Thursday, July 30, 2020

Charlie Jane Anders - All the Birds in the Sky

One of my best reads over the Covid period was Charlie Jane Anders' The City in the Middle of the Night so I was really pleased that the first book I was able to buy in an actual bookshop was her earlier book All the Birds in the Sky. I am pleased to say that this was as good a read as City and matched it for innovative thinking, entertainment and radical politics.

The novel begins with a girl and boy in a typical American school. Both are outsiders and, as a result are ostracised and bullied. Patricia is a witch, she discovers that she can speak to birds and Laurence, who becomes her friend is a technology geek, scientist and inventor of the two second time machine. The two second time machine is useless, unless you want to escape bullies, but it is enough to show the outside world that he's got extremely important skills.

As you'll already tell, this means that the book is set in a world that is not quite ours. Magic is real, though controlled by a secret network of witches. Science technology is different to our universe, but only slightly. But, similar to our own time, Patricia and Laurence's world is on the brink of disaster. As adults both Patricia and Laurence take different approaches. Patricia's magical network tries to heal unhappiness. Laurence ends up with a network innovators, headed by the billionaire Milton (modelled on Elon Musk?) who are looking for a technical way to escape Earth.

Telling you more about the story would ruin things. What's important to note though is how Anders handles the relationship between Patricia and Laurence. From their estrangement at school, based on misunderstandings and outside interference to their reunion years later, Anders explores what its is like to be an outsider, to be confused about friends and lovers and trying to understand who you are. Unfortunately Patricia and Laurence are doing all this in the context of the Unravelling of system.

In essence this is a story about friendship, but its also a warning about the dangers of trying to solve the world's crises with simple solutions - both technological and natural. But the world building is wonderful, the characters are brilliantly drawn and the growing environmental and capitalist crisis feels frighteningly real. There's a lot here: engaging entertaining reading, plenty of in-jokes and a clever plot. Great fun.

Related Reviews

Anders - The City in the Middle of the Night

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Nick Martell - The Kingdom of Liars

I was looking forward to reading Nick Martell's debut novel because it seemed to offer an intriguing basis for the magic of this fantasy land - those who specialise in various magical powers - lose memories as they use them. Its in interesting idea, implying that the magic requires something from those who seek to master it. Unfortunately this is about the only innovative idea behind the novel and I found the rest of the story overlong, meandering and, in places, confusing.

It is set in the city state of Hollow, where former noble Micheal Kingman, struggles to find his place in society. As a boy his father, a devoted follower of the king whose hereditary social position was intended to act as a balance to the ruler, is found guilty of killing the king. Branded a traitor, and exiled from the Court, Micheal remains convinced of his father's innocence.

Hollow is beset by outside threats and its rulers respond with repression and violence. But the state teeters on the brink of collapse. Michael finds himself in the midst of confusion and shifting intrigues by various court figures and mercenaries as he tries to work out what really happened on the day is father allegedly became a traitor and find a safe niche for him and his family.

It all sounds very interesting. But the story is cumbersome and overly complicated. In older fantasy there was usually an attempt to build the world early in the book so the reader can understand the actions of the characters in their context. Nick Martell has chosen however to reveal important aspects of the world and its magic through the book, so there are lots of confusing references that only make sense when something is explained later, often much later. These include key information that explains how Hollow is ruled. At other times I was left bemused - Martell emphasises the strangeness and magical nature of Hollow, but ensures that our characters breakfast heartily on bacon and tea. The combination of fantasy and normal made little sense to me.

While Martell manages to create a real atmosphere of disintegrating social chaos around the rulers of Hollow, he fails to follow this up with fleshed out characters. Michael Kingman's behaviour seemed unreal to me. He constantly makes decisions that seem utterly, well, stupid. I ended up finding him really annoying rather than identifying with his flawed heroism as the author clearly wanted me to. This, combined with confusing world-building, left me unsatisfied and unlikely to read the sequels.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Vinland Sagas - The Norse Discovery of America

Conventional wisdom has it that in 1492 Christopher Columbus "discovered" America. Of course he didn't discover it - that was the privilege of those people who crossed the Bering Straits some tens of thousands of years before and created complex societies from North to South of the Americas. But Columbus' discovery however is a useful narrative that seeks to place Europeans as the most important people in the Americas. It also conveniently wipes from history the experience of other explorers, raiders and colonisers who got there 500 years before 1492 from Greenland. The Vikings.

