“American Meat” at the Cinema Village
“The Revolutionary” at the Quad
A meat diet contained in an almost ready state the most essential ingredients required by the organism for its metabolism. By shortening the time required for digestion, it also shortened the other vegetative bodily processes that correspond to those of plant life, and thus gained further time, material and desire for the active manifestation of animal life proper. And the farther man in the making moved from the vegetable kingdom the higher he rose above the animal.
–Frederick Engels, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man
When my old friend Doug Henwood, America’s most brilliant left economist, posted this item on Facebook, I am sure he did it with a mischievous grin on his face since so many people on the left equate meat eating with imperialism. Since Doug cooks a mean meatball, he and other meat-eating leftists would appreciate “American Meat”, a fascinating documentary that makes the case for organic, grass-fed livestock and poultry. I should add that even vegetarians would get a lot out of the film since it deals with attempts to resolve a fundamental crisis in agriculture identified by Karl Marx:
If small-scale landownership creates a class of barbarians standing half outside society, combining all the crudity of primitive social forms with all the torments and misery of civilized countries, large landed property undermines labor-power in the final sphere to which its indigenous energy flees, and where it is stored up as a reserve fund for renewing the vital power of the nation, on the land itself. Large-scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect.
–Karl Marx, Capital V. 3, Chapter 47, Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent
The indigenous energy referred to by Marx is a bunch of manure—literally. The lack of fertilizer was the environmental crisis of the mid-1800s, just as global warming is today. So desperate farmers were for fertilizer that the bones of dead soldiers were considered suitable input for fertilizer. The crisis also led to the “guano wars” in Latin America.
When Fritz Haber, a German scientist born into a Hasidic family, invented chemical based fertilizers in 1918, the crisis appeared to be solved. Henceforth, you did not have to worry about keeping livestock and poultry in close proximity to crops as a source of natural fertilizer. Industrial farming could now be launched on a scientific basis that Marx and Engels never dreamed about. As so happens with such “magic bullets”, the end result was a nightmare.
As the film explains, industrial livestock and poultry production is bad for your health, cruel to the animals, and a waste of precious resources—particularly the petrochemicals that are essential to large-scale production of the sort that Perdue symbolizes.
The film reveals that the major poultry companies own the creatures that farmers raise to maturity. They are dropped off in massive containers and then picked up after they are ready to be slaughtered and packaged. The poultry farmer is under intense pressure to maintain effective cost control since the Taylorist production methods require vast amounts of capital, including air-conditioning, computers, antibiotics and the like.
What comes off the assembly line goes directly to your Walmart and has the merit of being affordable—at least at first blush. It turns out that we are footing the costs of such cheap food by subsidizing the corn and soybean production that makes industrial production possible. What we get from it might be cheap but tasteless.
Grass-fed poultry and livestock is not only a pleasure to eat; it is also beneficial for the soil. Among the farms visited in the film, the art of combining different sorts of animals like chickens and pigs into a kind of organically linked cycle is stunning to behold. The question, of course, is how this can replace the system we operate under now. Can small farms ever compete economically with the Perdues of the world?
The film argues that they can through various strategies, including the direct to market approach embodied by the Union Square Greenmarket in New York. However, for most people of modest means a $25 per pound chicken is out of he question. There have been modest steps toward matching up such people with the suppliers but it has not made that much of a dent as a substitute for Perdue’s.
Among the answers put forward by the film is the growing influence of outfits like Whole Foods and Chipotle’s that are based on grass-fed meat grown by small farmers. Unfortunately, the film almost becomes a free commercial for the two corporations toward its conclusion. It is unfortunate that the film does not reflect on their track record on matters not directly related to what you eat.
In an article titled “Mother Nature, Make Me Rich”, Marxist economist Michael Yates gives the low-down on Steve Ells, who makes an appearance in “American Meat”. It turns out that Ells treats his workers like dogs:
The company has come under scrutiny by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has questioned the identification documents of hundreds of Chipotle employees. Restaurants in Minnesota and Virginia have responded with mass and sudden firings, possibly in violation of state laws and, according to the workers, without paying wages due to them. Workers, labor unions, and support groups have also said that Chipotle had often knowingly hired undocumented immigrants (even allowing them to change their social security numbers!), was using the ICE actions to get rid of senior and more highly paid employees (it takes three years of work to qualify for a one-week vacation), and had actually hired back some of the fired workers as new hires.
Furthermore, there is some question about how healthful the food is, notwithstanding the company’s public relations efforts (including its fiscal backing of the film.) Michael quotes from Wikipedia:
A Center for Science in the Public Interest report stated that Chipotle’s burritos contain over 1,000 calories, which is nearly equivalent to two meals’ worth of food. MSNBC Health placed the burritos on their list of the “20 Worst Foods in America” because of their high caloric content and high sodium. When a burrito with carnitas, rice, vegetables, cheese, guacamole, and salsa was compared with a typical Big Mac, the burrito had more fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, and sodium than the Big Mac, and the burrito had more protein and fiber.
