Saturday, July 04, 2015

Christopher Hill - The Century of Revolution

Christopher Hill's history of the English Revolution and its aftermath The Century of Revolution was first published in 1961. Reading it over 50 years later I was repeatedly impressed by how modern and relevant it felt. Extremely readable, accessible and surly a definitive history it ought to be read by everyone trying to understand the origins of capitalism and the revolutionary break with the past that English society took in the 17th century.

This debate remains important. Hill was arguing that the English Civil War was only the military expression of the revolutionary changes sweeping England. That there was even a revolutionary transformation is now controversial. Since the 1960s and 1970s, when the generally accepted view was that a revolution had taken place in England in the 17th century, there have been attempts by a variety of right-wing academics and historians to role this back. Much of their ammunition has been used on the works of Hill and those influenced by him, in order to demonstrate the continuity of the past, and thus the present.

Hill's book is somewhat unorthodox. He dispenses with the narrative approach, breaking up the 17th century into periods, the run up to the Civil War, the period of rebellion and the Interregnum, followed by the restoration and the aftermath of the "Glorious" revolution. Each section of this is further broken down - beginning with a narrative, then looking at politics, industry, economics and so on. Its a useful method and helps to show Hill's main thesis. That there was an English Revolution and it did usher in a world were capitalism could reign.

Hill begins by noting that the Stuart monarchy actually restricted the growth of industry,
In so far as Stuart government had anything which could be described as an economic policy, it was to support the monopoly London export companies against interlopers, to slow down industrial development and control it through gilds and monopolies, to suppress middlemen.
Nonetheless, industry and trade grew. So by the beginnings of the Civil War period (indeed much earlier in London) merchants were frequently richer than the gentry. But this trade was of interest to the crown only in that it raised revenue. They had no interest in expanding trade. Thus a new class was growing, frustrated and angry at a monarchy that failed to support and encourage them. As Hill explains
So there were many economic reasons for opposing the government. Industrialists, merchants and corn-growers wanted freer trade, less government regulation, no monopolies; gentlemen wanted to escape from the burdens of wardship, feudal tenures, and forest laws; and to be given a freer hand to enclose and bring fresh land under cultivation. 
Hill quotes a Professor Stone, who notes the way that this was changing society
Economic developments were dissolving old bonds of service and obligation and creating new relationships founded on the operations of the market... The domestic and foreign policies of the Stuarts were failing to respond to these changing circumstances. 
The defeat of Charles I and the new government under Cromwell began transforming this situation completely. Industry and trade were encouraged. This is not surprising, Parliament's support was highest in areas were industry and agriculture dominated local economics, indeed one of Hill's maps makes this very clear. The social changes were significant. The first business of the new parliament in 1660 was to convert Royalist lands to freehold, encouraging the purchase and sale of this land. The importance of this was
Unconditional ownership and transmission of landed property was one essential for planned long-term capital investment in agricultural improvements. The other was that copyholders... should not win absolute rights in their holdings, particularly not an absolute right of inheritance, but could be evicted by landlords who wished to enclose or consolidate.
While Hill notes that there wasn't a social revolution in the English countryside comparable to what took place during the French Revolution, the countryside began to be altered fundamentally in order to allow a new way of organising agriculture that would conclude with the transformation of the peasantry into wage-labourers, either in the rural or urban areas. This process may have been a long, drawn out one, but as Hill says it was now "inevitable".

Hill explains all the other ways in which industry, commerce and trade were encouraged and expanded during the Interregnum. Nonetheless Hill characterises the revolution as "very incomplete". Enormous changes took place, economically, politically, religiously. But
The country had managed to get on without King, Lords, and Bishops; but it could never henceforth be ruled without the willing co-operation of those whom the House of Commons represented.... Nevertheless, an incomplete revolution. In 1644 George Wither had recommended wholesale confiscation of the lands of royalists, with the deliberate object of 'making them peasants'. But nothing of the sort occurred.... A society of the career open to the talents was not established. There was no lasting extension of redistribution of the franchise, no substantial legal reform. The transfers of property did not benefit the smaller men, and movements to defend their economic position all came to nothing. Tithes and a state Church survived; religious toleration ended (temporarily) in 1660. Dissenters were driven out of political life for a century and a half.
Those who argued for a new, democratic, world were defeated as Cromwell changed tack and consolidated the revolution in the interests of the new bourgeoisie. And despite the restoration of the monarchy there was no going back. New methods of taxation were kept by the new monarch and many laws of the Interregnum which were abolished were remade by the end of the century.

