Friday, April 30, 2021

Steve Melia - Roads, Runways & Resistance: From the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion

Steve Melia is that marvellous combination of an academic who gets their hands dirty as an activist in their specialist arena. As a lecturer in transport and planning he is also involved in the environmental movement and, most recently, has been one of those arrested during Extinction Rebellion's protests.

Roads, Runways and Resistance is an interesting book. I was was looking forward to it because I wanted to know more about some of the struggles that took place in the UK around the road-expansion program in the 1990s. This followed Margaret Thatcher's government's announcement of the "biggest road-building... since the Romans". Readers may recall the tunnels built to stop Newbury Bypass and tabloid obsession with environmentalists like Swampy who used them to stop, or slow, building work. These direct action camps, and later ones against airport expansion in places like Heathrow and Manchester, have a mythical place in the history of the British environmental movement. So I was keen to see what Melia made of them. 

Melia doesn't limit his book to the protesters. In fact the protests he covered aren't those that are just from the, loosely speaking, environmental left. Rather he looks at "resistance" to government transport policy and this includes those, like those who protested fuel tax in the early 2000s and congestion charges slightly later, that might more easily be described as coming from a loosely centre-right, small business, middle class, position. In between these stories Melia tells the weaving story of government transport policy as changed under the impact of protests, public opinion and growing awareness of the environment.

The book is based on numerous interviews. Many of these are with protesters, some with politicians (local and national) and others affected including residents, security guards and planners. It makes for an entertaining, if slightly eclectic book. I particularly enjoyed the accounts of the camps - not least for the brilliant way that they ran rings around the police, security and building companies. Melia touches on less savoury aspects too - the violence of security guards and police infiltration.

What Melia tries to do though is analyse how successful these movements where. Here he is perhaps more controversial that many in the environmental movement might like. His conclusion is actually surprisingly negative:

Public opinion was crucial to the growth and successes of the protest movements in this book. Several of them tried to achieve their goals more directly but none of them succeeded. Obstructive direct action did not stop the building of any roads or the expansion of any airports once construction had begun. It is unlikely to stop the construction of HS2. An upswell of public concern about climate change propelled XR's growth but the disruption caused by XR has not compelled the government to negotiate, although some members still hope that it will. The fuel tax protestors come closest to achieving that aim but their short-lived action achieved only modest gains at the time and their movement rapidly disintegrated.

Melia highlights however that all the movements transformed public opinion, though this is much harder when major political forces or financial resources are "at stake". But he says his book shows that "protesters can make progress, even against those most difficult issues, although counter-pressures are likely to return once the movements recede."

The parts of the book on transport policy explore what Melia calls the "wider tension between the growth of human activities and resistance to their most damaging impacts". Melia argues that we are in a dangerous place environmentally and as such "we have run out of time for ideal solutions". Thus he proposes a series of transport policies that can reduce emissions rapidly, but will be acceptable to public opinion. Unfortunately he explains:

Although the small world of transport planning has woken up to the climate emergency, the big decisions at national level are still moving us in the wrong direction. Road-building and airport expansion remain key battlegrounds where the fight against climate change and destruction of nature will be won or lost.

I think Melia is right to highlight the urgency, and the key battles over transport. But I was troubled by the slightly contradictory message of the book. Melia argues that public opinion is key, and that can be shaped by protest movements. But he is wary of movements (such as XR) taking more radical positions that might lead to what he calls "national political cleavage". These positions might be to take an "anti-capitalist" position. The argument goes that this will alienate people on the right and reduce the impact of movements. It should be said here that Melia is not a fan of capitalism, and on XR's internal debate about a "fourth demand" that highlights issues of racism etc, he is clear that this should be incorporated.

But I think there is a danger in the strategy of focusing on public opinion. This is inherent to XR's politics - the belief that if we win over a certain amount of the population then change is almost inevitable. But the lessons I took from the struggles described by Melia was different. I learnt that the most successful movements were ones that combined radicalism with unity between different forces. The larger the movement, the more united, and the more prepared it was to use a multitude of tactics, then the more successful it was. But crucially what was needed was economic and political muscle, and the force that has this within capitalism - the working class - was entirely absent from almost all of the movements Melia describes. Protest isn't enough - we need to put sand in the gears of the system - and that can be done, most effectively by the workers. Oddly enough the best example of this - the blockades of refineries by lorry drivers - actually demonstrates the power that the workers in those places have to stop the system dead.

