Friday, September 28, 2012

Steve Burrow - The Tomb Builders in Wales 4000-3000 BC

The Tomb Builders is a companion book to Shadowland. Both deal with very distinct, but linked periods of ancient history. They concentrate on the region we now know as Wales, though as I remarked when reviewing Shadowland it is a problem of modern nationalism that we are trying to understand an areas region through a nation unknown during the period covered.

In fact, Burrows makes it clear that any delineation between those living and tomb building in what is now known as Wales and elsewhere in what is now known as Europe is impossible. Influences on tomb styles in Wales come from Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall (and wider England) and northern France. Burrows looks at these different styles and traces the links they represent with a much wider human landscape. He examines for instance, the way that these ancient people must have traded or exchanged tools from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Given that some of these tombs date from five or six millennia ago we know very little about their use. Excavation has taught us much. So we can speculate with reasonable accuracy on how the dead were interred (usually after the bodies had lost most, or all of their flesh) and how some tombs were repeatedly reused. We also know that some tombs were not re-opened, and others were revisited hundreds of years after they had been sealed, for further burials, or internment of ashes.

As with the stone circles discussed in Shadowland, Burrow shows that often the wider landscape had a important role in the choice of position for tombs. The burrows and cairns surrounding them were positioned often so that they commanded a prominent position along mountain routes and valleys.

The era of the tomb builders ended fairly abruptly as communities grew in size and larger scale monuments became more common. Burrows also links this with a rise in the use of single-occupancy burials, perhaps reflecting a change in culture. The tombs as we see them today are often very different from the covered mounds that were originally built and their antiquity often belays the fact that they may well have only been in use as tombs for a few centuries, as radiocarbon evidence from the bones found inside shows.

Nonetheless, the tombs themselves had an important role in the longer term culture of those who lived in the region. This was true of ancient times, but also true of much more recent communities. Burrows finishes this short book with a quick look at some of the more recent myths and legends associated with the burial places.

This is an excellent introduction to the ancient history of Wales, beautifully illustrated and the author is not afraid to argue his own point of view, even if it is not universally accepted (he argues for instance, that a passage tomb at Bryn Celli Ddu in Anglesey was deliberately lined up with the midsummer solstice. This is a view first put forward in the early 20th century and has been much debated since.) For anyone interested in the period, or visiting sites like Tinkinswood I'd recommend this read.

Related Reviews

Burrow - Shadowland
Pryor - Britain BC

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Robert Roberts - The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century

Taking it's title from Frederick Engels' description of Salford, The Classic Slum is part social history, part autobiography and part oral-history book. I've reviewed Robert Roberts' account of his childhood, A Ragged Schooling here, and was surprised to find that The Classic Slum is not a dry historical account of Salford. While there are some similarities between the two books and they cover similar periods, Roberts has created a very readable account of slum life in Salford. His account covers everything from education to crime and punishment and often he illustrates his point with a personal anecdote. Making this a very readable work of history. The descriptions of school life, or post-war dance halls are fascinating and occasionally too brief.

At the centre of Roberts' account is the First World War. Roberts' argues that before the war, most of the slum dwellers were part of an undermass. Men and women who had unskilled work, if they had any work at all, whose lives were marked by poverty and the constant quest for money to buy food or pay the rent. He dismisses those who look back on the period as some sort of golden age, arguing instead that the grinding poverty held little rosiness for most of Salford's population. Their lives were rarely happy and many people coped simply through drink, or violence.

The First World War, Robert's suggests led to a dramatic change. This is, he argues, not simply in the way that employment patterns changed, or the fact that many men joined up, the war he says, "cracked the form of English lower-class life and began an erosion of its socio-economic layers that has continued to this day". While I don't think that English class was so much as eroded, certainly it was changed. After the war, Robert's shows how the expectations of those who'd had decent wage packets for the first time, or returned from that army, were dramatically changed. So to was the position of women in society. Characteristically, Robert's shows this with a bitter-sweet recollection.

"My father was typical. In his cups he was wont to boast that, at the lathe he had to manipulate a micrometer and work to limits of one thousandth of an inch. We were much impressed, until one evening, in 1917 a teenage sister running a capstan in the iron works remaked indifferently that she, too, used a 'mike' to even finer limits. There was, she said, 'nothing to it'. The old man fell silent. Thus did status crumble!"

Roberts points out that during the war so 642,000 women went into government factories and millions more men and women were "doing manual work of almost every kind and developing new skills and new self-confidence." These people were changed and so was the perception of work and society. "The awe that many simpler souls had felt before the mystery of craft began to evaporate, to be replaced by at least some rational understanding."

