Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Jonathan Watts - When a Billion Chinese Jump

I will admit that when I fixed picked up Jonathan Watts' book I did not have much hope that I would enjoy it. Books on the environmental crisis and China often fall into crudities about the country something George Monbiot once called a manifestation of old racist tropes about the "Yellow Peril". Happily Watts' book is far better than this and as well as being thoughtful it is also very readable. China is a rapidly developing economy and since this book was first published in 2010 it is likely that some of the figures given are now dated. However the trends that Watt shows remain the same, if not worse, and it is this that makes it very useful for understanding China's environmental crisis and its role within the crisis.

Unusually for an environmental work, Watts bases his writing on his travels and specifically his encounters with individuals, often ordinary people on the frontline of the impact and the battle against climate change. Here are Chinese workers, farmers and migrant labourers, as well as officials, bureaucrats and business leaders.

Almost every book about China, its economy, environment or people begins with the scale of the country and its population. China's enormous economic power and, crucially, its cheap labour has allowed the current regime and previous ones to literally move mountains in the pursuit of economic improvement. Needless to say that historically this has had a devastating impact upon Chinese environment, an impact that seems to be growing worse by the day. Often current practise has been shaped by what has gone before:
[China's] waterways are now blocked by almost half of the world's 45,000 biggest dams... China's president Hu Jintao is a trained hydro-engineer. His view of the world - now imprinted into the communist ideological canon as a 'Scientific Outlook on Development' - has been shaped by his knowledge of water and how it can be controlled.
Hu Jintao's Presidency ended in 2012, yet it is fair to say that this approach continues, along with an belief that technology and science can cure the threat of environmental disaster. Famously we see this with the Three Gorges Dam, designed to harness the massive waters of the Yangtze River yet it brought along with it massive environmental and social disruption, and Watts dams tend to attract heavy industry enthused by the possibility of cheap and accessible electricity.

Despite whole areas of China being famed for their beauty and ecological diversity, much is under threat from industrial, agricultural and urban expansion. The global biodiversity crisis is enormous, but "the situation is particularly grim in China, where the die-off is reckoned to be taking place a twice the speed of the global average. According to the China Species Redlist, it is accelerating."

Much of Watts book looks at the different aspects of China's environmental crisis - water shortages, air pollution, fossil fuel expansion and so on. But the reason the book is useful is that he doesn't simply focus on these and the human tragedies that flow from them. He shows how the environmental crisis is not new - there were plenty of environmental mistakes, disasters and errors made throughout the 20th century - but how the current crisis is closely linked with the rise of industrial production for consumerism. In part this is due to demands of the Chinese population, a large section of which has far more wealth than ever and wants to emulate the lifestyles of the West. There's a fascinating section where Watts interviews Kan Yue-Sai, a multi-millionaire who got rich through marketing cosmetics who prides herself in helping launch China's "consumer culture" and for whom environmental problems were simply buzzwords to spout during the interview.

But crucial to the immense destruction caused by Chinese manufacturing is the outsourcing of emissions from the developed world. Western companies, attracted by cheap wages, low costs and minimal environmental restrictions have effectively moved emissions and waste to China. Pan Yue, a minister for environmental protect told Watts, "they raise their own environmental standards and transfer resource-intensive and polluting industries to developing nations; they establish a series of green barriers  and bear as little environmental responsibility as is possible."

This is of course not to let China itself off the hook. Not every factory is manufacturing goods for the west, the coal mines being dug and the land being destroyed are assisting the development of China's economy too. But this does help locate the problem in the right place. China is attractive to the west because it has low costs and high wages, something that its own capitalists are keen to exploit.


Thankfully there is resistance. The Chinese have to acknowledge 1000s of "mass incidents" and Watts sees the aftermath of them, as well as often coming across accounts of protests, petitions and movements that have (sometimes successfully) challenged environmental destruction. In part this, as well as the very obvious destruction, has led the Chinese government to implement various pieces of environmental legislation. Sadly these are all too often ignored, or bribes ensure that no one is ever prosecuted. But it would be wrong to say there is no awareness of the problem.

The problem is that China's headlong rush to industrialise is done, not in the interest of people, but of capital. The need to compete with the United States, and the potential for a minority of people to get extremely rich, helps to undermine environmental laws. The immense bureaucracy doesn't help, nor does the short term interests of capital. It's staggering to read, for instance, that 1/3 of China's wind turbines are not connected to the grid and simply rotate pointlessly. Without fundamental change, the situation will not improve. Take agriculture:
China is the new frontier for agriscience. With a fifth of the world's population to feed on a tenth of the planet's arable land, the temptations of biotechnology have been enormous. Urbanisation and industrialisation add to the pressures by taking land for factories, roads and housing blocks. With the population expanding and appetites growing, China faces and uphill struggle to feed itself. As Vaclav Smil noted: 'All of the world's grain exports together would fill less than two-thirds of the country's projected demand for food.
Alongside technical fixes for agricultural comes threats to the environment, and while Watts highlights a few examples of more environmentally sound farming, they are far and few between (and some of them don't work at all).

Those that suffer are inevitably the poorest. "The rich folk have already moved out... It has become a slum" notes one woman about their polluted town. Though few in the country except the very rich can escape the worst pollution. In one of Watts' more startling statistics, he points out that only 1 percent of China's population breath air deemed safe, for a country of over 1.3 billion, that's a lot of illness.

Jonathan Watts concludes by saying that China cannot save the world, but it forces us to "recognise we are all going in the wrong direction". He highlights that there are many in the country who are struggling for a sustainable future, but focuses on individuals to change their behaviour to solve the problem. This seems barely credible given the scale of the problem he describes, and I tend to agree more with an old man he meets on a train who, when discussing the environment points out "The problem of a corrupt bureaucracy cannot be solved by bureaucrats. We need a mass movement to clear them out. I think there will be one within five years". The old man hasn't been proved right yet, but if we're to survive the 21st century as a global society it increasingly looks like we should follow his dream.

Related Reviews

Lafitte - Saving Tibet
Shapiro - China's Environmental Challenges
Au Loong Yu - China's Rise: Strength and Fragility
Gittings - Changing Face of China

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Claire North - The End of the Day

Claire North's first two books focused on individuals with odd powers. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was about people who returned to the beginning of their lives with their memories intact upon their death. Touch was about people who could possess other peoples bodies at will. This book however is very different, it's about Charlie, who is employed by Death as her harbinger. Charlie has no special abilities except perhaps, a faith in individuals (which is greatly tested by some of the people he visits) and being good at listening, which is particularly useful as people tend to pour out their thoughts to him.

The plot is fairly thin, but the book is extremely readable. It's as much a comment on the state of the world, as on the lives of the people Charlie meets. Chapters are interspersed by random snippets of conversation which betray both the happiness and sadness of people's lives and their rage at the world around them. War, Famine and Pestilence, as well as their respective harbingers, stalk the land and North depicts how their abilities have changed with the modern world, but how the opportunities for disaster have spread. I was struck by the contemporary relevance of this in a small aside at the end as War looks at a small island in the South China Seas and the captain of the ship comments how "they" have put their flag on it. Its never mentioned who they are, but War is suitably pleased at what this means.

As Charlie travels the world meeting people and giving gifts the reader is often left wondering what happens next. Charlie is at pains to explain that his visit doesn't mean death is imminent, and his gifts often help the recipient live longer. This is a bureaucratic process run by a expertly staffed office in Milton Keynes (having visited the place I'm not surprised that Death's office is there), and when Charlie finds himself in difficult situations, he is helped out by the bureaucracy. Though his activities attract the attention of the authorities who like many, want to bargain with Death itself.

Oddly the thing that worked least for me, is that Death, and his harbinger, are simply accepted by so many people. The news reports on him occasionally; people are often completely unsurprised by his presence, or existence and crucially, the authorities track him.

At the end of the book what I remembered most was the anger. North's characters are angry at racism and poverty (there's an interesting scene with a Black Lives Matter demo); war and climate change are constant backdrops. Imperialist destruction of South America and the Middle East are repeatedly mentioned and the way that the profits come before people is behind some of the key scenes of the book. The first time that Charlie is caught on camera, for instance, is when he visits a family being forced out of their London home by a company that wants to build luxury apartments.

