Friday, December 31, 2021

James Hunter - Insurrection: Scotland's Famine Winter

In 1846 Scotland's potato crop failed. It was destroyed by the same blight that had wiped out the crop in Ireland. In Ireland millions starved, while boatloads of food were sent abroad for export. In Scotland the potential disaster was just as great. Thousands of families relied completely on the potatoes they could grow for food. Just as in Ireland an excellent cereal crop could have fed ordinary people yet almost all of it was destined to be shipped elsewhere for massive profits.

The story of the Highland Potato Famine has not been told as frequently as events in Ireland. This is a shame because events in Scotland involve heroic resistance by ordinary women and men, that forced food exports to be halted and government action to relieve the suffering of the population. 

Insurrection tells the story of this resistance. While the book was only published in 2019, it's roots lie in James Hunter's early discovery of archive material relating to the famine and the rebellions. It has taken him nearly fifty years to turn these records into a book. But the wait has surely benefited from his long career exploring Scottish history. The story focuses on events in a narrow period of time and place, but are rooted in broader history - a tale of clearances, emigration and class struggle.

It is incorrect to say that potato blight caused the Irish or Scottish potato famines. The blight destroyed that crop - but it was the economic and social relations which meant that hungry labourers could not feed their families. As Hunter explains:

Most of them [Easter Ross crofters] were folk removed from good land to be resettled on worse - often in places where they had no alternative but to carve fields out of bogs or moors that had never been cultivated. A Morning Chronicle journalist, visiting... in the autumn of 1846, spoke with several such crofters whose potatoes, like everyone else's had been wiped out by blight, but whose cereal harvest, that year, had been better than usual. 'It was no relief to tell them that they had a larger crop of oats than formerly,' this journalist reported, 'the answer in every case being, we need all the oats for the factor.' As in Ireland, then, Ross-shire's small-scale agriculturalists could only meet their landlord's rent demands by selling all their grain. Hence the Morning Chronicle man's discovery that 'the constant anxiety of these people is to grow as much oats or barley as will pay the landlord' - they themselves, together with their families, subsisting on the output of potato plots that, in 1846, were largely bereft of potatoes.

As the famine grew, and food and money ran out, in many places mass protests took place to stop the export of cereals. What is remarkable is the scale and organisation of these protests. In some cases thousands of men and women blocked roads to prevent carts taking cereal to harbours. Ships were blockaded by fishing vessels, harbour pilots refused en masse to guide ships and women and men protested for hours until food was withdrawn from export. In many cases the exporters agreed to sell the food to local people for appropriate prices. This last point is worth highlighting as it has many links with the "Moral Economy" described by EP Thompson in 18th and 19th century food riots. Protesters did not, it is repeatedly emphasised by authorities at the time, resort to stealing food. Instead they insisted it was sold at an appropriate, and affordable price. The famine had caused huge inflation, and the poor and hungry couldn't afford the food so they organised for the food to be sold at the correct rate. The only people who lost out where the capitalists. Hunter gives numerous examples, for instance:

It would be a day or two... before military assistance could reach Moray from Fort George. In the interim, [Sheriff Innes] also knew it would be necessary for him to organise the withdrawal of his battered and demoralised special constables from Burghead. The means of doing this were provided by the arrival on the scene of a man described as a 'senior fisherman in Hopeman'. This was John MacPherson.... MacPherson had walked into town to discover he said, 'stones flying in all directions and the windows of the inn smashed into pieces'... MacPherson managed to gain access to the sherrif and, in effect, open negotiations with him. These talks centred on two demands voiced from among the crowd outside. The first was that Innes guarantee that meal would be put on sale in Burghead at a price no higher than 24 shillings a boll. 

The second demand was for the freeing of prisoners. The sheer scale of these protests must be emphasised. At one point Wick, and its harbour town of Pulteneytown, were "controlled entirely by 'the mob'." Pulteneytown was a huge working class fishing town, where living conditions, Hunter says, were on a par with those of Manchester as described by Friedrich Engels. 

The troops sent into Pultenyetown who used fixed bayonets to clear the harbour so food could be loaded onto ships, faced a mass protest. Hunter quotes eye-witnesses:

'The mob... were... very much excited.' Stones began to be hurled and women in particular started to arm themselves by entering nearby cooperages and picking up wooden 'staves' of the sort used to make barrels. 'They were brandishing [those staves], using very bad language and otherwise provoking the troops,'... 'The mob,' Sheriff Thomson said, 'were highly excited, noisy, tumultuous and threatening.' That was why he had no alternative but to read the Riot Act and 'implore the people, for God's sake, to go home'. This,' the sheriff added, 'they refused to do.' It thus became 'indispensable to clear the streets'.

As a result the troops fired upon the protesters and though no one was killed a bystander was badly injured. These events caused a political crisis for the British establishment and national anger at the soldiers for firing on starving people.

The mass protests, riots, blockades and brave confrontations with the forces of "law and order" were a great success. Hunter argues that these events between January and March 1847 led to "a marked and very welcome improvement in the food supplies available to their communities... prices also fell, often substantially, as farmers and landlords, as well as dealers, were persuaded to give greater priority to closer-at-hand purchasers." It is clear, Hunter shows, that this would not have happened without mass protest.

Longer term, Hunter sees the birth of political organisation that helped the crofters fight for further rights. He argues, contra Eric Richards, that the protest movements in Scotland in 1846 and 1847 demonstrated radical organisation: 

The placing of booms across the harbour entrance at Macduff; Buckie and Portgordon people's use of signal flags to communicate with the various coastal settlements between Garmouth and Portknockie; the maintenance for a week or two, of checkpoints on roads leading into Inverness; the blockades kept in place, for a month or more at Cromarty Firth harbours and loading paces like Foulis Point and Invergordon; the handing out of leaflets and the nailing up of placards or posters in Pultenenytown and Wick; these surely show... that organising ability was by no means lacking among men and women drawn from... 'the working classes'.

