Issue 285 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review
Who runs this place?
John Murray £20
Forty years ago Anthony Sampson wrote Anatomy of Britain, a who's who of the component parts of the establishment and the roles they played in running our lives. It became a bestseller on the shelves of students, academics and workers throughout the land. He has written updates since (as well as the extremely useful exposé of the oil industry The Seven Sisters), but this is the real follow-up.
Sampson was clearly prompted by two events to write this book now--the advent of the 'Blair revolution' and the Iraq war. It is up to date to the end of 2003, charting the unfolding of the Hutton inquiry.
In the big picture, he sees a vacuum developing in politics over the last 40 years: the old establishment--the 'old boys' network'--and its adversary the trade union organised left have lost their power. The certainties of 1960s Britain have disintegrated and been replaced by a free market frenzy of 'professionalism' over 'values'. He sees this as primarily beginning with Thatcher and the privatisations of the 1980s, but reaching a new level under Blair and New Labour.
Each chapter of this extremely informative book looks at a different aspect of the ruling class, from parliament and the monarchy through the secret services and defence to the media, academia, pension funds and corporations. Each carries a who's who of the CEOs/cabinet secretaries/director generals, etc. The picture you get is of a ruling class that is still almost exclusively white, male and in its fifties. There has been a slight move away from public school and Oxbridge, though Sampson points out there has been a boom in independent schools in the last ten years, so we can look forward to a future generation of bosses and politicians who've never been near a comprehensive.
This book's running theme is the concentration and increasing unaccountability of all aspects of the state and business. More and more MPs now rise through the system--starting out as researchers or full time party workers rather than as activists on the ground. The Labour Party has lost the roots it once had, and Sampson (who, incidentally, was a founding member of the SDP) sees Blair's removal of Clause Four--the commitment to common ownership of the means of production--from the constitution as a turning point in the direction of the party. As Peter Mandelson once put it, New Labour is 'intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich'.
And filthy rich they have got: the Sunday Times began publishing its Rich List in 1988, and by 2003 it showed 1,000 people in Britain worth over £30 million, including 20 billionaires. Four of the 20 are old landed aristocracy; many of the rest are tax exiles from overseas. Most of the richest people in Britain made their money in their lifetime.
And this is a key point: Sampson draws a distinction between this 'new rich' and the old professions. Lecturers and civil servants, who back in 1962 may have been considered part of the establishment, are now suffering the same attacks on wages and conditions as the rest of us. His chapter on academia documents how the once solid world of the universities has melted into a global marketplace.
Sampson is clearly a good old liberal at heart, lamenting the loss of 'checks and balances' in the workings of government and the lack of 'talent' among today's MPs. But his evidence shows what is really going on--the neoliberal agenda has been accepted by all the mainstream parties and power is moving up to more regional and international bodies such as the EU. However, the fact that Blair's project came so close to being scuppered over the Iraq war highlights the fallacy that governments no longer matter.
This book gave me a real picture of the shadowy figures who hold the power and control the wealth in Britain today. The bit that's missing is that other great wielder of power in this country: us.
Against All Enemies
Simon and Schuster £18.99
Plan of Attack
Simon and Schuster £18.99
Occasionally the ruling class lets the cat out of the bag, and these books have caused one hell of a political row inside the Bush administration. In part this is because they reveal how the Bush administration was determined to use the attacks on 11 September 2001 to justify a war on Iraq regardless of the lack of evidence linking Saddam Hussein with the hijackers, but in part also because, particularly as Clarke shows, Bush and the coterie around him completely ignored the possibility the attack could have happened in the first place, and the warnings that were coming from inside the government.
Clarke's book begins at a cracking pace--it's like being thrown into some sort of action movie or political thriller. Clarke was appointed counter-terrorism tsar by the Clinton administration in May 1998. He continued in the position when Bush was elected. As a result when the planes crashed into the World Trade Centre he was one of the men in charge of the government's response. So from the beginning we are in the White House as the emergency kicks in. There is an air of complete panic, fear and paranoia all rolled into one--what to do with the president and where to hide him, how many more attacks will there be, will chemical weapons be used, shall the major cities be evacuated, in short, what the hell is happening?