So I thought there was something missing in the book. This was the way that protests can inspire - and shape - the sort of movement that can make "ideal" solutions real. This is why socialists in XR and the climate strikes has argued for reaching out to the trade union movement, not as another "group" but as one that has social weight. There should also be blame. The absence of the unions and workers organisations from the protests in Melia's book is not the fault of environmentalists. Its that of union leaders who have avoided participation - despite the frequent interest of rank and file members.

These political points aside, I did enjoy Steve Melia's book - the history is interesting and at times inspiring. There are many lessons to be learnt here and I think environmentalists and socialists will find much of interest. His history of British transport policy is unrivalled. The key question though is "What is to be Done" and I didn't think the book's conclusions were adequate.

Related Reviews

Chenoweth & Stephan - Why Civil Resistance Works
Extinction Rebellion - This is not a Drill
Klein - This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Malm - Fossil Capital

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Helen Carr - The Red Prince: John of Gaunt

During the Peasants Revolt of 1381 the masses who marched on London targeted a number of buildings and individuals whom they identified with their exploitation. Particularly greedy or oppressive landlords had their homes and businesses destroyed. In London, law offices near Lincoln's Inn were attacked, and individuals like the Chancellor "Hob the Robber" were hunted down and killed. Anyone associated with the poll tax, or other assaults on the poor, was in fear for their life. But the biggest act of destruction during those days of class war was the burning of the Savoy Palace near the Strand. 

Why did the rebels target the Savoy? Was it simply because of its opulence? While the Palace was indeed magnificent and filled with treasures, it was targeted because it was the principle residence of one of the richest men in England, John of Gaunt - the Duke of Lancaster. It is notable that contemporary accounts of the destruction show that the protesters punished looters. This was not a free for all riot, but a systematic attack on the wealth of an individual who was hated by the masses.

Today Gaunt is a neglected figure. But in 1381 John of Gaunt was a well known, and highly infamous figure. The rebels associated him with the introduction of the Poll Tax, but he was also hated by Londoners for his attacks on Church figures and his contradictory role at court. Gaunt was wealthy beyond imagination, and the heart of the network of power that extended from the royal household. A son of Edward III, and key figure in government during Richard II's minority, Gaunt was also a military leader in the Hundred Years War and even a claimant to the throne of Castile. The rebels targeted the Savoy out of hatred for Gaunt, but also because he symbolised more than almost anyone else what was seen as the corruption at the heart of English society.

The fact that Gaunt played such a crucial role in the second half of the 14th century, yet remains relatively unknown, means that we should be very pleased that Helen Carr has written this new biography. She tells us that only two previous biographies exist, one of which dates back to 1904. This handsomely produced and very readable book certainly fills a gap.

It is a feature of medieval peasant revolts that rather than blame the monarch for social problems, they thought that he was surrounded by corrupt and greedy ministers and advisors. This was certainly the case for John of Gaunt who was popularly believed to be keen to depose Richard and place himself on the throne. Whether this was true or not, and Carr's account convincingly argues that Gaunt did not want the kingship, the lower orders hated him. Luckily for Gaunt he was out of London in the North during the revolt.

Gaunt regularly travelled north to manage his estates, but also to lead peace negotiations with the Scots. Despite Gaunt's position in different factions at court, he was regularly entrusted with these and other diplomatic negotiations. Carr skilfully describes the various roles that Gaunt plays through his life - statesman, military commander, castle builder and so on. But she excels in unpicking the complex factional disputes that led to Richard II's eventual downfall and the usurpation of his role by Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt's son. Gaunt himself seems to have been loyal to the throne, yet Richard's increasingly tyrannical rule eventually led to the Lords Appellant challenging him. Eventually Richard's renewed strength led him to exile Gaunt's son Henry and on Gaunt's death confiscate his land and wealth. The scene was set for Henry's return and a rebellion that overthrew Richard.

Carr's detailed account tells this complex story well and newcomers to the period will not find themselves lost. Gaunt's life is told as part of a longer story, rather than a self-contained whole. This is, to be fair, certainly how Gaunt would have seen himself - part of a longer historical story within which he, like the Lancaster line in general, had a key role in maintaining the status quo. 

That said, Gaunt's life is one that certainly does deserve an accessible biography. Despite the historical distance and relative scarcity of historical resources Carr draws out both the personal and political aspects to Gaunt's life. I found myself quite moved by the accounts of Gaunt's two marriages and his long, adulterous, love affair with Katherine Swynford during his second marriage to Constance of Castile. His break with Swynford and their reunion after the death of his second wife  tells us a great deal about Gaunt, as well as love and marriage (romance rarely being associated with elite wedding's in Gaunt's time) in the period.

