2000s >> 2006 >> no-1225-september-2006

Book Reviews

Future humans

Glasshouse. By Charles Stross. Ace
Hardcover. 2006. 352 pages. ISBN:
0441014038 (published in US)

If you go to the Science Museum in Kensington, up to the top floor, to the aviation gallery, you can discover a sign on the wall that informs us that the technology for flight has existed for hundreds of years, but that the obsession with flapping prevented any actual heavier than air flight until well towards the close of the nineteenth century.

This highlights the importance of exploring ideas and technological changes – and being bold and speculative. Contemporary science fiction performs much of that role today – dreaming up new technologies that seem impractical now but will soon become everyday. In a real sense, compared to the founders of our party, we are living in a science fiction world now – sadly it’s a dystopia.

Charles Stross has recently been awarded a prize for his fiction by the transhumanist
association (they hold that humans whilst they have evolved technologically are still the basic animals they were half a million years ago, but that soon the technology will exist to change our bodies and begin a new technology driven phase of biological evolution – the capacity
to re-write our bodies). His book, Glasshouse, is an examination of the effects of technological change on our society – starting from the fact that within the last hundred years alone that human life has been fundamentally altered by technological innovation, and that the rate of change will increase dramatically within our lifetimes.

Set several hundred years from now, it features Robin, a historian who has wiped his memory agreeing to take part in an historical re-enactment of late twentieth century life as part of an experiment. He finds himself in the role of a woman, trapped both in her own biology and the social roles that come with that.

The participants in the experiment have to live in a panopticon – their every action potentially observed – with rules which they gain or lose points by following – and have to ensure that their ‘team mates’ (their local community) don’t lose them points. It thus forms a useful device for examining the construction of social life and power. Some players – the score whores – unreflectively play the game as presented to them but Robin (renamed Reeve) tries to find ways of breaking out of the restrictive role given her by reading the rules sideways.

She cannot, however, escape the rules and the inertia of the score whores; and she has to stand by and witness the horrors of the rules of the game which she objects to but cannot escape from. As such it is an acute depiction of dissidence in society.

The book is thus both an examination of social power and the power of ideas, as well as a meditation on the importance of memory and history for understanding where we are and where we are going. A flight of fancy that depicts the present in a deeply realistic way.


Western vanguardist

A Rebel’s Guide to Gramsci. By Chris Bambery, Bookmarks, 2006. 60 pages.£3.

This is a short introduction, from an SWP viewpoint, to the life and ideas of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist Party leader who died from natural causes in a fascist
prison in 1937 . Gramsci appeals to the SWP and Western Leninists generally because of
his more sophisticated version of vanguardism than Lenin’s.

In his Prison Notebooks he distinguished the situation in Tsarist Russia and some other parts of Eastern Europe from that in the West. In Tsarist Russia, he argued, the state was
e v e r y t h i n g and the ruling class relied directly on repression to maintain itself in power; in this situation the task of revolutionaries was (in B a m b e r y ‘ s summary of 
G r a m s c i ‘s views) “to lead a direct assault on power when the opportunity arose”, as the Bolsheviks had successfully done in Russia (only to install themselves, we would add, as the embryo of a new ruling class)..

In Western Europe, on the other hand, the ruling class ruled mainly through the “hegemony” it exercised over the working class rather than through direct force. In Bambery’s words again:
“In Western Europe . . . the ruling class rested mainly on consent and was able to rely on a variety of institutions within civil society which organised and reinforced this.Gramsci described these as acting like a complicated series of earthworks surrounding a great fortress – the state. So institutions like the church, the media, the education system and political parties helped secure the consent of the masses allowing force to be used sparingly and only in the last resort . . . So these networks of support for the ruling class and the ideas they helped to reinforce had to be undermined first through a long ideological struggle before a direct assault on the ruling class was possible . . .Communists had to set themselves the task of undermining the consent, however grudgingly given, which allowed capitalism to rule.”

This is an analysis we can accept and indeed had made ourselves. But the conclusion Gramsci drew from it was not the same as ours. We concluded that, as socialism too could only exist with the consent of the working class, the task of socialists was to directly, incessantly and exclusively campaign amongst fellow workers against capitalism and capitalist ideas and for socialism.

Gramsci concluded that a vanguard party should seek to establish its own “hegemony” over the working class, by assuming the leadership of the workers’ day-to-day struggles.


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