The two Viking sagas that make up this book, with a supporting introduction from Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, tell the story of these expeditions. The Grælendinga and Eirik's sagas detail the way that Vikings from Greenland discovered, by chance, the lands and tried to initially colonise them.

The actual sagas are short - in fact the introduction is longer than either tale, the authors of which caution against reading the sagas as either historical accounts or stories. They are, in fact, cultural artefacts which combine history with important genealogical information as well as exciting tales. Much ink has been spilt trying to match up landscape details with real life geology in the Americas, and this has been only partially successful. Its worth noting that the introduction here is written only shortly after the Norse site at L'Anse aux Meadow was discovered, so archaeological evidence is limited.

Readers attempting to see these sagas as simply historic accounts and those transposing information directly will quickly come unstuck. What to make of the Viking account of a Uniped that kills one of the colonisers? Perhaps that bit was invented during one of the retelling of the sagas, or a story that returned with the first visitors to North America. Either way, like other accounts of the ancient past, there is a tendency to seamlessly blend fantasy into the narrative.

But there is some interesting, if very limited, information here about the region the Vikings arrived in. Similar accounts in both the sagas show the Vikings traded red cloth for local goods, especially food. The region had both vines (hence the name) and grains, as well as much wildlife. In an interesting account the Vikings send two slaves off to explore who return with reports of excellent land suitable for cultivation.

Backing up the main narrative is information on Viking voyages from European mainland to Iceland and on to Greenland. The Greenland Viking colony (given that name to make it more attractive to settlers as both sagas attest) is often imagined to have been unsuccessful and shortlived - conditions were even harder than Iceland. But it is clear that multiple voyages to North America provided resources, particularly wood, for the colony. Nonetheless the Viking community survived in Greenland for 500 years, making it more successful than some more modern states.

Both sagas, and the introduction, are readable and entertaining, as well as provoking many other questions for the reader. They give a sense of a much more dynamic society 1000 years ago than we usually believe. And, they also remind us, that had Native Americans driven Columbus back into the sea in 1492, as their ancestors eventually drove the Vikings off, then history might have been a little different.

Related Reviews

Parker - The Northmen's Fury
Gaiman - Norse Mythology
Lindsay - The Normans and their World

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Mark Roseman - The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution

When I was young we had several trips to Berlin to visit family. There we would always look forward to visiting the Wannsee resort, playing on the artificial beach and exploring the woods. Many years later I was horrified to learn that Wannsee was synonymous with the Holocaust.

On the 20 of January 1942 senior figures in the Nazi bureaucracy assembled at a villa in Wannsee. The subject of the conference was the "Final Solution" of the "Jewish Question". The conference itself was relatively small, with 15 delegates representing different sections of the government. Convened by Reinhard Heydrich who reported to Himmler, the conference had the stamp of authority from the highest levels in the Nazi government though, ironically, author Mark Roseman argues we don't clearly know why it was called.

Wannsee would have remained forgotten had it not been that a single copy of the thirty minutes printed after the event would turn up in the post-war investigations into Nazi crimes. These minutes (known as Protocols in German) summarised the event and its conclusions. Some investigators hoped this would be the smoking gun that showed the Nazi machine deciding to embark up on programme of mass murder. But as Roseman explains, that programme had already begun. Instead, the event appears to have been an occasion to discuss the problems that arose from the planned destruction of the Jews in terms of resources, but also - chillingly - to thrash out who in the bureaucracy had ultimate responsibility. It also, as Roseman concludes, was a place where the high-command was informing lower levels of existing decisions:
The Wannsee conference is thus a king of keyhole, through which we can glimpse the emerging Final Solution. It took place at a time when the idea of a reservation had been abandoned, labour scarcities were pressing and when the Nazis may or may not have decided exactly how to eliminate all the Jews. But it is evident that Wannsee is not the place at which the murder decisions themselves es were taken. For the most part, Heydrich was disseminating conclusions drawn elsewhere. On some issues the participants had something to say; for the most part their role was to listen and to nod.
The Wannsee Protocols are published in the book's appendix, though they are easy to find online. It is a awful document to read - their structure is similar to the minutes produced from normal conferences and meetings, but their subject is mass murder. Roseman points out that the language is made up of euphemisms that disguise the real subjects - talk of Jewish "reservations" and "emigration" when the Nazis had already ruled out these strategies. Roseman writes:
The euphemisms were its normal mode of communicating about murder, and will have served here to remind recipients of the language codes they should use. At the same time it was so vital to establish the participants' shared knowledge in the killing programme that this overrode the need for caution. This is why Lammers, Stuckart and others were at such pains after the war to deny having seen the Protocol, to escape from the trap that Heydrich had set them.
But reading the Wannsee Protocol myself I was stunned by how open the language is. It is impossible to read these sentences without seeing a group of men around a conference table discussing mass murder.
Jews fit to work will work their way eastwards constructing roads. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated by natural causes. Any final remnant that survives will doubtless consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately.
The men having these discussions, and enjoying a brandy afterwards, were just bureaucrats. These were "educated" men, most of whom had doctorates. But almost all of whom had long years in Nazi organisations. These were dedicated fascists, who had spent years advocating the destruction of Jewish people and other undesirables. In addition, Roseman points out that "what is striking is how many people round the table had given direct killing orders or themselves had experience of killing". As a result, "no one arrived at Wannsee with even the faintest intention of speaking up for the Jews".

