Friday, July 30, 2021

Richard Woodman - The Real Cruel Sea: The Merchant Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1943

Over 30,000 members of the Merchant Navy lost their lives during World War Two. Most of their names are inscribed on the Tower Hill memorial near the Tower of London. It's a beautiful memorial, near a smaller memorial to those Merchant sailors who died in the First World War. Both memorials are seldom visited, despite their location. 

The sacrifice of these sailors almost all of whom were men, is mostly forgotten. During the war, appalling conditions, the dangerous work and the low wages meant that crew often didn't go back to see. To counter this the British government produced a badge with the label MN to create a esprit de corps. Many men wore it upside-down, joking - or perhaps not joking - that the letters now stood for Not Wanted.

Richard Woodman's book is a detailed account of the primary battleground of Britain's Merchant Navy during World War Two - the Battle of the Atlantic. He mentions only in passing convoys to Russia and events in the Pacific and Indian oceans. It was in the Atlantic that most of those 30,000 sailors lost their lives and where their most important work was done. 

This is a massive book. Nearly 800 pages of small type, detailing in almost complete detail the events of the Battle. Open the book at random and there will almost certainly be a story of a ship that sank, a crew that abandoned ship or a heroic voyage in a lifeboat. The backdrop to this is a British Admiralty that, for most of the War, simply could not provide the escorts that were required to stop German U-Boats sinking ships. The Convoy system that was rapidly introduced after heavily initial loses went some way to saving ships. But there just wasn't the military protection that was needed - Britain was too short of destroyers and other escort vessels, and these had duties elsewhere.

As a result, the carnage dominates Woodman's history. The book opens with the loss of the passenger liner Athena. A ship sunk by a torpedo a few hours after war was declared. Over 1,400 people were on board, including 500 Jewish refugees. A model evacuation meant that the loss of life was relatively low - 117 passengers and crew. It was a propaganda disaster for Germany, and a success for the British, helping encourage a more anti-Nazi position in the US. Later ships would not be as lucky, and German submarines became adept in a total war against shipping. Some U-boat captains showed compassion to survivors, others committed war crimes, or demonstrated indifference.

In his desire to document so much, large parts of Woodman's book become almost lists of ships sunk, their cargos, and captains. But Woodman does manage to excite the material by focusing on specific tales. The best parts, and there aren't enough of them, are the oral histories of sailors. I also felt that more could have been made of the economic role of the ships. How was the war effort hampered by loss of material? Why was Britain exporting goods to the rest of the World at the time? What was being imported and why - who prioritised and decided what materials were needed. 

Woodman explains well the tactics of both sides. I was surprised to find that one great tactical mistake of the British military was to not deploy aircraft to the theatre in significant numbers. It's clear from later in the war that this made a significant improvement to the ability to combat submarines, yet the focus was always on bombing German civilian targets. A strategy that was, even at the time, known to be limited. Only one raid was made against German submarine bases, which seems incredible to me.

I was also shocked to learn that the US failed to learn the lessons. When the US entered the war, they did not take up the convoy system until hundreds of lives and ships had been lost. German submarine officers describe seeing ships silhouetted as easy targets against the backdrop of the brightly light US cities that were not blacked out.

Two other things stand out. For most of the first part of the war, British seamen were considered to have broken their articles, their contractual bond with the captain of the ship, when they were sunk. Thus survivors, who lost everything in the sinking and their dependents also lost any pay the moment they entered the lifeboats. It was an indignity and insult, and often the first their family knew was when the money stopped coming. The second thing is the multinational character of ships crews. Many of the men who died originated from British colonies and China. They lost their lives or fought for survival alongside their crewmates, fighting for a country that cared little for them, and even less for the Merchant Navy sailors. While there are occasional stories of resistance and mutiny by sailors, they are very much a handful of accounts. 

Its a neglected story, told in great detail by Richard Woodman's massive book. Sadly it finishes in 1943 when the U-boat threat was almost over. I would have liked more detail on events afterward - the troopships and return of troops after the war would have been fascinating. Had Woodman sacrificed some detail more justice could have been done to the wider story. Nonetheless for those who've read or watched The Cruel Sea, this is excellent background material.