This helps to explain the political transformation that took place. Roberts shows that socialist activism and politics was always part of Salford life. In fact the description of a great dock strike and a big solidarity demonstration by women is one of the highlights of The Classic Slum. But most of the "undermass" that Roberts described remained he says, indifferent to socialist agitators and parties. After the war this changed. The impact of the Russian Revolution, as well as the changes to peoples lives and work meant new ideas were about. People gathered to listen to socialist speakers on the street-corner near Roberts' family shop, where before they had ignored them. When his area elected its first Labour MP, Roberts' mother cried and they felt part of a new world.

This is no sentimental, rose-tinted view of working-class past. This is a book seeped in the sad history of Salford, where tens of thousands suffered from poverty and unemployment. Occasionally, those men and women fought back, struggling for change. Most of the time, they were ignored by the establishment, except when church or schoolmaster lectured them on morality and behaviour. While I don't necessarily agree with every aspect of Roberts' analysis (I'd like to see more studies of the people who made up the "undermass" for instance, and to what extent they could break out of this poverty trap), because this account is rooted in Roberts' own recollections, it is a living history one in which real people lived, suffered and struggled, sometimes laughing, often crying. For these reasons it deserves to be read by everyone, even those who have never visited the city.

Related Reviews

Roberts - A Ragged Schooling
Mayhew - London Labour and the London Poor
Fishman - East End 1888
Wise - The Blackest Streets

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Richard Morgan - The Steel Remains

Richard Morgan is best known for his gritty, violent, near-future novels, usually set in a universe where Earth's multinationals hold enormous power over people and governments. The Steel Remains was his first foray into fantasy writing and Morgan has brought to the genre his unique blend of violence, realism and sex.

There are no kindly elves or banqueting dwarves in this novel. Set in a feudal Empire The Steel Remains is centered on three heroes of an earlier war. Each of them suffers from the veterans disease - they're heroes, but once hostilities are over, no one, least of all the authorities seems to really care. Ringil Eskiath is living in self imposed exile in a small village were he earns his keep by telling travellers at the local inn, battle stories in exchange for food and lodging. His previous companions suffer their retirement similarly, herding animals or working for the emperor.

Morgan's earlier novels have been violent affairs and when the human empire in this one is threatened by supernatural invasion, his characters fight back with swords, daggers and spears. The cutting edge technology here, as opposed to the guns of Morgan's science fiction makes for more brutal reading. In addition to the blood and spilt guts, Morgan spends quite a bit of time dealing with the sexual activities of his characters. In particular, Ringil Eskiath, who is not only in exile, but also shunned by a deeply homophobic culture.

Morgan paints a picture of a society were macho behaviour, violence and brutality are as much a part of daily life as grinding poverty and farming. Those who celebrate Ringil's exploits in the war, also fear and despise his sexuality, which sets up some key scenes in the story. In this interview, the author remarks on his surprise and annoyance that some reviewers who clearly enjoyed his earlier books (laced as they were with violence and heterosexual sex) seem to find this one "gratuitous". All I can comment is that some of those reading and writing about fantasy need to wake up to 21st century realities and stop judging the world by the norms of Tolkien.

All in all The Steel Remains is an enjoyable, modern take on the swords and sorcery genre. It did not grab me as much as Morgan's more recent Black Man and due to it setting lacks some of his more nuanced commentaries on contemporary society. Readers looking for something slightly different from the sterile worlds of Tolkien and Brooks may well enjoy this.

Related Reviews

Morgan - Black Man
Morgan -  Woken Furies
Morgan - Market Forces 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

J.S. Weiner - The Piltdown Forgery

In December 1912, Charles Dawson and Arthur Woodward announced an enormous scientific discovery to a packed lecture room. Hundreds of scientists were fascinated because the find could offer proof of Darwin's evolutionary theory and because in those days of scientific racism, some were hoping that a European proto-human might be found to counter the ancient remains that had hither-to only been found in Asia.

Piltdown Man has become synonymous with archaeological and anthropological forgery, yet the story of how the hoax was uncovered is a fascinating tale of scientific investigation. This contrasts with the way that some sections of the scientific community hailed the revelations at the time despite some serious doubts about the finds and the discoverer.