As mentioned Wannsee was not the moment the Holocaust was agreed. The Holocaust was a process that evolved over time, having its origins in the Nazi genocidal ideology, with its specifics arising from the realities of total war on the Eastern Front, the horrors of Nazi treatment of Jews and the violence of the fascist state. But the Wannsee conference, in Roseman's words, "cleared the way for genocide" by pulling in the fascist bureaucracy behind the plans. Mark Roseman's short book is an important insight into how, once Nazis take power, the machinery exists to turn genocidal fantasy into reality.

Related Reviews

Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution
Kershaw - Hitler, 1936-1945: Hubris
Kershaw - Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis
Lipstadt - Denying the Holocaust
Lipstadt - The Eichmann Trail
Evans - Telling Lies About Hitler
Black - IBM and the Holocaust

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Richard Benson - The Farm

Picking up The Farm I will admit that I thought it would be a rather annoying romanticised description of life in the countryside. But Richard Benson's book turned out to be an insightful and entertaining  history of recent changes in rural England. Benson is not a farmer, though he comes from a family of farmers. While working in London at a job on a fashion magazine he gets a phone call from his parents back on the Yorkshire farm he grew up on. They're selling up. The initial shock to the system leads to the first of many returns home that culminate with the family farm being sold to a property developer. While telling this story Benson simultaneously tells the story of growing up on the farm and the changes to the English countryside.

Benson has no head for farming. He can't drive a tractor in a straight line, never has the right tool ready for his dad and constantly struggles with the animals. But he is intimately tied to land that generations of his family had worked. But the industry and the farm is changing. While a boy his parents had already sold off the land used for growing crops to focus on pigs. Then they found, alongside most of their neighbours, that they couldn't compete with cheap meat from the continent. Today the middle classes love some locally reared, organic pork. In the 1990s it was all about the cheapest possible cuts - or rather the massive profits that supermarkets and big agriculture could make.

The economic downturn as British agriculture is neglected by successive governments, means unemployment, drinking and drugs become a feature of life in rural communities. So are suicides. Benson deals sensitively on the question of mental health, including that of his father. A childhood friend commits suicide and you get a sense of the anger and frustration in the community at the inability to fight the destruction of a way of life. Interestingly, and contrary to much perceived wisdom, these farmers aren't right wing Thatcherites - there's a charming bit when Benson's mother defends the striking miners.

Benson survives by running away to study literature and become a writer. His brother remains to look after the pigs and work on other peoples land; land that was once owned by the family. When the farm goes his brother can continue with labouring, but you do wonder what the long term future holds. Its a question that many more British farmers must be asking in 2020 as economic uncertainty rises.

Benson's writing is fluid and entertaining. Among the tragedy there is real humour and warmth such as can only come out of a close knit community. There's no way that the middle-class urbanites who buy up the former farm buildings which have been converted into luxury homes will ever know that feeling.

Related Reviews

Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit
Rebanks - The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District

Monday, July 20, 2020

Mary Shelley - Frankenstein

One of the things that becomes quickly very clear when reading Frankenstein for the first time, is that you aren't reading the book you thought you were going to be. Frankenstein has become such a cliche that you expect the monster to be a lumbering giant that is animated by a fancy electric apparatus, powered by lightening with a switch thrown by a maniac scientist. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein however is a much more subtle work that deals with big philosophical questions as well as shocking its reader with cruelty and violence.

