Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 10, 2007

Colonialism, monarchy and soil improvement

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 12:57 am


Over the past month or so I have shown that whatever the considerable merits of the “agrarian revolution” in Great Britain that is pivotal to the Brenner thesis, it has little to do with market imperatives. After reading part one (“Adam out of Eden”) of Richard Drayton’s superlative “Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World,” I am further convinced that neither was it peculiar to British tenant farmers, never mind its relevance to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Drayton makes a convincing case that monarchies all across Europe, going back to the middle ages, were all consumed with the need to “improve” soil and apply scientific techniques to the exploitation of the natural world. Furthermore, those trading monopolies like the East India Company specializing in “extra-economic” coercion and that are regarded by the Brenner camp as inimical to technical progress, were just as eager to innovate as the British gentry.



Dr. Stephen Maturin studying plants on behalf of the British Empire and Science

For those who have seen the excellent film “Masters and Commanders: the Far Side of the World,” this will certainly ring a bell. Whenever Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) lands on an island, the first thing that ship surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) does is conduct a scientific survey of the local flora and fauna. His interest is twofold. He is curious about the natural world, but he also is looking for valuable commodities. Wherever the British Empire set foot, its botanists and animal husbandry experts were soon to follow. The same thing was true for their mortal enemies, the French. It did not take “market imperatives” to lead to the improvement of soil or botanical innovation. It was part of the spirit of the age.

In many ways, Drayton’s book is a companion piece to Cliff Conner’s “People’s History of Science.” While Conner focuses on the efforts of common people to promote science and technology, Drayton is anxious to show how important colonialism was in furtherance of the same goals. When John Winthrop first encountered the indigenous peoples of New England in the mid-1600s, he was moved to write, “They inclose noe Land, neither have any setled habytation, nor any tame Cattle to improve the Land by, and soe have noe other but a Naturall Right to those Countries.” Of course, if these Indians hadn’t shown the British colonizers how to fertilize the soil with menhaden, they would have starved. Such are the ironies of history and “improvement”.

It is worth repeating a point made by Robert Albritton in his 1993 reply to Brenner, namely that unlike factory owners or software developers, the agrarian innovators did not believe in keeping their breakthroughs a secret. As soon as men like Jethro Tull and Charles “Turnip” Townshend made a new discovery, they trumpeted it to the world. In their own way, they sought the betterment of all humanity, not private profit. That is why  William Cobbett, one of Great Britain’s early critics of capitalism, identified with the “high farming” they pioneered. The turnip was Open Source, so to speak, while the industrial revolution was Micro$oft.

This did not come out of the blue. With the introduction of mechanical printing, agronomists all across Europe were anxious to share their knowledge. Royal families funded botanical gardens that were intended to display the latest breakthroughs, including seedlings brought over from the Americas. All of this took place under the rubric of Christian theology as the ‘improvement’ of agriculture and botanical experimentation became akin to creating a new Eden.

While there is little doubt that the Enclosures that took place in the British countryside were intended to enrich the landlord and tenant farmer, it is not so clear that the capitalist “bottom line” was the operating principle. Improving the land was seen as a civic duty, so much so that The Royal Society, founded in 1660, made agriculture and forestry its central concerns. There was a natural affinity between the monarchy, Whig politicians, and the rural bourgeoisie. Furthermore, God was on their side as Matthew Hale pointed out in a 1677 tract that likened the deity to a landlord. Anybody who got in their way, whether it was Irishmen or American Indians, had to be removed. In the aftermath of Oliver Cromwell’s bloody campaign against the Irish, Gerald Boate wrote that the conquerors were “improving” Ireland through proper drainage and manure. Robert Cushman, another apologist for genocide in the name of “improvement,” wrote that American Indians were not industrious, “neither having art, science, skill or faculty to use either the land or the commodities of it; but all spoils, rots, and is marred for want of manuring, gathering, ordering, etc…”

It should be obvious that the British colonists of the 17th century were rationalizing their crimes in the same manner as the 20th century Zionists who crowed about turning the desert into a garden with god on their side.

Many of the advocates of agricultural improvement were just as enthusiastic about the need to create an Empire. Primitive accumulation in the British countryside went hand-in-hand with plunder abroad. Drayton describes their ambitions succinctly:

Out of the economics of Eden had come an ideology of development which was fundamental to the making of the British Empire. The haphazard system of sugar islands, African and Indian trading outposts, Newfoundland fisheries, American bread and tobacco colonies was held together by an alliance of the farmer, the colonist, the merchant, religion, and science. God had given the world to any who was willing to apply labour and knowledge to making it ‘like to fruitfull Garden’. As John Locke argued in his Second Treatise of Government, while God had given the world to men in common, ‘it cannot be supposed that he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it for the use of the Industrious and Rational.

In contrast to Robert Brenner, the British ruling class of the “transition” period never drew the kind of distinctions between “internal” and “external” that he does. They saw British overseas initiatives as key to growth at home. Drayton notes:

The supporters of the 1688 settlement and of the Hanoverians recognized that overseas trade and colonies allowed Britain to wage expensive wars, and thus to secure its independence. The growth of the Royal Navy, expeditions to the Low Countries, and subsidies to allies depended on a tariff regime which in 1784, for example, placed a duty of 24 shillings on a hundredweight of sugar of 26 shillings value. Commerce with the West and East Indies, Africa, and America, and the re-exports it provided, allowed land taxes to remain relatively low, while fattening the banks and fundholders of the City of London, and filling the purses of placemen. West Indian sugar, Virginian tobacco, Carolinian rice, and Georgian cotton were, in any event, considered as British as Suffolk wheat. Pitt the Elder characteristically affirmed that ‘the sugar islands [are part of] the landed interest of this kingdom and it was barbarism to consider it otherwise’. East Indian and West Indian wealth, of course, had allowed the Pitt and Beckford families to enter politics, as much as they contributed powerfully, as Burke suggested, to national prosperity. It was not surprising that the ‘Country’ opposition joined agrarian themes to complaints that Walpole had neglected Britain’s Atlantic interests. Those who knew Rome’s history did fear that territorial empire could endanger liberty by creating a standing army which a Caesar or Cromwell might command against the people. But they had no quarrel with navies and trade, which were seen to complement the landed interest.

