A Planet Afflicted by a High Fever

The world is ‘overheated’. Too full and too fast; uneven and unequal. It is the age of the Anthropocene, of humanity’s indelible mark upon the planet. In short, it is globalisation – but not as we know it. Leading anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen is the author of a new book Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change, which is linked with an international anthropological project, centered at the University of Oslo. In this post, he introduces the themes of the book, and the importance of the project.

‘What do the fateful Brexit referendum, the epidemic spread of Nintendo’s ‘Pokémon Go’ game, theOverheating escalating death of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the fivefold growth in tourism since 1980 have in common? The short answer is that they all express symptoms or outcomes of global accelerated change, or ‘overheating’, as I call it in my new book.

It is as if modernity has shifted to a higher gear since the early 1990s. Modernity has always been about acceleration and change, but in the last quarter-century, acceleration has accelerated. While you were out having a coffee, the number of refugees in the world seemed to have grown by ten per cent by the time you returned. While you were offline on a short holiday, Indonesia overtook Australia as the world’s largest coal exporter. And when you log onto your favourite newspaper, in the hope that you might encounter a few drops of optimism, the first headline you click on is a story about the dramatic decline of biodiversity in the contemporary world (The Guardian, 14 July 2016). Caused by agricultural expansion, climate change and pollution, the loss of biodiversity is an excellent, if frightening, example of ‘overheating’: It is an unintended consequence of the planet having been filled slowly to the brim by human activities and projects. It is not caused by one single factor possible to contain or control, but by the confluence of several mutually reinforcing processes – population growth, land clearing and monocultures, global neoliberalism and fossil fuel use, to mention a few major factors.

Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change is based on the assumption that the fast changes characterising the present age have important, sometimes dramatic unintended consequences. Each of the five empirical chapters focuses on one key area – energy, cities, mobility, waste, information – and shows how changes may take unexpected directions, which were neither foreseen nor desired at the outset.

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Is it Anti-Semitic to Criticize and Boycott Israel?

Yakov Rabkin is the author of the recently published What is Modern Israel? In this essay,What is Modern Israel? he takes on the question that’s affected, most recently, the Labour Party in Britain. Here for the Pluto Blog he develops the history and contemporary resonance of that ever-controversial subject, Zionism.

‘In the last few decades, there has been an important shift in the way Western media and political circles relate to Zionism and Israel. What is Zionism? In the version that ultimately prevailed, it represents a nationalist movement with four essential goals: 1) to transform the transnational confessional Jewish identity centered on the Torah into a secular national identity similar to that of European nations; 2) to equip the new nation with a new vernacular language, based lexically on Biblical and rabbinical Hebrew, and syntactically on Yiddish and Russian – the first Zionist settlers grew up with; 3) to move Jews from their countries of origin to Palestine; and 4) to establish political and economic control over the new homeland. At the turn of the 20th century, other nationalisms had only to ensure political and economic control of their respective countries, while Zionism was much more ambitious and revolutionary.

Zionism stands today as the last vestige of the 20th century movements committed to radical social transformation. Ben-Gurion was an admirer of Lenin; one can better understand the daring character of the Zionist project through his admiration of the Bolshevik overhaul of Russia: ‘the great revolution, the primordial revolution, which has been called upon to uproot present reality, shaking its foundations to the very depths of this rotten and decadent society.’ Most founding fathers of Zionism had just as negative, and arguably anti-Semitic views of the Jews they proposed to regenerate and rehabilitate.

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Brexit: A Massive Smokescreen (But Britain Should Still Leave)

By Thomas Fazi, author of The Battle for Europe: How an Elite Hijacked a Continent – and How we Can Take it Back. We are offering the book at a special referendum price of £10 (RRP £17.99) until the 23rd June.

‘Let’s all take a step back for a moment and reflect on the significance of the fact that, with allThe Battle for Europe the problems that currently beleaguer the UK and Europe as a whole – rampant inequality, despicable levels of poverty and unemployment, widespread existential precariousness, environmental devastation, etc. – here we are talking about, er, Brexit, when in fact Britain’s EU membership has little or no bearing whatsoever on any of those (or other) critical issues. Has there ever been a better demonstration of the agenda-setting power of the elites? And – what’s worse – of our willingness to sing along to their tunes? They say jump, we spend months debating exactly how high we should jump. Hell, we have even written dozens of books about it.

