Thursday, June 23, 2016

Lawrence Stone - The Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642

The question of "why" something happened in history is a vexing one. It's rarely easy to determine simple causal reasons behind events, and for something as complex as the English Revolution of the 17th century, to try and do so would be a pointless task. That said, some have tried and often this has meant confusing specific aspects of those years with the whole event itself. Lawrence Stone himself points out that such "great" historians as C.V. Wedgwood have focused on the reasons for the outbreak of war between Parliament and King, missing the context of the war itself. As Stone points out:
To concentrate upon Clarendon's 'Great Rebellion' or Miss Wedgwood's 'Civil War' is to miss the essential problem. The outbreak of war itself is relatively easy to explain; what is hard is to puzzle out why most of the established institutions of State and Church - Crown, Court, central administration, army and episcopacy - collapsed so ignominiously two years before.
Stone thus sets himself a difficult task. To unpick the complex and intertwined events and changes that ultimately led to Charles' be executed and a Republic being declared. The first chapter of this book then is a sociological study of what a revolution is. Stone manages to make this an abstract discussion that is only of academic interest. It's worth noting that Norah Carlin in her similarly titled The Causes of the English Civil War  points out that
One problem with all such theories... is that they depend on relatively simple generalisations... Few 17th century specialists would now accept [as Stone does]... that the people who led the English revolution could be described, along with eighteenth-century Jacobins and twentieth-century Maoists, as 'fanatics, extremists, zealots... prepared to smash through the normal constraints of habit, custom and convention'.
Stone is on firmer and more interesting ground when he looks at the social changes and economic developments that led to the Revolution. He puts a great deal of emphasis on the numerical growth of the gentry and their consequent increased influence, as well as the decline of the aristocracy. This was crucially of importance in the Houses of Parliament, which grew from 300-500 MPs, as the gentry component increased from 50 to 75 percent over the period.

While emphasising these changing economic circumstances, Stone doesn't ignore other factors, such as the associated growth of education and literacy which meant that taught "the electorate of yeomen, freeholders and shop-keepers" to read. Though, in a reversion to sociology, he suggests that this was important because a "rapid increase in the proportion of the population receiving primary education" is one of the factors likely to lead to revolution. A thoroughly mechanical understanding of revolution in my opinion. That said, Stone is right to link this to the way that the Puritans and more radical movements during the course of the Revolution helped develop and sustain their movements through the production of pamphlets. This is, he argues, a necessary "cause for the peculiar and ultimately radical course the revolution took".

Ultimately what causes the Revolution for Stone is that "new social forces were emerging, new political relationships were forming and new intellectual currents were flowing, but neither the secular government nor the Church was demonstrating an ability to adapt to new circumstances." The words he uses to describe English society in the 1620s is "disequilibrium" and "dysfunction". Wider changes were undermining the basis for the old order and encouraging the development of new forces that could surmount it. There is a sense in Stone's book of society no longer working. Perhaps it's better to see it as a world were things can no longer continue in the old ways, and change has to come, or the old order will reassert itself. As the Civil War developed, those forces who desired change became stronger and more confident and the king's resistance forced their hand. The world was fundamentally changed.

Related Reviews

Yerby - English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ian Angus - Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the crisis of the Earth System

It seems that on an almost daily basis we read reports that climate change is getting worse, faster than expected. Only a few months back in the aftermath of the Paris climate talks in December 2015, politicians were hailing the successes of the negotiations. They claimed it was a major step forward. Yet little concrete action has taken place, and many of those who protested and called for serious action from the politicians, will be asking "what has changed?".

Ian Angus' new book is an extremely important contribution to this discussion. The last two decades have seen science take great steps forward in how we understand "the Earth System as a whole. A central result of that work has been realization that a new and dangerous stage in planetary evolution has begun - the Anthropocene."

A recent Guardian article quoted a climate scientist saying that "we are catapulting ourselves out of the Holocene". The Holocene was the geological era when "a stable and predictable climate" made agriculture, and hence human civilisation, possible. The instability of this new epoch threatens all of that.

