Monday, December 05, 2016

David Lewis-Williams - The Mind in the Cave

This fascinating book is an attempt to answer a surprisingly complex question. Why did our Paleolithic ancestors make cave art? The beautiful images reproduced here frequently show a startling attention to detail, use of colour, the natural shape of the rocks and were often made in near complete darkness. But why was this done? David Lewis-Williams argues that this was not art in the sense that we understand it. Nor was it necessarily representational, but the art filled a social function for the communities that made the images.

Lewis-Williams begins with a fascinating history of the study of these images. I was surprised to find how important Marxism had been to this study, and the author's analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches, including that of famous thinkers like Claude Levi-Strauss is a useful introduction to their ideas.

Lewis-Williams argues that while art varies in terms of meaning and use through history, and indeed how we perceive things such as the colour spectrum is socially determined, there is one universal for anatomically modern humans, which is that we all (and we all have) experience a the same "full spectrum of consciousness". Describing the various stages that people go through in altered consciousness states, Lewis-Williams points out that "all people experience the states characteristic of the autistic trajectory. And they experience them in terms of their own culture and value system; this is what has been called the 'domestication of trance'."

Lewis-Williams argues that this means that we can trace some universals to the images on cave-walls, and understand them in terms of how various cultures have related to states of altered consciousness. Discussing the San people who made rock painting into the modern time, as part of  shamanistic religion, he points out that
Much of the painted and engraved imagery, even that which appears relastic' is shot through with these metaphors and shows signs of having been 'processed' by the human mind as it shifted back and forth along the spectrum of consciousness. The same metaphors necessarily structured the explanations of images that San people provided. The San explained the images in their own terms, not the languages of anthropologists.
So the images made by the San people represented things that meant some thing to them collectively, which is not necessarily the same thing that we might "see" when we look at them. But because altered states, or trances, produced visions that the mind interprets in terms of how the world is understood, the images painted would be of things (or shapes) that originated in their world view.
Art, cosmos and spiritual experience coalesced. The San fused the 'abstract' experiences of altered states with the materiality of the world in which they lived.
So the paintings made in the "social space" of the caves were the result of interactions between the social ideas of the group and their world-view. Lewis-Williams argues that this meant that the images were more than images, they were insights into a spirit world, or actual embodiments of that world over-lapping with the contemporary world. He writes that a "set of animals already carried... symbolic meaning for west European anatomically modern communities. It now became important for those people to fix their images of another world, belief in which was one of the key traits that distinguished them from the Neanderthals."

Lewis-Williams argues that it was the process of doing this, creating the art, that paved the way for new social relations that "we consider fully modern". I remained unconvinced by this conclusion, as I think the "images" are more likely to represent the cultural output of a community and thus reflect social relations rather than create them. But as Lewis-Williams correctly points out, we cannot every know a correct answer when trying to understand what the images mean. His book however is a fascinating insight into the reasons that humans have created cave-art and painting through history and by hunter-gatherer communities in modern times. It is well worth a read.

Related Reviews

Mithen - After the Ice: A Global Human History
Stringer - The Origin of Our Species

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

J.J.Jusserand - English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages

English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages was first published in 1889. As a work of historical investigation it wouldn't pass a modern editor's test, but as a work of literature it is a marvellous read. Filled with anecdotes, songs, poetry and obscure facts this is a piece of work that allows the reader to imagine life in the Middle Ages in a way that most academic writing fails to do. How many history books include a section on "buffoons" for instance?

Its commonly believed that people in the Middle Ages rarely travelled very far. Perhaps that's true for the bulk of the population, but even those peasants tied to the land and the land owner, had to travel at least some distance. Anyone who'd been conscripted into the army would have seen some of England and possibly some of the continent. But even trips to market could mean journey's of dozens of miles. But other parts of the population, and not just the rich, travelled far. The rich might travel great distances, Jusserand notes that bridge and road upkeep was an enormous problem that had to be regularly solved out of military necessity and royal pleasure who, when hawking, "did not want to be stopped when following their birds by a broken bridge, and they would order the commonalty, whether or not it was bound to do so, to make prompt repairs in view of their coming."

