Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 24, 2020

Smithfield and our troubled future

Filed under: Counterpunch,COVID-19,farming — louisproyect @ 12:11 pm


On April 15th, Smithfield closed down its pork factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota after 640 employees became sick from COVID-19. They constitute 44 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the state, making it the epicenter of the pandemic locally.

Joseph W. Luter founded the company in 1936. Like most industrial meat-producing companies, Smithfield became infamous for CAFO, the initials for concentrated animal feeding operation. Poultry farms were the first to convert operations to CAFO in the 1950s, followed by beef and pork in the ensuing decades. Smithfield’s flagship operation was Tar Heel, North Carolina, which processed 32,000 pigs a day. Given the highly concentrated nature of this mode of production, disposing of waste products is a chore for management. Pig excrement tends to follow the path of least resistance, however. It flows directly into the rivers and lakes of the states that house CAFO-type operations.

In 2019, Hurricane Florence struck North Carolina. In Duplin County, CAFOs produce twice as much pig urine and feces as all the toilets in New York City. Most of it ends up in hog “lagoons”, the open-air pits clustered in the area hardest hit by Hurricane Florence. It caused overflows that carried E. coli, salmonella, cryptosporidium, and other harmful bacteria into North Carolina waters. Even when there are no hurricanes, there is still extensive water pollution since the lagoons seep into groundwater that then pollutes rivers and lakes.

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April 22, 2020

Donald Trump’s enablers at Stanford University

Filed under: Academia,COVID-19 — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Leland Stanford

Some of America’s most prestigious universities were created and named after robber barons. Carnegie-Mellon was founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1900, just 11 years after the steel magnate gave the green light to Pinkerton for an armed assault on the strikers in Homestead. Then there is Duke University, named in honor of James Duke, the tobacco boss who left millions in an early grave from cancer, heart disease and emphysema. Equally prestigious is Stanford University that got its name from Leland Stanford, a railroad tycoon.

Like other robber barons, Stanford launched a political career. He became governor of California in 1862 and used his power to persecute the Chinese. In a speech made early in his career, he made Donald Trump look like Bernie Sanders by comparison:

To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population. Large numbers of this class are already here; and, unless we do something early to check their immigration, the question, which of the two tides of immigration, meeting upon the shores of the Pacific, shall be turned back, will be forced upon our consideration, when far more difficult than now of disposal. There can be no doubt but that the presence among us of numbers of degraded and distinct people must exercise a deleterious influence upon the superior race, and to a certain extent, repel desirable immigration.

Stanford is infamous for its Hoover Institution of War, Revolution, and Peace, a rightwing think-tank founded in 1919 by Stanford alumnus Herbert Hoover. The Hoover Institution was in the news recently when one of its fellows, an NYU law professor named Richard Epstein, predicted that there would be no more than 500 deaths from COVID-19 in the USA. In a must-read interview with Epstein by New Yorker Magazine’s Isaac Chotiner, the cocky and ill-informed lawyer was twisted into a pretzel, at one point stating, “You know nothing about the subject but are so confident that you’re going to say that I’m a crackpot.” I am not that much into Freud, but this sounds like a classic example of projection.

Despite having qualifications far in advance of Richard Epstein’s, some Stanford epidemiologists have been in the news making Donald Trump talking points. John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist and co-director of Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Center, caught the eye of the NY Times’s Thomas Friedman who cited him an op-ed piece questioning the seriousness of the pandemic. Friedman noted that the Stanford expert believed that we still do not have a firm grasp of the population-wide fatality rate of coronavirus. It might only be one percent and could even be lower. That being the case, Ioannidis warned:

If that is the true rate locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.

Ioannidis had co-thinkers at Stanford. In a March 24 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by Stanford professors Eran Bendavid and Jay Bhattacharya that was widely circulated on pro-Trump websites, you got the same analysis as Ioannidis. They wrote, “A universal quarantine may not be worth the costs it imposes on the economy, community and individual mental and physical health. We should undertake immediate steps to evaluate the empirical basis of the current lockdowns.”

Ioannidis, Bendavid and Bhattacharya were in the news again this week. They conducted a blood survey of residents in Santa Clara County and discovered that between 2.49% and 4.16% of may have coronavirus antibodies. The good news, as far as they were concerned, was that the infection fatality rate was between 0.12% and 0.2%. So, what’s to worry?

