Friday, February 28, 2014

Steven Mithen - Thirst: Water & Power in the Ancient World

Steven Mithen is one of today's foremost popularisers of ancient history. Thirst is first and foremost a book about how ancient societies used and controlled water, but it clearly is influenced by wider contemporary questions of water and state power. As Mithen points out, two billion people today have inadequate sanitation, and by 2025 over half the world's nations are expected to face shortages of fresh water. So how can ancient history illuminate contemporary problems?

Firstly there is the obvious point, that access to water can be controlled. Those who control water can thus make others pay tribute in various ways. Indeed some historical studies have linked water very closely to state power. Karl Wittfogel's 1957 book Oriental Despotism argued that irrigation work could only have been done by large amounts of labour, and thus it must have needed a large centralised bureaucratic network.

For some societies this was undoubtably true. Mithen's book looks at the enormous aqueducts and water courses of the Roman Empire, the gigantic water courses and lakes of Angkor and South American civilisations such as the Maya and Inca to see how ancient states often did use water in this way. Water could be a tool to help control populations, but it also had a myriad of symbolic, religious or social uses too.

But Mithen argues very strongly that the existence of a political and bureucratic hierarchy is not a prerequisite for irrigation works. In fact, some of the most fascinating parts of this book, are ones that deal with the extensive water works and irrigation schemes of early farming communities. Frequently these are in places which are extremely arid today. Take for instance the Ubaid and early Uruk "pre-state" communities in the area now known as Iraq. These communities improved on natural features of existing water courses to irrigate their fields.

"Because of the natural braiding of the rivers, short off-shoot canals running for a few kilometres could be dug with minimal alteration of the water regime. The rivers were naturally elevated above the surrounding plain by the levees and hence by simply cutting an outlet through those banks, a sluice gate, water would flow into a channel by gravity. The water could then flow into a network of small channels surrounding the crops... with irrigation, the rich alluvial soils became highly productive and with greater reliability than those from the rain fed farming regions of Northern Mesopotamia."

While such works may not have needed centralised power, they would have required co-operation on a large scale, and archaeologists also suggest that in this case, according to translations of cuneiform texts, individuals that operated as "canal inspectors". Mithen doesn't point this out, but it is not difficult to imagine that such individuals could have ended up becoming the seeds of hieracrchical groups in society as their position in relation to a crucial resource gave them additional power within a community. Later when looking at Iraq's water history, Mithen notes the debates around salinity that may have contributed to the end of Sumerian civilisation. Interestingly he notes that pre-colonial farming was often better at dealing with salt than modern agriculture imposed during colonial times.

With more complex class societies, and more powerful states, water management was on much larger scales. Mithen describes some of the impressive water schemes. One Roman system brings water 551 kilometres to Constantinople. Such schemes led at least one Roman bureaucrat to consider his canals and aqueducts to be far more impressive than the "good for nothing tourist attractions of Greece".

Mithen avoids falling into the trap of arguing that we can simply impose experiences from 1000s of years ago onto contemporary societies. But while the outlook is gloomy, history has shown that we can use technological innovations to bring water to areas that need it.

The kings of Petra may have done this so that visitors experienced the shock of fountains in the middle of the desert, and heard the gurgling of water in underground pipes; today's rulers put golf courses in the centre of deserts to benefit the rich. Mithen notes that in the past, as with today, the wealthy section of the population were more likely to benefit from the technology and engineering solutions.

Steven Mithen's book is not without fault. On occasion I found some of his writing frivolous. To suggest that because the Maya rulers chose the "delicate" water-lily as their symbol it can "excuse the odd bit of rampant environmental degradation and gratuitous violence" is frankly silly. This aside, Mithen's book is an accessible introduction to questions of resource management, government and power in the ancient world that will help the reader to explore the rise of class societies and the nature of hierarchy in the past.

 Related Reviews

Mithen - After the Ice
Mithen - The Singing Neanderthals
Mithen - To the Islands
Fagan - Floods, Famines and Emperors

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

William Gibson & Bruce Sterling - The Difference Engine

Science fiction novels rarely retain their power after nearly a quarter of a century. Yet Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine remains a highly readable classic. Back in 1990 it set the standard for the Steampunk genre, and even today, it is hard to beat.

Set in an alternate universe where Babbage's mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, worked, the world has headed down a different trouserleg of time. Britain retains its world power status at the head of a large Empire. America has failed to unify itself, Britain being firm allies with the Confedarcy. North of America, Canada is replaced by a British protectorate. On the continent, France is a firm ally, and Ireland, following a policy of friendship and solidarity from the British government, that avoided the Great Famine, is a firm part of the Union.

