Category Archives: Government
July 28th marks the 35th anniversary of the political assassination of two Puerto Rican independence activists, Carlos Soto Arriví and Arnaldo Darío Rosado, in the infamous Cerro Maravillai case. This case, which was widely followed among Puerto Ricans, involved an agent provocateur that led the activists to an ambush that resulted in their brutal murder by paramilitary agents within the colonial police force. The event led to two investigations, the second of which revealed a conspiracy to cover up both the assassination plot as well as the destruction and manipulation of evidence carried out by the colonial police and justice department, and well as the federal justice department and FBI. Cerro Maravilla symbolizes for many the most outstanding recent example of repressive measures, from surveillance to political assassination, unleashed by US imperialism against the anticolonial movement in Puerto Rico.
The recent revelations of NSA spying by Edward Snowden have provoked mass outrage across the globe. Much of the consternation comes from what is commonly understood as a violation of privacy. In the official media, Snowden’s actions have been framed as a debate between ‘national security’ and ‘privacy’. However, framing the question in these terms is pure subterfuge. The Puerto Rican experience shows that the true objectives of surveillance programs by intelligence agencies like the NSA, CIA, and FBI having nothing to do with ‘security’ or ‘protection’ but rather political repression. Systematic surveillance can only be understood as an essential part of state repression, the purpose of which is to intimidate those that question the status quo by promoting a culture of fear. One can never be separated from the other.
The systematic surveillance and repression of Puerto Rico’s anticolonial movement is obviously just one example of many. A brief historical sketch of US imperialism’s repressive efforts against anticolonial forces in Puerto Rico must begin with the political intrigues that preceded the 1898 military invasion as well as the martial law that characterized both military and civilian colonial governments in its immediate aftermath. This history goes on to include the surveillance and repressive attacks against the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and its followers from the 30s through the 50s, which included massacres of unarmed civilians, political assassinations and imprisonments, the harassment and attacks against labor unions and newly emergent socialist organizations of the same period, as well as COINTELPRO operations against resurgent nationalist and socialist political formations during the 60s and 70s.ii Indeed, in 1987 it was revealed that over 130,000 files on individuals and organizations had been accumulated through systematic surveillance on the island. This history is an integral part of the parallel campaigns of systematic state repression unleashed within the United States against groups such as the Black Liberation Movement, the American Indian Movement, the Chicano Liberation Movement, radical labor organizations, progressive students and antiwar activists, as well as communists.iii As such, what constitutes a scandal for the broader public is in fact part of the daily reality for those that fight for freedom and an end to oppression.
Snowden’s revelation that the United States Security Group Command’s Sabana Seca installation, located in the northern coastal municipality of Toa Baja, is part of an international surveillance network, which includes the Fornstat program, comes to no surprise to Puerto Rican anticolonial activists. From Sabana Seca, US naval intelligence monitors and gathers Internet, phone, and other forms of communication. In 1999, Duncan Campbell and Mark Honigsbaum of The Guardian already highlighted the naval intelligence’s “Echelon” operations from Sabana Seca and other locations both in the US and internationally as part of joint US British surveillance programs.iv
What is critical to highlight about US imperialism in Puerto Rico is the continued military character of colonialism on the island. For the benefit of those that may be unaware or who take the position that US militarism characterized only the past history of colonialism in Puerto Rico, a few contemporary examples serve to illustrate the point. Over the past decade and a half, Puerto Ricans have mobilized en masse to oppose a proposed military radar system intended for the Lajas valley in the southwestern part of the island, to end the practice of using the eastern island of Vieques as a bombing range by the US military and its allies (It should be noted that there was also a successful campaign to end the militarization of Culebra island also off the eastern coast of the main island in the 70s), and in more recent times against a system of potentially toxic and environmentally destructive antennas used both by the military and cellular companies that have proliferated across the island. In an article in the current issue of Claridad, the spokesperson for the grassroots Coalition of Communities Against the Proliferation of Antennas, Wilson Torres, sheds light on the US military’s Full Spectrum Dominance program currently being implemented in Puerto Rico. v
Understood in the context of pervasive unemployment, which serves to ensure an ever present pool of recruits used as cannon fodder in US military campaigns throughout the world as well as the structural dependence of large parts of the colonial economy on the Pentagon, this picture constitutes the modified form of US militarism in Puerto Rico in the present context. One may add the militarization of the colonial police force in the ongoing attacks against residents of public housing and other marginalized communities to this reality.
It would not be difficult to draw parallels between much of what is described immediately above and the realities faced by many North Americans. Heavy-handed policing and economically depressed communities dependent upon military or prison industries are a familiar reality for many. Yet the notion that the United States of America is characterized by a repressive state is much more difficult for the average person to accept. The narrative of 9/11 provides the pretext that results in the conflation of national security and state repression in the minds of many.
Notwithstanding, the revelations about the NSA spying program have provoked the condemnation of all except the most recalcitrant sycophants of US imperialism. Yet, it is absolutely necessary to place these programs in the context of the long history of state repression and militarism. Those on the left must push to extend the public discourse beyond questions of personal privacy to a discussion of systematic political repression within increasingly militarized “liberal” democracies. The experiences of anticolonial activists and militant, class-conscious revolutionaries from Puerto Rico lend valuable insights that add to the discussion around the significance of what Snowden’s leaks reveal: systematic surveillance and state repression are two sides of the same coin.
An insightful comment by Marx, writing in the New York Daily Tribune about British imperialism in India during the mid 1800s and often repeated among Puerto Rican comrades, is a useful starting point for the US left:
“The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, moving from its home, where it assumes respectable form, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”
Carlos Borrero is a New York based writer.
“The republic that was created from the ashes of the rising was a perversion of the human rights ideals of 1916,” the outgoing Ombudsman and Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly has said.
Addressing the first evening of the MacGill Summer School in Co Donegal, she said people were not yet fully aware of what a real republic looked like. Delivering the 13th annual John Hume lecture, Ms O’Reilly said it was particularly appropriate that the lecture was named after the Nobel peace prize winner as he was a “pre-eminent human rights defender”.
She criticised the successors of the 1916 leaders, accusing them of franchising the State “to a private organisation called the Catholic Church, shedding in particular its responsibility for the education and health systems, and thereby allowing little actual space for the elected leaders of this republic to play their role in pursuing the happiness and prosperity of the nation”.
It was difficult for citizens to remind themselves that “we are actually the ones in charge”.
This was a difficulty, she added, that the executive and judiciary also struggled with. Referring to former attorney general Peter Sutherland, she said his core assertion made in a speech earlier this year, that the courts were “inappropriately forced to decide not alone what our values in this republic are or should be, but also to divine what the elected representatives of the people think about those values”.
She said that while the courts had too much unwanted power, parliament spent “much of its time ducking and diving and pretending it has no power whatsoever”. She accused the executive of “planting its boot far too firmly on the neck of the parliament and wielding power in a manner never envisaged by the Constitution.”
Quoting President Michael D Higgins, she said: “There is a deep-seated anti-intellectualism prevalent in Irish life,” and that our political and cultural life was marked by the false notion that one person’s ignorance was as good as another’s knowledge. She turned to the Constitution, quoting article 28.4.1 which states that the Government “shall be responsible to Dáil Éireann”.
“Quite clearly this is not the case. The nub of the problem is that parliament does not take itself seriously,” she said. “Our failures are essentially human rights failures and we should be particularly alive to the fact that, never more so than at a time of recession and austerity, are bodies such as a Human Rights Commission and an Equality Authority needed to make sure that in a decade’s time we won’t be weeping our way through another pitiful cataloguing of State-inflicted abuse, albeit with a modern twist.”