Another jackass from the Hoover Institution couldn’t wait to get the findings circulated on pro-Trump media. Hoover fellow Victor Davis Hanson, even more cocksure and reactionary than Richard Epstein, got in touch with Rush Limbaugh to give him the good news. From the moron’s website:

Folks, I was minding my own business on Friday, and I got a flag email from my friend Victor Davis Hanson, and it was a preliminary report on Stanford University’s research in Santa Clara County. It is bombshell. It was the prepublication. The file that he sent me was actually the preprint version, which is pre-peer review.

But here is the take-away paragraph from the research. It suggests that one county’s cases, Santa Clara, California — which, by the way, is where the 49ers are. For those of you who know geography by your sports teams, Santa Clara is where the 49ers stadium is, 49er training complex. They’re not in San Francisco anymore. “One county’s cases could be more than double the entire state’s reported cases by testing.

“Even a 1% to 4% existing positives to the virus in a population, completely overturn the case-to-fatality rates. In this case, the figures work out to a mortality rate of 0.1%, not 1%, not 2%, not 4%, not 5% — 0.1% at the high, and the low end, 0.02%.” That would be like a normal or bad flu year. One to two per thousand dying in the population. Remember, when we started, the models here that everybody swore by which gave us the lockdown policy were predicting four to one dying per hundred — per hundred, not thousand.

Writing for Slate, Jane Hu took apart both Victor Davis Hanson and the scientists he relied on to spread his Trumpist talking points:

On Tuesday, KSBW, a news station in Monterey, California, aired a story about California’s potential “herd immunity” to the novel coronavirus. The piece opens by discussing a new study from Stanford Medicine in which researchers are conducting blood tests that detect antibodies, which can show whether an individual has or previously had COVID-19. The reporter then goes on to cite Victor Davis Hanson, a Stanford-affiliated source who advances the theory that COVID-19 might have actually begun spreading in California in fall 2019. “[Stanford’s] data could help to prove COVID-19 arrived undetected in California much earlier than previously thought,” KSBW reported.

The piece has spread widely. An accompanying web story posted to the TV station’s website has been shared more than 58,300 times, and has also been picked up by SFGate. The theory is appealing to some, particularly those who had respiratory illnesses in late 2019 that they now believe could’ve been COVID-19. In their minds, that might mean they have some immunity to the virus—and if a large portion of Americans have some immunity, we can begin our move out of lockdown. But that theory has no scientific basis, and it spreads dangerous misinformation.

Let’s start with the facts. I reached out to Stanford Medicine to try to understand the goals of its antibody test, and how it relates to Hanson’s fall 2019 theory. The short answer on the latter is that it doesn’t. “Our research does not suggest that the virus was here that early,” says Lisa Kim of Stanford’s media relations team.

Neither does anyone else’s, it appears. “There is zero probability [SARS-CoV-2] was circulating in fall 2019,” tweeted Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who has been tracking SARS-CoV-2’s genetic code as it has spread. Allison Black, a genomic epidemiologist working in Bedford’s lab, says this is apparent from researchers’ data. As the virus spreads, it also mutates, much like the way words change in a game of Telephone. By sequencing the virus’s genome from different individual samples, researchers can track strains of the coronavirus back to its origins. They have been continually updating their findings on Nextstrain. (In case you’re wondering, the strains have nothing to do with severity of illness. They’re simply a way to track the virus’s mutations over time.)

Richard Neher, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, told the Scientist that Nextstrain researchers’ work has tracked the virus back to a single source “somewhere between mid-November and early December,” which then spread in China. The earliest cases in the U.S. appeared in January 2020, according to Nextstrain’s sequencing work. Washington state, where the first known COVID-19 case in the U.S. was identified, has at least six strains. A similar analysis of California’s coronavirus cases—which has yet to be peer-reviewed—identified at least eight strains in the state, suggesting transmission from Washington state, New York, Europe, and China.

If genomics isn’t your thing, consider this: If the virus had arrived earlier, we would have known. Humans have no natural immunity to this new virus, which is why it’s spreading quickly, infecting millions and killing tens of thousands. That’s evident in what’s going on in New York right now, says Black. “If it had arrived in fall of 2019, and we were all living our lives as normal, we would’ve had New York back in fall of 2019,” she says. There’s no reason why this virus would have spread undetected for months before wreaking the havoc it has.

