passed for comment on what we now see as the first wave of environmental concern. But in finishing it I was filled with an, albeit brief, feeling of despair. For almost fifty years we've understood how capitalism is destroying our ecological systems and many people (Commoner's book was a best-seller at the time) understood exactly what was needed; but the environment is still being destroyed in the name of short-term profit.

Commoner begins with an overview of the science of ecology. He argues that one of the problems in trying to understand environmental destruction is that most scientists approach the issue in a reductionist way. Reductionism he explains, is "the view that effective understanding of a complex system can be achieved by investigating the properties of its isolated parts", but this is "not an effective means of analysing the vast natural systems that are threatened by degradation".

In contrast, and in possibly his most famous contribution, Commoner offers the reader four laws of Ecology. His first law, everything is connected to everything else, immediately shows why a reductionist approach is wrong. The second, everything must go somewhere is almost a restatement of the first law of thermodynamics, but applied to substances, rather than energy it points out how everything put into a system has an effect. His third law, nature knows best, is in my opinion his weakest argument. Commoner says himself it's the one that will get the most "resistance" because it "contradict[s] a deeply held idea about he unique competence of human beings". For me this isn't the problem - the real issue is that nature doesn't "know" anything. It operates and acts, but not in any conscious way. To be fair to Commoner he is making a wider point that biological entities and systems are the result of millennia of evolution, and that outside changes effect them negatively. Finally there is no such thing as a free lunch is both a return to thermodynamics and the obvious point that additions to systems are required for changes. Commoner puts it better than me:
Because the global ecosystem is a connected whole, in which nothing can be gained or lost and which is not subject to over-all improvement, anything extracted from it by human effort must be replaced. Payment of the price cannot be avoided; it can only delayed.

Using this framework, Commoner examines how post-war society destroyed the environment. He makes the same point that any serious observer of the capitalist economy highlights: "all modern economic systems are designed to grow by means of such self-generated expansion". While not a Marxist he was clearly aware of Marx's writings and in several places like this has either borrowed or independently come to similar conclusions. Writing about agriculture he argues that "once removed from this [ecological] cycle, for example to a city... bodily wastes are not returned to the soil but to surface water, the human population is separated from the ecosystem of which it was original a part". Marx, famously, used exactly this to develop his idea of a metabolic rift between society and nature in his own work.

Several contemporary environmental issues take up some space here - the question of smog, air and water-pollution and potential consequences of sonic booms from supersonic aircraft. In each case he demonstrates how these arise (and exponentially grow) out of the particular changes to the US Economy in the post-war period. I was, here, reminded on several occasions of discussions around the Anthropocene and locating its start in the same period. But what was special about this period according to Commoner. Firstly he makes his position clear:
I believe that the [environmental] crisis is not the outcome of a natural catastrophe or of the misdirected force of human biological activists. The earth is polluted neither because man is some kind of especially dirty animal nor because there are too many of us. The fault lies with human society - with the ways in which society has elected to win, distribute and use the wealth that has been extracted by human labour from the planet's resources.
The quest for profit, in Commoner's view, leads to the adoption of technologies that maximise profit and usually do so, he argues, at the expense of the environment: "There is evidence that a high rate of profit is associated with practices hat are particularly stressful toward the environment and that when these practices are restricted, profits decline."

While Commoner associates socialism with countries like the USSR, and notes their own environmental problems, he does also argue that a planned economy would allow societies to deal with the consequences of environmental destruction far better than an anarchic capitalist one. More importantly Commoner notes that Marx's theory (the ideology behind socialism as he says) certainly does envisage a society in balance with the natural world. Commoner's own solutions are based around fiddling with the economy to make environmental consequences part of the costs of production. But Commoner is very clear that it is the specific nature of capitalism as it stands that is the problem. Solving the issue, he says, does not mean
the people of industrialised nations will need to give up their 'affluence' as judged by conventional measures... is itself an illusion. To a considerable extent it reflects ecologically faulty, socially wasteful types of production rather than the actual welfare of individual human beings. Therefore, the needed productive reforms can be carried out without seriously reducing the present level of useful goods available to the individual.
He continues:

There are, however certain luxuries which the environmental crisis... will I believe force us to give up. These are the political luxuries which have so long been enjoyed by those who can benefit from them: the luxury of allowing the wealth of the natural to serve preferentially the interests of so few of its citizens... etc.

It is thus a specifically revolutionary alternative Commoner is offering, as it is one that challenges the very dynamics of the capitalist system. Commoner is clear on the need for an informed mass environmental movement. In fact some of the most interesting historical bits of The Closing Circle are those that show how scientists like Commoner and citizen movements have won real environmental changes.

Reading Barry Commoner's book I wished I had read it years ago. For many of those reading it in the 1970s it must have been inspiring. By rooting his understanding of the contemporary environmental crisis in both ecological science and a radical critique of capitalist society his work is inspiring. He also makes it clear that solving the problem required an urgent struggle for change. Sadly that did not happen, and fifty years later the environmental crisis has reached an acute point. One that Barry Commoner warned us would raise the very survival of humanity. It isn't too late to act, though time is now very short, and works like The Closing Circle remain an important contribution to our understanding of the struggle we need.

