Thursday, February 29, 2024

Landworkers' Alliance - With the Land

The Landworkers' Alliance (LWA) is a British based union that links small producers, farmers, landworkers and others to fight for a more sustainable, equitable and healthy food and land system. With the Land is a fascinating book that marks the first decade of the LWA's work, It is first and foremost a celebration of the ideas behind the LWA, the work of its members as well as a discussion about the struggles we need for a food system fit for the future.

It is an eclectic mix of poetry, prose, commentary, interview, photographs and art. Its a book to be enjoyed in short bursts, but one that gives a real sense of the varied work that takes place - from forestry to land-management, bee keeping to urban farming. What shines through though is a sense of the deep connection between those who work the land (however that might be) and the ecological systems they are part of.

In the most overtly political section, authors Alex Heffron and Kai Heron describe the current state of British agriculture. 

Although seventy percent of the land in Britain is used for agricultural purposes, the country produces just 55 percent of what it consumes. Of that 55% much is grown and harvested, cared for, and slaughtered by seasonal, casualised, gendered and racialised immigrant labour; under brutally exploitative conditions. The rest of Britain's food is either grown under similarly exploitative systems in the EU's industralised and polluting agribusiness sites, or in tropical climates where super-profits can be secured through the super-exploitation of the Global South's lands and labour.

The LWA arose out of many different influences, including the massive climate movement of the late 2010s and the early anti-capitalist movement, which I was part of around the millenium. It is also, and importantly, highly influenced by the politics of the global Peasant movement La Via Campesina. These influences come through in many of the articles, both in response to the appalling picture painted by Heffron and Heron, but also in the ethos of many of the projects.

One of these, very close to where I live, is the Gaskell Garden Project in Hulme, Manchester. Writing about it, Robyn Ellis talks about how the project offers much to the local community beyond just locally produced food. "We are trying to find new ways to re-learn the relationships between ourselves and our land after generations of separation, transforming wasted land into a possibility of abiodiverse green comunnity space and edible forest". Ellis points out that many projects like these are "separate" from local communities, and fail to be inclusive.

The different chapters demonstrate a real commitment to producing food and fibres in sustainable ways that utilise knowledge and expertise. But also approaches. Morgan Ody of La Via Campesina makes the point that there are two prongs to the process outlined by the LWA and their own organisation. The first is the fight for food sovereignty, the second is the building and networking of social movements that can fight for this common goal. Ody concludes "Showing solidarity is key. It might start with climate justice or with organising for workers rights, with inflation and challenges to economic isssues. We should be open and take part in other actions that we didn't create. At the same time we should be very cautious about who we build alliances with". Earlier Ody says, "What we defend is much bigger than our own interests: we defend a vision of society, and of nature, that enables us to live in peace without domination."

This vision is inspiring, and it is very much the alternative to that bleak picture described by Heffron and Heron. The problem is getting there. Writing about a fascinating local workers' cooperative in Edinburgh, Mim Black makes a very important point. Their cooperative is producing huge quantities of mushrooms. As she explains its an ideal crop for urban environments. But despite the success of the project in networking local people, producing high quality food and using old brownfield sites, Mim points out that it is not enough on its own, "There are no silver bullets or panaceas - we know that we need a systematic overhaul of food growing practices and the power relations that uphold our current unjust system." That's not to decry the work of Mim's cooperative, or many others, but rightly to recognise that there are limits to building "agroecological food systems" within capitalism.

There are other struggles too, and some of these take place within the movement itself. I was very pleased to see a powerful statement in defence of transrights by the LWA, tackling the bigotry that is coming from the top of society, but recognising that such ideas also exist within out own movements. There is also an important piece by Josina Calliste on "racial justice in farming" that talks about the racial injustice within agriculture and attempts to address it. They write:

What would a land movement in Britain look like if Afro-indigenous ancestral farming practices were at its heart? If people writing food policies were from the communities most affected by food inequalities? For fighting industrial agriculture, black communities need land power. To acieve climate justice, people of colour need to be able to grow their own food. For environmental justice, the spiritual ecologies of indigenous communities should be at the front and centre.

With the Land makes it very clear that there has been an enormous shift within society about attitidues to farming, land work and sustainable food systems. There is a deep yearning for things to change. The many authors within the book are each offering their perspectives on how that might happen. But as several of the authors make clear, we must be cautious. Small scale agroecological practices are not enough in and of themselves. They are a response to the capitalist crises we face, but the social movements they represent must also be part of a much wider struggle for equality and justice. This will need to be fought for. As Donald Mackinnon writes in the context of Scottish crofting, "We are missing the radical edge to politics that we need to deliver the change we want to see." Its a point that is, however, valid much more generally.

