book review

Book Review: Resist: Stories of Uprising edited by Ra Page

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 25/01/2020 - 1:54am in

In Resist: Stories of Uprising, editor Ra Page brings together contributors to offer an anthology of short stories and critical essays that narrate a rich counter-history of resistance in the UK, spanning from the Boudicca Rebellion to the protests in response to Grenfell Tower. Positioning fiction as a radical medium, this is a valuable book that will be of particular interest to participants and scholars of social movements, writes Chris Waugh

Resist: Stories of Uprising. Ra Page (ed.). Comma Press. 2019.

Writing towards the end of his life, Michel Foucault identified the importance of ‘counter-history’ as a tool for radicals. Counter-history refers to ‘the ability to identify omissions, to listen to silences, to play with discursive gaps and textual interstices as a crucial part of our critical agency for resisting power/knowledge frameworks’ (José Medina, 2011, 6) – that is, to draw attention to, and learn from, the aspects of a collective history that are overlooked, and provide resources and knowledge for contemporary strategies of resistance. With this in mind, Resist: Stories of Uprising, an anthology of short stories and critical essays about resistance in the UK, is an excellent example of such a counter-history. The book not only draw conceptual links between seemingly disparate occurrences of political uprising throughout the history of the British Isles – from Boudicca’s rebellion via the Cato Street Conspiracy to the protests in response to Grenfell Tower – but also offers a sense of historical and collective solidarity for radicals today.

In Ra Page’s excellent and concise introduction, he makes the prescient point that throughout history, protesters are ‘othered’. Media narratives have fixated on peculiar specificities about protesters – ‘the strangeness of [their] clothes, their hairstyles, or other aspects of their lives’ – and positioned protesters outside of the bounds of acceptable society: the protester is always seen as ‘outside the law’, an alien entity or an intruder. One can see this clearly in contemporary politics in the panicked discourse around Antifa movements, with the often-repeated anti-Semitic myths of ‘Soros-funded’ protesters: that is to say, permanent outsiders unwilling to participate in some vaguely defined ‘social contract’. Dominant powers will, according to Page, always seek to portray protesters as un-relatable and dangerous figures. Similarly, across the years, times of insurrection are accompanied by a fetishisation of law enforcement, and an increasing willingness to take decisive measures against those ‘other’ figures – protesters included. Thus, protesters and activists become excluded from the ‘social contract’ – and their motivations, their narratives and their stories become lost.

The blend of fact and fiction in this volume (or, as the sleeve make it clear, ‘well researched, historical fiction’) offers a useful consideration of the role of narratives in radical politics. Scholars of social movements have, over the years, identified the position of narratives and storytelling in protest movements. Stories in movements tend to concern past examples of insurrection, of interactions with law enforcement, of past splits and attempts at a united front – yet these stories are not simply for entertainment value. As Mattias Wahlström (2011) put it:

Storytelling is thus an important mode of social control in the maintenance of conformity. When told to other movement participants, narratives and protests, and responses to the behaviour of authorities are no exception […they] prescribe the appropriate frames and vocabularies of motive to use.

Activist stories, in this sense, help shape activist mentalities, frame systems of value and contextualise the struggles of today. However, as Francesca Polletta (2006) has argued compellingly, narratives and stories of protest are not exempt from being co-opted, misused and utilised by dominant powers – especially media and state powers – against the movements who authored them – against their own writers and protagonists if you will. Thus, any movement that tells stories will risk those stories being used to damn them, as illustrated by the example Page gives of protesters being ‘othered’.

The utility – and also precarity – of activist narratives is precisely what makes Resist such a valuable book to social movement participants and those of us who study movements. Against a dominant narrative about the apathy of British people, the volume draws together a rich counter-history of resistance from the Boudicca Rebellion to the response to Grenfell Tower. Each story, followed by a brief historical and analytical essay about the events it describes, blurs the boundaries between politics, sociology and history. Indeed, the stories themselves are of a consistently high literary quality, and more importantly, do vital work in finding the human element in mass protests and key historical moments of insurrection. Martin Edwards’s excellent retelling of the Peterloo Massacre, ‘The Cap of Liberty’, for example, not only captures the hope, dreams and despairs of those who assembled in St Peter’s Field in Manchester in 1819, but also functions as a gritty, visceral narrative of revenge and intolerance of intolerance. Similarly, Karline Smith’s ‘The Whistling Bird’ tells a touching love story against the backgrounds of racial tension and the Notting Hill Riots of 1958. In this sense, Resist fits into its own radical tradition of William Morris and others: the use of fiction as its own form of radical medium.

While the literary efforts are excellent throughout, some of the critical essays fall short. Chris Cocking’s essay on the 1996 Newbury Pass protests offers a scant political and historical analysis of an overlooked incidence of resistance, instead focusing more on the author’s own involvement in the protests. This is not to say that activist-scholar narratives aren’t useful – in some cases, extremely useful – but Cocking appears to have overlooked the scholar side of the identity. This is a shame, especially since his essay follows the beautifully told ‘198 Methods of NVDA’ by Gaia Holmes.

Of equal value in the volume is the foregrounding of the idea that what is ‘radical’ is a relational idea, tied to the value system of the current historical moment, as Giorgos Charalambous and Gregoris Ioannou (2019) have compelling argued elsewhere. At the time of writing, the British media is preoccupied in many quarters with the idea that the Labour Party lost the 2019 General Election because it was ‘too radical’; yet Resist draws attention to the fact that for many centuries, the idea of the working class voting, of trade unions, of interracial relationships and so on, were also once ideas considered radical and their proponents subject to verbal abuse, imprisonment and police violence.

The final story of the volume is a retelling of the scandalous and devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017 – a matter which, to this day, has resulted in no criminal prosecutions; many of the families affected by the blaze are still, two years later, in temporary accommodation. That this continues to be a site of resistance and ongoing struggle serves to confirm to the reader that radical battles are still being waged.  In many ways, the volume seeks to remind its activist readers that with many of the struggles and insurrections we fight today – issues which are seen as radical to our era of right-wing populism and nativism – we are never asking the earth. Indeed, future generations will in all likelihood look back on us and wonder why our demands were ever subject for debate.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit: Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash


Book Review: The Politics of Weight: Feminist Dichotomies of Power in Dieting by Amelia Morris

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/01/2020 - 11:20pm in


book review

In The Politics of Weight: Feminist Dichotomies of Power in Dieting, Amelia Morris challenges the degree to which feminist debates about dieting often take the form of a binary whereby (women’s) bodies are either sites of oppression or liberation. Instead, drawing on interviews with dieters, analyses of dieting programme materials, fat activism and black feminist scholarship, the book posits a more ambivalent ‘middle ground’, arguing for a promising path to nuanced understanding of how our bodies are shaped in relation to power and diet culture, writes Megan Dean

The Politics of Weight: Feminist Dichotomies of Power in Dieting. Amelia Morris. Palgrave. 2019.

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For decades feminists have criticised weight-loss dieting, accusing it of (among other things) reinforcing unrealistic and harmful body ideals, distracting from meaningful social and political engagement and being a tool of the patriarchy. Recently, body-positivity activists, including celebrities like actor Jameela Jamil, have spread their anti-dieting messages through social media, reaching new generations with the encouragement to reject dieting and love one’s body as it is.

And yet, many people still diet. In the United States, 49.1 per cent of adults and 56.4 per cent of women tried to lose weight between 2013 and 2016. Ten of the top eleven strategies used toward that end were changes to diet. We have to assume that at least some of these dieters are aware of feminist objections to dieting. Indeed, Susan Bordo, whose book Unbearable Weight offers a canonical critique of dieting and weight-loss culture, has herself acknowledged participation in a commercial weight-loss dieting programme. Bordo is certainly not the only feminist who has considered joining Weight Watchers.

