Issue 263 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
South End Press £7.99
'To be a writer--supposedly a famous writer--in a country where 300 million people are illiterate is a dubious honour,' writes Arundhati Roy in this latest collection of her essays. Roy's way of addressing this contradiction has been to use her fame to give a voice to those who feel they have no power. She has obviously been effective, for she faced a prison sentence this year for standing up to the Indian High Court which had allowed a massive dam project to go ahead that will mean 25 million people losing their homes and livelihoods. The absurd charges against her are reprinted here, which include the accusation that she has been involved in 'vulgar debunking' of the justice system!
Power Politics shows why the authorities so fear Roy. She is angry, articulate and principled--a powerful combination. The first two essays are on the issue for which she is most famous, the Indian government's dam building programme and her account is devastating. For instance, she writes that planners 'boast that India consumes 20 times more electricity today than it did 50 years ago... They omit to mention that 70 percent of rural households still have no electricity.' The dam building programme that is feeding this expansion will not help these people, and for the up to 56 million people displaced by big dams in the last 50 years there is still not a national rehabilitation policy to resettle them.
Roy has been outspoken ever since 11 September against Bush's 'war on terrorism'. She understands that it wasn't the US's 'freedoms' that the suicide bombers hated, but 'the US government's record of commitment to and support for exactly the opposite things--to military and economic terrorism, insurgency, military dictatorship, religious bigotry...' She argues that even the biggest military arsenal in the world can't stamp this feeling out: 'Anger...slips through customs unnoticed. Doesn't show up in baggage checks.'
In 'War is Peace' she spells out the hypocrisy of the war. She mocks the ludicrous sight of food being dropped with bombs: 'Imagine if the Taliban government was to bomb New York city, saying all the while that its real target was the US government and its policies. And suppose, during breaks between the bombing, the Taliban dropped a few thousand packets containing nan and kebabs impaled on an Afghan flag. Would the good people of New York ever find it in themselves to forgive the Afghan government?'
This is good stuff and confirms that Roy is as determined as ever to stand out against injustice, not just in India, but internationally. She is one of the new voices of resistance against capitalism and has shown she won't be silenced. But what makes her stance so valuable is that she is an activist and derives inspiration from the activity and struggles of ordinary people. One of the most moving passages in the book describes her experience walking with 4,000 people to a dam site to take on the police: 'They came in tractors, in bullock carts and on foot. They came prepared to be beaten, humiliated and taken to prison.' They walked in silence for three hours through the night and succeeded in capturing the dam site before being arrested but 'we were not just fighting against a dam. We were fighting for a philosophy. For a world view.'
Power Politics shows how lucky the movement is to have this Booker Prize winner using her wonderful writing to fight the system. As she says, 'The only thing worth globalising is dissent.'
Fantasy is one of the most popular forms of fiction today. A visit to any bookshop will reveal row after row of fantasy novels, mostly adventure stories but with a growing comedy section as well (mostly written by Terry Pratchett). The great bulk of these novels are set in some sort of romanticised feudal society where good is battling against evil, the lower classes know their place and magic works. There are elves, dwarves, trolls, dragons, princes and princesses, wizards and, inevitably, those most maligned of fictional creatures, orcs, the despised proletariat of conservative fantasy. This is the sub-Tolkien realm of formula writing, conservative with a small 'c', that lulls the imagination rather than stimulates it, escapist literature in the worse sense of the word.
This particular tradition of conservative fantasy has not gone unchallenged, however. Michael Moorcock, a prolific anarchist writer, has for many years contested this literary terrain, as well as finding time to heap abuse on the likes of Bilbo Baggins and the rest of the Kulaks--oops! I mean Hobbits--who have overrun the fantastic. He situates himself in a rival fantasy tradition, a subversive tradition that looks back not to Tolkien, but to Mervyn Peake and the Gormenghast novels. China Miéville stands in this tradition.
The Scar is a return to the world of his earlier novel, Perdido Street Station, that won the British Fantasy and the Arthur C Clarke awards last year. Its central protagonist, Bellis Coldwine, only had a peripheral part in that marvellous tale, but now we join her fleeing for her life from the city of New Crobuzon as the authorities 'disappear' everyone connected with the events of the previous book. She takes a ship into reluctant exile, accompanying a cargo of Remade convicts, one of Miéville's most memorable inventions. Among the convicts is the redoubtable Tanner Sack, a working man 'remade' with tentacles.
The ship is captured by pirates, the ship's officers are slaughtered, the Remades set free, and the passengers and crew conscripted into the population of the great floating republic of Armada, a seaborne city made up of hundreds of ships captured over centuries, welded and bound together, the home of thousands of people of every species and kind. Armada is without a doubt one of the most remarkable creations in modern fantasy literature, a creation that puts to shame the shallow royalism of most contemporary fantasy.