Related Reviews

Carson - Silent Spring
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Angus - A Redder Shade of Green

Burkett - Marx and Nature

Foster - Marx's Ecology
Wallis - Red Green Revolution

Friday, June 21, 2019

Danny Dorling - Population 10 Billion

Far too many books on population are filled with fearful predictions about what will happen if the world's population continues to grow. So it is refreshing to read Danny Dorling's much more sober study that argues for a more nuanced discussion of the subject. It is also entertaining, something that can rarely be said about demographic studies. Dorling sets his case out early on. In the opening introductory chapter titled "Stop Worrying" he argues that he problem is not over-population, or population growth, but a world that prevents people having what they need. Talking of 2011/2012 when population was predicted to reach 9.1 billion by 2100 he writes:
The main reason for the scare stories of 2011 and 2012 was that some demographers had been influenced by those with other agendas, people who were becoming interested in demography because they believed there were too many people already. Projections that indicate a 'soft landing' of human population growth do not help the agenda of those who want to cry wolf. As the world economy faltered in 2008, there were groups that wanted to put the blame for the fact there would be too little to go round in future on there being too many people, rather than not enough sharing.
As I've noted in other recent reviews on books about demography, there is a close association between the growth of global capitalism and population expansion. Dorling shows 1851 as the start of the "population explosion" but he argues that 1971 (ironically the year when Paul Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb was first published in the UK) as being the point when population when "global population acceleration... ended". In keeping with the "Stop Worrying" theme, Dorling argues:
The latest UN projections suggest that in the 14 years following 2011, we will increase in number from seven to eight billion humans. What king of world can we expect to live in by 2025?... Look at the graphs in this book of where population growth is forecast to occur - almost all the extra people are to be born where pollution by humans is least. And notice the deceleration. It is going to take longer, another 14 years, to add this extra billion as compared to the billion that came before. This is the first time we have ever seen an increase in the number of years it has taken to hit the next billion.
Dorling puts an firm case against those who argue that population growth is the problem and that we need to take drastic action to lower population. Instead, Dorling argues, the problem is inequality in wealth distribution: "There is suddenly a very obvious solution to a rich world plagued with greed and obesity and a poor world suffering oppression and starvation, a solution that is only possible because we are not going to have additional billions to be fed decade after decade.

He also argues that population growth will decline quicker if we "tackle gross economic inequalities". He also skewers those on the right who rail against immigration and migration. Rather than this being a problem, it is enormously  important for ageing populations in the developed world, and, he notes, encourages global population to decline because immigrants to rich countries have smaller families.

This facts are important because they contradict those on the right who argue population is inevitably growing to the detriment of the plant. It also gives anti-racists further arguments to defend migrants, immigrants and asylum seekers. But I'm not sure it's the best way to approach the debate because it gives some ground to the idea that population is an issue. Here, in my criticism I should reiterate how much I agree with 99 percent of Dorling's book. He says, for instance, "Children are not a cost to the planet". This is a fundamental point, those who argue that population is a problem forget that each life matters to our world, their friends and family etc. They are part of a solution, not a problem.

But I think what Dorling fails to do is really show how the problem is the capitalist economy which is driving environmental destruction and producing hunger, poverty and unemployment. For instance, Dorling concludes:
The "problem" with global population - if there is one - is too many rich people consuming too much, not too many poor people. There are not that many rich people on the world, but there are a few rich people who consume a huge amount of our collective resources.
I disagree. I think the problem is we have a system which gives a tiny minority vast wealth because it is based on the blind accumulation of wealth for profit. It's that economic organisation that destroys the planet. Its those multinationals that burn the oil and fossil fuels and encourage more consumption and production. It's not the consumption of the rich, (nor the consumption of the masses) but the system that puts profit before anything else. And, as a by-product, it is capitalism that also produces the inequality that Dorling rightly rages against.

But this criticism aside, Danny Dorling's book is a well written powerful destruction of the "over-population" argument. It stands out for its focus on inequality and his discussion of class in this context. Written in an accessible, entertaining style but not one that omits the crucial facts and figures. I highly recommend this to anyone wanting to understand population debates particularly those from the environmental movement.

Related Reviews

Bacci - Our Shrinking Planet
Morland - The Human Tide
Pearce - PeopleQuake, Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash
Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb

Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population

Monday, June 17, 2019

Hallgrímur Helgason - The Woman at 1,000 Degrees

This unusual and highly entertaining novel begins with the hero Herra Björnsson, near bedridden and living in a garage in her eighties with nothing but a laptop, her memories and a hand-grenade. It wasn't until I'd finished the book that I'd appreciated that it was based in truth - the story of  Brynhildur Georgía Björnsson whom the author met on the phone when he was telephone canvassing for an election. Brynhildur's father was one of the few Icelanders who fought for the Nazis in World War Two. I have yet to find out precisely how much of the novel is historically accurate, but the books character tells the story of her life interspersed with contemporary events when she is mainly entertaining herself by pretending to be a much younger woman online.

