Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Keir Martin - The Death of the Big Men and the Rise of the Big Shots: Custom and Conflict in East New Britain

This is a fascinating anthropological study of a relatively small society in East New Britain, a province of Papua New Guinea. While the study is very focused, I would argue that Keir Martin's book is an important work that should be read by anyone interested in how societies transform themselves.

The Tolai people of Eastern Britain that form the focus of this study have been studied on a number of occasions previously. This allows Martin to both examine their current situation (his field work took place in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption that had heavily damaged their traditional villages, and caused great upheaval) and show how communities like the Tolai undergo a constant process of change as a result of internal and external factors.

It would be very difficult in this review to give a detailed historic account of the Tolai communities. Martin himself acknowledges that his book represents a snapshot of their history and clearly at a point when enormous changes are taking place. Of particular interest to me were Martin's account of the way that the Tolai were changing their attitude to land as a result of greater integration into the global economy and the way that their traditional social relations where becoming transformed.

Martin's own words are much clearer than I can be in summarising the nature of community relations among the Tolai, so I will quote him at length:
Descriptions of the ways in which Tolai organise access to land have most commonly emphasised the role of the vunatarai in negotiating such access. The Kuana term vunatarai is used to refer to different types of descent groups, ranging from each of the two moieties into which the Tolai of the Gazell Peninsula divide themselves, down to village based lineage sections. These local lineage sections are commonly of the most relevance in discussing land rights. A man would acquire rights to lang by virtue ofhis membership of a matrilineage, often involving him moving to his mother's brothjer's hamlet upon marriage or his fathers death.This has never operated as a simple stable descent system however. There have always been a variety of different claims for both rights of access to land generally and membership of vunatarai specifically.
However this "matrilineal inheritance" system has been coming under pressure for "a long time" and Martin notes that Tolai themselves have been discussing a switch to a patrilineal system "for a century". Why is this?

When a society comes into contact with different social relations, or begins to transform its relations internally, new ways of organising social relations may become necessary. Martin notes (following earlier studies) that
changes in the material uses of land as a result of global economic integration are what spur people to look for new ways of organising access to land. These changes include the stewarding of cash-generating 'perennial crops', like cocoa, as well as investment in other 'assets' like permanent houses... that also further made land something to be fought over.
The question of land ownership intersects with wider questions of reciprocal interdependence between members of the community. Increasingly attempting to resolve questions of access to land are coming into conflict with customary obligations. Individuals and groups constantly have to alter and change how they relate to each other in order to meet obligations, but the demands of the external global economy distort this process. In part this is also because the authorities have attempted to undermine customary relations and emphasise non-customary (bourgeois) property relations. But this is also because individuals within Tolai society have been able to increase their own personal wealth and become a new focus within the community.

Thus the customs and traditions of the community which shape how individuals and groups judge each other, relate to each other and organise, are also in a state of change. As Martin explains
the position is not as simple as the resilience of traditional Melanesian kastom [custom]. Rather kastom itself is a king of shifting signifier whose meaning is fought over and whose changes in use and meaning reflect many of the changes in the ways in which social relations are being made amongst the dispersed Matupit community. In particular, the contextually shifting use of the term kastom in such disputes and discussions itself is a way in which the shifting boundaries of reciprocal interdependence and individual autonomy are marked.
Thus within disputes over land, or in relations between rich and poor, both sides can appeal to the same kastom and see justification for their actions in traditional relations.

At the heart of this is a very different approach to the question of ownership. The custom of buying land is known as kulia but this is not the same as the purchase of commodities under capitalism. Kulia, as Martin explains, is part of an ongoing cycle of customary obligations, not a single, isolated purchase. Historically it seems that land that was bought might even have reverted to the sellers after the buyer's death - in other words the original owners had an ongoing relationship with the land, even after it was bought.

This was breaking down by the 1960s when an earlier study noted that those controlling the land were "encouraged to think of land increasingly as a commodity" in part as a result of the large amounts of money tied up in the transfers, and as a result of cash crops which helped farmers see the land as a commodity. I was struck by the similarity of this with the processes described by Eleanor Burke-Leacock in her studies of Montagnais-Naskapi in north-eastern Canada whose entire social relations where transformed as a result of the use of traps to catch animal furs and those commodify both land and the animals themselves.