This marriage between agricultural improvement, Empire and the monarchical state was not limited to Great Britain. The various Crowns of Europe sponsored expeditions across the planet in pursuit of science and wealth. In the literature of the period, the statesmen and King were often likened to gardeners. Drayton states that “By the 1740s in central and northern Europe, in the 1750s and ’60s in France, and in Spain, Portugal, and the Italian peninsula afterwards, reform programmes made agriculture and science central to the renovation of the state. From the 1760s, and with particular force from the 1780s, these experiments, and the ideologies at their heart, would influence policy in Britain and its empire.”

The political philosophy that guided this sort of royal agrarianism was known as Cameralism, which had supporters in both France and Germany. Schroeder, a German Cameralist, wrote:

A ruler is in fact the same as a Hausvater, and his subjects are, in respect of their having to be ruled his children. . . . Now a Hausvater has to plough and manure a field if he wishes to reap a harvest. . . . Thus a ruler has to assist his subjects in obtaining a sufficient livelihood if he wishes to take something from them.

François Quesnay (1694-1774) , honorary Brennerite?

In France, Cameralism was superseded by the Physiocrat School, which was led by Quesnay who believed that agriculture was the source of all wealth and contributed several articles on farming to Diderot’s Encyclopedia. He held views that sounded positively Brennerite. As Drayton put it, Quesnay believed that land provided food for everybody, raw materials for industry, while generating rent that could be used for commerce and manufacturing.

As a convert to the Physiocratic cause, King Louis XV ordered a major expansion of the Jardin Royal des Plantes in 1772. If the edifice of feudalism was about to come crashing down around his head, one can certainly not put forward indifference to modern farming techniques as a factor. He was just as big a fan of soil improvement as Jethro Toll or any other British gentleman farmer. The King had created a vast array of plant laboratories and the agronomists to work in them, even if the lowly French farmer had more interest in getting his boot off their neck than in the discoveries he fostered. The King’s Royal Gardens provided the inspiration for the Kew Gardens in London, a tourist landmark that I visited myself the last time I was there.

The affinity between British Hanover and French Bourbon was genuine. Guided by god and science alike, they were determined to increase the wealth of their respective nations through agricultural improvement. Drayton writes:

That the Hanoverians might quietly imitate the style of the Bourbon court lay surprise less than the suggestion that they took from it an enthusiasm for agriculture. English agriculture, after all, was the model which others sought to emulate. It was through travel in that island, and through authors such as Evelyn and Tull, that Dufay, Buffon, and Duhamel began their agricultural experiments. They envied the efficiency of English agriculture, and in particular its intensive use of horses, cattle, machinery, and crop rotations. The Physiocrats, one might argue, wished the Crown to assume the providential responsibilities with which the English agrarians had invested the private entrepreneur. What had Britain, particularly after its remarkable victories in the Seven Years’ War, to learn from Europe?

The English agrarians, however, found much to admire in the French commitment to making agriculture scientific. Arthur Young in A Course of Experimental Agriculture (1770) argued indeed that Jethro Tull’s work would probably have been forgotten, ‘had not some very spirited writers in France, gone into the practice of it with so much ardour, as to draw the attention of all Europe’. He praised, in particular, Duhamel de Monceau’s treatises on agriculture: ‘I heartily wish we had as large a collection of equal authority made in England.’ Equally Young drew English attention to the articles in the Encyclopedie on ‘fermier’, ‘froment’, ‘culture’, and ‘graines’, and to Patullo’s Essai sur L’Amelioration des Terres (1758). If Young and others admired the intellectual seriousness with which the French approached agriculture, they clearly also approved of Quesnay’s or Mirabeau’s assertion that land stood at the economic and political foundation of society. The advocates of the expansion of the French Crown’s powers were speaking the language of the English Whigs.

July 8, 2007

Lady Chatterley

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 12:09 am

Watching a screener for “Lady Chatterley,” the French film inspired by D.H. Lawrence’s novel that played recently in New York, was like a trip down memory lane. Banned until 1959 in the United States, I read it as soon as it came out. As a 15 year old overwhelmed by raging hormones, the novel was a great introduction to the mysteries of sex along with Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” which had been banned until 1961, and a marital hygiene book that I discovered buried in my parent’s closet.

Although I was barely aware of class distinctions when I read “Lady Chatterley’s Lovers,” the clash between Lady Chatterley and Mellors, the gamekeeper, who both resented and loved his employer’s wife, was obvious to me. Lord Chatterley was a prototypical British bourgeois figure, who owned a vast estate of the sort associated with the eighteenth century as well as an inherited coal mine.

Since wounds suffered by Lord Chatterley during WWI had cost him the use of his lower body, his wife felt sexually frustrated. When she first spied Mellors bathing his bare upper body on the front yard of his house, she felt an immediate attraction. For Lawrence, Lord Chatterley’s paralysis was a symbol of the decline of the British Empire. Although he was not a political thinker, and by some accounts even a right-winger, Lawrence had little use for privilege. As the son of an illiterate coal-miner, he had a deep identification with the character Mellors.