As a young girl Herra is trapped on continental Europe by the outbreak of World War Two. Through a series of misfortunes she finds herself a refugee in various parts of Eastern Europe and Germany itself. Her father is a fanatically follower of Hitler who joined the SS and then loses Herra in a British bombing raid. The book tells of her experiences - both while lost in rural Eastern Germany and while an outsider living among the Germans with her mother. While the book is run through with humour, its also deeply honest about life as a refugee for a young woman in wartime. Rape and murder are part and parcel of Herra's life and on returning to Iceland she cannot cope with peacetime and those around her who've escaped the war's ravages.

The story of how Herra becomes the woman in the bed with the hand-grenade is beautifully written and very poignant. From wartime Germany to Argentinian farms and Iceland's fishing villages it's a story of how we are shaped by the world we are in, and the relationships we have. It's also a story about Iceland's place in the wider world - and how the nation was buffeted by wider imperial interests and the economic world. It's a lovely book - funny, poignant and difficult in places - but well worthwhile.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Timothy A. Wise - Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food

Industrial capitalist agriculture is not sustainable. It produces lots of food, or plants that could be food if they weren't burnt as biofuels, but it does so in a way that generates huge amounts of greenhouse gases, destroys biodiversity and leads to unhealthy diets. It is also enormously profitable for a few multinationals which produce fertilisers, seeds and then package and distribute the food. Those who grow the food, and those who eat it, benefit little from this process. So what sort of agriculture can be both environmentally sustainable and benefit those who work the land?

Timothy Wise's fantastic book goes a long way toward answering that question. Based on his trips to food producing areas of the world, he talks to academics, scientists and politicians, but above all farmers, labourers and those organising among the agricultural communities to discover what practices are actually working for soil and people. The answers will surprise those who have been brought up on a diet of corporate propaganda that tells us the only way to feed the world is through giant, monocropped fields full of crops covered in pesticides.

Wise begins in Malawi, an area that is historically heavily dependent on maize, and which has recently seen a battle by multinational seed corporations such as Monsanto to introduce specific hybrid white maize. This maize is excellent for the corporations because it makes lots of money and farmers have to return year on year to get seeds, and also it has the potential for higher yields if watered and fertilised properly. But the reality is very different. Wise describes the situation as a "high-input treadmill" where:
The farmers are subsidized by the government to use imported inorganic fertilisers and hybrid seeds from outside companies like Monsanto. Sometimes they get higher yields - but not always, not if they can't afford extra fertiliser, which the seeds require. If the subsidies run out, the farmers can't afford the seeds or the fertiliser.... Farmers run hard mostly to stay in place.
Wise goes on to show how traditional seeds, combined with "intercropping" - the mixing of different crops, can produce higher, healthier yields, at lower costs and more sustainably:
Native orange maize, intercropped with out healthy food crops is a Malawian natural resource. It appears to be drought-tolerant in a changing climate, high-yielding even without imported fertiliser, well suited to intercropped systems design to restore soil fertility and offers nutritional qualities desperately needed by the population.
So why isn't it used? The answer lies in the privatisation of the seed system which has empowered multinationals to profit from and shape the country's agricultural system. Interestingly Wise shows how organisation based on giving farmers and producers access to proper seeds and local knowledge has been successful in spreading the word about more sustainable and better practices. Here, like his other descriptions, from the field really gives a sense of how a better agriculture is possible. In Malawi Wise describes a local co-operative that produces a variety of crops, healthy food and feeds families through the difficult dry season as well as producing plenty of food to sell at the market. With government subsidies that helped build the irrigation systems, "small can still be beautiful, with public support" Wise argues. Its a compelling vision. The problem was that most governments are doing the opposite. As Wise explains:
The peril, as I saw in Mozambique and other parts of Southern Africa, was that when foreign capital landed with both feet it was usually on land already occupied and cultivated by farming communities. And the wave of modernization didn't usually carry peasant farmers forward with a rush, it buried them along with their crops and communities.
Time and again, in the developing world and the developed world we see the same process repeated. Big corporations buying up land, imposing agricultural practices and damaging the environment in the name of profit and the farmers and their families being displaced. Government policy, and the "international community" promote these practices that undermine rural communities and our food supply. The advance of capitalism into farming has, since the enclosure of land in Britain from the 17th century onward, driven people off the land and usually into poverty. The process continues today as peasant agriculture is destroyed in the interest of making money.

One other aspect of modern agriculture that Wise explores is the limitations of the Green Revolution. This, he points out, was supposed to feed the world, but is based on the idea that more food feeds more people. The problem is, as Wise shows, that hunger is caused by poverty not lack of food. Despite this the Revolution is being exported to Africa where it tends to be even less successful. In places like Malawi, the high-intensive farming strategy used in Asia fails and leaves in its wake decimation of people and agriculture.