But Martin argues that the question of purchase land is neither a simple customary one, tied up with complex social obligations, nor is it one that matches the commodity exchange that we know in Western economies. He approving quotes the anthropologist M. Sahlins seeing "the distinction between fit exchange and commodity exchange... as the extreme points of a continuum". In other words kulia has been changed over several decades in the direction of increased "property/commodity terms". Crucially though, Martin does not see the Tolai people as naive in this regard. They are not passive victims of economic changes out of their control.
Papua New Guineans do not view land transfers as undergoing a historical process of inexorable commodification, nor as following an unchanging cultural logic of inalienability. Instead, people of this world region are as capable as any other group of people of judging that different kinds of transactions are morally appropriate in different contexts, and disputing about which transactions are appropriate in which contexts.
This seems to me a highly appropriate way to understand the social relations that groups of people create. Karl Marx pointed out that "Men make history... but not in circumstances of their choosing", but this does not mean that they don't attempt to understand and shape their world according to their own needs.

I've dwelt here very much on the question of land and customary relations. This partly reflects my own interests, but its worth highlighting that Martin's book explores the way that wider changes are understood by the Tolai people themselves. They understand the impact of the wider economy (and the role of colonialism) on their lives. It also arises in the awareness of the role of "Big Shot" individuals whose motives are more "commercial" in a way that is completely opposed to traditional "Big Men".

The role of Big Men seems to have evolved as a way of clans within Toali society protecting their own interests, as well as supporting and directing the clan within wider social situations. One way they did this was for the Big Men to use their position to encourage reciprocal interdependence. This can be contrasted with the Big Shots who use kastom for personal gain. Big Men seem to have to be constantly proving themselves to their community - Big Shots seem to like driving in nice cars and living a better life. The changes here brought to mind wider discussions in Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus' recent book The Creation of Inequality.

As is inevitable with such a detailed book, I've not scratched half of the fascinating detail that Martin has written about. I hope I've given a flavour of his work and would encourage others to read it. While this is also an academic study, Martin has written an accessible work that the general reader should be able to enjoy. It's also amusing (I wonder how many similar works use the takeover of Manchester United as a comparative example to the people of East New Britain) in places and the insights into the work of an anthropologist and Martin's time in Papua New Guinea are of interest themselves.

I also found it useful that Martin tested the ideas of wider thinkers, such as Marx and Engels, against his theories. I think they'd have approved in particular of his conclusion which points out that at a time when mainstream, Western, capitalist economics has once again failed us, understanding different ways of organising exchange within societies has never been so important.

Related Reviews

Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Engels - Origin of Private Property, the Family and the State

Cronon - Changes in the Land
Evans-Pritchard - The Nuer
Evans-Pritchard - Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Ian Kershaw - To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949

Part one of Ian Kershaw's two volume history of Europe in the twentieth century covers some of the most violent and barbaric periods in humanity's history. In particular Kershaw looks at why the First World War led to the Second World War - arguing that there are three key factors in the period after the end of of World War One. These are the rise of nationalistic movements across Europe, the crisis of capitalism (which he notes many contemporaries, not just those on the left, saw as the final crisis of the system) and the class struggle, particularly in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.

Kershaw's task then, is to argue why it was that in some countries fascist, or anti-democratic forces rose and in others they didn't. While Kershaw's history is readable and comprehensive (he never neglects events in countries that are not normally part of mainstream histories of Europe) he tends to deal with generalities that mean sometimes his analysis can seem shallow. One major problem I had was that Kershaw tends to lump the revolutionary left together with the anti-democratic practises of the far-right and fascist movements. This is because he argues they were both revolutionary movements dedicated to the over-through of the existing order and the creation of a new one. The problem with this analysis is that it assumes that the revolutionary organisation of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia, and other movements across Europe were opposed to bourgeois democracy without having a democratic alternative - neglecting the revolutionary democracy of workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants councils and Soviets.

Kershaw is too good a historian to argue that Lenin led inevitably to Stalin, or that Stalin's view of socialism was the same as those of thousands of ordinary revolutionaries. But this weakness means that his only alternative to the totalitarian states that rose in Germany, Italy and Spain (and he includes Russia as well) was parliamentary democracy. Parliamentary democracy was of course something worth defending in the face of fascism (notably something the Bolsheviks did at the time of Kornilov in the summer of 1917) but it was also a system that filed millions of people - as Kershaw shows in his careful studies of the reality of life in the 1920s and 1930s for millions of people across Europe.

At specific points in the period Kershaw is discussing, there was the potential for the left to break out and build a revolutionary alternative, or at the least the beginnings of one. Kershaw notes that the best moments for this were when the revolutionary left (essentially the various Communist Parties) and the social democrats united against a common foe. He bemoans the failure to do that in German and notes how important it was to stopping the growth of fascism in France. But his lack of clarity on the limitations of Stalin's politics means that he sees this unity inevitably failing as the left cannot find common ground other than opposition to fascism.