Clarke then proceeds to use the rest of the book to try to come to grips with the so called 'war on terror'. In this he has a clear agenda in mind--firstly to expose the fact that the Bush administration was intent to use the attack to invade Iraq come what may. He recalls the meeting immediately after 11 September where Bush, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz all urged him to find the evidence that Saddam was responsible. So he recalls Bush saying to him, '"See if Saddam did this. See if he's linked in any way." I was once again taken aback, incredulous... "But Mr President, Al Qaida did this." "I know, I know [said Bush], but see if Saddam was involved. I want to know any shred... look into Iraq, Saddam," the President said testily and left us.'
That the Bush administration had a plan to invade Iraq just after they came to power is supported by Bob Woodward. This account also claims that Blair knew about this, despite his denials to the British people. Woodward's account is also particularly uncomfortable for Blair because it discloses that Bush offered him the option of the US going to war without British troops. He also reveals that the Bush administration thought that the Blair government would fall because of the anti-war feeling in this country.
|CIA leader George Tenet testifies|
Clarke, however, has a somewhat different agenda. He has obviously been involved in a number of battles between the various intelligence agencies and security services that are charged with preventing attacks on the US. And so we get a huge amount of detail about the various meetings, training sessions, disputes and negotiations that take place between these departments. It is at this point that the book begins to sag. Yet it does give some insight into the complete paranoia that pervades the US government, and also their total inability to understand why the US is so unpopular with large swathes of the world's population.
Make no mistake, Clarke is a nasty piece of work. He takes pride in the fact that he was one of those during the Clinton administration who urged the government to attack Sudan and Afghanistan, and he is disappointed that the government refused to heed his advice to attack greater numbers of targets. He is proud of the fact that he was made a co-mayor of Diego Garcia, the small island in the Indian Ocean, because he got permission for the US 'to add a little' to the island so they could fly B52s from there to attack foreign countries.
Yet he is at his most interesting and revealing at the end of the book when he tries to understand why the US was attacked: 'When colleagues in the White House urged me what to read to understand the problem after 11 September, I urged them instead to get an old black and white film, The Battle of Algiers. In it French counterterrorism authorities round up all the "known terrorist managers" and leaders (sound familiar?) but lose the war with the terrorists because they did not address the ideological underpinnings. After the known terrorist leaders were arrested, time passed, and new, unknown terrorists emerged. We are likely to face the same situation again with Al Qaida.'
Wise words indeed from someone on the other side.
The Children of Nafta
University of California £18.95
The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) has been destructive of the lives of workers in Canada, the US and Mexico. This excellent history focuses particularly on the Mexican connections. But Bacon's reach is broad--he is an activist as well as a journalist and photographer. He writes movingly of the courageous union organisers who are the central characters of this story and of the social movements and strikes provoked by Nafta in both Mexico and the US. Of these, by far the most important are the new, imaginative and potentially enormously powerful strategies for cross-border organising. They offer models of 'global unionism' for trade unionists and anti-capitalists everywhere.
The Nafta agreement in effect ratified dramatic economic changes that have been taking place in Mexico since the global recession of the early 1970s. The Mexican government was increasingly pressed by foreign debt. It was forced to drop the protectionist policies, labour laws, and welfare and educational programmes put in place after the Mexican Revolution, and to open the country to privatisation and foreign investment. Now US agribusinesses in Mexico use child labour to produce cheap strawberries for US supermarkets. The maquiladora industry are foreign-owned factories that exploit low-wage Mexican workers to produce for export. They employ more than a million Mexicans in some 3,800 factories along the US/Mexican border. But these 'throwaway' workers have not been passive. They have battled for wages, work safety, secure housing and clean water. They have fought for transport and protection for young women in Juarez, where some 300 have already been murdered, and another 450 disappeared in the past decade.
Nafta has made factory relocation easy and profitable. As capital moved south, workers in the US lost their jobs. In a sad irony, some of these were the same people who had risked death to cross the border and enter the US as illegal migrants. Others were among the itinerant labourers who had dared to organise and win the great 1973 grape strike by the United Farm Workers. And yet others were among the first activists to follow their own former employers south and make contact with comrades in newly relocated factories in Mexico. Bacon brings these people and their struggles alive.
Threats of relocation have also squeezed US workers far from the border harder and harder in increasingly difficult and dangerous work settings. Some of these workers have moved to the right. They have become protectionist and bought into the racist rhetoric that blames Mexican workers for taking US jobs. Other US workers have gone the other way, and have seen neoliberal capitalism for what it is-a system which uses the wage to play workers against each other.
