Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Victor Serge was certainly one of most able writers of 20th Century marxism. His life spanned some of the most important and exciting moments of the last century's revolutionary history, in particular he was actively involved with the Russian Revolution.
Serge travelled to Russia an anarchist. He rapidly became a Bolshevik and his commitement to this form of radical organisation didn't waver throughout the rest of his life.
The book starts with a fantastic account of Serge's life and his basic politics by Ian Birchall, as well as an overview of the Russian Revolution and the role of Anarchist politics within it.
The essays are from his time in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Soviet power, in its genuine sense, rather than some Stalinist distortion, was met by imperialist invasion from (amongst others, Britain, America and Japan). In turn this was met by military opposition from the newly formed Red Army.
In passionate on the spot reporting, Serge describes life in a Petrograd that is perhaps facing its last moments. He describes the wild rumours, the right-wing attempts at sabotage, the distant gunfire. But of more interest, is perhaps his understanding that the fight to defend Petrograd from the counter-revolutionary armies is being fought by men and women who have just overthrown a savage dictatorship and are beginning to create a world "turned upsidedown". So amongst the revolutionary barricades, we hear about the poetry clubs, the song recitals and musical performances.
In one of the later chapters, on the eve of the final battle, he describes one of his acquaintances, whose rifle butt rests on a book in his pocket. Serge asks this "obstinate rebel" what he is reading.... "Poincare..... The Value of Science".
On the eve of a great battle to save the city that was the heart of the revolution, it is entirely appropriate that the men and women who might die the next morning are reading, learning, thinking and dreaming of a different world.
The final essay in this book, is Serge writing about the attitude that Anarchists should take the the revolution, and in particular, the centralised revolutionary terror that the Red's have had to introduce to defend the revolution from the brutal$ities of the Whites.
Serge describes how many of the Russian anarchists, instinctively sided with the Revolution and the Bolsheviks, automatically understanding that to defend the gains of the revolution required organisation and military centralisation. Serge takes this further arguing that the anarchists must be engaged with the revolution, if only to temper some of the instinctive Bolshevik centralisation that he believes is natural for members of that party. Whether or not you agree with that, you cannot fail to understand Serge's basic point. Revolutions are never the perfectly formed events that many sectarian, armchair revolutionaries hope they are. Instead, they are complex, difficult events that have to be defended from the violence of their class enemies. It is a lesson that is still important.
Friday, June 22, 2007
Those who argue that racism can be overcome, or ended are often confronted with the argument that racism or prejudice has always existed. Many, particularly from the Marxist tradition have argued however that racism is a more recent invention - that there have been societies in the past (and indeed today) were racism was unheard off.
For this reason, Frank Snowden's book is a fascinating read. He examines Ancient images and portrayals of the black people's of Africa in writings, sculpture and painting. His conclusions are stark, but simple. Racism, as a systematic system of prejudice and oppression or as a set of ideas that assigned stereotypes to a group of people based on their skin colour.
Of course there may have been prejudices, but Snowden finds surprisingly few examples. Indeed, rather the opposite, he argues that for one society, that of Ancient Egypt, skin colour was rarely mentioned when describing someone from the regions to the south of Egypt. The "Nubian" peoples, where instead venerated as excellent warriors, often used in Egypt's armies as mercenaries. Similarly in Roman and Greek writings, were skin colour was mentioned, it was almost always in a descriptive, rather than derogatory way.
Neither the Greeks, Romans or Egyptians had any systematic negative views of black people. Snowden describes contemporary descriptions of the Roman children expressing initial surprise and fear upon seeing a black person for the first time, but also compares this to modern research into childhood responses to someone of a different skin colour. Research that shows that such childlike response rarely leads to racist views in adult life.
If there is a flaw in the book, it's that it doesn't really shed much light on why racism is so prevalent in modern society. One argument that Snowden gives is that the ancient people's lived side by side with black people, thus there was no shock of discovery as white and black people met for the first time.
I think this is a weak explanation. There certainly were a few black and Asian people who travelled to the western lands in more recent times, and certainly (as Snowden acknowledges) the bible refers to black men and women so Christian countries would have not been living in ignorance of non-white peoples. This knowledge and fleeting encounters did not lead to racism in the way we know it.
I think that it is important to say that modern racism as had a concrete starting point. This is the invention of racial explanations, by the white establishment to explain the slave trade. The brutalities of slavery could only be justified through some sort of racial demonisation and this needed to be invented.
This perhaps is the missing chapter of Frank Snowden's book, though in itself the book is a clear (and beautifully illustrated) explanation of the lack of racism in the ancient past. It's worth quoting the author's conclusions at length, as his work, I believe has had to small a readership:
...in the ancient world there were prolonged black-white contacts, from an early date; first encounters with blacks frequently involved soldiers or mercenaries, not slaves or so-called savages; initial favourable impressions of black were explained and amplified, generation after generation, by poets, historian and philosophers; the central societies developed a positive image in of peripheral Nubia as an independent stae of considerable military, political and cultural importance; both blacks and whites were slaves, but blacks and slaves were never synonymous; black emigres were noT excluded from opportunities available to others of alien extraction, nor were they handicapped in fundamental social relations - they were physically and culturally assimilated; in science, philosophy and religion color was not the basis of a widely accepted theory concerning the inferiority of blacks.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Just as it seems every politician, pop star, minor celebrity and even minor royal has started "offsetting" their round the world flights, climate campaigners at the Carbon Trade Watch (CTW) have brought out this brilliant short pamphlet to explain why Carbon Offsetting is actually making things worse.