That said, the state of the infrastructure was appalling:
Though there were roads, though land was burdened with service for their support, though laws from time to time recalled their obligations to the owners of the soil, though the private interest of lords and of monks, in addition to the interest of the public,m gave occasion to reparation now and then, the fate of the traveller in a snowfall or in a thaw was very precarious. Well might the Church have pity on him and include him... among the unfortunates whom she recommended to the daily prayers of pious souls.
Along these treacherous roads travelled traders and merchants, peddlers, musicians, tumblers, messengers and those fleeing justice. Each of these groups is examined in turn, Jusserand having a talent for finding references in obscure medieval accounts, laws and poetry and song. Of particular interest to me where two sections, one dealing with itinerant preachers who were often, like John Ball in the run up to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, to be found travelling the lands and were the subject of restrictions in the aftermath of the rebellion.
Men able to address a crowd scoured the country, drawing together the poor and attracting them by harangues filled with what people who suffer always like to hear... Their dress even and manner of speech are described; these malcontents have an austerer aspect, they go 'from county to county, and from town to town in certain habits under dissimulation of great holiness.'... Their real subject is not dogma, but the social question.
 The second fascinating section was the chapter on pilgrims and pilgrimages. Here we get a real sense of sheer numbers of people moving about to visit shrines and holy places, in England and abroad. Tens of thousands went to the shrine of Thomas a Beckett. But hundreds travelled to the Middle East, to Jerusalem, and again, not just the wealthy. Jusserand notes that guilds often included allowances for those going on pilgrimages to receive money and support from their funds. Pilgrims would return with outrageous tales, mementos and souvenirs. We can laugh at the distorted account of one pilgrim of what an elephant looked like, but these stories clearly reached thousands of people when the travellers returned. Reading these accounts I wondered to what extent the rest of the world was an alien place to the person in the Middle Ages? Many people would have none someone who had been abroad and returned to tell their stories. William Wey travelled twice to the Holy Land. On his final return he gave his souvenirs - a stone from Calvary, one from the Sepulchre, another from Mount Tabor and one from the hill where Christ's cross had stood - to a local church. Perhaps by this gift he was trying to make others feel part of his own travels, and give them share in the experience.

Jusserand concludes that the existence of a travelling culture like he describes ensured that England didn't see revolution like France had experienced. That's a step to far, but shouldn't divert from the enjoyment that this book will give its readers.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Michael Turner - Enclosures in Britain: 1750-1830

In Capital Karl Marx denounced the enclosure of common lands as a crime: "The parliamentary form of the robbery is that of Acts for enclosures of Commons, in other words, decrees by which the landlords grant themselves the people’s land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people."

This robbery, the destruction of common lands in the interest of landlords, laid the basis for the capitalist economic system. Marx continued:
The spoliation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcel of capital, and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a “free” and outlawed proletariat.
For many historians of the left, such as the Hammonds and EP Thompson, this sort of analysis became the natural approach to the question of enclosure. Yet there have been a series of revisionist attempts, starting the 1940s to challenge these conclusions. This short book then, is a useful over-view of both the history of enclosure and the historiography of the subject.

Enclosure itself varied dramatically over time and geographically across the British Isles. There were two particular peaks - before 1780 and during the wars with France after the Revolution. But there was also variation in which areas were enclosed, related to the soil and the potential land use. These changes themselves had links to changing diets, the growth of urban, industrial areas and so on.

Turner argues that enclosure was a much more complex process than often understood, one that had the intention of improving agriculture and profits, but should not necessarily be understood as a deliberate attempt to capitalise agriculture. That said, at least some 19th century commentators saw things in this vein. Turner quotes the President of the Board of Agriculture, Sir John Sinclair, in 1803, "Let us not be satisfied with the liberation of Egypt, or the subjugation of Malta, but let us subdue Finchley Common; let us conquer Hounslow Heath, let us compel Epping Forest to submit to the yoke of improvement".

After 1700 Turner concludes that "enclosure by agreement" was limited, "Parliamentary enclosure" becoming the most important (if not the most dominant) form of enclosure. In studying why, Turner overturns some cherished ideals. For instance he argues that the costs of enclosure where much higher than has previously been acknowledged though these costs were disproportionately higher for smaller and poorer landowners.