The End of the Day is not as good a novel as North's earlier books - the central idea just didn't quite work for me this time. But in turns tragic and funny, it is a book that made me think, which is no bad thing at all. It also contains a highly appropriate quote from Karl Marx if you can find it.

Related Reviews

North - Touch
North - The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Robert Kee - The Most Distressful Country

A recent trip to the North of Ireland prompted me to look at the history of Ireland. Robert Kee's Green Flag trilogy is often recommended as a good place to start to understand the historical developments that have led to the anachronistic situation we see today - the north of the Island part of the British State and the remainder "the South" an independent country.

Kee's book is not a complete history of Ireland, rather it is a history of the development of Irish Nationalism, used here in the sense of thinking of Ireland as a nation, rather than today when it might be used to distinguish a political outlook separate from that of the loyalists. The context for all of this is of course the fact that Ireland was Britain's first colony. The majority Catholic population were kept down trodden and oppressed while Britain used the Protestant landowning class to govern in its interests through a process of divide and rule.

That said, modern divisions - Catholic and Protestant - weren't necessarily appropriate historically. In the context of the struggle for Irish "nationalism" as Kee shows, many leading figures were Protestant. They were also keen to struggle for improvements to the rights for Catholics, who had historically had few rights. Take the famous figure Robert Emmet, who lead an uprising in 1803. Emmet was a wealthy Protestant who supported Catholic rights, in particularly their right to stand for parliament. The defeat of previous movements, including the United Irishmen, meant that Emmet could downplay the potential for the nationalist cause:
Asked by the Speaker if it were not so that 'the object next their hearts was a separation and a republic', Emmet replied: 'Pardon me, the object next their hearts was a redress of their grievances.;' He said that if such an object could be accomplished peaceably, 'they would prefer it infinitely to a revolution and a republic'.
The reality is, of course, that a redress of grievances could not happen without a struggle against British rule, and for some form of independence. The period covered in this volume covers some of the great movements for this, such as the United Irishmen's rebellion of 1798. These took place in the context of the French Revolution and it is interesting to  speculate what might have happened had the military support from France been successful, or better organised.

Kee is particularly good an analysing events when he puts class at the heart of his history. Take the debate about the "union" between Britain and Ireland that was passed in 1801. Kee writes:
Opinion about a union did not run clearly down any political or social dividing line. The most solid opinion seems to have been among the Orangemen who were very generally described as being against it. This to may seem a paradox in the light of later events, but it was a logical attitude at the time, for the Orangemen simply represented the most extreme expression of the Protestant point of view, namely that they held a dominant position in Irish society and the legislature as things were, and what they held they wanted to hold. Even in later times, after they had identified their interests with the Union they were always to make clear that, in the event of a clash between those interests and the Union, it was the Union they were prepared to sacrifice.
One of the strengths of Kee's book is that he doesn't focus just on the ideas or actions of prominent figures. He writes with sympathy and understanding of the majority of the Irish population, particularly its peasantry and shows how their confidence in struggling against the status quo rises and falls. He also covers the great tragedies that befall them, particularly the Potato Famine but also the route cause of their poverty - the way that land ownership was organised solely to profit the owners and those who sublet land, rather than those who did the work.

The book finishes just before a new outburst of radical nationalism, the Fenian movement, following the decline of the earlier struggles. I look forward to reading part two.

Related Reviews

Woodham-Smith - The Great Hunger
Mitchell - A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly
Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Andrew Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857

This is an incredible work of history. It describes, in often horrible detail, the Indian Mutiny and specifically the Cawnpore Massacre of the British and the resultant bloody retribution by the East India Company's troops. The author is unapologetic in this, writing in the preface:
I have tried to depict the massacres at Cawnpore unflinchingly because though they were more terrible than anything I hope you can imagine, they were less atrocious than the British public was encouraged to think, and more complicated than either imperialist or nationalist historians have made them out to be. I have tried not to spare the reader the horrors of British retribution because they were more atrocious than the British public was encouraged to think. No one can say how many thousand of Indians - including women and children - died during the suppression... but many times more, certainly, than the Europeans who died at Cawnpore.
Ward locates Cawnpore (including the specific violence of the uprising) and the wider Mutiny in the longer history of British rule in India. He notes the systematic robbery of India's riches, the racism that pervaded everything that Europeans did with regard to the native population, the violence with which the military was used to enforce company interests and the casual belief in white supremacy that meant Europeans simply could not comprehend that the Indian population would revolt against them.

There were a number of issues that meant 1857 brought the native soldiers to the brink of mutiny. Discontent was growing throughout the country, indicated at first by the circulation of chupatty's among the population. This is a fascinating phenomena which clearly has its roots in much older village traditions - headmen would bake these bread and pass them onwards and those who took them, and made others to pass one, where declaring their allegiance. But Ward points out that the colonial administration ignored this, he quotes a British administrator saying that officers "who dared to look gravely on the 'chupatty mystery' were denounced as croakers".

But more direct problem was the question of the new ammunition. Some authors writing on 1857 have argued that the question of the tallow used on new cartridges supplied to the regiments, made from pork and beef, was not as important as historically thought. The tallow was offensive to Hindus and Muslim's alike, and "even the most complacent Calcutta bureaucrat had to concede that the cartridge business was more worrisome". But as Ward points out the "history of the Company's army was replete with such blunders, but at a time of dangerous disaffection in the army's ranks this one proved colossal". It was commonly believed that the British wanted to systematically destroy the Indian population's caste and belief, and rumours regularly circulated that there were factories that manufactured things deliberately to do this.

Ironically, the violence retribution of the British reinforced this idea. As we shall see captured rebels were treated in ways that were designed to be as offensive as possible, reinforcing the beliefs that led to the rebellion in the first place.

Ward's story focuses on events in Cawnpore, a key town in British rule. Here, hundreds of European's, men, women and children, found themselves under siege in a inadequate defensive compound, surrounded by tens of thousands of well armed rebel soldiers. In appalling conditions the mainly British defenders survived weeks of shell-fire and attack, as well as hunger and thirst. Eventually they brokered an agreement with the leader of the rebels, but were betrayed and most of them were killed. The women and children that survived were eventually massacred in the most horrific and brutal way, their dismembered bodies thrown into a well.

I found it difficult to put down Ward's day to day account of the siege and then the massacre, as well as events elsewhere in India. It is brutal, but it's obsessive detail brings to life the reality of the Uprising, and the reasons behind it. The Europeans cannot believe that their world has fallen apart; the Indians are confident they can end British rule, even if they are often unclear on what this means and the true nature of British power. It is extremely clear to the reader that the violence that takes place is a direct result of the nature of Company rule; despite racist European beliefs that such behaviour was inherent to the population they ruled.

The rebellion was eventually overwhelmed by British military power, and weaknesses in the Indian leadership that meant, for instance, failing to take Cawpore quickly and moving forward to other important targets. British retribution, was overwhelming, and appalling. British army columns moved through rebels areas:
Sending the rebels to paradise was not the column's ideas of revenge... so hanging parties devised means of defiling and degrading them before death. Many captives were not permitted to call witnesses or testify in their own defense, some were even gagged... condemned prisoners were often flogged... Soldiers then forced beef down the throats of the Hindu captives, pork down the throats of the Moslems. Prisoners were daubed with animal fat; some Moslems were even sewn into pig skins before hanging. Sweepers were employed to execute Brahmin prisoners, many of whom were first smeared with cow's blood.
From blowing victims from guns, to rape and systematic murder, the violence continued. Despite this, and not unexpectedly, the British public never heard about the revenge. The story of Cawnpore however was used to justify the taking of India into the British Empire and the further rule of India for another century. As Ward concludes:
None of the many wells that the British filled with rebel corpses were memorialised... It was not until April 13 1919, that the well at Cawnpore was displaced in India's moral imagination by another: the well at Jallianwallah Bagh in Amritsar into which Indian men, women, and children jumped to escape the volleys of a party of Gurkhas under the command of British General Dyer... 379 people were killed and another twelve hundred wounded.
It has often been said that victors write history. This is absolutely true of the Indian Mutiny. For years the narrative focused on the appalling violence and betrayal of the rebels, without putting it into context, while the British response was downplayed or ignored. Andrew Ward's detailed, scrupulously researched and extremely well written history rectifies this. I encourage you to read it.

