Volatility

September 13, 2011

New Orleans-Style Shock Doctrine Possibilities in New Jersey

Filed under: Climate Crisis, Corporatism, Disaster Capitalism, Relocalization — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 3:01 am

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These are some speculative thoughts inspired by history and some unconfirmed anecdotes I’ve heard. The fact is that significant areas of NJ were severely flooded by hurricane Irene (not to mention a second thorough soaking which followed a week later). These included residential and commercial areas, including some which still held a high proportion of local businesses. It’s this last group which got me thinking.
 
Obama declared the place a federal disaster and made one of his stupid drive-by appearances. (Governor Christie got into a nice little spat with some fellow Republicans over it – you know how these hypocrites are the moment it’s their turn to mooch). In theory disaster aid means subsidized loans from the Small Business Association and grants to municipalities. (Only infrequently direct grants to homeowners.) Given Obama’s record, it’s hard to believe he’s not going to corporatize this as much as possible. But I admit I can’t find anything indicating that yet. All NJ media stories I could find (here’s a typical one) merely regurgitated the administration press release.
 
It’s true that especially the people of poor neighborhoods in Paterson and elsewhere doubt they’ll actually get help. They know the record of this government in general and in disasters like New Orleans in particular. They believe government is trying to just temporarily mollify them with rhetoric. In practice it will either neglect or assault them.
 
In New Orleans government collaborated with corporate predators to use the destruction as a pretext to seize and privatize large swaths of public land and infrastructure. Naomi Klein described the crimes in Shock Doctrine:
 

The news racing around the shelter [in Baton Rouge] that day was that Richard Baker, a prominent Republican Congressman from this city, had told a group of lobbyists, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” Joseph Canizaro, one of New Orleans’ wealthiest developers, had just expressed a similar sentiment: “I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities.” All that week the Louisiana State Legislature in Baton Rouge had been crawling with corporate lobbyists helping to lock in those big opportunities: lower taxes, fewer regulations, cheaper workers and a “smaller, safer city”–which in practice meant plans to level the public housing projects and replace them with condos. Hearing all the talk of “fresh starts” and “clean sheets,” you could almost forget the toxic stew of rubble, chemical outflows and human remains just a few miles down the highway….

Endesha Juakali helped set up a protest camp outside one of the boarded-up projects, St. Bernard Public Housing, explaining that “they’ve had an agenda for St. Bernard a long time, but as long as people lived here, they couldn’t do it. So they used the disaster as a way of cleansing the neighbourhood when the neighbourhood is weakest. … This is a great location for bigger houses and condos. The only problem is you got all these poor black people sitting on it!”….

Over at the shelter, Jamar Perry, a young resident of New Orleans, could think of nothing else. “I really don’t see it as cleaning up the city. What I see is that a lot of people got killed uptown. People who shouldn’t have died.”

He was speaking quietly, but an older man in line in front of us in the food line overheard and whipped around. “What is wrong with these people in Baton Rouge? This isn’t an opportunity. It’s a goddamned tragedy. Are they blind?”

A mother with two kids chimed in. “No, they’re not blind, they’re evil. They see just fine.”

 
This included the idea that the corporate-government nexus should launch a full-scale assault upon the people while they were dazed and disoriented, much like police thugs arresting someone at 2AM. This shock treatment idea was premeditated by Milton Friedman and his Chicago colleagues going back to the 50s:
 

In one of his most influential essays, Friedman articulated contemporary capitalism’s core tactical nostrum, what I have come to understand as the shock doctrine. He observed that “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That’s our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile “free-market” ideas. And once a crisis has struck, the University of Chicago professor was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the “tyranny of the status quo.”

 
So it was in New Orleans. (Many commentators scoffed at or considered overblown and “conspiratorial” the allegation that federal government consciously sought this goal. The Bush administration denied it. Characteristically, it was left to the Obama crew to openly admit it.)
 
So what could be the parallel in NJ? It’s true that infrastructure like public schools don’t look like an immediate easy target and weren’t tremendously damaged anyway. But anecdotally, there’s already speculation about what damage to individual businesses will be covered by government and/or private insurance*, as well as reports than in some places not previously prone to flooding (but hit hard by this storm), many had foregone flood insurance completely. This is based on anecdotes I was told, not on anything I read, nor could I find confirmation (or disproof) in the media. So I don’t know how much this is true, but certainly it all rings true. The specter looms of harried municipalities turning in desperation to lowball offers from corporate developers and retailers (themselves, no doubt, well larded by federal aid), at the same time that devastated local businesses are left unable to rebuild. We know where that all leads.
 
We’ll see if this acceleration of Walmartization, whether as acutely intentional or chronically inertial disaster capitalism, turns out to be the case. If I hear anything new I’ll let you know. If anyone has more information let us know.
 