This wasn't just in the realm of economics. The 1689 Toleration Act, Hill writes, "finally killed the old conception of a single state Church... The attempt to punish 'sin' by judicial process was virtually abandoned. The laity had won its centuries long struggle against the Church courts." As Hill concludes, "in this respect too the Middle Ages were over".

Despite its relatively short length this work manages to convey the sweeping transformation of English society. The revolutionary years transformed the social, political and economic landscape, on the back of changes that had been developing for decades. But it took the revolutionary act of war, then the abolition of the monarchy to make these changes concrete. Once the changes had occurred the new class that held power could welcome back the monarch, but on a very different set of agreements to previously. The world was now open for fully fledged capitalism to develop and there was nothing that King or Queen could do to stop it.

Related Reviews

Hill - The World Turned Upside Down
Hill - God's Englishman

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Paul McGarr & Alex Callinicos - Marxism and the Great French Revolution

This book is actually a special edition of the International Socialist Journal. Published near the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, it consists of two excellent essays. The first, by Paul McGarr is an excellent introductory account to the French Revolution. McGarr doesn't dwell in great detail on the details of the Revolution, preferring to paint a general picture that concentrates on the forces clashing within French society. Here, McGarr gives the reader a sense of the changing nature of French society and the tensions developing within it:
The French state under Loius XIV pursued vigorous 'protectionist' economic policies... designed to serve the interests of the state in its conflicts with its rivals. But they were also designed to help French trade, commerce and manufacture - and thus the bourgeoisie. Significant elements of the bourgeoisie used their wealth and influence to obtain lucrative positions within the growing bureaucracy of the absolutist state... In short the absolutist state was an adaption to, and partial incorporation of, the bourgeoisie but within a reshaped and restabilised feudal political structure.
Such tensions could not be contained indefinitely, and the author explains well how the economic changes influenced political interests, which eventually exploded into rebellion. But for the Revolution to be carried through required the direct involvement of the masses. McGarr explores the way that this took place through the networks of radical clubs and organisations which discussed, debated and took action. These clubs were numerous and frequently large. The Jacobin clubs in Marseille, for instance, in 1791, involved 2,000 people. McGarr writes
Some estimates put the numbers as high as one million at various points in the revolution... This mass political organisation and its press were the backbone of the revolution. We know more about events in Prais and in the Convention, but too often the fact that behind this stood real organisation right across the country, on a historically unprecedented scale, is forgotten.
What did this mean in practice? McGarr argues that the bourgeoisie needed to break the old order in order to push forward their class interests. But were not able to do this on their own. So they also needed the "class demands" of the peasants and urban masses to drive the revolution on.
The peasants and urban poor were not capable of forming an independent force capable of taking power in society. Only the bourgeoisie had the potential to be a new ruling class. This gave them hegemony in constructing the new order.
Their victory meant that the bourgeoisie now formed the dominant, exploiting class. McGarr argues this because he wants to demonstrate that those who argue that the political and class struggles of the French Revolution were immaterial to the changes in French society are wrong. Students of the French Revolution will find that McGarr's article is a useful short introduction to the debates within the left (and with the right) about the nature of this change.

It is in this context too, that Alex Callinicos' essay is extremely important. Luckily it is available online, though sadly Paul McGarr's is not. Callinicos' has written extensively on the subject of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This essay, Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism is an excellent introduction to this topic, particularly in the context of the French Revolution. Though having said that, Callinicos briefly examines other changes such as Revolution's "from above" like that in Germany, the United States and Japan.

One key argument for Callinicos is over which class "led" the revolution. Here he challenges those who simply argue that bourgeois revolutions must be led by the whole bourgeois class. Clearly in the case of many revolutions this isn't the case, the gentry fought on both sides, or changed sides.
Bourgeois revolutions must be understood, not as revolutions consciously made by capitalists, but as revolutions which promote capitalism. The emphasis should shift from the class which makes a bourgeois revolution to the effects of such a revolution – to the class which benefits from it. More specifically, a bourgeois revolution is a political transformation – a change in state power, which is the precondition for large scale capital accumulation and the establishment of the bourgeoisie as the dominant class. This definition requires, then, a political change with certain effects. It says nothing about the social forces which carry through the transformation.
It seems to me that this is the only sensible analysis. The origins of the need for revolutionary change arise behind the scenes so to speak. They are the consequences of actions by people who change their way of making wealth gradually over time, and bring within them other interests and needs. This isn't necessarily a conscious activity and does not automatically lead to conscious needs for change. Nonetheless, eventually, critical mass is arrived at and different forces in society a forced to clash. I think the English Revolution demonstrates this very clearly, as parliament gradually is forced to confront the king over more and more key economic and political questions until eventually he has to be fought. Few, if any, who took up arms in 1642 for Parliament did so imagining they would be bringing down the monarchy.