The understanding that costs of enclosure were higher have led, Turner argues, to a new recognition of the "social repercussions of enclosure".
In general... it looks as though there was a considerable turnover in landowning personnel. Even if there was not a decrease in the numbers of landowners, and in particular in the numbers of the smaller owner-occupiers, the epitome of the independent peasant class, nevertheless many of these owners sold up at or shortly after enclosure. They were replaced by... people from their own agricultural and social class... Small owners also had difficulty in meeting enclosure expenses and often sold up at enclosure. 
Turner concludes then, that this
brings into fresh focus the appearance of a landless labour force to fuel the fire of industrialisation, especially if enclosure improved labour productivity rather than extended labour opportunities. ... Notwithstanding the demographic revolution which was in train and creating more hands than could be gainfully employed in an improved agricultural industry, enclosure is again under scrutiny as a possible contributor to the industrial labour force.
Turner's short but wide-ranging book then points out the limitations of an earlier generation of enclosure historians, but through an examination of more contemporary studies, finds that their conclusions about the consequences of enclosure and the political/economic situation that drove enclosure, were generally correct.

This short book was published in 1984 so there have been many studies and books that have looked at this since, but this will provide a useful basis for understanding that work and the debates that have taken place on the subject. [1]

[1] A very recent examination of this subject and of Michael Turners' book is Michael Zmolek's Rethinking the Industrial Revolution p272-274, though Zmolek incorrectly cites Turners' work as being published in 1968.

Related Reviews

Yerby - The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change
Linebaugh - Stop Thief!
Horn - The Rural World - 1780 - 1850
Zmolek - Rethinking the Industrial Revolution

Sunday, November 13, 2016

David Underdown - Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660

The English Civil War was not simply the story of a series of sieges, set piece battles and skirmishes. It was a revolutionary conflict that split England many ways. Large numbers of books have been written exploring the way that the War and Revolution allowed an explosion of radical ideas and groups, involved the mass of the urban population in resisting the King and popular politics. Fewer however have explored the impact of those tumultuous years on the wider English population. David Underdown's classic study explores this topic and seeks to understand why it was that different areas of the population reacted in different ways.

Underdown argues that root of these different regional reactions lies in the differences between arable areas of England:
By the early seventeenth century important social differences were emerging between English pasture and arable regions. These in turn were reflected in cultural differences which help to explain the varying responses of those regions to civil war. Political attitudes are a part of culture, part of that 'historically transmitted patter of meaning embodied in symbols... by means of which men communicate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life'.
This is the basis for Underdown's argument, and I'll have more to say on this in a moment. But it is worth noting that whatever you might think about the author's thesis, his study of the cultural changes, political attitudes and social life of the population is both encyclopedic and extremely illuminating. This was a period when established ideas of religion, politics and sexual roles were being strained and even breaking. In his discussion on the increasing concern with "unruly women" shown in local court reports from 1560 to 1640, Underdown notes:
It may seem odd to place the witch in the category of independent women, the typical suspect being usually old and powerless. But wichcraft fantasies were often a response of the powerless to isolation and oppression that were both social and sexual in origin. Parallels between witchcraft and scolding were not lost on contemporaries: the chief fault of witches, Reginald Scot observed, 'is that they are scolds'. The scold who cursed a more fortunate neighbour and the witch who cast a spell were both rebelling against their assigned places in the social and gender hierarchies.... evidence suggest[s] that a perceived threat to patriarchal authority in the years around 1600 was a major feature of the 'crisis of order'.
This is just one of many fascinating insights into the changes taking place in English society during the period covered. But lets' look a little more at what Underdown argues about the differences between the two regions.
The parishes of the clothing districts were more divided and less cohesive than their counterparts in other regions - divided physically (because they were so often larger in area), divided socially (because of the influx of poor), and divided in religion (because of the frequent presence of knots of Puritan reformers)_. Their parish elites had the same preoccupations with order - with achieving a reformed, disciplined, industrious community - as their urban counterparts... And in the clothing region the elites were more often united. 
He continues later
But if we look beyond these local variations, the overall patterns of regional contrast ar clear enough. The cultures of the major regions were diverging as their social structures were diverging, during the half-century before the civil war. In the clothing parishes of the Wiltshire cheese country and in Somerset north and east of the Mendips, the those of Puritanism was coming to be shared not only the substantial middling sort, but by man of the smaller property-owners and better off craftsmen as well. They never succeeded in eliminating completely the disorderly recreation still popular among younger people and the poor, but because of the breadth of Puritanism's appeal they were more successful than their less numerous, more isolated counterparts in more traditional areas. Even the undisciplined poorer folk of the cheese country, their rituals suggest, shared some elements of the more individualistic outlook of their superiors, through they also retained highly conservative notions of how society and the family out to be ordered. In south Somerset, Blackmore Vale, the Wiltshire and Dorset downlands, a less polarized, more cohesive, somewhat more deferential form of society survived. So, inevitably, did older conceptions of good neighbourhood and community and the festive customs in which they were articulated. These cultural contrasts are essential to an understanding of popular politics...
As these long quotes suggest, Underdown is arguing that the development of new forms of agriculture and the diverging types of production between regions was shaping new ways of viewing the world and leading (at all levels in society) to different ideas, customs and culture. By the time of the Civil War, with society in general polarising (and as Underdown notes the common people 'taking sides')  these cultural differences settled out into antagonistic positions. In the more conservative areas Royalist ideas and support flourished, and in others support grew for Parliament. Underdown is careful not to suggest that this was either automatic, or completely uniform. Local differences (such as the political interests of a local landlord, the attitude of a respected clergyman or the behaviour of an invading army) made a real difference.

