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Posts tagged ‘historians’

The Root of the Evil

Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching with barely-disguised glee, the evisceration of a recent Newsweek article by Niall Ferguson – pet historian of the American right – in which he provides a deeply flawed analysis of Barack Obama’s past four years in power. As Matthew O’Brien notes, before systematically working through Ferguson’s argument (or, indeed, ‘argument’), ‘He simply gets things wrong, again and again and again.’

I’m no fan of Ferguson’s. This has less to do with our political differences – in relation to him, I’m so left-wing I should be living in a Himalayan hippy commune practising an obscure form of yoga while teaching Capital to peasants – but because of the way he shapes his interpretations of the past to suit a particular neoliberal agenda.

Of course, no historian is capable of writing an absolutely objective history of anything – nor would we want to because it would be dreadfully boring – but Ferguson presents, and defends, his arguments on the grounds that they are absolute truth.

He was called out on this last year by Pankaj Mishra, in a fantastic review of Civilisation: The West and the Rest for the London Review of Books. In Civilisation, Ferguson argues that

civilisation is best measured by the ability to make ‘sustained improvement in the material quality of life’, and in this the West has ‘patently enjoyed a real and sustained edge over the Rest for most of the previous 500 years’. Ferguson names six ‘killer apps’ – property rights, competition, science, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic – as the operating software of Western civilisation that, beginning around 1500, enabled a few small polities at the western end of the Eurasian landmass ‘to dominate the rest of the world’.

Leaving aside the strange question of why an historian writing in the twenty-first century thinks that it’s possible to divorce the ‘West’ (whatever we may mean by that) from the rest of the world – and even why an historian feels like writing a triumphalist history of Europe and North America (I thought we stopped doing that in the sixties?) – this is a history which largely ignores, or plays down, the implications of modern capitalism and globalisation for those people outside of the West.

As in his writing on the creation of European empires, Ferguson has a problem with accounting for the widespread resistance of Africans, Asians, and others to European conquest – and the violence and exploitation which followed colonisation. Mishra writes:

he thinks that two vaguely worded sentences 15 pages apart in a long paean to the superiority of Western civilisation are sufficient reckoning with the extermination of ten million people in the Congo.

Recently I’ve been thinking a great deal about a comment which Roger Casement made in a report for the British government about atrocities committed in the Congo Free State during the late nineteenth century. Writing in 1900, he concluded:

The root of the evil lies in the fact that the government of the Congo is above all a commercial trust, that everything else is orientated towards commercial gain….

The Congo Free State came into being at the 1884-1885 Berlin West Africa Conference, where the assembled representatives of European states acknowledged the Belgian king’s right to establish a colony in central Africa. Leopold II’s International Association – a front organisation for his own commercial interests – was allowed to operate in the region.

There were strings attached to the deal – Leopold had to encourage both humanitarianism and free trade, for instance – but with the sharp increase in international demand for rubber in the 1890s, after JB Dunlop’s invention of inflatable rubber tyres, Leopold’s interest in the Congo, which had only ever extended to exploiting the country for its natural resources, narrowed even further. Leopold operated his own monopoly on the rubber trade, leasing some land to other companies on the proviso that they pay him a third of their profits.

The ‘evil’ to which Casement referred was the transformation of the Congolese population into a mass of forced labourers compelled to contribute quotas of rubber to the various businesses operating in the Free State. Those who failed to do so, those who refused to do so, or those who were suspected of not doing so, faced brutal reprisals from the State’s Force Publique, including being killed, often along with their families; having their hands cut off; and seeing their villages and property burned and destroyed.

It’s estimated that ten to thirteen million Congolese died as a result of murder, starvation, exhaustion, and disease between 1885 and 1908, when international condemnation of Leopold’s regime forced the Belgian government to take control of the Free State.

Although other colonial regimes in Africa could be brutal, violent, and unjust, none of them – with the possible exception of Germany in (what is now) Namibia – managed to commit atrocities on the scale that Leopold did in the Congo. As Casement makes the point, ‘the root of the problem’ was that the Congo was run entirely for profit, and that the businesses which operated in the region were not regulated in any way. This was capitalism at its most vicious.

But what does this all have to do with food? Well I was reminded of Casement’s comment when reading about Glencore’s response to the current droughts – chiefly in the US, but also elsewhere – which are partially responsible for global increases in food prices:

The head of Glencore’s food trading business has said the worst drought to hit the US since the 1930s will be ‘good for Glencore’ because it will lead to opportunities to exploit soaring prices.

