In April 2008, as people around the world took to the streets to protest the global food crisis and the lack of political will to address it, a crowd of a different nature gathered in Venezuela. Afro-Venezuelan cacao farmers and artisanal fishermen of the coastal community of Chuao came together to witness their president pledge that the food crisis would not hinder Venezuela’s advancements in food and agriculture. “There is a food crisis in the world, but Venezuela is not going to fall into that crisis,” said Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías. “You can be sure of that. Actually, we are going to help other nations who are facing this crisis.”1 He then went on to describe Venezuela’s most recent developments in food and agriculture, as well as the work that still lay ahead. This was one of several weekly addresses that Chávez had dedicated to food and agriculture as the world food crisis unfolded.
The current global food crisis — decades in the making — is a crushing indictment against capitalist agriculture and the corporate monopolies that dominate the world’s food systems. The role of the industrial agrifood complex in creating the crisis (through the monopolization of input industries, industrial farming, processing, and retailing) and the self-serving neoliberal solutions proposed by the world’s multilateral institutions and leading industrial countries are being met with skepticism, disillusion, and indifference by a general public more concerned with the global economic downturn than with the food crisis. Neoliberal retrenchment has met growing resistance by those most affected by the crisis — the world’s smallholder farmers.
The grim state of the U.S. economy in early 2009 was brought into sharp relief by economic data released at the end of April. Industrial production in the first quarter of this year dropped by an annual rate of 20 percent, while manufacturing capacity utilization (the operating rate of manufacturing plant and equipment) sank to 65.8 percent in March, the lowest level since the Federal Reserve Board series was introduced in 1948 (industrial capacity utilization as a whole is currently at 69.3 percent, its lowest point since that measurement began in 1967).
As a rule, crime and social protest rise in periods of economic crisis in capitalist society. During times of economic and social instability, the well-to-do become increasingly fearful of the general population, more disposed to adopt harsh measures to safeguard their positions at the apex of the social pyramid. The slowdown in the economic growth rate of U.S. capitalism beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s—converging with the emergence of radical social protest around the same period—was accompanied by a rapid rise in public safety spending as a share of civilian government expenditures. So significant was this shift that we can speak of a crowding out of welfare state spending (health, education, social services) by penal state spending (law enforcement, courts, and prisons) in the United States during the last third of a century.
The current financial crisis marks a series of turning points in the history of the North American auto industry.1 First, the iconic “Big Three” have been downsized to “The Detroit Three.” Once the global symbol of U.S. productivism and consumerism, they now teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and, in the process, profound questions are being raised about the decline of U.S. manufacturing jobs more generally. Second, the auto unions, themselves once emblematic of what workers could achieve within capitalism, have been reduced to lobbying to save “their” companies, and a decades-long trend in private-sector labor negotiations has now confirmed collective bargaining as having shifted from demands by workers to demands on workers. This highlights the broader crisis of labor: if labor cannot find a way to renew itself it could fade into irrelevancy. And third, the environment—which the industry so rapaciously disregarded and the unions so short-sightedly ignored—seems to have forced itself onto the agenda. In coming to grips with both the threats and opportunities provided by this historic moment, the following points are crucial.
When Paraguay elected Fernando Lugo, its first non-Colorado Party president in more than sixty years, the mood was elated. In the streets of Asuncion that night in April 2008, “Grandmothers, wrapped in the Paraguayan flag, danced with children in the streets, and cried at the top of their lungs that this [was] the moment they’d been waiting for their whole lives.”1 While Lugo’s election was a clear victory for the social movements that united to elect him, movement leaders knew that this was just the beginning. As Worker Party and Indigenous Farmer organizer Tomás Zayas told me the previous year: “Lugo will not solve our problems. If Lugo is elected, it will be a door, an opening, through which we can add to our movement and demands.”
One of the main accomplishments of the Israeli government’s bombing and invasion of the Gaza Strip last winter was to inspire new vitality within leftist and peace groups in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice and liberation. This wave of activity has continued after the supposed ceasefire, with demonstrations and direct actions from New York to Los Angeles, Paris, Jaffa, and Tel Aviv. Most noteworthy has been a coming out of sorts of an increasingly large and vocal segment of the Jewish world that is not only opposed to the Israeli government’s wars and military occupations, but critical of Zionism itself.
In this compelling and useful book, David Bacon lays to rest the anti-immigration arguments of the xenophobes and racists who bombard us every day in the press, on television, and on radio talk shows with the vicious assertion that immigrants, mainly those from Latin America, are the cause of all our economic and social problems.
This issue of Monthly Review marks the sixtieth anniversary of the magazine. We are reprinting here Albert Einstein’s classic article “Why Socialism?,” written for volume 1, no. 1, of Monthly Review (May 1949). On Thursday, September 17, we will meet together at the Ethical Culture Society in Manhattan to celebrate and to promote a global socialism for the twenty-first century. We invite all our subscribers and friends.
In a recent essay, “Economics Needs a Scientific Revolution,” in one of the leading scientific journals, Nature, physicist Jean-Philippe Bouchaud, a researcher for an investment management company, asked rhetorically, “What is the flagship achievement of economics?” Bouchaud’s answer: “Only its recurrent inability to predict and avert crises.” Although his discussion is focused on the current worldwide financial crisis, his comment applies equally well to mainstream economic approaches to the environment—where, for example, ancient forests are seen as non-performing assets to be liquidated, and clean air and water are luxury goods for the affluent to purchase at their discretion. The field of economics in the United States has long been dominated by thinkers who unquestioningly accept the capitalist status quo and, accordingly, value the natural world only in terms of how much short-term profit can be generated by its exploitation. As a result, the inability of received economics to cope with or even perceive the global ecological crisis is alarming in its scope and implications.