If we were to believe the comments made in recent weeks by both the Remain and Leave sides, we would be justified in concluding that on June 23 Britons will indeed be called to decide on a matter of life or death – not just for the UK but for the entire world! On the one hand, we have the ‘inners’ – an unlikely ensemble ranging from business magnates and right-wing politicians to socialists and trade unionists – claiming that Brexit would destroy Britain and the European project, give you cancer and even trigger World War III. Leftist variations on the same theme include claims that Brexit wouldplunge Europe – and Britain itself – into 1930s-style fascism, threaten the rights and protections of British workers and even harm the UK’s environment.

On the other hand, we have the ‘outers’ – comprised mostly of right-wing nationalists but including also groups such as the ‘Christian Brexit-ers’ (or #BeLeavers – true story) and even some solitary left-wingers (even though Owen Jones subsequently retracted his support for an exit, he will not be forgiven by linguists and historians for coining the dreadful #Lexit hashtag) – arguing that, if Britain remains in the EU, it will soon be overrun with Koran-wielding immigrants and colonised by the EU fascist super-state. Boris Johnson, who is evidently running short of arguments by now, has even stated that as long as Britain is in the EU, it is not allowed to cut taxes to the UK’s poorest households. As for the claims that the ‘every UK citizen’ would be better/worst off by x pounds per year if the country leaves the EU – it should be clear to everyone by now that predictions made by economists are about as reliable as tasseography. (Anyway, if you’re interested, here’s an article that debunks the economics of both sides).

Needless to say, most of these assertions are totally unfounded. Both sides of the debate – and all the groups involved – should be deeply ashamed of resorting to such low-level scare-mongering tactics simply to feather the nests of their respective campaigns (though I must say that the Remain campaign wins when it comes to Project Fear). In the name of reason, let’s set the record straight: Britain, Europe or the world will not come to an end in the case of an unlikely ‘yes/out’ victory (or of a ‘no/in’ victory, for that matter). The fact of the matter is that Britain’s fate to a large degree does not depend on its EU membership (or lack thereof). As for the EU as a whole, Paul De Grauwe has argued that it would actually benefit from a Brexit.

The fundamental problem with the whole Brexit debate is that both sides of the argument are premised on a wildly embellished notion of the extent to which being part of EU impacts (positively or negatively) the scope of government action. The everyday life of the average British citizen is, quite obviously, influenced much more by the decisions taken in London than by those taken in Brussels – which is what makes this whole debate so surreal. The decision to slash social provisions to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society (such as disabled people); to cut funding for libraries, healthcare, education and environmental protection, while allowing massive corporations to get away with paying little or no taxes; to part-privatise the NHS, etc. – these were all taken by the British government in full autonomy, and any claims to the contrary are simply untrue. On the issues that matter the most to most people – work, housing, healthcare, etc. – Britain, as a powerful, currency-issuing economy, is as ‘sovereign’ as a country can be.

In this sense, the referendum appears like little more than a massive smokescreen to temporarily divert the people’s grievances away from the real culprits – the ones sitting in Downing Street and Westminster. It follows that the Leave-ers’ assertion that the UK is negatively constrained by the EU – i.e., that the EU is preventing the British government from acting in the British citizens’ best interests – is utterly unfounded. Equally unfounded, though, are the Remain-ers’ claims that the UK is positively constrained by the EU, on issues such as workers’ protection, immigration, civil rights, environmental protection, etc. Not only have EU institutions – most notably the European Commission – overseen in recent years a brutal assault on the social and economic rights of the citizens of Southern Europe; they have also proven utterly powerless to prevent member states (such as Hungary and Romania) from violating the rights of their citizens and/or from disregarding some of the basic tenets of the EU, such as the Schengen Treaty. Hence, the contention by some on the Left that the EU is the only thing preventing the UK from plunging into a Johnsonian fascist dystopia is frankly laughable.

So why, in light of these observations, do I support Brexit, as the title gives away? Because, once the UK drops out of the EU and it becomes apparent that the world is still spinning and the country hasn’t sunk into the ocean, it might help us break free of the TINA (there is no alternative) spell which most of us on the Left have been under for decades. Underpinning the Left’s rejection of Brexit is, in fact, the notion that nation-states have essentially been rendered powerless by globalisation, and thus that it makes no sense to initiate a political fight at the national level. The claim is that the internationalisation of finance and the growing importance of transnational corporations have eroded the ability of individual nation-states to autonomously pursue social and economic policies – especially of the progressive/redistributive kind. Markets – and particularly financial markets – rule supreme, it is said, and these will punish governments that pursue policies not in accord with the profit ambitions of global capital through capital flight, delocalisations, etc. The conclusion is that ‘Keynesianism-in-one-country’ is a thing of the past, and that change, today, can only be realised at the supranational (and ideally global) level. This is particularly evident in the European debate, which is not surprising considering that the European Left – and Labour in particular, I’m sorry to say (James Callaghan, anyone?) – played a crucial role in cementing this ideological shift towards a ‘post-national’ (and post-sovereign) view of the world.

