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Book Reviews

Same Old Story

Mary Kaldor, Terry Lynn Karl and Yahia Said, eds: Oil Wars.
Pluto Press £17.99.

The basic idea behind this volume is the distinction between two kinds of oil-related wars. Old oil wars were about achieving security of oil supplies by directly controlling territory or influencing those who ruled it. The new wars differ in that countries with large oil supplies often have weak governments and are characterised by disorder and terror. Case studies of Nigeria, Angola, Chechnya, Nagorno Karabakh, Aceh and Colombia are employed to illustrate this point.

Nigeria, for instance, is a typical petro-state, heavily dependent on oil for taxes and exports. In the Niger Delta, oil exploration and production have aggravated poverty and had a devastating effect on the environment. Various military regimes used oil revenues for their own ends, while protest movements have often been corrupted by the prospects of getting an income from the oil. In Angola most of the oil is produced offshore and the petroleum industry is a true enclave sector, with little contact with the war-torn parts of the country. So it’s seen by the big international oil companies as a reliable supplier, since the fighting barely affects production.

In the former Soviet Union, oil has become a pawn in global power politics. A pipeline from Baku to Tbilisi would bypass Russia, which is therefore unwilling to allow an independent Chechen state. In Aceh in Indonesia the industrialisation resulting from the exploitation of oil and gas has led to the dispossession of local farmers and the growth of cities with massive unemployment. The Casanare area of Colombia has seen oil reserves produce great wealth for the local rulers, but this has not trickled down to most of the population: ‘Instead, people have lived in permanent fear and insecurity.’

The concluding chapter argues that ‘geopolitical competition, which is the key characteristic of “old oil wars”, is counterproductive if the aim is to secure the supply of oil.’ Instead, cooperative strategies should be pursued — as if this were just a matter of choice rather than an impossible dream within the competitive society of capitalism.

A Socialist conclusion would be that living somewhere with large oil reserves may not be a blessing at all, as you’re likely to be subject to violence and massive social and environmental disruption, whether in new- or old-style wars.

PB

Change of masters
A Star called Henry by Roddy Doyle. Vintage paperback. £6.99 pp 344.

All the blurbs rated it; a sobering introduction: Exhilarating, Masterpiece, a breathtaking act of apostasy. With such credentials from eminent sources, this reviewer approached this book with some trepidation.

The novels principal character, Henry Smart, is born into the torturous misery of Dublins slumdom in 1902. Doyle paints a tangible word picture of the sheer awfulness of life for the poor in Irelands capital city as it emerges into twentieth century capitalism. It is a well-delineated background for the characters and events which are the basis of Doyles plot.

However his treatment of those characters and events strain credulity. Henrys Da, from whom he inherited his name and presumably his skill as an escapologist is a contract killer, a mass murderer whos favoured weapon is his wooden leg. The younger Henry, at fourteen years old is in the General Post Office (GPO) lighting the insurrectionary touch-paper that will blossom into a guerrilla war against British rule. The sex angle is provided by Henry taking time out to shag a rebel girl and future mass killer in the basement.

Doyle, accurately if somewhat enigmatically, makes the discovery that socialists made at that time: that the victory of Irish nationalism bequeathed to the working class only a change in the hand that held the whip. The pangs of hunger, the ignominy of poverty, could now be legitimately expressed in the Irish language. But if a book or play identified the source of Irelands miseries in Irish or English or exposed the malignant Catholic agencies designated to educate Irelands children, what passed for democracy in the new Ireland promptly had it banned.

Doyle, in the person of Henry Smart, has pretend conversations in the GPO during the Easter Week Rising with the erstwhile socialist James Connolly, promoted from head of his unions self-defence force, the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), to Commandant-General Connolly of the Dublin Division of the Irish Republican Army. Connolly stands pure in Doyles prose. The future Irish dramatist, Sean OCasey, who as a one-time secretary to the ICA was closer to Connolly, took a contrary view: he saw Connolly as renouncing the cause of the international proletariat for what was effectively the armed wing of an aspiring native capitalism.

For those who enjoy the raucous writing of Roddy Doyle there will be enjoyment in this book but, unlike novels like Plunketts Strumpet City, it will not bring that much enlightenment.

RM