Callinicos puts it very well
Capitalism, involving...  the spread of commodity circulation, necessarily develops in a piecemeal and decentralised way within the framework of feudal political domination. It gradually subverts the old order through the infiltration of the whole network of social relationships and the accumulation of economic and political power by capitalists. The effect is both to the many capitalists to the ancien régime but also to change the nature of that régime, so that old forms conceal new, bourgeois relationships.
Or as Engels wrote (quoted by Callinicos) ‘The political order remained feudal, while society became more and more bourgeois.’

Again, as in McGarr's article, Callinicos tackles those, such as the political theorist Theda Skocpol, who argue that what took place in the English Revolution was a "political but not a social revolution". To demonstrate this, Callinicos examines the changes that take place in the role of the state. Again, these arguments should be read by anyone seeking to understand the political and social transformations taking place in England and France during the Revolutions. Key to these changes though, are the various political actors. In the French Revolution we have the peasants and urban masses, with the Jacobin revolutionaries (like Cromwell) forced to play a balancing act between the groups' differing interests. This is why the historical analysis of McGarr's piece is so important, because the revolutionary process taking place as social forces grow and develop during the Revolution are key to understanding why different groups acted in particular ways at different times. Revolutionary change was not inevitable, and as Callinicos points out, the Bourgeois revolution failed in its classic sense in countries like Germany, having to be imposed from above. Revolutions
in which the existing state apparatus was used violently to remove the obstacles to the construction of unified capitalist economies. It is essential, therefore, to consider some of the main features of these revolutions.
Finally, Callinicos notes that the contemporary changes have taken alternate forms. The Russian Revolution needed workers to lead the peasantry to victory in 1917. But in countries were this wasn't possible, various alternative revolutionary leaderships were able to play this role "often marching under ‘Marxist-Leninist’ colours but dominated by the urban petty bourgeoisie, were able to lead and organise successful peasant wars against imperialism and its allies."

Callinicos concludes,
The historical irony that movements claiming the inspiration of Marxism should do the work of capitalism, merely underlines the fundamental difference between bourgeois and socialist revolutions. Bourgeois revolutions are characterised by a disjunction of agency and outcome. A. variety of different social and political forces – Independent gentry, Jacobin lawyers, Junker and samurai bureaucrats, even ‘Marxist-Leninists’ – can carry through political transformations which radically improve the prospects for capitalist development.
This however is not enough. The revolutionary defeat of feudalism and the introduction of capitalism, was a historic progress step. But today Capitalism is a fetter on the further development of human society. Understanding the forces that led to that change, helps us better understand the nature of the beast we must destroy today. These two essays should be read by anyone seeking to turn the world upsidedown.

Related Reviews

Jaurès - A Socialist History of the French Revolution
Callinicos - Making History

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jean Jaurès - A Socialist History of the French Revolution

The French Revolution was a profoundly important historical event. But just saying this can underestimate its impact. The Revolution didn't simply change the course of French, or even European history, it helped to shape the way generations of people viewed historical change. A glance at the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky will see repeated references to the Revolution and its key figures. Debates about the processes of historical change, particularly the transition from feudal society to capitalism, continue to discuss the French events, and radicals today continue to be inspired by the nameless thousands who stormed the Bastille, and at crucial moments forced reluctant politicians to embrace change.

In this context then, this important new abridgment of Jean Jaurès' classic history of the French Revolution is very welcome indeed. Jean Jaurès was a leading French socialist of the early 20th century. Assassinated for opposing the First World War, he had an enormous impact upon the French socialist movement. But he also helped to shape the study of the French Revolution with his monumental Socialist History. Spanning multiple volumes it is a work of brilliant scholarship that seeks to apply the Marxist method to the revolutionary events and its leading figures. It is also immensely readable.

Translator Mitchell Abidor has done a brilliant job in bringing Jaurès work to an English audience. His translation is superb but his selection from Jaurès is also excellent, managing to convey the full breadth of his history, without losing the author's eye for detail.