These important criticisms aside, Kershaw never pretends to be writing a revolutionary socialist history of Europe. What he has written is however very useful as he covers enormous ground, from the changing role of women, to the growth of trade unionism, the repeated failure of capitalism to escape economic crisis as well as fascinating summaries of popular music and the importance of the growth of radio and so on. Readers who have a detailed knowledge of particular periods, or aspects of European history will no doubt find omissions, but in as a general introduction this book is very useful. It's worth noting that while painting a general picture across Europe, Kershaw never forgets the role of the individual, nor the impact of these events on ordinary people. There are many anecdotes, funny, inspiring or painful that illuminate the big changes taking place.

There are of courses places we will disgree. I think Kershaw is probably too soft on the failure of senior members of the Catholic Church, particularly the Pope, to condemn the Holocaust. I think he gives to much credit to the Pope and underestimates the importance that him speaking out would have had. That said, no reader will be able to read Kershaw's detailed discussion of the two world wars, the rise of fascism and the Holocaust, or the impact of ongoing economic crisis on ordinary people without drawing parallels with Europe today. As we once again see the rise of the far-right in many countries and ongoing economic crisis I would argue that we need to build a stronger revolutionary left capable of working with much wider forces to build the struggle for a socialist alternative to capitalism. Ian Kershaw wouldn't necessarily agree with me on that, but his book is one full of insights that will encourage the reader to think more widely on how we can defeat racism and fascism today.

Related Reviews

Kershaw - The End
Beevor - The Second World War

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Roger Hutchinson - Martyrs: Glendale and the Revolution in Skye

Karl Marx wrote at length about the nature of capitalism. But he also described capitalism's birth "dripping in blood". In Capital, he described how, in order for capitalism to develop, it first had to destroy the historic relationship between people and the land. He wrote:
The spoliation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcel of capital, and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a “free” and outlawed proletariat.
In Britain, the Enclosures and the Highland Clearances are bywords for the violence and destruction of entire communities as land was repurposed in the interests of profit. What is less well known is that rural communities frequently fought back, and in the case of Scotland, where the Highland Clearances took place in a later era than the bulk of the English enclosures, this resistance had a major impact - forcing government intervention and eventually legislation that gave crofters more rights than they ever had. While this was too late for thousands who had been forced from their homes, sent over-seas or made to work in the factories of Glasgow, as Roger Hutchinson's recent book shows, the resistance meant that thousands of crofters were able to live in safer and more secure circumstances.

Hutchinson's book focuses on one amazing story of resistance in the 1880s, that of the community in Glendale in the western most part of the Isle of Skye who through prolonged rent strikes, physical battles with the police and eventually military occupation eventually forced their landowner to improve conditions and reduce over-crowding. One of the key issues was that families forced from their land elsewhere were causing over-crowding, but rather than blame these people, the Glendale crofters turned their wrath on the landowner.

The solidarity and unity of the community in the face of fierce repression is inspiring. Hutchinson notes that
The communal nature of their daily lives - the work at the peats, at fishing at fathering and shearing - had taught them since childhood to act together, to put aside petty individual differences in the interest of an essential common cause.
But those on rent strike were also not prepared to let anyone break their unity. Acting, as Hutchinson says with the "rough discipline of a revolutionary cell", they wrote in a notice posted in the Post Office
Any one of the tenants at Skinidin who will pay the rent, not only that his House and Property will be destroyed, but his life will be taken away or anyone who will begin backsliding.
The same notice informed the landlord that his animals must be removed from what was seen as communal land that could be used by the crofters, "at Whitsunday punctually, if not, they will be driven off with full force".

So strong was the movement that Glendale effectively became a no-go area for representatives of the law. The men and women of Glendale drove off fifty police officers under Sherrif Ivory, a man who never forgave them for his humiliation, with stones and the contents of chamber pots and prompted a Glasgow newspaper to publish a satirical poem based on Tennyson,

Missiles to the right of them,
Brickbats to the left of them,
Old wives behind them
Volleyed and floundered.
Stormed at with stone and shell -
Whilst only Ivory fell -
They that had fought so well
Broke thro' the Island Host
Back from the mouth of - well!
All that was left of them -
All the half-hundred

With Glendale effectively declaring autonomy from Britain, the government had to act. Leading figures, including John MacPherson who became one of the most important and eloquent spokespersons for the Crofters, were imprisoned though their court appearances helped them spread their message. The Glendale rent-strikers received support and solidarity from communities across Scotland and the eventual deployment of hundreds of marines and armed naval ratings (on two occasions) must rank as one of the most ridiculous and inappropriate uses of military power in an era in which the British government was not afraid to use over-whelming force against unarmed opponents.

