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Book Reviews

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AGRIBUSINESS[image, unknown] Book reviews

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This month’s books review the power structures that govern the world’s resources and an experiment in India to awaken political awareness among untouchables.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Illusions of scarcity

The Lean Years: Politics in the Age of Scarcity
by Richard J. Barnet
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Abacus (pbk) £2.50
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Illusions of scarcity Are we really living in a world which is running out of resources, or do we merely fear that we are? In Richard Barnet’s view it is the key political question of our time. If resources are really running out, we are doomed to a deepening struggle over what is left. If scarcity is an illusion, it’s one most of us are under and its effects on the way power is exercised is almost as menacing as scarcity itself.

The most important question is, therefore, who makes the crucial decisions about resources — their accessibility, development, use and costs? Ultimately Barnet is groping after alternative power structures. But the first step is to interpret the existing structures: Barnet believes that the current state of mystification enjoyed by the average citizen denies him a proper role in the democratic process.

The critical resource systems Barnet reviews are energy, non-fuel minerals, food, water and the human skills used in what he calls the ‘Global Factory’. Resources are finite. But the theoretical cut-off date is debatable. Barnet, on balance, is not too inclined to believe the ‘Cassandras’, though his optimism is heavily qualified.

He quotes estimates of cultivable land (given positive readings on other variables such as energy and water) which dismiss the idea of inexorable famine within a generation. He cites estimates of known and unknown deposits of oil and minerals, and elaborates the potentialities of energy alternatives. But while the ‘age of scarcity’ may be something of an illusion, it is an illusion which serves powerful interests. As long as those interests can make a plausible political case for retaining their stranglehold of control, and keep competitors for power at bay by sheer economic might, the toss-up between the real and illusory is academic.

One of the most impressive qualities of The Lean Years is the panache with which Barnet handles the tremendous range of his subject. In places the effect is a little peremptory: the population debate, for example, and the mandatory repudiation of the neo-Malthusians, occupies about two pages. Most of the writing is electric, full of neat turns of phrase. There are gems of facts, quotes and observations that help one to retain some of the dense wealth of material.

For all its verbal elegance, the book is more satisfying in its parts than in its whole. The overall effect induces a sense of helplessness. Aware as most of us are how intricate, obscure, and monolithic are the forces that control our world, trying to wrap one’s mind round the even partially revealed machinery is enough to instil a sense of defeat.

Barnet’s quick romp through an alternative vision in the closing pages offers little comfort. His scenario shows that only sweeping changes can move power from its present axis, but the desultory way in which he suggests the changes are witness to his lack of conviction that they can come about.

Maggie Black

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Roots of a Peasant Movement

Roots of a Peasant Movement
by Denis Von Der Weid and Guy Poitevin
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Shubbada- Saraswat Publications, Pune, India
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India: Rs8O/UK: £5.00 approx.
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The plaintive notes of an old Bengali village song came to mind as I read this book:

My poor soul! Why don’t you learn farming?
Look at the vast field of human being lying fallow.
Had it been tilled, it would have yielded gold!

Roots of a Peasant Movement describes making ‘fallow’ people yield a rich harvest of thoughts and actions.

The authors describe a five-year experiment in 'conscientisation’ among ’untouchables’ in 60 villages of Tamilnadu in South India by a voluntary organisation called the Rural Community Development Association (RCDA). By staging plays with the help of village recruits, depicting local problems like oppression by landlords, social discrimination against the poor and corruption among the top brass, the RCDA sought to arouse indignation among the peasants and help them articulate their protests.

Once aware of the ways open to them to solve their problems, the peasants organised themselves into an association, launching strikes for better wages, fighting lawsuits to regain possession of lands illegally occupied by landlords, and putting pressure on local government officials to build them schools and roads.

The authors point out some of the limitations of the experiment — its stress on the 'untouchables' to the exclusion of other poor peasants, the danger of encouraging local animators to expect permanent employment. But they seem to be confident that a ‘long-drawn non-violent march of socio-political education and organisation, reaching out to the millions of rural down-trodden’ is the only suitable way to transform Indian society. Rejecting immediate revolution along Chinese lines, they prefer the development of ’many centres of animation, mass education and agitations without party involvement’.

The need for the increased involvement of voluntary organisations in awakening the rural poor is evident. But the reality of armed confrontation cannot be ignored. Right now, it is happening in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. Led by armed Communist groups, such confrontations also help the rural poor become aware of their potentialities. In some cases, they have set up parallel centres of power and implemented land reforms.

