Review of Gittins: On Track

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Gittins, Paul, On Track: Henry Gittins – A Rail Pioneer of Siam and Canada, Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.2, No.3 (Sep-Dec, 2015), pp.66-8.

Bangkok: River Books, 2014; 151 pp.; ISBN: 978-616-7339-429

The decision whether or not to upgrade Thailand’s rail services to incorporate high speed links, double tracks and improved connectivity with all important places of production and consumption across Asia rather tends to cause people to disregard the existing system and focus on inadequacies and lack of investment. This is rather unfair as the original act of building the system was not just a significant feat of engineering through terrain that was in many places thickly forested and mountainous, together with the difficulties posed by monsoon rains in a muddy part of the world but, also, because of the persistence needed to overcome the high rate of fatalities among the labour force resulting from numerous diseases and dangerous wild animals. Those who participated in the work needed almost certainly to be young and fit and could expect a relatively short career before the dangers of working in such an environment required cessation before permanent illness or even death would be the result. There are many examples of records kept by western travellers in their explorations of the Mekong region, even into the twentieth century, that retell in prosaic terms the stories of individuals, local or international alike, who fell ill in the afternoon and then were dead before morning. It is hard to imagine that many people today would accept such conditions without duress.

The railway system that was built may have had its limitations but it did have a an important role to play in the modernization of Siam, under King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and notables such as Prince Damrong. Transportation infrastructure is an enabling technology and, as such, enables other people to do things which they might not otherwise have been able to do or, at least, with the same level of efficiency. There is a tendency to think about economic activities when talk of enabling begins – farmers able to bring their produce to market and consequently are able to move beyond subsistence forms of agriculture – but there are benefits to be had in terms of familial and social relations and, in a more modern country, benefits to a properly functioning democracy, as the example of independent India shows. In this memoir of the work of his grandfather Henry Gittins, author Paul Gittins includes extensive extracts from the diaries of the eponymous pioneer and some of these demonstrate his opinion that the ability of provincial governors and local rulers to kin muang (eat the state) had been reduced since the railroad linking their provinces to Bangkok:

“The governor … controlled the gang of thieves or if they did not control them, ‘twas their retainers, who never receiving any pay for their services, took to gang robbery to recoup themselves and the governor winked the other eye. The poor labourer in those days got little in the way of cash or anything else except stripes for his labour (p.104).”

However, in some ways, there has been precious little improvement over the course of a century: “… almost invariably it was useless for a poor man to bring an action against a rich one, as bribery and corruption was just as rife now as it was in the old days (p.109).”

A family memoir such as this relies for its interest and value almost entirely on the quality of the original memoir and exclusive access to it. Author Gittins seems to know very little about Siam or indeed Canada that is not revealed to him by his grandfather and if he has done any background reading then this is not evident in the text and there are very few citations of any other authors, whether for the purpose of comparison or triangulation. So, therefore, what is the quality of the memoir and the way it has been presented? In answering these questions, it is necessary to consider the purpose and objective of the book, the author and the publisher. The book intends, it may be deduced, to entertain and educate to a certain extent and not to outstay its welcome. The author clearly wants the chance to show the career of his grandfather to the world and not to write a serious piece of history. Everything told to him by his grandfather is presented seemingly at face value and, although the editing process might have been quite different to the way it appears, it looks like Gittins has used pretty much all the material he could reasonably hope to include. The publisher, meanwhile, is River Books from here in Bangkok is known for a range of publications on local interests, including memoirs and books based on photography. This book sits within that catalogue and it is notable how many photos are included, mostly from Henry Gittins himself but also from othr sources. An uplifting story from a good family man well-rewarded by his appreciative and wise Siamese hosts and employers would seem to fit the bill and, by and large, the text delivers this. There are some examples of comments about the rival Germans that test the limit of what an exasperated English person might reasonably make but there is nothing negative to be found on individual members of the establishment. The grandfather’s prose itself is a little plodding in nature and presumably not originally intended for publication:

“This consisted of laying logs side by side the full length of the bank and putting the earth on top as a sort of floating construction. As it slowly sank, more earth was piled on and eventually a good road bed obtained. These swamps had to be crossed slowly on foot, stepping from tuft to tuft of matted grass. If you stepped between, you might go out of sight, after the manner of a Dartmoor bog (p.46).”