The concept of the Anthropocene has in recent years become increasingly popular. Its the idea that we have entered a period when human activity itself is transforming the world in fundamental ways. There are important and extensive debates about when the Anthropocene began, and Angus' summarises these, sometimes complex, scientific discussions well. but they are not abstract debates, because they inform the argument about what must be done to deal with the environmental crises that we face.

Humans have always altered their environment. This fact alone has led some to argue for an "early Anthropocene". This is a mistake, says Angus, because it allows some to argue that what we are experiencing today is merely the "acceleration of trends going back hundreds and even thousands of years". But there is a qualitative and quantitative difference between what we are doing to the environment today and what has happened in the past.

What is it about those recent decades that have made things so much worse? The answer, argues Angus, is capitalism. He writes:
Capitalism and fossil fuels have spectacularly expanded human health and wealth for two centuries. Now they are overwhelming the planetary processes that have made Earth hospitable to civilization and our species for 10,000 years. They are thrusting us into a new and dangerous epoch. 
Angus locates this dramatic change in the years following World War Two. In twenty-four graphs of earth system and socioeconomic trends, Angus shows how society's impact on the world makes a qualitative leap around the 1950s. From the emissions of carbon dioxide, marine fish capture and methane emissions to the manufacture of large dams and the use of water, paper and fertilizer there are leaps upward in the 1950s. Angus isn't the first to suggest the end of the war as the turning point, but what he does here is to explain why it happens, arguing that US economic interests were able to shape the world towards an increased dependence on fossil fuels, particularly oil, during and after the war.
At the beginning of 1950, four key drivers of the long boom were in place: a powerful industrial base in the US, .... a large and growing military budget; a disciplined and financially secure labor force... and a seemingly infinite supply of cheap energy.
This drove forward a new era in the relationship between human society and the natural world. In particular, neo-liberalism further undermined environmental legislation, expanded into new parts of the world and destroyed, or reshaped, industry and agriculture in its image accelerating environmental destruction. We are now in a situation of enormous urgency:
We do not know how long we have, but we do know that we simply cannot wait. And we know that just fighting isn't enough: to succeed, we must simultaneously work for immediate changes and advance a vision of the world we want to build.
Its worth highlighting one particular chapter when Angus discusses the crisis of ozone depletion in the 1970s and 1980s. It is one I well remember, and the story is important because it demonstrates how difficult it is for capitalism to do something about climate change. Angus explains how CFC manufacturers responded to criticism of the role of their product in destroying the ozone layer with denial and falsehood. It was only because it turned out that replacing CFCs with other chemicals was actually profitable that major companies ended up supporting a ban. But, as Angus concludes, this will not reoccur with the current crisis of climate change because dealing with fossil fuels means a "decades long transformation of the global economy".

One of the great strengths of this book is that it links an argument about the nature of capitalism with a powerful argument about how movements can fight. In particular Angus argues that the radical left must engage in and build the environmental movement today. If we can't stop fracking or a pipeline, he argues, how can we argue to overthrow capitalism?

In the introduction to his book, Angus says that he is trying to link the advances in Earth Systems science with the insights that a new generation of Marxists have brought to understanding capitalism's relationship with nature. He critiques those on the left who argue that the Anthropocene offers us little insight because it doesn't blame capitalism, or because it suggests that all humans are to blame rather than those at the top of society. What Angus points out is that scientists in debating the Anthropocene understand perfectly well that we are not all responsible for environmental disaster, and "insisting on a different word... can only cause confusion, and direct attention away from far more important issues".

By starting with the science and linking it to a Marxist understanding of capitalism and society's metabolic interaction with nature, Ian Angus has written an important book that will help to strengthen and develop the left's understanding of these issues. It ought to be widely read.

Related Reviews

Burkett - Marx and Nature
Foster - Marx's Ecology

Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics
Dawson - Extinction: A Radical History

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

George Yerby - The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change

This is an interesting and important attempt to grapple with the great transformation that took place in England, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and what that meant for how individuals and society saw the land, and the wider environment. Subtitled, "The Changing Concept of the Land in Early Modern England", Yerby begins by arguing that in medieval times the very word land meant something different:
A 'land' identified the smallest discrete area of cultivation win the great common fields that surrounded each village, and it was the unit by which the equal allocation of strips in the open field was measured. It reflected the shared and direct occupation of the physical land... In every respect, the medieval 'land' represented an unmediated and inseparable physical connection between the village farmer and the earth. [2]
Yerby contrasts this with today. He writes that our approach has become "imperialistic" and
our society of mini-property owners relates less to the real land and more closely to a different, collective usage of the word... This takes the form of a national territory, set apart from other such lands and defined essentially by the exercise of a particular form of law and government. [3]
Exactly how and why this transformation took place is the subject of Yerby's book, and in doing so he tries to get to grips with an important concept, the transformation of society's relationship with nature, or as Yerby puts it "We are no longer part of what we are part".


