Saturday, June 29, 2013

Leo Hollis - Cities are Good for You

Marx and Engels argued that a prerequisite of capitalism was the displacement of people from rural areas into towns and cities. This separation between town and country was one of the defining points of capitalist society for them, creating as it did a metabolic rift between humans and the natural world.

In the two centuries of so since the birth of capitalism Marx and Engels' insights have been proved right time and again. Today, as a majority of the human population live in cities (3,303,992,253 in 2007 according to the UN) the problem of the "rift" is even more important given the threat of environmental crisis.

The solution however is not some return to a rural past. Leo Hollis' new book is a celebration of the city and its potential, as well as an exploration of the problems for citizens of urban areas. Hollis goes so far as to say that the city is the best chance we have for survival as a species.

Some cities, particularly in the developing world, are growing enormously. In the next five years Yamoussoukro in the Ivory Coast will expand by 43.8 percent, the Chinese city of Jinjiang by 25.9 percent, but London and Tokyo will only grow by 0.7 and 1 percent respectively.

Once in the city, people are shaped and dominated by it. Hollis tells us that "the city offers more chances of making connections than anywhere else.... it is these 'impersonal, superficial, transitory' relationships that make the city so unique and important." Hollis makes much of the energy given to a city by its people, and he celebrates the idea that cities can be designed to maximise that energy. "Can we design an urban space to encourage people to kiss?" he asks rhetorically, and indeed demonstrates that properly thought out spaces can make people linger and relax.

One of the strengths of this book is that it presents interesting aspects of urbanisation to the non-specialist. Hollis gives us studies that discuss how people flow through streets, or where they congregate to chatter on the pavement.

Over the decades various architects have sought to design the ideal city, a rational place to maximise comfort, health and pleasure. Ebeneezer Howard for instance, inspired by utopian novels of the 19th century, came up with a design for a future city in his Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform published in 1898. He argued that

"Human society and beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together... Town and country must be married, and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilisation."

Howard's idealism here, echoes Marx and Engels in their hope that the rift between town and country would end in a socialist society, but it also reflected the belief that cities needed to be redone from scratch. Not surprising that Howard's ideas became influential for later town planners - the new Garden Cities of the early 20th century were built along similar lines to Howard's plans.

This quest for the better city is one that has always concerned urban planners. But it has also been a concern for those living in cities as they grow, develop and change. From the early days of skyscrapers when residents worried about being cast into shadow, to those who try to redesign streets in order to encourage walking. But Hollis is also rightly worried about the direction that cities are moving in today. He points out how our space is being restricted and taken from us, quoting the author Anna Minton:

"Who controls the roads and the streets is... enormously important to how cities function. Today there has been no public debate about the selling of streets at all. Instead, as ownership of British cities goes back to private landlords, the process of removing public rights of way is buried in the arcane language and technical detail of the most obscure parts of planning law... there is an adage in highway law which says 'once a highway, always a highway'... In many British towns and cities, this common-law right is being quietly eroded."

Hollis thus celebrates those movements that have sort to defend and challenge this attack on public space; the book is recent enough to note the Occupy movements, and discusses Lefebvre's Right to the City as a slogan and tactic. The Right to the City, Hollis argues following David Harvey, is more than being about ownership of space in a city, it is about access, democracy, control and involvement.  Taking the pressing issue of housing Hollis argues that instead of allowing homes to be foreclosed during the credit crunch, instead

"the city could buy the property from the banks at a good price, creating manageable housing cooperatives, guaranteeing that families can stay where they are and maintain their participation in the life of the city."

The problem is, of course, that capitalism doesn't work like that, and here, as with Hollis' other wonderful suggestions of how cities could be cleaner, safer and more involving for citizens, I fear that what is lacking is a strategy to challenge the forces that really shape cities. These are, of course, the forces of capital and the state's "armed bodies of men". This isn't to say Hollis is not aware of these problems, his understanding of the roots of the 2011 British riots in police racism demonstrates this. But Hollis' strategy to reach the better city seems to be based mostly on electing enlightened politicians who can bring about reform.

Of course, a good mayor can make enormous differences to a city, and Hollis has some great examples, particularly from South America. But he stops short of showing how the energy of the citizens themselves can really begin to alter power relations in society and rebuild their city. It would have been interesting to hear the author's thoughts on the way that great revolutionary movements of the past - the Paris Commune of 1871 or Red Petrograd in 1917 for instance - reshaped their urban environments.

Hollis claims that "most of us now live in suburbs where there are fewer people and sprawl allows us to live behind fences". This is a strange idea, given the descriptions he gives of the mass overcrowding in cities around the world, but perhaps reflects the audience his book is aimed at.

