The Systemic Roots and Intent of Organized Violence
by Fred Harrison (2010, Shepheard-Walwyn, 172 pp.) Review by Lindy Davies
There’s no namby-pamby incrementalism in Fred Harrison’s latest book. The Predator Culture goes for it. The book supplies documentary backing for a campaign which Harrison introduced with a “Mission Statement” issued on New Year’s Day, 2011, entitled “Time to Save the World.” It begins with:
2010: the world was at the crossroad. The political classes were alerted. They failed to define a secure future for all nations. I now predict two outcomes. (1) A world war was necessary to end the Depression of the 1930s. Similar conditions exist today: they will trigger the third world war. (2) Civilisation built on the European model has run its full course. Current policies will drive that civilisation into terminal decline. These outcomes are not inevitable. But negotiating change to the evil dynamic that causes wars and ends civilizations has failed. It is time to take control of the agenda.
Strong words, to be sure: these are sentiments that resonate with many of our colleagues who feel the weight of impending disaster (or unfolding calamity) — that something must be done! Now! Before it’s too late! Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m much more sanguine than they are — I look around me and see how bad things are. It seems worth observing, though, that things have pretty much always been bad. Things were bad when three-quarters of North America’s original inhabitants were dying of European diseases against which they had no defenses; things were bad when the Crusades were cutting swathes of destruction across the Arab world; things were bad when the vast Roman Empire was slowly rotting from the center outward, and when Stalin was murdering millions of peasants. The world has never needed a just and prosperous economic order more than it does now — and, it has always needed it, just that much.
The Predator Culture attempts to more-or-less tie up all of our movement’s loose ends in preparation for that last world-saving push. This rather extreme ambition explains, I think, the ponderousness of its early chapters. It’s always been risky (and probably, ultimately, unavailing) for someone inside a movement to try to evaluate an outreach-oriented presentation — and I certainly hope that lots of non-Georgists will review this book, and supply the perspective that I cannot. However, it’s hard to say what a reader who hasn’t read Progress and Poverty could possibly make of passages like:
Practical strategies are needed which are consistent with the dignity of everyone. A new approach to political philosophy is required to frame the strategies. Whereas the rule of law formalises social solidarity (as elaborated by French sociologist Emile Durkheim), the role of the law of property (as I will explain), when it privatises the benefits from land, necessarily has the opposite effect.
OK, I can see where Fred is coming from, there, and I applaud him. But, I’ve read Progress and Poverty twelve or thirteen times. In attempting to simultaneously formulate this newly-integrated political philosophy and use it to analyze historical events, Harrison sets too hard a task for himself. Indeed, a student of Henry George’s works will see George’s analysis throughout this book. Yet Harrison cannot risk being branded a cultist by acknowledging this.1 It’s like a Christian evangelist trying to preach without citing the Gospels. But — at the risk of overstating, let me be clear about this: there’s nothing to be gained from slavish adherence to Henry George’s works, if other terminology will work better. I’m all for that: we’ll all be Geoists, if it’ll help. In this case, however, I think the opposite is true. Harrison sacrifices readability (definitely) and credibility (arguably) by taking it upon himself to articulate this “new” integration of political philosophy, when its essential points have already been made, eloquently, by Henry George and other Georgist writers (including Harrison himself). He could have simply started with, “Look, I’m a Georgist, and for those of you who don’t know what that means, here’s a brief summary of its main tenets….” and gone on to what makes this book worthwhile, its informative and incisive discussions, in Georgist terms, of Costa Rica, South Africa, Italy/Libya, Guyana, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the worst part of this book is its first 42 pages, the prologue, “The Failed State,” and the first two chapters, titled “The Spatial Dynamics of Evolution” and “The Culture of Pauperisation.” It is in these these pages where Harrison is at his greatest pains to create a new and indispensable framework for Why Things Are This Way. In a headlong rush for universality; these chapters cite many historical trends and events in terms of their exhibiting facets of the land dynamic in history — but they do so with a vertiginous lack of temporal context. For example, this passage on p. 7 encompasses a good, solid millennium:
With settlement and the onset of pastoralism and agriculture, occupational specialisation flowed out of the accumulation of capital (cattel, derived from cattle), and the conceptualisation of an accumulation that we now call “interest.” Specialisation led to increasingly sophisticated technology and rituals that enriched workplace associations (such as guilds).
I agree with what I understand Harrison to be saying in these chapters, and I heartily affirm the need for it to be said. I just wonder whether it’s getting said, intelligibly, in this book.
Marxists can perhaps be envied, by Georgists, for the rich socio- anthropo- psyco-logical field available to them, fertilized by decades of academic droppings. This makes it easier to find things to say, in books that can get reviewed in the better journals, and fill out the catalogues of university presses. Georgists, alas, have little of that, because they have been so thoroughly ignored by the academic establishment (and vice-versa, we must admit). I believe, for what it’s worth, that the social sciences would be enriched, and many social mysteries would start looking solvable, if they paid more attention to the meanings of land, land tenure and rent. The problem with The Predator Culture, though, is that it ends up being, essentially, an epic exercise in question-begging. In support of his argument that the land question is vital to coherent social analysis, Harrison cites this book, written as though it were. Those of us who know where he’s coming from see his points clearly. But I’m afraid that those who don’t will just be scratching their heads by page 42, and will, alas, switch to something less impenetrable.
One last point — nit-picky, but worth noting — is the curious tone-deafness of this book’s title. Harrison knows that “Predator” isn’t quite the word he wants; he alludes to this a couple of times, as on p. 147: “When a lion brings down a gazelle, to feed her cub, the violence derives its meaning from the biological context inscribed by nature.” That is an oddly vague sentence. He goes on to rhetorically ask what meaning we ascribe to the tortures in Abu Graib prison, or to the millions of deaths in World War I. Meaning is a human phenomenon; there is no meaning (or at least not in the same sense of the word) in a lioness’s instinct-driven killing for food.
Predators, in biological terms, are an integral part of the natural world; why, then, should “The Predator Culture” be characterized as such a terrible thing? The more apt term would be “parasite,” but perhaps The Parasite Culture, what with its connotation of tapeworms and icky pathogens, would be less appealing on a bookstore shelf.
Fred Harrison’s 2011 Mission Statement, quoted above, says that the time has come “to take control of the agenda.” The Predator Culture is his attempt to do precisely that, in terms of the socio- anthropo- psycho-logical dialogue. I’m all for taking over the agenda, and I wish Fred every success.
Yet, as this book leaves me convinced that understanding The Predator Culture requires a rather strong grounding in Georgist political economy, I will continue to teach that, and leave it to my students to seize the agenda.