Archive for February, 2012

Hitch-22, A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens

February 23, 2012

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” – George Orwell

Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography, Hitch-22, A Memoir, provides a view of the world we inhabit today. While Hitchens lived from 1949 to 2011, the period covered reaches back to around 1900 with accounts of his parents’ lives. Contained in this period are his thoughts, reminiscences, and associations with famous and infamous people. Hitchens held strong views, made and kept friendships as well as enemies, and left a record of where he went, what he thought and why. As one reviewer notes, Hitch-22 is three memoires in one – literary, political and personal. The three are interwoven and continually informative and entertaining. He had little difficulty in seeing what was really going on.

If you want to know what Iraq would look like today in the absence of the allied invasion, Hitchens provides details for a likely counterfactual scenario. A video exists of Saddam Hussein’s dispatch of half the Central committee of the Ba’ath Party by some members incriminating others who are dragged out of the room. The survivors are then required to execute the accused “thus sealing the pact with Saddam. I am not sure even Beria or Himmler would have had the nerve and ingenuity and cruelty to come up with that (296).” Go figure. The outcome of the Gulf War was not pretty. What the alternative would have looked like is something critics of the war seldom address.

An admirer of George Orwell, Martin Amis, Salaman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and other distinguished writers, the record Hitchens left behind is well written, well argued and often funny. I usually struggle to find humour in written text as opposed to verbal exchanges and other forms of aural and visual media. In the case of Hitchens I was frequently amused, often for his turn of phrase but also for the comedic content of his views of everyday life. Some of this humour is smutty and would be heard in the schoolyard. That is probably why I find it appealing, but other commentary is more upmarket. For example, when recounting his time in English boarding schools, he quotes Lytton Strachey on one “hothouse dilemma” in these establishments (74):

“How odd the fate of pretty boys!
Who if they dare to taste the joys
That so enchanted Classic minds,
Get whipped upon their neat behinds.
Yet should they fail to construe well
The lines that of those raptures tell
It’s very odd you must confess –
Their neat behinds get whipped no less.”

During his life, Hitchens travelled the political spectrum from left to right while often discomforting his fellow travelers during the journey. Brought up on a literary diet of Orwell and others writing about the oppressed classes, especially in Europe before WW2, he knew how to skewer those who opposed his views, and never shunned the opportunity to debate or publish his opinions.

His writings (as listed in Hitch-22) include ten books, four pamphlets, four sets of collected essays and six collaborations, plus numerous articles and reviews in journals, magazines and newspapers. The named pieces are probably those he wanted recorded as the book was published before he died.

What does the book tells us about this period covering two world wars, or one war with time out to rearm after 1918? In my view, it contributes a great deal to an understanding of the recent past as well as of today’s world – to be discussed in a future blog. Meanwhile I recommend reading Hitch-22. For me it will require a second reading so as to digest the interweaving of the personal, political and literary themes.

To The Ends of the Earth – A Review

February 13, 2012

To the Ends of the Earth – Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750 to 2010, T.M.Devine (Allen Lane, 2011)

Current discussion of immigration, temporary foreign workers and foreign outsourcing of work is the continuation of a centuries old practice relating to migratory flows of people. For example, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was an example of transporting labour to parts of the world where sugar, cotton and tobacco was grown. The survivors became permanent residents and later citizens in the West Indies and North America. Few returned to Africa.

Migrants from England, Scotland and Ireland went to North America, Australia and New Zealand where there were employment opportunities. Some, especially those from North America, returned home from time to time and became the equivalent of temporary foreign workers. This occurred more frequently when steam replaced sail and a trans-Atlantic voyage shrank from six weeks to one week. Once transoceanic cables were laid, communications also became much faster. Those that settled abroad would send financial remittances to their families at home, similar to the practice today by foreign workers in places like the Middle East, Singapore and North America.
Outsourcing work abroad is a process of taking work to the workers as opposed to bringing labour to the work. Both alternatives are used today and were used in the past. The movement of workers is undertaken either on a temporary or permanent basis. Immigration issues are part of this process.

Tom Devine, Professor of Scottish History and Palaeography at the University of Edinburgh – (palaeography is the discipline of deciphering and reading historical manuscripts – I had to look it up) – has written a remarkable book about the migration of Scots to different parts of the world. It provides the reader with a scholarly but highly readable account of why the Scots left their homeland and what attracted them to various parts of the world.

The reasons for leaving after 1750 include a combination of deplorable economic conditions in Scotland, especially the highland clearances which left many without a livelihood to support their families, and later the potato famine which affected parts of Scotland as well as Ireland. In addition, the Scots tended to be well educated and attractive to employers in the British Empire as well as in other parts of the world. A number migrated to Poland and elsewhere in western Europe.

