Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Peter Bellwood - First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies

The historical development of agriculture fundamentally transformed human societies. The surplus generated by farming could, for the first time in human history, allow groups within society to live from the labour of others. Thus, where, when and why agriculture developed and was taken up is of enormous interest to those trying to understand subsequent history.

Peter Bellwood's book on the Origin of Agricultural Societies is thus very important. He begins by exploring why certain hunter-gatherer communities became agricultural, and why many didn't. A key question is whether once agriculture had developed at various "points of origin" around the globe, it spread wave like, carried by the outward movement and spread of agriculturalists, or whether it was adopted by existing hunter-gatherer communities who then became sedentary.

Many societies didn't take up agriculture, and the encounters between the two types of early communities may often have been mutually beneficial. Though, as Bellwood explains, at a certain point the situation would become untenable. "Such interactive networks between farmers and hunter-gatherers, in situation of non-severe circumscription, are presumably stable until the farmers increase their numbers... and thus require more land. Then, the hunter-gatherers either join the farmers as an underclass of field workers, or, if they are lucky, they can adopt agriculture."

Bellwood points out that those missing the agricultural "train" can have a bleak future. But, as the author explains, "the ethnographic record with respect to ... hunter-gatherer societies offers few hints of eager and successful agricultural adoption. This seems to be the case regardless of whether societies were immediate or delayed return, encapsulated or unenclosed, ranked or egalitarian, sedentary or mobile, 'collectors' or 'foragers'."

Much of the earlier chapters of this book discuss exactly how and why agriculture was invented and developed. Bellwood gives an excellent over-view of the different transformations across the whole world. Looking at the different plants and animals that are domesticated around the world, and examining, in turn, the archaeological, genetic and linguistic evidence builds up a picture of how agriculture was invented and spread.

Some of this research really fascinating. The author cites one study that demonstrates that "domestication [of grain] could be achieved within 20-30 years if the crop is harvested near-ripe by sickle-reaping or uprooting, and if it is sown on virgin land every year [with seed] taken from last year's new plots".

This implies that agriculture could have developed very quickly, though other studies noted point out that "wild and domesticated cereals occurred together for over a millennium before the latter became fully dominant". Hindsight plays an important role, but we can see that agriculture wouldn't have necessarily taken hundreds of years. Incidentally, the importance of sickle-reaping or uprooting is that harvesting plants like this, self-selects for the ones least likely to "burst" and deposit their seeds on the ground. It is a wonderful example of how the invention of a labour saving tool can have unexpected effects.

While this is fascinating, and Bellwood explains some difficult concepts well, much of the book is inaccessible to the non-specialist reader. Like David W. Anthony's book The Horse, The Wheel and Language, (an author cited often in Bellwood's work), the concepts of language evolution and spread are particularly difficult. In part this is because of the encyclopedic nature of the work, covering every part of the globe for thousands of years of history. But nonetheless the target audience is clearly students and academics rather than the popular reader. While even the most complex chapters have nuggets of information that will fascinate the persevering reader, this is probably a book that most readers will struggle with, which is a shame as the subject matter is historically of the greatest importance.

Related Reviews

Anthony - The Horse, The Wheel and Language
Flannery & Marcus - The Creation of Inequality
Pryor - Farmers in Prehistoric Britain
Reynolds - Ancient Farming

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Claire North - The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Time travel stories tend to be cliched and vapid. The Time Traveler's Wife turned a clever idea into a dull story of romance. But Claire North's novel is an entirely new spin on an old idea, brilliantly executed. Her titular hero, Harry August, like a tiny minority of other people, is reborn with his memory intact whenever he dies. Doomed to repeat the first few years of his life endlessly, the novel initially explores how one might live differently if you know the future. But then it takes a dark turn as Harry August and others like him, realise someone is using knowledge of the future to fundamentally change it and in the process destroy the others.

The novel works partly because it has such a wonderful basis. But also because of the detail that North has put in, particularly the way that those who relive their lives, learn to identify each other, and pass messages back and forth through time. The "Cronus Club" to which they belong becomes a refuge, but also a way of rescuing children who might appear to be 6 years old, but actually have hundreds of years of experience.