Famously Shelley wrote the book after a late night discussion with her partner Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and his companion Polidori who came up with the idea of them all writing a ghost story. Although only Mary Shelley's story reached a book length publication, the Penguin edition I have also includes the few pages that Byron wrote and the longer (and quite effective) vampire story that Polidori produced. This latter in itself is fascinating for its insights into Byron, but need not detain us here.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a remarkable work that poses a very big question. What is it to be human? Dr. Frankenstein who animates the "monster" (which is very distinctly not called Frankenstein - take that Hollywood) is a troubled genius. Arriving at university Frankenstein is inspired to break from his abstract philosophical thought and pursue a career in the natural sciences. Shelley starkly poses the rational sciences as being separate from the more abstract romantic ideas that her anti-hero has been dabbling with. Its not clear how Frankenstein makes his creation, but once life is breathed into the creature, its inventor runs away, terrified by what he has done. Devoid of friendship and lost in a strange world the creature gradually learns to speak and locate his creator. Shunned because of his looks, the creature begins a terrible revenge - not to simply destroy Frankenstein, but to break him by destroying everything that is dear to him.

The other thing that strikes me reading Frankenstein is how horrible Victor Frankenstein is. This scientist is not "mad" as the film suggests, rather obsessed with triumphing over natures laws to create life. To literally become God. When this backfires his remorse and fear overcome his own rationality and he retreats - his emotions taking over from logic. But on every occasion when he might have fixed things he backs down, interested in only himself. Its a theme that the creature also takes up. His eavesdropping leads him to an understanding of the real horror of society. Overhearing the conversations of a poor family the creature learns:
Every conversation of the cottagers now opened new wonders to me. While I listened to the instructions which Felix bestowed upon the Arabian, the strange system of human society was explained to me.  I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty, of rank, descent, and noble blood.
Poverty is a great theme of Frankenstein. If the creation of Frankenstein's monster is an easy metaphor for the industrial revolution, it is a revolution that eats its own children through poverty and destruction. The creature, shunned by humanity and his creator, wants to run away to his own idyll, with a second female creature created by Frankenstein. When Frankenstein refuses the scene is set for mutual destruction. Mary Shelley's background in radical politics and the left-wing, radical, milleui that she wrote the book in is apparent on every page. If this is a ghost story, the real horror is the real world.

Told through letters, recollections and flashback this is not an easy read. The story is filled out, in the manor of Victorian novels, with vast amounts of scene-setting information. But this is a fascinating and very enjoyable read - just not necessarily the one you were expecting.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Jonathan Crary - 24/7

Karl Marx pointed out that there are two ways that the capitalists can extract extra surplus value from workers and hence make more profits. By increasing either absolute surplus value or relative surplus value. The latter means making workers more productive, but the former requires making the worker labour more. The problem for the capitalists has always been the natural limits of the worker and the world they labour in. You can only make workers labour for a certain number of hours before they need food, relaxation and sleep. In this context Jonathan Crary's 24/7 book ought to be an important discussion of how capitalism has tried and is trying to extend the working day into 24 hours. Factories work shift systems, public transport systems operate round the clock and so on. But can capitalism fundamentally overcome naturally imposed limitations on the working day? These are important arguments for both the exploiters and the exploited. As Crary points out:
The huge portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsists as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism. Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism.
The importance of sleep, which Crary argues "stand[s] for the durability of the social", is inseparable from the way that time itself has transformed itself through history. Indeed a study creation of capitalist time illuminates the way that society has commodified every aspect of our lives in the pursuit of profit.

So it is disappointing that Crary's book fails to engage with this material, and instead focuses on an esoteric engagement with various philosophers that seems to cover everything from technology to social media, but rarely gets to grip with the real material aspects of sleep and capitalism. While there is a lot of material of interest, the brevity of the work prevents the author drawing out these insights and constructing a coherent argument around them. I was left feeling that the author was more angry about the way that social media has intruded upon our lives than (say) workers working 12 hour shifts in sweat shops:
An attention economy dissolves the separation between the personal and professional, between entertainment and information, all overridden by a compulsory functionality of communication that is inherently and inescapably 24/7. 
This is, of course, true. But I felt that Crary overly focused on this rather than the detail of why capitalism operates like it does and what that means for workers. Social media, likes, friends and shares are an example of what the system does, but they are a consequence of 21st century capitalist production not its central aspect.

I was surprised that there wasn't at least passing reference to E.P. Thompson's classic essay Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism which I think backs up some of the historic material that Crary covers. But my biggest criticism is, perhaps, the opaque academic language which would put off many potential readers, even those who had enjoyed a good nights rest. There are far too many sentances that read like this, "This particular constellation of recent events provides a prismatic vantage point onto some of the plural consequences of neoliberal globalisation and of longer processes of Western modernisation". Writing like this can only restrict engagement with books like this, which is a shame, because the topic is of great importance to every working person today.