Related Reviews

Monsarrat - Three Corvettes
Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea
Lund & Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell
Lund & Ludlam - The Fate of the Lady Emma

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Patrick Bond (ed) - Durban's Climate Gamble

At the end of 2011, the annual United Nations climate conference took place in Durban, South Africa. COP17 was another showcase event for the post-Apartheid regime. Yet, the context of Durban was much more contested. As this interesting book, edited by South African academic and activist Patrick Bond, shows - Durban was a city suffering from major environmental issues, the legacy of Apartheid, and ongoing racism - as well as enormous political and economic problems. The new South Africa, being shown off to the UN delegates, was far from the polished success story that the government was trying to show. But nor was the COP process itself.

This collection of essays explains some of that reality. The first section on Durban's Political Ecology looks at the political context for COP17's host city. From the battles over space, environment and wealth to wider discussions on the history of apartheid. There's a fascinating chapter by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed on Durban's "Indian Quarter" - the historic class struggles that have shaped the area, but also the ongoing development that continues to threaten its inhabitants. Patrick Bond's excellent chapter on Water Wars looks at how the city is shaped by struggles over access to water, sewage, toilets as well as the beach front and fishing rights. At times inspiring - such as the movements that have reconnected shackdwellers to their water supplies, but also depressing as we see how the neoliberal city rides roughshod over its inhabitants health, labour and environment. An earlier chapter on political ecology by Bond and Aswin Desai highlights the biggest problem about Durban in the time of COP17 - the fact that the UNFCCC process will not solve the biggest challenge of climate change. In summary:

far greater emission cuts are required than the present balance of forces in negotiations will permit; secondly the UNFCCC;s failure to take climate crimes and the climate debt owed to victims of climate change seriously; thirdly the UNFCCC';s commodification of everything, from intellectual property to forests... and lastly the UNFCCC's failure to consider decommissioning the dangerous carbon markets. 

It's a depressingly litany, that those of us preparing to protest COP26 in Glasgow, ten years later, must also fight. The fact that the issues remain the same tells us that much about the fundamental flaws of the COP process itself.

Several chapters explore this further. Larry Lohmann has been a longstanding critic of market solutions to climate change. His contribution to this book is an excellent demolition of carbon markets. Lohmann's demolition of such trading schemes is well worth seeking out (he has written extensively on the subject) but as Del Weston writes in their chapter on the Politics of Climate Change in South Africa, these trading schemes in and of themselves are not the problem:

Rather it is the fundamental social relations of production, the ensuing construction of the state and the financialised global political economy - which are determining South Africa's and the world's future. 

All the authors explore this reality. The way that the capitalist system and its priorities (eg in market solutions to climate change) drive wider disparity in African society. For instance, the fact that the South African government can make huge amounts of money by selling carbon credits from the Bisasar Road Landfill meant that, despite promises to the contrary, they kept the site open. For the local Black and Indian population this meant ongoing exposure to poisons and continued health problems. 

That the South African government is part of the problem is highlighted in the book's exposure of their negative role in undermining the Copenhagen negotiations, breaking the radical united front of the African negotiators at that COP.

There is much of interest in this short book, and together with a slightly earlier work solely authored by Patrick Bond Politics of Climate Justice: Paralysis Above, Movement Below (reviewed here) it offers a valuable insight into the question of climate justice, capitalist environmental strategies and the African continent. A great strength of both books are their recognition of social movements as the force to transform the situation. Of course, as with any book written at a specific political juncture some of the material is out of date. But nevertheless this is worth digging out in order to understand exactly why, as we approach COP26, the situation is worse than it has ever been.

Related Reviews

Bond - Politics of Climate Justice: Paralysis Above, Movement Below
Böhm and Dabhi (eds) - Upsetting the Offset, The Political Economy of Carbon Markets
CTW - The Carbon Neutral Myth, Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins
Alexander, Sinwell & others - Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Fotheringham, Sherry & Bryce - Breaking Up the British State: Scotland, Independence & Socialism

This is an important and timely book. Published in the aftermath of a historic success for the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the May 2021 election it seeks to discuss the question of Scottish Independence in a Marxist framework and historical context. All the authors and editors are members of the Socialist Workers Party in Scotland, and it is one of the clearest arguments for a socialist strategy around Independence published so far. 

