Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Alex Callinicos, Stathis Kouvelakis, Lucia Pradella (Eds) - Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism

In 2020 we saw the ecological and social contradictions of capitalism exposed. The Covid-19 pandemic, arising out of the inroads that capital was making into new environmental frontiers, came on the heels of decades of neoliberalism which have hollowed out social security nets. The anti-capitalist sense of the slogan "System Change not Climate Change" borne on countless placards during the Climate Strikes of 2019, seemed equally applicable to a system that offered little protection to thousands of working people. If ever there was a time for revolutionary ideas to take hold, this was it.

In the years preceding Covid-19's emergence onto the world stage, an explosion of interest in radical socialist ideas, centred on the left reformist projects of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, had inspired and excited revolutionaries in, and outside, those movements. Yet while both these politicians offered radical reformist visions, their projects determinedly veered away from revolutionary conclusions. Yet it is revolutionary ideas that have consistently helped understand the current crises. Marxist epidemiologist Rob Wallace has, for instance, become the go-to person to explain the interlinked ecological and capitalist crises. Leading British medical journal The Lancet has reflected these ideas in its commentary on the pandemic, borrowing Engels' phrase "social murder" to describe what has taken place.

So it is extremely welcome that the Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism should appear now. While young activists and militants are not its principle audience, there is much in it that will help develop movements trying to understand the systemic roots of racism, sexism as well as the economic, health and ecological crises. 

Edited by three leading Marxist theoreticians, the book is constructed around a series of short introductory pieces that mostly focus on an individual and their ideas, and longer framing pieces. The list of no less than 59 contributing authors is in itself impressive. While no doubt having to make difficult choices, the editors show the breadth of Marxist and Post-Marxist ideas since Marx and Engels' time. Importantly, given the explosion of interest in radical ideas around Black liberation, they have not neglected individuals and theories who have critically engaged with Marxism from the Global South.

Editor Lucia Pradella's chapter on Karl Marx concludes with a summary of the importance of Marx's great work Capital:

Marx's Capital thus provides us not only with possibly the most lucid analysis of the workings of the capitalist mode of production, but discloses the antagonism between two different social systems, the potential for a free society growing amid the misery of the present. Only by placing Capital in between these opposing systems, by using it as a tool of political organisation and social emancipation, can we grasp its "globality" both in theory and practice.

But in an important sense this summary also stands in for the Marxist revolutionary theory as a whole, and the Handbook thus serves as a guide to how Marxism has been used, understood and updated in the years since Marx's death.

One of the themes of the book is that Marxism is continually going through a process of development and renewal. Many of the chapters demonstrate how Marxists develop new ideas and concepts as a result of engagement with concrete situations: war, revolution, social movements and so on. Of course the lives and activities Marx and Engels themselves demonstrate this, but there are numerous other examples in the book. Pietro Basso's chapter on Amadeo Bordiga shows how he renews his ideas on Russia and socialist organisation post World War Two, though he is limited by lack of links with working class struggle. Tithi Bhattacharya's engaging chapter on Lise Vogel, who re-examined Marx's work to explore ideas around women's liberation after the re-emergence of the Women's Movement, is another example. Sometimes these developments are very sharp - Alex Callinicos describes "efforts to re-conceptualise Marxism itself" in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and betrayal of the social democratic parties at the start of World War One.

The process is not limited to Marxists either, but can also be seen in the work of post-Marxists, some of whom were using other ideas to engage and critique Marx from other directions - though usually coming to very different conclusions. In Arnold Farr's chapter on Herbert Marcuse, he writes:

With the help of Freud and the many social and political revolts taking place all over the world Marcuse was able to repackage the Marxian theory of revolution. The student protests of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the environmentalist movement, the hippies etc. were all examples of a revolt against repression, war, waste and oppression. These protests were proof that even in a repressive society and in a non-revolutionary time the instinctual structure of many human individuals cried out against this repression. People could still imagine a qualitatively better society. Hence, the development of revolutionary consciousness was still possible. With the critical contribution of psychoanalysis to Marcuse’s theory and the influence of contemporary struggles for freedom and a better society Marcuse was forced to rethink the nature of the working class. The Marxian and Marxist notion of the proletariat was no longer applicable.

