Saturday, April 29, 2023

Peter Stanford - Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident

Reading Peter Stanford's biography of Martin Luther in Wittenberg itself was a very stimulating experience. Stanford's book is the first one about Luther that I've read from an explicitly Catholic point of view, though it must be said that the author themselves is perhaps a very liberal member of his church. 

Stanford places Luther in the context of a broken and corrupt church, in a "very specific time and in a very specific set of circumstances". Like many other of Luther's biographers Stanford argues that the formative aspects to Luther's character came from his youth - in particular his father and specific experiences. These created someone with an "inflexible, troubled personality". But Stanford is not so reductionist as to simply believe that relations between parent and child led directly to the Reformation. Indeed Stanford argues that Luther was driven by, "his insights into God's justice that challenged the orthodoxy of the day, but also an array of external factors around politics, dynasties and the exercise of power in the Catholic Church."

So it is the political situation that forms the context for Luther's growing discontent with the Church and his (alleged) posting of the 95 theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. For those fascinated with these things, and those visitors to the church itself, Stanford tends to suggest that the "nailing" of the theses on the door did not actually happen. Though, as he points out, this is hardly the point. The publication of these theses set in train a process that did lead to the Reformation and the break in the Church. Though as the author explains, in part this was due to mistakes by the Church hierarchy itself.

Standford shows how Luther closely linked his critique of the church with the political and economic context. For instance, Luther writes: "Before long, all the churches, palaces, walls and bridges of Rome will be built of our money. First of all we should rear living temples, next local churches and only last of all Saint Peter's." This link between religious reform and economic conditions creates the context for the mass rebellion of the Peasants War in 1525, eight years after Luther's publishes his theses.

Stanford's book opens with his own experiences in the town and this travelogue aspect to the book shapes much of the narrative.  Reading the book in Wittenberg I was struck several times by the way the official marking of key Reformation events in the city, removes the mass context. For instance Stanford describes the mass invasion of the Schlosskirche by angry townspeople who break images and protest. Something that Luther was enormously fearful of, yet which isn't recorded in the official histories on the site. Nor are similar mass participations in the attacks on monasteries. Instead there is a tendency to portray the Reformation as a passive event were ordinary people took part by attending church and reading books. Stanford, instead, describes a mass Reformation, driven by discontent theologically and economically. We see this in the fears of the ruling class when the Church orders the burning of Luther's works:

Albrecht summoned up his courage and ordered a public bonfire of Luther's books in Mainz, only to see it halted by just the sort of popular insurrection he had feared. The official charged with lighting the flames was so worried about the reaction of the crowd that had gathered in protest that he sought their consent before starting the fire. They refused, he reported back to the archbishop, on the grounds that Luther's works had not been lawfully condemned. He did not proceed.

This is most notable with his account of the Peasants' War. Stanford rightly argues that the "Church did not exist in a vacuum from the society around it. There was... no dividing line between religion and what might be broadly be called politics, economics or society". And for one group of Germans, the peasantry, this lead to outright rebellion. James M. Stayer has written that the Peasants' War was the "expression of the Reformation in the countryside", and Stanford's book supports this. Stanford writes

By the language of the street that he used, the ecclesiastical corruption and incompetence that he highlighted, and even his own relatively humble beginnings, Luther had a strong appeal for the lower orders... As he took his stand against the two great powers of the age - the Pope and the emperor - he excited an anticipation of more to come as his reform programme easily... became conflated with the prospect of better circumstances in daily lives, where economic woes would be addressed and that widespread sense of being excluded finally tackled. In the minds of his hearers , the religious and the political were one.

This made it even more shocking to the Peasants when Luther sided with the authorities and called for the rebels to be murdered. In explaining this aspect Stanford tends to argue that Luther's ideas of transformation focused on the ideological and this meant that he could not countenance the idea of radical change. But I don't think this is enough, and I think there is a deeper explanation. The problem I think is that Stanford locates Luther's Reformation in the context of the politics of the era, without trying too look deeper at the economic changes taking place. Beyond the conflicts between powers and the sense of a changing urban economy, I don't think that Stanford adequately shows how these political conflicts arose out of the gradual birth of a new capitalist order. Luther, as I think many left historians have shown, aligned his interests with the new urban merchant petty-bourgeois class. This meant he sided with the authorities against the masses. Herein lies the answer to the conundrum of Luther's behaviour during (and after) the Peasants' War, not just because he needed to "find a way of working with, rather than against, the secular authorities" to construct a new church. Though it would be similarly wrong to ignore completely this aspect.

