Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 4, 2016

Sharecropper Nation

Filed under: farming,transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

White Landowners Weighing Sharecroppers’ Cotton

In a fascinating two part interview that Chris Hedges conducted with Michael Hudson on CounterPunch, they agreed that the USA was succumbing to “neo-feudalism” because the rentiers had taken over. Hudson pointed out that real estate magnates and banks are basically parasites sucking wealth out of the “real economy” as they worked nonstop to figure out new ways to turn the population into debt peons.

HEDGES: But could it go down and down, and what we end up with is a form of neofeudalism, a rapaciously wealthy, oligarchic elite with a kind of horrifying police state to keep us all in order?

HUDSON: This is exactly what happened in the Roman Empire.

HEDGES: Yes, it did.

HUDSON: You had the great Roman historians, Livy and Plutarch – all blamed the decline of the Roman empire on the creditor class being predatory, and the latifundia. The creditors took all money, and would just buy more and more land, displacing the other people. The result in Rome was a Dark Age, and that can last a very long time. The Dark Age is what happens when the rentiers take over.

If you look back in the 1930s, Leon Trotsky said that fascism was the inability of the socialist parties to come forth with an alternative. If the socialist parties and media don’t come forth with an alternative to this neofeudalism, you’re going to have a rollback to feudalism.

HEDGES: And in essence, we become a kind of nation of sharecroppers.

HUDSON: That’s exactly right, having to shop at the company store.

Since I always considered Hudson a post-Keynesian, I might have been a bit surprised to see the reference to Leon Trotsky but now wonder if there’s a debt to the Russian revolutionary that is more than skin-deep. In the first part of the interview, Hedges introduced Hudson as the “godson of Leon Trotsky”. I was intrigued to see this reference and a bit of poking around revealed a family connection even though one not necessarily on the basis of a faith-based relationship. It turns out that Hudson is the son of Carlos Hudson, one of the SWP leaders imprisoned in 1940 for violation of the Smith Act—in other words being opposed to WWII.

I had never heard of Carlos Hudson before this but upon doing a search on the Marxism Internet Archives, I discovered that he had written for the Trotskyist press both in his own name and as Jack Ranger, an evocative pen name to say the least. As Carlos Hudson, he had been the editor of the Northwest Organizer, the newspaper that hoped to spread the influence of the Trotskyist-led Minneapolis teamster’s local. And as Jack Ranger, he wrote a series of articles in 1948 under the title Tapping the Wall St. Wire. They have the same kind of apocalyptic tone as the Hedges/Hudson interview: “To assume that the capitalists or their political agents can control capitalism is to give them much too much credit. They cannot. It is an anarchical system, and cannot be harnessed to plans. That is why it must be succeeded by socialism which CAN PLAN FOR HUMANITY.”

As it happens, I have been preoccupied lately with the question of sharecropping and debt peonage, the lynchpins of the post-Civil War southern economy. Does the term feudalism accurately describe the class relations between the white owner of land and the former slaves who continued to be deeply oppressed in what Sven Beckert calls the Empire of Cotton?

I for one would question the usefulness of such a term in light of what Karl Marx said about the slave owners in Theories of Surplus Value:

In the second type of colonies—plantations—where commercial speculations figure from the start and production is intended for the world market, the capitalist mode of production exists, although only in a formal sense, since the slavery of Negroes precludes free wage-labour, which is the basis of capitalist production. But the business in which slaves are used is conducted by capitalists.

For some the litmus test for agrarian capitalism is free wage-labor, especially those who belong to the Political Marxism school. While reluctant to use the term feudal to describe sharecropping, Charles Post certainly views it as outside of capitalism. In the conclusion to “The American Road to Capitalism”, he writes:

Congressional Reconstruction, however, had a major unintended consequence. Rather than realising the utopian vision of a capitalist plantation-agriculture based on juridically free labour, Republican dominance in the South led to the break-up of the plantations and the emergence of a new, non-capitalist form of social labour, share-cropping tenancy.

For Post, agrarian capitalism is synonymous with the large British estates run by tenant farmers in the 16th century and onwards that employed wage labor. If this is your litmus test, naturally you would regard sharecropping as “non-capitalist”. Going further in a Jacobin interview, Post claims that if the slaves had been granted the forty acres and a mule that had been promised to them, this “would have consolidated a non-capitalist African-American peasantry subsisting outside of market relations.” It is a bit puzzling to consider small farmers “subsisting outside of market relations” in the post-Civil War period. This was not exactly the USA of the early 1800s when plucky yeoman farmers could grow their own food self-sufficiently in the frontier territories like the family Alan Ladd happened upon in “Shane” or in the TV show “Little House on the Prairie”.

If you rely on Marx as the ultimate authority on such questions, there’s not much to go by in his writings. In volume 3 of Capital, he defines the sharecropper as “his own capitalist”:

On the one hand, the sharecropper, whether he employs his own or another’s labour, is to lay claim to a portion of the product not in his capacity as labourer, but as possessor of part of the instruments of labour, as his own capitalist.

Indeed, in my education in the party that both Post and I belonged to, the small farmer was always considered a classic petty-bourgeoisie. Like the shopkeeper or the lawyer, they tended to work for themselves with occasionally a small staff of wage earners to help keep them going. In fact, forty-four percent of all farms in the USA are run by two people or less. Many of them are virtual debt peons to the agribusinesses they rely on for supplies and credit, much as the sharecropper relied on the plantation owner for his tools and other necessities.

It is too bad that Post has never spent much time writing about what happened after Reconstruction. Citing the research of Susan Mann, he states “In the first four decades of the twentieth century, the planters’ ability to organise the labour-process under their command and fire workers at will [ie., as wage workers] allowed them to progressively mechanise southern agriculture”. I personally would not try to compress a vast chunk of history into a single sentence but what would I know? I have never been invited to speak at a HM Workshop.

I have my doubts over this especially since the machine that effectively put cotton harvesting on an industrial footing did not come into existence until 1943 when International Harvester introduced a mechanical picker that could separate the fiber from the plant. Even if wage labor on large-scale British-style farms had been introduced in 1870 at the point of a Union Army bayonet, it would have not made much of a difference. It was not the form of labor exploitation that dictated manual labor but the technical barriers to picking cotton.

Even now, there are no machines that can replace the manual labor necessary to pick cocoa beans, a source of $98.3 billion in sales last year. Much of it is harvested by child labor, often enslaved, in places like Ghana. A machete must be used to pry open the pods to expose the beans that are then extracted by hand. The same thing is true of coffee beans that are picked by hand in places like Nicaragua, Colombia and El Salvador on the sides of hills where they flourish. It is only on flat land and where the fields are immense, such as in Brazil, that machines can be used.

For a useful survey on the fitful attempts to replace living labor by dead labor (ie. machines), I recommend a look at Rachel Snyder’s “Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World”:

Cotton is a devilishly difficult crop to mechanize. It grows differently according to climate and variety; some plants grow less than a meter, while others can sprout up to become trees. Some plants are thin and scrubby while others bush out wildly. Bolls vary in size and ripen at different times, while the pre-bloom pods are very fragile. As early as 1820, one mad Louisiana farmer imported a large brood of Brazilian monkeys with the misguided but charming aspiration of training them to pick cotton.

Many of the early harvesting prototypes were drawn by mule or horse, though generally speaking they used pneumatic extractors, electrical devices, chemical processes, threshers, or other available technologies of the day. One 1957 industry book illustrates hundreds of failed machines that resemble upright vacuum cleaners, train engines, or basket/conveyor contraptions atop a set of wheels. Some even looked like early cartoon drawings of multi-legged aliens or, if you’re a child of the 1960s and 1970s, oversized hookahs. The first attempts all had some sort of suction device and ran either on gasoline or electricity. One determined man named L. C. Stuckenborg spent more than two decades attempting to make a viable machine for the open market with a set of electrically operated brushes attached to individual sucking tubes. He was said to have been inspired by a cow’s bristly tongue, after he allegedly watched a cow work seeds from unplucked cotton bolls one afternoon. His life’s passion, as it turned out, never worked well enough to produce and sell.

I should only add that I have to wonder whether Post was citing Susan Mann accurately since I have read reviews of her book that refer to her belief that attempts to apply industrial techniques to agriculture face a number of challenges:

With many industrial goods, labour time and production time are nearly identical; with agricultural goods, one encounters a gap during which crops or livestock are maturing, immobilizing capital for a longer period. Moreover, the rhythm of the seasons imposes only one or two production cycles per year in agriculture, discouraging industrial investment in time-saving technology designed to shorten (and increase the number of) annual production cycles. Furthermore, agricultural machinery is different from industrial machinery: it cannot be used constantly (thus increasing its relative cost), and it is more directly tied to nature. These obstacles to capitalist agricultural production are exacerbated by special features of agricultural distribution and marketing – the unpredictability of yields, the spoilage of produce, etc.

–William Roseberry, Social History, Vol. 18, No. 2 (May, 1993),

Finally, even when mechanical cotton-pickers hit the marketplace, they were not purchased by the agrarian capitalists immediately. As hard as this is to believe, they did a cost-benefit analysis and figured out that as long as living labor was cheaper than dead labor, they’d stick with the status quo—namely sharecropping, debt peonage, the KKK, and all the rest.

In the Spring 1948 edition of Science and Society, there’s an article titled “Machines in Cotton” by James S. Allen that is essential reading on this matter. Many of you are too young to remember Allen but in the 1960s he was one of the CP’s leading editors. At International Publishers he did very good work bringing out WEB Dubois and other Marxist thinkers whose volumes were always for sale on Pathfinder Bookstore shelves.

Long before he got involved with the CP’s publishing arm, he launched “The Southern Worker” in 1930, the first Communist newspaper produced below the Mason-Dixon line. He was an advocate of the Black Belt, a misguided attempt to agitate for a Black separatist state in the South, largely a product of “Third Period” Stalinism.

In any case, there’s no denying that he was an expert on the South as the substantive S&S article would indicate. His main point is that unless there was a significant savings through the introduction of machinery, the preferred option would be manual labor. Referring to a Mississippi State College study conducted in 1944, Lewis pointed out that the cost of machine-harvested cotton was $33.04 per bale, as compared to $37.76 per bale for hand-picked crops on the same plantation. This was not enough to justify spending money on an expensive machine. Furthermore, the study was conducted during a period of labor shortage when many Southern Blacks had joined the army to replace the brutal racism of the South with one somewhat easier to take. If labor had remained in ample supply, there would have been even fewer machines purchased. This is something on Allen’s mind in 1948 because like Carlos Hudson he frets over the possibility of a new economic depression that would force Blacks into the reserve army of the unemployed and hence sustain the slave-like conditions of sharecropping. However, history took a sharp turn that was predicted neither by the CP or the Trotskyists. What lie in store was a mammoth expansion of the capitalist economy that would last for 25 years until the rise of neoliberalism, globalization and all the other aspects of its latest stage that Hedges and Hudson so eloquently decry.

Returning to Hedges and Hudson, I can understand their anger over what appears to be a return to the past. Yet the notion that feudalism is on the agenda seems ahistorical. The growth of a rentier economy is not an indication that we are about to enter anything resembling the late middle ages.