There are some brilliantly sinister parts to the novel. I was struck by section when a government agent tortures Harry August, because they are desperate to find out what the future holds, and in particular, "why they lose in Vietnam". Its a very clever and excellently thought out novel.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Siobhan Brown - A Rebel's Guide to Eleanor Marx

Eleanor Marx's was one of the great socialist activists. She built unions, fought for women's liberation, was active in building solidarity with international struggles from the Paris Commune and Ireland to the anti-imperialist war in Sudan. A translator, a writer, an orator and an outstanding Marxist she ought to be one of the British left's greatest heroes. Yet all too often she is forgotten. Siobhan Brown's book, the latest in the excellent Rebel's Guides series, is a superb introduction to Eleanor Marx's life.

Brown packs an enormous amount in. From Eleanor's early life in the Marx household, to the years of solidarity work with refugees from the Paris Commune to the "busiest decade". The 1880s when Eleanor Marx helped build socialist organisation, wrote a highly important pamphlet on the "woman question", toured the US to argue for socialism and most importantly put herself at the heart of the mass strike waves that ushered in New Unionism.

We get a sense of Eleanor Marx as a thinker, and not just an activist. While touring the US, Eleanor made clear her absolute solidarity with the anarchists being framed for the Haymarket Bombing, but did not hide from comradely criticism. The pamphlet that she wrote with Edward Aveling, The Woman Question from a Socialist Point of View was more than an argument for equality. It was, says Brown, "a critique of capitalism as a system that places an extra burden on women, and working class women in particular, and that distorts relationships and sexuality."

Brown explains that the pamphlet built on Engels pioneering work which made clear the class roots of women's oppression and argued that ending women's oppression meant ending capitalism.

"She [Eleanor Marx] argued that while bourgeois women were competing with bourgeois men, working class women were not held down by working class men. She asserted that their interests lie together. Eleanor quotes Zetkin: 'And that is why the working woman cannot be like the bourgeois woman who has to fight against the man of her own class... With the proletarian women, on the contrary, it is a struggle of the women with the man of her own class against the capitalist class'."

Perhaps the most powerful part of these books are the sections on Eleanor Marx's involvement with the mass unions and strike waves that shook the country at the end of the 1880s. Brown points out that the workers involved in these, from Jewish tailors, to the Match Girls and the Dockers were often considered unorganisable. The tailors were in small workshops, the Match Girls considered easily replaceable, and the Dockers casualised and atomised. Yet all of these led powerful strikes that won significant victories and built powerful unions.

Brown gives us a flavour of Eleanor Marx's centrality to the new unions.

"As well as jumping on tables at meetings, Eleanor committed herself to the more mundane tasks that were required. Ben Tillett, a New Union leader, described how she did 'the drudgery of clerical work as well as more responsible duties', while Tom Mann said she was someone who, 'possessing a complete mastery of economics... was able, alike in conversation and on a public platform, to hold her own with the best."

The decline of the strike wave and union movement undoubtedly hit Eleanor Marx hard, and she committed suicide in 1898. But her legacy was tremendously important. Siobhan Bown ends her book by making the point that what Eleanor Marx demonstrated was that the best way to fight low pay, racism and women's oppression was through mass working class movements that challenged capitalism. But that ultimately capitalism had to be overthrown. This wonderful little book is a great way for activists, new and old, to learn the lessons of the past and be inspired for the struggles of the future.

Reviews of other books in the Rebel's Guide series, all published by Bookmarks

Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Orr - Sexism and the System; A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

David Scott & Alexei Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon

I was reading this book while watching the first launch of NASA's Orion spacecraft, a vehicle that many hope will return humans to the moon, mars and elsewhere. I'm skeptical that the political and economic interests exist in the United States for this to happen. In an era were private companies are expected to lead innovation in their pursuit of profit, I suspect that NASA's funding will dwindle. Orion may well prove to be a last hurrah.