These movements fed into wider political organisation, and Hunter traces the involvement of Chartists and the eventual creation of the Highland Land Law Reform Association. This, he argues, places the Highland Potato Famine and the mass resistance it provoked, into a wider, radical history of Scotland.

When we read of the Potato Famines we are usually told that they are a story of passive acceptance of fate. Yet Hunter's book demonstrates that this was not always the case, and in parts of the Highlands at least there was a mass movement organised by women and men (and frequently led by the women) in the crofting and fishing communities that refused to allow the people to stave. Insurrection is an inspiring story of forgotten history, I hope that James Hunter's book is widely read and as a result these events become better known throughout the Highlands. 

Related Reviews

Hunter - Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances
Devine - The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed
Berresford Ellis & Mac A'Ghobhainn - The Radical Rising of 1820

Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For: From Food Riots to Food Banks
Fotheringham, Sherry & Bryce - Breaking Up the British State: Scotland, Independence & Socialism
Hutchinson - Martyrs: Glendale and the Revolution in Skye

James Ellroy - The Cold Six Thousand

The Cold Six Thousand is the follow up to James Ellroy's American Tabloid. That book finished with the assassination of John F Kennedy, and this one begins almost minutes later. The dirty alliances that formed the complex network of conspiracy in the first book are unmade and then remade by JFK's death. J. Edgar Hoover wants to ensure that the narrative of the assassination is focused on the lone gunman, and sends Ward Littell to Dallas to make sure this happens. As Littell manages the investigation he discovers wider conspiracies around Mafia money, Jimmy Hoffa and Howard Hughes' plans to take over Las Vegas. At the same time, French Pete Bondurant is locked in a personal, but CIA funded, war against Communism. This means incursions against Cuba, but quickly spreads to Vietnam as the US war there gets more and more involved. Drugs are funnelled from South East Asia to the ghettos of America, further enriching various criminal forces. Wayne Tedrow Jr, the son of a millionaire, far right businessman, arrives in Dallas from Vegas with six thousand dollars in order to find, and kill, a low level criminal who has upset the casino mafia.

Under the pressure of events, Martin Luther King's Civil Rights' campaigning is becoming more and more anti-capitalist. Drawing the wrath of the "deep state", Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and a host of real life characters are under threat from several growing conspiracies that seek to strengthen the hand of organised crime and undermine the liberal left.

As with the first book The Cold Six Thousand deals with the monstrous underbelly of the US in its most turbulent years. As the Civil Rights movement explodes onto the streets, the far right and the racist establishment look to fight back. The swirling conspiracies might not be historically true, but they certainly fit the facts. This is America at its most unequal, violent and interventionist. The only decent characters are those one the streets trying to change things, but they face the most unpleasant and violent resistance. Ellroy's staccato style might not be for everyone, and I found this book slower paced than the first - perhaps because the climax of that book was the murder of JFK. But its worth persevering with Ellroy - each page is punchy and the end is a shock.

Related Reviews

Ellroy - American Tabloid
Ellroy - L.A.Confidential

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Colin Burgess - The Greatest Adventure: A History of Human Space Exploration

I was looking forward to Colin Burgess' The Greatest Adventure, because of the subtitled focus on "human space exploration". I was hoping that the book would look at the development of space travel while also examining how humans have learnt to live in space, cope with the mental and physical impact of space travel and how that might continue in the future. Unfortunately I was disappointed. The book is mostly a history of the different missions that the US and Soviet Union made during the "space race" followed by shorter chapters bringing the book up to date with the Space Shuttle, ISS, and brief mentions of the Indian and Chinese space programmes. Finally there is an all too brief account of private space companies, which doesn't do the discussion of the role of billionaires in space justice.

Oddly, given the title, there are some notable omissions. The rivalry between fixed wing and rocket strategies to explore space in the early US space programme is given cursory mention and Burgess doesn't even mention a figure as unique and important as Chuck Yeager. More importantly there is no real attempt to explore how social questions impacted on the human angle of the space programme. Burgess mentions Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, but doesn't explore why it was a further 19 years before Svetlana Savitskaya followed her. Sally Ride the first US woman in space didn't fly on the shuttle until a year after Savitskaya. Why this aversion to women in space from the space programmes? What other problems related to gender and sex discrimination did female astronauts experience? Indeed, why did Sally Ride have to hide her sexuality for 30 years? It would have been an interesting exploration of the human side of space exploration if Burgess had tried to investigate the way that space exploration seems so closely linked with macho male, and usually military, figures.

Similar points might be made about black astronauts. The first black American astronaut, Guion Bluford,  didn't go into space until 1983. At least Bluford gets a passing mention in Burgess book, which is more than can be said for Ed Dwight the first black American selected for the early US Air Force training programme for astronauts. Dwight, a test pilot, was selected in 1961 but was not selected by NASA to be an astronaut and resigned in 1966. Dwight said he was driven out by "racial politics". Surely a discussion of why the Kennedy Administration wanted a black astronaut and why he might not of been selected would have been an essential contribution to a book about the "human" side of space exploration.

The 2016 film Hidden Figures based on Margot Lee Shetterly's book, rescued the hidden history of the role of black, female, American mathematicians in calculating trajectories and orbits for the US space-programme. Yet the contribution of these women, and thousands of other men and women who supported the programme, built the rockets, made the equipment warrants no mention at all from Burgess, though at least every returning Apollo astronaut understood this. Writing a history of the "human" space programme surely should at least acknowledge that the few hundred people who have been to space do so because of the work of hundreds of thousands of others. 