There are some gems of information in this book but not too many of them. It would be interesting to know what a historian would have made of the original material.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

Review of Jameson: Representing Capital

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Jameson, Fredric, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One, Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.2, No.3 (Sep-Dec, 2015), pp.63-5.

London and New York, NY: Verso; 158 pp.; ISBN: 9-781781-681572

Fredric Jameson justifies, as if that were really needed, the writing of this new exposition of the first volume of Capital by explaining that a new form of capitalism has come into being:

“In particular the mutation of a capitalism of imperialism and the monopoly stage into the latest globalized moment and structure might have been expected to turn our attention to unremarked features of his laborious explorations; and if not that newly expanded system itself then certainly its crises and the catastrophes appropriate to this present of time, which like those of the past are both the same as what preceded them, but also different and historically unique (p.1).”

It is certainly true that the more intense form of finance capitalism that has been reached has brought about more possibilities for crises and different manifestations of existing crises. It is also true that it is important that explorations and explanations are provided by writers with not just the skill and sensibility of Jameson but, also, his extensive knowledge of the works of Marx, ranging beyond not just the three extant volumes of Capital to the Grundrisse, journalism and correspondence. Marx is most commonly known for the first volume of Capital (I doubt many people actually make it beyond the first few rather daunting chapters), which is unfortunate because that lends too much on the production of goods and not enough on all the other elements of the framework he outlined elsewhere. Consequently, to understand the first volume properly, it is necessary to know something about the rest of the work. Fortunately, we do know the basic structure of his thought and of his methods. This, as Jameson correctly explains, is significantly interlinked with the dialectical approach. Indeed, the first section of Capital acts as an introductory lesson to the dialectical method and helps readers to understand how they should try to understand the rest of the work.

The first three chapters from this introductory work also contain within themselves a version of the thesis of the book as a whole or “… a related yet semi-autonomous discussion in its own right, one which lays the ground and frees the terrain for the principal task to come (p.13).” As Hegel did, Marx shows how phenomena oscillate between identity and non-identity which is “… the dialectic of identity and difference (which ceaselessly turn into each other) (p.18)” and contrasts, in the first section, the pre-capitalist forms of societies with the current system of exchange (or circulation) as, it is concluded, an initial critique on the market (than which, we are regularly told, there is no alternative) which is then developed further and in different dimensions in the rest of the book.

We have become familiar with the chapter by chapter close reading of at least the first two volumes (Harvey, 2010; 2013) and illuminating expositions in summary of all three volumes (e.g. Heinrich, 2012) and Jameson attempts something different from either approach. After outlining the various sections of the book, how they relate to each other and how different themes enter and re-enter the text, reaching initial and then more final conclusions at sometimes surprising moments along the way, he then explores themes of time, space and politics, together with a last return to the dialectical method. He does so while also reminding us of the historical events of the approximate time which helped shape contemporaneous thinking (e.g. the Taiping Rebellion, the Paris Commune and the American Civil War) and the emergence of new forms of technology, most of which Marx enthusiastically embraced.

In Chapter 4, “Capital in Its Time,” Jameson considers both the relationship between the book and the time at which it was written and, also, the relationship between labour in its frozen form (i.e. machinery) and the production of value in the present. The problem here is the immanence of capitalism and the necessary disappearance, therefore, of the actual means of production: “… Marx insists over and over again on the way capital effaces the traces of its own prehistory (and of the existence of modes of production that preceded it), just as surely as it extinguishes the immediate traces of production from the object produced (p.105).” Consequently, the fact that I cannot see the labour embedded in making the pen with which I first write these lines is an aspect of the same phenomenon that encourages the bourgeois economist to say there is no alternative. Only when this phenomenon is broken down and exposed can it be understood and, eventually, replaced.