Marcuse and others were simultaneously drawing from Marx and breaking it up. Farr continues:

Regarding the expanded working class. Marcuse argued: “The working class is still the ‘ontological’ antagonist of capital, and the potentially revolutionary Subject: but it is a vastly expanded working class, which no longer corresponds directly to the Marxian proletariat”

As mentioned the engagement with ideas emanating from the Global South is particularly useful. Part IV, "Tricontinental" looks at the revolutionaries whose ideas were developed in engagement with anti-colonial struggles and revolutions outside the richer world - rightly it begins with Lars T. Lih's chapter on Lenin, and a excellent piece by Irish Marxist Kieran Allen on James Connolly, but also engages with CLR James, Mao Zedong and Frantz Fanon. Having recently read Mike Gonzalez's illuminating book on the Peruvian revolutionary José Carlos Mariátegui, I was pleased that Gonzalez has a short chapter on this important figure here. Mariátegui's work should be read by anyone engaging with ideas around indigenous struggles, Latin American socialism and the nature of socialist society. 

As Viajy Prashad's framing chapter on Marxism outside Europe makes clear figures like Mariátegui were important not simply as activists, but as theoreticians that could make Marxism relevant to global struggles. Prashad demonstrates the dynamic development of Marxism in the Global South, making a point about Mariátegui that could be generalised to other thinkers and activists elsewhere, emphasising the importance of Marxism as a body of revolutionary ideas that needed to be used in an undogmatic way:

Marxism would have died an early death in places like the Andes if it did not take seriously the concrete conditions of the workers as well as the social aspirations of national self-determination... To improve the conditions of work and life as well as to capture the necessity of anti-colonial nationalism meant that Marxist-inspired movement had to merge the struggle of nationalism to that of socialism... It was these emancipatory demands - drawing on old messianic ideas and anarchism as well as Marxism - that would bring together the currents of anti-colonial nationalism and socialism in the colonies and semi-colonies into what we are calling Third World Marxism.

The process was not always easy, and remains incomplete in many cases. As Prashad says about India:

It took the Communist movement in India many decades to wrestle with the precise balance between the need for unity of all exploited people and for special emphasis on certain kinds of oppressions along lines of social division. The initial organizational route proposed by Indian Communism was to use the platform of class organizations openly to attack caste oppression, religious majoritarianism and feudal male chauvinism. But soon it became clear that this was insufficient.

Prashad makes an important point (one that this book is clearly designed to correct) that "one of the imitations of our understanding of Marxism is the assumption that “theory” is produced in Europe and in North America, while “practice” takes place in the Global South."

If Marxism continually renewed itself in the context of experience, there was also the role of the ideas themselves. Frédéric Monferrand's chapter on "Reading Capital in 1968" discusses the importance of Marx's key work for the 1968 generation, noting that the previous generation had found Marx's 1844 Manuscripts equally important. He makes important point though that engagement with ideas alone isn't enough, and while the 1960s and 1970s saw the publication of a mass of new material by Marx, it would "probably have come to naught if their publication did not intervene in a conjuncture that called for a profound renewal of Marxist theory and practice". 

One of the great strengths of this Handbook is that it introduces important figures to readers who may have not heard of them before. I must confess to being ignorant of the work of the Italian radical Mario Tronti, but I got a lot from Davide Gallo Lassere's chapter exploring the development of his radical ideas in the context of Italy's working class struggles. In other cases I was introduced to thinkers from outside my own political tradition. For instance I found the chapters on Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein, Daniel Bensaid, Harry Braverman and Paul Sweezy very useful. In other cases - for instance the chapter on Mao Zedong - someone from a very different revolutionary tradition to myself, I still found much of interest. Reading Kohei Saito's Karl Marx's Ecosocialism a few years ago, I was struck by how the work of Japanese Marxists had been neglected in the West. So I found his chapter (together with Ryuji Sasaki) on Kozo Uno very interesting. 

It should be noted that Sasaki and Saito's chapter is an excellent example of something that struck me as being very important about this work. While each article is written by authors who might be called "experts" on their subject, they are not hagiographies. Sasaki and Saito are very critical on their subject. Noel Castree's piece on David Harvey similarly engages fraternally with Harvey's work without failing to note (in a constructive way) the differences the author has. That said no Marxist reading this varied work would not find they had disagreements of emphasis or conclusion. I also suspect that most Marxists will also find figures that have been omitted that they feel should have been included. I was surprised that neither Tony Cliff nor Ernest Mandel had chapters given their importance in keeping the flame of revolutionary Marxism alive in the post-war years. I also felt more could have been made of Marx's importance to subjects - eg archaeology, anthropology and so on.

Having said that Camilla Royle's chapter on Marxism and Ecology shows how Marx's ideas have been central to an anti-capitalist understanding of ecological crises. As Royle shows, writers like Wallace, John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett and many others, have been able to use key ideas like the Metabolic Rift, to show the importance of Marxism to what may well be the defining feature of the 21st century.