The struggle was eventually victorious and was instrumental in forcing the government to introduce a Royal Commission into the situation. When this proved limited in its recommendations and the Glendale crofters found that their circumstances did not improve, they continued their fight. The Crofters Act failed to redistribute land as the now Highlands wide movement demanded. The Radical Crofters Party MPs who were elected to Parliament on the back of this movement refused to vote for it. But the Act did give enough to mean that the Glendale strikers were proved to have been paying too much rent and eventually, the land they were fighting for was nationalised and sold to the Glendale community.

Hutchinson neatly brings the story up to date, putting the Glendale victory into the context of other, more modern legislation aimed at supporting the Crofting communities of Northern Scotland. He doesn't however romanticise the period, or the lifestyle. This was a hard, physically demanding and poverty stricken life. But the Crofters were not weak willed, passive victims, they were men and women whose strong communities were frequently prepared to resist those sent against them by the greedy landlords. This wonderful rich history of the Glendale Martyrs and their resistance is a must read for anyone trying to understand Scottish history, as well as the larger changes that have taken place in British rural communities.

Related Reviews

Hutchinson - The Soap Man
Richards - The Highland Clearances
Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough

Friday, August 05, 2016

Hilary Mantel - A Place of Greater Safety

Hilary Mantel's talent for talking historical figures and making them real is put to superb use in this novel of the French Revolution. Focusing on three key revolutionaries, Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins, she weaves their personal lives and loves into the tangled story of the revolution itself. All three figures played central roles and Mantel brings to life the fierce debates that the revolution throws up - the question of violence in particular, deployed in defence of the revolution's gains.

Unfortunately this sharp focus on three individuals means that the mass who made the revolution remains just that - a mass in the background. Occasionally the crowd bursts into the story, but only to highlight the role of one or other of Mantel's heroes. This doesn't denigrate the story, but it means that those trying to understand the dynamics of the revolution may find the twists and turns of history hard to follow.

Ultimately the revolutionary leadership was successful or unsuccessful dependent on what the masses thought of their actions. That they remain a hazy mass off stage in this novel undermines the historical story.

Mantel remains ambiguous on the Revolution itself. Was it good or bad? Much ink is spilt telling the story (the King isn't even executed until page 604) but the reader is left to judge history on very much a personal level. Having made such excellent use of the historical material, famously writing that the more unlikely something seems to be, the more accurate it is, Mantel left me wanting more on what took place and why. For that, the reader should turn elsewhere.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Rob Wallace - Big Farms Make Big Flu

The media is a fickle beast, so coverage of potential epidemics of diseases veers between the apocalyptic to nonexistence. As an outbreak occurs we hear about the potential terrifying consequences of the disease, combined with graphic details of the symptoms and frequently pictures of large numbers of dead animals.

Rob Wallace's new book is an important polemic that argues that we, as a society, should be a lot more concerned about the potential for disease to decimate the human population. It is very much a question of not if, but when. Wallace's work is important because it argues that the key problem is not inadequate science, nor ineffectual medicine (though at times these may be issues) but an approach to the question which fails to see the systematic way that capitalism has transformed our relationship to the wider eco-system in ways that encourage the spread, mutation and virulence of disease.

Firstly, agribusiness, the huge corporations that dominate global farming today encourage disease. They do this in a number of ways. Farming is vertically integrated - from birth to slaughter animals are brought together in enormous numbers, in single locations. This encourages both the spread of disease and its evolution. Frighteningly, Wallace also notes that research shows that the common response to infection among animals, large scale destruction of the flock or herd, helps to select pathogens to be more virulent, or to target younger animals, both increasingly the likelihood of further outbreaks.

