Thursday, March 30, 2023

Bob Scribner (ed) - Germany: A New Social & Economic History, 1450-1630, Volume 1

Bob Scribner's "new" social and economic history of Germany is part of an academic series of works aiming to give a detailed account of the rise of the modern German state. The books are aimed very much at students, and consist of a highly self-contained chapters that look at particular aspects of the period. This volume, covering the end of the Medieval era from 1450 until 1630, is a period that includes the Reformation and much of the Thirty Years War, so it is a meaty chunk of history. 

However reading the various chapters it is difficult to get a complete sense of the period itself. So while it is useful to read chapters on, for instance, the economic landscape (Tom Scott), Diet (Ulf Dirlmeier and Gerhard Fouquet) or Daily Life (Robert Jutte), it is sometimes difficult to remember how they fit into a bigger historical narrative. This is not to say that there is not much of interest here. Tom Scott opens the book with an excellent summary of the different historical trajectory of various parts of Germany. He notes how some areas differed radically from other parts of the country and other parts of Europe:

There was no widespread enclosure movement in northern Germany in the sixteenth century along the lines of England... In general, pastoralism in northern Germany tended to serve the market for both meat and dairy produce, whereas in the Alps there was a greater concentration upon dairying.. The sharply increased demand for meat from the urban centres of southern and western Germany could no longer be covered by purely regional supplies; instead the cities came to rely upon livestock imports driven on the hoof, often over immense distances. 

Such insights are important, but they felt repeatedly discontented from other chapters which leads on the one hand to some repetition and on the other to the loss of insight. At worst they end up making much of these chapters a series of fascinating insights and facts, rather than a cohesive argument. That said, some of the chapters are really useful summaries, Christian Pfister's chapter on Population traces the complex rise and fall of the German population, from around 9 million in 1500 to 1600 when the population was around 16 million. This great rise came on the back of a 14th century collapse, that decimated and depopulated whole areas. But even the early growth was enough to provoke discontent. Pfister notes that some rebellious peasants in 1525 drew up articles complaining about the shortage of arable land. 

But it is perhaps the growth of trade, and the development of early capitalism in this period, that is of most interest. Several articles examine the implications of this and note attempts to manage and control trade. From the 14th century cities like Cologne were developing extensive links, by the 15th century saw "long-distance trade to England and Danzig with iron, steel, tin and wire". Small towns were "taking on the character of subsidiary centres for the metropolis" with many other industries such as mining, becoming important for economies across the continent. 

The implications for this on communities and the family unit were profound. One of the most interesting chapters is Merry E. Wiesner's on "Gender and the Worlds of Work" which shows how the place of women was reinforced by a conscious approach to education that forced women into subordinate roles. Wiesner notes how studying women's names and identifies helps us understand gender and social roles and position in the period:

It is important to recognise... that 'the wife of a smith' is also an occupational title in the late middle ages and did not simply indicate marital status. That title carried with it a set of responsibilities and duties which the woman herself as well as her neighbours and associates, understood; it was not honorific in the way that calling the wife of a doctor 'die Doktorin' would be in the Eighteenth century. This conflation of occupational and marital title illustrates the fusing of work identify and family identity for women.

These roles were reinforced by a whole number of institutions of "church and state", and the state worried about how they might be upset. Wiesner quotes a clerical author who "commentated that letting the wife take charge would be as bad as the Peasants' Revolt, 'when the subjects wanted to be lords'." The Reformation, they note, furthered this process by defining women's role as "mothers". As Wiesner highlights:

Over the course of the next several centuries, women were excluded from some areas of production, but, more importantly, their productive tasks were increasingly defined as reproductive, as related to 'housekeeping'. Women worked, but what the did was no longer thought of as work.

This is an important insight, and shows how the developing capitalist world transformed what the family unit did and how it functioned. Crucially this was taken to the next level by the Protestant Reformation which "gave it a strong religious sanction by making worker or mother the ideal for all people, not simply the second class Christians who could not remain celibate".  They continue:

We often view the idea of separate spheres for men and women as a product of the nineteenth century, created by the Industrial Revolution, bourgeois notions of domesticity, and Victorian sexuality. I think we can see the roots of this idea much earlier, though the economic and physical structures which would allow actual separation developed more slowly... and would never develop for lower-class people. What did being in the nineteenth century... was the enshrinement of a gendered notion of work in statistical language, defining a man as a 'day labourer' but a woman who took in washing, sewed curtains in other people's homes, sold eggs from her own chickens and taught her children to read as a 'housewife' with none of these jobs contributing to the GNP. The gendered notion of work created in Renaissance Europe is to a great extent still with us.