As a 20th century socialist, Jaurès was concerned with the role of ordinary people in the Revolution. But he understands that there was a contradiction. The urban population may have stormed the Bastille, but
The Revolution's origins were so profoundly bourgeois that a few weeks after July 14, when the National Assembly, freed by the people from the court's attacks, set up the electoral regime and excluded millions of the working poor from the vote... not even the most democratic of them remembered that at the Bastille the workers of Paris had conquered the title of active citizens for the poor of France.
The role of the "people"
seemed a glorious and fearsome accident that could not be allowed to become the rule in the regular workings of a free and ordered society.
But even so, Jaurès notes that,
thanks to these valiant men there is nothing under the sun today that belongs wholly to the bourgeoisie, not even its Revolution.
Time and again, the masses, take the stage to direct and shape the direction of the Revolution. The peasants, fearful of "brigands"  and knowing
That the proletarians were neither bold enough, conscious enough, nor organized enough to substitute their revolution for the Revolution, they marched lightheartedly against the chateaux and turned against the ancien régime the weapns they'd seized... We can see that there was a kind of conservative movement of contraction, or tightening, which was followed by a revolutionary expansion. Under the fear of the unknown and before the uprising of the have-nots, the communities of the villages withdrew into themselves, elected men of whom they were sure, established a militia, and, having thus guaranteed the order of property within the Revolution, attacked the feudal system. 
This contradiction runs through Jaurès' history. The dynamic between the limitations of the new order and the desire for change of the masses at the bottom of society. But it is in Paris and the other key urban areas that we really see the revolution pushed forward. The most radical deputies are elected from these towns, and they are the ones most clued into the desires of the masses and most keen to press forward under pressure from below. As events progress, the masses become less and less passive, and their leaders, are pushed forward, or aside.

Jaurès is not afraid to critique some the heroes of the Revolution. He is skeptical of Marat, saying his "theories caused bewilderment and even scandal among the people", and noting Marat's hope that the rich might "save themselves" by "act[ing] in good faith by giving a poor a portion of their excess". But here I think Jaurès is ahead of himself. Hindsight is wonderful, and I think that the author is limited by his belief that a proletarian movement already existed within the French masses, akin to the modern working class.

As Henry Heller points out in his introductory essay, Jaurès' "moved toward socialism without breaking from the radical republican and parliamentary tradition". So his history ends up suggesting that the struggle for socialism under capitalism is the continuation of the French Revolution. As Jaurès writes
Perhaps it wasn't possible for one generation alone to bring down the ancien régime, create new laws and rights, raise an enlightened and proud people from the depths of ignorance, poverty, and misery, fight against an international league of tyrants and slaves, and to put all passions and forces to use in this combat while at the same time ensuring the evolution of the fevered, exhausted country towards normal order and well-ordered freedom.
But precisely because the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution that brought in capitalism, this would be impossible, unless you believed French capitalism could provide well-ordered freedom. Jaurès writes "Strong class action by the proletariat is needed in order to wrest the Revolution and democracy from all that is now outdated and retrograde in the bourgeois world view".

My second criticism is that this selection neglects the impact of the Revolution outside of Europe, in particular its role in helping to inspire revolutions in Haiti against colonialism and slavery. This is a serious ommission in my opinion, given the importance of that event in helping to end slavery itself.

One problem with the nature of any abridgment is that it must miss out stuff, both contextual and factual. So the reader new to the French Revolution may at times struggle in understanding who certain individuals were, and their motivations. While Mitchell Abidor does a heroic job in framing each selection, there are inevitable gaps which mean that some readers might want to read further on the Revolution.

While these limitations are important, they do not entirely detract from this important book. Henry Heller's useful introduction frames the book for the reader who can enjoy Jaurès writing for what it is, a celebration of the need to change the world, and the role of ordinary people in doing so.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Naomi Klein - The Shock Doctrine

Naomi Klein's recent book This Changes Everything has helped reignite the climate movement and radical discussion of the environment and its relationship to capitalism. Having enjoyed it, I have turned to an earlier book of hers to try and understand more about how Klein sees capitalism and the alternative to it. I began The Shock Doctrine expecting to disagree with her analysis of contemporary capitalism. While I did, in places, I found much to agree with in the book, and many astute and important pieces of journalism.

According to Klein the Shock Doctrine is the way that contemporary capitalism uses chaos and disaster to open up markets to privatisation and more extreme exploitation. In her words,
the coup, the terrorist attack, the market meltdown, the war, the tsunami, the hurricane - puts the entire population into a state of collective shock. The falling bombs, the bursts of terror, the pounding winds serve to soften p whole societies much as the blaring music and blows in the torture cells soften up prisoners.
Using examples from 1970s Latin American to Iraq following Bush and Blair's war, to the aftermath of "natural" disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, Klein develops a series of examples that show how capitalism has become adept at utilising the aftermath of shocks to destroy public services, privatise nationalised utilities and open up whole economies to the free market.

Those driving these ideas do not do so, she suggests out of nastiness. But out of a belief that what will improve the world is more free-markets and less state intervention. She looks at the economics of individuals like Milton Friedman who "dreamed of depatterning societies, of returning them to a state of pure capitalism, cleansed of interruptions - government regulations, trade barrier and entrenched interests." Klein frequently uses the analogy of torture, and describes the way that experiments in the 1960s tried to see how humans could be "wiped clean" through sensory deprivation. Such human shocks are a metaphor for what the shock of war, or disaster, might do to societies.