Does this undermine the book? In my opinion not much. Stanford's sympathies are in the right place - he sees the vacillation of Luther, and understands the anger of the masses at the bottom of 16th century German society. If he doesn't adequately explain the situation, he does describe it brilliantly. 

When I first opened Peter Stanford's book on the way to Wittenberg I was expecting to be frustrated by the framing of the work through the authors' own beliefs. Instead I found myself presently surprised by a nuanced explanation of this turning point in European history. While Lyndal Roper's book is probably a better (and more detailed) biography of Luther, Stanford's is the more accessible read and it is certainly the book to read if you are in Wittenberg for four days!

Related Reviews

Roper - Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet
Pettegree - Brand Luther
MacCulloch - Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700
Stayer - The German Peasants' War and the Anabaptist Community of Goods

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Frank Norris - The Octopus

Frank Norris was an American journalist and novelist active in the last few decades of the 19th century. Today he is relatively unknown, though this novel, The Octopus, is an interesting read. I picked it up without knowing anything about the author, and Norris' more unpleasant ideas did not become immediately obvious.

The Octopus is a social realist novel set in rural California in the 19th century. It deals with the battle between wheat farmers and the railroad capitalists, whose interests are interdependent, but also clash. The book is populated by a number of fascinating characters and Norris tells the story by using varying viewpoints. While Norris is relatively progressive in his sympathies (I'll return to his ideas shortly) the book is not really a radical leftist novel. In fact most of the leading characters in the book are unsympathetic in the sense that they are wealthy landowners or capitalists competing for more money. As Norris describes the Californian farmer, "there's your Western farmer,... Get the guts out of your land; work it to death; never give it a rest. Never alternate your crop, and then when your soil is exhausted, sit down and roar about hard times."

The poor and downtrodden exist in this world - they work on the farms and on the railroad and they are frequently treated shoddily. The novel opens in the aftermath of a railroad strike, and one key small farmer is a character who scabbed on that strike, sets up a farm and is then ruined by the dynamics of the market. 

The context of the novel is the battle between agriculture and railroad - the rail capitalists wanted to fully control the land they lease to the farmers - but the main character is the land itself, or rather the wheat. This is grown in a "new order", on

a ranch bounded only by the horizons, where, as far as one could see, to the north, to the east, to the south and to the west, was all one holding a principality ruled with iron and steam, bullied into a yield of three hundred and fifty thousand bushels, where even when the land was resting, unploughed, unharrowed and unsown, the wheat came up.

This is far from the small producing, self sufficient farms of American folklore. In fact these massive agricultural pursuits are tied to an international market, with the big landowners desperate to use international politics to push their produce onto a hungry world. The limit to this are the costs paid to the middle-men, for transport, handling and processing. It is this that sets up the battle between the rail and land.

When I read The Octopus I did not really grasp the violence at the heart of US social relations. Reading Chad Pearson's recent book Capital's Terrorists, which deals with the battles between labour and bosses in a similar period at the same time, I got an appreciation for the centrality of violence. While this is not a conflict between boss and worker, the dispute easily explodes into murderous conflict. The aftermath allows Norris to briefly discuss more radical social change, though the speeches along these lines he places in the mouth of one of his main characters makes little impact. Presley, who plays the main role of observer in the book, a stand in for the reader to key events, fears that the Railroad (i.e. big Capital) will prevail everywhere, and all that can happen is that those opposing it, their struggles, are like a "fleck of grit in the wheels, perhaps a grain of sand in the cogs". 

He refers to alternative "schemes of society", but sees these as being impractical because of the all consuming power of capital to destroy ordinary people, and all obstacles in its way. Norris doesn't like the way the growth of capital smashes and destroys, but he sees it as an unfortunate necessity, in an economic Darwinian struggle for existence. 