But given the scale and length of this work, my criticisms are relatively minor. Readers will likely balk at the high price of the book, but this is a sad consequence of the academic publishing system - it will need to be ordered in to your library. But it is worth embarking on this because the most important thing about this book is that it places Marxist and post-Marxist ideas to a readers in a critical framework in order to facilitate the further development of those ideas. Most readers will find a great deal of value and, in many cases they'll discover that there is a great deal of relevance to contemporary struggles.

A few months into 2021 and we are already seeing global struggles and events that illuminate the limitations of capitalism and the importance of Marxism for understanding and fighting it. As editor Alex Callinicos concludes in his chapter on political economy:

The future of the Marxist critique of political economy is likely to depend on how successfully it captures not just the macro-patterns of crisis but also the complex transformations in production and trade that contemporary capitalism is currently undergoing. The search to elaborate and deepen Marx's extraordinary synthesis continues.

Related Reviews 

Callinicos - Imperialism and Global Political Economy
Callinicos - Making History: Agency, Structure and Change in Social Theory
Marx - Grundrisse
Marx - Capital I
Patterson - Karl Marx, Anthropologist
Foster - Marx's Ecology

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Terence Wise - To Catch a Whale

Terence Wise is best known today as the author of multiple books on military history. But in his younger years, after being demobbed in the 1950s, he travelled on the final three voyages of the factory whaling ship Balaena from 1957 to 1960. Wise had no connection with the sea, but a sense of adventure and a love of the outdoors, and his account tells the story of his learning to ropes to being a full blown whaling veteran at the end of his first voyage.

The Balaena was an enormous ship. Purpose built as the main processing vessel for a small fleet of hunting boats, it had a crew of almost 500 men. Most of these were essentially workers at sea. Men like Wise were almost exclusively employed to prepare the ship for the arrival of whales and process the whales themselves. Wise's main job was driving a crane, though he was also directly involved in cutting up and processing aspects of the whales and gives a detailed account of conditions and the work involved.

While this is a fascinating memoir of working life on a factory ship, I found it unpleasant in several places. Wise is acutely aware of problems with the whaling industry. While he didn't know it at the time, the British industry was coming to an end and he was on the final voyages of the Balanea. But from listening to older hands, it is clear that the number of whales has collapsed from a few years previously. In fact he describes an extended period in the middle of the voyage when no whales are found and how this plays with the minds of the crew on board. 

But Wise's awareness of whaling and his interest and curiosity about the whales themselves cannot hide the violence of the industry itself. The ship and its crew are coated in blood and oil, Wise vividly describes the stench and the vast number of whales being processed (when they are found). It reads like the massacre it is. Wise also comments on the criticisms of the industry - despite legal restrictions young and pregnant whales are taken, and there is clearly plenty of general destruction. The tenders bringing back whales to be processed actually use whale carcasses as giant fenders to protect the ships. There is also the pollution - rubbish and unneeded equipment, clothing, paint etc is simply dumped into the ocean.

So Wise's book should be chiefly read as an account of a (thankfully) forgotten industry. The mass industrial slaughter of whales ought to be consigned to the history books (and generally has - the much very different hunting of whales in places like the Faroes should not be confused with the industrial slaughter that Wise was involved in). As such, Wise's account is of most interest for its description of life as a whaler/worker on factory vessels. Much of it is a description of tedium, drinking, fighting and discussions about sex. The working conditions are dangerous and deplorable, and Wise at least notes that back on shore the trade unions wouldn't stand for it. Though he seems to think somehow the crew are above complaining.

Most of the men long for shore visits, and in Cape Town and the Caribbean they behave deplorably as they drunkenly cause chaos around the town. Wise at least distinguishes himself by trying to see some of the sites. But actually there are several unpleasant accounts here - Wise receives a Dear John letter on his return journey, though he doesn't seem to see the contradiction in criticising the adulterous affairs of sailors wives and his own visits to brothels. On one occasion he has sex with a 17 year old prostitute. The behaviour of the other crew is also sometimes unpleasant - there is at least one occasion when a group of men (not Wise) sexually assault and abuse a woman. Wise at least is appalled by this himself. 

So this is an un-sanitised account of the reality of the whaling industry as it entered its declining years. Sixty years later it reads best as an honest historical account. At times humorous and fascinating, at others deeply unpleasant.

Related Reviews

Richards - The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals
Kolbert - The Sixth Extinction
Philbrick - In the Heart of the Sea

Friday, March 19, 2021

Jonathan Sumption - Trial by Fire: The Hundred Years War II

There is a famous quote from Hegel from 1806 when he saw the Napoleon Bonaparte after his capture of Jena. "I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it."