I think she stretches this metaphor too far. Though the chapter on how the CIA developed its torture techniques is truly terrifying, not least because of the role that torture has played in allowing the United States to further the economic ideas of individuals like Friedman.

But we should look at some of the examples that Klein uses. Some of them are simply outrageous. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it is relatively well known that the government closed all the public schools and sacked all the teachers, rehiring some on worse contracts and making them teach in new, private schools. Precisely the sort of education that Friedman advocated. What I didn't know is the extent to which right-wing think-tanks then shaped how the government responded. In part this is the way that private enterprise was deployed to "rebuild". But its not just that government money poured into the pockets of companies like Haliburton giving them contracts to do everything from build new hotels or clear up bodies, but also in the way that such ideas encouraged Bush to do things like suspend the laws about low pay in the region.

Significant sections of the book deal with the Iraq debacle. Many of us involved in the anti-war movement at the time suggested that the post-war Iraq would be built up in the interest of US companies and private enterprise, what Klein shows is far worse. The vision of Iraq was of a country wiped clean of its past, built in the image of a neo-liberal utopia, with private schools and malls vying the the oil money that a grateful population would throw.

Klein also examines some historic examples. The way that in Chile in 1973 the money men overthrew the radical socialist (popularly elected) government of Allende and replaced it with the Pinochet regime. Chile became a laboratory for neo-liberal fantasies, though the separation of economic from political meant that many of the Chicago School economists who had encouraged the opening up of Chile's economy could pretend that the "excesses" were nothing to do with them. The screams of the tortured and the tears of those who lost a loved one "disappeared" didn't reach into the ivory towers of Chicago University's economic department.

However Klein's criticism isn't simply at those who caused the horror. Pointedly she also criticises those whose solidarity work only looked at the violence and neglected the wider impact of the free-market policies imposed on the country. For Pinochet to succeed he had to destroy any potential opposition, and once that opposition had disappeared he was able to drive down wages, destroy services, and remove civil liberties. In Amnesty Internationals 92 page report on the Junta,
It offered no comment on the deepening poverty or the dramatic reversal of programs to redistribute wealth, though these were the policy centrepieces of junta rule. It carefully lists all the junta laws and decrees that violated civil liberties but named none of the economic decrees that lowered wages and increases prices, thereby violating the right to food and shelter
This is a central point of Klein's book. She understands that the violence of the "shock" cannot be separated from the violence caused by the economic and political changes that follow, nor the damage caused by the corruption that inevitably follows.

So profitable has the shock doctrine been that some right-wingers inevitably speculate on what could take place if they could control the shock and chaos. Take neo-liberal economist John Williamson. Naomi Klein quotes him
Whether it could conceivably make sense to think of deliberately provoking a crisis so as to remove the political logjam to reform. For example, it has sometimes been suggest in Brazil that it would be worthwhile stoking up a hyperinflation so as to scare everyone into accepting those changes... Presumably no one with historical foresight would have advocated in the mid-1930s that Germany or Japan go to war in order to get the benefits of the supergrowth that followed their defeat. But could a lesser crisis have served the same function? Is it possible to conceive of a pseudo-crisis that could serve the same positive function without the cost of a real crisis?
Inevitably some suggest that some shocks are deliberate. There are plenty of sites on the internet that argue that 9/11 was an inside job to allow Bush (and by extension Haliburton etc) to get into the Middle East. Klein cautions against this, pointing out that reality doesn't need such conspiracies. The opportunity is always there.

However having said all this I want to add my own note of caution. I am slightly sceptical that the Shock Doctrine is as real as Klein suggests. There is no doubt of course, that the neo-liberal governments that have followed Reagan and Thatcher in the US and Britain have seized every opportunity to impose their vision of a privatised world on the globe. I'm not sure this is any different to what has happened in the past. I'm reminded of the way that British capital entered India, destroyed its markets and impoverished millions in order to expand the profits from its home industry (a story told brilliantly by Mike Davies), or of the way companies have always destroyed competition, used the state to conquer territory or resources or simply changed the world in their own image. Klein herself acknowledged this to a certain extent
The mantra 'September 11 changed everything' neatly disguised the fact that for free-market ideologues and the corporations whose interests they serve, the only thing that changed was the ease with which they could pursue their ambitious agenda.
Secondly I think Klein's alternative is over-simple and doesn't actually guard against the dangers she has so eloquently described. Effectively she argues for a reformist, democratic capitalism, along the lines of Allende's ambition in 1970s Chile, or more recently the radical visions of Latin American governments in Brazil and Venezuela. The problem is that these leave the beast intact. Capitalism will come back and reforms can only blunt its greed. Stopping the neo-liberals means doing more than having friendly left-wing governments. It will mean challenging the system that breeds war and economic crisis.