Bacon describes the labour organisations that have grown in response to the threat of free trade, the response of the US trade union federation the AFL-CIO, and the American congressmen who have taken up the cause of workers south of the border. International working class solidarity has become 'a set of practical and political problems confronting workers in the border plants themselves. And a powerful support movement has been organised to help them solve these problems.' Yet gross inequalities remain between ordinary workers and their unions, and the multinationals, banks and governments. The only way forward is international organisation, where a corporation doing business in 15 countries can be confronted by labour in each of those places. As Benedicto Martinez, the general secretary of Fat, the independent union which has been a model for progressives along the border, put it, 'In certain industries, the process of organising happens in a certain way, while in others it's totally different. We have to prepare, long in advance, the international relationships that will enable us to survive attacks from the government and the [corporations].'
1968: The Year that Rocked the World
Jonathan Cape £17.99
Today, millions across the world have a sense of living in a period when real social change is not just necessary but actually possible. The last time such a feeling emerged was 1968, one of the most memorable years of the 20th century.
A brief diary of some major events during that extraordinary year may help understand why that sense of change became so electric. 1968 opened with the Tet Offensive, when the Vietnamese guerillas brought their war of resistance to the very gates of the US embassy in Saigon. In March, in Poland, an eruption of student protest was batoned down by the 'Communist' cops. A London Vietnam Solidarity Campaign march turned into a pitched battle with police in Grosvenor Square. In April Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, setting off riots in 168 American cities. In Berlin a right wing assassin half-killed Rudi Deutschke, a leading figure in the German student movement. May and June saw 30,000 Parisian students build barricades and fight the riot police all night. Their struggle initiated the biggest general strike in European history. In June Bobby Kennedy was shot dead. In Italy the 'long hot autumn' of militant strikes began. October saw the Royal Ulster Constabulary launch an unprovoked and bloody assault on a civil rights march in Derry, and the start of Northern Ireland's 'Troubles'. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign drew what was then an unprecedented 100,000 people, mostly students and young workers, to its London demonstration. In Mexico City, in the run-up to the Olympic Games, the government massacred 100 students. At the Games themselves, two black American athletes, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, gave the Black Power salute from the podium as they received their medals.
Towards the year's end, President Johnson declared in his Thanksgiving message, 'Americans, looking back on 1968, may be more inclined to ask god's mercy and guidance than to give him thanks for his blessings.'
For socialist and radical parties and movements, 1968 saw a mushrooming in their number and members. There was a huge revival of interest in Marxist ideas.
Mark Kurlansky has added a new volume to the shelf of books on 1968. His offering has some decided merits. It's lively and well written. The author has gathered some very good stories. His commitment is to those who 'said no' in 1968, and who continue to do so. Kurlansky is at his best when describing moments of repression. His telling of the Chicago cops' brutal attacks on the demonstrators in August is brilliant. And his chapter on the massacre of Mexican students is frighteningly convincing. He's less good on the movements themselves. His focus is on the people who emerged from them as spokespeople.
Perhaps his most disappointing chapter is the one on France. When workers took up the student baton and ran with it, in the huge strike and occupation movement, what was it like in the factories, shops and offices which participated? How far did the French Communist Party monopolise control of the strike movement, containing it, and what possibilities for alternatives began to appear? These are vital questions, but Kurlansky's reportage doesn't get us near them. Indeed, workers barely appear in his narrative. He gives no sense that across advanced Western capitalism there was a rising tide of strikes, expressing a new confidence among both manual and white collar workers, even if this was often still disconnected from the front-page stories of the time. There are gaps in his coverage. Northern Ireland doesn't rate a mention, while Italy is referred to only in passing.
How could 1968 happen? To grasp this, we need a sense of the huge social changes going on within the long postwar boom--the immense migrations of workers from rural to urban areas, the changing composition of the workforce, the growth of huge new student populations in mass universities. Such changes provided the underpinning to much of the drama.
1968 saw new openings for the left. The old left had been dominated by Communist parties that were, in practice, becoming more openly conservative and reformist. What chances were there for a new, revolutionary left to seize the opportunities of the time?