A more mundane, but nonetheless crucial aspect of human space flight is the physical aspect. Returning astronauts frequently joke that the question they are most often asked by school children is "how do you go to the toilet in space?". Such basic, human, aspects to space exploration are absent from Burgess book and in discussing them Burgess could have opened up wider debates about the links between society, people and space. It would have been nice to include the illuminating story of Sally Ride being asked by NASA engineers if 100 tampons would be enough for a week in space. 

Inevitably, given the differences between the Soviet and US programmes, there is more of a focus on US missions. Burgess does at least explore a little about how the Russian programme built international links by inviting foreign astronauts to join their missions, and later invite fee paying tourists on board. 

The twelve astronauts who went to the moon, and the hundreds who have been in Earth orbit, found it a profound experience. It affected them in a myriad of different ways, and not all of the astronauts found it easy to deal with the fame and the emotional shock. Several early astronauts became alcoholics as a result. Some astronauts were penalised by NASA for taking things to space that they hoped to sell to supplement their meagre pay. Sadly, none of these interesting issues are discussed.

Space exploration is no different to any other aspect of society in that it carries with it the political and cultural divisions that capitalism creates. While it is impossible for Burgess to ignore the consequences of the imperialist rivalry between the Soviet Union and the US in creating the space race, there is almost nothing else in his book that discusses humanity and space beyond the most superficial. Instead the book is really a history of space missions, with the names of those onboard attached. Most disappointing.

Related Reviews

Shetterly - Hidden Figures
Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon
Brzezinski - Red Moon Rising
First on the Moon - A Voyage with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin Aldrin
Wolfe - The Right Stuff

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

W.W. Jacobs - Deep Waters

Today W.W. Jacobs is best known as the author of the classic short horror story The Money's Paw. Jacobs was a relatively prolific author and playwright and this collection, Deep Waters, was first published in August 1937. Jacobs tended to write stories were central characters were hoodwinked or bamboozled by events around them, often with a light moral overtone. A recurring character was his nightwatchman who kept an eye on an unnamed wharf, likely on the Thames. Jacob's father managed a dock in East London, and perhaps the author drew from characters and events he had heard about. 

In this collection the Nightwatchman by turns tries to make money, or his cheated out of money, or finds himself in difficult situations were he attempts to do a morally right thing, but ends up being blamed by all and sundry, for doing the opposite. Usually his decisions are distorted by his propensity to disappear to the local pub for a half pint during his shift.

Other stories revolve around working class life. There are a couple of amusing tales of the experiences of a householder who puts up soldiers during WW1. Another, rather crude, story is a commentary of strikes as the wives of strikers go out on strike over household work when their husbands are on strike in the factory. It shows little understanding of strikes or working class solidarity. 

All of the stories are entertaining, mostly for the insights into working class life between the wars. But the pay off at the end just isn't there. All the tales feel anti-climatic, and thus disappointing.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Jerry A. Coyne - Why Evolution is True

Why Evolution is True is an unusual science book, because it is based around polemic. It was partly inspired, Coyne explains, by a 2005 US court case about how evolution should be taught in schools. He says that he, like many scientists, spent the day feeling anxious and then relieved by a "splendid victory" as the judge ruled against censoring evolution in the classroom. But Coyne noted an ambiguity, "scientific truth is decided by scientists, not by judges. What [Judge] Jones had done was simply prevent an established truth from being muddled by biased and dogmatic opponents".

Why Evolution is True is written as an accessible introduction to the science of evolution. But Coyne doesn't think it will convince those who are opposed to evolution from a religious point of view, as "no amount of evidence will do - theirs is a belief not based on reason". Instead this is a book that is aimed at those who are "uncertain" or those "who accept evolution but are not sure how to argue their case". In this the book succeeds admirably.

Coyne takes the reader through a history of evolutionary thought. But he does this through a clever rebuttal of anti-evolutionary arguments. These include such canards as evolution is not fact, but "theory" or evolution cannot explain complex things like the human brain or eyes. What Coyne does is to build up an explanation of evolution from the ground up, explaining how the process of change takes place, what drives it and what the consequences are. He also shows how arguments against evolution have themselves, well, evolved. In Darwin's time there was a straight rejection of his arguments as they contradicted the bible. Today arguments are more likely to revolve around "intelligent design", where anti-evolutionary thinkers accept more of reality, but adapt their own belief to fit the evidence. 

Coyne challenges these arguments by pointing out the imperfections in the logic of intelligent design - if a creator could create like this, why would he leave imperfections, evolutionary dead ends and vestiges. Given the relative short length of the book - the main text is only just over 250 pages - there is a lot in it, packed in by Coyne's well structured argument. It should also be said that the examples Coyne uses, to explain the science, are fascinating and often amazing. The book then is also a celebration of what evolution has produced in the natural world (as well as ourselves) and what we stand to lose if environmental destruction continues.

As I said Coyne is not attempting to argue with creationists or anti-evolutionists. His book is an explanation of scientific truth, as it is currently understood. But one slight problem with this is that he tends to see such truths as defeating counter arguments such as intelligent design. He says, for instance, that "each time a mystery is solved, ID is forced to retreat". That might be true. But such retreats are not defeats, because as he makes clear ID "simply isn't scientific". The IDers, creationists etc, will simply come up with alternative ideas. Indeed as Coyne points out, their writings are often riddled with inaccuracy or self-contradiction. Coyne makes no attempt to explain the origins of ID, or the role it plays for those who are religious, or the political right. As Foster, Clark and York pointed out in their book on Intelligent Design, ID is a "counter revolution against science", a challenge to materialism designed to undermine all sorts of political issues such as abortion, and LGBT+ and women's rights.