Related Reviews

Davies - Late Victorian Holocausts
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried
Farrell - Siege of Krishnapur
Macrory - Signal Catastrophe
Holmes - Redcoat
Dalrymple - Return of a King

Friday, September 22, 2017

Gabriel Lafitte - Spoiling Tibet

Since ancient times people have known that Tibet is an area rich in mineral resources. As China's economy continues to expand at an unprecedented rate, there are greedy eyes looking at the gold, chromium and copper in Tibetan plateau in the hope of making a swift, and large, profit.

Gabriel Lafitte's new book looks at what this means for the Tibetan people and their environment. Unsurprisingly given the disdain with which China has treated the region for decades, the prospects are grim. That they aren't worse is not out of benevolence from the Chinese state, but because most of the resources can be accessed cheaper and easier from abroad. Tibet's remoteness, its underdevelopment and the fact that some resources are simply not as rich as in other places means that investors look elsewhere first. That said, there are major industries moving into the region, and with them comes repression, environmental destruction and undermining of local communities.

Into this context Lafitte puts Tibet's history. In particular he notes that Tibet is not a barren, peopleless area. In fact the mainly nomadic population has created a "cultural landscape" shaped by centuries of habitation. All this is under threat from the Chinese state's desire to access raw materials.

None of this takes place without resistance. It has been widely acknowledged that there are thousands of "mass events" every year across China protesting environmental impacts of industrialisation, or the destruction of communities etc. Tibet is not immune from this, and Lafitte points out that despite the brutal behaviour of authorities and draconian punishments, "Tibetan communities  have had some success in resisting mining, especially when miners were based far away and had not local protectors". Lafitte continues by arguing that as "national mining corporations" are coming to dominate production in Tibet, the people are "losing the capacity to delay or fend off any longer the party-state's plans for Tibet.

This trend, away from small scale mining, towards "state-owned and private corporations" systematic exploitation certainly does hamper ability to resist, but I am not sure its as bleak as the author makes out. After all, Tibet's movements have managed to put the spanner in Chinese plans before and I am always wary of commentators who argue that resistance won't be successful because of this or that change.

The best parts of Lafitte's book are where he highlights the enormous destructive power of mining and the way that this is central to an economic strategy by the Chinese state. The massive economic investment that is being made to support industrial plans for Tibet - whether its the building of railways and electrical grids, or the diversion of rivers for hydro-power - is truly staggering. Yet Tibet's resources, are but small change in China's insatiable demand for energy and material.

Sadly the book is undermined for me by Lafitte's theoretical framework which begins from the Tibetan people's spirituality. While there is no doubt that their Buddhist beliefs inspire a particular world view as well as resistance to the destruction of their communities, in and of itself it is a limited way to understand the motivations of Chinese State Capitalism. It is not enough to say that "Tibet should be seen through Tibetan eyes, as a land conducive to material comfort and ease" without also understanding that this is true of many other places that capitalism has destroyed in its hunt for profit. This is not to downplay the awfulness of what has and is happening to the Tibetan people; but to seek an alternative way of understanding capitalism and what it does to the planet.

Sadly, Lafitte's conclusion is extremely week. Stopping the destruction of Tibet's environment and the wider planet will require challenging the priorities of Chinese capitalism. It won't be enough for readers to choose a "mobile phone, computer or car [that] is not made in China from Tibetan metals". It's going to take mass mobilisations of workers, peasants and the Tibetan population to stop this environmental destruction, not western consumerism.

Related Reviews

Shapiro - China's Environmental Challenges
Au Loong Yu - China's Rise: Strength and Fragility
Gittings - Changing Face of China

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Richard Lewontin & Richard Levins - Biology Under the Influence

I am often wary of books that are collections of essays written elsewhere and collected together simply because they are all by one or more authors. Without a theme that holds things together they can become little more than a mix of random ideas. So I was pleased that this collection of essays by two of the world's foremost biologists works very well, despite the variety of subjects and original publications. This is because the essays approach a single question - what is the best way for scientists to try and understand the world they live in, and solve the scientific challenges they face. The subtitle of the book, "Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture and Health" show the authors' approach to this.

Lewontin and Levins argue that a dialectical approach to science is important because it allows us to understand subjects in their widest context; to appreciate the links between things and how some factors affect others and vice-versa. There is an excellent early example of this, when they look at what might cause a cholera outbreak. For some scientists an outbreak would simply be seen as "the coming of a cholera bacteria to lots of people". In a sense this is absolutely correct. But why does it come to lots of people? Why do some get sick and others not? Lewontin and Levins approach it like this:
But cholera lives among the plankton along the coasts when it isn't in people. The plankton blooms when the seas get warm and when runoff from sewage and agricultural fertilizers feed the algae. The products of world trade are carried in freighters that use seawater as ballast that is discharged... The small crustaceans eat the algae, the fish eat the crustaceans and the cholera bacterium meets the eaters of fish. Finally, if the public health system of a nation has already been gutted by structural adjustment of the economy, then full explanation of the epidemic is, jointly, Vicrio cholerae and the World Bank.
Much of the book then is given to understanding how to use this approach. The example above is a good one because it shows how a wider understanding of dialectical systems can allow the scientist to better understand the dynamics of the world they live in. This is particularly applicable, as the essays demonstrate, to medicine, ecology and agriculture and the essays here illustrate the method well.

The dialectics outlined here is not an abstract set of ideas. I was struck, for instance, while reading this, about recent left debates about ecology which have misused dialectics to try and discredit Marxist approaches that use metabolic rift theory. These have argued that such approaches reinforce a dualism between nature and society, because they talk about both these things simultaneously, even though they are inseparable. In a slightly different context Lewontin and Levins write:
No individual human being can fly by flapping his or her arms and legs... Yet human beings do fly as a consequence of social interaction and culture that have created airplanes, pilots, fuel, airports and so on. It is not society that flies, however, but individuals in society. "Parts" have acquired properties contextually.
There is much in this book, but the reader must be warned. Some parts of it are quite difficult, and while every chapter contains real gems of insights, I found some of the subject matter difficult. So the sections that examine Systems Theory or different examples of feedback in systems are hard to follow, even though the authors' do very well in trying to make them accessible.

It is worth concluding by reminding ourselves that the central task of the book is to argue that it would be wrong to approach subjects by stripping them of their context; or understanding issues as part of wider, dynamic, constantly changing systems. You can't understand public health without looking at the state of public health services, the costs of treatment, atmospheric pollution and so on. Its not simply about germs, but the context in which those germs exist. Similarly, hunger is more than simply a lack of food; its also about a entire food system geared to making profit, not feeding people.

The final chapters look at this approach and the way the authors suggest it has tried to inform the practical reality of science, agriculture and medicine in Cuba. Here they argue the nature of the government and its isolation as a result of blockade and embargo has required a different approach. I don't agree with the authors that Cuba is an actual example of socialism in practice. But it is certainly true that their approach to medicine and agriculture has real benefits to the population of the island. I actually found some of this material very interesting and particularly illuminating.

The title of the final chapter, "Living the 11th Thesis" is a demonstration of how the authors' approach to science cannot be separated from their activism. Marx's thesis, that the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it, runs through this book like a red thread. This is not a book about science. This is a book about how to make science a tool of human liberation, and I recommend it to readers, despite the inherent difficulties, as a wonderful example of that practice.

Related Reviews

Levins & Lewontin - The Dialectical Biologist

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

John Saville - The Consolidation of the Capitalist State

There are any number of books by Marxists that look at the way that English capitalism developed out of the earlier, feudal society. Following Marx they show how the outcome of the English Civil War and Revolution gave those with capitalist interests the freedom to develop their wealth and their interests. This involved the systematic transformation of the economy in the interests of capital. Countless laws were passed to enshrine private property as above anything else. Land was enclosed, common rights destroyed, nature was turned into a commodity.

