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
Navickas - Protest & the Politics of Space

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