Thursday, July 14, 2016

End of geography (2012)

Book Review from the January 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Why the West Rules – for Now. By Ian Morris. Profile Books.

The basic question addressed by Morris is why in recent times the Western part of the globe has been dominant over the Eastern part. Britain’s rulers, for instance, sent armies and gunboats to humiliate the Emperor of China in the nineteenth century and extract trading concessions, rather than vice versa. It is important to realise that the West (more precisely, the rulers in the West) has not always been top dog: from the sixth to the eighteenth centuries the East was more developed. Morris summarised his views in an article in History Today in October 2010, which can be read for free here.

Morris defines the ‘West’ as societies descended from the original core region of southwest Asia, so encompassing Europe and the Americas. The ‘East’ is those societies descended from the early civilisations between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers. Social development is quantified by looking at four criteria: energy capture (the capacity for extracting energy from the natural environment and for using it), urbanism (the size of a society’s largest city, as a proxy for the ability to organize complex situations), information processing (the power to communicate information) and the capacity to make war. The higher the score, the more powerful and developed a society is, and the more able it is to impose itself on others. The West was more advanced till around the middle of the sixth century CE and again from around 1800, when development leapt upwards, first in the West (the Industrial Revolution) and then in the East. The West is still ahead (especially in war-waging ability) but, as the title of the book suggests, this may not last for long.

Biological explanations (to the effect that people from the West are more intelligent) do not hold up, since human beings are basically the same everywhere. Rather, the factors behind the differences are claimed to be essentially geographical. A period of global warming around twenty thousand years ago led to the growth of agriculture in the ‘Hilly Flanks’ (covering the valleys of the Tigris, Euphrates and Jordan rivers) and so to a distinctive ‘Western’ core. At the end of the last Ice Age, agriculture began between 20 and 35 degrees north, a region with plenty of domesticable plants and animals (unlike, say, sub-Saharan Africa). Millennia later, by around 700 CE, China was a unified empire, with an enormous capital city and woodblock printing, while the West remained divided and much less developed, in the period known as the Dark Ages. But it was Europeans who encountered and exploited the Americas, because it was easier for them to cross the Atlantic than for Chinese explorers to cross the Pacific. Chinese fleets sailed through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean in the fifteenth century, but distances and prevailing winds meant that sailing eastwards into an empty ocean was unlikely to be attempted.

Western Europe (especially Britain) was well-placed to start off industrialisation because it could build on the gradually-accumulating technologies of previous centuries, but also because it possessed plenty of natural resources, colonies and warships, much more so than China at the time. We might add that it benefited from the profits of the slave trade, too. The various graphs that Morris presents suggest that the East will overtake the West in development early next century; compare predictions that China will become the biggest economy within just two decades, though Morris is not simply dealing with China. He argues, however, that geography will soon cease to mean anything anyway, as globalisation undermines real differences and produces a true worldwide system.

Morris’s work is probably most reminiscent of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which emphasised the importance of environmental factors, such as the relative shortage of domesticable animals in Africa and the Americas, in determining the course of historical development in different areas. In The Enigma of Capital, David Harvey accuses Diamond of a geographical or environmental determinism: on Diamond’s view, he says, ‘Africa is poor for environmental reasons, not … because of centuries of imperialist plundering, beginning with the slave trade’. This objection misses the point, though, since there needs to be an account of why it was Westerners who enslaved Africans, rather than vice versa. A geographical explanation is perfectly compatible with the view that the slave trade contributed to the impoverishment of Africa. In connection with the determinism objection, Morris is right to quote Marx to the effect that people make their own history but under circumstances they have not chosen themselves; their geographical situation being part of those circumstances.

Astonishingly, the word ‘capitalism’ is absent from the book’s index, though there is much discussion of industrialisation and industrialists (i.e. capitalists). It is all very well to say that ‘Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things’, but there needs to be explicit recognition that this often involves people getting others to work for them, and so exploiting them. Life for the earliest workers in capitalist factories was in no way easy or safe, and the profits went to the owners, not to those who toiled in the factories. The owners were not so much lazy and frightened as hungry for wealth and power.

Marx attributed the growth of the industrial working class to deliberate acts by the capitalists, fencing off the countryside and so driving people into towns to labour as propertyless wage workers. Rather, says Morris, it was due to increases in life expectancy and hence in population (Britain’s more or less doubled between 1780 and 1830). But he does not seem to deny that the rural dispossession took place, and it clearly contributed to the availability of urban workers as a labour force to be exploited by the new lords of capital.

One thing the book does show is that societal arrangements are never permanent. We could turn its theme around and say that the capitalists rule – but only for now.
Paul Bennett

New Left (2011)

Book Review from the September 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson, the New Left and Postwar British Politics. By Scott Hamilton, Manchester University Press, 2011

Many socialists would count EP Thompson's books among the best socialist books ever written, particularly William Morris: From Romantic To Revolutionary (1955), The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (1978). Thompson's own politics however are less admirable. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1942 and was an active member until 1956 when he resigned as a result of the Russian military invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev’s 'secret speech' which denounced Stalin. To a significant extent, the rest of Thompson's political career can be seen as distancing himself from Stalinism. He later tried to justify his CP membership by claiming it was part of a 'Popular Front' against fascism. But Thompson did not appreciate that his CP membership would lend legitimacy to Stalin's reign of terror. His concern for the lives of ordinary workers did not extend to the Russian working class.