Almost as soon as the discovery was announced, it courted controversy. Some argued that the two pieces were not from the same skeleton, others muttered darker allegations. David Waterson, Professor of Anatomy for instance, "found it hard to conceive of a functional association between a jaw [bone] so similar to that of a chimpanzee and a cranium in all essentials human."

The problem was several-fold. Firstly at the beginnings of the twentieth century there were very few ways of determining an item's age. For particularly ancient finds, the best way of doing so was to date it from surrounding geography and geology, as well as other contemporary items that could be dated by other means. Today, a few hours of carbon dating would have exposed the Piltdown hoax very quickly. In 1912 things were much more complicated. Secondly since the scientists did not really know what an early human might look like the differences in the structure of the jaw-bone to that of a modern human were merely assumed to be because the bone came from an early evolutionary stage. Finally the hoaxer and gone to extreme lengths to make the find look genuine. The bones were stained in ways that were difficult to detect with contemporary instruments. The pieces were scattered and other, more unusual finds were associated with them. Finally, the principle discoverer, Charles Dawson was notoriously bad at recording his finds and keeping records.

J.S. Weiner was one of the scientists who gathered together all of the scientific proof that the Piltdown remains were a forgery and this is the classic history of the expose. Despite effectively being a documentation of a scientific investigation that is wholly negative, it contains a wealth of detail for the reader, and dare I say it, lessons for scientists from multiple disciplines today.

Most of the first half of the book is an account of the discovery and unveiling of the various finds associated with Piltdown, followed by a detailed marshaling of the evidence against an ancient age for the bones. Firstly Weiner argues that the gravels were the remains were "found" were completely "unfossiliferous" (a rather wonderful word there). Secondly he describes an ingenious dating method used before carbon-dating which dates a bone by the amount of fluorine it has absorbed since internment. This is one of the gems of science in this book and was a bit of a revelation to me. Weiner documents the expose of the various types of staining of the bones and other remains that was designed to make them appear old and finally he argues that "our scrutiny of the accounts of the digging up of the various fragment has given us no confidence that anything did come from undisturbed soil, despite Dawson's assertions."

The order of this is important. Weiner goes to great lengths to make the reader feel that he has proved the forgery scientifically. Once that has been accomplished, Weiner, in the second half of the book, sets out an argument that demolishes Charles Dawson's claims to a scientific authority.

When this book was first published in 1955 most of the principle people who had been involved had died. Nonetheless, Weiner remains careful not to point the finger to much. In fact, by starting with the science he avoids the book becoming simply a collection of allegations and gossip aimed at some of those involved. Having said that, Weiner does demonstrate that Charles Dawson in particular had a very bad reputation amongst his colleagues (amateur and professional) and a series of dubious discoveries to his name. These discoveries seem laughable today, and I cannot document them here. I would direct the interested reader to this short piece or Weiner's book.

It appears that several of Dawson's contemporaries (again, amateur and professional) never believed that the Piltdown was real. In fact one, Harry Morris, claimed to have overheard a conversation by Dawson that a fossil tooth, that was important to the identification of the bones as ancient, was "imported from France". Dawson was accused of "salting the mine", a damning allegation that matched other, contemporary criticisms of him for "plagiarism" and lack of scientific rigour.

Since Weiner and his colleagues proved the Piltdown hoax there has been much speculation about who was the perpetrator of the crime. Circumstantial evidence as well as some witness statements make it almost certain that Charles Dawson was the guilty party. Weiner points out that there may have been others involved, or a single other person who led a willing Dawson along. However Weiner also shows convincingly that this unknown other party must have been extremely knowledgeable in a variety of scientific disciplines as well as knowing Dawson's movements very well.

While there will always be a lingering doubt over Dawson's role, he died long before the truth came out. A more interesting question is why the doubts that did exist were never allowed to be part of the scientific discourse around the discovery. In some cases personal conflict was an important part. Harry Morris for instance seems to have had an ongoing feud with Dawson and while his own notes show clear belief in forgery from day one, he didn't declaim this publicly. Part of the problem was that the Piltdown theory backed up Morris' own wider theories of human history in southern England.

Weiner's book then shouldn't simply be seen as an attempt to expose a criminal, though it reads like an archaeological detective novel. Instead it is a wonderful explanation of the importance of the scientific method. The mistakes that were made by scientists in the early 1900s may have had their roots in racial beliefs, mistaken scientific knowledge, or simply a desire to be associated with a breakthrough discovery. Dawson himself exhibited what Weiner calls an "anxiety for recognition" - never a good thing for a scientist.