I was put in mind of this while reading of the capture of the French King John II by the English after the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. At that point, the whole French administration fell apart. All the preceding tensions, caused by war, economic crisis and internal feudal rivalry, broke through. Before that, the king, through his very person was able to hold the French state together. With his capture and removal to England - despite his ability to communicate with his court and subjects, France was thrown into a unrivalled chaos.

Poitiers, or rather its aftermath, form a central part of volume II of Jonathan Sumption's epic history of the English-French Hundred Years War. It's in this moment that the French crisis is finally illuminated. But the roots go back many years to the initial English successes detailed in book one. The book begins with English forces, or rather bands and forces that identify with England, marauding the French countryside. The brutality was fighting and whole areas were stripped bare of food and people. When the small walled market town of Uzerche was captured, one account described the "murderers and robbers calling themselves English" who scaled the walls, killed the guards and opened the gates. Sumption continues:

One a Monday night they burnt down the buildings around the public square and plundered the richer houses. On the Tuesday they attacked the monastery, where many of the inhabitants had taken refuge, but failed to capture it. On the Wednesday they burned the whole quarter of the town by the river bridge and then withdrew leaving the streets strewn with corpses including thirty-two of their own number.

Sumption describes this as a "characteristic incident". Those that think the Hundred Years War was defined by military expeditions and battles like Poitiers, Crécy or Agincourt, ought to reflect that much of the war was conducted in the most brutal of fashions (Sumption repeatedly uses the word terrorist) by armed groups who fought under their own banners with "conveniently loose allegiance to Edward III". That said, terror tactics were not just down to the armed bands. The Black Prince's 1355-1356 campaign destroyed 500 villages, a dozen walled towns and made "serious" damage to the economy of south-west France. The Prince was "highly satisfied" by this.

While the detailed accounts of swirling allegiances and brutal fighting is hard to take in for the reader, I was struck by Sumption's sense of narrative in this, and the first volume. So Sumption details the different evolution of the English and French military, showing how the "privatisation" of the military in England gave them an organisational and disciplinary edge over the "innate conservatism" of the French forces. 

In France, years of economic mismanagement, military failure and inept leadership had left the country on the verge of collapse. Sumption details the growing discontent - both in sections of the ruling class, but most importantly at the base of French society, which led to "revolution" in Paris and the mass peasant explosion that is known as the Jacquerie. Sadly these accounts are marred by Sumption's desire to paint them as "mass fanaticism" which was similar to the "atmosphere of 1792 and 1870". Given the utter failure of the French state to protect the mass of ordinary people - its no surprise that thousands of the lower orders decided that things needed to change. 

The book ends seemingly with England in the ascendancy. The temporary peace deal had granted huge areas of France to England, yet it was built on sand. A proxy war in Spain had undermined the English military position and the economic situation was uneasy. Having returned to France from captivity, John II went back to England having failed to deliver all his ransom. His death there and the crowning of Charles V as France's new king marked a new period in the War and France's ascendancy. For the first time in years feudal rule is able to come back together under one person.

The length of these works might put many readers off. Those who persist will find them rewarding both in detail but also analysis. Jonathan Sumption is able to offer an overarching narrative that places better known events and battles into wider context. I look forward to volume III.

Related Reviews

Sumption - Trial by Battle: The Hundred Years War I
Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History
Barker - Conquest
Barker - Agincourt

Monday, March 15, 2021

Iain M. Banks - Consider Phlebas

Re-reading Consider Phlebas many years after I was first enthralled by it, I was immediately reminded how great the scope of Iain M. Banks' science fiction was. As the first Culture novel, Banks introduces not one, but two galaxy spanning civilizations and places them at war with each other. We learn the intricacies of the Culture by seeing them through the eyes of outsides - indeed hated enemies.

The book follows a crew of characters led by a changer Bora Horza Gobuchul who is an enemy of the Culture, but a temporary ally of their enemies the Idirans. Bora change adjust his body to mimic others and uses this in his role doing underhand jobs as part of the war. The book follows his adventures trying to capture one of the Culture's AIs that has been trapped inside a planet that was caved out by an ancient civilisation. Bora (and his crew) form a microcosm of the larger galactic conflict, an adventure that illuminates the wider galaxy. It's a tremendously satisfying space opera - there's plenty of massive scale action, including a brilliant set-piece as an enormous orbital habitat is destroyed by the Culture to prevent the Idirans capturing it. It symbolises the resources that the society has - and are prepared to sacrifice in order to win the war. But the scale allows Banks to play with all sorts of ideas - a race against time to loot some equipment and a fantastic card game played as the habitat rapidly approaches the end.