Breaking Up the British State argues that socialists must both support and actively campaign for Independence - but they must do this with clear strategic goals. The key ambition is to further the struggle for socialism through breaking up the British state and weakening capital's ability to defend itself. Thus the book critically examines the ideas of several Independence campaigners on the left, it also pushes a clear independent argument, rooted in opposition to racism, support for democracy, internationalism (particularly in terms of opposition to war and the basing of nuclear weapons at Faslane) and workers' emancipation. As Donny Gluckstein and Bob Fotheringham say in their chapter on Scotland, the National Question and Marxism, when compared to the idea of an independent capitalist Scotland,

the other side of the reformist equation suggests the movement for Scottish independence can mean more than that. Firstly, independence is an articulation of working class aspirations at a time when Labour, under Starmer, has more or less abandoned the effort... Secondly the capitalist state structure which is to be rearranged s the British state. This has an imperial history and worldwide reach and its break up would be significant.

The repeated success of the SNP is often crudely associated with left positions on many questions. There is a detailed critique of this by Iain Ferguson and Gerry Mooney who argue that in reality the SNP's reputation for left positions is superficial at best. Titled Neoliberalism with a Heart, it's a devastating critique of the role of the SNP in office - in terms of housing, education, anti-racism and environmental policies. Despite appearing better than Boris Johnson during Covid, in reality the situation in Scotland is little better - not least because of previous failings of health care policy by the Scottish government.

But understanding the current position of the SNP requires understanding three other aspects of politics in the whole UK. The first is the historic development of Scotland, second the role of the Labour Party and finally the rise and fall of workers' struggle in Scotland. The last two aspects of these are discussed in three excellent chapters. Dave Sherry's account of Red Clydeside is a brilliant summary of the struggles in the first two decades of the twentieth century on the Clyde. This includes the incredible workers' strikes during the First World War and the role of the Clyde Workers' Committee, as well as fascinating struggles over rents and housing. This culminated in the 1919 revolt when Britain was "on the brink of revolution" within which Scottish workers' played a central role. 

Charlie McKinnon's chapter on the Making of the Scottish Working Class looks at earlier periods of struggle, arguing that while these are often portrayed as nationalistic struggles this isn't strictly true. He concludes: 

working class agitation and struggle in Scotland during this period should not be seen in isolation from that of the working class in the rest of Britain. Workers north and south of the border were often engaged in common struggles, such as during the great Chartist Revolt.

That is not to say that movements north of the border did not have specific demands or contexts, but that those took place in the wider framework of the British wide class struggle. This analysis is important when looking at the issue of the Highland Clearances, which have their parallels with the enclosures movements that drove the English peasantry off the land and transformed them into wage labourers, predominantly in the cities. McKinnon explains:

The Crofters' Revolt effectively signalled the end of the Highland Clearances. Overall, they were undoubtedly a political defeat but there was clearly significant resistance to the capitalist class. [Marxist historian] Neil Davidson argues that they were unquestionably a 'historical crime' carried out by a rapacious and 'triumphant capitalist class' with a 'disregard for human life', They were not, he points out, 'inevitable' in the sense that the Highlands were peripheral to the profitability and success of capitalism across Britain. Therefore, they were not a consequence of the transition to capitalism but rather of its 'established laws of motion'.

This argument is important because, as several authors explain, Scotland is not oppressed by Britain in the way that (say) Ireland was. The Scottish ruling class merged with the English in order to develop capitalism together. 

The third part of the equation is the Labour Party. Labour in Scotland has gone from being almost the only show in town, to one that is in "steep decline and shows little chance of recovering". This decline is documented in Dave Sherry and Julie Sherry's chapter, which shows how repeated and systematic betrayals of their core voter by Labour nationally and locally created the conditions for sudden collapse. When this happened,

it happened very quickly, but in truth it was the culmination of forces that were in play since Labour's election in 1997, like Blair's Iraq war, Ed Miliband's advocating of 'austerity lite', and decades of Scottish Labour's dismal record in running major councils.