The Octopus is thus a radical novel, but not one that is set among oppressed and exploited people. Nonetheless it sees the way that capitalism turns everything into a mirror of itself. In this sense it is probably reflective of a strand of US radicalism that celebrates the small producer, businessman and middle-class, over the proletarian and their struggles. Which brings me to Frank Norris himself. One of the problems with Norris, though not so much with this book, is his racist attitudes. Norris was very much influenced by 19th century Scientific Racism, and was an antisemite. It is notable that many scholars have seen Norris depiction of the main Railroad manager S. Behrman as an stereotypical Jewish figure, greedy for money.

This racism and antisemitism will put off many readers and helps explain how the author is relatively unknown today. Nonetheless the book is interesting, and has clearly influenced many writers such as Jack London, Upton Sinclair or John Steinbeck. 

Monday, April 24, 2023

Karen Maitland - The Plague Charmer

In 1361, just thirteen years after the Black Death decimated the population, another pandemic swept the British Isles. This time the disease seemed to kill men, leaving women and children the main survivors. Coming so soon after the previous plague, the shock to the population must have been enormous.

Karen Maitland's The Plague Charmer is set in a small fishing village in western Somerset, and she skilfully draws a picture of a community in shock and the second appearance of the plague. Characteristically she creates a foreboding atmosphere - the characters in her novels retain a belief in magic, spirits and demons, as well as a adherance to Christian belief. The rescue of a woman from the sea in a great storm however shakes the community's faith in their Christian god, not least after the local priest runs away at the first sign of plague. Nearby, the great and the good are gathering at the manor house, where they seal themselves in at the first sign of disease.

Maitland carefully brings the two stories set in these locations together, characters having links that are gradually revealed through the book. Again, characteristically, many of Maitland's characters are unpleasant - liars and thieves, though they all show their own particular morality. The best part of the story is that which shows the breakdown in community solidarity with the arrival of the plague, and Maitland combines this with the story of what happens to the children of the other hero Sara, who are outside the home when their families are locked in by villagers trying to stop the spread of the disease. One character that links the two locations is Will, a dwarf who has performed for his master at the Manor, but is now banished for some, as yet, unknown crime. Will is a thief and is frequently blamed by the more pious villagers for various happenings. Yet it is his character whose personal redemption carries the village to its own redemption, as he alongside Sara, fights to stop the witch who has cursed them.

Maitland's stories are often very dark and draw on myths and legends that mean there is an interesting, though sometimes discombulating involvement of fantasy. I like to think this realistically shows the medieval mindset, in a world where nature seemed to behave irrationally and unpredictably. Fans of Maitland's work will enjoy this novel and its recommend as a decent introduction to her style.

Related Reviews

Maitland - Company of Liars
Maitland - The Owl Killers

Monday, April 17, 2023

Chad E. Pearson - Capital's Terrorists: Klansmen, Lawmen & Employers in the Long Nineteenth Century

In Summer 1901 some 100 men broke into the homes of thirteen trade unionists in the city of Tampa, Florida in the United States. The union activists were mostly Black and of Cuban and Italian heritage. They were put onto a boat and taken to an island off Honduras were they were marooned. The activists were part of a major cigar workers' strike - a key industry in Tampa - which had successfully closed down production. The kidnapping was designed to undermine the strike, break union organisation and give the initiative back to the bosses. In this it was successful. The 100 anti-union activists were marshalled together by a conglomeration of Tampa's "elite" - business owners and politicians who were "labor's most passionate enemies".