What good does grass-fed beef do you when it is slathered in bad cholesterol?
At least they haven’t taken money from Whole Foods (as far as I know), even though it gives one of its executives plenty of time at the mike. Here’s what the Washington Post had to say about these bastards on August 10, 2008:
Whole Foods Market pulled fresh ground beef from all of its stores Friday, becoming the latest retailer affected by an E. coli outbreak traced to Nebraska Beef, one of the nation’s largest meatpackers. It’s the second outbreak linked to the processor in as many months.
Even if Whole Foods did a better job of checking where their meat was coming from, there’s no evidence that its CEO John Mackey, an obnoxious libertarian, would ever do anything to treat his workers better. A Whole Foods employee spilled the beans to Socialist Workers newspaper on January 28th of this year:
Although it markets itself as a caring health foods store, Whole Foods doesn’t care about the welfare of its own employees.
In the last year, the company has instituted speedups through different policies store to store. In one store, all full-time non-managerial employees had their hours reduced to 30 hours per week. Management cited a decrease in sales numbers, but when sales picked back up, they continued to operate with the reduced hours schedule, resulting in a 25 percent pay cut for full-time employees.
In other stores, management has begun an “incentive” program for cashiers, rewarding increases in items rung up per minute (IPM) and stressing that all cashiers should be increasing their IPM to 30. The average IPM for most cashiers, when ringing at a comfortable and sustainable pace, is 14 to 20 IPM.
Mackey might be selling free-range chickens but he treats his workers much more like Perdue chickens, commodities to be exploited.
While I can recommend “American Meat” as a good presentation of the contradictions of industrial farming and possible prototypes for an alternative mode of production, I am afraid that like most films I have seen in this genre it does not face up to the class interests that make organic agriculture a possibility. The two-party system is owned lock, stock and barrel by agribusiness operating in partnership with big pharma, the arms industry, megabanks and other pillars of American capitalism.
Once we put control of the means of production into the hands of the people who produce the commodities we depend on, then we can talk about truly alternative food production. Until then, the solutions will be partial and somewhat utopian. (That being said, I will make a trip down to Union Square tomorrow to get some organic vegetables and meat.)
Sidney Rittenberg is the quintessential anti-Zelig. Like Woody Allen’s character, he shows up in key moments of Chinese history next to all the big-time players but unlike Zelig is in a commanding position, most of all in the Cultural Revolution.
He was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina in 1921 and became involved with the labor movement while at the University of North Carolina, a long-time hotbed of the radical movement not unlike CCNY. Another famous red alumnus was the late Junius Scales, another scion of an upper-class family.
When he was in the army, he got sent to language school to learn Chinese. Afterwards he was sent to China just as the war was ending. With his radical sympathies, he was inspired to seek out Mao Zedong who was organizing his Red Army in Yan’an province for an all-out assault on the KMT army.
Upon meeting the 24-year-old Rittenberg, Mao invited him to take a senior position at Radio Peking, making sure that the CP’s communications with the West were conveyed properly in English. Rittenberg agreed to stay on but only on one condition—that he be accepted as a member of the Communist Party. That turned out to be a double-edged sword since this experience brought him terrible misery even as it offered him the most fulfilling moments of his life. Even though I and most of my veteran radical readers never reached such a lofty status, we surely can identify with him as he relates his being ground down as a member of what amounted to the largest socialist cult in history—Mao’s Communist Party.
Just four years after going to work at Radio Peking at a salary larger than Mao’s, Stalin sent Mao a letter accusing Rittenberg of being a spy. Rittenberg was offered the choice of being sent back to the U.S. immediately or going to prison in China. He chose China and then spent 6 years in solitary confinement until the Chinese brass decided he wasn’t a spy after all.
Oddly enough, the only other people besides Stalin who raise the possibility that Rittenberg was a spook was the Financial Times:
A feeling that Rittenberg must, surely, have been a deep-cover CIA agent still surfaces occasionally in the US. “There were actually no western agents in China in my time,” he says. “But former intelligence people are convinced to this day that I was an agent under deep cover. I get asked quite probing questions even today by retired CIA people. When I deny it, they say, ‘Wow, you’re good.’ I always considered myself a representative of the genuine American people, in the tradition of revolutionaries like Tom Paine. That’s why I always dressed as an American. I wanted to be an American friend of China, not Chinese.”
I find the CIA accusation hard to believe. Why would an asset such as Rittenberg be ordered to spend 6 years in a Chinese prison when his talents could have been deployed elsewhere? I think it is much more plausible that he did everything he did out of a conviction that he was a participant in the 20th century’s greatest anti-imperialist revolution. I did many stupid and self-destructive things for a much more marginal movement.
Rittenberg is still alive, having moved to the U.S. after his second imprisonment, this time during the Cultural Revolution and once again for being a foreign spy. Now in his 90s, he is an amazingly articulate man capable of deep insights about the Chinese revolution and the personal disasters stemming from both his idealism and the ambitions many of China’s top politicos harbored and still do.