Strangely though Underdown argues that the different cultures of the regions, "related to different stages of social and economic development... does NOT imply a reductionist resort to economic determinism" (my emphasis). He then shows how some towns and areas which had more developed clothing industries were traditionally culturally conservative. The problem I think is that Underdown's ideas work when (in his words) areas are "viewed from a greater distance". The more focused the study becomes the more opportunity there is for localised variation. There was a constant dynamic between local ideas and national politics.

So Underdown's main thesis is not without value, but it was hard to isolate precisely what he is concluding. Ultimately though, the end of the civil war period saw the growing breakdown of collective, communal rights and the growing domination of individualistic ownership of land and property. This process was uneven, drawn out and frequently resisted. While I found it frustratingly unclear in places, Underdown provides some stimulating ideas. Alongside this is a wealth of detailed information of particular locations and struggles which will provide the reader many fascinating insights.

Related Reviews

Manning - Aristocrats, Plebians and Revolution in England
Carlin - Causes of the English Civil War
Hill - The World Turned Upsidedown

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Michael Roberts - The Long Depression

Michael Roberts' The Long Depression is an accessible and important work of Marxist political economy. I'd rank it close to Chris Harman's Zombie Capitalism for activists trying to understand the current state of the world economy and what may happen to capitalism in the coming years.

Roberts' book is an attempt to explain the economic crisis that began in 2008 with the banking crisis and has now become a "long depression". He argues that mainstream economists cannot explain it properly, because they see the capitalism economic system as a stable one that is merely subject to external shocks of various sorts. In contrast, Marxist political economy sees the system as one that is inherently unstable, subject to regular economic crisis.

At the core of his argument is a reassertion of the importance of the falling rate of profit, something Marx put as the central cause of economic crisis. Firstly Roberts argues that Marx's "law" is "logically consistent", and then shows that it fits the reality of capitalism. So:
The US rate of profit has been falling since the mid-1950s and is well below where it was in 1947. There has been a secular decline... Thus the counteracting factors cannot permanently resist the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. But the US rate of profit has not moved in a straight line. In the US economy as a whole after the war, it was high but decreasing in the so-called Golden age from 1948 to 1965, Profitability kept falling also from 1965 to 1982. However, in the era of what is called 'neoliberalism,' from 1982 to 1997, US profitability rose.
Following Marx, Roberts shows how there are factors that counter the tendency of the profit rate to fall, and these are at the heart of his explanation of why the economic crisis of 2008 has become a long depression. Capital is currently unable to restore profit rates, and thus move out of depression.

Roberts demonstrates the value of Marx's approach by explaining historic slumps and depressions. He shows how the rate of profit's decline was the root cause of these, even though the actual trigger for crisis varies.
The trigger in 2008 was the huge expansion of fictitious capital that eventually collapsed when real value expansion could no longer sustain it, as the ratio of house prices to household income reached extremes. But such 'triggers' are not causes. Behind them is a general cause of crisis: the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
Failing to understand this helps explain why mainstream economists have failed both in terms of their explanation of crisis but also in their ability to solve the depression. Robert systematically exposes them, in particular he is critical of "Keynesian economists" who see state investment as a solution to the situation.
For orthodox Keynesians, a slump is due to the collapse in aggregate or effective demand in the economy (as expressed in a fall of investment and consumption). this fall in investment leads to a decrease in employment and thus to less income. Effective demand is the independent variable, and incomes and employment are the dependent variables. There is not mention of profit or profitability in this schema. Investment creates profits, not vice versa.
For me, these were some of the most useful sections of  the book for they demonstrated two things. Firstly that "common sense" arguments about the way to solve the economic crisis, such as massive state investment won't work. Secondly these solutions effectively function as an ideological fig leaf for capitalism, suggesting that the system can be made to work. Roberts shows that there isn't a reformist way to patch together a system that is inherently crisis prone.