1968 began to pose some of these questions, but it was in the next few years that they would be answered. In a way, treating one dramatic year by itself involves a mis-emphasis. For 1968 was part of a larger wave of protest from below, whose full dimensions and outcome can only be assessed on a broader canvas. Sometimes, but not often enough, Kurlansky recognises this. Almost at the book's end he quotes from an interview with Jacek Kuron, a revolutionary Marxist in 1966 who inspired leading Polish students in 1968. Kuron went on to play a leading role in Solidarnosc in 1980-81, and became minister of labour in the first 'post-Communist' government of 1989. Looking back in tears from 2002, Kuron deeply regrets his later actions: 'My participation helped people accept capitalism. I thought capitalism was self reforming. It's not. It's like Russia--controlled by only a small group because capitalism needs capital. Here now [in Poland] half the population is on the edge of hunger and the other half feels successful.'
The words embody a tragic but honest process of appraisal. More of the same spirit would have lifted Kurlansky's book into a different league.
Photographing the Holocaust
I B Tauris £13.95
It's not so much that every picture tells a story, more a case that any picture tells many stories. The simple point that most of our familiarly atrocious Holocaust images were gathered by Nazis hoping to celebrate the success of Hitler's 'Final Solution' in a Prague Museum coldly subverts their predominance in thousands of school history room displays, textbooks and TV documentaries ever since.
Janina Struk is a working photographer whose paternal family were Polish. She writes with the practical sense of someone asking not just the consumerist, semantic questions asked of any photo--what does it show, what had preceded that moment caught like a footprint on chemically coated celluloid, and what ensued? She also asks the producer's queries--who took it, how, where, when, why, for whom? And then there are the questions of distribution. Who has retouched, cropped and printed, bought and sold, smuggled, archived, exhibited and exploited those images?
Take the image of two elderly Jewish men holding shovels(below). Taken in Warsaw during September 1939 by American Julien Bryan, it featured in a book he published the following year entitled Siege. His caption read, 'Everybody helping: Orthodox Jews, like others, dig trenches under the direction of soldiers.' It is a hymn to collective resistance against the Nazi invasion.
|Does this picture show resistance or victimhood?|
But by 1942 Bryan's particular shot had appeared cropped by Nazis, minus the right-hand figure wielding a pick, but retaining the rifle-holding forearm at left. Cover the right-hand third for yourself. It's easy to see the added degradation implied for the old men if you are asked to believe--wrongly--that the firearm belongs to a German. But the same version was later appropriated by anti-Nazis to serve an opposite purpose.
Much more recently the author's own image documents the placing of a much enlarged shot from the Lili Jacob album in the grounds at Birkenau in 1999, at almost the precise spot where three child victims and a woman were frozen in time en route to the gas chamber. This album is famous for comprising the most definitive evidence of sorting by age, gender and suitability for work as the transports arrived on the ramp at Birkenau, the site of the most ruthless extermination operation in known history. It is named after a survivor who amazingly found the album of Nazi-made visual documentation, recognising herself among many others sent from Hungary to Poland in 1944. The album was used in Adolf Eichmann's trial in 1961.
In this case, the author asks, 'Do we have a right to show people in their last moments before facing death, to support propaganda, for whatever purpose? Must the torment and deaths of millions be replayed on museum walls around the world for millions to watch?'
The photographic departments of the concentration camps were busy and lively at their outset. The militaristic administrative process required three-shot portraits of all arrivals. Some prisoners were able to work in these Erkennungsdiensten. But they petered out as supplies dwindled, and tattoos became the more barbaric ID. As no work was expected at the death camps, no photos were taken. However, the last commandant of Treblinka, Lieutenant Kurt Franz, made a personal photo album of camp life, entitled 'The Best Years of My Life'.
This is a social history rather than a semiologist's treatise or an academic's polemic. It's not news to relate that history is often neglected if there are no visuals. We experience this on a daily basis with TV news. Even one of the world's most respected documentaries, The World at War, has nothing to say of the Catholic church's role between 1939 and 1945, simply because there's no filmic record.
But Janina Struk is rather making the reverse case, asking how do we cope with an over-saturated visual heritage, exploitative of victim and viewer on the one hand, but in some other ways unexplored, as with recent documents of life in the ghettoes?
Latin American Bureau £13.99
Duncan Green's book explains how the policies of neoliberalism have swept Latin America over the last 25 years. Silent Revolution first appeared ten years ago. As Green writes in the preface to this new edition, back then 'critics of neoliberalism were derided as fools or nostalgics'. The decade since the first edition appeared has seen the economic implosion of the Argentinian economy, the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, the election of Lula's Workers Party in Brazil and the rise of a global anti-capitalist movement. The new edition takes all of these developments into account.