To reprise Hudson: “If you look back in the 1930s, Leon Trotsky said that fascism was the inability of the socialist parties to come forth with an alternative. If the socialist parties and media don’t come forth with an alternative to this neofeudalism, you’re going to have a rollback to feudalism.”

In all likelihood, American capitalism will continue on its way until the working class develops the consciousness it had in earlier periods of our history and organized the kind of political instruments it needed to mount a serious challenge to the status quo. With all due respect to Hudson, whose analysis can often be quite trenchant, there are no “socialist parties” to speak of. We are in a very early period of political reconfiguration that both the Sanders and Trump campaign reflect (with the latter being more distorted than a funhouse mirror).

In the 1930s, men like Carlos Hudson and James S. Allen (born into an immigrant Jewish family as Sol Auerbach) could reach thousands and tens of thousands respectively. Over the next two decades there will be new Carlos Hudson’s and James S. Allens’s to step into the breach and take up the task that has confronted humanity for the past 165 years or so: to replace an irrational system based on private profit with one dedicated to production for the common good.

 

January 6, 2016

Cattle and capitalism

Filed under: Ecology,farming — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm


This was probably written over 15 years ago. It might be useful in understanding the turmoil in Oregon.

Cattle and Capitalism

JEREMY RIFKIN ON THE BEEF ASSEMBLY-LINE

“In order to obtain the optimum weight gain in the minimum time, feedlot managers administer a panoply of pharmaceuticals to the cattle, including growth-stimulating hormones and feed additives. Anabolic steroids, in the form of small time-release pellets, are implanted in the animals’ ears. The hormones slowly seep into the bloodstream, increasing hormone levels by two to five times. Cattle are given estradiol, testosterone, and progesterone. The hormones stimulate the cells to synthesize additional protein, adding muscle and fat tissue more rapidly. Anabolic steroids improve weight gain by 5 to 20 percent, feed efficiency by 5 to 12 percent, and lean meat growth by 15 to 25 percent. Over 95 percent of all feedlot-raised cattle in the United States are currently being administered growth-promoting hormones.

In the past, managers used to add massive doses of antibiotics to the cattle feed to promote growth and fight diseases that run rampant through the animals’ cramped, contaminated pens and feedlots. In 1988, over 15 million pounds of antibiotics were used as feed additives for livestock in the United States. While the cattle industry claims that it has discontinued the widespread use of antibiotics in cattle feed, antibiotics are still being given to dairy cows, which make up nearly 15 percent of all beef consumed in the United States. Antibiotic residues often show up in the meat people consume, making the human population increasingly vulnerable to more virulent strains of disease-carrying bacteria.

Castrated, drugged, and docile, cattle spend long hours at the feed troughs consuming corn, sorghum, other grains, and an array of exotic feeds. The feed is saturated with insecticides. Today 80 percent of all the herbicides used in the United States are sprayed on corn and soybeans, which are used primarily as feed for cattle and other livestock. When consumed by the animals, the pesticides accumulate in their bodies. The pesticides are then passed along to the consumer in the finished cuts of beef. Beef ranks second only to tomatoes as the food posing the greatest cancer risk due to pesticide contamination, according to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Beef is the most dangerous food in herbicide contamination and ranks third in insecticide contamination. The NRC estimates that beef pesticide contamination represents about 11 percent of the total cancer risk from pesticides of all foods on the market today.

Some feedlots have begun research trials adding cardboard, newspaper, and sawdust to the feeding programs to reduce costs. Other factory farms scrape up the manure from chicken houses and pigpens, adding it directly to cattle feed. Cement dust may become a particularly attractive feed supplement in the future, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, because it produces a 30 percent faster weight gain than cattle on only regular feed. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials say that it’s not uncommon for some feedlot operators to mix industrial sewage and oils into the feed to reduce costs and fatten animals more quickly.

At Kansas State University, scientists have experimented with plastic feed, small pellets containing 80 to 90 percent ethylene and 10 to 20 percent propylene, as an artificial form of cheap roughage to feed cattle. Researchers point to the extra savings of using the new plastic feed at slaughter time when upward of ’20 pounds of the stuff from each cow’s rumen can be recovered, melt[ed] down and recycle[d] into new pellets.’ The new pellets are much cheaper than hay and can provide roughage requirements at a significant savings.”

JEREMY RIFKIN ON CATTLE = CAPITAL

“The very word ‘cattle’ comes from the same etymological root as the word ‘capital.’ In many European languages, the word ‘cattle’ was synonomous with the words ‘chattel’ and ‘capital.’ Cattle meant property. Wilfred Funk, in his book Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories, points out that a chattel mortgage was long considered a cattle mortgage and up until the sixteenth century the English people spoke of ‘goods and ‘Cattals’ rather than ‘goods and chattels.’ The Spanish word for cattle, ganado, meant property or ganaderia. Even the Latin word for money, pecunia, comes from the word pecus, meaning cattle.

Cattle was one of the first forms of movable wealth, an asset that could be used as a standard medium of exchange between people and cultures. Both the grain-prodcuing empires of the Middle East and North Africa and the Mediterranean maritime powers traded in cattle. In ancient Greece, families often gave their female children cattle- derived names to emphasize their ‘worth’ and to attract male suitors. Polyboia means ‘worth many cows,’ Euboia meeans ‘rich in cows,’ and Phereboia means ‘bringing in many cows.'”

(Jeremy Rifkin, “Beyond Beef”)

CATTLE IN INDIA

Descendants of Aryan nomads invaded the Indian subcontinent around 1750 B.C. They were beef eaters. After 600 B.C., the Aryan overlords and their Brahman priests could not supply enough beef for their own appetites and the masses. The cause of the “beef crisis” was a combination of population growth and depleting natural resources, including grazing land.

The peasants grew angry at the Brahman caste and the Vedic chieftans who ruled India. This proved fertile ground for the growth of Buddhism, a new religious sect that was opposed to the taking of any animal life. A religion that attacked the killing of beef was welcomed by a population forced to watch the extravagent dining habits of the ruling-class. A struggle between Buddhism and Hinduism lasted nine centuries until Hinduism prevailed, but adopting many of the practices, including the slaughter of cattle.

When I was in high-school, I remember teachers making racist comments about how stupid the Indians were since “so many of them went to bed hungry at night, but they allowed all that beef to just walk around and go to waste.”

Rifkin makes the case for a more nuanced understanding of the role of the cow in the Indian peasant economy. At present there are 200 million cows in India, freely roaming about. These cows provide most of India’s dairy requirements. The ox provides traction for 60 million small farmers whose land feeds 80% of the population. Of the 700 million tons of cattle dung that is produced each year, about half is used as fertilizer and the other half for cooking fuel. Marvin Harris, author of “The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig”, estimates that dung produces the thermal equivalent of 27 million tons of kerosene, 35 million tons of coal, or 68 million tons of wood. In Africa and Latin American, huge swaths of tropical rainforests have been cut down to provide cooking fuel. Depletion of the rain forest in Africa has created the conditions in which the Ebola virus and AIDS can migrate from animal to human populations.

Cow dung is mixed with water in order to produce household flooring. Each day small children follow the family cow around collecting excrement for a variety of household uses. Cattle hides are used in the leather industry, which is the largest in the world. Even the carcasses of ancient cows are solw do slaughterhouses and used as a source of meat for non-Hindus.

Cattle do not compete with human population for arable lands. In one study, it was found that less than 20 percent of the cattle diet in West Bengal is composed of foodstuffs edible by humans. The cattle subsist on a diet of household garbage, chaff, stalks and leaves. The are also fed oil cakes made of cottonseed, soybean, and coconut residues that are inedible by people.

I supply this information not in order to point to some kind of alternative life-style for non-Hindu populations, but simply to illustrate another way that cattle can interact with a political economy. My information, of course, comes from Rifkin and not any sources that I have explored myself. Any errors that Ruhal or Rakesh can point out would be greatly appreciated. Or, if they have a different analysis of the role of the cow in India, I would invite them to comment. (Not as if they need an invitation from anybody!)

CATTLE IN THE NEW WORLD

Columbus’s interest in India has a lot to do with the fact that it was a major source of spices. Beef eaters in Europe relied on spices such as pepper, ginger root and cloves to mask the flavor of rotting meat. When he “discovered” America, he found no spices but plenty of grazing land. He introduced cattle to the Americas on January 2, 1494 when a number were unloaded in Haiti. Today 400 million head of cattle inhabit the Americas.

The Spanish continued introducing longhorn cattle throughout the next two centuries, where they thrived. In the 17th century, the population of Caracas, Venezuela ate 50 percent more beef than the citizens of Paris, even though they were outnumbered by 10 to 1. By the 1870s there were over 13 million head of cattle in the pampas of Argentina alone. Many ruling class families in Latin America today are descendants of the early cattle importers. They grew rich satisfying the wants of beef-hungry Europeans and their wealth became more and more concentrated. By 1924, less than 3 percent of the ranchers in the central valley of Chile controlled 80 percent of the grazing land.

As early as the 17th century, the British had become the most ravenous beef eaters in Europe, especially the aristocracy and the emerging bourgeoisie. The drive for more pastureland to satisfy their habit caused them to pillage Scotland and Ireland. Soon to follow were the North American plains, the Argentinian pampas, the Australian outback and the grasslands of New Zealand.

The British gentry has a particular taste for highly fatted beef and they became obsessed with obese animals. It was common to see oil paintings in a lord’s estate of his most corpulent animals. Prize- winning animals –in other words, the fattest– became a symbol of ruling class power and prestige, much as Rolls-Royces are today.

By the latter half of the 19th century, the British home market demand for fatty beef exceeded the supply. Scotland and Ireland had become overgrazed. In the early 1870s, reports began filtering back to English financial houses about the immense grazing land available in the western United States.

Of course, there was only one problem. The grazing land was occupied by buffalo and the Indians who depended on them for their survival. The solution to this problem will be discussed in my next post.

THE RAVAGES OF UNGULATES

David Wright Hamilton, a biologist at the University of Georgia, once wrote that an “alien ecologist observing…earth might conclude that cattle is the dominant species in our biosphere..” The modern livestock industry and the passion for meat have radically altered the look of the planet. Today, across huge swaths of the globe, from Australia to the western plains of the United States, one sees the conquest landscapes of the European mass meat producers and their herds of ungulates.

Take California. In the late eighteenth century when the cattle herds arrived in what the Spanish colonists called Alta California, the region presented itself as a Mediterranean landscape, but of a sort that had been extinguished in Europe for many centuries. There were meadows with perennial bunchgrass, beardless wild rye, oat grass, perennial forbs: 22 million acres of such prairie and 500,00 acres of marsh grass. Beyond this, there were 8 million acres of live oak woodlands and parklike forests. Beyond and above this, chaparral.

By the 1860s, in the wake of the gold rush, some 3 million cattle were grazing California’s open ranges; the degradation was rapid, particularly as ranchers had been overstocking to cash in on the cattle boom. Floods and drought between 1862 and 1865 consummated the ecological crisis. In the spring of 1863, 97,000 cattle were grazing in parched Santa Barbara County. Two years later, only 12,100 remained. By the mid-1860s, in Terry Jordan’s words, “many ranges stood virtually denuded of palatable vegetation.” In less than a century, California’s pastoral utopia had been destroyed; the ranchers moved east of the Sierra Nevada into the Great Basin, or north, to colder and drier terrain.