Reading Chad E. Pearson's book Capital's Terrorists it is hard not to be shocked by the stories of repression he records. The Tampa kidnapping of 1901 is unusual because it did not lead to the murder or injury of workers or their union organisers. There are many other tragic examples of lynching, shooting, torture and imprisonment however through the period covered. Pearson highlights the uniqueness of this violence with comparable economies:
Nationally, between 1872 and 1914, anti-labor union forces killed between 500 and 800 workers in direct conflicts. This amount is considerably larger than the number of strike-related deaths in other countries during this period. In Germany... the number of protesters killed during the same period was sixteen. In France... nineteen laborers were killed between 1906 and 1909.
This violence was a consequence of the history of the United States. The kidnapping of Tampa's union activists was inspired by the forced displacement of Florida's Native American population. Systematic and murderous violence against black workers' flowed directly from the politics and organisation of the bosses during the Slavery and Reconstruction eras. The violence that had founded the United States became part of the DNA of class relations. This is not to say that other countries "elites" did not commit murder or kidnapping. The British state's treatment of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the protesters at Peterloo or other rebels gives the lie to that. The point that Pearson makes is that the scale and nature of the violence in the US used against workers' was unprecedented.

W. E. B. Du Bois said that the decade after Reconstruction saw the "counter-revolution of property", a period when Pearson tells us:
Thanks partially to elites' vigilantism, which involved various forms of coercion, intimidation and violence meant to keep African Americans on worksites, and away from polling booths, schools and political formations - the 1880s saw major increase in the production of corn, cotton, rice and sugar. Klansmen and other vigilantes helps to ensure that the South's coercive labor regimes produced enough commodities to meet global demand.
The employers' organisations which drove such counter-labour activities saw their actions as maintaining their power, influence and the status quo - and ensuring huge profits. As such paramilitary groups like the KKK should be understood was more than just racist organisations. They were "multilocational and decentralized association[s] that used terrorism to... promote the interests of society's most privileged members. In short, vigilante groups like the Klan served the class interests of those at the top of society". These groups had the twin goals of "labour control and the reinstatement of 'law and order'."

That is not to say that racism was unimportant. In fact, racism against Black people, immigrants and indigenous people runs through each chapter. The bosses organising against strikers in mines, the cigar industry, streetcars or wherever, used racism as a tactic to divide and rule, as well as being an ideological that they subscribed personally too. Racism was also, clearly a motivating factor for the individuals in groups like the KKK or other organisations discussed by Pearson.

But Pearson argues that class is the crucial tool for understanding these groups and the conflicts they engaged in. The violence used by the elite classes against workers, and the organisations they created to do this, was part of the cementing of comradeship between the bosses and those who identified with them. It helped isolate workers (and their organisations) from other groups in society, such as middle class shop owners and newspaper editors. It also explains the overlap and support given by the regional and national state to the local bosses. Time and again Pearson describes how vigilantes are "let off" or exonerated by the legal system as judges and Presidential appointees identify not with law and order, but with their class interests. Indeed there was an understanding for some trade union activists that "Uncle Sam is against us", in other words - that the US state was their enemy as much as the bosses. The reality of such disputes was, as Pearson points out, that "some relatively moderate union leaders [were transformed] into rather confident quasi-revolutionaries".

Anti trade unionism overlapped very much with anti-socialism. The "elites" themselves developed their own ruling class ideology to justify and encourage their actions. Quite a lot of Pearson's work focuses on J. West Goodwin, an active figure in the setting up of Citizens Alliances where he drew on his own, violent, experiences in stopping strikes. These Alliances, often involving hundreds or thousands of ruling class figures, actively countered workers organisations. Justifying this saw their spokespersons emphasising the importance of the "open shop" - a workplace where workers were not compelled to join unions. In Colorado, the Citizens' Alliance declared "The 'open shop' is the foundation of this organisation". Another Alliance activist in St Louis declared the closed shop "the worst curse that ever befell this country", worse than "wars, pestilence, cyclones, floods, earthquakes, fires" and so on. 

A core ideology of the capitalist system is the illusion that workers' are competing on a level playing field in the labour market. When workers' organise to build a trade union, it challenges the fundamentals of how the system works. So for capitalists like Goodwin, the vocal opposition to the closed shop was linked to their belief in a system that would be free to maximise their profits. The close association in the bosses minds' between a system free from workers' organisation and their personal role was summed up by a motto of the Idaho Springs Citizens' Protective League: "They Who Furnish the Capital Should Conduct the Business. Law and Order First - Politics, Creeds and Unions Afterwards". However the problem for the bosses, as always, was that the capital came from workers' labour and workers' would organise to try and get a bigger share of the fruits of their work.