But for capitalism to fully succeed required, in the title of Saville's short book, the consolidation of the state in its interests. Some of how that took place fits in with the processes of primitive accumulation - the laws passed to support enclosure or criminialise poaching etc. Other processes described by Saville are much more explicit - the creation of a national police force for instance - that could act in the interest of private property.

The crucial period of this process, 1800-1850, is described in Saville's book. It coincides with wider changes that were further entrenching the interests of capital. Saville notes, for instance, that this half century saw the final eclipse of the rural economy, at least in terms of those working on the land. In 1801 the ratio of urban to agrarian population was 20:80; by 1850 it was 50:50 and had completely reversed to 80:20 by the end of the century.

This was the period when the new capitalist class conscioussly acted to further its interests. Those who "were using capital for ecnomic development" were moving towards the "centre of political power". All the changes; economic, legal and so on, were simply about making the system "efficient" for the bourgeoise. Saville gives a handful of examples, but fopcuses on the Anti-corn law movement as openly reflecting the interests of the middle classes;
The Corn Law of 1815 imposed directly in the itnerests of the landlord classes, led to the vigorous reactions of the 18440s,... but the formation of the Anti-Corn Law LEague in 1838... reflected the middle classes' growing confidence in their political and social positions in society. It gave a clear warning to agricultural interests that the blance of ecnomioc power was shfting steadily towards the commercial and industrial sectors.
All this was resisted: the scale of riot by the labouring  populations of the British Isles meant that some countries saw the British as "ungovernable". In an excellent discussion of Ireland, Saville notes just how much the subjugation of Ireland was part and parcel of the development of capital for the British bourgeoisie, and that required the constant "shuffling" of troops back and force to attempt to maintain order. The scale of Irish impoverishment in the interest of the colonial power is forgotten, points out Saville, but the British ruling class also learnt valuable lessons about the controlling of rebellious populations.

Key to the consolidation of the capitalist state was the year 1848. This was the point when the first great working class movement, Chartism, threatened the British states' control. Saville discusses the various ways the movement was repressed and the mistakes made by its leaders, and the way that 1848 saw a "historic fracture in working-class political consciousness". Following this, the mainstream movement fought for reforms, rather than the revolutionary reconstitution of society. Summed up, Saville, argues by the slogan "A Fair Day's Work for a Fair Day's Pay". This, says Saville, meant in part the belief that "fair dealing was available... in capitalist society". This was the crucial final piece in the capitalist state's jigsaw.
A turbulent and dissatisfied working people was not helpful [to the development of capitalism] and althugh their activities could be contained by oppressive laws and iproved policiing it was their polittical attitudes that had finally to be confronted and defeated. That was the meaning of 1848, and for the rich and powerful, and their middle-class allies, it was a famous victory.
At only 82 pages this is a short work, but Saville packs a lot in. It is one of the best Marxist writings I have read on the period and I recommend it to everyone trying to understand the origins of capitalism.

Related Reviews

Thompson - Making of the English Working Class
Thompson - Customs in Common
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Thursday, September 14, 2017

R.F. Delderfield - To Serve Them All My Days

Miner's son David Powlett-Jones is shell-shocked after three years on the Western Front. Rather strangely his doctor suggests he'll recover by getting a job in a remote public school in the west country and, despite his utter lack of teaching experience, the young man is immediately offered a teaching post by a rather desperate headmaster. This is how To Serve Them All My Days Begins and if it seems unlikely that's the least surprising of some of the coincidences and bits of good luck that Powlett-Jones experiences through the next 600 odd pages.

Delderfield loved the sweeping historical yarn, and the rather unlikely start to this novel is really an opportunity to setup a interesting individual in an unusual situation to allow all sorts of events to take place which allow the author to comment on the arc of English history that begins in 1918 and ends half way through the Second World War. Powlett-Jones arrives in a minor public school, Bamfylde, which itself has seen better days. He immediately distinguishes himself by refusing to teach history traditionally, instead engaging the boys (they are all boys) in discussion about the war and its causes.

Simply by discussing these subjects, and arguing that not all Germans are beasts, and questioning the priorities, Powlett-Jones is immediately labelled a Bolshie. In fact, a running theme through the book, is the way he is seen as an outsider, a radical. Yet the irony is, Powlett-Jones isn't really Bolshie at all. In fact he is simply looking for a better world, and he finds it for himself in the dusty corridors of Bamfylde. Delderfield cleverly weaves the ups and downs of the 1920s and 1930s into Powlett-Jones' own life. But PJ as he is known by most of his colleagues and friends, actually manages to avoid any real engagement with the sweeping changes taking place. In fact, he prides himself that his own personal ups and downs seem to mirror the outside world, yet he rarely notes what's taking place. Even the book he writes is a rather mundane analysis of the Wars of the Roses through the eyes of a royal figure.

The politics is injected from outside. At one point PJ falls in love with a prospective Labour candidate whose radicalism and despair at Ramsey MacDonald contrasts with PJs. Yet, inevitably, she is dragged into Bamfylde's black hole, rather than breaking PJ from its stiffling, repetitive calendar.

That said, the book is readable, if dated in places. There's quite a lot of sex, talking about sex, and thinking about sex. In fact I'm not sure if the author in his repeated mentions of contraception and sex transposed the latter years of the 1960s back onto the 1920s. I'm not enough of an expert on the period, but it didn't quite ring true in places. But what carries the reader along is of the course the soap-opera story which pulls boys in and then spits them out, with a wry anecdote along the way. Delderfield likes to lay on the nostalgia and the sentimentalism, and at times this hangs heavy. But it must be said he does it well, and PJ's despair as war arrives again and he watches another generation of young men head off, is poignant. But readers may have to ignore the coincidences and amazing good luck that PJ has so that the author can keep the plot going.

What is missing for me is a real sense of class. When PJ returns to his home town he does so as an outsider. He's already been pulled away from the mining communities into a world of the middle classes and lower upper orders. It's an isolated world, which has adopted him, and shaped him in its own image. PJ came remain a liberal, but he's not really that different. It's most notable during his experiences in the 1926 General Strike when PJ's greatest concern is getting back to Bamfylde to make sure everyone is ok.

One final thing must be noted. Anyone who has read Goodbye Mister Chips will not help but notice the very close similarities to James Hilton's classic. Key plot points (including the General Strike) and many others are replicated in Delderfield's book. At times the reader might think one had copied the other, but actually I think it's more to do with the limitations of the subject matter. There can only be so many ideas for events taking place at minor public schools in the interwar period. Slightly dated, and at times overly sentimental, there are worse novels out there, but few that try and cover so much ground in such a readable way.

Related Reviews

Hilton - Goodbye Mr Chips

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky - Hard to be a God

This is a really clever and original piece of science fiction that could only have been written by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky from their vantage point within the Soviet Union. Hard to be a God has similarities to a number of other more contemporary works, in particular the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks and I am certain Banks must have had it in mind when he wrote one of his more neglected SF works, Inversions.

The book is set in a future time when humans from Communist Russia are exploring the galaxy. Rather like the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek they are banned from intervening in the human societies they encounter, but they do immerse themselves. Operatives spend years observing from within, recording behaviour through a circlet on their foreheads. The central figure to this novel, Anton, only removes his when he has sex; his partner assumes it is out of some religious conviction.

The fact that the operatives have sex shows that their observation of society goes beyond recording for scientific study. In their years on the ground they take on particular roles, and Anton rises to a significant height in the society of the planet he and his colleagues are observing. Their scientific framework for this is a slightly crude historical materialism, which suggests that societies evolve along particular pathways, with the superstructures determined solely by the nature of their economic base. On this planet, human society has become stuck in the equivalent of Europe's Middle Ages - the Arkanarian Empire is basically run by a lordly class who rule violently over a peasant society. The problem is that the framework for understanding this is coming unstuck; Anton sees, though his colleagues disagree, the development of a form of fascism that threatens the mass of the population.