These days travelers heading north through California’s Central valley can gaze at mile upon mile of environmental wreckage: arid land except where irrigated by water brought in from the north, absurdly dedicated to producing cotton. Some 200 miles north of Los Angeles, a fierce stench and clouds of dust herald the Harris Beef feedlot. On the east side of the interstate several thousand steers are penned, occasionally doused by water sprays. After a few minutes of this Dantesque spectacle the barren landscape resumes, with one of California’s state prisons, at Coalinga–unlike the beef feedlot, secluded from view–lying just over the horizon to the west.

California is now America’s largest dairy state, and livestock agriculture uses almost one-third of all irrigation water. It takes 360 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef (irrigation for grain, trough water for stock), which is why, further east in the feedlot states of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, along with the Texas panhandle, the Ogallala aquifer has been so severely depleted. (California’s Central Valley itself faces increasing problems of salty water from excessive use of groundwater.)

ALEXANDER COCKBURN ON BEEF

Unsustainable grazing and ranching sacrifice drylands, forests and wild species. For example, semi-deciduous forests in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are cut down to make way for soybeans, which are fed to cows as high-protein soycake. Humans are essentially vegetarian as a species and insatiate meat-eating bring its familiar toll of heart disease, stroke and cancer. The enthusiasm for meat also produces its paradox: hunger. A people living on cereals and legumes for protein need to grow far less grain than a people eating creatures that have been fed by cereals. For years Western journalists described in mournful tones the scrawny and costly pieces of meat available in Moscow’s shops, associating the lack of meat with backwardness and the failure of Communism. But after 1950, meat consumption in the Soviet Union tripled. By 1964 grain for livestock feed outstripped grain for bread, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, livestock were eating three times as much grain as humans. All this required greater and greater imports of grain until precious foreign exchange made the Soviet Union the world’s second-largest grain importer, while a dietary “pattern” based on excellent bread was vanishing.

Governments–prodded by the World Bank–have plunged into schemes for intensive grain-based meat production, which favors large, rich producers and penalizes small subsistence farmers. In Mexico the share of cropland growing feed and fodder for animals went from 5 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 1980. Sorghum, used for animal feed, is now Mexico’s second-largest crop by area. At the same time, the area of land producing the staples–corn, rice, wheat and beans–for poor folk there have fallen relentlessly. Mexico is now a new corn importer, from rich countries such as Canada and the United States, wiping out millions of subsistence farmers, who have to migrate to the cities or to El Norte. Mexico feeds 30 percent of its grain to livestock–pork and chicken for urban eaters–while 22 percent of the population suffers from malnutrition.

Multiply this baneful pattern across the world. Meanwhile, the classic pastoralists, who have historically provided most of the meat in Africa with grazing systems closely adapted to varying environments, are being marginalized. Grain-based livestock production inexorably leads to larger and larger units and economies of scale.

(From the “Beat the Devil” column in the April 22, 1996 Nation magazine)

CATTLE AND THE CENTRAL AMERICAN REVOLUTION

As stupid, irrational and self-destructive a system capitalism is, it reached new depths when it fostered the development of cattle- ranching in Central America in the early 1970s.

The growth of McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast food outlets had created an insatiable demand for beef. These types of restaurants had no need for the choice, fat-stuffed grain-fed beef that were found in super markets. They could get by on the sort of tougher, lower- grade beef that was typical of cattle that subsisted on grass alone, since the meat would be ground up anyhow. The free-range “criollo” cattle of Central America made a perfect fit for this expanding market.

Historically, the cattle industry in Central America was a very low- tech operation. Cowboys would drive a herd to a major city where slaughter-houses could be found. The cattle would be cut up and sent out to public markets, often in the open air and unrefrigerated, where a customer would select a piece of meat off of the carcass. However, to satisfy the external market, a more modern mode of production had to be adopted. Firstly, roads needed to be created to transport the cattle by truck from the countryside. Secondly, packing houses had to be created near ports to prepare the beef for export. Foreign investors made road- building possible, just the way that British capital made railroads possible in the US for identical reasons. The “Alliance for Progress” aided in the creation of such infrastructure as well.

The packing-houses themselves were built by local capitalists with some assistance from the outside. It was these middle-men, who stood between rancher and importer, that cashed in on the beef bonanza. The Somoza family were movers and shakers in the packing-house industry. As monopolists, they could paid the rancher meager prices and sell the processed beef at a premium price since demand for beef was at an all-time high.

In addition, the Somoza family used its profits and loans from foreign investors to buy up huge swaths of land in Nicaragua to create cattle ranches. They had already acquired 51 ranches before the beef-export boom, but by 1979, after two decades of export-led growth, their holdings and those of their cronies had expanded to more than 2 million acres, more than half of which was in the best grazing sectors. It was these properties and the packing-houses that became nationalized immediately after the FSLN triumph.

The gains of Somoza and other oligarchic families in Central America took place at the expense of campesino and small rancher alike. While the plight of the campesino is more familiar, the small rancher suffered as well. Before the export boom started, about 1/4 of all cattle were held by ranchers with properties less than 25 acres. After a decade of export-led growth, small proprietors had lost 20 percent of their previous cattle holdings and owned only 1/8th of the cattle in the region.

(It should be mentioned, by the way, that this decade of export-led growth was statistically the sharpest increase in GDP in Central America since WWII. Yet this growth created the objective conditions for socialist revolution. “Growth” in itself is a meaningless term. It may satisfy the prejudices of libertarians, but it has nothing to do with human needs or social justice.)

Nicaragua was notable in that the exploitation was home-grown, but in the rest of Central America the pirates flew the stars and stripes. R.J. Reynolds owns thousands of acres of grazing land in Guatemala and Costa Rica through its subsidiary, Del Monte. It shipped the meat on its subsidiary Sea-Land and market the finished product in many varieties: Ortega beef tacos, Patio beef enchiladas, Chun King beef chow mein. It also satisfied the fast-food market by supplying Zantigo Mexican Restaurants (owned by Kentucky Fried Chicken.) By supplying such dubious products, this powerful American capitalist company was also in the process of helping campesinos getting thrown off their land and tropical rain forest acreage cut down in order to create grazing land that would be exhausted in a year or two.

When a wealthy rancher needed new land for his herds, they often hired gangs to go out and burn and slash wooded areas. A more common practice, however, was to con the poor campesino into acting as an accessory. Anthropologist Robert A. White describes what took place in Honduras. “Some large land holders used the rental of land to the small farmer as a means of clearing the hillsides of timber and preparing it for pasture for cattle grazing. The land was rented for a season or two to the smaller farmer, who was expected to clear the often heavy timber in order to prepare the land for seeding. Each year a new area was rented to be cleared so that gradually the whole area was prepared for pasture.” This took place all across Central America. The campesino was allowed to farm the land just long enough to allow the tree-stumps to rot, at which time they were evicted to make room for cattle. The ecological consequences of all this was disastrous and the practice continues to this day.

If cattle-ranching had created jobs for the displaced peasantry, this land-grab might not have had the explosive political consequences that did. As it turns out, however, few jobs were created in comparison to other export agriculture sectors. Cotton cultivation offers 6 times more employment per acre than cattle ranching, sugar 7 times more and coffee 13 times more. Under a more equitable world economy, of course, all of this land would be used to produce food for the local population instead of resources for foreign or local oligarchic companies.

Another advantage of cattle-ranching is that it inhibits return to the land by disenfranchised peasants. In other forms of agriculture, the landlord could permit the peasant to live on the fringes of the estate in return for some kind of rental payment in kind, such as a few sacks of corn or hard labor such as clearing rocks. When the beef boom commenced, however, every acre became more exploitable and so the peasant had to be expelled. When cattle were introduced into land formerly owned by peasants, barbed wire and the grazing herds tended to act as impediments to peasant squatting.

These contradictions reached their sharpest form in Matiguas “municipo” of Matagalpas, Nicaragua. In this section some 30 percent of the land was covered by forests, by 1976 only 5 percent of the land remained forested. Where 8 percent of the land was used to grow corn and beans in 1963, by 1976 the percentage was 1 percent. By contrast, cattle grazing land, which was 39 percent in 1963, grew to encompass 94 percent of the land ten years later.

Later on Matiguas, Matagalpas became a bastion of Sandinista support.

(Information for this post comes from Robert G. Williams “Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America”, Chapel Hill Press, 1986. This book, along with George Black’s “Triumph of the People” helped me understand the Sandinista revolution more than any others. In my final post on the beef question I want to suggest some socialist solutions to this problem that threatens not only the natural order, but humanity which is an integral part of this order.)

CATTLE AND THE SECOND CONTRADICTION OF CAPITALISM

Dogmatic Marxism tends to sneer at green politics as reformist. After all, if Vice President Al Gore can write a book called “Fate of the Earth” that incorporate a number of environmental themes, how anticapitalist can the green movement be?

In discussing the particular problem of cattle-ranching, it is not to hard for most list members to see that it is extremely destructive to precious resources such as soil, water and vegetation. Capitalist exploitation of these resources in order to provide cheap beef to the population of the advanced capitalist nations threatens to upset ecosystems that preserve all life, including human life. While in the process of upsetting ecosystems that took thousands of years to develop, capitalism also destroys the lives of campesinos who are expelled from precious land. That land which can produce corn and beans for the downtrodden of the South is instead used to satisfy the craving for beef in the North.

James O’Connor, the founder and editor of the journal “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism”, has traveled farther in developing a Marxist critique to these problems than any other contemporary thinker. His has articulated a theory of the “second contradiction of capitalism” that explains why environmental degradation is an integral element of capitalism today and not subject to reformist solutions.

In an essay “Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible” that appears in a collection “Is Capitalism Sustainable” edited by Martin O’Connor (no relation), he defines both the first and second contradictions of capitalism.

The first contradiction is generated by the tendency for capitalism to expand. The system can not exist in stasis such as precapitalist modes of productions such as feudalism. A capitalist system that is based on what Marx calls “simple reproduction” and what many greens call “maintenance” is an impossibility. Unless there is a steady and increasing flow of profits into the system, it will die. Profit is the source of new investment which in turn fuels technological innovation and, consequently, ever-increasing replacement of living labor by machinery. Profit is also generated through layoffs, speedup and other more draconian measures.

However, according to O’Connor, as capital’s power over labor increases, there will be contradictory tendency for profit in the capitalist system as a whole to decrease. This first contradiction of capital then can be defined as what obtains “when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by increasing labor productivity, speeding up work, cutting wages, and using other time-honored ways of getting more production from fewer workers.” The unintended result is that the worker’s loss in wages reduces the final demand for consumer commodities.

This first contradiction of capital is widespread throughout the United States and the other capitalist countries today. No amount of capitalist maneuvering can mitigate the effects of this downward spiral. Attempts at global management of the problem are doomed to fail since the nation-state remains the instrument of capitalist rule today, no matter how many articles appear in postmodernist venues about “globalization”.

The second contradiction of capital arises out of the problems the system confronts in trying to maintain what Marx called the “conditions of production”. The “conditions of production” require three elements: *human labor power* which Marx called the “personal conditions of production”, *environment* which he termed “natural or external conditions of productions” and *urban infrastructure*, the “general, communal conditions of production”.