As such I would have liked more on some of the political fights that are needed. Important questions such as housing, wages, working conditions and so on are touched on, but not really explored. It would have been good to get a sense of what has been done and what could be done to tackle wider social justice questions that are very much part of all the communities described.

However each of these highly personal accounts demonstrates a very human yearning for justice and good food! It helps us imagine how we can live in the future, once capitalism has been destroyed. The 19th century poem Three Acres and a Cow, is reproduced in the book. We should well remember the words:

There's a certain class in England that is holding fortune great
Yet they give us all a starving wage to work on their estate
The land's been stolen from the poor and those that hold it now
They do not want to give us all three acres and a cow

it continues:

If all the land in England was divided up quite fair
There would be work for everyone to earn an honest share

You can buy With the Land via the Landworkers' Alliance here.

Related Reviews

GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery
Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For
Lymbery - Farmageddon
Holt-Giménez - A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism
Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Kohei Saito - Slow Down: How degrowth Communism can save the Earth

Kohei Saito is one of the key figures on the left who are exploring and developing ecological thinking through the lens of Karl Marx's ideas. Saito's book Karl Marx's Ecosocialism deservedly won the Deutscher Prize for its exploration of Marx's ecology through his notebooks. His book Marx and the Anthropocene examined what Saito has dubbed Marx's "Degrowth Communism" and has been much discussed. I would direct readers to mine and Australian socialist Padraic Gibson's critical review of it published last year. I would encourage readers to have a look at that because there's a great deal of important thoughts relevant to Slow Down, particularly our criticism of the notion of Degrowth Communism.

Despite of these academic texts, millions of people actually know Saito's name for an incredibly popular work which has been translated into English as Slow Down. It has been a bestseller in Japan, selling literarily millions of copies and translated into multiple languages. 

At the start it must be said that it is very welcome that Saito has found such a large audience for popularising Marx's ideas. It is a sign of the times that many people understand that capitalism is destroying the world and concluded that revolutionary politics are needed. But, I have to caution, that I think the Marxism Saito is offering has been shorn of its revolutionary kernal. It is an analysis that doesn't go far enough into using Marx's insights to analyse capitalism today, nor develop a revolutionary strategy for the 21st century.

Let us, however, start with the strengths. Saito offers an uncompromising approach. In the preface he writes: 

Proponents of degrwoth are often abbivalent about the need to transcend capitalism. I am not ambivalent. In my opinion, degrowth must clarify its critical position against capitalism.

When discussing actions to "prevent global warming" such as reusing bags, water bottles and electric cars, he says "these good deeds are meaningless... thinking such actions are effective countermeasures can prevent us from taking part in the larger actions truly necessary to combat climate change." 

The best parts of Slow Down are Saito's exploration of why capitalism destroys the environment, and the way that capitalist accumulation drives that process. It is a fairly convincing demonstration for the need for revolutionary anti-capitalist politics or, in Saito's words a "great change" which is "nothing less than a challenge to the capitalist system itself".

The problems begin to develop however when Saito explores Marx's work. Early in the book Saito writes that "the object of capitalism's exploitation is not just the labour power of the periphery, but also the environment of the entire earth." Similarly, he later writes, "capitalism is a system that explots not just humankind but the natural environment as well". I mention this, not to nitpick, but because Marx's understanding of exploitation was very specific - relating to the extraction, by capitalists, of surplus value from workers' labour. 

In Saito's telling this relationship is downplayed into an act akin to how a capitalist uses natural resources. It means, I think, that Saito begins from the wrong starting point - failing to grasp precisely how workers' power arises from the nature of exploitation under capitalism. In particular it encourages him to use the concept of the "Imperial Mode of Living", a currently popular academic idea that argues that workers' in the Global North essentially accept the environmental destruction and imperialist destruction of the Global South, because it materially benefits them. The problem with this is that it undermines how much workers globally have shared interests in fighting exploitation and environmental destruction. [Space precludes me developing this point, so I shall point readers to yet another article that critiques the Imperial Mode of Living theory very well.]

Why is this important? The phrase "theory of change" has become popular among radicals these days, and the criticisms above are important because they relate directly to Marx's revolutionary politics (his theory of change!) and Saito's arguments. After "rehabilitating Marx" Saito writes about a "third way", the importance of "the commons" as an alternative to "US-style neoliberalism and Soviet-style nationalization". Saito arges that the society's infrastructure (electricty, transportation) and natural environments

should be managed and operated socialistically, exempt from market norms and national regulations. It's an ideas that's beasically identical to that of 'the commons'. The main difference is one of emphasis, with the commons prioitizing shared managemet by citizens in a democratic, equal way, rather than leaving administration up to specialists as advocated by the concept of social common capital. The other decisive difference is my aim to gradually expand the commons until... they overcome and displace capitalism entirely.