Chapter 5, “Capital in Its Space,” introduces or re-introduces the physicality of the labour that is at the heart of society. The place where work takes place is a physical place and it is, of course, to be distinguished from the places where the workers live and attempt to reproduce themselves: “Space is in it replicated on many levels; from housing to individual rooms, from the housing shortage to the cities themselves which the workers are building, from the urban landscape to the agricultural one, from the increasing distances required to walk to work to emigration to the colonies, and (rather surprisingly) not excluding that other easily overlooked (spiritual rather than physical) essential of reproduction which is education (p.117).” Space is another element of everyday life that capitalism would like to efface, as proponents of globalization would demonstrate as they argue that contemporary information technology has annihilated both space and time. It is not surprising, then, that Lenin (1987) led the way in the analysis of space and the unevenness of its development, which has become linked with imperialism.

In the final chapter, on “Political Conclusions,” Jameson addresses the seemingly contradictory way in which Capital seems not to contain political commentary, unlike most of Marx’s other work in which the political world is regularly and powerfully addressed. Drawing on insights he previously made in Valences of the Dialectic (2010), he maps out a globalized world of enormous inequality and argues that this is not the result of inefficiencies or market flaws but a deliberately created system resulting from the logic of capitalism. At the small scale, the value of labour is kept at a low level by the threat of unemployment and the presence of the industrial reserve army. At the large scale, refugees from Syria and Afghanistan and so forth are those members of the unemployed whose purpose is to encourage the others not to try to resist the call of the market. Since capitalism is a total system and a totalizing one, “… it must continue to absorb everything in its path, to interiorize everything that was hitherto exterior to it (p.146).” It absorbs, as a result, all that is open and seemingly unrelated to exchange and renders it, by doing so, part of the system of market relations. All forms of social and emotional relations become converted to economic exchange and so incorporated within the overall system. Resistance – a radical religious belief, for example – is punished by enforced unemployment and inability to participate.

This is a compelling reading of one of the formative books of the modern world and it is one written with subtlety and grace. It does not shy away from the complexities of the original text and the dialectical method it espouses but instead embraces them and explains them as well as could be hoped. It makes a significant contribution to the study of both Capital and capitalism.

References

Harvey, D. (2010). A companion to Marx’s Capital. London and New York, NY: Verso.

Harvey, D. (2013). A companion to Marx’s Capital, volume two. London and New York, NY: Verso.

Heinrich, M. (2012). An introduction to the three volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.

Jameson, F. (2010). Valences of the dialectic. London and New York, NY: Verso.

Lenin, V. I. (1987). Essential works of Lenin: ‘What is to be done’ and other Writings. In Henry M. Christman (Ed.). Mineola, NY: Dover.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

Review of Pendergrast: Beyond Fair Trade

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Pendergrast, Mark, Beyond Fair Trade: How One Small Coffee Company Helped Transform a Hillside Village in Thailand, Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.2, No.3 (Sep-Dec, 2015), pp.60-2.

Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2015; XV + 270 pp.; ISBN: 9781771-640474

Mark Pendergrast is an independent scholar who counts among his publishing credits a global history of coffee and its drinking entitled Uncommon Grounds. He has drawn upon some of the research conducted for that book for this case study on the Doi Chaang Coffee Company, which has become one of the most well-known Thai brands, albeit one which has only limited competition in this regard. The company is a joint venture between the British-born Canadian investor John Darch, who markets and distributes the coffee in his home country, with the Akha coffee growing community in northern Thailand.