As such Coyne misses the point slightly because no amount of scientific "truth" will end the argument in victory for the scientific community, over those who believe a different thing. If that was going to happen we would not be seeing a resurgence of the religious right.

To be fair to Coyne he hasn't set himself this task and isn't making this argument in the book. But it felt like a missing link in the book's chain of argument. Religion of course plays a key ideological role and particularly in the US anti-evolutionary thinking has become central to a bigoted view of the world. The rise and fall of such beliefs have more to do with the role that religion plays in society - the hope in the "hopeless world" and the "opium of the people" - rather than anything rational.

That said, in arguments about the world, the struggle against the right and fundamentalism, the fight to defend our rights, such as the right to abortion, scientific truth does matter. Coyne's Why Evolution is True is an excellent explanation of evolutionary science and a robust defence of the subject aimed at ordinary people. It is clear, accessible and entertaining - and its full of amazing insights into the world around us. It comes highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Foster, Clarke & York - Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism, From Antiquity to the Present
Weiner - The Beak of the Finch: Evolution in Real Time
Darwin - The Voyage of the Beagle
Desmond & Moore - Darwin's Sacred Cause
Jones - Darwin's Island
Siegel - The Meek and the Militant

Monday, December 20, 2021

Andreas Malm - How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Andreas Malm's book How to Blow Up a Pipeline has provoked intense debate. This is good. Because it is a book about the strategy that social movements need to prevent capitalism's ecological disaster destroying the basis of human society. The engagement with Malm's book indicates a serious desire to discuss strategy and tactics in this struggle. Malm is the author of several other important books, including the essential book Fossil Capital, his 2016 book that looked at the reasons that capitalists adopted fossil fuels, the struggles against this, and its consequences for today.

Pipeline is a short polemic. It's readable and engaging, and has much of interest. Malm's critique of the focus on non-violence from some sections of the movement, and the limited strategies of particular campaigns, such as Extinction Rebellion, are extremely well argued, and have much overlap with my own critique. I emphasise this, because the focus of much of this review will be my disagreement with Malm's specific conclusion - he thinks we should blow up pipelines, and I think this is a mistaken tactic - and I want readers to understand that my engagement with his argument begins from much common ground. This is a question of strategy and tactics and is thus a debate among those who want to stop ecological disaster.

Malm points out that the environmental movement so far has "scrupulously avoided" any activity that "could be classified as violence", saying that the "commitment to absolute non-violence appears to have stiffened".  By violence Malm includes the physical destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure. He is not suggesting the movement should engage in the injury or murder of humans. He says, "thus far, the movement for averting a spiralling climate catastrophe has not only been civil: it has been gentle and mild in the extreme". This has, as has been discussed elsewhere by me, mostly been because doing so would make it harder to engage, motivate and include activists. Malm argues though, that in the face of the growing refusal to act on climate change and indeed the increase in usage of fossil fuels, the movement needs to broaden its tactics.

As I said, Malm's demolition of some of the central tenets of "non-violence" is lucid and important. This review will not cover that in detail, but it is worth quoting some of Malm's points:

The first sweeping emancipation of slaves occurred in the Haitian Revolution - hardly a bloodless affair. As some recall, slavery in the US was terminated by a civil war, whose death toll still remains close to the aggregate from all other military conflicts the country has been embroiled in. If there was one white abolitionist who helped precipitate that showdown, it was John Brown, with his armed raids on the plantations and armouries. 'Talk! Talk! Talk!' he exclaimed after yet another convention of a pacifist abolitionist society. 'That will never free the slaves! What is needed is action - action.'

What is important about Malm's argument is that the obsession with non-violence by some, and the placing of pacifist principles on a pedestal by sections of contemporary movements today, is not just historically inaccurate, it also is a failure to understand why movements of the past - from that against slavery, to the Civil Rights movement and the fight against apartheid - won. Malm's reading of history and academic studies comes to a different conclusion:

As a rule, dictators are unseated by people who first come in peace and then, after running into the iron-clad state, swing sticks, through stones and hurl Molotov cocktails. They call this 'unarmed collective violence'. 

Such 'unarmed collective violence' is ignored by some, such as Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan whose works have reached near religious significance for some activists.

Malm's engagement with capitalism takes him to the next step of his argument. Here, for the avoidance of doubt, is what he says:

Now the likelihood of the ruling classes implementing a global prohibition of all new CO2-emitting devices because scientists tell them to... is about the same as them lining up at the summit of the steepest mountain and meekly proceeding to throw themselves off the edge.

So here is what the movement of millions should do, for a start: announce and enforce the prohibition. Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed... If we can't get a prohibition, we can impose a de facto one with our bodies and any other means necessary.

Other than destroying new fossil fuel infrastructure, what is the purpose of this action? Malm points out that activists will not be able to destroy the massive infrastructure that the coal, gas and oil firms have implemented. "At the end of the day, it will be states that ram through the transition or no one will". The point of this mass movement of destruction is for "shaking business-as-usual out of the ruts".

Let us be clear. Malm reaches this argument because capitalism cannot break from fossil fuels. As he points out, the question is not whether we can replace fossil fuels with renewable energy and a sustainable economy, but why the system doesn't make that transition. But as Malm made clear in his masterful Fossil Capital, fossil fuels are locked into capitalist production. The system cannot break from them, because doing so challenges the very basis of their system.