Now Saito has an idea of his socialism - a world where we have redefined abundance, seeing it as arising out of common ownership and the common good, rather than out of the chaotic, unplanned market. One where humans rationally use natural resources. He also, as the above quote shows, emphasises the need for democratic control. But the change he outlines here, and reflected throughout Slow Down arises out of gradual social change. As such it is inadequate. Compare, for instance, Saito:

The means of production must be returned to the commons as well. I'm talking here about workers' co-operatives - organisations allowing workers to invest jointly in the co-ownership and co-management of the means of production without interference from capitalists and shareholders.

with Marx's vision of the "self government of the producers" inspired by the Paris Commune, outlined in his Civil War in France:

In a rough sketch of national organization, which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service. The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents. The few but important functions which would still remain for a central government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by Communal and thereafter responsible agents.

Marx emphasised that workers power arises out of workers' revolutionary struggle which simultaneously destroys the old capitalist state and institutes the democratic organisations through which workers control the means of production. But when Saito talks about "workers' self-management", drawing on the liberal writer Thomas Piketty, he emphasises "worker-led social ownership and particpatory management" in contrast to "workers' power". While he is right to highlight the difference between "participatory socialism" (Piketty) and Soviet-style socialism, Saito is completely wrong to argue that "Piketty's position and that of the late Marx are closer than they have ever been." Marx never lost his commitment to the idea of workers' power arising out of the smashing of capitalism. 

Saito calls for a "revolutioanry transition to communism", but does not really articulate what Marx understood this to be. Here, I venture, it would have been instructive to look at the revolutionary process in Russia through the year of 1917. Not because the Stalinist counter-revolution offers us an alternative, but because for an all too brief period, workers' power through revolutionary institutions was a real thing. 

Instead of this radical history, Saito's revolutionary change is surprisingly passive. He quotes approvingly Erica Chenoweth's idea that only 3.5 percent of the population are needed to "rise up sincerely and non-violently to bring about a major change to society." But this is far from Marx's own ideas of revolution. In contrast Marx wrote in the German Ideology that a mass revolution was needed :

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.

Kohei Saito's book is a readable and energetic critique of capitalism and its ecological catastrophe. It is wonderful that it is being widely read. But it offers a limited view of Marx's revolutionary ideas. The poly-crisis that we are facing in the 21st century demands much more.

Related Reviews

Saito - Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism
Saito - Karl Marx's Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature & the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy
Chenoweth & Stephan - Why Civil Resistance Works
Callinicos - The New Age of Catastrophe
Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century
Choonara & Kimber - Arguments for Revolution

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Adrian Tchaikovsky - Ironclads

In the not to distant future, US troops use the British Isles as a jumping off point to fight a violent, internecine war on the European landmass. It is a savage conflict, with high tech hiding a brutal reality. Ordinary troops die, or are maimed in their thousands, while an elite officer class sit safe in their 21st century armoured "scion" skins, directing and effectively playing at being knights of the realm. They are near invulnerable, a class whom, like the knights of old made "a game of how many poor bastards they could cut up". So says Sturgeon, one of a small group of troops who have been chosen for an impossible mission.

The narrator is less sure. They're here to do a job - in this case rescue a downed scion, lost behind enemy lines. Sturgeon's history lessons niggle at the team's minds. Is it a mission they have been specially chosen for? Are they just pawns? Is there something else going on? And anyway who has the tech to actually down a scion?

Ironclads follows the team into the fray. It's a short novel that packs a lot in - partly because of its subject matter. The nature of the conflict feels much more like that in Ukraine, though it was published a few years before that slaughterhouse began. These years we are more used to highly powerful countries pulverising smaller, poorer nations. But this is a book about modern conflict in a high-tech world.

So there's lots of technology - AIs, drones, robots. But humans still get blown to pieces quite a lot. So this is military science fiction with a lot of human values in it. But, like much of Tchaikovsky's other work, it is also a deeply political novel. Sturgeon, in one of his history lessons, explains how Britain broke off from Europe, and in the ensuing economic catastophe, found itself even more closely aligned with the interests of the US. But the rest of Europe was following a different path. If the US was diving deep into a high tech, neoliberal, theocracy (the Church of Christ Libertarian!), then Europe was enjoying the fruits of state intervention, green technology and keeping the wealthy in check. 