The transition begins with the gradual changing in the way that land is used and organised. In particular this can be seen in the shift away from open fields of medieval times to the enclosed fields. By the second half of the sixteenth century, Yerby points out, that these changes had become " a visible departure from what had gone before and even a reversal of the traditional medieval relationship with the land." [17]

Alongside these changes come changes to the "mindset" of those who work the land and own it. The land is viewed differently, in Marxists terms, the products of labour on the land become coveted for their exchange-value, not their use-value. The land itself, or pieces of land, become commodities. No longer part of the communally owned land of the village they are now to be bought and sold with little consideration of their wider relationships.

This had its ideological repercussions in the Reformation. Here we must be careful. The Reformation was not a product of these changes, though changes in the land helped the Reformation progress in places. But as Yerby argues, the break from Rome "was the basis for a clearer definition of the concept of a 'land'.... In the process, the scope for a discrete national entity occupying its own public space was created". [44] What these changes meant for the poor and the rich is well documented in Yerby's book. His examination of the material paints a picture of a major land-grab that benefited the rich greatly, and impoverished those who had formally worked the open-fields, leading to hunger and depopulation. As Yerby points out, open and enclosed fields had similar yields, but contemporaries (or at least those interested in enclosing land) believed that doing so increased productivity and value.

But one disappointment that I have is that Yerby underplays the resistance that took place to enclosure. For instance, he refers to the ""vigorous reaction of both government and people against enclosure and engrossing in the late 1540s" [75] without noting as historians such as Andy Wood who have pointed out that the late 1540s saw rebellion the length and breadth of England. Today this is mostly remembered because of Kett's rebellion in Norfolk, but simultaneous risings across the country involving tens of thousands of rebels, must surly be classed as something more than "vigorous reaction". Indeed, its arguable, as Steven Bindoff has written in his classic account of Kett's rebellion that the revolts might well have "clipped the wings of rural capitalism".

Yerby spends much of the later part of the book discussing the development of a national vision of the land through the context of the way that this emerges from the struggle between Parliament and King. Economic development in the countryside was furthering the development of trade and industry. Alongside this was evolving a political nation, a coherent political structure capable of perceiving its unified interests. Yerby argues that at root the conflict in the 1640s between Parliament and King is between those who see their interests in furthering this process and those who resist the changes.


For this to take place requires a number of factors such as the enclosing of land and the growth and development of the gentry as a "national class". As the gentry grow in power and influence the role of Parliament changes, no longer an arena to rubber stamp the King's policies, it instead becomes a place to debate the "national interest". Yerby highlights the "radicalism" of the merchant class in this regard (firmly placing himself in opposition to Robert Brenner on this matter). Quoting Christopher Hill who pointed out the "optimism of the merchants and artisans, confident in their new found ability to control their environment, including the social and political environment". For Yerby this highlights the
self-confidence and assertiveness of the merchant... and establishes their relationship to other crucial developments of the time, as in conjunction with the gentry and the yeoman farmers, they broke away from the restraints of the medieval past in the pursuit of liberal freedoms. [167]
With the defeat of the old order and the victory of Parliament a new world is free to take off, one based on a "commercial landscape". But now wealth was not generated solely from land, but from industry too... the depopulation and enclosure of the countryside being an essential part of making industrial, urban capitalism possible. Yerby concludes that the great transition that began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries created a world where nature was turned into a commodity, creating a "exploitative relationship with the land and the resources of the earth".