More importantly the final expose of the Piltdown forgery demonstrates how important it is for scientists to have a well rounded knowledge, rather than specialising too much. Bringing together archaeology, anthropology, chemistry, physics and history as well as being prepared to search through old cupboards and bookshelves, Weiner's and his colleagues exposed a sad episode in the history of science. But they may have made us all clearer on our own history in the process.

This review is of the 1955 edition of The Piltdown Forgery. The re-publication in 2003 had a new introduction and afterword by Chris Stringer which no-doubt puts the debates into a modern context. I would suggest that readers interested in reading Weiner's book try and find the edition with the Stringer pieces. This can be ordered as print-on-demand from the publisher here.

Related Reviews

Stringer - The Origin of Our Species

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Judith Shapiro - China's Environmental Challenges

When groups of environmental campaigners gather together, it does not take long for China to come up in discussion. Frequently this is in a frightened or alarmist way, along the lines of the irreparable damage to the planetary systems that will occur if China continues to develop along the trajectory it is. Environmentalists frequently cite the number of coal powered stations being built, or the projected number of cars in China or most frequently the size of the population. China is also raised in the context of its own environmental problems - the scale of Chinese environmental problems, whether its the expansion of desert, deforestation or the problems caused by dam building.

In his book Heat, the radical environmental journalist George Monbiot pointed out that the first of these tendencies is often "another manifestation of our ancient hysteria about the Yellow Peril". It fails to take into account, he points out, the way that emissions "per person" in China are far less than the average citizen of the UK or America.

Judith Shapiro is certainly not in this camp at all. Her relationship with China and its people is a long one, that goes back to the 1970s when she was one of very few English teachers in the country. She writes about the country and its culture with a great fondness, and while she is certainly not uncritical of the country and its government, she certainly does not fall into the trap of seeing China as the world's greatest environmental threat.

That said, one of the themes that runs through Shapiro's book is the existing environmental crises that China faces. The World Bank has found that 20 or the world's 30 most polluted cities are in China, usually because of coal being burnt for industry. The majority of Chinese cities have levels of sulphur dioxide that far exceed healthy levels, 28% of Chinese rivers are so polluted they are unsuitable for agriculture (according to the Chinese government itself). The immense size of China's population means that these environmental problems impact enormous numbers of people; 300 million people in rural China lack access to safe drinking water.

Shapiro argues that while the large population of China is a problem, there is evidence that the population growth is stabilising, as fertility rates are low. Rather the problem lies with an economic system that is in direct competition with the rest of the world, and whose turn towards the "globalized free market capitalism" since Mao's time has led to worsening environmental problems. Shapiro in no way argues that Mao was the greater leader, whose guiding hand ensured economic prosperity while protecting nature and China's natural resources. She painfully documents the experiences of millions of Chinese people under Mao, who saw the state attempt to redraw the natural world in its own interests, often with appalling consequences for ordinary people. However she sees the "limits on public participation and freedom of information" as major obstacles
to societies ability to make "wise choices". Environmental problems are one consequence of this.

Unlike many authors (and indeed many environmentalists) Shapiro argues that the Chinese government has tried to take environmental questions very seriously. Since the 1980s in particular, China has signed up to a variety of international agreements on the reduction of pollution and Shapiro says, the central government "deserves tremendous credit for trying to integrate environmental concerns into its plans, laws and policies." In part this is likely to be a recognition that a population made sick from environmental problems, pollutions, leaks and disasters is going to be unable to work in Chinese factories and farms, but it is also, she says a "response to growing public clamour about the impacts of pollution on health and quality of life." I'll return shortly to this "clamour".

Shapiro gives credit to the central government and puts lots of blame for environmental problems on problems at lower levels of the Chinese system. She contrasts the "desire for sustainability" from central government with a "pollute first, mitigate later" attitude found in branches of the government and regional leaders. Later she points out that the states own ability to implement anti-pollution laws is limited by corruption and a culture of bribery in Chinese society.

This might seem to be an argument for a more centralised state. Indeed, Shapiro herself points out that hte government is now trying to continue this "strong centralized envvironmental policy" and improve its ability to implement these laws at a time when local and regional bodies have much economic and political autonomy. While reading China's Environmental Challenges I did feel on occasion that the author was a little too soft on central government. Her own arguments point out that the real problem is that there is an enormous emphasis on growth within the Chinese economy. At all levels of society it is economic growth that is rewarded and it is this that lies that the heart of the growing environmental crisis. China may well be doing "much more on climate change than it is required to do under international law" but this is not enough and the country's economic need to catch and compete with developed nations is unlikely to over-ride this voluntary behaviour at some point. Nonetheless Shapiro is right to point out that China is ahead of the game in terms of some environmental work, being far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of renewable energy. Though while China may have the largest wind farms, the enormous quantities of solar panels manufactured and exported is less to do with a benign attitude to the planet and more to do with securing profits.

