Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 12, 2019

Why a factory farm and a car factory should not be confused

Filed under: Ecology,farming — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

Do we want this under socialism?

Recently I commented briefly in two different blog posts about an article in the DSA magazine written by Matt Huber and titled “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” that was very close to the sort of thing that Leigh Phillips has written. In a nutshell, Phillips and Huber are “productivists” who tend to see the good in GMO, nuclear power, chemicals for agriculture, DDT, etc.

In a May 1st piece titled “Ecosocialist Debates”, I summed up Huber’s approach:

There’s not much else to say about Huber’s article except that it reads like Living Marxism circa 1985. He believes that nuclear power can be a part of the GND, just like Leigh Phillips who he quotes favorably: “Let’s take over the machine, not turn it off!”

Then, two days ago, I referred to him again along the same lines in a review of a film titled “The Serengeti Rules” hailing it as a strong statement in favor of biodiversity and the preservation of “keystone species”. Since his article came out against re-wilding, I saw it as inimical to the UN report that warned: “Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

For some reason, Huber replied to my posts on a FB group called Marxism, Science, the Anthropocene where I posted a brief response to him in my customarily frank and sarcastic manner. This the group administrator found “uncomradely”. Guilty as charged. I will be referring to Huber’s post, which can be found at the bottom of this article. Since I don’t find FB useful for debates, prefer to use the same no-holds barred style I have been using for the past 28 years on the Internet, and seek to involve readers who are not on FB in this debate, I will be responding here instead.

To start off, I had the impression that Huber was new to Marxism and an undergraduate. I was probably right on the first impression but far off on the second. Huber is an Associate Professor of Geography at Syracuse University who got his Ph.D. in 2009. This would likely make him about 45 years old or so. His specialties are “Political economy, historical geography, energy and capitalism, climate politics, resource governance and social theory”. Quite the universal scholar. The articles on his university website are divided into “Public Writing” and “Peer Reviewed Journal Articles and Book Chapters”. Among the first, there is one for the Verso blog titled Building a “Green New Deal”: Lessons From the Original New Deal that hints at his unfamiliarity with key issues in environmentalism. Gazing worshipfully at FDR as most DSA’ers do, he writes:

They built dams to deliver cheap electricity to entire regions. Amazingly, they even hired Woody Guthrie to sing songs about Columbia River doing work for the people (“‘Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea, But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”) Can we imagine Bob Dylan singing such a song about the carbon fee and dividend?

I wonder if this geography professor has been exposed to books written by the environmental historian Donald Worster whose “Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West” is a cautionary tale about mega-dams of the kind that the New Deal fostered. After referring to Woody Guthrie’s song that he found much more impressive than the dam itself, he debunked the New Deal mystique that so many DSA’ers swallow hook, line and sinker:

Dust-bowlers and tenement dwellers were, it must said, only a small fraction of the intended beneficiaries of the remade Columbia River, not important enough in themselves to justify the effort and expense, particularly in light of the parallel development going on to the east of the Rockies, which aimed at keeping many of them at home. No, the principal goal in the Northwest was something else, something not so very different from what it was in the southern latitudes, in California, Arizona, and Texas: to repeat from the Bureau’s own mouth, total use for greater wealth. According to that agency, “we have not yet produced enough . . . to sustain a desirable and reasonable standard of living, even if goods were equitably distributed; and . . . there is no limit to the human appetite for the products of industry.”

Let me now turn to Huber’s response. To start with, it appears that everything revolves around the ability of industrial farms to replace human labor with machinery:

I’m only making a much more narrow point that industrial agriculture has employed massive labor-saving technologies so that very few actual people/workers are needed to grow the food many of us consume. And, consequently, developing an agroecological system must take the question of labor very seriously – especially if one assumes it will take more labor to grow food than under the industrial system.

He does pay lip-service to the idea that industrial agriculture has “awful ecological effects” but it is not clear what accounts for them. I suppose that if I go through some of his JSTOR articles that touch on nitrogen fertilizer, I could get a better idea of whether or not he understands industrial farming deficits but perhaps it is sufficient to take him at his word that with chemicals doing the “work” of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil, we are able to enjoy “abundance”. In fact, the words “abundant” or “abundance” appears no less than seventeen times in his article. In itself, this does not provide much of a handle to determine whether this is good or bad. For example, the USA produces abundant amounts of corn and soybeans but this is mostly used in junk food.

But more to the point, there is a fundamental inability in his article to distinguish between factories that produce cars and factory farms. In the industrial revolution, you had the replacement of human labor by machinery that made the mass production of clothing possible. But are there environmental consequences in producing a cotton shirt other than the greenhouse gases produced by coal-driven electricity to power the looms?

Economies of scale, division of labor and technology combined together to create consumer goods that became “abundant”. However, factory farms come at an environmental cost that dwarfs Ford’s factories beyond all measure. Let’s enumerate a few of them:

(1) Factory farms are based on monoculture. By growing wheat, cotton, corn, soybeans, exclusively, you are robbing the soil of the nutrients that come naturally when a farm has a mixture of crops. This is why chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides have become a plague in the Midwest. As Ben Watts observed in an article titled “The Dangers of Monoculture Farming”:

Chemicals leave traces on plants intended for consumption and are also regularly overused. Excessive use means that a large quantity of synthetic material is left in the soil after harvest. As the material is not organic it can cause great harm to the soil. Rather than being processed into organic matter by microorganisms, it will weave its way through soil polluting groundwater supplies. Pollution of groundwater will negatively alter neighboring ecosystems and even those at a great distance from the chemicals. Chemical substances will kill and deplete all manner of plants, and diversity of surrounding ecosystems.

(2) Factory farms producing chicken, pork and beef for the market are classic example of “economies of scale” but at what cost? You can certainly blame capitalism for how pig factory farms in South Carolina use lakes and rivers as a cesspool but if this came to an end under socialism, would we still want to eat meat that was far inferior to that produced on a traditional farm? The other question is probably not one that matters too much to “productivists” like Huber but as socialists do we abide the cruelty to hens, pigs and cattle that is by necessity associated with factory farms? That’s not going to be in any revolutionary program I would support.

(3) Factory farms are impossible to integrate with cities. As I pointed out in a brief reply to Huber on FB, the Communist Manifesto includes this in its goals: “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.” Marx called for this in order to overcome the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” in V. 3 of Capital. The 1981 edition is quite clear in helping us make the connection to the Communist Manifesto: “Large landed property … produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.” This is a reference to the rift between natural fertilizer and agriculture.

As for Huber’s paragraph baiting me about wanting to see 7 billion people perish as if I were Pol Pot’s grandson, I will simply quote my friend Kamran Nayeri’s response to Huber on FB:

Fred Murphy suggested in a note above for me to comment on Matt Huber’s criticism of Troy Vettese’s “half-earth proposal taken from E.O. Wilson as the proper solution for the biodiversity crisis.” First, both of Huber’s points are misguided. Had he read Wilson’s Half-Earth he would have known that Wilson devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 10: The Best Place in the Biosphere) of his book to name the regions of the planet that he proposed should be set aside for wildlife. What is notable about these regions of the planet is that they are very sparsely, if at all, populated by humans.

