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Book Reviews: 'Work', 'What Price the Poor?', & 'Ancient Americans - Rewriting the History of the New World'

Recipe for disaster?

'Work'. (Anarchist Federation. £1.00)

It might be thought that a pamphlet on work would begin by setting out what is going to be meant by the word. But this pamphlet does not do so. Instead, it uses the word in two different, even contradictory, senses. Work “must be destroyed before it destroys us”, proclaims the front cover. “Work is a disease” says an illustration. “Arguments against work” is one chapter heading.

But another chapter is headed “Work in a free society” though even this has the subtitle “freedom begins where work ends”. So, after all, work is not going to be destroyed? It is not a disease (or, if it is, it’s still going to exist in a “free society”?). So, in a free society, we are not going to be free when we work?

In physics work is the expenditure of energy. For humans, it is the exercise of a person’s physical and material energies to produce something that has some use, an unavoidable feature of human existence which has to take place in all societies and so cannot be abolished or destroyed. Under capitalism most work takes the form of employment, which is the things the pamphlets says: boring, meaningless, done for the benefit of an employer. It is employment – working for wages – , not work as such, that is a “disease” that can be abolished. What is required is the transformation of work, not its impossible abolition.

The authors of Work make some strong and valid criticisms of the human consequences of capitalist employment. For many workers it means physical and nervous exhaustion, illness, often anti-social laws, damaged family relationships, the intensification and lengthening of the working week, job insecurity, the switch from long-term employment to sub-contracting and self-employment, usually with worse pay and conditions. Even the unemployed, they say, are now engaged in the “work” of “looking for work”.

We agree that in “a society without ‘employment’, without bosses and wage labour”, the work of producing what society needs will be quite different: it will be “freely chosen”, “not measured at all” and an “expression of a person’s pleasure in what they are doing”.

Where we disagree is over how the Anarchist Federation envisage such a society coming into being – by a general refusal to work:

“We will take our hands from the plough and the loom, rise up from our desks, cast off our boots and overalls, walk out of the hotels and restaurants, leave the factory and office, meeting with others to join in their refusal to work as they celebrate ours”.

This is a recipe for disaster. If (as this scenario assumes) people had reached the stage of wanting to abolish capitalism and its employment and wage labour, then a more sensible option would surely be to organise, not to stop working, i.e. to stop producing with all the consequences this would have on social life, but to keep production going under worker control while the transfer through political action of social control from the capitalist class to the community as a whole takes place.



Pie in the sky

'What Price the Poor? William Booth, Karl Marx and the London Residuum'. By Ann Woodall, (Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005)

Booth and Marx arrived in London in 1849. Their reactions to the London poor, variously referred to as “the submerged tenth”, “the dangerous class” or “the residuum” were very different. Booth, inspired mainly by evangelical Christianity in his home-town of Nottingham, set up the Salvation Army and offered them pie in the sky when they died. Yet in its early years the “Sally Army” was militant in its defence of the poor. “The Salvation Army”, Engels noted, “revives the propaganda of early Christianity, appeals to the poor as the elect, fights capitalism in a religious way, and thus fosters an element of early Christian class antagonism which one day may become troublesome to the well-to-do who now find the ready money for it”. But it never did become a problem for the well-to-do. As Roy Hattersley wrote in his biography of Booth, his social policy “was intended to ameliorate the worst features of the existing order rather than to change it”. Early the next century, in George Bernard Shaw's play Major Barbara, the capitalist Undershaft responds to the accusation that he did not understand what the Salvation Army did for the poor: “Oh yes I do. It draws their teeth: that is enough for me as a man of business”.

Marx refereed to the residuum as the “relative surplus population” which was comprised of both the “reserve army of labour”, who could be employed, and the “lumpenproletariat” who could not. Woodall does a good job of explaining Marx's viewpoint on the necessary role of poverty under capitalism and the revolutionary socialist alternative.



A common humanity

'Ancient Americans: Rewriting the History of the New World'. By Charles C. Mann. (London, Granta Books, 2005)

This book has three central claims, put forward with all the skill and understanding of a working popular science journalist. That pre-Columbus the Americas were more populous than many have previously supposed; that humans have been in the Americas longer than supposed; and that the people there had shaped their own environments to a terrific extent – far from being the unspoilt wilderness of colonial lore.

In most of this Mann is merely communicating an emerging academic consensus that still has not filtered out into the popular domain. He highlights how children’s schoolbooks still repeat stories about Indian life, culture and history that have subsequently been disproven. He also highlights how various vested interests have used the ideological constructions based on the previous histories for opposite ends, both aggressive industrialists and ecologists promoting various simplifying myths of naive Indians living in harmony with untamed nature.

Essentially, whilst without giving any definite backing to any particular population estimate, the book avers that the ‘high counters’ are now the dominant strand of demographic historiography. That most of the Americas were covered by human civilisations that would have been a match for most of the colonialist forces, if they had not succumbed to disease – disease that spread in advance of the European’s arrival (indicating intercourse between the Indian civilisations) – disease that possibly wiped out about a fifth of the human race at that time.

Mann demonstrates how much of the habitat inhabited by Indians was inhospitable, but that they had, to use his metaphor, terraformed their environment. He uses the example of the Maya collapse – hundred of years prior to the arrival of the Europeans – to show how the environment humans had created could fall apart when neglected (as in this case) by civil war.

In this context, he demonstrates that the Americas had an independent discovery of agriculture, to the point of suggesting that Amazonian Indians effectively planted orchards to make good use of the forests difficult soil. He suggests that there were civilisations as venerable in their size and antiquity to equal the more famous supposed homes of civilisation in China and Sumeria (present day Iraq).

He uses one case, the domestication of maize, to show what American civilisation has contributed to the sum of human achievement, and highlights the crushing irony that it was the importation of maize to Africa, which allowed the population growth that made the slave trade possibly (the slaves were, it should be remembered, needed in part because the indigenous population of the Americas had died out).

Mann suggests that the image of the pristine wilderness was created by the fact that humans had ceased to manage these environments, that the so called savagery found in part of the Americas was not stone age tribes living lives without time or change, but the products of collapse and devastation.

This is hopeful stuff for socialists. If true, it confirms a common humanity shared by all the humans on the planet, and offers the prospect of adding rich unbroadcast stories of human achievement.