But why would anyone who thinks that dieting is a tool of the patriarchy go on a diet? Why would they engage in a practice that reinforces body norms they themselves reject? In short, why is knowing better not enough when it comes to dieting?

Amelia Morris explores these questions in her book The Politics of Weight: Feminist Dichotomies of Power in Dieting. Morris, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy at Royal Holloway University, situates what I’ll call the ‘ambivalent dieter’ within a broader feminist debate about the status of the body and its relation to power. As Morris characterises it, the main positions within this debate take the form of a dichotomy: bodies—specifically, women’s bodies—are either sites of oppression or opportunities for the exercise of liberty. Morris identifies the former perspective with radical feminists, such as Susan Brownmiller and Germaine Greer, and the latter with liberal and post-feminist scholars and writers, including Naomi Wolf, Catharine Lumby and Katie Roiphe.

Morris herself supports a third, ‘post-structuralist’ position, which she identifies with Michel Foucault and feminist theorists like Sandra Bartky, Judith Butler and Bordo. According to this perspective, the body has a more ambivalent relationship to power than either side of the dichotomy suggests. Bodies exist, Morris writes, ‘within a ‘‘middle-ground’’ of power’ (19). This middle ground is characterised by the claims that power works on and through the body in more subtle, mundane and insidious ways than ‘oppression’ proponents would have it, and that the experience of freedom in relation to one’s body is neither as attainable as the ‘liberation’ side suggests nor a reliable sign that one is in fact free from pernicious forms of power.

The Politics of Weight argues that we should use this middle-ground approach to understand women’s engagement in weight-loss dieting. Morris takes an interdisciplinary approach to this task, using interviews with British women dieters, body-positivity activists and fat-positive activists to highlight women’s conflicted understandings and experiences of dieting, and the challenges of ridding oneself of an attachment to thinness as a source of happiness, comfort and confidence, even when one believes one should.

The first two chapters of the book discuss Morris’s methodology and introduce the broader feminist debate about the body. In Chapter Three, ‘The Dichotomy of Power in Dieting’, Morris explores how this debate applies to weight-loss dieting in particular, and begins to make her case for a Foucauldian feminist approach. She does this in part by using interviews with dieters and analyses of dieting-programme materials to highlight some of the quintessentially disciplinary aspects of dieting, including the use of panoptic surveillance and the confession of dietary transgressions and weight gain to peers and group leaders at weight-loss meetings.

Morris is careful to point out that the feminist Foucauldian literature she favours has often ignored the relevance of race to the effects of power on the body. In Chapter Four, ‘The ‘‘O’’ Factor: Foucault, Race, and Oprah’s Body Journey’, Morris attempts to address this gap through engagement with black feminist scholarship on the topic of Oprah Winfrey’s weight-loss projects. Morris highlights the ways that racist stereotypes like the ‘Mammy’ and ‘Jezebel’ structure understandings of black women’s bodies. She suggests that the white hostility and ambivalence that met Oprah’s dramatic weight loss can be understood as a response to Oprah’s visible shift away from what white audiences perceived as a non-threatening, nurturing Mammy image. In this chapter and elsewhere, it is sometimes challenging to distinguish Morris’s original contributions from her detailed discussion of the existing literature. Nonetheless, this chapter addresses an important issue and will point readers to some fascinating work on race and diet, such as Cheryl Thompson’s 2015 paper, ‘Neoliberalism, Soul Food, and the Weight of Black Women’.

Chapter Five, ‘Fat Activism and Body Positivity: Freedom from Dieting?’ will be of most interest to readers grappling with the complexities of resisting diet culture. Morris draws on fat-activist literature and practice to suggest that the insistence that we unequivocally love our bodies and reject dieting without ever looking back betrays a misunderstanding of how power works.

According to the Foucauldian picture Morris endorses, our subjectivities are shaped by our practices, including dieting. We can reject dieting but be left with emotions and self-understandings that have been shaped by that practice. This chapter draws attention to the ways fat activism can help reshape these aspects of subjectivity, while highlighting how widespread fatphobia limits such self-transformation. Rachel, a fat-activist performance artist, explains the limits of her work:

I don’t think any of my work makes me feel liberated, because of re-opening that wound. You can make the space as safe as you want but we’ve all got to go outside afterwards and I can’t make outside safe for me or for any of you.

Morris’s discussion underscores the complications of resistance and the importance of a compassionate and nuanced understanding of how deeply many women—not to mention men and non-binary individuals—are affected by diet culture.

Those acquainted with this area of research will find the book’s positions familiar, drawn from feminist and Foucauldian theorists I’ve already mentioned as well as Fat Studies scholars like Samantha Murray. Throughout the book, Morris’s interviews are mainly used to support rather than complicate or develop theoretical claims made by others. Some may hope for more dynamic engagement between theory and empirical work than is offered here. But the value of gathering relevant empirical evidence for theoretical claims should not be underestimated, and many theorists do not have the professional training to do so themselves.

While the book’s interdisciplinary approach and subject will be of interest to scholars in many different fields, I hesitate to recommend the book to those unfamiliar with the literature. The book suffers from poor copy-editing, which at times undermines the readability and reliability of the work. Of particular note are some significant citation issues that those new to the subject may not have the resources to recognise, such as a misquotation of Simone de Beauvoir on page 39.

Overall, though, The Politics of Weight tackles a topic of ongoing importance. Having a nuanced and accurate understanding of how our bodies are shaped in relation to power and diet culture is central to treating ourselves and others with compassion and respect. Such an understanding can also help us recognise what is needed to create the conditions so that knowing better can translate into doing better when it comes to dieting. The Politics of Weight argues for a promising path to this very worthy goal.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit: Feature Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay


Book Review: From Spinster to Career Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Victorian England by Arlene Young

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 23/01/2020 - 10:53pm in

In From Spinster to Career Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Victorian EnglandArlene Young explores changing perceptions of women’s work in mid-Victorian England and the lingering anxieties surrounding the growing cultural acceptance of the figure of the middle-class working woman. This book offers a fresh perspective on the Victorian period and will be a welcome addition to the bookshelves of anyone interested in women’s history, British history and labour studies, recommends Katelan Dunn

From Spinster to Career Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Victorian England. Arlene Young. McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2019.

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Spinster: ‘an unmarried woman and especially one past the common age for marrying’.

In From Spinster to Career Woman, Arlene Young takes us on a fascinating, complex and radical journey exploring women’s work in mid-Victorian England. Young examines cultural perceptions of women at the time, as dictated by Victorian ideals of womanhood, alongside representations of women’s work, anxieties over the disproportionate ratio of eligible (and marriageable) women and men in the period as well as women’s desire for personal and financial freedom.

In mid-Victorian England, custom and tradition dictated female dependence, with assumptions about a woman’s ‘nature’ deeply entrenched in society. However, the demographic reality of a skewed male-to-female ratio in mid-nineteenth-century Victorian England ‘presented a challenge to the values and assumptions of the nation’:

 The lack of husbands presented special difficulties for woman of the middle classes, women who were not raised to work, who had neither the education nor training for work, and whose family fortunes were not extensive enough to provide life-long support for unemployed spinsters (18).

The realisation that women would need jobs to support themselves opened space in the social framework for ideas challenging the relationship between dependency and femininity, and the separation of public and private spheres. As a result, debates ‘shifted from […] speculations about what could, or should, or would happen if middle-class women were to be admitted to the ranks of the educated, the trained, and the gainfully employed to more practical considerations of the kinds of work in which women were actually engaging’ (25-26).