Even under Corybn Labour's position of supporting the capitalist Union, alienated even further those who saw Independence as being about a fight for a better society. The nature of Labour's betrayals, and the social movements that have taken place, means the mood for Scottish Independence is dominated by left ideals. That's not to say, as several authors in the collection emphasise, that the country is immune to the far-right or racist populists. But that one of the reasons that socialists can be positive about developments is that there is a real desire for progressive change - and very often this is manifesting itself on the streets through mass movements. 

This however poses a problem for the neo-liberal SNP, who want a capitalist Scotland able to compete on the global scale. As Gluckstein and Fotheringham note, once you understand this contradiction,

a number of perplexing questions can be answered. For example, why is the SNP, which clearly craves an independent Scotland, so hesitant in going about winning it? Why, when All Under One Banner mobilises hundreds of thousands in marches for independence, does the SNP keep them at arms length, or grudgingly send the odd speaker but little more?

The authors highlight a parallel with Marx's comments on the passivity of the German bourgeoise during the 1848 revolution when they were wary of over-throwing the old feudal order. The reason was that if they "confronted feudalism and absolutism, it saw [also] pitted against itself the proletariat". Engels continued elsewhere, that the German bourgeoisie "attempted an impossible arrangement aimed at postponing the decisive struggle." While the Scottish working class is in no way in a revolutionary mood at the moment, the fear of radical ideas and action clearly haunts the SNP leadership.

Basing itself on the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, the authors in this volume put a powerful case for a Marxist position on Scottish Independence. It should be added though that this is not a crude regurgitation of what Marx and Engels said. Rather these are nuanced attempts to learn and apply lessons from the past to the current situation. It is worth finishing this review with Gluckstein and Fotheringham's conclusion. They argue that the Scottish capitalist class wants independence, not because they are nationally oppressed by the British state, but because 

the social system is one in which individual units... of capital compete with each other... For the Scottish bourgeoisie, full sovereignty at Holyrood is a path to greater competitiveness. On its own this would not garner any widespread support. So independence is framed in terms of expanding democracy.

Thus the demand for Independence sees the coming together of two different class interests, but both sides have different desired outcomes. So Gluckstein and Fotheringham continue:

The fight for [independence] has the potential to 'grow over' into something even more ambitious. For the true essence of permanent revolution is about how a socialist challenge to the existing order cannot be achieved in just one country. It needs internationalism rather than nationalism.

This nuanced approach characterises all the essays in this book. Debates around Scottish Independence are going to be a key political issue north and south of the border in the coming years. Socialists of all stripes will stand to learn a lot from this excellent book, that places the question of Independence in a wider context - the struggle for socialism.

Related Reviews

Devine - The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed
Hunter - Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances
Hutchinson - Martyrs: Glendale and the Revolution in Skye
Sherry - John Maclean
Berresford Ellis & Mac A'Ghobhainn - The Radical Rising of 1820

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Philip Kerr - A German Requiem

After finding the first two volumes of Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy unsatisfactory and unpleasant, I was intent on reading the third volume A German Requiem merely for the sake of completion. It is, in my mind, better - perhaps because it doesn't deal with the claustrophobic atmosphere of Berlin during the Nazi era. The war is now over, Bernie Gunther has finished his stint on the Eastern Front (after a brief period in the SS where he witnessed many atrocities) and time in a Soviet POW camp. He is now eking out a living in the ruins of Berlin, where he and his wife survive mostly because she is receiving presents from a US Army Officer that she is having an affair with.

Gunther is earning a few coins after returning to his old line of work. But Berlin in 1948 is a tense place as the Russians and Western Allies begin to square off. After being approached by a Russian officer apparently on behalf of an old acquaintance, Gunther travels to Vienna to try and solve a crime and get an innocent man off Death Row. In Vienna, Gunther escapes his wife's infidelity, and gets sucked into a vortex of crime linked to the black market and former Nazis.