But the real problem is an agricultural system based on profit. Take this example of an out-break in Asia,
The CP Group operates joint-venture poultry facilities across China, producing 600 million of China's 2.2 billion chickens annually sold. When an outbreak of bird flu occurred in a  farm operated by the CP Group in the province of Heilongjiang, Japan banned poultry from China. CP factories in Thailand were able to take up the slack and increase of exports to Japan. In short, the CP Group profited from an outbreak of its own making. It suffered no ill effects from its own mistakes.
As Wallace emphasises though, this is not about humans as such, it's about how agriculture is organised.
The onus must be placed on the decisions we humans made to organize them this way. And when we say "we," let'd be clear, we're talking how agribusinesses have organised pigs and poultry.
It's a theme Wallace returns to frequently
What does it mean to change the use value of the creatures we eat? What happens when changing use value turns out poultry into plague carriers? Does out-of-season goose production, for instance, allow influenza strains to avoid season extirpation, typically a natural interruption in the evolution of virulence? Are the resulting profits defensible at such a rapidly accruing cost?
What Wallace is particularly aiming at is a system that reinvents the world's ecology in a manner that makes disease more likely. Farming is his key concern here, as he puts it "the present agricultural model is farming tomorrow's deadliest pathogens alongside its meat monocultures." But it is also the wider transformation of landscape. In a fascinating discussion of Ebola, Wallace challenges those who simply see it as a question of science, but also those who simply see it as a result of poverty. Instead, Ebola is the consequence of the commodification of rural Africa - the transformation of forests in the interests of agriculture, the changing relationships that people have with the wider natural world. Wallace puts it much better than I can
neo-liberalism's structural shifts are no mere background on which the emergency of Ebola takes place. The shifts are the emergency as much as the virus itself. Changes in land use brought about by policy-driven transitions in ownership and production appear to be fundamental contributions to explaining Ebola's area-specific emergence. Deforestation and intensive agriculture may strip out traditional agroforestry's stochastic friction, which typically keeps the virus from lining up enough transmission.
Wallace is not suggesting that we shouldn't spend money on research, or administer drugs or try and alleviate poverty. What he is trying to do is outline method for scientists and government officials to understand the origins of the root cause of the problem. The reality is though that precisely because agriculture is dominated by huge multinationals, Wallace's warnings are likely to be ignored. This is why its good to see he doesn't ignore the struggles of farmers and agricultural workers to improve things and shows that many farmers are well aware of the limitations of industrial farming. Not least because, as he argues, the aspect of animal agriculture that is least profitable is the bit that the corporations are least interested in - the care and maintenance of the animals themselves. It's also the part that is most risky from a disease point of view. Farmers understand this, and they also know that the system is stacked against them as the corporations and banks collude to maximise profits at the expense of livelihoods.

Wallace's book is a detailed and at times difficult read. It originates mostly as articles he has written for his website Farming Pathogens and hence contains a lot of scientific terms and concepts, some of which were incomprehensible to the interested lay-reader and most of which received little explanation. Because the book originates in essays and talks given elsewhere there is some repetition, but I felt what was missing most was a concluding chapter that summarised the author's arguments and offered a clear strategy aimed at the lay-person. That said, for readers interested in capitalism, ecology and wider environmental questions there is much to be gained from this fascinating, if terrifying book.

Related Reviews

Quammen - Ebola
Davis - The Monster at our Door
Ziegler - The Black Death
Zinsser - Rats, Lice and History

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Jason W Moore - Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital

Jason W. Moore's book Capitalism in the Web of Life has become a required read for those trying to understand why it is that capitalism is unable to prevent growing ecological crisis. Moore's work has won awards and has been widely discussed, and critiqued. [Ref 1]

Capitalism in the Web of Life is a critique of what Moore sees as established thinking around ecological questions. His particular targets are what he calls “Green Thought” and the work of Marxists around ecological issues. Moore is at pains to put his own distinct ideas on the table.
My sense of Green Arithmetic is that it appears to work because we assume Society plus Nature add up. But does this assumption hold up under closer examination? Capitalism in the Web of Life opens an alternative path. I argue that “Society” and “Nature” are part of the problem, intellectually and politically; the binary Nature/Society is directly implicated in the colossal violence, inequality, and oppression of the modern world; and that the view of Nature as external is a fundamental condition of capitalism accumulation.[Ref 2] [p2]
On the surface this can sound very radical. We are, after all, fed a constant stream of articles about what “we” are going to “nature” but such a binary is absolutely inadequate to explain what is taking place. Moore continues,
“The economy” and “the environment” are not independent of each other. Capitalism is not an economic system; it is not a social system; it is a way of organizing nature. [p2]
He then explains that “The ‘web of life’ is nature as a whole... This is nature as us, as inside us, as around us. It is nature as a flow of flows. Put simply, humans make environments and environments make humans – and human organisation.” [p3]