Essentially then Malm is arguing that there needs to be an external shock to the system, from mass movements, to force this transition to be made. But this transition is not the same as say American capitalism giving up slavery, or South African capitalism ending apartheid, because it is not a fundamental transition.

In part this is to do with repression. One can sympathise with Malm's desire to see the sabotage of SUVs or luxury yachts, or even pipelines and wider infrastructure. But threatening private property like this, even by large groups, is likely to bring down vicious state revenge and will not drive systemic change within fossil fuel capital.

So in the face of this the movement has to look for other strategies, and here I think Malm's earlier Fossil Capital is a useful guide. Because in this Malm shows the centrality of fossil fuels to capitalist function and their key role in allowing the capitalists access to their source of profit - workers. In fact  through Fossil Capital runs class struggle - the protests, and particularly strikes, of workers as a key force for stopping capitalist production. Because what is missing from Pipeline are organised workers. The obsession of socialists with the organised working class is precisely because of their power to challenge capitalism. 

But there is a second issue. What is the aim of the movement? Are we simply trying to build a greener, fossil fuel free, more socially just capitalism? Or are we trying to put an end to a system whose accumulation can only drive environmental destruction and exploitation? Capitalism cannot break with fossil fuels, and nor can it change itself. A radical movement, even one based on radical, mass "unarmed collective violence" will not transform capitalism. We have to smash it. The capitalist state will not ram through the transformation we need. Instead we have to build a movement that can defeat the capitalist state, break it and overthrow capitalism creating a new form of production. This new economic system will see production based on mass participatory production. That is where the future lies. The only force capable of doing this is the working class.

Given Malm's politics - he is a Marxist - and his earlier works, it is a major surprise that the working class is essentially absent in his book. Perhaps this is because of the paucity of mass, revolutionary struggles by workers in recent years. Though in his discussion of the Egyptian Revolution, he compounded the mistakes of the non-violent theorists he critiqued by failing to mention the central role of strikes in bringing down Mubarak. But the nature of capitalist exploitation means that such struggles will, inevitably, take place. There in lies our hope.

Related Reviews

Malm - The Progress of This Storm: Nature & Society in a Warming World
Malm - Fossil Capital

Ackerman & Duvall - A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict
Chenoweth & Stephan - Why Civil Resistance Works
Ahmed - Mohandas Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience
Extinction Rebellion - This is not a Drill
Trotsky - Terrorism and Communism

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Gregory T. Cushman - Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History

In the last two decades it has been common, in Marxist books on ecology, to find discussions of how capitalist agriculture developed an urgent need for fertilisers to solve the crisis of soil fertility in the 19th century. One source of this fertiliser that is often mentioned is bird manure, guano, from islands in the Pacific ocean. The desperate state of agriculture, and the urgency that drove countries to seek out guano led to wars, ecological crisis and slavery. These issues are usually mentioned just in passing, but Gregory T. Cushman's excellent book is one of the first lengthy treatments of the subject. It turns out to be both a compelling read and a fascinating study of the interaction between ecology and capitalism. 

Cushman begins by discussing how the fertiliser properties were known and used by many indigenous societies. But the central part of his argument is focused on the industrial era. The mining of "ancient accumulations of guano, then coprolites, nitrates, rock phosphate, potassium-rich kainite, and other strata" allowed "industrial civilisation to escape the limitations imposed by nutrient recycling". [39/40] Cushman argues that the huge sources of Peruvian guano and their incorporation into the global market "jump started" the revolutionary developments of the industrial revolution.

However, the new and significant in history, as Karl Marx and David Ricardo realised, must grow out of existing relationships, 'the dung of the contradictions.' The Peruvian guano trade emerged out of two tendencies of the ecological old regime: (1) growing trade with the Pacific Basin, led by North Americans, focused initially on the hunt for whales and other marine organisms, and (2) growing interest among farmers in accelerating the cycling of nutrients through their lands, led by the British, focused especially on animal manures and ground bone. Members of Peru's Europeanised elite, for the most part, were happy to mine their new nation's patrimony, as long as it returned a nice cut of the profits produced by industrial capitalism that could be used to purchase further progress. [40]

Guano thus became a "hall mark" [47] of high-farming - the use of external inputs in agriculture to counter the consequences of capitalist production which systematically destroyed soil fertility. But, as Cushman argues, guano wasn't simply an example of this process, it helped transform agriculture into a new system that was dependent on external inputs, and "one-way patterns of production, consumption and waste". [52] 

Ironically, guano itself was a unsustainable resource when extracted on the scale that industrial agriculture demanded. Justus von Liebig, one of the key agricultural scientists who influenced Marx's ecological theory, commented that "Good fortune kindly sent guano to rescue them [farmers] in their utmost need,... but in their fatal hands, this blessing is actually turned into an instrument for impoverishing the land in the course of time". [53] He warned "Guano will ultimately come to an end, and then what is to be done?.... Bloody wars have sometimes sprung from causes of less importance". Liebig was proved right. While Cushman doesn't use the term, it's a excellent example of the metabolic rift, the way that capitalism destroys historical ecological relationships in the interest of profit.

