book reviews

history of the world in 7 cheap things

“History of the World in 7 Cheap Things” – Raj Patel and Jason W Moore

Any book comparing capitalism to a flesh eating disease that sells your bones as a fertiliser, invests its profit to grow a crop and then sells the harvest to tourists who come to visit your headstone, is not talking cheap.

This history of the world pulls few punches in describing how capitalism has transformed and devastated our planet since the 1400s by making nature, money, work, care, food, lives and energy “cheap”.

This is not cheap as in low-cost, although that is part of it, this is the cheapness that undervalues resources and wrecks the environment whilst paying as little “compensation” as possible. A cheapness caused by capitalism’s strategies to survive and manage crises and control all areas of our lives.

This cheapness is clearly not the type of bargain for the 99% to enjoy.

Making the persuasive argument that capitalism is more than just an economic system this book illustrates how it has succeeded in creating an overwhelming planetary ecology. Capitalism has separated humans from the rest of nature, organised every relationship between them and exploited all available resource to work for it as cheaply as possible.

And because businesses and markets are largely ineffective at doing most of what keeps the system going, culture, science and nation-states have also been reined in to keep humans obedient to the norms of gender, race and class that capitalism requires.

Five centuries of this capitalist ecology have defined who and which work matters, creating the cheap lives and labour necessary for its success. Patriarchy, colonialism and imperialism clearly aren’t mere by-products of capitalism, they are fundamental to its success.

But whilst the omens are not good, capitalism’s continued cheapening of everything is not inevitable. Humans can and do fight back. Class struggles remain a vital engine of change within the capitalist ecology and a possible escape route from it.

This interesting and thought-provoking book encourages us to plan for a more radical change than most contemporary politics is offering in order to fully loosen capitalism’s grasp. If people are to ever fully contribute to improving their own lives and the society around them we must demand and work for nothing else. It won’t happen under capitalism.

This review was published in The Morning Star on May 2nd.


Laurie Cunningham – different class!

“Different Class: football, fashion and funk. The story of Laurie Cunningham” – Dermot Kavanagh (Unbound Books, ISBN 978-1-78352-376-4)

Laurie Cunningham was an exciting footballer. He was quick, technically superb, had outstanding fitness levels and a good goalscoring record. Matt Busby enthused about an “amazing talent” that reminded him of Pele, “with the same rhythm and movement, and the skill, grace and control.”

He rose to prominence as part of the West Bromwich Albion team that lit up English football in the late 1970s and became the first black professional footballer to play for England, making his debut for the under 21s in April 1977. Cunningham went on to win 6 full international caps and became the first British player to sign for Real Madrid when they snapped him up for £950,000 in the summer of 1979.

Ex-Arsenal and England player Ian Wright admits that he was transfixed by him and suggests that Laurie was “a shining light for so many of the second wave of black footballers in British football.” Cunningham not only had “the skills, but most importantly he had the swagger. If it hadn’t been for him we wouldn’t have been able to have played like we did as professionals.” Before a series of injuries prematurely limited his career Laurie Cunningham had become both a worldwide footballing superstar and “pop culture personality” who represented “something more than just football”.

After being released by Arsenal at the age of 16, Laurie spent five eventful years at Leyton Orient before joining West Brom in 1977. As part of their fabled “Three Degrees” he helped them to a top three finish in Division One and a UEFA cup quarter final before his move to Spain.

Cunningham initially shone in Madrid but despite scoring 12 goals in a league and cup winning season, that also saw Real reach the European Cup semi final, things did not go smoothly for him professionally or socially. When he was seriously injured at the start of the next season, and was forced to play whilst not fully recovered, despite still being only 25 years old, his high-profile career and personal life began to fall apart.

Laurie made several cameo performances for other clubs in the following seasons, including winning an FA Cup medal with Wimbledon in their victory over Liverpool in 1988, but his injuries prevented him from recapturing the unique combination of balance and pace that had shaped his approach to the game. In July 1989, aged 33, he was killed in a car crash in Madrid

This crowd-funded book, with detailed contributions from his family and childhood friends, delves into the social, economic and cultural conditions of North London where Laurie grew up. It examines his personal life and playing career in detail and, whilst being largely complimentary, does not avoid the controversies in this sadly short but incredibly full life.

Laurie Cunningham is fondly remembered by anyone who saw him play. This book, along with the English Heritage blue plaque that stands on his childhood home, will hopefully remind everyone of the hugely positive impact he made on English football.

This review also appeared in the Morning Star.

How terrorism created modern Israel…

“State of Terror” – Thomas Suarez

Since British Foreign Secretary Balfour fraudulently signed away Palestine for a Jewish state in 1917, Zionism has been the driving force behind the decades of violence, subjugation, displacement and dehumanisation forced upon the Palestinian nation.

As this year’s centenary of the Balfour Declaration approaches this book is a timely reminder that a European land-theft movement based on ethnic nationalism, which hijacked Judaism and historic Jewish persecution, is the ideology behind Israel’s ruthless and perpetual expansionism.

Zionism created the mythical narrative of a covenanted “race” whose entitlement to Palestine was supposedly guaranteed by an ancient religious text and reinforced it with a fanatical, shocking and indiscriminate programme of murder and destruction.

By focusing upon the Zionist terrorism campaign of the 1940s and 1950s, Suarez has produced a comprehensive catalogue and analysis of the carnage from which Israel was born. With alarming symmetry to Nazi atrocities, Zionist violence was targeted against anyone who challenged its goals. This included the British, who by 1947 had openly recognised that no-one was safe from the terrorists, indigenous Palestinians, and even Jews. Most victims of targeted assassinations during this period were in-fact Jewish.

Such was the ferocity of this insurgency it is surprising that the daily reports of murderous attacks on British armed forces and civilians, recorded in detail by the UK government, have not had more influence on foreign policy. Even high-profile incidents such as the murder of Lord Moyne in 1944, letter bombs sent to Churchill, Bevin and Eden, and even, heaven forbid, the bombing of London’s Colonial Club seem forgotten.

The “peace-seeking democracy” of Israel still uses the same tactics, albeit now state-sponsored, to enforce its occupation and siege of Palestine and Britain remains wedded to this well-documented campaign of terror. As Suarez points out, the personalities and circumstances have changed but, criminally, nearly 70 years after Israel’s birth Zionism continues with its lethal attempts to create a racially pure state to which it claims messianic entitlement.

Originally published in a slightly edited form by The Morning Star.

Power Games – a political history of the Olympics

“Power Games – a political history of the Olympics” Jules Boykoff

The Olympics has not always been the commercialised economic juggernaut of modern times, awash with corporate sponsorship, undemocratic and riding roughshod over host communities. But historically it has been dominated by a clandestine, elite-driven organisation, regressive policies, a huge price tag and ever-strengthening ties to capitalism. The St Louis games of 1904 were even bedevilled by so-called “anthropology days” with events rigged to test racist hypothesis and show that “savages” were inferior. Women’s participation in track and field events shamefully lagged behind the introduction of female suffrage.

Fortunately its chequered history has been accompanied by a catalogue of progressive radical protest. Pre-empting Tommy Smith and Don Carlos’ “black power” salute at their medal ceremony in Mexico 1968, Irish athlete and staunch nationalist Peter O’Connor, who had been selected to represent Britain, climbed the flag pole to rip down the union flag and fly his Irish alternative after winning silver in the Athens 1906 long jump. Suffragettes targeted the golf tournament at London’s 1908 games.

In developing his theory of “celebration capitalism”, which gives the mainstream media something to cheer about every 4 years, Boykoff firmly places the five ringed circus as a central cog in a destructive neoliberal machine and finds much to admire in the alternative, yet short-lived, International Workers Olympiads.

The Olympics are an incredible but fundamentally unsustainable sporting event, an over-budget corporate franchise purchased with public money, directly transferring wealth to private hands. UK taxpayers footed 88% of London 2012’s costs but received few positive long-term benefits. When even The Economist claims that hosting the Olympics is bad for a city’s health something is clearly wrong!

“Power Games” is an enjoyable, interesting and informative read made all the more relevant in the build up to this year’s first ever South American Olympics.

Originally published in a slightly edited form by The Morning Star.

Chance: The Science and Secrets of Luck, Randomness and Probability

“Chance: the science and secrets of luck, randomness and probability” – New Scientist

Despite its title this collection of articles from the New Scientist does not unfortunately provide us with a foolproof system to beat the bookies. It does though offer a detailed, interesting and informative, if occasionally highly intellectualised, examination of the role seemingly random events play in our everyday lives.

The chances are that it will cause you to re-think your understanding of probability. If quantum entanglement, biological determinism and epigenetic mechanisms are your cup of tea I’d wager that you’ll also gain something from the more scientific-based contributions.

Chance would appear to be everywhere. If we rely on the known laws of physics, chemistry and biology it seems reasonable to conclude that the formation of the universe and creation of humanity can only have arisen by good fortune. Our ability to pursue reasoned analysis is apparently dependent on the brain being stimulated by random signals too. There are even those who argue that randomness lurks within number theory, the very bedrock of mathematics.

Yet of course that’s not to say that everything which affects our daily routines is due to luck. The detailed study and everyday use of probability repeatedly aids such diverse areas as town planning, disease management and fraud detection. It’s also what casinos and bookmakers rely on; they put as much faith in the laws of chance as engineers do in the laws of physics.

Hopefully this book can help us to follow suit. By gaining a better understanding of what we’re doing we can aim to reduce irrational choices, minimise leaving things to chance and stack the odds as far as possible in our own favour. But whilst the good news for part-time gamblers is that fortune seems to favour the statistically prepared mind, knowing when to stop in a game that is rigged against us is still definitely the most important skill!

Originally published in The Morning Star

Scratching the surface

“Scratching the Surface: Posties, Privatisation and Strikes in the Royal Mail”
– Phil Chadwick

If you were in any doubt that Royal Mail and its workforce have been continually subjected to mismanagement and treated as a political football by successive governments, this book will dispel any such thoughts.

Phil Chadwick, who spent much of his 30 years with the Post Office representing the Communication Workers Union locally and regionally, has produced a highly informative and interesting view from the front line which sets the record straight.

He painstakingly describes the systematic destruction of a much-loved great British industry and years of appalling industrial relations.

The first airings of privatisation had arisen during the Thatcher years but despite a crucial lack of investment the workforce continued to create a highly profitable and efficient Royal Mail throughout the 1990s. 1998-9 was a notable high point, with profits reaching £496m and the workplace relatively stable.

There were still two deliveries a day, Sunday collections, the price of a stamp was low by any comparison and even the pension fund was in surplus.

Then, just 12 months later, despite more mail being posted, a huge loss was recorded, with most of it caused by the colossal £571m write-off of a failed IT scheme for Post Office counters.

What followed, Labour’s Postal Services Act of 2000 and the disastrously managed Consignia and PostComm periods, began a concerted drive to privatise Royal Mail while effectively prohibiting it from competing on a level playing field.

Throughout this time the workforce endured persistent crisis management, instability, job losses, industrial disputes and perennial bullying and harassment.

All of which culminated in last year’s hideously botched sell-off. Royal Mail’s death warrant had been prepared by Labour and signed off by the coalition government. The nation, and especially the postal service’s employees, have paid a hideous price.

The grotesque experiment, as this book tellingly shows, wrecked our postal service and must be reversed.

Originally published in the Morning Star

Understanding Nonviolence

“Understanding Nonviolence” edited by Maia Carter Hallward and Julie M Norman

THIS collection of extended essays, gathered internationally from academics and activists, is a textbook primarily and unashamedly aimed at those engaged with peace and nonviolence studies.

But its relevance to the rest of us should not be under-estimated in an environment where the mass media continually misrepresents the value and successes of nonviolent political strategies. It’s a hugely informative and thought-provoking publication, providing numerous case studies and a general examination of the theory, practise, challenges and opportunities afforded by the nonviolent action which usually takes place outside traditional campaigning channels.

In attempting to outflank those in power — and in the  belief that a natural majority support social justice — the contributors question the apparent consent and obedience in everyday society. Nonviolence is not a passive or pacifist form of political resistance and it is clearly distinct from reconciliation, negotiation and mediation, although it does not preclude using these tactics too.

Conventional voting, marches, rallies and lobbying are not commonly regarded as nonviolent action, which instead is regularly based on boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, non-co-operation, blockades and creating organisations and institutions that run parallell to the state.

In Britain, small-scale contemporary nonviolent action is everywhere — think South Yorkshire’s very own Freedom Riders or the Focus E15 Mothers to get a glimpse of its potential power.

Criticism of its usefulness, especially in societies where violence has become normalised, is forcefully rebuffed. While recognising the likelihood of a physically abusive response from those who do not share a commitment to nonviolence, and accepting that few struggles are purely nonviolent, the authors consistently emphasise that such action has proved more successful than armed resistance throughout history.

Empirical evidence shows that nonviolent methodology is more likely to result in more peaceful transitions, sustainable changes and democratic conclusions. It can also lay foundations for the empowerment of an engaged and politicised citizenry and, unlike armed uprisings, cannot succeed without broad coalitions and mass support.

From undermining racist lunch counter segregation in Nashville to supporting the worldwide food sovereignty movements, this book demonstrates that nonviolent action continues to play a vital role in creating social justice and real change.

Originally published in the Morning Star.

The 51 Day War

“The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza” – Max Blumenthal

There can be no doubt that the Israeli military onslaught on Gaza in 2014 was a crime against humanity. This widespread, systematic and prolonged assault killed more than 2,100 people and wounded over 10,500. Shamefully it also merely marked a continuation of the relentless, almost ritualistic, violent collective punishment against the Gazans.

At times this is a jarring account of the massacre of innocent people. Blumenthal does not shrink from documenting the obscenity of the Israeli attack, interviewing survivors and graphically cataloguing many of the atrocities which stained 51 days of intense violence that left no-one in Gaza unscathed. The two day barrage that obliterated most of Shejaiya and killed over 120 of its residents, an hour long artillery bombardment that eradicated Beit Hanoun, the destruction of Rafah, murder of 121 of its civilians and the systematic execution of Hebrew speaking Palestinians, are among the horrific examples of countless shocking Israeli military actions.

This valuable book also highlights incidents and events that seemingly escaped the mainstream narrative of the conflict, including the Hamas / Islamic Jihad pre-invasion peace proposals, promoting a 10 year truce with Israel and a request for international troops at borders, seaports and airports that were rejected by US Secretary of State Kerry and Egyptian President Sisi. Similarly unreported was the intense hand-to-hand fighting that followed the invasion of Shejaiya, when the Israeli forces suffered reverses.

Operation Protective Edge was not a war of armed force against armed force. Where it was Israel was beaten, but aerial bombardment and the resultant civilian massacre did not bring it success either. Despite pitiful official international support for Gaza, the most closely surveilled and intensely controlled area on earth, displayed no signs of submission. After 51 days of military onslaught there were even Gazan victory parades that celebrated its steadfastness.

As Blumenthal concludes, Israel cannot ensure long-term security until its neighbours are also able to live with freedom and dignity. The majority of Gazans are under 18 years old, growing up with little experience of anything more than the abject misery of military occupation, cyclical aerial bombardment and uninterrupted siege. A sense of global abandonment might have consumed Gaza but it also ignited the flames of rage and spreading radicalisation. This ghetto of children can perhaps be excused for setting the stage of the next conflict almost as soon as the curtains had closed on the last.

Originally published at The Morning Star

Another World Is Possible

“Another World Is Possible” – William F Fisher and Thomas Ponniah

The World Social Forum is an international gathering of diverse social movements, activists, campaigners and non-governmental organisations whose shared enemy is neoliberal globalisation. It attempts to create practical alternatives to an economic system that has repeatedly proven itself incompatible with sustainability and social justice and does not shy away from highly politicised conclusions. It meets annually, as a direct antidote to the World Economic Forum’s shindigs in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, but its members are on the frontline in the daily struggle against capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy.

Rising to mainstream prominence after its first meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, which attracted over 10,000 participants, the World Social Forum placed people firmly before profit in its search for a more just, sustainable and democratic world. Instead of being dazzled by the promised land of globalisation it has established a resolute opposition to a system that produces a society at the service of multinational corporations and governments or institutions working for them.

The Forum’s alternative to globalisation is fundamentally based upon a co-operative internationalism formed at grassroots level, backed up by a radical form of participatory democracy and responding to the needs of the majority. Unlike those whose activism starts and finishes with elections, the World Social Forum understands that a true democracy demands a revolutionary change in the way we do economics, ethics and politics. Unlike the Labour Party leadership, it also recognises the value of trade unions and sees socialism as offering a real hope for a better future.

Originally published in 2003 this book offers an exhaustive analysis and critical overview of the World Social Forum’s initial gatherings that successfully challenged the mainstream story of neoliberalism. Anyone fighting the evils of TTIP, corporate power’s corrupting influence on governments, austerity, GMOs, militarism and all forms of discrimination will find a willing ally in the World Social Forum.

Originally published at The Morning Star