It is difficult to argue with this. After all, Marx said something very similar in the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts
The universality of man appears in practice precisely in the universality which makes all nature his inorganic body – both inasmuch as nature is (1) his direct means of life, and (2) the material, the object, and the instrument of his life activity. Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body. Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature. [Ref 3]
This is perhaps uncontroversial. What becomes controversial is that Moore argues closely that many of those who have argued on these lines, such as John Bellamy Foster, have ended up in a position of replicating the “society” and “nature” dualism. In particular he suggests that the idea of the concept of the “metabolic rift” which Marx (and others) have used to identify the particular break that capitalism has with the natural world because of alienated labour, has actually reinforced the idea of difference. As Moore puts it:
Rather than ford the Cartesian divide, metabolism approaches have reinforced it. Marx’s “interdependent process of social metabolism” [KM] became the “metabolism of nature and society” [JBF] Metabolism as “rift” became a metaphor of separation, premised on material flows between nature and Society. Thus did metabolic rift triumph over metabolic shift as a means of unifying humanity-in-nature within unified metabolisms of power, wealth and nature. [p76]
This seems to me to be a crude criticism of John Bellamy Foster's work. As Foster himself has pointed out in a response [Ref 4] to Moore’s book, this is a misunderstanding of dialectics. The point of dialectics is very much the coming together of opposites. Thus “society and nature” are both the same, society is inseparable from nature, interdependent and so on, but also there is difference and separation too. As Foster points out, “To call that approach “dualist” is comparable to denying that your heart is both an integral part of your body and a distinct organ with unique features and functions”.

But in places Moore recreates this duality himself. Although he talks about the oikeios, as the sum total of social relations that “form and re-form the relations and conditions that create and destroy humanity’s mosaic of cooperation and conflict: what is typically called ‘social’ organisation”. But then, in dozens of places through the book, Moore is forced to use the phrase “human and extra-human natures” emphasising the differences between the two.

I don’t want to dwell further on this part of Moore’s book in part as it's been extensively critiqued elsewhere, though Moore’s oikeios underpins all of the remainder of his work and the weakness of the concept in turn weakens the rest of his argument. For the remainder of this review I want to focus on two other aspects of Moore’s writing. The first of these is the centrality to which Moore gives a reworked concept of the law of value and, secondly, what this means for how we get a non-capitalist, sustainable world. I should note in passing that I did not agree with some other parts of Moore’s book such as his discussion of the Anthropocene [Ref 5] but these are consequences of his approach to the subject and will no doubt be further discussed elsewhere.

Marx argued that the value of a commodity is proportional to the labour required to produce it, a proportion that is related to socially necessary labour-time, averaging the human labour required across society. Moore says that “this cannot be the end of the story” as this fails to account for the central importance of “invisible work” such as the contributions of women to the reproduction of labour, non-human labour and the contribution from natural resources (coal and wood for instance).

These are, in Moore’s view, “A rising stream of low-cost food, labour-power, energy, and raw materials to the factory gates... The law of value in capitalism is a law of Cheap Nature.” [p53]

Here Moore echoes others, like David Harvey, who have emphasised the importance of a new phase of primitive accumulation, what Moore would characterise as the location of new sources of cheap nature at the “frontiers” of capitalism, to fuel the ongoing accumulation of capital.

However, as Sam Ashman and Alex Callinicos have argued there is a limit to this.
In a climate of intense competition and relatively low profitability, capitals eagerly hunt out any niche from which profits can be extracted. Some firms, taking advantage of the shift in public policy towards promoting the interests of private capital, reorganise themselves or are set up to unlock the surplus-value that can be created or redistributed by appropriating state assets. Some of the opportunities on which they seize are to be found in the global South: the role of European transnationals in Latin American privatisations is particularly striking. But the predominant flows of commodities and of capital across the world economy take place among the OECD countries, and – along with the important extension of these circuits to embrace China – they feed the expanded reproduction of a capitalist system that continues to derive its profits mainly from the exploitation of wage-labour. [Ref 6]
This is not to devalue what capitalism does. Moore rightly points out capitalism bends everything to its own interests, the “mapping, quantifying, and rationalizing natures in service to capitalism accumulation”. [p67] We should never forget that this means the systematic destruction of natural resources, human lives and employment and the transformation of everything into systems that can maximise the accumulation of wealth in the interests of a tiny minority.

But Moore argues that this is the central process that has to be understood - evoking a new concept of “world ecological surplus” that falls over time (the phrase deliberately copies the Marxist concept of the falling rate of profit). Without this, Moore argues, “the rate of exploitation of labour-power... tends to exhaust the life-making capacities that enter into the immediate production of value”. [p67] Moore goes further:
If we take the nexus of paid/unpaid work as our premise, capitalism and value relations cannot be reduced to a relation between the owners of capital and the possessors of labour-power. The historical condition of socially necessary labour time is socially necessary unpaid work. [p69]
In other words, we have to decentralise the role of labour, and by extension, workers from the capital-labour relation to properly understand capitalism and its consequences. As Nayeri notes in his own review “Moore privileges “appropriation” instead of “production.”