Cushman argues that guano is played a central role in modern history, but one that is neglected by historians. His argument is more nuanced than those authors who simply discuss the role of a specific commodity, or natural resource, in human history - salt, coal, fish and so on. Because he shows how guano is a material that was developed by capitalism, and then shaped capitalism in a particular direction. "Guano and nitrates inspired wars and fuelled the growth of inequalities between classes and nations". It helped encourage industrial agriculture, the development of explosives and so on. "How many things have played such a transformative role in history?" [74]

Perhaps the greatest, and saddest consequence of this is the question of war. Cushman argues that US "overseas" imperialism "got its start" in the Pacific as they claimed "dozens of uninhabited atolls".  [78] Some of these served as important sources of guano and continued to be of important military locations. One only needs to think of the US's island hoping campaign of World War Two or the development of the atomic bomb, to understand their imperial importance. Today, of sixty-six guano islands, nine remain US possessions. [82] But as Cushman details, the annexation of these and other islands by Peru, the US and British created legacies of environmental destruction and tragic stories of betrayal and exploitation of indigenous peoples. Issues that remain, in some cases, unresolved today.

One example will have to suffice. The arrival of Peruvian labour traders on Easter Island in 1862, led to the capture of indigenous slaves to work in the guano industry. The violence of their seizure was followed by horrific conditions mining guano, in an industry that was dirty, dangerous and poisonous. The depopulation of Easter Island by "Peru's guano age", which was closely tied to the US Civil War, transformed the ecological situation on the island. It is, as Cushman emphasises, "a classic story of conquest ecological imperialism - with enslavement also playing a key role". Sometimes this took place on a shocking scale, as in the case of Banaba, a small atoll, that Cushman discusses. In 1900 this atoll was discovered to have vast amounts o guano. Which was used in grander imperial projects, destroying the island and the people who lived there:

The conversion of Australia and New Zealand into mirror images of the British Isles and Anglo North America did not happen naturally. It required the systematic destruction of several tropical islands to remake the soils and biota of these southern lands. This is the definitive case of neo-ecological imperialism. Indigenous Banabans fought valiantly to protect their human rights to subsistence and property. Their struggle starkly reveals, yet again, the failure of liberal-minded colonisers to maintain the environmental integrity of conquered territories and to protect the life, liberty and property of subjugated populations. [135]

The close link between guano, imperialism and capitalism, leads Cushman to explore ecological issues in depth - for instance the birds that produce the guano, the food they rely on and the interaction between the fishing industry and bird populations. These issues were not unknown to those who extracted the guano. The Peruvian government, for instance, placed great emphasis on understanding the ecology of the islands in order to protect this crucial (and very profitable) resource. They funded scientists and researchers to understand the guano system in order to prolong it, and this led directly to the development of ecological thinking. In 1909, a US marine zoologist Robert Coker, calculated that each pair of guano birds had a lifetime value of  $14.30 USD, which made Peru's birds the "most valuable birds in the world". [149] It is an early example of what we would now call Natural Capital, an approach that direct arises out of capitalist attempts to understand and protect nature.

So guano created an scientific and ecological approach to nature, that led to some of the first attempts to protect ecological systems. Some scientists warned of the consequences of industry destroying ecological systems. Cushman explains how, in 1947, Aldo Leopold saw a direct relations between 

the level of human violence toward the land [and] population density, and used "the guano birds... of the Antarctic seas" to exemplify the human species' ability glean nutrients "on a world wide scale" and thus "becloud and postpone the penalties of violence." [260-261]
But on the part of guano corporations, politicians and many of the scientists they employed, such ecological concerns were mainly motivated by the profit motive. Sometimes they had far reaching consequences for instance in attempts to protect fish stocks by the Peruvian government. Cushman looks in detail at the intersection between fish, guano and capitalist society to explore the ramifications of this. But Cushman argues that one of the most important legacies of these ecological studies in the Pacific was more theoretical. 

As the quote from Leopold suggests, and the involvement of William Vogt, whose scientific studies were focused on guano birds indicates, this was in the field of population studies. Through the work of figures like Vogt and Leopold, who were heavily influenced by Malthusian ideas, the ecological argument that the world was overpopulated became normalised in environmental debates. Cushman devotes a significant part of the book to exploring this, though unfortunately he doesn't debunk these ideas in any systematic way.

As the twentieth century continued, guano once again played a role in new industrial and ecological processes. As Cushman explains:

Like the guano and nitrate booms of the nineteenth century, the Green and Blue Revolutions involved fundamental changes in humanity's relationship to nitrogen, phosphorus and the Pacific Ocean. In... In the case of the Blue Revolution, the development of high-yielding chickens and pigs was premised on the availability of high protein feeds... a major share of this protein came from the Pacific coast of Peru. In both cases, these revolutions started out with the intention of improving the living stands of Third World peoples so that they would experience the demographic transition and avert Malthusian crisis and Marxist revolution.

In terms of the food revolution though, Cushman argues that the main beneficiaries allowed a "portion of the world's population to become fatter but left billions thin or thinner than they have ever been". [328] 

Cushman explains that his book has shown the importance of the ignored "history of our relationship with excrement" which can "uncover the existence of historical forces acting on a scale invisible to histories developed under more traditional constraints and to demonstrate the relevance of remote territories, obscure peoples, and little-known organisms to some of the most important trends of the modern age." [341] 

At times I think Cushman over-emphasises his central thesis. Nonetheless the book certainly does highlight many episodes that demonstrate that global history was dramatically changed when imperialism linked the Pacific guano islands into the global capitalist economy. Indeed, by weaving together guano, capitalist production and ecological ideas, Cushman provides a detailed critique of capitalism's inevitable ecological destruction. Because this is based on new material, from a region of the world that is too often neglected in these discussions, his book ought to become a central work for radical anti-capitalists thinking about ecology and capitalism. I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Foster - Marx's Ecology
Foster & Clark - The Robbery of Nature
Foster - The Ecological Revolution
Isett & Miller - The Social History of Agriculture
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture from the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

James Ellroy - American Tabloid

American Tabloid is the dark underbelly of the American dream. Set in the years leading up to the assassination of President John F Kennedy, it follows the interweaving stories of three main characters, each of them representing different violent, racist, right-wing sections of the USA. We have FBI agents out organising to ensure black people in the South can vote, while working with the KKK to push their interests elsewhere. There are political assassins, mafia agents and dirty lawyers.

We've got corrupt politicians, businessmen and union leaders (step forward Hoffa) pushing their interests, by preparing to assassinate, bribe and steal their way to further wealth and power. We've got right-wingers and anti-Communists organising to overthrow Castro in the Bay of Pigs, and happy to work with any armed bigot they can, and we've got a handful of people who think the world could be a better place.

Its a compelling, vicious read. As Ellroy weaves the stories together (each of his characters trying to compartmentalise different bits of their life from each other) all the threads head towards Dallas and November 22 1963, as JFK is heading out on a motorcade.

Fiction and reality mingle here. Real life characters like JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Howard Hughes interact with some truly nasty fictional characters. Sometimes its difficult to work out who is real and who isn't. The real problem is that it feels so real, that it seems Ellroy's got his hands on some secret US government files and knows what really happened.

The frightening thing, and Ellroy's great achievement, is that it could be. Ellroy's punctured prose is a bit like the noise a machine gun makes and sometimes I lost track of who was speaking or being shot. But it certainly kept the tension up. I'm looking forward to the remaining volumes in the trilogy.

Related Reviews

Ellroy - L.A.Confidential

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Simon Winchester - The Map that Changed the World

A couple of years ago I was visiting the Cotswolds, and by chance found myself in the village of Churchill. There me and my partner encountered an suitably massive memorial to the "father of British geology" William Smith. You can see a photo I took below. Despite a general interest in geology I knew little about Smith, but determined to find out. As these things go, I immediately forgot to do that, until about a year later I was again in the Cotswolds and in a second hand bookshop when I chanced upon Simon Winchester's book. Ironically I was there to hear another geologist, Richard Fortey, speak.

Winchester's book is not a straight biography. Instead it focuses on William Smith's greatest achievement, a strata map of the British Isles. Smith grew up in Churchill where he was the son of a blacksmith but had an abiding interest in stones and fossils. Having an aptitude for mathematics he became a surveyor and his skills led him, despite his youth, to be given substantial commissions. One of these was the surveying of the coal field near Bath. As he descended into the mines, and after talking to miners, Smith realised that there was a regular sequence of strata down through the Earth - layers of different types of rock, seams of coal and so on. These, he eventually came to understand, could be identified by different fossils and formed a pattern across the landscape. 

Smith clearly was a genius when it came to geology. Despite his working class background he quickly found himself employed surveying the route for a new canal that would bring coal from Somerset to urban centres. This allowed him to indulge his personal hobby of studying locations of strata, and the trips that he did to examine other canals gave him opportunities to do the same across the country. Being a geological genius did not extend to other talents, and once unemployed he found himself earning a living as a successful freelance surveyor, but overextended his spending and quickly found himself in debt. Desperate to produce a strata map of England, he bought multiple properties in order to live the life associated with a man of science. Eventually, just as his map finally appeared, and when many of his wealthy sponsors had given up, he found himself in debtors prison.

Then, in a move that seems inconceivable today, the gentlemen backers of the Geological Society stole his map and produced their own version. No doubt they thought they could get away with it in the face of the lowly Smith.

Winchester's book is beautifully written and feels like a novel. The geological information is explained clearly, but what makes it stand out is the way that Winchester is able to place Smith's genius in the context of his times. Britain's industrialisation, indeed the agricultural revolution taking place in Churchill, meant that Smith's ideas fitted exactly into the needs of the emerging industrial economy. Had Smith been born twenty-five years earlier, he may well have developed ideas about strata and geology, but they wouldn't have caught on because he would not have found himself in the midst of the coal and canal boom. 

The book's novel like structure succeeds, because there is a rather happy ending. By chance, after Smith had left London in despair, his ideas found a new champion and the Geological society's injustice was reversed. Smith was given a decent pension by the government, feted by the new scientific community and welcomed back with open arms by a new generation. This new generation of geologists were much closer to the scientific community of today, rather than gentlemen thinkers. Yet Smith didn't quite fit into this either - he was unable to get to grips with new science and others took up his mantle. 

Winchester's book is readable, and its subject both human and geological fascinating. I wish I'd had a chance to read it while exploring the Cotswolds, and encourage anyone going down that way to get hold of a copy. It will bring the landscape to life, perhaps similar to the way that William Smith pictured what lay beneath.

Related Reviews

Winchester - Krakatoa
Fortey - The Earth: An Intimate History

Elmore Leonard - Maximum Bob

I first read Elmore Leonard's Maximum Bob about twenty years ago. It was first published in 1991, but many of its themes feel incredibly relevant today. The novel focuses on Bob Gibbs, a bigoted and right-wing judge who sees his role as deploying "maximum" punishments to offenders with the belief that most of his (black) defendants are guilty, or will be guilty, and should simply be locked away.

But several plot lines swirl around this. Bob's in a loveless marriage with Leanne, who believes she is challenging the spirit of a young slave girl Wanda Grace. Bob uses his position of power and influence to seduce multiple women, blaming his wife for his infidelity. He plots to drive his wife away by introducing a live alligator from the Florida swamps into their garden. Her terror of these animals is linked to a near death experience when she was a mermaid performer at a Florida water park.

Finally, Kathy Baker, is a probation officer, trying to make sure her clients stay within the law, but are also treated equitably by the law. She quickly butts head with the Judge who immediately attempts to sleep with her. 

Baker's clients, the Judge's victims and many other amusing characters are set up for a complex story as plots of revenge against Maximum Bob get mixed up with his attempts to drive his wife away. A second major plot line deals with Bakers blooming love affair with a policeman who is trying to understand what is going on.

Maximum Bob deals with a broken justice system, but it is essentially a black comedy. It doesn't have much of an insight into the dark under-belly of the United States, though this is certainly in the back ground. I think it might have been written different in a Black Lives Matter world. There is also an amusing reference to Donald Trump, as one character refers to his wealth and another hasn't heard of him. 

Maximum Bob is now is slightly dated, but still an entertaining read and Leonard certainly has an brilliant ability to weave various storylines together and bring them together with a bang. The final sentence certainly hit me hard.

Related Reviews

Leonard - The Switch
Leonard - Glitz

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Jane Harper - The Lost Man

Set in the deep outback of Australia, where cattle farmers struggle against the heat, desert, lack of water and the narrowminded communities that they live in, this tight thriller is a tense read. The best thing about Jane Harper's book is undoubtedly her depiction of out-back Australia, a place were few go except farmers, their families, a few back packers and a handful of state employees. But she has also constructed a brilliant story, full of tension and misdirection, where the outback is as much a character as the group of people at the heart of the story.

When Cameron Bright is found dead, no one can understand it. A relatively successful rancher and family man, with no enemies and no reason to commit suicide, there seems to be no explanation. Yet there are enough inconsistencies to make his brother Nathan suspicious. Something is just not quite right. As the heat of the summer swamps Christmas, Nathan's explorations of his brother's family open some deep wounds and it soon becomes clear that Cameron was killed. But why? And by whom?

I really enjoyed Harper's gradual expose of the Bright families secrets. The parallel stories of Nathan's own dark history are handled neatly too, as is his relationship with his son and ex-wife. The ending is remarkably satisfying, tying up a load of lose ends very well. This certainly is a page turner, and I while I am not normally one for tension, and enjoyed this a lot.

Friday, December 03, 2021

Gregory Claeys - Utopia: The History of an Idea

I picked up Gregory Claeys book at the same time as I got hold of A.L. Morton's The English Utopia. The concept of Utopia has fascinated me after reading William Morris' News from Nowhere many years ago, and, during writing about peasant rebellions, the story of Cockaigne. 

Claeys' book, as the subtitle suggests, intends to be a history of Utopia as a concept. It begins strongly, placing the discussion in the context of the ecology and economic crisis of 21st century capitalism. Claeys cautions that "Utopia struggles to retain its validity" in the face of such prospective disasters. He suggests that it is a "new and soberer utopianism that we might contemplate in 2020" with "rights and identity-based movements" proliferating. These "clinge ever more insecurely to the socially liberal ideal of a grand extension of tolerance to all, and the uplift of the oppressed and exploited". He concludes, "for most utopia, a word again on the lips of many thousands, is coming to mean a reaction to the catastrophes of the present century, and not a revival of the ideals of the past."

Instead Claeys argues that we must look to the radical and dramatic utopias of the past, to understand a future that "may ensure our survival". Thus begins his sweeping history of utopia. He begins with a swift look at religious utopias, including some fascinating material on early Christianity and how that arose out of the idealism of ancient societies. This is followed by Thomas More's Utopia, and a good discussion of the context of this, and then the medieval urban and rural utopian dreams. His discussion of the phenomena of desert island novels, and how they are used to satirise contemporary societies is interesting, as is Claeys' summary of the way that the "discovery" of the New World by European colonists provoked discussion about idealist societies, or places that did things differently in terms of property ownership, matriarchy or idealised cities.

From this he briefly survives attempts to create idealised communes, and the reasons for their failures before tackling the socialist thinkers. I found the coverage of Robert Owen's attempts to create benevolent capitalist factories interesting, though his summary of Marx and Engels is inadequate. He argues that the "utopian quality" of their thought lies in "assumptions about the more robust sociability and continuing sense of self-sacrifice of the working classes" and the "historical inevitability" of socialist revolution. What he misses is the centrality placed by Marx and Engels on the needed for revolutionary to transform both society and those who make the revolution - crudely, and wrongly, suggesting by this that Marx and Engels meant a "cleansing" of the perpetrators of violent revolution. He also falls into the trap that Marx saw Communism as inevitable - rather than seeing it as one potential outcome of class struggle. From here Claeys moves on to discuss the utopianism of modernity, technology and then science fiction.

Readers looking for a quick summary of utopian thought will find many places to branch off from in this book. Unfortunately the format and content meant that much of the book fails to offer the detail that readers will want. Much is simply lists of examples - books, pamphlets and films that fit the particular chapters, and sometimes key thinkers are summarised very briefly and inadequately. On occasion I wondered at his all too brief summaries. It is inaccurate to say that Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land is an example of "projecting human evolution millions of a years hence". It might have been more useful and insightful had Claeys listed fewer examples and explored them in more detail.

As such as found the book disappointing and inadequate. I do agree with Claeys' final conclusion that "our ideal world must be very much of our creation", but really that world will not be a utopia, it will be a reality that arises out of contemporary, and historic, struggles. I had hoped to learn more about how radical ideas, utopian dreams or alternate visions, arise out of real concrete situations, instead of felt that this was just a list of those ideas, with little material grounding.

Related Reviews

Paul - Thomas More
Winstanley - The Law of Freedom and Other Writings
Hill - The World Turned Upside Down
Mahamdallie - Crossing The River Of Fire: The Socialism Of William Morris
Engels - Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

Smaje - A Small Farm Future
Gorgut - Poor Man's Heaven: The Land of Cokaygne and other Utopian Visions