Issue 264 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Books

Review

   

Twilight of the gods

Berlin: The Downfall
Antony Beevor
Penguin £25.00


Berlin: The Downfall

Antony Beevor's new book, Berlin, is a follow up to his bestseller Stalingrad. The book outlines the last apocalyptic months of Hitler's Reich. Germany was all but destroyed under the weight of the Red Army's attack on Berlin. Stalin threw over 2.5 million men, 41,000 guns and more than 6,000 tanks into the campaign to seize the German capital.

As the German army crumbled, Nazi leaders called for 'fanatical' resistance. Old men and boys were mobilised and the SS executed deserters. In the German town of Danzig a 'gallows alley' saw those executed hung with signs saying 'Here I hang because I did not believe in the Führer'. The Russian advance uncovered the true horrors of the death camps in which millions had died. The barbarism of the Nazi regime and the Red Army policy of arming survivors, helped to further brutalise soldiers already suffering under three years of German occupation. Civilians were caught between the horrors of the Nazi regime and the onslaught of the Red Army. Thousands were killed in 'fortress' towns like Königsberg and 7,000 refugees were drowned when the Goya was sunk by a Russian submarine (the greatest maritime disaster of all time).

Beevor looks at the fate of German women in the path of the Russian advance. Mass rape was common. Previously historians have argued that this was a result of the actions of 'second echelon' troops, many just released from POW camps. Beevor argues that although rape was not Red Army policy it was certainly tolerated by Soviet commanders at almost every level. He goes on to argue Soviet propagandists such as Ilya Ehrenburg, who said in one famous article 'Do not count days. Do not count miles. Count only the number of Germans you have killed', had dehumanised Germans in the eyes of Russian soldiers.

While thousands of German troops were sacrificed, Stalin's commandos drove towards Berlin regardless of the cost. More than 300,000 Soviet troops died in the battle for Berlin. Beevor argues that this reckless haste wasn't just about Stalin's fears that the western allies would reach Berlin first. The Red Army was also engaged in a desperate race to seize Nazi nuclear secrets and materials.

Beevors book is part of a huge swathe of literature recently published on the Second World War, such as Richard Overy's Russia's War. Like Stalingrad Beevor's new book is an interesting contribution to the debate (and already another bestseller). However, the lack of a political context to the battles for Berlin could leave many readers wondering why many actions and decisions were taken. Once again Beevor concentrates heavily on the terrors of Stalinism with less concentration on the genocidal Nazi regime and the German army's complete implication, at every level, with the Nazi project. Beevor rightly points to the treatment of Soviet POW's who were armed to fight in the rubble of Berlin, only to face arrest later at the hands of the NKVD for allowing themselves to fall into German hands. He also looks at the beginnings of class and national tensions inside the Red Army.

However, when it comes to dealing with the German military elite he seems to argue that there was a divide between the Nazi leadership and many of Hitler's generals. The struggle of an outnumbered German army on the Seelow heights (the approach to Berlin) or the attempt of German troops to break out to the west (they were desperate to surrender to US or British troops because of the atrocities committed in the USSR) can seem a heroic operation, but the real picture of the relationship between the Nazi military and political apparatus needs to be emphasised. The German generals who fought for Hitler and had helped bring him to power also carried out his policies of genocide in Poland and the USSR. It's not that Beevor ignores these facts, but this second volume has little of the background information the reader may need.
Michael Bradley


JUST LIKE MY DREAMS THEY FADE AND DIE

The Boom and the Bubble
Robert Brenner
Verso £15.00


The Boom and the Bubble

Amid the dismal picture global capitalism has presented since its supposed 'triumph' in 1989, there has been one apparent success story--the United States. The boom of the second half of the 1990s was hailed as the emergence of a 'New Economy' powered by information technology that was no longer subject to the normal ups and downs of the capitalist cycle. Despite the sharp recession experienced by the US manufacturing industry and the collapse of the Wall Street stockmarket boom in the last two years, many business boosters still claim that the US economy is about to resume the spectacular expansion of the late 1990s.