I did notice one significant error. Hollis claims that Friends of the Earth support plans for HS2 the High Speed Rail link being built in the UK as a way of reducing emissions. As far as I am aware, this is not true, as can be seen in FoE's response to the draft HS2 consultation here, where they say "current High Speed Rail plan will do little to cut carbon emissions".

These minor criticisms aside, this is an interesting and stimulating book for those thinking about alternatives to the unsustainable society that we currently live in.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

John Bellamy Foster - Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature

Published in 2000 John Bellamy Foster's Marx's Ecology was and is an extremely important work. It reasserted a crucial element of Karl Marx's thought for a new generation of activists and for more long standing revolutionary socialists. John Bellamy Foster argues that at the core of Karl Marx's ideas is a nuanced and dialectical understanding of human ecology, rooted in his materialism. This rests in part in Marx's understanding and development of ancient philosophers, but is also a break with his contemporary thinkers which enabled him to develop a more radical and far reaching critique of capitalism, and vision of communism.

Foster begins this book by looking at the philosophy that underpins Marx's thought. In particular he engages with Marx's early work (including his PHd) which was based on the ideas of Epicurus. Foster shows how 19th century materialism developed and how Marx's own materialism developed from his critical engagement with other thinkers.

Foster quotes Bhaskar who writes that

"For Marx, in contrast [to Hegel], 'neither thought nor language... form a realm of their own, they are only manifestations of actual life',,, so that 'consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence."

Foster emphasises the importance of this approach, saying it rested "on a perpetual and close connection between natural science and social science, between a conception of the material / natural world and the world of society. For this reason, Marx continually defined his materialism as one that belonged to the 'process of natural history'."

There has been a tendency to see a break between the thought of the young Marx and the later writings of the old Marx. For some writers the young Marx was interested in the relationships between man and nature, as exemplified through Marx's writings on alienation. The older Marx by contrast, was more analytically, given to a scientific study of capitalism rather than the more general philosophical concepts. Foster argues that this is an artificial break, that Marx always began from a idea that "what individuals are depends on the material conditions of their production." Foster writes:

"Marx and Engels thus started out from a materialist or realist ontology in which nature, the material world, was a precondition of human existence, and production of the means of subsistence was a precondition of human life in all its manifold determinations and hence human society."

This is in contrast to other thinkers, like Feuerbach, who Marx and Engels argued, "posits 'Man' instead of 'real historical man" - abstracting humans from their social world.

But because humans are part of nature for Marx and because it is their ability to transform nature through their labour, the changing relationship to nature has an impact upon man (as well as nature). Thus Marx's theory of alienation developed in his 1844 manuscripts is far more than a study of the way that the worker is disenfranchised by wage labour. Alienation for Marx "estranges man from his own body, from nature as it exists outside him, from his spiritual essence, his human essence."

Foster points out that from 1844 onwards Marx always treated nature as an extension of the human body. This is crucial to understanding the way in which Marx's later analysis is less of a break with earlier writings and more of a continuation. For it is only by understanding the centrality of this human-nature relationship, this metabolism as Marx described it, that we can understand the impacts of the great transformation that capitalism has wrought upon the world.

Marx argues that the precondition for capitalism was the primitive accumulation of wealth, which takes place through the displacement of people from the soil, making possible the historical development of capital. This separation, manifested in the "antagonistic separation of town from country" is the root of much of the great environmental and ecological crises of the 19th century.

Foster goes into detail the way in which Marx and Engels engagement with contemporary scientific literature, as well as their economic studies enabled both of the revolutionaries to understand that capitalism not only destroyed workers lives through exploitation, but it also destroyed the natural world. Thus they argued for a world (free of alienation and exploitation) that could restore the "rift". As Engels writes,

"Abolition of the antithesis between town and country is not merely possible. It has become a direct necessity of industrial production itself, just as it has become a necessity of agricultural production and, besides, of public health. The present poisoning of the air, water and land can be put an end to only by the fusion of town and country; and only such fusion will change the situation of the masses now languishing in the towns, and enable their excrement to be used for the production of plants instead of the production of disease."

Such an analysis betrays a far greater understand of the ecological relationship between humans and nature than is often attributed to Marx and Engels by more recent green thinkers. But, as Foster demonstrates throughout this book, it wasn't an aberration for them, rather an integral part of their thinking.

To back up this argument, Foster's book covers far greater ground than I can possibly do justice to in this review. He examines for instance the ideas of Thomas Malthus and the way in which both Marx and Engels engaged with debates around population. He also discusses the roots of Darwin's ideas and the parallels between the development of his materialism and Marx and Engels own ideas. In an important section he also explains what it was that Marx precisely meant in his infamous comment that Darwin's evolutionary ideas offered the "basis for our view" in nature.