Coffee growing in Thailand is a comparatively recent phenomenon as compared to its neighbours and has become associated with opium eradication. The Akha people are among the many ethnic groups living in the northern Mekong region and have migrated there in the past. As ethnic people who do not speak a Tai-based language, they have faced marginalization and poverty. One of the few ways available to them to generate income was to grow opium, which has a ready market in western countries in the form of heroin, as well as domestically. The demand for opium flourished during the period of the Second Indochinese War (known in western countries as the Vietnam War), when the recreational use of heroin among US troops and others helped them overcome the trauma and alienation caused by the conditions. Partly as a consequence, it has been American support and airpower that has been used to eradicate poppy growing. Demand for drugs in the local and regional market has switched to methamphetamines, which can be manufactured in small factories but the chemicals involved have a characteristic and telltale odour that means they tend to be secreted in remote, probably forested areas.

People who used to grow opium have to grow something else but they often do not have the knowledge to do so, the capital required to buy inputs (e.g. seeds, fertilisers and equipment) or access to a market in which to sell their products. Various attempts have been made by government agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs), including missionary groups, to try to solve this problem across the region. Most of these attempts have been failures because, even when saleable products are grown, rural infrastructure is often so poor that it is too difficult and expensive to get the goods to market and still make a profit. There are also issues surrounding the ability of small farmers to engage with distant markets on an equitable basis. Buyers, after all, can simply refuse to buy products and agricultural commodities are notoriously volatile in terms of price. Farmers who do seek to abandon subsistence agriculture in favour of market-based production also face the risk of food insecurity, since they are no longer growing the rice and other staples they and their families would normally eat. This risk is to be balanced against the prospects of a better lifestyle and acquisition of consumer goods available from a successful switch to market-based production.

These issues are at the heart of the Akha coffee growing story because it has only been with substantial outside support that it has been possible for the coffee growers to survive until the time of writing the book and, even so, it is far from clear that the business is really sustainable in the long-term. Outside support has come from technical experts in Thailand, who have helped the farmers learn how to harvest high quality coffee beans on a consistent basis and to deal with any pests that might be encountered. There has also been the extraordinary role played by Wicha Promyong, who is a world-roaming guitar-playing guru with an urgent desire to help the poor Akha, whom he views (and this is also the voice of the author) as people not interested in handouts or transfer payments but willing to do whatever is necessary to help themselves. However, the most important role has been played by Darch, who has invested a great deal of effort, time and money to try to make Doi Chaang popular throughout North America. In doing so, he has borne a great deal of the financial risk himself because of the agreement he has made with the Akha growers, which in effect has shielded them from any losses by guaranteeing purchase of coffee beans at a fixed and agreed price reached quite independently of the international brokered price. It is this guaranteed price that has inspired the book’s title, since the treatment of the growers goes far beyond what would be required to attain fair trade status. Indeed, the arrangement is so generous it would be interesting to discover quite what has motivated the banker and investor Darch to act in such a way. However, the reader is left only to conclude that it is because of his personal virtue.

The book tells the story of this partnership and the problems that have been overcome on the way. The sections that deal with the Akha and their lifestyle are quite interesting and rather more entertaining than the lengthy sections set in Canada detailing organizational development and marketing issues. As a business case study, it lacks a relationship with existing theory and is slightly too unwilling to be critical of the principal players. It is also describing a business that has yet to come to a definitive conclusion or resolution. The fact that the author feels the need to shift to a first person perspective for the concluding chapters suggests that he too feels somewhat unconvinced by how the book was likely to end.

Pendergrast takes a simple, almost simplistic reading of contemporary Thai history, repeating the usual lies about the Pheu Thai government and suggesting the 2014 coup was an attempt to resolve political difficulties (the usual disclosure about working for Shinawatra University of course applies here). This is perhaps a safe approach but it indicates a superficiality of thought and causes the reader, this reader anyway, to wonder what else about the story would be subject to reinterpretation. In all, then, this is a flawed attempt to tell an interesting story at perhaps too great a length – 200 pages would have been more than enough to include everything that would have been required, although it is possible that the publisher was influential in this regard.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

Review of Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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Children of Time

