Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Toward New Models for the Scale and Practice of Agriculture, No. 3

Our first and second posts in this series are, respectively, here and here.
“The logistics of a just, equitable, and healthy agricultural landscape here in the United States would remain a problem if Michael Pollan himself, Wendell Berry, or better yet Fred Magdoff were appointed Secretary of Agriculture. Decades-long efforts pealing back agribusiness both as paradigm and infrastructure, however successful, would require a parallel program. With what would we replace the present landscape?
As a black hole about its horizon, a poverty in imagination orbits the question stateside. The vacuum is most recently felt in the developing animus between public health officials and artisan cheesemakers. What Europe has long streamlined into amicable regulation, the United States has lurched into clumsy opposition: cheese wheels are increasingly treated as suitcase bombs filled with Listeria.
After [more than] sixty years of industrial production Americans have quite forgotten the logistics of real food.
There are three broad classes of alternatives floating about the small but growing food movement. Prelapsarian fantasies widely prevalent would have us return to the family farm as it never existed. On the other hand, the microgeographic localism now emerging appears as much a victim of diminished expectations, provisional classism, and the constraints imposed by a scarcity of working examples as of agribusiness’s stranglehold on the market. If pursued to the logical and logistical conclusions, both options, as geographer David Harvey noted in a recent radio interview, would likely contribute to the kinds of famines that predated industrial development (as opposed to the very different famines that originate in today’s global capitalism).
There are, however, visionaries here and abroad who have blocked out broader possibilities tied to both the contours of our historical present and the globalized economy. This third class appears based on real-life experience and some intriguing, albeit often preliminary, experimentation:
1) In his campaign for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, dairy farmer Francis Thicke (pronounced TICK-ee) described a regionalization encompassing trade policy, energy, farm structure, and environmental regulation. [….]
2) With the support of the Mexican government, Zapotec Indians have developed a certified-sustainable, community-controlled forestry. Plain pine is sold to the government and … finished goods, including furniture, are produced in an on-site factory. The Oaxaca cooperative, still a work in progress, plows a third of its profits back into the business, a third into forest preservation, and the rest into its worker and the local community, including pensions, a credit union, and housing for its children studying at university.
3) Dialectical biologist Richard Levins, collaborating with Cuban colleagues on ecological approaches to local agriculture and public health summarizes some of the many adjustments a new agriculture anywhere may require … :
‘Instead of having to decide between large-scale industrial type production and a ‘small is beautiful’ approach a priori, we saw the scale of agriculture as dependent on natural and social conditions, with the units of planning embracing many units of production. Different scales of farming would be adjusted to the watershed, climatic zones and topography, population density, distribution of available resources, and the mobility of pests and their enemies.
The random patchwork of peasant agriculture, constrained by land tenure, and the harsh destructive landscapes of industrial farming would both be replaced by a planned mosaic of land uses in which each patch contributes its own products but also assists the production of other patches: forests give lumber, fuel, fruit,, nuts, and honey but also regulate the flow of water, modulate the climate to a distance of about 10 times the height of the trees, create a special microclimate downwind from the edge, offer shade for livestock and the workers, and provide a home to the natural enemies of pests and pollinators of crops. There would no longer be specialized farms producing only one thing. Mixed enterprises would allow for recycling, a more diverse diet for the farmers, and a hedge against climatic surprises. It would have a more uniform demand for labor throughout the year.’
Rather than to the expectations of an abstract neoclassical or all-too-real neoliberal model of production, the scale and practice of agriculture can be flexibly tailored to each region’s physical, social, and epidemiological landscapes on the ground, interconnecting ecology and the economy. Under such an arrangement not all parcels will be necessarily profitable. As Levins points out, whatever reductions in income farms accrue in protecting the rest of the region must be offset by regular redistributive mechanisms. [….]
There is a dawning realization that Big Ag, whatever its power and infrastructure, is, to use an iconic Texanism, all hat and not cattle. Propping up the empire is little else but a raw greed and political power turning biology—human and animal—into cash at any and all costs. The paradigm behind the food and farming—ostensibly the industry’s raison d’être—is bankrupt to its core.
When the use value of food, of all things, is traded in for surplus value, humanity’s survival is nothing less than threatened (and the integral pleasures of eating abandoned). When most commercial grade poultry feed is purposely laced with arsenic to keep bird flesh pink over shipment and sale, there is seriously sociopathic denialism at work. When U.S. livestock are stuffed with up to 28 million pounds of antibiotics annually solely to accelerate growth to a finishing weight, providing stock enough protection only until their industrial diet kills them, perversity verges on perversion. When livestock monopolies manipulate already cheap and highly subsidized prices by forcing farmers to sell their animals all at the same time, a criminality masquerades as the law of the land.
And yet even in the face of such unprecedented power and a relentless propaganda, a swelling number of Americans are coming around.” [….]
Rob Wallace, from an article in Farming Pathogens, 16 December 2010 (Big Farms: 118-123)