This is not the end of the controversy. Besides the Slate article, there is a wave of criticism directed at the study from professionals in the field as reported in the Mercury News.

But over the weekend, some of the nation’s top number crunchers said their extrapolation of the results rests on a flimsy foundation.

They contended the Stanford analysis is troubled because it draws sweeping conclusions based on statistically rare events, and is rife with sampling and statistical imperfections.

Gelman of Columbia University called the conclusions “some numbers that were essentially the product of a statistical error.”

“They’re the kind of screw-ups that happen if you want to leap out with an exciting finding,” he wrote, “and you don’t look too carefully at what you might have done wrong.”

From the lab of Erik van Nimwegen of the University of Basel came this: “Loud sobbing reported from under Reverend Bayes’ grave stone,” referring to a famed statistician. “Seriously, I might use this as an example in my class to show how NOT to do statistics.”

“Do NOT interpret this study as an accurate estimate of the fraction of population exposed,” wrote Marm Kilpatrick, an infectious disease researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz. “Authors have made no efforts to deal with clearly known biases and whole study design is problematic.”

My advice is to visit the Stanford University Board of Trustees page where you will get a good idea of who runs the place. It is filled with hedge fund operators, real estate developers, silicon valley bosses, private equity, et al. If we ever cut off the head of the beast that is responsible for the mess we are in right now, one of the first things we’ll have to do is make all universities public and fund them properly. Right now, they are wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate American and in this instance glaringly so.

April 20, 2020

A message to the government

Filed under: comedy,COVID-19 — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm

April 10, 2020

The SWP and Social Distancing: a Study in Abnormal Political Psychology

Filed under: Counterpunch,COVID-19,cults,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:42 pm


In the photo below, dated March 15, 2020, you will see a group of mostly senior citizens defying the call for social distancing. Who could they be? Rightwing Christian evangelists? Libertarians standing up for liberty?

Nope. Instead, you are looking at members of the Socialist Workers Party at a memorial meeting for one of their members who died last month. The Militant newspaper reported that more than sixty people were in attendance. That’s probably about half the membership, and 1,900 less than when I was a member back in the 1970s. What happened to all these people, including me? Most either drifted away or became victims of a purge in the early 1980s when they fought to preserve the party’s Trotskyist heritage. Over the past decade, the dropout rate accelerated mostly as a result of the party adopting increasingly peculiar positions. Of the remaining 100 or so, their activism mostly consists of going door to door like Jehovah’s Witnesses peddling the books and newspapers of what most would view as a cult.

Was there some sort of death-wish at work in this March 16th memorial meeting? If you are a typical member, there might be some relief in such an outcome. Many have jobs at Walmart despite college degrees and professional past. That in itself does not earn them brownie points with the long-time cult leadership that lives in Manhattan high-rises even more pricey than my own. Under social pressure, members must send in “blood money” to sustain the SWP. Such donations come from the paltry bonuses they receive at Walmart and other low-paying venues. Maybe, in the back of their minds, an end-run on a ventilator would be welcomed as euthanasia.

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April 3, 2020

COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain

Filed under: Counterpunch,COVID-19 — louisproyect @ 3:52 pm


Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

On March 25th, N.Y. Times op-ed columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote about “How the World’s Richest Country Ran Out of a 75-Cent Face Mask.” The subtitle certainly went against the grain of what you’d read from a page dominated by Thomas Friedman: “A very American story about capitalism consuming our national preparedness and resiliency.”

Manjoo identified just one of many failures of the Trump administration to be prepared for the epidemic. Alex Azar, the HHS Secretary had testified that there were only about 40 million masks in our domestic stockpiles, around 1 percent of what would be required. Like much else, mask manufacturing had migrated to China in the same way as all other textile industries had long ago.

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March 14, 2020

Polio, COVID-19, and socialism

Filed under: COVID-19,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

One of the few remaining survivors, Paul Alexander spends almost every moment of the day inside his iron lung.