Chris Mahoney, the trader’s director of agricultural products, who owns about £500m of Glencore shares, said the devastating US drought had created an opportunity for the company to make much more money.

‘In terms of the outlook for the balance of the year, the environment is a good one. High prices, lots of volatility, a lot of dislocation, tightness, a lot of arbitrage opportunities [the purchase and sale of an asset in order to profit from price differences in different markets],’ he said on a conference call.

This weekend, it was revealed that Barclays has made more than £500 million from food speculation:

The World Development Movement report estimates that Barclays made as much as £529m from its ‘food speculative activities’ in 2010 and 2011. Barclays made up to £340m from food speculation in 2010, as the prices of agricultural commodities such as corn, wheat and soya were rising. The following year, the bank made a smaller sum – of up to £189m – as prices fell, WDM said.

The revenues that Barclays and other banks make from trading in everything from wheat and corn to coffee and cocoa, are expected to increase this year, with prices once again on the rise. Corn prices have risen by 45 per cent since the start of June, with wheat jumping by 30 per cent.

What bothers me so much about these massive profits is partly the massive profits – the fact that these businesses are actually making money out of a food crisis – but mainly it’s that these monstrously wealthy businessmen are so unwilling to admit that what they’re doing is, even in the most charitable interpretation, morally dubious.

Barclays’s claim that its involvement in food speculation is simply a form of futures trading is disingenuous: futures trading is an entirely legitimate way for farmers to insure themselves against future bad harvests. What Barclays and other banks, as well as pension funds, do is to trade in agricultural commodities in the same way as they do other commodities – like oil or timber.

In 1991, Goldman Sachs came up with an investment product – the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index – which allowed for raw materials, including food, to be traded as easily as other products. When the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission deregulated futures markets eight years later, for the first time since the Great Depression, it became possible to trade in maize, wheat, rice, and other foodstuffs for profit.

The current food crisis has been caused by a range of factors – from the drought, to the excessive use of maize and other crops for biofuel – and exacerbated by climate change and pre-existing conflicts, corruption, inequalities, and problems with distribution. In Europe, unemployment and low wages will add to people’s inability to buy food – hence the rise in demand for food banks in Britain, for example.

Food speculation has not caused the crisis, but it does contribute to it by adding to food price volatility. I’m not – obviously – comparing Glencore or Barclays to Leopold II’s International Association, but the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State provide an excellent example of what happens when capitalism is allowed to run rampant. Let’s not make that mistake with our food supply.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Thirsty Knowledge

I’ve recently resuscitated my iTunes account, and I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the joys of the podcast. As a mad fan of Internet radio, having the most recent episodes of More or Less, the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian‘s Science Weekly, NPR’s Fresh Air, the Granta Podcast and, obviously, the Food Programme, arriving periodically is a glorious thing.

Relatively recently, I’ve become faintly obsessed with This American Life, and have relied on its extensive archive to keep me sane while writing lectures. I particularly enjoyed two, linked, episodes on Pennsylvania State University. The first, broadcast in December 2009, is an account of why Penn State has consistently been nominated as ‘America’s number one party school,’ and the second, from the end of last year, revisits the university’s reputation for heavy drinking in light of the recent scandal.

As you’d expect of This American Life, both episodes are thoughtful, intelligent accounts of life in State College, PA, where townsfolk have to put up with the antics of drunken students – from stealing traffic signs, to urinating in private gardens – and where the university’s various strategies for dealing with the campus’s drinking culture are impeded by a strong lobby from alumni and other donors.

A lot of what these episodes covered felt familiar. I grew up in a South African university town and now hold a fellowship at that university. The institution is based in the heart of the country’s wine-producing region, so alcohol is cheap and plentiful. As someone with a comically low tolerance of alcohol, I’ve never been a big drinker. I sailed through university as, usually, the only sober person at parties.

A while ago, I wrote a post about academia and the food at conferences, and one of the themes in the responses I received was that I needed to focus more on the booze. And that’s absolutely true: while we may be – justifiably – concerned about undergraduate binge drinking, there’s a stereotype that academics drink – in the same way that we dress badly, drive banged-up cars, and are chronically forgetful. As Malcolm Bradbury writes in The History Man (1975):

It has often been remarked, by Benita Pream, who services several such departmental meetings, that those in History are distinguished by their high rate of absenteeism, those in English by the amount of wine consumed afterwards, and those in Sociology by their contentiousness.