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Toward New Models for the Scale and Practice of Agriculture, No. 2

Our first post, with an introduction to this series, is here.
“Dumping grain on another country is a classic maneuver in economic warfare. When a country’s borders are opened by force or by choice, by structural adjustment or by neoliberal trade agreement, when tariffs and other forms of protectionism are finally scotched, heavily subsidized multinational agribusinesses can flood the new market with commodities at prices less than their production costs.
That is, these companies are happy to sell their foodstuffs abroad at a loss. That doesn’t make sense, you say. Aren’t these guys in business for profit? They are indeed. The deficits are in actuality a cold-blooded calculation. The objective is to drive previously domestic sectors unable to compete with that kind of pricing, out of business. Once the mom-and-pop competition is rubbed out, Walmart-style, the multinationals, their competition cleared off the field, can impose what prices they please across a market they now dominate. [….]
When what is illegal at home in the United States is perfectly legal elsewhere, move your operations offshore. In many countries of the Global South, few labor laws and environmental regulations are on the books. For those that are, enforcement is lax or bribed away. On the other hand, when what is legal in the United States in banned elsewhere, export U.S. rules. Subject other countries’ domestic operations to the kind of discipline of the invisible hand one’s own multinationals avoid like the plague. Impose a protectionism in reverse. [….]
In a kind of bioeconomic warfare, agribusiness can prosper when deadly influenza strains originating from their own operations spread out to their smaller competition. No conspiracy theory need apply. No virus engineered in a laboratory. No conscious acts of espionage or sabotage. Rather we have here an emergent neglect from the moral hazard that arises when the costs of intensive husbandry are externalized. The financial tab for these outbreaks is routinely picked up by governments and taxpayers worldwide. So why should agribusiness bother with ending practices that repeatedly interrupt economies and will someday produce a virus that kills hundreds of millions of people? Companies are often compelled to invest in livestock vaccination and biosecurity—however incomplete—but if the full costs of outbreaks were placed on their balance sheets larger operations as we know them would cease to exist.
Corporate farms are also able to skirt the economic punishments of the outbreaks they cause by their horizontal integration. They can weather the resulting bad publicity and intermittent breaks in their commodity chains by increasing production in affiliates elsewhere. [….] A supply chain arrayed across multiple countries can compensate for the interruptions in business, even as it also, ironically enough, increases the risk of influenza spread.
In contrast, many small farmers suffer catastrophically from this virus dumping, even when they’re under contract to agricultural companies. Smallholders typically can’t afford the biosecurity changes needed to protect themselves from such outbreaks in the first place or the wholesale repopulation of their livestock in the aftermath (even when subsidized in part by the government). Living market day to day, they can’t afford the losses incurred upon their already thin margins when their operations are disrupted by the government-imposed quarantines and culling campaigns that follow.
That’s nasty. But the insult to injury is in agribusiness’s faux-righteous follow-up. And here we see the kind of conscious manipulation at the heart of grain dumping. In an act of evil genius, multinationals support national efforts to institute biosecurity standards only the largest companies can afford. [….] The diseases that wipe out Big Food’s smaller competitors also offer an opportunity to cripple them between outbreaks.”
Rob Wallace, from an article in Farming Pathogens, 11 November 2010 (Big Farms: 112-117).