The war, when it comes, is fought for the US multinationals who want to make sure they get back their slice of the pie, and smash the incipient European socialism. The scions aren't military top brass, they're the corporate heads who are really pulling the strings, and they have much deeper interests. There are thus some excellent jokes. As the narrator complains, "I got shelled by the 1st fighting corps of fucking Ikea last year!" 

Here Tschaikovsky has dialled up the imperialist narrative. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, US neoliberal Thomas Friedman said that ‘the hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist. McDonalds cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas. The hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US army, air force, navy and Marine Corps.’ But this is not the hidden hand. Here the multinationals have merged and taken over the military. They are the warmongers. But, ironically, war is not actually that profitable if you are blowing apart your own sub-companies, emerging markets and resources.

The imperialism depicted in Ironclads is not really that different to the monopoly capitalism lying behind World War One that Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg wrote about. Good political science fiction doesn't always have to wear its politics on its sleeve. Adrian Tchaikovsky's done a very good job indeed here of placing some really interesting ideas at the heart of a very hard military science fiction work. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Tchaikovsky - Walking to Aldebaran
Tchaikovsky - Children of Time
Tchaikovsky - Children of Ruin

Friday, February 23, 2024

Hal Draper - The Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin

In preparation for writing my book Socialism or Extinction I read all five volumes of Hal Draper's books on Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution. It was an exciting and informative experience and links to reviews of each volume can be found below. For each book I was struck by how Draper's deep grasp of the material allowed him to draw out the revolutionary heart to Marx's ideas and give fresh insights to Marx's ideas. So I was pleased to discover this much shorter volume which is a "continuation", in Draper's words, of volume three of KMTOR, extending the story beyond Marx and Engels' lifetime into the early 20th century. The book follows much the same format, exploring the references to and meanings of Dictatorship of the Proletariat as used by key Marxists, from Marx and Engels, through the Second International and onto Luxembourg, Lenin and Trotsky.

But there is no doubt that Draper has a deeper purpose. He seems to be trying to rescue the Marxist kernal of the phrase, no doubt hoping to explore its meaning in the context of critics of revolution, on the left and right. The problem here is that the meaning of the phrase is one thing. How and why it was used is another. Draper has, particularly in the case of Lenin, abstracted the phrase from the context and undermined his own cause.

There is a lot of overlap with volume three of Draper's KMTOR. He begins, as he did there, by exploring the changing meaning of dictatorship. It is an important corrective, because he shows how its classical meaning, understood by Marx and Engels, but rarely today, is far from the modern interpretation. Instead it means an "emergency exercise of power by a trusted citizen for temproary and limited purposes". Marx rarely used the phrase except in specific periods. Draper explores these, but points out that until the Paris Commune, there "was not a single case of Marx's use of 'dictatorship of the proletariat'" in the preceeding two decades. When he does use it there, it is because "it was accepted as an example of the rule (or 'dictatorship') of the proletariat. The point is, Draper argues, that Marx was using the phrase despite the Commune not excercising dictorial power. Draper writes:

In the twentieth century, it was not uncommon to read that, according to Marx, a workeres' state might or might not be a 'dictatorship of the proletariat,' depending presumeably on how severly dictatorial it had to become. This interpretation is excluded by Marx's words: the workers' state 'can be nothing but; a dictatorship of the proletartiat; in other words the two terms are synonumous... For Marx this was a staetment about the societal content of the state, the class character of thre political power. It was not a statement about the forms of the government machines or other structural aspects of government or policies.

Later Marxists, Draper argues, miss this point and see the use of the D word simple as about method, not content. He repeatedly contrasts how these Marxists use the word and compares it to how Marx meant it. There is some usefulness in this, not least in exposing the limitations of many Second International thinkers. The problem comes when Draper gets to Lenin:

By the end of Year One, it was clear that Lnein was no longer using 'dictatorship of the proletariat' to denote a workers' state that was subject to the democratic rule of the working classes. It now meant a specially organised dictatorial regime, dictatorial in the sense that had become increasinly dominant, and increasingly counterposed to abstract democarcy... a number of Bolshevik spokesmen carried this process of theroretical degeneration even further, thus facilitating (though certainly not causing) the societal counterrevolution represented by Stalin.

Here Draper gives succour to the enemies of the Russian Revolution before Stalin's rise, because he undermines what Lenin was trying to do in this period. Despite a useful summary of the Revolution's isolation and economic collapse, he continues to judge Lenin by the classical definition of Dictatorship of the Proletariat understood by Marx. He then blames Trotsky and Bukharin for taking the theoretical lead in "gutting socialism" before Stalin.