While re-reading Consider Phlebas it is hard to remember how I felt the first time I read it. Who are the Culture? Who are the good guys and the bad guys? What are these Minds? Some of these questions are also asked by characters in the novel itself. But they also go to the heart of what the Culture is, and themes that Banks would return to time and again in his later novels. I used to consider Bank's book Player of Games the best introduction to the universe he constructed, but on re-reading Consider Phlebas I am not so sure. It is less overtly political than Player but as the base for the rest of the superstructure it works extremely well. More importantly it's a cracking space opera that still feels fresh over thirty years since it was first published.

Related Reviews

Banks - Matter
Banks - Against A Dark Background
Banks - The Hydrogen Sonata
Banks - Surface Detail
Banks - The Algebraist


Saturday, March 13, 2021

Éric Vuillard - The War of the Poor

Almost five hundred years ago in 1525 in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, the German Peasant began - a movement of the poor, downtrodden, oppressed and exploited masses which terrified kings, bishops and popes. At the heart of this movement was the iconic figure of Thomas Müntzer. His radical interpretations of the bible, and his desire to teach the masses to understand the bible for themselves meant that he broke both of the established Catholic Church and from the less radical ideas of Martin Luther.

In Éric Vuillard's short, but powerful, autobiographical account Müntzer explodes onto the historical scene. His evangelical preaching is for "the whole world" not a privileged few. He doesn't translate the bible into the vernacular he teaches it to those who cannot read. "Is he insane?" ask his critics? Vuillard says "Müntzer is a voice. He cries out that, princes or servants, rich or poor, God moulded us from the same gutter mud, whittled us from the same sandalwood."

It's a voice of radicalism that speaks to us across the ages:

Behold I have put my words in your mouth; I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, and to destroy and to thrown down to build, and to plant... Try as they may to fight against you, a wonderful victory is prepared for the downfall of the strong and godless tyrants."

In words that send a chill down the spine Müntzer urges: "Dear brethren, stop your delaying and hesitating! The time has come, the summer is knocking at our doors".

Rebellion in language the peasants could understand. The summer is oft dreamed of, especially in the dark of winter. And so they came. Like they did in the Summer of 1381, when John Ball, Jack Straw and Wat Tyler nearly brought down the "flower" of English chivalry. Its a story told briefly by Vuillard to frame 1525 - to show that Müntzer and Ball's messages were not isolated ideologies, but living breathing hopes of thousands. 

In Germany in 1525 peasant armies marched, laid siege, burnt manor houses and castles, and were massacred by the princes' heavy cavalry. Müntzer is taken to the block, but against those who tell of his cowardice at the end, Vuillard rails that those "legends come along to bow the heads of renegades" to "to make the tormenting voice sound within us, the voice of order." For Vuillard this was a life to be emulated, to be celebrated, not for Müntzer's martyrdom, but for his message of revolution.

It's a fine message, in a fine short book. 

"Summer is knocking at our doors."

Related Reviews

Vuillard - The Order of the Day
Engels - The Peasant War in Germany
Cohn - The Pursuit of the Millennium
Hilton - Bond Men Made Free

Saturday, March 06, 2021

David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan & UCS - Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster

The imminent 10th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster combined with growing advocacy for nuclear power led me to this interesting study of the accident that took place in March 2011. Ten years ago, a major earthquake off the coast of Japan and a resultant tidal wave caused extensive damage to the coast. Almost 16,000 lives were lost. But that destruction was overshadowed by the crisis at Fukushima when the nuclear plant and its four reactors suffered a major malfunction.

This book tells the detailed story of what took happened as flooding damaged critical parts of the plant, destroyed infrastructure, cut power and damaged the physical fabric of the reactors. Various reviews quoted on the book describe this in the style of a thriller promising the reader a "blow-by-blow account" of the disaster. While there is plenty of moment by moment coverage, the book is actually a compelling history as well as a detailed explanation of events. It places the disaster in the context of decades of Japanese and US nuclear policy and analyses the what it meant for nuclear power going forward.