Wilson explicitly emphasizes that in these small pockets of humanity, almost all indigenous people are part of the ecosystem and should remain there. What he is calling for is to declare these regions as wildlife preserves not open to “development.” Huber can immediately see that of both his criticisms are not warranted. There is no need to displace anybody and declaring these regions out of reach for development would not change the current status quo for the rest of the planet. Huber also criticizes Vettese’s call for “austerity” and his seemingly proposed “compulsory” veganism. I raised these concerns with Vettese in email communications while congratulating him for his original essay. He admitted that the use of the term “austerity” was a mistake–he meant scaling down of present day conspicuous consumption. He also advocates veganism as necessary for maintaining biodiversity.

He does not mean vegaism must become a law punishable by the state! Now, having disposed of Hubert’s concerns, let me say a few words about the framing of his critique of Vettese and his essay. In my reading of the essay, which I suggest deserves a detailed response, I find it at fault in some fundamental ways. First, the reading of Marx and Engels is questionable. Reducing their methodology (historical materialism) to “socialism given what exists” is not convincing, given the richness of Marx’s own employment of the method say in his writing on the French revolution or in his Capital and associated texts.

To be sure, there are strands of M&E thought that support a reading like Hubert’s. But there is far more in them than what Hubert makes of their method and their vision of socialism. For example, on the question of “population” Marx did not hold that “the more the better” or that there can never be “too many people” from an ecological point of view. In fact, in Grundrisse, he argues population is conditioned by the mode of production. Thus, our 7+ billion world population is not just a “given” that should shape the ecosocialist future. I have argued a number of times that human population can and should be reduced dramatically in the process of transition to ecosocialism through democratic family planning led by empowered women. Or take the present day food system based on industrial farming.

It is entirely the result of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist world economy in which cheap food is essential for cheap labor force, hence higher profits. Another example, the idea of “free time” in Marx does not preclude creative work including growing our own food. To call it drudgery shows how work in Hubert’s view is equated with alienated labor. The problem in Marx is not working but doing alienated labor. I can go on. But to me Hubert’s essay represents an anthropocentric, productivist argument, with affinity to ecomodernism. In contrast we need an ecocentric socialism. Here is my own proposal to contrast with that of Hubert.

https://knayeri.blogspot.com/2018/10/the-civilization-crisis-and-how-to.html

Let me conclude with some observations on where this “productivism” comes from. To some extent, I have seen it among sects with a far too orthodox understanding of Trotsky’s writings, which is typified by his “If America Should Go Communist” that sounds like it might have inspired Huber:

Here is where the American soviets can produce real miracles. “Technocracy” can come true only under communism, when the dead hands of private property rights and private profits are lifted from your industrial system. The most daring proposals of the Hoover commission on standardization and rationalization will seem childish compared to the new possibilities let loose by American communism.

National industry will be organized along the line of the conveyor belt in your modern continuous-production automotive factories. Scientific planning can be lifted out of the individual factory and applied to your entire economic system. The results will be stupendous.

Costs of production will be cut to 20 percent, or less, of their present figure. This, in turn, would rapidly increase your farmers’ purchasing power.

To be sure, the American soviets would establish their own gigantic farm enterprises, as schools of voluntary collectivization. Your farmers could easily calculate whether it was to their individual advantage to remain as isolated links or to join the public chain.

Although I remain strongly influenced by Trotsky, when it comes to “the dialectics of nature”, I find Bukharin’s approach far more convincing:

“We are a part of everything that is beneath us, and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present.”

–Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) teaching

“No system, including that of human society, can exist in empty space; it is surrounded by an ‘environment,’ on which all is conditions ultimately depend. If human society is not adapted to its environment, it is not meant for this world.”

–Nikolai Bukharin, “Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology”, 1925


Huber’s FB Post

Louis N. Proyect has posted two blog posts here that criticize my piece (linked here again) – and I wanted to try to clarify a couple things (I hope this is an OK venue to do so).

First, he twice draws from this quote from my piece “Today, virtually every ‘input’ into industrialized agriculture is one that saves labor. Tractors plow and plant and chemicals do the ‘work’ of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil.” In his first post, he says this quote shows I don’t understand the “metabolic rift.” In the second he claims it reads like a Monsanto commercial. He seems to think I’m fully endorsing industrial agriculture. But, I am not saying industrial agriculture is 100% good or ecologically unproblematic (I understand its awful ecological effects). I’m only making a much more narrow point that industrial agriculture has employed massive labor-saving technologies so that very few actual people/workers are needed to grow the food many of us consume. And, consequently, developing an agroecological system must take the question of labor very seriously – especially if one assumes it will take more labor to grow food than under the industrial system. Who is going to do that work? Under what conditions?

Second, in his latest, Louis claims my article, “dismisses the importance of biodiversity.” Nowhere in my article do I do this. Like any ecologically aware person (this week only confirming what we already knew), I think the biodiversity crisis is severe. What I do is criticize Troy Vettese’s “half earth” proposal taken from E.O. Wilson as the proper solution for the biodiversity crisis. Can we be clear on what this proposal means? One first could legitimately ask how 7 plus billion could survive if literally half of the earth must be “set aside” for nonhumans. (if you think that’s fine, I would ask which of the 7 billion you think should be allowed to perish?) Moreover, since most biodiversity exists in the tropical zones, this would require a massive (and likely neocolonial) “wilderness” preservation regime in the Global South. Given the already documented violence toward peasants and indigenous peoples across the globe to enforce existing parks and wilderness territories, this would entail massive displacement and dispossession of rural peoples in already impoverished countries.

Any ecosocialist program should not be based on “setting aside” nature to save it, but has to deal with the root of the problem: how we produce the material basis of our existence (this is what historical materialism is about right?!?). And, how we use land in the production process. We are not going to save biodiversity by “setting it aside.” We need to actually develop productive systems that don’t destroy it in the first place.

 

April 26, 2019

The Biggest Little Farm; Lobster War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,farming,Film,water — louisproyect @ 12:50 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, APRIL 26, 2019

Two new documentaries tackle the all-important question of our age, namely how humanity and nature can co-exist in a period of insurmountable capitalist contradiction, especially when humanity takes the form of small businesspeople hoping to exploit natural resources under duress.

Opening at The Landmark at 57 West on May 10th, “The Biggest Little Farm” is a stunningly dramatic portrait of a husband and wife trying to create an ecotopian Garden of Eden forty miles north of Los Angeles. (Nationwide screening info is here.)

Idealist to a fault but utterly inexperienced as farmers, they encounter one obstacle after another in the hope of doing well by doing good. Essentially, they discover that by creating a bounteous yield of edibles destined for the organic foods market, they also attract a plague of gophers, coyotes, starlings and snails that see their farm as a dinner plate. Trying to balance their ecotopian values with the appetites of the animal kingdom becomes an ordeal they never anticipated.

Utterly indifferent to ecological values, the lobster fishermen depicted in Bullfrog Film’s “Lobster War: The Fight Over the World’s Richest Fishing Grounds” are family and village-oriented. As long as they can haul in the valuable crustaceans and keep themselves and their respective towns in Maine and Canada prosperous, nothing much else matters. Not being able to see outside the box, they symbolize the short-term mindset of the ruling class. If lobsters become extinct because of unsustainable practices, the fishermen might turn to other profitable marine life. But when all animals become extinct except for rodents, pigeons and cockroaches, homo sapiens will be next in line.