Monday, April 02, 2018

Toward new models for the scale and practice of agriculture

Over the course of a month or two (perhaps longer), I’m going to occasionally post snippets from a handful of Rob Wallace’s rhetorically pungent, intellectually incisive, and politically powerful collection of essays in his book Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatchers on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science (Monthly Review Press, 2016). Early last year I posted notice of an article in New Left Review, 102 (Nov/Dec 2016): “Ebola’s Ecologies: Agro-Economics and Epidemiology in West Africa,” co-authored by Rob Wallace and Rodrick Wallace, appending a list of suggested reading that included Big Farms. I will post bits and pieces from the book sans the notes and with slight editing (e.g., in the interest of length, I’ve left out some of the many examples that illuminate the arguments), although I may provide some embedded links (some of which may be in the book’s notes). As this work—with notes—is well over 400 pages, the material I’m sharing is best viewed as providing but the slightest taste of its contents, although I hope it is sufficiently representative and enticing enough to stimulate your desire to read it in toto.
Rob Wallace, an evolutionary biologist, is currently an advisor for the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP) and a visiting lecturer at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Global Studies. He blogs at Farming Pathogens.
*           *           *
“For the past three decades, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have made loans to poorer countries conditioned on removing supports for domestic food markets. Small farmers cannot compete with cheaper corporate imports subsidized by the Global North. Many farmers either give up for a life on peri-urban margins or are forced to contract out their services—their land, their labor—to livestock multinationals now free to move in. The World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Investment Measures permit foreign companies, aiming to reduce production costs, to purchase and consolidate small producers in poorer countries. [….]
Clearly agribusiness, structural adjustment, global finance, environmental destruction, climate change, and the emergence of pathogenic influenzas are more tightly integrated than previously thought. The nest of dependencies requires fuller investigation. [….]
While the argument has been made that corporate food supplies the cheap protein many of the poorest need, the millions of small farmers who fed themselves (and many millions more) would never have needed such a supply if they had not been pushed off their lands in the first place. A reversal need not involve ending global trade or an anachronistic turn to the small family farm, but might include domestically protected farming at multiple scales. Farm ownership, infrastructure, working conditions, and animal health are inextricably linked. Once workers have a stake in both input and output—the latter by outright ownership, profit sharing, or the food itself—production can be structured in such a way that respects human welfare, and, as a consequence, animal health. With locale-specific farming, genetic monocultures of domesticated animals which promote the evolution of virulence can be diversified back into heirloom varieties that can serve as immunological firebreaks. The economic losses influenza imposes upon global livestock can be tempered: fewer interruptions, eradication campaigns, price jolts, emergency vaccinations, and wholesale repopulations. Rather than jury-rigged with each outbreak, the capacity for restricting livestock movement is built naturally into the regional farm model. [….]
Rather than to the expectations of an abstract neoclassical model of production, the scale and practice of agriculture can be flexibly tailored to each region’s physical, social, and epidemiological landscapes on the ground. At the same time, it needs to be acknowledged that under such arrangements not all parcels will be routinely profitable. As [Richard] Levins points out, whatever reductions in income farms accrue in protecting the rest of the region must be offset by regular redistributive mechanisms.” [….]
From the article, “The Political Virology of Offshore Farming,” first published in Antipode, November 2009 (Big Farms …: 50-84). 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Documentary on Dolores Huerta: “Dolores”

Some readers—as viewers!—may be interested (assuming you’ve yet to see it) in the recent documentary on the remarkable and inspiring life of Dolores Huerta on PBS (Independent Lens): “Dolores.”
And should you have missed its earlier posting, here is my bibliography for “César Chávez & the United Farm Workers … and the Struggle of Farm Workers in the U.S.”
Image: “Yreina D.Cervántez’ 1989 mural La Ofrenda, painted under a bridge in downtown Los Angeles.... In it, Cervántez—an artist and Chicana activist—pays homage to Dolores Huerta, co-founder with César Chávez of the United Farm Workers of America.”

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Famine: History, Causes, and Consequences — A Select Bibliography

Down on the Farm: Nostalgic Ideological Hegemony in the Service of Agribusiness, Big Data, and AI, or, Capitalist Agriculture and Country Music


By Nick Murray (March 12, 2018), for Viewpoint Magazine 

“The town of Maricopa may be surrounded by Arizona desert, but a small plot of land near its northern border may qualify as the most closely studied piece of farmland our planet has ever produced. Here stands the LemnaTec Scanalyzer. Weighing some 50,000 pounds, the device sits on a steel gantry that moves back and forth along tracks that line the field. It monitors the growth of every plant below it, and by the end of the day it generates five to eight terabytes of data. What it records could help scientists develop the next generation of genetically modified seeds. The University of Arizona, the company LemnaTec and the U.S. Government, which funded the project through the Department of Energy, all agree: this could be the future of agriculture.