He finishes by speculating that perhaps this transition was, after all, a mistake, and the older ways of organising society were perhaps more viable in the long term. While there was little choice in the transition that took place, I'm not so sure this is a useful question. Pre-capitalist society was hardly free of economic, social and environmental crisis, and had the transition to capitalism not taken place in Western Europe it almost certainly would have elsewhere. A sustainable and socially just future will not be found by looking backwards, but by fighting in the present. Yerby's book is an important contribution to understanding how we got here.

Related Reviews

Dyer - Making a Living in the Middle Ages
Perry - Marxism and History
Dimmock - The Origin of Capitalism in England
Zmolek - Rethinking the Industrial Revolution

Emily St. John Mandel - Station Eleven

Station Eleven is one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I have ever read. Perhaps second only to George R. Stewart's ecological classic Earth Abides, in my personal list of favourites. Unusually the novel doesn't just tell the story of what happens to those who survive the end of civilisation, instead Mandel opts to tell the story in part through flashback. Contrasting the lives of those who survive with events from before the tragedy.

Central to the story are actors, plays and the theatre. In the modern world, the story and the characters themselves revolve around Arthur Leander. His wives, friends, and the medics who try to save him form characters in the aftermath of a rapidly spreading flu that decimates the population.

As always in this novel what is fascinating is what happens after the fall of civilisation. One of the central characters in the post-apocalyptic world, Kirsten, a child actor on stage with Arthur Leander at the point when the flu arrives in Toronto, cannot remember the "first year". She's considered lucky. But like many other survivors she remains obsessed with the old world, collecting pictures and stories about Leander from old gossip magazines. With nothing left of the old world, all she can hold on to is the the famous old actor, and the enigmatic graphic novels he gave her - the Station Eleven of the title.

This obsession with the past is true of others too, there's a brief encounter with a scientist trying to find "the internet". Having rigged up a bicycle generator, he peddles furiously and the youngsters are amazed to see a laptop screen light up. Alas, Page Not Found. There are moments too when Mandel's writing gives us real insights into her characters, like the argument about the rudimentary lessons given to children in the new order. At what point should the adults simply stop teaching them about how things were? What's the use of telling them about aeroplanes and mobile phones when they cannot comprehend them?

Beautifully written, with detailed well rounded characters and a plot that never falls into cliche. This is a novel that should become a classic and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Josh Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For: From Food Riots to Food Banks

While food is often an incredibly personal choice, the choice of what to eat is rarely made in a vacuum. Today in Britain, over a million people rely on food banks, with an estimated 40,000 volunteers helping to make sure that they don't go hungry. As Josh Sutton points out in Food Worth Fighting For this shocking statistic cannot be separated from wider questions of poverty, unemployment and austerity. In seeking to understand the modern food system Sutton looks back to the beginnings of capitalism.

In order for capitalism in England to develop it needed to transform existing social and economic relations. In the countryside that meant the destruction of any communal aspect to agriculture, the forced depopulation of rural areas and the transformation of peasant labour into wage labour. The battles to defend the common land, to prevent enclosure and the maintain a way of life are, for Sutton, in part a battle over the right to good quality, appropriately priced food. Here Sutton draws heavily from EP Thompson's idea of a "moral economy". Thompson argued that through food riots the "crowd" fought to retain its traditional interests and in particular the right to set the price of food.

A variety of chapters illustrate this. For instance the 1816 Ely and Littleport 'Bread and Beer' riots when crowds of labourers fought for bread and beer. Beer was important, not because of drunken excess as the magistrates at the time argued, but because
until the nineteenth century, domestic brewing was a key part of life for the agricultural labourer, or more often than not, his wife. the poor quality of drinking water at the time was such that brewing beer at home was common practice... However, with the rapid increase in the number of enclosures... together with the economic conditions already described, home brewing fell into decline.
So, as Sutton rightly points out, protesters were merely demanding what traditionally had been theirs - cheap, healthy (at least healthier than water) beer.

There are plenty of other examples, from the Captain Swing "riots" to the Luddite movement, which linked rural work and wages with food. In a fascinating chapter, Sutton examines the Newlyn fish riots. Here again, fishermen fought to defend their right not to work on the Sabbath against other workers who wanted to land fish in order to benefit from the emerging industrial transport system to the capital. Sutton describes the movement well, and how it fits into the "moral economy".