Understanding the real dynamics of US capitalism therefore urgently demands clear and critical thinking. The Marxist historian Robert Brenner takes us some way towards such an understanding in his latest book. The Boom and the Bubble punctures many myths. Brenner points out that 'during the first half of the 1990s, all three great capitalist economic blocs experienced their poorest economic performance by any standard measure for any five-year period since 1945'. The second and third biggest economies--Japan and Germany--performed even worse in the second half of the decade than they had in the first.

Only the US economy began to grow relatively quickly, but even then at a lower rate than at the height of the postwar boom in the 1960s. Brenner argues that US labour productivity grew in the late 1990s at a rate that, while the fastest for 20 years, was lower than that of the 1960s, and that some European economies performed just as well. More important, the partial recovery in productivity growth was driven by a massive surge in investment.

This investment boom had two major causes. The first was a significant rise in the rate of profit. US capitalists reacted to the economic slumps of the mid-1970s and early 1980s by ruthlessly restructuring their firms, writing off outdated plant and equipment, laying off huge numbers of workers, and driving down the wages of those still left in jobs. They were also helped by the devaluation of the dollar that followed the 1985 Plaza agreement among the leading capitalist states.

This recovery in US competitiveness put the German and Japanese economies under increasing pressure. To help Japan recover from the stagnation in which it has been trapped since the collapse of the speculative 'bubble economy' at the beginning of the 1990s, the Clinton administration let the dollar rise against other currencies. This began to squeeze the profitability of US exporters, and of the other east Asian economies, whose currencies were tied to the dollar.

The reaction of the US state to the crisis that then swept Asia in 1997-98 and threatened to bring down the world economy provided the second driving force of the boom. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, slashed interest rates and did everything he could to expand the stockmarket bubble. Higher share prices encouraged companies and wealthy households (Brenner shows that most Americans didn't get a look in at the Wall Street bubble) to borrow heavily to finance, respectively, investment and consumption.

This 'stock market Keynesianism' which kept the US boom going for another two and half years till the fall in the rate of profit in manufacturing that started in 1997 dragged the whole economy down. Even now, the New Economy sectors--technology, media, and communications in particular--are stuck with vast productive capacity that they built in the expectation that the boom would continue but cannot now profitably use. Brenner concludes that Japanese-style stagnation is a real possibility facing US capitalism.

Brenner provides a valuable reconstruction, supported by carefully marshalled and analysed statistical evidence, of the changes in fortunes experienced by the leading capitalist powers in the past 20 years. He also puts the movement of the rate of profit--for Marx the fundamental cause of economic crises--at the centre of his analysis. Unfortunately, Brenner is sceptical about Marx's own explanation of the falling rate of profit, and his analysis treats changes in real wages and in exchange rates as mainly responsible for shifts in profitability. This means that his argument gives us more insight into the short term mechanics than the long term dynamics of the era of capitalist crises that began in the early 1970s. For all that, there is much to learn from in The Boom and the Bubble.
Alex Callinicos


DENIED THE PLEASURE OF LIFE

Dreaming and Scheming
Hanif Kureishi
Faber and Faber £8.99


This collection by Hanif Kureishi is divided into two parts--'Politics' and 'Culture and Films'. The latter section records how Kureishi's films--My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, My Son The Fanatic and Intimacy--got to the silver screen. Kureishi says that he wrote My Son The Fanatic as a response to the 'fatwa' on Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses. Most of the protests against it took place in the northern towns now stalked by the BNP. As Kureishi observes, the media caught the images of anger and book burning, but little else: 'Few commentators noticed that the objections to The Satanic Verses represented another kind of protest. In Britain many young Asians were turning to Islam, and some to a particularly extreme form, often called fundamentalism.'

Kureishi, noted for the hedonism and sexual adventures his characters indulge in, could not understand such an austere outlook: 'It perplexed me that young people, brought up in secular Britain, would turn to a form of belief that denied them the pleasures of the society in which they lived. Islam was a particularly firm way of saying "no" to all sorts of things.'

The idea advanced by the Islamists, that there was 'too much freedom', troubled Kureishi. But he reflected on this phenomenon, and in his essay on My Son The Fanatic he shows why Islam has an appeal because the promise of the 'West' that lured immigrants from the subcontinent has been unfulfilled--people's lives have been brought down by exclusion, racism and discrimination. In his writings Kureishi has more of an understanding of the roots of the present revival of extreme forms of Islam than a lot of commentators. He does not like the creed of the Islamists, but he also does not lump all people who follow Islam together. As he says, 'Perhaps the greatest book of all, and certainly one of the most pleasurable, The One Thousand and One Nights, is, like the Koran, written in Arabic.'