The recognition that women needed work wasn’t enough to transform Victorian ideals of femininity and motherhood completely. Those who positioned themselves within the educational and employment debates were ambivalent. In Chapter One, Young describes how on the one hand, opponents argued that a woman’s place was in the home and her innate purpose was to be a wife, with educational and employment opportunities undermining the most natural of female roles ordained to women by Nature: that of motherhood. On the other hand, proponents demonstrated a more enlightened position, advocating for the necessity of education and employment opportunities as a basis for the full development of a woman’s moral and intellectual character, private happiness and personal fulfillment. Others, still, argued that an education was necessary because ‘a better education […will] fit them to do their duty’ (23). In other words, this ‘call for more opportunities becomes an argument not for educating women for new roles in society but for educating them to a becoming appreciation of the status quo’ (23), with education and employment helping women to hone the skills required of good mothers and useful wives.

Young states that occupations deemed respectable, professional and steady during this time included nursing and teaching, both of which ‘represented work that conformed to Victorian ideals of femininity: caring for the sick and teaching children’ (27) and were regarded as both honoured and honourable. While middle-class women in the nursing profession, for example, demonstrated a specialised degree of knowledge, their work was seen as an extension of domesticity rather than a challenge to the status quo. Therefore, public recognition and representations of nursing in Victorian fiction, in periodical presses and in mainstream media were largely based on nursing as charity and philanthropy rather than skilled work.

However, Young argues that the cultural acceptance of middle-class working women arose when prominent publications for upper-middle-class ladies began adding articles on women’s work, with contributors recasting and redefining what it means to be a woman. Here we see writer Frances Martin’s notion of the ‘Glorified Spinster’ (an independent, vibrant, confident, career woman), George Whyte-Melville’s figure of the ‘Strong Minded Woman’ and the cultural icons of Mary Carpenter, Sister Dora and Florence Nightingale: all of these helped to reinforce and solidify nursing as ‘the vanguard of professionalized work for Victorian women’ (38) and as models of self-sacrifice and philanthropy, both Victorian ideals of womanhood. Important to note here is the interconnection between work and the class system, creating a dichotomy between educated middle-class women accustomed to affluence and leisure and those occupying the lower echelons of the class system, relegated to domestic servant work requiring physical exertion. This class division further reinforced ideals of the refined, cultured, cultivated woman and the kind of remunerative work being done.

In Chapter Two, we read about the difficult trajectory ‘of the lady nurse from selfless volunteer to trained and efficient professional’ (39), including antagonistic working relations between doctors and lady nurses, reforms in hospital management and professional hierarchies. Furthermore, Young touches on how cultural stereotypes, like Charles Dickens’s disreputable Sairey Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44) and the Strong-Minded Woman, were invoked to dismiss nurses’ educational attainment and professional training and undermine their credibility. These brought the ‘nursing question’ to the forefront of public consciousness and established the nursing debate (should they or shouldn’t they?) as a pressing public issue. Also notable is the marginalisation of men from nursing to such an extent that they were excluded entirely from the College of Nursing (established in 1916), typically only working in military hospitals and asylums. Here, we begin to see nursing transition from an exclusively male field to almost solely feminine.

Gender and class ideologies were further reinforced during this time by Victorian fiction. Many novels transition from ideals of womanhood and motherhood to centring on the heroic struggle confronting women to define themselves as educated, civically engaged, working members of the economy ‘within a culture that preferred to limit them to the domestic realm’ (60). One powerful piece of Victorian fiction that Young discusses is Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853). This novel mirrors the cultural anxieties at the time and the paradox of Victorian conventions dictating behaviour, dress and moral character and the emerging need for women to financially support themselves. Despite Ruth having to work, she redeems herself by the work she participates in (sewing, deemed domestic and ladylike, and governessing, deemed respectable), while also exhibiting Victorian ideals of femininity: beauty, modesty, obedience, respectfulness, innocence and selflessness.

Young further explores the significance of types of work in Chapter Four with respect to the typewriter. Here we see the same sort of cultural discomfort with the typist as with the lady nurse. However, ‘the typewriter presented very different representational problems […] Unlike the figure of the middle-class nurse, she did not carry the baggage of preconceived notions from earlier incarnations; there were no images of Sairey Gamps to overcome’ (125). The typewriter offered both the promise and threat of independence; while nursing was attached to both professionalism and caregiving, the womanliness of the typist was in question due to ‘the idea of attractive, accomplished, and marriageable young women working in close proximity to men’ (126). Using a plethora of examples of fictional portrayals of typists in Victorian fiction, Young shows how representations were predominantly negative. She highlights the characterisation of typists as lonely, vulgar and unwomanly, while the typewriter itself was defeminised, being described as aesthetically unpleasing, masculine, loud and disruptive. Not only was the typewriter regarded as a threat to the potential of a competent professional woman, but it is also represented as a vehicle for women to reach both a higher level of independence and to postpone or completely eschew marriage.

Young concludes her book with the question that weighed heavy on the public’s consciousness at the time: what shall we do with our daughters? This presents us with both ‘the sense of patriarchal concern and proprietary claim regarding ‘‘our’’ daughters’ (164), but also the stark reality that women during this time remained ‘caught between professionalism and womanlinessness’ (157): woman were regarded as ‘either too professional to be feminine or too feminine to be professional’ (157). There was no secure or clear identity for women to adopt. Yet, as Young writes: ‘In 1860, the answer to the question ‘‘what is to be done with our girls?’’ would have been to find her a suitable husband. By the 1890s, the answer was the one that forward thinkers had been insisting on for decades: educate her for employment’ (169).

One might argue that the occupational status of the professions highlighted in Young’s book (nursing, teaching and typing) remain heavily female-dominated in the twenty-first century. Women on average receive less pay and less occupational prestige than their male counterparts. The ‘glass ceiling’ still presents barriers to women’s advancement to the upper echelons of management, and women are still more likely to perform what Arlie Hochschild describes as a double day: juggling the demands of work and domestic responsibilities. The term ‘spinster’ is also still very much in the public consciousness, with its male equivalent, ‘bachelor’, carrying less pejorative connotations. In an excerpt from the 2014 article ‘Don’t Call Me A Spinster’, Claudia Connell writes:

When it comes to the spinster, society just can’t seem to make its peace with us. The stereotypical image of long ago of the oddball woman in the village who makes people feel a bit uncomfortable still sticks. The notion of the happy, unattached female is a myth as far as most are concerned.

While collectively we have recognised the need for greater and equal opportunities in education and employment for women, we still idealise outdated models of what it means to be a woman. While cultural tensions are obviously less strained than they once were in Victorian England, they persist in other ways.

Arlene Young’s book provides a fresh and new perspective on the Victorian period. From Spinster to Career Woman would be a welcome addition to the bookshelves of anyone interested in women’s history, British history, labour studies and women’s studies.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit: An army nurse. Watercolour drawing. Wellcome CollectionCC BY 4.0.


Book Review: Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost by Caitlin Zaloom

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 22/01/2020 - 9:01pm in

In Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any CostCaitlin Zaloom draws on more than 160 interviews with college students and their families to explore how middle-class households in the US pay for university. This is a timely and accessible study that breaks through the taboo surrounding family finances, making useful sociological points not only about the cost of higher education, but also about the nature of middle-classness today, writes Chloe Reid

Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost. Caitlin Zaloom. Princeton University Press. 2019.

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Laura and Chris are the proud parents of Sam and Mark who respectively attend Western Michigan University and Grand Valley State University in the US. Whilst Sam and Mark utilise federal loans of $7,500 and $5,500 each year, Laura takes on additional nursing shifts and her father had a second job to support the boys financially. Laura’s father also helped Sam and Mark with the cost of college by giving the boys $20,000 from the proceeds of the sale of his property. This is accompanied by a college savings plan that Laura’s parents started when the boys were small. To keep track of how this hard-earned money is spent, Laura has a spreadsheet for each son, recording how much each book cost, room and board, how many credit hours they’ve taken and so on. For this family, paying for college is a three-generation effort.