As Labour MP Clive Lewis – a member of the Another Europe is Possible campaign, which sees the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis join the UK shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and others to make ‘a progressive case for the UK to stay in’ – says: ‘Capital long ago fled national borders. In order to build a society which is fair for everyone, we need an international response to austerityand the financial crisis’. The same claim is regularly made by Varoufakis as well. Not only is this line of thinking – which essentially premises change on the achievement of an impossible alignment of Left governments/movements at the international level – arguably the main cause of the Left’s global decline in recent decades. It also theoretically flawed. The notion that the state, today, has essentially been overpowered by the markets implies the existence of a fundamental separation/opposition between states and markets, with the balance of power constantly tilting between one extreme (socialism) and the other (free market capitalism, the system allegedly in place today). As Karl Polanyi pointed out more than seventy years ago, though, the state-market dichotomy is a myth. In his 1944 classic, The Great Transformation, Polanyi dismantled the orthodox liberal account of the rise of capitalism by arguing that the development of modern market economies was inextricably linked to the development of the modern state, since the state was needed to enforce changes in social structure and human thinking that allowed for a competitive capitalist economy. ‘There was nothing natural about laissez-faire; free market could never have come into being merely by allowing things to take their course’, he wrote. ‘Laissez-faire was planned. It was enforced by the state’.

The same is true today – truer than ever, perhaps. As Bob Jessop writes: ‘Neoliberal forms of economic globalization continue to depend on political institutions and policy initiatives to roll out neoliberalism and to maintain it in the face of market failures, crisis tendencies, and resistance’. In other words, the state, despite the rhetoric of the free-marketeers – and, what’s worse, of most contemporary leftists – remains central to the well-oiled functioning of capitalism. In this sense, Chris Dillow says, neoliberalism is not the triumph of the market over the state; it ‘is simply what we get when the boss class exercises power over the state’. As Bill Mitchell, with whom I am writing a book on the topic, notes: ‘The actual reality [is] that politicians still have legislative capacity to restrict economic activity across borders. The actual challenge is not to cede national sovereignty to some mythical state of international economic integration, but to resist the corruption of the national policy-making process by shifts to technocracies and to ensure that the voting systems are not corrupted by lobbyists working in the interests of specific capital elites’.

Of course, telling people that nation-states are powerless is politically very convenient, since it allows national elites to depoliticise their decisions, thus reducing the political costs of unpopular policies, by ‘scapegoating’ international institutions (such as the European Commission) or simply ‘the markets’. Which brings me back to the question of Brexit: while being part of the EU does not pose any realconstraints to the government’s policies, it does provide the government with a convenient scapegoat for its failure to deliver decent jobs and social provisions to its citizens. With the EU out of the way, British politicians would have no such excuse anymore (though, of course, they would still be free to blame ‘the markets’ or ‘globalisation’). More importantly, though, the realisation that Britain has not sunk in the ocean or been crushed by ‘the pressures of globalisation’ as a result of Brexit might, one would hope, embolden Labour and UK progressive movements in general to dream much bigger than they have done in recent decades – and to realise that they don’t need to wait for the rest of the world to overturn austerity to do so themselves. They can do it on their own, on their own terms, simply by reclaiming the state back from the forces of capital that have hijacked it – inside or outside of the EU.’

This  article first appeared here and it only reflects the opinion of the author. 

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Thomas Fazi is an activist and filmmaker. He co-directed Standing Army, an award-winning feature-length documentary on the global network of US military bases featuring Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal. He has also worked as an Anglo-Italian translator of authors such as Christopher Hitchens, George Soros and Robert B. Reich.

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The Battle for Europe is available to buy from Pluto Press for a special referendum price of £10 here

 

Brexit – A View From Sweden

Per Gahrton was a Green MEP for Sweden from 1995 to 2004. Here he reflects on the progressive Scandinavian arguments surrounding the Brexit referendum, and suggests the whole debacle might be more useful than it first appears…

The debate around a possible Brexit might, after the fact, prove to be beneficial for European co-Green parties, Green Futureoperation – on the condition that the initiative is defeated by the UK voters and the UK remains as a fully-fledged EU member state. The EU needs a sharp, short shock in order to reconsider its means and ends, that much is clear. But to dissolve the EU – which could happen in the near future if Britain did leave – would be too risky and in the worst case scenario would be a step into an abyss of new and revived conflicts that could throw us all into an unpleasant future. It is one thing not to create or join a union, quite another to dissolve one.