All three of these “conditions of productions” are being undermined by the capitalist system itself. The form this takes is conceived in an amorphous and fragmented manner as the environmental crisis, the urban crisis, the education crisis, etc. When these problems become generalized, they threaten the viability of capitalism since they continue to raise the cost of clean air and water, raw materials, infrastructure, etc.

During the early and middle stages of capitalism, the satisfaction of the “conditions of production” were hardly an issue since there was apparently an inexhaustible source of natural resources and the necessary space to build factories, etc. As capitalism reaches its latter phase in the twentieth century, the problems deepen until they reach crisis proportions. At this point, capitalist politicians and ideologues start raising a public debate about the urban and environmental crisis (which are actually interconnected).

What they don’t realize is that these problems are rooted in the capitalist system itself and are constituted as what O’Connor calls the “second contradiction”. He says, “Put simply, the second contradiction states that when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by cutting or externalizing costs, the unintended effect is to reduce the ‘productivity’ of the conditions of production and hence to raise average costs.”

O’Connor cites the following examples: Pesticides in agriculture at first lower, then ultimately increase costs as pests become more chemical-resistant and as the chemicals poison the soil. In Sweden permanent-yield monoforests were expected to keep costs down, but the loss of biodiversity has reduced the productivity of forest ecosystems and the size of the trees themselves. A final example is nuclear power which was supposed to reduce energy costs but had the opposite effect.

If capitalism was a rational system, it would restructure the conditions of production in such a way as to increase their productivity. The means of doing this is the state itself. The state would, for example, ban cars in urban areas, develop non-toxic pest controls and launch public health programs based on preventative medicine.

Efforts such as these would have to be heavily capitalized. However, competition between rival capitalisms, engendered through the pressures of the “first contradiction” (in other words, the need to expand profits while the buying power of a weakened working-class declines), destroy the possibility for such public investment. As such possibilities decline, the public infrastructure and the natural environment continue to degrade. Each successive stage of degradation in turn raises the cost of production.

It is the combination of these two contradictions that will mark 21st century capitalism. Marxists have to be sensitive to both and devise ways to mobilize workers and peasants in a revolutionary struggle to abolish these contradictions once and for all.

May 1, 2015

Cattle and neo-Malthusianism

Filed under: Ecology,farming,food — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

Cliven Bundy: reactionary rancher

Going through back issues of Harper’s, I ran into a February 2015 article by Christopher Ketcham titled “The Great Republican Land Heist: Cliven Bundy and the politicians who are plundering the West” triggered some thoughts about the role of cattle in our environmental crisis. As a food source whose resource intakes (water and land) are disproportional to its nutritional value and that is increasingly in demand as globalization allows easy access to beef everywhere, it must be assessed with a cool and exacting view even if that risks being tarred as a “neo-Malthusian”.

Long before I began blogging, I wrote a piece titled “Cattle and Capitalism” that quoted an Alexander Cockburn from the April 22, 1996 Nation:

Unsustainable grazing and ranching sacrifice drylands, forests and wild species. For example, semi-deciduous forests in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are cut down to make way for soybeans, which are fed to cows as high-protein soycake. Humans are essentially vegetarian as a species and insatiate meat-eating bring its familiar toll of heart disease, stroke and cancer. The enthusiasm for meat also produces its paradox: hunger. A people living on cereals and legumes for protein need to grow far less grain than a people eating creatures that have been fed by cereals. For years Western journalists described in mournful tones the scrawny and costly pieces of meat available in Moscow’s shops, associating the lack of meat with backwardness and the failure of Communism. But after 1950, meat consumption in the Soviet Union tripled. By 1964 grain for livestock feed outstripped grain for bread, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, livestock were eating three times as much grain as humans. All this required greater and greater imports of grain until precious foreign exchange made the Soviet Union the world’s second-largest grain importer, while a dietary “pattern” based on excellent bread was vanishing.

The Harper’s article, which unfortunately is behind a paywall, is valuable for uncovering the damage that Cliven Bundy’s herds were doing to pristine land that was under the protection of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Essentially Bundy and local rightwing bands have terrorized the BLM into submission. The article also details how ALEC, an industry lobbying group with the Koch Brothers in the saddle, has been pushing for legislation that would essentially allow Bundy and his fellow ranchers to accomplish legally what they have been attempting to do criminally. Christopher Ketcham writes:

In western Utah, a few county commissioners announced that they planned to violate the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act by illegally rounding up herds of wild mustangs that were competing for cattle forage on public land. In June and July, the BLM responded to that threat by rounding up the mustangs for them. On June 14, a California man, who had been posting favorably on Facebook about Bundy’s revolt, shot and wounded a BLM ranger in the Sierra Nevada mountains after he was asked to move from his illegal campsite. On July 1, a group of gold miners descended onto a BLM-managed stretch of the Salmon River in Idaho to dredge the riverbed with industrial suction equipment. The action most likely violated the Endangered Species Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the ecological health of parts of the Salmon River in partnership with the BLM. The miners were not looking for gold. A spokesman for the Southwest Idaho Mining Association, in Boise, told the Associated Press that the illegal dredging had a single purpose: to drive the EPA from the state.

Ketcham refers to articles by Bernard DeVoto on the rancher’s assault on public lands from decades ago. This has been a problem for over a hundred years at least. I should add that if there is any reason to subscribe to Harper’s, it is to be able to access their archives and read an author such as DeVoto. This is from a January 1947 article titled “The West Against Itself”. If ranchers were capable of such an onslaught nearly 70 years ago, when the conservation-minded New Deal was still continuing although weakened by Truman, can you imagine what would be happening under the neoliberal regime backed by both parties today?

Screen shot 2015-05-01 at 1.38.56 PM

As an ancillary to Ketcham’s article, there’s a piece by Edward Abbey following his that appeared originally in the January 1986 issue. Abbey, like DeVoto, was a regular contributor to Harper’s and one committed to preserving the ecology of the American west. He writes:

Most of the public lands in the West, and especially in the Southwest, are what you might call “cowburnt.” Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestem and grama and bunchgrasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cactus. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheatgrass. Weeds.

Even when the cattle are not physically present, you’ll see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle. Along every flowing stream, around every seep and spring and water hole and well, you’ll find acres and acres of what range-management specialists call “sacrifice areas.” These are places denuded of forage, except for some cactus or a little tumbleweed or maybe a few mutilated trees like mesquite, juniper, or hackberry.

In addition to the assault on nature, cattle ranching is often an assault on the agrarian poor whose subsistence farming is regarded as an obstacle to “development” just as it was in the Johnson County wars dramatized in Michael Cimino’s unjustly lambasted “Heaven’s Gate”. One scholar argues that the Sandinista revolution was triggered by seizure of peasant land on behalf of ranchers seeking to meet the demands of fast food restaurants in the 1970s:

Historically, the cattle industry in Central America was a very low- tech operation. Cowboys would drive a herd to a major city where slaughter-houses could be found. The cattle would be cut up and sent out to public markets, often in the open air and unrefrigerated, where a customer would select a piece of meat off of the carcass. However, to satisfy the external market, a more modern mode of production had to be adopted. Firstly, roads needed to be created to transport the cattle by truck from the countryside. Secondly, packing houses had to be created near ports to prepare the beef for export. Foreign investors made road- building possible, just the way that British capital made railroads possible in the US for identical reasons. The “Alliance for Progress” aided in the creation of such infrastructure as well.

The packing-houses themselves were built by local capitalists with some assistance from the outside. It was these middle-men, who stood between rancher and importer, that cashed in on the beef bonanza. The Somoza family were movers and shakers in the packing-house industry. As monopolists, they could paid the rancher meager prices and sell the processed beef at a premium price since demand for beef was at an all-time high.

In addition, the Somoza family used its profits and loans from foreign investors to buy up huge swaths of land in Nicaragua to create cattle ranches. They had already acquired 51 ranches before the beef-export boom, but by 1979, after two decades of export-led growth, their holdings and those of their cronies had expanded to more than 2 million acres, more than half of which was in the best grazing sectors. It was these properties and the packing-houses that became nationalized immediately after the FSLN triumph.

The gains of Somoza and other oligarchic families in Central America took place at the expense of campesino and small rancher alike. While the plight of the campesino is more familiar, the small rancher suffered as well. Before the export boom started, about 1/4 of all cattle were held by ranchers with properties less than 25 acres. After a decade of export-led growth, small proprietors had lost 20 percent of their previous cattle holdings and owned only 1/8th of the cattle in the region.

(It should be mentioned, by the way, that this decade of export-led growth was statistically the sharpest increase in GDP in Central America since WWII. Yet this growth created the objective conditions for socialist revolution. “Growth” in itself is a meaningless term. It may satisfy the prejudices of libertarians, but it has nothing to do with human needs or social justice.)

Nicaragua was notable in that the exploitation was home-grown, but in the rest of Central America the pirates flew the stars and stripes. R.J. Reynolds owns thousands of acres of grazing land in Guatemala and Costa Rica through its subsidiary, Del Monte. It shipped the meat on its subsidiary Sea-Land and market the finished product in many varieties: Ortega beef tacos, Patio beef enchiladas, Chun King beef chow mein. It also satisfied the fast-food market by supplying Zantigo Mexican Restaurants (owned by Kentucky Fried Chicken.) By supplying such dubious products, this powerful American capitalist company was also in the process of helping campesinos getting thrown off their land and tropical rain forest acreage cut down in order to create grazing land that would be exhausted in a year or two.

When a wealthy rancher needed new land for his herds, they often hired gangs to go out and burn and slash wooded areas. A more common practice, however, was to con the poor campesino into acting as an accessory. Anthropologist Robert A. White describes what took place in Honduras. “Some large land holders used the rental of land to the small farmer as a means of clearing the hillsides of timber and preparing it for pasture for cattle grazing. The land was rented for a season or two to the smaller farmer, who was expected to clear the often heavy timber in order to prepare the land for seeding. Each year a new area was rented to be cleared so that gradually the whole area was prepared for pasture.” This took place all across Central America. The campesino was allowed to farm the land just long enough to allow the tree-stumps to rot, at which time they were evicted to make room for cattle. The ecological consequences of all this was disastrous and the practice continues to this day.

If cattle-ranching had created jobs for the displaced peasantry, this land-grab might not have had the explosive political consequences that did. As it turns out, however, few jobs were created in comparison to other export agriculture sectors. Cotton cultivation offers 6 times more employment per acre than cattle ranching, sugar 7 times more and coffee 13 times more. Under a more equitable world economy, of course, all of this land would be used to produce food for the local population instead of resources for foreign or local oligarchic companies.

Another advantage of cattle-ranching is that it inhibits return to the land by disenfranchised peasants. In other forms of agriculture, the landlord could permit the peasant to live on the fringes of the estate in return for some kind of rental payment in kind, such as a few sacks of corn or hard labor such as clearing rocks. When the beef boom commenced, however, every acre became more exploitable and so the peasant had to be expelled. When cattle were introduced into land formerly owned by peasants, barbed wire and the grazing herds tended to act as impediments to peasant squatting.

These contradictions reached their sharpest form in Matiguas “municipo” of Matagalpas, Nicaragua. In this section some 30 percent of the land was covered by forests, by 1976 only 5 percent of the land remained forested. Where 8 percent of the land was used to grow corn and beans in 1963, by 1976 the percentage was 1 percent. By contrast, cattle grazing land, which was 39 percent in 1963, grew to encompass 94 percent of the land ten years later.