Rather than trying to explore the real meaning of 'dictatorship' in the context of an isolated revolutionary movement and the needs of the struggle - which other Marxists not least Trotsky himself have tried to do since - Draper avoids this and spends his time in Marxology. Take this passage, describing how Lenin engaged with Marx's ideas:

The rather surprising outcome was that Lenin worked out for himself, or invented, a unique definition of 'dictatorship; which, as far as I know, came out of his own head. More than ever, different people discussing 'dictatorship of the proletariat' were using a different vocabulary, talking past each other.

But what is surprising about this is that Lenin developed some of the most vibrant and interesting Marxist works around related questions. But Draper judges him not on these works and their importance, but on his differences from Lenin. Indeed, the sections where Draper tracks the changing use of the phrase by Lenin were somewhat tiresome for me, as they felt more like heresay hunting than actual engagement with Lenin's revolutionary project.

Sadly this short volume falls short of the authors' ambitions. Hal Draper comes across as a smug writer, pleased that he alone has discovered Marx's true meaning and all others have fallen by the wayside. It would have been more useful if Draper had more deeply explored what Lenin's project was, rather than trying to damn him with faint praise.

Related Reviews

Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 1: State & Bureaucracy
Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 2: The Politics of Social Classes
Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 3: The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat'
Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 4: Critique of Other Socialisms
Draper & Haberkern - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 5: War & Revolution

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Arthur Ransome - Great Northern

Rereading Arthur Ransome's Great Northern led me to decide that it is perhaps the finest of the Swallows and Amazons stories. Yet when I read these books as a child I was not that found of it. Looking back I think that this is due to the tense final few chapters, when the Swallows, Amazons and Dick and Dorothy are pursued by multiple enemies as they seek to protect the titular birds. It is much more young adult territory than children's book.

Great Northern is the only one of Ransome's children's books to be set in Scotland. It's connections with the books set in the Norfolk Broads as the children are protecting a birds nest and eggs from an egg collector. Looking after birds was a key theme of Coot Club and the Big Six. In this sense it is quite a modern story, as egg collecting was not frowned upon in the 1940s when Great Northern was written. The children are on a sailing trip with Captain Flint, around the Western Isles (Ransome based the book on a trip to Lewis) which has been fairly uneventful. It is only on their last day, when Dick spots a pair of Great Northern's nesting that things take a turn for the excitement. The birds have never been known to nest in the British Isles and the discovery of the nest offers fame.

Dick's visit to a bird watcher turns from triumph to horror as he realises the watcher is an egg collector. A swift children's mutiny leads Flint back to the Island where the everyone embarks on a great subterfuge to avoid the collector locating the nest. As I said, there's a great chase, the children and Flint are imprisoned by the angry natives who think they are trying to scare his deer, and the birds are eventually protected. It is all very exciting, though Ransome's left politics did not prevent him relying on the autonomous power of the local laird to stop the robbery of the eggs!

There are some interesting aspects to the book. Firstly the locals speak little English, only Gaelic - with the exception of the Laird and his son. Secondly Ransome captures well the class relations on the island. Of further interest is the environmental context. Ransome, through the children, demonstrates a great empathy for nature and landscape. This is done, in this case, through the desire by all the children (though not Flint) to protect the birds. But this concern doesn't stretch to the wider environment. Take the aftermath of the picnic, when the two oldest children, John and Nancy, leave they "quickly poked their sandwich papers deep into the pear, sank their empty lemonade bottles in a small pool and set off, with empty knapsacks flapping on their backs."

Reading this sentence in 2024 really jars! The bottles are likely still there, though at least the sandwiches were wrapped in paper and not plastic. The other jarring bits are the gender roles. Ransome is usually quite good at letting his female characters take part in adventures on the same level as the boys, usually through the medium of Titty and Nancy. But once again Susan and Peggy are left to do all the household chores, especially feeding the crew - and Susan is forced to play a motherly role to her youngest brother Roger. Worrying, and bemoaning that the iodine for his cut shin is back on the boat.

Great Northern is certainly one of the best of the Ransome novels. But it is dated, and very much of its time. Despite this, Arthur Ransome's empathy for children and nature comes through and readers who enjoyed this back in their own childhood may enjoy the revisit. Younger readers perhaps deserve a little more.

Related Reviews

Ransome - We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea
Ransome - Peter Duck
Ransome - Missee Lee
Hardyment - Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk
Chambers - The Last Englishman, The double life of Arthur Ransome

Friday, February 16, 2024

Kent Nerburn - Neither Wolf nor Dog

This book begins with a phone call. Author and artist Kent Nerburn gets contacted by the grandaughter of an Native American elder, who wants him to write his story. Nerburn has already published several books that present the stories and memories of Native Americans who lived on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation, and Dave Bald Eagle (Dan), a member of the Lakota, feels that Nerburn can deliver. But this writing assignment becomes a spiritual journey for Nerburn when Dan, and his friend Grover, essentially kidnap Nerburn and take him on an intellectual journey to understand Native American history, thought and, above all, anger.