Directed by Pascale Ferran, “Lady Chatterley” is more of a pastoral romance than a study in class relationships. The screenplay is based on an earlier draft of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” titled “John Thomas and Lady Jane” which some regard as more tender than the final product. The gamekeeper Parkin (renamed Mellors in the final version) was not as resentful and bitter toward those above him on the socio-economic ladder.

Parkin is much less concerned about the class differences with his lover than he is with the problems of getting involved with the opposite sex, whichever class they belong to. Mostly he prefers being on his own, strolling the vast estate with a shotgun strapped to his shoulders. When Lady Chatterley shows up, he finds it easy to respond to her obvious physical hunger but is much more ambivalent about what they call a permanent “relationship” nowadays. This is a tale more about Commitment than Class, but it is enchanting nonetheless.

Ferran made a good decision to cast actors in the roles of Lady Chatterley and Mellors who were not typical Hollywood icons. Since this is a French film, this is the least we might expect. If Hollywood ever came out with an American version of Lawrence’s novel, they’d probably cast Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Blanchett or somebody else just as wrong. As Parkin (the Mellors character), Jean-Louis Coullo’ch is balding and a bit paunchy. (The film’s website states that he was in the restaurant business and a stretcherbearer before becoming an actor.) Meanwhile Marina Hands as Lady Chatterley looks as if she’d never been near a Stairmaster, although her voluptuousness works well. All in all, this is a romance for those in their autumn years–in keeping with the sensibility of Lawrence’s novel.

Although it is difficult to figure out whether the softness of the film is attributable to creative decisions made by the screenwriter or intrinsic to Lawrence’s earlier version of the tale, it works as a film. I would have preferred more of the bite of the final version but can accept it on its own terms.

For those who are not familiar with this rather dated work, I would invite you to read the Project Gutenberg version on the Internet, or at least sections of it. It is filled with the sensitivity to class that is missing from the film and perhaps from the earlier version of Lawrence’s novel, as in this description of Lord Chatterley:

But Clifford was not like that. His whole race was not like that. They were all inwardly hard and separate, and warmth to them was just bad taste. You had to get on without it, and hold your own; which was all very well if you were of the same class and race. Then you could keep yourself cold and be very estimable, and hold your own, and enjoy the satisfaction of holding it. But if you were of another class and another race it wouldn’t do; there was no fun merely holding your own, and feeling you belonged to the ruling class. What was the point, when even the smartest aristocrats had really nothing positive of their own to hold, and their rule was really a farce, not rule at all? What was the point? It was all cold nonsense.

For all of his resentment of the upper classes, D.H. Lawrence was no friend of the working class either. (He was described, probably unfairly, as a “radical rightist” in a Guardian blog entry by Terry Eagleton.) His greatest novel “Sons and Lovers” treats the coal miner characters, especially the one based on his own father, as cruel and brutal. Lawrence sought desperately to escape from this world and enter one more attuned to his artistic needs. Politically, he was as appalled by the world of Lord Chatterley as he was by the coal miners he exploited. He was hounded by the authorities during WWI and was even accused of being a German spy. Unlike many other writers who broke the bourgeoisie and identified with the working class in the post-1917 era, Lawrence walked a tightrope between both major classes in society. He was appalled by the British General Strike of 1926 that must have seemed little better than a barroom brawl in his native village when he was growing up.

D.H. Lawrence, caught between two worlds

In doing some background research on this article, I came across J.M. Coetzee’s review of Peter Scheckner’s “Class, Politics and the Individual: A Study of the Major Works of D. H. Lawrence” in the January 16, 1986 NY Review of Books, along with other books on Lawrence. Scheckner was a classmate of mine at Bard College, a Marxist literary scholar and an expert on Lawrence. The review is worth quoting in its entirety:

In his short book, Peter Scheckner traces the course of Lawrence’s political thinking. Scheckner’s contention is that Lawrence wrote his best work while he was most deeply engrossed with the question of the relation of private to public life, but that he was unable to reconcile his desire for the end of industrial capitalism with his reluctance to commit himself to mass action to destroy it; he therefore ended his life retreating from social concerns into an idyll in which the importance of sex became artificially magnified.

Scheckner is surely correct in his claim that the “thematic dynamism” of much of Lawrence’s fiction emerges from an evenly balanced distaste for both capitalism and mass movements, reflected in an ambivalence toward working men which he recognized very clearly in himself: “I love them like brothers—but, my God, I hate them too.” Lawrence thought of himself as one of the working class, at least in “blood affinity.” But he felt that the British working class betrayed itself by joining in the patriotic fervor of the First World War. When the general strike came in 1926, he recoiled from the violence that went hand in hand with it, as well as from what he regarded as its disappointingly materialistic objectives.

As the son of a genteel mother who had married into the working class, and later as a member of a declassed intelligentsia, Lawrence’s emotional involvement in class relations was deep. In his writing his great theme is freedom. But about politics and particularly about economics, his ideas are often worse than naive. Had he lived deeper into the age of fascism, he would undoubtedly have made as much of a fool of himself as Ezra Pound was to do: there was certainly in him enough of a mix of furies of hatred (which, to give him his due, he recognized as “vicious against the deep soul that pulses in the blood”), yearning toward the strong man or leader, and utopianism.

Lawrence’s creative life provides yet another chastening demonstration that simple, even simple-minded ideas, explored to their uttermost with passionate persistence, can issue in great art. Somewhere in the back of his mind Lawrence knew this, knew that his own feelings and desires were mere grist for artistic processes whose operations he had best not interfere with or scrutinize too closely. “Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance,” he wrote. “When the novelist puts his thumb on the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality.”