For Tanner Sack, Armada means freedom and the opportunity to realise his potential, to remake himself as he wants, but for Bellis Coldwine, temporary exile from New Crobuzon has now become permanent, something she will not accept. As Armada's rulers begin their great project of harnessing the forces that are loose in the Scar, Bellis and Tanner both become unwittingly involved in the conspiracy to bring Armada down.
The quality of Miéville's writing is often breathtaking, his skill at characterisation unsurpassed, but in many ways even more remarkable is his sheer inventiveness, the genius with which he creates and populates his fantastic world. The scabmettlers, the gengris, the anophelii, are all wonderful inventions that give the book a richness that lifts it above the great bulk of contemporary fantasy. Uther Doul, the brooding enigmatic strongman, loyal follower of the self mutilating lovers, possessor of the Possible Sword, would keep most contemporary fantasy writers going for trilogy after trilogy. Here he is but one of a number of characters contesting the fate of Armada. And in the end it is a tale about power and wealth, freedom and comradeship.
Without any doubt, China Miéville is one of the giants of contemporary fantasy literature. His only serious rival at the moment is Mary Gentle, another fine writer well worth a look. If you enjoyed Perdido Street Station, rest assured The Scar, for my money, is even better. We have not yet seen the best of China Miéville.
The Invasion Handbook
Faber and Faber £12.99
|Off to fight Franco|
What caused the Second World War? What personal, political or intellectual flaws led Western leaders to create the conditions for the rise of fascism? Tom Paulin's new poem, The Invasion Handbook, explores these questions.
Anyone who has enjoyed Tom Paulin's appearances on Newsnight Review, his defence of the Bloody Sunday dramas and recent attacks on Israel, will not be surprised to learn that he is a partisan poet. He is on the side of the poor, the republicans, the socialists and the Jews.
The Invasion Handbook is a poem built on a series of contrasts. The despicable corruption of Europe's leaders contrasts with the pain and heroism of ordinary soldiers and civilians caught up in the war. So do the descriptions of grand political set pieces and the minutiae of daily life which Paulin makes into symbols of mortality, love and fear. The poem itself is made up of a variety of excerpts from diaries, longer poems and short, direct verses.
It begins with the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919. The preoccupations of the vain and foolish politicians who gathered at Versailles are cut through with voices of skeletons, the men killed in their wars. Paulin describes the stormy years of the Weimar Republic when beggars threw 100,000 mark notes into the gutter and 'cross-dressing became popular': 'Berliners are schlagfertig--ready to strike, always with a reply on the tip of the tongue. They never returned a Nazi majority.'
The mind of Hitler is 'like some huge barbarian monolith, surrounded by a festering heap of refuse--old tins and dead vermin, ashes and eggshells and ordure--the intellectual detritus of centuries'.
One poem is about the Jarrow hunger marches. What, Paulin askes, rhymes with Jarrow?
'the real rhyme
--that is the pith
the bony marrow
in this call it cultural primer
was with harrow
that dragged with it hunger and hell
joined to the juddering j of justice.'
Another poem tells briefly about Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War and the ending of revolutionary hopes:
'No pasaran! No pasaran!
that massed cry
like the fuse of a lark's song
as firing squads take up positions...
so no one now can dream
of a new democracy
exact as a sunbeam
warming the mud
at the bottom of the well.'
All the major events of interwar Europe appear in these verses--Stalin's purges, Kristallnacht, the invasion of Poland. Many of the major political and intellectual figures also make an appearance--Lenin, George Orwell, Walter Benjamin.
Despite Paulin's left wing sympathies and the breadth of his vision, his political insight is not always clear. He seems to believe that the present is rooted in the past to such an extent that there are no historical breaks and crises, only continuity. So the anti-Semitism of the Nazis is somehow linked to enlightenment tradition. And a dying Trotsky contemplates his failure:
'It looked like the bodies
of those Krondstadt sailors
lying on the snow.'
The poem is challenging. Paulin follows in the modernist footsteps of poets like TS Eliot, using obscure historical and literary references. He combines them with sharp, simple verses but the poem can still be a difficult read. Anyone making the effort will be rewarded by a unique insight into some great events and characters of the last century.
Five Past Midnight in Bhopal
Simon and Schuster £17.99
The tragedy of a toxic leak from Carbide's pesticide factory in Bhopal, India resulted in the worst industrial disaster in history, causing over 30,000 deaths and 50,000 injuries, and is felt almost 20 years after 'the event'. It was a request for help setting up a clinic that prompted Dominique Lapienne to spend three years searching for the truth behind the leak.