A German Requiem doesn't quite fit with the Berlin Noir title - being almost entirely set in Austria. That said, Kerr does show the vast difference between the two capitals, though both are being pulled apart by the conflicts of the various occupying powers. Vienna is back on its feet much quicker, there's less damage and, as Gunther quickly learns, despite the involvement of many of its citizens in the Nazi era's crimes - the Western Allies are happy to imply that Austria was an unwilling participant in Hitler's Reich.

Much of the novel is focused on Gunther's attempts to find out what happened when his acquaintance was linked to the murder of a US army officer. But the real story centres on former senior Nazis who are being used by the Americans. Here Kerr is on firm historical ground, and he (and Gunther) are suitably cynical about the way that some Nazis are found guilty and executed and others are given new identities and jobs. 

Vienna forms the backdrop, and as a neat joke, Gunther finds himself present at a couple of events linked to the filming of The Third Man, the classic film noir set after World War Two in similar circumstances. The novel is less misogynist than the previous one - women are less likely to throw themselves at Gunther as soon as they see him. Though there is at least one such scene. There is also a rather gruesome killing of a female character. 

Finishing the last of the trilogy I was left conflicted. I enjoyed them for their evocation of the Nazi era. Something Kerr excels at. He also writes a good Noir mystery. But I was left unhappy with his depiction and use of female characters. In his regard, the final novel is at least better than the first two. I remain unsure as to whether I'll return to Gunther's adventures as a result.

Related Reviews

Kerr - March Violets
Kerr - The Pale Criminal

Philip Kerr - The Pale Criminal

Volume two of the Berlin Noir trilogy featuring Philip Kerr's detective Bernie Gunther is similar to the first. While women still, improbably and repeatedly, throw themselves at Gunther, the plot is refreshingly different. Gunther is hired to find out who is blackmailing the gay son of a rich publishing house owner. Seemingly unrelated to this, Gunther is pulled into investigating a serial killer who appears to be targeting young, blond school girls. The Gestapo have found an innocent Jew to pin the blame on, as the method of murder is similar to an anti-Semitic trope being regularly used by a Nazi newspaper - Der Stürmer. 

Gunther is reluctantly brought back into the German police force by no less a figure than Reinhard Heydrich. With the powers that he has from this he tries to find the serial killer before the general public learn of the killings. As with the first novel Kerr tells us a great deal about Berlin in 1938 - the racism, paranoia, violence and increasingly militarised society through Gunther's experiences. The backdrop to the novel is the Sudeten Crisis and the Munich Agreement. Gunther's convinced there will be war, most others are not. The tension filters through all the characters.

The plot is complex, and gruesome. Kerr has depicted police procedural methods from the 1930s with seeming accuracy. However irrational the Nazi regime was, the solution to the murders and the ending of the novel are somewhat unbelievable. As is the way that Kerr ties up a lose end from the first book in a very unsatisfying way. The book is readable, enjoyable even, for the atmosphere if not the plot. Except...

In my review of the March Violets I expressed my concern at a deeply unpleasant and unnecessary described rape scene. The Pale Criminal doesn't have this, but there is a extremely unnecessary scene involving a young sixteen year old girl who arrives at Gunther's apartment to collect money for Winter Relief. There's an uncomfortable scene between her, and Gunther - who while he rejects her advances, there is too much salacious detail. This left me wondering quite how Kerr thought women behaved and why he felt he needed to include these scenes. 

Related Reviews

Kerr - March Violets
Kerr - A German Requiem

Philip Kerr - March Violets

Many people have recommended Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther detective novels to me. Most of them are set in Berlin during, or after, the Third Reich and they are acclaimed for historical accuracy and the transportation of Detective Noir from the United States to a completely different setting.

March Violets is the first of the trilogy that make up the Berlin Noir series. The Gunther novels proved popular enough that Kerr produced more of them. But the first three are the classics. March Violets is set in 1936, as Hitler is consolidating his power and the Nazi Reich has deposed of its opponents. Attacks on the Jews are yet to reach their height, as Hitler is still concerned about the watching world. Gunther tackles his case as the Berlin Olympics take place, and the regime hides its most outward examples of antisemitism.