Scheckner’s study is most useful when it gives attention to the neglected plays and to the so-called leadership novels: Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, The Plumed Serpent. It is a rather airless book, concentrating myopically on Lawrence’s texts with barely a glance at fellow members of an intelligentsia squeezed, like Lawrence, between a right and a left equally indifferent to their interests. In order to prove that Lawrence jettisoned his working-class sympathies too precipitately in 1914, retreating into a sterile misanthropy, Scheckner presents working-class resistance to the Great War as rather more principled and uniform than it really was—as a reading of his main source, G. D. H. Cole’s Short History of the British Working Class Movement, 1789–1947, will confirm. Most surprisingly, Scheckner pays no serious attention to the thesis that Lawrence was never a socialist in embryo, but rather a radical conservative hankering after a preindustrial world of organic agricultural communities and craftsmen.


July 5, 2007

More on the turnip

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 6:01 pm

Charles “Turnip” Townshend

After I posted yesterday’s mostly lighthearted entry on turnips and the transition to capitalism, Michael Perelman suggested I have a look at an August 1969 article in “The Quarterly Journal of Economics” by C. Peter Timmer titled “The Turnip, The New Husbandry, and The English Agricultural Revolution.” It challenges the view found in Tim Blanning’s new book “The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815″ and elsewhere that without the turnip, there would have been no industrial revolution in Great Britain.

Although Brenner does not mention the turnip specifically, Eric Kerridge does place a lot of importance on it. As Jim Blaut pointed out in his article on Brenner in “Eight Eurocentric Historians,” Kerridge is Brenner’s main authority. For example, he has an article in the 1956 “Economic History Review” titled “Turnip Husbandry in High Suffolk” that claims an “agricultural revolution” was based on the introduction of “turnip husbandry.” For some economists, the turnip amounted to a booster rocket that could loft a backward society into the modern world. Ragnar Nurkse, an Estonian economist who taught at Columbia University and Princeton, was the Jeffrey Sachs of his day. He was consumed with problems of economic development and looked to Great Britain as a model for the rest of the world. In his 1953 “Problems of Capital Formation in Underdeveloped Countries,” he wrote on the turnip in terms that will be instantly familiar to those who have read Brenner, Wood and company:

Consider what happened in the original home of industrial development, in England in the eighteenth century. Everyone knows that the spectacular industrial revolution would not have been possible without the agricultural revolution that preceded it. And what was this agricultural revolution? It was based on the introduction of the turnip. The lowly turnip made possible a change in crop rotation which did not require much capital, but which brought about a tremendous rise in agricultural productivity. As a result, more food could be grown with much less manpower. Manpower was released for capital construction. The growth of industry would not have been possible without the turnip and other improvements in agriculture.

As I pointed out in a previous blog entry in this series, British farming operated under radically different rules than those prevailing under the industrial revolution. To just mention a couple of differences, British farms enjoyed very long leases in clear indifference to market mechanisms. They were also subject to a kind of feudal primogeniture. From the standpoint of the gentry, these measures ensured that the land would be developed according to the principles of “improvement.” However, genuine mechanized capitalist farming of the 19th century could care less about improvement and was geared to short-term profit.

In the traditional view of British farming accepted by Eric Kerridge, Ragnar Nurkse and Tim Blanning, lease farming encouraged the kind of competition that could lead to increased productivity. Just as the industrial revolution had its Great Men (Eli Whitney, James Watt et al), so did the agrarian revolution. Among them was Charles “Turnip” Townshend, the aristocrat who devoted himself to scientific farming after a career in government. He was credited with introducing the turnip in the 1730s as a way of making fodder available to livestock, thus replenishing the fields through manure. In Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” Charles Townshend emerges as a symbol of British industriousness–an Aesopian grasshopper so to speak:

Why, of two brothers, rich and restless one
Ploughs, burns, manures, and toils from sun to sun;
The other slights, for women, sports, and wines,
All Townshend’s turnips, and all Grosvenor’s mines;

(Another Great Man of the agrarian revolution was Townshend’s contemporary Jethro Tull, who invented the seed-drill and whom the 1970s rock group was named after.)

Jethro Tull, no relation to Aqualung

More recent research, according to C. Peter Timmer, casts doubt on this version of British agricultural history.

To start with, the claims of fabulous increases in land value due to the introduction of the turnip and other improvements are–well–fabulous. In Norfolk, a region where soil improvement was more advanced than any place else in Great Britain, there was a landlord named Thomas Coke who was as esteemed as Charles “Turnip” Townshend. Using techniques introduced by Jethro Tull and others, he claimed that the capital value of his estate grew from 2,200 pounds in 1776 to 20,000 in 1816–nearly tenfold. Recent scholarship based on the financial records of the property estimate it at only twofold, a significant increase but probably not much different from landed property anywhere else in Great Britain or in Europe for that matter.

But of even more importance is the question of whether this agrarian revolution so highly touted by Kerridge and company had the effect of reducing labor input, an obvious sine qua non for productivity on the land as well as “freeing up” labor power for nascent industry.

According to economic historian David Grigg (“The Agricultural Revolution in South Lincolnshire”, 1966):

Under the Norfolk system the land was worked more frequently and more carefully than on the open fields. The turnip crop alone required an enormous amount of labour if it was to be properly drilled and hoed.

Drawing a statistical matrix from 18th century farming records, Timmer concludes that the new “improved” farm of 500 acres generated 2,843 pounds in revenue while the same-sized “old” farm generated 2,293 pounds, a modest increase but an increase nevertheless. However, the labor costs for the “improved” farm were forty five percent greater (33.7 / 23.2), while the capital costs were forty one percent greater (1021 / 722). For all the talk about how the agrarian revolution led to modern-day capitalism in Great Britain and the rest of the world, the records reflect somewhat of an indifference to profits. What an odd capitalist logic.