Carbide emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and became one of the mightiest US chemical companies. The company rose to prominence during the First World War producing components for armour plating and gasmasks. Further advances in warfare were to see Carbide collaborate in the Manhattan project to produce the first atomic bomb 25 years later.
The early 1960s had seen severe food shortages across the whole of India. A new variety of high-yielding corn led to the green revolution across the country. The high yields required greater amounts of fertilizer, water and also pesticide. A new market opened up for the growing agribusinesses.
When Carbide arrived in Bhopal there was much excitement. The daily wage of 20 rupees was a small fortune to the impoverished inhabitants. But Carbide 'was founded on one religion alone: the religion of profit. The blue and white hexagon was not a symbol of progress; it was just a commercial logo.'
Sevin, the pesticide that Carbide was to produce in Bhopal, contained one of the most toxic known chemicals, methyl iso-cyanate (MIC). Bottles containing the chemical are marked 'Fatal if inhaled' and on contact with a few drops of water or a few grams of metal dust it undergoes an uncontrollably violent reaction. The US Carbide plant that contained MIC had an impressive arsenal of safety equipment. But the results of Carbide's own toxicological tests were so terrifying that the company prohibited their publication. So it is hardly surprising that when Carbide's envoys went to Bhopal they failed to mention the toxicity of Sevin's ingredients.
Unfortunately for Carbide it could not sell the amounts of Sevin needed to maintain a profitable operation in Bhopal. The experts who understood the risks and who knew the safety procedures left India. The factory stopped producing pesticide, but the tanks of MIC remained.
The night when 63 tons of MIC leaked from the factory had started in celebration. The Ishtema festival brought thousands of pilgrims from all over India, as well as from Pakistan and Afghanistan, to Bhopal. The slum inhabitants were also celebrating. The descriptions of the disaster are horrific. The main killer that night was hydocyanide acid. The pathologists who performed autopsies found blood as thick as jelly; lungs the colour of ash secreting frothy liquids, and hearts, livers and spleens that had tripled in size. The bravery of the hospital workers, surrounded by immense suffering, was great.
Outside the hospital others did what they could to ameliorate the disaster. The station coolies attempted to stop a packed incoming train by standing in its path and were killed. But there was much cowardice from those in authority. The head of the local government, Commissioner Singh, attempted to order barricades to stop people leaving the area. There was suspicion that only one month away from elections he was scared that the exodus would cause a loss of votes.
The intricate details of the lives and deaths of those living and working around the factory are meshed with extensive descriptions of the dealings that enabled the building of such a dangerous facility. Using one tragic event, this book successfully exposes the inability of a profit driven market to ensure safety and environmental protection.
The Wearing of the Green
Over the last two centuries Irish people living in Britain have contributed to many campaigns and protest movements. But those few historians who have told their story, have most often written out this fighting past. Mike Herbert's history is the first full length account to give this radical history due weight.
Herbert does not just tell the story of the Manchester Irish, but locates their narrative within the linked stories of the movements for Irish independence, and of British working class history.
One of the important themes of Herbert's book is that there has been a common workers' movement on both sides of the Irish Sea. Frederick Engels described the poverty suffered by many Irish people living in Manchester in the 1840s. Many of the leading Chartists were of Irish descent, including Feargus O'Connor, who named his paper the Northern Star, after the journal of the United Irishmen. Twenty years later Karl Marx warned the British workers that, unless they emancipated themselves from anti-Irish racism, they would never be free.
The 30 years before 1914 marked an early high point in the struggle of Irish people for national liberation. Their cause was celebrated in this country by huge marches, which fired the imagination of Eleanor Marx, among others. In the great strikes of 1889 many of the most important activists were Irish. In the first emergence of Irish working class struggles, leading trade unionists frequently toured Manchester, Liverpool and London, calling for support. James Larkin was born in Liverpool, but became famous for the part he played in struggles in Ireland.
These struggles culminated in the war of independence from 1918 to 1921, with Irish forces led by Michael Collins. Some people living in England supported the empire, including those men who volunteered to serve in the murderous Black and Tans. But others supported Irish freedom. Arms were sent from Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow. Machine guns were even smuggled through England to Ireland by supporters of the Third International.
In January 1922 representatives of the Irish parliament signed a peace treaty with Britain, even though this deal left the British in possession of the North. Over the next 40 years reaction triumphed on both sides of the border, with corrupt local ruling classes bolstered by religion. These were decades of high Irish migration to Britain.