One final part of the techno-fix agriculture proposed is genetically modified crops. Here Wise uses the case study of Mexico to great affect to show how GM is driven by a desire to maximise profits, even at the expense of destroying the historic centres of maize - with a myriad of different versions. One of the most eye-opening parts of the book is when Wise is invited to a meeting to discuss GM crops with unusually candid Monsanto representatives - they happily spill the beans, confident that their methods and ambitions are correct. In contrast, again Wise argues that a "pro-poor investment in small-scale farming" is a viable alternative:
We estimated that within 10-15 years Mexico could increase annual production on current lands from 23-33 million tons. That would eliminate the need for imports from the United States which currently cover the country's annual shortfall of about 10 million tons, the imports costing more than $4 billion in 2008. Additional public investment in irrigation and infrastructure projects in the southern part of ten country, where water is plentiful and rural poverty is the most prevalent, could allow producers to grow another 24 million tons per year... more than enough to meet Mexico's growing demand for maize.
Throughout the book Wise emphasises the self-organisation of those who work the land and their families. As he points out "the pro-corporate agenda" blinds policy makers and it is social movements that can, and have, transformed the situation. Creating a food system that can feed the world will require more than simply having a few successful farming co-operatives. It will ultimately require challenging and then breaking up the multinational corporations that are only interested in profit. Already countless women and men are part of that process and it is a great strength of this book that Wise gives voice to them. This excellent book shows that the alternative agriculture that we need, in the developed and developing world, is both possible and practical. The real challenge is the struggle to get it.

Related Reviews

Yohannes - The Biofuels Deception
Holleman - Dust Bowls of Empire
Chappell - Beginning to End Hunger
Holt-Giménez - A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Lymbery - Farmageddon
GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Paul R. Ehrlich - The Population Bomb

Do any sort of campaigning around environmental issues these days and it isn't long before someone tells you that the problem is simple - there are too many people. This argument doesn't just come from the right, but is quite prevalent (though I don't think dominant) within the environmental movement itself.

Paul Ehrlich's book wasn't the first to put this argument when it was first published in 1971, but it was certainly enormously influential, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and propelling Ehrlich to fame. Ehrlich argues that overpopulation was the root cause of a whole host of social issues, though he did focus on two, questions that remain central to this sort of polemic today - hunger and environmental destruction.

There tends to be a very simple approach behind the "too many people" hypothesis. This is set out clearly in The Population Bomb:
Think of what it means for the population of a country to double... the food available for the people must be doubled. Every structure and road must be duplicated. The amount of power used be doubled. the capacity of the transport system must be doubled. The number of trained doctors, nurses, teachers and administrators must be doubled. 
In other words, there is a direct relationship between number of people and services required, as well as food eaten, and, he continues to point out, impact upon the environment. It should be noted here that Ehrlich's background in biology meant that this book reflects well the growing awareness and knowledge of environmental problems in the 1960s. While global warming is mentioned only in passing, Ehrlich highlights issues such as water and air pollution that remain problems today. We are less worried however by declines in atmospheric oxygen levels or supersonic booms from aircraft. Problematic however is that Ehrlich rarely gets beyond explaining these environmental issues as anything other than arising from population growth.

He paints a frightening picture of the future. Take one example from early in the book:
This problem [population growth in the developed world] is not as severe as it is in the UDCs [Undeveloped Countries] (if current trends should continue, which they cannot, Calcutta could have sixty-six million inhabitants in the year 2000). As you are well aware however, urban concentrations are creating serious problems even in America, In the US, one of meh more rapidly growing DCs, we hear constantly of the headaches caused by growing population; not just pollution of the environment, but overcrowded highways, burgeoning slums, deteriorating school systems, rising crime tares, riots and other related problems.
Almost all of Ehrlich's predictions failed to materialise. In 2014 Calcutta had a population of 4.6 million, far short of the potential 66 million Ehrlich feared. I am not going to spend more time here on his mistaken predictions, but wanted to draw out what I see as Ehrlich's cynical view of people.

In The Population Bomb Ehrlich saw population growth as fundamental to humankind. He compares it to compound interest early on, and repeatedly suggests that populations double automatically.  He also has a tendency to compare masses of people (usually when talking about the developing world) in terms that are highly problematic. His infamous description of his awakening to the issue while travelling through Delhi is a classic example:
The stress seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping, people visiting, arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi windows, begging. People defecating and urinating.... People, people, people, people...mob...dust... cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect... All three of us were, frankly, frightened.
Ehrlich didn't write this about the crowds in the New York or London underground and its tempting to see it as a racialised critique of the people of India. I also think it shares with Robert Malthus, someone not mentioned by Ehrlich, a fear of the poor masses. Malthus famously wrote his pieces on population as a riposte to radicals who saw, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, a possibility for a world without poverty and inequality. Malthus also shared with Ehrlich a belief in exponential growth of humanity without backing this up. This is clear in The Population Bomb where Ehrlich demonstrates a fear of revolution, communism and radical left wing politics. In one of his "scenarios" (which are better described as fantasies) he imagines "the last non-Communist government in Latin America" being replaced by a "Chinese supported military junta" following years of protest when "food riots have become anti-American riots".

Ehrlich's "cheerful" scenario, by contrast, imagines a US on population control where the government refuses to sell food to countries like India that it considers "beyond hope" population wise. Ehrlich's solutions, to be fair, don't begin with population control abroad, but start in the US where he suggests the introduction of a government department that has the power to use "whatever stepes necessary" to reduce population. This might, he suggest, in the future involve mass sterilisation, but in the short term he imagines rewards and tax-breaks for couples who don't have children, and increases on prices for toys and so on. Perhaps his solutions are deliberately provocative, but I found some quite sinister:

In short, the plush life would be difficult to attain for those with large families - which is as it should be, since they are getting their pleasure form their children, who are being supported in part by more responsible members of society.