Kerr's detective is investigating the loss of some diamonds - owned by the daughter of one of Germany's most wealthy, and least Nazi supporting, steal magnates. The daughter and her husband have been murdered, and Gunther is asked to find the diamonds. Quickly he finds that the case is much more complicated and there are links to senior Nazis, as well as organised crime.

Its a complicated plot worthy of a classic Noir novel. Gunther is wise-cracking, tough, alcoholic and cynical. He's also not a fan of the Nazis - though to be fair he doesn't really like anyone. Readers who enjoy the likes of Philip Marlowe will appreciate the work that the author has put into recreating the atmosphere and characters.

But. And it's a big but. Gunther is not Marlowe. For a start he's to misogynist and homophobic. Marlowe was a cynic, but he wasn't openly offensive. More problematically is how the book treats women. Women throw themselves at Gunther and the sex scenes are crude. The only female character of any depth, one that Gunther falls for, disappears at the end of the book. There is also, it must be said, a particularly unpleasant rape scene which is described in far too much detail. It's unnecessary, crude and soured the book for me. 

At its best the book is a clever exploration of the way that the Nazis transformed the whole of German culture. I am not sure that it was quite as common as Gunther seems to imply that people spoke critically of Hitler and the Nazis, but by placing Gunther at the heart of the Nazi beast (and even in a Concentration Camp at one point) Kerr does manage to evoke an impression of Berlin in the late 1930s. But in this book at least, I found the negatives far outweighed the positives.

Related Reviews

Kerr - The Pale Criminal
Kerr - A German Requiem

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Paul Lund & Harry Ludlam - The Fate of the Lady Emma

Authors Paul Lund and Harry Ludlam are best known for their oral history works about the British Navy in World War Two. Lund served on a converted trawler during the war, and was on the infamous convoy PQ17 to the Soviet Union. The authors' account of that disaster was told, through the recollections of many participants in their excellent book PQ17 Convoy to Hell

Lund and Ludlam also told the history of the Royal Navy Patrol Service in their book Trawlers Go to War, which detailed the sterling work of converted fishing craft from Dunkirk to D-Day. The oral testimony in these books, plus personal experience however is put to a slightly different use in The Fate of the Lady Emma

Lady Emma is a work of fiction, but is clearly heavily influenced by Lund's experiences on HMS Lord Austin. The novel follows tells the experiences of a fresh recruit to the Patrol Service Peter Price as he finds his sea legs on the Lady Emma. We're introduced to a mixed crew, and Price goes through the formative experiences of being mocked and gently ribbed until he finds his niche. He learns the ropes, begins to understand the various factions and personal loyalties and hides the fact he's trying to get commissioned from his crew mates. All this is fairly standard fair for a WW2 naval novel from the 1970s.

What stands the book above others in a crowded genre is how it is clearly based on real experiences. The nerves, the stress and the sea-sickness, the detailed descriptions of the dirty jobs. These read, not as a dull series of recollections, but as part of Prices' journey to a fully fledged sailor. I also enjoyed Price's wonder at the places he visits. Take this description of a brief stop at Akureyri in Iceland:

By evening they were steaming up a placid fjord. The weather had made one of its lightning changes and the sun was shining, the air still and the atmosphere crustal clear. It was nearly 8pm when they approached a small island on which there appeared to be a collection of military huts... the 'hut's' were the houses of the most picturesque village anyone had ever see. Nestling beneath a background of towering white-clad hills, the houses were painted all the colours of the rainbow. In the centre, standing alone in its quaint beauty, was a miniature church, looking straight out of Grimm's fairy tales.... The crew stood at the ship's rail and gazed spellbound on the loveliness of this unexpected jewel shining among the rugged desolation.

I'm told that Akureyri remains as beautiful.

It is only in the second half of the novel that the "action" starts. The convoy is scattered in fog, they encounter enemy aircraft and a submarine, and rescue a shipwrecked sailor. But the point of the novel is not the action - again unusual for the genre, but rather the authors are telling the story of a voyage and the sailors' experience. For that reason the book sits comfortably alongside their non-fiction. Readers interested in World War Two, the Arctic convoys and the Naval war will enjoy this novel. But it is much more than another navy tale. It is also a moving account of the individual in a larger conflict, and the ending is remarkably touching.