Related Reviews

Thompson - Customs in Common
Martineau - Time, Capitalism and Alienation
Evans-Pritchard - The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Kevin B. Anderson - Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity & Non-Western Societies

Karl Marx is popularly seen as an economist. His writings are often reduced down to an economic analysis and critic of capitalism. However, as this important book shows, Marx was a revolutionary thinker who, through his life, developed a sharp critique of the way that capitalism remade the world in its own image. In doing so Marx took up issues relating to racism, colonialism and non-Western communal social forms, that he considered essential for the socialist movement to understand as part of the struggle for a Communist society. Anderson writes:
In the 1840s, he [Marx] held to an implicitly uni-linear perspective, sometimes tinged with ethnocentrism, according to which non-Western societies would necessarily be absorbed into capitalism and then modernised via colonialism and the world market. But over time, his perspective evolved toward one that was more multi-linear, leaving the future development of these societies as an open question. By 1881-82 he was envisioning the possibility that Russia could modernise in a progressive non-capitalist manner, if its peasant-based revolutionary movement could link up with the working-class movements of Western Europe.
Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto begins with a celebration of capitalism over previously existing societies - the way that it had unleashed productive forces hitherto inconceivable. Marx writes of these forces "battering down" Chinese walls, drawing "even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation". Capitalism, they continue, "compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image."

While the Communist Manifesto does then continue to highlight the barbarity of "Civilisation" it is not particularly detailed on what "creating a world after its own image means" in terms of the impact of colonial countries, indigenous peoples and so on. But one of the central points of Marx at the Margins is that Marx's thinking on these issues evolves through his lifetime. As Anderson explains,
By 1853, Marx has begun to overcome the one-sidedness of the treatment of non-Western societies in the Manifesto... people from within non-Western societies are now credited with the potential of 'throwing off the English yoke-altogether' and self-starting the 'regeneration' of their societies and cultures. This regeneration would not, however, any more than the struggle of the Western working classes, be aimed at a return to the precapitalist past. It would retain the achievements of capitalist modernity.
A great deal of Anderson's book explores how Marx (and Engels) acted upon this understanding. Firstly he draws out neglected and ignored parts of their writing to show the extent to which an anti-colonial politics was at the core of their work for much of their active careers. Some of this is based on works like Capital and the Grundrisse, but some of its is also based on Anderson's knowledge of the much less well known works of Marx, including the detailed Ethnographic Notebooks. One reason that these works are less well known is that Marx archivists didn't consider them as important as his economic work. Marx's work on historic societies, indigenous people, non-Western societies and colonialism get relegated to secondary importance or worse. One editor of Marx's works, in 1925, for the MEGA project complained "why did he [Marx] was so much time on this... inexcusable pedantry".

But as Anderson shows, Marx's pedantry was not because of distraction, but because he was increasingly aware of the importance of these wider issues to his understanding of capitalism and the strategic ambition of the socialist movement.

Secondly Anderson shows how Marx's awareness of issues of colonialism and racism, were a key part of his activism. The question of Irish independence was never far from Marx's heart and Anderson draws out the key role of Marx and Engels in placing opposition to British colonial rule in Ireland within the politics of the First International. As Anderson shows, it was directly as a result of Marx's work that the International supported a position on Ireland that broke with "decades of prejudice and hostility of the British towards the Irish".

Equally important was opposition to slavery and, reading this as I was during the Black Lives Matter movement's re-emergence in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, I was struck by the importance of Marx's work on slavery to understanding the current situation in the United States. Anderson shows how despite their rulers' support for the South, British workers sided with the North during the American Civil War, "This was not only because they were antislavery, but also because European workers saw the US as the most democratic society of the time, virtually the only country were even white male workers enjoyed full suffrage". He quotes Marx:
As long as the English cotton manufactures depended on slave-grown cotton, it could be truthfully asserted that they rested on a twofold slavery, the indirect slavery of the white man in England and the direct slavery of the black man on the other side of the Atlantic. 
Time and again Marx celebrates the workers opposing the slave states in the US Civil War, and he and Engels engage in detailed discussions of the pursuit of the war and Lincoln's failure to encourage a revolutionary strategy.

Marx drew important revolutionary conclusions from his understanding of the close link between colonial oppression, resistance to colonialism and the contemporary socialist movement. A country that oppressed another, couldn't itself be free. So the importance of the British working class movement (and the left) in supporting the struggles of oppressed peoples' was key to the success of the struggle in the imperial nations. "[Marx] was placing Ireland at the centre of British revolutionary and labour politics. In both Cromwell's time and the 1790s he now held, the collapse of revolutionary possibilities in Britain was receded by British suppression of the Irish people."