Regular readers of this book blog will know that I tend to prefer "history from below". But in our enthusiasm for history that is more than that of "kings and queens" we cannot neglect the role of individuals at the top and bottom of society. Gaunt's life epitomises the role of powerful men in the medieval era, and his actions helped shape the lives of thousands of men and women. These masses however only make it into this book when they rebel - we learn little about their role in helping Gaunt and his family live their lives of luxury. That said, Helen Carr's new biography is both an interesting and entertaining account that illuminates the machinations at the top of society in this chaotic period.

Related Reviews

Sumption - Trial by Battle: The Hundred Years War 1
Sumption - Trial by Fire: The Hundred Years War II
Dunn - The Peasants' Revolt: England's failed revolution of 1381
Lindsay & Groves - The Peasants' Revolt 1381
O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Hilton - Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381
Barker - England Arise! The People, the King & the Great Revolt of 1381
Barker - Conquest: The English Kingdom of France
Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History

Monday, April 19, 2021

Laura Spinney - Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 & How it Changed the World

It is impossible to know how many people died from Spanish Flu in 1918. Estimates go as high as 100 million, a number that is incomprehensible. As I write this review official confirmation that total deaths from Covid-19 have surpassed three million, a figure that serves to illustrate the scale of the 1918 pandemic. Reading Pale Rider in 2021 it is hard not to look for parallels to the Covid-19 outbreak. There are many - from debates over whether or not children should be in school, to the different national approaches to quarantine. These parallels are fascinating, though they are not the main reason the book should be read. Influenza is a different disease to Coronaviruses, so parallels are important, but not the only thing we should spot.

More important is the way that Spinney's book draws out the way that the 1918 pandemic hit along lines of class, racism and colonial division. The very name of the disease arises out of the way that the warring nations kept news about disease hidden, and only neutral Spain told the truth. But the disease was spread by soldiers travelling too and from the front - perhaps even brought to Europe by American troops heading to the trenches. It reached Australia after their successful initial quarantine kept out the first peak, but returning soldiers were let in. Hundreds of thousands died.

However Spinney doesn't neglect regions outside of Europe - a problem that often occurs when the Spanish Flu is discussed. There is a heart-breaking chapter about how the Flu destroyed whole communities in Alaska, leaving hundreds of orphans. Chapters on China and India are heart-breaking for the sheer scale of the devastation. And repeatedly we see that those who are poor, lack health-care and quality food die harder and in greater numbers than the rich. A case in point is from the wealthy areas of Paris. As Spinney explains:

Statisticians were foxed by their observation that the highest death rates in the French capital were recorded in the wealthiest neighbourhoods, until they realised who was dying there. The ones coughing behind the grand Haussmannian facades weren't the owners... but the servants... They worked fifteen-to-eighteen-hour days and often had to share their sleeping spaces with other servants... a quarter of all the women who died in Paris were maids.

The disease spread along the routes of capital - railways, shipping and transport - and may have played a roll in shaping some of the struggles that emerged against capitalism after World War One. Spinney notes the influence the disease had on the Indian Independence struggle for instance, the Russian Revolution and other social conflicts. However this bits were the weakest part of the book. I didn't feel particularly convinced of the argument that the disease "changed the world". However the author is much better when exploring the details of disease and society. This is where the lessons for today come from.

Spinney's history of the scientific battle to understand disease, viruses and vaccines is important and well written. However it is the parallels with today that will haunt readers, and her conclusions that emphasise the importance of social health care, funding and education. She notes:

The Spanish flu and subsequent pandemics demonstrated that, given the right incentives and training, health workers stay at their posts and honour their duty to treat, often at great risk to their personal safety. That work force therefore needs to be supported as much as possible and cared for in the event of illness. The best way to support them is to arm them with effective methods of surveillance and prophylaxis, and to make sure that they are dealing with an informed, compliant public. All three areas have seen huge advances since 1918, but there is still room for improvement.

She concludes, following a discussion about the moral of mandatory health measures (she points out that these don't work very well) that:

But if disease containment works best when people choose freely to comply, then people must be informed about the nature of the disease and the risk it poses. This is one reason why it's important to tell the story of the Spanish flu. 

It's certainly one reason I read this book. Unfortunately perhaps it wasn't read widely enough in the brief period after its publication and the arrival of Covid-19.  While demonstrating that disease (and medicine) are shaped by the reality of capitalist society, this is no call for revolution. Nonetheless Laura Spinney's book is engaging, detailed and sharp on the interaction between disease and society through a historical lens. Let us hope that lessons are drawn from this tragedy to prevent the three million deaths becoming just part of a much greater tragedy. 