Related Reviews

Lund & Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell
Lund and Harry Ludlam – Trawlers Go to War
Monsarrat - Three Corvettes
Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Lisa See - The Island of Sea Women

The Island of Sea Women is likely going to be the best work of fiction I read this year. Set on the tiny island of Jeju, the home of the famous female haenyeo divers, it ties a lovely story of friendship found and lost, together with the wider history of the island. 

The haenyeo are specialist divers. The women dive deep to capture molluscs, octopus and other sea life, harvesting the sea bottom as though it was a farmers' orchard. Theirs is a matrilocal society - they are the main providers for their families with the men providing some childcare, and frequently being criticised for drinking and philosophising all day. 

Young-sook tells the story, moving back and forth between the present and the past, telling the story of her life and her friendship with Mi-ja. The book opens when the two are very young, living on Jeju during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The girls become close friends, and learn the ropes of diving from Young-sook's mother who is an expert diver. We learn how the community organises, as the two girls grow up - eventually becoming talented divers themselves.

As the war ends, the Japanese occupiers leave, and those who have collaborated are first reviled, then adopted by the new US occupiers. The Korean government, allied with the US, becomes a powerful anti-communist counter to the USSR, which is occupying the North. Anti-communism isn't just about the enemy to the North, it is also about destroying the left and democratic movements at home. The centre piece of the story is the April 3rd incident on Jeju, when a mass democracy protest demanding Korean unity, saw police open fire with many protesters killed. This sparked a guerrilla uprising, which sees the South Korean government use increasingly repressive collective punishment against anyone seen as supporting the uprising.

Young-sook is one step removed from these struggles, though the government's war doesn't leave her and her village alone. The central incident, which I won't describe here for fear of spoiling other's reads, shatters her friendship with Mi-ja, and leads to a lifetime of recrimination. 

In the present, as Young-sook is a grandmother and meets visitors who knew Mi-ja, she reflects on what happened, retelling the story for the reader and a shocking revelation. 

In many ways this is a novel with three stories - the relationship between our two main characters, distorted and shaped by wider forces and conflicts, the story of the haenyeo and a culture threatened by the arrival of modern technology, industrialisation and tourism and the story of the South and North Korea. The skill of the author is two-fold, the way she links these three strands together and the deep research that is the basis for the book.

Deeply moving, highly readable and an insight into a history and culture I knew little about, I highly recommend this wonderful novel.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Patrick Bond - Politics of Climate Justice: Paralysis Above, Movement Below

The COP26 conference takes place in Glasgow this November, postponed by Covid-19 from 2020. Already British politicians are hyping the event, keen to cover themselves in a reflected green glow. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said back in March 2021:

The COP26 summit is one of the single biggest priorities that any government could have domestically and internationally and it’s a massive job and we’re throwing everything at it.

COP26, as the name suggests, places us a quarter of a century into the United Nations' process that was supposed to have delivered a solution to climate change. That I write this while unprecedented heating hits regions of the Pacific coast of North America, killing hundreds of people and forcing workers to labour in appalling conditions, demonstrates that the COP process itself has failed to deliver any solutions. 

But what is COP? In order to gain greater insights I turned to this book by South African socialist, academic and activist Patrick Bond. Bond has been involved, and written about, many key social movements in South Africa, as well as the wider climate justice movement. His book Politics of Climate Justice is simultaneously a examination of COP and a study of the climate movement itself as it stood immediately before the Durban COP of November 2011. While this necessarily dates the book, the core arguments remain illuminating and are of great interest to activists confronting COP in Glasgow this year.

Bond argues that the COP process is both a battle ground between different national forces on the world stage, and a way of driving through a free market solution to environmental problems. Let's explore this a little. In 2009 President Obama destroyed the climate talks at Copenhagen, forcing through along with allies in Brazil, India and China, an Accord that made emissions reductions voluntary, based on pledges made by individual nations. It was a blow to those who argued that there had to be legally binding emissions reduction commitments, but it was also a blow to those who saw environmental issues as being solved by free-market mechanisms.