The problem with all this, is that Ehrlich separates population from society. On occasion he notes how companies pollute to increase profits, but fails to see this as being an inherent issue with capitalism. He makes, for instance, when talking about air-pollution as simple equation: Smog comes from too many cars, which arises from too many people. But he fails to discuss the possibility of public transport using clean energy. Just as when he writes about the doubling of population requiring a doubling of nurses, or roads, he fails to show why this is true even under a system like capitalism.

The problem with The Population Bomb, leaving aside its scaremongering and its fear of the masses, is that at its heart it fails to prove its central hypothesis, and its examples don't justify how Ehrlich uses them. The famines that he foresaw happening in the 1980s did occur, but they were not because of food shortages - they were caused by the inability of the countries concerned to be able to buy grain. Thus what Ehrlich imagines is a problem of humanity is actually a problem of society - specifically capitalism. Thus The Population Bomb is a text book for people who want to blame individuals, not the system - a truly ruling class ideology.

Related Reviews

Bacci - Our Shrinking Planet
Morland - The Human Tide
Pearce - PeopleQuake, Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash

Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb
Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population

Philip Ziegler - Omdurman

In September 1898, a British Army including units of Egyptian and Sudanese troops and numbering around 25,000 (the majority of whom were colonial soldiers) destroyed an enormous Mahadist force of over 50,000. The carnage was enormous, the heavily armed British force killed 12,000 enemies, wounding 10,000 more and capturing thousands. In the process they lost less than 100 themselves. The Sudanese Mahadist army under Abdullah al-Taashi, known by his title as the Khalifa, was only superior in terms of numbers. His forces were armed with few rifles, some small arms, but mostly spears. The British had maxim guns, repeating rifles and were supported by heavily armed gunboats. Victory was bloody, with accounts of British troops slaughtering the wounded, causing outrage back home. Even Winston Churchill, a man rarely bothered by unnecessary killing, called it "inhumane slaughter".

Philip Ziegler's book is a well written account of the military events, but little else. Ziegler gives a brief account of the death of General Gordon less than a decade before Omdurman, and shows how the latter battle was popularly seen as Colonial revenge for that defeat. But in reality the attack on Sudan in 1989 had little real purpose to it. As Ziegler explains:
What is certain is that the British had no economic incentive for invading the Sudan; the conventional caricature of the greedy imperialist grabbing the raw materials of the less developed countries has no application here... What in fact eventually induced the British government in 1896 to undertake the expedition was neither benevolent imperialism nor a belated lust for revenge but the needs of European politics. It was Lord Salisbury's wish to shore up the Triple Alliance and do something to please Italy and Germany which made intervention in the Sudan seem desirable.
Leaving aside the idea that Imperialism is only ever for resources or economic benefit, it is notable that Britain had little reason for entry into Sudan. When they did so it was very much driven by the self-interest of the British ruler in Egypt, the Sirdar, General Kitchener. Less than two decades before the outbreak of World War One, it is notable that a few senior figures in that war appear in the Sudan - Kitchener and Douglas Haig are just two.

The bloody victory at Omdurman was greeted with popular rejoicing back at home, not least because it was covered by a significant number of embeded journalists, some of whom, like Winston Churchill, were also officers and were certainly not neutral in proceedings. Churchill himself figures highly in these pages, not least because of his detailed account of the campaign and his self-serving arrogant letters home about events. The last cavalry charge in British Army history took place at Omdurman, with Churchill in pole position. For the public back home the charge became a much celebrated event, though Ziegler makes it clear that it was relatively unnecessary, confused and could easily have ended in tragedy. Ziegler details the aftermath - the British razing much of Omdurman and the Khalifa's palace - and the disappointment of the troops when they found little to loot. Churchill considered the victory to prove the superiority of his race and nation; though the inept and chaotic leadership described by Ziegler certainly doesn't back this up.

This is an easily read well written military account. Those looking for background to Sudan's later history or a greater understanding of Britain's imperial role in Northern Africa will need to go elsewhere. If you're simply after an account of Omdurman there's probably no better single volume history.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire
Mason - The Four Feathers
Macrory - Signal Catastrophe; The Story of the Disastorous Retreat from Kabul 1842

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Guy Shrubsole - Who Owns England?

"Who owns England?" is a very good question, and a surprisingly difficult one to answer. That's not to say that various people haven't tried. One of the fascinating things about Guy Shrubsole's book is the discussion of the various historical attempts to understand precisely the question of ownership - from the post-Norman Conquest Domesday book to more recent studies. The roots of contemporary land ownership frequently do stretch all the way back to William the Conqueror. In fact Shrubsole gives a telling quote from one of the numerous Duke of Westminsters who, when asked how "young entrepreneurs" could be successful today answered, presumably not entirely tongue in cheek, "Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror".