In his opening address, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said he looked to 2016 and the centenary of the Easter Rising. “To be a real republic, Ireland has to be a sovereign republic,” he said. “We will strive . . . and work even harder so that we will become the best small country in the world for business, to raise a family and to grow old with dignity and respect. This will be the republic of 2016.”
Kevin O’Rourke links to an interesting paper by Jeff Frankel which discusses different ways recessions are measured. The standard European measurement says that when an economy falls two quarters in a row it is officially in recession (we know all about that given our official double-dip). This measurement has the advantage of being statistically clear and simple. This, though, can lead to false readings. For instance, over two years the economy declines in half of the eight quarters – leaving it much lower. If, though, none of those quarters were consecutive, then according to the European measurement, there was no recession even though output has fallen. This may be an extreme case but it shows how quirky this measurement can be.
The US has a different way of measuring recessions. According to Frankel:
‘In the United States, the arbiter of when recessions begin and end is the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). The NBER Committee does not use that rule of thumb (Europe’s two consecutive quarters of decline), nor any other quantifiable rule . . . When it makes its judgments it looks beyond the most recently reported GDP numbers to include also employment and a variety other indicators, in part because output measures are subject to errors and revisions. The Committee sees nothing special in the criterion of two consecutive quarters.’
The problem with this approach is that there is no single definitive measurement so disputes easily arise.
I’d like to introduce another way to measure a recession. It is based on the sinking-ship metaphor. A ship starts sinking. It eventually stops and starts to rise again. While it’s rising back to the surface we can say that it is in recovery mode. However, it will remain below water until it gets back to the surface.
Similarly with an economy: an economy goes into decline, eventually stops falling and starts rising. However, it remains metaphorically below water until it returns to the point at which it had started sinking. If an economy is below its pre-recession levels it remains ‘recessed’.
Take, for instance, the US Great Depression in the 1930s. The economy tanked big time in 1929. However, by 1935 the economy had experienced nearly three years of rising GDP, employment, consumer spending and investment. However, no one then (or now) would have said that the Great Depression was over by 1935 – it was still well below its 1929 level.
In 2007, the economy was generating a little over €43,000 for every woman, man and child. As seen, according to the IMF projections, even by 2018 the economy will not have returned to the 2007 level. It won’t happen until 2019. In other words, the economy will remain under-water for 11 years – in other words, ‘recessed’.
Of course, this is GDP – which is flattered by multi-national accounting practices (profit-tourism, etc.). What does it look like when we measure GNP per capita? Here we use the Government’s own assumptions in their end-of-the-decade scenario.
When looking at this domestic measurement (with all its faults) we find that the economy will be underwater for 14 years. 14 years. We won’t find ourselves above pre-recession levels until 2022. And if that’s not depressing enough, the ESRI’s John Fitzgerald estimates that even our GNP figures are over-stated given the presence of re-domiciled multi-nationals. The real GNP figures are substantially lower which suggests that a return to the surface could take even longer based on projected trends.
Staying with the metaphor, when the ship returns to the surface what kind of shape will it be in? Even though the economy has returned to the surface, many people will still be underwater. The Government’s end-of-the-decade scenario projects double-digit unemployment by 2019. Average real wages may not return to pre-recession levels until 2020 and even later. How many will still be living in deprivation, how many in poverty, how many will have emigrated? The ship may be back on the surface, hundreds of thousands won’t be.
To give another idea of what we’re facing into, let’s use the Government’s assumptions to track the ‘jobs recession’.
We won’t return to pre-crisis levels of employment until 2024. That’s 16 years under-water.
So when we start growing again – GDP, domestic demand, employment – just remember: we will have to grow for a long-time just to get back to where everything started collapsing. In other words, the ship may start rising soon but we will be underwater for a very long time.
Hopefully, you can hold your breath.
By Michael Taft,
The time is ripe—if not for the full-blown revolution, then at least for a transformative backlash to recenter the imperatives of social justice that have lately become so attenuated.
ZAGREB, CROATIA—What is often described in media, political and financial circles as the global “debt crisis” actually poses even more insidiously widespread dangers than the ubiquitous doom-filled reports commonly inform. “The greatest catastrophe threatening Greece and Europe is not the economic crisis,” says Costas Douzinas, professor of law at Birkbeck, University of London, “but the total destruction of the social bond, the way we see ourselves, the way we see our relation to the community. This is long-term. Economic crisis, fiscal deficits, can be restored in the medium term. But once you lose the social ethos, then there is no way back.”
That was the takeaway in May as scholars, writers, politicians and activists came together at Zagreb’s sixth annual Subversive Forum to plumb the depths of the current malaise, but also to propose remedies for the five years of European economic upheaval that has produced personal hardship, civic unrest, governmental instability and a general sense of paralysis.
For two weeks every year, Zagreb’s civic festival welcomes hordes of progressive lecturers and audiences to a program of films, debates, roundtable discussions and protest-planning sessions. Running past midnight in the city’s elegant 1920-vintage movie house Kino Europa, standing-room-only keynote speeches attract staunch partisans for advancing the interests of the public sphere against the authoritarian mediocracy that now prevails.
The cataclysm of human and social devastation in Europe is this generation’s defining moment. But calling it a debt crisis, as Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis explains, is like going to the hospital with advanced inoperable cancer and having the doctor diagnose your suffering as a pain crisis.
Yes there is pain, but the pain is symptomatic of bigger problems. The “debt crisis” is also a food crisis—people can’t afford to buy enough to eat. It’s a housing crisis, an education crisis, an unemployment crisis, an immigration crisis, a human rights crisis. In Greece, the New York Times reports, prostitution has surged 150 percent in the last two years as a direct result of social desperation, with supply-and-demand dynamics driving prices for sex work as low as five euros.
The Left rightly rejects austerity, despising it as collective punishment of citizens who had nothing to do with the financial collapse. Public health scholars David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu explain in The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills that such spending cuts drastically lower life expectancy due to a higher prevalence of suicide, HIV, alcoholism, heart disease and depression.
Underlying all these other crises is the steady transformation of the over-bureaucratized European Union into a democracy-free zone. Voter turnout is in decline (especially for European Parliament elections, but also in national contests), as constituencies manifest apathy or disenfranchisement. Decisions that people should be able to make for themselves and that are consequential for their lives—how much society spends on healthcare, on education, on defense—emanate instead from afar by EU administrators. A “Merkiavellian” regime, some call it; a secular empire of finance.
The principles of democratic self-determination are hamstrung by the powerful Troika—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission (the EU’s legislative and operational council)—which a disempowered citizenry increasingly views as an automaton that squelches democracy as it protects the interests of the power elite.
A teachable moment
But as many Europeans grow resigned to the “new normal,” a passionate movement of social democrats and subversive activists aims to recast a fatalistic narrative of inevitable capitulation. From the rubble of this financial catastrophe, they are extrapolating a systemic critique of how this mess came to pass and more importantly, how to use the collapse as a teachable moment. The time is ripe—if not for the full-blown revolution, then at least for a transformative backlash to recenter the imperatives of social justice that have lately become so attenuated.
The EU had been promoted as a strong “single market” (by many reckonings, the world’s largest economy) that would defuse Europe’s centuries of conflict: shared economic prosperity would generate cooperative unity. But clearly the EU has not delivered the promised transnational harmony. Capitalism is, after all, inherently a competition, which means there are winners and losers. Labor, always a weak player in this competition, loses the most in a race to attract foreign investment. Consequently, the labor movement fears a descent into what Slavoj Žižek calls a tyrannical “capitalism with Asian values.”