Among the most interesting chapters of this book are those which deal with recent developments, including the history of the movements which were set up to defend people caught up in the web of British repression in Ireland. There are favourable descriptions of such leading left activists as Eamonn McCann and Bernadette Devlin. Mike Herbert argues that the backlash following the Birmingham pub bombings forced a vibrant civil rights movement onto the defensive, and it was only after the 1981 hunger strikes that a mass movement could be reborn. The final sections of this books are devoted to the work of the Irish in Britain Representation Group, which has campaigned since the early 1980s in defence of Irish people living in Britain.
There were many things I enjoyed about this book. It is accessible, written for activists and workers, not academics. Different radical traditions are considered sympathetically, so that readers can choose for themselves which group to identify with. It is an original, lively book that will leave readers with a sense of both anger and hope.
Iain Ferguson, Michael Lavalette and Gerry Mooney
When Tony Blair got into Downing Street, he threatened to 'think the unthinkable' about welfare. For Blair, this phrase was a code for launching an assault on the fundamentals of the welfare state itself through tuition fees for students, NHS privatisation, cutting single mums' benefits and a host of other attacks.
The 'rethinking' of welfare in this book is a challenge to all Blair stands for. It gives an analysis of welfare 'that is committed both to the expansion of state welfare in the present and the abolition of capitalism and its exploitative social relations in the future'.
The book puts the debates about welfare in the context of capitalist globalisation and the way governments across the world are pushing through a neoliberal agenda which has had a devastating impact on welfare. The book is packed with useful facts and figures. It shows how neoliberalism has meant slashing welfare programmes, and privatising services, alongside blaming, criminalising and abandoning the poor.
But the book is much more than an overview of the current state of affairs. Crucially it provides a Marxist analysis that looks at the contradictions of welfare and places it in the context of the totality of the relationships of exploitation in capitalist society. They argue, 'State welfare is not a distinct or separate area of social life but exists, and is intimately tied to, the central drives and social relations of capitalism. State welfare may help alleviate, to some small degree, the worst manifestations of poverty, for example, but poverty itself is created by capitalism.'
Each chapter takes a detailed and wide-ranging look at aspects of Marxist theory such as alienation, oppression, the family and class struggle. They show how capitalism controls and distorts us, and then blames invididuals for ills the system has created.
So in the chapter on alienation, for example, the authors show how the capitalist system depersonalises and alienates individuals. They argue that it is the powerlessness and lack of control that people have over their lives which leads people to behave in violent or anti-social ways. The authors contend that, while the neoliberal onslaught means we have to fight to defend welfare, that does not mean that the demand for a decent welfare state is the end of the story. In capitalist society welfare provision can 'reinforce inequality, oppression and exploitation'. Our fight to defend services or campaigns against privatisation has to be part of a much bigger fight against the capitalist system itself.
The book draws its inspiration and hope from the flourishing anti-capitalist movement. As the authors note, 'The final years of the 20th century and the opening years of the 21st have seen a return to commitment on a mass scale, a reawakening of the realisation that human action can challenge and change the structures and policies which condemn millions to lives of drudgery.'
At Swim, Two Boys
This story interweaves the innocence and romance of two boys falling in love with a sharp narrative on the political climate and events leading to the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. The main characters' fathers, Mr Mack and Mr Doyle, joined the British army and served together. They are both Catholics and are now back in Ireland and living in a small coastal town near Dublin where their lives diverge. Mr Mack, a small corner shop owner, sees himself on the up moving into respectable society. He sees his old friend Mr Doyle as a drunk letting his family fall into poverty. Their sons, Jim Mack and Doyler, become very close friends and fall in love with each other. Their story is set against the First World War and the developing turmoil in an Ireland under imperialist occupation which climaxes with the 1916 Easter Rising.
Both Jim Mack and Doyler pass scholarship exams, but Doyler's family cannot afford to have him at school any longer. He is furious and leaves town to stay with his mother's people in County Clare. While he is away there is an upsurge of class struggle which results in the Dublin lockouts. He is so impressed by the struggle that he fantasises about taking part in it. Doyler returns to town and finds work as a 'dungman's lad'--he wears a red hand badge and calls himself a socialist. Jim Mack, the younger of the two, is continuing education and believes his vocation lies with the priesthood. He struggles with his conscience and his sexuality under the depraved supervision of the priests at the local school.
O'Neill's story is told from different perspectives. Jim and Doyler are growing up in an uncertain world in the midst of an illicit relationship. Doyler and his family expose the hardness and poverty of the lives of the vast majority of people. Mr Mack, the small business man, constantly wavers between looking up to his superiors--the British ruling class, the Irish Nationalist bourgeoisie and the church--and having sympathy and contempt for the lower classes. Eva MacMurrough, a local land owner, sees a golden age of Ireland through her own noble family history and the fight for Irish independence. Her nephew Anthony has the arrogant confidence of his class but at the same time understands the oppressive nature of society through his experience of being gay. The different narrators give us an impression of the various interests, attitudes and forces present in Irish society at the time.
