New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 143

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NEW BOOKS

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This months books argue for peace and examine how society has allowed itself to be taken over by violent forces.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Under the olive branch

Manifesto for a Peaceful World Order:
A Gandhian Perspective
by M L Handa
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Gandhi Banan (pbk) £6.00
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Peace for Beginners
by Ian Kellas
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Writers and Readers (pbk) £2.95
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Why write a book on non-violence? The answer should be obvious enough: Peaceful change only works through mass involvement and by convincing people who don’t care that they should care.

M L Handa’s Manifesto for a Peaceful World Order has a title which suggests the author needs no reminder of his book’s political purpose. ‘offering an alternative Gandhian vision of a peaceful world order and the Gandhian means, based on the twin principles of truth and non-violence, to achieve it’, Sadly, the book itself is a disappointment. Written as a dialogue between master and student the attempt at a spontaneous exchange just seems contrived, confusing and long-winded.

Definitely in the ‘worthy but dull’ category. Thank goodness then for Ian Kellas’ Peace for Beginners, success in the excellent Writers and Readers series and proof that, in today’s world, comic books are a more effective medium than catechism lessons.

There is a danger with this kind of presentation that complex issues will be over-simplified, yet the author handles his subject so that the format enhances the argument and never debases it. Kellas is refreshingly original in his treatment, pinpointing the contradictions within peace movements and identifying non-violence firmly among mainstream beliefs,

Any discussion on human behaviour comes down to a question of nature versus nurture. Is violence instinctive or man-made? Ethnology provides many examples sufficiently explain the distinct character of human violence, ‘humans with their practices of mass murder are different. They have an element of choice’.

Why, given the choice, do we consistently opt for violent solutions? Because the way in which choice is conditioned - by attitudes, values and social organisation - has led to a common tendency to form exclusive groups and to seek power over others. Ironically, conflict is only exacerbated by human ingenuity - excused in terms of religion or politics, made more effective through technological advances.

Does this mean non-violence and political power are impossible to reconcile? Kellas’ potted history reveals that when religious-based peace movements came into contact with the state the result was less of an accommodation than a hijack by opportunist rulers. Ambiguous doctrines which recognised ‘we shall always see Truth in fragments and from different angles’ (Gandhi) were open to cynical manipulation. even the justification of war. Hence the spectacle of Gandhi’s funeral, when the prophet of non-violence was carried to his burial on a gun carriage and his assassin hanged.

If divine intervention failed to bring peace on earth, science and the age of enlightenment did little better, The idea that Society could be governed by rules akin to Natural law led to a belief that rational government would end such irrational activities as war, allowing free trade between nations to continue unhindered. However the utilitarians’ ‘business as usual’ approach overlooked the fact that warfare was as much the concern of industrialists as of princes. Today the human obsession with groups and power continues unabated, except the groups are larger and the stakes much higher.

Superficially, Peace for Beginners is a fun book designed to whet the reader’s appetite. Yet the real value of the book is not the superb graphic work but the written content. Perhaps because history favours victors rather than losers it is too easy to forget the contribution to non-violence made by its early proponents. This in turn has allowed critics to misrepresent today’s peace campaigners as cranky or alien to tradition. Ian Kellas has done his bit to set the picture right and to provoke questions rather than provide answers to the present nuclear threat.

Brian Attwood

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Human hate

We hate humans
by David Robins
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Penguin (pbk) £2.50
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One of the more lasting memories of living next to Chelsea football ground was the fortnightly car-moving ritual. Owners of the more prestigious vehicles would move them on a Saturday morning to the safer streets of Fulham and collect them after the tidal wave of marauding hordes had departed. Last-minute fixture changes would result in bent and broken aerials and windscreen wipers. Flower pots went out of fashion years ago.

Why is it that Britain, home of decency, tolerance and reserve, should have produced such a volatile, atavistic youth culture. Why the nihilism and fatalism of working-class youth?

David Robin’s We Hate Humans provides a comprehensive answer. The book is the result of seven years of conversations and hundreds of hours of tape recorded interviews with young people from all parts of the country. It traces the background of working-class subculture and youth rebellion from the Muds to the advent of aggro on the terraces of football grounds. Robins is as dismissive of well-meaning but ill-informed social reformers as he is of the ‘bring back the birch’ brigade. Delinquency for him is the result of the disintegration of traditional codes of moral behaviour, one of the side effects of the new urbanism’, the fragmentation of established patterns of working-class living.

In a meaningless world there is a need to construct an alternative: a violent and brutal one perhaps, but a sense of community and of hierarchy, a sense of purpose.

