Saturday, September 28, 2013

Alternative History (2013)

Book Review from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Human Front, by Ken Macleod. PM Press, 2013.

Alternative history is a strange genre. Its central premise, that small changes in history can lead to radically different worlds is somewhat tenuous: Hitler dying as a small child is unlikely to have prevented a Second World War (merely changing the cast and their precise lines, instead). It is, though, fiction, and it provides a useful means of exploring ‘what ifs’, where the route to the alternative history is usually just an excuse to look at a world that might have been or is simply just different from our own. Being able to imagine different societies is a useful skill, in and of itself.

A few are wish fulfilments, and there’s a few too many ‘If the South won the Civil War’ or ‘If the Germans won the Second World War’ and even ‘If the British Empire never fell’. And of course, the less said about Zeppelins, the better.

Ken Macleod’s work has featured in our review columns before, often for their interesting examination of the ideas and cultures of the revolutionary left, as well as for his commitment to libertarian (proper sense) causes. The Human Front was his first published novella, and it has recently been reissued, along with an essay and an interview that further flesh out some of its themes.

It begins with the news that the Communist partisan Joseph Stalin has been killed in early 1963. The Soviet Union had fallen in 1949, under assault from Allied super hi-tech secret weapons. As Macleod explains in the essay, this dramatically changes the shape of the post-war world, leading to the unrestrained use of military superiority to maintain the colonial powers’ positions. The absence of the Soviet Union and the ongoing Chinese revolution means Maoism rather than Trotskyism comes to predominate on the British left. This leads to several scenes of ‘People’s War’ in the Scottish Highlands, with all the horror and brutality that entails.

Originally published in 2001, the image of a fugitive Stalin gunned down escaping is now resonant with the fates of Hussein and Bin Laden, and indeed, of our present unipolar world with the unrestrained use of drone strikes. Tens of years on, it seems more like prescience than alternative history. Although the novella soars off into high science fiction for its end twist, its grounding in the Scotland and the Lewis of Macleod’s childhood gives it a sense of solidity, grounding it in real history and left wing arguments remembered.

This reissue is an opportunity to not only consider the themes of the original story, but also alternative history itself and the way in which we shape our pasts to try and make our own future.
Pik Smeet


An Easy Match for Mammon (2013)

The Cooking the Books column from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard


On 25 July the Archbishop of Canterbury, who fancies himself as a bit of a financial expert, said that it was his Church’s intention to drive the payday loan company Wonga out of business. He revealed that he had told Wonga’s boss that ‘we’re not in the business of trying to legislate you out of existence, we’re trying to compete you out of existence’ (London Times, 26 July).  The next day he was left red-faced when it came out that his Church had money invested in a venture capitalist, Accel Partners, that was one of Wonga’s financial backers.

His plan is to encourage credit unions by offering them premises in churches and expert advice from Christian businessmen. But the idea that credit unions could out-compete capitalist money-lending enterprises like Wonga is pure fantasy.

A credit union is basically a savings and loan club. People pay in small amounts of money (on which they receive some interest) which gives them the right to borrow small sums of money (on which they pay interest) when they need it. To remain viable by covering its administrative costs, the union has to charge a higher rate of interest to borrowers than it pays to savers. Basically, they are a form of bank, mainly for poor people. Ideally, they are run democratically by their members.

A payday loan company, on the other hand, is a profit-seeking capitalist enterprise specialising in short term (from payday to payday) loans at a very high rate of interest. They don’t particularly target poor people, but rather anyone in short-term financial difficulty. In fact they prefer people who have another payday coming. The money they lend is theirs (or put up by backers such as Accel Partners) – and they have to have it in the first place.

It’s all about money and getting an income from lending it, but the Archbishop didn’t offer to put up any of his Church’s money, merely to let the credit unions use his churches as their offices. Even if he had, it is unlikely that the Church Commissioners, who manage the Church’s millions, would have approved as the rate of return, though eminently ‘ethical’, would have been too low. They have to choose investments with a higher rate of return to generate the income to pay the salaries and pensions of the clergy and for the maintenance of the bishop’s palaces. They are forced to behave capitalistically too.

If the Archbishop really thinks that local credit unions, operating from churches, can out-compete capitalist enterprises like Wonga (who have the resources to advertise every day on TV) by stealing their customers, he can’t be the financial expert he thinks he is. But at least he doesn’t think banks can create money out of nothing which if true (but it isn’t) would surely solve the problem. A Church bank creating money out of nothing would easily out-compete a payday loan company which has to already have the money to lend.

The only way the Church would have a chance of driving payday loan companies out of business would be to set up its own payday loan company, charging ‘ethical’ rates of usury and sending polite, ‘ethical’ solicitor’s letters to defaulters.

You can’t stand a chance of beating capitalist businesses unless you join them but there’s no guarantee that if you do join them you will beat them, as the ‘ethical’ Cooperative Bank has found to its cost.