Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 9, 2006

Our Daily Bread

Filed under: farming,Film — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was a muck-raking novel that took aim at the meatpacking industry during its most dangerous, unregulated and filthy infancy. Exactly, 100 years after its publication, we can now see a documentary by Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter that depicts a safer, more efficient and sterile work-place. But for all of that, “Our Daily Bread” is just as disturbing.

Using the cinéma vérité techniques of Frederick Wiseman, Geyrhalter takes us into the assembly-lines of meat and poultry factories, as well as the greenhouses and fields of agribusiness, where Taylorism reigns supreme.

“Our Daily Bread” studiously avoids editorializing of any sort. The images themselves are sufficient to reveal food production as a mix of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and Frederick Wiseman’s “Meat,” a 1976 documentary about the livestock business that “Our Daily Bread” clearly reflects. The main difference between Wiseman and Geyrhalter is that the latter eschews sensationalism of all sorts. While his film might lack the visceral impact of Wiseman’s, it is arguably more persuasive because it depicts the food industry as somehow inextricably linked to advances in technology and science. Geyrhalter challenges the audience to reject the paradigm set forth in his film. In so doing, they might be rejecting civilization as we know it.

The images of “Our Daily Bread” will linger in the viewer’s mind like a bad dream. Two men and overalls are attending to a cow with a gaping hole in its side, out of which they extract new born calves. We do not know why the animal is not allowed to give birth in the normal fashion, but have to assume that this born of scientific necessity and the need to maximize profits. Chickens are hurtled at high speed on conveyor belts into awaiting crates. When one falls off, a worker picks it up by its feet and throws it into another carton as if it were a plastic part. Indeed, one can only conclude that in order to survive on such a job, it becomes necessary to become utterly detached from what you are doing. If you have any sense of compassion for the animal kingdom, it will only get in the way of performing your job. When one is paid to slit the throats of chickens 8 hours a day, it is best not to think about what you are doing.

Agricultural production does not come off much better in “Our Daily Bread.” As men in white coveralls and protective masks spray plants with a chemical mist in a greenhouse, we are reminded of workers in a nuclear plant. In the fields, mechanization rules everything, including the workers. There is practically nothing to distinguish a farm worker from an assembly line worker.

Animals, plants and workers in Geyrhalter’s spare but dramatic documentary are collectively involved in a process that was identified by Karl Marx in the mid-nineteenth century:

In agriculture as in manufacture, the transformation of production under the sway of capital, means, at the same time, the martyrdom of the producer; the instrument of labour becomes the means of enslaving, exploiting, and impoverishing the labourer; the social combination and organisation of labour-processes is turned into an organised mode of crushing out the workman’s individual vitality, freedom, and independence. The dispersion of the rural labourers over larger areas breaks their power of resistance while concentration increases that of the town operatives. In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of the labour set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labour-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth-the soil and the labourer.

(Capital, V.1, chapter 15)

“Our Daily Bread” is available from First Run/Icarus Films.

 

5 Comments »

  1. […] “7915 Km” directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, whose brilliant examination of agribusiness “Our Daily Bread” I reviewed in 2006. The film’s title refers to the length of the Paris-to-Dakar road rally […]

    Pingback by Vyer Films: the cognoscenti’s Netflix « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 16, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

  2. […] “7915 Km” directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, whose brilliant examination of agribusiness “Our Daily Bread” I reviewed in 2006. The film’s title refers to the length of the Paris-to-Dakar road rally […]

    Pingback by Vyer Films: the cognoscenti’s Netflix | Socialist Agenda WebzineSocialist Agenda Webzine — October 19, 2012 @ 2:22 am

  3. […] I first encountered the work of Nikolaus Geyrhalter almost exactly 10 years ago. His “Our Daily Bread” lacked narration and simply depicted visually the process of food production in fields, barns, slaughterhouses, etc. From my review: […]

    Pingback by Cameraperson; Homo Sapiens | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 28, 2016 @ 7:33 pm

  4. […] initial exposure to Geyrhalter was back in 2006, when my review of “Our Daily Bread” referred to its preference for “showing” rather than […]

    Pingback by Civilization and Its Absence - open mind news — June 22, 2018 @ 7:43 am

  5. […] initial exposure to Geyrhalter was back in 2006, when my review of “Our Daily Bread” referred to its preference for “showing” rather than […]

    Pingback by Civilization and Its Absence | Radio Free — June 22, 2018 @ 8:25 am


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