William Morris: From Romantic To Revolutionary showed that Morris was a revolutionary Marxist. This book was written and published while Thompson was in the CP and in it he claims that Morris's ideas were being realised in Stalin's Russia. In the Second Edition of 1977 this claim is removed. The Making of the English Working Class won huge critical acclaim and it is still widely used as a textbook. Thompson's book is an account of the formation of class consciousness, and in his 1980 Preface he argued that 'in the years between 1780 and 1832 most English working people came to feel an identity of interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs'. Some critics had complained that Thompson's analysis of class is too subjective and this forms a major theme of his The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays. Among Thompson's targets was the 'Stalinism in theory' of Louis Althusser. For Althusser history was 'a process without a subject' in which specific circumstances determined human behaviour. For Thompson, on the other hand, the class struggle was the motor of history and so therefore he wrote about the experiences and consciousness of the working class.

Thompson was one of the self-appointed intellectuals who founded the New Left Review in 1960, and it is still published bi-monthly. It was conceived as the journal of the New Left who were opposed to Stalinism and Labour Party 'revisionism' (an open acceptance of capitalism). After an initial surge in interest provided by their work in Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, most of the New Left found their ideological home in the Labour Party. Thompson was involved with the Labour Party in the 1960s and re-joined in 1978. By the early 1980s CND was resurgent and Thompson was its main spokesperson, and he harangued large public meetings on the 'logic of exterminism'. He thought the superpowers were dragging the world towards an inevitable nuclear annihilation, a fatalistic way of thinking he once would have denounced as 'Stalinist'. Thompson died in 1993 but, as Hamilton shows, his books live on.
Lew Higgins

Cooking the Books: Saving Private Capitalism (2016)

The Cooking the Books column from the July 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
American capitalism is, apparently, suffering a ‘crisis of faith’, at least according to a 5-page article featured on the front cover of Time magazine (23 May). The author, Rana Foroohar, quotes the findings of an opinion poll which she finds ‘startling’:
‘… only 19% of Americans aged 18 to 29 identified themselves as “capitalists”. In the richest and most market-oriented country in the world, only 42% of that group said they “supported capitalism”. The numbers were higher among older people; still, only 26% considered themselves capitalists. A little over half supported the system as a whole.’
One of the questions must have been odd if it invited people to identify themselves as ‘capitalists’ in the same sort of way that they might have been asked if they were socialists. A capitalist is not someone who believes in capitalism. It is someone who has enough capital to be able to live without being obliged to sell their labour power for a living. In America that will be well under 5 percent.
Foroohar’s article, entitled ‘Saving Capitalism’, is taken from her forthcoming book Makers and Takers. Her argument is that the current problems of American capitalism are due to ‘financialization’. Up until the early 1970s, she says, finance served business:
‘finance took individual and corporate savings and funnelled them into productive enterprises, creating new jobs, new wealth and, ultimately, economic growth.’
However, over the past few decades this has changed:
‘finance has turned away from this traditional role. Academic research shows that only a fraction of all the money washing around the financial markets these days actually makes it to Main Street businesses…. Most of the money in the system is being used for lending against existing assets such as housing, stocks and bonds.’
She says that banks have become more interested in such ‘trading’ than in their traditional role of lending to business. But it is not just banks that have been affected. Businesses themselves have become increasingly involved in hedging, ‘tax optimization’ and offering financial services, to the detriment of productive investment. They have the money to do this because:
‘Top-tier US businesses have never enjoyed greater financial resources. They have a record $2 trillion in cash on their balance sheets – enough money combined to make them the 10th largest economy in the world.’
Her plan to save capitalism is ‘remooring finance in the real economy’, putting ‘the financial system back in its rightful place, as a servant of business rather than its master.’
It’s not the first time in the history of capitalism that finance capital has been seen as the enemy. Before WWI the Austrian Social Democrat Rudolf Hilferding wrote Finanzkapital in which he argued that banks had come to dominate and control industry. Lenin took this up and incorporated it into his theory of imperialism.
To merely denounce ‘financial capital’ is to support ‘manufacturing capital’; which is Foroohar’s (if not the Leninists’) explicit position. She has appointed herself as a defender of manufacturing (‘the makers’) against finance capital (‘the takers’). But she doesn’t consider an alternative explanation for ‘financialization’: that it might be a consequence of slow economic growth rather than the other way round. Since previous profits are not being fully reinvested because it’s not profitable enough a part of them accumulate as cash mountains, providing the stakes for ‘trading’ and ‘hedging’. Like the Stock Exchange, these are zero sum games in which no new wealth is created but where representations of existing wealth are traded instead – where some capitalists get richer but only at the expense of other capitalists, competing against each for the largest share they can get of wealth already taken from the real wealth makers, the working class.