Later on Matiguas, Matagalpas became a bastion of Sandinista support.

From the point of view of what I regard as “productivist” Marxism, there is a belief that by posing the question of ecological limits you are adapting to neo-Malthusianism. This is a socialism that assumes that once the profit motive is eliminated, we can finally begin to live a rational and bounteous existence.

However, can we really ignore the ecological threat posed by cattle? Does socialism have a magic wand that can make a steer use less water and require more grazing acreage than under capitalism?

To produce one pound of beef, it requires 1,799 gallons of water while a pound of soybeans requires 216 gallons. Perhaps in the future socialist world beef, like a spin in an automobile or a plane ride, will be a luxury that is carefully rationed out on an equal basis. That might not square with anti-catastrophist Eddie Yuen’s citation of the 1970s Italian revolutionary graffiti “Con la rivoluzione caviale per tutti” (After the revolution, caviar for everyone) but it certainly squares with common sense and historical materialism.

 

September 15, 2014

Karl Marx and hunting animals

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology,farming,food — louisproyect @ 4:18 pm

Of the three magazines that brandish “Review of Books” in their title, Los Angeles’s (http://lareviewofbooks.org/) leads the pack, at least from the standpoint of serving as a critic of capitalist society. In an epoch of imperial decay, that’s the most important criterion after all. At the bottom of the pile is New York’s (http://www.nybooks.com/), a publication that was pretty edgy in its early days, to the point of publishing Noam Chomsky and putting a David Levine drawing of a Molotov cocktail on the front page. Nowadays it is a snoozefest for elderly professionals, the print counterpart to PBS. In the center of the pack is the London Review of Books (http://www.lrb.co.uk/), a journal that was distinguished by a takedown of Christopher Hitchens that was both laugh out loud and politically cogent. While it still is a source of trenchant social criticism, the LRB has a blind spot on Syria, offering its readers Seymour Hersh’s conspiracy theories about rebels gassing their families. It was up to the good people at the LARB to publish Muhammad Idrees Ahmed’s devastating critique of Hersh, a sign that it was not in thrall to pack journalism.

In the most recent issue of LARB, there’s an article by Jedediah Purdy titled “Killing It” that is accompanied by a drawing of an aproned Karl Marx holding up a bleeding chicken in one hand and a butcher’s knife in the other. With such an image, it is no surprise that the article claims:

Writing 20 years before the first volume of Das Kapital appeared, Marx imagined desultory killing as one of the joys of human liberation. In a passage that became a touchstone for parts of the 1960’s New Left, he urged that a free person should be able to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner […] without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” This was the ideal of unalienated labor, spontaneous and expressive, exercising all human powers without ever turning the worker into the tool of her task.

To start with, I am not sure how much of a grasp that Purdy has of the 1960s New Left since he was born in 1974. In fact the New Left—strictly speaking—was much more into Marcuse than Marx.

Furthermore, like most people with a casual interest in Marx no matter their academic credentials, Purdy leaves out the rest of Marx’s sentence that can be found in the German Ideology:

He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

In other words, Marx was not writing a paean to killing animals but rather making an observation about how a future communist society would allow the full development of human beings rather than the current state that forces them into limited economic roles. Indeed, rearing cattle is not exactly what most people would choose to do on a vacation as opposed to recreational hunting or fishing.

Jedediah Purdy, by David Levine in the NY Review of Books

Just a few words about Jedediah Purdy. He is a law professor at Duke University, where misinterpretations of Karl Marx are rampant even if well-intentioned. A cursory look at Michael Hardt’s oeuvre should bear that out.

If Zizek, another celebrity given to misinterpretations of Marx, is the Elvis super-star of Marxism, Jedediah Purdy basks in the glow of being rather super himself. An article in the April 10, 2006 Washington Post refers to him as “A Super-Scholar, All Grown Up and Still Theorizing”. A portrait of a wunderkind emerges:

When we reached him, Jedediah Purdy, now 31, was in his office at Duke University’s law school where he is an assistant professor, counseling a student in the throes of the seemingly inevitable “first year of law school crisis.” In his mid-twenties, though, Purdy was one of Washington’s intellectual darlings: ensconced at the New America Foundation — a think tank that bills itself as featuring “exceptionally promising new voices” — and named by Esquire magazine as one of the nation’s “best and brightest.”

Ensconced at the New America Foundation, Purdy made sure that nobody would confuse him with some kind of bomb-throwing anarchist: “Just let me echo about five million other progressives and say, Bring us someone who can do every night for a year what Barack Obama did in his keynote address to the DNC.”

Turning our attention now to Purdy’s “Killing It”, we learn that it is a contribution to the ongoing discussion about the “food movement”, for lack of a better term, that includes Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman at its helm. Purdy notes that Pollan went out hunting wild pigs with a .290 rifle and was pleased to have bagged a 190-pound creature.

In something that amounts to a sleight of hand, Purdy makes Karl Marx into a 19th century precursor of Michael Pollan as if communism, hunting and meat-eating were part of the same overall project of human emancipation:

Doing violence seems to force the doer either to celebrate it or to recoil in a futile effort to get the feeling out of one’s own nerves. Without much warrant, I suspect all of this informs the idea behind many ritual sacrifices: that the priests, or the community, either take the power of the animal into themselves or expel its pollution. Either way, the transaction is intimate, metabolic: the killer comes right up against the “specific expression” of life and powers that Marx was after.

Frankly, I doubt that bagging a wild pig with a .290 rifle is what “Marx was after”. Purdy, who grew up and was home-schooled in rural West Virginia, was into hunting as a youth. I suspect that he is capitalizing once again on his “good old boy” credentials that clearly sets him apart from the other faculty members at Duke who if given a choice would prefer tofu to shooting a wild animal.

The shortcomings to Purdy’s approach can be more obvious when you have a look at a scholarly article he wrote titled “Our Place in the World: a New Relationship for Environmental Ethics and Law”. It’s main concern was to identify some kind of ethical basis for the proper treatment of animals within the overall need for reproducing our species:

These situations—we can take the factory farm as just one example—are thoroughly artificial: we made them. We create and control the suffering of animals in these settings, and that fact is the prompt for ethical reflection. To call whatever we do to these animals “natural” would be to give up on ethical reflection altogether; and to imagine that reflecting on our own behavior must mean condemning lions and predatory insects would be far too quick and casual.

While I think that the ethical treatment of animals is fundamental and that both factory farming and hunting both involve unnecessary cruelty, there are more important issues for Marxists and even people like Jedediah Purdy. (In terms of hunting, since Purdy invokes the example of American Indians, perhaps the only “ethical” way to kill animals is with a bow and arrow since this puts hunter and hunted on a more equal footing.)

The real issue is how humanity can survive, something that the food movement barely recognizes, nor for that matter law professors with a smattering of Marxism under their belt. In my review of a rather good documentary titled “Food Inc.” that was based to a large degree on Pollan’s writings, I noted:

Although I strongly urge my readers to see this movie, I do feel obligated to offer some criticisms that get to the heart of my differences with Schlosser and Pollan, no matter how much I applaud their work. A significant part of the movie is devoted to an examination of Stonyfield yogurt, a product that is always in my refrigerator especially since yogurt is a staple of the Turkish dishes I enjoy preparing. The CEO of Stonyfield is one Gary Hirshberg who is seen conferring with Walmart representatives who were about to introduce his products to their vile stores. Hirshfield justifies dealing with Walmart because he believes that there is no alternative to capitalism, even though he doesn’t quite use those words. If we are going to make wholesome food grown in conditions respectful to the environment and to animals, you need retailers like Walmart to make the organic sector grow.

The press notes for “Food, Inc.” quotes Walmart on this score:

“Actually, it’s a pretty easy decision to try to support things like organics or whatever it might be based on what the consumer wants. We see that and we react to it. If it’s clear that the customer wants it, it’s really easy to get behind it and to push forward and try to make that happen.”

– Tony Airosa, chief dairy purchaser for the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, which recently began carrying organically-produced food in its store. Wal-Mart has since stopped carrying milk containing growth hormone.

In my view, it is utopian to think that the factory food system will be transformed incrementally in this fashion. The Monsantos, Purdues, Tysons and Smithfields of this world are not going to be displaced by organic farming for the simple reason that they were produced by the forces of production that have taken a century to mature. American society is under enormous pressure to compete with other capitalist powers in an epoch of stagnating profits. As such, factory farming is geared to the economic imperatives of a nation that is being forced to attack the living standards of workers and farmers alike.

If any evidence of the bankruptcy of the system is needed, as well as its talent for self-deception, you can start with the White House itself—a symbol of American corporate power and its strategy for continued world domination.

When Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn, Michael Pollan hailed the move in the Huffington Post:

Perhaps the most encouraging action so far has come from the East Wing, where Michelle Obama has been speaking out about the importance of real, fresh food, home cooking and gardening. By planting an organic garden on the White House lawn, she launched a thousand victory gardens (vegetables seed is suddenly in short supply), gave conniptions to the pesticide industry (which wrote urging her to use some of their “crop protection products” whether she needed them or not), and at a stroke raised the profile and prestige of real food in America.

He also was encouraged by Obama’s appointments:

Tom Vilsack has sounded a welcome new note at the Department of Agriculture, where he has appointed a proven reformer — Kathleen Merrigan — as his deputy, and emphasized his commitment to sustainability, local food systems (including urban agriculture); putting nutrition at the heart of the department’s nutrition programs (not as obvious as it might sound), and enlisting farmers in the fight against climate change. He has been meeting with the kinds of activists and farmers who in past administrations stood on the steps of the USDA holding protest signs.

I wonder if Michael Pollan watched the movie he appeared in, since Monsanto was rightfully pilloried as using its control over genetically modified soybean seeds as a way of maintaining a monopoly over farmers, who once had the right to reuse seeds. (Monsanto patented the seeds and sues any farmer its detectives find in violation.)

In the final analysis, we need a socialist movement, not a food movement. In Marx’s Communist Manifesto, there is a call for overcoming the breach between city and countryside: “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.” Unless this is accomplished, the conditions for sustainable food production will diminish to the point of no return. It is not too hard to imagine that in a more rational human social environment, animals will be raised in humane conditions and only be turned into produce under the strictest and most humane conditions, which will almost certainly not entail bullets from a high-powered rifle equipped with a scope. Furthermore, by that point in our social evolution, we may have learned that beans cooked properly taste a whole lot better. I’ve had steak and I’ve had Indian dals. And if I had to choose a last meal, it would be a dal.

August 28, 2014

Vandana Shiva answers Michael Specter

Filed under: Ecology,farming,india,journalism — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

Screen shot 2014-08-28 at 1.42.49 PM

Read article

August 22, 2014

Gunning for Vandana Shiva

Filed under: Ecology,farming,science — louisproyect @ 1:20 pm
The New Yorker, GMOs and Chemical Farming

Gunning for Vandana Shiva

by LOUIS PROYECT

Perhaps nothing symbolizes the decline of the New Yorker magazine more than the hatchet job on Vandana Shiva that appears in the latest issue. Written by Michael Specter, the author of “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress”, the article is a meretricious defense of genetically modified organisms (GMO) relying on one dodgy source after another. This is the same magazine whose reputation was at its apex when Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking articles on DDT appeared in 1962. If DDT was once a symbol of the destructive power of chemicals on the environment, GMO amounts to one of the biggest threats to food production today. It threatens to enrich powerful multinational corporations while turning farmers into indentured servants through the use of patented seeds. Furthermore, it threatens to unleash potentially calamitous results in farmlands through unintended mutations.

