Sunday, December 17, 2017

Kim Stanley Robinson - New York 2140

What will life be like for people when global warming has melted the ice caps and climate change has transformed the world's environment? The vast majority of scientists conclude that the temperature rises we can expect by the end of the current century will mean a colossal human catastrophe, unless there we radically reduce the amount of carbon emissions. These changes will mean disaster for millions of people with water shortages, heat waves, flooding, extreme weather and famine following. Millions of people will suffer and there will be a corresponding catastrophe for the Earth's flora and fauna.

Runway climate change - the result of global warming causing processes that feedback and lead to more global warming - could, in some scenarios lead to levels of warming that make Earth uninhabitable for humans. But before that takes place, there will be millions of people living, and struggling, on a hotter world.

This then is the premise for Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel. He focuses on the city of New York after two major "pulse" events have led to significant sea level rises that have destroyed much of the world's coast lines and turned cities like New York into collections of island skyscrapers. People have learnt to adapt - to sea the basement floors and build farms on the top of the towers. Many of the towers in Robinson's New York of 2140 are run by a sort of collective democratic leadership.

Capitalism still exists, and Robinson brilliantly shows how the system adapts to these changes. New financial markets are opened up with wealthy speculators betting on the way that water levels change the value of the markets. Robinson uses much of this to discuss the way that capitalism leads to economic and environmental crisis, and how governments are prepared to let ordinary people suffer in order to bail out the banks and the system.

The story follows a group of people living the Met tower - a couple of computer experts who have tried to hack the financial system to bring capitalism down, a policewoman who is trying to find out who kidnapped them, a financial speculator who is obsessed with new ways of making himself rich in the era of high water levels and various other characters including a couple of kids who find treasure worth billions. One rather lovable chatterer is Amelia who pilots a blimp and has an enormous "cloud following" of viewers who watch her nature films. These characters all gradually come to the conclusion that the system is broken and is heading for a major economic crash, and the time is right to change things.

Reading this as an environmental activist and a Marxist I had three problems with the book. At this point I should emphasis that Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favourite authors, but there are major problems with this novel. Firstly the world he depicts, post climate disaster, is simply to good. This is basically early 21st century capitalism with higher sea levels and no ice-caps. You don't get any sense of how the warming that has lead to the pulse events has impacted the rest of the world. Even the stories of the Netherlands being destroyed and replaced by a floating city state seem to imply that everything is OK really. The refugees who make it to the Met come across as slightly lost migrants, rather than people who have seen their entire world collapse. In fact we hear next to nothing about what is taking place in the rest of the world. Surely there are wars, famines and disasters?

In other words, Robinson's future is too nice. There's no real sense that global warming has led to phase shift of the planet's ecological system. Things are just a little bit worse than they were. It's not a scientifically accurate picture of what could happen and it downplays the crisis we are in the midst of. In addition, Robinson's belief that technology is the solution seems naive too. New York 2140 is extremely high-tech, the environmental disaster having apparently spurred innovation to solve the problems of the world.

Secondly the economics just don't work. While reading this I was suddenly struck by the idea that this was actually not a revolutionary work (despite the mass involvement of ordinary people in a capital "strike" that puts the economy into crisis). It's a book about how Keynesian economics must replace neo-liberalism if we're to have social and ecological justice. The big, radical idea at the heart of the book is to nationalise the banks. It's inadequate in the context of Robinson's world and its not enough if we want to really challenge real-world capitalism.

The final problem I had is that the story doesn't go anywhere. There are some brilliant bits - a very well described riot in the aftermath of a huge storm, and a comic chapter about polar bears and blimps - but the story is weak and ends by getting the reader to believe that Washington really is an OK place if only you get the right people elected.

To be a little blunter, I think this is the book that Robinson wrote after reading Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything and seeing Trump elected instead of Clinton. Klein's book is a great read in terms of understanding the scale of the environmental crisis and its roots in capitalism. But she fails to put across a revolutionary challenge and falls back on a Keynesian solution - where neo-liberalism ends and the state is more directly involved. These are laudable aims, but as a solution to exploitation, oppression and environmental crisis it is inadequate. In Robinson's homage to New York, even a highly flooded one, it underpins a very weak novel indeed. Sadly you can imagine someone reading this and concluding that climate change isn't actually that bad.

Related Reviews

Robinson - Shaman
Robinson - Years of Rice and Salt
Robinson - Aurora
Robinson - 2312
Robinson - Icehenge

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Eamon Duffy - The Stripping of the Altars

This is a fascinating and comprehensive account of the impact of the English Reformation on the people of England in particular how they practised their religion and how they understood their world. Eamon Duffy is a master at mining church records for the minutiae of everyday life, as his wonderful book The Voices of Morebath showed. In The Stripping of the Altars he takes this to a new level, giving an over-view of a couple of centuries of change.

A key point that Duffy makes is that there is no "substantial gulf" between the religion of the clergy and the elite and the mass of the population. While the more well off may have had better religious books, nicer churches and so on, the actuality of how they worshipped and what they believed was near identical. Nor was this a period where the mass of the population was kept in ignorance while the ruling class had all the knowledge - one of the main arguments here is that there was wide knowledge of church doctrine. For instance, on the "eve of the Reformation" there were some 50,000 Books of Hours in circulation, many of them produced in cheap editions in continental "factories" aimed at a mass audience.

Duffy uses the phrase "traditional religion" to describe religious beliefs and practises before the Reformation. His detailed reconstruction of what this entails is fascinating. For instance, he shows how the life of rural villages was dominated by a "liturgical calendar". This had major implications for economic (agricultural) life, as there were "almost seventy days in the year when adults were obliged to fast" and numerous feast days when work was not permitted and the laity were expected to attend services. For the whole population the religious dynamic, its calendar, its sequence of religious services, the way that the church prepared its followers for life, and death, was central to how people lived. As Duffy notes, "for townsmen and countrymen alike, the rhythms of the liturgy on the eve of the Reformation remained the rhythms of life itself."

Duffy distances his analysis from those who saw within the traditional church a tendency to hold onto older, "pagan" practises. He shows how many beliefs, such as superstitions or astrology, where incorporated into religious practice. He also shows how the Protestant suppression of many aspects of traditional worship (Duffy uses a fascinating example of religious plays) helped to undermine wider knowledge of religious doctrine. Take the example of The Kalender of Shepherdes,  a book translated from French in the early 1500s. It was a "beautiful and an unmistakably lay book... an extraordinary mixture of calendrical, astrological and medical lore, together with orthodox religious instruction imaginatively presented". As Duffy points out, many clergy would have found the mix uncomfortable, but the popularity of the Kalender was in its ability to create an
assimilation into popular culture, by commercial publishers for a mass audience, of the official educational programme of the Church.... the Kalender certainly found a readership which would have considered unpalatable many more over didactic treatises, for it was common place of the time... that the people were often resistant to catechesis.
The pre-Reformation traditional religion that Duffy describes was an all encompassing explanation for the world as it was and how it would be. It's focus on death was not a morbid obsession with human mortality, but a response to a religious view that placed the afterlife as a key question for the living, and indeed often saw the dead as remaining connected to the living community. This is the importance of the question of indulgences that were exchanged for prayers etc. Some of the most fascinating aspects of Duffy's book are the chapters were he examines what death meant for people of the late Middle Ages and how it affected their everyday lives.

The second half of the book is a look at how the English Reformation played out. Here I felt the work wasn't as strong as the first half. This is not because Duffy's use of the historic material is weaker, in fact his detailed examination of what the Reformation meant in practice, in terms of changes to religious practices, the removal of feast and Saints days, changes to books and bibles and the physical alterations to religious spaces is fascinating and detailed. The weakness arises more out of Duffy's failure to see the Reformation as being linked to the changes taking place in the English economy. He does note in places the class content to the Reformation, and the way that how the Reformation proceeds is closely linked to the class interests of individuals. In places he does come close to this, so I would be wrong to completely dismiss Duffy's analysis here. For instance he writes
There can have been few if any communities in which Protestants formed anything like an actual numerical majority. The influence of the reform usually stemmed from the not always very secure social and economic prestige of its more prosperous or articulate adherents.
But this is to ignore the fact that the real influence of Protestants was making itself felt at a different level in society - some of the key figures in the English state. This is why the Reformation could proceed even though Henry VIII was a traditionalist at heart and why it could be reversed briefly under Mary's reign. When revolt did break out against the changes, such as the Prayerbook Rebellion or the Pilgrimage of Grace, what mattered for the ruling class was the mobilisation of armed bodies of men. Thus we have to see the Reformation in terms of the different class interests it represented and sadly I felt that Duffy is a little weak on this.

The Reformation took a long time. The changes that were driven through did not simply abolish the beliefs in peoples heads. The resurgence of Catholicism under Mary saw many worshippers gladly return to traditional practises. In many examples digging up the statues they'd hidden, rescuing the church cloths and candlesticks and re-writing their wills in ways that reflected their traditional beliefs. But the Reformation did eventually transform England's Church because it was closely linked to the development of a new economic system. Duffy sees the Protestant Church's success as being mostly due to the way that ordinary people responded, "By the end of the 1570s, whaever the instincts and nostalgia of their seniors, a generation was growing up which had known nothing else, which believe d the Pope to be Antichrist, the Mass a mummery, which did not look back to the Catholic past as their own, but another country, another world."

This is true to a large extent. But England kept the Protestant faith as its official religion because its proponents where the new ruling class. For that to be cemented for good eventually required a revolution and the shattering of monarchical power for good.

Despite the weaknesses I think that Eamon Duffy's book has, I have no hesitation in recommending it anyone who wants to understand more about the Reformation and what it meant for ordinary people. It brings alive the lives and struggles of those who lived in villages across England whose world was shattered by the changes.

Related Reviews

Duffy - Voices of Morebath
MacCulloch - Reformation
Wilson - The People and the Book
Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

Monday, December 04, 2017

Leon Trotsky - The History of the Russian Revolution

I chose to re-read Leon Trotsky's The History of the Russian Revolution over November 2017, exactly one hundred years since the all to brief triumph of the Revolution it discusses. Doing so allowed me to reflect on what that Revolution meant, but also how it has been portrayed, interpreted and understood since.

You don't have to read much of Trotsky's book to see how inadequate the coverage of 1917 has been for the centenary. Trotsky's work is a masterpiece of literature, powerful writing combined with a Marxist clarity that gives an unrivalled historical perspective on the events of the Revolutionary year. As a result The History of the Russian Revolution reads like a novel, in fact its very structure feels at times like a fictional account as the author builds tension towards the climatic seizure of power. The book teams with passages that are quotable, but take this section describing the situation as power decisively shifts away from the "compromisers" and towards the Bolsheviks:
Kerensky... was confidently calculating that in case of danger the Central Executive Committee, in spite of all family misunderstandings, would come to his aid in time. It was so in July and in August. Why should it not continue so? But now it is no longer July and no longer August. It is October. Cold and raw Baltic winds from the direction of Kronstadt are blowing through the squares and along the quays of Petrograd.
Junkers in long coats to their heels are patrolling the streets, drowning their anxiety in songs of triumph. The mounted police are riding up and down, prancing, their revolvers in brand-new holsters. No. The power still looks imposing enough! Or is this perhaps an optical illusion? At a corner of the Nevsky, John Reed, an American with naïve and intelligent eyes in his head, buys a brochure of Lenin’s entitled 'Will the Bolsheviks Be Able To Hold the State Power?' paying for it with one of those postage stamps which are now circulating in place of money.
These two paragraphs demonstrate a couple of things about Trotsky's book. First is the way he manages to get across a real sense of the balance of class forces and how they shift and change throughout 1917. Secondly is the way that Trotsky builds tension and drama - the raw winds blowing from the base of the revolutionary sailors at Kronstadt towards Petrograd aren't just about the weather, and secondly Trotsky's ability to build narrative tension as the crisis deepens in Russia.

But it is Trotsky's historical account that is most important. Despite portraying himself in the third person (a writer's master stroke in my opinion) Trotsky eschews any attempt at an independent historical narrative - this is polemic. But it is polemic for two reasons - the first, and most obvious is that it is designed to arm and give confidence to socialists who are trying to build revolutionary organisation and look to the Russian Revolution for inspiration.

Closely linked to this is Trotsky's battle with Stalin. The History of the Russian Revolution was written towards the end of the 1920s and finished in 1930 and comes immediately after Trotsky's defeat by Stalin and his exile. Thus the book has to be understood as reassertion of Trotsky's principle political arguments against Stalin, in particular Trotsky's argument that "socialism in one country" was impossible. Thus some of the most important sections of the book do not actually deal with 1917 but with the historical context of Russia's economic development to the revolutionary years.

Trotsky explicitly sets this out in several appendices which he hopes that a tenth or hundredth of his readers will read in addition to the main account. Trotsky was setting out on his new task of finding handfuls of supporters who could rebuild the international socialist movement. His focus on the role of the Bolsheviks' here and how they related to the mass movements on the streets is a key part of the story and his polemic.

But the majority of readers will, as Trotsky acknowledged, read this book for its unrivalled historical account of 1917. It is a long and detailed book, which seems to have penetrating insights on every page. But it's length shouldn't intimidate - Trotsky's writing is clear, passionate and at times very funny. Take his hilarious thumb nail portraits of the Russian generals who would go on to form the basis of the counter-revolutionary White Terror:
An army is always a copy of the society it serves – with this difference, that it gives social relations a concentrated character, carrying both their positive and negative features to an extreme. It is no accident that the war did not create one single distinguished military name in Russia. The high command was sufficiently characterised by one of its own members: “Much adventurism, much ignorance, much egotism, intrigue, careerism, greed, mediocrity and lack of foresight” – writes General Zalessky – “and very little knowledge, talent or desire to risk life, or even comfort and health.” Nikolai Nikolaievich, the first commander-in-chief, was distinguished only by his high stature and august rudeness. General Alexeiev, a grey mediocrity, the oldest military clerk of the army, won out through mere perseverance. Kornilov was a bold young commander whom even his admirers regarded as a bit simple; Kerensky’s War Minister, Verkhovsky, later described him as the lion heart with the brain of a sheep. Brussilov and Admiral Kolchak a little excelled the others in culture, if you will, but in nothing else. Denikin was not without character, but for the rest, a perfectly ordinary army general who had read five or six books. And after these came the Yudeniches, the Dragomirovs the Lukomskies, speaking French or not speaking it, drinking moderately or drinking hard, but amounting to absolutely nothing. First time readers might be surprised that some of the most fascinating chapters are those that deal not with the revolution but with the ruling class that was overthrown - Trotsky showing why their regime was ripe for collapse.
But ultimately this is a description of a year of revolutionary upheaval that involved millions of people in action. Trotsky never loses sight of that key fact - that the revolution was made by ordinary men and women, and he celebrates this fact at every stage. In fact by focusing on the ideas, slogans and demands of the factories and streets Trotsky is able to get to the heart of why the Bolsheviks were able to lead the working class to victory. This is a celebration of mass democracy, participation and revolutionary dynamism.

No other author does it as well as Trotsky's history and no one trying to understand 1917 can avoid reading this book. I first read this as a young socialist some 25 years ago. Re-reading it again a quarter of a century later I was struck by how fresh it felt, but also, how much of it I had retained and learnt from. Perhaps that's Trotsky's true legacy.

In the course of 2017 I've read or re-read a number of books related to the Revolutionary Year of 1917. Those reviews can be found here.

Related Reviews

Trotsky - On Britain
Trotsky - Lessons of October
Trotsky - 1905
Trotsky - An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe

Cliff - Trotsky: Towards October

Monday, November 27, 2017

Rachel Carson - Under the Sea Wind

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is probably the most famous ecological work every published. Its clarity and its clarion call for action, as well as the way it located environmental crisis in a system that prioritised "the right to make a dollar" helped kick-start the modern environmental movement. Yet Carson was also a author of a whole number of works that looked at the ecological systems she was most familiar with, in particular a trilogy of books about the sea. Carson had worked as a scientist for the US fisheries bureau before becoming a full time writer and her knowledge of the sea and its ecology shines through in this book from the trilogy.

Under the Sea-Wind is a lovely piece of writing. Carson takes a number of key animals who live on, in or above the sea and describes their lives. Looking at individuals she uses a novel style narrative often naming the animal after its scientific name, but this is no work of fiction. Her descriptions of the lives of birds, fish and other animals like crabs are beautiful and often tragic, but this is no Watership Down. Her animals don't speak or have human characteristics; they shape and are shaped by the ecology they inhabit.

That said, some of the stories here are truly epic. We encounter the mackerel first as a tiny living thing, no more than a few living cells clumped together. As it grows it's life radically changes, initially eating other small sea creatures before it can feed on larger prey. Carson describes the luck that keeps our individual fish out of the belly of other predators, and we see how the huge shoals protect the individuals from death. But we also see the cyclical nature of life. The death of animals is usually the life of others.

This is no less true of humans and one of the good things about Under the Sea Wing is that Carson does not pretend the sea's creatures live isolated from human contact. In fact, humans, particularly fishermen are as much part of the world that these animals inhabit. Whether its the harbours that provide hiding places for young mackerel and some of their predators, or the fishermen whose nets threaten large numbers of the fish.
The fisherman who lived on the island had gone out about nightfall to set the gill nets that he owned with another fisherman from the town. They had anchored a large net almost at right angles to the west shore of the river... All the local fishermen knew from their fathers, who had it from their fathers, that shad coming from the channel of the sound usually struck in towards the west bank for the river when they entered the shallow estuary, where no channel was kept open. For this reason the west bank was crowded with fixed sighing gear, like pound nets, and the fishermen who operated movable gear competed bitterly for the few remaining places to set their nets.
Here we see the impact of human interaction with the sea, the potential for over-fishing and the consequent destruction of the ecology. But here is also the importance of the sea to human communities.

Over and again I was struck by how Carson emphasises the contentedness of life in the sea. There's a beautiful chapter early in the book where a bird is hunting crabs and other seashore life. In turn the crabs are eating fleas, but is scared by a fisherman walking on the beach. Fleeing into the surf the crab is eaten by a sea bass, which is then eaten by a shark. Some of the bass' body floats back to the beach where the meat is eaten by beach fleas.

When environmental NGOs campaign to save the tiger or the panda we can forget that these creatures are part of a wider network of interactions. These interactions are never one way, but rather cause numerous onward effects. The crab feeds off the fleas, and sometimes is eaten by a fish. But the fish in turn can be food for other animals or the fisherman casting their nets. Carson gives us the Sea as it really is - a network of interacting animals and plants, whose ecology can be distorted and broken by outside forces. It's a beautiful piece of writing that has much to teach us about how we think about the environment today.

Related Reviews

Carson - Silent Spring
Levins & Lewontin - The Dialectical Biologist
Lewontin & Levins - Biology Under the Influence

Peter Watts - Blindsight

I'll admit to making a mistake with Blindsight. I bought it thinking it would be a 'hard' science fiction of first contact with a mysterious alien ship along the lines of Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Ramaa book that amazed and inspired me many years ago. Blindsight is actually that, but it is much more - it is a novel that probes human psychology as much as speculating about alien culture. Unfortunately for those reading for a SF narrative this rather obscures the story. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it might not be what was expected.

The novel begins with a shower of shooting stars, thousands of objects fall and burn across Earth's skies in a clearly artificial way. Subsequent analysis shows these objects were making some form of survey and Earth's population prepares for some sort of alien contact. Years pass, and nothing happens until a strange object is found in the Kuiper belt. The ship Theseus is sent to study this object which turns out to be a massive and very alien craft called Rorschach. Theseus is crewed by a highly trained and very specialised crew. In this future Earth many social problems have been solved (women are now on an equal footing socially and economically with men) and humans are habitually engineered. Our rather unreliable observer Siri (who is supposed to be super reliable) has, for instance, only half a brain. The other half was removed to cure childhood epilepsy and this apparently makes him a near perfect observer. Another crew member has four human personalities in their brain (nicknamed Gang of Four) and yet another is a long extinct species of vampire. Siri has a detailed backstory that explains his personality, but also gives much context about the future world.

All of this allows the author Peter Watts to wax lyrical on the nature of humanity, intelligence and the reality of evolution. This is particularly important when discussing first contact because Rorschach turns out to be really really alien. It defies analysis and understanding. It is deadly to Earth's explorers yet does not act particularly threatening.

As a novel the book is relatively successful, though at times I found the structure difficult (though this turns out to be deliberate) and the musings on life, the universe and everything feel contrived at times. Some of the references seem likely to date quickly (who really uses the word sneaker-net these days) and character nicknames seem contrived in places.

But that said, the story does carry the reader along. If the suspenseful first exploration of the alien craft had some of the atmosphere of the first Alien film then the finale felt a lot like the sequel Aliens. The story is framed within an interesting future history which makes much on how society might change and how humans might allow themselves to develop.

If I'd bought this as a separate novel I might not have rushed to get the sequel. But my edition of Blindsight comes bound together with it's sequel Echopraxia and I'll likely read that soon. It's not what I expected and probably not to everyone's taste, but Blindsight has some great ideas.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Paul Lund & Harry Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell

The bravery of merchant seamen is often overlooked, and despite the horrific realities of the Arctic convoys during World War Two the experiences of those sailors was often discussed only through accounts of the naval escorts.

In 1942 PQ17 sailed from Iceland to the Soviet Union carrying vital supplies intended to alleviate the Russian military crisis during the siege of Stalingrad. What took place afterwards was a disaster of the highest magnitude but was the subject of silence and cover-up by the British government and military.

It was only after the war, and partly because German accounts of the convoy turned out to be more truthful than allied ones, that questions were asked. In the late 1940s and 1950s it became a major issue for the British media who demanded to know why the convoy had been decimated.

Paul Lund and Harry Ludlam's account from the 1970s draws heavily on the accounts of those involved. Paul Lund himself was on board the ASW trawler Lord Austin a small escort ship that was part of the convoy. The book is fascinating in part because it is more than a military history.

PQ17 was a heavily escorted convoy, though it lacked an aircraft carrier. At that time, the greatest naval threat was the Tirpitz and her associated naval ships. Much of PQ17's route was within reach of German air attack, but the Tirpitz was seen as a particular threat because it could easily outgun the escorting warships. Misinformation at the admiralty led to the convoy being ordered the scatter hundreds of miles south-east of Spitzbergen. The escorts were ordered to break off eastwards to engage the surface threat, though this was non-existent. For days afterwards the merchant craft came under sustained air and u-boat attack. Thousands of tonnes of shipping were destroyed and hundreds of men and women lost their lives. Despite the bravery of the armed merchant craft, little could be done to protect the individual ships or small groups and they were easy pickings.

Later analysis would lay the blame squarely at the desk of the First Sea Lord. That would be little comfort to those that were killed or frozen in the cold waters. And while this book finishes with the story of how the truth came out, most of it is an account of those harrowing experiences. I was struck by a number of things reading this. One was the way that the u-boats often surfaced and assisted (sometimes in a minimal way) survivors of life boats and rafts. The other was how many people did survive, picked up by other ships or making extraordinary journeys to land. But perhaps most fascinating are the little bits of social history that come through the personal accounts. Take this description of conditions on Austin after she had picked up dozens of survivors.
On Austin we turned to looking after out guests... They were men of mixed nationalities, Americans from both north and south, and Argentines, Poles, English and Chinese... All were given a double tot of run and then began the problem of feeding and finding sleeping room for eighty-nine extra bodies. The Chinese were very helpful, offering to give a hand in the mess and the galley, and refusing to sleep anywhere but under the whaleback on deck. The survivors as a whole were quite cool. cheerful and fatalistic... We had to improvise nine sittings for meals.. and there was a desperate shortage of cutlery. The white Americans did not like eating or even mixing with the coloured seamen and in the confined space quarrels sprang up between them.
PQ17 forming up off Iceland
Once again we are reminded that World War Two was won by the sacrifices by men of many different backgrounds and nationalities, but that racism was a real experience too.

The other fascinating aspect to this book is the experiences of the survivors when arriving in the Soviet Union - both in terms of the different way of life, but also the social structures. Without pretending that the USSR in the 1940s was a socialist paradise it is interesting to see how the allied men found it surprising to see women playing a leading role in production. All the Russian ships on the convoy had female sailors for instance.

PQ17 remains shorthand for an immense naval disaster. Future convoys certainly learnt from events, but one can't help but feel that this should never have happened. Certainly that is the conclusion of many of those who took part. Lund and Ludlam's book is likely dated and more information is available, but in its accounts from survivors of life on a merchant ship in World War Two and their visit to the Soviet Union it remains extremely fascinating.