July 4, 2007

Turnips and the transition to capitalism

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

About a month ago, I read Benno Teschke’s “The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics, and the Making of Modern International Relations” with the intention of critiquing it as part of my summer foray into the Brenner thesis. Teschke, like Ellen Meiksins Wood, is a diehard supporter of the Brenner thesis and his book–originally a PhD thesis–attempts to explain the rise of the modern state system in terms of the “agrarian revolution” in 16th century Great Britain. Where there was such a revolution (growing turnips, etc.), an authentic modern state came into existence. Where there was not, the state remained feudal. Like Brenner, Teschke finds it convenient to compare Great Britain and France. I suppose it would have been too much to ask whether Teschke could explain how the USA eventually superseded Great Britain as the top capitalist power in the world, since its agrarian society was a combination of small family farms of the kind that supposedly held France back and big slave plantations that were even more backward from a “class relations” standpoint.

I decided not to write about Teschke because his ideas on the transition to capitalism were indistinguishable from Wood’s, who I do plan to say something about down the road. My immediate plans are to write about the mode of production in 17th and 18th century Bolivia and Mexico, but a book review in today’s NY Times of Tim Blanning’s “The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815” prompted me to say something about British “uniqueness” once again.

Blanning’s premise is identical to Teschke’s:

In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia brought the Thirty Years’ War to an end. Although the Europeans didn’t know it, of course, this devastating conflict would prove to be the last of the Wars of Religion that had been tearing the continent apart since the start of the Reformation in 1517. Europe was entering a new age.

Despite the Renaissance, it was still a largely medieval world in its outlook, infrastructure and government in 1648. Europe was less wealthy and, in many ways, less economically advanced than other parts of the world, like Mughal India and China. By 1815, the year of the Battle of Waterloo, Europe was recognizably modern. It was also far in advance of the rest of the world economically, scientifically, technologically, politically and militarily.

Like the Brennerites, Blanning finds comparisons between the ant Great Britain and the grasshopper France most illuminating:

Why did France develop economically so much more slowly than Britain in the 18th century, with huge political consequences? One important reason was that Britain had an internal common market, but France was still riddled with internal tariffs and local taxes, causing no end of economic discontinuities.

And for Blanning, the humble turnip is also key:

In 1648 European agriculture had not changed much since medieval times. But enclosure, manuring, crop rotation, new crops like turnips and clover, and improved breeding brought forth a large increase in food production.

One result was a golden age for the landed gentry, whose rent rolls increased sharply, and their conspicuous consumption along with them. (Robert Walpole employed 50 people just to weed his gardens.) Another result was the freeing of manpower to work in the factories that were beginning to spring up in the English countryside. The industrial revolution came about because of turnips as well as steam engines.

Scenes from the transition to capitalism

I must say, parenthetically, that I always bemused by this obsession with turnips. I keep thinking of that pivotal scene in “Gone With the Wind” when Scarlett O’Hara returns nearly starving to her ruined but still beloved Tara plantation after the South has lost the Civil War. She plucks some turnips from the earth, takes a bite or two out of the clearly unappetizing root vegetable, and cries out:

As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.

Could it be possible that Margaret Mitchell was anticipating the later groundbreaking work of Maurice Dobb and Robert Brenner? Was the lowly turnip a symbol of the New South, which had broken with feudal class relations? An inviting topic for the industrious graduate student, I would say. I would just ask that I be given credit in the preface for any dissertation that comes out of this.

The review concludes: “The Pursuit of Glory is history writing at its glorious best.” I will allow others to judge the merits of the book based on this assessment. Without wanting to sound too sectarian, I generally put a minus where the NY Times puts a plus and vice versa. Some of the best books I have read over the past 10 years were those I stumbled across through a vicious attack in the Sunday Book Review.

I am not sure about Blanning’s relationship to Marxism, either pro or con, but he certainly would seem to deserve the label “Eurocentric” that Blaut awarded Brenner and others far more retrograde. A London Telegraph review included this observation:

As this is a volume in a history of Europe, one thing that isn’t treated in any great depth is the rest of the world, even though the 18th century saw the discovery of Australia, and brought Africa and Asia into new relationships with Europe: thus fox tossing gets more space than the slave trade.

I can hardly blame Professor Blanning. Who would want to waste time writing about the slave trade when there are far more compelling topics such as fox-hunting or the turnip’s role in the rise of capitalism?

In his article on Robert Brenner in “Eight Eurocentric Historians,” Jim Blaut wrote that his “essays are among the most influential writings in contemporary Marxist historiography, influential among conservatives and Marxists alike.” That, indeed, is one of the great ironies of the Brenner thesis. While the author is no doubt a committed revolutionary, the idea that slavery and colonialism had no role to play in the rise of capitalism is surely seductive to conservatives who are repelled by calls for reparation. If the key to British wealth was the lowly turnip rather than chattel slavery, then what business do uppity Black militants have in calling for justice?


July 3, 2007

Unborn in the USA

Filed under: Fascism,Film,religion — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

“Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion” is a kind of companion piece to last year’s “Jesus Camp.” Both films avoid any kind of editorializing commentary and simply allow the ultra-right religious fanatics to hoist themselves on their own petard. Except for the occasional on screen correction (for example, despite the claims of one of the anti-abortion activists, there is no link between abortion and breast cancer), the documentary takes the fetus-fetishists at their own words.

Indeed, in some ways, it is a film that they might have made themselves. Co-directors Stephen Fell and Will Thompson began work on what would ultimately become “Unborn in the USA” as a student film project at Rice University. Striving for objectivity, they aimed to “be journalists throughout and not have a particular opinion…to superimpose on the film” in the words of Stephen Fell. Given the overall creepiness of this movement, the young directors had little to do except focus their cameras on the subjects to make their opinion clear.