Continue reading

April 4, 2019

Review of Allen Young’s “Left, Gay, and Green: a Writer’s Life”

Filed under: Catskills,Ecology,farming,Gay,SDS — louisproyect @ 4:51 pm
The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture
Volume 11, 2018
A New Dawn for the New Left: Liberation News Service, Montague Farm, and the Long Sixties
By John McMillian,

For many years – when I was in college, graduate school, and even for some time after that – I used to envy those Baby Boomers who had immersed themselves in the American left during the 1960s and 1970s. They had been righteous in their support of civil rights, outraged about the Vietnam War, and they got to enjoy the era’s great music, as well as various exciting cultural events, like Woodstock and the Moon landing. I always figured it must have been exciting to come of age during such dramatic and compelling times. The Portuguese have a fine word for that kind of melancholy longing I’m describing: saudade.

In recent years, however, that feeling has largely dissipated. I’m no longer sure I’d have enjoyed the Sixties. Part of the reason may be that I’ve been studying that era for about twenty years (so maybe I’ve finally maxed out on the topic). Meanwhile, my thoughts about the desirability of almost any kind of “revolution” have changed. (I now think it’s usually best when social change unfolds gradually.) Furthermore, it turns out that we are currently living through an uncommonly tumultuous time, and I don’t find it too enjoyable. I’m apprehensive about the future, and the social justice left that prevails on American campuses nowadays frequently offends me.

It is in some ways surprising, then, that I have such a fond appreciation for Allen Young’s memoir, Left, Gay & Green: A Writer’s Life. (The title alludes to the fact that Young was a red diaper baby, and then a journalist who was active in the New Left, gay rights, and environmental movements.)

Let me say upfront that I have known Young, from a distance, for many years. Back in the mid-2000s, when I was researching my book, Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, I visited the Allen Young Papers at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and I interviewed Young over the telephone. Since then, we have occasionally exchanged cordial emails. We have only met once, however, and that was just for a few moments, by pure chance, many years ago. (He was walking out of Columbia University’s Fayerweather Hall, and I was walking in.) Put another way, if it had turned out that I had significant criticisms of Left, Gay & Green, I would not have been particularly hesitant to say so.

But mostly I have compliments. Young calls his book an “autobiography,” rather than a “memoir,” because it encompasses his entire life, rather than just the years when he was most intensively engaged in leftwing activism. His amiable, conversational prose style makes for quick reading, but Left, Gay & Green resists easy summary. It is not a didactic autobiography, meant to impart a lesson, or develop a theme. And although it is a longish book (480 pages) each of its twenty-four chapters is subdivided into short, discrete sections. Frequently, Young will pause his narrative in order to share various musings, ponder conundrums, or poke gently at people’s foibles and eccentricities – sort of like a hip Andy Rooney. Some readers may find these digressions excessive, but I found them delightful. Young also occasionally includes excerpts from his writings long ago, which he analyzes from his perspective today.

Young grew up on a Jewish farm in the Catskill Mountains. For years, his main daily chore was to collect eggs from his family’s chickens, clean them, and pack them for shipping. His parents were secretly members of the American Communist Party, which of course put the family at risk during the Red Scare. Unlike some communists who resided in big cities, however, Young’s parents were not bohemians. They were hard-working, straight-laced, and stoic. That posed a problem for Young, because he knew from an early age that he was gay. He lived in “the closet” – and repeatedly tried dating women, while also having secret liaisons with men – from his adolescence until about age twenty-five.

Young was thrilled to matriculate at Columbia University in 1958, and at the time, he was certain he was leaving rural life behind for good. Academically and socially, he thrived, and eventually he became the Daily Spectator’s editor-in-chief. Meanwhile, he began demonstrating his enviable knack for meeting or befriending various successful, well-known, or otherwise interesting people. One of the lifelong friends he made at Columbia was the great historian Eric Foner; another is Michael Meeropol (who was orphaned after the United States government executed his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). Other notable names appear in this book, too, and he includes some entertaining yarns about his friendship with Abbie Hoffman.

During his undergraduate years, Young grew appalled by the crimes of the Soviet Union, but he continued working on the same issues his parents had taught him to care about, mostly around racial justice, war, and peace. He did graduate study at Columbia’s School of Journalism, traveled extensively in South America, and at age twenty-six, took a job at the Washington Post. (Young was hired by Ben Bradlee, who would later become famous for publishing the Pentagon Papers, and for overseeing the Post’s Watergate coverage. Young sketches a brief but memorable portrait of this gruff and no-nonsense newsman.)

Young did not last long at the Post, however. Instead, he became increasingly committed to building the antiwar movement, which was in turn supported by the fast-growing American underground press. In the fall of 1967, Young made what he says “was probably the biggest single decision” of his life and defected from the Post to Liberation News Service (LNS). Often described as a radical version of the Associated Press (AP), LNS produced hundreds of news packets full of reporting, commentaries, graphics, and illustrations, and this material regularly made its way into underground newspapers across the country.

Some of the most edifying and analytical passages in Left, Gay & Green concern the topic (applied anachronistically) of “political correctness.” Young acknowledges that, like others in his cohort, he could be aggressively hostile to opposing viewpoints. By the late ’60s, New Leftists had grown dismissive of voting and non-violent civil disobedience. Most white radicals tended to zealously support the Black Panthers (despite that group’s obvious flaws), and they were prone to dogmatically making snap judgements about who had “good politics” (and who did not). New Leftists frequently dehumanized their political opponents with words and images that, especially from today’s vantage, seem scurrilous and grotesque. Young went along with some of this, but not always comfortably, and only to a degree. After the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society turned to political violence, for instance, Young strongly criticized the group, even as he maintained friendships with some of its members.

Exemplifying the maxim “the personal is political,” in 1970, Young became an early member of the Gay Liberation Front. He participated in the world’s first gay pride march, and he promoted gay equality in numerous periodicals. Meanwhile, Young started collecting personal essays and manifestos from other radical homosexual writers that he admired. In 1972, he published (with Karla Jay), Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, a classic compilation.

In 1973 – defying the expectations he formed when he started at Columbia in 1958 – Young moved to Butterworth Farm, an intentional community in Royalston, Massachusetts. Young calls Butterworth Farm “the love child of two unique and consequential movements … back-to-the-land, and gay liberation” (303). Perhaps surprisingly, given the frenetic pace of the first half of his life, Young has continued to reside there ever since. He has been an avid gardener, a valuable participant in local institutions, and in 1980 he got busted for growing marijuana. (The chapter describing the marijuana bust is amusingly titled “Reefer Madness, or, The Sacred Herb and Me.” Fortunately, Young largely escaped punishment for what he now refers to as his “so-called crime.”) In the 1980s and 1990s, Young worked at the Athol Daily News and did public relations for a local hospital. After living frugally this whole time, he was able to retire in 1999, at age fifty-eight. Today, Young lives in an octagonal house that he helped build many years ago

Even when Young is not writing directly about movement issues, Left, Gay & Green offers salutary lessons about how to engage politics wisely. He thoughtfully ponders arguments and counterarguments; he does not assume bad faith or bad character from those with whom he disagrees; and he easily admits when he was wrong. I’ve no idea whether Allen Young is familiar with Walt Whitman’s famous directive (“be radical – be radical – be not too damned radical!”) but that quote came to mind numerous times while reading Left, Gay & Green. Young spent a big part of his life deeply immersed in revolutionary politics, but one gathers, while reading this charming autobiography, that the cut and thrust of his personality has changed substantially since the vertiginous Sixties. “Nuance,” Young says at one point, “has now become one of my favorite words”.