The kids hammer home the message. There’s Sean, aged seventeen, a Leeds United fan: Ian the sixties Mod: Buster, top man of all the football crews who goes round with a gun or cut-throat razor: and there’s Barry, member of the racist National Front Party, bull-necked and shaven-headed with SKINHEAD tattooed on his skull and a swastika under his eye. Robins’ point is that NF doesn’t just stand for National Front but also for No Future, No future for the 1.2 million under-25s who have no work.

Robins promises no panaceas for the politicians and no moral judgements on the kids, yet the entire book becomes the most comprehensive condemnation of a society ignorant of its responsibilities and apparently dedicated to writing off an entire generation. The warning is clear: so far organized youth resistance to unemployment has been minimal, But what happens if a whole generation discovers it has been born for nothing?

Adrian Pennink


CLASSICS

The affluent society
...being the book that brings economics home

Economics is far too important to be left only to economists, but that’s what tends to happen to it. People have called it a dismal science and an inexact one - and been right. Modern economists have helped make it incomprehensible. Amidst all their graphs and formulae it’s easy to forget that in the end economics is about people and their behaviour.

It’ s a sad state of affairs because economic policy dominates politics. And if you want to explain the present state of the world but run a mile from terms like ‘supply side’ or ‘sterling M3’ The Affluent Society might solve your problem.

This is no ordinary economic tract. Galbraith is a brilliant lecturer and TV performer and he brings that sparkle to his writing. His incisive, drily witty style makes this one of the most approachable and entertaining guides to the main ideas and thinkers of economics.

There’s more to it than wit of course. The book was first published in 1958 when economies were rapidly expanding and the problems of depression and mass unemployment looked as obsolete in the West as bubonic plague.

We now know that was an overoptimistic view. We live in a different world but Galbraith’s major criticism of the society of 1958 is even more relevant today. Western society, he says, has got its priorities wrong.

The results are memorably summarised in his description of Los Angeles:

‘Magnificently efficient factories and oil refineries, a lavish supply of automobiles. a vast consumption of handsomely packaged products, coupled for many years with the absence of a municipal trash collection service which forced the use of home incinerators, made the air nearly unbreathable for an appreciable part of the year. Air pollution could be controlled only by a complex and highly developed set of public services … these were a long time coming. The agony of a city without usable air was the result,’

It’s a crazy world, but one which inhabitants of major cities in Europe and North America readily recognise. How is it that the richest societies the world has ever seen still have their outdated school buildings, rotting sewers and slum housing?

These societies have become machines for producing consumer goods. Their politicians, industrialists and other public figures call for economic growth, greater efficiency and productivity. Why"?

Conventional economists will tell you

that this makes people better off and point to standard-of-living indexes to prove this is so. Galbraith queries this materialistic definition of ’better of’. He points out that the subject of economics was born at a time when most people were hungry. That’s not the case in the West any more, but economics hasn’t kept pace.

It goes on stressing production as if it were a matter of life and death. People go on demanding more consumer goods, but this demand is not spontaneous. New products are created by companies which, in order to sell them, have to stimulate demand for them by’ advertising. Consumers need more money’ to buy’ the goods they want, so have to produce more in their working lives. It is a self-perpetuating vicious circle.

The result is a society’ going nowhere. Politicians and industrialists support the system because it made them what they’ are, Their power and influence are thrown in on the side of a society that is rich in goods, and not much else. And this produces the fallacy currently popular with the governments of Britain and the United States - that public services are a needless expense and a burden on the producer.

They begrudge money’ for roads, schools, houses and hospitals and allege extravagance and waste in the departments producing them. Simultaneously the producer of soft pornography’, advertising or cosmetics is seen as a public benefactor, producing the money’ that pay’s for services.

Used properly’ the increased productivity’ of modern technology might liberate humanity - giving all the chance of greater leisure, Instead the short-sighted fixation on ‘efficiency" means people are thrown out of work, What should be a great gift to humanity’ instead becomes a menace.

And so it will remain until Western societies cease the pursuit of economic growth for its own sake that they have successfully carried on for 200 years. Not to have solved the problem of production would have been a tragedy’ for humanity’ - but failing to recognise that it has been solved is becoming as great a disaster, say’s Galbraith. By asking us ‘What are we doing it for’?’ he frees our thinking from the materialistic straitjacket and looks towards a society in which ‘Quality of Life’ is valued above ‘Standard of Living’.

Huw Richards

The Affluent Society
by John Kenneth Galbraith (1958)
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Pelican (pbk) £2.95
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