In 1952, when I was very young, fear gripped my little village in the Catskills and across the USA as well. Sixty thousand children were stricken with the polio virus that year, leaving 3,000 dead and thousands more paralyzed. Some children were kept alive in an iron lung that functioned like the modern-day ventilator but that kept them confined to a virtual living coffin.

Summer was called “polio season”. In Woodridge, we had Kaplan’s Lake, a pond really, that local kids swam in. I went there mainly to wade near the beach. One summer our parents told us that it was being shut down because of the polio epidemic. We were also warned about sitting too close to each other in movie theaters, a real problem when the latest Martin and Lewis movie had kids lined up around the block to buy a ticket at the Lyceum Theater in Woodridge.

FDR was probably the most well-known polio victim in the USA but many others had the illness, including Neil Young and Francis Ford Coppola who had milder cases. Born in 1950, Patrick Cockburn came down with polio when he was six. He wrote a book about his experience titled “The Broken Boy” in 2005. In an NPR interview that year, the host told him: “You’ve been left with a limp, a severe limp. But you interviewed other survivors who were really much worse off.” Cockburn replied:

Yes, many of them. One man who became a businessman had to learn to sign his name using his teeth–with a pen stuck in his teeth and a special apparatus. Many others were–had their back affected, their lungs affected, their legs affected. But many people fought back. I mean, I met one man who was a farmer who was frightened that when he went home, because he was so badly crippled, that people wouldn’t accept him. But actually his family–and Irish families are very strong–re-adapted the farm so he could operate the farm machinery, so he could be a working farmer. And many other people fought back against extraordinary odds.

For many doctors, the goal of developing a vaccine to prevent polio became paramount. FDR founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938 and promoted the March of Dimes for polio research. When Harry Truman became president, he committed to a war on polio using language redolent of the 30s New Deal:

The fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war. It must be nationwide. It must be total war in every city, town and village throughout the land. For only with a united front can we ever hope to win any war.

Two research doctors, New York Jews, were instrumental in developing a vaccine. Neither one of them saw this as a way of getting rich. Their goal was only to save the lives of children.

Born in New York City in 1914, Jonas Salk developed a vaccine based on dead polio viruses in 1955. Backing for his project was universal, with 100 million contributors to the March of Dimes, and 7 million volunteers going around with the iconic collection bank.

Salk could have made millions by patenting the vaccine but he preferred to see it made as widely available as possible. When he went on Edward R. Murrow’s popular “Person to Person” show, the host asked him who owned the patent. Salk replied, “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” (Had it been patented, it would be worth $7 billion.)

As it happens, Salk graduated from CCNY, a hotbed of radicalism in the 1930s. It should come as no surprise that J. Edgar Hoover had his number. Five years before he came out with the vaccine, he was the subject of an FBI investigation. Writing to Dillon Anderson, a top aide to Eisenhower, Hoover recapitulated his transgressions:

  • Three unnamed associates of Salk, professors at U-M, said that during World War II Salk contributed to war relief for the Soviet Union and was “outspoken” in his praise for that country. The associates said Salk praised the country’s technical advances, while his wife, Donna, was even more outspoken in her praise for all aspects of Soviet life, Hoover wrote.
  • One of Salk’s professional associates at U-M in the 1940s said that Salk was “far left of center.” Another associate noted that a liberal organization for which Salk served as treasurer in 1946 became “leftist” under Salk’s leadership.
  • Salk and his wife registered to vote for the American Labor Party in the early 1940s, the letter says. According to an informant, the Communist Party emerged as a controlling force of the ALP within areas of New York City during that time.
  • An informant advised that Salk’s brother, Lee, was a member of the Communist Party in Ann Arbor in 1948.
  • According to an informant, Hoover said, Salk’s name appeared on the mailing list of the New York Conference for Inalienable Rights in 1941. The group was cited as a Communist front by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Born Albert Saperstein in Bialystok, Poland in 1906, Albert Sabin received a medical degree from NYU, just as Salk did. Unlike Salk, Sabin’s goal was to develop a vaccine based on weakened polio virus. Both vaccines worked, with Sabin’s having the advantage of being able to be taken orally and longer-lasting.