This is an important and engaging work of Marxism. It deserves to be read and re-read by socialists who are trying to develop ideas around sustainability and the links between capitalist crisis and ecological destruction. I would also suggest it is a crucial book for those in the wider environmental / green movement.

In parts (particularly the early chapters) it is not an easy read, particularly for those of us without a background in the study of philosophy, but it is worth persevering and, reading some of John Bellamy Foster's other works (links to my reviews below) would certainly help in preparing the reader.

Related Reviews

Foster - The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet
Foster - The Vulnerable Planet
Foster - Ecology Against Capitalism
Foster -

Thursday, June 20, 2013

David Harvey - Spaces of Global Capitalism

This collection of short essays by David Harvey begins with an essay on Neo-Liberalism and the Restoration of Class Power.  This a very clear argument about how the model of capitalism that arrived with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher allowed the ruling class to establish their control over the economy and their populations. Harvey explains that the

"neo-liberal state looks to further the cause of and to facilitate and stimulate ... all business interests, arguing that this will foster growth and innovation and this is the only way to eradicate poverty... The neo-liberal state is particularly assiduous in seeking the privatization of assets as a means to open up fresh fields for capital accumulation"

He continues;

"The free mobility of capital between sectors and regions is regarded as crucial to reviving profit rates and all barriers to that free movement (such as planning controls) have to be removed except in those areas crucial to 'the national interest'."

From this Harvey argues we get the notion of flexibility. Workers, trades unions, public services must all be prepared to bend and change in the interests of the wider system, which is supposed to bring improvements to all. In reality of course this means that wages are cut and rights are removed, public services are dismantled in the interest of business profits which is supposed to be the same as the "national interest".

Neo-liberalism didn't get deployed everywhere but where it did there were "rapid increases in social inequality". However neo-liberalism did not solve underlying problems for capitalism, countries that had implemented neo-liberalism were still in economic difficulty even if they had dismantled or weakened many of the barriers to the capitalist class' drive to accumulate. Indeed Harvey points out that it was the centre-left, Clinton and Tony Blair who worked hardest not to blunt the worst aspects of the neo-liberal agenda, but to expand and consolidate it.

The defeat or weakening of traditional opponents of the capitalists through the use of neo-liberalism both ideologically and economically is the origin of Harvey's suggestion that neo-liberal policies have restored the capitalist class power.

The essay argues that there was an uneven implementation of neo-liberal policies geographically. This fits with the second A Theory of Uneven Geographical Development. Here Harvey looks at the various ways that different regions of the world have arrived at many different economic situations. He argues that "uneven geographical developments reflect the different ways in which different social groups have materially embedded their modes of sociality into the web of life, understood as an evolving social-ecological system."

This challenges those for instance who argue that Africa must always be poor or others like Jared Diamond who suggest that the key question is whether or not there are particular natural resources available in an area.

But this is not to ignore "nature". Harvey takes an extreme position (paralleled by William Cronon's analysis in his environmental history of Chicago), arguing that you cannot understand uneven geographical development without understanding how "the production of nature" has occurred through capitalist activities.

In a quote that will infuriate many if taken out of context he writes that "there is... nothing unnatural about New York City". What he means is that human activity and the economic systems that humans have created, has built and shaped New York. It is as much a product of nature as anything else. Harvey continues, by quoting Robert Park approvingly, that "in making the city man remade himself".

For Harvey the only solution to the problems that bedevil us today is not through single issue campaigns like environmentalism, or feminism, though those are important struggles that cannot be ignored. However they are at best "protective coverings" [Polanyi] even as they are "pitted against the dynamics of free-market commodification". Rather we need a movement that can "actually do something to check if not transform what a predatory capitalism is about."

The final essay in this book is a discussion of the notion of "space". Space for Harvey is more than a fixed geographical area, it is a dynamic changing region in time and location. It is something that is shaped by history, our actions, experiences and the economic system. To think about places or areas in isolation limits our ability to understand those spaces, or indeed change them. In a comment that echoes some of the ideas that dominated recent Occupy! movements, Harvey quotes Don Mitchell:

"In public space - on street corners or in parks, in the streets during riots and demonstrations - political organisations can represent themselves to a larger population and through this representation give their cries and demands some force. By claiming space in public, by creating public spaces, social groups themselves become public."

This is not of course the end of the struggle, but it does give a hint at how wider forces can see the role of "space" in political struggle, which can then lead to wider confrontations with the system. Ultimately the question becomes one of political power as movements come into conflict with the state. But if there is one weakness that this book shares with Harvey's more recent book Rebel Cities it is that it raises these further questions, but fails to answer them.