Today the aristocracy's persistence is traced out in part by land ownership. In 1873 just 4217 peers owned 18 million acres of England, about 50 percent of the country. Never mind the 1 percent, these people were the 0.01 percent. Trying to understand how much of England is owned by the aristocracy today is difficult. Shrubsole concludes that a third of land is owned by the wealthy descendants of William's friends (or those that bought into their class later). Despite some attempts to blunt their wealth, and a few donations of land (often for tax reasons), aristocratic landowners continue to get huge incomes from their ownership, often from land subsidies. It becomes even more obscene when you learn of the vast acreage of land used for grouse, undermining vital biodiversity for a bloodsport enjoyed by a tiny minority. It cannot continue. Shrubsole argues that the aristocracy must become "active stewards, nursing our land back to health... a reformed system of farm subsidies would provide a spur to this, but it will also require the aristocracy's active participation. Will they rise to such a challenge?" I'm doubtful that they can, and tend to think we need a much more radical challenge to their ownership.

However it isn't enough to reduce landownership to the remnants of feudal rule. Who owns land today is the result of enormous changes that have taken place over the centuries linked closely to wider political and social transformations. The land owned by the Church of England or the Crown has been dramatically altered over the years by events like the Reformation and the Civil War. But it's perhaps the development of capitalism which has had the most impact. As I've written elsewhere, this was not simply about ownership but also how land was used and understood. In this, the people who almost always lost out were those who worked the land. As E P Thompson wrote in The Making of the English Working Class about the development of capitalism and its transformation of the rural economy:
In village after village, enclosure destroyed the scratch-as-scratch-can subsistence economy of the poor. The cottager without legal proof of rights was rarely compensated. The cottager who was able to establish his claim was left with a parcel of land inadequate for subsistence and a disproportionate share of the very high enclosure cost. Enclosure, (when all the sophistication are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery, played according to fair rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property-owners and lawyers.
Shrubsole notes that in 1600 about 30 percent of land was in common. While there was widespread resistance, much of this was lost and never recovered. Today it, and the rest of the country, is owned by the Church, big landowners, massive corporations and various other institutions such as the military. Some of the figures that Shrubsole gives us are extraordinary and give a real insight into wider social issues in the UK.

Private companies own, for instance, about a fifth of the country's land. In doing so, major landowners like supermarkets have transformed our towns and cities in their own image. Often this is for short-term profit, and very rarely is it about providing services. As Shrubsole notes, "Consultants Molior have estimated that between 25 percent and 45 percent of sites with planning permission in London are owned by companies that have never built a house." In other words, ownership has become a method of making money through speculation. It is a situation that cannot continue and Shrubsole is absolutely right to argue:
Remembering that today we are landless because the commons were taken from us doesn't mean we should be looking to return to some sort of rural Arcadia, where we all live by toiling in the fields. A modern movement for English land reform is about solving the housing crisis, rewilding our landscapes and reconnecting ourselves to the food we eat. It's about both rural and urban land and about sharing the wealth that comes from owning land.
By coincidence the day that I write this review is the same day that UK Labour published its proposals for land reform. Guy Shrubsole and others have been part of drafting that, and this book sets out many of those ideas behind those policies. Few who care about the environment and ending social inequality will disagree with proposals to end privatisation of publicly owned land, abolishing "the last vestiges of feudalism in our system of land ownership" and, in particular, ending the madness of subsidies based on land ownership. I am also firmly in agreement that a proper "right to roam" must come as part of giving access back to the wider population. But I am more cynical about whether this legislation can happen with out a major fight.

As I read Who Owns England? I found myself identifying even more than usual with those revolutionaries who advocated the revolutionary seizure of land - its nationalisation - for use by all. The aristocracy has proved adept at fighting to maintain its possessions, and modern corporations are no different in that regard, and I wonder to what extent we'll really be able to reform away the inequalities that Shrubsole so ably describes.

This is a really important book. Many on the left, from Karl Marx onward have sought to understand how capitalism developed and what this meant for the land and its people. But who came to own the land as a result of that process has profound consequences for people today. Guy Shrubsole's book is written with humour and anger and offers a viable alternative. It is an essential read and I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour
Howkins - The Death of Rural England

Holt-Giménez - A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Linklater - Owning the Earth

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Robert Heinlein - I Will Fear No Evil

As I described in my review of Farah Mendlesohn's critical biography of Robert Heinlein, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein I have an ambiguous relationship with his novels. But Mendlesohn's repeatedly returns to a major novel by Heinlein which I had never read - I Will Fear No Evil and given what she says I felt I ought to read it before, perhaps, coming finally to terms with Heinlein.

First published in 1970 and written in 1968-1969 it bears all the hallmarks of that period. It focuses on the life of Johann Smith, an extremely wealthy billionaire (though he is implied to be even richer than that sounds today) who is coming to the end of his long life. Heinlein uses age, as he does in several of his books, to allow characters to comment expertly on the present through their experiences of the past. So at one point Smith's eventual character visits the home of a poor family and shows how to cook using "depression cooking" despite not having cooked for them-self in decades.