Part of my reasoning lies in this interesting book by two astronauts. David Scott who flew with the one of the US's Gemini missions, and walked on the moon with Apollo 15. Alexei Leonov was the first person to walk in space and took part in the Apollo-Soyuz link up. Had things been different Leonov may well have been the first person to walk on the moon.

The book is structured around the authors' lives. Each taking turns to tell parts of their story. Much of the fascination comes from the great differences between the two experiences, particularly their lives within their respective space programs. The Russian's were bedeviled by bureaucracy and lack of funding, which contrasts enormously with NASA's lavish initial support and a much more happy go lucky approach from the astronauts.

Leonov was a close friend of Yuri Gagarin, and their are some emotional parts to his tale, particularly in the aftermath of his friends death. He is also an accomplished painter and its notable that his accounts are often more concerned with his amazement with what he can see, while Scott's could be over-bearing in technical detail and much more matter-of-fact.

Scott was to go to the moon, and this is perhaps the highlight of the book. Forty years later and despite having seen the footage from the various Apollo missions countless times and read dozens of accounts and reports, the sheer fact that humans walked on the moon still has the capacity to stun me. Scott and James Irwin underwent extensive geological and scientific training for the lunar mission and their accounts are punctuated with genuine excitement at particular finds. Their ability to make decisions about exploration shaped by a wider understanding of geology. Something to bear in mind when discussing whether exploration should continue by robot or manned craft.

But these stories are immersed in the wider context of the space race. The confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Scott is very partisan about the "benefits" of capitalism, over what is labelled communism. As he puts it when describing a discussion with a senator opposed to spending money on NASA, while at a meal with President Nixon,

"The unspoken political undercurrent to our discussion was the importance of the space programme in winning the Cold War. I did not say it directly to the senator grilling us, but underlying my thinking were very fundamental questions: 'Do you want us to win this race? Do you want to live in a free society? Or do you want to live under communism?'"

Scott's enthusiasm for science and exploration vanishes here, in the interests of simply winning an undeclared war with the Soviet Union. By contrast the parts of the book, particularly those by Leonov, which detail the interaction between Russian and US spacemen and the way that their shared experiences broke down barriers are illuminating. Leonov, for instance, bemoans how the ill-discipline of American astronauts missing breakfasts in the USSR meant he had to pay for the wasted food from his own pocket.

Leonov's is a victim of the collapse of the USSR. His encounters with senior politicians and figures in the USSR help expose the reality of that system and he undergoes his own political awakening. He never got to walk on the moon, though his spaceflights were important milestones. His tales, for instance of fighting off wolves while landing in Siberia, are a fascinating insight into the less well known side of the space race, as well as the tragedies. Those fascinated simply by space flight will enjoy the insights from both astronauts into the 1960s and 1970s space race.

But the book is damaged by being over-long and in places seems to drown in its own self-importance. Introductions by Neil Armstrong and Tom Hanks add little, and David Scott has added an extremely long list of acknowledgements which seems to include everyone he ever worked with. In part this is because the book is a defense of his actions in a number of run ins he had with NASA. But ultimately it all detracts from what is otherwise a readable book.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Leandro Vergara-Camus - Land and Freedom: The MST, the Zapatistas and Peasant Alternatives to Neoliberalism

Over the last decade the Zapatista movement in Mexico and, to a lesser extent, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil have been inspirational examples of rural and peasant movements. The MST's occupations of land, or the Zapatisa's defence of indigenous peoples land and both groups' attempts to develop new economic and social paradigms have inspired and provoked debate for many on the anti-capitalist left.

Thus Leandro Vergara-Camus' new book, which comparatively analyses the two movements, is very important. From my point of view I found it particularly interesting at a time when the question of peasant struggles and rural movements has receded somewhat from discussion among Marxist activists. Both the MST and the Zapatistas are important because they are both contemporary movements and their struggles and strategies may offer insights into wider peasant movements in more revolutionary times.