Related Reviews

Harvey - Rebel Cities

Monday, June 17, 2013

Tony Cliff - Trotsky 1923-1927: Fighting the Rising Stalinist Bureaucracy

Of the four volumes of Tony Cliff's biography of Leon Trotsky, I suspect that this one was the hardest to write and it may well be the hardest to read. The first volume Towards October dealt with the early years of Trotsky's revolutionary life. His work in small political organisations, followed by the 1905 revolution which Trotsky helped to lead. It's a work that captures Trotsky's political brilliance and his organisational genius as he led the St. Petersburg Soviet through advances and retreats.


Volume two, Sword of the Revolution also deals with an inspiring period, that of the Russian Revolutions of 1917 as well as Trotsky's time in exile. Here again Cliff stresses the role of Trotsky in organising the insurrection, as well as his brilliance during the Civil War.

By contrast volume three deals with the defeat of Trotsky's ideas. This defeat cannot be separated by the isolation and defeat of the Russian Revolution itself and the triumph of an entirely different set of ideas - those of Stalin and the notion of Socialism in One Country.

Cliff discusses the various political forces ranged against Trotsky, those individuals around Stalin - particularly Kamenev and Zinoviev - and the growing strength of the bureaucracy. Cliff argues that Trotsky never abandoned a revolutionary outlook. Stalin on the other hand, retreated into the idea that socialism could survive alone in Russia in the midst of a capitalist sea. The struggle between these two viewpoints became the core debate in Russian politics, being reflected in, as well as shaping wider discussions on foreign policy, agrarian questions and the economy. As such much of this book is devoted to the factional struggles within the Communist Party.

Trotsky did badly in these battles. It clearly wasn't his natural territory, despite being politically and intellectually head and shoulders above his opponents, he wasn't able to break through. Towards the end of the book Cliff asks why this was, and can only conclude that it was the very isolation of the revolution and the retreat of the international working class movement that was hampering Trotsky. As Cliff writes;

"One should have a sense of proportion about the strengths and weaknesses of Trotsky's stand in the years 1923-27. While his strategic direction was correct, he made a number of serious tactical blunders and compromises. The point is not that had he been firmer he would have been able to beat Stalin, but that he would have laid firmer bases for the growth of the Opposition, not allowing the 1923 Opposition to wither on the vine, not disorienting his followers in the foreign Communist Parties."

But during a period of retreat, Trotsky's mistakes had far greater consequences than in a period when the working class was moving forward, "not a few mistakes were committed by the Bolshevik leaders during 1917 and the period of the civil war. But the sweep of the revolution repaired the errors. Now the march of reaction exacerbated the impact of every error committed by Trotsky."

The isolation of the revolution led to a number of serious problems for Trotsky. One of these was the lack of a cadre who understood what the party had been through and who Trotsky was. When Stalin and his cohorts argued that Trotsky had disagreed with Lenin and quoted him out of context, or pointed to his errors, many Communists were disorientated. But many of those who understood the past were gone. Support amongst Old Bolsheviks for Trotsky and the Opposition to Stalin was significant, yet in 1922 there were only 10,431 party members who had joined before February 1917. By 1927 the figure was less than half of this.

Some of the core chapters of this book also look at Trotsky's attempts to understand the failures of the wider struggles in the international working class. Cliff retells some stories familiar to readers of this blog, he looks at the defeat of the 1923 German Revolution, the British General Strike and the Chinese Revolution. Cliff argues that these were important, because in all cases, their victories could have helped end Russia's isolation. More importantly the incorrect analysis applied to the events by Russian revolutionaries, and Stalin in particular stemmed from the weakness of their own politics. Even today Trotsky's analyses from afar are often head and shoulders above anyone else.

The period of transition between the revolutionary era and the Stalin era was a slow drawn out process, but one that has concrete roots in economics and international politics. Cliff's analysis is beautifully clear and he is not afraid of criticising his subject. In fact I was quite surprised at how weak and compromising Trotsky was at times. In fact for a period of 18 months in the aftermath of the defeat of the 1923 Opposition, Cliff says that Trotsky effectively abstained from fighting inside the party leadership. He even remarks that Trotsky sat reading novels during Central Committee meetings.

Nonetheless, eventually Trotsky did come out fighting. He made a compromising alliance with Kamenev and Zionviev. When they proved inadequate in the face of Stalin's onslaught, Trotsky along with many of his supporters and other Oppositionists were drummed out of the Communist Party. Trotsky spent the rest of his life keeping the flame of international revolution alive in the face of Stalinist lies and slander. As Tony Cliff concludes:

"After 1927, when Trotsky grasped the enormity of Stalin's crimes, and called him the 'gravedigger of the revolution'. when the bloc with Zinoviev and Kamenev fell apart - from then onwards Trotsky became completely uncompromising."

The story of his final years of struggle is in volume four of Cliff's biography.

