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CULTURE[image, unknown] Book reviews

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This month we review a book that looks behind Polisario's desert war, and assess a new study of Paulo Freire, the guru of revolution through literacy.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Shifting sands

The Western Saharans
by by Virginia Thompson & Richard Adloff
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UK: Croom Helm (hbk) £13.95
Aus: (agent) Cambridge University Press
US: Barnes & Noble
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At the heart of this topical book is an obscure corner of Northwest Africa; an ill-defined, almost unpopulated desertland of rock and sand - half the size of France with less than one hundred thousand people. It has scanty water resources and recurrent plagues of locusts and droughts. If it had nothing more, the former Spanish Sahara territory would never have become the centre of regional dispute. But the recent discovery of massive mineral riches, mainly in phosphates (the basis of fertilisers), made both Morocco and Mauritania eager to annex the desolate region in 1975, regardless of the wishes of its few nomadic inhabitants, the Sahraouis.

The authors give an objective account of the background to this dispute. They explain Mauritania and Morocco's involvement, and fill out the details of tribal society and nomadic life in the region as a whole. They make a strong case for the importance of this neglected problem as the source of continuing friction in the region and eventually, perhaps, open war between Morocco and Algeria (with Libya too?). At present Algeria and Libya are fighting a proxy war with Morocco, through their lavish backing for the Polisario Front, a motley assortment of Sahraoui patriots and mercenaries drawn from the wider region. Polisario strikes across the Saharan wastes from their bases inside Algeria, in fleets of Landrovers crammed with Soviet and Czech weapons, have faced stiffer opposition from Moroccan troops over the past year.

While the Moroccans are fighting for the idea of 'Greater Morocco', with total public support for King Hassan's policy, there is no such evident public support in Algeria for the war. Algeria already has vast reserves of oil and gas, after all, and its motive in backing Polisario seems to be rather to deprive Morocco of rich mineral reserves.

The main victims of this regional rivalry are plainly the Sahraouis themselves, with their pastoral nomadic economy shattered by the war, as well as by a succession of droughts, now a people of refugees living off charity. Polisario has already won diplomatic victories against Morocco in both the OAU and the Arab League. But if it also succeeds in getting a military withdrawal there are grave doubts as to how the Sahraouis could by themselves exploit the mineral riches, or avoid domination by their erstwhile patrons, Algeria and/or Libya.

Anthony Hyman

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Freire without tears

Literacy and Revolution: the Pedagogy of Paulo Freire
edited by Robert Mackie
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UK: Pluto Press (pbk) £3.50 f $7.95 (post-free surface mail)
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'Alternative education' is now respectable: UNICEF devotes pages to its academic appraisal and its leading exponents have been elevated into gurus.

Paulo Freire is perhaps the most trenchant and original, if not the clearest. As a teacher in Brazil, he soon realized that education is never neutral but can be used for the domestication or liberation of human beings. The traditional method merely made deposits of information from above and was aimed primarily at creating a docile work force. He therefore decided to go and work with the people and to use their form of reference and not his own.

In reaction to the 'banking' system of education, he further proposed in his most famous work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) to extend adult literacy by a process of 'conscientizacao'. Translated as 'conscientisation', sometimes interpreted as 'consciousness raising', the term really means the attempt to encourage a form of critical awareness which leads to action. By freeing people from their culture of silence and myth, it would enable them to understand their circumstances in order to change them. To learn would thus no longer be to passively digest but to act in the world and to become more fully human.

To this end, Freire formed 'culture circles' in which the educator acted as a coordinator in a dialogue between equals. Rather than solving puzzles, their aim was to pose problems in concrete living situations. But to begin to read with words like 'poverty' or to ask questions such as 'Why do you build skyscrapers and live in a slum?' clearly had political implications. As a result, Freire was forced into exile and eventually went via Chile to Guinea-Bissau.

The excellent collection of articles in Literacy and Revolution, written in clear and incisive prose, place the opaque Freire in his social and intellectual context and critically assess his work. They bring out the close link between his religion and politics: 'God led me to the people,' he declared, 'and the people led me to Marx.' Indeed, he attacks the Church no less than the State for creating myths and controlling the people. He therefore works for the World Council of Churches and aligns himself with the theology of liberation. But where many see in his eclectic brand of humanist Marxism and existential Christianity an uneasy alliance, he finds no tension: 'God is an invitation for me to make history.'