A major part of this book looks at those movements that are challenging industrial and government behaviour over the environment. It has been, and still is, enormously difficult for political activists to organise in China. Environmental questions have often been ones where there has been a space to organise and Shapiro documents the history of some of the most important campaigns and activists. In terms of today, she points out that environmental "mass incidents" are estimated to number around 5000 per year. These are frequently protests against pollution or the building of plants that might cause future damage. Sadly not enough of the book is devoted to this fascinating aspect of China's current political situation. Shapiro concentrates on the development and role of NGOs around environmental questions which might reflect a slight over-emphasis by her on the newly enriched middle class. Shapiro argues that the more affluent and educated Chinese are more likely to be able to organise (she documents the use of mobile phone networks for instance) and frequently this is, she argues, on the basis of a NIMBY attitude rather than a concern for the wider environment. This may well be true, but I feel that without a corresponding analysis of the wider political response from workers and peasants to things like pollution or dam building it is hard to know whether the "mass incidents" are large groups of middle class activists or angry demonstrations and strikes by workers and peasants.

Shapiro concludes her book by pointing out that observers of China usually fall into two camps, "critics and apologists" and she has tried instead to offer a nuanced analysis that understands there are good and bad aspects to China today from the point of view of environmental questions. This is undoubtedly true, a knee-jerk anti-China attitude from the environmental movement will get us nowhere, and will indeed weaken our own movements ability to criticise our own governments. I do however think that Shapiro's final analysis is weak, she hopes that "we can support the actors within the central government who are trying to 'green' the country's administrative patterns by acknowledging and praising them in international forums... etc".

The problem with this argument is that it does nothing to challenge the fundamental problems with any economy based on the accumulation of wealth, either because of competition between blocks of national capital (companies, state run industries and the like) or because of competition between national economies. For China to develop into a sustainable economy, will mean that the people of that country, from the bottom up will need to challenge a system increasingly run for profit and create a new system run in the interests of people and planet. That is not to argue that the solution is a return to some mythical past of Chinese socialism, but rather to see that the mass movements developing across the country, offer the beginnings of a new way of organising society. Judith Shapiro has laid out well the enormous environmental challenges facing the people of China. There will no doubt be big struggles ahead as increasingly people and planet are sacrificed in the name of competition, but if there is to be a sustainable future, the Chinese people will have to be at the forefront of fighting for it.

Related Reviews

Monbiot - Heat
Rogers - Green Gone Wrong
Pearce - The Landgrabbers

My own pamphlet, "Marxism and Ecology: Capitalism, socialism and the future of the planet" has been translated into Chinese and is available to purchase online here.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Stella Gibbons - Cold Comfort Farm

Stella Gibbon's Cold Comfort Farm is one of those novels that has outgrown the object of its lampoon. Who today reads Mary Webb? Her purple prose is, I suspect, mostly known through the passages that Stella Gibbons highlights with a couple of asterisks to let the reader know that a moment of pure piss taking. Stella Gibbons is a wonderful writer, at her best when destroying another authors style:

"***The country for miles, under the blanket of the dark which brought no peace was in its annual tortured ferment of spring growth; worm jarred with worm and seed with seed... The trout-sperm in the muddle hollow under Nettle-Finch Weir were agitated..."

The novel centres on the visit of Flora Poste to Cold Comfort Farm. The Farm is an island of insanity in the wider countryside. It's inhabitants are all ill-adjusted individuals, whose lives are twisted and distorted by the bizarre matriarch Aunt Ada, who confines herself to her room except for an annual counting.

Flora rapidlly breaks down these individuals, finding each of them what they really want and undermining the Aunt Ada's power until Ada herself is sent to Paris on an aeroplane transformed by the hidden potential found in an old edition of Vogue.

Stella Gibbons has a unique comic style. In parts the humour is near slapstick (people fall down the well regularly, or enjoy talking to water-voles). Elsewhere the amusement is in the prose.