Related Reading

Cliff - Trotsky Volume One: Towards October
Cliff - Trotsky Volume Two: Sword of the Revolution
Hallas - Trotsky's Marxism
Lewin - Russian Peasants and Soviet Power: A Study of Collectivisation

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Carol Birch - Jamrach's Menagerie

Warning Spoilers

Jamrach's Menagerie begins with a scene only slightly surreal in its content as our hero Jaffy Brown, aged 8, is nearly carried off by a tiger that is wandering around the streets of London's East End Docklands. I say slightly surreal because in her afterword Carol Birch tells us that the incident actually happened.

Jaffy meets the eccentric Jamrach who imports exotic animals from around the globe and sells them to rich Londoners. Jaffy has a talent for looking after the animals, calming and understanding them. He forms a friendship with a fellow worker, a slightly older boy named Tim. Jamrach gets Tim to join a Whale ship bound to the East Indies in search of Whale Oil. Jaffy too joins the ship to take part in the capture of a giant "dragon" which they know will make their fortunes.

Carol Birch has an easy going style. She brings to life the dirt and poverty of East London, and the terror of a Whaling boat. The story of the ship's disaster and the long voyage on the life boats is expertly painted. The problem is that about half way along I realised I'd read it all before. At one point on the voyage Jaffy and Tim are entertained by some old salt who tells them of the cursed waters where the Whaleship Essex sank.

Jamrach's Menagerie follows that story very closely. In fact most of the key points that happen once Tim and Jaffy's ship is wrecked and they take to the Whalers are taken from the story of the Essex. Birch notes that those wanting to know more about that story should read Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea. Frankly I found myself drifting along with our shipwrecked heroes and lost interest in the story.

This is a shame because Birch has excellent writing talents and does well to bring the story to life, but because In the Heart of the Sea did such a good job of telling the amazing story of the crew of the Essex, I couldn't enjoy this re-telling. I'd encourage those interested to read the historical book, rather than this dramatisation. Given that history involved cannibalism, heroism and amazing sailing skills, in this case history is better than art.

Related Reading

PhilBrick - In the Heart of the Sea

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Christopher Empson - The Far Horizons: Thirty Years Among the Gauchos of Uruguay

In many ways Christopher Empson led a fairy-tale life. As a young boy, he had listened to his father's tales of his adventures in far off Uruguay, and dreamed of going there. Leaving the British Navy at the end of the First World War his payout was enough to get him a trip on a steamer to South America. Carrying a pile of letters of introduction, but not knowing a single word of Spanish, he arrived in the country and began to work in the cattle farms and on the open plains of the country.

Being hardworking and English he rose to be quite a trusted man. Eventually he was able to purchase his own farm and run a farm. Thirty years later he eventually retired to England and these memoirs seem to have mostly been written for friends and family, though he dreamed of having them published. They weren't in his lifetime and we owe this edition to the editorship of Renée Scott who has translated and annotated them.

Empson's life was lucky. Most farm-workers in Uruguay, working on the herding and export of cows and sheep for European meat and wool markets didn't have it anywhere near so good. His working days are punctuated by time off from work for shooting and picnics.

Sadly Empson's writing really isn't good enough to make this a must read memoir of times past. He fails to bring the country or the people to life, and it the book hangs together as a collection of anecdotes. Sometimes these are fascinating - such as the description of the perils of locusts and how Empson spent one day collecting sack after sack of them, with help from the local army, in an effort to reduce crop damage. But sometimes the memories are little more than family history for his children and grandchildren - the list of pets for example, tells us of the skunk that disappeared and several dogs that played a lot. English readers might be interested to learn that the local meat factory was in the port city of Fray Bentos, explaining the origin of the British food brand name.

I suspect for someone interested in the detailed history of Uruguay's agriculture or particular individuals in the cattle industry, this book might have its uses. Unfortunately it is not a particularly well written story and Empson's life, while worthy, doesn't seem to illuminate the people, place or time much.

Monday, June 10, 2013

William Cronon - Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

William Cronon's history of Chicago is a brilliant ecological history that puts the development of capitalism at the heart of the story of the city and shows how the market itself shaped Chicago and its surrounding country. Cronon roots his analysis in a materialist understanding of historical change and his insights are surely applicable to cities around the globe both historically and today.

In the early days of Chicago many American entrepreneurs hoped that Chicago (or other cities like it) would become the great gateway to the American West. They believed in a sort of "geographical determinism" which argued that there were particular parts of the American continent which had the right mix of climate, natural resources and transport links that would enable the city to grow automatically, bringing wealth and profits for everyone.

"In their eyes, nature would combine with the progress of human population to call forth a metropolis to lead the Great West.... triumphant cities of the past, stretching back to classical antiquity, had achieved lasting fame.. because their destiny had been an imperialist one... 'the ultimate crowning city' would achieve comparable fame by making all of North America - indeed, all the world - its empire."