The issue of how US middle-class families pay for college is at the heart of Caitlin Zaloom’s new book, Indebted. She details the results of a four-year study, comprising of more than 160 interviews with college students and their families at private and public higher education (HE) institutions. As she discusses in the book, it was difficult to recruit interview participants because of the widespread reluctance to discuss money. ‘Sex, politics, religion – Americans are far more likely to discuss these sensitive topics with friends, neighbours and relatives than they are to share information about how much money they make, save and owe’ (21). For Zaloom, it is important to bring these private discussions about money into public view.

Zaloom herself is Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University and has previously written the book, Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London. In Indebted, she provides a comprehensive and compelling description of the US student finance system. Zaloom defines the issue of what comprises middle-classness precisely by the capacity to pay for college. These families may not be able to afford the full fare, but they also do not qualify for grants.

For these families, their lives are organised around the problem of paying for college, because they believe HE will give their children an ‘open future’ and ‘opportunities that will allow them to fulfil their potential’ (6). This preparation begins at a young age, with the parents of a two-year-old spending considerable time and energy planning how to fund their education. Such time and effort means that the families in Indebted must speculate whether college will indeed ‘pay off’ for their children.

Reports have described how some graduates may be faced with the issue of underemployment after leaving college. Of course, there are important social and personal benefits to university education. However, Zaloom suggests that the US emphasis on loans and finding a well-paid job means that the value of higher education is primarily seen as financial. Do college graduates and their families, who have put considerable time and effort towards affording college, believe this was well-spent? This is an area the book could have explored in more detail.

Aside from this, Indebted evokes sympathy for students and their families in their aim to meet the challenges of affording a college education. Zaloom describes how the cost of tuition and fees for in-state students at public universities has risen more than threefold since 1987, with private colleges costing more (13). Even for those who have chosen to invest in a college savings programme, they may still struggle as college costs have sky-rocketed since they began saving.

Within the book, there is a discussion of how parents’ faith that their offspring will attend college is key to their middle-classness. Parents assess their child’s potential ‘like accountants’ (45), and investing is seen as an ‘expression of how much they care’ (34). As a reader, this evokes questions about what impact this pressure has on children. One must wonder how much choice and freedom a young person may feel about their future if their parents have been assessing their potential and saving for their college education since birth.

As well as college, parents must also save for their own retirements. This leads parents to ask themselves: ‘just how likely is my child to graduate from college? Does it make sense to take the risk of devoting my savings to that possibility?’ (45). Again, this brings questions to my mind as to whether there are scenarios whereby a parent has decided their child is unlikely to flourish in HE, but the young person decides that they want to attend.

Even for families who agree that their child should pursue college, it is apparent in Zaloom’s book that finance may limit student choice of where they attend. Zaloom describes how one mother told her son ‘he would attend the school in which the most robust aid package gave him access to the most prestige, and that he could not attend schools outside of New York City’ (160). This seems to be a missed opportunity to discuss the implications for meritocracy that arise from the US college finance system. If a US student’s access to college is limited by finance and not their own ability, is the system meritocratic?

It is a truism that not all middle-class students and their families are the same because some will face greater challenges. The chapter ‘Race and Upward Mobility’ provides an illuminating account of the story behind historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and why this is crucial for understanding modern African-American experiences of education and social mobility. It is a troubling statistic that black students carry almost 70 per cent more debt than white students. Historical discrimination has left many African-American families with limited assets and weaker credit ratings, meaning that they are more likely to be denied loans.

The book ends with a stirring and important reminder that college is not just an investment, but also creates the possibility of intellectual growth and unconstrained potential. Zaloom therefore calls for a system of student finance that is more generous and not as complex as the current provision. This would recognise that education is an investment in the nation’s future and would aid students in being more capable of making crucial life decisions about their degrees and careers.

Finance is sometimes regarded as a taboo and difficult topic. However, Zaloom has produced a book that is accessible to those without a prior understanding of economics. In addition to the discussions around finance, she makes useful sociological points about the nature of middle-classness and the intrinsic obligations held by family members. Overall, it is a timely book and may be of interest to all parents and students preparing for entry to HE.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit: 3D Animation Production Company from Pixabay


An end to capitalism. An end to cash!

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 18/01/2020 - 4:00pm in

Review by Tony Sutton The UK working class lost much sympathy after its stunning rejection of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist manifesto in last December’s general election. That they chose to be influenced by a three-word slogan – Get Brexit Done – from a Tory party that had savaged them with a programme of vicious austerity over …

Book Review: Are Filter Bubbles Real? by Axel Bruns

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/01/2020 - 10:58pm in


book review

As references to echo chambers and filter bubbles become ubiquitous in contemporary discourse, Axel Bruns offers a riposte in Are Filter Bubbles Real?, which questions the existence of these phenomena. While not convinced by all of the author’s arguments, Ignas Kalpokas welcomes the book as a must-read for those looking to critically reflect on some of the assumptions surrounding social media today. 

Are Filter Bubbles Real? Axel Bruns. Polity. 2019.

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Terms like ‘filter bubbles’ and ‘echo chambers’ have transcended social media and political communication research to enter the public consciousness, being associated in particular with polarisation in today’s societies and the unexpected outcomes of recent public votes, such as the victories of Donald Trump and the Brexiteers. In short, they denote social media’s propensity to connect us with the like-minded and, therefore, reduce the diversity of information we encounter. In fact, unquestioning assertions of filter bubbles’ existence have become so prevalent and fashionable everywhere from academic texts to TV talk shows that Axel Bruns’s highly critical assessment reads as almost countercultural.

Indeed, social media research does have its fashions, and it once used to be a sign of good manners to assert an optimistic view of social media, treating them as tools for emancipation, free access to information and overall democratisation. This interpretation reached its peak around the time of the Arab Spring, but has ebbed since, giving way to a more negative version. The latter, in turn, came to dominate during the tumultuous year of 2016, and since then accusing social media of all kinds of societal and political ills has become the norm (the reviewer must declare his belonging to the latter camp). So engrained has this view become that it often seems like many social media researchers have come to live in their own filter bubble, reading and referencing only the like-minded. Hence, it is vital to read books like Bruns’s to burst the bubble.

One of the main claims made by Bruns is that all this talk of filter bubbles is merely an easy escape route, whereby we attempt to ‘absolve ourselves of the mess we are in by simply blaming technology’ (7). That is certainly something researchers have to keep in mind: it is easy to slide into a form of fundamentalism, particularly when researching something as pervasive as social media, by simply assuming that the architecture and policies of the dominant platforms determine everything. Likewise, Bruns’s assertion points towards the issue of responsibility: once we attribute causation to technology, we can comfortably and conveniently avoid responsibility for any societal ills and the ensuing necessity to put some effort towards ameliorating them. Such scapegoating, as Bruns correctly pinpoints, is characteristic not only of the general audience but also of politicians and mainstream media executives, thereby preventing us from addressing deep-rooted problems not only on a personal but also a societal level.

Nevertheless, some other key arguments put forward in this book rest on shakier foundations. Notably, Bruns’s critique is based on the premise that people ’generally maintain a diverse media diet through other channels’ (11). There is, however, very little justification provided for such a claim. Of course, it seems logical that if people access diverse non-social-media news sources, the polarisation of their news feed might not do much harm, but such an assertion sits uncomfortably with the global trend of decreasing traditional media use. Also, while explanations of echo chambers usually heavily rely on psychological factors (essentially, that it feels too good to have one’s opinions confirmed for such an opportunity to be missed), Bruns does not address this issue in his book. Hence, the question remains as to whether, even if individuals did have diverse information from a mix of sources at hand, they would want to make use of it. However, where Bruns addresses psychological aspects, he does so with great insight. The point is rather straightforward: even if we assume that echo chambers exist, why treat them in an exclusively negative light? After all, participation in supportive communities of like-minded individuals has considerable psychological benefits, so polarisation aside, perhaps there could be plentiful positives on the individual level.