But the main part of the book is the disaster itself and what led to it happening. The trigger for this was of course, the tsunami, but the reason that the disaster unfolded as it did - threatening the health of millions of people and causing significant pollution (as well as social and economic disruption), wasthe decisions that were made long before by TEPCO, the plant's owners. As the disaster unfolded, cost-saving decisions made years before about equipment, training and expertise took their toll. For instance despite the presence of fire-engines that could be used to pump water onto the reactors to cool them, "no plant work knew how to operate the fire engines". Readers will find themselves exasperated as repeated examples reoccur. Referring to the US experience, but in a point that could be applied to Japan, the authors point out that "when the question  was 'safety' versus 'economics' it seemed that economics often won." The lack of power on the site meant that cooling and pumping, as well as simple checking of instruments was impossible. At one point over the PA system managers at the wrecked nuclear plant asked workers to lend them money to "buy some batteries" as they had used all the ones in cars and trucks at the site.

But these technical issues compounded a bigger problem. The nuclear industry in Japan had systematically downplayed the potential for disaster and argued that the complex combination of factors that happened at Fukushima - earthquake, tsunami and total power failure for many hours - would not happen. In particular they ignored, or downplayed, scientists who argued that the earthquake risk was significantly higher. TEPCO itself had a "well-known history of covering up safety problems". In the aftermath section of the Japanese government also deliberately "withheld information" and downplayed dangers from the public. 

The authors make clear that the combination of events at Fukushima were rare. But they were neither unpredictable nor unexpected. And those that argue "it couldn't happen here" in relation to nuclear plants elsewhere are guilty of obfuscation. Dozens of US nuclear plants are downrange from huge dams, and while tsunamis might not happen a broken dam could lead to significant damage and potential nuclear disaster. Discussing both Fukushima and Three Mile Island the authors conclude that both "followed from one common and dangerous belief: that an accident like TMI or Fukushima Daiichi, just could not happen".

As climate change leads to worsening and more intense extreme weather, the potential threats to nuclear plants multiple. But so do the risks associated with a technology that has exponential dangers when compared to other forms of energy danger. In particular when running the nuclear industry for profit, particularly given "cozy", historic, links between "regulators and industry". 

The best bits of this book are those that deal with the disaster and the historic context which shaped what happened in the aftermath of the earthquake. The other chapters which explore the reaction from the nuclear industry highlight real problems, but are not as accessible. In particular their focus on the United States' nuclear industry and regulatory bodies means that readers elsewhere might find themselves a little bored. On the other hand the importance of the US situation in shaping policy elsewhere cannot be ignored. It should be noted though that this book is not an anti-nuclear power book - the authors may hold that position, but the book is not intended as a comprehensive dismissal of the nuclear argument. There is little here about the problem of nuclear waste for instance. Instead the book focuses primarily on the question of safety via the lessons of Fukushima. However, these conclusions are damning.

Opponents and sceptics of nuclear power like myself will likely have already made their own minds up. But the authors' argue two things. Firstly that current policy and practice in the nuclear industry is unsafe, particularly because it is based on insufficient and simplistic models of what plants need to withstand. Secondly they argue that there needs to be proper public scrutiny of the nuclear industry and the public need to be well informed on the subject. As the book shows as each nuclear disaster disappears into the mists of time, its lessons and the fears they engendered shrink, allowing the industry to recover and backtrack. This book is a readable account of what happened in Japan, and an excellent introduction to the dangers of nuclear power as well as the limitations of current government and corporate policy. It ought to be read to keep the memories and experiences alive for a new generation of the public engaged in debates around energy policy.

Related Reviews

Walker - Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective
Caldicott - Nuclear Power is not the Answer
Commoner - The Poverty of Power: Energy & the economic crisis

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Bill Gates - How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need

When I first learnt that Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire founder of Microsoft, had written a book on solving climate change, my instinct was to ignore it. I saw various puff pieces in the liberal media and was sceptical that I would learn much from it. But I decided to read it for two reasons. Firstly it isn't enough to criticise Gates, as many have, simply because his wealthy lifestyle contributes massively to environmental degradation - he himself knows that. Instead I wondered if the book would give us insights into how the capitalist ruling class thinks about climate change.

On this front the book is enormously revealing. That's not to say that I think activists need to go out and spend their hard earned cash on it - there are much more useful books for radicals to read that engage with capitalism's climate disaster. 

The first thing readers will notice is that Gates is obsessed with technical solutions to social issues. While Gates implies this is because he is from a technical background, its worth noting that this obsession is shared by most of the rich and powerful who are thinking about these things. British PM Boris Johnson's call to host the G7 Summit in the UK in June 2021, for instance, highlights the perceived importance of technology for "building back better" after Covid-19. But Gates raises this to a new level, by almost rejecting approaches to climate change that don't start from technological innovation: "I think more like an engineer than a political scientist, and I don't have a solution to the politics of climate change". For Gates "getting to zero" emissions requires channelling "the world's passion and its scientific IQ into deploying the clean energy solutions we have now, and inventing new ones, so we stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere."