The success of the RCDA was possible because of several variables like the existence of educated animators with enough time and resources to fight lengthy lawsuits and the presence of a friendly officialdom. Usually the slow-moving legal system, heavily loaded in favour of the privileged, the obduracy of the landed gentry and the refusal of the administrators to implement reforms are the very factors that drive the peasantry to take arms to change their miserable lot.

Given the uneven state of affairs in such a vast country, the ‘non-violent march of socio-political education’ — however desirable it may be — cannot be a uniform prescription.

Sumanta Banerjee

(Sumanta Banerjee works with India’s Alternative News and Features.)


Civil Disobedience
... being the essay that made breaking the law patriotic

ONE JULY EVENING in 1846, Constable Sam Staples, of Concord, New England, stopped a young man on his way to the shoe-maker’s and asked him amiably to pay his back taxes — they hadn’t been paid for six years. The young man refused. He lived in a wood in a log cabin he had built himself, eating food he had grown himself, and was independent of the US government’s services. What was more, he strongly disapproved of the government’s use of the tax-payers’ money’ — to support slavery and invade Mexico — so withdrawing his financial support from such a government was, in his view, a positive obligation.

The rebel was Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalist poet and philosopher. He had already stood up for his moral principles in Concord to his cost. Less than a month after his appointment as schoolmaster, he had resigned over ‘a matter of discipline’ (the school committee was pro flogging, Thoreau wasn’t). On Sundays, when the rest of Concord obeyed the church bells, Thoreau walked solitarily by Walden Pond.

Being sent to prison for his principles was fitting: ‘Under a government which imprisons any unjustly.’ Thoreau wrote solemnly, ‘the true place for a just man is also a prison.’ But an anonymous donor paid his tax and after just one night Thoreau was free. Chagrined, he emerged and (not forgetting to collect his mended shoe) went off to spend the day huckleberrying.

But he had made his symbolic point. For Thoreau, his imprisonment demonstrated the tyrannical power of governments over dissenting minorities — the individual being the ultimate minority. It was foolish to assume that majorities necessarily made the best choices. The ‘wise minority’ of citizens alert to a society’s shortcomings should be cherished by a wise society. Why, instead, did it ’always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus’

The night in prison gave birth to Civil Disobedience, the most electric of all Thoreau’s essays. Published in 1849 (just a year after Marx’s Communist Manifesto) in the bluestocking Aesthetic Papers, it stood little chance of becoming popularly known.

But its impact was to be felt half a century later and half a world away. Gandhi, struggling in South Africa for justice for the Indian community and seeking a political philosophy that would engender self-respect within a frightened minority, read Thoreau’s ‘great essay’. He found in Thoreau’s non-violent, symbolic act an austere and idealistic activism that matched his own. Soon, Transvaal’s prisons were filled with ‘disobedient’ Indians.

So was independent-minded political activism the only course open to an honourable citizen? The velvety reassurance of Thoreau’s meticulous answer was deceptive. No, he said, it is not everyone’s duty to right wrongs. Even if you perceive an 'enormous' wrong, you may be properly busy with other concerns. But: ‘If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.’ By this reasoning it follows that if the government you support is oppressive, then you must at least withdraw your support from that government or be guilty indirectly of that oppression. A stretch in gaol for civil disobedience then, far from being an extremist’s gesture, becomes the least you can do. ‘Let your life,’ said Thoreau, 'be a counter-friction to stop the machine.’

Could the citizens who regretted injustice not simply vote against it? Thoreau curled his lip at their phlegmatic regret: it was nothing more than a willingness ‘to wait, well-disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret’. Besides, it signified a willingness to accept injustice if the majority found it acceptable. And, he believed, as long as injustice was expedient, the majority would find excuses to accept blatant inhumanity — prolonged acceptance of slavery was proof.

Thoreau’s mistrust of governments and mass virtue was equalled by his exasperation with the upside-down values of the commercial world. What was all this profit-making for? If earning a living were not ‘inviting and glorious’, then living would not be. The ‘iron rigor of Thoreau’s philosophical anarchy', as Carl Bode calls it, brought comfort to neither political Right nor Left.

Thoreau was no hero in his day, regarded by his community as a failure wasting his Harvard education. But today there is a ready audience for Thoreau’s message that there is a higher law than civil law: ‘Must the citizen resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? . . . It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.’

Anuradha Vittachi

Civil Disobedience
by Henry Thoreau (1849)
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The Portable Thoreau
ed by Carl Bode
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Penguin (pbk) UK £2.50/US $5.95
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New Internationalist issue 108 magazine cover This article is from the February 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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