Related Reviews

Wallace - Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of Covid-19
Harrison - Contagion: How Commerce has Spread Disease
Wallace - Big Farms Make Big Flu
Malm - Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the 21st Century
Davis - The Monster Enters
Quammen - Ebola: The Natural and Human History

Iain M. Banks - Use of Weapons

Iain M. Banks' Use of Weapons is a complex novel. Set in his post-capitalist future, Banks' contrasts the well-being, contended lives and equality of the Culture with several societies visited by his central character Cheradenine Zakalwe. Zakalwe grew up outside the Culture in a militarised, feudal society. Trained in the arts of war and brutality, Zakalwe becomes an agent for the Culture's Special Circumstances division, a black-ops outfit that does dirty work in societies that the Culture wants to direct and shape.

The story of some of Zakalwe's missions is interwoven with chapters about his own life, particularly his difficult childhood. As these stories converge, readers will begin to suspect that not everything about Zakalwe is what it seems.

Despite it being well over a decade since I last read Use of Weapons I had very clear memories of the ending, what I didn't remember at all was the details of the novel itself, and this made the re-read very enjoyable. In fact I found Banks' contrast between Culture and non-Culture worlds' quite telling. This was the book that made me really unsure about whether I actually liked the Culture or not! 

Telling the stories of different missions gives Banks' the chance to play around with different locations. Drawing these new worlds was a great strength of his science-fiction writing and this is one of his best. The future, shiny, bright and dark and gritty.

Related Reviews

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

Saturday, April 17, 2021

John Newsinger - A Rebel's Guide to Orwell

The Rebel's Guide series continues to be an essential introductory guide to radical thinkers and ideas. This latest edition, a short guide to the life and ideas of George Orwell, packs a surprising amount into a 60 pages. Orwell's life is fascinating, but his legacy is contested and often misunderstood, so this short informative and generally supportive introduction is very useful.

George Orwell is celebrated as one of Britain's greatest novelists. Yet, despite his works Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm being used to attack socialism, Orwell was a radical socialist and anti-capitalist.

John Newsinger takes apart the smears of the right and the misconceptions of the left and argues that socialists need to understand Orwell as a consistent opponent of capitalism, while understanding the compromises he made in a life that saw him expose working class poverty, support radical movements and fight for the Spanish Revolution.

Newsinger is very good at showing how Orwell's ideas change. After an education at Eton, Orwell becomes a colonial policeman in Burma and begins to understand the colonial project, breaking from his past. Orwell doesn't hide who he was - he agonises over hitting his Burmese servants, for instance. On his return to Britain in 1927, Orwell decides not to return and begins looking elsewhere for ideas and explanations. One of the themes of Newsinger's book is that Orwell is shaped by what is happening, or not happening, around him. He notes, for instance, that Orwell returns to the UK in the aftermath of the failure of the 1926 General Strike. Travelling around England on his "tramps" Orwell sees the poverty and unemployment, but it is in the context of a "working class on the defensive". How different Orwell's writings - powerful and insightful - from these times might have been had the working class being fighting back.

This is why the contrast with the Spanish Revolution is so important. In Barcelona Orwell famously comments on seeing a city where the working class "is in the saddle" for the first time. He takes to the Revolution like a duck to water, and sides with those who want to extend the revolution - not those Stalinists who want to roll it backward. It is in Spain that any illusions in the Soviet Union and the Communist Party disappear, and this shapes his ideas and activity through World War Two.

Despite latter day attempts by the Labour Party to claim Orwell as one of their own, Newsinger makes the point that Orwell never once tried to join Labour. His membership of the Independent Labour Party was on a more radical base. Orwell had no use for reformism, though he lacked a clear understanding of the need for revolutionary organisation. Labour's behaviour in coalition in World War Two and immediately afterwards did little to shatter Orwell's illusions. That said, Orwell supported the Labour government as a bulwark against a revived Soviet Union, and it's in this context that Orwell makes some of his biggest mistakes - including giving names of pro-USSR figures to the authorities.

Newsinger writes, that in the post-war period, "even while he was writing Nineteen Eight-Four, even while he was assisting the IRD [The UK government's black propaganda outfit], Orwell was still critically engaging with ideas of the far left. What we can see here is that Orwell was grappling with difficult times, often making mistakes, bad mistakes, but still remaining wholeheartedly committed to democratic socialism" 

In this sense it is important to see 1984 as a critique of the Soviet Union from the left, though Orwell lacked clarity one what sort of society the USSR had become. Newsinger argues that Orwell remained a committed socialist "fighting for the overthrow of capitalism" right until his death. But cautions that we cannot be sure where Orwell would have gone. He is confident that Orwell would have opposed British intervention in Suez, for instance, but "would he have supported the Korean War?" Might Orwell have become a figure in CND? Would he have gone over to the right? Wisely Newsinger avoids to much speculation.