December 10, 2018

The Yellow Vests, capitalism and communism

Filed under: climate,Ecology,farming,France — louisproyect @ 11:09 pm

Three years ago Michael Moore made a documentary titled “Where to Invade Next” that posed the question of why can’t Americans enjoy the good life most Western Europeans do. Traveling from country to country, he showed how the welfare state created by successive social democratic governments made for better health care, education, child care, etc. He visited a public school in France where he had lunch with sixth graders who had no interest in trading their healthy and appetizing free lunch for a Big Mac, French fries and a giant Coke.

As I pointed out at the time, this social democratic dream was turning into a nightmare, especially for immigrants. It was only a matter of time that France would become ground zero for a revolt against a system that provided few benefits for those who live in the countryside and suburbia. Indeed, my first reaction to the riots is that the white people in France were finally expressing the anger that made the banlieues erupt in 2005.

If steep taxes are supposedly necessary to support the universal health care that Moore supported in “Sicko”, another paean to enlightened social democratic governance, it was lost on the average citizen not fortunate enough to work as an IT specialist or lawyer in Paris. With the closing of rural hospitals, the country’s universal health insurance is next to useless. Under Macron, subsidies to the suburbs and countryside have been cut sharply. $42 billion at the time of his election, they are now $30 billion. The pain this has caused was sufficient to spur a wholesale resignation of mayors around the country who feel too strapped to do their job.

This was not the first time a protest occurred over gasoline/diesel fuel tax hikes. Almost four years ago to the date, “Red Caps” in Brittany forced Francois Hollande to cancel a tax targeting commercial trucks. Protesters, who saw the tax as harmful to farmers who were already having trouble competing with other EU countries, wore red caps. They were first worn in a seventeenth century revolt centered in Brittany as well. As is the case today, the movement took direct action to remind the “socialist” government that it could not neglect those in the boondocks. So grievous was their situation that a virtual epidemic of suicides had plagued the countryside. A recent survey revealed that a French farmer kills himself every two days.

Echoing Donald Trump’s MAGA bluster, Macron has been pushing a Make Our Planet Great Again campaign that was worth pursuing even if it caused temporary pain for the yellow vest social base. On the campaign’s website, there are ambitious goals sounding somewhat like the Green New Deal bandied about on the American left but without the socialist rhetoric:

Regarding mobility, a tax priority has been set: to achieve tax harmonisation between diesel and gasoline before 2022, and to speed up the rise in the price of carbon without penalizing the poorest households. The Climate Plan has set the objective of ending the sale of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040. A large public consultation has also been launched, the “National Conference on Mobility”, to anticipate mobility in 2030 and draw up policies promoting soft and less polluting mobility;

The Climate Plan is striving to put an early end to the import in France of products contributing to the destruction of tropical forests and plans to develop a National strategy against imported deforestation. As far as its own forests are concerned, France has put in place a National Plan for forests and woodlands and a National Biomass Mobilisation Strategy, which advocate forestry that is more proactive and better respects ecosystems, with the aim of maintaining and extending their central role in carbon storage;

France is strengthening its actions to protect the marine and land ecosystems, in France and at an international level, which contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation: increasing its funding for ecosystems protection projects, taking advantage of overseas to launch initiatives for biodiversity helping the climate, and calls for projects to develop nature-based solutions.

You need to understand that it does little good to promote a “soft and less polluting mobility” in 2030 when a tax hike today threatens the ability of hard-up French families to get through the month. In a highly revealing article for the NY Times on December 2nd, Adam Nossiter described the austerity that grips Guéret, a typical yellow vest town. Nossiter describes how typical families live:

“We just don’t make it to the end of the month,” said Elodie Marton, a mother of four who had joined the protesters at the demonstration outside town. “I’ve got 10 euros left,” she said, as a dozen others tried to get themselves warm around an iron-barrel fire.

“Luckily we’ve got some animals at the house” — chickens, ducks — “and we keep them for the end of the month,” she said. “It sounds brutal, but my priority is the children,” she said. “We’re fed up and we’re angry!’ shouted her husband, Thomas Schwint, a cement hauler on a temporary 1,200-euro contract.

Hill-Knowlton, the notorious PR firm that cooked up the propaganda campaign about Saddam’s troops yanking babies from the incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital to leave them on the cold floor to die, revealed rather candidly that despite the impression that the tax hike was geared exclusively for “Green” causes such as eliminating nuclear energy plants, it was not quite the case: “While the government has recently announced a new increase in fuel taxes to come in January, the prices have increased by 19 cents for the essence fuel and by 31 cents for the diesel fuel since the beginning of President Macron’s mandate. In 2018, fuel taxes brought in a total of €34 billion for the state. Of these 34 billion, only 7.4 billion are directly earmarked for ecological transition, while the rest is earmarked for the State’s overall budget.”

In effect, the remaining 26.6 billion was designed to make up for the loss of revenue from Macron’s wealth tax cut. In October 2017, a bill was passed in order to repeal the one imposed by the Socialists in the 1980s on incomes over $1.5 million. The wealth tax supposedly drove rich people out of the country, including actor Gerald Depardieu who was granted Russian citizenship in 2013. In a tit-for-tat arrangement, Depardieu defended the jailing of Pussy Riot. In keeping with his “hooligan” character supposedly praised by Putin, he was accused of the sexual assault and rape of a young female actress in August, 2018. This should give you some idea of the sort of person whose needs had to be catered to, even if it meant leaving Elodie Marton with 10 Euros at the end of the month.

Maxime Combs, a French economist and climate change activist, wrote an article that was translated into English for the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century website. It debunks the notion that the tax hike can help to wean people from fossil fuel usage, especially the poor. He urges a different approach to the problem from eco-tax manipulation:

By making the increase in fuel prices the central policy that must drive the inhabitants of the country to change their vehicles and change their boilers, without reducing their mobility needs and their heating needs, Emmanuel Macron and the government are making themselves prisoners of an ideology that prevents action on the structural causes of too great a dependence on fossil fuels.

Putting an end to urban sprawl and bringing economic activities closer to workplaces – rather than moving them away from already urbanized areas – relocating public services and ensuring the sustainability of local shops, developing public transport and options for alternative modes of transport, are priority areas for reducing the need for mobility reliant on carbon.

This gets much closer to the solution that is really needed even if it doesn’t close the circle. It is not just a question of reducing the need for private transportation and commercial trucks. It also points in the direction of overcoming the “metabolic rife” that is associated with separating the organic production of plant fertilizer (both human and animal) from the crops that require it.

Petroleum products do not only threaten a sixth extinction because of the greenhouse gases they generate. In addition, they are key to industrial farming that relies on plastics for a wide variety of its infrastructure including mulch, greenhouse covers and tunnels. Once crops are harvested, plastic is used to package them for sale in Walmarts and other grocery stores spread around the country. This amounts to $32.4 billion in 2016, with 14.2 billion pounds of resin consumed.

Industrial farming is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy in the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, fossil fuels are essential for farm machinery, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks and roads—all designed to transport food from the farming regions to cities hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Just consider the enormous amount of energy that is expended to ship soybeans, corn and other key agro-export commodities from Brazil to seaports in China or India and their transportation by truck to other destinations once they get there.