Why does this matter? In his epilogue, Pearson draws a clear line between Capital's Terrorists in the founding period of US capitalism and the Terrorist attack on the Capitol, in January 2021. At "minimum", "both sets of actors had political agendas that they believed could be achieved by using brute force". But also "it is a safe bet... that most of the terrorists in the Capitol, especially the business owners, opposed labor organisations with the same level of intensity". But as Pearson points out, there are limitations to this analysis. Nonetheless, the key thing is that the history of US capitalism is one that has legitimised vigilante violence against workers, the left and the Black community.

Readers like myself who found themselves surprised by the overt violence used against trade unions as described in Pearson's book, will have a better understanding of the centrality of violence to the US political system itself. In this regard alone, Chad E. Pearson's Capital's Terrorists is a tremendous contribution. But there is one further point. The reader will emerge better equipped to understand the threat that US workers' faced to their organising in the past and today. In an era when we are often told that American workers are part of the problem, reminding ourselves of the brave struggles and appalling sacrifices that they have made in the past is both inspiring and important.

Related Reviews

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Chester Himes - All Shot Up

In A Rage in Harlem we were introduced to two of the most memorable police detectives in fiction, Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. All Shot Up is their second outing and is run through with many of the same themes that makes Rage such a fantastic novel. There is corruption, racism and grifting as Harlem's black community try to survive the terrible housing, police racism and poverty by looking for their big break.

Snow has hit Harlem, as a speeding, fancy Cadillac knocks over an old lady. She survives, but is them immediately, and gruesomely, killed by another car bring driven by three cops. The cops stop the first car, rob the passengers and steal the Cadillac and go on to get involved in a nasty shootout outside a Gay bar. Johnson and Jones have to pick up the mess, and start by assuming everyone is guilty of something - even if its just not admitting to seeing anything. Their roughing up of the drinkers in the bar has nothing to do with homophobia - the two cops seem to dislike everyone equally - and everything to their violent methods of chasing down the guilty. Knocking over a few witnesses publicly helps them get their lead, and we follow them through the dirty, snowy streets into an extremely complex plot.

One of the interesting things about All Shot Up, is that like A Rage in Harlem, several characters are transgender and there are some quite subtle comments on LGBT issues. Several of the gay men in the book lead double, but relatively public, lives. So while the book says nothing about Civil Rights struggles, there is a tacit bringing together of LGBT and racial subjects. This said, there is little or nothing about women's liberation in this - most of the female characters are sexualised and treated misogynistically by male characters. 

But the novel is driven by Jones and Johnson as they bully their way across the Harlem landscape, freezing in their beat up car, drinking spirits to keep going and absolutely happy to open up with their big handguns as often as they can. Chester Himes' novels revel in the chaos and complexity of a detective novel set in a place were everyone is grifting because no one really has anything. The reader is very much along for the ride.

Friday, April 14, 2023

Penelope Houston - Went the Day Well?

A recent viewing of the Ealing Studios film Went the Day Well? (1942) led me to Penelope Houston's short book. The film itself is a remarkable oddity. Set in the quiet English town of Bramley End during World War Two, it deals with an invasion by German paratroopers who, together with a local Nazi sympathisers, are trying to take over key infrastructure ahead of the main German invasion. The disguised Germans are eventually unmasked by the resourceful villagers who through a combination of skills, luck and sheer violence manage to hold them off until the regular army can relieve them. 

The films uniqueness is partly to do with the unusual subject. British World War Two films rarely dealt with invading Germans on British soil. Modern viewers who know Ealing more for its gentile comedy will be surprised by this, and also by the thing that stood out for me - the surprising and shocking levels of violence.

Penelope Houston's book looks at the film in context, and has plenty of detail about how and why it was made. She argues that it was not designed as a specifically propaganda film encouraged by the government, particularly as by 1942 the threat of invasion had receded dramatically. She also contrasts the film with the Graham Greene story that it is based upon, and comes to some interesting conclusions. There's plenty of material about how and when the film was made that will excite real film buffs and some interesting stuff on Alberto Cavalcanti, the Brazilian director who made it.