Specter represents himself as a defender of science against irrational thinking. Since many activists regard Vandana Shiva as grounded in science, it is essential that he discredit her. For example, he mentions a book jacket that refers to her as “one of India’s leading physicists”. But when he asked her if she ever worked as a physicist, she invited him to “search for the answer on Google”. He asserts that he found nothing and furthermore that no such position was listed in her biography. Not that I would ever take an inflated publicity blurb that seriously to begin with (having read one too many of those for Slavoj Žižek), I wondered what being a physicist would have to do with GMO in the first place. Is a degree in particle physics necessary for understanding the transformation of vast portions of the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone because of fertilizer-enriched algae?

read full article

UPDATE

Wouldn’t you just know it? Bard College hired GMO hustler Michael Specter as a Visiting Professor of Environmental and Urban Studies.

I suppose that makes sense given that Stewart Resnick is on the board of trustees, the agribusiness billionaire who has diverted water from the commoners in Fiji and California to improve his bottom line and buy more politicians. When a college hires a big-time promoter of GMO to lecture on the environment, you just chalk that up to Leon Botstein’s Wizard of Oz con artistry.

 

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January 6, 2014

The New York Times’s free advertisement for genetically modified crops

Filed under: Ecology,farming,food,journalism — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

University of Hawaii officers hold up Monsanto gift–no strings attached, of course

I am not sure when I began reading the N.Y. Times on daily basis but it must have been just after I graduated Bard College in 1965 and moved to New York City. So addicted I became to the paper that I had recurring bad dreams a few years ago about waking up much later than usual on a Sunday morning and desperately searching newsstands for a copy of the Sunday Times to no avail. In all the years I have been reading the paper, I have never run into a more biased and misleading article than the one that appeared yesterday—a Sunday—under the title “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” by Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter Amy Harmon. This 5442-word article reads as if someone working for Monsanto wrote it. Harmon, like Clifford Krause who is a shameless propagandist for fracking in the paper’s business section, is clearly an industry spokesperson. Her sordid record is worth examining, as is the question of genetic modification itself that she practically likens to global warming denialism or creationism as this excerpt bears out:

Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.

“These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill. “It hurts.”

A number of the pro-GM scientists Harmon refers to are at the University of Hawaii. From the university’s newspaper:

The College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa received $500,000 from Monsanto Company to establish the Monsanto Research Fellows Fund. The fund will assist graduate students pursuing a masters or PhD degree and post doctoral researchers at the college related to the study of plant science and protection.

 “We are very grateful to Monsanto Company for its generous financial support of CTAHR students engaged in agricultural research – Hawai‘i’s future leaders of sustainable industries and a strong, diversified economy,” said UH Mānoa Chancellor Virginia S. Hinshaw.

Harmon dismisses the idea that the contribution might have an influence on the school by quoting an administration figure that said that the money is only one percent of the school’s budget.

This question of corporate ties to pro-GM scientists is a sensitive one since Monsanto and other such firms have such a shitty reputation. Harmon cites a blog that supports her case:

“Just as many on the political right discount the broad scientific consensus that human activities contribute to global warming, many progressive advocacy groups disregard, reject or ignore the decades of scientific studies demonstrating the safety and wide-reaching benefits” of genetically engineered crops, Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, wrote on the blog of the nonprofit Biology Fortified.

If you go to Biology Fortified, you will get these assurances on their financial information page:

The site hosting costs of Biology Fortified, Inc. (BFI) were initially footed by the founding editors, and currently the majority of financial support for these overhead costs comes from individual personal donations. BFI is not supported by any companies, government entities, or political parties.

Now I don’t know if Pamela Ronald says the things she says because Monsanto is paying her under the table, but one has to wonder about the journalistic integrity of Amy Harmon by accepting Ronald’s word at face value in light of the reporting on her work at Independent Science News just six weeks before Harmon’s article appeared. Does the N.Y. Times care that Harmon was trawling through the garbage for support? Apparently not. In the article titled “Can the Scientific Reputation of Pamela Ronald, Public Face of GMOs, Be Salvaged?”, we discover:

Did Pamela Ronald jump, or was she pushed?

In fact, scientific doubts had been raised about Ronald-authored publications at least as far back as August 2012. In that month Ronald and co-authors responded in the scientific journal The Plant Cell to a critique from a German group. The German researchers had been unable to repeat Ronald’s discoveries in a third Ax21 paper (Danna et al 2011) and they suggested as a likely reason that her samples were contaminated (Mueller et al 2012).

Furthermore, the German paper also asserted that, for a theoretical reason (3), her group’s claims were inherently unlikely.

In conclusion, the German group wrote:

“While inadvertent contamination is a possible explanation, we cannot finally explain the obvious discrepancies to the results in..…..Danna et al. (2011)”

Pamela Ronald, however, did not concede any of the points raised by the German researchers and did not retract the Danna et al 2011 paper. Instead, she published a rebuttal (Danna et al 2012) (4).

The subsequent retractions, beginning in January 2013 (of Lee et al 2009 and Han et al 2011), however, confirm that in fact very sizable scientific errors were being made in the Ronald laboratory. But more importantly for the ‘Kudos to Pam’ story, it was not Pamela Ronald who initiated public discussion of the credibility of her research.

Harmon can’t resist taking a potshot at Vandana Shiva, who is probably the best known critic of GM crops in the world today:

Monsanto’s cotton, engineered with a gene from bacteria to ward off certain insects, had “pushed 270,000 farmers to suicide” since the company started selling it in India in 2002, the activist Vandana Shiva said in a Honolulu speech Ms. Wille attended.

But in Nature, a leading academic journal, Mr. Ilagan [a Hawaiian elected politician who favors GM] found an article with the subhead “GM Cotton Has Driven Farmers to Suicide: False.”

You can read Shiva’s rebuttal to the Nature article here but I think it is far more worthwhile to consider what India’s Supreme Court has decided. In October 2012 they called for a 10 year ban on Monsanto’s GM cotton over worries that “transgenics can contaminate and adversely affect the biodiversity”. The last time I checked the Indian Supreme Court was not exactly a champion of poor peasants or environmental safety. Something must be going on, no?

Furthermore, the Hindustan Times reported on March 26, 2012 that a “Secret govt note says Bt cotton failing, leading to farmer suicides” had been leaked to the press. The government agency referred to in the article was the Ministry of Agriculture, which like the Supreme Court was not to be mistaken for Vandana Shiva even on its best days.

Harmon makes the case that genetically modified papayas have been a boon to the Hawaiian economy relying on the expertise of one Jon Suzuki. Unfortunately, she neglects to mention that he is an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture, an agency that has been presented with over 5,000 applications for field trials of genetically engineered crops. Not a single one has been denied.

This is now the third article in a row in which Harmon has made the case for GM crops. So egregious has been her advocacy that it has even attracted the notice of the Columbia Journalism Review that gave her the benefit of the doubt, no doubt a function of the journalism school’s cozy relationship to the gray lady. I do recommend a look at it, however, since it will give you an idea of the amount of controversy Amy Harmon has been generating. It is focused on food policy expert Michael Pollan’s disapproving tweet of an earlier Harmon article: “Important NYT story on GM oranges; 2 many industry talking pts.” For those unaccustomed to the 140-character straight jacket imposes, the 2 means too. The concluding paragraphs of the CJR article will give you a sense of the authoritative journal’s unease with Amy Harmon’s reporting, despite her Pulitzer Prize (but then again Thomas Friedman has a wheelbarrow full of them.)

In many ways this is less a clash of journalistic ethics than of journalistic styles. Pollan would like Harmon to use more of the history and economics of crop modification to give a picture of Monsanto’s cornering of the market. Harmon explicitly chose to leave out such scope to focus on the narrative at hand. “I didn’t consider it my responsibility to put in 20 years of the GMO debate,” she says.

But without a fact-driven chronicling of GMO’s lineage, Harmon’s story of innovation lacks what Pollan considers crucial context. “Should we be debating what GM might do to feed the 9 billion, or should we debate what, after 15 years in the market, it can and has done,” he says. “They’re always trying to get us to focus on these wonders to come. And I’m looking forward to the wonders to come too. I just haven’t seen them yet.”

January 4, 2014

Old Dog; Old Partner

Filed under: farming,Film,Korea,Tibet — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

Now that I have gotten through the “prestige” Hollywood movies the studio sent me in November and December, I can finally get back to the kind of movie that I really care about—the leftwing documentary or the narrative film made in some peripheral nation on a shoestring budget featuring a non-professional cast. When I took one look at the back of the DVD for “Old Dog”, I knew I was back on native ground:

When a young man notices several thefts of mastiffs from Tibetan farm families, he decides to sell his family’s dog before it is stolen and sold on the black market. His father, an aging Tibetan herder, is furious when he discovers their dog missing. When the father seeks to buy the dog back, it leads to a series of tragicomic events that threaten to tear the family apart, while showing the erosion of Tibetan culture under the pressures of contemporary society.

Ah, just my kind of film. Given the theme, I was willing to cut the film a lot more slack than something like “Inside Llewyn Davis”. Fortunately, the film succeeded just as much as art as it did as social commentary.

The Tibet of “Old Dog” has nothing in common with the idealized version that revolves around the Dalai Lama and snow-capped mountains. This is not Shangri-La but a landscape of arid rolling hills and dirt roads. The main character, a young unemployed longhaired alcoholic man named Gonpo (Drolma Kyab), is seen as the film begins driving a noisy and underpowered motorcycle slowly along a dirt road with a strange looking dog with matted fur trailing behind him attached to a chain.

Wary about the growing number of dog thefts in rural Tibet where the breed—a Tibetan mastiff coveted by rich Chinese yuppies in the same way that some Americans dote on French bulldogs—is used to herd sheep rather than be shown off on a leash in a rich neighborhood, Gonpo has decided to sell the dog to a man in the nearest town who sells them to Chinese customers.

With the proceeds, he has lunch with his cousin, the local chief of police, and then spends some more on getting drunk. He returns late at night and teeters back into the house he shares with his father, a man who still dresses in traditional garb and raises sheep on a hillside, and his wife. The next day his father is angry that he has sold the dog behind his back and demands that he bring it back. That he does, but not without complications. Like their dogs, the Tibetan rural folk with roots in a nomadic mode of existence, have an uphill battle against the dominant Chinese nationality.

Although the film has an important message to deliver, it is not preachy. For those familiar with the deadpan minimalist irony of an Aki Kaurismäki or a Jim Jarmusch will be familiar with director Pema Tseden’s style. In an iconic scene, you see father, son, and daughter-in-law sitting glassy-eyed in front of a poorly focused television set watching a Chinese infomercial for a bracelet that looks like gold but that is even better.

“Old Dog” can be seen on Amazon.com and is well worth it for those looking for a film off the beaten track. It doesn’t get much more off than this jewel of a film.

