Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Jonathan C. Slaght - Owls of the Eastern Ice

Reading a blow by blow account of someone studying for a PHd might not be the most exciting of book choices, but Jonathan Slaght's account of his studies of Blakiston's Fish Owl is absolutely riveting. These particular owl's are extremely rare. They live in Japan and Primorye, an extremely remote part of Russia, north-east of Vladivostok and near the mutual border with China and North Korea. This is a genuine wilderness area, of tiny frontier towns, few roads, vast expanses of forest and some unusual ecological systems. Slaght know's the area relatively well and he is well acquainted with Russian and Russia. But he is very much an outsider. Many of the people he meet with are gobsmacked to meet someone from America and he's bombarded with questions about the life they expect him to lead based on their knowledge from television.

Slaght's plan is spend several seasons locating pairs of owls, then tag and trace their movements over the next few years. Plans, of course, seem very straightforward when they are written in the comfort of offices. But the reality of the cold, desolate and wet wilderness makes things very difficult indeed. Slaght could not have succeeded without a supporting cast of conservationists and colleagues. These men (and they are all men) have more experience than he does, and are more knowledgeable of the surroundings. They know locations, people and, crucially, the owls. They are also wonderfully eccentric. Slaght quickly learns to drink vodka - visitors who come to their hut to see the America inevitably bring a bottle of vodka with them. Slaght learns that Russian vodka often only has a foil cap. Once opened the bottle is always drained - why would you need a screw on lid? At one celebration when he has finally managed to tag an owl, Slaght gets very drunk and wakes with a terrible hangover. It turns out the guests that night had brought cleaning fluid not vodka.

Fish owl's are fascinating creatures. They live off fish and seek a space with open water, nesting in the trunk of a dead tree nearby. They have a unique mournful cry that a pair will duet together, and look (from both the pictures in this book and Slaght's description) like a bedraggled grumpy bird that Slaght describes at one point as looking like "feathered golems". They are also huge - as big as eagles.

Primorye is wilderness, but it is being opened up by loggers. The logging companies threaten the bird's landscape but ironically often provide the support infrastructure that the conservationists need. Slaght recognises that he has to work with the companies to protect the owls and, together with his colleagues, seems to have some success. There is a similar convoluted relationship with the hunters of the region whose actions threaten not just the owls, but also the rarer tigers. 

Oddly enough, for a book focused on fish owls, I felt that I wanted to know more about the birds themselves. They are elusive and I suspect few people who read this book will have heard of them before. But because Slaght focuses on the story of his studies, we tend to learn about the owls as he does. It means that the totality isn't really brought together. 

A Japanese fish owl. Image from wikipedia.
But the book is more than just an account of these studies. It is a fascinating account of the human ecology of Primorye. The people here are poor and buffeted by wider social, environmental and economic forces that appear, as if by magic, to transform their lives and landscapes. Their confusion at the idea of western people studying the owls is made plain by several people Slaght talks too. But so are their wider hopes. There's a poignant moment when when Slaght is in his van, two older women stop them and ask how to get treatment. Confused by this, Slaght learns that rumours where that a team of doctors were driving an X-ray van around the region helping people. Slaght has to dispel the myth though the story underlines the remoteness and lack of infrastructure in the area.

It's possible to read Owls of the Eastern Ice on many levels. It is firstly a fascinating insight into the hard work, science and boredom that goes into much crucial conservation work. It is also an entertaining travelogue of the type that opens up an entirely different community to outsiders eyes, though Slaght is not so crude a writer that this feels patronising or obtrusive. Finally it is a study of a rare and endangered animal that helps us understand how wider capitalist economics can threaten and transform an entire landscape. I highly recommend this fascinating read - even if you've never heard of Blakiston's Fish Owl before.