The first half of this book looks at questions of race and religion from Kureishi's own experience. I recognise the descriptions of his early life in Bromley, Kent, with his worldwise, frustrated writer of a father, reflected in that excellent television series The Buddha of Suburbia. I liked the descriptions of Kureishi's visit to urban Karachi, with his rich uncles looking disdainfully at the slow ragged decline of the 'mother country'.

His essay on a 1980s visit to Bradford is sharply observant, with its descriptions of poverty and segregation, the rise of separate religious schools and the drive of the 'New Right' (as it was called then), which recast Muslims as cultural inferiors and outsiders. Kureishi shows that the people who did the thinking for the BNP were those such as Ray Honeyford, the Bradford headteacher who attacked the value of his own Asian pupils and their parents, as well as John Casey, the right wing philosopher who advocated that the status of black British citizens be altered 'so that its members became guest workers' and who wrote that, 'The great majority of people are actually potentially hostile to the multi-racial society.'

I enjoyed Dreaming and Scheming. It would be nice to have some more of Kureishi's reflections on society. His worldview has something important to offer us.
Hassan Mahamdallie


AN ARTFUL BUSINESS

Privatising Culture
Chin-tao Wu
Verso £20.00


Privatising Culture

The immediate appeal of this book is that it has the nerve to look behind the glossy facades of modern high culture and see what's going on in the murky backrooms. Better still, Chin-tao Wu tries to use the insights she gets to work out what high culture is for in modern capitalist society.

She puts the privatisation of culture into the context of the rise of neoliberalism. Wu shows that from the early 1980s Reagan and Thatcher had conscious strategies to get business more engaged in the art world. They changed tax laws so that buying and donating art to museums would be tax deductible. This helped to create the art market boom--capitalists could force up the value of a particular artist's work virtually for free. Thatcher held a series of high profile parties for top executives at which they were asked to make financial commitments to the arts. At the same time she put in place a new pro big business management at the Arts Council.

New Labour accelerated the process, and by the end of the 1990s business was in the driving seat. Organisations like ABSA--the Association of Business Sponsors of the Arts--were key policy references for government departments, culture quangos like the Arts Council and even the state-run galleries.The big question Wu tries to answer is, what's in all this for the corporations and the executives? On the evidence of hundreds of interviews and questionanaires she did she has two main suggestions. First she reports that business executives themselves are conscious that owning 'quality' art or even just playing the art market buys some kind of kudos or status. Apparently some US executives call it 'incorporated pocketbook'. This seems to be particularly important for executives who have come up through management school rather than being born directly into corprate families. She calls this status 'cultural capital', a term used by Pierre Bourdieu, and argues that it can transfer directly into measurable advantage. The story of the Saatchi brothers shows just how tightly linked cultural patronage and hard headed business sense can be.

At the same time the art world has become an important point of social contact for different parts of the establishment. Sponsorship parties and openings are one of the main places where business people can meet policians, top civil servants and members of the royal family. Art galleries have become sought after venues for high power parties and gatherings. As Wu says, 'Art, the business world and politicians have entered into a clandestine symbiotic relationship in which the unelected and the nominated join forces with those elected to govern.'

Creeping corporate control of art spaces obviously affects the art in all sorts of insidious ways. There's some straight censorship--direct criticism of the corportions is taboo. But much more important is the general climate that big money generates. Artists are made to feel insecure and at the same time they are subtly inhibited. One corporate gallery manager admits that his bosses would get very nervous if he purchased anything that was 'issue led'. So he doesn't.