This is an absorbing tale written in a lovely colloquial style. It mixes everyday life with political events.
Tigers of the Snow
Little, Brown £18.99
In the 1960s a generation of hippies rejected the emptiness of bourgeois Western values, and headed for Nepal, the home to the Sherpas farmers who migrated from Tibet to the Himalayan pastures below Mount Everest 500 years ago. They were Buddhists and were despised by most of the Hindu Nepalese elite. The British thought them more timid and subservient than the warlike Tibetans, and they became the 'natural' choice as porters for the gentlemen climbers in the heyday of capitalism--the late 19th century onwards.
It is these high-altitude Sherpa porters who are 'the Tigers of the Snow'. But there is nothing natural about their climbing prowess. Left to their own devices, Sherpas would never climb higher than the passes that separate one valley from the next. Like all people who live in the mountains, they think mountaineers are mad. They hated the work of carrying 50 or 60 pounds across ice and snow, sometimes barefoot, without proper food or protective clothing. But they needed the money.
The Sherpas were also frightened--of the mountains, and of their employers. They were right on both counts. On a notorious German expedition to Nanga Parbat in 1934, when the going got rough, two European climbers calmly unhitched themselves from the rope linking them to their porters, put on skis and glided to safety. As late as November 1997, a great storm trapped trekkers all over Nepal. The heavily insured westerners were airlifted out. The Sherpas were left to their fate.
The core of the book is the story of how an impoverished and lowly people, buoyed up by Indian independence, forced westerners to treat them as equals. It's a genuinely moving story. The Sherpas preferred to climb with the Swiss or the French. These climbers supplied porters with the same equipment that they used themselves.
Jonathan argues that the highest Himalayan peaks were conquered by farmers and workers, who were 'hungrier' than their gentleman predecessors. This seems an unlikely explanation to me. It seems likely that improvements in equipment and medical knowledge were more significant. Driven by insatiable rivalry, one nation or another was always going to get 'its' people to the top of Everest. Just like they were always going to get to the Moon. The individuals were irrelevant. The victorious 'British' expedition of 1953 put a New Zealander and an Indian on the top. Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing carried oxygen with them, a huge advantage over earlier rivals. But it was to be the last time the British were able to play the role of world leaders.
The author went to school in India, and was introduced to the Himalayas, and to the Sherpas, on a school trip. Tigers of the Snow is not the work of a clinically detached observer. It is carefully researched and it makes a fascinating read. But above all, Jonathan takes sides. It is shot through with his deep affection for his Sherpa friends.
This book is a testimony to the intellectual capitulation of a section of the left to neoliberalism. Meghnad (now Lord) Desai was once sympathetic to Marxism. Now he is an admirer of globalisation. This book is a sustained defence of capitalism against the global anti-capitalist movement.
For Desai, capitalism is wealth-producing and innovative. Multinationals are to be championed. Capitalism is capable of redressing not just global poverty, but also environmental degradation and Third World debt. The problem with the IMF and also the World Bank is that they are too embroiled with the system of nation states, whereas, he argues, the WTO is a truly democratic institution.
His central tenet is that equality and prosperity are opposites. The more equal a society is, the poorer it is. You wouldn't be surprised to learn of Desai's sympathy for the neoliberal guru Hayek. This is a profoundly cheery and complacent picture of the modern world.
The one twist in this otherwise predictable apology for capitalism is the draping of Marx in the clothes of capital. Marx was opposed to increased state control. He was also so, says Desai, pro-market. A discussion of Marx's labour theory of value concludes that capital after all must make a contribution to surplus value so Marx got it wrong. Indeed, a social partnership between workers and employers is the way forward, as workers have an interest in the profitability of their employers because unprofitable businesses sack workers.
For Desai, Marx and Lenin grasped that capitalism in its early years was progressive and would continue until it was unable to expand any further. He argues therefore that the 'boom' of the 1990s following the fall of the Berlin Wall proves that any talk of replacing capitalism remains 'premature' for Marxists.
The account of the Russian Revolution is the usual stuff about a ruthless Lenninist machine stifling dissent. That Lenin led to Stalinism is blithely accepted and the Trotskyist tradition's powerful critique of this is brushed aside as 'too convienent'.
Many have recreated Marx in their own ideological image. But it would take major plastic surgery to accept this Desai's Marx.