Bringing it back to the modern day Sutton argues that:
The nature of the riot has changed, as have the prevailing economic circumstances in which it takes place. The goal, however, i.e. the desire of communities for a just, equitable and affordable distribution of food, remains firmly in place... In the 21st century, in Britain at least, the food riot is re-invented as a struggle, a 'food fight', and it is a fight that is far from settled.
Here however I found Sutton's ideas on less firm ground. I remain to be convinced of either the similarity in the struggles over food today in Britain with the past, nor their continuity. One of the key points of the battle for the "moral economy" was that it was an attempt to prevent capitalist relations being imposed upon the mass of the population. Tearing down fences from enclosed fields, or fixing the price of bread and meat in the market are conscious attempts to stop the market.

This is not the same as persuading Tesco or Sainsbury to give their excess food to a food bank to feed the hungry. As Elaine Graham-Leigh has pointed out in her Diet of Austerity supermarkets have waste built into their business model. Finding a cheap way of getting rid of that waste is good business sense. More problematic is that, as Sutton does recognise, this sort of action does nothing to undermine, block or role-back the appalling transformation that has been made to our food system, important though it is in ensuring people do not starve. These are struggles at best to reform, or more often deal with the failings, of capitalism.

I have to agree with Tristram Stuart, quoted in the book by Sutton who argues that
it would be contorted and possibly silly to compare the Gleaning Network to literally starving eighteenth century food rioters... Rioting has a special place in civilisation: when people are pushed to a point of urgency that society's rules are set aside. 
To Josh Sutton's credit though he recognises the need to transform our food system and he also acknowledges that we may well see real food riots in the future as increased numbers of people are pushed below the breadline. In fact, its worth noting, that in the 2011 riots in the area of Manchester I lived in then, food and drink were looted and re-distributed. It wasn't just about trainers or hatred of the police.

So I am unconvinced by Josh's thesis of continuity of struggle in one sense. But I do agree with him that people have always tried to organise to stop hunger. This book illustrates that well, and will help every reader understand how we have got into this mess. In this regard the chapters on war-time rationing and the role of supermarkets and big business are excellent. Josh Sutton also offers us inspiration that we can change things for the better today.

Josh Sutton will be talking about his book at Bookmarks the Socialist Bookshop in central London on Tuesday 14 June, 2016. More information here. Expect food riots, music, beer and bread, they say.

Related Reviews

Magdoff and Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Graham-Leigh - A Diet of Austerity
Paarlberg - Food Politics
McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Lymbery - Farmageddon

Monday, June 06, 2016

Didier Daeninckx - Murder in Memoriam

History often illuminates the present and surprisingly this crime novel is a wonderful example of that. Set in the 1980s, the novel follows the seemingly random killing of a young man, then looks backward to the horrific and barely remembered events of October 17 1961 when French policemen massacred up to 300 Algerians who were taking part in a peaceful protest against repression in their home country.

In the 1960s Algeria was a colony of France. Its people fiercely repressed where fighting an, ultimately successful, struggle for liberation. The French government was unafraid of using torture, heavy repression and military might to attempt to hold back the resistance movements. In October 1961 that violence reached the streets of Paris when the police were officially given the nod to use whatever means they liked to clear the streets. At the head of the police was Maurice Papon, a veteran of Vichy, heavily implicated in the anti-Jewish crimes of that wartime state. His prejudices no doubt played a key role in events that led to armed policemen throwing dead and wounded Algerians into the Seine.

This is the backdrop to the novel's investigation. The contemporary crime linking back to another that took place at the same time as hundreds of Algerians were being massacred. The central character is Inspector Cadin, a man who seems unafraid of stirring up a hornet's nest as he delves into the murky past of the French police. Like all great literary detectives Cadin is unorthodox in his methods and his sympathies - though the romantic sub-plot doesn't work in my opinion. The final explanation, which I won't ruin here, is shocking within the confines of the story. But in the context of French politics must have been like a bomb going off. Cleverly the author brought together the dirty, dark realities of post-war French society - institutional racism, police brutality, right-wing governments colluding with the far right and violence used against the states' enemies, including its own citizens.