The third key assertion that Bruns makes is that for echo chambers and filter bubbles to have political effects, we must assume individuals are connecting with people exclusively based on political preferences and that users consistently post about politics only. Certainly, such an assumption would be absurd, and thus, Bruns claims, filter bubbles cannot be real. However, Bruns is attacking a straw man here. It is not necessary for individuals to be consistent and exclusively politics-focused: first, as long as the algorithms governing content selection are, over time, able to learn an individual’s preferences, information supply, rather than conscious friend selection, will drive the narrowing of the person’s field of vision; second, even ostensibly politics-unrelated bubbles can be activated for political purposes as long as the messaging is tailored accordingly. Hence, the conditions for political effects are much broader than Bruns suggests – it all simply depends on political actors’ ability to use, and essentially weaponise, the diverse communities that exist online.

Finally, where Bruns does a very good job indeed is in his analysis of the limited number of studies on which the entire filter bubble theory rests. The relative scarcity of studies is something that adherents either forget or choose to overlook, often relying on the feeling that those bubbles just intuitively make sense and the fact that everybody is talking about them (in their own filter bubble). Moreover, even those studies that do exist – the most prominent of them being by Eli Pariser (2011) and Cass Sunstein (2017) – often fall short of unequivocally demonstrating the filter bubble effect or, if they do, then only in a limited scope (e.g. within certain extremist groups). While that might be less of a fatal blow to the filter bubble theory than Bruns himself suggests, it does nevertheless clearly show that if the social media pessimists want to maintain their dominant position, they need to urgently revise the premise of their claims.

Overall, this is a book that is bound to provoke debate: while techno-optimists will hail it for debunking some of the horror stories recently associated with social media, techno-pessimists are likely to look for ways of reducing the weight of Bruns’s critique. But, as the cliché goes, truth is somewhere in the middle. What is certain, however, is that Are Filter Bubbles Real? is a valuable counterbalance to the otherwise dominant, and sometimes seemingly uncritical, assertion of the filter bubble/echo chamber phenomenon that should also be welcomed at least by the more thoughtful adherents of the latter. It is, therefore, a must-read for the purpose of acquiring some critical distance from the otherwise hegemonic discourse surrounding social media.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit: Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash.


Book Review: The Use and Abuse of Music: Criminal Records by Eleanor Peters

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 16/01/2020 - 10:49pm in


book review

In The Use and Abuse of Music: Criminal Records, Eleanor Peters introduces music as a powerful instrument for thinking critically about crime and its contested meanings, while also attuning readers to its use as a conductor of politics and a record of abuses by liberal and oppressive regimes alike. While the book is short in length, it succeeds in condensing valuable insights into music as a unique mode for thinking about law-making, law-breaking, violence and torture, as well as censorship and resistance, writes Lambros Fatsis.

The Use and Abuse of Music: Criminal Records. Eleanor Peters. Emerald Publishing. 2019.

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I am a criminologist by trade. Like this book’s author, however, I am also a music lover. It is therefore no surprise that, as a kindred spirit, I found Eleanor Peters’s The Use and Abuse of Music: Criminal Records to be a compelling read and a welcome wake-up call for our tone-deaf discipline. Beyond stirring private passions and inspiring a sense of scholarly affinity, however, The Use and Abuse of Music draws its resonance from the power of its insights. Not only does the book invite us to think with music about crime, but also urges us to consider ostensibly ‘dangerous’ music genres as both products and objects of the criminal justice system. In so doing, the author demonstrates how music can function as a source of knowledge about crime, because of how it is policed against as a source of deviant or transgressive behaviour, but also how it is weaponised as a resource for political dominance and social control. Building on this sophisticated view of how both crime and music are ‘made’ culturally, pursued legally and manipulated politically, the book gracefully straddles the subfields of critical and cultural criminology, while also staking out a role for a nascent critical criminology of music.

The Use and Abuse of Music is neatly organised in three parts, each of which contains two related chapters. The book’s structure makes it easy to read and gives the text a sense of rhythm, not unlike a steady beat that moves us along as we read. Part One starts with an exploration of how music-making can be perceived as dangerous and is repressed as such by law enforcement agencies, and outlines the complex processes by which ‘the ability to label music as harmful’ through ‘the demonisation of certain genres and their followers’ becomes a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ (12). To do so, Peters borrows the theoretical language of moral panics and deviancy to show how ‘crime’ is largely produced by and through reactions to certain acts, activities and events that become legally punishable offences because they are perceived as deviations from an assumed norm.

This perspective on criminality as a culturally-loaded label, rather than a neutral legal sanction, informs the entire book, encouraging the reader to consider ‘who has the power to criminalise, diminish or to harm through the systematic and consistent empowerment of some groups and the persecution and criminalisation of others’ (5). To illustrate this point further, Peters moves on to challenge stereotypes that lazily equate rap with knife crime, heavy metal with Satanic worship or emo kids with suicidal self-harm, and stresses how the ‘demonisation of some genres and the association with violence has led to miscarriages of justice, unwarranted medical intervention and societal opprobrium’ (54).

Having laid the conceptual groundwork for what follows, Peters showcases ‘deviant’ and ‘murder’ music genres, such as heavy metal, rap and Oi! punk rock, by linking them to the youth subcultures from which they spring in order to upset stereotypical associations between music subcultures and criminality, without simplistically equating them with or absolving them from wrongdoing altogether. Her discussion of heavy metal and rap, for example, shows the exaggerated ways in which they are blamed for violent incidents with little or no evidence to justify such claims, whereas her analysis of white power punk rock groups demonstrates much stronger links between song lyrics, performers and fans with organised far-right political groups like the neo-fascist British Movement.

Part Two moves away from troublesome music genres, focusing instead on the way music is used as an instrument for nation-building (via anthems), war-making (through martial music), torture (by acoustic bombardment) and the maintenance and control of social order. Some of the examples given here include the use of loud music as a form of torture in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, the adoption of the Mosquito device to repel loitering from shopping centres and the use of rap lyrics as evidence in court hearings. What is particularly arresting here is the author’s argument about how music can be used as an aural weapon against unwanted populations, be they civilians, ‘enemy combatants’, protesters, ‘youths’ or non-consumers: all of which are deemed undesirable in times of war and peace alike. Another vital observation that stands out in this section of the book is the acknowledgment of how music, often conceived of as a subversive force, can also be used to serve and enforce the status quo rather than rebel against it, be it by upholding patriarchal norms or waging ‘sonic warfare’ against vulnerable groups.

The third and final part of the book directs our attention to the omnipresence of sound as a pollutant that attacks our senses in urban environments and can be as exciting as it is exhausting, and as wholesome or threatening as law enforcement and other agencies wish to make it. Peters makes some very good points here about how music can threaten urban dwellers’ health and well-being, while also being savoured as an exciting soundscape or disapproved of as a form of anti-social behaviour. Music can therefore become noise, and noise can be perceived as music depending on where it happens, how it sounds, who plays it and who its audience is. On that note, Peters also debates the censoring of music, revealing the ‘subtle and invidious ways that music and musicians can be stopped, often in countries where outright bans would raise liberal democratic alarms’ (123). A timely case in point is the criminalisation of and the policing against UK drill music that is often maligned for causing London’s knife crime, but the book also considers the religious and political persecution of Arab rap too.

