The weasel phrase in Adrian Bowyer’s response to James Meek’s essay on Cadbury’s move to Poland is ‘just might’, as in ‘legislative solutions … are unlikely to produce significant change, but a popular technological solution just might’ (Letters, 4 May). It’s a phrase used so frequently by technical boosterists that it is worth thinking through its implications.
First, it suggests that trying to solve social problems through technological innovation can be done at such low cost and with so little risk that even a remote chance of success is worth striving for. Second, it represents that risk solely in terms of success or failure of the technology in effecting the desired change: the idea that failure (or, indeed, success) might have unpredictable deleterious effects is ignored. Third, it excludes from consideration any new social and political contexts which may arise from the introduction of technology. Finally, it sets up an opposition between technological innovation, which is putatively low-cost and low-risk, and properly social or political changes, which are presented as laborious and ineffective. Given the choice, who wouldn’t plump for the promise of technology?
The problem is that technological changes have unforeseen, sometimes profoundly negative social and political consequences, often because of the ways in which they intersect with social and political issues. The consequences of increasing automation in manufacturing are an obvious example. Another is the introduction of the world wide web, which is cited by Bowyer as an incontrovertible good, but which has brought about far-reaching changes in our relations with each other whose effects we have as yet only begun to discern.
Ignoring the social consequences of technical innovation while implicitly assuming that its effects can only ever be benign, Bowyer is free to muse on a sort of William Morris future in which happy individual consumers produce from their allotments a wealth as indeterminate as it is deracinated. As usual with technological proposals, social bonds are regarded as retrograde and to be destroyed wherever possible.
Adrian Bowyer is to be congratulated on his invention of the self-replicating 3D printer RepRap, and also for the generosity of its open-source licensing, which tackles one of the chief blocks to universal access to production: the monopoly over intellectual property rights. He is, though, too sanguine about the capacity of this technology to bring about a situation in which all a producer will have to pay is ‘the cost of access to an allotment’. As the current housing crisis shows, if all the land is owned by just some of the people, they will be in a position to charge as much rent as its users can pay. Ownership of land in perpetuity, without concomitant responsibilities and duties, is a state-created right. If inequality is to be reduced, this property-right must be transformed into a use-right, for which the steward of the land would pay rent to the community. Unless landowners were suddenly to start behaving with the same generosity as the open source movement, this would require political action not technological change.
Thank you, James Meek; after 75 years you have cured me of Cadbury’s, once and for all.
Jackson Lears writes that, on the Chomskyan view, evidence for innateness is the ease with which children ‘learn’ their first language, contrasted with the difficulty adults face in ‘acquiring’ a second one (LRB, 4 May). He is perhaps using these terms interchangeably, but for Chomsky it is children who ‘acquire’ their first language and adults who ‘learn’ a second. In the Chomskyan worldview, language acquisition is rooted in biology whereas language learning is not.
As a former student of R.W. Johnson’s and lifelong admirer of his work, including in the LRB, I appreciated Jeremy Harding’s noting the ‘commendable’ features of Johnson’s life and works, including his giving up a top position at Oxford to go home to South Africa and try to make a difference (LRB, 4 May). But much of the review was quite unfair, and Johnson deserves better – especially in the LRB. For example, Johnson didn’t write (and doesn’t believe) that Mandela was ‘pernicious’ or a ‘terrorist’. That’s too serious a charge to allow past an editor’s pencil. And noting ties between the ANC and the South African Communist Party hardly makes one a racist, or Mandela less an inspiration. Yes, Johnson is critical of the ANC in Mandela’s wake and worried for South Africa’s future. But look around; who wouldn’t be?
The rise of mass incarceration in the US in the early 1970s was ‘fuelled’, Adam Shatz writes, ‘by white fear of black crime’ (LRB, 4 May). ‘But the fear of crime wasn’t confined to whites,’ he continues. ‘Blacks in inner cities had far more reason to be afraid: they lived in poor areas where crime was more widespread, and where the police were often absent.’ This ‘absence’ can be seen as a direct response by the state to episodes of working-class revolt. The ghetto uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s in the US were followed by heroin and crack epidemics; the same pattern occurred in Northern Ireland, and after the Brixton, Liverpool and Handsworth riots of 1981. A strategic decision was taken not to police these areas. A counter-economy of drug distribution was allowed to take root, and the conditions for revolt were undermined by addiction and anti-social behaviour and criminalisation. It was decided to allow communities to be given over to drug addiction as a means to peace and quiet. In Ireland, groups like Direct Action against Drugs and Republican Action against Drugs were criminalised by the state more determinedly than the dealers they sought to challenge. At the same time, such anti-drugs organisations failed to recognise that harassment of street dealers was no more than an attempt to put the genie back into the bottle: what was required was massive funding for rehabilitation and decriminalisation of drugs.