As we try to understand more recent violence and massacres in Paris, this novel helps us understand that these crimes never take place in a vacuum, and they can never be separated off from history, particularly the brutal and murderous crimes of the colonial state.

Related Reviews

Manchette - Three to Kill

Monday, May 30, 2016

Andy Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the making of Early Modern England

Despite the somewhat academic title, this is an exceptional study of the 1549 rebellions, their causes and consequences. Andy Wood's account puts class at the heart of the discussion of the rebellions, something that is often missing from more popular accounts. This allows him to give a real sense of a period of history going through enormous changes, while different groups in society struggle for their own interests and identity.

Firstly Wood argues that this is a time of growing class confrontation, as economic, political and social changes come together. He points out that traditionally popular rebellions like that of 1549 have been seen as about restoring or protecting the existing social order. It is clear that there is some element too this - the Western Rebellion was explicitly centred on opposition to changes in the established church, while the rebels in Norfolk and elsewhere frequently began by over-turning enclosures of common land. But Wood also argues that the 1549 rebels often demanded a new order in society
The Norfolk rebels of 1549 demanded a polity based upon a combination of monarchic lordship and popular sovereignty in which small communities formed autonomous entities, linked to the sate in a dispersed network... Moreover, the 1549 rebels sought to exclude the clergy from the economic life of the village. [3]
So simultaneously the rebels were looking backward to a more ordered society and fighting for a new society based on a more just setup. This is not surprising, there was growing injustice, as the changing world was demanding more from the commons. Wood points out that the religious changes, the Reformation was interpreted "in terms of the greedy, avaricious and corrupt gentry, back by the Crown." This was a time, Wood argues, when labouring people "frequented articulated" anxieties relating to their futures, or their families future and saw the Reformation in "material terms".

A central part of Wood's book is the role of memory, and in particular the memory of past rebellion. Rebellion was celebrated and the stories passed down, but they also gave a reference point to other rebellions. We are reminded of the parallels of some 15th century rebellions which deliberately chose the same sites to assemble as those of the 1381 uprising.

But as Wood points out, 1549 takes place at a slightly different juncture, the intersection between the older medieval world and the early modern period when capitalist relations was just beginning to change the nature of parts of the English countryside. Central to this was Norfolk, and the town of Norwich which played a central part in Kett's rebellion was key to this. Wood uses Marx's insights into historical change to argue that 1549 was "as dispute between lord and tenant over relations of production and modes of exploitation".

Sections of the ruling class in the mid 16th century certainly understood what was at stake, Sir William Paget's famous letter to the Duke of Somerset, makes this clear
How say for the law where is it used in England at liberty? Almost nowhere. The foot taketh upon him the part of the head, and commyns is become a king; a king appointing conditions and laws to the governors, saying, Grant this and that and we wil go home.
Wood makes it clear that the scale of this rebellion was much larger than traditional accounts have it. The two epicentres of revolt in Norfolk and the South-West are simply the best known of the rebellions of the time. Events in Norfolk in particular, according to Wood, are known to us because the ruling class there specifically recorded and marked them in contemporary accounts. Alexander Neville's account of the rising, upon which all histories of 1549 in Norfolk base themselves, was widely used to offer an alternative narrative to what took place. Bishops read it allowed to congregations, hoping that this would supersede popular memories of events. The popularity of Neville's account obscured events elsewhere and simplified the story. Instead of a countrywide rebellion reflecting mass discontent, the rebellion could be dismissed as a few localised events inspired by individual hot-heads and criminals.

But 1549 was the last of the great rebellions. Wood argues persuasively, that the economic changes taking place, which had in part inspired the rebellion, were undermining the relations in rural communities that gave the uprisings their character.
As the sixteenth century drew to its close, social changes in agrarian regions increasingly divided rich from poor. The consequence of this was to fracture the social alliance upon which the tradition of late medieval popular rebellion had rested. Wealthier villagers had increasingly little in common with the social complaints of their poorer neighbours; indeed, in some communities, they became the target of popular opprobrium. [203]
By the 1580s and the 1590s, Wood argues, it was rich men and farmers who had become the enemies of the poor. I'm less convinced of this particular analysis, which to me seems to suggest that before 1549 there hadn't been any antagonism to the wealthier people in the towns. What is taking place is a transformation of the nature of wealth and power in villages. These were no longer simply wealthier peasants, but a completely different class of people. Wood understands this too:
Driven by a combination of social anxiety and economic opportunity, the 'better sort of people' now stood for a very different est of principles from the 'honest men' who, between 1381 and 1549, had formed the public leadership of popular insurrection. [207]
50 years later this new class would itself dynamite a national rebellion, as such 1549 was the end of a particular era of rebellion, but it wasn't the end of revolt. In some senses, it was just the beginning.