Adrian Tchaikovsky

Off we go to the far future and earth faces another catastrophe – at least the second of these since a previous one brought about the end of the period of human expansion into space and led to a descent into a new dark age that causes contemporary humans to refer to the ‘ancients.’ Some technology from that distant past can be rescued and put into service, even if it is not really understood. So, in response to the new disaster, humanity is going back into space to try to recreate or at least reconnect with the extraterrestrial networks created by the ancients. Alas, time’s arrow has been working apace in the meantime and not everything has been changing in the predicted manner. This is the premise for Adrian Tchaikovsky’s new novel and it is the first of his that I have read. I have seen some of his books around before but it is impossible to read everything or even to buy every book in the shop, no matter how hard I may try. However, I saw some recommendations for this one and I have been in the mood for another long-term evolution in space story after having enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. I am glad that I did because this is a very readable book with some excellent changes of course. I note from the inside cover that the author previously wrote eight novels in one fantasy series and the ending of this book is such that sequels are certainly possible.

There are some minor spoilers in the remaining part of this review.

The new planet, the new old planet that is, has previously been terraformed preparatory to eventual colonization and steps have been taken to ensure that evolution of local lifeforms will enable a smooth transition. Unfortunately for the newly-arriving would-be colonists, the evolution has worked through another lifeform and the planet is crawling with giant, intelligent spiders. Half of the narrative is devoted to the spaceship Gilgamesh and its generally not very sympathetic crew and the other half to the long-term evolution of arachnid society, much of which is determined by the great spiders of the time who are the ones most successfully in receipt of the ‘understandings’ provided by the nanovirus that is the means of fostering rapid societal evolution. The spiders are represented in different generations by the emergence of the dominant intellect of Portia and her various assistants known as Bianca. As spider society develops further, the Portia of the day accepts assistance from the leading male slave Fabian as part of an outrageous undermining of the age-old matriarchy which has supported society throughout known history. This is a good device in enabling the reader to engage with spider mentality and understand the nature of their society. As a fan of science fiction generally, I do not find it necessary to engage with the characters in order to enjoy a book but for some other readers this might result in alienation. Even so, the quality of the prose and the surefootedness of the plot development will be enough to carry most people along well enough.

This is a splendid novel and one I enjoyed reading and would recommend to others. Certainly I would be happy to read a sequel, as and when one should arrive.

From Local Gardens to the National Market: The Case of Cut Flowers in Kathmandu

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Announcing: Walsh, John, “From Local Gardens to the National Market: The Case of Cut Flowers in Kathmandu,” International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management, Vol.20, Nos.5/6 (2016), pp.320-9. DOI: 10.1504/IJEIM.2016.10000619.(http://www.inderscience.com/info/inarticle.php?artid=80010)

Abstract:

Emerging economies develop unevenly, with comparatively small and mostly urban areas being the centre of most development and the place of accommodation for those benefiting from it. In Nepal, a landlocked country graduating from least developed country status, that space is provided almost entirely by central Kathmandu, the capital city. It is there that consumption of consumer goods acquired commercially takes place almost completely. As a middle class emerges, it tends to aspire towards the professionalisation of important family-based rituals, such as weddings and births, as well as religious celebrations. In this situation, cut flowers represent a genuine commercial opportunity as these rituals are professionalised on a seasonal, at least partly predictable pattern. This paper examines how small-scale operations might come to participate in such a commercial sector and what problems and constraints they face in so doing. The result is an exposition of market development in an emerging market.

Keywords: cut flowers; market development; Nepal; price competition; technical capacity; Kathmandu; emerging markets; small-scale operations.

Review of Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

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Dragonfly in Amber
Diana Gabaldon

Dragonfly in Amber is the second in Diana Gabaldon’s popular Outlander series and I will be spoiling the first book in this review.