But this itself was a position that developed. As Marx wrote to Kuglemann,
I have become more and more convinced - and the thing now is to drum this conviction into the English working class - that they will never do anything decisive here in England before they separate their attitude towards Ireland quite definitely from that of the ruling classes, and not only make common cause with the Irish, but even take the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801... Every movement in England itself is crippled by the dissension with the Irish, who form a very important section of the working class in England itself.
Marx was also shaped by the resistance movements themselves. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 for instance, meant that Marx "attacked British colonialism far more sharply" than he did in his 1853 writings.

Two final points from Kevin B. Anderson's work must be highlighted. Firstly the question of the development of capitalism. Marx's writings on primitive accumulation hold that the West followed a distinct process that saw capitalism arise out of feudal relations. This was often read "as a global and unilinear process of capitalist development, with England exhibiting the 'classic form'." But Anderson shows how Marx was constantly developing this position, and by the time of the later French edition of Capital he'd reached a more nuanced position, where (in Anderson's words) Marx's "narrative of primitive accumulation was meant as a description of Western European development, nothing more, and hardly a global grand narrative". Its this that forms the basis of Marx's writings about the peasant communes in Russia and their potential to move direct to socialism, without capitalism. Such ideas no doubt influenced Russian revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky in his work on combined and uneven development.

The other point I wanted to conclude on is Marx's "racism". In place, Anderson repeatedly notes, Marx did use language that we would see as highly ethnocentric and, on occasion, racist. For instance, Marx uses in several places the "N word". Interestingly Anderson points out that in modern editions of his work this has often been replaced with the word "blacks". Does this mean Marx was racist? Anderson argues that Marx was "using racist language in an anti-racist way", in other words his language was on occasion racist but his use of the terms was always in the context of confronting racism and colonialism as part of a wider project of the emancipation of all.

As I hope I have shown in this review Kevin B. Anderson's book is a highly important work for many reasons. The first of these is to rescue Marx as a wide-ranging anti-capitalist author, not simply a revolutionary economist. The second is to show Marx as a committed anti-racist activist who put opposition to Empire and colonialism at the heart of his theoretical and activist work. Thirdly to show that Marxism has a great deal to contribute to contemporary debates about the legacy of colonialism, slavery, imperialism and Empire today - particularly an understanding of the origins of racism. Finally Anderson indicates that many of Marx's lesser known works can contribute to important discussions around issues as diverse as indigenous struggles and historic communal societies. The book is well written, engaging and detailed and it is a must read for radical activists today.

Related Reviews

Gonzalez - In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui
Patterson - Karl Marx, Anthropologist
Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy
Marx - Capital Volume I
Marx - Grundrisse

Monday, July 06, 2020

Nina Lakhani - Who killed Berta Cáceres?

Between 2002 and 2017 some 1,500 activists were killed for their roles in protecting water, land, natural resources and the communities that rely on them. The death rate among environmental activists during the period was higher than for UK soldiers deployed to combat zones. One of those murdered campaigners was Berta Cáceres, a Honduran campaigner who had won the Goldman Environmental prize in 2015. A year later she was shot to death in her own home.

Journalist Nina Lakhani's work has focused on Honduras and activists like Berta Cáceres. This detailed book is the story of the murder and the struggle to for justice. At the end of it, several individuals are found guilty and are imprisoned. But what makes Lakhani's book so important is that the murder (and the role of those convicted) is put into the wider context of Honduran history and current political situation.

In Honduras there is a long tradition of violent repression of those challenging the status quo. As Lakhani explains:
anti-communist fervour was not a Cold War invention. In the first half of the twentieth century, Central America's elite landowning families - who enjoyed absolute economic and political power in their regional fiefdoms - were more that comfortable branding popular uprisings as communist threats. Any sniff of a political, social or labour movement demanding even modest reforms to tackle the stark inequalities was crushed, often brutally, to protect the interests of these elites.
By the 20th century Honduras was very much in the part of US interests, with successive US governments concerned with protecting their sphere of influence from left-wing threats (perceived or imagined). Infamous US ambassador John Negroponte, who served in Honduras from 1981-1985, oversaw military aid "rocketing" from $4m to $77m a year, in what Lakhani calls a "straightforward cash-for-turf deal" whereby the US gained "free rein" over Honduran territory. What is crucial for the story of Cáceres is that this created "a loyal force hooked on American money, equipment, training and ideology: cheaply bought loyalty which the US could count on again and again".