Here's Gibbons' description of Cold Comfort Farm's history:

"The farmhouse was a long, low building, two-storied in parts. Other parts of it were three-storied. Edward the Sixth had originally owned it in the form of a shed in which he housed his swineherd, but he had gown tired of it and had it rebuilt in Sussex clay. Then he pulled it down. Elizabeth had rebuilt it, with a good many chimneys in one way and another. The Charleses had let it alone.; but William and Mary had pulled it down again, and George the First had rebuilt it. George the Second however burned it down. George the Third added another wing. George the Fourth pulled it down again.... it was known locally as 'The Kings Whim'."

At times this is a very dark novel. Tell anyone that you're reading it, and if they know the book, they quote "something wicked in the woodshed". Yet there is a deeper darkness that lies in the unknown. Flora visits Cold Comfort from the bright lights of London. Rural England is full of strange practices and behaviour. Incest is hinted at, and Gibbon's use of strange languages and invented practises only adds to this strangeness, clettering and mollocking are never really explained, but certainly sound wrong, even if the former is just a way of cleaning dishes. Stella Gibbons' wonderful writing, her humour and her brilliant spoof of a particular type of novel, makes this a literary classic.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fred Pearce - The Landgrabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns The Earth

Unnoticed to the vast majority of people in the world, there is an enormous "grab" of land taking place. Much of the reason for this land grab comes down to one word - profit. There are other reasons; fear of food insecurity or concerns for other natural resources. But by and large the individuals and the organisations that are grabbing land around the world, kicking off the current inhabitants and often dramatically alternating the ecology of the place, are doing so because they hope to make money from bio-fuels, food price rises or access to other resources.

Estimates of how much land is being grabbed vary dramatically, the World Bank has estimated that 47 million hectares have been bought up, stolen or taken through deals of varying legality. Oxfam though came up with an estimate of 227 million hectares a year or so after the World Bank. Whichever extreme is right, this is an enormous quantity of space that has affected millions of people.

Fred Pearce argues that most land grabbing is taking place to impose industrial scale farming on a region. Farming that can produce the sort of mono-crops that will make large amounts of money on the market when sold for food, or biofuel. Often this land is sold because it is described as being empty or under-used. But as Pearce points out, "in reality very little land in the world today is unclaimed or unused."

He points out, for instance, that one of the largest "prizes" for the landgrabbers, is an area of grasslands known as the Guinea Savannah Zone, half the size of the US. Pearce writes that "The World Bank calls these four million square kilometres 'the world's last large reserves of underused land'." But "underused" in this context is from the point of view of western, industralised farming. For the 600 million African peasants, farmers and herders (a tenth of the world's population) who live in this area, they certainly don't see the land as underused. In fact it provides their livelihoods and their food. They may well need development, but not development that will push them off their land to live on the margins of enormous cities, in poverty stricken slums and shanty towns.

Some of Pearce's book is an excellent critique of modern farming methods, that are geared towards profit not feeding people. He points out that the landgrabbing that is taken place does so based on a vision of economics that is tremendously destructive to the natural world and is enormously bad at feeding people, particularly the poorest. This vision of farming is dangerous however, because it assumes that the best way to produce crops is through coping the energy intensive, pesticide dependent methods used in North America, Europe and other parts of the developed world. Pearce points out that this often doesn't work. Sometimes because crops are inappropriate, sometimes because it doesn't fit with local communities and their ways of organising, but also because it makes enormous assumptions about local ecology.

Those who have studied historical colonialism will see many parallels of past practice by imperial powers and landgrabs today. Indeed Pearce uses a number of historical examples to demonstrate how attempts to impose western crops and methods on parts of Africa or Southern America rapidly failed. However the similarities are not simply todo with failures like this, or even the ruthless treatment of local indigenous peoples. There are often racist assumptions about local people and practises that justify to the landgrabber their behaviour. The vision of land as "under utilised" is one aspect of this.

In his marvellous book Changes in the Land William Cronon makes the point that English colonialists in New England considered Native Americans "lazy" because they under-utilised their own land. Compare this with this quote that Fred Pearce uses from a Chinese manager who runs farmland in Africa:

"The biggest problem with agriculture in Senegal is people's mentality. They are very easily satisfied. If they have enough to eat, they won't work any more. There is a lot of arable land that they don't use."

Some of these landgrabs are enormous. They become self-sufficient areas, outside of normal law and order. Pearce documents the dubious and violent methods that land is taken away from people who have farmed or herded on it for decades. Broken promises, attacks, violence or threats are often part of the process.