There is a great deal of mutual misunderstanding in this book. Nerburn often, and openly, fails to understand what Dan and Grover are telling him. He cannot comprehend the Lakota worldview, and he is helpless in answering and understanding what he is being told. Gradually he gets closer to it, after essentially having a breakdown in the face of the emotion, intensity and power of Dan's ideas. It is a journey (spiritually and physically) that is deftly told. Dan is hard on Nerburn, rarely allowing him space, and pressing him on points and the half-baked thoughts that the whiteman makes. There's a hard hitting bit when the three travellers visit some of Dan's family, and Dan tackles Nerburn for treating one of the children differently. One of the kids is half Indian and half white and Dan accuses Nerburn, "He wasn't an Indian to you. That's why you talked to him more." Nerburn doesn't see that he did anything wrong, and this just riles Dan more - "The little guy... he's never been as far as Rapid City. He speaks Lakota. He's never even seen his white dad. But to you the other kids are more Indian."

It's a powerful moment and Nerburn's protestations are frustrated and bitter. But it's honest. It leads the author, through Dan, to explore US politics around race, genocide and the reservations themselves. Nerburn is ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught of ideas, thoughts and new approaches to the world that Dan and Grover offer him. Dan complains:

You are still writing down our story, using your words, and you are still getting it all wrong. Your words are all full of sharp edges that cut us. But we have been bleeding so long we don't even feel it anymore.

It is a powerful lesson for Nerburn, and the reader. Nerburn is ill-equipped to tell it, and that's not just because he is not a Native American. It's also because he hasn't got any political framework to explain American history. If I have one disagreement with Dan's own politics its that it doesn't acknowledge that as capitalism sought to murder the Native Americans, it also destroyed the lives of countless other peoples whose world-views and livelihoods did not fit its model. The genocide of the Native Americans took place alongside the colonial destruction of peoples across the Global South as well as the destruction of European ways of life that had entirely different relationships to the world around them.  But Nerburn doesn't even appear to have heard of Wounded Knee. He's a great writer, and perhaps his naivety is the perfect foil for Dan's hard reality, but at times I was exasperated by him for different reasons to Dan's!

Nevertheless this "neither fiction nor non-fiction" account of a road trip is a powerful and illuminating read. Add it to your list, for a sense of the raging discontent and anger that remains at the heart of the so called "American Dream".

Related Reviews

Kimmerer - Braiding Sweetgrass

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Christopher Shaw - Liberalism and the Challenge of Climate Change

Christopher Shaw opens his book by quoting from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2022 report, which argued that "fundamental changes" were needed to society's "underlying values, world views, ideologies, social structures, political and econommic systems and power relationships." Those of us who have spent the last few decades arguing that capitalism cannot solve the environmental crisis that it has created could be forgiven for feeling somewhat vindicated. After all, fundamental change is what we've been calling for all along. But Shaw cautions us. His book

argues that the greatest barrier to bringing about these 'fundamental changes' is the stanglehold that liberalism has on our language, thoughts and imagination. What is presented as transformative climate action is actually action intendd to legitimise liberalism in the face of a catastrophe for which liberalism has no answers.

Liberalism, Shaw argues, is "irreconcilable" with a liveable climate. He goes further, suggesting that "our inability to even think it possible to look beyond liberalism... is a sign of ideology in action". Indeed, so embedded is liberalism as a viewpoint in Western capitalist society that it has not just shaped how we think about climate (or indeed everything) but it has also enforced a particular approach to climate solutions. I have long raged about the inadequacy of the UN COP process but Shaw shows how this politicians deliberately supplanted a scientificly driven approach with one governed by neoliberal politics and economics.

One interesting part of the book looks at the temperature limits set as the targets for climate action, in particular the often mentioned 1.5C marker. Shaw argues that this is a result of a liberal approach to nature and climate which set an arbitarary number as a target. This could be used as by politicians, conveniently shifting the problem into the future. He makes the point that the 1.5C "cultural artefact", was "constructed under a historically specific set of economic and social conditions by a handful of powerful actors... under different social and economic conditions, we might have expected a different construction of climate change to emerge".