‘Culture in all its early uses was a noun of process,’ Raymond Williams says in Keywords. It described ‘the tending of something, basically crops or animals.’ Eventually, by way of metaphor, the word was ‘extended to a process of human development.’ But the roots run deeper still: for much of human history, culture, in the sense of ceremony and arts, has been tied closely with cycles of agriculture, from work songs in fields to celebrations of harvest. In America, this tradition sees some of its most potent representation in country music. The genre has produced countless songs about life on the farm, but few are as straightforward as Alabama’s ‘American Farmer,’ from 2015. ‘They’re out there every morning, planting those seeds in the ground/Riding those big wheels, until the sun goes down,’ sings the group’s frontman, Randy Owen. Owen tells a familiar story, paying tribute to the wholesome grit of the farm tradition. Yet with the nature of farming accelerating rapidly into the future, the labor he describes could soon be obsolete. Not many farmers will ever have access to a 50,000 pound robotic field scanner, but if the corporations that dominate the agriculture industry get their way, farmers will see their work transformed by smaller devices like drones, automated tractors, and mini-robots that crawl the ground.

At the front of this shift is the German company Bayer AG. We usually associate the name Bayer with aspirin – or heroin, which it trademarked in the late 1800s – but the pharmaceutical giant has steadily grown into one of biggest names in agriculture. In 2014, its market capitalization – the value of its outstanding shares – stood around $112 billion. This should soon rise: Bayer is now in the process of acquiring the American seed and pesticide firm Monsanto, itself worth around $66 billion. Now, on Bayer’s ‘Crop Science’ website, the company promotes technological upgrades geared to the future. One article mentions another ‘scanalyzer’ that ‘allows an automated measuring of crop growth.’ But planting those crops can be automated too, and to this end, Bayer promotes a robot called Prospero, an ‘agricrab’ that scuttles across fields, drills holes and deposits seeds.

Prospero’s inventor, David Dorhout, imagines a small army of these on every farm, a ‘swarm of autonomous robots’ doing all the things Alabama’s American Farmer used to do. So what happens to the farmer? Dorhout has already considered this: ‘The farmer acts like a shepherd, giving his swarm instructions,’ he says. ‘Then his robots carry out these orders by communicating with each other through infrared signals.’ In bigger picture, robots like Prospero will ‘change the role of a farmer from being a driver to an instructor, which robots will pick up,’ Dorhut continues. They will ‘alleviate the physical work of farmers, which gives them more time to focus on the economic part of their business.’

If country music gave voice to many American farmers during the 20th century, what does it have to say about the fundamental shift in farm labor that is coming to define the 21st? If farmers become robot herders, spending more time in Quicken than in the field, what will that mean for the culture that grew out of it? Will representations of farm work, like those in country music, keep pace with its realities?

The ongoing process of automation affects jobs in just about every sector of the economy, yet for farming, the shift toward robots creates a unique ideological problem. That’s because in American culture, the farmer usually represents self-sufficiency, both personal and national – the ability to live with two hands, connected to the land, without the need for modern devices like robots and computers. In country music, no song makes such a claim quite as forcefully as Hank Williams, Jr.‘s ‘A Country Boy Can Survive.’

A Number Two hit in 1984, ‘Country Boy’ beings by foretelling an apocalypse: ‘The preacher man says it’s the end of time, and the Mississippi River she’s a goin’ dry.’ The resulting environment of scarcity and conflict divides urban from rural, businessman from farmer. You can guess which side adapts quickest. Though as Hank tells it, the rural country folk barely need to adapt at all. They already know how to plow a field, harvest heirloom tomatoes and ferment wine. ‘I got a shotgun, a rifle and a 4-wheel drive,’ he sings. What more does one need?

Williams’s country folk are drawn from myth as much as fact. Subsistence farming was once common in regions like Appalachia, but by 1984, the practice was nearly extinct. In the coal mines that the singer mentions, subsistence farmers were violently incorporated into the markets of capitalism. Those still in business tend to grow one crop, like wheat or corn, as nodes in a supply chain that extends around the globe. If ‘Country Boy’ is an indignant song, some its fire seems to come from this fact: the singer has missed the first era of American household agriculture, so he eagerly anticipates the divine providence that will bring about a second.