Pearce quotes a woman in Cambodia, expelled so a company can grow sugar for export to England:

"Some soldiers came and told me to remove my house, because it was not my land. I said no. I said I would report them to the commune officer. But they just smashed the house down. I built another one, but they burnt that. Then they burned our rice and all our belongings. They offered just a hectare in compensation. But it was sacred forest land, which isn't theirs to give. I can't use that land. I'd be scared to."

Later a man from the same village urges Pearce to not buy sugar, "it's corrupt; it's not clean. People are crying here because they have lost their land."

Land is often given to outside companies and individuals for almost nothing by governments of developing nations desperately hoping that outside capital might trickle down and improve their economies. It rarely does. Sometimes the areas become mere extensions of another country, much like US military bases in the Middle East with their own McDonald's and Starbucks. The Loliondo game reserve in the Serengeti has brought up to offer holidays to rich tourists. Mobile phone signals there welcome you to the United Arab Emirates. A part of Africa has become part of one of the richest nations in the world, a playground for the rich. It should be noted that purchases aren't always multinationals (nor foreign countries) large parts of South America are owned by rich individuals, and the Moonies for instance, own 800,000 hectares of land in Brazil and Paraguay.

The news isn't always bad. Pearce documents the resistance, the protests and the demonstrations that often end in repression, but occasionally do win compensation or force the retreat of a foreign multinational. Often the role of the local state here is to protect the investment of the outsider, brutally attacking its own population.

At the heart of Pearce's critique is an understanding of the way that the profits obtained from multinationals who can grow crops on enormous areas of land grabbed in the developing world, over-ride all other interests. States, locally and far away from the land-grab, facilitate this process as they organise in the interest of the ruling classes and the rich. The weakness of Pearce's book is perhaps the lack of alternative. He does describe how alternate agriculture could easily feed the world, and how industrial farming is the worst possible solution. He also shows how such small scale farming is far better for the environment and significantly better in terms of carbon emissions. But Pearce's doesn't really show how we can stop the capitalist landgrab and return power to local indigenous people. In fact Pearce ends up looking towards enlightened farming (and praises a few examples of positive investment in the developing world) rather than mass movements that could fundamentally challenge the priorities of the system.

Nonetheless, Fred Pearce has provided a very useful book for those trying to understand the modern agricultural world and its interaction with the wider global economy. It is a tragic and sad book, filled with the horrors of displaced people and lost lands. It is a damning indictment of a system organised in the interests of the few rather than the majority. It is a system that Pearce concludes is unable to provide for people today or in the future.

Related Reviews

Pearce - When The Rivers Run Dry
Pearce - PeopleQuake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash
Pearce - The Last Generation
Cronon - Changes in the Land

Related Link

Suzanne Jeffrey speaking on Food, Climate & the New Scramble for Africa at Marxism 2012 in London

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Raymond Challinor - The Struggle for Hearts and Minds: Essays on the Second World War

Raymond Challinor was a long standing British revolutionary socialist. He was also an accomplished historian, and a brilliant writer. Sadly his work is a little remembered today, which is a tragedy as a new generation of revolutionaries would benefit from reading his insightful essays.

The Struggle for Hearts and Minds is a short collection of essays that span many years of writing and activity. It concentrates on an alternative view of the Second World War, but also addresses questions like the origins of the Cold War. Some of these essays are available on the Marxist Internet Archive, though I would recommend that people get hold of the reprint of this book that came out in 2011.

Some of these essays cover ground taken up by other Angus Calder and Donny Gluckstein's recent book. Challinor's work benefits from the authors deep historical and literary knowledge. Like Gluckstein, Challinor was a Trotskyist, though not an orthodox one. His writings draw both on that revolutionary tradition, but he is not uncritical of Trotsky (and his followers) who in the 1930s and 1940s had expectations that with hindsight look unreasonable. Following on from the experience of 1917, Trotsky expected that a coming world war would lead to revolution. Because it did not happen, it can be easy to smirk at this idea, but Challinor points out that this wasn't an unusal expectation. In 1942 with the fall of Singapore, the British Government was in crisis and George Orwell wrote that "It seems to me that we are back to the 'revolutionary situation' which existed but not utlized after Dunkirk."

Just before war started, in August 1939, at a meeting between French ambassador Coulondre and Adolf Hitler, the Frenchman argued that in the event of war, "[t]he real victor... will be Trotsky". Trotksy himself pointed out that the use of his name was "to give a personal name to the spectre of revolution".