As the world surges past the 1.5C level, we will have cause to rue the historic failure to build this different social and economic context. But Shaw's point here echoes Marx, "the prevailing ideas of society are those of the ruling class". Indeed, as he says "the political consensus drives a public consensus". This liberal consensus is that "apocalyptic scenarios... are resolved in the story through narratives of technological solutions, global negotiations and occult economic practices." But it has all failed.

To flesh out his argument Shaw posits five "guardrails" which are used by liberal politicians and thinkers to frame the climate crisis and the action that should be taken. Essentially these are ideological viewpoints enforced by the ideas and actions of capitalist society. They are worth listing:

  • Guardrail 1: Climate Change is not a challenge to individualism.
  • Guardrail 2: The liberal construction of climate change is universally true.
  • Guardrail 3: Climate change is not an historical phenomenon.
  • Guardrail 4: We have the tecnologies to solve climate change.
  • Guardrail 5: New stories will save us.
The climate movement has, in recent years, developed a serious and important component that has highlighted the importance of global justice to the fight for a sustainable future. Shaw points out the liberal guardrails entrench a view of climate solutions that see the future world as a mirror of the developed West. This view is both unsustainable and racist. Take the future envisaged by one western liberal writer:
There is flirting, gossip, philosophical cafes, street theatre, peaceful protest marches, farmers markets, marathons and rock concerts a plenty. The cars hum quietly around... beer and barbeques. Markets and trade are vibrant.
A fantasy dream for a liberal elite. Certainly a dream that is not sullied with the horror already dealt out to billions of people around the world by the existing environmental crisis. 

What is worrying about these viewpoints is that they are not just endemic to the politicians and the elite, they are also dominanting within the climate movement itself - at least the mainstream, NGO part of it. For these activists, "system change" mostly means tinkering with capitalism, not replacing it.

It is interesting then that Shaw's book finishes with the "third way". It is a breath of fresh air when Shaw says we must begin with Lenin and the Russian Revolution. The latter he rightly characterises as "a conscious intervention to end imperialism and class exploitation". Shaw continues that we need a similar "seismic historically significant social revolution today". 

While I think Shaw's arguements against liberalism are valid. I think it would have been good to draw out further his discussion about whether or not they will remain universal. As the climate crisis grows, the response from governments and elites will be to rein in liberal discourse, increase repression, border controls and racism. We get a glimpse of this with Putin and Trump, and far-right politicians around the world. I would have enjoyed more of Shaw's thoughts on this.

Nonetheless Liberalism and the Challenge of Climate Change is an important book. I opened it fearful that I was delving into a dry academic text. But instead I found an illuminating and engaging discussion, a powerful denunciation of the dominant political viewpoints that drew the most radical of conclusions. 

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Monday, February 12, 2024

Robin Wall Kimmerer - Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass is one of those books that defies easy categorisation. I picked it up expecting a book that distilled indigineous knowledge about plants, perhaps imaginging a discussion about what plants made for good food, medicine or had other benefits. The book definitely has this within it. But it has much more. It is also part autobiography, part reportage, part biological discussion. All of this often infused with anger and sadness. Robin Wall Kimmerer draws on her many varied experiences - as a mother, scientist and university tutor - as well as an indigenous person in North America - to draw out how Native American people understand the world and nature. It makes for a remarkable book.

One of the things about Braiding Sweetgrass is Kimmerer's mixing of scientific and indigenous insights. Towards the end of the book, she writes:

The very facts of the world are a poem. Light is turned to sugar. Salamanders find their way to ancestral ponds following magnetic lines radiating from the earth. The saliva of grazing buffalo causes the grass to grow taller. Tobacco seeds germinate when they smell smoke. Microbes in industrial waste can destroy mercury. Aren't these stories we should all know?

She continues, "The stories of buffao and salamanders belong to the land, but scientists are one of their translators and carry a large responsiblity for conveying their stories to the world". But she bemoans that "scientists mostly convey these stories in a language that excludes readers."

I think the point she is making is that Western thought teachers people to understand the world in a particular way. Nature is a commidity that has been tied into a global market. Capitalism teaches us to see the world in a particular way. We relate to nature, not as nature, but as a thing, separate from us.

Kimmerer shows this often in her descriptions of time spent with student. On field trips she finds students who are incredulous at her suggestions that they listen to nature, or think of a tree, plant or stone as a person that they should communicate with. I'll admit that it seems strange to me. But the point that Kimmerer is making is that we consider the world differently when we have to think about the consequences of our actions - when we have to ask the animal if it is ok to hunt them, or the crop to cut it. The action of making gifts to nature is in part about making a recognition that nature cannot be taken for grants.