I think that many would suggest that Benita’s point about the wine could apply to all departmental meetings, regardless of the discipline involved.

Just about every decent campus novel contains at least one scene of drunken, academic embarrassment. Or, indeed, in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), of success. Jim Dixon spends most of the novel either pursuing the pretty-but-dim Christine in a fairly desultory way, or trying – in post-war, still rationed Britain – to scrape together enough money to buy cigarettes and drink.  In the famous, final scene, he gets completely hammered, delivers a speech which should get him fired, but which, instead, gets him both the girl and his dream job.

My two favourite campus novels, The History Man and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995) – yes the one that was turned into the surprisingly fun movie – both feature heroes whose academic careers are linked to the – occasionally excessive – consumption of alcohol and various banned substances. Both novels have parties at key turning-points in the narrative. In The History Man the suave socialist sociologist Howard Kirk and his long-suffering wife, Barbara, host parties at the beginning and end of the novel – places where students and lecturers at a red brick, radical university mingle, discussing contraception, Hegel, revolution, and, of course, religion:

No sooner are the first arrivals in the living-room, with drinks, talking breastfeeding, when more guests arrive. The room fills. There are students in quantities; bearded Jesus youths in combat-wear, wet-look plastic, loon-pants, flared jeans, Afghan yak; girls, in caftans and big boots, with plum-coloured mouths. There are young faculty, serious, solemn examiners of matrimony and its radical alternatives…. Howard goes about, a big two-litre bottle hanging on the loop from his finger, the impresario of the event, feeling the buoyant pleasure of having these young people round him…. He poured wine, seeing the bubbles move inside the glass of the bottle in the changing lights of his rooms.

Howard maintains – and gains – his position of power within his department and on his campus by wielding wine at important moments.

The appropriately named Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys uses grass and a range of other drugs – legal and illegal – to cope with the collapse of his marriage, his career, and his reputation as a writer. He holds a position at a small liberal arts university in Pittsburgh, but can’t finish his novel, is having an affair with the Chancellor, and has been (deservedly) deserted by his wife. Over the course of the university’s annual Wordfest weekend, his life falls apart. As in The History Man, parties take place at pivotal moments – one of them in Grady’s house. He returns to discover

writers in the kitchen, making conversation that whip-sawed wildly between comely falsehood and foul-smelling truths, flicking their cigarette ash into the mouths of beer cans. There were half a dozen more of them stretched out on the floor of the television room, arranged in a worshipful manner around a small grocery bag filled with ragweed marijuana, watching Ghidorah take apart Tokyo.

But most academic drinking is done more decorously: over dinner, and after conferences and workshops. Some of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges have legendarily well-stocked cellars. Just about every seminar I attended in London ended with a trip to the pub. There’s even a Radio 4 series called The Philosopher’s Arms, where Matthew Sweet and a collection of philosophers discuss ideas and issues in a real pub:

Welcome to the Philosopher’s Arms, the only boozer in Britain where, if you ask the landlady whether there’s a happy hour, she’ll remind you of the words of John Stuart Mill: ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you’ll cease to be so.’

The appeal of the pub is that it allows for the usually fairly byzantine rules which govern academic life to relax a little. Anxious postgrads get to talk to well-known, senior researchers, gossip is exchanged, and friendships and alliances formed. One very grand historian who used to convene a weekly seminar I attended, was transformed from an incisive and ruthless eviscerator of poorly-constructed arguments, to a jovial old cove as he nursed his half-pint of real ale.

It’s also true that pubs and drinking can be used to exclude those who don’t drink, for whatever reason, or those who don’t feel welcome in pubs or bars. As AS Byatt points out in an interview with the Paris Review, up until the mid-1960s, university departments could prevent their female staff from contributing to important decisions by conducting meetings in pubs, then an almost exclusively male preserve.

But I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that pubs, in particular, feature so strongly in a lot of the mythology surrounding significant moments in academia: in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, and in the meetings of the Inklings – the most famous members of which were CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien – at the Eagle and Child in Oxford, for instance. Pubs – and other, similarly festive occasions involving drinking – provide academics with a chance to talk and to think beyond the usual strictures of academia and, in doing so, to arrive at new and surprising ideas.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.