Related Reviews

Fletcher and MacCulloch - Tudor Rebellions
Caraman - The Western Rising of 1549

Land - Kett's Rebellion
Cornwall - Revolt of the Peasantry
Wood - Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Elaine Graham-Leigh - A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change

Like the author of this interesting book on food and climate change I have been struck by the way that the question of diet, and in particular meat eating, has become central to debates on tackling climate change. In her introduction Elaine Graham-Leigh notes the many ways that advocates for non-meat diets are inserting this message into the climate movement. Slogans that argue that only vegetarian diets can save the planet, or that genuine environmentalists are vegan are common place. But the argument has also reached higher levels, with NGOs, governments and politicians frequently advocating this approach.

Graham-Leigh's book is a challenge to this approach. She rightly argues that the danger is that it fails to address the real causes of climate change, will not actually have the desired effects and most importantly, it shifts the focus of blame for climate change onto predominately working class people.

Unusually for a book on the environment, class is a central part of Graham-Leigh's book. She notes that "as with discussions of austerity, it seems that those who have the least are the ones who have the greatest responsibility to be restrained in consuming it". Graham-Leigh illustrates this by quoting Jonathan Porritt in 2004, who argued that meat-eating was a "moral outrage and a threat to ourselves... and future generations" but that his real problem was with "cheap meat". She argues that "the concentration here on price suggests that what is problematic here is not bourgeois meat consumption, but consumption by the poor, who would not be able to afford to do it if it were priced 'properly'."

This leads to an important insight by Graham-Leigh:
What we are seeing here is the general panic about obesity becoming a vehicle for expressing ruling-class fears about the demands and appetites of the poor, fears which are particularly pointed at a time when working-class living standards are under attack.
Much of the environmental movement sees consumption (of commodities, not just food) as the driving force of environmental destruction. Because of this focus, tackling climate change becomes a question of demanding that people purchase less, eat less, waste less. While there can seem to some logic to this, it misunderstands the nature of capitalism and how the system causes environmental damage.

At the heart of this book is an explanation of how capitalism's need to accumulate for the sake of accumulation drives environmental destruction. Contrary to popular belief, and the hopes of those who advocate consumerism as a solution to environmental problems, production under this system is not driven by consumer demand, but by the desire to maximise profits. The book has some fine examples of how corporations have manufactured needs in order to sell new commodities. Notable among this is the example of the way that processed foods, frequently highlighted as particularly damaging to the environment and health, are preferred by capitalists because the processing itself adds layers of profits.

Thus Graham-Leigh shows how the "choices" people make about what food to buy and eat are not made in a vacuum, but are the result of the nature of the system and government policy. It is also the result of the food system itself, dominated by the interests of supermarkets, which causes enormous amounts of waste at all stages of the food system. Once again, rather than the problem being workers buying too much food and then throwing it away, it is a food system whose major components have a "business model [which] is based on procedures which entail wastage".

The book is an important Marxist contribution to contemporary debates about food and climate change. If I have one criticism it is that Graham-Leigh deliberate ducks the question of the "future socialist society" in her final chapter. She argues that it is "counterproductive... to prescribe what a different society after capitalism might look like". While we cannot "prescribe" it, we can at least argue on the basis of historical experience what some elements of that society might be, and how they can be part of an alternative to capitalism. Of particular importance in this regard is the idea of democratic planning, which I think holds the key to how future societies could deal with the question of feeding the world in a sustainable way. I think it's a shame that Elaine Graham-Leigh didn't explore this a little bit more, as it weakens what is an otherwise important book.

Purchase this book from Bookmarks, the Socialist Bookshop

Related Reviews

Paarlberg - Food Politics
McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Lymbery - Farmageddon