The film begins with a look at college interns being trained at the campus of Focus on the Family, the largest rightwing Christian fundamentalist group in the country. Focus on the Family is run by James Dobson, who has urged support for candidates who would make abortion punishable by death. The campus is near Colorado Springs, Colorado, a state which is rapidly becoming the nerve center of rightwing fundamentalism in the USA. After getting pointers from an instructor on how to get their point across, they pack themselves into two Greyhound buses and descend on a local state college where they are confronted by local students who are outraged by the outsized posters of the bloody remains of abortions on their campus. Some schools have banned these displays, but obviously the Colorado educational authorities have no problem with them, just as they have no problem firing Ward Churchill for making unpopular comments after 9/11.

Despite their fetus fetishism, the Focus on the Family students almost seem normal, at least in comparison with the pond scum that are featured in the film’s middle section. The young directors allow Army of God activists to make their case, which boils down to maiming or killing men and women who perform abortions. To give credit where credit is due, President Clinton pushed for legislation that would put these animals on the defensive. Not only have Army of God type assassinations become more or less a thing of the past, laws now prevent these scum from blocking the entrances to abortion clinics. Their main activity nowadays, according to the documentary, is standing on the street with huge posters of bloody fetuses.

These posters will undoubtedly have little impact on whether a woman decides to get an abortion or not. As is evident from the confrontations between them and pro-choice women who have had abortions, the decision to terminate a pregnancy is not done lightly. What the fetus fetishists are really about is forcing their will on a secular and permissive population that they blame for America’s decline. In turning the clock back to when abortion was illegal, they must think that the USA will be the City on the Hill once again. Clearly they lack an understanding of the ABC’s of capitalist economics.

The film makes clear that the Bush White House and the anti-abortion movement work hand-in-glove. There is an illuminating interview with the CEO of the phone-banking company that raises money for both the Republican Party and the major anti-abortion outfits. He says that the people who make the fund pitches are “zealots” just like him. They are involved with a cause.

Although I don’t share Chris Hedges’s worry that such activists are an immanent fascist threat, I do think that he has captured their thinking and their methods in his recently published “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” These clearly are elements of a movement that might take shape in the future that is psychology suited to atavistic traditions in the USA. Instead of the swastika, the crucifix and the fetus are likely to be the symbols of a totalitarian-leaning capitalism. In an January 19, 2007 Alternet article, Hedges wrote:

The engine that drives the radical Christian Right in the United States, the most dangerous mass movement in American history, is not religiosity, but despair. It is a movement built on the growing personal and economic despair of tens of millions of Americans, who watched helplessly as their communities were plunged into poverty by the flight of manufacturing jobs, their families and neighborhoods torn apart by neglect and indifference, and who eventually lost hope that America was a place where they had a future.

This despair crosses economic boundaries, of course, enveloping many in the middle class who live trapped in huge, soulless exurbs where, lacking any form of community rituals or centers, they also feel deeply isolated, vulnerable and lonely. Those in despair are the most easily manipulated by demagogues, who promise a fantastic utopia, whether it is a worker’s paradise, fraternite-egalite-liberte, or the second coming of Jesus Christ. Those in despair search desperately for a solution, the warm embrace of a community to replace the one they lost, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, the assurance they are protected, loved and worthwhile.

During the past two years of work on the book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, I kept encountering this deadly despair. Driving down a highway lined with gas stations, fast food restaurants and dollar stores I often got vertigo, forgetting for a moment if I was in Detroit or Kansas City or Cleveland. There are parts of the United States, including whole sections of former manufacturing centers such as Ohio, that resemble the developing world, with boarded up storefronts, dilapidated houses, pot-hole streets and crumbling schools. The end of the world is no longer an abstraction to many Americans.

Jeniece Learned is typical of many in the movement. She stood, when I met her, amid a crowd of earnest-looking men and women, many with small gold crosses in the lapels of their jackets or around their necks, in a hotel lobby in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. She had an easy smile and a thick mane of black, shoulder length hair. She was carrying a booklet called “Ringing in a Culture of Life.” The booklet had the schedule of the two day event she is attending organized by The Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation. The event was “dedicated to the 46 million children who have died from legal abortions since 1973 and the mothers and fathers who mourn their loss.”

Perhaps the difficulties facing the neoconservative movement today under the reign of arguably the most unpopular President in American history might signal a lessening of the threat identified by Hedges, not to speak of the despair found within the pages of Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Whatever the future directions of American society, we on the left are compelled to keep track of our enemies. A film like “Unborn in the USA” is necessary viewing from that standpoint. Unfortunately, I received a screener from the good folks at First Run Features after the film had ended its run at Cinema Village in New York. We can assume that it will be released in home video before long. Keep an eye out for it. It is first-rate.

July 2, 2007

LA Weekly continues to degenerate

Filed under: media — louisproyect @ 1:12 pm

Jay Levin, founder of the LA Weekly

This week’s Nation Magazine has an interesting article on the degeneration of the LA Weekly, an “alternative” newspaper.

The article does not mention anything about Jay Levin, the guy who launched the paper originally. After he sold out to new owners, the paper went downhill steadily just like the Village Voice in NYC. I got to know Levin a little bit in the late 1980s when I used to visit friends in LA. He was very pro-Sandinista, as was obvious from LA Weekly coverage.

The 7/2/07 Christian Science Monitor reports about his new venture:

Jay Levin tilts at print mills A tireless editor launches a monthly magazine aimed at L.A.’s ‘fusion culture’ – the city’s rising immigrant class

By Frank Kosa | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Los Angeles

No shortage of experts exists proclaiming that print is dying. Magazines in particular are the polar ice cap of the publishing world, receding at an alarming rate in the face of the superheated Internet. We are told there are no readers anymore – just “eyeballs” and “clicks.”