I've dwelt on Wiesner's capture here partly because it reflects some themes I am focussing on myself, but more importantly because it exemplifies two things about this book very well. First the first rate scholarship in the pieces. Secondly however it shows how self contained the arguments are. Each of these chapters have something to offer the reader, and readers will perhaps focus on specific chapters. Reading the book from cover to cover was, at times, a slog - not least because it is a text book. But students of the period will find much of interest.

Related Reviews

Baylor - The German Reformation & the Peasants' War: A Brief History with Documents
Blickle - The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants' War from a new perspective
Bax - German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

M.D. Lachlan - Celestial


takes us back to the days of Apollo. The early missions are over. The space race, however, isn't. The Soviets are on the moon and the United States are keeping an eye on them. This monitoring allows NASA to spy on the Russians as their mission finds a hatch in the lunar surface. Opening this, and entering, leads to the Russian lunar explorers vanishing. Markings on the surface, and other intercepted intelligence, leads NASA to recruit a specialist linguist Ziggy Da Luca.  Da Luca is an expert in languages. She speakers Italian, French and Russian and can "fake it in Spanish". Crucially to the mission she is about to embark on, she can speak three Tibetan dialects and read classical Tibetan. This is important because the marking on the hatch on the moon are very similar to those in many ancient Earth locations and in particular to scripts and markings from ancient Tibet that hint at "ancient astronauts".

So Da Luca is whisked to the moon with three other Apollo astronauts, one of whom is a racist Vietnam vet called Griffin who is suffering badly from PTSD. On the moon their return vehicle is apparently destroyed by arriving Soviet craft and inside the Tibetan lunar structure the US and Soviet astronauts proceed to shoot at each other, then make a wary alliance, as they explore the alien world.

Inside the moon the alien structure seems to respond to their emotional state. As our racist astronaut becomes increasingly unable to cope, he hallucinates weapons and aliens, other visions from ancient Russian folktales attack the humans while Griffin tries to shoot them. The humans cross an ocean in Baba Yah's hut, fly around on a spacecraft modelled on Space 1999 and have an encounter with one of the earlier, lost cosmonauts who has changed into a giant squirrel. Eventually some of them get back, but only because Da Luca is able to call upon her own, understanding of Tibetan culture and languages and navigate them home - while Griffin flies.

When I read the first chapter I described the book as "gloriously silly". By the end I just thought it was silly. The plot hangs together based on a sequence of increasingly bizarre events constructed from various subconsciousness, and there is almost no pay off at the end. Perhaps if this had been building to a great reveal, I would have been satisfied. But we never really learn why, or what, is happening inside the moon. There are some small pay offs. The evil Russians are dealt with, and Griffin overcomes some of his racism. But, the negatives outweigh it all. And there are too many unanswered questions - not least is how NASA made an astronaut out of a man who clearly had intense PTSD, and whose racist towards Vietnamese people makes him entirely unsuitable to be in a confined space with someone of Asian heritage.

The author has inserted some references designed to be amusing with our hindsight - "What the fuck is a mandala?" asks a senior NASA figure. "I thought he was a some terrorist in prison in Africa". Its not that funny, or clever - but its the best this shallow book seems to offer.


Related Reviews

Hadfield - The Apollo Murders
Burgess - The Greatest Adventure: A History of Human Space Exploration
First on the Moon - A Voyage with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin Aldrin
French & Burgess - In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquillity 1965-1969
Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Earl Swift - Across the Airless Wilds

Across the Airless Wilds, a history of the Lunar Rover and its voyages on the final three Apollo missions, might seem like a niche subject - even for those of us fascinated by the history of space exploration. Yet Earl Swift's book is a surprisingly gripping read and deserves a readership beyond the narrow confines of enthusiasts. 

The rover concept had its origins in the near fantasy science fiction stories that shaped the early popular vision of rockets and spaceflight. In those gaudy depictions of Americans on space, popular magazines depicted astronauts exploring the moon and travelling around in a variety of vehicles. For a society seeped in automobile culture it seemed inevitable that visionaries, scientists and science-fiction authors would suggest that moon explorers would soon need a "car". Yet oddly the first people to really push the idea of such vehicles were not Americans, they were German scientists.

Just before reading Across the Airless Wilds I finished a book about the early Atomic scientists and the development of the atomic bomb. Robert Jungk's Brighter Than 1000 Suns showed how former German nuclear scientists were central to the US development of the Atomic bomb. This was also true of the space programme, and indeed the Lunar Rover. Two key figures in its early development Werner von Braun and Hermann Oberth were both  German scientists, with von Braun at least having played a significant role in the Nazi war effort. Swift makes a point that many key figures in the US space programme were "foreign born". 