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Two Sides to Every History?

For the publication of A People’s History of Modern Europe, William Pelz considers how the Brexit debate will be viewed once it becomes part of our history, and whose voices will be forgotten.

‘Recently I was paging through the weekend edition of the Financial Times, not that I have any Pelz PHOME
investments to worry about. But since a Swedish scholar called FT the ‘voice of the enlightened bourgeoisie’ I thought it might be worth a look. Jumping out at me, amidst the adverts flogging country houses in the south of France, was an article discussing historians lining up on different sides of the Brexit debate.

It is no surprise to find history scholars staking out positions in a contentious debate. Still, some of the comments were striking. One outfit called ‘Historians for Britain’, led by a Cambridge Professor, appears to think that the UK has had a ‘largely uninterrupted history since the Middle Ages’. What? No peasant uprisings? What about the enclosure movement creating an England, in the words of Thomas More, where ‘sheep devour men’? Was King Charles I neither overthrown nor executed? Was there no commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell? Not a Leveler, Ranter or Digger in sight?

What of the industrial revolution — was this not a disruption, not least for the women, men and children caught up in it? Could the transformation from a relatively isolated island kingdom to the leading imperialist power amassing colonial possessions via great levels of violence not count as ‘disruption’? One could compile a list long enough to fill volumes and many solid historians have made serious response to the “Historians for Britain” group. The problem runs far deeper than the Brexit debate or any other particular dispute for which a vote will settle the issue (at least in the short run).

The crucial defect of this can be gleaned from the article’s title — ‘Two Sides to Every History’. Two sides? Only two? In my experience, there are always many more ways of looking at history.  Amid the myriad of viewpoints possible, the one most often overlooked, if not consciously ignored, is that of the common people. Look at the way history is presented to students. The Reformation, for example, is reduced to a theological wrestling match between Martin Luther and the Pope (with Calvin thrown in on occasion to give us some theological diversity). Were those the only sides? What of the people? Were they passive subjects as the great men (and I do mean men as this was a very sexist age), decided the fate of nations?  The German Peasants revolt of 1525, whose suppression claimed 100,000 lives, suggests otherwise.

Was the industrial revolution the genius of the few or the toil of the many? Did every European march off merrily to war in 1914? Of course not. Even those who may have drank the nationalist Cool Aid later learned what war was really about. The people were not docile pawns of their rulers as many history books may lead students to believe. Did fascist demagogues, like Mussolini and Hitler, really hypnotise entire nations or were they handed power by rulers fearful of leftist revolution? Was it really a speech by Winston Churchill that caused the British to fight fascism? Did DeGaulle conjure up the French resistance by some well-chosen words broadcast over BBC? Across Europe, from within the Third Reich to the mountains of Yugoslavia, many people resisted fascism. Could that have been caused by something deeper than a few clever leaders?

History is typically presented as the story of a few men who changed the world. Of late, a small number of important women have been thrown into the mix as a sap to diversity. Even still, history is presented as ‘facts’ without social, political or even much historical context.

For example, in the same issue of the FT, there was an obituary of Margot Honecker. As wife of the last East German ruler, not to mention a power in her own right, one would expect some history. The obituary was cleverly written, not overly biased and fun to read. It was also the mental equivalent to junk food. Mentioning her father was a shoemaker was as close as the story came to mentioning class. We learn that Margot could be ‘flirty’ despite having a reputation for being ice-cold. What isn’t mentioned is how fascism or growing up in Nazi Germany influenced her. It certainly must have had an impact on her husband Erich since he spent the war in a concentration camp in reward for his anti-fascist activities. Were there a complex set of forces, pressures or power relations that caused the Berlin Wall to be built? No, it seems Margot demanded it be built as their legacy.

When future historians discuss the UK’s relation with the European Union will they discuss the complex, sometimes contradictory, feelings of the average citizen? Or, will we just hear David Cameron’s assertion, ‘From Caesar’s legions… Britain has always been a European power’.  I fear people like the current Prime Minister will have the last word… they always have.  Yet, it need not be so.’

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William A. Pelz is Director of the Institute of Working Class History in Chicago and a Professor of History at Elgin Community College. His recent works include Wilhelm Liebknecht and German Social Democracy (Greenwood Press, 2015), and Against Capitalism: The European Left on the March (Peter Lang Publishing, 2007).

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A People’s History of Modern Europe is available to buy from Pluto Press here.