On paper the idea is as simple as it is brilliant. You pay a company to "offset" the emissions you have made driving your SUV or flying across the Atlantic. This company takes your money and invests it in some project that absorbs Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere or reduces emissions of Greenhouse gases. Often this means planting forests in the third world, though one project mentioned by CTW involved giving poor people in South Africa low energy light bulbs (the fact that this would have happened anyway, without the input of the Offset company doesn't stop them using it as a marketing ploy).
There are numerous problems with this approach. The first is the hard science - CTW explain how Offset Companies use a form of "Future Accounting". Similar to Enron's business practises they basically claim future emissions reductions against gas output today. The best example of this is the investment by a Offset company in a new forest. It takes trees a long time to absorb Carbon Dioxide. Say 100 years. But, if you have emitted CO2 into the atmosphere today and it won't actually be removed from the atmosphere for a century, you've made the problem worse. To balance the equation faster, you need more trees, which costs more, making it unlikely many people will do it.
There are other problems. What if the forest dies from lack of water as the world heats up? Or what if the local population, displaced by the government who wants the new trees planted because they benefit from further Carbon Credits under the Kyoto Agreement, burns the forest?
This exact situation certainly did happen as evicted peoples around Mount Elgon in Uganda resisted attempts by their government and Carbon Offset companies to make them pay, so that Westerners could continue to emit greenhouse gases.
Of course, all this is big business too. CTW document the massive profits made by Offset companies and show how it's good business sense for some of the worst polluting corporations in the world to link themselves to the offset market. It makes them look green, rather than force them to change business practices.
And this is the heart of the problem. Offsetting your emissions does nothing to encourage a change of behaviour. It allows politicians and corporations to put the responsibility for stopping climate change back on the individual, while they get off scot-free. Indeed it does more than that. As CTW point out, it turns the honest desires of millions of people to do something to save the planet, into "another market transaction". What could be more dis-empowering?
Luckily as CTW point out, there are things that can be done, most of them much more empowering than giving your cash to some Internet based pseudo green company.
There is much more in this little book (including an amusing chapter on the role of celebrities in promoting Carbon Offsetting and a good analysis of the failure of Live8 to bring change). But above all, it is a fantastic antidote to those who believe the market will solve the climate crisis we face.
You can download this book from Carbon Trade Watch's website as a PDF here, though I bought a copy from Bookmarks for £5.
Friday, June 08, 2007
On average, each American produces 4.2 pounds of rubbish a day. Most of this is packaging. This staggering statistic starts Heather Rogers' fantastic book on garbage - a book that has lots of numbers, but never seems to let the reader drown in facts and figures. The figures are important, because the scale of the garbage problem is incredible. Rogers tells the historic story of rubbish, but she inevitably concentrates on the last 100 or so years. Before then, people were either so poor that their few belongings were used over and over, or (and this is the most important fact) their belongings were designed to be used, over and over again.
Heather introduces us to the odd roles that developed in a time of low garbage levels - the men and women who collected human waste to sell to farmers, the people who swept roads clear of horse manure to facilitate a easy crossing.
However the central theme of Rogers' book, is the way that modern day capitalism created the garbage problem, and how it has used and abused the solutions.
In its desperate drive to sell commodities to make profits, capitalism found that objects that lasted, didn't make the corporations money. So, they invented disposability, selling it to the consumer as convenience. We get the disposable bottles, razors and nappies. Then, the capitalists take the next logical step, they build in obsolescence or failure. Either the particular model goes out of favour, or it stops working a few years later and needs to be replaced.
Finally, the author examines at great length the great recycling swindle. Recycling is of course a good thing, it's often the first step that most people take down the road towards environmental awareness or action. However, it is very much a diversion. Rogers' points out how simply putting "please recycle this product when finished" on the outside of a drinks can, gives the corporation a sheen of green colouring, even though they are producing millions of "use once" tins.
The recycling industry gives people the impression that everything is OK. That "something is being down" and stops people questioning why so much stuff is produced in the first place. Why don't we have re-usable bottles? Why do we need disposable razors?
In a fascinating chapter, Rogers examines how the packaging companies in 50s America were well aware of this. "Keep America Beautiful" is the most famous, and first anti-litter campaigns. It wasn't started by environmentalists, but by the packaging companies who wanted to shift the blame for "waste" onto the individual consumer and avoid the finger being pointed at corporations that were in the process of pushing extra packaging on to the market.
Competing companies soon found that extra-packaging, disposable containers, or every changing marketing materials gave them an edge over competitors who remained with the same old, returnable, reusable bottle or container.
The last century has seen the rise of a consumer society, fueled by manufacturers desperate for us to purchase and purchase again their products. In doing so, they have contributed to a gigantic problem of waste. Where do we put this garbage? What does it do to the environment if we burn it, or dump it?
At a time when millions of people are looking at the sustainable nature of the society we live in and asking how we can avoid ecological disaster, Heather Rogers has produced more ammunition against the very nature of the system. Capitalism is, she argues, inherently wasteful - if we are to save the planet, we have to fundamentally change how society uses, produces and treats the material goods that currently form such an important part of our lives. In doing so, we may well create a society that feels it doesn't need so many of these objects in the first place, opting instead for lives that use less and share more.