As an introduction to George Orwell John Newsinger's book is recommended and left me keen to read other, longer, works by Newsinger on this important figure for the British Left.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - Them and Us: Fighting the Class War 1910-1939
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried
Newsinger - The Dredd Phenomenon: Comics and Contemporary Society
Newsinger - Fighting Back - The American Working Class in the 1930s

Rebel's Guides

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

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Naomi Mitchison - Among You Taking Notes

Naomi Mitchison, author, poet, feminist and socialist political activist and farmer led an extraordinary life. I knew of her first through her incredible feminist science-fiction novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman and so I was very pleased to discover, tucked away in a second hand bookshop, this edition of her wartime diaries. Mitchison was part of Mass Observation, a wartime project by the British government to keep the diaries of people from every walk of life. These are a mine of information about everyday life during the war, but Mitchison's are far more more than just recordings of her activity.

They contain musings on life and love, accounts of people she knows and records of wider events. I was initially disappointed that she did not include much about events during the war, but as I read on I discovered that what was more interesting was her accounts of the reactions by herself and others to events. One thing that may well surprise people today is how unpopular Churchill was. Mitchison was a Labour Party activist and had no love at all for the Tories, but she records a general feeling of dislike for Churchill - that he wasn't doing enough, that he'd been lucky and that he didn't care for ordinary people. His speeches are less warmly received than might be expected and there is a general sense of him failing to organise the war properly.

Being of the left Mitchison has great hopes that the war will bring a better society. She suspects that it will come because the Soviet Union will dominate the post-war world. She, and most of the others in her Labour circles dislike the United States, and have a grudging admiration for Russia. Mitchison had travelled there before the war, and was certainly no apologist for what she saw there. But she disliked it far less than the brash, open capitalism of the USA. 

Living as she does on the West Coast of Scotland Mitchison is not as isolated from the war as might be expected. Visitors to her home include former POWs and Free French troops, local towns and harbours are bombed and she visits Glasgow and London in the aftermath of raids. Regular trips to London keep her in touch with events there, and several people she knows are killed. This isn't really a wartime diary about ration books and blackouts - though these subjects are there. What it is really about is the wartime experience - how the conflict drags on and people feel depressed, anxious and ill all the time. How people are worried about friends and food. How people try to make the best of things like Christmas, but it all seems a little bit like a charade. As I read it I found more than a few parallels with my life under Covid lockdown!

Mitchison's politics are also fascinating in the context of the time. She regularly argues with friends and people she meets about issues, including the question of women, house-work and employment. These arguments take on a wider importance during the war, as women's roles are transformed. But Mitchison's own personal ideas are fascinating too. I understand that later in life she and her beloved husband Dick Mitchison had an open relationship, but it is clear from the book (explicitly and implicitly) that she has several sexual relationships during the war.

Reading about these, her thoughts on politics and the war, her commentary on the government, Russia and the USA and much else I was struck by how honest a diarist she was. That she confided such innermost feelings to a public diary that was posted regularly to London is fascinating in itself.

The full diary runs to over a million words and I would have happily read every entry. I also wonder what has been excluded. For instance while Mitchison makes the occasional references to workers' strikes, I'd have liked more on class struggle in wartime. Was she aware of protests in London against the rich or in favour of better bomb shelters? She had many CP friends and protested the suppression of their press, so she would likely have known about such events.

I always feel that a sign of a great biography, memoir or journal is that when you finish reading it you feel like you've taken part in a life. While Among You Taking Notes is not a complete biography, it has an epic feel to it - partly because of the period covered by the account. I am now inspired to read Mitchison's novel The Bull Calves, which she wrote through the war.

This is a book for people wanting to understand life under wartime, but it's also a great introduction to the life of one of Scotland's most important literary figures.

Related Reviews

Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman

Monday, April 12, 2021

Jules Verne - Master of the World

This is a odd little book. Readers familiar with Jules Verne's work will know that he specialised in adventure novels that often showcased fantastic travels through unusual places. This however is slightly different in that it follows attempts by John Stock, a head investigator in Washington's Department of Police as he tries to track down a mysterious vehicle that has been terrorising areas of the United States.