At the heart of the story is the question of involvement; if Anton is right and fascism is rising, then surely he has an obligation to intervene to stop it. But if that happens the experiment is exposed and all their work is undone. But what sort of communist could stand by and watch the violence and terror of a dictatorship without wanting to intervene. There's a lovely little moment in the novel when an operative recollects that colleagues have frequently got pulled into this sort of active intervention in real events; he recollects an observer, a world leading expert on the French and German Peasant Wars, leading a peasant uprising on the planet and getting killed for his troubles.

My edition (Masterworks 2014) benefits enormously from a framing essay by Ken Macleod, which puts the novel and its authors in the context of events in the Soviet Union and their understanding of Marxist theory. But this is no crude attempt by the Strugatskys to shoehorn revolutionary politics into a SF novel. Hard to be a God is full of satirical comment on Russian society, gentle digs and comic moments. But it also raises real questions - how do you stop a fascist movement bent on eradicating knowledge and burning books? Anton knows the answer, the mobilisation of the masses against the reactionaries, but in an echo of the central point of the book (and the authors' philosophy) this proves impossible as the masses simply are not yet able to move in this way.

First published in 1964 and highly popular in the Soviet Union as well as abroad, the book has not dated much, partly because the writers don't dwell too much on the technology behind the observers' work. I highly recommend Hard to be a God, and am slightly surprised I haven't heard about it before. I look forward to digging out other works by the Strugatskys.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Glyn Robbins - There's No Place: The American Housing Crisis & What it Means for the UK

Glyn Robbins' There's No Place was published just before the Grenfell disaster and Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, so it is incredibly pertinent for understanding why both those events were such disasters for poor, working class and predominantly non-white people. By studying eight widely different US cities with their correspondingly diverse examples of housing, Robbins' exposes the UK's own housing crisis and the frightening direction that public housing may take if policy continues to emulate the US mindset.

At the heart of Robbins' book is an expose of how public housing has been transformed by both US and UK governments. Writing about the "founding principle" of UK council housing, he explains:
it was designed to meet general need and available to anyone, irrespective of income. This universality was never part of US public housing and has contributed hugely to its character and problems. Similarly the UK [Housing and Planning]Act  hopes to eliminate the permanent tenancy agreements that most council tenants have had since the 1980s. Thus the Tory government launched an assault on the qualities that have made council housing the most secure, affordable and popular form of rental housing in the UK, hoping to move it towards the conditional, marginal and transient condition of its US equivalent.
The dismantling of the UK welfare state by successive Tory and Labour governments has seen a transformation in the fortunes of council housing - "The proportion of council tenants has fallen from 30 percent of households in 1979 to eight per cent in 2015". As Robbins' explains, this has gone hand in hand with a demonization of council housing as something only for the very poor and dispossessed, with a suggestion that only those who have failed live there. This is contrasted with the aspiration of private home ownership which is seen as being successful.

As he explores the different US housing experiences, Robbins' places the UK experience in a wider context. The rush to build expensive apartments, demolish social housing and push out working class communities from expensive inner-city land is certainly not confined to the UK. Nor is the way that landlords use every available loophole to squeeze as much rent from their tenants as possible. Just as the Tory housing Act seeks to undermine permanent tenancy rights to make it easier to push people from their homes, US rules have aided the landlord over the renter. So as communities are broken up and pushed apart, and rents rise, cities are transformed into spaces for the wealthier population. Writing about New York, Robbins' concludes:
Distilling the housing essence of New York City is almost impossible. But the hidden truth about the ultimate capitalist city is that it's dependent on non-market housing. It could not be the dynamic diverse place it is without the combination of public housing, rent control and various other forms of sub and non-market accommodation that enable people from a variety of economic backgrounds to live there.
The assault on public housing is not simply about profits for landlords, or companies that want to erect huge steel and glass palaces on former historical housing, it is ideological as well:
Implicit within current US and UK housing policy are two shared and inter-linked ideological objectives. First is the attempt to destabilise and destroy any sense of entitlement that exists around non market housing.... Second is the attempt to make all non-market tenants pay higher rents, based on the assumption they could if only they'd try harder! 
Much of the book is a series of discussions about actual or potential evictions, demolitions and the breaking up of communities, which would make it all a little dispiriting if Robbins' didn't put resistance to these processes at the heart of his story. While many of the activists he quotes have had awful experiences of poverty, racism and state indifference, they have also won some inspiring victories. Robbins' is able to show how communities can be at the heart of fighting for their futures, if only they get organised. That said, it is also essential that state policy is changed. It is not enough to resist evictions or privatisations on a case by case basis, we must also build movements that can win a more rational housing policy, and Robbins' points out that both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn reflect this.

There is much to inspire and anger in this short book. In showing how bad things in the US are, Robbins also shows how good things can be with some great examples of how different forms of public housing have worked, and why. But he also sets the reader a task - unless we stop the destruction of public housing, the future for many thousands of tenants will be bleak.

Readers in London can hear Glyn Robbins speak at a book launch of There's No Place at Bookmarks, the Socialist Bookshop on September 28, 2017. Full details here.

Related Reviews

Jones - Chavs
Klein - Shock Doctrine
Minton - Ground Control

Hanley - Estates

Thursday, August 31, 2017

George MacDonald Fraser - Flashman and the Mountain of Light

Like a number of Flashman novels, Mountain of Light illuminates a small, but extremely important conflict that fundamentally shaped the British Empire. The First and Second Sikh Wars are almost forgotten today – in fact, while reading this novel I looked up available books on the period, and found almost none, a notable contrast with similar events such as the Indian Mutiny or the First Afghan War.

This is surprising because the subject matter is perfect for a Flashman novel and would make a fascinating historical book. In the novel, Flashman is sent to the Punjab in 1845-1846. In the aftermath of the British withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Sikh’s were hoping to exploit the perceived weaknesses of the British army and expand their own interests. The Sikh kingdom had been in turmoil since the death of Ranjit Singh, the former Maharajah. The British were engaged in trying to shore up their interests by building up military strength.

Facing them was a massive, modern and well trained Sikh army known as the Khalsa which is developing autonomous power, and is champing at the bit to attack the British. Their overwhelming numbers, equipment and training seriously threatened British power. Into this potential mess, Flashman is thrown as an undercover politico whose role is to gather intelligence and do his bit to curry favour with the ruling elite and undermine the Khalsa.

It’s the perfect setting for Flashman. He’s adept at languages, though his cover is soon blown. He has various dalliances with the drunken, promiscuous queen and manages to be present as an observer at the two major battles of the First Sikh War, Ferozeshah and Sobraon. The first of these was a near disaster for the British, only saved by the betrayals of the Sikh commander.

Unusually Flashman’s behaviour (luck rather than judgement) in helping this happen isn’t lauded by his superiors. Unlike many of the novels where Flashman seems to be able to do little wrong, Fraser uses the character of the Governer General Sir Henry Hardinge to expose Flashman for who he really is – a rather chancy character who happens to be in the right place at the right time. As Hardinge points out, had things gone differently Flashman might well have been tried as a traitor.

This isn’t the best Flashman novel, though it’s one of the most interesting historically. Flashman is very much a bystander at great events, rather than an active participant. From what I can tell, Fraser’s historical grounding is exemplary, and he puts his character in the appropriate places. It also seems that however surprising the eccentric behaviour of the supporting characters in the book, it’s not that far from the truth.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

John E. Archer - 'By a Flash and a Scare': Arson, Animal Maiming & Poaching in East Anglia: 1815-1870

Given the extremely specific title it might be thought that this was a book that would only appeal to the specialist historian, but it is actually a very interesting examination of the intersection of protest and crime among rural labourers in a formative period of English agricultural history. Many readers will be aware of the Captain Swing protests when, in large parts of England's agricultural areas, mass protests led to the burning and destruction of landowner's property - most famously threshing machines. But, John Archer argues, there has been a tendency to see events like Swing as breaks in essentially passive periods of rural life. The reality he shows, is that there was almost continuous protest in rural communities, which at times reached major proportions that threatened social stability, but at others was a continuous backdrop that was at least passively supported by the wider population.