Moore clearly disagrees with Marx’s approach to capitalism, or perhaps more fairly, he thinks it inadequate as anything but a starting point for his own approach. This is why, I think he emphasises critiques of Marxism by Feminists and Greens because he can use them to bolster his position. But Moore’s argument is limited in part because it mistakenly suggests that Marx and Marxists haven’t seen the importance of this work previously. Take the question of unpaid labour by women. As Judith Orr has noted in her book Marxism and Women’s Liberation:
What is being bought and sold [by the capitalists] is a worker’s ability labour, not the actual work. Because exploitation is a social relationship between worker and boss and between bosses who compete with each other, the crucial question is not even how much value a single worker produces. The concept of ‘socially necessary labour time’ has to be recognised – the average time needed to produce a given commodity in society at any one time.... Just because domestic labour in the home is not directly producing surplus value does not mean that Marxists don’t recognise its contribution to the ability of the ruling class to make profits.
Orr then quotes Rosa Luxemburg “this kind of work is not productive in the sense of the present capitalist economy no matter how enormous an achievement the sacrifices and energy spent, the thousands little efforts add up to... this sounds brutal and insane... corresponds exactly to the brutality and insanity of our present capitalist economy”. [Ref 7]

Of course, this is not to argue that cheap inputs are not important to offset the failing rate of profit. It is one reason, for instance, that capitalists are constantly searching for new, easily accessible sources of oil.

Moore’s argument that Marxism has failed “to see the appropriation of Cheap Nature as central to world accumulation [and] has led to a major mis-recognition of capitalism’s laws of motion”, leads to his conclusion that all capitalism needs is the constant location of new cheap nature, which seems to me less of a great insight, and more of a restating of fact. Marx, for instance, noted the importance of the “cheapening of the elements of constant capital” as a factor in counteracting the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. [Ref 8]

But there is a problem too with Moore’s concept of what these cheap inputs are. For instance, Moore repeatedly argues for the acknowledging the importance of non-human natures’ contribution to the economy. Though I don’t know why Moore thinks that is has not been acknowledged previously. Marx famously polemicised in his Critique of the Gotha Programme that
Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor
But Marx goes further than this; if one reads the full quote,
Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. the above phrase is to be found in all children's primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. [Ref 9]
In contradiction to Marx, who sees human labour as facilitating the use-value of non-human nature, Moore on occasions assigns nature a role analogous to that of workers, speculating for instance that “the problem of surplus capital is one of capital putting nature to work, and then failing because uncapitalised nature balks at working overtime.... A rising ecological surplus in contrast, makes all sort of capital investment attractive, because lots of free nature can work lots of cheap overtime.” [p113]

It is precisely here, in his attempts to understand how capitalism actually operates, that the concept of oikeios is exposed for its limitations. Humans can work over-time, or they can refuse to and “work-to-rule” or strike. Non-human nature cannot make these sort of decisions. It’s a meaningless approach to human ecology. This sort of approach downplays the centrality of humans to historical change, and, most importantly it negates the central role that workers have, through the importance of their labour power to capitalism, to transform society.

For all its critiques of capitalism, and indeed for its excellent analysis of the problems that the “web of life” creates, Jason Moore’s book is perilously short on alternatives and how to get there. It would be entirely fair for Moore to disagree on the Marxist vision of revolutionary change whereby workers transform society and themselves through a mass movement that creates a workers’ state and the organs of popular democracy and a democratic, planned economy. But surly an alternative should be offered. Moore mentions, almost in passing, a few attempts to improve aspects of society, notable some radical attempts to rebuild agriculture outside of the mainstream economy by mass movements of landless workers and peasants in parts of South America. But, given the urgency of the environmental crises we face, this is hardly a vision for all of us.

Moore questions whether “the ‘collapse’ of capitalism.... [is] really to be feared” [p86] pointing out that it is a society that leaves a third of the population in malnutrition. Well the real question is whether there is an alternative. The replacement of capitalism with a socialist, sustainable, world based on equality, democracy and so on, is of course not to be feared. But the collapse of capitalism without such an alternative would be horrific for billions of people – the regression to barbarism that Engels feared would happen without socialism. But despite this fear there is no clear alternative.

I have spent almost all of my review criticising aspects of Moore’s book. It is worth noting that I did find much of passing interest in the work. In particular, I enjoyed Moore’s clear critique of the Green Revolution and modern agriculture. Capitalism in the Web of Life is a book that will be widely read, and has already received many commendations. But there are significant problems with its approach which I hope that I have managed to outline in the interests of a stronger left, and Marxist, ecology.