The British Empire, including the thirteen colonies which become part of the USA, was an attractive destination for Scottish migrants. Some went first to Ireland and later to North America, Australia and New Zealand as settlers. Others worked as professionals and colonial administrators in the Indian subcontinent. Some intermarriage took place and the missionary societies were always keen to send married couples abroad in order to discourage the males from the obvious distractions. They were only partly successful, as Somerset Maugham recounts in his novels.

One interesting aspect of Devine’s study, and there are many, is to discover that the Scots treatment of native people was often as brutal as that of the English and Irish. And, as with today, at least in Canada, it is often the recent immigrants who are more hostile to further immigration. The Scots who arrived in North America before the Irish, opposed Irish immigration, especially as Ireland had a larger pool of potential migrants. When later on Germans, Italians and Ukranians began their immigration, the Irish and Scots combined to oppose these newcomers.

Research into international trade and investment, at least by economists, tends to overlook migratory practices, leaving them to sociologists and others. Professor Devine forces us to examine the role of migration in geopolitical issues by providing fascinating examples of how it played out in the past for the Scots both at home and abroad. With a world population of over 7 billion, more people are now on the move and crossing borders both legally and illegally. The result is that borders are less easy to defend and national sovereignty is weakened. Migration issues are on the front burners of governments in Westerm Europe, North America and Asia.

Empire and Globalisation – A Review

February 7, 2012

What Charles Dickens and Mark Twain did for social history, Gary Magee and Andrew Thompson in Empire and Globalisation – Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c. 1850 – 1914, (Cambridge 2010), have done for economics. They have made it interesting. I was brought up studying theories of international trade and foreign investment focusing on the dry statistics, without looking at the social context and who was making the trade and the investment decisions.

Magee and Thompson examine the linkages between the centre and periphery (colonies) of the British Empire using the concept of a network to illustrate how there was both outflow and feedback between the parts. This interaction is then related to the process of globalization today, which has as many meanings as there are writers. For me a working one is by D.Held and A. McGrew, “The core of the idea is that the world is undergoing a process of ever-intensifying interconnectedness and interdependence, so that it becomes less relevant to speak of separate national economies, or separate national jurisdictions founded on principles like to (sic) sovereignty of the territorial nation-state.”

Empire and Globalisation covers a relatively short period, 1850 – 1914, by examining flows of migration, international trade and foreign investment. It places a microscope on a small part of John Darwin’s comprehensive After Tamerlane, The Global History of Empire since 1405, (Allen Lane 2007) which sets out the history of many empires over the past six centuries. Both studies are masterpieces of scholarship and help to explain not only globalization but forces resulting in modernization. Here I look at the contribution of Magee and Thompson who examine how networks of people and organizations were responsible for flows of people, goods and investment between parts of the British Empire.

Migration

A course on international economics tends to focus on trade and capital flows and not migration, a topic often left to sociologists. And yet it is the actions of individuals, including in this case those who migrated from Great Britain to the dominions and colonies, which influenced the type of goods traded and the foreign investments made.

The chapter on migration documents aspects such as the migratory flows, the agents, railways and shipping companies used, the role of charities and missionary organizations and the remittances sent back to the mother country. Today we think of foreign diasporas in terms of Asians and Hispanics in the US, Australia and Canada. In the 1800s, the British were the diaspora communities in these places and networks of their families and business associates created international linkages.

Trade

The examination of trade includes information taken from individual shipping companies such as Elder Dempster, Union Castle and P &O, showing how they focused on trade based on their connections in different parts of the empire, at times with the support of British government policy such as the Navigation Acts. The authors document the formation of Glaxo as a merchant firm in New Zealand and its diversification into groceries, stationery, patent medicines, drapery and ironmongery throughout other parts of the Empire using its family connections.

Investment

The chapter on foreign investment, direct and portfolio, uses information on family networks and social interaction to illustrate how decisions were reached as to where and in what sectors to invest. The improvements in information (cable and wireless) and transportation (railways and shipping) technology affected decision making, with investors often having more information about what was going on in the Empire than outside of it. This was not always the case, as for a time, after the US, Argentina was the largest recipient country for UK investment than any place within the Empire. Some label a country like Argentina as part of Britain’s informal empire because of such linkages.

For the period 1850-1914, Magee and Thompson provide a human side to globalization by looking at the flows of people, trade and investment within the British Empire. By 1914 it is relatively easy to see how imperial influences spread throughout the world. Since then, they have become diluted but are still present. Like a red die dumped into the headwaters of a river, there will be a strong reddish colour to begin with, but this will become diluted the further downstream it flows. With the help of historians and economists like Magee and Thompson, I think it can be shown that the Empire’s influence remains substantial in many parts of the world today, and mostly for the benefit of such places, although I recognize that the latter is an arguable proposition. What Empire and Globalisation provides is a set of questions to ask and data to collect which will add significantly to an understanding of globalization today. The scholarly documentation of sources makes it an invaluable reference work.