The late 20th century saw the arrival of neo-liberal policies that required the Honduran government, like most other central American nations, to implement all sorts of "reforms" which did nothing for the majority of the population but opened up the landscape to the multinationals. Under the Washington Consensus, Rafael Callejas, Honduran president from 1990-1994,
promoted programmes top break up collective land rights of indigenous and campesino communities in favour of multinational conglomerates. This is what ignited the modern-day land conflicts in Honduras, by putting rural communities opposed to environmentally destructive projects...against the country's elites and international financiers invested in so-called green energy projects.
Berta Cáceres
It was in these struggles that Berta Cáceres became a thorn in the side of the powerful. She came from an activist family and cut her teeth in the armed rebellion of the 1980s. In the early 1990s she helped found the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH). By the 2000s this was a key force organising rural and indigenous communities to oppose dams such as the Agua Zarca in the Lenca territory. In 2009 a coup overthrew President Manuel Zelaya whose minor reforms had irritated sections of the Honduran ruling class. While there is no space to go into this in detail here, it is worth noting that Lakhani shows the failure of the Obama administration to seriously challenge the coup, and specifically Hilary Clinton's pathetic role. The coup"unleashed a tsunami of environmentally destructive 'development' projects as the new regime set about seizing control of resource rich territories."

It is in this context that communities began to resist plans by a Honduran company (with links to international capital) Desarrollos Energéticos, S.A. (DESA) to construct several dams on the Gualcarque River. The river was important as a historic site, a place of work and a source of food and water which irrigated local farms. The dams would destroy communities and agreement had been driven through with no consultation in breach of international law. Cáceres threw herself into organising the movement which threatened to derail the project. She knew, as a result, that her life was in danger. DESA had spies in the movement and community and Honduras had a climate of impunity where murderers were seldom brought to justice. As we have seen activists of any stripe faced violence and murder regularly.

Berta Cáceres was a remarkable woman. In these pages were see a principled fighter for social justice who understood that the struggle to defend the environment was inseparable from the fight against injustice and capitalism. She was not afraid, in a macho environment, to champion the rights of women and the LGBT+ community. As one activist told Lakhani, Cáceres was killed "because they could not allow a woman to get away with endangering their business and threatening their investments... Berta's murder was fundamentally a machista murder". Another of Cáceres friends said "they killed a woman who dared speak out against a patriarchal system, that's why I call it a political femicide".

This book is thus a celebration of Berta Cáceres' life and struggles, as well as a devastating attack on the corruption and violence at the heart of Honudran society. The book, however, makes it clear that this is not simply about Honduras, but is a result of Western Imperialism and the way it commodifies the whole world in the interest of capital. The murder of Cáceres, and thousands of other activists, is one way the interests of imperialism and capital are furthered.

I wanted to finish my review by also highlighting the importance of author Nina Lakhani's work. Her journalism before and after Berta Cáceres' murder made sure that the world knew what had happened. It is in no small part due to Lakhani's reporting that those directly responsible for the killing are in jail. This book goes a long way to exposing the wider forces that made that possible. As a result Lakhani herself has faced very real threats of violence. Consequently her book is also a tribute to the sort of investigative journalism that has always told truth to power. But the last words should belong to Berta Cáceres:
If they kill me, the struggle for justice will go on. The world is more powerful than these criminals.
Related Reviews

Galeano - The Open Veins of Latin America
Galeano - Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History
Gonzalez - In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui
Gonzalez - The Ebb of the Pink Tide
Klein - The Shock Doctrine
Linebaugh - Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance
Morgan & Jukes - Untold: The Daniel Morgan Murder Exposed

Sunday, July 05, 2020

George Ewart Evans - Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay

This classic of oral history is both fascinating and entertaining to read. In the late 1940s George Ewart Evans set about recording the memories of the oldest inhabitants of the small village of Blaxhall in Suffolk. In doing so he records both the scale of the transformation of the English countryside at the end of the 19th century and makes a detailed record of rural life and agriculture before it was dominated by machinery and remained dependent on lots of human labour. I did not expect to be enthralled by the detail of how sheep were manually sheered, ale brewed at home and bread baked, but Evans has a knack for showing, through the words of the workers themselves, precisely the forgotten skills that kept agricultural communities going. There is also much insight into the nature of work itself, beyond the labour and skills:
After watching a furrow drawing or a ploughing match one has the feeling that the most cogent reason is rarely stated. To the ploughman the straight furrow is an end in itself, calling for all a man's skill, a king of quest after the mathematically unattainable: skill and craft carried to the point where the straight furrow becomes utility's tribute to art. The ploughman aims at a straight furrow because it looks right; and because it gives him the craftsman's satisfaction of a self-set standard; of doing a job as he feels it should be done, without need of praise except his own self's approval.
But in case the author and myself are accused of romanticising this labour, Evans himself cautions against this trap. In his chapter on the harvest, he says:
If, however, all that has already been stated about threshing gives the impression that there was something colourful or romantic about using the flail, we have the testimony of an old Suffolk farm-worker, who is still living, to disprove it. He was paid at the rate of 3s. a coomb for threshing; and he had no two thoughts about it: 'Threshing was real, downright slavery.'
Similarly there are many accounts of the reality of low wages and rural poverty. One of Ewart's sources George Messenger said:
My father brought up seven children on ten shillings a week. It was four rounds of bread each in a day - no more. And often it was a pinch of salt in a kittle of hot water and that was poured on the bread, and my mother would say "C'mon, there's a sop for you!" Kittle-broth we used to call it.
One of the joys of the book is the emphasis on the local dialect, and its interesting to note how some of this manifests today. For instance, the local pub in Blaxhall today (according to Google Maps) is called the Ship and has a picture of a viking type craft on its sign. According to Ewart the Ship had a plain sign in his day, because it was ambiguous whether the name refereed to a boat or the dialect word for sheep. Google maps provides another interesting diversion for readers - the village map in the front pages of this 1956 map shows little change to boundaries or roads, or even buildings over 60 years later.

There is little detail of organised resistance against poverty and inequality, though Ewart does say that many locals were deported to the convict settlements for poaching and smuggling, and some during the same period as the Tolpuddle Martyrs for "roughly the same reasons". Suffolk would be close to centres of agricultural trade unionism during some of the 20th century so it would be interesting to know more. But most "resistance" that reaches Ewart is through passive or secondary sources - local support/participation for poaching or smuggling. Some of these accounts are as fascinating as the sections on sheep, harvesting and village life. All in all this is a classic work of rural oral history.

Related Reviews

Horn - Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside
Mingay - Rural Life in Victorian England
Ashby - Joseph Ashby of Tysoe: 1859-1919

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Raymond E. Feist - King of Ashes

King of Ashes is the first in a new trilogy by Raymond E. Feist, an author known for his long, intricate and interrelated fantasy book series. While certainly readable, the first volume of the Firemane trilogy felt extremely generic to me. The book begins with an appropriate fantasy map (which, rather annoyingly, doesn't include most of the places mention in the text) and opens with the aftermath of a battle. Or rather a massacre. Despite centuries of peace, the various kingdoms in the lands of Garn have broken out in war. Subterfuge has led to King Firemane's forces being smashed through betrayal and all of the ruling family murdered. All except a small baby, who is spirited away and brought to live on the island of Coaltachin a kingdom of Garn-wide mafiosi. Where he is named Hatushaly or Hatu for short.

Parallel stories follow different groups of people, particularly the talented smith who was apprenticed to the smith who was bound to the baron who saved Hatu. All of this is extremely readable, but Feist takes an age to tell a story, or describe something which partly explains the length of this work. There are long detailed accounts of how smith's do various technical things or explanations of the specialist training given to the young men and women of Coaltachin to ensure that they both are skilled at fighting, travelling, survival and spying and prepared to do these things unquestioningly in the service of their kingdom.

This latter aspect is particularly difficult as Feist, presumably ignoring any contemporary attempts to challenge some of the more traditional tropes of fantasy literature, has Hatu's best friend Hava (a young woman of his age) attend a camp to teach her the arts of seduction. Rather crudely Feist dwells on some of the more lascivious aspects of this training. In fact crude sexuality is a big part of the book as Feist struggles to describe Hatu and Hava's coming of age in ways that don't feel like a teenager's diary.

These problems however are only part of the bigger issue I had with the novel. Feist is so concerned with his world building and presumably laying out plot lines for the later novels, that 500 pages effectively do nothing but build up to the point when various of Garn's powers have laid out their plans and Hatu has learnt his true heritage. We've also had various semi-magical beasts and hints and wider changes in Garn.

Readers who like long, intricate fantasy worlds and can ignore (or prefer) fantasy themes and depictions (especially of women) that feel more 1970s than 21st century, will probably devour this book and the rest of the trilogy. I am afraid I won't be reading past volume one.