The film, Houston argues, is unusual partly because of the things that set it out. But also because it is "imagined history posing as real history, but also aware that the pretence takes in no one". But there are some key messages. One of these is about unity - the great theme of propaganda during times of crisis. We are all in it together. There is the cross-class unity of the village in the face of the enemy. Everyone, the rich, poor, land-girls and a sailor home from service, are herded by the Nazis into the church. Houston notes the one great humorous line uttered by two characters on being herded into the Church, "but we're chapel" - a line that serves to underline the main argument of the film: We're all in it together, but we are never going to stop being British.

The enemy are also utterly brutal. If irrational. As Houston points out, there is absolutely no way that the officer would have been allowed to bring his Vienna branded chocolate (though she fails to note that it is actually incorrectly spelt for German).  Houston focuses on the violence, as many reviewers do. But I was struck by what I saw as her misinterpretation in a couple of places. She notes the "unity" of the village. But she didn't seem to pick up on the emphasis that this unity was actually unequal. There's a scene at the manor when the wealthy villagers entertain the officers before they are unmasked as Nazis. In this the hostess apologises for the lack of choice at dinner (the contemporary viewer would absolutely understand this reference to rationing). But the viewer has also been allowed to see that this lack of choice is subjective - there have been several bottles of wine and courses and the meal was served in great elegance. All in it together, but some are more in it than others.

The other point I thought that Houston missed was the nature of the propaganda. Trying to understand Went the Day Well? in the context of an instruction manual on what to do during invasion, that "careless talk costs lives" or as a lesson in British unity is not enough. The real message is actually about England (and I mean England here) is. In this, she echoes Angus Calder's reading of much propaganda during the early years reflecting a "Deep England". This is designed to appeal to a deep-seated English patriotism that sees the country as a place of small villages of thatched cottages, with limited class conflict, comfort and plenty for all. This is the England under threat, and this is the England that has to be defended. 

Houston points out that the Greene story it is based on is set in a poverty stricken working class village. The difference the film makers put into the film seems to emphasise my point. This is subtle propaganda aimed at more than just giving confidence in the face of the enemy. It's a message about the type of England the rich and powerful wanted. 

This disagreement aside, Penelope Houston's book is certainly worth reading if you want to know more about this incredible film. And there's much here that gives wider context - not least the tragic story of the innkeeper who killed himself after the film crew drank the pub dry and the villagers were somewhat pissed off. Rationing was not the same for all...

Related Reviews

Calder - The People's War: Britain 1939 - 1945
Calder - The Myth of the Blitz
Frankel - High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic
Frankel - The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend
Biskind - Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Jason Hickel - Less is More: How Degrowth will save the World

Jason Hickel's latest book opens with a devastating summary of the ecological crisis. But despite this, he argues that Less is More is "not a book about doom. It is a book about hope." It is also a book that attempts to go far beyond the mainstream responses to climate crisis which focus on new technologies or neoliberal economics. He concludes that "we" need to cut emissions to "zero much, much faster than anyone is presently planning". The reason that nothing has happened so far goes far beyond the superficial causes of the crisis:

Fossil fuel companies, and the politicians that they have bought, bear significant responsibility for our predicament. But this alone doesn't explain our failure to act. There's something else - something deeper. Our addiction to fossil fuels, and the antics of the fossil fuel industry, is really just a symptom of a prior problem. What's ultimately at stake is the economic system that has come to dominate more or less the entire planet over the past few centuries: capitalism.

More specifically, Hickel argues that it is the growth imperative to capitalism that is the problem, "it's not our technology that's the problem. It's growth".

Hickel's focus in this book on capitalism feels like a breath of fresh air. Early chapters in the book take a look at how capitalism developed and the dynamics of the system itself which create growth. Marxists like myself might find some nuances to argue with here, but that's not the key thing. What is important is that Hickel is discussing capitalism and critiquing its central dynamic. 