He continues "America's race to reach the moon, both within NASA and at the aerospace companies that built the hardware, relied on the minds and talents of immigrants - on Americans who happened to start their lives elsewhere." It is hard not to think that Swift is taking a dig at the right-wing politicians in the US (and elsewhere) who attack immigrants, but he makes an important general point about the space programme itself - it was the product of an enormous amount of physical and mental labour by hundreds of thousands of people, and its roots go back into the early twentieth century. That said, Swift does not ignore the murky parts of this history. We cannot forget the fact that one of the key architects of the Apollo programme was a former leading member of the SS and it is important that Swift acknowledges this.

I highlight this to emphasise that Swift's book is no mere celebration of technical achievement, but places that achievement in the context of the time and politics. That said the technical and economic history of the Lunar Rover makes up the bulk of this book, and readers will be fascinated by how the Rover itself came to be. Despite its long intellectual gestation, the Rover itself was only given the go ahead by NASA a few days before Apollo 11 lifted off to put Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. The engineers had a limited budget and barely 18 months to turn their designs into a functioning vehicle. It seems utterly incredible that it happened, not least as it began around the time that budgets for moon flights were beginning to be cut back. Nevertheless it is testament to the way that the central drive from the state could make things happen far faster than would normally take place if just left to the free market.

The Rover was far more than a car on the moon. It had to be incredibly light and strong, rugged and safe. It had to be able to take its passengers far away from their spacecraft and bring them back. This required incredible inventions in terms of batteries, cooling, and navigation instruments. Even the tires are unique and incredible inventions. The accounts of the six astronauts who drove the Rover on the moon, and how they fared are breath-taking in and of themselves, especially when you see the interaction between crewmembers and technology in terms of solving problems on the lunar surface.

Swift points out that the Rover's importance was not just in terms of exploration. It also helped inspire and reawaken public interest in the programme. As I said earlier this is, in no small part, because of the centrality of the car to US culture. Few people could imagine piloting a lunar lander. But everyone could imagine driving a car. Video of astronauts skidding and racing on the surface touched a nerve in a way that the early astronauts bunny hopping did not. I would have liked Swift to explore this further - not least to draw out more about how the public understood and celebrated the Rover itself. 

There is no doubt that the Rover transformed lunar exploration and massively increased the amount of science that the Apollo machines did. The price tag was around 250 million USD in today's money - a significant investment. Whether that sort of spending was worthwhile is something that continues to be discussed today. Nevertheless the story of the Lunar Rover is the story of how when resources and labour are set to solve a technological task, then the amazing can be achieved. It is a lesson we could do with applying to many other social and economic needs today.

Related Reviews

Rubenstein - Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race
Burgess - The Greatest Adventure: A History of Human Space Exploration
First on the Moon - A Voyage with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin Aldrin
French & Burgess - In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquillity 1965-1969
Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon

Monday, March 13, 2023

Neil Davidson - How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions

There is no doubt that Neil Davidson's How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions is a piece of remarkable scholarly work, and demonstrates the enormous breadth of the late author's knowledge. It is perhaps one of the most impressive works by a Marxist within a crowded field of study. The question of Bourgeois Revolutions has been hotly debated on the left, within Marxism and with other approaches to history. Davidson's work is both a study of the subject and a study of the histography of bourgeois revolutions.

The importance to Marxists of the concept of bourgeois revolution is two fold. Firstly, for Marx and Engels, the transition to capitalism, from pre-capitalist societies (most importantly feudalism in Western Europe) offered insights into the revolutionary transtition from capitalism to socialism. More importantly though, the process offered insights into the development of capitalism itself, which helped illuminate its own inner workings and the role of the capitalist class itself. Marx and Engels were keenly interested inthis class, whose machinations in 1848 held back the revolutionary movement in Germany and elsewhere, unlike their predecessors in France and, to a lesser extent, England. Davidson notes that "the Marxist theory of history required a concept of bourgeois revolution; but one did not lie readily at hand". 

The concept of bourgeois revolution also mattered because it destroyed the idea that capitalism was natural and eternal, rather it showed that capitalism had to be fought for by a class with interests in its development. As Marx and Engels said, "when the economists say that present-day relations - the relations of bourgeois production - are natural, they imply that these are the relations in which wealth is created and productive forces developed in conformity with the laws of nature". The existence of a bourgeois revolution proved the opposite.