In this context Roberts also argues that the austerity policies of most capitalist governments are "not insane" as Keynesians think, they "follow from a need to drive down costs, particularly wage costs, but also taxation and interest costs, and the need to weaken the labor movement so that profits can be raised. [Austerity] is a perfectly rational policy from the point of view of capital.

So can capitalism get out of its hole? Roberts argues that it can, but doing so requires the restoration of profitability which means that huge amounts of existing capital needs to be destroyed. These solutions (just as the bank bailouts did) will benefit the system and some of the capitalists, but the majority of the population will suffer. There are likely to be many more company collapses, bankruptcies, redundancies and wage cuts (and all the social ills that accompany these) before capitalism restores its profitability. The "dead-weight" of debt remains in the system and
The current low-growth world is a reflection of the burden of still high debt levels on the cost of borrowing relative to potential return on capital and thus on growth. The job of a slump (to devalue assets, both tangible and fictitious) has not yet been achieved.
I've focused in this review on what I consider to be the key part of The Long Depression - it's systematic explanation of the cause of slump and the importance of a Marxist approach. There is much more here. Readers of Michael Robert's blog will know that the has discussed the question of robot and AI technology and whether this will lead to a rosy future or a dystopian nightmare. Again he puts the question of profitability at the heart of this, showing that a completely robotic knowledge economy in the future is impossible. The chapters that look at the economic prospects for particular countries and regions are also interesting, if sobering, accounts of the bleak future for most working people unless they fight back. In the midst of the post-Brexit discussions in the UK I also felt Roberts' discussion on the role of the EU and its role. In particular he points out that the currency union wasn't logical and only serves the interest of the two major European economic powers.
the Eurozone countries are more different from each other than countries in just about any hypothetical currency union you could propose. A currency union for Central America would make more sense. A currency union in East Asia would make more sense. A currency union that involved reconstituting the old Soviet Union or Ottoman Empire would make more sense. In fact, "a currency union of all countries on Earth than happen to reside on the fifth parallel north of the Equator would make more sense". But the currency union went ahead because of the political ambitions of France and Germany to have a Europe led by them, even after Britain refused to join.
Finally Roberts puts the economic problems of capitalism in the context of its ecological destruction. I won't rehearse his arguments as this blog has frequently discussed these. But his conclusion is a sensible place to end this review. Unless capitalism is replaced in the next fifty years, ecology destruction will be on such as scale that "economic growth will slow, natural disasters will become common, and the cost of restoration and prevention will become too much for a profit-making mode of production to handle."

Related Reviews

Harman - Zombie Capitalism
Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism
Harvey - Seventeen Contradictions and the end of Capitalism
Marx - Value, Price and Profit

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Lewis H. Berens - The Digger Movement in the Days of the Commonwealth

First published in 1906 this is an important study of the ideas of one of the most important radical thinkers of the English Revolution, Gerrard Winstanley. The edition I'm reviewing here is reprinted 2007 by Merlin Press and is a very useful overview of Winstanley's life and, most importantly, his ideas.

Winstanley is best known for leading a group of activists, the Diggers, in an attempt to create a radical agrarian society by creating a "colony" of like minded people on St. George's Hill in Surrey. Less well know is that Winstanley had developed a clearly thought through vision of how a network of such colonies could form the basis for a society of equality and freedom. The execution of Charles Stuart during the English Revolution helped encourage Winstanley's thinking along this direction. Many of his writings were made in response to events on St. George's Hill and the second colony that Winstanley created nearer his home in Cobham, after they were driven away from the hill.