He continues:


“...the Great West would rise as a commercial hierarchy with its foundation in the rural countryside, and its ascending levels in village, town, and city. At the apex would stand the great central metropolis which was cause, effect, and emblem of its region’s continuing prosperity”

None of this was automatic. What was needed was human intervention that could shape the city and the world around. Cronon begins by looking at three natural resources that ultimately led to the explosion of Chicago's population and wealth, as well as the transformation of the Great Plains. These were cattle, wood and grain.

The story of the deforestation of enormous tracts of land in order to provide wood for the expansion of American capitalism is not surprising. Cronon's story of the way that the capitalists ultimately chopped down the very source of their profits echoes a chapter by Engels who uses a similar example from Cuba to demonstrate the short-termism of the capitalist system. It is a familiar ecological story. So to is the story of beef. Before cattle could be reared in their millions, the Plains had to be emptied of former inhabitants - both human and beast. The massacre of the buffalo was necessary before the beef industry could make its profits. In a brilliantly dialectical passage Cronon explains the way that the destruction fed further changes:

"The bison met their end because their ecosystem had become attached to an urban marketplace in a new way. The very market forces that had led hunters nearly to exterminate the species now encouraged other people to find a suitable replacement... Even before the bison had entirely gone, their heirs apparent - horses, sheep, and especially the longhorn cattle... were already beginning to make buffalo country their own. Called into being by the same urban markets that had sent the hunters scurrying across the plains in the first place, the new herds would be tied to the cities by the same iron rails that had turned the plains into a slaughterhouse."

But it is the story of Chicago's grain business that is most fascinating. Here Cronon tells the familar tale of how the natural world was transformed so that grain could be grown over vast areas. The grasses and animal life of the Plains were destroyed in order to encourage mono-cultural farming so that vast quantities of grain could reach Chicago. But capitalism doesn't stand still, and it is the story of how the grain industry transformed itself that really captures the imagination.

In the early days farmers would bring their crops to Chicago and sell them onward. The farmers would own the sacks of grain right until they reached the purchaser. What the grain companies did to simplify the process was to turn the grain into a uniform commodity. Each farmer's stock was graded and then mixed with all the other grain of that type in enormous "elevators". The farmer received a receipt that entitled him to money, or a identical amount of grain. As Cronon explains:

"A person who owned grain could conveniently sell it to a buyer simply by selling the elevator receipt  and as long as both agreed that they were exchanging equivalent quantities of like grain - rather than the physical grain that the seller had originally deposited in the elevator - both left happy at the end of the transaction  It was a momentous change... The grading system allowed elevators to sever the link between ownership rights and physical grain, with a host of consequences."

One of the consequences was the development of a market in grain futures. For the fluctuating price of grain meant that the receipts had changing values. Speculators could buy and sell receipts and make profits on the market. This lead to the issuing of more receipts than there were grain and inevitably there were market booms and crashes as speculators tried to maximise profits. The madness of the market is summed up on one occasion when number 2 grade grain was selling at a higher price than the better quality number 1, because the market in the former had been cornered and prices artificially inflated.

There are few better examples of the way that capitalism doesn't just transform the natural world, but also human perceptions of it. As Cronon points out:

"To understand wheat or corn in the vocabulary of bulls, bears, corners, grades and futures meant seeing grain as a commodity, not as a living organism planted and harvested by farmers as a crop for people to mill into flour, bake into bread, and eat."

This process was encouraged and accelerated by technological development. In particular the rail-roads that took the commodities eastwards and the telegraph that brought the news of price changes. The rail-roads form the basis for a brilliant chapter where Cronon explains how they removed the "isolation that had constrained the trade and production." He quotes Marx, pointing out that rail means the "annihilation of space by time" and says that:

"Wherever the network of rails extended, frontier became hinterland to the cities where rural products entered the marketplace. Areas with limited experience of capitalist exchange suddenly found themselves much more palpably within an economic and social hierarchy created by the geography of capital."

Because he understands the dialectical relationship between city and country, between technology and markets, and humans and nature, Cronon's story of Chicago is far more than a simple one of urban destruction of the environment. His writing is beautifully clear and his analysis has much to offer us now. The question of the sustainability of urban life and the impact of cities on the natural world has never been so important and this historical study has a great deal to offer those of us trying to understand this today.

Related Reviews

Cronon - Changes in the Land
Harvey - Rebel Cities

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Naomi Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman

Naomi Mitchison seems to have led an extraordinary life. Born into an English establishment family, she was the younger sister of the communist scientist J. B. S. Haldane. Married to a socialist politician, she certainly seemed to have shared some of their politics. She seems to have mixed from an early age with scientists, Niels Bohr, apparently gave her a tiny jug for her dolls house and she is thanked in James Watson's Double Helix.