On the scorched earth of this media battlefield (if you’ll allow me an old-era print metaphor) littered with the burned-out shells of once mighty magazines, one man is launching a new entry. What’s more, he’s chosen to roll it out in possibly the least reader-friendly location in the United States – Los Angeles.

It’s a city renowned for its municipal attention-deficit disorder, where few people have lingered over anything since the O.J. Simpson trial – and that, of course, was televised. In this town, “reader” is a job, someone who summarizes scripts, the idea presumably being that no one would read voluntarily.

So who is the nut launching a publication in what, if the experts are to be believed, may be the most hostile time for print since Gutenberg? That would be Jay Levin, a middle-aged man with a medium build and a New York accent tempered by nearly 30 years in Los Angeles. His new monthly magazine is called RealTALK LA.

Mr. Levin is remarkably soft-spoken – the antithesis of the caricatured cigar-chomping editor who is once again being imprinted upon us by this summer’s arbiter of cultural imagery: “Spider-Man 3.”

He is a self-described “pragmatic visionary,” with an activist bent and a critical eye. That criticism is often focused on the media, and their failure to serve their readers.

Now Levin is putting his own theories about serving the reader to the ultimate test. Will he prove to be savant or simple failure?


Born and raised in New York City, Levin was lured to L.A. in 1978 by, of all things, a porn king – Larry Flynt. “It was just after he became a born-again Christian,” says Levin. “He was a rebel publisher looking for something to do with his energy.” Mr. Flynt bought a small alternative paper, the Los Angeles Free Press, and asked Levin to “make it the Village Voice of L.A.” Their partnership lasted just 10 weeks, at which time Flynt fired Levin over editorial control – Levin says he insisted that the sex ads be dropped. One week later, Flynt was shot in an assassination attempt, and the Free Press, which had been losing money, was shuttered.

The paper was gone, but, according to Levin, not the need for it. “The L.A. Times was doing a terrible job of covering the city,” he says.

Nine months later, he had found backers to hire a staff largely culled from the former Free Press and cobbled together the first issue of an alternative paper called LA Weekly. It was 24 pages, with virtually no advertising. According to longtime staff writer Steven Mikulan, Levin pulled together the disparate elements of an urban-hippie sensibility with a young club-scene set. Although Levin was sometimes ridiculed for being Quixotic and New Age-ish, the mix found a considerable audience.

“It took someone who was obsessed … for L.A. to have a literary paper,” says Mr. Mikulan. “He was in the right place at the right time.”

Levin ran the paper for 13 years. He sold it in 1991 to, appropriately enough, the Village Voice for $10 million. From there, he set off on a series of ventures that included launching a television channel, consulting, pursuing a master’s degree in spiritual psychology, and founding a nonprofit to serve L.A.’s poor.

His nonprofit work and a consulting job with what used to be called a “minority-owned” chain of newspapers (there is no “majority” ethnic or racial group in L.A. anymore) led to a realization: “I could see tremendous growth in the middle and professional classes. I had a vision to create a different model for a city magazine.”



Here’s another relevant item that I posted a while back:

In the late 80s I used to make occasional trips out to Los Angeles to visit friends who were part of a loosely organized Hollywood left. This included fairly successful writers like Michael Elias who grew up about 5 miles from me and wrote “Young Doctors in Love”, a memorable parody of hospital melodramas. It also included Jay Levin, the founder and editor of Los Angeles Weekly, a newspaper that combined radical politics and glitzy Hollywood lifestyle material. Like all such “underground” publications that were styled after urban weeklies that sprouted in the 1960s, it walked a tightrope between commercialism and idealism. After Levin sold the paper to well-heeled investors, it fell off the tightrope and now offers a fairly conventional political analysis–albeit packaged in a kind of self-contratulatory “hipness” that reminds one of the New York Press. The New York Press never tires of lambasting the Nation Magazine for its out-of-date liberalism, but offers instead an “edgy”, hard-line conservatism straight out of the Dartmouth Review. This amounts to bashing Al Sharpton and the Democratic Party on a weekly basis.

In the latest LA Weekly, there is a corrosive attack on the Nation Magazine that could have been appeared in the New York Press:

On Bubble Wrap The Nation vs. The Weekly Standard

by John Powers

An audience is like a broad. If you’re indifferent, Endsville.

–Frank Sinatra

AS FAR BACK AS I CAN REMEMBER THE NATION HAS been the journalistic lodestar of the American left. Now, in its 137th year, the magazine is on a commercial roll. Its subscriptions have risen steadily in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks. Its finances may actually break even (a miracle in the world of political magazines). And its publishing adjunct, Nation Books, is raking in money from two hot titles: Gore Vidal’s Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Forbidden Truth by Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié. Indeed, everything’s going so well that I feel kind of churlish in pointing out what most on the left are unwilling to say: The Nation is a profoundly dreary magazine.

Just compare it to another thin, ideologically driven rag, The Weekly Standard, a right-wing publication currently approaching its measly seventh anniversary. A few months ago, I began putting new issues of each side by side on an end table and, to my surprise, discovered that while unread copies of The Nation invariably rose in guilt-inducing stacks, I always read The Weekly Standard right away. Why? Because seen purely as a magazine, The Standard is incomparably more alluring. As gray and unappetizing as homework, The Nation makes you approach it in the same spirit that Democrats might vote for Gray Davis — where else can you go? In contrast, The Standard woos you by saying, “We’re having big fun over here on the right.”

The Los Angeles Weekly made virtually the same kind of attack on Pacifica Radio, albeit from columnist Marc Cooper who fairly typifies Nation Magazine ideology nowadays. In a positively rancid article on Porto Alegre, Cooper also took people like Noam Chomsky and his supporters to task for lacking panache. If one has ever seen the gnomish Marc Cooper in person or heard his nasal, high-pitched voice, you would have to question his harping on style.

In a 1990 brochure to advertisers, here’s how the LA Weekly described itself;

Weekly readers like to buy, buy, buy. . . . They want Perrier instead of water; croissants instead of toast; Rolex instead of Timex. They earn champagne incomes to match their champagne tastes.

In 1994, the Village Voice bought the LA Weekly and deepened the orientation to the Yuppie set, both culturally and politically. At the time the Voice was owned by pet food magnate Leonard Stern, who had already pushed the tabloid toward the center. Today’s owners package conventionally liberal politics with all sorts of articles about alternative lifestyles. In a distinct gesture to rightist politics, it contains regular dispatches from Sylvia Foa, a grating Zionist based in Israel.

The Voice is lashed from the right on a weekly basis by the New York Press, founded in 1988 by Russ Smith. Smith’s motivation in challenging the establishment left was nearly identical to that described in the LA Weekly article cited above. In a profile in the Oct. 1, 1998 NY Times, Smith said the Voice had become ossified, full of “stuck-in-the-70’s, left-wing stuff” and pompous writing. “What about the 20-year-old who just wants to hear about the Smashing Pumpkins’ new album and doesn’t want a four-paragraph discourse on Baudelaire or Thomas Carlyle?”

As somebody who enjoys rightwing entertainment, including radio shock jocks, I find New York Press simply unreadable. Most of it has little to do with NYC and consists of long-winded navel-gazing by some of the most boring people on the planet.

For example, in a piece called appropriately “First Person” in the current issue, we learn from Rich Rickaby that:

My family is the black sheep of the family. My mother went through an embarrassing battle with alcohol while married to her second husband who was alcoholic enough for the entire family. Not that one has to be embarrassed about being alcoholic, especially since she overcame it, but when Mom has to crawl her way out of the family gathering it leaves an impression. Diane has three kids by two different men, both of whom are in jail now. One for beating up on whores and the other for conspiring with his father to murder someone. Her oldest son, Joe, has already been in jail by the age of 21 and has since fled for West Virginia.

I think I’ll stick with Thomas Carlyle.

July 1, 2007

Two Chinese genre films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

The two Chinese films from this year’s New York Asian Film Festival that I had a chance to see were typical genre offerings, but both demonstrated the ability of all involved to find something fresh and interesting to say. The first is “Exiled,” a gangster movie from Hong Kong directed by Johnnie To. It obviously owes a lot to John Woo, a pioneer in the field, but comes up with some new wrinkles. The second is “The Banquet,” a film made in China that is inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet and is set in the early 10th century. It is directed by Feng Xiaogang in the style of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” with all the expected gravity-defying swordfight scenes. I generally resist the blandishments of such costume dramas, but found much to enjoy in “The Banquet” nevertheless.

“Exiled” revolves around the conflict between five hit-men, who are old friends, and the gang bosses they have run afoul of. Four of them were originally dispatched to carry out a hit on Wo, the fifth who had tried to kill one of the bosses, but changed their mind during the opening shoot-out of the film that takes place in Wo’s apartment. After putting their guns away, Wo cooks them up a lavish meal. However, the meal ends on a tentative note as they acknowledge that unless they terminate Wo, they will be killed themselves.

In a climactic scene that reveals Johnnie To at this most inspired, the five assassins have a shoot out with the bosses’ henchmen. In the course of the battle, Wo and the boss get shot. Afterwards, both end up at the same filthy clinic run by a money-grubbing doctor where the shooting resumes. The action choreography and the sardonic humor that pervades the scene is reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” Throughout this bloody scene and others like it, Wo and his old friends comport themselves in the laconic, affectless manner of characters in an Aki Kaurismaki film, especially “Leningrad Cowboys Go to America”. All this once again demonstrates the kind of cross-fertilization that goes on between West and East in film. If “Kill Bill” could not be made without John Woo, then “Exiled” could not be made without “The Wild Bunch” and “Leningrad Cowboys Go to America.”

While watching Feng Xiaogang’s “The Banquet,” I found myself thinking about the remarks that Sol Yurick made on Shakespeare in a Brecht Forum class about 15 years ago. Yurick’s goal was to debunk the world’s great literature–in other words, to unlearn everything you learned in Literature 101. For Yurick, the Kings and Queens of Shakespeare’s tragedies are no better than Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and hardly worth immortalizing. Of course, it is the language and drama that makes Shakespeare special, but Yurick confessed that he was unable to get past the piggishness of the major characters.

The Empress bathing in rose petals

With something like “The Banquet,” you are left with even less to chew on. This is Hamlet but without the soaring language. While director Feng Xiaogang clearly aims at the tragic gravitas of Shakespeare, he is clearly constrained by a rather pedestrian screenplay which mostly consists of exposition. Characters are continually explaining why someone is forced to behave in an evil manner. Their speech is oddly evocative of silent classic dialogue frames from the 1920s: As day follows night, my lord, you can count on the support of the Sheng Kingdom, etc.

What makes “The Banquet” worth watching is the display of intimacy between the Emperor and Empress, who are the counterparts of Hamlet’s uncle and mother. The characters’ eroticism is the most convincing aspect of the film, touched as it is by their respective distrust of each other. Love and death are close companions in the higher elevations of both Elizabethan and Medieval Chinese courts evidently.

Additionally, the film is visually impressive as scene after scene draws upon elements of ancient Chinese architecture and costumes. It is like a trip to the Metropolitan Museum but a lot more fun.

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