Berens' makes it clear that, like many radicals of the time, Winstanley had a very clear understanding of society in the 17th century which helped fuel his radical visions of a new world. He rages against the inequality and oppression of class society. In 1648 he writes:
And this is the beginning of particular interest, buying and selling the Earth from one particular hand to another, saying ‘This is mine,’ upholding this particular propriety by a law of government of his own making, and thereby restraining other fellow-creatures from seeking nourishment from their Mother Earth. So that though a man was bred up in a Land, yet he must not work for himself where he would, but for him who had bought part of the Land, or had come to it by inheritance of his deceased parents, and called it his own Land. So that he who had no Land was to work for small wages for those who called the Land theirs. Thereby some are lifted up in the chair of tyranny, and others trod under the footstool of misery, as if the Earth were made for a few, and not for all men.
Winstanley understands that wealth comes from the labour of people and the rich get richer on the backs of others;
But all rich men live at ease, feeding and clothing themselves by the labors of other men, not by their own, which is their shame and not their nobility; for it is a more blessed thng to give than to receive. But rich men receive all they have from the laborer's hand, and what they give, they give away other men;s labors, not their own. Therefore they are not righteous actors in the Earth.
Berens' tells the story of Winstanley's life and struggles. More recent biographies have been able to make use of more sources and some of the conclusions about Winstanley that Berens' makes are probably no longer as clear cut as they were when he was writing. John Gurney argues, for instance, that links between Winstanley's ideas and Quakerism are much less clear than Beren's would have.

But the real joy in Beren's book is the writings of his subject. I was particularly struck by Winstanley's visions of agrarian Utopia. Arising out of the seizure of land by the ordinary people he imagined a world where the full fruits of the Earth would be available to all, through a system of decentralised villages. Storehouses would keep excess produce, overseen by "waiters" who would all those who need food or other goods to come and get them for free. There would be centralised government, each village required to produce a summary of its news at regular intervals which would be then distributed around the country so everyone would know what was happening. Officers would be elected and over-seers would ensure that everyone worked, though work was not intended to be excessive. While this was a patriarchal society, Winstanley also believed that people should be able to marry who they wanted and could do so easily when a couple wanted to.
When any man or woman have consented to live together in marriage, they shall acquaint all the Overseers in the Circuit therewith, and some other neighbors. And being all met together, the man shall declare with his own mouth before them all that he takes that woman to be his wife, and the woman shall say the same, and desire the Overseers to be witnesses.
Winstanley also saw a system of punishment that allowed the community to punish those who refused to take part in society, but also allowed those who broke the rules to return back to society. The death penalty was there as a final punishment for heinous crimes such as rape and murder.

Winstanley's Utopia, was an agrarian ideal. But it was based on a rational examination of the existing problems of society and communal rural life. Based on a rejection of private property his early Communism could never succeed as it meant challenging the wealth and power of those classes that the death of Charles had put in the saddle. Winstanley's pacifism meant he ultimately believed his new society could come about by simply stating clearly enough how well it could work. Unfortunately this would never convince those with wealth and power, and there was as yet no class in society powerful enough to overturn them.

But Winstanley's vision remains inspiring and his writings are entertaining and illuminating. Its excellent that this old book has been republished. Sadly in places the Merlin edition suffers from proofreading issues. These aren't significant enough to detract entirely, but are disappointing. That aside, students of radical ideas during the English Revolution will be pleased to find this available.

Related Reviews

Gurney - Gerrard Winstanley - The Digger's Life and Legacy
Hill - The World's Turned Upsidedown
Rees - The Levellers' Revolution
Manning - Aristocrats, Plebians and Revolution in England

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Ian W. Toll - Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific 1941-1942

The Pacific theatre in World War Two was in every sense an imperialist conflict. Two emerging powers were vying for the region's resources and markets. An older colonial power, Britain, hung on with a self-confidence that belayed its complete lack of military preparedness.  Pacific Crucible is the story of the first year of that conflict. From Japan's brilliant and devastating attack on Pearl Harbor which sent shock-waves through the United States, to their defeat at the Battle of Midway - a victory that relied on a strong dose of luck and superb work by cryptographers, as well as enormous bravery.

Toll begins with an over-view of naval strategy. He notes that both the United States and Japan were stuck with a set of tactics that had been handed down to them from 19th century military doctrine. The concentration of naval power in large fleets that could knock out enemy forces in one huge battle. But by the 1930s this doctrine no longer fitted the situation. The role of aircraft and particularly carrier based aircraft was to transform the situation. Japan's victory at Pearl Harbor was the first indication of this, but it seems that even with this victory, Japan failed to learn the lessons and, as Midway showed, still focused on the role of their battleships.