The central protagonist is the Englishwoman Claire Beauchamp or Fraser whom we saw in the first book disappearing through standing stones two hundred years in the past to the time just before the Jacobite rising of 1745 and manage to survive all kinds of perils and adventures, largely thanks to the interventions of her husband Jamie Fraser. This does not mean that Claire herself is a shrinking violet but rather that there were problems and situations that might occur within pre-modern Scotland that are beyond the ability of a woman to manage, mainly as a result of the overwhelming force used in the violence that was more common in daily life. As a nurse with extensive frontline experience during WWII (the first book opens just after the conclusion of the war in 1945), Claire is neither squeamish nor disempowered in the face of unanticipated events but she lives in a world in which women have influence women have influence and the ability to change the world around them mostly from erotic power and family position, albeit there are some forms of work which can lend social cachet sufficient to discourage causal mistreatment. Nevertheless, this is something of an existentialist approach to historical fiction in that it suggests that characters might indeed have, should they be able to imagine such a thing and then to act on it, the ability to affect the world as subject rather than object of the arrow of time. This, of course, is central to the concept of time travel fiction: if there is not an obvious and immediate need to change the past, then one can soon be invented by the author. In this case, there is no need for invention since Claire, whose first and future husband, so to speak, was or will be a historian and, by virtue of sharing his research activities with her, she is well aware of the forthcoming disaster for the Scottish people that the Battle of Culloden represents. Can the two manage this while also ensuring that her future husband – Frank – will still be born despite being the descendant of the vile villain Black Jack Randall? This is the principal dynamic driving the narrative through this lengthy novel.

Indeed, at more than 900 pages, one might wonder whether the novel is a little too long, especially since it is divided quite neatly into two parts, the first in France and the second in Scotland. It seems possible that the book was originally conceived of by the author as two books but, somewhere along the production line, the decision was made that two should become one. In any case, the pace of the narrative is brisk and the voice of Claire – hers is almost entirely the point of view of the book – is an interesting and entertaining companion, even if she will occasionally stray into some kind of parallel world of romantic fiction. However, she eschews prudishness and revels in adopting a practical course of action whenever this is required of her. She ages over the course of the book but she does not really change. This could be said of all the characters who only ever become more of themselves than they already are either through experience or through revelations of past events.

There are, of course, some problems with verisimilitude. There is a man in Scotland watching daytime television in 1968. The pubs seem to be open all day in contravention to the prevailing licensing laws and seem to require (this is a perennial issue with American authors) customers to pay a bill at the end of a session rather than round by round. However, if a reader is willing to accept the basic premise that it is possible to travel back and forth through time then that reader should be able to accept the occasional anachronism – after all, all of the dialogue in the past is probably best read in the spirit of a Captain Jack Sparrow pirate accent anyway.

Overall, this is an entertaining and diverting read and I would be happy more or less (given how long it takes to read 950 odd pages) to read more of the series.

The Thick Black and White Ocean among Buddhist Pilgrimage Tourist Operators in Thailand

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Announcing:

Nithisathian, Kittichok, Lavanchawee Sujarittanonta and John Walsh, “The Thick Black and White Ocean among Buddhist Pilgrimage Tourist Operators in Thailand,” Journal of Social and Development Studies, Vol.7, No.3 (2016), pp.11-19, available at: http://ifrnd.org/journal/index.php/JSDS/1405-1593-1-SM.pdf

Abstract:

The White Ocean strategy proposed by Thai scholar Danai Chanchaochai addresses management based on Buddhist philosophy, and emphasizes the society first before looking to oneself. At the same time, there is also the concept of Black Ocean, or Hòuhēixué (厚黑學) which translates to Thick Black Theory, proposed by Li Zongwu (李宗吾). Theoretically, an understanding of both white and black can lead the businessman to adjust his plans for better performance. Therefore, this research examines both Black and
White concepts in the context of religious tourism, by collecting business data from tour operators that offer pilgrimage packages to Buddhists. It was found that the Buddhist aspect of the religious tour businesses puts “Blackness” profiteering goals in the background by building a “White” image of charity and donations, thus suggesting that the Black and White co-exists and are inseparable, similar to the middle path or yin-yang
balance in nature.
Keywords: White Ocean Strategy, Black Ocean Strategy, religious tour operators