In 150 or so pages, Eleanor Peters successfully manages to call for the appreciation and adoption of music as an undermined resource in criminology, brimming with insights on how music is targeted as a source of danger, embraced as a sonic weapon, regulated as a health risk and policed as a security threat. The Use and Abuse of Music, therefore, emerges as an indispensable primer in the virtually non-existent criminology of music which can be appreciated as a short, punchy contribution to the relevant critical and cultural criminological literature or used as an eminently readable resource for teaching. More importantly, however, Eleanor Peters’s book inspires and challenges the criminological imagination to press against its limits and attune itself to music as a valid mode for thinking about ‘crime’ and doing criminology in a different and more exciting register.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit: Andrew Malone. CC BY 2.0.


Book Review: Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands by Hazel V. Carby

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/01/2020 - 11:05pm in

In Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two IslandsHazel V. Carby explores the imperial connections between the UK and Jamaica and their impact upon the lived experiences of individuals, positioning family memories and histories as a starting point for telling a broader story about constructions of Britishness. The book is an exceptional account of the intimate and intricate relationships between geographical, economic, social and personal spaces created under British colonialism, writes Manuela Latchoumaya.

Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands. Hazel V. Carby. Verso. 2019. 

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As she was growing up in Imperial Britain, ‘The Girl’ got used to being asked ‘The Question!’: ‘Where are you from?’. The daughter of a white Welsh mother and a black Jamaican father, Hazel V. Carby explores the nature of the imperial connections between the UK and Jamaica – as well as their consequences for the lived experiences of individuals – in a detailed account she refuses to call a memoir, instead positioning family memories and histories as a starting point for telling a broader story about constructions of Britishness. A Professor Emeritus of African American Studies, Carby demonstrates that British colonialism and imperialism have created intricate relationships between geographical, economic, social and personal spaces.

In the first part of Imperial Intimacies, ‘Inventories’, the author begins by contextualising the encounter between her parents. Iris Leaworthy and Carl Carby met in the early 1940s at a dance organised for men from the local Royal Air Force (RAF) stations. At that time, Iris was a civil servant in the Air Ministry, while Carl was an Airman in the RAF. Interestingly, Carl and Iris were already indirectly linked by a common practice before their first encounter in the heart of the imperial metropole – the celebration of Empire Day every 24 May. Iris’s Welshness did not compromise her sense of Britishness, and she regularly celebrated Empire Day when she was in school. In Jamaica, Carl also celebrated this national holiday instituted in schools in 1902. He sang the same songs as Iris and wore the Union Jack’s colours while being taught how to be a ‘Little Black Englishman’.

Iris always praised herself for being the only woman who would dance with Carl – her encounter with a black Jamaican man made her conscious of her whiteness and of the power it gave her over Carl. Years later, during their marriage, she would forbid Carl from cooking traditional Jamaican food and would only allow him to assist her in the kitchen in the preparation of English meals. Although this happened after Carl’s suicide attempt by putting his head in the gas oven, the kitchen can be regarded as a metaphor for Iris’s power over Carl. This part of the house was always ruled by Iris, and Carby believes that her father’s decision to try and take his life in the kitchen was not coincidental.

Carby uses her parents’ story to illustrate the ways in which British imperialism led to particular encounters between racialised bodies – those of white women and black men. Most black men in Britain had served during World War II – for example, the majority of passengers of the Empire Windrush, which disembarked on the Thames estuary on 21 June 1948, were returning servicemen. Their presence was, however, unwanted. The Colonial Office envisioned the repatriation of the black populations who had settled in British ports when the war ended, which Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden justified by the pernicious assumption that the ‘British climate badly suited negroes’. The marriage of Carl and Iris was thus perceived as a provocation and as a threat to the governance of Empire.

The perception of sexual relations between black men and white women as a moral issue led to the ‘Brown Babies’ debate of the 1940s. Academics such as Rachel Fleming and Muriel Fletcher undertook anthropometric studies that sought to explain differences in mixed-race children through biological measurements. In a report published in 1930, Fletcher concluded that ‘half-caste children’ could not be ‘absorbed in [British] industrial life’ and that this was leading to ‘grave moral results’. In this context of rampant racism, Carby’s claims of Britishness could be seen as an act of rebellion, as being black and British was perceived as a contradiction in terms in the 1950s.

Indeed, ‘The Girl’ was regarded as a liar by children and adults alike when she declared that she was British and from Folly Gate in Devon. She was often asked ‘how she got there’. Even her mother would adopt racist behaviour by insisting that her daughter was ‘not coloured’. When she recounted her father’s story in class, her professors told her that there were no ‘coloured’ people in Britain during World War II and publicly humiliated her by stating that no such people could have served in the RAF, the most elite branch of the British military. She was also taught that Britain had stood alone in 1940 against Nazi Germany – although recruitment for the RAF had begun in Jamaica in 1942, and nearly 12,500 volunteers from the Caribbean had participated in the war. Carby consistently refers to herself as ‘The Girl’ throughout the book, perhaps as a way to emphasise the detrimental impacts racism and rejection have had on her self-esteem. She repeatedly mentions ‘The Girl’ as a shadow of the woman she has become: ‘the girl I no longer recognize, the girl I have long since left behind, the girl I discarded and rejected’ (22).

In the later parts of Imperial Intimacies, Carby tracks the history of her ancestors. Her thorough search in the archives leads her to Bath and Bristol, the respective birthplaces of her maternal great-grandmother Rose and of her maternal great-great-grandmother Rebecca. The author shows how the wealth of these two cities came from enslavement and colonial oppression. For instance, some of the richest Bristolians had interests in the plantations of the Caribbean and Virginia in the late seventeenth century. By the late eighteenth century, at least 40 per cent of Bristol’s wealth derived from activities sustained by the slave system. In particular, sugar, tobacco and cocoa were crucial to the city’s economy. Carby also stresses the mechanisms of economic compensation that followed the official abolition of slavery in 1834. For instance, the British Treasury gave William Thomas Beckford, a slave owner from Bath, £12,800 in compensation for the loss of his ‘property’ – 660 enslaved human beings in Jamaican plantations. Moreover, former enslaved people had to continue working as apprentices for 41.5 hours a week for the ‘customary’ considerations – food, clothing, housing and medical care – they had received when they were enslaved.

The author’s archive search finally brings her to Lilly Carby, a slave owner from Lincolnshire. Carby was sent to Jamaica alongside two of his cousins in 1788 by the British army. At the time, the British government was encouraging white people to settle in Jamaica – several Parliamentary Acts were passed in the eighteenth century. Indeed, as black people outnumbered white people, the government feared the possibility of black rebellion in the plantations. Lilly Carby acquired later a coffee plantation he renamed ‘Lincoln’. There, he endeavoured to recreate the life he had in Lincolnshire by renaming some of the people he enslaved with the names of the relatives he had left behind in England. Thus, in England, John, George, Dick, James and Bridget were Lilly Carby’s white and free relatives. In Jamaica, however, they were his black and enslaved ‘properties’. Lilly Carby also raped several black women and gave their children the names of his parents. Carl Carby, Hazel’s father, is himself a descendant of Lilly Carby. This is why the question ‘Are you from the black Carbys, or from the white Carbys?’ oversimplifies the realities of plantation life and their impacts on contemporary Jamaican society.