Bond explains that the following year, at the COP in Cancun, the UNFCC head Christiana Figures and Mexican leaders, 

made skilled manoeuvres in a context of diplomatic desperation. But they allowed financiers, industrial capitalists, fossil fuel corporations and states to cement in the kinds of capitalist-crisis climate strategies that will make real solutions that much harder to achieve.

Bond continues:

In Copenhagen in 2009, the misnamed 'bottom-up' strategy of emissions-cut 'pledge and review' was introduced by Washington. The Durban COP17 is a showdown for those who would try to retain at least some of the Kyoto residue, for example the varieties of carbon trading and offset mechanisms that are threatened if the entire treaty is simply ditched in favour of the Copenhagen Accord.

Here we see the central problem for COP. Its solutions are based on either "voluntary" emissions reductions (Copenhagen) or carbon trading schemes (Kyoto etc) that have made little or no difference to emissions reductions. In fact, Bond argues here, that there is significant evidence that emissions trading schemes have had the opposite effect.

COP is thus limited because it is a plaything of international politics, and is at the mercy of the more powerful economies and their allies. As Bond points out

Nothing that occurred in Cancun reflected a diversion from the Franco-American agenda of Kyoto sabotage. Even better for Washington and Paris, Japan also signed on. Political choices of this sort, made by Obama, Clinton and their allies and underlings have a great deal to do with why Washington's domestic gridlock was repeated at global scale, via the Copenhagen Accord, and why at the same time, the paralysed elites must continue to have faith in carbon trading, not matter how many incidents of market failure and apparently ingrained emissions-trade corruption are uncovered.

Bond concludes, "any global negotiations aimed at a fair, ambitious and binding deal are obviously destined to fail under these circumstances". 

While we are here, we should take a moment to emphasise something. Bond is not arguing that the choice we activists need to make is between Copenhagen or Kyoto. When it comes to carbon-trading Bond is devastating: 

Instead of decisively displacing the crises by moving them around, the carbon markets have arisen to attack hundreds of billions of dollars in speculative trades; have been corrupted as vehicles to genuinely solve economic and climate crises; and have now sprung leaks so intimidating that even the US capitalist class has not found a way to patch up the idea of a market solution to a market problem.

Bond argues, following Rosa Luxemburg and David Harvey, that carbon trading is an extension of capitalisms continual need to expand into new regions to find new sources to fuel primitive accumulation. I wasn't particularly convinced of this theoretical framing. But it doesn't detract from his argument and it is certainly true that carbon markets are part of tying climate solutions to the ongoing accumulation of capital itself.

Counter to this dynamic are the social movements. Bond traces how the climate justice movement in South Africa as evolved linked and parallel to wider social movements - the anti-apartheid movement, the movement for access to AIDS drugs, protests against electricity price rises, water cut offs and land questions. He shows how sometimes the NGOs have actually been on the wrong side - because they side with "elite" solutions, and the importance of bottom up, mass movements to help shape the outcomes of COP and win wider social and environmental change. Bond argues that without movements that challenge "establishment strategies" the movement will not be able to win climate justice - in particular  getting the North to "repay the climate debt". He goes further though and says the movement needs to drive society "from a fossil fuel dependent capitalism to eco-socialism".

I've focused this review on the aspect of Patrick Bond's book that analyses the COP dynamics. I should acknowledge that there is also a wealth of detail here for those interested in the history and practice of movements in the Global South, particularly South Africa, around environmental issues and specific demands from those campaigns about historic climate debt. There are some fascinating and inspiring case studies about movements against polluting industries - demonstrating how the environmental crisis is very much experienced through class and racial lines. Patrick Bond finishes with an appeal that the movement develops international links and solidarity if we are to defeat fossil fuel capitalism - something that was as true in 2011 as it is in the run up to COP26 in 2021.

Related Reviews

Böhm and Dabhi (eds) - Upsetting the Offset, The Political Economy of Carbon Markets
CTW - The Carbon Neutral Myth, Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins
Berners-Lee & Clark - The Burning Question
Dawson - People's Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons
Malm - Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming