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Book Reviews: "Crude World", "Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation"

Troubled Waters

Crude World. By Peter Maass. Penguin. £10.99.


The delta of the River Niger is an enormous wetland, once a flourishing ecosystem with a wide range of life forms. But now it is not a wildlife sanctuary: rather it is a horrendous landscape of ruined villages, devastated populations and roving armies. The reason for this is simply the delta’s vast oil reserves and the prospects for wealth and power that these entail.

This is but one clear example of the ‘resource curse’, which states that countries dependent on the export of resources such as oil are susceptible to more corruption and warfare but less freedom or economic growth. In this enlightening book, Peter Maass surveys a number of cases and shows how oil rarely produces benefits for those who live in the places where it is found.

In Equatorial Guinea, for instance, the discovery of offshore oil led to enormous riches for the dictator-president Teodoro Obiang. Few local workers were employed in the exploring and drilling work, and massive profits were made by American companies like Exxon. The US government, and various lobbying groups, played their part in supporting Obiang and keeping him friendly to American business. This is particularly important as Chinese companies start flexing their own oil-producing muscles.

In Ecuador Texaco was able to do more or less as it wished, since the officials of the newly-formed state oil company knew next to nothing about oil. The natural gas that came to the surface with the oil was just burned off, which can be deadly for both people and environment. Rivers and land have been contaminated and the government left with massive debts.

The profits, of course, go to the oil companies and their owners. Lee Raymond received $686 million for his thirteen years as chief executive of Exxon-Mobil, while billions went to share-holders. As Maass points out, oil companies in fact do not ‘produce’ oil, they simply take it from the ground. Extracting, purifying and transporting oil are complex tasks (performed by skilled workers), but selling oil to realise the profits is not difficult. What is needed in the first place is a licence from the local government to explore and extract oil, which is why the oil industry is usually rife with corruption and works closely with diplomats and generals to ensure this kind of access.

So a substance used to provide fuel and warmth also causes wars and destroys the environment. Inevitable consequences of a world that belongs to a privileged few and is driven by profit.

PB

Kropotkin

Mutual Aid. An Introduction and Evaluation. By Iain McKay. AK Press.


Socialists have always recommended Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, including it on lists of books for sale. Kropotkin was an anarchist, but had been a scientist (geographer) himself and in this book was writing as science writer. It was originally written as a reply to T. H. Huxley, the biologist known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”, who had argued that both in nature and in human society “life was a continual free fight, and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence”.

Huxley was a biologist and an expert on Darwin’s views, but here was expressing a popular prejudice; in fact, more than this, a view that justified the division of society into rich and poor, oppressors and oppressed. As Iain McKay puts it in this pamphlet:

“In its most extreme form, this became ‘Social Darwinism’ which (like much of sociobiology today) proceeds by first projecting the dominant ideas of current society onto nature (often unconsciously, so that scientists mistakenly consider the ideas in question as both ‘normal’ and ‘natural’). … Then the theories of nature produced in this manner are transferred back onto society and history, being used to ‘prove’ that the principles of capitalism (hierarchy, authority, competition, etc.) are eternal laws, which are then appealed to as a justification for the status quo!”

Kropotkin produced the evidence from scientific studies to show that this was not the case, neither in nature nor in society. In nature a “struggle for existence” certainly went on, but cooperation (“mutual aid”) was just as much “a factor in evolution” (the book’s subtitle) as competition. It wasn’t just a struggle of members of the same species against each other to survive and so leave more offspring; in many species cooperation was a survival strategy with the less cooperative having less chance of survival and so leaving less offspring.

McKay goes into detail to show that many sociobiologists, including Dawkins himself, accept this, even if on the basis of mathematical models. Kropotkin can be seen as a bit of a sociobiologist himself in that he too argued from animal behaviour to human social behaviour. Only two of his book’s eight chapters are devoted to biological evolution, the rest dealing with human social behaviour and social evolution. However, these are governed by quite different factors that have nothing to do with genetics. But Kropotkin did at least turn the tables on the Social Darwinists by arguing that it was capitalism, not socialism, that was against human nature.

McKay’s 60-page pamphlet is a useful account of the background, significance and influence of Kropotkin’s book.

ALB