“Peripheral countries,” a label that has become so prevalent in the EU discourse, typifies the fault lines in the “union.” At the Subversive Forum, I noticed how keenly language highlights these tensions and fissures. Not surprisingly, people don’t like being thought of as peripheral—a lesson that might have been learned in light of the offense that the “third world” has always felt about that similarly condescending term. They also don’t appreciate being called PIIGS, the acronym that lumps together Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (the extra “i” doesn’t soften the blow). The term is outdated anyhow as more countries slide into severe downturns. With France and the United Kingdom falling into recession and Cyprus imploding, we can expect even coarser acronyms in the future.
It’s not just about nomenclature. The discourse of “othering” reveals old and supposedly effaced neocolonialist prejudices at their worst. In the minds of those who oppose humane terms of support, the “pigs” are lazy and corrupt, unsophisticated and out of date. They have brought their troubles on themselves and forced austerity will do them good.
The idea of Europe and even the word itself, has become toxic, unstable; co-opted by the bureaucrats’ failed vision, nobody knows exactly what it means. Is the UK in Europe? What about other EU but non-Eurozone countries—like Poland or Sweden? Is Iceland, the canary in the coal mine for financial meltdown, European? Euro-Asiatic hybrids such as Russia and Turkey? Non-EU countries like Norway and Switzerland? Can a country be expelled from Europe?
“Europe” is uttered with a sneer or a spasm of abjection. “Euro,” which once denoted simply a strong cosmopolitan currency, is now a root that has spawned a more cynical vocabulary: Eurocritic, Euroskeptic, Europhobe. But if the establishment’s lexicon is becoming degraded, the radical retorts are more fiercely honed. “Union” and “unity” have been exposed as feckless in the face of European inability to sustain these, inspiring a more rousing synonym, “solidarity,” that resounds among those who are focused on social equality rather than financial technicalities. Paradoxically, the counter-rhetoric of the Left has expanded the context of the crisis by contracting the terminology. What was originally construed as “the global economic crisis” morphed into “the Eurozone crisis,” or “the Eurocrisis,” then became more tightly compressed into “the crisis,” and finally—stripping away everything else to convey simply a primordial vortex of personal agony and social decrepitude—the definite article dropped off, leaving just “crisis.”
“Crisis” has mobilized a radical critique of European capitalism. It’s not as simple as debating whether countries should leave the EU, or the euro—as bad as things are now, the alternative is probably catastrophic. But the Left has embarked upon a deep analysis of what sort of society has grown out of the EU’s financial autocracy. “Criminals, disguised as statesmen, were robbing us blind,” says Slovenian poet and critic Aleš Debeljak. “Crisis made us realize this truth.”
The radical mission is to uncover and expose the roots of this incompetence and institutional corruption, to question the motives and hidden agendas lurking beneath the “bankruptocracy” (another salient coinage), to educate and motivate suffering masses, and to reform the system.
“We can’t leave economic issues to the experts any longer,” says Maja Breznik, from the Slovenian Peace Institute. “It’s time for amateur investigations.”
These investigations, an end-run around the self-interested strategies of bankers and other EU cronies, begin from the premise that the vicious circle of debt is not the fault of immoderate spending by governments or households. Instead the primary goal of “recovery” has been a non sequitur: protecting the interests of private moneylenders and multinationals and refilling their coffers after their financial miscalculations and chicanery. The problem as it is being addressed bears little relation to the actual predicament, so society has plunged into deep recession.
As Europe tries to emerge from crisis, an exclusive focus on debt represents a class struggle designed by financiers to transfer losses from their books on to the taxpayers. Troubled countries are forced to sell off their economies to foreign investors. The Troika arranges bailouts under the harshest terms, with the heaviest burdens borne by agencies that support public welfare, because reducing social spending allows countries to pay more money, more quickly, back to the banks.
Privatization of the commons en- sues: everything that can be liquidated is sold, then rented back to the most disempowered classes. Much of the population is perpetually indebted and the idea of “permanent work” becomes a rarity, replaced by piece-work, part-time work and frequent lay-offs. The social contract has been broken.
We “amateur investigators” must ask questions about real value, as opposed to the merely monetary expressions of value that the Troika fetishizes. It seems reasonable to proclaim “bankrupt” (figuratively and literally) the discourse of valuation that culminated in the exotic, abstruse financial products that precipitated the crash.
It is our turn to open the discussion of what is valued from the perspective of the victims of fiscal malfeasance. (By “us” I refer to non-bankers, non-wealthy, non-functionaries and for good measure a healthy cadré of academic fellow travelers.) GDP itself is a subjective measure of value, a war-accounting mechanism that is not the only way to count. A euro is not just a euro: not every use of money is equally valuable. A different model of social accounting—one that focuses on the bottom, the workers, the poor and middle class, and starts with wages, taxes, social security—will produce a very different economic narrative than the one that has predominated for the last five years.
“We demand a new right,” argues Franco “Bifo” Berardi, a Marxist scholar from Milan’s Academy of Fine Arts, “The right to insolvency. We are not going to pay the tax. If I am insolvent, I don’t have money, so I won’t pay the debt.” Instead, there should be a moratorium on interest payments, some debt should be canceled and some repaid with a growth clause (as Germany did in the 1950s). Countries would pay as they grow, and as they can afford it.
Žižek—the Subversive Forum’s patron saint since its inception—warns that the radical Left has historically had a proclivity to sit on the sidelines: “They prefer sometimes not to take power so that when everything goes wrong they can write their books explaining in detail why everything had to go wrong. There is some deeply rooted masochism of the radical Left. Their best books are usually very convincing stories of failure.”
But today there is an especially high onus to take action, to engage in political reform. Leftist activists and politicians do have a concrete agenda for fixing the crisis. In Greece, defying the eulogies of democracy, Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza coalition has shown impressive strength in the last few elections and stands within grasp of parliamentary victory and a majority coalition in the near future. Nearly destroyed by crisis, Greece may soon emerge as the most advanced site of resistance. “The future of Greece is the future of Europe,” Tsipras proclaims, providing a heartening reverberation for the slogan that protestors chant across the continent, “Nous sommes tous des grecs”: We are all Greeks.
The Left’s challenge is to reorganize in a more cooperative, collective way: reclaiming the commons, reappropriating the wealth that is now in the hands of the state and the banks, and reconstituting the social fabric that was destroyed by economic restructuring.
Political platforms like Syriza’s draw on a wealth of theoretical foundations and strategic visions for reform.
Erik Wright, a University of Wisconsin sociologist who wrote Envisioning Real Utopias, is one of many academic subversives who offered Zagreb audiences a sophisticated array of fresh ideas for transcending the status quo of capitalism and replacing it with an emancipatory alternative, a democratic egalitarian pathway that empowers people to take control of their own destinies. Wright described a range of innovations that can be introduced “inside of capitalism” but that embody non-capitalistic principles and more fully reflect the values of democracy: worker-owned cooperatives, participatory budgeting (where citizens help determine civic priorities), freely provided public services like transportation and libraries (which we can think of as anti-capitalist ways to give people mobility and books), and unobstructed access to the commons of intellectual property. Peer-to-peer collaborations like Wikipedia illustrate how a non-capitalist means of production can flourish within capitalism and ultimately displace capitalism altogether (as evidenced by the recent demise of the print edition of that imperialist icon, the Encyclopedia Britannica).