Arson and animal maiming tended to be individual acts - of terrorism, revenge, protest or even crime - but they took place in a wider context of anger and frustration at rural unemployment, underemployment and poverty. Poverty levels were such that in reality there was no "rural tranquillity. What charity and poor relief that did exist often bred discontent and tended to fail the group most prone to protest and crime - young single men. Even those that worked understood the reality of their class position, "we till and sow the land till there is an abundance of food, and our reward is starvation".

When the oppressed and exploited fought back, even on an individual level, they were often cheered on by the compatriots. We know that burning ricks or farm buildings were often left to burn while the locals watched and we also know that poaching was often an activity supported by the majority of the population. Archer quotes Joseph Arch's comment that every second person he met was a poacher. But what this study is careful to show, is that the crime of poaching was also a reaction to a set of economic circumstances. As Christopher Hill and other historians have argued, the criminalisation of poaching has as much to do with the solidification of property relations as it has with protecting animals. Thus the act of killing a deer, or trapping a hare was in part resistance to those relations; as much as the illegal supplementation of diet. Archer also points out that we cannot ignore the sheer enjoyment of hunting that would have affected many participants. These sort of actions were an act of class struggle as much as a necessity in the face of poverty:
The arsonists were the 'loose hands', that is, the casual day labourers who were the lowest paid and the first to be laid off in times of bad weather or falling markets... low wages and unemployment were the most frequently cited grievances by the guilty. The 'flash and a scare' clearly had the dual purpose of raising wages and providing employment for such men. But we should not simply dismiss the incendiaries as the losers in agrarian capitalist society... They may have acted alone under the cover of darkness but their actions were clearly supported by the labour community as a whole before 1851. The villagers shielded them from the law and gloried in the destruction. The fires were lit on their behalf to and advertised their poverty and bitterness to rich and poor a like... The camouflage of deference clearly misled the landed who closed their eyes... to the rural poverty which surrounded them.
John Archer's book deserves as wide a readership as Christopher Hill's Liberty Against the Law or E.P. Thompson's Wigs and Hunters. Full of data and analysis (as well as amusing anecdote - such as the mass cutting down of trees by Snettisham villagers, the culmination of a 44 year feud with the lord of the manor). It helps us understand how rural working people resisted, and the context in which they did so. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Hill - Liberty Against the Law
Fisher - Custom, Work and Market Capitalism
Sharp - In Contempt of All Authority
Hay etc - Albion's Fatal Tree
Linebaugh - Stop Thief

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Richard Holmes - Redcoat

Initially I was disappointed by Richard Holmes' Redcoat. I had expected it to be a history of the British Army and in particular it's wars and battles. But Redcoat is actually much more rewarding - a social history of the British Army in, as the subtitle says, "the age of horse and musket". The period covered by this book includes some of the most famous battles of the British Army - Bunker Hill, the Indian Mutiny, Balaclava and so on. It also is the period when the deeds of the its soldiers ensured that the British Empire was created. This history doesn't look at the consequences of that, but explores who it was who fought in Russia, America, China, India and Europe to give the British ruling class world dominance and why they did it.

The British Army reflected the class nature of the society that created it. Holmes' describes the strange system of commissions, which enabled individuals to buy themselves into ranks in regiments and then the system of promotion (that often involved buying and selling commissions) that enabled officers to move up the ranks. It seems a system almost guaranteed to ensure that quality and experience was less important that money. The class system is a running theme through the book. What happened to soldiers and officers, why they enlisted, what happened if they were wounded, or pensioned off, depended in large part on who they were and where they came from:
When the 32nd Foot embarked for India in May 1846 it was a microcosm of the line infantry of the age. Its officers included three sons of landowners, eight of officers or former officers, and fourteen of varied middle-class occupation, including sons of a bishop, two clergyman, an Indian judge, a East India Company civil servant, a colonial administrator, a Canadian businessman, a city merchant a West India merchant and a bank manger. 
The ordinary soldiers would, of course, have come from less illustrious backgrounds likely a poor or unemployed rural labourer, a working class man looking for money, seduced by the drums and bright uniforms and the promises of the recruiting sergeant. Holmes takes us through the lives of these individuals - how they trained, how they lived and loved, how they spent their money what they looted and how they kept it and so on. Holmes tells us much about these lives, and also the women who were around the troops. I was surprised to find out the extent to which soldiers families followed the regiments on campaign - even onto the battlefield, on patrol and sentry duty. There are sections here about who those women were - families obviously, but also prostitutes and camp followers who sold goods to the troops.

Discipline was harsh, and few officers were loved. Though there is a surprising lack of mutiny here (though on several occasions Holmes' discusses cases where soldiers attacked individual officers, often when drunk). An amusing example of what became known as fragging, is told here though:
The unpopular major commanding the 14th foot at Blenheim [1704] addressed rhe regiment before the battle apologising for his past behaviour and asking that if he had to fall it should be by the enemies bullets. A grenadier shouted "march on sir, the enemy is before you, and we have something else to do..." The battle over, the major turned to his men and raised his hat to call for a cheer: he was instantly shot through the head by an unknown marksman.
This was unusual though, and surprisingly, despite the horrors of war, the poverty and the bad equipment and conditions, the British soldier seemed remarkably loyal to his comrades, his regiment and country.

While Holmes' is an easy read, and he has a wonderful eye for the amusing and unusual anecdote, what this book does well is to answer a difficult question. Why did people join the army? Why did they frequently remain extremely loyal, and commit acts of enormous bravery for things that had very little bearing on their lives. They were fighting to build an Empire which would benefit few of them so what was their motivation to risk life and limb? Holmes' book goes some way to answering these questions, and does so in an fascinating way that allows the voices of the ordinary soldiers and British officers to come through. While there is a lack of wider context to much of the history, to be fair to Holmes that is not what he set out to write. I'd suggest reading this, alongside other histories (such as Richard Gott or John Newsinger's books below) that discuss what Britain did around the world and who it was who fought back.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried
Gott - Britain's Empire

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Chris Wickham - Medieval Europe

In hindsight Chris Wickham's Medieval Europe was probably not an ideal choice for holiday reading. Despite being relatively short at 250 odd pages (excluding notes) it is dense and cannot really be described as a popular history of the period. Despite this, I recommend it for anyone trying to understand the trajectory of the medieval period and what this meant for the population of Europe as well as the legacy for the modern world.

Wickham is concerned with the way the economic base of society creates a large political superstructure. His approach echoes Marx (who he quotes in the introductory chapter) but probably shouldn't be described as "Marxist", perhaps a more structuralist approach.
Medieval political communities based their coherence and their succeeds on the control of land... The reason is simple: all pre-industrial societies are based on agricultural wealth above all. There was nothing which one could call a factory in the middle ages, or for a long time afterwards... Most people, over four fifths of the population in the early middle ages,.. .were peasants: that is to say, they worked directly on the land as subsistence cultivators... Agricultural products were most of what was produced by human labour in the middle ages, and for that reason the control of these, ad by extension the land that produced them, was central.
While this is Wickham's starting point he understands that human societies are full of variety and complexity, so his book tends to explore each area of Europe at his different time periods and discuss the differences and similarities. The problem for the non-expert reader is that there is an enormous amount of detail. Despite importance Wickham gives to the economic base of society, he explores what this means in detailed studies of the top of society. Thus we get a vast amount of information about particular kingdoms, individuals, religious institutions, alliances and interactions between all these groups. At times its bewildering, and for this reader, I was left more with generalisations than with detailed recollections.

That criticism aside there are some great sections which readers will find useful. The story of the importance of Constantinople, and its eventual eclipse (remarkably late in European history) or the rise of Charlemagne's empire. Though I challenge anyone other than the expert to remember all the German princes, or the machinations of the Italian city states. Give the grand sweep of history and the size of the continent, some readers will know doubt be disappointed that their favourite bits only receive a short mention. Despite ten page references to the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England, the substantive account only has a dozen lines or so.