[*Meanwhile, as disasters continue to compound, ever more financially devastating, we have to wonder how long it’ll be before insurers try to abrogate as a group with regard to some disaster. I’m sure that where it comes to any particular disaster there’s a theoretical out which could absolve insurers of having to pay, just like health insurers always look for ways to refuse payment. I’m sure Congress and many courts would be friendly.
 
One historical precedent is Kristallnacht. Synagogues, cemetaries, and Jewish-owned businesses all over Germany were damaged or destroyed in a one-night pogrom. Most of these were duly insured. The insurance companies raised a stink over paying on these claims. Although of course they didn’t publicly say so, they knew that the allegedly “spontaneous” mob action was really orchestrated by the regime from above. Why should they get stuck holding the financial bag for all that damage?
 
In his capacity as head of the Four Year Plan, the command economy coordination structure, Goering issued a ruling that the insurers weren’t liable for claims arising from Kristallnacht. (The logic was basically that through their provocations the Jews had brought the spontaneous people’s reaction upon themselves.)
 
We have the same ingredients today – tyrannical elitist government, insurance rackets trying to minimize payouts even on claims everyone recognizes are legitimate, complete contempt for the people. So while federal insurance can be counted on to continue to assist big developers in their endless rebuilding on flood plains, we can equally expect all types of insurance to try to evade paying where it comes to keeping local small businesses in business.]
 
Before I close this passel of speculation, I want to make a comment on system disaster assistance in general. Federal assistance is under the general aegis of FEMA, a highly disputed organization. The system calls it a selfless public servant, detractors accuse it of setting up concentration camps. While the camps certainly exist on paper and to some extent in reality and can be used for any purpose, so far in practice FEMA’s record has been typical corporatism – do all one can to promote corporate interests while neglecting one’s ostensible responsibilities as much as possible, doing only the bare minimum. This record (as well as a basic hollowed-out incompetence) was also borne out by the New Orleans experience.
 
I think Derrick Jensen gets it right – FEMA is by design a tool which can be used for pretty much any purpose. I’ll add that by now it’s likely to be incompetent at its “good” uses. But this may mean it’ll also be incompetent at tyrannical uses.
 
Some commentators noticed another New Orleans parallel. Just as with Katrina, the pre-storm call from “authorities” was for people to prepare or evacuate on an individual basis, usually including the same callous assumptions* about people’s ability to get out. There was little in the way of any kind of collective effort. This is by design, part of the general anti-cooperative ethos of the entire unsociety.
 
[*I did see one local newspaper account. People had been driven from their homes by evacuation orders and rising floodwaters. Now the waters were allegedly threatening the hotel into which they’d been driven. The police showed up there to order another evacuation, but as a group the refugees angrily declared they had nowhere left to go. The police left. (The hotel never did flood.)
 
The article, of course, said the police “allowed” them to stay. No, it sounded more like the people made it clear they weren’t leaving short of the police arresting and dragging them away. Facing such defiance, the cops backed down. They weren’t capable of handling it.
 
Just one little example of the way power flows have always worked throughout history. No one in power ever “allows” anything. The people take what they can.]
 
Whatever the momentary character of a disaster or the government response to it, one rule we can recognize is that the government does not mean well, and its efforts will be incompetent at best, malevolent at worst. We can rely only on ourselves. We can choose to do so the way we have been, as atomized individuals, or we can do it cooperatively as part of the relocalization movement. (How best to do this has been debated before within the movement.) One thing to always keep in mind is that you DO NOT want to end up in anything like a refugee camp. This must be avoided if at all possible.
 
Well, I hope this post wasn’t too episodic and rambling. It’s just some thoughts and possibilities I wanted to rope together into a preliminary assessment/prognostication. Food for thought.
 

September 11, 2011

Two Futures (And the Decade of 9/11)

Filed under: American Revolution, Disaster Capitalism, Freedom, Global War On Terror, Relocalization — Tags: , — Russell Bangs @ 1:26 am

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As you might imagine, this blog doesn’t have much to say about the anniversary of 9/11. This wasn’t the start of Western imperial aggression, nor the start of its neoliberal stage, nor of terrorism in response to it, nor of the cynical use of terrorism as a pretext for the premeditated actions of corporatists and totalitarians. So 9/11 didn’t generate anything new. What it did was dramatically accelerate things. But the basic game plan was already set and would’ve been played out regardless. In its absence, today we’d be in pretty much the same spot, although the police state might not yet be as overt and the degradation of civil liberties not yet as advanced. The state of kleptocracy, the Bailout, and the captivity of the economy, I think, wouldn’t be significantly different. The movement imperative toward relocalization and true democracy wouldn’t be different.
 
In a comment yesterday Strieb mentioned seeing a new cult of death. I’m not sure what he meant, but the cultural fetish of 9/11 certainly bears comparison to the old fascist cults of death. Nazi rallies always celebrated death, Hitler had his cult of the Blood Banner from November 1923 and his yearly anniversary ritual speech and invocation of the blood of the martyrs (about whom he was utterly cynical in private; one was “irreplaceable” only because of his social connections to rich donors, that’s all; the rest were infinitely more useful dead than alive – sound familiar today?), Rumania’s Iron Guard, Spain’s Falange with its favorite marching song, “Long Live Death!”
 
This sense of a cult of death is rendered more uncanny vs. a backdrop of heightened terror warnings and ubiquitous militarized police. The aftermath of the hurricane and a second big dumping of rain and flooding a week later adds to the sense of destruction and doom.
 
Meanwhile, we’re all about life. As negative as we often must be, our emphasis is affirmative toward positive democracy, community, a new way of life built around a new agriculture, positive freedom in the broadest as well as most specific sense. We aspire to take full responsibility for ourselves, and as much as possible we take responsibility today. We look to the future, we believe in the future.
 
By contrast, everything about this system and its culture reeks of decrepitude, decadence, rot, the dying. Its flight from responsibility and freedom, its short-run greed and short-run fear, its total surrender to “fear itself”, betray how it has no confidence in the future, because deep down it recognizes it has no future.
 
So however obnoxious things are today in their overt death cult aspects as well as their more sublimated circus/sports fan manifestations; more importantly, however much more crime and violence this system commits in its death throes, we can remain confident in our aspirations, for tomorrow belongs to us. Negatively, every element of the physical, economic, and political unsustainability of today shall hand tomorrow to us. Affirmatively, we shall seize tomorrow with the democratic hand because our cause is just and is blessed by history, whose democratic arc is long but curves toward its own consummation. All the vaster trend lines, far more vast than the temporary data noise of the fossil fuel binge, are vectors toward it.
 
We may be small at the moment and have to scramble to avoid the teeth and feet of the huge, lumbering reptiles. But 9/11 was a pebble toss compared to the asteroid that has already hit them, though as Nietzsche said lightning takes time to arrive, and it takes time to hear the thunder. Today we already begin to thrive in our own way, and we shall survive, and eventually stand tall as the new humanity we already constitute in embryo.
 
 

September 9, 2011

First Principles: Morality and Action

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We need to get back to first principles. We need to purge all aspects of the elites’ own framework from our thought and expression. Here’s the example (from Derrick Jensen*) which spurred this post, though any regular day in the blogosphere provides similar examples:
 

For years I have been asking whether abusers believe their lies, and I’m finally comfortable with an answer.

This understanding came in great measure because I finally stopped focusing on the lies and their purveyors and I began to focus on the abusers’ actions. I realized, following Lundy Bancroft, that to try to answer the question of whether the abusers believe their lies is to remain under the abusers’ spell, to “look off in the wrong direction”, to allow myself to be distracted so I “won’t notice where the real action is”. To remain focused on that question is exactly what abusers want.

Endgame Volume II, “Abusers”

 
There’s been some progress with this in the blogosphere. We don’t see as much solemn rumination on whether e.g. Tim Geithner is corrupt or merely “captured”, and the last I saw when someone like Simon Johnson would continue to write in these terms he was getting more blowback among commenters saying “Who cares?” (I haven’t followed Baseline Scenario in awhile, so if anyone is still doing so and can provide an update, by all means do.) There’s less of this at Naked Capitalism as well.
 
“Captured or corrupt” has been replaced in some venues with the question “Stupid or evil?” This is a substantive improvement (less euphemistic, more truthful), and the fact that the question is increasingly being asked (and that the answer is usually “evil”) is an advance.
 
Still, we need to get beyond asking this question at all, since it still frames things according to the elites’ own framework of morality, where (their proven) intention is the most important thing.
 
Let’s stress immediately that in the class war no one’s intention really means anything. The elites want to plunder and enslave, and they do plunder and enslave. The only thing they care about where it comes to the non-rich is our compliant action. The state of our minds and souls is irrelevant.
 
But it is useful to them for us to sit around doing differently toward them from what they do toward us. We waste time and energy parsing an alleged nexus of their actions and their intentions, allegedly trying to puzzle out the morality of things, but likely just engaging in Peter Principle-type procrastination.
 
When are we going to reject the entire question and simply judge according to actions and results? When are we going to judge capitalism purely by its results? When are we going to judge representative government purely by its results? (This purely empirical evaluation of representative government, BTW, is a core part of the American Revolutionary philosophy.)
 
Most of all, when are we going to judge elitism as such, and this kleptocracy, purely by its actions and results?
 
(I’ll add here that the stupid/evil question can have practical application. It can be of strategic and tactical value to understand to what extent your opponents are inertial idiots, as opposed to intentionally brutal thugs, as opposed to intelligently evil. But this is only a practical matter, not a moral one. Given the ubiquity of available knowledge, it’s not possible to be innocently ignorant of the truth. One can only be willfully ignorant, which is just as morally culpable as to be a calculating evildoer.
 
To what extent we publicly say this is, of course, another tactical question. But we must fully digest it as an element of our philosophy.)
 
Nietzsche (for whom analysis of morality was the number one priority of his thinking) differentiated between what he called the pre-moral and moral stages of humanity’s natural history:
 

Throughout the lengthiest period of human history—we call it the prehistoric age—the value or the lack of value in an action was derived from its consequences. The action in itself was thus considered just as insignificant as its origin, but, in somewhat the same way as even today in China an honour or disgrace reaches back from the child to the parents, so then it was the backward working power of success or lack of success which taught people to consider an action good or bad. Let’s call this period the pre-moralistic period of humanity: the imperative “Know thyself!” was then still unknown.

In the last ten millennia, by contrast, in a few large regions of the earth people have come, step by step, a great distance in allowing the value of an action to be determined, no longer by its consequences, but by its origin. As a whole, this was a great event, a considerable improvement in vision and standards, the unconscious influence of the ruling power of aristocratic values and of faith in “origins,” the sign of a period which one can designate moralistic in a narrower sense: with it the first attempt at self- knowledge was undertaken. Instead of the consequences, the origin: what a reversal of perspective! And this reversal was surely attained only after lengthy battles and variations! Of course, in the process a disastrous new superstition, a peculiar narrowing of interpretation, gained control. People interpreted the origin of an action in the most particular sense as an origin from an intention. People became unanimous in believing that the value of an action lay in the value of the intention behind it. The intention as the entire origin and prehistory of an action: in accordance with this bias people on earth have, almost right up to the most recent times, given moral approval, criticized, judged, and also practised philosophy.

But today shouldn’t we have reached the point where we must once again make up our minds about a reversal and fundamental shift in values, thanks to a further inward contemplation and profundity in human beings? Are we not standing on the threshold of a period which we might at first designate negatively as beyond morality, today, when, at least among us immoralists, the suspicion stirs that the decisive value of an action may lie precisely in what is unintentional in it and that all its intentionality, everything which we can see in it, know, “become conscious of,” still belongs to its surface layer and skin,—which, like every skin, indicates something but conceals even more? In short, we believe that the intention is only a sign and a symptom, something which still needs interpretation, and furthermore a sign which carries too many meanings and, thus, by itself alone means almost nothing. We think that morality, in the earlier sense, that is, a morality based on intentions, has been a prejudice, something rash and perhaps provisional, something along the lines of astrology and alchemy, but, in any case, something that must be overcome. The overpowering of morality, in a certain sense even the self-conquering of morality: let that be the name for that long secret work which remains reserved for the finest and most honest, and also the most malicious, consciences nowadays, as the living touchstones of the soul.

Beyond Good and Evil, section 32

 
Nietzsche called these stages false in differing ways. Today we can recognize the “moral” stage as having devolved into a scam. Meanwhile, if humanity is ever to reach that extra-moral stage, it will be doing so in a more tortuous way than he envisioned. We’re not evolving to what Nietzsche called extra-morality, we’re returning to the pre-moral. (Indeed, we’re reverting to the original pre-debtor position he describes in On the Genealogy of Morals. What we must do, and what the criminals must try to prevent, is our restoration of pre-formalized community relations in place of formalized debt.
 
Here as everywhere else there are two strange attractors – the reactionary path of restored (but far more vicious) feudalism, and the renewal and redemption path of true democracy. Either way, whether imposed by the alien criminals or sprouting from the soil of our souls, we shall traverse the mental and spiritual path where nothing but action matters. It’s our choice whether these are to be slave actions or cooperative democratic actions.
 
This is part of how in all things we need to get back to first principles. All existing words, philosophies, institutions are beholden to the structures of kleptocracy and feudal capitalism. We need to look anew at everything from a purely democratic perspective. This is part of how we shall be born anew as true human citizens.
 
I hope this isn’t too vague right now. I’ll be developing the idea further. For now the first practical lesson is, to repeat, the only thing that matters is how any action affects the class war. Alleged dissonances between intention and result, where it comes to those in power, are morally meaningless. Jensen said the criminals want us to fail to notice where the real action is. The real action is nothing but the action itself.
 
[*Please, no arguments about Jensen’s own philosophy. I accept and reject parts of it the same way I rejected parts of it at the LATOC forum. Nevertheless, parts of the book are excellent, and this passage makes my point very well.] 