Both these aspects of her life come through in Memoirs of a Spacewoman, her 1962 novel that is perhaps her most well known. To the modern reader of science fiction it seems a little strange. There is little detail of science and technology, in this future, humans can travel to far galaxies and communicate, often telepathically with alien species. Mitchison is not particularly concerned with great plot arcs, though it is not quite true to say, as it does in the introduction to my edition, that there is no plot at all.

The story centres on Mary, the spacewoman of the title, whose job is to establish communications with alien species, in order to further humanities understanding of the universe. Most of the chapters concern Mary's encounters with various alien flora and fauna, which she tries to understand and communicate with. On occasion I was reminded of the stories in James White's Sector General series which deals with a space-going hospital that cares for aliens. Mary, like the characters in the Sector General, have to try and understand alien behaviour as well as completely foreign ecologies and metabolisms. Often the solutions arise  from looking at available evidence in a non-human way.

What makes Mitchison's book different, and the reason it perhaps shocked many on its original publication, is that it is fairly uninhibited about sexual changes in the future. Mary, for instance, is made pregnant by a Martian in one chapter. Martians communicate through the manipulations of different parts of their bodies, including their sexual organs. Such manipulations are, apparently, very subtle and often require touch. The consequences are unusual, as Mary explains:

"Before I knew where I was, I was beginning to feel elated. I wanted to pass this on as quickly as possible. I reached for his sexual organ and began to communicate on that. It seemed most peculiar that in its non-communication aspect it should have any effect on a Terran."

If this passage should make the reader snort with derision, I would urge caution. Mitchison's book is playing with ideas that are far more than a science fiction story. Her future society, is a very vague, post capitalist, post-scarcity society (there is a passing reference to revolution) and humans have very different relationships. Men and women are clearly intellectually and economically equal, at least in the space service that Mary works for. Details of the future society and peoples' lives are deliciously vague, meaning that the book has dated very little when compared to early novels.

What is fascinating though, is that the book precursors some of the Feminist writings that developed in the 1960s and 1970s. It is, in many ways, revolutionary, and not just for the sex. But it is also somewhat old fashioned in terms of gender roles. Women are thoughtful, caring and kind, in part because of their child rearing role, a role that seems to remain the remit of their sex.

This is a book that should be rediscovered by a new generation of science fiction fans. In its exploration of future worlds, sexuality, and the emotions felt by scientists studying alien ecologies, it has much to offer. It is also perhaps, a fascinating insight into the way some people were thinking "out of the box" at the beginning of the revolutionary 1960s.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

E.E.Evans-Pritchard - Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer

Before reading this review, I would encourage you to read my review of Evans-Pritchard's earlier book The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. 

Evans-Pritchard's works on the Nuer people are classics of anthropology and even though they were written over 70 years ago, they are still of fundamental importance in understanding human relations in pre and early class societies. He described communities where private property played a fundamentally different role in human society, where collective organisation dominated in a way that seems completely alien to us today and where political organisation was not about the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small minority but rather about the common interests of wider society.

In this second volume Evans-Pritchard develops some of these themes and looks at further aspects of Nuer society. In particular he examines the complex social organisation around marriage and kinship, relationships between human beings, that have very important ramifications for wider Nuer society.

For the Nuer relationships between family groups are the most fundamental aspects of society. These family groups however are very different from the family that we know from modern capitalism. Far from a couple having a number of children, there is a wider grouping of individuals who are seen as being the family. In her extremely useful introduction, the anthropologist Wendy James comments that there is:

"A vivid Nuer image for this... that of the beast with four legs - right hindleg, father's brother; left hindleg, mother's brother; right foreleg, father's sister; left foreleg, mother's sister".

Lineage in Nuer society is not through Patriarchal lines; as Wendy James comments:

"Lineage continuity thus depends not on the male fertility of a given community but on its economic and political ability to transfer bridewealth and marry wives to the names of its members (including some women and some deceased men) and to recruit new persons through adoption and other means."

This means that it can be difficult to comprehend family relationships amongst the Nuer for those of us used to our version of the family. Children for instance have different names depending on whether they are living with their father or mother.

Sex features widely in this book. To understand the Nuer is to understand how they reproduce the next generation of their community. This involves complex exchanges of wealth (cattle) and even more complex and ever changing social relationships, that I will come onto.

But the Nuer also have very interesting attitudes to sex. Before discussing Nuer marriage, Pritchard looks in detail at the concept of "incest" amongst the Nuer. Incest here is more of a cultural taboo on sexual and marital relationships between certain people.