Neoliberal policies first took root in Latin America under the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. As Green puts it, 'Over 3,000 people were slaughtered to clear the way for the new Chile.' As the iron fist of dictatorship was used to smash the powerful Chilean workers' movement, the 'Chicago Boys'--a new generation of economists trained at the University of Chicago--took over the running of the economy. They used Chile as a laboratory for the ideas of neoliberal economists like Hayek and Friedman.
Green explains how, in the 1980s and 1990s, governments across Latin America were won over to neoliberalism--a process he calls the silent revolution. Up until the early 1980s policies known as 'import substitution' were the orthodoxy for most Latin American economists. Governments sought to develop local substitutes for goods that were traditionally imported. The failure of these policies as the world economy tipped into recession, and governments found they could no longer repay the huge debts they had accumulated over the preceding decade, led to Latin America's 'lost decade' of sluggish growth and hyperinflation.
Sections of the ruling class saw neoliberalism as a solution to their problems. Institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and the governments of North America and Europe also pushed these ideas. Loans issued by the IMF to temporarily alleviate the effects of the debt crisis were tied to structural adjustment programmes that involved rampant privatisation and cuts in state spending. Governments were encouraged to specialise in the production of a narrow range of agricultural commodities for export. This specialisation was catastrophic for the small peasants driven off the land to make way for huge agricultural enterprises. As commodities such as coffee or soya flooded into the world market, prices slumped, causing more economic chaos. Under these policies 100 million more Latin American people have been driven into poverty in the last 20 years. 'IMF riots' and other forms of resistance have swept the continent.
Green's book is well written and extremely detailed. He provides clear explanations of complex economic issues, using anecdotes to illustrate each point. For example, he uses the poor quality of Brazilian disposable nappies to help explain the problems of import substitution. At every stage Green distinguishes between the yardsticks for progress used by mainstream economists, such as GDP, and the impact of economic policies on the people living under them.
The main weakness of Silent Revolution is that it fails to draw any positive conclusions. Green remains within the framework of capitalist economics--drawing on radical economists like Joseph Stiglitz to back up his argument. All he can offer as a solution are models based on the 'Tiger economies' of South East Asia or the strategies of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America. He ends up advocating a middle way between neoliberalism and state planning.
Despite this weakness, Green's book will be welcomed by anyone who wants to find out more about the economics of Latin America and the impact of neoliberalism.
Book briefs by Hazel Croft
Did you know that Helen Keller, renowned throughout the world for her blindness and deafness, was also a passionate socialist? Now a brilliant new book has collected together many of her inspiring, but hard to obtain, socialist writings. Here too you can find her writings and speeches on women's liberation, her class analysis of disability, and her denunciation of the First World War. I defy you not to be moved when she writes, 'Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction.' This book is part of a great new series published by Ocean Books, called 'Rebel Lives'. There is one already about the socialist beliefs of the scientist Albert Einstein, and future editions include one on the French revolutionary Louise Michel. At £8.95 these small volumes are a bit pricey, but it's worth it to have such inspiring writings at your fingertips.
Look out for a host of gripping, and often political, novels now out in paperback. Top of my list is Monica Ali's deservedly acclaimed Brick Lane, about the contrasting lives of women in Bangladesh and the East End of London, which is published in paperback this month. Don't miss too Margaret Atwood's nightmare future of biotechnology in the hands of the giant corporations, Oryx and Crake. Annie Proulx looks at the grip of giant agribusiness (namely the Global Pork Rind corporation) in a different setting, George Bush's Texas, in That Old Ace in the Hole. You can't always believe the hype, but the book that is everywhere, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is an insightful and moving story told from the point of view of a 15 year old with Asperger's syndrome.
Have you ever been recommended to read a classic socialist book and then been hugely disappointed when you've found out it is no longer in print? Well be disappointed no longer! New technology means publishers are prepared to print books on demand. So you can 'demand' your own copy of books which have been out of print for years, like Eamonn McCann's brilliant War and an Irish Town. They take about three weeks to produce. For more details phone Bookmarks socialist bookshop on 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com.
The current wave of enthusiasm for book clubs and reading groups reveals just how much people are crying out to read and discuss good books. With this in mind Socialist Review is launching its own socialist book club. We plan to meet once a month to discuss novels, books in the news, socialist classics... the choice is endless. We want to hear from anyone who is interested in getting involved. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is there a book you want to see reviewed in Socialist Review? Fancy trying your hand at reviewing a book? We want to hear from you. Email me or write to Socialist Review, PO Box 82, London E3 3LH.