Readers interested in the connections between Shakespeare and fascism, discussed in Richard Wilson’s illuminating piece, may have come across Hirt’s Englandkundliches Lesebuch für die Oberstufe an Oberschulen, an English-language textbook published in Germany in 1942 and intended to introduce German schoolchildren to the culture over which it was assumed they would soon rule (LRB, 4 May). Hirt’s Englandkundliches Lesebuch (‘English Studies Reader’) had a picture of Stratford-upon-Avon on its cover and celebrated Shakespeare’s poetry along with other aspects of English culture. Many English people, the book claims, are secretly fascists; what a shame their country has been taken over by the Jews.
Hitler’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare is well known (he was the only enemy playwright not proscribed by the Nazi regime), but unlike Chesterton and his fellow fascists in the Shakespeare Club, whose love of Timon of Athens is scrutinised by Wilson, Hitler found in Coriolanus a truer reflection of his worldview. German school textbooks contained passages pointing out the resemblance between the Führer and the play’s protagonist and after the war the American occupation forces banned performances of it.
Alex Bellamy discusses the low correlation between women’s socio-economic development and the numbers of women in national parliaments (Letters, 20 April). I was confused by the conclusion of the letter as it appeared on the page: ‘What isn’t clear is what Beard sees as the purpose of women having greater power.’ I assume the implication is that women’s power is ineffective. This ignores the wider picture that in the UK it is only 98 years since Nancy Astor took up her seat: that’s three or four generations in which we expect those who have followed her to have effected a transformation.
Rather than conclude that the 22.5 per cent of MPs who are women – that’s the world average – have shown that an entire gender is incompetent, it would be better to review the data once, say, that average rises to at least 50 per cent. Then you could also see what impact women’s representation has had on, say, climate change, crime or war. The United Nations, whose report Bellamy is drawing on, itself still hasn’t achieved gender parity.
The other possible inference to be drawn from the statistics is that effective power lies elsewhere, in which case Bellamy’s final sentence should have read ‘greater power within the national legislature’. Mary Beard, in the article to which Bellamy is responding, is quite clear that the ‘purpose’ of women having greater power – should we need to justify it to men, which we don’t – is to redress an injustice and broaden society’s expertise.
A footnote to the debate on involuntary baptism in the Regent’s Canal (Letters, 4 May). I was excited to discover that one of the more challenging passages for cyclists, the blind sweep under Mare Street Bridge, had been improved by the provision of ‘community’ bells, to be pinged by pedestrians. make yourself heard. Solid brackets on both approaches supported domed clangers. The instinct for self-preservation overrode the fear of disturbing rough sleepers on their ratty ledge. Or breakfasting flat-dwellers beside their glass-enclosed pool. Before anyone could actually push through the peloton to sound a confident warning both bells were stolen.
Iain Sinclair responds to those (women, presumably) who ‘challenge’ him on the inadequate ‘headcount of female characters (or influences)’ in his writing, which he then defensively enumerates (Letters, 4 May). He describes the tone of the challenge as ‘fierce in the conviction of its own entitlement and originality’. His own tone suggests a man tired of having to repeat himself to a child, as he makes clear that the challenge is not in fact original but invariable. Sinclair won’t himself have felt the exasperation of those who continue to have to make claims for their own representation – whether addressed to him, to the LRB (Sarah Walker’s letter in the Letters, 16 March), or to a society that permits the failures of representation evident in the work of both. The ‘conviction’ of such challenges is not to do with originality. That they still need to be repeated is precisely part of their urgency.
I have been slow to acknowledge Sheila Fitzpatrick’s kind remarks about my edited volume Historically Inevitable?, on the Russian Revolution (LRB, 30 March). But I was brought up short by her reference to my ‘free-market triumphalism’ over the demise of communism. Would she similarly accuse me of ‘round earth triumphalism’ over the lack of people who now believe that our planet is flat?
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