Urban farms organized through community land trusts can support food production divorced from agribusiness. Crowd-sourcing finance like Kickstarter sidesteps the entrenched hegemonies of cultural production. The gift economy in music from the Internet allows people to download songs for free and pay whatever they want. (Wright believes these musicians actually make more income than they would in a conventional sales model because they have created a more palatable moral economy with their fans.)
The crisis of capitalism offers, as a silver lining, the opportunity for us to reconceptualize more democratic and sustainable systems of social and commercial existence. It’s a moment that is uniquely receptive to new ideas, as the old ones have proven so worthless. A subversive smorgasbord can be created in the world as it is, prefiguring things that might be in the world as it could become. Are these just utopian fantasies? A questioner at Wright’s lecture asked whether a smattering of such small-scale interventions could really inspire fundamental social change, to which the sociologist responded sublimely: “We don’t know for sure. The day before Wikipedia was invented, it was impossible.”
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Dr. Randy Malamud is regents’ professor and chair of the department of English at Georgia State University. He is the author of eight books, including Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity (NYU Press, 1998) and An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). He can be reached at rmalamudgsuedu.
― Jarod Kintz, The Days of Yay are Here! Wake Me Up When They’re Over.
The current global crisis is a manifestation of a fundamental problem in the process of the accumulation of capital. The problem is the lack of surplus value production. This contradiction has been concealed by decades of accumulating debt. Burgeoning financialisation involving bull runs since the 1980s have helped disguise the long-term weakening of the advanced capitalist economies. Economic performance in the United States, Western Europe and Japan has deteriorated since about 1973. The years since the start of the current cycle, which originated in 2001, have been worst of all.
The declining economic dynamism of the advanced capitalist world is rooted in a major sustained fall in profitability, caused primarily by the secular over-accumulation of capital. This problem goes back to the early 1970s. By 2000 in the United States, Japan and Germany, the rate of profit of private industrial capital had yet to make a comeback, rising no higher than that of the 1970s. With reduced profitability, capitalists had smaller surplus value to add to their labour processes. The perpetuation of reduced profitability since the 1970s has led to a steady falloff in accelerated capital accumulation across the advanced capitalist economies. The economic interventionism of the capitalist state have obstructed the realisation of the conditions for the necessary radical devalorisation of capital. Consequently economic downturn has not been precipitous enough to bring about a full recovery involving a restoration of profitability. The outcome is sustained stagnation.
To counter this persistent stagnation states, led by the United States, have been forced to underwrite ever greater volumes of debt through ever more varied and exotic financial forms. Initially, during the 1970s and 1980s, states were obliged to incur ever larger public deficits to sustain growth. But while provisionally keeping the economy relatively stable these deficits also rendered it increasingly stagnant. They thereby promoted the continued stagnation of capital by preventing capital proceeding through its “natural” cycle involving sharp downturns. This interventionism obstructed the return of accelerated capital accumulation. The state is now securing progressively less growth for any given increase in borrowing.
States, in the early 1990s, sought to overcome the problem by a budget balancing policy. Deficit reductions brought about by budget balancing resulted in a significant fall in aggregate demand. Consequently during the first half of the 1990s both Europe and Japan experienced devastating recessions that turned out to be the worst of the post-war period. The U.S. economy, itself, experienced the so-called jobless recovery.
Since the middle 1990s, the United States has been obliged to resort to more powerful and risky forms of stimulus to counter the tendency to stagnation. This is why public deficits were replaced with private deficits and asset inflation. In the great stock market run-up of the 1990s wealth on paper, fictitious capital, massively expanded. This development entailed a record-breaking borrowing increases. Consequently a powerful expansion of financial capital and consumption was sustained.
Government financial policy together with the general neo-liberal agenda of the bourgeoisie led to the historic equity price bubble of the years 1995-2000. Equity prices rose as a response to the law of the tendency of the general rate of profit to fall. New investment, free from significant technical composition of capital increases, exacerbated the prevailing over-accumulation of industrial capital. This was followed by the stock market crash and recession of 2000-2001.This development depressed profitability in the non-financial sector to its lowest level since 1980.
Greenspan countered the new cyclical downturn with another round in the inflation of asset prices. By reducing real short-term interest rates to zero for three years, he facilitated an historically unprecedented explosion of household borrowing. This contributed to and fed on rocketing house prices and household wealth. The world housing bubble between 2000 and 2005 was one of the biggest of all time. It made possible a steady rise in consumer spending and residential investment which together drove the expansion. Bush’s budget deficits together with record household deficits succeeded in obscuring the weakness of the underlying economic recovery by creating the appearance of sustained economic prosperity. The rise in debt-fuelled consumer demand as well as super-cheap credit superficially and provisionally revived the American economy. It also led to a new surge in imports and the increase of the balance of payments deficit to record levels.
Simultaneously, instead of increasing investment, productiveness and employment to increase surplus value, individual capitals sought to exploit the hyper-low cost of borrowing to improve their own and their shareholders’ position by way of financial manipulation — paying off their debts, paying out dividends, and buying their own stocks to drive up their value. This financialisation created a fictitious prosperity The same sort of things had been happening throughout the world economy — in Europe and Japan. In the United States and across the advanced capitalist world since 2000, the contradiction has been as follows: The slowest growth in the “real economy” since the 1970s and the greatest expansion of the fictitious economy in U.S. history.
Just as the stock market bubble of the 1990s eventually burst, the housing bubble eventually deflated. As a consequence, the house-driven expansion during the cyclical upturn moved into reverse. Just as the positive wealth effect of the housing bubble drove the economy forward, the negative effect of the housing crash drove it backward. With the value of their household residences declining and household borrowing collapsing households were forced to consume less. The sub-prime crisis arose as a direct extension of the housing bubble. Because of the ensuing enormity of the banks’ losses credit froze up at the very moment of the slide into recession.
It is clear from the above argument that it does not necessarily follow, as held by much of the Irish Left, that stimulus provided by the capitalist state to the domestic economy is not a prescription for providing a way out of recession. Indeed the argument above teaches the lesson that “artificial stimulus” can constitute a factor that sustains or encourages recession. Most of the Irish Left, including the less passive trade union UNITE, focus its efforts on campaigning for a solution within the framework of capitalism through the medium of the capitalist state which they misidentify as an eternal nanny state. They thereby sustain the illusion that capitalism is potentially a system that can serve the interests of the working class. If this utopianism of the Left were true then there would be no need for communist society.
The Euro crisis is a general a product of the conditions that contributed to the Great Recession. After the crash of 2008 the contradictions of the Euro grew increasingly visible. Consequently the market increasingly discovered its shortcomings. This manifested itself in the growing economic and financial problems of the so called peripheral states within the Euro zone. States such as Greece, Portugal and Ireland. These economies were running growing budget deficits. This meant that they were compelled to increasingly borrow on the financial markets. But because of the worsening economic conditions under which they were forced to do this, together with other factors, the interest rates at which borrowing was possible for them became increasingly usurious. No longer were they really in a position to borrow on the bond market. This meant they were left with merely two options: a bailout from the EU or default. In this way the economic crisis for these states became a growing problem for the EU itself culminating in a collapse of the Euro and its banking system.
One thing needs to be made clear. The Irish economy did not collapse because of irresponsibility regulation, banking and unscrupulous bankers. Pinning the blame on the aforementioned is a form of populism that distracts the attention of the working class from the real problem –the contradictory limits of capitalism. It is because the generation of surplus value within the reproduction process was the central problem facing the Irish economy that the bubble was created involving vast amounts of debt. To compensate for the absence of economic growth based on profitable industrial production bubble conditions were created that inevitable burst.