Nevertheless, as the contributors rightly point out, Freire tends to stress
cultural action rather than economic and political revolution. Moreover, in his faith in charismatic leaders like Mao, Fidel Castro and Amilcar Cabral, who sacrifice themselves for the people, he overlooks the authoritarian dangers of single party states and personality cults.

Peter Marshall.


Poverty and Progress
. . . being the book that proposed the tax to end all taxes

HENRY GEORGE lived the life of a Boys' 0wn hero. In his teens he sailed around the world as foremast boy on the Hindoo. He jumped ship in San Francisco to experience the dramatic ups and downs of the Gold Rush bonanza. Half dead with hunger he once demanded $5 from the first man he saw in the street, to feed his starving, pregnant wife. In middle age he was persuaded to stand as Mayor for New York by the American Federation of Labor. He beat a young Teddy Roosevelt into third place, and might have won but for almost certain electoral chicanery. The media, the wealthy and the landowners 'could not allow George to win,' admitted an election organiser. 'It would upset all their arrangements.'

When publishers rejected George's manuscript of Poverty and Progress as 'revolutionary', he typeset it himself and printed an author's edition. The book - half a dry economic textbook and half a soaringly eloquent cry for justice - awakened general interest in social reform. It turned George into a popular hero: 200,000 people attended his funeral, and that didn't include the millions of admiring readers overseas, from Ireland all the way to China.

George had noticed that during the early Gold Rush days there seemed to be enough for everyone. But within a decade or two, land had been monopolised by a few and wage rates fell for the rest. In New York he saw what he feared California's future would be: entrenched extremes of squalor and luxury. Deeply troubled, he read voraciously, seeking without success the answer to a simple question: why, when material progress makes society richer, should the poor become poorer? Eventually he worked out an answer for himself, painstakingly, from first principles.

George shifted the blame for poverty from the 'expensive' worker to the idle landowner. After all, each worker added to the store of society's wealth with the fruits of his labour. But as cities grew and land became more valuable, so rents rose and landowners grew richer without having lifted a finger.

Rent was what George objected to, because it constituted an unearned tax by the rich on the hard-earned income of the poor. He quoted Carlyle: 'The widow is gathering nettles for her children's dinner; a perfumed seigneur, delicately lounging in the Oeil de Boeuf, hath an alchemy whereby he will extract from her the third nettle, and call it rent.'

Should the land then be bought by the community and restored to the people? George thought this absurd. If the land morally belonged to the people already, why should they pay for it? A landowner should reimburse the community for what he had 'leased' from the common heritage. Any improvements made by a landowner's own efforts could be valued separately from the bare land supplied by nature and left untaxed.

Nor need anything else ever be taxed, in George's view. A single land value tax - the tax to end all other taxes - seemed to solve everything. Land speculation and monopolisation would stop, since hoarding it would cost the speculator rather than reward him. Prices would drop, since rents would fall and also because other taxes would be unnecessary. Individual enterprise would be freed. Taxpayers' money, now spent on a vast army of tax inspectors, prisons, and almshouses, would be saved. And most important of all to a strongly Christian idealist like George, it would revive hope and honesty. The present revenue laws, he said, might as well be entitled 'Acts to suppress honesty and encourage fraud.'

The night before he died, Henry George addressed a meeting to which he was introduced as 'the great friend of labour'. But George was not impressed by special pleading for one class. Marx he considered 'the prince of muddledom'. George's speech that night made his own position clear: 'Let us have done with this call for special privileges for labour. Labour does not want special privileges. I have never asked for special sympathies for working men. What I stand for is the equal rights of all men.'

Anuradha Vittachi

Poverty and Progress
by Henry George (1879)
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Abridged (pbk) £1.95 (hbk) £3.00
Unabridged centenary edn. (hbk) £4.50.
UK: Land & Liberty Press, London
Aus: Henry George League, Victoria
US: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, New York
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Land and Liberty is a bi-monthly magazine relating land value tax to contemporary politics available from:
177 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1
UK: £4/US: $10/Can: $11

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