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Book Reviews:

Chew on This. By Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson. Penguin £6.99
Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation (reviewed in the Socialist Standard for November 2002), and this book covers some of the same ground as the earlier one. That’s to say, it looks at the power of fast food companies, especially McDonald’s, and the nature of the food they serve.

McDonald’s is the largest purchaser of beef in the United States, and this position has enabled them and the other big meat-packing companies to drive down the price paid to ranchers, many of whom have gone out of business. The raising and slaughtering of pigs, cattle and chicken has been aimed squarely at making profits, with little regard for the conditions of the animals or the workers. Chicken, for instance, will live barely six weeks and never see a blade of grass. They die increasingly of heart attacks, caused by a thick layer of fat around the heart.

Of course the fast food companies don’t want their customers to think about where the food comes from and how it’s made. They’d rather you didn’t reflect on the manufactured flavours that are added, or the fact that food for children is made as sweet as possible. Massive amounts of advertising are aimed at kids, who are naturally very susceptible and can influence where their parents take them to eat. Further, the advertising isn’t confined to food, as giving away or selling toys is another means to get the kids in.

The employees are often not much older than children, given the fast food industry’s reliance on teenage labour. Teenagers are simply cheaper and easier to control. They mostly earn the minimum wage, which in the US is worth less in real terms than it was fifty years ago. There is a large turnover of staff, and the derogatory label ‘McJob’ sums things up well.

It may even be a McWorld that is developing, as the fast food chains expand outside the US and Europe. The first Burger King opened in Baghdad just nine weeks after the US-led invasion in 2003. The UK has long been part of the McDonald’s empire, with 2.5 million people eating there every day.

Capitalist-style fast food treats appallingly the animals that it raises and kills. It’s also bad for the workers it employs and bad for the consumers who eat it.
PB

Local histories

The Class War Radical History Tour of Notting Hill by Tom Vague, Psychogeography, 2007.
Camden History Review 31, Camden History Society, 2007
The Class War pamphlet, the ‘souvenir programme’ of a recent London march maturely entitled “Bash The Rich”, is a rambling and rather unfocussed (as the doubtlessly pseudonymous author’s name would suggest) example of the local radical history writing which is currently fashionable. In this case it also is an unintended comment on the Class War organisation, which has itself become historic. Nonetheless the pamphlet might help locals gain “the sense of place in time” necessary to overcome the crazy disconnectedness of London living which makes political action in the capital so difficult to achieve nowadays.

In contrast the politics (and arts) issue of the Camden History Review is, as one might expect coming from the premier local history organisation of the capital, immaculately produced and finely focussed. The piece on Camden’s MPs is a rather old-fashioned biographical exercise, useful mainly for reference; however, the articles on the fight for a free library in Highgate and the St Pancras Civil Defence revolt of 1957-58 are prime examples of how on-the-ground-floor writing can help illuminate the real processes of history. The particular lesson to be learned from these two cases is that within capitalism every advance in the freedom of knowledge or the search for peace has to fought for tooth and nail. And how fruitless such actions, whether achieved via constitutional reform or direct action, ultimately are. The Socialist Party gets a mention fourth political essay, on the radical history of Grays Inn Road, as a radical organisation which once had its head office in the area and which pushes the solution – production for use not profit – to all capitalist problems from attacks on libraries to warmongering.

KAZ

History writing

All Knees and Elbows of Susceptibility and Refusal. Edited by Anthony Iles and Tom Roberts, 2007. Available online at www.caughtlearning.org/all_knees_and_elbows/
 The clumsy title comes from E. P. Thompson's phrase to describe the difficulty of writing “history from below.” After the Second World War, a group of Communist Party historians including Thompson, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton set out to bring the experiences of the working class to the fore in the study of history. This was to some extent a reaction to structuralist and functionalist interpretations in which workers' experiences and abilities to effect social change were down-played or ignored. The most famous example of “history from below” is EP Thompson's classic The Making of the English Working Class, first published in 1963 and still worth reading. But Thompson's concept of class is controversial in some quarters:

“If we stop history at any given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences. But if we watch these men over an adequate period of social change, we observe patterns in their relationships, their ideas, and their institutions. Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and in the end, this is its only definition.”

Some have seen this definition of class as being subjective, but Thompson must be right in saying that class is not simply an economic category but also an historical concept. The working class was not just the product of capitalist social relations or the industrial revolution: “The working class made itself as much as it was made,” wrote Thompson. Writing history from below means not invoking “iron laws” and ignoring the abilities of the working class to effect social change on the one hand, or getting lost in the detail and denying the importance of class on the other hand. This short pamphlet discusses these and other problems in writing history.

LEW