The connections created by the forced encounters between white owners and black enslaved people, and the subsequent ones between white women and black men who had come to defend what they were taught was the ‘Mother Country’, led to the ‘imperial intimacies’ Carby describes in her book. These meant that the imperial metropole shaped what was happening in the colonies – physical and psychological forms of oppression – as citizens from the imperial peripheries also shaped occurrences in Britain – such as by contributing to the wartime effort and by settling in a country they had helped to reconstruct after the war. Carby’s book is an exceptional account of such intimacies, and she manages to explain them in an original and uncommon way. By using examples from her own background, she brilliantly demonstrates that ‘the personal’ is indeed political.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit: Iris and Carl Carby, 1944, family photograph, provided courtesy of Verso/Hazel Carby.

Book Review: When Movements Become Parties: The Bolivian MAS in Comparative Perspective by Santiago Anria

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/01/2020 - 1:34am in

In When Movements Become Parties: The Bolivian MAS in Comparative PerspectiveSantiago Anria argues that movement-based parties do not inevitably morph into oligarchies run by professional party elites, drawing on the example of Bolivia’s Movement towards Socialism (MAS) and its hybrid organisational structure. With the book’s ideas about to be tested in real time following the resignation of Bolivian President and MAS leader Evo Morales in 2019, Anria draws on a creative research methodology and ample evidence from extensive field research to fill a gap in the literature surrounding so-called personalist Latin American political parties, writes Sally Sharif.  

When Movements Become Parties: The Bolivian MAS in Comparative Perspective. Santiago Anria. Cambridge University Press. 2019.

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In one of his frequent meetings with the umbrella union of coca growers in Cochabamba, Bolivia, then Bolivian President Evo Morales tells union leaders and the organisation’s rank and file that he is there to inform them of what the government is doing and to ask them for proposals. At the end of the meeting, a union leader tells Anria, ‘I thank the president for that, for always coming here to talk to the rank and file. But the representatives and the ministers usually do not come.’ It’s an incredible scene where the leader of a country, considered by many as a power-hungry autocrat, welcomes input from coca growers on major policy decisions.

How did Morales’s Movement towards Socialism (MAS) manage to grow within ten years into an organic national party without falling into top-down personalist control, which has trapped most Latin American populist parties? What does it take to maintain a viable movement-based, leftist party in Latin America? MAS started as a social movement by indigenous coca growers in northern Bolivia to fight against the country’s neoliberal policies and coca eradication efforts by the United States. Santiago Anria’s When Movements Become Parties: The Bolivian MAS in Comparative Perspective (2019) presents MAS as an anomaly among left-wing movement-based parties: it managed to resist being hijacked by party elites, remaining open and accountable to its support base.

It was either Anria’s dream or nightmare that the book’s publication coincided with mass protests in Bolivia that led to the resignation of Morales, his Vice President and both heads of Congress. Anria argues that MAS has successfully avoided top-down control because of its hybrid organisational structure, a fusion of social movement and political party. The book traces the foundation of MAS as a political party to the social movement surrounding one man – Morales – that started with a narrow agenda but widened its reach to an electorate encompassing 64 per cent of the population. The book’s central contribution is the finding that movement-based parties do not inevitably morph into oligarchies run by professional party elites. There exist ways to counteract the centralising trend in a party’s evolution.

Through a ‘thick’ analysis of the historical context and behaviour of MAS, Anria traces the process through which its hybrid structure was formed during the years of expansion up to 2009. MAS has the support of two distinctive social coalitions. The central coalition is based in the rural sector and consists of coca growers in the northern lowland region of Chapare as well as three national-level peasant organisations. The peripheral coalition consists of a broader set of urban-popular organisations. The party strategises differently in relation to these two coalitions: bottom-up vis-à-vis its central coalition and top-down when facing the peripheral coalition.

MAS has a loose bureaucratic structure, which provides opportunities for its core social bases to act autonomously. The party did not co-opt its core constituency; rather, it grew organically out of the coca-growing unions, which inform party policies. In the urban areas, however, MAS faced a different problem. The existing social organisations in the large cities weren’t natural allies of rural cocaleros. Anria finds a deliberate plan by the party to win over previously existing organisations at the city and neighbourhood levels by penetrating their social networks, co-opting their leaders and controlling them. ‘The MAS, therefore, was not an organic product of these cities. Rather, it inserted itself into La Paz and El Alto as something foreign’ (81). These two distinctive social coalitions determine how MAS selects candidates, what substantive issues are considered on the national agenda and how they are decided.

Unlike other laudatory and optimistic accounts of MAS as the first political party in Latin America with indigenous roots, Anria offers a realistic picture by including the party’s co-optation strategies and top-down decision-making in urban areas, thus allowing the reader to anticipate MAS’s deteriorating support in larger cities and to speculate on the party’s future. Through a creative research methodology and ample evidence from extensive field research, Anria’s book fills the gap in literature surrounding so-called personalist Latin American parties, and especially how their organisational structure evolves over time.

The book’s last chapter includes a cross-national comparative analysis of MAS with Brazil’s PT (Worker’s Party) and Uruguay’s FA (Broad Front). Anria demonstrates the mistaken trend in Latin American literature where MAS is compared to Ecuador’s PAIS (Proud and Sovereign Homeland) and Venezuela’s MVR (Fifth Republic Movement) for the similarity in leadership style of Morales to Rafael Correa and Hugo Chavez, respectively. MAS, demonstrates Anria, is most similar to Uruguay’s FA in leaving open channels for their social bases to influence decision-making in both candidate selection and the policy-making sphere.

The book sets itself the goal of explaining how ‘participation can be promoted and sustained within contemporary governing parties that have social movements, peasant associations, labor unions, and other popular organizations as their core social base’ (6-7). Measured against this ambition, however, Anria falls short of such a prescription, going only so far as describing how MAS originated from and sustained, rather than promoted or started, the substantive bottom-up participation among its core constituency.

Anria underplays the authoritarian tendencies of Morales, especially in the rural areas where he enjoys complete support. Anria mentions in passing that ‘Dirigentes [union leaders] play a key role in shielding Morales from grass-roots criticism, which helps to strengthen his leadership’ (85), but he does not attend to why such an attentive leader should shy away from taking criticism of unpopular policies among his support base. In the area of candidate selection, we also see Morales’s centralising tendencies: ‘if conflict emerges among competing organizations, the MAS tends to concentrate decision-making power in the hands of a small party elite – and even Morales himself’ (116).

An empirical question Anria raises in the book is whether Morales’s then-proposed next term in office (2020-25) would translate into growing power concentration in the party. Although Anria critically discusses Morales’s apparent intention to rule for the long term, he does not raise the obvious follow-up question: why didn’t Morales pick a successor if he trusted that the party was organisationally strong enough to run the country without him? If he trusted that MAS had enough electoral support in the core and peripheral coalitions, he could have passed on the leadership of the party to someone else after the 2016 proposed constitutional amendments to allow the President and Vice President to run for a third consecutive term were voted down.

Anria’s book is about to be tested in real time. MAS should outlast Morales, continuing representation of the traditionally under-represented classes and ethnicities in Bolivia, if it has garnered enough political support and extended its horizontal ties in the fourteen years it led the country. There are a few possible outcomes in the country’s near future, depending on how MAS manages the post-Morales political life of the country. If Anria is right in arguing that MAS, compared to similar political parties in Latin America that emerged out of social movements, has been successful in transcending a top-down control structure, it should be able to sustain itself without Morales.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit: Evo Morales leads a May Day march, 2014. Eneas De Troya. CC BY 2.0.


Book Review: The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 14/01/2020 - 10:56pm in


Asia, book review

In The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India CompanyWilliam Dalrymple gives a new character-driven account of the ascent to power of the East India Company following the collapse of the Mughal Empire and the resulting ‘anarchy’ that followed. Tracking the Company’s ruthless profiteering and territorial conquests, The Anarchy is not only a fine addition to Dalrymple’s studies of the emergence of British rule in India, but also prompts reflection on the dangers of corporate excess in our present, writes Thomas Gidney

The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. William Dalrymple. Bloomsbury. 2019.

