Saturday, June 3, 2006

Book Reviews From the June 2006 Socialist Standard

Book Reviews From the June 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Graham Harvey: We Want Real Food. (Published by Constable)

Criticisms of food production usually concentrate on the supermarkets: with their emphasis on selling homogeneous produce and driving down the prices they pay to the producers, they play a major role in depriving consumers of healthy and tasty food. The fast-food industry is also attacked for its bland tasteless pap. In this book, though, Graham Harvey points the finger of blame at the companies that produce artificial fertilisers.

It is true that life expectancy is far greater than it used to be and that diseases like TB and cholera are almost things of the past in Britain. But degenerative diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis are reaching epidemic proportions. Harvey ascribes this to a change in the make-up of the soil, owing to the increased use of nitrogen compounds in fertiliser, which itself has been pushed by the companies who make big profits from selling the stuff.

Traditional farming exploited the minerals in the soil that contributed to a healthy lifestyle, but modern methods have relied more and more on chemical fertilisers that destroy these nutrients. According to one study, for instance, carrots lost 75 percent of their magnesium and copper between 1941 and 1990.

Minerals have various roles in protecting and promoting human health: copper, for instance, is important for the functioning of the liver, brain and muscles, while selenium protects against the onset of a number of kinds of cancer.

Harvey's solution is a programme to reintroduce these crucial minerals to the soil. But this will face a problem: "For the best part of half a century, the chemical industry has effectively vetoed every attempt to remineralize over-worked soils and restore the health benefits to everyday foods." So "What's needed is leadership - from farmers, retailers or politicians." Effective government legislation could supposedly promote sensible agriculture and hence healthier and tastier food. But food production would still be at the mercy of the profit motive rather than be aimed at satisfying human need.

Assuming that Harvey's science is on the right lines, he makes a convincing case forchanging the way in which agriculture is organised, but the problem is that this cannot be divorced from how society as a whole is run. His website, We Want Real Food, is also of interest, though we wouldn't recommend bothering to write to supermarkets asking them to change their ways.
Paul Bennett

Steven Poole: Unspeak. (Published by Little Brown)

Which word would best describe those who use violence to oppose the US-UK occupation of Iraq? 'Terrorists' is condemnatory, while 'resistance' (with its echoes of those who opposed Nazi occupation in Europe) may register approval. Perhaps the most neutralterm is 'insurgents'. This is one of the examples that Steven Poole uses to show that choice of words is important, that the labels attached to people or ideas can affect attitudes towards them.

Socialists are well aware of this, of course, the very word 'Socialism' having been dragged through the mud of dictatorship and Labour Party politics. But Poole does have some instructive examples to discuss. For instance, Republicans in the US have been advised to talk about 'climate change', rather than 'global warming', on the grounds that the former is less frightening.

The UN General Assembly had in fact already used the euphemism of climate change, which does not specify in which direction the change is proceeding, under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the US, both which of which have interest in playing down the effects of burning fossil fuels.

Equally, 'genetically engineered' has often been replaced by cosier-sounding terms such as 'genetically modified' (usually shortened to 'GM'), 'genetically enhanced' and 'biotechnology foods'. And 'ethnic cleansing' sounds so much less nasty than the straightforward 'genocide'.

In the mealy-mouthed platitudes of capitalism's apologists, even military operations have to be given nice-looking names. Hence Operation Enduring Freedom (US invasion of Afghanistan) and Operation Just Cause (the invasion of Panama in 1989). The invasion of Iraq was going to be called Operation Iraqi Liberation, till someone realised that the initials spelled OIL!

The 'war on terror' is another snappy phrase, one which Poole regards as absurd because you can't have a war against a tactic or technique.And this 'war' has itself given rise to a great many mendacious expressions. Think of 'extraordinary rendition', which refers to transporting supposed enemies to countries where they will be tortured: 'rendering' is a word used in industrial meat-processing, so perhaps the phrase is not so inaccurate after all.

'Sleep management' is what is more honestly known as 'sleep deprivation'. And 'abuse' is used in place of the taboo word 'torture', so that the government responsible for torturing prisoners can take refuge in the position that it's really only subjecting them to abuse.

It needs to be said that the reality of capitalism and its works is what's really objectionable, not the names that smell of roses but cover up the filth beneath.

Socialists have always called a spade a spade, not being frightened to expose capitalism and the capitalist class. But Poole's book is a useful reminder of some of the ways in which defenders of the status quo go about their business.
Paul Bennett

Hyashi Hiroyoshi: Marx's Labor Theory of Value. A Defense. (Published by Universe.)

It has always been our contention that it is the workings of capitalism, with the problems it causes those obliged to work for a wage or a salary for a living, that throws up socialist ideas and not just the educational and propagandistic activities of those workers who have already become socialists. This book is a confirmation of this.

Written by a member of a group that emerged from the student wing of the Japanese Communist Party in the late 50s and early 60s, it makes the point that money and value will disappear in a socialist society because production will no longer be carried out by independent economic units (whether individual owners, capitalist corporations or state enterprises) and will no longer be for sale on the market.

It also expounds the view that the Russian revolution was not a "socialist" or "proletarian" revolution and that the regime it established was never socialist, but state capitalist from the start as, given the historical circumstances, capitalism was the only possible development.

As a book put together from articles written at different times, it suffers from a lack of flow, and some of the polemics in the earlier part of the book about the nature of value are obscure, being directed at authors not known in this part of the world even if well-known in Japan.

This said, there are useful discussions in later chapters on Adam Smith, the parts of Volume III of Capital devoted to interest, credit and rent, and on the two different definitions of "productive labour" to be found in Marx's writings.
Adam Buick

Stephen Ingle: The Social and Political Thought of George Orwell: A reassessment. (Published by Routledge)

Despite the title this is more a work of literary criticism than political theory. But since Orwell wrote mainly on political and social subjects the two are intertwined. Orwell considered himself a socialist and was briefly a member of the ILP in 1938. Later, he wrote for the left-wing weekly Tribune and was a declared supporter of the post-war Labour government. In fact one of the issues Ingle discusses is whether Orwell should be described as a "Trotskyite" or as a "Tribunite". He opts for a third choice: "ethical socialist".

Although we wouldn't regard him as a socialist in our sense, he was always clear, at a time when few others besides ourselves were arguing this, that Russia had nothing todo with socialism. Which was why the Russia-lovers called him a "Trotskyite" and why his fear of being assassinated was not entirely groundless.

Two of Orwell's works in particular have been appreciated by socialists. Homage to Catalonia, an account of events in Barcelona in 1936 and 1937 when workers took over the running of the city and the subsequent suppression of this by the so-called "Communists". And Animal Farm, a brilliant satire on Bolshevism (including Trotskyism).

The main book for which Orwell is known is Nineteen Eighty Four. This paints a horrifying picture of a world in which the evolution towards a totalitarian state-capitalism (which, in the 1940s, many to the left of the Communist Party thought was under way) has been completed. It was mainly aimed at those left-wing intellectuals who thought that Russia was "progressive" and deserved support. Inevitably, and whatever Orwell may have intended, it was used by the West as an ideological weapon in the Cold War.

Ingle mentions that Orwell and Aldous Huxley offered contrasting views on how class society might evolve. It has to be said that, in the event, Huxley in his Brave New World turned out to be more prescient than Orwell. Capitalism has survived not by treating workers more and more brutally, but by making them think they are happy - happy slaves who don't even realise they are slaves rather than down-trodden proles.
Adam Buick