Related Reviews

Tudge - The Secret Life of Birds
Carson - Silent Spring
Lymbery - Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were
Weiner - The Beak of the Finch: Evolution in Real Time

Thursday, August 20, 2020

William Dalrymple - The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company

The story of the East India Company is perhaps without parallel in colonial history. The rise of a minor trading company, founded in 1599, to become one of the most powerful and wealthiest forces in the world is fascinating. It is also deeply tragic. As William Dalrymple points out in the introduction to his new history of the EIC, the first Indian word to enter the British lexicon was the Hindustani slang for plunder "loot". The anecdote tells us a great deal about what the EIC did in India. By 1773 the company had become "too big to fail" and was saved by an enormous bailout from the British government. Before that it had made a handful of English individuals enormously wealthy and many politicians, businessmen and royals had a finger in the EIC pie.

The vast scale of wealth was impressive. In 1765 the East India Company's Robert Clive was granted rights to trade in Bengal, as well as raise taxes (which generated between £2 and £3 million annually - £210 to £315 million today). This wealth did not simply line the pockets of the company's shareholders and directors it funded the growth of the EIC's power:

Seizing the many riches of Bengal with its fertile paddy fields and rice surplus, its industrious weavers and rich mineral resources, opened up huge opportunities for the Company and would generate the finance to continue building up the most powerful army in Asia. The vast revenues of Bengal, which had for so long powered the Mughal exchequer, could, Clive knew, make the Company as unassailable as the Mughals had once been - and provide the finance for perhaps, one day, conquering the rest of the country.

Dalrymple documents the clever dealings of the EIC and Clive in particular in building up bases of power among the Indian rulers who could support the Company's interests. As Emperor Shah Alam signed over rights to the EIC, it meant that: 

Two hundred and fifty EIC clerks backed by the military force of 20,000 Indian sepoys would now run the finances of India's three richest provinces, effectively ending independent government in Bengal for 200 years. For a stock market-listed company with profit as its main raison d'etre, this was a transformative, revolutionary moment.

Of course people like Clive returned home fabulously wealthy. Powis Castle on the Welsh borders was (and is) crammed to the rafters with glorious objects from India. The castle itself was bought by Robert Clive's eldest son with the millions that his dad made from his positions in India. One contemporary Indian observer Ghulam Hussain Khan contrasted the rule of the Mughals with that of the EIC.

They [The Mughals] bent the whole strength of their genius in securing the happiness of their new subject; nor did they ever abate from their effort, until they had intermarried with the natives and got children and families from them and become naturalised.

But the English

have a custom of coming for a number of years and then of going away to pay a visit to their native country, without any of them shewing an inclination to fix themselves in this land. And as they join to that custom another one of theirs, which every one holds as a divine obligation: that of scarping together as much money as they can in this country and carrying these immense sums to the Kingdom of England; so it should not be surprising that these two customs, blended together, should be ever undermining and ruining this country, and should become an eternal bar to it ever flourishing again.

The author might be forgiven for having a rose-tinted memory of Mughal rule - their immense wealth arose from systematic exploitation of the mass of the peasantry and military conquest after all. But the basic difference of the dynamic of rule is true, and there can scarcely be a better description of the way colonialism has destroyed landscapes and economies in the interests of capitalism.

Nor did the capitalists of the EIC care for the people under their rule. During the infamous famine of 1770 Dalrymple describes the disgraceful behaviour of the Company which utterly failed the millions of people starving. Despite massive amounts of cash they failed to supply seed grain or assist the starving. They did, in what Dalrymple calls the "one of the greatest failures of corporate responsbility" enforce taxes collection and even increased taxes by ten percent. At the height of the 1770 Bengal famine, about £100 million (in today's money) was sent back to England by the EIC.

As with Colonial rulers everywhere the Company became adept at playing off different sections of Indian society against each other. They built up rulers (especially ones they'd defeated) and played them off each other. As one statesman, Nana Phadnavis commented, "They know best how to destroy Indian cohesion. They are adept at the art of creating insidious differences and destroying the harmony of any state".

Eventually Company rule became to embarrassing for even the British government who found successive ways of taking over control. But British rule in India in the 19th century was built on the behaviour of the EIC. The Indian Rising of 1857 was the final nail in the coffin. In fact the origins of that mass rising lay in the behaviour of the British in India since the beginnings of the EIC. The callous, ignorant and racist attitude to the Indian people and the systematic stripping of their country of wealth.