It is more important to the Nuer because it spreads "marriages of members of any local group and [creates] innumerable links through women between persons in many different communities." Notably, incest taboos do not necessary preclude sex but are barriers to marriage.

If this challenges the notion that this might be related to any future offspring, the reader should note that to the Nuer a marriage isn't considered complete until the first child is born.

Relationships amongst the Nuer are further complicated, because when a woman marries a man, she is also considered to have married that man's brothers. Thus, "when a man dies... there is no question of the widow being remarried to one of his brothers, for the brothers already count as her husbands. The dead man's lineage have a right to inherit his wife because she is their wife, the wife of their cattle."

Readers must be careful not to interpret statements like this as meaning that the Nuer saw women as property to be exchanged who have no freedom. From a sexual point of view women in Nuer society seemed to have had a great deal of freedom. Pritchard points out that by the time a girl is 15 or 16 she has at least one lover and probably one each in the neighbouring villages. He goes on to say that "I doubt whether any girl in Nuerland goes to her husband a virgin". When it comes to marriage, proposals will be sometimes initiated by the young woman, and no reputation in Nuer society is more shameful than that of a wife beater.

And sex is not the taboo that we might think it is - "adultery in their eyes is an illegal but not an immoral act." Pritchard comments that he was struck by the frequency of adultery and the infrequency of quarrels "or even talk about it."

Women in Nuer society sometimes seem to have little choice, but the reality different:

"So long as a girl is married to a man with cattle she has fairly free choice of a mate. Much depends on whether the girl's family approve of the man's family. In theory, the parents choose their daughter's husband and only formally ask her consent, which she should give in duty to her parents, for marriage is not her business but the business of her menfolk. In fact, it is very difficult for parents to force their daughter to marry a man she dislikes, and strong-minded girls stand up against family pressure on this issue."

But Pritchard puts economics at the core of his explanation of Nuer society. This is the exchange of cattle that is central to the marriage process. This has extremely strict rules and both sets of parents will spend long periods in negotiations. "The usual payment [of cattle] is from 20 to 30... the bridewealth cannot fall to less than 16 beasts. On the other hand, it cannot rise to more than the bridegroom and his people possess or are prepared to give."

Note that this is very different from a dowry. This is wealth given to a family to compensate for the loss of a daughter. This exchange is a fundamental part of Nuer society, as Pritchard explains:

"Nuer can be very generous in this matter and if a son-in-law is respectful and industrious they will not break the union because he takes along time to pay the final cows, for marriage is not simply handing over a girl in exchange for cattle but is the creation of a series of new social relationships which, once formed, are not easily or lightly severed, especially when the union is completed by the birth of a child."

While the marriage rules and conventions seem complex, the Nuer are relatively relaxed in other aspects of family life. Pritchard explains that:

"Nuer do not attach great importance to physiological paternity. Men prefer to beget their own sons, but it is not ignominious to nurture children begotten by others. Nuer pay little regard to the manner of begetting so long as the legal fatherhood of the child is well established."

Nor do the Nuer necessarily worry too much about the sex of individuals in a marriage. Pritchard says that it is possible for a Nuer marriage to take place between two women. One of whom takes on the social position of the husband. Such marriages "are by no means uncommon... and they must be regarded as a form of simple legal marriage for the woman-husband marries her wife in exactly the same was as a man marries a woman. When the marriage rites have been completed the husband gets a male kinsman or friend or neighbour... to beget children by her wife. When the daughters of the marriage are married he will receive for each a 'cow of the begetting'."

For the Nuer there is a clear sexual division of labour. But the woman plays a key part in production. It is her work, milking the cattle and as dairymaid and cook that is crucial to the family. The man is considered "helpless" without a wife and thus marriage is the only way a man can have a home of his own. This means that Nuer women have a central and important role in the political and economic life of the community.

Labour for the Nuer is a very different thing to the work we see under capitalism. No one in a Nuer village would starve unless everyone was starving, children are nursed and looked after by the extended group, not simply their mothers and while the family produces much of what it needs, collective work is common. Activities such as hunting are communal, as are things like garden clearance. In these tasks "hospitality is provided for friends and kin, who accept the invitation to take part in the work because they are friends and kin. The owner of the homestead does not supervise the work and each does as much or as little as he chooses."

These social, cultural and economic differences point to a fundamentally different dynamic between people than the atomised, hierarchical, sexist society that characterises capitalism. Life for the Nuer was not however a Utopia. There was violence, jealously, conflict, as well as hunger and disease. However the different approach to life, arising as it does from a different mode of production, means that people solved those problems differently. Given the enormous material advances that modern capitalism has given us, we should know from studies of people like the Nuer that the barriers to us living in fundamentally different ways in the future are not down to human nature, but are social.

Related Reviews

Evans-Pritchard - The Nuer
Burke-Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance