False food choices under capitalism

Below is the editorial of the Socialist WebZine, online magazine of the Socialist Party of the United States. Following that is an article by Dan La Botz, SPUSA's Ohio candidate forthe US Senate. Both appear in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.

* * *

July 17, 2010 -- Socialist WebZine -- How can we change the world? This is the question that socialists face in the 21st century. It certainly offers more possibilities than the one presented in the mid-1990s that asked whether we had reached the end of history. However, capitalism is also attempting to provide an answer to this question by offering individualised ways to change the world. Food is an important arena for this project – corporations insist that eating the right food or drinking the right coffee can really make a difference in the world.

Behind the antiseptic choices offered by the system, lies the storm and stress of capitalism. Corporations chasing each other across the world in search of profits, workers being squeezed for ever lower wages and natural resources being monopolised and spoiled. Old wine in a new bottle – a certified organic 100% post-consumer recycled bottle, but the same old bitter wine. In the process, a world transformed is neatly reduced to an individual act of consumption that serves to substitute itself for any bonds of solidarity or affinity. Personal choices about which corporate products to consume become the only acceptable avenue for “politics”, a term now used to discuss which products corporations offer instead of examining the consequences of the very existence of corporations themselves.

No food item better demonstrates capitalism’s ability to quietly adapt to and create consumption patterns while shielding consumers from the transformative nightmares it engenders than soy. The seemingly innocent jiggly glob of crushed soybeans has caught the attention of North American consumers looking toward a post-meat world. Its pristine white colour radiates goodness, the plastic packaging it arrives in screams about good health and the imaginary hippie-style communal edginess is irresistible to the deeply alienated late capitalist consumer.

Soy has a slightly different meaning for Paraguayan campesinos however. It means war.

Meat scares in Europe, rumours about the soy secret to long life in Japan and big-agro trends toward new feed commodities have pushed soybean cultivation globally. Big companies such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Bunge monopolise the soy market. In Paraguay, these same corporations have, for many years, strong-armed local farmers into producing corporate genetically modified organism (GMO) soybeans in order to integrate the area into the “soy republics” that have been set up in Brazil and Argentina.

Never mind the enforcement of mono-crop cultivation, the deforestation or the extreme amounts of pollution caused by pesticides so toxic that campesinos in Paraguay have termed them “the venom”. Environmentally conscious consumers in the global North now desire soy as a means to change their individual worlds and big capital is determined to produce it at the cheapest cost possible.

Some campesinos have resisted by asserting their right to cultivate traditional crops such as yucca, corn, beans and potatoes. However, agro-businesses have accumulated such massive amounts of land that soy has become the king crop in the region.

Today, after re-shaping the cultivation world and transforming the biological coding of all sorts of food, multinational corporations like to tell you that they are all about sustainability. Soy giants like ADM, have taken public bruises from anti-trust [monopoly] cases and from the voices of displaced campesinos that have filtered out into the Western world. So, they have announced a new era of corporate ethics. ADM’s business, the companies CEO Pat Woertz declared, “Is intimately tied to our social responsibility”. “Our values”, Woertz wrote, “inspire us to achieve the right results, the right way”. Yet, the company is not offering to pull back from production in the “soy republics,” or move to eliminate GMO crops, or clean up the local environments it has polluted. Its corporate responsibility amounts to little more than a press campaign about a mythical commitment to sustainability that will always be second to the bedrock logic of capitalism – profit motive.

So, if the false individual choices of consumer capitalism won’t change the world for the better, what will? A good first step is to cultivate a notion that will be central to any attempt at international socialism, a globalised “we” – a recognition that the capitalist system works as a whole and that we are integrated into this total system. Digging our way out will necessarily entail creating a movement with the ability to link the soy consumer in the North with a Paraguayan farmer or to see how yucca, corn, beans and potatoes might produce a far greater benefit for the planet than mono-cropping. The politics of the “we” of socialism hold far more potential for addressing the dire needs of our planet than the “I” of capitalist consumption.

Breaking down the hegemony of corporations necessarily means building up our capacity to extend ties of affinity – both planned and spontaneous. Food politics can open this door by offering a political edge to decisions that are central to our everyday lives. Sometimes this may mean cultivating local sources, other times developing positive global links between farmer and consumer or using grassroots democracy to determine what the contents of our plates will be. Such new relations come with the requirement to see through the easy fantasy offered by multinational corporations who stand at the heart of the destruction of our solidarity with fellow humans and are ruining our relationship with the natural world.

Food in the United States and the world

By Dan La Botz

July 17, 2010 -- Today, food production in the United States and in the world is dominated by a handful of corporations that put their profits above the hunger, the health and the wellbeing of the United States' and the globe’s population. Tyson, Kraft, Pepsico, Nestle, Conagra and Anheuser-Busch are generally at the top of the list, though in virtually every area of food production, a small number of corporations control what is grown and what we eat. The food industry, of course, meshes with the banks and with other corporations, such as chemical companies and agricultural-implement manufacturers, as well as with government agencies, which built the network of dams and canals that provide their water and which also provide government subsidies and financial aid.

We know some of the results of this concentration of wealth in the hands of the corporations and the government they dominate. Family farmers—and there are few of them left—must borrow from the banks and produce for the corporations, their livelihood often in question. Another result of this interlocking of corporate and governmental interests has been, for 30 years, the deregulation of food production, resulting in outbreaks of E.coli and other diseases. The US people who eat corporate food are increasingly unhealthy, obese, suffering from diabetes and heart disease. Farm workers and meatpacking workers work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, often live in abysmal conditions, and are paid extremely low wages for the most arduous work. While most Americans can afford food, there are approximately 40 million people in the United States who have difficulty getting enough to eat; and worldwide there are between 1 billion and 2 billion people who go hungry.

The great food corporations have for decades successfully resisted attempts by workers, consumers and environmentalists to restrain their power. Still we see important movements to change the food industries. Worker’s organisations such as the United Farm Workers, Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have succeeded in winning better wages and conditions for a small number of farm workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has had important victories in new organising among meat and poultry processing workers. Within the teamsters' union, which represents most other food processing workers, there is an in important rank-and-file movement, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, working to make the union do a better job in representing its members.

We have also seen in recent years a tremendous growth in consumer movements demanding a return to government regulation of the industry, as well as movements that press for locally grown and organic food. Environmentalists continue to educate the public about the tremendous waste and environmental damage done by our food production system which relies so heavily on carbon fuels. While all of these are hopeful signs, we do not yet see a powerful social movement which can begin to restrain the food industry’s dominant corporations. To get there, we need to work to rebuild the unions, expand the workers’ centres, revive the social movements and create a political alternative.

We see in the Unites States a small but growing anti-corporate and sometimes anti-capitalist sentiment. Beyond that, recent polls by Rasmussen, Gallup and Pew have shown that about one-third of the US people feel sympathetic to socialism. Still, many Americans fear that socialism means Soviet-style communism while others can see that European social democracy more often administers capitalism somewhat more humanely than the United States, though still without escaping its crises and the suffering they bring. We need to be able to talk about socialism in a way that makes it clear to the US people, that socialism is fundamentally an expansion of democracy, and an increase in the power of ordinary working people to improve their lives.

What might agriculture look like under socialism? First, of course, we stand for the social ownership of the banks, as I’ve said, nationalize them and create the US credit union to provide credit to small business, homeowners and farmers. We want to see the nationalisation of the oil, coal and other energy corporations which represent such a large factor in agriculture today. Third, we would want to see the nationalisation of agribusiness, not to continue the factory farm or industrial meat model, but rather to create an environmentally, economically, socially sound alternative. We would want to see the nationalisation of the grocery chains and the restaurant chains, bringing them under social control, with large input from workers and consumers. We might want to consolidate in some areas and decentralise in others. Only once we have taken the resources away from the corporations, however, will we be able to create the alternative.

We as socialists have no blueprint for the future, but we have a vision and principles that revolve around working-class power and democracy. The alternative to today’s food industry might well include some large-scale agriculture, but could also mean a vast expansion of small family-owned farms and cooperative farms. We would want to put the emphasis, of course, on healthy, affordable food produced by workers who are paid living wages and enjoy all the benefits and rights of other people in our country. We would want to consult throughout these processes with health professionals such as nutritionists, with environmentalists and with consumers. We would want to see the US people, through democratic institutions elaborate a national economic plan, in which agriculture would play a central role, and we would want that plan to be carried out through the cooperation of workers and consumers.

All of this, however, remains nothing more than a dream unless we can rebuild the labour and social movements and create the political alternative. The Socialist Party, as well as other political groups such as the US Labor Party and the Green Party, have worked to help present the US people with a left alternative. Today, I am running for US Senate in order to continue to raise the vision and platform of democratic socialism, to help to build networks of activists in my state and throughout the country, and hopefully to inspire others to become part of a struggle for an alternative.

[Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer and activist, and the Ohio Socialist Party candidate for the US Senate.]