Hickel continues, however by arguing that he isn't saying that "growth is bad, in and of itself." Rather, he argues, the problem is "growthism" by which he means the "pursuit of growth for its own sake". Here I do have some important disagreements, because on occasion I think that Hickel comes close to arguing that growth is a choice made by the capitalists. He says for instance that "all sectors of the economy must grow, regardless of whether or not we actually need them to. This is an irrational way to manage an economy". 

But growthism, to use Hickel's word, isn't a managerial choice made by the owners of capital. It is a compulsion. They are compelled to do this because of the competitive nature of the system. It is a system of "competitive compulsion" after all. The capitalists cannot break free of this. 

In a recent piece on another book on Degrowth I wrote that:

Karl Marx said this compulsion flowed from competitive accumulation. Capitalists compete with each other to maximise their profits, and are forced to plough back into production most of the wealth they extract from workers. The compulsion to accumulate arises from the competition faced by capitalists. Unless they constantly innovate and develop production methods, they face losing out to their competitors—resulting in possible bankruptcy.

Now to be fair to Hickel, a great strength of his work is that he draws on the insights of Marx and similar writers to develop his arguments. Indeed he probably wouldn't greatly disagree with what I write above. I make this point not to imply that I am a better reader of Marx or for sectarian reasons, but because I think that the importance of understanding the inherent compulsion for "growth" within the system is key to understanding how we can get to a sustainable society.

Firstly, what do we mean by such a society? Hickel outlines the urgency well: "We have built up a global fossil-fuel infrastructure over the past 250 years, and now we have to completely overhaul it in over thirty". Hickel is not arguing here for austerity politics whereby everyone has to tighten their belts In fact Hickel is in favour of growth in some parts of the economy to ensure that people's needs are met equitably. He is arguing for degrowth in large sectors of the economy in a way that challenges the dominant functioning of our system. One example might be how much we work:

Researchers have found that if the United States were to reduce its working hours to the levels of Western Europe, its energy consumption would decline by a staggering 20%. Shortening the working week is one of the most immediately impactful climate policies available to us.

Here Hickel is certainly not arguing that workers should loose a fifth of their incomes. He is very much in favour of defending wages and improving them. Rather he is highlighting how wasteful our system of production is. Another example is a direct challenge to the colonial system that has impoverished and underdeveloped the Global South. Hickel writes:

It means... investing in robust universal social policy to guarantee healthcare, education, water, housing, social security. It means land reform so that small farmers have access to the resources that they need to thrive. It means using tariffs and subsidies to protect and encourage domestic industries. It means decent wages, labour las and a progressive distribution of national income. And it means building economies that are organised around renewable energy and ecological regeneration rather than around fossil fuels and extractivism.

Hickel argues that the capitalism is marked by "artificial scarcity". His argument is that this drove the development of capitalism, because shortages of land caused by enclosure forced people to take up wage labour to survive. Today he says, scarcity of jobs, resources, public services, time, creates a dynamic that forces people to engage with the system to survive. 

In a growth system, he says, "the objective is not to satisfy human needs, but to avoid satisfying human needs. It is irrational and ecologically violent... Once we grasp how this works, solutions rush into view... liberated from the pressures of artificial scarcity, and with basic needs met, the compulsion for people to compete for ever-increasing productivity would wither away. The economy would produce less as a result, yes - but it would also need less".

Capitalism is a system that produces scarcity at the same time as producing over-abundance. The crises of over-production that see vast amounts of commodities produced for profit, despite not being needed, are a direct result of the compulsion to growth. But scrapping this system will not come from simply wishing it away. It is fine to say, as Hickel does, that "by decommodifying public goods, expanding the commons, shortening the working week and reducing inequality we can enable people to access the goods that they need to live well without requiring additional growth in order to do so". But what is the mechanism.

Hickel argues that democracy is key. He wants to see democracy expanded arguing that democracy is inherently anti-capitalist. But as he also points out, capitalism is inherently anti-democracy. Herein lies the crux of the limitation of Hickel's transformative vision. Unless we come up with a strategy to break capitalism, capitalism will constantly use its own power to smash us.