Defying Cold War hysteria, Sabin worked closely with Soviet bloc doctors and scientists, thus earning him the reputation of working on a “communist vaccine”. In an article titled “Vaccination and the communist state: polio in Eastern Europe”, Dora Vargha concludes that the communist states were capable of “doing good things” as Bernie Sanders has said:

Both East and West shared the perception of what the communist state was and its ideal role in polio prevention. Following the appearance and successful application of live poliovirus vaccines, Eastern European states saw themselves as particularly suited to achieve effectiveness in curbing – and eradicating – polio through their part in vaccine development and its distribution. The West, while not endorsing such political regimes ideologically, agreed. Indeed, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland became pioneers in introducing, testing and applying live poliovirus vaccines on a mass scale, while their Eastern European peers were quick to follow in mass vaccination.

From a broader geopolitical perspective, polio raised uncomfortable questions about the positive side of communist regimes (i.e. effective epidemic control) and in a short time came to symbolise ‘neutral’ science that broke the barriers between East and West. The top-down organisation of vaccine trial organisation and immunisation, which was, at the time, seen as particularly communist and Eastern European, also came to be seen as the most effective way to eradicate polio on a global scale.

Sabin continued reaching out to demonized post-capitalist societies long after this. In a 2014 article titled “Epidemics and Opportunities for U.S.-Cuba Collaboration”, Marguerite Jiménez described his internationalist outlook:

Several years after his collaborative breakthrough with the Soviet Union, Sabin set his sights on a much smaller Communist collaborator, one that was much closer to home. Sabin had traveled to Cuba multiples times prior to the Cuban revolution in 1959, however he had been unable to return since the early 1950s. Despite receiving multiple invitations from public health officials on the island during the early 1960s, the escalation of hostilities between the United States and Cuba made such a high-profile visit by a famous U.S. scientist all but impossible.

Sabin’s enthusiastic pursuit of collaborative opportunities with the Soviet Union during the 1950s foreshadowed his efforts in Cuba to overcome political obstacles and diplomatic melodrama. Accordingly, at the end of 1965 when the Department of State announced an easing of restrictions on travel to Communist nations by certain categories of professionals, Sabin quickly seized the opportunity. The Department of State reported that the relaxation had been in response to the “urging of the medical community,” and had been done for reasons of “humanity” to promote greater international cooperation in combating diseases. While medical research justified the humanitarian nature of the move, the New York Times reported, “The hope in official circles was that the medical scientists could open the door to closer cooperation in other scientific areas.” Sabin immediately sent copies of the announcement to colleagues in Cuba and within twenty-four hours he received an invitation through Cuba’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

Finally, after almost two years of planning, Sabin arrived in Havana on December 4, 1967. While in Cuba, he had the opportunity to visit and meet with people in a wide range of scientific and medical institutions, as well as hospitals, polyclinics, and research facilities. While other elements of his trip became public thanks to a handful of newspaper articles on the subject published in both the United States and Cuba, what is not commonly known is that during his trip, Sabin met with Antonio Nuñez Jiménez, a prominent young leader within Fidel Castro’s regime and the president of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba. Sabin described Jiménez as a “pistol packing” and “very pleasant” person.

Yesterday, I was reminded of Salk and Sabin after reading a report from the Sunnybrook Research Institute, a hospital associated the University of Toronto. Titled “Research team has isolated the COVID-19 virus”, it revealed that Dr. Robert Kozak, Dr. Samira Mubareka, Dr. Arinjay Banerjee had isolated severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the agent responsible for the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19.

That information would be critical to developing a vaccine. In describing their discovery, Arinjay Banerjee sounded very much in the Salk/Sabin tradition: “Now that we have isolated the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we can share this with other researchers and continue this teamwork. The more viruses that are made available in this way, the more we can learn, collaborate and share.”

Collaborate and share. That’s not only necessary for overcoming COVID-19 but in saving the world from capitalist destruction.

Farhad Manjoo, one of the only readable NY Times op-ed columnists, was onto something when he wrote that “everyone’s a socialist in a pandemic”. He wrote:

There may be a silver lining here: What if the virus forces Americans and their elected representatives to recognize the strength of a collectivist ethos? The coronavirus, in fact, offers something like a preview of many of the threats we might face from the worst effects of climate change. Because the virus is coldly indiscriminate and nearly inescapable, it leaves us all, rich and poor, in the same boat: The only way any of us is truly protected is if the least among us is protected.


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