Such differences feel real enough to make the novel work. But what really helps is the exciting story line, as London is engulfed in smog during the Great Stink, revolution breaks out. Neo-Luddites and the poor rise up, smashing symbols of government power, destroying machinary and driving out the rich. Sadly, the revolution is defeated by the novel's heroes, yet the uprising itself is vivdly portrayed, the characters carefully drawn with sympathy and solidarity.

Given the depth of its research, readers will be forgive for spending much of the novel trying to find in-jokes and parallels. I particularly liked the idea of Karl Marx leading a Commune in New York, while the richest man in England, Lord Engels, comments sympathetically from his industrial empire in Manchester. But the alternative time-line, with Lord Byron leading a popular revolution against the aristocracy, and Britain's global power centring on her mastery of technology for military and economic domination, is as much of a key part of the books' attraction.

Many people will have already read this classic novel. If you haven't and you are a fan of well written SF, give it a try.

Related Reviews

Harrison - A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!
Stephenson - Quicksilver

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Lorenzo Fioramonti - How Numbers Rule the World: The Use and Abuse of Statistics in Global Politics

A 2012 report funded by the Irish Department of the Environment made the astonishing claim that earthworms contribute €723 million annually to the Irish agricultural economy. This figure demonstrates a central thesis of Lorenzo Fioramonti's fascinating new book - statistics can both illuminate and confuse. More importantly numbers can serve purposes far beyond their symbolic value.

Fioramonti argues that the tendency to use numbers to quantify, value and understand our wider social and natural environment, has "been used and abused in governance processes to entrench the power of markets and undermine public debate". The use of statistics doesn't simply reflect underlying economic systems, but actually furthers those interests. Fioramonti looks at how this happens in a number of areas. For instance, he discusses the flawed way that we measure economic well being - GDP. GDP reflects market transactions, but ignores whole areas of the economy - housework, pollution or natural resources.

He also shows how the use of statistics by those who want to rubbish global warming science has led in turn, to some scientists, being accused of misrepresenting their own data. Far more problematic though, are the attempts to mitigate climate change, by creating enormous emissions trading schemes that rely on the free market, yet fail to challenge the real causes of rising carbon emissions.

Take approaches to preventing environmental disaster. As I write this, the question of floods has been a major political issue in the UK. Government cuts to environmental defence measures have helped reduce the ability of whole areas to deal with heavy rainfall. Such cuts are irrational, some say, because for every £1 spent on flood defences, £8 will be saved.

This approach is not new. The 1936 US Flood Control Act introduced such cost-benefit analyses "by stating that no flood-control programme would receive federal funding unless it was proved that its benefits would exceed its costs." Such proofs might be hard to achieve and politicians that make their decisions based on such calculations can find themselves in knee-high water.

Nonetheless such sums might have value if they are done in the interest of society in general. But when those totting up the figures are themselves interested in making money, then the outcomes themselves can become distorted. Cost benefit analysis might have started out as a way of trying to make sure that "public infrastructure projects were transformed 'from a collection of local bureaucratic practices into a set of rationalised economic principles'." But it ended up meaning that

"practices of environmental audit, value for money audit, management audit, forensic audit, data audit, intellectual property audit...[etc]... acquired a degree of institutional stability and acceptance."

Nowhere is this clearer than in the behaviour of Credit Ratings Agencies. These are private bodies that make their profits by assigning a value to a company (or country's) credit. These ratings are of enormous importance to organisations, which naturally have a vested interest in improving them. This leads to dodgy dealings and dodgy figures (famously the CRAs considered Lehman Brothers a safe investment until the moment it went belly up).More worryingly it allows CRAs to have enormous power. The downgrading of the US credit rating in 2011, in the words of one CRA analyst

"reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability and predictability of American policy making and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges".

In other words an unaccountable and unelected CRA was able to take a political position which in turn had enormous consequences. The downgrading of countries like Greece, Ireland and Portugal caused misery for millions of people. It has also helped further the agenda of those who stand to gain from privatisation and the opening up of economies to the ravages of neo-liberalism.

It is extremely difficult to choose which parts of this fascinating book to discuss in this review. The chapters that deal with the commodisation of nature, and attempts to deal with pollution through the introduction of market mechanisms are notable in the way they expose the irrationality of these numerical approaches, but also the ineffectual nature of this sort of economic thinking.

Fioramonti says that "numbers do not possess any intrinsic normative value, their power is derived from the capacity to reduce complexity to a few observable facts." But he points out that when "numerical reasoning" is used to try and understand society, it produces all sorts of simplicities and confusions. In particular, "the complexity of social relations is lost through the cracks of mathematical algorithms".