Davidson's book then is a defence of the concept, at the same time as a demonstration that the definition of a bourgeois revolution is extremely difficult. Drawing parallels between evenst in England in the 1640s and France in the 1790s is one thing. But trying to include the American Civil War, the Germany Revolution of 1848/9, and the Russian Revolution of February 1917 make such a definition difficult indeed. The granting of a general definition becomes even harder when exploring the arrival of capitalism in countries like Japan for instance.

Davidson argues his point well, but, it is hard to sometimes work out precisely what his point is. In part this is a problem caused by the huge amount of information within the book. Davidson is fond of quoting extensively from other writers and historians, and while usefully illustrating his point (and demonstrating the author's incredibly extensive knowledge of the material) it obscures more than illuminates. A bigger problem comes from Davidson's failure to describe historical events themselves in any detail. He assumes a general awareness of the English and French Revolutions, which is fair enough in a book that is not aimed at people reading their first work about Marx. But he also assumes knowledge about every other transition - from China to Japan. Crucially, and most perplexing to me, he fails to illustrate the examples of revolution with well, accounts of revolution. The storming of the Bastille is surely a crucial revolutionary moment of the French Revolution. Yet it gets no mention. Bizarrely this 800 off page book on bourgeois revolution feels at times like it contains little actual revolution.

Davidson would no doubt defend this by arguing that the revolutionary transition is the actually transformation from one society to another, and this is, of course, correct. But the extent of the bourgeoise's revolutionary nature surely lies, in part, in what they did and didn't do. What they oversaw, encouraged and what they didn't. 

That said there are two parts of the book that are exemplary. The first of these are the chapters on Marx and Engels and what they actually said. Davidson gets too the heart of this and draws out their developing ideas brilliantly. If you only read one part of this massive book, make it this section. The other part of the book that is really good was the chapter on "preconditions for an era of bourgeois revolution" which successfully laid out, using a multitude of examples, the way that capitalist relations begin to develop and lay the basis for revolution. The importance of this lies, as Davidson says, "where and when capitalism shifted from the periphery to the center of economic life was in very large part dependent on the nature of the pre-capitalist state". It is this ambiguity of route and timing of the transition that makes the subject so extensive. Davidson gives a sense of this when he writes:

In most societies where the economy was transitional from precapitalist modes of production to the capitalist mode, states remained under the control of the precapitalist ruling class, although they adapted to the new conditions, most typically in the emergence of absolutism: society became increasingly opposed to the state. As we have seen, these tension were resolved either by a direct external challenge tot he state from the new social classes created by capitalism or, in order to avoid this outcome while enabling the ability to compete in geopolitical terms, by internal pressure from sections of the existing ruling class who themselves undertook the process of transforming the state - or some combination of these two paths, with one predominating.

On the same page he also emphasises that we have to "reject the assumption that all immediately precapitalist states have to map tidily and conveniently onto our categories of tributary, feudal estates  or feudal absolutist monarchy." Rather, Davidson points out, Marxism gives us the tools to be able to understand the transition to capitalism in the various forms that it took place without falling into a one size fits all model.

Davidson's book is epic in scope and detailed in argument. It is not an easy read, and in places I would accuse the author of indulgence. Perhaps this is unfair of me - after all Davidson writes from a Marxist tradition that I would generally agree with - and it is brilliant to see thinkers like Leon Trotsky, Tony Cliff and Chris Harman being acknowledged for their insights instead of the endless stream of Marxist academics usually held up as authorities. But upon finishing the book I was struck by the difficulties in summarising what Davidson was actually arguing, and as such I felt the book failed in answering adequately the answer the author set out to address.

Related Reviews

Perry - Marxism and History
Harman - Marxism and History
Callinicos - Making History

Friday, March 10, 2023

S.J. Klapecki - Station Six

Rarely does science fiction address the lives of ordinary people. Station Six is different. Set in a space station "60 million miles" from Earth, it looks at what happens to a group of workers when their jobs are under threat. Normally readers of novels set on space stations might imagine glistening white corridors, alien spacecraft arriving to make first contact and stories driven by (usually) male heroes. Station Six dispenses with all this fantasy and asks instead, what happens to workers in the future when their livelihoods are threatened by corporate plans to maximise profits? The answer is that they fight back.

The novel opens with Max. Hungry and broke they are heading their job working on Station Six's docking bay. Max is managed by the sort of middle manager whose corporate speak and fake inspiration will be familiar to anyone whose ever had any sort of dead-end job. The job is not exciting, or space age - it is boring and repetitive, and the workers never make enough to pay off their debt to the company. As a result Max, with his buddies, goof off and mess about - finding ways to evade the high-tech monitoring systems. But Max has other ways of coping - a side-line in hacking the body mods of their fellow workers to get around costly software updates and they also hope to get involved in the anarchist resistance and union movements. It is their skills in this arena that mean they are drawn into the heart of the fight back.