Probably by coincidence, “Old Dog” has much in common with “Old Partner”,  Korean film that mourns the passing of a traditional way of life embodied in a work animal’s role in the life of country people. I reviewed the film, which is now available as a Netflix DVD, back in December of 2009. I will repeat the review now just to allow you to read them side-by-side for comparison’s sake.

In keeping with the high standards of the Korean film industry that I have called attention to in past reviews, one is a documentary titled “Old Partner” showing at the Film Forum. The “old partner” referred to in the title is a 40 year old ox on his last legs, the prize possession of Choi Won-kyun and Lee Sam-soon, husband and wife farmers, who are stooped over from old age and backbreaking work. The general mood of the film evokes Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, written in 1750 as a kind of resigned protest against industrialization:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

In the same manner as Gray’s poem, there is a muted but recognizable rejection of industrialism’s benefits. Choi refuses to use insecticide because it threatens to poison his ox. He also refuses to use a rice-harvesting machine because too many grains will be lost. Even though he is in his 80s, he prefers to gather up the rice by hand. His wife, who is forced to work alongside him, nags him throughout the film. Sell the ox. Get a machine. Use insecticide. He ignores her all the while, facilitated no doubt by the fact that he is nearly deaf. Meanwhile, the only sound he strains to hear is the bell attached to his ox’s neck that provides a kind of soundtrack throughout the film. Its constant tinkling reminds you more of a Buddhist temple than hard labor, accentuated by the sight of the beast’s oddly beatific gaze.

Choi travels everywhere in a cart drawn by his beloved ox, even to the nearest city where he observes a demonstration by local activists against the importation of American cattle. They chant “No to Mad Cow!” Choi says not a word as he trudges slowly by, but it is clear that he is in sympathy, as is the film’s director no doubt.

An interview with director Lee Chung-ryoul is worth quoting in its entirety:

Where did the idea from the movie come from? Why do you think it was important to make this film?

I happened to visit a cattle market for coverage in 1999 where I saw an ox shed tears looking at his former owner as he was being pulled away by his new owner. That moment reminded me of my father’s ox from my childhood.

Before industrialization, the business of the Korean countryside was the sole domain of oxen and our fathers. They were heroes, idols and the driving force of Korean agricultural development. Since industrialization, however, they had nothing to do. Oxen became only beef; our fathers retired and aged with an aging town.

The situation makes me sad. So I wanted to recollect the devotion and beautiful sympathy of farmers and oxen in this film, and the scenery might be the last moment of this age. This film is dedicated to the oxen and our fathers devoted to this land.

How did you meet this farmer?

For five years, I traveled around the nation to find a proper ox and farmer. In early 2005, someone told me there was a proper man and an ox in a small town in Bong-wha. I was so lucky to encounter them.

What elements of the South Korean culture are portrayed in the movie?

Before the introduction of farm machinery to the countryside, our farms totally depended upon oxen. This film portrays the core of Korean agricultural practices. Also, it shows aspects of traditional Korean culture, such as patriarchy, unequal conjugal relationships and the commitment of parents to educate their children at any cost. It also shows the affection for oxen, who are considered family members and collaborative partners, not just animals.

 

October 3, 2013

Three environmental films of note

Filed under: Ecology,farming,Film,food — louisproyect @ 3:57 pm

Two of the documentaries under review here are focused on rivers, while the third takes a close look at soil. Given the mounting environmental crisis, they achieve an urgency that would put them at the top of any serious filmgoer’s “must see” list. The fact that all three are fully realized works of art, independent of their topic, recommends them even more. Those looking for escapist fantasies should not feel the need to read any further. Of course, any of my regular readers are the film audience elite and would be well advised to continue reading.

Although I have seen a number of very good documentaries on organic farming, “Symphony of the Soil” is the first to ground them (excuse me for the bad pun) in soil chemistry. The first half of the film is a guided tour of various locales by some of the world’s leading soil chemists, ranging from fjords to rain forests, with an emphasis on how soil becomes fertile. Like most people, I suppose, the idea of listening to a scientist explain the differences between different kinds of soil might seem dry as dust (excuse me for another bad pun) but it is almost impossible not to be swept along by their passion. In some ways the film is a throwback to the classic Disney nature films of the 1950s like “The Living Desert”. If you loved those films as a kid, you will find “Symphony of the Soil” impossible to resist. If you have kids, this is the quintessential family film.

My interest in soil chemistry is heightened by my reading of John Bellamy Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology” that described in great detail the ecological crisis of the 19th century, namely the loss of soil fertility. The crisis was so deep that scavengers went through battlefield remains looking for bones that could be pulverized into fertilizer. The “guano wars” between Peru and Chile were fought over control over the fertilizer-rich islands in the Pacific.

“Symphony of the Soil” describes how this crisis was resolved in the 20th century though the discovery of chemical-based nitrogen fertilizers. This was the so-called Haber process, named after Fritz Haber who was involved with military research. His goal was to procure the chemical compounds that could be used for explosives, a reminder of how Timothy McVeigh was able to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. It was with a bomb based on 200 pounds of ammonium nitrate from a farm supply company.

In a way, chemical fertilizers became just as deadly even though they were touted as solving the hunger problem through the much-heralded Green Revolution. When chemical nitrates are introduced into the soil, they are absorbed into the water at a much greater rate than organic fertilizers and eventually leach into the rivers and lakes where they accelerate the growth of algae and rob marine life of much needed oxygen. The net result in one instance is the presence of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is the size of New Jersey and expanding rapidly.

The final half of the film is a guided tour of organic farms across the world with farmers who are as passionate about their responsibilities to Mother Earth as the soil chemists that preceded them. I found the interview with Jaspal Singh Chattha, a Sikh farmer living in Punjab, particularly interesting. Chattha is the hope for farming in India, a nation whose reliance on chemical-based farming and its heavy capital outlays has led to a suicide epidemic.

“Symphony of the Soil” is aptly named. The photography is first-rate, including many time-lapse images of plants and flowers growing that come out of the Disney tradition. The film score is also top-notch.

Deborah Koons Garcia directed “Symphony of the Soil”. In 2004 she made “The Future of Food” that took aim at the genetic modification industry and about which I wrote:

The film gives one example after another of how elected politicians serve on the board of Monsanto and related companies. It also documents the incestuous relationship between their high-level employees and federal agencies meant to regulate them. It is not unusual for some top manager of Monsanto to take a job with the FDA, which is analogous to an Exxon executive going to work for the EPA. Politicians, both Democrat and Republican, have been co-opted as shills for biotechnology. In 1997, Mickey Kantor, Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce, joined the Monsanto board where William Ruckelshaus, Nixon’s EPA director, already sat. One wonders why the property-owning class bothers with the pretense of democracy at this point. It would be far more honest if the government was simply made up of CEO’s selected at random from Fortune 100 companies.

“Symphony of the Soil” opens at the Quad Cinema in NY on October 11th. If you can’t make it to the theater, I strongly urge you to buy the DVD from the film’s website (http://www.symphonyofthesoil.com/watch/buy-dvds/). This is a film that would be of great significance for both the high school and university classrooms. It unites art and science in a way that sets the standard for such documentaries henceforth.

When I got email from Icarus Films about their new acquisition, I said to myself that this was a must:

Unbeknownst to today’s city-dwellers, buried beneath nearly every major metropolis are a network or convergence of rivers. As urban living grew with the Industrial Revolution, these rivers became conduits for disease and pollution. The 19th-century solution was the merge them with sewer systems and hide them underground. These rivers still run through the cities of today, but they do so out of sight. LOST RIVERS examines hidden waterways around the world from the United States to the United Kingdom, from Korea to Italy. Viewers are introduced to environmentalists and urban explorers re-discovering their city’s network of medieval rivers. As climate change forces us to reconsider the relationship between built and natural environments, a fascinating secret of contemporary ecology is revealed.

If you are a native New Yorker, you are probably aware of a road called the Saw Mill River Parkway, a prime route into the city from the north. The river, a tributary of the Hudson, runs alongside the highway until its final leg into Mount Vernon, a suburb that has seen its better days.

In the 1920s the city fathers decided to literally bury the river under what is called a flume, a tunnel in effect, that effectively turned the river into part of the city’s sewer system. As was the case everywhere underground rivers went through such “scientific engineering”, there were unintended consequences. In heavy rainstorms, the sewer system became overloaded and the waters below came rushing out of drainpipes saturated with feces and other pollutants.

Mount Vernon decided to return the river to the surface as part of an effort to beautify the downtown and to allow native species to thrive once again. Despite some temporary dislocations for local small businesses, the project has been an overwhelming success.

While it may not come as a big surprise to see a suburb of New York move in such a direction, it is quite a revelation to see that Seoul has embarked down the same road. An underground river has been reclaimed there as well, leading to sense of well-being for urban society that now has a healthy and beautiful resource in its midst. In a very real sense, such projects are analogous to the decision made in the 19th century to create Central Park in New York.

It is understandable that environmentalism is framed in terms of functionality, as if its dictates serve as a kind of RX for a sick planet. But when you see an underground river rescued from obscurity and made the centerpiece of a downtown metropolis, you realize that being surrounded by beauty is as important as being surrounded by clean air and water. A week ago when I was running in Central Park, I saw a green heron in the reservoir and stood there mesmerized for a minute or two. The salvation of the planet has to be understood in spiritual as well as physical terms and “Lost Rivers” is a good place to start.

Go to the Icarus website (http://icarusfilms.com/) for information on how to view this groundbreaking film.

“A River Changes Course” is a poignant study of the struggle of Cambodian fishermen to make a living against a backdrop of ecological crisis and declining marine life in the waters near Phnom Penh, the capital city. It is directed by Kalyanee Mam, a young Cambodian woman who served as cinematographer on Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job”.

Despite their relative closeness to the city, the people featured in Mam’s documentary appear to live under conditions that prevailed 100 years ago. Mostly Muslim, they survive as traders hooked into local markets that they rely on for cash to purchase essentials like clothing and food.

As is the case everywhere in the world, small, subsistence fishermen are being crowded out by much larger and much more technologically advanced commercial fishermen who care little about environmental sustainability.

Not only are the river’s riches being squandered, so are the rain forests that surround the river. As is happening throughout Asia, the forests are being cleared to make room for plantations producing export crops. In this particular instance, the main exploiters are Chinese who not only take over the land but also turn desperately poor Cambodians into virtual slaves on the plantations.

“A River Changes Course” opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York and on October 11, 2013 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles. If circumstances prevent you from attending a screening, I urge you to visit the film’s website at http://ariverchangescourse.com and to read the press notes as well for useful background on the political economy of contemporary Cambodia.

September 28, 2013

Utopia in the Catskills

Filed under: Catskills,farming,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

In assembling still photos to be included in a video I am doing on a trip up to my hometown in the Catskills in August, I could find nothing on the net that showed Woodridge in its prime. A visit to the Sullivan County Historical Museum in Hurleyville turned up the intriguing first page of a PM article dated July 20, 1947 with the title “Utopia in the Catskills”. I eventually tracked down the full print version at the New York Historical Society that I scanned in for the results below. PM was a leftist newspaper with heavy Communist Party participation that was published out of NYC from 1940 to 1948 and funded by Chicago millionaire Marshall Field III, a scion of the Montgomery-Field department stores. They don’t make millionaires the way they used to.