The banks of the core Euro zone were bloated and sitting on mountains of toxic debt collected from its periphery and elsewhere (the United States included). Consequently the core was vulnerable to collapse too. Because the core members were not prepared to let their banks collapse they imposed draconian conditions on the states that received financial help from them. This forms part of an attempt to protect its banks by rescuing funds from the periphery that was owed to the core of the European banking system. But the real aim of the markets was not merely to force the peripheral states into default. The underlying aim was to collapse of the Euro itself thereby bringing about the reconfiguration of the European capitalist system.
Ultimately the source of the Euro crisis is not, as some argue, its flawed architecture, rampant financialisation nor the Great Recession itself. Nor was the Euro crisis itself due to reckless spending by both the public and private sectors of Greece, Portugal and Ireland.
These latter factors and the Euro crisis are the result of the failure of the valorisation process to produce surplus value on a scale sufficient to provide accelerated accumulation of capital. Because of this failure capitalism has been compelled to conduct itself in a way that has led to massive financialisation involving copious credit culminating in financial crisis, crash and economic recession. Debt is not indefinitely sustainable when there obtains abject failure by the system to produce surplus value (profit) on a sufficiently large scale. As I have indicated before, the failure of capitalism to bring about an adequate restoration of profit during the 1974/75 crisis marked a turning point that resulted in the sustained stagnation of capital. The 74/75 dip was not sufficiently deep to overcome the crisis of capitalism. Consequently even if the ECB was to currently dish out mountains of Euro the problem would only partially sort itself out in the short term. In the long term it would lead to a much more acute problem.
Public nor private debt is not the problem. Public/private debt is a product of the problem of profitability. Because of the lack of profitability debt has ballooned thereby reinforcing the problem. For capitalism to economically recover a very deep depression involving massive reductions in the value of wages and social welfare spending is a necessity. The only other (authentic) option is communist revolution.
Engineer Duje Kovai, who has worked in the shipyard at Split for 40 years, asks: “Why does Europe want to stop Croatia building ships?” He has no answer. The country has a long coastline and history of sailors, fishermen and shipbuilders, but EU membership will probably put an end to one of its oldest industries. The yards had to be completely privatised before Croatia officially joined the EU on 1 July.
Croatia had five shipyards, dating back to the 19th century: Uljanik in Pula, and 3-May at Rijeka, Kraljevica, Trogir and Split. They were the economic backbone of the coastal regions. Ships built in Yugoslavia used to sail the world, and for decades Dalmatia’s shipyards rivalled those of Trieste and Saint-Nazaire. Shipbuilding was key to the political imagination of the socialist years: Josip Broz Tito had worked as a mechanic at Kraljevica in the 1920s. Split’s history is linked with the shipyard: the famous Hajduk football club — which is to Croatia what Olympique de Marseille is to France — was founded by shipbuilders who joined the Communist partisans when Dalmatia was annexed by the Italian fascists in 1941.The termination of all public subsidies is stipulated in chapter 8 (Competition Policy) of the accession treaty admitting Croatia to the EU, and the European Commission has been monitoring the implementation of the “restructuring” programme. “All over the world, states help shipbuilding,” said Zvonko Šegvi, president of Split’s shipbuilders’ union. “In Italy, the Fincantieri shipyards are entirely in public hands; in France, the state is still a minority shareholder in the biggest yards such as STX-Chantiers de l’Atlantique. Even in South Korea, the world leader in naval construction, the state subsidises shipbuilding. What’s acceptable in every other country is forbidden in Croatia in the name of European integration.”
A few months before EU accession, the state put its shipyards up for sale. But this proved more difficult than expected: debts were underestimated and some potential buyers were put off by the requirement that they shoulder 40% of restructuring costs. Kraljevica didn’t find a buyer and went under. Only the privatisation of the small site at Trogir seems a comparative success: one pier will be turned into a marina and chandler’s yard, and shipbuilding will continue. It was bought by a Croatian businessman, Danko Konar. The state will contribute €60m ($80m) to its restructuring over five years, and the agreement includes cutting the workforce from 1,200 to 900. Slavko Bilota, an engineer, hopes though that as older workers retire new ones will be taken on.The yards in Split were purchased by the DIV group for the nominal sum of 500,000 kunas ($88,600). DIV, which is owned by the businessman Tomislav Debeljak, has not put forward any serious plan for getting them back in operation, and announced in June that almost all of the 3,500 workers would be laid off: 1,500 of these will be rehired on short-term contracts, but the selection criteria are unclear. DIV has also promised to recruit 500 former employees, also on temporary contracts.
Split is not going down without a fight, and DIV has brought charges against union leaders for alleged acts of violence and has had them banned from the site.The identity of Istria is likewise inextricably linked to the Uljanik shipyard at Pula. In this tiny region of 200,000 people, shipbuilding accounts for nearly 30,000 jobs, direct and indirect. Production has continued and the order book is full, despite a reduction in state aid since 2006. Uljanik even made a bid to buy the 3-May shipyard in Rijeka. But the future remains uncertain. The site is attracting attention for its touristic rather than industrial potential: the islet on which the shipyards are located is in the middle of Pula bay, visible from the promenade and the town’s Roman amphitheatre. For now, Pula’s tourist future is focused on Muzil, a former military base built in 1859 for the Austro-Hungarian fleet and used by the Yugoslav then Croatian navies until it was closed in 2007. Pula residents currently stroll, bathe, fish, and picnic on the site, which also hosts alternative festivals, but there are plans to privatise it and turn it into a tourist complex with a 2,500-bed hotel, golf course and marina.
The planned demise of the shipyards will complete Croatia’s deindustrialisation. But can the country rely on tourism? The coastal regions have the highest unemployment, with 22% officially out of work overall, and a third of those under 25. Many young people get by on casual work on the black market, earning as little as $250 a month. Zvonko Šegvi says Croatia is joining the EU “without any real preparation … our economy has been devastated, and all we can do is provide services to the rich countries in the north. In the EU, Croatia is going to be a second-rank country, like all the other states in the south.”
The number of complaints received by the ethics watchdog last year which related directly to Tipperary North TD Michael Lowry is 388
THE number of people being sent to jail for failing to pay paltry court fines has soared by 25 per cent in just two years. read full article
A HIGH Court judge has cleared the way for aggrieved customers to initiate private criminal prosecutions against bank staff. read full article
INDEPENDENT MEP Nessa Childers, who resigned from the Labour Party last week, has sensationally claimed that she was subjected to a campaign of “overt bullying” by senior part read full article
The Sunday Independent posed the following questions to Minister of State for Small Business John Perry but he refused to comment. A spokesman said: “As this matter currently remains before the courts, Minister Perry will be making no comment.”
In relation to the loan Mr Perry agreed with Bank of Ireland to help pay his outstanding tax bill of approximately €100,000, what security – if any – was provided to the Bank of Ireland?
• Why did Mr Perry tell Danske Bank officials that he was friends with Bank of Ireland chief executive Richie Boucher? What would this have to do with any decision the bank would make on extending credit to him? Did he expect it to make a difference?
• Why did Mr Perry meet Danske officials in his Dail office? Did he not consider this to be an inappropriate use of that office? Did he think a meeting held in a minister’s office would in any way influence Danske Bank officials in their treatment of him?
• Can Mr Perry explain his remark to Danske Bank officials on January 31 last, where he accused them of being engaged in a form of bullying? Why did he go on to ask the bank’s officials if they treated all their customers in the same way? Does he consider it appropriate to have referred to the bank’s relations with other customers given his position as a government minister?
They have also claimed the Irish media are fuelling a ‘lynch mob’ mentality against Fitzpatrick and other Anglo bosses.