The final section, which discusses how statistical analysis has distorted aid programmes and developmental work, shows this particularly clearly. Those charities, NGOs or philanthropists looking for simple casual situations, where money can be thrown at one thing to solve another, frequently find that the situation is far more complex. It also leads to quite warped thinking. I was particularly saddened by some economic gurus at MIT who asserted that "the stress of living on less than 99 cents per day encourages the poor to make questionable decisions that feed - not fight - poverty." In other words, it is the poor that causes poverty, rather than a system based on the rich getting richer at the expense of the majority.

Fioramonti's book is not an anti-capitalist manifesto, but it is a superb explanation of how the current economic setup uses numbers for its own ends, not as a way to improve things. As Lorezo Fioramonti concludes, "statistics tend to separate complex phenomena in measurable units, they hide the interconnectedness between systemic poverty, economic imbalances and uneven access to resources... the risk is to end up with results that distort reality and mislead policies."

Related Reviews

Böhm and Siddhartha Dabhi - Upsetting the Offset
Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Alex Callinicos & Mike Simons - The Great Strike: The Miners' Strike of 1984-5 and its Lessons

2014 marks the 30th anniversary of one of the defining British struggles of the 20th century. The Miner's Strike was to determine the course of the Thatcher government. The defeat of the miner's, one of the most powerful workers movements in the country, meant the defeat of other workers. The trade union movement, the biggest barrier to the unbridled introduction of neo-liberal policies was badly wounded. Yet, as Alex Callinicos and Mike Simons argue, this was not an automatic outcome. Despite what the media said at the time, on occasion, the National Union of Mineworkers was close to victory. Thatcher's Tories were not all powerful. The lessons of the defeat remain essential ones for trade unions and socialists today.

On the surface, the strike stemmed from the decision of the Coal Board to close "uneconomical" pits. But a larger reason was the determination of the Tories to defeat a trade union that had sunk their previous administration with strike action. The question of uneconomical mines was a key political one. In reality it didn't mean that those mines no longer had coal, but that they, in a future privatised existence, would not be able to make sufficient profits.

The strike began in a confused fashion, with individual pits coming out in relation to closure threats. Flying pickets brought out further coal mines, and with the exception of a few areas, the strike was solid. Over the course of a year, initial differences, particularly the decision by sections of mine workers in Nottinghamshire not to join the action, would help determine the final outcome.

The strike received enormous support and sympathy. Over the course of the strike, money, food and solidarity poured into the miner's communities. Soup kitchens and food parcels helped keep the strikers going, and the authors celebrate the role of the miner's wives in being at the fore-front of organising this solidarity. They didn't just sort out the soup kitchens, but they toured the country, raising money, speaking at rallies and joining the pickets. Despite commitments to action from other unions and the TUC, solidarity action however was limited. Few workers took solidarity strikes, despite being tremendously successful when they did. Some of the solidarity however, is astounding.

"Pride of place must go to the railway workers of Coalville in Leicestershire. From 3 April 1984 until the end of the strike, they sealed off the working Leicestershire coalfield. The only time the British Rail management got trains out of the Leicestershire pits was when they imported scabs from out of the area to drive the trains and operate signal boxes. Throughout the strike, there were more railway workers backing the NUM in the Leicestershire coalfield than there were miners. They suffered enormous harassment for sticking to trade union principles."

Yet despite vocal support from the TUC and other unions, they were wary of challenging anti-union laws by committing themselves to strike action. The Tories understood the threat of other simultaneous strikes, and bought off the unions who might join the miners. In May it looked like the rail workers might take national action.

"Suddenly the scene changed. A week before the scheduled industrial disruption, the rail union leaders were called in and offered an improved pay deal - 5.2 per cent on basic rates... worth about 7 per cent."

Union leaders were amazed, but Tory Party chairman John Gummer wrote "It seems to me to be critical at this juncture to avoid the risk of militants being strengthened in their attempts to block the movement of coal by rail, and to make wider common cause with the miners."

The Tories were fighting an open class war, as extensive quotes by the authors from The Financial Times, The Economist and internal government papers make clear. Sadly the union leaders weren't doing the same. The authors conclude:

"Leaders such as Len Murray, David Basnett and Moss Evans did not want confrontation with the government. Their role was essentially that of negotiators, seekers of compromise. They looked back wistfully to the TU bureucracy's heyday in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when they had enjoyed ready access to 10 Downing Street. But the willingness of ruling class  to admit the TUC to corridors of power then was a reflection of the strength of organised labour... Thatcher felt she no longer needed the TUC's active co-operation."