This book is like a blast of fresh air into the fusty world of cultural studies. It is based on research which was met with real hostility from business and the arts establishment. This suggests that Wu's aim is pretty much true. She believes the corporate grip on academia is now so tight she wouldn't get funding for this kind of project if she applied today. Maybe because of this kind of pressure you sometimes feel the book's focus is a bit narrow. Everything is explained as a kind of convergence of interests within the establishment and there are some bigger questions the book skirts around. Wasn't the attack on public arts funding part of an ideological agenda as well? What do artists think of what's going on? Mightn't the relentless commercalisation of the art world be creating the very cultural dissent the corporations fear? But these are quibbles about a brave and fascinating book.
Chris Nineham


GLOSSING OVER THE PROBLEMS

The World We're In
Will Hutton
Little Brown £17.99


The World We're In

Will Hutton's new book is a hymn of praise to Europe. Despite supporting the US war in Afghanistan, Hutton does not like the way the US has become an unchallenged 'global hyperpower' since the end of the Cold War. In particular he does not like the way the new US dominance is politically shaped by US conservatism. 'The most salient political event of our times has been the rise of the American right over the last 25 years and the collapse of American liberalism,' writes Hutton.

He mourns the end of the eras of Roosevelt's postwar New Deal, of Kennedy and of Johnson's 'Great Society' and war on poverty. Their replacement by US conservatism--which is broader and more ideological than just neoliberalism--is not detached from changes in the US economy and Hutton provides quite a readable account of downsizing, flexible labour markets and the vast inequality which makes the US today the most unequal society in the industrialised west.

The dominance of the US economy means globalisation largely has an American face. But Hutton rejects the view that the world must emulate the US's economic and social model. The only force capable of challenging the US's global hegemony is Europe--which is cast as a potential rival superpower and as a potentially humane force for good. Europe, for Hutton, could build a benign world order--in alliance with US liberalism. And here the problems begin in the form of (mostly) uncritical idealisation of Europe.

Why is Europe potentially better, according to Hutton?

This is because Europe embodies ancient and shared values of obligations of the propertied to society and the centrality of the public realm and government to 'a happy community'. So crucially a Huttonesque Europe would value the role of the state and the public sphere and would thus be capable of renewing citizenship and participation.

Hutton's view is rather like the arguments put by liberal academic David Held, who has written widely about globalisation. Held argues for what he calls a 'cosmopolitan democracy' which would raise western liberal democracy to the global level through widespread reform of existing global institutions. Hutton seeks such institutional reform, led by Europe, to create, for example, a World Financial Authority to oversee financial institutions and a World Competition Authority to police private corporate power. These bodies, combined with the euro as the only force which could challenge the dollar, could change the relationship between the industrialised world and the less developed world.

Like all liberal critiques of capitalism, class exploitation is either rubbed out completely or quickly glossed over. So Hutton praises three different companies--Volkswagen, Michelin and Nokia--as examples of three very different models of capitalism to be found within Europe which are all, for him, successful and vibrant and better than their US counterparts.

Thanks to the anti-capitalist movement there are now many much more scathing accounts of the crimes of neoliberalism and the behaviour of multinational corporations--whether American, European or otherwise. These accounts seek much more radical solutions to the problems facing the globe and try to contribute, in practice, to building global solidarity as an alternative rather than hoping naively for vast global institutional reform.

Hutton's new book rather pales in comparison with this. His earlier book The State We're In hit a chord with those angry and frustrated about the demise of public services in Britain. But the rise of the anti-capitalist movement means that now his analysis has moved to the global level, Hutton has rather lost his bite.
Sam Ashman


MAKING SACRIFICES

The Myth of the Holy Cow
Dwijendra Narayan Jha
Verso £16.00


Hinduism is associated with the cow as a sacred animal and to be a Hindu is synonymous with not eating meat. But like all religious doctrine there is plenty of mythmaking and mysticism that goes with this. This excellent new book by D N Jha challenges the sanctity of the holy cow and exposes the mumbo jumbo surrounding this.

Jha robustly challenges the belief that Hinduism has always practised abstention from beef eating. He shows that from the earliest period of Hindu history, ritual horse and cow sacrifice was a common practice. Early Aryans who migrated to India some three and a half thousand years ago were pastoral, semi-nomadic people, who brought with them the tradition of cattle rearing and flesh eating.

Cattle were the most valued possession of the Aryan, signifying wealth and ability to make great sacrifices to the gods. Jha cites numerous references from religious texts, such as the Rg-Veda to the great epics of the Mahabharat, which show that animal sacrifice was a common practice. This applied to public ceremonies and domestic rites such as festivals, weddings and funerals. To serve meat for guests was a sign of great respect and hospitality. Vedic law texts list all sorts of animals that cannot be eaten--the cow is conspicuous by its absence.