Thus ‘Country Boy’ is at once nostalgic and millenarian. It claims to speak for the working class yet it rejects solidarity with the urban poor. Over 30 years later, it remains one of country music’s major points of reference. We hear its title spoken at the end of tracks like Montgomery Gentry’s ‘Daddy Won’t Sell the Farm’ and looped throughout Blake Shelton’s ‘Boys ‘Round Here.’ Search its title alongside the name of just about any male country star and there’s a good chance you’ll find shaky cell phone footage of a live cover.

So what happens when even farmers lose the skills that Hank Williams, Jr. is counting on? We can begin to trace this shift even in the multiple versions of ‘A Country Boy Can Survive.’ On songs like the anti-gay, anti-disco ‘Dinosaur,’ Hank Williams, Jr. proudly proclaims his obstinacy, his refusal to change with the times. But when it comes to ‘Country Boy,’ even he has twice amended his own tune. In 1999, Williams collaborated with George Jones and Chad Brock on a ‘Y2K Version’ of ‘Country Boy Can Survive.’ The update emphasized the country boy’s distance from Wall Street; a new line proclaimed that ‘if the bank machines crash, we’ll be just fine.’

Yet two years later, after the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, Williams returned to the studio to record a new version called ‘America Will Survive.’ The original had seemed to imagine a world after America, and took its own shots at downtown Manhattan, hardly acceptable in late 2001. But this latest iteration attempted to reconcile the earlier contradictions – urban and rural, farm and finance – in defense of a nation that will now triumph together. As Hank sings: 

Our flag is up since our people went down
And we’re together from the country to town
We live back in the woods
, you see
Big city problems never bothered me
But now the world has changed and so have I
.


A changed world needs changed country stars. Enter Luke Bryan. [….]

[And now, the article’s conclusion.]

Harlan Howard famously described country music as three chords and the truth.’ This connection-turned-cliché is one reason why companies like Bayer work so hard to become associated with country music. There’s reason to doubt the political efficacy of benefit concerts, and one may certainly hesitate to call for more, but in the 1980s and ‘90s Farm Aid somewhat successfully used music – especially rock and country – to link farming with liberal politics suspicious of big business. These politics may be milquetoast, but for corporations like those described above, that link can pose an existential threat – a bigger threat even than the money that Farm Aid raises for charity, the organization’s nominal purpose. The Here’s to the Farmer campaign should be understood in part as an intervention responding to this particular problem. Its purpose is not just to build brand awareness in the United States, but to break this chain: to encourage country listeners to identify less with a political position than with the brands themselves.

This state of affairs is troubling, but there is no reason to assume it should be final. A corresponding intervention might not just attempt to undo the advances of companies like Bayer, but rather to raise the stakes further, beyond even the bourgeois politics of organizations like Farm Aid. Such a move only seems far-fetched if we fix country to descriptors like ‘conservative’ and ‘traditional’ while ignoring the antagonisms that take shape in the music itself.

One such antagonism lies between the desire for autonomy or self-sufficiency and growth of capitalism, which requires people to submit to the market. Country music may be used to reinforce this submission, but intervention in country music might also attempt to change the way this desire is articulated within the genre, linking its fulfillment to a new anti-capitalist politics. Something like this can only happen through engagement with country music and the spaces in which it takes place. If it doesn’t happen, we might expect to hear more songs like Upchurch’s revanchist rap. Lacking anti-capitalist politics, this same desire for self-sufficiency can produce not socialism but nativism and fascism.

Meanwhile, many of the farmers that country music claims to be speaking for continue to engage in their own forms of cultural resistance, in Raymond Williams’s pre-industrial sense. After the ratification of NAFTA in 1994, indigenous farmers in Mexico, often aligned with the Zapatista movement, rejected hybrid corn seeds, arguing that they displaced native plants and destabilized local economies. In 2010, a group of Haitian peasants promised to burn hybrid seeds that Monsanto shipped into the country in the guise of earthquake relief. Now, back in the United States, two new varieties of open-pollinated corn seed have been bred specifically so that farmers can save their seeds without risking cross-pollination from hybrids or GMOs in neighboring fields. Their names ‘Rebellion’ and ‘Revolt.’”

The full article is here. (Nick Murray is journalist based in New York City. He is a former editor at Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, and has contributed to the New York Times, Pitchfork, and Vice.) 

Image: Prospero – “This micro planter from Iowa cultivates fields in a swarm: Its six legs provide the necessary stability for uneven farmland. Prospero checks whether a certain section of the soil has already been planted. It digs holes, places seeds, marks the spot and if required also sprays fertilizer or herbicides.”

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

“Animal Colonialism: The Case of Milk”

New article of interest: Mathilde Cohen, “Animal Colonialism: The Case of Milk,” American Journal of International Law Unbound (September 2017) Volume 111: 267-271.

[Being a vegan, and with a significant portion of my worldview best described as Marxist,* I’m predisposed to find the argument in this very short article congenial. No doubt others will view it differently.]

The first two paragraphs:

“Greta Gaard writes that [t]he pervasive availability of cowsmilk todayfrom grocery stores to gas stationsis a historically unprecedented product of industrialization, urbanization, culture, and economics. To these factors, I would add colonialism and international law; the latter understood broadly to include the rules considered binding between states and nations, transnational law, legal transplants, international food aid, and international trade law. Until the end of the Nineteenth Century, the majority of the world population neither raised animals for their milk nor consumed animal milk. Humans are unique in the mammalian realm in that they drink the milk of other species, including beyond infancy. With the European conquest of the New World and other territories starting in the Sixteenth Century, dairying began to spread worldwidesettlers did not set out to colonize lands and people alone; they brought with them their flora, fauna, and other forms of life, including lactating animals such as cows and sheep.

Bridging the gap between scholarship on animal colonialism and on imperialism and motherhood, this essay argues that lactating animals became integral parts of colonial and neocolonial projects as tools of agro-expansionism and human population planning. Due to its disruptive effects on breastfeeding cultures, the global spread of dairying has not only been detrimental for the welfare of animals, but also for humans, especially mothers and their children. I recognize the simplistic aspect of grouping and analyzing together disparate epochs, regions, peoples, and animals in an inter-imperial historical vein. I do not mean to imply that these epochs, regions, peoples, and animals belong to a coherent whole, but only that despite their diversity, they have experienced comparable forms of state-building projects centered upon the consumption of animal milk. As an aside, animal protection law and advocacy is often critiqued for its supposed cultural imperialism, but as the following discussion illustrates, it may be that the lack of concern for animal welfare exhibited by legal systems was bequeathed by hegemonic European colonizers.”

* At least I’m in good company, the Dalai Lama having recently reminded us that he too is a Marxist. Please see this recent interview: Anup Dhar, Anjan Chakrabarti, and Serap Kayatekin, “Crossing Materialism and Religion: An Interview on Marxism and Spiritual with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama,” Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 28, Nos 3-4: 584-598.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Ricardo Flores Magón, PLM, and the Labor Struggles of California Farmworkers

“Cipriano Ricardo Flores Magón (known as Ricardo Flores Magón; September 16, 1874 – November 21, 1922) was a noted Mexican anarchist and social reform activist. His brothers Enrique and Jesús were also active in politics. Followers of the Magón brothers were known as Magonistas. He has been considered an important participant in the social movement that sparked the Mexican Revolution.”

“Periodically throughout their history, California farmworkers have fought vigorously, sometimes in small, local battles unknown to anyone but the immediate participants, and at other times in large campaigns—directed by radical or even openly revolutionary leaders—that have lasted for several seasons. The nature of these fights is rooted in the special character of agricultural production and in the real opportunities that farmworkers have encountered in the fields for nearly a hundred years.” Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (Verso, 2011)

The “special character of agricultural production” Bardacke refers to above includes the “short-lived harvest” period, as it is only during this precious time of year that a commodity is produced (although various kinds of work on the land are performed throughout the year), thus leaving the commercial farmer vulnerable to interruptions or delays. Another conspicuous vulnerability arises from the dependence on migratory workers, the demand for labor varying greatly throughout the year. Hence, Bardacke informs us,

“Time is often on the workers’ side, and they have not hesitated to seize it. Brief harvest walkouts, sit-downs, slow-downs, and stay-at-homes are part of farmworker tradition, weapons used much more regularly by agricultural workers than by industrial workers.”

Before the Depression-era upheaval that led to various forms of worker militancy, both spontaneous and organized, there were several years of “militant farmworker action [and] significant wage gains” that presaged patterns of future farmworker struggles. Unfortunately, these early battles did not result in a lasting union for those who labored on the land. Again, Bardacke:

“Between 1914 and 1917, in a period of overall labor scarcity, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), at times in tandem with the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) [organized by Ricardo Flores Magón and later led by both Ricardo and his youngest brother, Enrique], led a series of walkouts in the California fields, orchard, and vineyards that pushed up wages, forced labor-camp managers to provide better food, and prompted the state of California to build an extensive series of new labor camps, which improved the lives of many migrants. A harvest-time strike in the hops in 1914 doubled piece-rate wages, and by 1917, the average wage of California farmworkers had risen to nearly 90 percent of the average wage of California’s city workers.”

Ricardo Flores Magón had been a leader of university student protests in Mexico City in the 1890s and as early as 1904, the “Magonistas” (largely anarchist in political ideology) who found sanctuary in the U.S., “began to send emissaries—revolutionary culture brokers—into the mining camps of the Mexican north and into the agrarian villages as far south as Veracruz and Oaxaca.” And for this and other reasons, Flores Magón “is celebrated in Mexican secondary school textbooks as a ‘precursor’ of the [Mexican] Revolution.”

In California, Flores Magón “and a small band of comrades” whose “interest was not primarily California farmworkers,” continued to publish their weekly newspaper, Regeneración (in turn smuggled back into Mexico), and “for which [Ricardo] wrote political and social commentary.” As Bardacke reminds us, Flores Magón and the PLM were nevertheless indirectly active in the agricultural fields of California, as Ricardo and Enrique, together with a “substantial number of displaced Mexican revolutionaries,”

“… set up a series of PLM clubs in the Southwest and California. Those clubs attracted Mexican migrant workers, some of whom began to call themselves Magonistas. The clubs were linked through Regeneración and several other local, less regular PLM newspapers. Club leaders read the newspaper out loud to assembled groups of workers, who then discussed the situation in Mexico and their own troubles in the United States.

The hub of PLM power was Los Angeles, which was still an agricultural town in 1907 when the Flores Magón brothers settled there, and already was the center of the Mexican community in the United States. The PLM’s LA clubhouse became a center of multilingual, multiethnic activity where socialists and Wobblies famous and obscure mixed with Magonistas. Regeneración, its back page printed in English, built up an LA circulation of 10,000, making it both the first bilingual paper in California and the largest Spanish-language newspaper in town. The PLM club, which was also considered a Spanish-speaking IWW local, had 400 active members, most of who were farmworkers.” 

Magonistas were soon found throughout Spanish-speaking IWW locals in Southern and Central California. Whatever their cultural and language differences, Wobblies and Magonistas were united in their political ideology and political praxis:

“In San Diego in 1910, a joint IWW-PLM local organized a strike at the local gas and electric company that won equal pay for equal work. That same year a fight for free speech that ultimately did much to popularize the IWW among California farmworkers, began in Fresno in the midst of a battle to organize Mexican workers who were being contracted to build a dam on the outskirts of town. In hop fields, vineyards, sugar refineries, and citrus orchards, many farmworker walkouts were joint Wobbly-Magonista efforts.”

Our short story ends on a tragic note, for “[i]n 1918, Ricardo Flores Magón, along with other PLM and IWW leaders, was convicted of violating the Espionage Act … for ‘obstructing the war effort.’” Ricardo died on November 21, 1922 at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. Alas, and for motley reasons, one of the foremost being the appeal of communism and the rise of Communist parties following the Russian Revolution, the IWW and PLM did not formally survive World War I. All the same, 

“… Magonismo never totally disappeared from the California fields. Remaining underground in unfavorable times such as 1939, Magonismo has reappeared whenever farmworkers have had an opportunity to fight. It is there when they slow down on the job, sabotage the crops, or strike at the beginning of a harvest. Magonistas played a part in Imperial Valley melon and lettuce strikes in the late 1920s. They worked together with other militants when California farmworkers shook the state in the early 1930s. A generation later a few Magonistas would play a small role as the movement that produced the UFW was getting under way. And in 1979, the ghost of Ricardo Flores Magón would make a cameo appearance at one of the most dramatic moments in UFW history.”

Further Reading:

  • Albro, Ward S. Always a Rebel: Ricardo Flores Magón and the Mexican Revolution. Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1992.
  • Chacón, Justin Akers. Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican-American Working Class. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, Forthcoming.
  • Daniel, Cletus E. Bitter Harvest: A History of California Farmworkers, 1870-1941. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.
  • Dyson, Lowell K. Red Harvest: The Communist Party and American Farmers. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
  • Hart, John M. Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class, 1860-1931. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1978.
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