Much of the authors' work is based on years of research which included extended periods living with, and interviewing both MST and Zapatista activists. The MST is a movement of landless workers that attempts through a process of occupations to win land for those who don't have it. It begins with a preparatory period prior to land occupation, followed by a hopefully successful occupation, then by entrenchment of a new community. The Zapatistas, while aiming to control rural space as well, have tended to protect established communities, expelling Mexican state forces and, where necessary, being prepared to mobilise peasants and their own military forces to protect this control.

"The land struggles of the MST and the EZLN are not struggles demanding that elites live up to their mortal obligations towards their subordinates. On the contrary, both movements seek to fundamentally transform or even transcend that relationship by empowering their membership through the creation of 'autonomous rural communities'.... These... allow their members to secure and protect their access to land and hence resist the full commodification of land and monetarization of relations of production."

Vergara-Camus suggests that for the Zapatistas this has not meant the expansion of commercial agriculture, by which he means an integration into a wider capitalist economy, but instead what can be seen is a

"'retreat movement' towards subsistence agriculture and activities. More and more peasants, particularly in indigenous regions of the jungle, the highlands and the north, are retreating as much as possible, from commercial relations - dedicating only a minimal portion of their activity to this purpose."

While MST communities are often more integrated into the wider economy, he continues,

"the majority of Zapatistas are subsistence peasants and fewer can be found within the ranks of market-dependent indigenous peasants."

While there are similarities between the two movements, Vergara-Camus notes important differences.

"Even though both are facing the historical process of so-called primitive accumulation, they are confronted by different phases of this process. The militants of the MST are responding to the development of fully capitalist social relations in the countryside, while the Zapatista communities are fighting the mere establishment of the conditions for the development of fully capitalist relations."

Zapatista Rally
Elsewhere in my reviews I have mentioned my admiration for the analysis of Henry Bernstein, who argues that "most peasants in the Third World, like their family farmer counterparts in the West, 'are unable to reproduce themselves outside the relations and processes of capitalist commodity production'." [Vergara-Camus quoting Bernstein].

Vergara-Camus explicitly moves away from this position, arguing that the "subsistence focus" of both the Zapitistas and the MST is a consequence of both "socio-economic" positions and (particularly in the case of the Zapitistas) because the indigenous approach to production emphasises the question of subsistence farming. Writing about the MST, Vergara-Camus suggests that once settlement has occurred, "subsistence remains a focus because market conditions do not allow them to compete with more productive farmers. More importantly, MST settlers are not subject to the full imperative of competition because their land is, most of the time, not commodified."

While it is undoubtedly true that both MST settlers and Zapitista communities are physically and economically isolated from wider capitalist relations, I don't think that this necessarily means they are completely cut off from capitalism. This is not simply about whether or not they buy goods such as pesticides or clothing from external companies, though this is important, it is about whether or not the communities are entirely able to break with the realities of capitalism itself.

One example of this is the question of gender roles within both the MST and the Zapatistas. The collective action of the peasants has helped to break down the subordinate role of women. This is precisely because the involvement of women directly in the struggle has challenged traditional roles and "temporarily blurred the boundaries between private and public spaces". However it is notable that neither movement seems to have attempted to fundamentally challenge these gender roles through, for instance, collective arrangements for food production and child care.

Clearly in both examples, while men and women's traditional roles have sometimes changed, they haven't been transformed. Notably, Vergara-Camus points out, that while in the MST preparatory phase, women and men's roles change radically, once land occupation has taken place, they often revert to more traditional positions. This is not always the case, and the author quotes some inspiring examples of how fundamentally things have changed, while noting that this had to be fought for, as one activist remembered

"The participation of women was fought for. It was conquered. It had to confront many stereotypes. Today, it has changed a lot. There are many women who have achieved the division of domestic chores."

But, the author notes

"what seems to be the rule is that during moments of increased mobilisation and tension, women assume the role of protagonists and thus break with their traditional gender role; but they then often retreat to a modified version of that traditional gender role."

One of the truisms of the revolutionary left, is that people change in struggle, and that is clearly the case here. But when the struggle diminishes, or fundamental change fails to occur than things can revert back to how they were. Precisely because neither the MST or the Zapatista movement can break from capitalist relations they risk things reverting back.