Buddhism is also associated with vegetarianism and pacifism. The Buddhist tradition challenged the Vedic dominance of brahmins but Jha argues they still continued the practice of animal sacrifice.

The strength of Jha's analysis is in locating the shift from beef eating to a non-meat diet in the changing India of medieval times. Rural India witnessed a huge expansion in agriculture as pastoral, nomadic society gave way to settled agriculture where the cow and other livestock become central to production. Working on the land had been the preserve of the cultivator caste but from the second century AD it grew to incorporate the poor and priests. The latter played an increasing role in agricultural development through the practice of land donations by kings to priests in return for spiritual services. It is here that beef eating begins to become associated with pollution and evil spirits. Religious texts and law books are modified to describe cow eating as unclean, and beef as well as other meat begins to disappear from the menus for brahmins and the upper classes. Not so for poor peasants who continue to eat all meat, including beef, and are classified as impure and untouchable. Law books begin to prescribe punishments for cow killers such as fasting for 25 days and feeding brahmins. In this way Jha clearly shows the modern basis for caste in India.

The 'sacred cow' has come to symbolise modern Hindu identity. Yet there is no cow goddess, temple or shrine. But this has not stopped Hindu communalist forces demanding the complete ban of cow slaughter as a means of scapegoating Muslims. This, Jha argues, is the real agenda of the BJP government and its allies. So it is no accident that the book is already banned in one state and the author threatened. This little gem of a book provides a wealth of evidence exposing myth creation and the way symbols are used politically to divide people.
Talat Ahmed


BEYOND THE BORDER

From Immigration Controls to Welfare Controls
Ed: Steve Cohen, Beth Humphries and Ed Mynott
Routledge £17.99


The plight of asylum seekers and refugees is normally associated with immigration controls, border police, home office procedures, deportation snatch squads and detention centres. Yet behind these vicious measures is another equally brutal system of internal controls that ensures asylum seekers continue to suffer even when they have managed to enter the country. As Ed Mynott says in the opening chapter, 'There is more to the process of tightening controls than closing borders. Across the developed capitalist countries, immigration controls have increasingly come to involve restriction of access to welfare provision on the grounds of immigration status.'

This book traces this process back to the very first immigration controls--the 1905 Aliens Act, which was aimed mostly at Jewish immigration from eastern Europe.

Just like today, politicians and the media had already whipped up an image of 'unpleasant, indecent people,' reporting how, 'English families are being ruthlessly turned out to make way for these foreign invaders.' The act defined 'undesirable aliens' as being people who could not support themselves or their dependants and who were therefore bound to become a 'charge on the rates'.

Ever since then the access to state welfare for immigrants has been restricted on the basis of a principle first laid down in the 19th century Poor Law, whereby those receiving assistance need to be seen as worse off than those who are not. It is a principle that has under most recent legislation, including New Labour's 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act, become transformed into an 'apartheid welfare system for asylum seekers'.

The 1999 act brought in the dispersal programme and the infamous voucher system for asylum seekers. The act also shifted responsibility for organising social support for asylum seekers from the department of social security to the Home Office--the body in charge of immigration. Already tough measures to prevent asylum seekers gaining access to welfare were being made even more brutal. For example, asylum seekers' children have been systematically eliminated from child protection legislation.

The changes also deepened the process whereby social workers and voluntary sector agencies have been co-opted into policing asylum seekers and ensuing as little money as possible is spent on them.

The final chapter concentrates on the debate over immigration controls and demolishes the idea that non-racist controls are possible. This book is a very useful addition to the armoury of literature for anyone fighting against the attacks on asylum seekers.
Alan Gibson


BLAST FROM THE PAST

Love Me or Kill Me
Graham Saunders
Manchester University Press, £14.99


Anyone who is seriously interested in contemporary British theatre should read this stimulating, well written and very well researched book. Sarah Kane had a very short theatrical career which began with the controversial Blasted in January 1995, when she was only 23, and ended with Kane's suicide in February 1999. In the main part of the book Saunders examines the development of Kane as a writer and a director and provides a detailed analysis of Kane's plays Blasted, Phaedra's Love, Cleansed, Crave and 4:48 Psychosis. The shorter second half of the book is an illuminating series of transcripts of interviews between Saunders and some of the key people who were centrally involved with Kane's work as directors, actors and her agent.