The comments were made as Fitzpatrick’s lawyers sought the early appointment of a trial judge to deal with disclosure.
They claim the appointment is necessary to prevent ‘a media frenzy whipping up a lynch mob mentality’ in relation to the upcoming trial of former Anglo Irish Bank executives according to the Irish Times.
The report says the trial of the bank’s former chairman Seán Fitzpatrick and two former directors was before Judge Martin Nolan at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court in order to check on the progress of the case.
Fitzpatrick, William McAteer and Pat Whelan have been charged with 16 counts of allegedly providing unlawful financial assistance to individuals to buy shares in the bank.
Judge Nolan said the case would be dealt with in the usual manner.
The Irish Times says that lawyers for the men and for the State all stressed that that they felt it was necessary for the smooth running of the case to appoint a judge now to deal with the large volume of material and issues which may arise leading up to the trial on January 14th next.
Whelan’s lawyer Brendan Grehan said “I don’t think this case can be progressed to trial without a judge taking charge of it now.”
“Applications are going to arise, apart from issues of relevance and privilege in relation to disclosure in the case.
“It would also be appropriate to appoint someone to take charge of the trial now who can give directions not just to the parties but also to the media.
“In the six months leading up to the trial it is vital that an air of calm be restored to the public from which a jury will be drawn.
“We simply cannot have a fair trial take place where a media frenzy is whipping up a lynch mob mentality.”
State lawyer Uná Ní Raifeartaigh admitted: “The issue of publicity is of concern to the DPP. It is important that in the last six months the media would be mindful in matters that may ultimately lead to the postponement of the trial.”
After hearing that GM crops could potentially increase yields, three farmers in Schmeiser’s region planted fields of Monsanto’s seed. Winds pushed pollen from GM canola into Schmeiser’s fields, and the plants cross-pollinated. The breed he had been cultivating for 50 years was now contaminated by Monsanto’s GM canola.
Did Monsanto apologize? No. It sued Schmeiser for patent infringement — first charging the farmer per acre of contamination, then slapping him with another suit for $1 million and attempting to seize his land and farming equipment. After a seven-year battle, the Canadian Supreme Court eventually ruled against him but let him keep his farm and his $1 million. He was one of the lucky ones.
Schmeiser’s case illustrates how Monsanto is dominating — and terrifying — the agricultural world with secretive technologies, strong-arm tactics, and government approval. According to the Center for Food Safety, Monsanto has filed at least 142 similar lawsuits against farmers for alleged infringement of its patents or abuse of its technology agreement. The company has won 72 judgments totaling almost $24 million.
Agriculture is a big industry in Florida. About $130 billion-per-year big, the second-largest industry behind tourism. Statewide, 9 million acres of farmland are divided into more than 47,500 commercial farms. In fact, Palm Beach County is the largest agricultural county east of the Mississippi River.
According to the USDA, 95,000 acres of corn, 125,000 acres of upland cotton, and 25,000 acres of soybeans have been planted in the state in 2013. With Food and Water Watch warning that nationally, 90 to 93 percent of such crops are genetically modified, Floridians have cause to know what’s lurking up the food chain.
A Biotech Revolution
When you’re good at something, you want to leverage that. Monsanto’s specialty is killing stuff.
When lawsuits piled up, putting a crimp in long-term profitability, Monsanto hatched a less lethal, more lucrative plan. It would attempt to take control of the world’s food supply.
This mission started in the mid-’90s, when the company began developing genetically modified crops like soybeans, corn, alfalfa, sugar beets, and wheat (much of it used for livestock feed). Monsanto bred crops that were immune to its leading weed killer, Roundup. That meant farmers no longer had to till the land to kill weeds, as they’d done for hundreds of years. They could simply blast their fields with chemicals. The weeds would die while the crops grew unaffected. Problem solved.
Monsanto put a wonderful spin on this development: The so-called “No-Till Revolution” promised greater yields, better profits for the family farm, and a heightened ability to feed a growing world.
But there was a dark side. First, farmers grew dependent on Monsanto, having to buy new seed every year, along with Monsanto’s pesticides. The effects on human health were largely unknown — would it harm people to consume foods whose genetic profile had suddenly changed after millions of years? Or to eat the animals that had consumed those plants? What about ripple effects on ecosystems?
But agriculture had placed the belligerent strongman in charge of the buffet line.
Monsanto squeezed out competitors by buying the biggest seed companies, spending $12 billion on the splurge. The company bought up the best shelf space and distribution channels. Its braying of global benevolence began to look much more like a naked power grab.
Seed prices began to soar. Since 1996, the cost of soybeans has increased 325 percent. Corn has risen 259 percent. And the price of genetically modified cotton has jumped a stunning 516 percent.
Instead of feeding the world, Monsanto drove prices through the roof — taking the biggest share for itself. A study by Dr. Charles Benbrook at Washington State University found that rapidly increasing seed and pesticide costs were tamping farmers’ income, cutting them from any benefits of the new technology.
Still, Monsanto was doing its best to make them play along. It offered steep discounts to independent dealers willing to restrict themselves to selling mostly Monsanto products. These same contracts brought severe punishment if independents ever sold out to a rival. U.S. regulators showed little concern for Monsanto’s expanding power.
“They’re a pesticide company that’s bought up seed firms,” says Bill Freese, a scientist at the Center for Food Safety. “Businesswise, it’s a beautiful, really smart strategy. It’s just awful for agriculture and the environment.”
Today, Monsanto seeds cover 40 percent of America’s crop acres — and 27 percent worldwide. The company makes nearly $8 billion per year.
“If you put control over plant and genetic resources into the hands of the private sector… and anybody thinks that plant breeding is still going to be used to solve society’s real problems and to advance food security, I have a bridge to sell them,” says Benbrook.
Seeds of Destruction
It didn’t used to be like this. At one time, seed companies were just large-scale farmers who grew various strains for next year’s crop. Most of the innovative hybrids and cross-breeding was done the old-fashioned way at public universities. The results were shared publicly.
“It was done in a completely open-sourced way,” says Benbrook. “Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture exchanged all sort of seeds with other scientists and researchers all over the world. This free trade and exchange of plant genetic resources was the foundation of progress in plant breeding. And in less than a decade, it was over.”
The first crack appeared in 1970, when Congress empowered the USDA to grant exclusive marketing rights to novel strains — with the exception that farmers could replant the seeds if they chose and patented varieties must be provided to researchers.
But that wasn’t enough. Corporations wanted more control, and they got it with a dramatic, landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1980 that allowed the patenting of living organisms. The decision was intended to increase research and innovation. But it did the opposite, encouraging market concentration.
Monsanto, which declined an interview request for this article, would soon gobble up every rival seed company in sight. It patented the best seeds for genetic engineering, leaving only the inferior for sale as non-GM brands.
Syngenta and DuPont both sued, accusing Monsanto of monopolistic practices and a “scorched earth campaign.” But instead of bringing reform, the chemical giants reached settlements that granted them licenses to use, sell, and cross-develop Monsanto products. (Some DuPont suits still drag on today.)
It wasn’t until 2009 that the Justice Department, working in concert with several state attorneys general, began investigating the company for antitrust violations. But three years later, the feds quietly dropped the case. (They also ignored interview requests for this article.)
Dr. Peter Carstensen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said some states were interested in pursuing the case and “some of the staff in the antitrust division wanted to do something, but top management — you say the word ‘patent’ and they panic.”
Set the Lawyers to Stun
Historically, farmers were able to save money on seeds by using those produced by last year’s crops for the coming year’s planting. But because Monsanto owns patents on its genetically modified strains, it forces farmers to buy new seeds every year.
Armed with lawyers and private investigators, the company has embarked on a campaign of spying and intimidation to stop any farmer from replanting his seeds.
Farmers call them the “seed police,” using words such as “Gestapo” and “Mafia” to describe Monsanto’s tactics. The company’s agents fan out into small towns, where they secretly videotape and photograph farmers, store owners, and co-ops; infiltrate community meetings; and gather information from informants. Some Monsanto agents pretend to be surveyors. Others confront farmers on their land and try to pressure them to sign papers giving Monsanto access to their private records.
In one case, Monsanto accused Indiana farmer David Runyon of using its soybean seeds, despite documented fact that he’d bought nonpatented seed from local universities for years. While attempting to pressure Runyon, Monsanto’s lawyer claimed the company had an agreement with the Indiana Department of Agriculture to search his land.
One problem: Indiana didn’t have a Department of Agriculture at the time. Like most Monsanto investigations, the case never went to trial and would appear to be more about intimidation than anything. Runyon incurred substantial costs defending himself without having done anything wrong. In 2006, the Center for Food Safety estimated that Monsanto had pressured as many as 4,500 farmers into paying settlements worth as much as $160 million.
Yet Monsanto wanted even more leverage. So it naturally turned to Congress.
Earlier this year, a little-noticed provision was slipped into a budget resolution. The measure, pushed by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), granted the company an unheard-of get-out-of-jail-free card, which critics derisively dubbed “The Monsanto Protection Act.”
There have been some indications of adverse health effects, but Monsanto has largely kept its products from researchers. Long-term studies have been limited, but scientists have found greater prevalence of tumors and digestive problems in rats fed GM corn and potatoes, and digestive issues for livestock eating GM feed. Those who have published studies critical of GM have been besieged by industry-funded critics disputing their finding, assailing their professional reputations, and effectively muddying the water. The feds have never bothered to extensively study GM foods. Instead, they’ve basically taken Monsanto’s word that all is kosher. So organic farmers and their allies sued the company in 2009, claiming too little study had been done on Monsanto’s GM sugar beets.
A year later, a judge agreed, ordering all recently planted GM sugar beet crops destroyed until their environmental impact was studied.
The Monsanto Protection Act was designed to end such rulings. It essentially bars judges from intervening in the midst of lawsuits — a notion that would seem highly unconstitutional.
Not that Congress noticed. Monsanto’s spent more than $10 million on campaign contributions during the past decade — plus another $70 million on lobbying since 1998. The money speaks so loudly, Congress has become tone-deaf.
In fact, the U.S. government has become Monsanto’s de facto lobbyist in countries distrustful of GM safety. Two years ago, WikiLeaks released diplomatic cables showing how the feds had lobbied foreign governments to weaken laws and encourage the planting of genetically modified crops in Third World countries.
Other wires from State Department diplomats ask for money to fly in corporate flacks to lean on government officials. Even Mr. Environment, former Vice President Al Gore, was key in getting France to briefly approve Monsanto’s GM corn.
These days, the company has infiltrated the highest levels of government. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a former Monsanto lawyer, and the company’s former and current employees are in high-level posts at the USDA and FDA.
But the real coup came in 2010, when President Obama appointed former Monsanto Vice President Michael Taylor as the FDA’s new deputy commissioner for foods. It was akin to making George Zimmerman the czar of gun safety.
Trust Us. Why Would We Lie?
At the same time Monsanto was cornering the food supply, its principal products — GM crops — were receiving less scrutiny than an NSA contractor.
Monsanto understood early on the best way to stave off bad publicity was to suppress independent research. Until recently, when negotiating an agreement with major universities, the company had severely restricted access to its seeds by requiring researchers to apply for a license and get approval from the company about any proposed research. The documentary Scientists Under Attack: Genetic Engineering in the Magnetic Field of Money noted that nearly 95 percent of genetic engineering research is paid for and controlled by corporations like Monsanto.
Meanwhile, former employees embedded in government make sure the feds never get too nosy.
Meet Michael Taylor. He’s gone back and forth from government to Monsanto enough times that it’s not a revolving door; it’s a Bat-pole. During an early-’90s stint with the FDA, he helped usher bovine growth hormone milk into the food supply and wrote the decision that kept the government out of Monsanto’s GM crop business.
Known as “substantial equivalence,” this policy declared that genetically modified products are essentially the same as their non-GM counterparts — and therefore require no additional labeling, food safety, or toxicity tests. Never mind that no accepted science backed his theory.
“It’s simply a political calculation invented by Michael Taylor and Monsanto and adopted by U.S. federal policymakers to resist labeling,” says Jim Gerritsen, a Maine farmer. “You have this collusion between corporations and the government, and the essence is that the people’s interest isn’t being served.”
The FDA approves GM crops by doing no testing of its own but by simply taking Monsanto’s word for their safety. Amusingly, Monsanto agrees that it should have nothing to do with verifying safety, says spokesman Phil Angell. “Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.”
So if neither Monsanto nor the feds is ensuring that the food supply is safe, who is?
The answer: No one.
We’ve Got Bigger Problems Now
So far, it appears the GM movement has done little more than raise the cost of food.
A 2009 study by Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman looked at four Monsanto seeds and found only minimal increases in yield. And since GM crops cost more to produce, their economic benefits are questionable at best.
“It pales in comparison to other conventional approaches,” says Gurian-Sherman. “It’s a lot more expensive, and it comes with a lot of baggage that goes with it, like pesticide use, monopoly issues, and control of the seed supply.”
Meanwhile, the use of pesticides has soared as weeds and insects become increasingly resistant to these death sprays. Since GM crops were introduced in 1996, pesticide use has increased by 404 million pounds. Last year, Syngenta, one of the world’s largest pesticide makers, reported that sales of its major corn soil insecticide more than doubled in 2012, a response to increased resistance to Monsanto’s pesticides.
Part of the blame belongs to a monoculture that developed around farming. Farmers know it’s better to rotate the crops and pesticides and leave fields fallow for a season. But when corn prices are high, who wants to grow a less profitable crop? The result’s been soil degradation, relatively static yields, and an epidemic of weed and insect resistance.
Weeds and insects are fighting back with their own law — the law of natural selection. Last year, 49 percent of surveyed farmers reported Roundup-resistant weeds on their farms, up from 34 percent the year before. The problem costs farmers more than $1 billion annually.
Nature, as it’s proved so often before, will not be easily vanquished.
Pests like Roundup-resistant pigweed can grow thick as your arm and more than six feet high, requiring removal by hand. Many farmers simply abandon fields that have been infested with it. Pigweed has infested Florida cotton fields, and farmers are now using old pesticides on top of Roundup to combat it.
To kill these adaptive pests, chemical giants like Monsanto and Dow are developing crops capable of withstanding even harsher pesticides. It’s producing an endless cycle of greater pesticide use at commensurate financial and environmental cost.
“It’s not about stewardship of the land,” says Thomas Earnshaw, sustainable farmer, educator, and founder of Outlaw Farmers in the Florida Panhandle. “The north Panhandle is probably the most contaminated land in the state — because of the monoculture farming with all the cotton and soy, both are “Roundup Ready” [GM crops]. They’re just spraying chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers into the soil, it’s getting into the water table, and farmers aren’t even making any more money — biotech is.”
Next Stop… the World!
The biggest problem for Monsanto’s global growth: It doesn’t have the same juice with foreign governments as it does with ours. That’s why it relies on the State Department to work as its taxpayer-funded lobbyist abroad.
Yet that’s becoming increasingly difficult. Other nations aren’t as willing to play corporate water boy as America is. The countries that need GM seeds often can’t afford them (or don’t trust Monsanto). And the nations that can afford them (other than us) don’t really want them (or don’t trust Monsanto).
Though the European Union imports 30 million tons of GM crops annually for livestock feed, it’s approved only two GM crops for human consumption. Although Brazil is poised to become the world’s largest soybean exporter on the strength of Monsanto seed, thousands of farmers there are suing Monsanto for more than $600 million after the company continued to charge them royalties two years after the expiration of its patent. Ecuador and Peru have shied away from GM crops. And even in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, Haiti mistrusted Monsanto so much that it declined its offer of seeds, even with assurances that the seed wasn’t GM.
In April, biotech companies took another hit when the European Union banned neonicotinoids — AKA “neo-nics” — one of the most powerful and popular insecticides in the world. It’s a derivative of nicotine that’s quite poisonous to plants and insects. German giant Bayer CropScience and Syngenta both make neo-nics, which are used to coat seeds, protecting crops in their early growth stage. In America, 90 percent of America’s corn crop comes with the coating.
The problem is that plants sweat these chemicals out in the morning dew, where they’re picked up by bees like a morning cup of Starbucks. Last year, a study linked neo-nics to the collapse of bee colonies, which threatens the entire food system. One-quarter of the human diet is pollinated by bees.
The mysterious collapse of colonies — in which bees simply fly off and die — has been reported as far back as 1918. Yet over the past seven years, mortality rates have tripled. Some U.S. regions are witnessing the death of more than half their populations, especially at corn planting time.
Last year’s study indicates a link to Monsanto’s GM corn, which has been widely treated with neo-nics since 2005.
But while other countries run from the problem, the U.S. government is content to let its citizens serve as guinea pigs. Beekeepers, though, are starting to fight back. This year, two separate lawsuits have been filed against the EPA demanding a more stringent risk assessment process and labeling laws for pesticides.
What’s Mine Is Yours
The same worries apply to contamination from GM crops. Ask Frank Morton, who grows organic sugar beet seeds in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and is among the few non-GM holdouts.
In 2010, a federal judge demanded farmers stop planting GM sugar beets. Farmers were surprised to find there was very little non-GM sugar-beet seed to be had. Since being introduced in 2005, Monsanto had driven just about everyone out of the market.
Morton’s farm is just two miles from a GM sugar beet farm. Unfortunately, beet pollen can travel as much as five miles, cross-pollinating other farmers’ fields and, in the case of an organic farmer, threatening his ability to sell his crop as organic and GM-free.
Morton has to worry about his fields because GM crops have perverted long-standing property law. Organic farmers are responsible for protecting their farms from contamination, since courts have consistently refused to hold GM growers liable.
Kansas farmer Bryce Stephens had to stop growing organic corn and soybeans for fear of contamination and has 30-foot buffer crops to protect his organic wheat. (Wheat pollen doesn’t travel far.)
“Monsanto and the biotechs need to respect traditional property rights and need to keep their pollution on their side of the fence,” says Maine farmer Jim Gerritsen. “If it was anything but agriculture, nobody would question it. If I decided to spray my house purple and I sprayed on a day that was windy and my purple paint drifted onto your house and contaminated your siding and shingles, there isn’t a court in the nation that wouldn’t in two minutes find me guilty of irresponsibly damaging your property. But when it comes to agriculture, all of a sudden the tables are turned.”
Contamination isn’t just about boutique organic brands. It maims U.S. exports too.
Take Bayer, which grew experimental, GM rice — that was unapproved for cultivation and for human consumption — at test plots around Louisiana State University for just one year. Within five years, these test plots had contaminated 30 percent of U.S. rice acreage. No one’s certain how it happened, but Bayer’s rice was found as far away as Central America and Africa.
Within days of the USDA announcement that this untested GM rice had gotten loose, rice futures lost $150 million in value, while U.S. rice exports dropped by 20 percent during the next year. And Bayer ended up paying farmers $750 million in damages.
Last month brought another hit. A Monsanto test of GM wheat mysteriously contaminated an Oregon farm eight years after the test was shut down. Japan and South Korea immediately halted imports of U.S. soft white wheat — a particularly harsh pill for the Japanese, who have used our white wheat in almost all cakes and confectionary since the 1960s.
Monsanto’s response? It’s blaming the whole mess on eco-terrorists.
Just Label It
Trish Sheldon moved to Florida in 2001, but the bubbly blond still exudes a cool, friendly California air. In 2010, she started a state chapter of Millions Against Monsanto, then in 2011 founded a group called GMO-Free Florida to raise awareness of the risks of GMOs and push for mandatory labeling initiatives.
With Monsanto seeds covering more than 40 percent of America’s crop acres (a March study found that 86 percent of corn, 88 percent of cotton, and 93 percent of soybeans grown here are of a GM variety) and the agri-giant making an expected $7.65 billion profit this year, it’s doubtful the company will go away anytime soon. But as consumers become more aware of the sinister problems lurking in the food chain, activists in many states are pushing for laws that would require foods with GM ingredients to be labeled, much as foods with trans fats are.
More than 23 right-to-know groups have since popped up throughout Florida especially after California’s push for mandatory labeling legislation, called Proposition 37, failed last year. Chemical companies defeated the initiative, thanks to a $46 million publicity campaign full of deceptive statements.
“Even though there were lies and deceit by the biotech industry, that was the catalyst,” Sheldon says. “People were so pissed off that it failed [and] we started gaining steam.” This May, during a global day of action, more than 2 million protesters attended rallies in more than 400 cities across 52 countries. In Miami, organizers lost count when protesters topped 1,300.
“If they’re going to allow the American people to be lab rats in an experiment, could they at least know where it is from so they can decide whether they want to participate or not?” asks Lance Harvell, a Republican state representative from Maine who sponsored a GM labeling law this year. “If the FDA isn’t going to do their job, it’s time we stepped in.”
Maine is just the second state (nine days after Connecticut) to pass such a law. When Vermont raised the issue a year ago, a Monsanto official indicated the company might sue. So the new laws in both Maine and Connecticut won’t take effect until other states pass similar legislation so they can share defense costs.
In Florida, state Sen. Maria Lorts Sachs and House Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel-Vasilinda have sponsored similar bills — but neither version made it to committee. Both intend to revise and resubmit bills in the next legislative session, in January 2014.
“God gave the seed to the earth and the fruit to the trees,” Harvell says. “Notice it didn’t say he granted Monsanto a patent. The human body has developed with its seeds. You’re making a major leap into Pandora’s box, a quantum leap that maybe the human body isn’t ready to make yet.”
As more information comes out, it’s increasingly clear that GM seed isn’t the home run it’s portrayed to be. It encourages greater pesticide use, which has a negative impact on the environment and our bodies. Whether or not GM food is safe to eat, it poses a real threat to biodiversity through monopolization of the seed industry and the kind of industrial farming monoculture this inspires.
Meanwhile, a study by the University of Canterbury in England found that non-GM crops in America and Europe are increasing their yields faster than GM crops.
“All this talk about feeding the world, it’s really PR,” explains Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “The hope is to get into these new markets, force farmers to pay for seed, then start changing the food and eating habits of the developing world.”
But as much as he hates GM, Kansas farmer Stephens is sanguine. “I’ve seen changes since I was little to where it is now,” he says. “I don’t think it will last. This land and these people here have gone through cycles of boom and bust. We’re just in another cycle, and it will be something different.”
Providing we don’t irreparably break it first.
Additional reporting by Sara Ventiera.