I also think Klein is weak on the way that "shocks" can demoralise those best placed to stop the imposition of neo-liberal policies. Her example from the UK, where Thatcher used the 1982 Falklands War to destroy the miners and introduce privatization doesn't fit the facts. The War got her elected, but it was the failure of the trade union leadership that ultimately led the miner's strike to defeat - not a shocked union membership who, on the contrary, showed enormous organisation and self-confidence. On several occasions that movement nearly brought down Thatcher, rather than it being a completely one sided victory for neo-liberalism.

Klein celebrates the role of social movements in changing the world and notes how, in places, movements have been able to stop the neo-liberal onslaught. She quotes several South African activists who, with hindsight, note that they lacked an understanding of what capitalism would do to them after the fall of apartheid. For me, this is the key lesson. We need mass anti-capitalist movements that understand the nature of capitalism and the state that protects it, in order to build a new society based on a different economics entirely.

Related Reviews

Klein - This Changes Everything
Solnit - A Paradise Built in Hell

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Antonia Fraser - The Six Wives of Henry VIII

This meticulous study of Henry VIII's six wives is a fascinating examination of the position and role of ruling class women in Tudor society. Traditionally we see these women as the passive victims of the increasingly irrational and tyrannical behaviour of Henry VIII, victims of his lust and violence. Antonia Fraser however challenges the cardboard caricatures of these women, suggesting that it is false to see them
"as a series of feminine stereotypes, women as tarot cards. Thus Catherine of Aragon becomes The Betrayed Wife, Anne Boleyn is the The Temptress, Jane Seymour The Good Woman; Anna of Cleves is The Ugly Sister, Katherine Howard The Bad Girl; finally Catherine Parr is the Mother Figure."
Instead, she argues, that "on thew contrary, a remarkably high level of strength, and also of intelligence, was displayed by them at a time when their sex traditionally possessed little of either."

Fraser takes us through the lives of these women, of whom we often know a surprising amount of detail from their letters and other documents. Catherine Parr for instance, who survived Henry, was first the resourceful wife of Lord Latimer who managed their estates at the time of the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. She championed her own religious beliefs , until they clashed with the king's when she was forced to make an abrupt turn.

Here is of course the problem for these women. Fraser brilliantly describes the way that the court revolved around Henry VIII, like planets orbiting the sun. Henry was the centre of court life, and through him extended wealth, privilege and the future of families. Thus the manoeuvres by families to position their daughters to catch the King's gaze were the cynical manipulation of a concrete situation. While Henry himself, in the words of Fraser,"a romantic man... [who] married four of his six wives for love and even managed to fall in love with Anna of Cleve's picture" was also trapped by the reality of his role as king. For him, and countless other kings, having a son to carry on the line was the key requirement of a marriage. Indeed Fraser points out that had Catherine of Aragon had a male child that survived, their divorce might well not have happened and the future history of England would have been radically different.

This is not to let Henry off the hook. He was a violent man prone to revenge and happy to murder and kill to protect his position. That multiple women could be discarded in the search of a male heir is testament to the unique, and somewhat irrational, role of the monarchy.

This is an enormously readable account of Henry VIII's life. At times it is like some sort of Tudor soap opera, though events are painfully real. There are moments of horror, such as Anne Boleyn's execution and the tragedy of Katherine Howard, and the sadness of the life of Anne of Cleves, abandoned by Henry and left to live out her days in what she seemed to think was extreme poverty (though the peasants of England might well have considered her large houses and considerable estates luxury). The life of the vast majority of the people of England is almost entirely absent from this book, but that doesn't make it invalid. Understanding the machinations of Henry and the consequences for wider society are important to both the history of the period and for years afterwards. That some of these changes were linked to Henry's marriages is a reflection of the nature of Tudor society and Henry's personality. By telling the story from the point of view of the women at court, Antonia Fraser gives us a fascinating angle on the period.