Through a mixture of Stock's own accounts, newspaper clippings and letters we learn that the vehicle, capable of travelling at fantastic speeds on the roads, water and underwater (as well as later in the air) has actually been built by a unknown figure calling himself Master of the World. Interestingly, given the period it was written and published, the Master refuses all financial offers to make his amazing vehicle available to the US government. Several newspaper columnists acknowledge that it would give the country and advantage over the "Old World". 

The novel reads like it was written to be a 21st century super-villain book. Stock follows the Master across the country, and the vehicle, now identified by the improbable name "The Terror" shoots back and forth, escaping road blocks and destroyers sent to stop it. In the end, Stock is captured (for no apparent reason other than to move the plot along) and he learns the identify of the Master. Here the novel begins to defy comprehension - the Master turns out to be an extremely famous figure who had built a heavier than air vehicle a few years back and engaged in an extremely public showdown with aeronautical critics. The reader remains perplexed that this could have been forgotten as the premier policemen in the country struggle to imagine who could have built The Terror.

It turns out that this is the second volume of two books - the first offering a sort of origin story for the Master. I wondered, as I read on, whether Verne had intended these to be published together or as a series. Either way, the book reads incredibly superficially, and the Victorian melodrama is not enough to make it a classic. That said the book clearly influenced a whole generation of writers and it is not hard to see in The Terror a few future super vehicles, like the Batmobile or perhaps the Thunderbirds. A short quick read from the earliest days of the science fiction era.

Related Reviews

Verne - Five Weeks in a Balloon

Friday, April 09, 2021

Venus Bivar - Organic Resistance: The Struggle over Industrial Farming in Postwar France

Until reading Organic Resistance I had a crude explanation for why it is that the food culture of European countries like France was so much better than we have in England. The reason was, I believed, because the processes of enclosure that took place in England with the development of capitalism lead to the complete defeat of the peasantry and with that, the systematic undermining of rural variations in food. In contrast, I thought, the process had been far less thoroughgoing on the continent, where the peasantry lasted longer and local food prospered, and indeed was protected, into more recent times.

It turns out that I was only half-right. As Venus Bivar's excellent account of the post-war transformation of rural France explains, the process is actually more complex. But also very illuminating for those grappling with the politics of France, the European Union and food itself. We also learn that what characterises French agriculture is not the localised artisanal food holiday makers and second home owners enjoy, it's actually mass produced export food.

Peasant agriculture survived much longer in France. At the end of the Second World War France society was still very rural, with 36 percent of the adult population working in farming (compared to 5.5 percent in the UK). The French government, in close alliance with US foreign policy, drove a programme of rapid industrialisation in the French countryside. Bivar explains that:

Between 1955 and 1975.. the active agricultural population was cut in half, and 40,000 to 50,000 farms disappeared every single year.... the average size of French farms almost tripled, from fifteen to forty-two hectares... By the end of the 1980s, just 6 percent of the active French population was still working in agriculture

The process was "ruthless". Bivar includes enough tragic accounts from farmers and their families who lost out in this process, to make the reader realise that what was taking place in a very concentrated time frame was very similar to the much more elongated process that took place in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the process in France was more than simply the engrossment of farms into larger units. There was a transformation in agriculture itself. Farms became larger, yes. But they also became mechanised, dependent on chemical pesticides and fertilisers, and producing crops for the export market. As Bivar summarises:

Farmers lost their land, took on crushing amounts of debt, compromised their health with the application of chemical inputs and left behind their communities - all in the name of modernisation. Technocrats, neo-corporatists farm unions, the EEC, and the Credit Agricole [bank] all worked to further the modernization agenda, and in doing so placed a series of demands and constraints on agricultural France, the most extreme being the near abrogation of property rights.

The enclosure of English agricultural lands had finished by the 20th century. Its industrialisation began in the 19th century, but World War Two was the moment when British farming embraced the internal combustion engine. But British farming spent WW2 providing for an war-economy, while France had no state support or foreign aid. When this came after WW2 ended it came very fast and was very thorough-going. 

Early in Bivar's book there are a couple of remarkable maps, before and after "remembrement" of a small village. The before map, shows what look like medieval strip farming, and the post-map shows these strips joined together in huge fields. The "remembrement" process pictured could easily be mistaken for similar maps made during the English enclosure movement. Essentially this all but destroyed the French peasant food economy. It also destroyed the rural environment. As Bivar highlights:

much of the remembrement that was carried out disturbed the natural systems that had previously managed water and wind. Banks and hedgerows were destroyed while rural engineers implemented massive irrigation and drainage projects: 'Remembrement overturned the old inherited order of the fields, substituting it with the real-world checkerboard of the surveyor.'