There's an excellent chapter that looks at this through a PHd students work on crop yields. This student is studying the impact of different ways of harvesting crops. The university professors are incredulous that she thinks that the act of farming the crops would increase yields. "Anyone knows that harvesting a plant will damage the population. You're wasting your time" said the Dean. Yet the opposite was proved to be true. Indigenous knowledge trumped the academy.

Kimmerer is not suggesting that indigenous knowledge should replace Western science. What she is arguing is that the approach of indigenous people to the world offers ways of understanding the world that can supplement science. Her different chapters all, in various ways, make this case - often in convincing and interesting ways.

But I think there's something missing of her analysis. The problem is not science. The problem is a social and economic system that frames science in a particular way. Rightly Kimmerer talks about the appalling genocidal treatment of indigenous people. This saw the deliberate and violent destruction of a way of life - and a way of thinking. But the rise of capitalism did this to people everywhere - including in Europe. James D. Fisher's recent book The Enclosure of Knowledge makes this point well about the experience in England. This is not to downplay the violence inflicted on Native Americans, but to argue that the rise of the bourgeois way of thinking about nature is the problem. We cannot simply graft better and more helpful ways of thinking on existing science. We need to transform the system itself.

This is why I think Kimmerer's book is sometimes misunderstood by reviewers. Because it seems hard to imagine what she is suggesting taking place - because it can seem so alien. Interestinginly at the same time as writing this review I've been reading Kent Nerburn's book Neither Wolf Nor Dog, which features similar increduality between Nerburn and his Native American companions.

Of course, it is possible to shift how people think and view the world. Kimmerer's students often make that leap - and she writes touchingly about this. Her book will also contribute to this process. But making that change is only a first step. As she writes at the very end, we need "courage" to "refuse to participate in an economy that destroys the beloverd earth to line the pockets of the greedy, to demand an economy that is aligned with life, not stacked against it. It's easy to write that, harder to do."

Unless we shatter the Settler Colonial system that alienates us from nature, and shapes our way of thinking, we will remain trapped in its framework. Kimmerer's book is thus a powerful argument for a new way of thinking, but we need to go much further.

Related Reviews

Fisher - The Enclosure of Knowledge
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
McMillan & Yellowhorn - First Peoples in Canada
Hunter - Glencoe and the Indians
Cozzens - The Earth is Weeping

Thursday, February 08, 2024

Sylvain Neuvel - Until the Last of Me

*** Spoilers ***

This is the second volume of Sylvain Neuvel's Take Them to the Stars trilogy. It is an alternate history of the 20th century, focusing on two groups of human like aliens that live among the wider population. For three thousand years they have fought each other. One group, the Kibsu, have tasked themselves with getting humanity to space so that they can escape Earth. These women, have hidden themselves, gently prodding and encouraging humans to gain the necessary insights to develop science and move, slowly towards the stars. The Kibsu are all women, and one of the great insights of these books is how Neuvel links the difficulties of these gentle nudges, with the wider problems of women's oppression in society and science. 

He also doesn't fall into the trap of pretending this is easy for the Kibsu. One of the ironies of the historical chapters in Until the Last of Me, is that the Kibsu often fail, or find that human scientists are already gaining the insights they need, or that their women's insights are ignored. In fact Neuvel reinforces the idea, perhaps not deliberately, that scientific advance is a consequence of humanity's collective development - not just the insights of individuals. The greatest step forward taking by Kibsu Mia though was to get the Nazi Von Braun to the US after World War Two, and then to push the Soviets into space to make it happen. This is where the second novel opens - humans are in space, but the Kibsu need them to push further outward. But there is a problem.

For thousands of years the Kibsu have run from the Tracker. The aliens, all male, hunting them. For thousands of years the motto has been "run, do not fight". In this book the last Kibsu has to fight to protect what she has found out about her origins and humanity's destiny. 

Neuvel skillfully weaves the story of the Kibsu around 20th century space exploration - making Voyager the focus of the tale. This is itself enjoyable - in a way its a more exciting and innovative vision of humanity's voyage into space than the moon landings and the space race. But it is a dead end, and its notable that the book opens with Kibsu disappointment at the lack of movement in space.

For this reason, Until the Last of Me fails to develop some of the intensity of the first book - the space race provided a tension that is lacking in the second book. Instead Neuvel relies on the back story of the Kibsu and a somewhat implausible detective story as the Kibsu use an ancient artifact (locked in a vault in China) as a map to find their way to a secret. This is a little to Indiana Jones, and it contains one of the sillest museum heist scenes I've ever read.

I suspect that Until the Last of Me, suffers from being volume two of a trilogy. A bridge between beginning and end. We shall see. The ending is a pretty good cliff hanger.

Related Reviews

Neuvel - A History of What Comes Next