But what matters to Wickham is the dynamism of the Medieval Period. His wealth of data allows him to explore the changes taking place:
This is the background for understanding Europe's political histories after 1350... Whether kings and other rulers still relied on the wealth coming from their own lands ('the domain', as historians of this period often call it), or could develop taxation on a scale large enough to pay for bigger or more permanent armies and denser infrastructures of government, thus has crucial implications for the comparative history of politics. Put simply, rulers who did not develop strong fiscal systems by now could do less, both inside their polities and outside them, than rulers who did, even though they often tried to behave in the same way.
This is essentially about the importance of the growth of what we might call the beginnings of the nation state, or at least the pretensions towards a strong state in some region. A dozen or so pages after the above  quote, Wickham notes that
What links almost all the rulers we have looked at.. is their preparedness, as soon as they had enough money to get an army together... to attack not only their neighbours but also on occasion realms quite some way away, for military glory and hoped-fro permanent territorial control. Hard gained resources were spent above all on displays of power, the rich courts and ambitious building which mark the post-1350 period, but an army was the biggest.. display of power of all, and using it to fight someone was the logical next step. The military machine underlying early modern political and fiscal development has its beginnings in this period.
After 1350 we see land still being the basis of wealth and power, but the raising of tax is now shaping "communities of taxpayers" which meant that "Rulers were thus stronger, but so were the communities of the ruled". Thus we see after this period a public arena that allows for both the development of new methods of production and for sharper conflicts between classes. Thus the "feudal revolution" that had transformed the earlier feudal world eventually gave rise to a much more confrontational public sphere, within which the class struggle could play out.

But this sphere was conditioned by the changing economic and political world. Developments of trade, technology, manufacturing and so on would eventually lead to a new way of organising society, but are rooted in the evolving medieval period. Wickham's book emphasises the dynamism of medieval society, and this is its primary focus. I should mention that Wickham doesn't ignore other aspects of these societies - the role of gender, developments in reading, writing, education etc. But the task he has here, and its an admirable one, is to understanding a broad historical sweep. For all the challenges his style gives the reader, there is much here of interest.

Related Reviews

Dyer - Making a Living in the Medieval Ages
Gimpel - The Medieval Machine
Bolton - The Medieval English Economy: 1150-1500
Bloch - Feudal Society

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Katrina Navickas - Protest & the Politics of Space & Place 1789-1848

Katrina Navickas' book is an interesting and refreshing look at the protest movements that took place during a crucial period in the development of the modern British capitalist state. Its notable that her period begins with the year of the outbreak of the French Revolution and ends with the year of European revolutions. There was nothing in the British Isles on that scale, but these events influenced and found their echo in protest and reform movements here. As the title suggests Navickas uses the concept of space to analyse these movements, but she notes that this method has its limitations. In her introduction she writes:
Describing politics as being conducted within multiple public spheres or a dichotomy of public versus private risks making the term methodologically useless. This is not to reject it completely... much of the debate over the politics of space covered the meaning of the word 'public'. The working classes used instruments of the public sphere - newspapers, pamphlets and political debates - to declare their opinions and rights...
She continues "contests over the body politic and its spaces were contests between classes". Much of the book looks at particular struggles and how their participants and leaders attempted to develop and build their movements within contested arenas. This might mean the struggle for the right to meet, or protest - and here there are many echoes with contemporary times where the increasing privatisation of public spaces can limit places where activists can demonstrate. Thus the struggle for the right to protest in a park or square might also take the form of legal challenges, or mass protests designed to win the right for the future. But they also meant struggles over how spaces were seen by communities (and the authorities) how they were used and how they were defended from encroachment by hostile interests.

Thus the struggle for space is more than a question of future rights, it can also encompass tradition and custom. Navickas writes that "Custom established what rights were attached to inhabitants of a locality... and thereby defined the particular culture of that locality" and notes EP Thompson's "emphasis on custom as an interface that set patrician against plebeian". Her discussion of struggles against enclosure, or common rights are just two of such examples. But Navickas goes on to note that this struggle in the period she covers, takes place in the context of "global processes of free trade political economy, trading and manufacturing practices" which means that "mass collective action" emerges. To put it slightly cruder, the development of a global capitalist system required the entrenchment of particular capitalist values within in society, but these in turn created mass movements that resisted those changes, or attempted to shape things in their own interest.

In her studies of these processes Navickas has uncovered and highlighted some fascinating aspects of radical history. She discusses, for instance, the use of pubs and taverns as places for radicals to meet, and how the authorities would try and restrict this. She examines the way that particular spaces (such as St. Ann's Square in Manchester) become symbolic of particular struggles, in this case the "royalists" movements as opposed to the radicals. And she also looks at how particular events engender some spaces with highly symbolic meaning. Her classic example of this is the way St. Peters Square becomes a place that every radical movement wants to associate itself with in the years following the Peterloo Massacre.

Readers who are based in Manchester will find much of this particularly interesting because Navickas focuses her study on northern cities and some of the detailed studies are of historic radical movements in this city. I was particularly struck by two maps that give a real sense of the intersection between different movements and time periods. One of these is a map of routes taken by radical and "loyal and patriotic" protest marches and parades around Manchester. This shows how the radicals deliberately copied the patriots in their roots in an attempt to gain legitimacy by association as well as taking their spaces.

The second is a map of Ancoats which juxtaposes the homes of individuals who signed radical petitions with known meeting places. Navickas shows how we can trace different radical traditions through the overlapping of meeting places, neighbours and marches to build up a sense of a working class community developing traditions of struggle that are more than simply protests, strikes or marches taking place in different years.

While Navickas' approach has its uses I found it sometimes a little frustrating. Part of the problem is that I don't think that the oppressed can easily (if at all) "reclaim a space" for their use while capitalist relations remain. An example of this is Navickas' discussion of how the "defeat of the bill of pains and penalties against [Queen] Caroline" was celebrated by the loyalists and authorities. She argues that the "rest of the population took the opportunity to reclaim the use of the streets for political symbolism in support of Caroline". These "highlight ritualised movements created a 'contested topography of political authority'. In the urban areas, support for Caroline was clearly marked out in light against the dark of entrenched loyalism".

The problem is, of course, that the morning after the streets are still owned and controlled by the British state (or its local representatives). Any "reclaiming of the streets" by the masses is out of necessity a temporary thing whose longest standing outcome is the confidence of the movement. The temporary nature of space won can lead to the movement becoming solely about carving out its own spaces, rather than challenging the system. Navikas herself notes that this does take place with attempts to create permanent trade union buildings, mechanics institutes and the like. It is, essentially a type of reformism, and could be counterpoised to revolutionary attempts to permanently change things.

That said, there is much of interest here. From Navikas' discussion of urban spaces and working class communities and movements to her analysis of rural struggles such as Captain Swing. Readable and fascinating, Katrina Navickas book might be particularly of interest to modern day activists and historians in the North (particularly Manchester) but I expect it will also become a much studied book for social historians trying to understand the historic struggles that have shaped, quite literally, the world we live and struggle in today.

Related Reviews

Griffin - The Rural War
Hammond & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer
Reid - The Land of Lost Content
Harvey - Spaces of Global Capitalism
Harvey - Rebel Cities

Saturday, July 29, 2017

John le Carré - A Murder of Quality

In hindsight it is strange to read a John le Carré novel where George Smiley is taken out of the espionage circles he normally inhabits and plunged into a different sort of environment. But this was only the second book to feature Smiley and perhaps le Carré didn't know where things would go. But reading this over fifty years after its publication fans do not need to fear, it's a classic Smiley story and well worth picking up.

There are two networks that make this story work. One of them is the group of individuals Smiley knows from his work during World War Two. It is because of this that Ailsa Brimley contacts him. She edits a small circulation Christian newspaper and has received a disturbing letter from a subscriber, Stella Rode who claims her husband, a teacher at the prestigous Carne public school, is going to kill her. She asks Smiley to take the letter to the local police after finding out that Stella has actually been killed.