Sadly, Dalrymple's book focuses on the rise of the East India Company. As such its decline and fall is described in an all too short epilogue. But in many ways its this period of Indian history that is often neglected by people trying to understand the impact of the British Empire. Dalrymple also gives a detailed account of Mughal history - something rarely acknowledged in British history books.

Understanding precisely how a stock holding company could come to exert such massive state power in India is crucial to understanding what happens in the 19th and 20th century. As the Black Lives Matter movement has shone a light on forgotten Imperial history this is a book that helps explain how the British came to be in India and what they did to the people after they arrived. William Dalrymple's book is based on original Indian and English sources and with every sympathy for those whose lives the EIC destroyed. Brilliantly written, powerful and moving I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Dalrymple - Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan
Gopal - Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent
Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857
Davies - Late Victorian Holocausts
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried
Wagner - Amritsar 1919
Crowley - Conquerors

Friday, August 14, 2020

Mike Davis - The Monster Enters

Those of us who read Mike Davis' The Monster at Our Door in 2005 were perhaps more mentally prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic than many others. Some of us however spent the intervening years in a state of anxiety, jumping every time a news report (usually buried in the back pages of the newspapers) mentioned a "new strain" or "disease outbreak" somewhere in the world. Sadly Davis' has been proved right. While Covid-19 is not a strain of avian flu, the parallels are terrifyingly apparent to even the casual observer.

This new, updated, expanded and renamed edition of his book begins with Covid-19. Davis shows how in the aftermath of SARS, Ebola and Avian Flu many scientists and a few politicians drew important conclusions about the need for public health responses that both tried to avert disease and plan for pandemics. Unfortunately Davis also, meticulously, shows how the US government in particular undermined and destroyed the limited preparations that had been made. Rightly Davis eviscerates the Trump regime for its disastrous public health policies, but he shows how this response was rooted in earlier politics that saw public health spending as an unnecessary luxury.

In response to the threatened 2005 avian flu pandemic [Californian] Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic leaders of the legislature spent hundreds of millions of dollars to stockpile 2,400 portable ventilators, 50 million respirators and materials to assemble 21,000 additional hospital beds. They also invested in three state-of-the-art 200-bed mobile hospitals that could be up and running within 72 hours... But Schwarzenegger was succeeded by a notorious penny pincher named Jerry Brown, who in 2011 crossed out the annual allocation of $5.8 million to maintain the stockpile... the strategic supplies... were either given away or sold off.

As I write this California has over 600,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19. No doubt those supplies, even with the differences between avian flu and Covid-19, would have been useful. 

But Davis doesn't simply note the horrific mistakes made by governments like Trump's in responding to Covid-19 and failing to heed lessons of the past. He shows how a much more thorough-going solution was needed if further pandemics were to be prevented. Indeed, the central theme of the book was how the neo-liberal driven industrial agricultural model (particularly in SE Asia, but also in Africa, Europe and the Americas) was the driver of disease and pandemics.

What was needed was fundamental change:

Permanent bio-protection against new plagues... would require more than vaccines. It would need the suppression of these 'structures of disease emergence' through revolutionary reforms in agriculture and urban living that not large capitalist or state-capitalist country would ever willingly undertake... As [Rob] Wallace emphasised a few years ago, "the agroeconomic impacts of global neoliberalism are foundational, felt across biocultural organisation, down so far as the virion and molecule.

One of the reasons I've spent the intervening years between first publication of Davis' book and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in a state of anxiety is the knowledge that there has been no attempt to challenge the 'structures of disease emergence' inherent to industrial agriculture. Indeed, exactly the opposite has happened.

The problem, as Davis ably details, is that challenging these "structures" means challenging powerful corporate interests and the states that rule in their name. Behind the threat of avian flu pandemics lie the massive corporations that produce enormous quantities of chickens through the concentration of millions of birds in factory farming. The media and Trump inspired anti-Chinese feelings imply these are an Asian problem (when they bother to look at the role of industrial farming at all) but the problem of this model of farming is global, and is related to a model that puts profits before people, animals and planet. In fact Davis' analysis of the avian flu crisis shows how corporate power actually made government and medical responses worse as they shifted the blame onto small producers rather than change the massively profitable behaviour of the big factory farms. 