That the revolution didn't come was in part due to the way that working people in countries like Britain were subsumed into the war, partly because so few revolutionaries were arguing that this was a war for capitalism, rather than anti-fascism or democracy. Challinor touches on the craven attitudes of the Communist Party as well as the appalling attitude of the "democratic" nations towards the fledgling Spanish Republic. He also examines the way that internal dissent in the United Kingdom was attacked during the war and, in a brilliant short essay, exposes a possible miscarriage of justice against a seaman and aleged communist George Armstrong. An essay on the experience of working people during the Blitz, contrasting their experience with that of their wealthier compatriots is a centre piece of this excellent work. He even records that the "atistocrats of Scotland's dog kingdom had been evacuated to the United States and the colonies. Not wanting to run the risk of rare strains being wiped out in air raids". Challinor contrasts this with those poor East-Enders who were going to be evacuated to Brighton, "in the front line", until a campaign by a pioneer British Trotskyist Dr. Worrall helped prevent this. Worrall was vindicated when a bomb destroyed a cinema in Brighton and proved the place was no refuge from German attacks.

There is much in this short volume. Challinor's writing is tight and entertaining and every sentence seems loaded with information. If you've never read anything by him, I would suggest that this piece, The Red Mole of History, is an excellent place to start. I'd then recommend getting hold of The Struggle for Hearts and Minds.

Related Reviews

Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Calder - The Myth of the Blitz
Calder - The People's War

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Richard Morgan - Black Man

Somehow I'd missed Richard Morgan's science fiction novel Black Man. Perhaps this was because his previous book Market Forces didn't quite get me. It was a little too violent, a little too full of detailed sex scenes and less coherent than some of his other writings.

Black Man however is very much a return to form. Like Market Forces it is set in the not to distant future, one which extrapolates from our current world to paint a nasty dirty picture of a future where neo-liberal politics and market forces have let rip. The United States has been torn asunder, ripped into two halves roughly matching the demarcation of the north-south states of the American Civil War. One might also say its been broken up under the pressure of its own contradictions.

Mars has been terraformed. Its a destination for those who have something to escape on earth, or dreams of striking it rich. Unfortunately, Mars, like Earth is dominated by multinationals who's exploitation of their workers allows few to actually "make it".

Into this bleak future, Morgan injects constant conflict. Multinational forces vie with government troops to control regions, resources and workers. There is an ever present war between the new super-power, China and one or other of the old US nations. But, as Morgan points out, China is happier to let her economic muscle and hard cash buy her interests abroad, rather than escalating into open conflict.

The titular Black Man is Carl Marsalis. He is a "twist" in the near racist slang of the time. Properly known as a "thirteen" he is a genetically enhanced human, a throwback to an earlier human psyche. He's a contract killer, a murderer for hire and his genetic improvements give him superhuman speed and violence. Released from a southern goal for financing an illegal abortion he's given a mission to track down another Thirteen who has escaped from Mars and is committing apparently random serial killings around the United States.

This might seem like fairly standard SF fare. But Morgan weaves a complex set of ideas and characters into the plot. But at heart, what dominates the story is the interaction between private business interests, the sometimes competing interests of various states and the political context of this future. Black Man doesn't simply refer to the underground nature of Marsalis' work. But also to his skin colour and Morgan illustrates this by exploring future racism, as well as contemporary attitudes to Islam (one of Marsalis' key colleagues is a Muslim woman).

As with some of his earlier works, Morgan is concerned about the unbalanced, exploitative nature of capitalism and the way it distorts and destroys lives. At one key point in the book, when Marsalis is facing down another thirteen who claims to have a gun that he took "from a man I killed", Marsalis monologues:

"Oh, well there's a sustainable model of exchange. Did you kill the guy who served you breakfast this morning as well, so you wouldn't have to pay for that either? Going to murder the guy who sold or rented you your transport option and the guy who runs the place you sleep tonight? Got plans for the people who employ them too, the ones who run the means of production, the managers and the owners and the people who sell for them and the people who buy from them?"

Such marxism-lite is a feature of Morgan's work. While it isn't that unusual in SF to find radical ideas, but I like to think that a book that references Tariq Ali and Susan Faludi in its acknowledgements is reflecting the wider questioning of capitalism that is taking place around the world.

To those who are drawing anti-capitalist conclusions, Morgan doesn't offer any collective solutions. In fact the opposite, his characters' violence is very much a personalised settling of scores. Nonetheless Morgan's vision of a future of war, racism, islamaphobia and multinational exploitation on multiple planets is one that surly inspires us to revolution today in order to avoid it.

Related Reviews

Morgan - Woken Furies
Morgan - Market Forces