As capitalism grows apace everywhere in the world, gaining acceptance for its ability to satisfy every desire that advertising creates for a working class bewitched by commodity fetishism, the threat of extinction deepens. Even if Macron eliminated gas-powered cars in France, you still have two major automobile companies that rely on exports to produce the profits that stock prices are based on. The Dongfeng Peugeot-Citroën joint venture produced 734,000 cars in Chinese plants in 2014. Those sales are necessary for the life-blood of French capitalism to flow.

This is the miracle of capitalism. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx refers to how it replaced the system that preceded it:

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.

What Marx does not pay much attention to is the modes of production that preceded this miracle. From ancient Greece to the late Middle Ages, it was the city that formed the basic unit of production rather than the state. So, for example, a places like Tenochtitlan, London, Tripoli, and Damascus arose because they were suited to its natural terrain both in terms of resources and demography. The towns and cities were the hub of commercial activity that relied on the agricultural belt that surrounded them. Food was transported by carts pulled by oxen or horses rather than Mack trucks.

The Barada River was indispensable to the rise of Damascus as the crown jewel of the Arab world. Its name is reflected in the tormented victim of Assad’s barrel bombs Wadi Barada that means Barada Valley. In 1834 a British traveler described Damascus as “a city of hidden palaces, of copses, and gardens, and fountains, and bubbling streams.” The Barada river was “the juice of her life,” a “gushing and ice-cold torrent that tumbles from the snowy sides of Anti-Lebanon” (the mountain range that borders Lebanon and Syria.) The various water sources flowed into the city via seven canals that were built during or before Roman presence in the region. For many, the well-watered wonders of the city were paradisiacal.

Some of these cities became so powerful that they were capable of bring other cities under their sway as part of an empire based on tribute rather than capital. Rome was the most famous of these in the pre-capitalist era and arguably a victim of its own success as its reliance on long-distance exploitation of resources and slavery eroded its ability to reproduce itself.

In the 17th century, Western European nations repeated Rome’s glory but on a capitalist basis. States were created in order to support the armies and navies necessary to embark on a colonization program. Once a colony was established, the old organic unity that kept a place like Damascus viable disappeared. Furthermore, in the post-colonial epoch, the Syrian state, for example, was forced into commodity exchanges in order to subsist in a capitalist world. Perhaps the only way to avoid being sucked in was to use your own feudal military might to stave off the invader as was the case with Japan until Admiral Perry fixed their wagon. Probably, the only non-capitalist survivors in the world today are Cuba and North Korea, even though the pressure on them is enormous. Cuba relies on the tourist trade and North Korea is rapidly transitioning into a market economy in the post-Mao mold.

That leaves the naked tribesmen of North Sentinel islands to keep the faith, one supposes.

Toward the end of “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”, Engels writes:

At all earlier stages of society production was essentially collective, just as consumption proceeded by direct distribution of the products within larger or smaller communistic communities. This collective production was very limited; but inherent in it was the producers’ control over their process of production and their product. They knew what became of their product: they consumed it; it did not leave their hands. And so long as production remains on this basis, it cannot grow above the heads of the producers nor raise up incorporeal alien powers against them, as in civilization is always and inevitably the case.

The task before us is to return to pre-capitalist property relations, but moreover those that precede feudalism with its forced exploitation based on the rule of the aristocrats. Something closer to the city-state of the Aztecs, the Incas or the Mayans is needed but one based on the freedom made possible by machinery rather than captured slaves. In recognizing the value of such a “backward” looking goal, Mariategui remains a socialist whose vision is more prescient than ever:

The subordination of the Indian problem to the problem of land is even more absolute, for special reasons. The indigenous race is a race of farmers. The Inca people were peasants, normally engaged in agriculture and shepherding. Their industries and arts were typically domestic and rural. The principle that life springs from the soil was truer in the Peru of the Incas than in any other country. The most notable public works and collective enterprises of Tawantinsuyo were for military, religious or agricultural purposes. The irrigation canals of the sierra and the coast and the agricultural terraces of the Andes remain the best evidence of the degree of economic organization reached by Inca Peru. Its civilization was agrarian in all its important I aspects. Valcarcel, in his study of the economic life of Tawantinsuyo, writes that “the land, in native tradition, is the common mother; from her womb come not only food but man himself. Land provides all wealth. The cult of Mama Pacha is on a par with the worship of the sun and, like the sun, Mother Earth represents no one in particular. Joined in the aboriginal ideology, these two concepts gave birth to agrarianism, which combines communal ownership of land and the universal religion of the sun.”

August 12, 2018

Political Marxism and petty commodity production

Filed under: farming,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:14 pm

1854 Engraving of New England farmers engaged in petty commodity production

In his Catalyst critique of books by the New Historians of Capitalism (Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert and Edward Baptist), Charles Post levels the charge that they don’t ground their history of slavery in Marxist theory, in other words Political Marxism. Recently I have been reading books and articles about agriculture and capitalism that suggest it is Charles Post who needs to sharpen his own understanding of Marxist theory.

Part of the problem with the Brenner thesis is that it speaks in the name of Karl Marx on agriculture and capitalism even though Marx never spent much time in developing his own analysis. In fact, there has been an extensive record of theorizing about agriculture that basically starts at ground zero, from Lenin to Kautsky.

Just consider the chapter in V. 1 of Capital on “The Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer”. It is only 542 words long and repeats what is common knowledge, namely that starting in the latter part of the 14th century landlords leased large amounts of land to tenant farmers who then hired wage labor.

You can also find chapters on ground rent in V. 3 of Capital that begins by stating: “The analysis of landed property in its various historical forms is beyond the scope of this work.” In other words, the type of detail found in V. 1 of Capital about the origins of manufacturing and wage labor is utterly absent here. However, those looking for a definition of capitalist farming should take note of this in his introduction to the chapters on ground rent:

The prerequisites for the capitalist mode of production therefore are the following: The actual tillers of the soil are wage labourers employed by a capitalist, the capitalist farmer who is engaged in agriculture merely as a particular field of exploitation for capital, as investment for his capital in a particular sphere of production. This capitalist farmer pays the landowner, the owner of the land exploited by him, a sum of money at definite periods fixed by contract, for instance, annually (just as the borrower of money-capital pays a fixed interest), for the right to invest his capital in this specific sphere of production.

That certainly describes what took place in the English countryside but does it apply to the United States? Considering Charles Post’s emphasis on the small farmers of the north being the catalyst who made the transition to capitalism in the USA possible, it is worth considering what Marx wrote about them in the final chapter of V. 1 of Capital titled “The Modern Theory of Colonisation”. It basically draws a sharp contrast between England and “the colonies”, which means the USA and Australia. Quoting E. G. Wakefield’s “England and America,” Marx describes agrarian society as not based on capitalism, “In the Northern States of the American Union; it may be doubted whether so many as a tenth of the people would fall under the description of hired labourers…. In England… the labouring class compose the bulk of the people.”

Marx is emphatic: “So long, therefore, as the labourer can accumulate for himself — and this he can do so long as he remains possessor of his means of production — capitalist accumulation and the capitalistic mode of production are impossible.” Those who possess the means of production can refer to, for example, weavers of cloth in Medieval Europe who owned a loom and worked out of their house. The first step in moving toward capitalism consisted of a wealthy weaver setting up a shop with looms and hiring men and women to work for him.

Early farmers in New England operated on the same basis. With land grabbed from the Wampanoags et al, they used horse-drawn plows to prepare the soil as shown above, planted seed by hand and finally harvested the crops using a scythe. These were his “means of production” and the family members were his workforce, sometimes augmented by seasonal wage labor.