So how come French farming today is know for organic, high-quality, low volume, locally produced cheese, wine and bread? The story of this, is another key part of Bivar's book. It is summed up in a fascinating advert that the author includes. It is one that at first glance looks like a modern advert against animal cruelty, highlighting the cramped conditions of animals. Titled "The life of a chicken in 1962" it contrasts battery chicken production with the lives of organic free-range animals. Sadly the whole text of the advert isn't translated, but Bivar gives us the highlights including references to "degeneration" and "civilisation". These words hint at the murky origins of the organic movement in France, lying as they do among far-right and sometimes fascist movements that sought to protect the French nation's purity and defend the interests of farming communities under threat from industrial production. 

In the aftermath of the radical upheavals of 1968, a new generation of leftists entered the countryside and splits within the organic movement, together with growing acceptance of organic food as an alternative to mass produced food transformed the situation. Today organic food is associated with environmentalism, the left (in its widest sense), yet as Bivar artfully explains, this certainly was not the case and the real story is much murkier, going back to the Vichy regime and French antisemitism.

Post-war France saw enormous struggles over the country's identity. This led to a turn to the EEC and EU as a solution to rural problems that could not be fixed internally. As Bivar writes:

Throughout the decade, the threat of domestic unrest, precipitated by recurring waves of agricultural protest, loomed large in a nation whose history was famed for its periodic outbursts of rebellion. The Fourth Republic, preoccupied by the war in Algeria, struggled to maintain stability on the home front without diverting precious resources from its military operations. As the colonial situation worsened, the French state grew increasingly incapable of addressing the mounting concerns of its farmers. Accordingly, European integration, and specifically the integration of agricultural markets, grew more and more attractive as a means of assuaging rebellious farmers.

In the aftermath of WW2 the French state created an industrial agricultural system that made the country one of the biggest food exporters in the world. At the same time they destroyed rural communities and traditions. In the vacuum, the far-right was able to fill a political space and in doing so created an organic farming movement that today is celebrated globally. The contradictions of this process however, including the active participation of farmers in rebellious protests, have left a number of fascinating legacies that are brilliantly unpicked by Venus Bivar in this book.

Its a remarkable work that packs a lot in, but remains readable and accessible to the lay reader. It's wouldn't be a bad book to pack for those planning a camping trip to France post Covid. It might not be the first choice to read while sipping French wine and nibbling some local cheese, but it will illuminate the political and economic forces that have shaped the landscape and the food you are munching.

Related Reviews

Isett & Miller - The Social History of Agriculture
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Wise - Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food

Monday, April 05, 2021

Christopher Isett & Stephen Miller - The Social History of Agriculture

This is an excellent materialist history of agriculture through human history. The authors have taken representative examples from numerous different historical eras and given a excellent general picture of the varied ways that humans have farmed - but their emphasis is on how the social and economic framework of different societies shape agriculture. As such they also look at the way that farming shapes society and vice-versa.

The opening chapters look at pre-capitalist societies. There are excellent overviews of Ancient Roman slave agriculture, Sumerian society and Han China, this is followed by a study of Early Modern farming, with material on Feudal Europe as well as the Inca and Pre-colonial West Africa. These few examples demonstrate that the authors have produced a truly global history. The arrival of capitalism transformed production and also transformed agriculture. The authors note:

Until the arrival of capitalist industry in the eighteenth century, the extraction of rural surplus via the control of land and labour remained at the centre of all economies and their political systems.

Given the approach it is no surprise that the authors focus on class and social relations. Though they do not neglect the nature of agriculture - from technology and equipment, to types of crops and different methods of farming. In fact the transformation of these practices through the interaction between societies, technological development and the rise of capitalism are key to the book. As this passage demonstrates, they shown a keen awareness of the dynamic nature of agrarian communities:

While African peasants met their basic food and fibre needs without recourse to markets, this is not to say they were 'primitive' or 'irrational.' Quite the opposite; our point is that African peasants found ingenious and practical ways to meet their needs without resorting to sales and purchases. With most or even all of their production unaffected by the requirements of market exchange, and thus not subject to cost-cutting pressures, they developed crop rotations that fulfilled their needs directly. They mixed animal husbandry with crops when possible and always engaged in polyculture. They adopted New World crops especially maize and manioc, when these appeared and where they proved suitable. Furthermore, communities endeavoured to provide the basic social conditions necessary to maintain and regenerate families. They compensated for comparatively simple tools and methods by sharing labour and decisions, while providing all members with farmland and access to surrounding resources.

The authors demonstrate how the arrival of capitalism changed these societies. Colonialism and the slave trade forced a complete transformation of society. But where capitalism developed agriculture was a key part of the transformation, shaping how society fed itself but also creating the capital that made capitalism possible.