In one revealing paragraph, Toll shows how the nature of the victory at Pearl Harbor actually encouraged this thinking for the United States, leaving the US with a smaller, faster fleet and more reliant on its carriers than ever before.

But where Toll really excels in is his understanding of how Japanese and American history shaped the conflict and how each country's leaderships' perception of each other affected their military actions. For instance, despite the rapid and deep deterioration in relationships in the run up to Pearl Harbor, the United States was completely unprepared for war. As the Japanese military machine rapidly rolled over US and British bases in a matter of weeks, it was clear that no-one expected this to happen. The Japanese were considered to be under-prepared militarily, with outdated equipment and small air-forces. Particularly for the US and the British, racist attitudes played a central role in this. Apologies for the racism quoted in the following paragraph but it's worth repeating to see how little the US understood about what was about to hit them.
In the years before the war, the Americans and British had taken comfort in a widely held conviction that Japanese air-power was not to be viewed seriously. That impression was nourished by quackish, pseudo-scientific theories proposed by 'experts' of various fields. The Japanese would always make bundling pilots, the authorities patiently explained, because they suffered from innate physiological defects. They were cross-eyed and nearsighted, possible a symptom of their 'slanted' eyes. As infants, they had been carried on the backs of their mothers, causing their heads to wobble in a way that thew off the balance in the inner ear. Japanese cultural norms emphasized conformity and obedience; therefore their young men must lack the aviator's traits of individualism and self-reliance.
This sort of racist nonsense led to the US and Britain being "hoist by their own petard", as far superior Japanese pilots, flying the wonderful Zero fighter repeatedly blew their opponents out of the sky. By contrast, the US was badly prepared. Its pilots inexperienced, it's gunners inaccurate and its technology laughable. I was struck by how often US torpedoes simply didn't work and while Toll doesn't tell the story, the failure is rooted in bureaucratic ineptitude and lack of preparedness for war.

Toll doesn't neglect the history of Japan, telling the story of the rise to power of a powerful, centralised military clique, that clearly bordered on fascism in terms of its nationalistic and expansionist tendencies. Mein Kampf edited to remove Hitlers' racism directed at Asians was a best-seller and the regime destroyed all opposition, left and liberal, shaping and preparing the population for war. The swift victories after Pearl Harbor strengthened the regime which was able to keep the vast majority of the population (and even the military) in the dark following defeats.

One thing that seems apparent is that Japan couldn't win an all out war. It probably came close to winning a negotiated settlement where they relinquished some territory in exchange for keeping other parts - a victory that would almost certainly have meant Britain, Holland and other European powers lost their Asian colonies. Had Japan won at Midway this may well have been a likely outcome.

While much of the book focuses on the war and its battles, Toll tells the story through detailed portraits of the principle leaders. This works well and we can see how the conflict is shaped by economic and political forces, but also how the attitudes of the individuals make a real difference. Admiral Yamamoto's decisions in the immediate aftermath of his loss of four carriers at Midway might have still changed the course of things in Japans favour. The competition and conflict between the US's two code-breaking teams nearly derailed their leadership in the run up to Midway.

Ian W. Toll's book is an excellent over-view.  Its also full of tiny detail that really illuminates the wider war. The word "Hawaii", for instance, was overprinted on all US bank notes on the island so that it could be declared invalid if Japan took the islands. A tiny detail that shows the US government really did think it might lose the islands completely. There are some strange omissions. Nothing is mentioned about the US men who were captured and then executed by the Japanese after Midway, and Ensign Gay one of the US pilots who was shot down and spent hours floating in the sea watching the Japanese defeat is left swimming there, without his rescue being mentioned.

Surprisingly, for a book that covers the US's political establishments response to the war, there is nothing here about the internment of Japanese-Americans and their appalling treatment during and after the war. Given Toll's evenhanded coverage of both sides of the war, this is an omission that is strange, but will perhaps be rectified in later volumes.

This is volume one of a three part history of the Pacific War, which the publishers say is the first in many decades. If the others are as insightful as this clear, detailed history, which avoids jingoism and doesn't fail to highlight the mistakes of military leaders and politicians, they will be well worth reading. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Gluckstein - Fighting on All Fronts
Jones - Thin Red Line
Beevor - The Second World War

Turkel - The Good War
Gluckstein - A Peoples' History of the Second World War