Among Marxists, this has been termed petty (or simple) commodity production. For example, Ernest Mandel writes: “Petty commodity production has its own characteristics which are neither those of feudalism (serfdom) or of capitalism (wage labour). The predominant form of labour is the free labour of small proprietors or semi-proprietors, owning their own means of production.” In England, it was possible to make the transition to capitalism because petty commodity production was wiped out through the Enclosure Acts. This was a key part of primitive accumulation, according to Marx:

Communal property — always distinct from the State property just dealt with — was an old Teutonic institution which lived on under cover of feudalism. We have seen how the forcible usurpation of this, generally accompanied by the turning of arable into pasture land, begins at the end of the 15th and extends into the 16th century. But, at that time, the process was carried on by means of individual acts of violence against which legislation, for a hundred and fifty years, fought in vain. The advance made by the 18th century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land, although the large farmers make use of their little independent methods as well.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that family farms existed outside the realm of capitalist property relations in the USA, Post sees them as the sine qua non for the birth of capitalism. What is critical for him is that the small farmer became a supplier of commodities to the home market in a period when manufacturing was taking off. Instead of producing goods mostly for home consumption, farmers began to specialize and use machinery to meet the growing demand:

Merchant-capital, through the mechanisms of land-law, land-speculation and the promotion of internal improvements, was responsible for the enforced dependence of free farmers on commodity-production for their economic reproduction. In particular, federal land-policy promoted the transformation of land into a commodity through the public auction of the public domain. This policy encouraged the speculative purchasing of large blocks of land, which forced actual settlers to purchase land from large land-companies at prices well above the minimal prices charged by the federal government. The cost of land-purchases and the burden of mortgages to the land-company forced the farmers to special- ise their crops and increase their production of commodities, thus becoming dependent on the sphere of commodity-circulation for their economic reproduction. The merchants also promoted internal improvements projects, such as canals and railways in the 1820s and 1830s, which lowered the costs of commodity-circulation, further promoting commodity-production.

The subordination of free farming to the law of value unleashed a process of increasing labour-productivity, technical innovation and social differentiation in the 1840s and 1850s. This period saw a sharp rise in the productivity of the farms of the old Northwest and the eastern Great Plains. This increase in the productivity of labour was accomplished through the introduction of labour-saving farm-implements, such as the mechanical reaper, new seed- drills and new ploughs.

You’ll notice what’s missing here, any mention of wage labor. So what if Marx stipulates that as long as the farmer possesses the means of production, the capitalist accumulation and the capitalistic mode of production are impossible. Charles Post knows better.

So you might ask yourself what’s the big deal. Even if these farmers were not capitalist farmers as defined by Karl Marx, who would deny that they were a cog in the machinery of capitalism? I would grant this as long as you grant the possibility that the same thing can be said about cotton plantations in the South. They were not capitalist, strictly speaking, but they made a major contribution to capital accumulation in the USA, something easily understood by everybody not blinded by Political Marxist orthodoxy—including Karl Marx, I might add:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.

–Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, 1846

It is also worth mentioning that the family farm never went the way of the dinosaur in the USA. According to the USDA, 97 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the USA in 2015 were family-owned. More importantly, 88 percent of them were categorized as small businesses. It is also true that roughly 2/3rds of the food we eat are produced by only 3 percent of the family farms but in many cases these are heavily capitalized and mechanized. For many of the wealthier farmers, the debt involved in maintaining such agrarian factories is like a huge bet made in Las Vegas. One mistake and you can go bankrupt.

An article by Mieke Calus and Guido Van Huylenbroeck in the Autumn, 2010 Journal of Comparative Family Studies includes a graph that shows how persistent family farming is, not just in the USA:

In 1978, Harriet Friedmann wrote an article for the Journal of Peasant Studies about “Simple Commodity Production and wage labor in the American Plains” that by its very title indicates the stubborn persistence of small family-owned farms. She studied wheat farmers in Cass County in North Dakota in the 1920s, the very people who identified with the Nonpartisan League featured in the documentaries I reviewed a while back. They were a mixture of populists and socialists who were descendants ideologically of the “free soil” abolitionists of the New England countryside.

Friedmann’s research revealed that the average household size was 5.2 people and that 85 percent of the wheat farms in Cass County were run by the family. Furthermore, when wage laborers were used on these farms in harvest periods typically, a goodly portion were the children of neighbors who saw lending out a son as a form of mutual aid. This has little resemblance to the wage labor used on English farms in the 18th and 19th century.

Ultimately, Marx’s business about wage labor being intrinsic to capitalist agriculture can be explained by an understandable tendency to think in terms of the factory system. In some cases this makes sense when you are talking about the immense meat and poultry production systems that have mechanized the raising, slaughtering and packaging of animals according to the Fordist model.

But producing wheat and other grains, fruits and vegetables is far too reliant on nature to become industrialized. Growing wheat in a place like Cass County involves a long growing cycle in which labor is not necessary. Indeed, that is the reason so much of American agriculture exploits immigrant, seasonal labor. Additionally, farms are not operating on raw material. In a factory, machinery can run 24 hours a day but on a farm a tractor might lie idle for months on end.

Despite Post’s insistence that the slave plantations were “pre-capitalist”, it was where factory-like conditions prevailed universally. If free labor was subject to the iron laws of the market in order to comply with the boss’s speedup, demands for wage reductions, it was the whip that maintained order in the south. If African slaves had not been available, maybe free labor would have taken root in the South just as it did in other cotton-producing countries in the 19th century such as Egypt that relied more on child labor.

According to Post, forced labor persisted in the South because of the failure of Reconstruction to root out the reactionary institutions that remained after the end of the Civil War. If there were competitive pressures on the gentry, they would have been forced to mechanize. At least, that’s the theory.

As it happens, the South did not mechanize cotton production until the 1940s and it had more to do with policies adopted by Roosevelt than anything else. In many ways, cotton was the best crop for investors since it was not subject to the contingencies of weather that made fruit and vegetables so risky. Since it was not perishable, it could be stored indefinitely until market conditions favored its sale. (This finding and what follows in the paragraphs below comes from Susan A. Mann’s “Agrarian Capitalism in Theory and Practice.”)

In rushing to meet the demand for cotton in WWI, Southern farmers ramped up production using credit. Since capitalist production is not rational, this led to a crisis of overproduction as soon as the war ended. When faced by rural unrest after taking office, FDR sought to stabilize production in the same fashion as he did with other agricultural sectors. He created the Agricultural Adjustment Act that benefited wealthy farmers but ruined sharecroppers who received a far lower payment for reducing the yields. This should come as no surprise since the Southern racist ruling class was solidly tied to the Democratic Party at the time.

In the absence of a sufficient sharecropping labor pool, the big planters were forced to invest in labor-saving machinery. However, it was not as if this machinery was for sale and the gentry refused to pay for it because sharecropping was cheaper. A cotton harvester, a key labor-saving device, only went on sale in 1941. Like much of agriculture, including tea, coffee, tobacco and much of the goodies we buy at Gristede’s or Whole Food that come from Mexico or California’s Central Valley, rely on stoop labor. And, for the most part, those who supply such labor are subject to the kind of coercion—including threats of deportation—that make the Brenner thesis based on free wage labor so irrelevant to capitalist farming.