The rapid collapse of the mighty and opulent Mughal Empire in the early eighteenth century stands as almost an enigma of history, but perhaps what was even more improbable was its complete replacement not by a rival state, but by a European trading company a century later. In his latest work The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple charts the disintegration of India into a state of civil strife and atomisation, providing a valuable window of entry through which the British sealed their rule over the subcontinent.

Much of the research of The Anarchy is built on pre-existing studies of the East India Company and eighteenth-century India, although it is accompanied by an important assortment of manuscripts and Mughal chronicles from Indian and British archives. The Anarchy doesn’t necessarily seek to radically retell the history of the Company or push a new argument or debate; it’s about the way Darlymple recounts the story. He offers a journey through a war-torn and beleaguered eighteenth-century South Asia, focusing on the characters rather than underlying social movements. By concentrating on Mughal nobles, English merchants and Indian financiers, with all their intriguing attributes, Darlymple breathes life into figures from history who, for many of us, are simply names in historical textbooks.

Although some may dispute this character-driven version of events, the attention given to individuals supplies endless nuance and can help in understanding the importance of the social and personal ties that build history. After all, the infamous Battle of Plassey (1757) that marked the way for British dominion in India was not primarily won due to the larger historical currents such as the superiority of European military technology, but because the Nawab of Bengal was betrayed by his ambitious general, Mir Jafar. The instigators of the plot – the Jagat Seths, Marwari-Jain bankers and kingmakers in Bengali politics – reveal the significance of private actors in the rise of the Company. Indeed, the Company itself was not emblematic of a state-driven institution but one responsible to its shareholders. Nor was the East India Company devoid of influence over the British state, as its members used their great wealth to buy positions in Westminster. This emphasis on historic actors effectively breaks down the distinction between state and private agents.

The purpose of the actual ‘anarchy’, the collapse of the Mughal Empire, is largely covered in Chapter One rather than forming a study unto itself, serving to contextualise the rapid ascendency of the East India Company. Although Darlymple recounts the fall of Delhi to the Persian forces of Nader Shah in 1739 with the chagrin of Edward Gibbon’s recounting of the Fall of Rome, The Anarchy’s focus on the rise of the East India Company somewhat skates over the histories of other successor Empires. Though regularly mentioned, the Maratha Empire of the Deccan that arguably instigated the collapse of the Mughals, as well as the short-lived Durrani Empire from Afghanistan that invaded the former Mughal heartlands, are not the focus of this book. Instead they play a supporting role, as both allies and ultimately opponents of the East India Company in its rise to power.

Image Credit: ‘The Surrender of the Two Sons of Tipu Sahib, Sultan of Mysore, to Sir David Baird’, Henry Singleton, circa 1800 (Yale Center for British Art, Public Domain courtesy of ArtUK)

When it comes to examining the Mughal’s twilight years however, Dalrymple dives much deeper into the intricate court politics and the tragic figure of one of the last Emperors to make a bid for resurrecting Mughal glory, Shah Alam. A young, intelligent and empathetic leader, Alam’s position as a Mughal Prince granted him considerable gravitas and legitimacy that the Company saw as a possible basis to justify their growing rule in India. Though often little more than a pawn in the clash for supremacy in North India, he was relatively effective as pawns go, almost bringing the Mughals to the cusp of political resuscitation, before being brutally humiliated, robbed and blinded by his former hostage, Mir Quasim. Through these figures of the Mughal Court, Darlymple covers the Mughal Empire’s death throes more forensically than the rise and fall of India’s other Empires.

The real focus of the book, the Company’s ‘relentless rise’, traces the Company from its piratical origins in the Elizabethan period as the birthchild of early monopoly companies that had operated in Turkey and Russia. Despite its less-than-stable origins, the nascent East India Company ran the gauntlet of competitors from Portuguese merchants to the initially more successful Dutch East India Company, before confronting the growing menace of the French ‘Compagnie des Indes’. Only with the anarchy, the collapse of the Mughals and India’s descent into atomisation and civil strife could the East India Company begin its rapid ascent to South Asian hegemony.

The first half of the book begins with the Company’s dominance over Bengal, and its clashes with the local Nawabs for control. This is largely conducted by the figure of the brutish but cunning Robert Clive, whose combined use of subterfuge and aggression won the Company the Mughal right as the ‘Diwani’, or economic comptroller of Bengal. With Bengal, arguably one of the richest regions in the world, under the Company’s control as of 1757, the East India Company gained a dominant position in India. Company officials engaged in a systematic orgy of asset-stripping Bengal, contributing to one of Bengal’s worst famines, killing millions. Rather than organise effective tax or famine relief, as was common among Indian rulers, the Company maintained its tax harvesting to sustain a high share price.

This cold-hearted profiteering is presented as a cautionary tale of the excess of modern-day mega-corporations. However, unlike the less militarised financial institutions of today, the Company’s perfidious actions in Bengal doomed it to evolve into a quasi-governmental organisation. The pillaging of Bengal contributed to the ultimate crash in the Company’s share price, leading to one of the world’s first massive bailout packages in exchange for greater parliamentary scrutiny, which would soon position the UK Parliament and the Company at loggerheads. Edmund Burke’s famous prosecution of the Company’s Governor-General, Warren Hastings – often held up as an admission of guilt by Indian nationalist historians of Britain’s drain of wealth from India – was, Dalrymple argues, aimed at the wrong individual. An intellectual, an Indophile as well as a sharp administrator, Hastings is deemed by Darlymple to have been largely innocent of the many charges levelled against him (though he does not dispute the Company’s general behaviour in Bengal, which occurred often in spite of Hastings).

With Hastings’s removal from office, the Company become a very different organisation, and one run increasingly by military commanders rather than merchants. Backed by Bengal’s tax revenues, the Company, under the control of a redemption-seeking Lord Cornwallis after his failure against American revolutionaries, alongside the Wellesley brothers (including the future Duke of Wellington), embarked on large-scale territorial conquests exceeding those of Napoleon in Europe. Their main opponents, the fractured Marathas and the fearsome Tipu Sultan, reveal the rapidity by which Indian Princes adopted European methods of warfare. Accompanied by a panoply of European mercenaries, Indian armies rapidly closed the technological gap with the British. Yet the financial ability of the East India Company to raise funds for its wars by the end of the eighteenth century allowed it to host much larger armies, often dwarfing the number of troops the British government fielded back in Europe.

Dalrymple concludes with the fall of Delhi in 1803, when the aging and blind Shah Alam finally comes under the Company’s custody again in a full circle of events. The capture of the Ozymandian city of the Mughals sealed the Company’s hegemony over South Asia, coating their rule with the legitimacy endowed by the Emperor. The choice to finish the book in 1803 rather than with the end of the Marathas in 1818, when the last major South Asian Empire (with the exception of the Sikh Empire in Punjab) had been annexed, accentuates the transfer of power from the Mughals to the British. Although this diminishes the history of other Indian states, it stresses the significance of the retention of Mughal symbols in early British rule, a strange, unbalanced, symbiotic relationship that was simultaneously destroyed half a century later in the Indian revolt of 1857.

The Anarchy is yet another fine addition to Dalrymple’s histories of the rise of British rule in India, setting the scene for his earlier work on the British invasion of Afghanistan (Return of a King, 2012) and the Sepoy Revolt of 1857 and the (re)-capture of Delhi (The Last Mughal, 2006), as well as illustrating the dangers of corporate excess in our present.

Thomas Gidney is a PHD student at the IHEID Graduate Institute in Geneva. His research focus is on India’s historic ties to international organisations, and British India’s membership of the League of Nations.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.