Writing about the enormous Bangkok based agricultural corporation Charoen Poklphand which "figures centrally in the story of H5N1's terrifying return in the winter of 2003-4" Davis writes:

CP senior executive Sarasin Viraphol assured reporters that, although the company would not allow the press to inspect its plants, avian flu was completely absent in Thailand. In fact, as the Bangkok press later reported, the government had been colluding with CP and the other giant poultry producers to conceal the epidemic by paying contract farmers with infected flocks to keep quiet; official deceit gave the big exporters several months to process and sell diseased inventory, as well as to disinfect their plants and institute isolation procedures... Small producers... were left alone to bear the brunt of the epidemic's human and economic costs.

While the situation with Covid-19 is different, its clear that similar priorities today have made the situation worse, and once again the poorest are suffering the most. In particular Davis shows how the contemporary model for drug research, through competing, profit orientated drug multinationals, makes finding a cure or vaccine harder and less likely.

While much of the book focuses on the 2000s and the threat from avian flu (Davis points out that this threat hasn't disappeared at all, only got worse) this book is still important reading. In fact those who read it, and were scared back in 2005 ought to re-read it, if only for the brilliant new opening chapter.

As in all his work, Mike Davis writes eloquently and clearly with a sympathy for ordinary people. His implicit call for us to challenge the status quo in order to prevent further pandemics is the biggest lesson we can take from this book. His clear analysis is a tool to help us understand and change a system that has already condemned millions of people to sickness and death in the interests of profit. One monster has entered the door, but further ones lie waiting outside.

Related Reviews

Davis - The Monster at Our Door (2005)
Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts
Davis - Planet of Slums
Quammen - Ebola: The Natural and Human History
Wallace - Big Farms Make Big Flu
Zinsser – Rats, Lice and History

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Iain Banks - Stonemouth

*** Spoiler Alert ***

Stewart Gilmour returns to Stonemouth, a small town in Aberdeenshire. Its almost seven years since he's been there. The last time he saw the place he was hiding in the back of a freight train fleeing the town's main gangsters. Now he has returned for the funeral of Joe Murston, an old man who he befriended there, the patriach of the Murston gangster dynasty. Gilmour isn't a gangster himself, his first mistake was to fall in love with Ellie Murston, the beautiful eldest daughter of the dynasty. His second mistake was getting caught having sex with someone who was not Ellie a few week's before Gilmour was to be wedded to Ellie and, by default, the rest of the Murston clan.

Gilmour's first act on arrival back in Stonemouth is to make a very deferential visit to the man who would have been his father in law, and one of the most violent people in the town. But visiting Stonemouth takes Gilmour back into his memories. The story flits between the present and his own recollections of growing up in a place where hard-drinking, unemployment, drugs and violence were common. Eventually Gilmour expects to meet Ellie, and perhaps give her and apology. But there are Murston's who will do everything to stop that and protect their honour, even if that's not what Ellie herself wants.

Taking place over a long weekend the book packs a lot into a short space. It's remarkably tense. Not knowing what it was that led to Gilmour heading south as fast as the railway could take it, meant that there is an air of doom over the whole first half of the book. It wasn't easy reading, not helped by the hint of violence that also hangs over the book. An enjoyable read, the problem was that Gilmour behaves utterly stupidly throughout the whole thing. To me it seems utterly ridiculous that he would go to the town, parade himself around (even with the Murston seal of approval on the whole event) and get out of his head of drugs and drink. He invites retaliation and seems surprised when it appears. 

The ending too seemed a little fantastical - a little bit too much wish fulfilment as Gilmour gets his true love back. Ellie is the most one-dimensional of the characters, though she is the one who I sympathised most with. She's the one most trapped by the gangsters that she was born among. As a entertaining story it was certainly readable. As an exploration of how we look back on our youthful mistakes and wish things different it felt too unreal, contrived and its main character particularly stupid.

This was, sadly, Iain Bank's last novel. It's stronger than many of his others, but not his best. But his talent shines through in his writing, if the plot is a little bit messy.