September 23, 2016

Ruins of Lifta; Seed

Filed under: Ecology,farming,Film,food,Palestine — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

Within the first minute of “Ruins of Lifta”, I immediately recognized the co-director and principal subject of the documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that opened today at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. It was Menachem Daum, a religious Jew from Brooklyn who was likewise the co-director and principal subject of “Hiding and Seeking”, a film I reviewed in 2004 that chronicled Daum’s visit to Poland with his teen-aged sons in an effort to combat the stereotype common among Jewry, including his sons who were studying in a yeshiva, that the Poles were almost genetically disposed to anti-Semitism like the Germans were according to Daniel Goldhagen. From my review:

“Hiding and Seeking” opens with director Menachem Daum playing a tape for his two sons, who are both Orthodox Jews like him. It is a recording of a Brooklyn rabbi instructing his followers that the “only good goyim is a dead goyim”. (A goyim is a non-Jew.)

 Daum asks them for their reaction and is disappointed but not surprised to discover that they sympathize with the rabbi, while viewing their own relationship to the outside non-believing world more in terms of a desire for isolation rather than one based on animosity. Daum not only tells them that this clashes with his own vision of Judaism, but proceeds to spend the rest of this powerful documentary demonstrating that there is goodness in all human beings and that Jews must engage with rest of humanity with compassion.

 He leads them on a spiritual trek to the Polish countryside where his wife’s father and two uncles were hidden in a barn from the Nazis for over two years by Christian farmers. He wants to prove to them that ethical behavior can still be found in the face of general depravity. As long as that spark exists, there is hope for humanity. His sons, who are religious scholars living in Israel, treat the trip as a complete waste of time and speak directly to the camera about how foolish their father is.

This new film was made in the same vein but with a somewhat different dynamic. It is relatively easy for a father to wise up his kids about the Poles, especially when he introduces them to those that saved the lives of Jews during WWII but the goal in “Ruins of Lifta” is unrealizable—namely to break down the enmity between Jews and Palestinians. The reason for this is obvious. As long as Palestinians remain the dispossessed victims of the Nakba, there cannot be true reconciliation.

The Lifta referred to eponymously is a small Palestinian town that has not been lived in since 1948 when all of the inhabitants were ethnically cleansed. Now merely a collection of stone houses missing walls and roofs, it is located on the outskirts of Jerusalem where developers plan to tear them down and erect luxury high-rises. It was Daum’s intention to show solidarity with the Palestinians who hoped to preserve the ruins as a kind of recognition of what they lost. Much of the film consists of Daum touring the ruins with a former dweller named Yacoub Odeh who is a leader of the Coalition to Save Lifta. Daum keeps trying to persuade Odeh that the Jews had no other option except to create a state of their own but he responds quite logically that it was the Nazis who exterminated the Jews, not the Palestinians. It reminded me of Trotskyist leader George Novack’s observation that Jews were like people jumping out of a burning house but falling toward the sidewalk injured Palestinians walking innocently on the sidewalk beneath them.

Daum’s family was representative of the experience described by Novack. He lost many relatives in the holocaust and had a great-uncle from Poland who joined the Stern Gang. Toward the end of the film, he introduces his great-aunt survivor to Odeh and the same arguments ensue with her harping on Jewish entitlement to Israel because of the Bible and Hitler, an article of faith for Zionists. When Daum, his great-aunt and Odeh stroll through Lifta, it finally begins to dawn on her that real people were driven out of real homes and there is a spark of humanity.

To Daum’s credit, he speaks to Israeli historian Hillel Cohen toward the end of the film about his mission. Cohen explains to him that Palestinian hatred is to be expected. You cannot reconcile with the people you have victimized in the Nakba and continue to dominate. Cohen is a historian to be reckoned with on Israeli history in light of his “Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict” that was published last year. The book hones in on the street battles between Jews and Palestinians in 1929, seeing it as a harbinger of future disasters. In a Los Angeles Review of Books review, Arie Dubnov writes:

Departing from the “official” Zionist narrative that portrays all killings committed by Jews as acts of self-defense, he treats Simha Hinkis, the Jewish policeman from Jaffa, harshly: a murderer of innocents, using killing as an instrument of vengeance.

The film was co-directed by Oren Rudavsky, who also co-directed “Hiding and Seeking”. The two also were responsible for “A Life Apart”, a documentary about the Hasidic Jews that was co-narrated by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker (a couple of Jews if you hadn’t noticed) and short-listed for an Academy Award in 1997. I haven’t seen it but on the basis of the films reviewed above, I assume that it is very good.

Today I was stunned to learn that Libertarian Party presidential candidate told a National Press Club luncheon that “In billions of years, the sun is going to actually grow and encompass the Earth, right? So global warming is in our future.” That encapsulated for me the utter indifference that capitalist ideologues and the plutocrats they serve to humanity’s future. If it isn’t relevant to the next quarterly earnings report, they can’t be bothered.

As I watched the superb documentary “Seed” that opened today at the Cinema Village in New York, I could not help but think of the threat to our lives and that of future generations posed by the capitalist class, with the libertarians such as Johnson and the Koch brothers representing its shock troops.

Despite the familiarity I have with the environmental crisis, I was startled to learn at the beginning of the film that in the last century 94 percent of our seed varieties have disappeared. For example, there used to be 544 varieties of cabbage; now there are 28. The numbers for cauliflower are 158 and 9. Such a loss of diversity is alarming as it is for the animal kingdom. With panda bears and condors facing extinction, life will go on although in an impoverished manner. But with the loss of native species and their replacement by GMO monoculture crops, we threaten our own existence since such crops are tied inextricably to the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that are destructive to the environment, not to speak of our own health. While eating genetically modified corn might not kill you, the weed-killing glyphosate that Monsanto sells certainly can.

Furthermore, the corn that is produced on factory farms in the USA today wreaked havoc on small farmers who could not compete with a commodity dumped into the Mexican market below the local market rate. It was especially devastating to the people of Oaxaca, a state where corn first began to be grown 8000 years ago and that enabled class societies such as the Aztecs to develop. What the conquistadores began to destroy in the 16th century came to a devastating climax in 1994 when NAFTA allowed the USA to sell its corn in Mexico. The ruin of Mexican farmers was not only accompanied by a loss of biodiversity but conceivably the explosion of the drug industry as poor people were forced to break the law in order to survive.

“Seed” is a moving portrait of men and women, including many from indigenous society in the Americas, who are committed to the preservation of seeds that in some ways makes them the counterpart of Noah. Instead of leading animals two by two into the ark, they go around the world tracking down food sources and collecting their seeds to be preserved for posterity. Some of them have the raffish charm of 60s hippies although their work is deadly serious.

The film interviews experts in the field such as Vandana Shiva who sees herself continuing in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Among the most interesting are scientists who work with the Center for Food Safety, a group I was unfamiliar with. They are deeply involved with the struggle against Monsanto in Hawaii that is a threat to native crops as well as the health of the people who live on the islands and have become ill from the indiscriminate spraying of pesticides by Monsanto with no consideration for the well-being of the islanders. When an elected official moved to curtail their use, Monsanto filed suit against his county. Every time I hear about Monsanto in one of these films, I fantasize about their top officers standing on trial some day after the fashion of Nuremburg.

In addition to the essential information contained in the film, it is visually stunning. As one of the protagonists points out, the seeds for various kind of beans are as beautiful as jewels.