Related Reviews

Duffy - The Voices of Morebath
Moorhouse - The Pilgrimage of Grace

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Mark Everard - Breathing Space: The Natural and Unnatural History of Air

Mark Everard's new book covers a neglected topic in environmentalism. Given the importance of air to us personally, as well as wider eco-systems, this is a strange omission. Everard argues that
Despite its vast bulk, the fluidity, transboundary nature and lack of ownership of the airspace renders it not only the world's greatest 'common; but also the most commonly overlooked natural resource. An integrated approach to the recognition and wise use of this ecosystem is therefore long overdue, and needs to be instituted on a consistent international basis.
In Breathing Space, Everard sets out to do just this. He begins with a useful discussion of air itself. How scientists understand it, as well as its origins; its role in the world's eco-systems and how humans use air. Everard's approach is one that you might describe as dialectical - understanding the components of a system in terms of their wider impact upon each other. While he doesn't mention their work in his bibliography, Everard's approach has similarities to that of the scientists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin. In particular this is noticeable when Everard discusses the way that living organisms both depend upon, and shape their environment, a topic that Levins and Lewontin devote much space to in their book The Dialectical Biologist. Everard notes that the very existence of the atmosphere as we know it today, capable of supporting life and in turn shaping wider eco-systems, is only possible because of the historic role of early life-forms in transforming the poisonous smog that blanketed Earth millions of years ago.

We continue to alter the atmosphere, most notably through the emission of fossil fuels. Everhard writes
Deposits of fossil carbon, metals, phosphorus and other substances now mined to support modern lifestyles are a product of progressive sequestration from the atmosphere and the wider biosphere over geological timescales. To release these mined substances back into the biosphere is therefore inherently dangerous, as accumulating concentrations in the air reflect earlier, more contaminated biospheric history.
Following this approach the author looks at the way that our air is being damaged, altered and polluted. Tragically there are a myriad of ways that this is happening and Everard devotes time to summarizing these. However the limitations of the book begin to become apparent when Everard discusses the way that contemporary society misuses nature and tries to find solutions.

Everard rightly notes that under capitalism nature is externalised from the economy. He approvingly quotes Nicholas Stern's words that climate change is the "greatest market failure". In other words it hasn't yet been adequately integrated into economic models. It is the sort of approach that has led to market mechanisms such as carbon trading being offered as the solution to global warming. The problem is that this approach is inherently flawed, and Everard falls into the trap of arguing, like Stern, that more such mechanisms are what is needed. He argues that "There is also a role for new economic tools, such as payments for ecosystem services (PES) that integrate formerly overlooked ecosystem services into the economy."

In New Zealand, Everard notes that the Maori have "cultural values" in their approach to land use and ownership, suggesting that the example of Ngati Porou Whanui Forests Ltd, a company which "has been established as a tribal cooperative bringing together Maori landowners and Maori agencies to benefit from market opportunities for ecosystems services" is a positive example of what can be achieved.

In this model, "Some forest areas may also be eligible for funding for carbon sequestration services" Everard notes happily. But this approach is precisely the opposite of what is needed. The further commodification of nature in this way can only serve to put nature further into the hands of those who want to make money. This is most notable when Everard discusses REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries). Everard explains that
REDD+ includes a wide range of mechanisms... These in turn could open up market mechanisms through which payments made by industrialised nations for emission offsets would reward developing countries for protecting ecosystems that are of value for many purposes
What Everard doesn't mention is that REDD+ has been roundly condemned by environmental organisations. Friends of the Earth International describe REDD as "a risky and false solution to climate change, both in theory and in practice". While the author does note that "There remain some concerns about 'putting a price tag on nature'" he argues that the Ecosystem Approach that he advocates contains enough internal safeguards to ensure that PES schemes and the like are not abused and "provide benefits to different stakeholder groups".

I am skeptical. The Ecosystem Approach certainly has its benefits over the unfettered way that capitalism degrades nature. It attempts to look at different aspects of nature as part of a wider continuum. Something that can only bring benefits. Approach questions of pollution in this way has enormous benefits. For instance, Everard points out that an approach to reducing pollution from vehicles in urban areas by replacing them with electric vehicles, might well ignore the impact on the environment of manufacturing those vehicles, or poisoning other eco-systems with the chemicals from their batteries. Instead Everard urges us to consider how our cities are designed, how we travel to and from work, and where we work in relation to living and so on. Such an approach, which challenges the inherent anti-environmental aspects to capitalist society can only be supported.

Unfortunately, trying to solve these problems by playing the system at its own game will not bring the sustainable society we need. The vested interests of the corporations and the governments that are in thrall to their wealth need to be challenged. We need a vision of a different society, where nature is integrated into the economy, but in a way that breaks from a world driven by the desire to make profit. This is not to say that changes cannot be made in the here and now. Though all the evidence is that the action needed from governments is not further markets, but investment in public transport, insulation schemes and renewable energy. Such changes, as outlined in the UK trade union One Million Climate Jobs report, can bring both real change and act as a incentive to further challenge capitalism.

Recently Naomi Klein has brilliantly outlined why Capitalism is a barrier to sustainability. Mark Everard's book contains some useful information on air as an important ecosystem and a better approach to questions of environmentalism. But his solutions are ones that cannot succeed in the face of a economic system that starts from the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation.

Related Reviews

Klein - This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate
Böhm and Dabhi (eds) - Upsetting the Offset, The Political Economy of Carbon Markets
Carbon Trade Watch - The Carbon Neutral Myth, Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins

Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Eamon Duffy - The Voices of Morebath: Reformation & Rebellion in an English Village

Eamon Duffy's classic book The Voices of Morebath is an extraordinary and unique study of Tudor society undergoing dramatic transformation. For 54 years Christopher Trychay was the priest of the tiny village of Morebath. For all that time he kept detailed records. Most of these deal with the financial dealings of the parish - the income and expenditure of the church, the costs of candles and repairs, the donations from parishioners and the cash given in their wills to help ease their way to heaven. But though most parish records like these are dry, Morebath's priest kept his records in detail - far more than simple columns of numbers. His notes were spoken from the pulpit and his records enable the historian to construct the detail of life in a village going through some of the most traumatic changes of its era.

Duffy's book is excellently written, but his historic analysis is also superb. He has an eye for detail and an ability to see through numbers to tell a wider story. Here is, for instance, his summary of how the church "ales", the periodic sale of drink to raise funds, were part of wider village life.
After the church, the most important building in the parish was the church house, also called the church ale-house. Located on the SE side of the churchyard, in the cluster of ten or eleven dwellings that made up the village centre or ‘Morebath town’ it was the parish’s place of public entertainment, a two storey building furnished with a fireplace and spit, with cups and platters and trenchers of treen [turned wood] and tin and pewter: its trestle tables and tablecloths were sometime loaned to parishioners for events like weddings. Visiting merchants could hire a ‘sete’ or stall there to sell their wares, like William the merchant who had a ‘standing’ in the house in 1535, or the Tiverton ciderman John Walshman, who sold cider there for four weeks in 1538. The ‘pleers’ [players] who paid 12d to the wardens to perform in Morebath at Easter 1533 may well have been hiring the church house. Above all, the fund-raising banquets known as church ales, organised by the churchwardens and by the Young Men of the parish (the ‘grooming ale’), and which between them provided the bulk of the parish’s income were held here. Beer brewed or bought by the wardens and food cooked in the church house itself were sold and served at these ales: in 1527 the menu at the high wardens’ ale included a roast lamb from the church flock, which had accidentally bled to death after being castrated. By Elizabeth’s reign and perhaps before, minstrels and a local man, John Timewell the harper were being paid to entertain the drinkers. Parishioners were expected to attend and spend their money, and official representatives came and supported from surrounding parishes, a favour which had to be returned when the parishes concerned held their own ales.
If Dufy's book only concentrated on village life it would be interesting in an of itself. But at the core of his work is an examination of the impact of the religious changes that began under the regein of Henry VIII, continued under his son Edward, and were reversed by Queen Mary and then further continued and extended under Elizabeth.

Henry's break from Rome had an enormous impact on the whole of English life. Even a village like Morebath, with barely 150 inhabitants had to adapt and change. New bibles and prayerbooks were introduced, icons and statues had to be removed. Funds could no longer be raised to pay for candles under the parish's statue of St Sidwell. Through all of this Trychay's metivulous records note the impacts of the changes and in particular the funding shortfalls as the parish can no longer sell ale, or raise funds in ways that it used to.

The changes provoked anger, frustration and out-cry. In 1549, Duffy shows how Morebath sent five of its young men to join the big Western Uprising that rebelled against the new prayerbooks. Giving money from church funds, the parish's sons left to join the rebel camp near Exeter. Several of them died in the massacre of the rebels. While Trychay may come across as a pompous self-important man at times, he clearly loved his flock and cared deeply for them. As Duffy notes,
He had been the spirit of Morebath, the chronicler of its dramatic and sometimes tragic share in the religious revolutions of that turbulent age, and the custodian of its blunt attitudes and salt speech. He had baptised their children, buried their dead, married every one of them. He had been the guide of their pieties, he had almost certainly encouraged their sons into rebellion, and, when the time came, he had eased them into a slow and settled conformity to a new order of things.
Duffy's book is an excellent study of an English village in a period of transition. It is happy conincidence for us, that Morebath was so close to the historic events of 1549 and that they were detailed by such an obsessive figure as Christopher Trychay. Duffy notes that a "study of the Reformation in an Essex or Suffolk village... where many ordinary men and women welcomed the Protestant gospel... would look very different." Nonetheless, this is an important insight into the impact of that change and the way that ordinary people in one part of England responded. That Duffy puts it all so well into context means that this book is a triumph for both the casual and academic historian.