Related Reviews


[1] I found Kamran Nayeri’s critical review useful http://climateandcapitalism.com/2016/07/19/capitalism-in-the-web-of-life-a-critique/ Though note a slight correction offered by Adam Rose to Nayeri’s article http://swbee.blogspot.com/2016/07/capitalism-in-web-of-life-critique-of.html I also recommend John Bellamy Fosters’ extended piece discussing Moore’s work amongst that of other left ecologists Marxism in the Anthropocene: Dialectical Rifts on the Left in International Critical Thought, Vol. 6, Issue 3, 2016 www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21598282.2016.1197787

[2] In this review numbers in square brackets refer to 2015, Verso edition of Capitalism in the Web of Life.

[3] See www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm

[4] John Bellamy Foster responds to a critic, Climate and Capitalism website, Jun 2016, 

[5] Moore discusses the Anthropocene and conflates the start of the Anthropocene as being with the systematic adoption of fossil fuel. [179] I think this misunderstands what the Anthropocene concept is from a scientific point of view, particularly the idea that there has to be a geological marker for its beginning. Moore is wrong also to suggest there are only “weak” arguments for a late Anthropocene. Ian Angus, for instance, puts a strong (and clear) argument for a post-WW2 Anthropocene in his Facing the Anthropocene, Monthly Review, 2016.

[6] Sam Ashman and Alex Callinicos, Capital Accumulation and the State System: Assessing David Harvey’s The New Imperialism, Historical Materialism, volume 14:4, p128-129.

[7] Judith Orr, Marxism and Women’s Liberation, Bookmarks, 2015, p159-160.

[8] Karl Marx, Capital III, Penguin, p342-343.

[9] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875 www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Norah Carlin - The Causes of the English Civil War

The plural "causes" in the title of Norah Carlin's book is important because as she makes clear she is not looking for a single cause. Indeed, as she points out, most historians "see it as their duty to establish a hierarchy of causes and to explain if relevant the relationship of one cause to another".

Instead Carlin paints a picture of a gradually changing society, sections of which are increasingly coming into conflict with the established order. There's the rise in trade, and the growth of capitalist relations in the countryside, but despite the importance of this to the economy, it was "rare" for merchants to rise to the peerage leading to their interests being sidelined in national politics. Simultaneously there was a growth in popular protest, and as Brian Manning has argued "mounting disorder due to the intensification of social conflicts". Carlin notes though, that this is controversial, but it was believed by many observers at the time which was "an important factor in the political choices they made in 1640-2".

Whether or not "disorder" was substantial, Carlin does argue that the period in the run up to the Civil War saw a growth in what we might now call political campaigning amon "layers of the population not normally involved in political activity". One petition from Essex received 30,000 names or marks. These petitions tended to congratulation Parliament, urge the avoidance of war and warn the king that his actions were leading to conflict.

In all this Puritanism played a central role. Carlin stresses that Puritanism played a contradictory role, on the one hand it promoted change on the other it stressed stability. Nonetheless,
English Puritanism can, moreover, be regarded as radical in its promotion of social and political activist, or positive intervention by even humble individuals in the hope of improving things or resisting evil... The radicalism of Puritanism would seem to lie... not in its autonomous 'religious'' characteristics... but in its function as a shared language or culture of activism and reform in the community.
These factors were encouraged by the changing economic and social situation in England. The growth of capitalist relations and the desire by those who made their wealth from trade to have their voices heard and a say in national politics led to a fissure in society that could only result in social conflict.
Changes in English society therefore made not only civil war, but the possibility of an independent political order without the king and even without the nobility, sustainable in a way which would have been unimaginable a hundred years before... The 'middling sort' of seventeenth-century England were prepared to sign political petitions, attend meetings and demonstrations and ultimately to arm for one side or the other (or even against both) in the English civil war because they had become accustomed to regarding themselves as participants in government rather than the dependents of feudal overlords. 
The Civil War that erupted was thus an outgrowth of all the different changes in society coupled with a growing confidence by a section of society to actively engage in political action. Thus when Parliament was unable to militarily defeat the King, it required the bringing together of the desire for political change with those prepared to fight for it. Thus Cromwell's "Russet coated gentleman" who knew what he fought for, became the battering ram to smash the old order.

Norah Carlin's book is an excellent intro both to the causes of the English Civil War and to the wider historical debates that have taken place almost since the war began.

Related Reviews

Manning - Aristocrats, Plebians and Revolution in England 1640-1660
Purkiss - The English Civil War: A People's History
Stone - The Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642