At the end of his life, Smith, uses his wealth to have his brain transferred to a replacement body. By coincidence the only person able to make this donation is the recently murdered, extraordinarily beautiful Eunice who was Smith's secretary. Once in Eunice's body, Johann (who renames them-self to Joan) appears to co-exist with Eunice in the new body's brain. Many reviews discuss whether or not this is meant to be real, or some form of psychosis on the part of Johann. I'm not sure it matters for most of the book (except, perhaps the ending). Of more interest is what Heinlein does with it.

About a third of the way in I had dismissed the book as a "masturbation fantasy", something the publisher of my 1970 edition appears to agree with when they write of the "mind-blowing results" that occur following the transplant. Mendlesohn also points out that it could be read as "soft porn" though it is pornography in the form of titillation - that explores questions of gender change, homosexuality, partner swapping and so on - without explicitly detailing it. Telling rather than showing, so to speak. Heinlein might in many ways be applauded for some of this - and he certainly is less hostile to homosexuality in this book than in others. It is notable, for instance, that Johann is very much straight before the transplant, but while sharing a body with Eunice, Joan is very much bisexual. It's explained that this is a result of Eunice's own bisexuality before her death. Thus Johann's sexual world is opened up after the operation.

The problem is that Heinlein isn't really being all progressive here. In fact what bothered me was two fold. Firstly Joan's rediscovery of the joys of sex, and the expansion of horizons that takes place, seems very much designed to please the males she knows. Joan enjoys the sex, but their enjoyment is almost secondary to ensuring the male partner is having a good time. Secondly, and linked to this, is that Heinlein uses a rather standard trope when it turns out that almost all the women around him before the operation were actually desperate for sex all the time and had hidden, vigorous sex lives. This isn't of course a bad thing. But Heinlein's use of this appears designed to titillate his readers, a sort of "every woman is read to have sex with all men as soon as it is offered". Heinlein takes this to extremes - one of his female characters enjoys a gang rape for instance. Mostly it is about Joan kissing, screwing and flirting with everyone they meet. It's particularly unsettling for some characters as Joan has Eunice's' body and they knew her before the operation. I found the section when Joan visit's Eunice's former partner quite disturbing as a result.

Written in the late 1960s when questions of sexuality and freedom were increasingly being discussed. Heinlein is both reflecting the wider world and putting his own spin on it, which in hindsight looks somewhat conservative. Behind all of this is the urban decay of America. Jobs are hard to come by and even illegal work is actively taxed. Drugs and illiteracy are a major social problem and Johann/Joan are able to hide from all of this - literally fencing themselves off through their wealth. Johann, and then Joan, also use their wealth as a means to buy off their own guilt - paying cash to those they like who are living in poverty - including Eunice's old husband. Though this is strictly for those who deserves it - Eunice's former mother in law gets nothing as she's an alcoholic on welfare.

Unusually for Heinlein there are no cats, though blood transfusion plays a big role (Heinlein was a major advocate of blood donor-ship - though here the metaphor is closely linked to the donating of a body). There is also only a passing mention of incest; though Joan impregnates herself with Johann's stored sperm - effectively becoming, at the end, mother and father of their own child.

Many of Heinlein's grander themes are explored here. For those trying to understand him, it's an essential read, but its marred by Heinlein's own limitations - politically, culturally and socially. Leaving aside the bad erotica, it seems initially to be somewhat progressive, but I don't think it is as progressive as the author thought it he was being. Far more interesting and innovative writing would come out of the new movements for liberation. Ironically, as I read the second hand edition I had, it literately fell apart in my hands. It felt like a fitting end to my engagement with Heinlein.

Related Reviews

Mendlesohn - The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein
Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein - Starship Troopers
Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman

Friday, May 31, 2019

Massimo Livi Bacci - Our Shrinking Planet

Massimo Livi Bacci is a distinguished professor of demography and this short book is his attempt to explain what population changes mean for humanity. His main argument is that we live on a world where space is shrinking for its inhabitants. The rapid and significant population growth of the last two hundred years has dramatically reduced the amount of resources and space available for each person. However there isn't a simple population story that fits every country, the tendency Bacci argues, is for population growth to follow a rough pattern - accelerating as nations go through economic development and then plateauing at a certain point. Exactly when an where this point is depends on a number of factors - healthcare, wealth, access to contraception and education levels.

Bacci shows how this leads to a contradictory situation whereby some parts of the world are facing a crisis caused by an aging population where 100 year lifespans are a distinct possibility in the near future. Bacci comments:

If ... established norms remain the same, then citizens of the 100-year society will have to dedicate around fifty years to work, pushing back the retirement age - which today (effectively_ stands at a little above 60 - to 75 years of age.

The telling phrase here is "established norms". Because this can only be a problem in a society were  the labour of the vast number of unemployed, or under-employed, is ignored. There's no reason why anyone should have to work longer given that huge numbers of people are desperate for work.

Discussing the international development goals, Bacci notes how despite decrease in rates of poverty in some areas, over-all numbers of people living in poverty has grown. For instance he writes:

In sub-Saharan Africa extreme poverty struck 48 per cent of the population in 2010, as against 56 per cent in 1990. However during those two decades the absolute number of poor people rose by 46 per cent to 125 million, as a result of unrestrained demographic growth. [My emphasis]
A few pages later he asks, "How come a tenfold increase in GDP has not succeeded in containing or reducing the numbers of the needy?" The answer is that problem lies with the nature of the economic system, and how that system sees development. A growth in GDP can be encouraged by allow companies like Monsanto or Cargill to take over a privatised agriculture in a country in sub-Saharan Africa, but that neo-liberal agenda is completed at the cost of driving peasants further into poverty and hunger. Population growth is not the problem - but a system based on the drive for profits.