In a nutshell, the article was as much of a find for me as the Ark of the Covenant was for Indiana Jones. It told me who I was and where I came from.

The title of the article refers to the strong left sympathies in the village and the importance of co-op’s. My grandfather Louis, who died around the time that this article was written, was president of the Workman’s Circle that is referred to in the article as follows:

The dominating political view among the people of the Workman’s Circle was socialist. The Circle carried out its idealistic aims along three lines of endeavor: 1. Mutual aid in time of need and misfortune. 2. Education for membership. 3. Organization of workers’ co-operatives.

There are lots more that I can say about this article but do not want to interrupt the flow with my observations. As you read through it, you can find my elaborations on both personal and historical matters by clicking various links, starting with a longer introduction on Woodridge and the left here.

PM July 20, 1947

Utopia in the Catskills

Story and Photos by Croswell Bowen

railway_stationThe station platform at Woodridge, which opens on to the town’s main street, is extra large to accommodate summer population of 30,000

Refugees who wanted to be farmers made Woodridge, N.Y., into a prosperous farm-resort town with five co-ops

West of the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie and Highland, beyond the Shawangunk (pronounced shongum) Mountains toward the Alleghany Plateau is the rocky, hilly country of Tom Quick, the Indian killer, and the now virtually extinct Irish tanners, The New York, Ontario, and Western Railroad threads its way among the foothills and mountains of the Catskills and these days its Diesel locomotives sound foghornlike warnings when they come to road crossings and towns.

Twice a day passenger trains stop at the town of Woodridge (population 300 in winter, 30,000 in summer), which looks like most of the other combination farm and resort country towns which sprinkle the Catskill Mountains.

Actually, Woodridge is unique among the neighboring communities, because it possesses five highly successful consumer co-operatives, owned and operated by their members. Three of the five comprise one large intercounty co-operative association. All five are loosely connected with national co-operative groups which furnish over a billion dollars in services and goods to more than 2,500,000 member-owners throughout the United States each year. In practice, the Woodridge co-ops follow along the lines of the Rochdale pioneers. The prices are competitive, that is, in the same range as nonco-op establishments. But the co-op members realize savings through a system of rebates or dividends paid out of what in nonco-op businesses is chalked up as profit and loss to the consumer. In the co-ops the profit is returned to members after small sums are set aside for reserve. Most of the citizens of Woodridge have small chicken farms and take summer boarders. If you were such a citizen, would, in Woodridge, have your farm and buildings insured at the Associated Co-operative Insurance Companies.

fogelson

co-op2
You would stop to buy your groceries from the Mountain Resort Owners’ & Farmers’ Co-op_Inc. If you needed extra beds or mattresses or window shades or garden furniture, this co-op would also supply you.

After this, you would drive your pick-up truck to the feed division of the Inter-County Farmers’ Co-operative Association Inc. for a few sacks of chicken feed. You might stop and chat with young Joe Cohen, the manager of the feed co-op. about poultry and end up taking a gallon of a new kind of disinfectant.

The friendly village

In another building, you’d drop off a crate of eggs at Inter-County’s egg co-op where eggs are processed, packed, shipped, and sometimes put into cold storage. Upstairs in Inter-County’s farm machinery co-op, you’d look over the new poultry equipment and other accessories, and perhaps end up buying a new tire. Leaving town, you’d remember you needed some gas and stop again at the grocery co-op and fill her up.

joe cohen new

Lou YoungThis is Louis Young, the father of SDS leader Allen Young who later on became a pivotal figure in the gay liberation movement. More on Allen here.

egg candlingThe women candled eggs while the men packed them. Not everything was up to date in 1947. It took Betty Friedan to shake things up.

packing new

packing 2 new

When you drive west through Ellenville past Spring Glen on Route 209 a sign tells you that you are entering Woodridge, The Friendly Village. This is not a Chamber of Commerce exaggeration. The summer population of the town, although mostly Jewish, includes a diversified group of nationalities. There are Negro entertainers and household servants, Puerto-Rican, Moslem, Indian, Cuban and Lascar [Indian sailors, an archaic term] hotel workers. A few of the old-time Irish settlers from the Irish tanner days are still there. Everybody gets along. Anybody can check into any hotel regardless of his race or creed.

Max Schwartz, owner-proprietor of The Actors Inn, a restaurant and bar, boasts that “nobody who lands in this town goes hungry or bedless if he’s broke. And we help him get a job if he’s willing to work.” We’re supposed to be a kosher restaurant,” jolly Mrs. Schwartz, his wife, says, “but we got ham for the gentiles and, my heavens, I’ve even had to learn how to get up curry and rice with lamb for the Moslems. And very, very hot stuff for the Puerto Ricans. We’re a regular United Nations restaurant.”

sam katzowitz

Sam Katzowitz, Mayor of Woodridge, sums up the town’s inter-racial  equilibrium somewhat more wryly. Recently, he was asked if the town elections shaped up along the conventional Republican and Democratic lines or were other factors present?

ethel katzowitz

In the Majority

“If you have in mind,” he said, “is there any anti-Semitism here, the answer is no. And, for a very simple reason. Jews in Woodridge are in the majority. But we treat the gentiles pretty good. I guess you might say we’re mostly all liberals.”

“Like liberals everywhere else,” he adds, “we don’t necessarily agree. We have our arguments, too.”

Political discussion in Woodridge is at a very sophisticated level. In any store, on any corner, you can hear talk of the relative merits of the Socialist Party or Communist Party in the trade union movement. The “Russian question” touches off explosive viewpoints.

The character of the town, the co-ops, and the high incidence of liberals were not indigenous to up-state hill country. This Utopia in the Catskills has evolved from a chain of events that occurred in Europe as well as locally during the past 50 years.

During the last half of the past century, the land around Woodridge (or Centerville station, as it was called until 1915) was inhabited mostly by Irish immigrants. The iron-muscled men of Galway and Cork and Mayo and Killarney cut down the tall hemlock trees and hauled them to tanneries which constituted the main industry of the Catskills.

The pay was bad and the work was hard. To eke out a living, they tried to do a little farming, a cow, a pig and some chickens. But the soil is rocky and sometimes solid rock is only a few inches below the top soil. Toward the turn of the century the tanning industry had changed and the hemlocks mostly cut down. The early Irish settlers died off and the young folks went to the cities.

During the 90s, Jews fleeing the terrible pogroms taking place in Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and the Balkans, were arriving in the United States. Many had been farmers in the old country and wanted to be farmers in the new country.

The land in the Catskills was cheap. Much of it was abandoned. Some say the Polish and Lithuanian Jews bought the land because it reminded them of their native countryside. The deciding factor, however, was more probably that the prices of the farms suited what little money these early refugees had salvaged from their old-world homes.

Many of the early Jewish settlers were helped with money and advice by the Baron De Hirsch Fund. De Hirsch, a wealthy Hungarian railroad builder, believed that Jewish colonization was the answer to the terrible pogroms sweeping Europe. He also helped settle Jews in Palestine.

Unite the workers

Another influence among the Jews who settled in the region of what is now Woodridge was the Workman’s Circle. (http://circle.org/) This Jewish organization, called in Yiddish Der Arbeiter Ring, had been formed on New York’s Essex Street in the flat of Sam Greenberg, a cloakmaker. His aim was to “unite by a ring of friendship every worker in the land and with many links unite the workers of every land.”

The dominating political view among the people of the Workman’s Circle was socialist. The Circle carried out its idealistic aims along three lines of endeavor: 1. Mutual aid in time of need and misfortune. 2. Education for membership. 3. Organization of workers’ co-operatives. There were “Sunday schools” for children; dramatic and choral groups for elders.

But the settlers around Woodridge as well as in other parts of the Catskills did not prosper. The few natives left in the region did not welcome the strange-speaking newcomers.

The settlers found it as hard to farm the land as the Irish who’d perished before them. To help make ends meet they began taking in boarders. Mostly, the Jewish farmers took fellow Jews in from New York City. This was logical. They had friends in the city and these friends had other friends.

Jews who came into the farm homes in the Catskills found respite from the toil of the New York sweatshops. They knew they would find no discrimination. And further, the meals at the farmhouse were in compliance with the dietary laws of their religion. In this way the region became one of the great resort centers of the East.

Almost prohibitive

About the time of the first World War, the new farmer-hotelkeepers discovered they couldn’t get any fire insurance on their places. If a farmer took in one hoarder even for one week, be was charged a “hotel rate” for every room in his house, regardless of whether he rented it out. The hotel rate made the farmers’ insurance almost prohibitive.

The result was that the farmer-hotelkeepers organized their own insurance co– operative and on April 1913, the first policy was written. Each member put up a certain sum of money and at the end of the year, they were assessed a sum of money to pay as premiums. The insurance Department of the State of New York was puzzled by the new kind of insurance company and for a time the organizers, Philip Thomas and Victor S. Kogan had a hard time operating within laws which had been put on the books to cover oldline insurance companies that worked entirely for profits.

But the company grew and grew so that today it has 35 million dollars worth of insurance in force and 2300 policy-holders. On October 31, 1940, George N. Jamison, Superintendent of the Department of Insurance of the State of New York, addressed 1000 policyholders of the Associated Co-operative Insurance Co., the first sizeable policyholders meeting he’d ever heard about. “This,” he said, is a real policyholders’ meeting. We in the Department know your directors have rendered service to the community, one which in holders could go nowhere else to obtain. The co-operative deserves the praise for performing this function.

The insurance co-operative at Woodridge owns its own fireproof building today. Its 24 directors are elected for terms of three years. It saves its policyholders from 20 to 80 per cent of the cost of insurance in the nonco-op companies. The next big co-operative in Woodridge was organized in 1938. Twenty members put up $25 to form the Inter-County feed and grain co-operative. Today there are 400 members and the co-operative does business in Sullivan, Ulster and Orange Counties. New members are accepted after a probationary period of six months “to see if the hi suer is co-operatively minded and to make sure he is nut a disrupter.”

As the feed and grain co-operative grew its scope has been enlarged to include a farm machinery co-operative and an egg co-operative.. The gross business is a million and a quarter dollars. Feed and grain accounts for $1,100,000; farm machinery for $50,000; and egg storage and marketing for $50,000. Most of the members are poultry men. Lately, many GIs with Gl loans are becoming members.

The most recent co-operative to come into being in Woodridge is the Mountain Resort Owners and Farmers’ Co-operative. It was organized in 1944 when scarce hardware and grocery items were turned on the black market and the hotelkeepers had to pay premium prices or do without merchandise. Two hundred and fifty shareholders, each owning one share, put up $25. A building, railroad siding and warehouse were purchased for $4000. They are worth $10,000 today. Last year the gross business was $55, 000. This year it will gross $75,000. Gum sells for three cents a pack, motor oil for 15 cents a quart and $1.25 window shades sell for 81 cents. Its officers are a president, secretary-treasurer, and a board of directors of nine. A paid full-time manager handles the actual operation of the business. We asked all the people in key jobs in the co-operatives how they accounted for their success. All said virtually the same thing: “We try to sell the best merchandise at the lowest prices. We stick strictly to business and avoid political quarrels that might divide and disrupt us.”

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