A second and more fundamental question is that neither of the MST or the Zapatista strategies challenges the power of the state. While it has been fashionable for some leftist scholars to suggest that it is possible for radical movements to not challenge state power, for peasants in Brazil and Mexico, the existence of a hostile state which remains supportive of large landowners can mean death squads, military intervention or simply barriers to selling produce in the wider market.

The importance of this debates lies in whether it is possible for others to emulate this strategy and
create anti-capitalist islands within a wider capitalist sea. While the creation of communes or co-operatives is often doomed to failure in the face of the logic of the market, because peasant communities can reproduce themselves through subsistence farming it is possible for them to exist in economic relations outside of the capitalist mainstream. But the long term limitations lie precisely because capitalism itself, with its inherent need to expand, will eventually come into conflict with these spaces.

This makes the wider links between the MST and the Zapatista movements with their respective nation states even more important. The MST has famously developed over years close links with Brazil's ruling party the Workers' Party (PT). The PT was elected with a mandate to bring change, but has ended up introducing neo-liberal politics and certainly hasn't provided the rural reforms that many in the MST would have hoped for. Indeed, some of their changes have strengthened the larger agricultural corporations and landowners that the MST is in conflict with.

In Mexico the Zapatista has bravely stood its ground against extremely aggressive state action. Vergara Camus analyses in some detail the attempts, particularly by the MST to build wider coalitions. These haven't been successful, and it remains to be seen how the MST and the Zapatistas will move forward.

But the key question must be the way that both groups have inspired and encouraged wider social movements. Vergara-Camus points out how, in 1994, in the aftermath of the Zapatista uprising communities throughout Chiapas took the opportunity to occupy private land. The MST too, has through its occupations and its colleges and other institutions given land to those who most needed it, and helped encourage the new settlers to make best use of it. Tens of thousands of people have had their lives transformed as a result. In an era when neo-liberal policies have run rough-shod over wider rural relations this is in itself both inspiring and hopeful.

Vergara-Camus notes that the "principal political advantage" of the MST and Zapatistas is "their capacity to organise and mobilise entire communities around autonomous structures of popular power" and "their maintenance of a subsistence fall back strategy that provides an opportunity to partially delink from the market".

While often using the language of revolution, neither organisation is revolutionary in the sense that they wish to bring fundamental social change through the destruction of the capitalist order. Vergara-Camus notes that "by developing popular structures of power" the MST and the Zapatistas do alter the relationship between rulers and ruled. But he also realizes that "power relations do not dissolve through this process" - as we have seen with the examples of changing gender roles in both the MST and Zapatistas.

Vergara-Camus suggests that the only other option is a "political strategy", but he equates this with engaging in the existing capitalist political structures on the terms of those who already have power. I fear that this is inadequate and will expose the weakest flank of these movements to co-option or destruction. The alternative is a strategy of developing and furthering links with wider social forces, particularly the working class of the Mexican and Brazilian cities that have enormous social power. Here lies the potential to destroy capitalism and allow the rural areas to develop unhindered by the wider capitalist sea.

This has been a somewhat critical review of what is an important book. At times it is not an easy read. The chapters discussing the politics and economics of the peasantry seemed needlessly academic and the authors' use of Gramscian metaphors seemed shoe-horned in. I was also disappointed that more of the author's material from interviews with the activists of the MST and Zapatistas was not included. Nonetheless, despite my disagreements with key issues in Land and Freedom the debates within are ones crucial to both the future of the peasantry and those who seek to fundamentally change society. This book deserves be widely read and to be the focus of extensive debate.

Related Reviews

Sader - The New Mole: Paths of the Latin American Left
Galeano - The Open Veins of Latin America
Sader & Silverstein - Without Fear of Being Happy: Lula, the Workers Party and Brazil

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

David Quammen - Ebola: The Natural & Human History

The Ebola crisis that raged over the summer produced acres of newsprint. Much of it was sensationalist, inaccurate and confusing. Many people were concerned, not least because of irresponsible reporting. Some were quick to point out that the media only became interested when white people in rich nations started dying and Socialist Worker highlighted the way that "The Rich Could Stop Ebola in a Day".