Pluto May Day Sale! Everything 50% off

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To celebrate International Workers’ Day, we’re making all our books 50% off, until 9th May. All you have to do to activate the discount on our website is go to bit.ly/mayday50.

Every single in-print Pluto book is included in the sale, but if you’re looking for a little bit of inspiration, why not consider some of these worker-orientated titles:

1. Rebel Footprints – David Rosenberg’s ever popular guide to uncovering London’s radical history follows the stories of socialists, Suffragettes, Chartists and trade unionists; taking the reader from the anti-fascist struggles of the East End, to the intellectual hub of radical Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell.

2. Southern Insurgency – The first book in Pluto’s Wildcat Series, Manny Ness explores the new forms of worker organisations emerging in India, South Africa and China. Considering the broad historical forces at play in each country, including the effects of imperialism and the decline of the traditional trade union movement, Southern Insurgency offers a fresh perspective on the nature of the new industrial worker in the Global South.

3. Hesitant Comrades – Published just before the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, Geoffrey Bell’s new book is an original and vivid appraisal of the relationship between the Irish national revolution and the British labour movement between 1916-21. Bringing to bear a wealth of original archival research,  Bell paints a picture of ambivalence and hostility on the part of the British working class to the question of Irish independence. Prominent figures are appraised alongside the full range of acronymed unions and parties; from Ramsay MacDonald and Sylvia Pankhurst, to Lloyd George and Lenin.

4. The Mythology of Work – Peter Fleming’s treatise on the joylessness of working under neoliberalism pulls apart and analyses the impact of a society that has been transformed into a factory that never sleeps; with work a universal reference point for everything else, devoid of any moral or political worth. Blending critical theory with recent accounts of job related suicides, office-induced paranoia, fear of relaxation, managerial sadism and cynical corporate social responsibility campaigns, Fleming offers a morbidly compelling vision of what it means to be a worker in the 21st Century.

5. Economics for Everyone (2nd Edition) – Life-long trade unionist Jim Stanford’s guide to the economics of capitalism is back in a lovely new edition. Described glowingly by Naomi Klein as ‘a book with the power to change the world’, Economics for Everyone offers an antidote to the usually abstract field of economics, in which key concepts such as finance, competition and wages are explored, and their importance to everyday life is kept in the foreground.

 

Violence in the Pacific: The effects of US bases in South Korea

Elisabeth Schober’s new book Base Encounters: The US Armed Forces in South Korea is published this month. She is currently conducting anthropological fieldwork in South Korea, and sends us this dispatch, which explores the effects of violence, sexual or otherwise, that occurs around the extensive network of US military bases in the region.

The Korean peninsula has made it into international news again. Once Kim Jong Un’s regime Base Encountersthreatened to destroy Manhattan with a hydrogen bomb on March 13 of this year, the annual Western media ritual of shining a brief light onto the complex and long-standing conflict between North and South Korea has fully kicked into gear. In early April, North Koreans added fuel to the fire by releasing another propaganda video, this time showing an attack on South Korea’s capital Seoul. A North Korean assault targeting US soil is a most improbable scenario, given the country’s absence of long-range missile capabilities. Strikes against the mega-city of Seoul, however, are within the realm of the highly unlikely, yet technically possible, events: the capital of South Korea, home to some 25 million people within its larger metropolitan area, is less than 60 kilometers away from the border with North Korea, thus well within reach of its opponent’s missiles.

Without fail, every year it is early spring that turns out to be prime time for such threats of annihilation and destruction coming from Pyongyang against Seoul and its Unites States allies. One of the reasons behind the timing of such war-crazed rhetoric from the North is at times overlooked: the annual joint military drills involving US and South Korean troops. This year’s exercises began on March 7 and will continue until the end of April, and with 300,000 Koreans joining 17,000 US military personnel, the ongoing drills are said to be the largest ever held. And while these megalomaniac displays of military might are certainly a reaction to nuclear and other missile tests conducted by the belligerent Democratic Republic of Korea on a semi-regular basis, they are also a key component of what US president Barrack Obama has termed the ‘pivot to Asia’: that is, the ongoing large-scale ‘rebalancing’ of US political and military interests away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region, where China’s military rise is now to be held in check. This April, for instance, also sees an additional 10,000 Philippine and US troops joining forces in the annually held Balikatan-exercises on the Philippine archipelago. And last month, the U.S., India and Japan have also announced that they will hold joint naval drills in the South China Sea in the near future – a strategic area that, together with the Korean peninsula, is increasingly becoming a hotspot for the ongoing struggles over military hegemony in the larger region.

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