The film was co-directed by Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz who worked together on “Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us?”, a film I reviewed in 2011:

In 2007 the media was all abuzz (excuse the pun) over disappearing honey bees, something that was posited as a kind of mystery. After seeing the powerful documentary “Queen of the Sun: What the Bees are Telling Us?”, the only mystery will be why the mainstream media could not have uncovered the source of the looming disaster without delay. Its failure to do so reminds us of the need for alternative sources of information, starting with the experts and activists who are featured in this film directed by Taggart Siegel. Featured prominently in “Queen of the Sun”, beekeeper Gunter Hauk states that the crisis of the disappearing bee is “More important than global warming. We could call it Colony Collapse of the human being too.”

As opposed to corporate shills like Gary Johnson, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, is there any candidate who cares about these looming threats?

Protect Mother Earth:

Lead on a global treaty to halt climate change. End destructive energy extraction: fracking, tar sands, offshore drilling, oil trains, mountaintop removal, and uranium mines. Protect our public lands, water supplies, biological diversity, parks, and pollinators. Label GMOs, and put a moratorium on GMOs and pesticides until they are proven safe. Protect the rights of future generations.

That’s Jill Stein for you!

July 8, 2016

At the Fork

Filed under: animal rights,farming,Film,food — louisproyect @ 8:12 pm

Opening today at the Cinema Village in NYC and the Laemmle in Los Angeles is a documentary titled “At the Fork” that makes the case for alternatives to profit-driven, industrialized and inhumane food production. As it happens, one of the interviewees is Mark Bittman who has written books and articles promoting the humane treatment of farm animals, many of which have appeared in the NY Times over the years. It is therefore something of an irony that no review of “At the Fork” appeared there in keeping with a recent decision to end the paper’s obligation as “newspaper of record” to cover all film premieres in NY. You will, however, find a review of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”, a film that Manohla Dargis describes as follows:

Two idiots need dates; they get them.

That’s about all you need to know about the aggressively stupid “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” a would-be comedy about a pair of imbeciles who are best understood as representations of the enduring, marrow-deep contempt that some moviemakers have always had for their audiences.

So a thoughtful documentary about food production gets overlooked while one exhibiting “marrow-deep contempt” for audiences makes the cut. I would argue that the failure to review “At the Fork”, the 95 percent of farming based on the industrial model, and the inclusion of a review of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” are all joined at the hip and apt symbols of the Decline and Fall of American Civilization—such as it was.

“At the Fork” begins with a barbecue at the home of director John Papola’s father with heaps of spare ribs cooking on the grill. He explains that meat is king at his Italian family’s household even though for his vegetarian wife Lisa it is anathema. This leads the couple to conduct an odyssey across the USA in search of farmers who try as much as possible to create a setting for pigs, chickens and cows that are as close to their natural habitat as possible even though their ultimate fate is not death by old age but a slaughterhouse.

This ethical contradiction is addressed most cogently by Temple Grandin, one of America’s leading authorities of humane treatment of farm animals who has garnered attention for her achieving this status despite suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Grandin advocated and designed a slaughterhouse that could be housed on a ranch, thus saving animals from the deeply traumatic long-distance travel on trailer trucks. Key to their effectiveness is a lengthy, circular ramp that has been proven to be less stressful for cattle that are not used to confinement.

The farmers and ranchers who operate such facilities are a remarkable breed with a keen sense of the ethical and economic factors that naturally collide with each other. In the case of egg farms, you get to the heart of the choices that must be made. In the typical egg farm based exclusively on profit, the chickens are confined in cages and fed through automated conveyor belts. It is the Fordist model applied to living creatures. But unlike a fender or a steering wheel, a chicken is a sentient being that suffers every single minute it is in such hellholes. By contrast, free range chickens that lay eggs in a setting close to that of their ancestors from millennia ago enjoy their lives while being a source of nutritious food. (Recently Bittman has made a strong case for eggs being a protein-rich foodstuff with very little risk of bad cholesterol.) A carton of eggs based on the industrial model cost about $2.50 while the free range type cost from 8 to 9 dollars.  In a different economic system, it is likely that the humane choice might come down to $5 but it would be worth the extra money just to have good karma.

If you have doubts that it matters much that a “dumb” chicken suffers one way or another, you might be better off going to see “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” anyhow. But if you are sitting on the fence, there is plenty to put you in the humane treatment camp especially the terrible fate that awaits pigs on the assembly line of Smithfield and other mega-corporations. The film takes you inside an immense shed where female pigs are confined in gestation cages. The Humane Society, whose executive director is interviewed extensively in the documentary, condemns their cruelty on their website:

Pigs are among the smartest animals on Earth. Studies show that they are more intelligent than dogs and even some primates: They can play simple video games, teach each other and even learn names. They also form elaborate, cooperative social groups and feel fear, pain and stress.

Yet on U.S. factory farms, where sows are kept in row after row after row of gestation crates throughout their pregnancies, they’re also among the most abused. The 2-foot-wide cages are so narrow, the animals cannot even turn around. They chew on the bars, wave their heads incessantly back and forth, or lie on the pavement in an apparent state of dejection. Nearly immobilized, the pigs spend months staring ahead, waiting to be fed, likely going out of their minds.

My only criticism of the film is its connection to Whole Foods that is described as a partner on its website. While the stores are certainly a superior source of food that is produced in humane conditions, its CEO John Mackey, who is an interviewee in the film, has little regard for humane conditions when it comes to human beings. In a Salon.com interview, he enunciated his libertarian beliefs:

When I was in my very early 20’s I believed that democratic socialism was a more “just” economic system than democratic capitalism was. However, soon after I opened my first small natural food store back in 1978 with my girlfriend when I was 25, my political opinions began to shift…

I didn’t think the charge of capitalist exploiters fit Renee and myself very well. In a nutshell the economic system of democratic socialism was no longer intellectually satisfying to me and I began to look around for more robust theories which would better explain business, economics, and society. Somehow or another I stumbled on to the works of Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, and had a complete revolution in my world view. The more I read, studied, and thought about economics and capitalism, the more I came to realize that capitalism had been misunderstood and unfairly attacked by the left.

While Mackey likely endorses the idea that pigs should not be confined in gestation cages, he certainly puts their welfare above that of others in similar confinement:

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, whose net worth exceeds $100 million, is a fervent proselytizer on behalf of “conscious capitalism.” A self-described libertarian, Mackey believes the solution to all of the world’s problems is letting corporations run amok, without regulation. He believes this so fervently, in fact, he wrote an entire book extolling the magnanimous virtue of the free market.

At the same time, while preaching the supposedly beneficent gospel of the “conscious capitalism,” Mackey’s company Whole Foods, which has a $13 billion and growing annual revenue, sells overpriced fish, milk, and gourmet cheeses cultivated by inmates in US prisons.

The renowned “green capitalist” organic supermarket chain pays what are effectively indentured servants in the Colorado prison system a mere $1.50 per hour to farm organic tilapia.

Colorado prisons already grow 1.2 million pounds of tilapia a year, and government officials and their corporate companions are chomping at the bit to expand production.

That’s not all. Whole Foods also buys artisinal cheeses and milk cultivated by prisoners. The prison corporation Colorado Correctional Industries has created what Fortune describes as “a burgeoning $65 million business that employs 2,000 convicts at 17 facilities.”

While I recommend “At the Fork” wholeheartedly, I hope that the director might rethink his ties to John Mackey—at least if he cares as much about human beings as he does about farm animals.

 

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?

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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.

 

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