The position of the union leaders as arbitrators between capital and the workers meant they were both unwilling to challenge the power of the Tories and risk losing control of strike action, and wary of encouraging further rank and file action. They wanted a mediated solution that ensured their position, rather than a militant victory that might transform the balance of class forces. This cowardice contrasts with the bravery of the miners' and their communities who withstood police brutality, demonisation in the media, hunger and poverty for a year, sustained only by solidarity from other workers and their own reserves of strength.

Despite the left leadership of the union and Arthur Scargill in particular, the NUM was not without fault. The authors, who both covered the strike for Socialist Worker, lament the way that rank and file action was often not encouraged. All to often they point out, strikers were encouraged to stay at home, rather than joining mass pickets. At crucial junctures this meant that the mass of miners were out of touch with the ins and outs of the dispute, as well as preventing the sort of mass action that might have closed down pits, power stations and coking plants. The authors see the battle of Orgreave, one such confrontation, as a turning point for the strike, lost because there simply wasn't a sustained attempt to deliver mass action.

Writing in the immediate aftermath of the return to work by the defeated miners, the authors have an optimistic outlook on the future. They argue that similar historical defeats had not seen the end of the miner's union, but after the rebuilding of rank and file organisation, the union had returned to its former strength. Sadly this optimism was misplaced. Thatcher continued to ride roughshod over workers and even today the legacy of the defeat means that trade unions have not yet recovered their confidence to fight the Tories.

Neil Kinnock's failure to support the miners and his sitting on the fence throughout the dispute meant Labour failed to give any leadership to the struggle. His failure to beat the hated Tories in the 1992 General Election led, in turn, to John Smith and then Tony Blair. Kinnock's betrayal of the miner's was a disgrace and history should never let him off the hook.

I picked this book up because the 30th anniversary of the strike will be the cause for looking back on behalf of the union movement. Too many will wring their hands and bemoan the defeat of the miners. Few of us will see the opportunity to discuss the sort of union movement that we need today. This book is an excellent introduction to the debates, and activists today who are committed to building up the union movement and defeating the Tories will gain much from reading it.

This book is sadly out of print. But it is available online here.

Related Reviews

Darlington & Lyddon - Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain 1972
Darlington - Radical Unionism
Cliff & Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Robert Harris - Lustrum

*** Spoiler Warning ***

Volume two of Robert Harris' trilogy about ancient Rome's most famous senator, lawyer and orator is a different beast to the first novel. I remember enjoying the first because it evoked a real sense of Rome - the sights, smells, over-crowding and general atmosphere of an ancient city. Instead, volume two, concentrates on the relationships in the senate and between the most important figures

Cicero has grown self-confident and wealthy. The story begins with him helping to finish off the conspiracy of Cataline. His rhetorical skills, and cunning ability to play individuals off against each other, as well as an avowed commitment to the Republic allow Cicero to come out on top. But in doing so, he lays the seeds for his future demise.

As in the first volume the mass of the population rarely make an appearance. Usually they are there to cheer one or other of the main characters. But I did like the way that Harris uses Cicero's greed to demonstrate how ordinary Roman's could still dominate thier rulers. As Cicero glories in his victory, he over-reaches himself, purchasing an elaborate mansion on a hill overlooking the forum. Cicero is glad to be higher up and in a better place than his arch rival, Caesar. But his enemies can use the easily visible mansion as a rhetorical point. Now Cicero is classed as the wannabe dictator, gazing down on the city from on high. The seed is set for future collapse as Cicero's networks unwind.

Sadly volume three is yet to be written in this enjoyable trilogy. The outcome is well known, but Harris has a story-tellers ability to make it all quite new.

Related Reviews

Harris - Imperium
Graves - I, Claudius
Graves - Claudius the God

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Ralph Darlington - Radical Unionism: The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary Syndicalism

This book deals with the ideas of Revolutionary Syndicalism, ideas that were in part responsible for mass movements involving millions of workers in the first few decades of the twentieth century. This was a period when in many different countries, workers and their organisations, were faced with the challenge of world war, conscription, mass unemployment and repression from their governments and bosses. The struggles that Syndicalists took part in, the battles they won and lost, their ideas, innovation and solidarity form a core of this book.