These changes were marked by resistance and rebellion. The authors note several episodes of rural rebellion, including the French peasant revolts of the 1770s and the 1381 Peasant rebellion in England. The brutal processes that enclosed farmland as capitalism developed are certainly not ignored.

However I wasn't entirely convinced by the authors' framing of capitalist development and agriculture. The repeatedly argue that, in various parts of the world, agricultural societies tended to be inoculated against urban areas. So they argue in the Early Modern Period,

The peasants of France, then, raised output by devoting extra labour to the fields but had to contend with the demands of urban landowners and seigneurs. The peasantry provided the towns with textiles and foods but did not purchase items in return. 

But while the relationship between town and country might not have been equal in terms of material exchange. It certainly was not one way. Here I think that the authors overlook the dialectical relationship between the two. Historical accounts make it clear that there equipment and basic necessities were bought from urban merchants - salt or iron for instance. Chris Harman also points out, that:

At a minimum, the towns – and not just the large cities, but the many smaller towns – provided a market for the output of the improving farmers and some of the inputs that made improvement possible. These inputs were not necessarily just physical: also of importance was the spread of knowledge about how improvement was possible. One contributing factor to the economic advance of Bohemia in the century before the Thirty Years War was the circulation of books detailing the most productive agricultural methods.

As in their early chapters the authors explore the varied agriculture that arose globally with capitalism. There is a brilliant section on plantation slavery and it's relationship with emerging Atlantic capitalism, as well as studies of countries as varied as China and Japan, Russia, France and many areas of South America (including Cuba). These are all fascinating and I will return repeatedly to them when I need a quick summary.

The authors argue that the arrival of capitalism is the outcome of the class conflict between lords and peasants in feudal Europe. This application of the Brenner thesis, is, in my view incomplete and lacking in nuance (see this review for instance). However this theoretical limitation does not distract from the wider achievement of this book which is a significant contribution to our understanding of human history and agriculture. I highly recommend those interested read it together with Mazoyer and Roudart's book.

Related Reviews

Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Zabinski - Amber Waves
Chappell - Beginning to End Hunger
Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour
GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Wise - Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Namina Forna - The Gilded Ones

In her afterword, Namina Forna describes her first novel as an "examination of patriarchy". In contemporary fantasy writing this isn't as unusual as it might have been ten or twenty years ago, but this extraordinary young adult novel is much more than a book that places women centre of the story in a patriarchal male society. This is a novel intended, as Forna explains, to turn fantasy conventions upsidedown, but also to allow young black readers to see themselves in a novel. In a recent interview in the Guardian Forna explained that as a young woman and "Black Lord of the Rings fan" when she saw the films "no one on screen looked like me". 

Deka, the young woman hero of the story, grows up in a village were she is the most dark-skinned of the inhabitants. Her mother, now dead, was not a local and living with her father she has always been an outsider. As she approaches puberty she has to partake in a blood ceremony that will allow her to become an adult member of the village. If she bleeds red she'll grow up, if gold, she'll be declared a demon.

Deka bleeds gold. To her shame and the repudiation of the village she is declared unwanted. Disowned and then tortured and killed by the villagers and her father, she resurrects again and again. Like other "demons" she cannot easily be killed permanently. Eventually she is rescued and alongside others like her finds herself being trained at a special school in the capital where the emperor wants her to fight the deathshrieks - monsters that threaten the country.

This first book of a trilogy sets the scene well. Deka learns about herself, and her skills and discovers friends and enemies among other "demons". She also learns that the deathshrieks aren't the mindless monsters that she's been led to believe. There is a little bit of Harry Potter here - Deka goes to a special military school where she feels completely outside, both in terms of background and knowledge. But this is no pampered idyll. She is quickly forced to rely on friends as well as her wits, to survive and learn who she really is.

The book explores important themes in ways that don't feel imposed from outside. Sexism, oppression, violence against girls and women, as well as questions of race and skin colour are handled subtly. Ultimately this is a cracking feminist adventure story, that doesn't treat the young reader as a fool. That said, the issues that are raised, from young women going through physical and sexual changes to issues of social ostracism and racism are essential to the story. Some readers might find some of the themes challenging - there is quite a bit of gore! 

Reading this I felt enormously hopeful. I don't remember how old I was before I read a book that had a gay or lesbian character, let alone a young adult novel. While I wouldn't pretend that 21st century publishing is completely transformed, it is nice to know that young black and LGBT+ readers in 2021 will read at least some novels and find themselves inside.

Related Reviews

Novik - Uprooted
Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman