Issue 238 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Over a barrel
Ed: Abdel-Fatua Musah and Niobe Thompson
Institute of Commonwealth Studies £15
The end of the Cold War heralded a major shift in the direction of arms sales. Weapons producers in the industrialised countries found that their previously secure home markets of national armed forces were shrinking. Exports became the name of the game.
Heavy equipment such as submarines, ships, tanks, complex air-to-air missiles and high-tech planes were less saleable than lighter weapons. These included the ever popular Russian-designed AK-47 automatic rifles (there are over 50 million in existence), the ground-to-air Stinger missile supplied by the US to the Mujahideen for the drugs-funded war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, portable mortars and explosive devices of all kinds. Around $50 million, the cost of a jet fighter, will buy enough assault weapons to equip an army of 200,000.
The obvious sales targets were Third World countries, many run by regimes anxious to buy arms to keep popular democracy at bay. Indonesia is a classic example, and it's no surprise that New Labour has decided--after a short pause to allow the memory of East Timor atrocities to fade--to again permit British manufacturers to export weapons to the same military forces that supported ex-president Suharto.
Most member states of the British Commonwealth are poor. Quite a few are run by people whose sleep is unlikely to be disturbed by thoughts of parliamentary democracy or the right to peaceful protest. Many have bought arms at the expense of housing, irrigation, health and education. The book reveals that: Pakistan spends $2.40 on defence for every $1 spent on education. Only 40 percent of children receive primary education. Two out of three adults are illiterate... In India 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line yet. India and Pakistan together account for almost a fifth of global arms imports... Nigeria spends over four times more on defence as on education and 13 times more than on health... Mozambique has 10 million small arms distributed amongst a population of 15 million.
The book's theme is the lack of human rights in this 'family of nations', and the authors show clearly how their suppression is linked to the demand for arms imports. This trade is further stimulated by the efforts of the British Ministry of Defence and the DTI to sell even more weapons 'to protect British jobs'. This was the same argument used to justify Britain's lucrative slave trade. 'Ethical' protests by Robin Cook and the foreign office cut no ice with Wing Commander Blair and the UK arms lobby.
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative makes a number of recommendations. These include: the prohibition of 'the tran sfer of military, security and police weapons... unless such transfers promote human rights.' 'To broaden the concept of illicit or illegal trafficking to include transfers of arms to any entity guilty of abusing human rights.' Such principles were swept aside by our prime minister when he despatched Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of Defence Staff, to sound out the military leaders of Pakistan with a view to resuming the arms sales which were temporarily suspended, along with its Commonwealth membership, after the coup. He has overruled Robin Cook by ordering the supply of spare parts for the Hawk aircraft to Zimbabwe, to be used by that almost bankrupt country in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda, another Commonwealth member, is arming the other side. Zimbabwe is run by the notoriously homophobic Robert Mugabe and his corrupt generals who have pocketed small fortunes from the diamond and cobalt mines in the Congo.
Over a Barrel is an extremely informative reference book which successfully avoids the empty rhetoric heard at Commonwealth conferences. A copy should be sent to Prince Philip. He could learn what really goes on in those far away countries that he visits with his wife.
Farewell to an idea
T J Clark
Yale University Press £30
Any useful discussion of modern art needs to consider its relationship to the wider world. TJ Clark's new book focuses on seven 'moments' of Modernism, starting surprisingly early with a painting by the French revolutionary David, of Marat murdered in his bath and ending with a discussion of the work of the American Abstract Expressionists.
In the best chapters Clark links an intense examination of particular paintings with a detailed account of their historical context. He discusses the work of Russian revolutionary artists El Lissitsky and Malevich in the context of the War Communism of 1920. He shows how the ambitions of these artists to remake the world through art connected with the needs of the workers' state to survive a desperate time through strength of will and the inspiration of a hoped for utopian future.
The chapter on David's painting of Marat argues that the relative blankness and openness of the painting (characteristic of much modern art) had a political origin. The various forces in the French revolution were themselves fighting over the interpretation of Marat's life: 'Marat was...a disputed object, pulled to and fro by the play of factions.' More than that, David's task was to paint Marat as one of the people, almost as a symbol of the people itself, but it had to be the Jacobin idea of the people, one 'free from empirical detail, lest the actual distinctions and tensions that existed within the people's ranks take on political form'. Clark argues that it was through such breakdown in certainties that art was forced to become conscious of itself as technique.
The depth of Clark's research is impressive. The detective work he conducts on it is fascinating and easy to follow as almost every picture he mentions is beautifully reproduced. But sometimes Clark seems so enthralled by the specific moment of production that he doesn't look up and ask bigger questions.
This is part of a wider problem. It is possible to piece together the fragments of an argument about Modernism's various sources of energy from the book.
In the introduction Clark says Modernism is 'caught interminably between the horror and elation of the forces driving it'; he talks about the poles of voluntarism and positivism which were always present but that Modernists 'lack the basis on which its wishes might be reconciled'. Putting it another way later in the book he talks about the 'magic work which Modernism still believed possible, of soldering together the aesthetic and the social'.
These tantalising comments suggest a materialist analysis linking Modernism to fascination and fear of new technologies, to a complex reponse to new social forces. But the analysis is never properly developed.
Part of the reason no doubt is an understandable fear of over interpretation. Visual art cannot be nailed down in words or contained in neat theoretical frameworks.
But there's more to it than this--Clark is positively defensive about his theorising, a defensiveness that seems to come from pessimism. His fear that Modernism is at an end is linked to the notion that it was only ever an idea or a dream.
And behind that lies the fear that socialism, the only outcome that he recognises could resolve the agonising tension at the heart of modernism, was also never more than an idea, and perhaps a flawed one at that.
Clark's pessimism about the future leaves his argument unnecessarily tentative. The sources of Modernism have not dried up. There are artists today trying to find ways of recording and overcoming alienation. New crises and new outbreaks of struggle against the system will find new generations of artists once again trying to 'solder the aesthetic and the social'.
The European Union and Migrant Labour
Ed: Gareth Dale and Mike Cole
Berg Publishers £14.99
As the new millennium kicks off, the number of people living in poverty around the globe continues to rise, and wars and so called natural disasters continue to create huge movements of refugees desperate for stability and better lives. This book constitutes an excellent Marxist analysis of the movements and the restrictions on migrant labour in the emerging European Union. The lofty ideals of the European Union--the notions of human rights, minority rights, the freedom of movement across borders, equality under the law within democratic frameworks--are belied by the living conditions for those seeking a better life within EU borders.
The authors show how the 20th century saw huge migrations of people into, out of and across Europe. Two world wars, various revolutions and revolts, and the rise of poisonous nationalism with example after example of what in the 1990s was dubbed 'ethnic cleansing' have meant millions of people being uprooted, displaced, terrorised and forced to settle elsewhere. The periodic crises, booms and slumps saw millions forced to seek better lives through emigration from Europe or from the poorer parts of Europe to the richer parts. Periods of economic growth created labour shortages that drew millions more workers from the poorer parts of southern and eastern Europe, and from the various empires and former empires of the principal imperialist countries. Active official recruitment policies in France, Britain and Germany in particular sucked in millions of African, Asian and Turkish workers to fill jobs.
While the process of globalisation continues to create greater freedom of movement for capital and material goods, more and more walls seem to be erected by nation states. The past decade or two have seen significant tightenings of immigration and asylum controls in virtually every major European country. How do we explain such an apparent contradiction between nation states seeking free movement of capital, materials and open access to markets, while also seeking to severely circumscribe free movement of the third factor of production, labour? Or, as Gareth Dale puts it, 'Freedom of movement, defended as a right for capital, is seen as a privilege for labour.' Doesn't such restriction run counter to the basic economic dynamic of capitalism? At a purely economic level the answer is yes. However, in order for the capitalist system to make possible the extraction of surplus value from workers, the living breathing beings who constitute the 'labour factor', much more is necessary in order to control that factor, divide the international working class and undermine working class consciousness.
Nigel Harris and Gareth Dale take on a different aspect of the same issue. Elsewhere Nigel Harris has taken a relatively rosy view of the process of the internationalisation of capital and he reiterates such a view here when he writes that 'an antiquated national political order is being dragged along by a world economy. There are many cruelties and injustices involved in the process. But within this, world interest and a universal morality are likewise struggling to be reborn after the long dark night of nationalism and the god-like state that insulated world capitalism. There are grounds for cautious optimism.'
Fortunately, other authors in this book see such optimism as wrongheaded. It is one thing to reject the notion that capitalism's collapse is imminent every time there's a financial crisis, but it's quite another to imply that capitalism will emerge of its own accord into the sunny uplands of world peace and a 'universal morality'--especially given the evidence of the 20th century.
Black Workers Remember
Michael Keith Honey
University of California Press £18.50
One of the great legacies of the struggle for black liberation has been the flourishing of black literature and studies. What has not always been evident in these accounts, however, has been the continuity between the civil rights and Black Power movements and those hidden struggles that preceded them. In addition, we rarely see the day to day struggles of black workers.
Black Workers Remember is an imaginative attempt to bring this hidden history to the fore. The book takes the form of a series of personal accounts told to the author. These are interspersed with Honey's own interpretation of events.
The book is centred upon Memphis, Tennessee, a city in the heart of the plantation region and once the slave trading capital of the South. By the 1930s it had become an industrial centre with a sizeable population of black and white workers competing with each other for jobs and homes. The main employer for many decades was the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Plant, a massive factory employing between 3,000 and 7,000 workers, from which Honey recruited the majority of his interviewees.
What comes across most in the interviews is the quiet dignity and pride of these workers. These are men and women who had been told throughout their lives that they would amount to nothing. In many of the interviews one can sense the subject's surprise that anyone should wish to hear their story. We hear witness accounts of lynchings at the hands of the police. A Firestone worker recalls how he was literally railroaded out of town for organising a union. We hear about the heroic furniture strike of 1949, and from participants in the 1968 sanitation strike. It was in the midst of organising support for this struggle that Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated on 4 April. Elsewhere a group of women relate how throughout their working lives they worked a full shift at Firestone and then proceeded to their second jobs as domestic servants in white households.
There is a clear sense in these interviews of how workers learn from, and grow through, their own experiences. They are aware of the petty and irrational prejudices of the Jim Crow system. They are passionate about the significance of organising the union. Many of them are also acutely aware that it was the bosses who were the beneficiaries of the division between black and white workers. There is an inevitable unevenness in the various accounts. However, far from significantly weakening the narrative, these discrepancies reflect the inevitably contradictory consciousness of workers under capitalism.
Oral history such as this is not simply an exercise in nostalgia. It has a critical role to play in conveying the contribution of the hidden masses, those people who do not normally gain access to the media and printing presses. Honey has done us a great service by giving voice to this generation. 'I hope I was some help to you and to younger people,' remarks Leroy Boyd, a key union activist. He goes on to express the hope that '...my living will not be in vain. The union is the people. You got to have your people with you. If everybody fighting for one cause, you got a strong union.'
Canaries on the Rim
The US military and corporate America have systematically polluted the great deserts of the west, callously using the great plains and canyons first to test nuclear and chemical weaponry in the 1950s and 1960s, then setting up giant incinerating plants in the 1980s and 1990s.
Chip Ward moved to one of the small towns in Utah around the rim of the Great Basin with his family in the late 1970s. Ward frames his story around three main themes.
Firstly, he explains how the Cold War period accelerated environmental destruction and destroyed tens of thousands of lives. For example, in this period more American women died of breast cancer than all the Americans killed in the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined.
Ward details the conscious way that the military and big business tested nuclear and chemical weapons in the Great Basin with the compliance of the Mormon-dominated state authority of Utah. When the rest of America's children were being told to 'duck and cover', the children of Utah were being encouraged to climb onto the rooftops to watch the blasts from the nuclear tests. Then under the Reagan years in the 1980s the military had a 'feeding frenzy'. They were given the go ahead to build an underground nuclear complex in the Great Basin. This would involve 200 multiple nuclear warheads, 2,000 warheads in all, which would be hidden under 4,600 shelters scattered across the desert floor. Fortunately, this madmen's plan was stopped due to a combination of campaigning and cost.
The second theme which provides the backdrop to the story is how pollution 'becomes you'. The pollution is not simply wrecking the environment, but at the same time, is destroying us and our children's lives. Human beings carry about 250 synthetic industrial chemicals in their blood and tissue, and 98 percent of dioxins we are exposed to come to us through the food we eat, especially beef and dairy products. The wind carries these dioxins into the water, soil, plants and animals, and from there they 'bioaccumulate' up the food chain.
It is this that motivated Ward and others in his community to start to organise against dioxins spewing out of the Toole County army incinerator. Living downwind from the incinerator they were horrified to find, whilst petitioning to close the plant, clusters of cancer victims, children born with deformities and whole families with chronic illness. This spurred them on to go further round the rim, and they found that every town had families who told the same horrific stories.
The third theme which Ward alerts us to is the impact of globalisation. Everything that makes up our diet has corn syrup, corn gluten, dextrose, soya oil or soya protein, most of which comes from places like Illinois, where more than 50 million gallons of industrial waste are pumped into the ground each year. The point he is making is that there can be no 'not in my backyard' approach to fighting the poisoning of our environment. Like the canaries kept in the coal mines to warn miners of the presence of dangerous fumes, the experience of the people who live on the rim of the basin are a warning to the rest of us.
Ward's aim is not simply to expose the barbarity of big business and the military but also to provide a handbook for activists. But the book has real limitations. It is hindered by Ward's inability to locate the military competition and the drive for profit within capitalism. But weaknesses aside, this is a book worth reading.
The Scottish Nation 1700--2000
T M Devine
New times in Scotland and a new history of modern Scotland. This book has been a bestseller north of the border, but reading The Scottish Nation 1700--2000 I am left thinking, is this as good as it gets?
What makes modern Scotland's history interesting? The answer must surely centre on two major periods of change. The first came in the second half of the 18th century. Within one lifetime, Scotland had gone from an essentially feudal state on the periphery of Europe into the heartland of the new agrarian and industrial revolution. That change was reflected in the richness of the Scottish Enlightenment when Edinburgh was at the ideological and scientific centre of the world. A physical reminder of this lies in the contrast between Edinburgh's feudal old town and the Georgian splendour of the new town to which the bourgeoisie decamped at this time.
Devine covers this, but there is no real analysis of why this happened. England experienced its bourgeois revolution in the 17th century and went through a much longer process building up to the industrial revolution. A clue as to what happened in Scotland is that virtually every major change took place in the years after 1746 and the defeat of the Jacobite army at Culloden.
Having brought together a union of parliaments in 1707, Westminster had hoped it had secured its northern flank and the Hanoverian succession. Despite Jacobite risings in 1715 and 1719, London essentially left Scotland alone. Feudalism survived, though increasingly it was in crisis. In the aftermath of Culloden the British state acted to destroy feudal power, not just in the Highlands but in the Lowlands as well.
Already changes were under way. For instance the Duke of Argyll, head of the powerful Campbell clan, had already began to clear his tenants to make way for sheep, and to find other commercial ways to maximise revenue. The second great change which Devine underplays comes earlier in the 20th century, the years of the Red Clyde. For Devine this is simply reduced to the seemingly inexorable rise of the Labour Party.
If you had taken a picture of Scotland in 1900 you would have seen a country in which the Liberal Party held sway. So confident was it that, unlike in England and Wales, it did not feel under pressure to adopt Lib-Lab candidates for parliament. The Scottish working class was less organised than in England and Wales.
Yet once again pressures were at work underneath the surface. Glasgow was transformed by the second industrial revolution into a major engineering centre. It had a higher percentage of skilled workers than most other British cites, but these engineers were already under pressure from new technology. The city's housing problems were horrendous, as Devine makes clear.The First World War saw a further influx of workers into the city as it became a major armaments centre. Pressure grew for the deskilling of engineering jobs.
The years 1915 and 1916 saw Marxists like John Maclean win a wide audience in the working class for his anti-war stance and his classes in Marxist economics. Radical shop stewards organised independently of the pro-war, anti-strike union chiefs. Glasgow created the Clyde Workers' Committee grouping shop stewards from across the city. In embyro it can be compared to the soviets and workers' councils which would be formed one or two years later in Petrograd, Berlin, the Ruhr, Turin, Barcelona and Budapest. Again, almost overnight, Glasgow went from being at the rearguard of the British working class to the vanguard.
You won't get an analysis of this in Devine's book, and it's the weaker for it. Nevertheless, it contains a wealth of useful information. And reading it you come away aware that Scotland and its ruling class profited from the Union, and in particular from the British Empire in which Scots were a leading partner.