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Book Reviews

“Common sense raised to genius”

Hopes and Prospects. Noam Chomsky, Hamish Hamilton, 2010, £18.99

Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most important intellectual figures in both the sciences and the humanities, and one of the ten most quoted writers of all time, ranking with Marx, the Bible and Shakespeare, has admitted that his speeches are very boring. But, he says, that’s the way he likes it. It means that, when people turn up to listen to him, and millions do, they’re doing so because they’re interested in the issues Chomsky is talking about, not in Chomsky himself as some kind of intellectual celebrity.

And seeing as many of Chomsky’s books are collections of his previous speeches, you might expect his books to be pretty boring too. You’d be right. Reading his books is like trying to sprint through a waist-high river to the opposite bank: it may not look like you’ve got far to go, but it will certainly take you much longer than you think. However, the real question is, is it worth getting to the other side? With Chomsky, the answer is always yes.

Doug Henwood once said that he set up his (excellent) Left Business Observer newsletter because he was convinced that what was needed was a “better empiricism” – in other words, if socialists could just get the facts out there, politics would sort itself out. He soon realised that things are not quite that simple, but still, “better empiricism” is a necessary if insufficient condition for a socialist education. I can think of no better way of acquiring this “better empiricism” than with a regular and constant diet of Chomsky, no matter how bland it might seem to your taste buds.

His latest book, Hopes and Prospects, a collection of recent speeches, is much like all his others. But yet again, this is not the criticism it might appear. Chomsky is always the same, yet he’s always armed with the most original details and devastating facts, the latest scholarly research and reports, and a common-sense analysis that leaves you thinking that you could have done it all yourself. Indeed, it’s Chomsky’s firm belief that you could have done. His analysis is, as an introductory guide to him once put it, common sense elevated to genius.

Again like his other books, Hopes and Prospects is supposed to hang together on a theme: in this case, American foreign policy and popular struggles in Latin America. But in fact, the essays range effortlessly, perhaps even eccentrically, over the whole world, ranging from the dawn of human history to current affairs, from what was in The New York Times last month to the history of economic thought, from the Nuremberg trials to those who today commit Nazi-style crimes and yet are praised as altruistic idealists by liberal intellectuals. He is a one-man scholarly resource, an always-reliable first port of call for socialists and anti-capitalists who want to back up their arguments with facts.

The main criticism to level at Chomsky, although he would not see it as a criticism at all, is that he is insufficiently Marxian. He understands, as he puts it in the book, that many of the crimes he documents are “rooted in deeper features of prevailing socioeconomic and political systems”. But he is unconvinced of the power of Marxist theory. Elsewhere, he questions whether it even is a theory (he means he is doubtful that it can serve anything like the same role as theory in the natural sciences). To go into this is beyond the scope of this review, but it means that Chomsky is able to applaud efforts to democratise capitalist commodity production, without having anything much to say about whether it might be necessary to go beyond this if humanity is ever to achieve a truly free society.


Bottom of the heap

Chinese Whispers. Hsiao-Hung Pai. Penguin £8.99.

The changes in Chinese capitalism over the last few decades – privatisation, sackings, factories producing for multinational companies – have led to vast numbers of workers moving to the biggest cities in search of work. Many have also felt they had little choice but to try their luck abroad, if only to earn enough to pay for their children’s education. It is these, usually undocumented and ‘illegal’ migrant workers, numbering perhaps 200,000 in the UK, whose story is told in this revealing book.

Most Chinese workers who move to Britain in search of work borrow money to pay the ‘snakeheads’ who smuggle them here. They also have to pay the gangmasters who find jobs for them (and if they are sacked or leave their jobs, they have to pay again to get another). Pai, a journalist who sometimes went underground as a pretend undocumented worker herself to gather information, shows the kind of work they do and the conditions in which they labour.  

From assembling Samsung microwaves in Hartlepool to chopping up pork in Suffolk, from picking vegetables in Selsey to washing up in London’s Chinatown, they do the hardest and dirtiest jobs, with little if any training and no health and safety instruction. Typical wages may be £3.20 an hour, well below the legal minimum wage and further below what British workers doing similar work might earn. The hours are long, there are no paid holidays, and there may be compulsory and unpaid overtime when more output is wanted. Pai even manages to speak to some of the three thousand or so undocumented Chinese women who work in the sex trade.

Being undocumented, the workers have no access to health care or the few protections that capitalist laws provide. Nor can they join a trade union. Most speak little English, which further limits their links to anyone who might help them and opens them to even worse exploitation. They are, however, sometimes able to strike up a camaraderie with other migrant workers, such as Ukrainians.

The British government has occasionally cracked down on illegal workers and those who employ them, but this just makes the workers’ position even more precarious. Policies on asylum seekers and those denied refugee status contribute to the existence of an army of people desperate for any job they can get. British capitalism makes the most of their cheap and flexible labour power, but even that may not be enough to keep the factories here. In 2005 some of the Hartlepool factories relocated to Slovakia for access to even cheaper labour power. And no wonder many Chinese employers in Britain support the Chinese government’s policies which give rise to all these migrant workers.

Pai’s book gives a vivid picture of those at the very bottom of capitalism’s heap, and also fills in some of the background in terms of the global nature of production and of the sourcing of labour power under capitalism.


Descent into barbarism?

Socialism or Barbarism. From the 'American Century' to the Crossroads. Istvan Meszaros. 2001 Monthly Review Press.

In the forward to this book it is stated that in 1992 Meszaros expressed his conviction that 'the future of socialism will be decided in the US' and that it – socialism – has to assert itself universally and in a way that embraces all areas or it won't succeed. As the title suggests the emphasis is on his violent antagonism to capitalism, imperialism and globalisation US-style. He denounces the 'free political choice' of multiparty democracy for what it is – an ever-narrowing political consensus, and points to the increasing downward pressure on pay and conditions worldwide which is having negative impact right across the board. The fact that capitalism is failing in all aspects for most citizens worldwide as, for one instance cited, in India and China where capitalism occurs in enclaves with vast 'non-capitalist hinterlands' and in which populations outside the legitimate economy have to find their own ways to make a living.

Meszaros views the current phase of US imperialism as 'potentially the deadliest phase' because of the self-stated aims of achieving world domination through policies of 100 percent self-interest, imposing arbitrary decisions on the rest of the world whilst accusing others who attempt to do likewise of nationalism. Its willingness to break international laws and enter into war or invasion to protect its own interests is well known. Regarding the structural crisis of capital he details examples of worsening conditions in the US and the UK such as the ever-increasing numbers of children in poverty and the widening gap between the top one percent and the multitude at the bottom.

In a section on the challenges facing the socialist movement he calls for international solidarity oriented towards the creation of an 'order of substantive equality' – especially in these times of 'extraordinary environmental threat’. Labour cannot share power with capital (that has been proved time and again) which has to be a top-down authoritarian management of business.
Part II titled 'Marxism, The Capital System and Social Revolution' is an interview for a quarterly Iranian journal in which he gives his version of globalisation as 'total social capital' and 'totality of labour’. The capitalist system logically has to be global to complete itself. Global labour, on the other hand, is forced to fight amongst itself to stay afloat within the system, and so competes instead of confronting capital. Capital's dependence on labour is absolute; however, labour's dependence on capital was created and is surmountable even if the conditions are not currently favourable. The only way to overcome capital and institute an alternative, socialist system is with the 'totality of labour ' as the 'irreconcilable antagonist of capital' through a process of 'profound social transformation’.

There is a short section in the interview on the hows and whys of a social revolution but overall the emphasis throughout the book is on it being an all-embracing and truly social revolution, with which we can agree. In the few years since the book was published, as general conditions of employment have continued to deteriorate, capitalism has again shown itself to be indifferent to the impacts of its policies. It would seem, however, that, if we were to rely solely or even largely on US labour to be the catalyst then we might be waiting too long and societal breakdown and barbarism may well win out.


African Narodnik

Africa’s Liberation. The Legacy of Nyerere. Edited by Chambi Chachage and Annar Cassam. Pambazuka Press. 2010.

If Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania from independence in 1961 till 1985, had been a late 19th century Russian he would have been labelled a “Narodnik”, i.e. someone who thought that a basically agricultural country could move straight to socialism, on the basis of local communal villages, without having to pass through capitalism. The Russian Marxists denied this, but the Narodniks never got a chance to implement their ideas.

Nyerere did, with the Arusha declaration which adopted “Ujamma” (“socialism and self-reliance”) as the official state policy of Tanzania. As predicted by Marxists it failed. In fact one of the contributors to this tribute to Nyerere on the 10th anniversary of his death in 2009, Issa Shivji, once described the result as the development of a “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” in Tanzania. Today the present Tanzanian government openly embraces – is forced to embrace – capitalist development.

This said, Nyerere comes across as sincere and principled, as genuinely wanting a society of social equality, democracy and without exploitation, and unlike nearly all the other historic African independence leaders power did not go to his head. However, the fact that he was sincere and incorruptible shows that the problem in Africa (and elsewhere) is not bad leaders but capitalism. Not even a saint can made capitalism - which African countries are currently obliged to accept - work in the interest of all.

It only remains to add that Tanzania in 1967 could have passed directly to socialism but only with the rest of the world following a world socialist revolution. Given that this did not happen, capitalism developed in Tanzania, as in Russia.