But Ralph Darlington hasn't just written a history of the Syndicalists. He has tried to explore "the different conceptions of capitalism, revolution and socialism held by the syndicalist and communist traditions, and the way in which an entire theoretical and organisational heritage was remade on the road from syndicalism to communism." Coming from a revolutionary Marxist point of view, Darlington has tried to examine the types of workers movements and organisations that are needed to defeat capitalism, drawing on the lessons of Syndicalism and the debates that they took part in after the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The Syndicalists arose from the deep cynicism with which many radicals in the workers movement saw existing workers organisations. At the dawn of the twentieth century, political parties of the left were dominated by reformist tendencies, preaching the language of socialism but in rarely challenging the system. Trade unions, often mass organisations, too were geared less to fighting for even the short term interests of workers, preferring to organise in support of reformists interests. The existence of a bureaucratic layer of officials in the unions created a conservative layer that held back the movement at crucial times.

Syndicalists, in different countries and in various different ways tried to create workers organisations that could break from the existing practice. Revolutionary to the core, these organisations hoped to create mass unions that could, through a enormous general strike, bring down capitalism and introduce socialism. Frequently Syndicalists were prepared to engage in radical, mass action. Action, that could and did win and which led to the growth of such organisations. Frequently Syndicalist unions drew into action workers who were unorganised, or were considered unorganisable. Agricultural workers, those on short contracts, or immigrant labour. The growth might be explosive:

"In America for brief periods the IWW involved many thousands of workers in their organisation. Nonetheless, one year after its 1905 foundation membership was down from 23,000 to 14,500... It was not until 1909 that the Wobblies began to experience rapid growth arising from their free-speech campaigns and increased strike intervention... During 1916-1917 this leapt to 75,000 and it is estimated that by the end of the summer of 1917, at their height, they had between 125-150,000."


"It seems likely some workers may have readily subscribed to the methods of syndicalism (especially 'direct action') rather than necessarily the revolutionary aims of the movement. The immediate demands of the syndicalists, ostensibly a prelude to a revolutionary reconstruction of society may have seemed to individual militants a more sensible strategy for securing reforms in the meantime than the activities of those in the labour movement dedicated to the mere attainment of such reforms."

A further problem was the tendency to reject politics. This meant that frequently syndicalists concentrated on workplace struggles, or looked towards the future control of production, but ducked wider questions of political struggle. The example of World War One is informative here. Many syndicalists were powerfully anti-war, yet few seemed prepared to risk their organisation. The IWW is a case in point. As the IWW discussed calling a general strike against the entry of the US into the war, and the refusal to support workers going to fight for the capitalists, the editor of the IWW's newspaper responded:

"In case of war we want One Big Union... to come out of the conflict stronger and with more industrial control than previously. Why should we sacrifice working class interests of the sake of a few noisy and impotent parades or anti-war demonstrations. Let us rather get on with the job of organising the working class to take over the industries, war or no war, and stop all future capitalist aggression."

Such words sound very revolutionary, yet in practice they are a recipe for inaction.

Part two of Darlington's book looks at the experience of syndicalism following the Russian Revolution and the attempts by the Bolsheviks to engage the mass workers movements into revolutionary struggles. Darlington doesn't simply reject the syndicalists, like the best of the leading Bolsheviks, he understands that their was immense potential for the two groups learning from each other. Indeed many leading syndicalists like Bill Haywood or Alfred Rosmer joined the new Communist Parties.

Haywood said in April 1921, for instance,

"'I feel as I'd always been there... You remember I used to say that all we needed was 50,000 real IWW's and then about a million members to back them up? Well isn't that a similar idea [to the Bolshevik model]? At least I always realised that the essential thing was to have an organisation of those who know.'"

But Darlington also understands that a revolutionary workers movement cannot simply abstain from big political questions, such as the role of the state or the need for revolutionary organisation. Leon Trotsky, in very fraternal exchanges made this point;

"It is quite self-evident that a continued 'denial' of politics and of the state by French syndicalism would constitute a capitulation to bourgeois parties and to the capitalist state. It is not enough to deny the state-it is necessary to conquer the state in order to surmount it. The struggle for the conquest of the state apparatus is - revolutionary politics. To renounce it is to renounce the fundamental tasks of the revolutionary class."

Darlington too writes in this fraternal way. He starts from the same rejection of reformist methods and organisations that so infuriated the syndicalists. But he also draws on the lessons of the various radical movements in the early twentieth century in an attempt to find a strategy that can win. In doing so he celebrates the struggles of the syndicalists, but finds their strategies wanting. As a result, this book is an excellent discussion of the type of trade union struggle we need, but also the revolutionary parties that must be built.

Related Reviews

Darlington and Lyddon - Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain in 1972
Cliff and Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union struggle: The General Strike of 1926