In my recent book Socialism or Extinction I described various historical revolutions in order to reclaim the idea of revolution as a mass democratic movement from below. I also wrote at length about events in Chile in 1973 when Salvador Allende's mildly reforming government was broken by a vicious military coup led by Pinochet and supported by the United States. The importance of that lesson was not that reforms weren't important. But that without a social movement capable of disarming the capitalist state, such radical reforms are doomed to defeat. And, as Hickel acknowledges, we are not arguing here for minor changes but for a direct challenge to the nature of capitalism itself.

As such I was left disappointed by the end of Hickel's book. His demonstration of the failure of capitalism and his argument for a different way of running society seemed to be less a call for systemic change and instead a call to try and create a different system from within capitalism. In contrast I would argue that we have fight for the greatest possible reforms in the immediacy to minimise ecological destruction and offer social justice, at the same time as recognising that an economic system without the compulsion to growth will be one based on a different economic order. That requires revolutionary politics.

Much of this review has focused on my disagreement with Hickel's conclusion. That perhaps arises out of his framework, which differs from mine. But having said all this, I want to argue that his book, like that of Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter and Aaron Vansintjan is one that Marxists should engage with. There is much we agree on here, and Hickel's eloquence and passion, as well as his anti-capitalism, remain important within our shared environmental movement.

Related Reviews

Foster - Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution
Saito - Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism
Schmelzer, Vetter & Vansintjan - The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism

Thursday, April 06, 2023

Sylvain Neuvel - A History of What Comes Next

***Spoilers ***

This is a clever alternate science-fiction history that makes the space race of the 1960s the product of the machinations of a group of alien interlopers, rather than the imperial interests of the Soviets and Americans. Or rather, the Kibsu, exploit human international rivalries to encourage humanity towards the moon in order that they might themselves get off planet.

The Kibsu are a group of women who can breed with human males, but whose female children have superhuman abilities to move and fight. They've been with humanity for thousands of years, and through flashbacks Sylvain Neuvel tells us some of their origin story - riding with the Mongol hordes and playing Viking chieftains off against each other. They pass their story down from mother to daughter, and each generation aims to gain wealth and power to influence humanity on to the stars. But they are also pursued. The "Tracker" is hunting them down, trying to kill the Kibsu off and foil their plans. The origin of this conflict is left somewhat unclear at the end of this first volume of a trilogy.

This book focuses on how Mia, a young nineteen year old woman, gets humanity into space. Her mother fled Germany with the rise of the Nazis, and Mia, is sent back into Germany as part of Operation Paperclip to get the best Nazi scientists out to work in the US on rockets. But Mia and her mother realise that American inertia will never get rockets off the ground, so they move to the Soviet Union, understanding that if Stalin gets an ICBM and a person in space then the Americans will be forced to catch up. Once the Americans move their superior economy will do the rest.

Its a clever idea, and Mia is a great character. Her ability to fight back, manoeuvre social forces and organise the mainly male Soviet elite make her a great hero. All this is done in the context of some great asides and background. Neuvel gives us the an interesting moment during the Witch Craze in the Little Ice Age which serves to demonstrate the Kibsu's powers and another of the themes that runs through the book - the growing concern over climate change that makes the alien's quest more urgent. Neuvel also throws in some other interesting events. He places Mia in the clutches of Stalin's henchmen and murderer Beria, and gives her mother a possible role in the death of the dictator himself. 

The book suffers a little from lack of clarity about who the Kibsu are. The reader learns this through the book, though much remains unclear at the end. But the structure doesn't quite work and I was left confused in places. Nonetheless this is a fun counter-history and I look forward to the sequels.

Related Reviews

Neuvel - Until the Last of Me

Sunday, April 02, 2023

Peter Frankopan - The Earth Transformed: An Untold History

The breadth of Peter Frankopan's historical analysis, and his dialectical approach to the environmental and societal interaction does not match up to his lacklustre and cynical analysis of the contemporary ecological crisis. Read it for the excellent historical backdrop to modern society, less for his analysis of the modern world.

I reviewed The Earth Transformed for Socialist Worker Long Reads. You can read it here.