Saunders quotes Kane on many occasions which shows her to be a very committed and passionate dramatist. She also had a sense of humour and a love of football. In his introduction Saunders documents the rise of a new bunch of British dramatists such as Mark Ravenhill, Jez Butterworth and Sarah Kane. They are dramatists who 'relish the oddball, the misfit, the bizarre; but they are troubled by the helplessness they see all around.' Kane was probably the most controversial and most misunderstood.

Her plays contain many extreme acts--rape, genital mutilation, eyes being gouged out, and even eating babies. They also show sexuality and love in extreme circumstances.

When I read Blasted and Phaedra's Love two years ago it was one of the few books I have ever read where I felt quite shaken up by the experience but I was not sure exactly why. Saunders quotes Kane who gives us a clue 'I don't think Blasted is a moral play--I think it's amoral, and I think that is one of the reasons people got terribly upset because there isn't a very defined moral framework within which to place yourself and assess your morality and therefore distance yourself from the material.'

This book explains how the plays developed and how Kane was influenced by Shakespeare's King Lear, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Ibsen, and ancient Greek drama. Blasted first appeared at the Royal Court theatre in London and was savaged by some critics as 'this disgusting piece of filth' and 'a play which appears to know no bounds of decency, yet has no message to convey by way of excuse.' Saunders puts forward a convincing case that Blasted is a play with a serious purpose.

Saunders shows Kane developing a theatre which had less to do with realism and character but more to do with creating images of emotional truth. The later plays contain less and less dialogue and more and more use of props and detailed stage directions. All of Kane's plays are very short and can be read quickly. This book is a very good introduction to Kane's work.
Ian Crosson


SLEAZE, LIES AND LOBBYGATE

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy
Greg Palast
Pluto £18.99


The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

This is a fascinating collection of essays from the Observer and Newsnight journalist who in recent years has done an impressive job of exposing the lies and hypocrisy of the rich and powerful. It is a tragedy therefore that Palast has attacked those who have criticised the war in Afghanistan.

The first and best part of this book, 'Jim Crow in Cyberspace', tells the story of how the Republicans fixed the last US presidential election. Palast shows that around 50,000 black and hispanic voters were purged from the voting roll, but also reveals the spineless behaviour of the US press that effectively refused to investigate this fraud until Bush had been declared the winner.

Palast's targets range from the World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund to oil and drug multinationals and the media companies, with New Labour getting its fair share of attention. More important perhaps was Palast's early exposure of 'Lobbygate'. It is good to remember the New Labour lobbyists who, immediately after the 1997 election, were brazenly offering access to ministers in return for hard cash. But as Palast writes, 'The real story was about Tony Blair and his inner circle,' and 'New Labour's obsessional pursuit of the affection of the captains of industry and the media.'

Among the stories the lobbyists revealed to Palast were: a government offer to Rupert Murdoch's News International to amend competition and union rights legislation--the quid pro quo was pro-Blair coverage; Tesco holding secret meetings with John Prescott, following an £11 million donation to the Dome; the supermarkets' exemption from a proposed car parking tax (value to Tesco £20million); and Enron using confidential government information and access to Downing Street to reverse a government plan to block its building of new gas-fired power stations. 'We had not stumbled on a tawdry little fix or two. It was systemic,' Palast notes.

This was, and continues to be, the real story but it is salutary for campaigning journalists to be reminded that the 1998 Lobbygate scandal claimed the professional lives of a few over-enthusiastic youthful Blairites, while the Blair programme pressed on regardless.

This is important. Independent investigative journalism that tries to expose the crimes of the powerful is essential, but on its own it has limits. One of Palast's constant refrains in the book is that the dirt he uncovers is only published when it can no longer have an immediate impact on events.

That doesn't devalue his investigations, rather it shows the need for more than journalism. Good journalism is about manufacturing bullets but it needs to be complemented by mass movements prepared to fire them.
Mike Simons


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page