When corporate announce that Station Six is going to be converted into a luxury holiday resort, and the workers' will lose their jobs, a strike breaks out and Max finds themselves central to the movement that will hopefully win change. Klapecki does well to show how future technological advances won't automatically benefit working people - here spaceflight, body mods and other marvels haven't liberated anyone - instead they've become yet another way of trapping people into the corporate drive to accumulate wealth for the rich. There's a great scene in the book when Max and some of their fellow radicals break into an area of the space station reserved for the super-rich. It is filled with luxury and evidence of a relaxing lifestyle, an alien environment - but one that is supposed to be available to everyone who works hard for the machine.

But I felt that Klapecki's depiction of the resistance itself did not quite work. Too rapidly it became the story of a few key individuals whose actions would help the rest of the strikers liberate themselves. I was more interested in the depictions of how the strike liberated individuals and allowed ordinary people to being to distribute the fruits of their own labour collectively. The bar where beer was free, and the coffee machines hacked to dispense drinks to anyone who wanted one. That side of the collective struggle was more exciting than the militarised action that focused on Max and his compatriots evasion of the corporate security systems.

That said, Station Six is a fun and unusual novel. The author's use of non-binary language and their inclusion of LGBT+ characters is important, as is their willingness to depict the lives and struggles of working people. I particularly liked the way that Max's own anxieties are integrated into the story of the rebellion. Revolutionaries and strikers are rarely heroes - everyone always worries and second guesses themselves. It was nice to see this drawn out. Sadly it all ended far too quickly - I would have liked to know what happened next to the Station Six Commune.

Related Reviews

Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman
Aldiss - Billion Year Spree
Kuang - Babel
Miles - Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the fight for trans liberation

Thursday, March 02, 2023

Alastair Reynolds - Eversion

*** Spoilers ***

Alastair Reynolds' standalone novels tend to be very different to the high-tech, galaxy spanning books set in his longer series. But Eversion is completely different. It begins with Doctor Silas Coade on a fifth rate sailing vessel exploring the freezing Norwegian fjords for a strange construction that has been reported by earlier explorers. We quickly meet key characters from the crew, all unique - there's a political refugee from Russia who acts as some sort of soldier, the confident captain and the funder of the mission who clearly has something to hide. In addition, Coade's literary nemesis Ada Cossile, who constantly criticizes Coade's writing and speech, and then seemingly mocks him at his death. Because Coade dies in an accident just after the ship has discovered an inexplicable edifice in the ice.

Then Coade is reincarnated. Now he is a Doctor on a steam vessel off Patagonia, but this time crewed by the same characters, none of whom remember the previous voyage, and at the point when they discover the edifice again, Coade is killed again. This time as as result of the betrayals of the voyage's rich funder. Again Cossile is disappointed at his death.

The process repeats, steam ship is replaced by dirigible and then a space vessel. Elements of the narrative are repeated, and each time the trip goes further, but the narrative begins to break down. Others seem to remember earlier trips and Cossile keeps hinting at her deeper knowledge.

The twist is that Coade isn't real. He is Code in a computer and Ada is another subroutine desperately trying to wake Coade/Code so that he can rescue the real crew members who are trapped on a space mission doing first contact on Jupiter's moon Europa. Once we learn this, many elements of the earlier plots click into place and readers might enjoy finding what signposts Reynolds placed in the narrative. The final part of the story is a more conventional science-fiction yarn as Coade and Ada get the humans out of a rather alien danger. 

As I said, this is unusual, but it seems to fit with Reynolds' style - though it felt like a padded short story rather than a novel. That said the characters are drawn very well, particularly Coade, which is ironic as he is not actually real. Reynolds does a nice twist on the traditional AI depiction, by basically giving Coade the personality of a 18th century, small town doctor - and an AI romance to boot.

Reynolds' consistently constructs new and innovative worlds in his books. Eversion will be enjoyed by those who are familiar with his work and those new to it.

Related Reviews

Reynolds – Redemption Ark
Reynolds - House of Suns
Reynolds - Revenger
Reynolds - Inhibitor Phase
Reynolds - Blue Remembered Earth
Reynolds - The Prefect
Reynolds - Zima Blue
Reynolds - Terminal World
Reynolds - Pushing Ice
Reynolds - Slow Bullets