Related Reviews

Monsarrat - Three Corvettes
Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea
Turkel - The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Alun Howkins - The Death of Rural England

Alun Howkin's book The Death of Rural England is a sweeping history of the transformation of the English (and occasionally Welsh) countryside in the 20th century. It is a fascinating read, that never loses sight of the fact that the landscape is, and was, shaped by the labours of thousands of men and women and those people today, and their ancestors, remain an integral part of what makes up "the countryside".

The century that Howkin's covers saw enormous change, he points out that "since at least the eighteenth century rural society had been divided into landowners, farmers and labourers. By the 1990s the farm labourer had all but disappeared.... By the 1980s... the majority of country dwellers who lived in the rural areas... had nothing to do with farming as an industry". Why this happens has many factors - not least the full development of capitalist farming and the integration of farms into a wider, national, agricultural system. This was a process that begun in the 19th century and continued to develop, encouraged and accelerated by both world wars. But it was a system that retained many old traditions, often related to employment rights or relations. These often were eroded (or smashed) as part of the transformation of agriculture.

The later part of the 19th century had seen the growth of the first agricultural trade unions. These revived in the early 20th century, encouraged, as Howkin's writes, by a "new kind of rural worker - the railway men". In Lancashire rail workers were central to victories of agricultural workers, because they were "unionised, free from the threat of parson and squire, yet often the sons of farm workers... [they] brought the first signs of a new culture into the countryside of England and Wales".

Agricultural workers' organisations would prove central to ensuring that working people in the countryside could resist the impact of the sweeping changes that were taking place. In particular, the years between the wars, called the "Locust Years" saw enormous poverty in the countryside as workers suffered with the sudden withdrawal of government subsidies for farming. The unions were unable to stop the destruction and "between 1921 and 1931 about 60,000 workers left agriculture and between 1931 and 1939 a further 100,000". As Howkin's points out, for the farmers it was "reducing costs" but to the workers it was "the loss of livelihood and often a way of life".

Additionally we see the rise of mechanised farming. Tractors did not truly supplement animal labour until after the Second World War. Though that war was a key moment in transforming agriculture and I would argue, shifting it towards fossil fuel farming. But we shouldn't simply see the impoverisation of the agricultural labourer as arising out of mechanisation - it was primarily to do with the interests of capitalist farming.

Howkins points out the centrality of women to agricultural labour in this period. His writing is supplemented by many fascinating accounts by women of their own work. The "combined income" of the family was often what kept things going as wages were so low. Here's a description from the "daughter of a jobbing gardener, farm worker and (very) small holder" in Sussex in the 1920s:
With the money that he earned and the garden produce from our own plot of land, we were much better off than before. To supplement fathers income mother made jellies, jams, pickles and wines. They were much in demand... We children had the task of picking the wild fruits in season... We also had to take our turn stirring the great pans.... Some of the ladies in the village would buy a jar but most of it was packed into wooden crates and these would be collected by Carter Paterson the carrier and taken to the various universities that were attended by the young gentlemen of the village.
Howkins points out how the perception of rural England changes too. Increasingly it is seen (and portrayed) as a place of leisure and relaxation - the opposite of the towns and cities. He traces here the development of tourism and how this affected the countryside and argues that today, modern politicians fail to understand the countryside as a place of work and farming. The environmental movement too began to take an interest, especially post 1960s. By the end of the 20th century Howkin's argues, the countryside was in crisis and politicians had lost any view of how to solve things. He argues that the appalling failures of government during the BSE and Foot and Mouth crises reflect this, and that 2002 policy documents showed that Tony Blair's Labour also had not real idea about how to move forward:
The familiar countryside environment - originally a product of farming and damaged by years of intensive production and the social fabric of the countryside (which depends heavily on farming) is being put at risk.
Howkins' argues that in the "battle" between town and country, the town has been "victorious". Now the countryside is the plaything of the urban dweller and everyone else will become subsumed into that. I wasn't entirely convinced - I think it is entirely possible to imagine a re-emergence of "British" agriculture, but it will have to be based on an entirely different system to the highly subsidised, highly capital intensive and highly chemically based agriculture that currently dominates. It will take radical policies from future governments to achieve this, as well as a new approach to the countryside which sees it as more than simply the place that is not the town. Alun Howkin's book has shows us about how the modern countryside has arisen and gives a few pointers to how it could be different.

One small note: My edition of this book was purchased in 2015 and has a number of missing pages due to printing errors. I'm using this platform to record how disappointed I am that I was unable to get the publishers (Routledge's Taylor and Francis Group) to offer a PDF of the four missing pages, never mind a new copy.

Related Reviews

Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Paarlberg - Food Politics
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture & Food in Crisis
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Lavie Tidhar - Central Station

Somewhere about a third of the way through Lavie Tidhar's Central Station I realised that I had been missing a crucial aspect to the novel. The story was not slow in starting, it wasn't actually going to arrive. There isn't really a plot to speak of. Once I'd got my head out of my somewhat traditionalist approach I was able to open up to a fantastic depiction of a rather more hopeful future than we might currently predict.

The titular Central Station is the massive gateway to the world that dominates a future Tel Aviv. This is a Tel Aviv were the Israeli-Arab conflict has been solved in some unexplained way - Arabs, Jews and a plethora of others live side by side, in relative harmony. In fact, the city has become both point of intersection between Earth and space, and a place were people come from across the world in search of wealth, work... or any one of many other options. In one sense Central Station is a liberal fantasy of a multicultural future city, where people live happily together and technology has solved so many woes:
Central Station in spring, when the smell in the air truly is intoxicating. It is a smell of the sea, and of the sweat of so many bodies, their heat and their warmth, and it is the smell of humanity's spices and the cool scent of its many machines; and it is the scent of the resin or sap that sometimes drops from a cut in the eternally renewing adaptoplant neighbourhoods, and of ancient asphalt heating in the sun, and of vanished oranges, and of freshly cut lemongrass: it is the smell of Humanity Prime, that richest and most concentrated of smells; there is nothing like it in the outer worlds.
Ironically, given the setting, it seems that there are no longer any structural problems other than those of personal antagonism and history. Even the "question of Who Is a Jew had been asked not just about the Chong family, but of the robots too, and was settled long ago."

But things aren't perfect. Old robots, their technology and usefulness outdated, beg for spare parts from passers-by, and things feel frayed and dusty. Technology seems magnificent, yet collectors search desperately for old books to add to their collections. Workers fly through virtual reality in a fantastic cyber version of the Elite game, earning real money and fame to take back to the outside world. And a vampire comes. Not a blood sucking Dracula figure, but someone hungry for data, infected on board an interplanetary ship who makes it through quarantine onto Earth.

The chapters are like this, a semi-linked network of individual stories that weave in and out of each other, making a tapestry of a world, a future, but not really going anywhere. Take the bar that Boris Chong drinks in, run by a former lover. It isn't any different to a thousand bars that we might visit today in the 2010s. But that's not the point, this is the future. Things are different, yet they are the same. But for Tidhar, the type of future is important, it is where we might go if we only solve the problems we have today. Take the author's beautifully evoked dream of a day at the beach:
They had gone to the beach that day, it was a summer's day and in Menashiya, Jews and Arabs and Filipinos all mingled together, the Muslim women in their long dark clothes and the children running shrieking in their underwear; Tel Aviv girls in tiny bikinis, sunbathing placidly; someone smoking a joint, and the strong smell of it wafting in the sea air... the life guard in his tower calling out trilingual instructions - 'Keep to the marked areas! Did anyone lose a child? Please come to the lifeguards now! You with the boat, head towards the Tel Aviv harbour and away from the swimming area!' - the words getting lost in the chatter, someone had parked their car and was blaring out beats from the stereo, Somali refugees were cooking a barbecue on the promenade;s grassy part...
Its a beautiful future precisely because it seems so impossible if we look at the reality of Zionism today, the oppression of the Palestinians and racism in Israel. Yet it is a future, and Lavie Tidhar wants it to be real. Something as mundane as a multicultural day at the beach seems impossibly Utopian in today's context, and thus becomes a futuristic fantasy.

Lavie Tidhar's brilliance is partly to do with his ability to describe this future. Both the mundane and the weird. There are some amazing scenes (the part with the suicide clinc is genius for instance). But he also depicts a future so real and possible, yet unreal and impossible too. It certainly is a world worth fighting for, and that's the importance of the book; not the story or what happens to the characters, but the world they live in and what it says about the one we inhabit.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Connie Willis - To Say Nothing of the Dog

In Connie Willis' future world, time travel is possible, but it isn't profitable so corporations have abandoned it, and instead time travel becomes the realm of the historian. But there are catches. Nothing important can be brought back from the past and time travellers are simply not able to visit events of historical importance. The universe seems to have a way of protecting history - changes to the past invariably get fixed, and travellers that might interfere in critical events find themselves unable to visit them. So you couldn't go back in time to assassinate Hitler - you'd find yourself in Berlin at the wrong time, or hundreds of miles away at the right time.

This is the background to what initially seems to be two parallel stories. Ned Henry, a historian of the 20th century, is actually sent back to Victorian times to try and fix a problem caused by another historian. Simultaneously a rich philanthropist who is trying to rebuild Coventry cathedral as it was immediately before its was destroyed by Nazi bombs in World War Two. The two stories turn out to be closely linked as Ned's journey back inadvertently messes up the time lines, potentially changing the future.

It would be foolish to try and summarise the plot here - what I think that readers should do is to dig out the novel themselves and read it. In places it is hilariously funny, particularly in its depictions of the rigid class structured lives of the Victorians and their strange habits. But what really struck me is how clever Willis' plot is. Everything is tied together very satisfyingly at the end with the author never losing track of the multiple timelines and consequences of change. The detail is excellent - almost everything is significant and Willis brilliantly evokes the Victorian era, the Blitz and a university time-travel department run by a cash starved bureaucracy. I also liked the fact that Willis clearly has thought through time travel - our hero (and the reader incidentally) is unable understand the old English spoken when he travels briefly back to the building of Coventry cathedral.

This is a cracking read and I look forward to Willis' other works.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Judith Orr - Abortion Wars: The Fight for Reproductive Rights

Judith Orr's book could not be better timed. With abortion rights in Ireland the subject of an upcoming referendum and Trump's desire to roll back key abortion legislation, the issue is once again part of the political mainstream. Orr's new book charts the history of this fight and the context for today's renewed struggles with a focus on Britain and the US, but also surveying the situation across the world.

She begins the book by pointing out that despite abortion being a common part of women's lives, (about one third of women will have an abortion) it remains a subject very much surrounded by taboos demonstrated recently when a radical left MP in Dublin became on of the first sitting politicians to admit to having an abortion.

Throughout history women have tried to control their fertility. Abortion is one example of this, and in a fascinating chapter, Orr shows numerous examples stretching back to ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece of how women have tried to do this, often through the consumption of plants or drinks that had an abortive affect. She quotes a 2nd century writer on gynaecology describing a prescription that "expels a foetus of three months without any difficulty" and also a study from the 1960s of three hundred "pre-industrial" societies that showed how women worldwide often took drastic steps to end a pregnancy, including "climbing a rope then jumping, or being buried up to their waists, or having hot stones or event hot ashes placed on their bellies".

Such practises were extremely dangerous and no woman would do these on a whim, so no wonder then that historic writings show a "common theme of advice, shared knowledge and skills being reproduced about how to avoid or end unwanted pregnancies". In more modern times this has led to what Orr calls a "web of solidarity" as women (and men) have organised to assist women making the choice to have an abortion. When abortion is restricted or illegal women turn to more dangerous options and Orr has uncovered some horrific stories of the modern consequences of this. In a series of fascinating interviews Orr shows how the fear of backstreet abortions led women to organise to provide advice and assistance.

This is no more true than of Ireland and the story of how people in England organised to assist the numerous women who needed to travel to the UK for abortion is deeply moving. From these beginnings grew a movement that in the 1960s, amid wider radicalisation and struggles for women's rights, helped win the British 1967 Abortion Act. While Orr shows that this legislation (even before amendments) was never as wide as it should have been, it was still a significant victory. The struggles to win the act are amazing, but so were the movements to defend it, culminated in a massive mobilisation of the trade union movement in 1979 which "knocked back the anti-abortionists for years".

Despite the lies and rhetoric of the right and the anti-abortionists "abortion on demand is not a reality" and the vast majority of abortions take place early in a pregnancy. But there has been real success from the right in demonising abortion and creating a stigma around it. The fact that few people talk about abortion leads many to believe it is only a few who have one. This is why abortion rights movement could arise out of a mass movement for women's liberation, in part because it allowed women to discuss these issues and get organised around them. In one of the interviews in the book a woman recalls going to a women's meeting and being approached afterwards by many of the attendees to talk about their experiences or those of a friend or family member.

The link between women's rights and abortion rights is a key theme to Orr's book. She argues that abortion rights and the right of a woman to control her own body cannot be separated from wider women's rights.  She explains,
The experiences of women several millennia ago, through to the early campaigners and those who documented the lived experiences of working-class women, are still valid to this very day. They taught us that women cannot play a full role in society while they can't control their fertility. They also showed that whatever the law and state of medical knowledge, working-class women have consistently been denied the best available birth control and abortion services that wealthy women have always been able to access.
This class question is important. Orr shows how even with supportive legislation, poorer women still cannot access care as easily as those with money. One of the strategies of the anti-abortionists has been to make it harder for women to travel to centres, to need more medical "opinions" and multiple visits for what might actually be a relatively quick procedure. This is particularly the case in the United States and the sections on the challenges faced to women looking for advice or abortion in the US, and those who want to offer support and medical assistance are shocking.

While the book was upsetting in places and emotional, I was also left with a real sense of hope. Orr shows us that struggle by women and men has won real gains in many countries, and recent examples from places like South Korea and Poland are part of this. Despite Trump wanting to undermine legislation and right-wing populists around the world attacking women's rights there is a sense in Orr's book that if we learn from the past we can defeat the bigots today and make real gains in the future. In the British parliament in 1967 Labour MP Christopher Price summed up the struggle that had led to the Abortion Act:
The Bill will pass into law because of the demands of public opinion. When I have mixed with people both inside and outside the House who want the Bill, it has often occurred to me that this is not about abortion at all; it is part of the process of emancipation of women which has been going on gradually for over a very long period.
The public opinion behind the Bill is millions of women up and down the country who are saying 'We will no longer tolerate this system whereby men lay down, as though by right, the moral laws, particularly those relating to sexual behaviour, about how women should behave.
What was true in the 1960s is as true today, and Judith Orr's book is a powerful weapon in the hands of those who want to defend and extend the rights of women to control their lives and their bodies.

Related Reviews

Orr - Marxism and Women's Liberation
Orr - Sexism and the System
Rowbotham - Hidden from History

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.

Resistance

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.

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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.

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Levins & Lewontin - The Dialectical Biologist