The problem is that what Gates is really doing here is highlighting specific technologies with quite specific political and economic consequences. Climate change is, he argues, "a huge economic opportunity" and "the countries that build great zero-carbon companies and industries will be the ones that lead the global economy in the coming decades". His is a vision that is about strengthening neo-liberal capitalism and making people like Gates even richer. In fact most readers will be repeatedly annoyed by Gates' name-dropping of companies that he owns, or has invested in, that are involved in researching tech that he highlights as being part of the solution to climate change. 

At least Gates doesn't lack some self-awareness: 

I am aware that I'm an imperfect messenger on climate change. The world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people shod, or who think technology can fix any problem. I own big houses and fly in private planes - in fact, I took one to Paris for the climate conference - so who am I to lecture anyone on the environment? I plead guilty to all three charges.

As a result of this self-awareness he is buying "sustainable" jet fuel and "will fully offset [his] families aviation emissions in 2021". Cynics might note that he makes no promises beyond 2021 and carbon offsetting has been demonstrably shown not to work.

There is a secondary problem with this approach. He repeatedly argues that technological development leads to the enrichment of everyone. For instance he uses a photo of some farmers using a cattle drawn plough. The caption to the photo is illuminating. It reads:

Many farmers still have to use ancient techniques, which is one of the reasons they're trapped in poverty. They serve modern equipment and approaches, but right now using those tools means producing more greenhouse gases.

Gates is right that modern technology will likely create more pollution. But the introduction of technology like tractors is predicated on the transformation of farming practices - a switch to monoculture farming, the high use of pesticides and fertilisers and so on. In fact the Gates Foundation has often encouraged the use of these by farmers in the Global South. But lifting farmers out of poverty is rarely about technology. First and foremost its about the price of their crops. Which is one reason that Indian farmers are revolting at the moment. Access to markets, cheap seeds, protected prices and rents are much more important. Technology primarily benefits the companies selling the tractors, chemicals, petrol and seeds. It also leads to unemployment, underemployment and the decimation of rural communities.

Gates returns to similar themes through the book. He comments that when he and Melinda Gates began looking at global health "experts could tell us how many children died around the world every year but they couldn't tell us much about what caused those deaths. We knew that a certain number of kids died of diarrhoea, but we didn't know what caused the diarrhoea in the first place. How could we know which innovations might save lives if we didn't know why children were dying?" 

It's an odd statement and I wondered which experts he was talking to because the World Health Organisation has this to say: "The world's biggest killer and the greatest cause of ill-health and suffering across the globe is listed almost at the end of the International Classification of Diseases. It is given the code Z59.5 - extreme poverty." What gives children diarrhoea is dirty water, lack of healthcare, malnutrition and lack of public services. Approaching this as a technological problem is simply wrong.

Capitalism is based on the accumulation of wealth. While all human economic activity requires the use of natural resources under capitalist production there is no limit to that usage and because production is based on competition, there is now rationality to what is produced and when. Instead companies try to maximise profits and that leads to environmental damage, over-production and pollution (as well as the corresponding degradation of human lives). Capitalism, Karl Marx wrote "only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker".

While some thinkers might hope to find ways to mitigate this destruction - through government legislation etc, Gates mostly sees government economic intervention as being about encouraging corporate innovation to make more profits and develop the technologies that he argues will save the world. But can this happen? There is little sense in the book of the barriers to action on climate change. The chapter entitled "This will be Hard" has nothing in it about the way that fossil fuel corporations have held back action on climate change through various nefarious behaviour.

For Gates the problem is simply costs: "In the past, we've moved from one source to another because the new one was cheaper and more powerful". The problem with the fossil fuel industry, says Gates, is not that it wants to continue to use fossil fuels because it can make staggering profits, but that it is "big and complex" and big and complex things "resist change". Thus there is "inertia" in the system and that needs to be changed through technological innovation to make zero carbon alternatives more economical viable (read profitable) for the energy companies. 

Gates doesn't believe that Governments can lead this change. He writes that "its not realistic to think we'll simply rip out all our gas furnaces and water heaters and replace them with electric ones overnight". Except we could. Governments could legislate to force power companies to replace all furnaces and heaters with zero carbon alternatives, at a fixed price. In fact there could be a systematic government driven plan, street by street, area by area to do this.

There is precedent for it, and Gates almost mentions it in his book when discussing the London smog of the mid-20th century. These he notes, were so bad that they forced the British government to pass legislation - the Clean Air Act. But this 1956 Act gave local authorities the power to both force house owners to remove dirty fireplaces and cover most of the costs of the work. Its not impossible to imagine governments doing this today, unless you believe that this is not the role of government. 

Government

Gates says that "we need the government to play a huge role in creating the right incentives and making sure the overall system will work for everyone." In other words governments must help private business not challenge them. Instead government "policies should be shaped by the technologies we develop". Not regulate, check or protect citizens. One notable exception is that Gates thinks governments should cover "Just Transition" - the switching of workers to new jobs when old carbon intensive industries are phased out. Oddly he doesn't seem to think that corporations who have made billions should have any responsibility to their workers.

Take nuclear power. Gates says nuclear power is "carbon free" but he ignores the impact of the mining of uranium, the storage of waste the transport of material etc. For Gates the nuclear power industry shows what happens when policies don't keep up with technological innovation:

A handful of companies, including TerraPower, are working on advanced reactors that solve the problems of the 50-year-old design used by reactors you see today: Their designs are safer and cheaper and produce much less waste". [Spoiler: Bill Gates owns TerraPower]

Unfortunately, says Gates, most countries aren't allowing these to be developed. But its understandable that many governments have tight restrictions on nuclear power. The disaster at Fukushima demonstrated what happens when nuclear power companies cut corners to maximise profits. Its a good thing that nuclear power companies find it hard to test new technologies because of environmental and health and safety legislation. In fact, Gates' own treatment of nuclear power is worryingly simplistic.

Nuclear power kills far, far fewer people than cars do. For that matter, it kills far fewer people than any fossil fuel... we should improve it, just as we did with cars, by analysing the problems one by one and setting out to solve them with innovation. 

But Gates' is guilty of some slight of hand here. He starts by mentioning some associated problems of nuclear power, "human error can cause accidents. Uranium... can be converted for use in weapons... The waste is dangerous and hard to store". But then reduces these problems simply to the number of deaths from nuclear power. He doesn't address the other issues and only considers the number of deaths caused by accidents. He has no solution to the question of waste and the enormous amount of energy needed to move and store it safely and no answer to the myriad of other issues thrown up by this form of energy. He treats it simply as a technological issue akin to the introduction of seat belts in cars (a measure that car companies resisted). There's no sense of the possibility for horrific death and destruction when nuclear power goes wrong.

Given Gates' obsession with technology, there are some surprising blind spots. In his discussion of transport he celebrates the developments that have made electric cars viable, and then spends several pages explaining why the same batteries will never work for long distance truck haulage. Gates concludes, "because we can't electrify our cargo trucks, the only solutions available today are electrofuels and advanced biofuels". 

How on Earth did Gates forget that there is a technology that can already move heavy loads long distances using clean energy? Trains! Could this omission be related to Gates' ownership of Breakthrough Energy, a company that invests in start-ups that are developing new battery technology and biofuels?

Readers by now will have realised that I don't like this book. The solutions that are offered in it are cynical and manipulative. Its prominence in the liberal media will mean that many well-meaning people read it, and might think that Gates has outlined a viable strategy for saving the world. What he has actually done is to map out a way that corporate capitalism can continue doing exactly what it has always done. His solutions will make a small number of people very rich - or in the case of Bill Gates, even richer. But they won't deal with the systematic destruction of the environment that is inherent to capitalist society. I want to be clear on this point. They won't even slow it. 

What is remarkable, in many ways, is that Gates has written a book about the environmental crisis that doesn't even get to the heart of what that crisis is. There's nothing in here about the Sixth Extinction, little on the consequences of sea level rises or how society should deal with millions of climate refugees. No sense at all of the way that colonialism and imperialism have driven the processes that contribute to environmental degradation, or underdeveloped the Global South leaving millions in poverty. Its a myopic book that focuses on climate change because what Gates is really interested in is how capital can continue to make money without being scrutinised.

In the first volume of Capital, Marx wrote that the capitalist was "capital personified" and continued "capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour... vampire-like, [Capital] only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks." Capitalism can only exist through constant destruction. Gates' offers us more of the same.

Bill Gates' book personifies the interests of capital, and thus its only real use to the reader is to expose the system as a whole. The alternative, which becomes more urgent every day, is to fight for an end to capitalism. Luckily there are plenty of better books out there that can help us do that, and consign Gates and his like to the dustbin of history.

Related Reviews

Malm - Fossil Capital
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the crisis of the Earth System
Klein - This Changes Everything
Klein - On Fire
Angus & Butler - Too Many People? Population, Immigration & the Environmental Crisis