Similar problems occur when Bacci talks about sustainability - where he simply equates population growth with increased environmental destruction. He isn't so naive as to ignore the point that individuals in developing countries have a smaller environmental footprint than those in the developed world - but he argues that rapid population growth in the developing world, combined with sheer numbers and economic improvement will effectively cancel out the difference. But Bacci fails to note the way capitalism leads directly to environmental destruction. Even the liberal Guardian can point out that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. Those companies behave like that not because of population growth in sub-Saharan Africa, but because the logic of the market drives them forward.

The "Malthusian Trap" that Bacci constantly refers to is one that removes people from their economic and social circumstances. While there are planetary boundaries, they are being breached not because population is growing, but because our economic system cannot exist in a sustainable way.

While Bacci's framework is faulty, there is much of use in this book - his facts and figures are presented in a clear and useful way. He takes seriously subjects that some authors ignore - such as the importance of migration and immigration, particularly in the context of an aging population in the developed world. Ultimately he hopes that the demographic situation will lead to a "fourth globalisation" with "positive effects for global relations". But this can only come about in a world of social equity and freedom - and that's not going to happen under capitalism.

Related Reviews

Morland - The Human Tide
Pearce - PeopleQuake, Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash

Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Deborah E. Lipstadt - The Eichmann Trail

While campaigning in recent elections against the far-right and fascists I've been drawn, once again, to historical events to try and understand the motivations of contemporary Nazis. It was this that meant I picked up Deborah Lipstadt's short study of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Discussion of this event has long been overshadowed by Hannah Arendt's account of events, and Lipstadt discusses the trial, as well as Arendt's own account.

Lipstadt says that she was motivated to write about this as part of her own experience in the courtroom as part of the David Irving libel trial. In fact the importance for her was in part the parallel processes. The prosecuting lawyer at Eichmann's trail deliberately used the testimony of multiple Holocaust survivors to create a historical context for the legal action. This was a controversial strategy, but in Lipstadt's conclusion is the "most enduring legacy of what occurred in Jerusalem in 1961".

Readers after a blow by blow account of the court case will need to go elsewhere. Lipstadt focuses instead on the debates around the trail, though that is not to say there is nothing here that demonstrates how Eichmann was very much an unrepentant Nazi. As both the prosecuting evidence and his behaviour during examination and pretrial interrogation shows, he had a very clear understanding of his role in the Holocaust. Eichmann however attempted, but failed, to use the classic Nazi defence of "following orders" and not knowing the consequences of his actions.
Hausner [the prosecutor] had presented an overwhelming body of incriminating evidence to prove that Eichmann's excuses were shams. He demonstrated that Eichmann had a very good memory: he remembered his salary when he trained at Dachau; he recalled the special brandy a colleague had served him; even his own lawyer marvelled that he remembered what he had eaten at a 1943 SS dinner - but not the number of Jews he'd forced into deportation trains.
Given the subject matter the book is at times difficult to read. But some of the most awful material, after the accounts from survivors, is actually the parts where Eichmann's own testimony gives us an insight into the mindset of those who made the Holocaust happen. As here with Eichmann's words at the end of the war in a speech given to his men, summarised by one of the trial judges, "for five years millions of enemies had assailed Germany, and millions of enemies have been killed. And I estimate that war has cost five million Jews."

Eichmann, Lipstadt points out that Eichmann had said he would jump into his grave fulfilled at having been part of this effort.

The Eichmann trial was controversial at the time. The abduction of the Nazi by Israeli special forces and the trial in Israel itself, a country that didn't exist at the time of the Holocaust, did not meet with approval by everyone. Lipstadt, and others at the time, point out that the laws that Nazis were tried under after the war did not exist at the time of the Holocaust so this is a mute point.

Discussing contemporary debates about the trial between the Israeli PM Ben-Gurion and critics who questioned Israel's right to try Eichmann she writes:
Ben-Gurion responded by drawing a direct line between the Holocaust and the state  of Israel. Acknowledging that while Israel could not speak in the name of all Jews, he argued that it must speak for the victims of the Holocaust because they believed 'with every fibre of their being that they belonged to a Jewish people.'
Lipstadt cautions that "many of the victims believed no such thing" and continues "For  Ben-Gurion, however, this was utterly immaterial." Thus the history of the Holocaust was closely linked to contemporary politics and the existence of Israel itself. As I noted at the start, the growth of 21st century far-right forces that use anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry and new forms of fascism make understanding this history even more important. The insights into fascism we get from the Eichmann trial are part of the knowledge which helps us fight it today in order to avoid future barbarity and destruction.

Related Reviews

Lipstadt - Denying the Holocaust
Evans - Telling Lies about Hitler
Wendling - Alt-Right
Sereny - Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Sereny - Into that Darkness

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