Ebola is a horrible, virulent disease. But despite it having first identified following a 1976 outbreak, we still know very little about it. One reason for that, as Socialist Worker highlighted, is the lack of resources that have been spent on solving the problem. Another is the particular way that Ebola spreads.

David Quammen's new book concentrates on this second question. His book has its origins in a 2012 book of his, Spillover which examined the way that diseases can arrive from the animal kingdom and enter the human population. The Ebola pathogen is a zoonosis, "an animal infection that is transmissible to humans". Quammen points out that this is not uncommon - diseases like bubonic plague or rabies are zoonosis.

The reason that this is important is that identifying the "reservoir" animal which carries Ebola between outbreaks is a key part in identifying how to deal with the disease. The reservoir is unknown, though recently it has become clear that bats may well have a key role in this. Bats are extremely common in areas where Ebola outbreaks occur.  However at the time of writing, Quammen acknowledges that no bat has ever been found, despite extensive research, containing live Ebola viruses. This might mean that bats are part of a much more complex Ebola ecology (we know for instance that Ebola is particularly virulent in Gorillas) or it may be that some bats are the reservoir. More research is needed.

Ebola usually causes a horrible death.Though when the communities are in Africa we rarely hear about them, which was why I was surprised to find out from Quammen's book that 1976 was the first known case of an outbreak. I was also surprised to learn that several casualties have occurred outside of Africa long before the 2014 outbreak. England had a patient in 1976 who had contracted it due to an injury while studying the disease. A Russian researcher who had been looking at an experimental therapy derived from blood serum of horses died in 1996. Injecting live horses with Ebola must have been a particularly dangerous piece of research activity.

I was fascinated to discover that an African group, the Acholi, had, as part of their cultural knowledge, "a program of special behaviors" some of which seem specifically aimed at coping with diseases like Ebola. Including "quarantining each patient... relying on a survivor of the epidemic (if there were any) to provide care to each patient; limiting movement of people between the affected village.... not eating rotten or smoked meat; and suspending the ordinary burial practices"

Most importantly though, Quammen locates the Ebola question in the wider social context. He points out for instance, that there are other, far more dangerous diseases (malaria, or TB), others that could well evolve and cause extensive destruction (bird flu). There are others that cause localised epidemics, that are ignored in the west. All of these would benefit from proper funding, and are made worse by Africa's general poverty and the legacy of western colonialism. As Quammen points out,

"What we should remember, is that the events in West Africa (so far) tell us not just about the ugly facts of Ebola's transmisibility and lethality; they tell us also about the ugly facts of poverty, inadequate health care, political dysfunction, and desperation in three West African countries, and of neglectful disregard of those circumstances over time by the international community."

Quammen's book is not perfect, its main limitations come from its origin in a book with a slightly different emphasis. But it is an excellent introduction to Ebola. It should also encourage us to demand that our governments spend more of researching diseases like Ebola and caring for their victims.

Related Reviews

Davis - The Monster At Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu
Zinsser - Rats, Lice and History
Ziegler - The Black Death

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Juliet Barker - England Arise! The People, the King & the Great Revolt of 1381

Juliet Barkers' book on the 1381 Great Revolt is a meticulously researched, well written and important new contribution to our understanding of the event. While I don't agree with all of her conclusions, and particularly have problems seeing Richard II as a naive ruler, sympathetic to the serfs who has to be persuaded to undo the concessions he made with Wat Tyler and the rebels at Mile End, this isn't a key criticism of the book. A bigger problem is that Barker fails to see the uprising as a more general class struggle which is why she rejects the term "Peasants' Revolt". That said, the wealth of material here, Barkers' excellently clear style, and the background material make this a book that will enormously contribute to discussions about peasant struggles in the medieval era.

This is a short review as I have been asked to review the book elsewhere. I will update this post with that review when it is available.

Related Reviews

O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Dunn - The Peasant's Revolt: England's Failed Revolution of 1381

Lindsay & Groves - The Peasants' Revolt 1381
Hilton - Bond Men Made Free