The second network is that of the old boys at Carne and the staff and students of the school itself. This is a school for the highest echelons of the British ruling class, and le Carré wastes no time in letting the snobbery show itself. One of Carne's masters tells it like it is:
When I look back on my thirty years at Carne, I realise I have achieved rather less than a road sweeper... I used to regard a road sweeper as a person inferior to myself. Now, I rather doubt it. Something is dirty, he makes it clean, and the state of the world is advanced. But I-what have I done? Entrenched a ruling class which is distinguished by neither talent, culture, not wit; kept alive for one more generation the distinctions of a dead age.
In order to solve the riddle, Smiley is the only one who can get into Carne. Not in a physical sense. But in a class sense. The local police know they can't find out what really happened because they're used to being met in the kitchen and offered a cup of tea. Smiley can meet the suspects on their own turf, in chapel, in their drawing rooms, at dinner parties and in the school itself.

Like all of le Carré's books this is tightly written. Descriptions are sparse, and tensions high. While the outcome of the detection is satisfying enough, the real story is the rigid prejudices of the British ruling class and their school system. For this reason alone while it is a novel first published in 1962 it has much to say about 2017.

Related Reviews

le Carré - A Small Town in Germany

Friday, July 28, 2017

Becky Chambers - The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

Various reviewers have described The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet as a "joy" or "delightful". It is certainly entertaining and inoffensive, but I was disappointed that the author didn't use her material to produce a more challenging story. Set on a dilapidated spacecraft called the Wayfarer the crew of which are tunnelers that drill the interplanetary routes that allow faster than light travel. At the start of the novel Rosemary Harper joins the crew as a lowly administrator. She has a past that she is trying to hide, something that is shared by most of the crew, like almost all science fiction set on dilapidated spacecraft.  Through Rosemary's eyes we are introduced to the various species that inhabit the galaxy and the bureaucratic system that manages their societies.

Becky Chambers uses the various aliens that crew the Wayfarer and the planets they visit to explore questions of gender, family and sexuality. These are fairly benign to be honest. Most of the individuals/groups they meet are relatively inoffensive and its only when the ship embarks on their real mission that the crew encounter real danger. Wider conflict and danger is hinted at, mostly through the interaction between the Wayfarers captain and his lover Pei, an alien who crews a ship that takes on more military engagements.

At times the novel feels like Star Trek as each chapter gives the crew a minor problem to solve and allows one of the individuals stories to be told. It is all entertaining, well written and, as I said, inoffensive.

Disappointingly, the encounters that the crew and its individuals have, both with the aliens they meet and among themselves, aren't used as deeply as they might have been. Rather than challenging contemporary ideas of family, sexuality and relationships, they end up with a rather tired trope that "family is those who we live and love". Its all a little disappointing given the potential to do something radical with the very alien groups that the author describes.

The novel only really picks up speed in the very last section, and the final "twist" again allows Chambers to approach some deeper questions about what it is to be "intelligent" and "conscious". But again this is done relatively lightly and left me feeling a little disappointed.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet has been very successful, making the difficult transition from self-publishing to mainstream press and the sequel is already out. I expect that it will do similarly well. If you like straightforward science fiction it is worth a read, but there are other places to go if you want something more meaty.

Related Reviews

Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman
Leckie - Ancillary Justice

Monday, July 24, 2017

Charles Forsdick & Christian Høgsbjerg - Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions

Toussaint Louverture remains an inspirational figure to those who want to challenge oppression and exploitation. Perhaps only Che Guevara is a better known representation of anti-colonial revolution. Louverture was the leader of the Haitian Revolution, which overthrew French colonial slavery, fought off an English invasion trying to capture the colony and then, with the decline of the French Revolution, defeated a Napoleonic invasion intent on restoring slavery. Louverture played a crucial part, inspiring, leading and organising the masses in their military struggle, creating a social movement that could defeat their colonial oppressors and go further to declare independence.

Forsdick and Høgsbjerg's new book should become an essential introduction to the life and politics of Louverture because it places his actions in the context of the wider Revolutionary era. It is accessible and will enable to the reader to get to grips with other classic works such as CLR James' Black Jacobins.

The authors note how the ideas of the French Revolution with its talk of liberty, fraternity and equality, went deep into the heart of the revolutionary movement. They gave inspiration, but it also meant that events on Haiti would have global implications.
One executed insurgent was found to have 'in one of his pockets pamphlets printed in France, filled with commonplaces about the Rights of Man and the Sacred Revolution'. If the enslaved themselves had not risen up against slavery, in what constituted the largest slave revolt in modern history, then as Dubois notes, 'the French Revolution would have probably run its course, like the American Revolution, without destroying the massive violation of human rights at the heart of the nation's existence'.
But as the authors explain, it was not enough for the enslaved masses to rise, they had to also take the revolution forward through numerous twists and turns, to win victory. This required revolutionary leadership, and Louverture was able to provide this. He was not alone and the tensions between him and other military and revolutionary commanders are neatly explained here. But there is no doubt that without Louverture the revolution would not have gone as far as it did.

That said, this is no hagiography and Louverture was no perfect, flawless leader. Louverture did not play a role in the initial uprising, something he was keen to avoid discussing. But he was able, at crucial moments, to seize the time and drive the movement forward; inspiring and leading from the front in some of the most brutal conflict imaginable often against over-whelming enemies. The ill equipped and outnumbered black armies were able to defeat some of the best trained colonial troops that France and Britain could send. That they did so is testament to the desire of the masses to fight for liberty and freedom, and the leadership of Louverture and others. While the authors focus on Louverture, they never forget the role of thousands of ordinary people in winning their revolution.

On 18 My 1797 Louverture declared:
Let us go forth to plant the tree of liberty, breaking the chains of our brothers still held captive under the shameful yoke of slavery. Let us bring them under the compass of our rights, the impresscriptible and inalienable rights of free men... We see only to bring to men the liberty that [God] has given them, and that other men have taken from them.
But what was that liberty? In reality it meant the creation of capitalist relations in the former slave plantations. The revolution had led to economic collapse, and Louverture was able to turn this around relatively quickly, even bringing back former plantation slavers to oversee the new agriculture. But the slaves who had overthrown their masters did not take kindly to their new wage slavery and Louverture found himself crossing the country to put down strikes and riots against the new conditions. Capitalists constantly want to extract the maximum from their workers and the contradiction of the Haitian Revolution was that the class who had made the revolution now found themselves in new servitude.

The French revolutionary Étienne Polverel who was sent to Saint Domingue, encapsulated this new world order:
You can lay claim to the products of this land only through agriculture. And I have told you that the portion assigned to you in the revenues of the land will be given to you only in compensation for your work... Before, you had no share in the profits of the plantations. Today each of you will have his share in these profits in proportion to his work.
Despite their central role in the Revolution women were given a secondary position, wages were unequal. Louverture was complicit in this "Work is necessary, it is a virtue. It is the general good of the state. Every lazy and errant man will be arrested to be punished by the law. But service is also conditional and will be paid a just wage."  In other words Louverture led a movement to overthrow slavery, but it was not to build a world of freedom. That said, the revolution itself created a very different world. There's a fascinating quotation from a British officer who sees "the usual subordination's of society... entirely disregarded, and that he was to witness for the first time a real system of equality."

The "Age of Revolution" that the masses of Saint Domingue were fighting in, was not one for freedom and true economic equality, it was to establish a new capitalist order. This is the contradiction that Louverture faced and one that, whether he liked it or not, he had to enforce at the risk of shattering the revolutionary unity that had overthrown slavery.

This biography is an important one because it understands that the Haitian Revolution was not the work of an individual, nor was it isolated from wider political and economic developments. Its impact was enormous and the final chapter is a fascinating discussion of the lasting impact of Louverture and the Revolution. This is not a long book, but it contains a wealth of material and argument that everyone interested in the struggle for social justice will learn from. I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Høgsbjerg - Chris Braithwaite
Blackburn - The American Cruicble: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights

Bell - All Souls Rising
James - Black Jacobins
Jaures - The French Revolution
McGarr & Callinicos - The Great French Revolution