September 5, 2011

Labor and Agroecology Day

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Democratic agroecology, organic food democracy, is the basis for a society which shall feed us all post-oil. It shall do so while, for the first time in recorded history, providing full access to fulfilling work and full scope for our human imperatives toward political and economic democracy. It shall consummate history’s democratic movement and render our economies just and rational.
 
Since today is Labor Day, I want to make two points about agroecology.
 
1. The current system tends to value activity (and rentier inactivity) in inverse proportion to how productive it is, how much work is actually done. Agroecology is real work which accomplishes marvelous things.
 
One typical study (summary and full report), done by a team led by Catherine Badgley, found that agroecology/organic production can maintain and improve upon current conventional levels of bulk and caloric production for all significant food groups, and do so while replacing synthetic fertilizers with natural nutrient cycling.
 

The research team compared yields of organic and conventional agriculture (including low-intensive food production) in 293 examples, and estimated the average yield ratio (organic versus non-organic) of different food categories for the developed and the developing world. With the average yield ratios, they modelled the global food supply that could be grown organically in the current agricultural land base. The results indicate that organic methods could produce enough food to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base.

They also estimated the amount of nitrogen potentially available from nitrogen fixation by legumes as cover crops. Data from temperate and tropical agroecosystmes suggest that they could fix enough nitrogen to replace all of the synthetic fertilizer currently in use.

The report concluded: “These results indicate that organic agriculture has the potential to contribute quite substantially to the global food supply, while reducing the detrimental environmental impacts of conventional agriculture.”

 
This is true globally and especially in the non-industrialized world. (That means “the world” post-fossil fuels, although the study didn’t discuss Peak Oil.) 
 

According to Model 2, the estimated organic food supply
exceeds the current food supply in all food categories, with
most estimates over 50% greater than the amount of food
currently produced. (p. 91)

 

Model 1 yielded 2641 kcal
person-1 day-1, which is above the recommended value,
even if slightly less than the current availability of calories.
Model 2 yielded 4381 kcal person-1 day-1, which is 57%
greater than current availability. This estimate suggests
that organic production has the potential to support a substantially
larger human population than currently exists.
Significantly, both models have high yields of grains, which
constitute the major caloric component of the human diet.
Under Model 1, the grain yield is 93% that of current
production. Under Model 2, the grain yield is 145% that of
current production. (p. 92)

 
It shall achieve this level of production at the same time that it replaces all current synthetic fertilizer use with organic soil nutrient techniques (p.92-3).
 
All of this can be done using the existing agricultural acreage.
 
For another example, when Chris Martenson interviewed Joel Salatin (podcast here, transcript here), Salatin described the prodigies achieved by his farming based on grassy perennials and mobile pasturage.
 

There is no question, absolutely no question, that these systems are far more productive. Just to give you an example. On our farm, in our county, one of the measures for pasture production is in cow days per acre. In other words a ‘cow day’ is what one cow will eat in a single day – that’s one cow day. And so in our county, the average cow days per acre is currently 80 cow days per acre. That’s what an acre of pasture does. On our farm, and I already told you at the top of the program what our farm looked like 50 years ago without a single chemical fertilizer and without planting a seed, we own no plow and no disc, and in 50 years, we have moved this farm to average 400 cow days per acre – that’s five times the county average. And so, the fact is, if Monsanto figured out a way to get 1% increase in yields in something it would make the front page of the New York Times. I’m telling you ways to double and triple production without chemical fertilizer, without even planting anything and it doesn’t make the obitituary page.

 
Now that’s what I call productive work. This Badgley study doesn’t delve into the socioeconomic implications, but other studies have been more specific about how agroecology requires the breaking up of corporate megafarms into smaller farms in order to be most productive, and implies a general relocalization of food distribution. The principles of Food Sovereignty in turn enshrine this requirement for access to the land, which completely joins the fates of our food imperatives with our democratic imperatives, and renders both synonymous with the continued existence of humanity itself.
 
So this study is another proof that it’s within our hands to flourish as never before, if we take our real work directly into our hands instead of continuing to allow it to be stolen from us and then rented back to us.
 
Agroecology is real work, and the basis for a real economy worthy of the name.  
 
2. Agroecology is highly skilled work. It requires intimate knowledge of the ways of the soil, weather, climate, plants (crops, other beneficial plants, harmful weeds), animals (beneficial and pests). The techniques of high-productivity agriculture without monocropping or synthetic fertilizers and poisons include natural nutrient-cycling and soil building, such as the skillful use of cover crops, manure, crop rotation, intercropping, alley cropping with leguminous trees, infusion of free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the soil, biological pest control, agroforestry, better water management, rotation of livestock with annual crops, the whole art of integrating grass-fed livestock pasturage with vegetable production. It also requires the most effective use of energy and other resource inputs. All these factors will require even more precise knowledge as the fossil fuel crutch is removed once and for all.
 
Salatin describes just a few of the areas of intensive knowledge this farming requires.
 

What stimulates the nutrient cycling is the onsite biomass regeneration cycle. Not the least of which of course is the earthworm community. You know it’s amazing that earthworms can eat a pound of stuff in their front end and send it through their alimentary canal, bring it out their back end, the same pound of stuff, and its like three times the calcium, seven times the nitrogen, eleven times the potassium, fourteen times the phosphorous, plus an elevating of all the whole trace elements, boron, cobalt, copper, molybdenum – all those things are increased. And what’s amazing is that nobody knows how that’s done. It’s actually not concentrated, it’s actually acted on by some sort of activity in the earthworm. Some bacteria for example, are free living, they are not rhizomes like legume roots like alfalfa and clover, they are free-living bacteria that will bring up to 100 lbs. of nitrogen per acre per year out of the atmosphere and put it in the soil but they only really become active at 4% organic matter and most of our soils are not anywhere close to 4% organic matter anymore. They used to be, back when the buffalo were here and perennial grasses, but they are not now. I think it’s fascinating that we actually produced more nutrient density in what is now the U.S. 600 years ago, than we actually do today, even with all of our petroleum and everything, So the whole secret of the nutrient cycling is to tap into the green material to capture more solar energy, put it into green material that can de-compose and go into the soil, and the best way to do that is with an herbivore – lamb, goat, cow – some sort of herbivore, that is what I call the bio- mass accumulation re-start button to prune that forage off and re-start the fast biomass accumulation cycle. If you don’t have that, what you just have is the bio-mass just goes into senescence and in senescence simply vaporizes the CO2 off into the atmosphere and it doesn’t do anything any good. So it’s the animal that recycles, that starts that whole fast metabolism cycle to metabolize the solar energy into biomass through photosynthetic activity…

So yes, these systems work. And the way they work is to go back to historically – well the way nature built soils in the first place; which was with primarily herbivores. So if you really want to eat on a low energy system, quit eating chicken and quit eating so much pork and eat grass-finished beef because grass-finished herbivore is the most nutrient dense substance that doesn’t require any tillage. It fertilizes itself, and doesn’t require any tillage. As soon as you take that herbivore and put it in a feedlot, on an irrigated grain-based system, then it all breaks down from an energy standpoint and, of course, that’s where a lot of the studies that impugn livestock come from. But throughout the world, the great prairies and the great soil building regions of the world, from the Serengetti in Africa to the plains of America with buffalo to the Australian continent 200 years ago that had 10 marsupial species to do the disturbance, all of those were built with herbivores, disturbances, and rest and perennials. Those are the four cornerstones of a system that works. The reason all civilizations throughout history have been built around the herbivore, lamb, goat or cow is because the herbivore is the only domestic animal that can harvest non-tilled, non-planted material. Omnivores like chickens and pigs require some sort of a grain component which then requires tillage. And until cheap energy and cheap machinery, tillage was extremely expensive…The main thing was lamb, goat and cow which was the herbivore. That was the main thing – or deer or bison or whatever – but the point is, that those herbivorous creatures can do or are made to do very well without any tillage whatsoever. And tillage has only actually been doable on a large, grand scale just in the last century.

 
Contrast this with the brainless, rote processes of corporate agriculture.
 

These insect-proof and herbicide-resistant crops make farming so much easier that many growers rely heavily on the technology, violating a basic tenet of pest management, which warns that using one method year after year gives more opportunity for pests to adapt.

Monsanto is already at the center of this issue because of its success since the 1990s marketing seeds that grow into crops that can survive exposure to its Roundup herbicide, a glyphosate-based chemical known for its ability to kill almost anything green.

These seeds made it so convenient for farmers to spray Roundup that many farmers stopped using other weedkillers. As a result, say many scientists, superweeds immune to Roundup have spread to millions of acres in more than 20 states in the South and Midwest.

 
Are these even farmers anymore, as opposed to just a kind of watchman? It’s certainly not skilled labor, just robotic processing.
 
Agroecology requires creative thinking and artful intermingling with the landbase. In fact, organic growing and farming is an art as well as a skilled craft, and the artistry and craftsmanship required, if performed on a democratic basis, offer the next great creative frontier, this time not just for a handful of specially educated elites but for all workers. While Trotsky was wrong (and probably intentionally exaggerating) when he said that with communism all of us would write like Shakespeare, it is true that as many of us as desire it can become skilled and creative artists of the land, if we choose to invest the land with our humanity and nourish our humanity through communion with the land. This shall be the only nourishment possible anyway. It’s true physically, as the Oil Age ends. And it’s true politically, as the only other attractor available is to descend to a permanent dark age of refeudalization and re-enslavement.
 
(I’m not personally an expert on these matters, but I gather that the system described by Salatin isn’t identical to much of the agroecology described in the report. But I see no reason that different versions can’t be intermingled or concurrent. They’re all based on the same principles.)
 
The wondrous experience of Cuba’s post-oil agroecology can be an inspiration and practical example to us all. One of the elements going into their success has been a concerted campaign to educate the people about how their intensive organic agriculture is skilled knowledge work, and they’ve been highly successful at that. So that’s a task for us in our own countries.
 
I’d like to reinvigorate Labor Day by reinforcing it with a new, specific impetus. (Labor Day is American, but the same idea can apply for labor-celebrating holidays elsewhere.) We could make it Food Sovereignty Day, or Agroecology Day (too jargonistic? any good synonym?). A name and celebration which would seek to bring a sense of immediacy to the day and shine a spotlight on action we can and must be taking right now. I was also thinking of Time Banking Day, but that can be for another post.  

September 3, 2011

Peak Oil and Kleptocracy (The Theory of Kleptocracy)

Filed under: Corporatism, Globalization, Neo-feudalism, Peak Oil, Reformism Can't Work — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 7:26 am

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The other day in a comment thread I saw someone asking for a theory of kleptocracy. I think one of the things I’ve accomplished here is to elaborate such a theory. The most relevant posts can be found in places like my Corporatism and Neoliberalism pages.
 
But I thought I’d briefly sum it up:
 
1. Non-kleptocratic government (the liberal welfare state; representative government which was responsive and accountable at all; periods of actual reform, the Progressive Era, etc.) was a manifestation of the Oil Age. These phenomena never existed prior to it (the ideas did, ineffectually). They won’t exist after it. This was all ahistorical and context-specific.
 
2. The fossil fuel surplus was so extravagant that, given real competition from communism and nationalism, the path of least resistance for capitalist governments was to actually spread some wealth, allow a temporary mass middle class to arise, and pretend to be accountable.
 
3. I’ll add here that under regimes of economic competition, the Rule of Rackets always applies – no one is willing to capitalistically compete for one day longer than he has to. The day he can switch to racketeering – using market muscle to suppress competition and get favorable government intervention in the form of subsidies and pro-oligopoly courts, laws, and regulations – he does so.
 
Then we have the fact that any power concentration automatically tends toward looting and tyranny. Modern modes of organization and technology have exacerbated this.
 
4. So those are the universal structural parts. Specific to the capitalist age, the maturation of all sectors and subsequent fall of the profit rate requires that all these oligopoly/kleptocratic effects be imposed in a more intensive form.
 
5. Peak Oil looms. The US oil Peak in 1970 was a wakeup call. If the elites were to complete the looting of the entire fossil fuel surplus in time, they had to start then with dismantling the welfare state, demolishing all reforms and social advances which had been achieved, eradicating all actualities of government responsiveness and accountability, and imposing the forms of the neofeudal tyranny which would succeed the Oil Age.
 
6. Finally, capitalism itself was never anything but a modification of feudalism. Feudalism was just temporarily refitted for the fossil fuel age. The system’s real nature remained feudal throughout. Corporatism and financialization, imperialism and globalization, have been the most clear manifestations of this.
 
Now that the fossil fuel age is ending, the goal is to restore full feudalism, in an even more vicious and exploitative form than that which existed previously.
 
So there’s a basic theory of kleptocracy. I didn’t include subjective greed, powerlust, sadism, hatred on the part of cadres and elites. But since the system selects for these, these too become a structural, objective feature.

September 1, 2011

How Many Farmers’ Markets?

Filed under: Food and Farms, Land Reform, Mainstream Media, Relocalization — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 3:26 am

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The proliferation of farmers’ markets in recent years is one of the most exuberant demonstrations of the rising vitality of the relocalization movement. These markets are a boon to small farmers, are a key part of food relocalization, provide healthy food, arouse an interest in local food and farmers among the public, help educate the public on the very nature of food production and distribution, and at their best provide a public space where people can come together as communities for socializing and recreation, for learning and fun. The expansion of these markets is a primary first-stage goal for the movement.
 
But the rapid success of this expansion is causing some growing pains. For a few years now people have wondered if there are getting to be too many farmers’ markets. Small farmers complain about having to spread themselves out among more competing markets, incurring worse logistical costs, in order to bring in the same revenue they used to achieve at one or two markets.
 
The latest to push this theme is the corporate NYT. The basic line is the same – too many markets cutting up a finite cake.
 

Some farmers say small new markets have lured away loyal customers and cut into profits. Other farmers say they must add markets to their weekly rotation to earn the same money they did a few years ago, reducing their time in the field and adding employee hours…

Rick Wysk, who spent the morning pulling beets out of the eight acres he tills at River Bend Farm in nearby Hadley, says his business at farmers’ markets is half what it was five years ago.

“You have a certain amount of demand, and the more you spread out the demand, you’re making less,” said Mr. Wysk, who has been selling at markets for 13 years. He believes his business is further hurt by additional markets that opened this year in Northampton and Springfield.

“We’re Western Mass. We’re not New York City. We’re not Boston,” Mr. Wysk said. “We’ve got people, but not the population in the bigger markets.”

More densely populated areas, however, seem to be where the problem is most acute. In Seattle, farmers have spent the last few years jumping from new market to new market. In San Francisco, there are simply “too many farmers’ markets,” said Brigitte Moran, the executive director of the Marin Markets in San Rafael, Calif.

“We have this mentality of, oh, we have a Starbucks on every corner,” Ms. Moran said. “So why can’t we have a farmers’ market? The difference is these farmers actually have to grow it and drive it to the market.”

 
Of course this allegedly finite market exists amid the hostile environment of corporate patterns in everything including food production. It’s this which relentlessly tries to beat down what’s clearly a democratic movement toward healthier, higher quality, and more localized food. That’s the corporate NYT for you. It’s not the fault of Walmartization, land distribution patterns, food commodification as such. It’s those who are trying to break the pattern and relocalize who are making things hard on farmers.
 
Meanwhile, the piece itself mentions the alternative explanation: There’s not enough small farmers. This follows immediately after an indication that in some places there aren’t enough markets, and/or that existing markets aren’t big enough.
 

In some places, new or small-scale farmers who cannot get into existing markets create their own and siphon off customers. Other communities do not have enough farmers to keep up with all the new markets that are opening, Ms. Miller said.

 
The piece tries to juxtapose quotes in such a way as to make it look like it’s benighted farmers and communities who don’t know what they’re doing. But in fact such citizens are doing the best they can amid a harsh political and economic environment. This piece is an example of NYT starve-the-beastism. Fulsomely support corporate ag, do all you can to make the small farmer impossible. Then, when the small farmers’ attempts to thrive experience a speed bump, crow, “See? I told you it wouldn’t work!”
 
It’s a good measure of the corporate media’s lameness that this piece was unable to suppress the basic facts:
 
1. Farmers’ markets are thriving, and if they’re experiencing any difficulty, it’s a growing pain, not decrepitude.
 
2. If in some places there’s a mismatch between the number of markets and the market revenue of farmers, it’s far more likely that this means there’s not enough farmers to meet the demand for markets, than that the supply of markets has outrun some fixed customer demand.
 
This is a structural problem where the many parts of the solution take time. Perhaps a faster part like founding farmers’ markets may sometimes get out ahead of other parts like the rate of small farm startups. But this doesn’t mean there’s too many markets in an absolute sense, only in a relative and temporary one. But you’d never know that from tendentious corporate media “analysis” like this.
 
The corporate media frame assumes food commodification as normative and tries to keep farmers’ markets in their “locavore” lifestyle-accouterment ghetto. From that bogus point of view, it sounds logical that there’s a “fixed” saturation point.
 
But if the real point of farmers’ markets is to be part of the general relocalization movement, and every aspect of that movement is on a vector against the structural factors the corporate media assumes to be given, then it becomes meaningless to say there’s “too many” markets in an absolute sense.
 
Small farmers face difficulties for many structural reasons, including the fact that there’s not enough of them to meet community demand for markets. And that demand, exemplified in the mission statements of most markets including our own, go beyond just setting up a marketplace. The aspiration is a general community-building effort. Communities are trying to move ahead to meet expansive social, economic, and political needs, but we’re finding that in some places we’re outpacing the number of farmers available to staff these markets. (Also, the education of consumers on the benefits of shopping there has slowed down after the initial surge. So this is a long-term project as well.)
 
It’s tough to tell if there actually is a temporary saturation. A Portland market manager describes a plan based on market research:
 

Farmers Market spokesewoman Deborah Pleva says that the organization does not believe Portland has reached a saturation point for markets at all. Only three percent of produce purchased in Portland is bought from a farmers market; Pleva says they’re aiming to make that more like 10 percent.

 
According to numbers like that, there ought to be plenty of room for the current number of markets and then some. The fault, if there is a present-context glut at all, lies not with the community demand for farmers’ markets, but with the lack of farmers to sell at them, and beyond that with the structural, and often intentional, hostility of the system itself.
 
So none of this can be meaningfully discussed outside the big picture context of corporatism, kleptocracy, and the long-term relocalization movement.
 
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