Related Reviews

Banks - Whit
Banks - Raw Spirit
Banks - Matter
Banks - Look to Windward
Banks - Dead Air
Banks - The Hydrogen Sonata
Banks - Surface Detail
Banks - Against A Dark Background
Banks - The Steep Approach to Garbadale
Banks - Look To Windward
Banks - The Algebraist

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Ashley Dawson - People's Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution Lenin said in a November 1920 speech that Communism would be "Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country". Lenin outlined how industrial development wasn't possible without electrification, but the primary emphasis on Soviet power arose from his view of Communism as being a society were Soviets, workers' councils based on mass participatory democracy, would control and run the means of production.

I was reminded of Lenin's quote on several occasions while reading Ashley Dawson's latest book People's Power. Dawson argues that, given the great environmental crises we face, in particular climate change, the "great task" of our time is to end the fossil fuel infrastructure at the heart of capitalist society. But, he shows, it is not enough to do this simply through a transition to renewable energy. This will be insufficient "to avert climate chaos":
Unless we dismantle and replace a capitalist system based on extreme extraction, inexorable growth, mounting inequalities, militarism and colonialism, our headlong rush toward extinction will continue. We need not just decarbonization, but global system change.
A little later he continues:
The struggle for energy transition is thus a fight for public and collective control of energy resources, and for democratic control of the state power that shapes the development of such resources. It is, in sum, a struggle for energy democracy.
No wonder I found myself reaching for that Lenin quote.

Based in the US, Dawson takes a highly critical look at the existing US energy system. It is a chaotic mix of power companies and suppliers, a highly unsuitable electrical grid and a system trapped by the logic of capitalist accumulation around fossil fuels. It is also a energy system that has been at the heart of both transformation vision and class struggle. Dawson shows how different visions of energy supply were present at the birth of the US electrical era. One were the system was organised for public good, the other for corporate greed. Dawson explains how in 1926 Gifford Pinchot argued for the transformation of the Pennsylvanian electrical grid. Pinchot said about the transition to electricity from stream power:
It behooves us not to let it break upon us unawares, not to permit generations of needless bitter conflict to follow it, but to think out the problems it will create, and to take measures in advance to avoid the long train of struggle and disturbance which followed the last great change in industrial power.
It would be easy to chastise someone like Pinchot for naivety in the face of capitalist industrial power, but his vision remains important to us, not least as around 1.1 billion people do not have access to electricity today. With the need to offer everyone in the world equitable access to energy, at the same time as making sure that we aren't tipped into runaway climate change, this remains the central question for Dawson. How can we supply energy safely, cheaply and sustainably for all? Dawson asks,

How might the coming energy transition contribute to new relations of production and exchange that are based on solidarity rather than exploitation? If past energy transition have tended to intensify the power of elites, can the current energy transition help spark a broader shift toward more egalitarian and democratic social relations?

Much of the book points out the barriers. The power and immense wealth of the energy corporations. The centrality of fossil fuel to capitalism. The way that politicians and capitalist states have used their close links to coal, oil and gas companies to prevent the introduction of renewables or energy reduction measures. Many of the these examples are from the United States, but their are parallels for all of us living in the Global North. Even "liberal" politicians like Obama have used their positions to encourage the development of new sources of fossil fuels like shale gas.

In contrast Dawson highlights the mass, collective struggles that have fought to provide energy to those that lacked it, and to move towards renewable energy over fossil fuels. I was, I'll admit, initially disappointed by Dawson's focus on German movements that have (successfully) collectively fought to setup local renewable cooperatives and the like, by-passing big national corporations. I was worried that Dawson was heading down a path of arguing that we could build sustainable spaces within the existing capitalist system. But actually Dawson's approach is more nuanced. He shows how these sort of community campaigns can make real change, transforming the national political agenda, and putting the corporations on the back foot, even though the capitalists do fight back and seek to regain their position by supply Green energy. At root, what is needed, Dawson explains is real democracy, control and management from below.
Do legal paradigms already exist to help community-based organisations... escape from the clutches of fossil capital and adopt solar power on a mass basis? What are the limits... and what juridical innovations might address these limits? These questions all relate to much broader struggles to establish new, revolutionary forms of popular sovereignty to defend and extend the commons, but they have a particular import for the fight for energy democracy. The struggle for a rapid and just energy transition is at the core of broader struggles... The question of the energy commons is therefore fundamental to the fight for a collective future.
Of course such arguments fly completely in the face of capitalist logic. Ultimately this means that winning such gains on the scale required means a challenge to the capitalist system, and in particular the state. Unfortunately I think that Dawson's argument around this is undermined by his reliance on the analysis of the state provided by the Greek-French Marxist Search Results Nicos Poulantzas. Poulantzas concluded that the analysis of the state developed by Lenin meant a "permanent scepticism about the state [which] precluded the possibility of mass intervention in existing politics". In contrast Dawson quotes James Angel arguing that the state "was not to be discounted as a 'mere instrument of capital'." Personally I think this is inadequate. After watching the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871, Marx concluded that workers cannot simply take over the machinery of the state but find new ways of organising. Engels wrote that the state was "armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds". I think this analysis fits more closely with how governments behave in supporting fossil fuel corporations. But more importantly I think this approach to the state helps answer that important question that Dawson raises. How will we make the urgent change we need? 

The answer lies in workers power - the new organs of working class democracy that revolutionary movements throw up. That's not to say we should shun any attempts to build alternatives to the fossil fuel corporations today- though as Dawson highlights we need to be honest about the limitations of these within capitalism. In fact Dawson's final chapter is a brilliant challenge to those who think we can build space within capitalism that can save the planet on its own. 
Unlike leaves... solar panels do not grow on trees: they must be manufactured, using chemicals that are often highly toxic and in conditions that do not escape the conditions of labour exploitation and degradation that characterise the era of fossil capitalism... Eventually, the question of controlling the means of production returns... and energy transition that maintains existing forms of capitalist production and infrastructure will be nothing short of devastating for the planet and vulnerable frontline communities.
Ashley Dawson's book is a devastating critique of fossil fuel capitalism. Its a call to arms for a transformative approach to energy that places collective ownership, democracy and the rights and needs of everyone at the heart of the struggle for a sustainable planet. My minor criticisms aside, this is a really excellent read.

Related Reviews

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Priyamvada Gopal - Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent

One of the consequences of the reemergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 was a renewed discussion about the nature and legacy of the British Empire. The toppling and then symbolic drowning of a statue of the slave trader Edward Coulson in Bristol became emblematic of this when anti-racist protesters quite literately pushed a critique of empire into public discourse.

Priyamvada Gopal's book is a wonderful contribution to this process and ought to be widely read among those seeking to understand the British Empire and what it meant for the modern world. Among right-wing commentators (and many of those who were upset by the destruction of Coulson's statue, there is a a belief that empire was essentially a benevolent institution that developed the infrastructure and institutions of the colonised countries, lifting them to up nearer to that of the "civilised", "democratic" European west.

Gopal's book shows how many people who saw empire through a similar lens to this latter position had their views transformed by the active resistance of people in colonised nations to the empire. So this is not a book that gives a people's history of empire. Rather its one that takes specific moments of revolt in Imperial history and shows how they transformed the political terrain in Britain. Often this led to far-reaching transformations in how people conceived of the world they lived in. The Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica in October 1865 for instance, arose not simply out of colonial brutality, but the reality of colonial rule itself, where the plantation owners, believed "the main problem affecting Jamaica was the lack of steady black plantation labour". But this
refused to acknowledge the widespread desire among freed slaves and their descendants to control their own economic destiny through farming smallholdings rather than be shackled to low-wage labour on terms laid out by the planters. What emerged, therefore, was a stark ideological clash about what freedom meant. One view, touted by the planters and endorsed by the colonial government, insisted that freedom consisted of the 'option' of selling labour to a capitalist entity for prices determined by the latter. The other refused anything resembling the contractual and compulsory extraction of labour in favour of controlling the output of a smallholding. 
Resistance and rebellion raised wider issues than simply oppressive social and political relations. They opened up debates about the very nature of society and for some of those watching from Britain, they raised questions about the type of society they wanted too. Some of these figures are fascinating in themselves. The British diplomat, writer and poet Wilfrid Blunt was in Cairo in the run up to the British suppression of the Urabi Rebellion. Blunt was close to Urabi himself and became a go-between, albeit one whose sympathies lay increasingly with the Egyptian people. Blunt's engagement with Arabic people, their culture and religion opened him up to a very different world-view, which meant that when "the occupation of Egypt inaugurated the modern phase of British high imperialism - the infamous 'scramble for Africa'" he became a key figure in a "chorus of dissent from within Britain". Blunt, alongside other British liberals "found their assumptions and ideals challenged, complicated and reshaped by witnessing anti colonial rebellion and engaging with Egyptians involved in it".

All of these examples used by Gopal bear out this process. From Morant Bay and Egypt to the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and so on, we see how the voices and actions of rebellion led to the transformation of ideas for activists in Britain. In turn this helped fuel anti-colonial movements in the heart of the empire itself.

It would be wrong (and dangerous) however to interpret this as examples of white radicals becoming aware of social reality and then becoming the sole agents of change. Indeed Gopal shows that there was often a dialectical process between the social movements in the colonies and British thinkers and activists. But she also emphasises the role of black activists, thinkers and academics in being the agents of new ways of thinking about empire and colonial rule. For example, the London Manifesto that came out of the second Pan-African Congress in 1921, led by W.E.B du Bois, raised complex questions that still resonate today. Gopal explains:
The London Manifesto made visible a fault-line that would haunt metropolitan anti-colonialism and debates on the left over the next decades. In the execution of capitalist crime, where the project of empire was inextricable from the project of capital, could it be that white labour is 'particeps criminis with white capital'? The authors and endorsers of the manifesto were not claiming that white labour was not exploited... They also refuse to claim 'perfectness of our own', assigning black people responsibility for what the text calls 'failure to advance'. Instead, it places a more challenging question on the table: how could and show white labour assess its role in the project of imperialism given the extent to which, both consciously and unconsciously... it had been 'cajoled and flattered into imperialistic schemes.
The Manifesto, Gopal says, "put forward a difficult proposition. The problem of labour versus capital would not be solved in England... as long as a parallel dynamic 'marked the relations of the whiter and darker peoples'."

Black radical thinkers and wider events such as the Russian Revolution would shape new ideas in anti-colonial thought and practice. The London based International African Service Bureau, founded by figures including George Padmore, CLR James in 1937 would take existing anti-imperialist ideas and radically develop them. Gopal explains:
Rather than just 'translating' communist categories into 'the idiom of Pan-Africanism', the task at hand was one of creating a new language that did not repudiate other vocabularies of critique, but sought to bring them in more strenuous engagement with each other. Out of this would emerge a revitalised collaborative anticolonialism. The collective work of the IASB pointed towards Africa as n the West Indies as 'co-producers' of modernity, black intellectuals not just being influenced by European thought, but producing knowledge of the world.
Reading this in 2020 as Black Lives Matter has exploded onto the streets and forced politicians and institutions globally to address questions of historical legacy, racism and Imperialism today, I was struck by how relevant these debates felt. Gopal's book is much more than a catalogue of imperial crimes, it is an insight into the way that anti-colonial rebellion has thrown up individuals and ideas that challenge existing worldviews and forces new ways of looking at society on even distant observers. Today that process continues with debates around the politics, language and practice of the anti-racist movement. But, as Gopal concludes, studying this history, "enables Britons to lay claim to a different, more challenging history, and yet one that is more suited to a heterogeneous society which can draw on multiple historical and cultural resources."

Priyamvada Gopal's Insurgent Empire is a key text for those activists trying to understand the nature of the racist capitalist society we live in, and develop strategies and ideas to transform it. I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Anderson - Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity & Non-Western Societies
Høgsbjerg - Chris Braithwaite: Mariner, Renegade & Castaway
Gott - Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire
Wagner - Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear & the Making of a Massacre
Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857