Current Affairs

What is the Future of Bolivia after the 2020 MAS Victory?

Last November, Bolivia experienced a right-wing military coup d’état ousting Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party based on alleged electoral fraud, with the support of the US-backed Organization of American States (OAS). Overturning the official election results, Jeanine Añez of the right-wing Democrat Social Movement party was declared interim president, and the nation burst into civil uprisings decrying the coup government and calling for the restoration of democracy through the electoral process (though mostly MAS opponents had taken to the streets previously to protest the elections). Pro-MAS protesters, many of them Indigenous, were met with violence, and Morales fled to exile in Mexico and then Argentina. Almost a year later and after much social unrest, general elections were held in Bolivia on October 18, 2020, resulting in a landslide victory for Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca of the MAS party. Shortly thereafter, Morales triumphantly returned to Bolivia in early November.
What does the MAS victory mean for the future of Bolivia? In this roundtable, Duke University Press authors and Bolivia experts Mark Goodale, Thomas Grisaffi, and Bret Gustafson share their thoughts on the future of Bolivia, particularly as it pertains to the industrialization of lithium, the production of coca, and the future of the natural gas industry, respectively.
Contributors

Lithium Industrialization in Bolivia after the Coup – Mark Goodale

978-1-4780-0652-7_prWith the return to power of the MAS in Bolivia, one of the only things I’m confident in saying is that we will need many more months, perhaps even years, and the commitment of research dedicated to the question, to fully understand the contours of the last year. This past year began with a rightwing coup d’état and ended with the resounding electoral triumph of MAS at both the executive and legislative levels (yes, I analyze the mobilizations and eventual Camba takeover of October and November 2019 as a coup, even though it is a strange coup that ends with the golpistas, or coup plotters, allowing a democratic process to play out that leads to their ouster and coup leaders facing likely prison sentences).

But what concerns me here is something more specific: the likelihood that the new MAS government will re-start what was among the most important initiatives right up until the October 2019 election. This is the state project, managed by Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB), to industrialize the country’s lithium resources through an ambitious plan of vertical integration. This process that would oversee the commodity chain in Bolivia from the production of lithium carbonate and hydroxide to its refinement into “battery grade” salt to the development of lithium-ion battery cathodes and, finally, to the production—at an industrial scale—of fully functional lithium-ion batteries targeted for the booming global electronic vehicle (EV) market. 

In the months and years to come, the four-year research project I direct (now at the beginning of its second year) will be focusing on three main developments and possibilities. First: how quickly will the new MAS government resume production and construction activities at the main site in the Uyuni Salt Flat, which have been effectively paused for a year, a stoppage that took place even before the Covid-19 crisis struck Bolivia? Although a skeleton crew has been maintaining the evaporation pools, there is real concern that neglect and degradation over this period have set the process back.

Second, will the new MAS government revisit the decision taken by Evo Morales’ administration—as a late-breaking act of desperation during the social unrest in the days after the 2019 election—to annul the contract with the private German company ACI Systems? ACI Systems was acting as a proxy for Germany, which was acting as a proxy for the European Union, which is rushing to ramp up the transition to EVs and, apropos of the annulled contract, rapidly and exponentially increase the capacity to produce lithium-ion batteries within the EU. The contract with ACI Systems gave the German company the right to manage the later stages in the vertical integration process, but this contract was used by a largely Potosí-based anti-MAS civic movement to oppose the alliance and justify the threat of action against production at the facilities in the Salt Flat. Will the new MAS government reconsider the annulled contract with ACI Systems, and, if not, will the government require the state-owned company Yacimientos de Litio Boliviano (YLB), to take charge of the entire process from extraction to the production and distribution of lithium-ion batteries?

 And finally, will the new MAS government continue to structure economic policy, including lithium industrialization, based on the radical blueprint set out in the “Patriotic Agenda 2025,” a plan for national development that purports to respond to many of the critiques of the state’s reliance on traditional resource extraction, especially around gas and oil? In particular, will the lithium industrialization process remain the centerpiece of the Agenda’s concept of “productive sovereignty,” which imagines the state’s commitment to more sustainable development (although lithium is also a non-renewable resource) as the expression of both economic independence and decolonization?

The future of drug policy in Bolivia – Thomas Grisaffi

978-1-4780-0297-0_prOver the past fifteen years, Bolivia has emerged as a world leader in formulating a participatory, non-violent model in confronting the cocaine trade. The MAS victory in the October 2020 elections ensures that this innovative strategy will continue, but the Luis Arce administration will face challenges to implement it.

Bolivia is the world’s third largest producer of cocaine, a drug manufactured from coca leaf – which is central to Andean culture. Under the Evo Morales administration (2006-2019) farmers in specific zones were permitted to cultivate a small (between 1,600 – 2,500 square metre) plot of coca and were encouraged to self-police to respect these limits. 

This community-based model has proven more effective in reducing coca acreage than militarized forced eradication. Government investment has encouraged economic diversification away from coca. In Bolivia, 23,100 hectares were under coca cultivation in 2018, less than half that in Peru.

The policy has been lauded by the United Nations Development Programme as a less violent and efficient way to reduce coca cultivation, and has served as an inspiration to coca farmers in Peru and Colombia.

The relative success of the model does not mean it comes easy. There are debates over enforcement at every local union meeting, and some farmers complain that the upper limit on coca production is too low to meet their basic needs. Some farmers play the system and grow more coca than they are legally permitted.

Morales’s forced resignation in November 2019 threatened the future of the program. Despite being an interim government, the Jeanine Añez administration drafted its own five year drug strategy, which presented a hard-line stance to drug control and threatened a return to forced eradication.

Coca growers can breathe a sigh of relief. The incoming MAS government will surely continue with the community coca control model– but there will be challenges to its implementation.

Many growers supported the program out of deep-seated loyalty to Morales, who as President also headed the federation of growers. By contrast, incoming president Luis Arce, a UK-trained economist, lacks any history in the country’s social movements. He will find it difficult to convince farmers to make the sacrifices necessary for the policy to work.

The community control model relies on high levels of trust between the local coca growers’ organizations and the state, but the violence enacted by the police and military following last year’s coup – including the massacre of eleven coca growers – destroyed these foundations. Luis Arce will have to work hard to rebuild faith in the state, so that going forward coca growers are able to collaborate with the police, military and other official actors to restrict coca and curtail drug trafficking. 

The End of Gas and What’s Next for Eastern Bolivia – Bret Gustafson 

Bolivia in the Age of GaThe amazing victory of Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca of Bolivia’s MAS party comes amidst a public health tragedy and challenging economic conditions.  During the government of Evo Morales (2006-2019), the country benefited from high natural gas prices and the expansion of the public sector, policies in part overseen by Arce himself, who was Morales’s Minister of the Economy.  

As I explore in Bolivia in the Age of Gas, the period of the MAS government was nonetheless marked by contradictions. On the one hand, Indigenous and other social movements expanded their presence in government and made significant gains, especially in occupying new political spaces and state institutions long characterized by racial exclusion. On the other hand, the dependence on gas revenues led to compromises with foreign capital – and with more conservative sectors of the Bolivian society – that ran against what many hoped would be a more radical political transformation.  

In the case of the Guaraní of southeastern Bolivia, the impacts were significant. The gas industry transformed daily life in many communities, bringing new forms of labor and some material benefits, but also new forms of social and ecological violence. Many Guaraní benefited from access to jobs working with the government. Others were forced to deal with huge gas plants, large camps of male workers, disruptive seismic exploration (blasting with explosives to chart the underground), and endless efforts to eke out some compensation for damages.  

The right-wing forces that ousted Evo Morales in November of 2019 hoped to bring the MAS era to an end, and would have surely intensified these violences had they stayed in power. Yet the victory of Luis Arce has confirmed that despite the contradictions of the era of Evo Morales, Bolivians overwhelmingly wanted the MAS to return. 

Arce confronts a challenging scenario. Gas reserves are not growing, prices are low, and Brazil and Argentina – Bolivia’s main customers – may soon stop buying so much gas. Many Bolivians see lithium as the new boom, yet its prospects are complicated by national politics and global markets. If Bolivia can find a way to industrialize lithium – making batteries and electric cars, perhaps – there might be some hope there. Yet given what we know about the limits of extractivism, and the particular problems of fossil fuels, one might also hope Bolivia’s new government will deepen its turn to renewables, pursue more economic diversification, and slowly work to free itself from a longer history of being what I call “extractive subjects,” those whose own desires, for better and for worse, paradoxically align with the forces of extractive capitalism.

Through November 23, 2020, you can save 50% on books by all three authors using coupon code FALL2020.

In Conversation: We Are Not Dreamers

Our newest In Conversation video is up now. Watch the editors of We Are Not Dreamers: Undocumented Scholars Theorize Undocumented Life in the United States, Leisy J. Abrego and Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales, discuss the book with contributors Katy Joseline Maldonado Dominguez, Maria Liliana Ramirez, and Carolina Valdivia. Duke University Press Editorial Associate Alejandra Mejía moderates the panel. They talk about the ethics of producing a book by and about Undocumented and formerly-Undocumented people, and the importance of community.

During our Fall Sale, you can save 50% on We Are Not Dreamers (and all in-stock titles) with coupon FALL2020.

Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Anastasia Kārkliņa in Conversation with Katina L. Rogers

Today’s post is a conversation between graduate student Anastasia Kārkliņa, who has worked for several years in our Books Marketing department, and Katina L. Rogers, author of the new book Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and Beyond the Classroom.

978-1-4780-0954-2For years, scholars of late capitalism have warned against the impending crisis of the gig economy and its inevitably devastating effects on the lives of millions of workers. The coronavirus pandemic has not only changed the way we work, teach, and interact but has exposed deep and persisting forms of labor exploitation that easily discard those who have long ago been rendered disposable. In higher education, too, the pandemic has triggered hiring freezes and layoffs, eliminating already highly competitive faculty and postdoc positions. Many doctoral students and recent Ph.D. graduates feel they have only two options: join the precarious adjunct labor force or abandon the intellectual vocation and leave the academy altogether. For many, this choice is devastating.

In her new book Putting Humanities PhD to Work, Katina Rogers, however, argues that, while leaving the traditional academic path can be unnerving, it can certainly lead to equally fulfilling and meaningful careers in other sectors. Rogers suggests that “the key is rethinking the way we understand intellectual labor” and seeing that the “intellectual and interpretive skills acquired in graduate programs span many careers.” Over the years doctoral programs have failed to provide graduate students with a sound and realistic understanding of the state of the academic job landscape and necessary skills to navigate professional life outside of academe. Nevertheless, broadening the meaning of scholarly success, Rogers argues, has the potential to empower students to make a meaningful impact within and beyond the academy. 

Anastasia Kārkliņa (AK):  As more PhDs look for employment outside of the classroom, Putting the Humanities PhD to Work feels ever so urgent and exceptionally timely. What initially compelled you to work on this book? And, what does it mean for you to see Putting Humanities to Work published at this time, in light of recent domestic and global events? 

Katina Rogers (KR): Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about this! I began working on the book years ago, partly because I was inspired by the many creative approaches to graduate education that I was seeing across the country—but also because I found that my research on career preparation among PhDs working outside the professoriate was often surprising to people in ways that made it clear that the conversation needed to be happening more broadly. Meanwhile, I had begun moving through my own unusual career path and wanted an opportunity to reflect on the ways that my work combines the intellectual, pedagogical, and often transformative work that happens in the classroom but in a completely different context.

So much has changed since I started working on the book. The negatives are glaring: even before the COVID-19 pandemic, public universities were losing much of their state funding, and the increasing reliance on adjunct labor was growing worse by the year. The pandemic has heightened many existing vulnerabilities and inequalities, while also throwing institutions into disarray. The effects fall disproportionately on minoritized and marginalized groups within the academy, exacerbating the racism and gender bias of academic structures and causing real harm to individuals. I tend to resist the language of crisis, but higher education is absolutely in a moment of crisis right now. While COVID-19 was the catalyst, what we are seeing now has been brought on by decades of disinvestment.

It feels too soon to look for a silver lining; we are still in the midst of this trauma. I do hope that when colleges and universities are ready to pick up the pieces and move forward, they will do so with integrity and intention. We have seen that many structures that seemed immutable can actually change quite rapidly when there is enough collective will. So far, those changes have been reactive. My hope is that leaders, administrators, and faculty will see this as a moment of potential transformation, and will really dig in to build institutional structures that foster inclusion and wellbeing, and that promote an expansive understanding of the value of scholarship to society. From that perspective, it is an exciting moment to see this book released; with so many structures in flux, I hope that the book offers fresh ideas at a moment they can really take effect.

Anastasia, I wonder if you’d be willing to talk a little bit about your own experience? You’re navigating these institutional structures as a doctoral student while also working in publishing and exploring other possible pathways. What are your thoughts on the importance of humanities education in this moment? Why are you doing the work that you do, and where do you hope that it takes you? 

AK: Thanks for sharing that! Indeed, as doctoral students, we’ve been having the conversation about the crisis of higher education that you mention for years, often behind closed doors out of fear that our advisers may “disown” us if we dare to consider other options. I began actively working towards a professional pivot into fields such as communications and strategy a year ago, when I decided that I wanted more for my life, and my career, than poverty wages and unpredictable contracts. And, I arrived at this decision precisely because I believe in the importance of the humanities, especially in this political moment.

As a scholar of culture, I study how social power has historically operated in our society, and I’ve been trained in the tradition of thought that sees the “how” of this moment to be immensely important for understanding the past and imagining the future. And, so now in light of the national and global uprisings, we’re seeing that more companies, organizations, and agencies are asking this exact question: where are we, and how do we move forward, differently? Yet, most are not posing the most important question, and that is the question of power. Often, while well-intentioned, these conversions end up being watered down, simply because, say, marketing directors or consultants haven’t been trained to talk and think about these issues on a deep level. Within this context, I see the immense potential of critical thought to shift cultural narratives and push the discourse beyond the academe. In fact, agencies and organizations who want to be on the frontlines of innovative, actionable conversations about social change should be seeking out and recruiting humanities PhDs who are trained to think critically about these issues, which are ultimately rooted in social history.

I also fiercely believe in the value of intellectual thought as such, and I pride myself on the rigor of critical thinking that I developed thanks to my graduate training. I think more doctoral students should internalize that sense of value. To offer a quick anecdote, earlier this year I wrote an Instagram post that I titled, “How to Ask 21 Questions of a Pen.” And, I did exactly that—I posed with a pen in a photo and then used my training as a cultural theorist to pose twenty one questions about this one seemingly ordinary object: where was it made, and how? How is it implicated in global circuits of production? What does literacy signify in our society, and what conditions even made the pen’s invention possible? And so on, and so forth. That post got more traction than any other! People were genuinely intrigued, and surprised. While it may seem silly, you may ask others to do this exercise, and most feel at loss, at first. After all, it’s just a pen! For me, as a cultural theorist, a pen, as anything else, can be taken seriously as an object of study and put under close scrutiny. Having now worked in marketing and participated in branding hackathons with industry professionals, I can absolutely say that humanists bring to the table a level of intellectual sophistication that can oftentimes be only developed through years and years of rigorous study.

KR: I love this. It is such a clear example of the ways that people can apply scholarly methods to so many things that are outside their formal field. In many ways, I think that is one of the most valuable traits that people with advanced training in the humanities and social sciences share—a deep curiosity that leads to new lines of inquiry and therefore new insights. 

I’m also so glad that you bring up the issue of power. In my work with graduate students, mentorship and care are extremely important, and often bring up questions around emotional labor, which is complicated in itself. But often the conversation stops there, without going deeper to examine the power dynamics that can make those ecologies of care either supportive or problematic. Graduate education trades on prestige—not only tacitly, but explicitly in terms of institutional rankings, tenure and promotion policies, and more. Prestige is the lens through which so much scholarly work is viewed, which makes it extremely difficult to work toward other values, such as the public good. My book considers how we might start to loosen the grip of prestige in order to make space for other kinds of scholarly success.

AK: I couldn’t agree more. In centering individual academic success, which, for many, is structurally unattainable, we divert our attention from the ways in which our labor is implicated in the larger structure of the gig economy. As academics, we often think of ourselves as different from other workers, like fast food workers and delivery drivers, who, too, struggle to access living wages, health insurance, and so on, much like many PhDs who are funnelled into the adjunct labor force. I think your book speaks to our lived realities, while being critical of the corporatization of higher education, and all the issues that come with that. Understanding the erosion of stable academic employment as a structural issue, rather than a failure on the part of graduate students, is precisely what we need, if we are to move the needle within our own institutions and in higher education more broadly. 

KR: These structural questions are essential. Putting the Humanities PhD to Work is more than a career guide. More than anything, I hope that it shifts the conversation about career preparation away from being a matter of individual actions, and instead helps to contextualize it in systemic issues such as disinvestment in public higher education at the city, state, and federal levels; academic labor structures and the adjunct crisis; racism and gender bias; and student debt and material support of graduate students. I hope the book has an impact on these conversations and drives some real structural change at a moment when so much is in flux.

katina-rogersKatina L. Rogers is Co-Director of the Futures Initiative and Director of Programs and Administration of HASTAC at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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Anastasia Kārkliņa is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Literature at Duke University, specializing in American cultural studies and black cultural theory.  

Save 30% on Putting the Humanities PhD to Work with coupon E20ROGRS.

Revisiting Written in Stone, A Guest Post by Sanford Levinson

svl55-largeSanford Levinson holds the W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Texas Law School. In today’s guest post he writes about how his 1998 book Written in Stone continues to be relevant but in constant need of updating. We published a 20th Anniversary Edition in 2018. Through August 31, 2020 we are offering a 40% discount on the book with coupon code STONE40. We hope you’ll consider adding it to your reading list or syllabus.

This fall, for the third time, I will be teaching a “reading course” at the Harvard Law School on “Monuments and Memorialization.” Needless to say, among the readings is my Duke University Press book Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies. Originally published in 1998, the Press published a second edition in 2018, with what turned out to be a new afterword of some 20,000 words, together with a new cover—a picture of Robert E. Lee’s statue being removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans—and a variety of other new photographs of controversial monuments. When the second edition was initially planned in 2016, the thought was that I would write a new afterword of about 5,000 words and that the new edition would be published in early 2018 (at the latest). As John Lennon famously sang, though, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Among the things that happened between initial plan and publication in September 2015 was the massacre in Charleston, the 2016 March in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the ensuing taking down of many monuments, particularly in the states of the Confederacy. And, of course, at the present time the entire country is experiencing the aftermath of the murder by a Minneapolis police officer of George Floyd in Minneapolis, including the renewed attention on monuments (and building names) across the country. For example, Lake Calhoun, in Minneapolis, named after John C. Calhoun, the leading defender of the slavocracy in his long career in American politics, was renamed, though not without controversy, Bde Maka Ska, described by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as “its original Dakota name.

Written in StoneGiven events in Minneapolis; Richmond, Virginia; Bristol, England; and Brussels, Belgium, to name only and handful of recent locales where monuments have come down or places renamed, friends have encouraged me to prepare a third edition of Written in Stone. There is a good reason for not doing so at the present time: Such an edition, at least at this time, would have to be published in a loose-leaf version! As I prepare my syllabus for the course this fall, I find myself revising it almost literally every day, as new actions are undertaken and arguments presented. Just this week, toward the end of June, 2020, for example, it appears very likely that Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia, will drop Robert E. Lee’s name, though, no doubt, some students, both African-American and white, might at least wonder why the slaveowning George Washington deserves continued honor.

And Princeton University, after deciding in 2018 to retain Woodrow Wilson’s name for its eminent School of Public Affairs, announced that it would drop it. Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post explaining his own change of mind. Eisgruber took note of “Wilson’s genuine achievements,” not to mention his centrality to the development of Princeton because of his service as one of Eisgruber’s predecessors. Wilson, therefore, “is a far different figure than John C. Calhoun or Robert E. Lee, people whose pro-slavery commitments defined their careers and who were sometimes honored for the purpose of supporting segregation or racism. Princeton honored Wilson without regard to, and perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism.” Eisgruber now believes that “ignorance” was “precisely the problem. Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored and turned a blind eye to racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against black people….”  There is nothing innocent about naming programs or buildings. “When a university names its public policy school for a political leader, it inevitably offers the honoree as a role model for its students. However grand some of Wilson’s achievements may have been, his racism disqualifies him from that role.” It is no longer possible to “disregard or ignore racism when deciding whom we hold up to our students as heroes or role models…. Our commitment to eliminate racism must be unequivocal, and that is why we removed the name of Princeton’s modern-day founder from its School of Public and International Affairs.”

Fortunately, Written in Stone, especially in its expanded second edition, pays extended attention to a number of analyses of policies about monuments that were prepared at a variety of universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, and the University of Texas, as well as by a special committee appointed by the Mayor of New York. I also treat at length an absolutely remarkable speech by former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu explaining his decision to remove a number of Confederate statues from the city’s public space, including the aforementioned one of Robert E. Lee.

At the present time, there are two central issues at the forefront of the controversy over monuments and memorialization. First, who exactly deserves the kind of public honor that is conveyed, say, by a statue in front of a major public building? In New York City, for example, a statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of the New York Museum of Natural History that was explicitly considered by the Mayor’s Committee, which recommended against removing it, has now been slated for removal because it demeans African- and Native-Americans in placing them in a decidedly subordinate position to Roosevelt atop his horse. Many statues of Christopher Columbus are being removed, not to mention, of course, the myriad of statues honoring those who took up arms against the United States in 1861-65 and vigorously advocated the maintenance of white supremacy (including lynchings) thereafter. Some of these examples seem quite easy to resolve. Others, as with Roosevelt, Columbus, or Woodrow Wilson, appear considerably more difficult.

But, especially to a lawyer like myself, a second important issue involves the process by which decisions to remove (or maintain) statues or to rename buildings or, as in Minnesota, lakes, should be made. Even if one heartily approves, for example, of attempts to remove the slaveowning and anti-Native American Andrew Jackson’s statue from Lafayette Park, in Washington, one can, at the same time, be disturbed if that decision, in effect, is made by demonstrators (or, as some people might describe them, a “mob”). It is not simply that a structured process would give people an opportunity to make a variety of conflicting arguments, with the final decision made by bodies ranging from a city council to the voters in a local referendum; rather, it is almost certainly also the case that the losers who might lament the demotion of their own “heroes” from the public square might at least feel somewhat mollified if they felt they had a fair opportunity to make their arguments and they lost “fair and square.”

Q&A with Alex Blanchette

Alex Blanchette is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Tufts University and coeditor of How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet. In his newest book, Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm, Blanchette explores how the daily lives of a Midwestern town that is home to a massive pork complex were reorganized around the life and death cycles of pigs while using the factory farm as a way to detail the state of contemporary American industrial capitalism.

How did this project start? What first led you to study the industrialized agrarian town you call Dixon in the book, which residents refer to as one of “the red meat capital[s] of the world?”

The gist is that I wanted to live in what is arguably the most “industrialized” of American industrial meat towns. Porkopolis started as a doctoral dissertation in the mid-2000s. At that time, the area where I grew up was seeing (in retrospect, relatively modest) growth in confinement animal agriculture. One impetus for the research was to inhabit a possible future for my home region. Agribusiness corporations in Dixon birthed and killed about 7,000,000 hogs per year through the labor of some 5,000 people. They were amongst the most vertically integrated meat production facilities—meaning that they control and derive profit from every stage of the species’ life and death, from genetics facilities all the way to bone-rendering plants. And they purported to be generating the world’s most uniform animal at scale. These companies appeared to be expressing a teleology for the future of agricultural capitalism. They were claiming viable paths for the renewed industrialization of an organism that already bears the weight of some 150 years of accumulated industrial engineering. This opened up the question of what labor with these overworked animals tells us about the very old yet ongoing intensification of industrial processes in swathes of a supposedly ‘post-industrial’ United States. And it is how I ultimately arrived at the ethnographic method and terms of critique that Porkopolis develops. Rather than a typical meat exposé that paints these places and the people who work within them as morally deviant or exceptional from American norms, the book moves across the modern hog’s life and death to examine fledgling workplace struggles and the consequences of trying to find new value in an intensely-valued organism. It takes hog life as an icon of our exhausted late industrial present.

Many studies of industrial farming focus on the harm caused to either the animals or the workers. You argue that the factory creates a “human-pig entanglement” with wide-reaching implications. How are humans in the factory managed in relation to pigs’ needs?

Ethnographic research taught me that centering analytical focus on either “human” or “animal” well-being has become a tough distinction to maintain. The states of human labor and hog bodies are intertwined in these agribusinesses. And though they are presently conjoined to mobilize projects for industrial growth, it also presents the possibility of political interventions that do not see human and animal interests as antithetical.  Most simply, making uniform hogs at scale—for branding purposes, or for increasing line speeds at the kill stage—has come to require a lot of specialized work. Whether it is someone who exclusively works on intensifying hog instincts in artificial insemination, or someone who makes 10,000 repetitive cuts of the left shoulder every day, realizing more standardized hog bodies requires some people to gain unique, intimate, and even potentially radical knowledge of particular dimensions of swine. 

Yet, further capitalizing on animal bodies—while maintaining existing scales of concentration—has also led to attempts to remake human life and labor. For instance, managers felt compelled to intervene in employees’ living arrangements outside of work to reduce the risk of hog diseases from the slaughterhouse transferring across human bodies and infecting barns of pigs. Taken-for-granted forms of nuclear kinship and household-making practices were becoming threats in terms of their effects on pig proliferation. This led companies to enact forms of social distancing ideals to protect hog growth, well before this practice became a common term to protect human health in the wake of COVID-19. Conversely, the very physical composition of the hog, I would argue, is inseparable from the state of rural labor. Using pig genetics that are very fecund but also biophysically fragile necessitates a lot of work to care for and regularize piglet bodies. The sustenance of these capitalist pigs requires low-paid (yet knowledgeable) labor. I do not think we can easily separate racial projects to further cheapen labor today from how industrial animals physically appear on farms. A constellation of things—precarity-making squads such as ICE, discourses that frame everyone working on farms as “unskilled,” or outdated policy that makes it difficult for farmworkers to unionize—can be seen to be manifesting within the very diminished qualities of pigs’ muscle fibers.

Modern capitalism assures that every part of the pig is used to create over 1,000 product codes. What are the ethical implications of this for people who object to the factory farming system?

By the end of Porkopolis, one of the points that I emphasize is that we have paid insufficient attention to the ways that capitalist slaughter, for a very long time, has built its margins and profit by developing commodities that arch far beyond food. A factor that underlies the remarkably cheap American meat of today is all of the other non-meat products made from hog bodies. These range from pet food flavorings, to various kinds of adhesives and infrastructural materials, to fat converted into biodiesel, and to a series of biomedical drugs derived from animal organs. Even though this is not new—the early 20th century Chicago meatpackers said they used “everything but the squeal”—it remains an ongoing process as companies try to achieve growth by disassembling hogs in more precise and diverse ways, creating new economic claims on animal biology. 

This is often greeted as a neutral matter of economic rationality, or even as a laudable act of stewardship by limiting “waste.” Yet, efforts to find more “sustainable” ways to transform excess biological material into commodities also have the effect of sustaining this system of corralling and taking life, making society as a whole more dependent on these facilities. A consequence is that it has become difficult to go about one’s everyday activities without being in contact with processed hog particles in infrastructure and the built environment. Amidst discussions that exalt the market as a space where we can (and must!) make ethical choices, there have been parallel efforts to turn the conduct of our everyday lives into a minor subsidy to meat. I think that it is important to at least politicize these kinds of processes. Minimally, it would reveal how much science and knowledge is expended to develop this unending array of products—the sheer amount of human creativity diverted to maintain industrial animal growth.

Slaughterhouses have become hotspots for COVID-19 across the United States. Does your research on human-animal relations have anything to add to our current moment?

The moral, economic, and biophysical pressures being foisted onto people who work in slaughterhouses across the United States are unfathomable. Not only does Donald Trump’s invocation of the Defense Production Act mark an attempt to limit corporations’ legal liability for sickening workers. We even see governors going further to deflect moral culpability from agribusiness by making absurd racist claims that outbreaks across slaughterhouses result from the social lives of immigrants rather than cramped, refrigerated warehouses where 150 years of obsessive industrial refinement ensure that every square inch is dedicated to maximizing output and labor productivity. From workers being denied bathroom breaks on the line because these systems cannot “accommodate” the bladder, to companies compelled to include the cost of injuries in their profit model, the human body was a (largely ignored) problem of production for this system long before COVID-19 threatened to make meat less plentiful. One of the points of Porkopolis is that so-called efficiency itself has long been out of control on American meatpacking lines. Increased efficiency is synonymous with physical violence. Hogs’ bodies are standardized across their lifetimes through quasi-invasive labor to intensify line speeds via simplified repetitive motions at their death—leading to harmful and painful burdens on the tendons of workers as they make thousands of cuts.

 But this new moment has also started to expose the vulnerabilities of unending productivity, and we are witnessing things that were rare in the 2010s. There are protests in packinghouse parking lots, and calls for boycotts of meat from worker advocacy organizations. Children of people who work in slaughterhouses are coming together to refuse the idea that their parents should risk their lives for a livelihood—or for meat. Our analyses should try to follow the lead of these emerging voices, activists, and demands.  

So I will just make a narrow point for further context on why the use of the Defense Production Act for meat is so troubling. These models have evolved to the point where agribusinesses deploy (and exploit) labor to monopolize all known money in the porcine species. We might say that these companies are totalizing because they are fragile: they are trying to realize value under low profit margins (that they helped create). But they are also fragile because they are so totalizing: they require so many distinct labor processes to create new niches of profitable pork and animal products, and maintain their model. The sheer quantity of people working in modern slaughterhouses is a reflection of this totalization, as people carve animals into ever-finer sale-ready pieces in acts of labor that would have, a couple generations ago, been done by urban butchers in a less concentrated value chain. Loins injected with flavoring. Shoulders sliced thinly for higher-margin export. The working and reworking of skeletons. The issue is not only that slaughterhouses have become so large that single plants ship 5% of the national pork supply. It is also how the unending search for more value and value-added products packs more people into refrigerated rooms. Invoking the Defense Production Act naturalizes and renders indistinguishable a wide array of labor processes under the label “meat.” I have read little state guidance—let alone regulatory force—on a host of things that could conceivably create space in these plants: mandating reduced daily slaughter capacity, slowing disassembly line speeds, barring certain value-added tasks, or even just cutting up animals less. Some of those things are happening due to a sheer shortage of labor, but the question is whether this industry can sustain them indefinitely. 

We should be questioning whether meat itself is essential, in this moment or otherwise. I do not believe it is. But what the DPA and its oppression of workers appears to be about is an effort to sustain cheap meat—and, further, a refusal to grant us even a moment of pause to question the social value and racial logics of industrial “efficiency.”

What is something you hope readers will take away from this in-depth account of factory farming in the United States? What kind of future research do you hope it might inspire?

This is an extension of what I said above. Despite the fact that I have encountered few people who think that contemporary animal agribusiness is a socio-ecological ideal or even a good thing, I am always struck by the social resources and imagination that is being marshalled every day to keep these institutions in the world. It is almost paradoxical: their late industrial vulnerability seems to call out for and invite people to help them. When these animal assemblages near collapse due to their own scale and concentration—during this pandemic, but also in many other moments such as when a hurricane event buries a community in manure—we tend to instantly see even ostensible critics proposing new inventions, fixes, or schemes to make them more tolerable. If we keep performing these institutions as indispensable, then the cumulative ideological effect is to block our ability to believe that there really are other viable and desirable ways of doing things. I hope that Porkopolis is a contribution to ongoing conversations on experimenting with alternative ways of more equitably working, living, and eating—but also of learning to effectively insist on the need to let some things go. 

Read the introduction to Porkopolis free online. Save 50% off this and all in-stock titles with coupon SPRING50 until May 25, 2020.

Always a Poster Girl for Just Causes, Mafalda Now Takes on COVID-19: A Guest Post by Isabella Cosse

Today’s guest post is by Isabella Cosse, an independent researcher for the National Science and Technology Research Council and the University of Buenos Aires. She is the author of numerous books, including Pareja, sexualidad y familia en los años sesenta and her new book, Mafalda: A Social and Political History of Latin America’s Global Comic. In Mafalda, Cosse examines the history, political commentary, and influence of the world-famous comic character Mafalda from her Argentine origins in 1964 to her global reach in the 1990s.

In Argentina, the government took drastic measures to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic early on. Despite an acute economic crisis, on March 19 the government decreed a mandatory nation-wide lock-down. The aim was to prepare the healthcare system while slowing down the spread of the virus. A month and a half later, with the national death toll at less than 300, there seems to be no doubt that this was the right strategy, especially when compared to the terrible situation faced by other countries where the government failed to take action in time.

That does not mean things have not been hard in Argentina. Nor that what lies ahead will be easy. The most vulnerable sectors of society are struggling just to cover their basic food needs, even with the aid provided by the government. Winter is only weeks away and when it finally arrives it will aggravate the situation. Wage-earners with a steady job and middle-class independent workers have also been hit by the effects of the pandemic, as they face a shrinking labor market and dwindling salaries in a context of mounting inflation. Tension and uncertainty dwell in every household. Conflicts and anxieties simmer just below the surface, ready to erupt at any moment.

As a way of dealing with the situation, people have taken to social media like never before. News on the virus and its effects naturally spread like wildfire, but so do memes and jokes. As in other crises, humor in its various forms makes it easier for us to navigate these hard times. It allows us to laugh at the tensions that we face on a daily basis, serving as a relief valve. As Freud said, humor acts on our emotional state, enabling us to look at something unpleasant and even painful through the lens of laughter, thus displacing unmanageable feelings of distress. It therefore helps process conflict, functioning as an effective coping mechanism.

A few days ago, it became mandatory for Argentines to wear face masks when leaving the house. This marked a new stage in the quarantine. Seeing people walking briskly down the street, with their faces covered up and carefully avoiding each other certainly presents a disheartening picture. In that grim context, Mafalda—Latin America’s most famous cartoon character—made the news. The people of Buenos Aires woke up one morning to find that the much-loved statue of this iconic character was sporting its own homemade face mask. An anonymous fan—one of the many among the legions of readers that the comic strip has garnered in its almost sixty years of existence—had decided that Mafalda had to make a statement in this new global crisis. And not just Mafalda, but her friends Susanita and Manolito as well, who flank her sides at a prudent distance, as if mindful of the current social distancing guidelines.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. In fact, since the very beginning, Mafalda has helped to channel the dilemmas faced by the comic strip’s readers. This wise-beyond-her-years little girl emerged as an expression of the antiestablishment generations of the sixties, reflecting on the changes that were shaking the foundations of social and family life at the time and speaking out against the many injustices in the world. And she did it with a witty and endearing humor.

Despite the character’s obvious social commitment and the fact that her readers have had no qualms about appropriating her as a symbol of what they consider a just cause, her creator, Joaquín Salvador Lavado (or Quino, as he is more widely known), has only very rarely given permission to use her in public campaigns. This, however, is one of those rare occasions. Mafalda now leads a group of popular cartoons featured in an awareness-raising effort launched by the government that also seeks to encourage Argentines and help them withstand the lockdown, just as it faces insistent calls from the opposition to lift the strict quarantine measures.

In the current crisis it is not surprising that Quino could be persuaded to lend his famous character for this effort. The historical moment we are living is one of great global uncertainty. But even if some suffer more than others, it is undeniable that the entire planet is afflicted. In the image chosen for the campaign, we see Mafalda caring for a bandaged globe as if it were a sick child. That strip, which was originally drawn as a reflection on the problems of humanity, now expresses the current state of the world almost literally. As in the past, this crisis—the ways to face it and the effects it has—entails political disputes on a transnational scale, and humor can not only help relieve our anxieties, it can also contribute to shape a common identity, one that takes on the responsibility of caring for the world and all its inhabitants.

Mafalda, and all in-stock Duke University Press titles, are available for 50% off during our Spring Sale with coupon SPRING50.

The Virus in Detroit: A May Day Post by Philip Conklin and Mark Jay

For May Day, here’s a guest post by Philip Conklin and Mark Jay, authors of the new book A People’s History of Detroit, which uses a class framework to tell a sweeping story of Detroit from 1913 to the present. 

Peoples History of DetroitSince the outbreak of the coronavirus, two notable strikes took place in the Detroit area. On March 17, bus drivers from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 walked off the job in protest of fatal work conditions, shutting down Detroit’s public transit system. Among the workers’ complaints were unhygienic buses, lack of access to rest rooms, and forced close proximity to maskless passengers. Detroit is the poorest large city in the US, and due in part to the high cost of auto insurance more than a third of Detroiters can’t afford a car; the result is that, even as the pandemic ravages the city, hundreds of thousands of Detroiters are forced to rely on the underfunded, overcrowded bus system to get around. “This is death walking around here,” Roderick Nash, a city bus driver, said. “And nobody’s taking it serious.” The city government responded to the strike by suspending bus fare collection during the pandemic to limit passengers’ interaction with drivers, providing masks for passengers, and making more toilets (including porta potties) available for drivers. But days after the strike, drivers reported that conditions remained unsafe, with passengers still lacking access to masks. The government’s safety measures came too late for Jason Hargrove, a city driver who, just days after posting a video on social media complaining about safety conditions on his bus, died of coronavirus.

Two weeks after the bus drivers’ strike, 40 workers at an Amazon warehouse in nearby Romulus launched a protest action of their own. According to organizer Mario Crippen, Amazon treats their employees as “expendable.” “It’s a scary, scary place to be right now,” Crippen said. “There’s no hand sanitizer, no face masks given out. We’re limited on glove use. . . . They’re not worried about anyone’s safety, they’re worried about shipping out packages.” Amazon responded to a similar strike in Staten Island by firing the lead organizer and deriding him as “not smart.” Following a precedent set by Henry Ford a century ago, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has decided it’s simply better business to deploy harsh union-busting tactics than to acquiesce to the basic, humane demands of his workers.

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As we argue in our A People’s History of Detroit, Detroit has long served as a metonym for the myths and fantasies of urban life in the United States, a sort of endlessly generative symbolic backdrop for our national unconscious—from the industrial miracles of the early 20th century, when Detroit was the manufacturing hub of the world and the birthplace of the manufacturing middle class, to the deindustrialized landscape of poverty, crime, and decay from the latter third of the 20th century up to the present—or, rather, the recent past. Now, Detroit is being hailed as the “greatest turnaround story in American history,” as billions of dollars of real estate investments transform the derelict cityscape into an urban playground of consumption, entertainment, and white-collar industry. In light of this “funhouse mirror” effect (to quote local celebrity journalist Charlie LeDuff), one might wonder, what can the Motor City tell us about the coronavirus epidemic? Indeed, Detroit has also magnified the problems of this virus, as Michigan falls just behind New York and New Jersey in COVID fatality rates, with Detroit tallying 35 deaths per day in early April.

Crises, however universal they appear, have unequal effects, which reflect the inequalities of society more broadly. Much like “natural” disasters, epidemiological ones hit hardest among the most vulnerable sections of the population. On the other hand, crises can also serve as catalysts for coordinated action on the part of these groups. Detroit autoworkers took advantage of the high demand for labor during World War II to jockey for better working conditions at the notoriously dangerous and enervating auto factories that had been converted to produce military equipment, striking despite a nationwide strike ban negotiated by union leaders and government officials behind the backs of the rank-and-file. In early 1944 Detroit workers averaged a dozen strikes per week, making the Motor City the leading center of workplace militancy. That year one workplace death, five amputations, and one hundred serious injuries occurred per day in Michigan.

The two recent labor actions in Detroit highlight a similar dynamic of workplace unsafety and worker power during crises—the essential difference now is the severity of generalized precarity among the working classes. Amazon warehouses are particularly illustrative of the current situation. The corporation has opened several massive “distribution centers” in the Detroit area in recent years. Employees inside these behemoths have denounced their “inhumane” working conditions, decrying the company’s union-busting techniques, as well as productivity standards that force people to stay on their feet all day long and leave no time for bathroom breaks. One undercover reporter described “employees collapsing at work, suffering panic attacks, pulling muscles and more.” Even in the midst of the pandemic, Amazon continues to hire workers for its Metro Detroit warehouses, despite workers’ insistence that the work they’re doing is not essential. “People are ordering the same stuff as usual,” one employee who took part in the strike explained. “If it was purely medical supplies and if Amazon actually stepped up and did that then I’d be much more willing to put myself [on what feels like] the front lines because we get stuff from everywhere, but that’s not what’s going on. . . . It’s people ordering the same cat litter, toys, ramen noodles.” According to another worker, “We aren’t heroes and we aren’t Red Cross workers—we are working people who pack and deliver goods. We’re working through a crisis not by choice but by necessity.”

Although most of the media coverage surrounding these and other workplace concerns have understandably focused on the particulars of the coronavirus, it’s important to bear in mind that deadly work conditions and worker “expendability” are nothing new in Detroit. If there is an abiding truth of the past 100 years of Detroit’s history, it is this: the city’s prosperity is built on its workers, and its hardships have likewise been borne by them. And a cursory glance through the annals of the modern Motor City shows the high cost even of this “prosperity,” which at every turn was wrenched from the living grasp of labor.

A 1973 report by the US Department of Labor found that significantly more people died each year inside U.S. factories than on the battlefields in Vietnam. The report “estimated 65 on-the-job deaths per day among auto workers, for a total of some 16,000 annually.” These deaths pale in comparison to the toll of industrial diseases, which the Public Health Service estimated took a remarkable 100,000 lives each year at this time. Foundry workers, machinists, and coarse-metal finishers were at significantly greater risk of fatal heart disease and lung disease than other workers. These were the jobs that Detroit’s black workers were primarily assigned, making the city’s black population particularly vulnerable to premature death—just as black workers and those living near polluting factories are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus today.

In their struggle for safe and dignified living conditions, Detroit activists have not only come up against profiteering businesses, but also governments who have slashed public programs and the social safety net in favor of subsidies to these same businesses. For decades, organizers such as Maureen Taylor and Marian Kramer, have been leading the struggle for a universal living wage and adequate healthcare for impoverished Detroiters. If their basic demands had been met, non-essential workers would not have to risk their lives by getting on the bus each day to get to degrading, underpaid jobs throughout the metro area. But instead, tax breaks for big business and austerity for the masses have been the order of the day, compounding the devastation of the COVID-19 crisis.

To get a sense of the government’s priorities, consider the fact that in recent years, the Detroit government spent $547 per capita on police, whereas, throughout Michigan, per capita spending on food stamps was $22, and per capita spending on public health was less than $13.

Across the country, and the world, urban landscapes have been vacated to stop the spread of coronavirus, with images circulating online showing abandoned streets in usually bustling areas. The eerie emptiness of tourist traps and national landmarks is enough to spook even a nonbeliever. But ghostly landscapes are nothing new in Detroit. A New York Times writer recalled being “unnerved” by the emptiness of Detroit’s downtown back in 2001. “It felt like the beginning of a zombie apocalypse movie,” he wrote.

Starting in the 1940s, the “Big 3” auto companies fled Detroit precipitously, first to the suburbs, then increasingly to low-wage areas across the world. By the late 20th century, after decades of federal cutbacks and failed initiatives to lure investment to the Motor City, signs of this corporate abandonment were unmistakable. This dramatic situation led to a range of competing visions for the future Detroit.

One vision was to make the city a spectral theme park of decay. Camilo Jose Vergara, the famous Chilean photojournalist and author of American Ruins, made the following suggestion for Detroit in the April 1995 edition of the leading architectural magazine Metropolis: “As a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers [should] be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis…Midwestern prairie would be allowed to invade from the north. Trees, vines, and wildflowers would grow on roofs and out of windows; goats and wild animals—squirrels, possum, bats, owls, ravens, snakes and insects—would live in the empty behemoths, adding their calls, hoots, and screeches to the smell of rotten leaves and animal droppings.” Coronavirus has given us a glimpse of this dramatic vision, as animals have ventured into urban spaces formerly occupied by humans.

Against this fetishization of decay, a second vision for Detroit’s future was proposed by the late activist Grace Lee Boggs, who saw in Detroit’s abandonment the seedbed of revolution. Boggs was inspired by the fact that, as Detroit hollowed out, activists were responding in a myriad of inspirational ways, by repurposing vacant buildings, creating communes, community schools, starting small businesses, and planting urban farms:

Detroit, which was once the symbol of miracles of industrialization and then became the symbol of the devastation of deindustrialization, is now the symbol of a new kind of society, of people who grow their own food, of people who try and help each other . . . When you look out and all you see is vacant lots, when all you see is devastation, when all you see—do you look at it as a curse, or do you look at it as a possibility, as having potential?

Boggs’s vision is a powerful one; but it was not only activists who saw potential in the city’s emptiness. “Detroit has bottomed out,” Dan Gilbert’s business partner John Linkner wrote in Forbes in 2012, “so now, there’s nothing but upside.” In recent years, investors have pounced. Gilbert has led the way, purchasing around 100 buildings in the city, making him the owner of more than half of downtown Detroit. Even after Gilbert wrangled hundreds of millions in government subsidies, at one point even threatening to move his company QuickenLoans to Cleveland, the corporate media has hailed Gilbert’s efforts. The Atlantic wondered if he was “Detroit’s New Superhero,” while the New York Times called him a “missionary.”

Repudiating Vargas’s American Acropolis, companies and wealthy individuals are buying up the quintessential subjects of ruin porn photography to enact their own vision. And there is no more dramatic ruin than Michigan Central Station, which, when it was built in 1913, was the tallest train station in the world. Closed in 1988, the abandoned train station has for decades been a mecca for urban spelunkers, the subject of myriad investigative reports, and a go-to backdrop for post-apocalyptic Hollywood action films. Now, in an almost too-perfect metaphor for the current remaking of Detroit, Ford plans to turn the train station and its surrounding area into a 1.2 million-square-foot “innovation hub” geared toward “mobility solutions that will shape the future of transportation.” According to a local columnist, “Ford’s act of faith in Detroit’s future with the enormous investment it will bring signals a new era.… From now on, redevelopment will occur as the natural and expected outcome in a city once again on the move.” Corporate investment is seen by those in power as the solution to Detroit’s abandonment. But even while these investments have failed to address the needs of poor Detroiters, the coronavirus epidemic has shown just how fragile this “solution” is even for those on the receiving end of its benefits.

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As workers in Detroit, and around the world, protest against deadly workplace conditions, capitalists are using the crisis as an excuse to justify automation. This is nothing new. There is a long history of capitalists using worker protests against inhumane conditions as a pretext to invest in labor-saving technology, leading to unemployment and an increasingly hectic pace of work, as human labor is forced to adapt to “the inhuman speed of the machine.” Under the banner of public health, the current wave of automation is sure to reproduce these same effects, barring coordinated government intervention or a robust response from workers’ movements.

As people around the world attempt to maintain their work and their lives during the pandemic, they are forced to find creative ways to adapt to the limitations imposed by the crisis. While the ensuing innovations are an encouraging sign of our collective imagination and resilience, one can’t help but wonder whether these adaptations will serve to further the encroachment of labor-saving technology into new realms. To give just one example, academic workers are being forced to find ways to provide instruction virtually. This happens amidst an already prevalent trend toward online education; as the CEO of online learning platform Coursera has explained, “The current crisis will accelerate this trend.” The implications for the casualization of academic labor attendant to this trend are already being felt. At UC Santa Cruz, the pandemic hit in the middle of a months-long labor action by underpaid graduate student workers, and the move to a virtual learning and working environment has undermined their ability to withhold their labor and to disrupt the functioning of the university, which insists on “business as usual” during the pandemic.

What first appear as “innovations” and “creative adaptations” to the pandemic, take on another valence: they are forced accommodations to a “leaner”, more exploitative regime of capital accumulation. In effect, workers are being compelled to participate in their own devaluation. In the last half-century, political elites of deindustrialized American cities dealt with its growing “surplus population” and the recalcitrance of radical labor activists by hounding them with police and throwing them in prison. With millions more workers slated for redundancy as the coronavirus accelerates automation, and amidst unprecedented (and ever-increasing) ecological catastrophe which threatens humans and ecosystems across the globe, we shudder to think how the coming crises will be resolved.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the fault lines of our unequal society, it’s no wonder that Detroit, which has long been a benchmark of the extremes of urban life in America, has been hit harder than most cities by the coronavirus, and also had already evinced many of the crisis tendencies wrought by this virus. Deadly working conditions, abandoned urban landscapes, structural unemployment due to automation, and extreme precarity—these have been the order of the day in Detroit for the better part of the last 100 years, coronavirus or not. Today in Detroit, a corporate revival is hailed as the answer to the city’s protracted decline, but this has proved tenuous for the Detroiters hardest hit by recent dispossessions. Even as the New York Times acknowledged that “there are no real assurances that gains will be spread democratically across the city, or that city planning and public resources will serve the needs of everyday Detroiters,” it found solace in the vague “hope . . . that private individuals will keep the greater good in mind.” If this hope seemed far-fetched before, in the midst of the devastations wrought by COVID-19 it now appears so remote as to appear ridiculous.

Leaving aside the fact that a primary source of pandemics lies in the ravages of the capitalist system, we can see that COVID-19 is an accelerator of global capital’s rampaging devastations. However, like other crises, it also presents an opportunity for workers to assert their power, for the animation of our political imaginary, and for a radical restructuring of society’s priorities. 52 years ago tomorrow, May 2, 1968, 4,000 workers walked off the job in protest of deadly conditions at the Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck. DRUM’s actions inspired dozens of other anti-capitalist unions to form across the city, and they all eventually coalesced into the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, an organization committed to challenging the power of the “parasitic, cannibalistic, vulturistic corporate elites who ruled Detroit. If the latter continue to have their way, crisis will remain the norm for most Detroiters.

Mark Jay is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Philip Conklin is a PhD student in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After attending the University of Michigan, they met while working as tutors in Detroit public schools. They lived and worked in Detroit for about seven years, during which time they founded a small literary magazine and continued their work with Detroit’s youth. A People’s History of Detroit is available for 50% off during our Spring Sale with coupon SPRING50.

Q&A with Frédéric Keck, Author of Avian Reservoirs

Keck, FredericFrédéric Keck is Senior Researcher at CNRS, director of the Laboratory for Social Anthropology in Paris, coeditor of The Anthropology of Epidemics, and author of several books in French. His newest book is Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts, which is freely available until June 1, 2020 in our Navigating the Threat of Pandemic syllabus. The following interview originally ran in French in Philosophie Magazine and was translated by Dan Hicks.

A coronavirus transmitted from a bat to a pangolin at a wet market in Wuhan, and then to humans all over the world: what does this mean to you?

We are living in a changed world, but Europe has only just realized this with COVID-19. China and what I call its “sentinel posts”—Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore—have known this for some time. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, which was also caused by a coronavirus, these countries invested massively in virology research and in technologies to detect, screen and monitor populations to prepare for a crisis like this one. Chinese researchers were expecting a virus causing a respiratory disease to be transmitted from bats. After the initial three weeks at the end of December and up to mid-January, the Wuhan authorities controlled the epidemic, and they did what they had to do, according to the WHO report of 28 February. In Europe we simply refused to imagine this could happen to us. Little affected by SARS, Europe just didn’t understand the global shift that it caused—the fact that China has controlled pandemics not only on its own territory but also at the global level, and the fact that the Chinese authorities have influenced the nomination of the head of the World Health Organization after 2006. Europe doesn’t just lack the equipment to deal with the pandemic: we lack the imagination to understand what’s happening to us.

Can you say more about what you mean when you say that Europe lacks the imagination needed to prepare for pandemics ?

Avian ReservoirsIn Europe, public health is based on prevention not preparation. It’s led by nation states within defined territories, as with vaccination against tuberculosis or smallpox. But viral infectious diseases require global preparedness, swift detection, and containment. In the 1990s with avian flu, Chinese societies learned that this is about preparing for a catastrophic outbreak, with “sentinel” chickens in poultry farms, simulations of pandemics in hospitals, and stockpiling masks, vaccines and antivirals by national states and multinational companies. Back then, American strategies for anticipating nuclear attack was one model, but there are others: Japan has the frame of earthquakes; France has that of industrial action—preparing for a strike. The point is that industrial strike, an epidemic outbreak, an earthquake are catastrophic events which halt economic activity—they requires different forms of preparedness.

Can you tell me about the analogies you make between Chinese preparedness and hunter-gatherer societies, andbetween European “prevention” strategies with the world of pastoralism?

We can see virologists as “hunters” of microbes or viruses. That’s why they get along well with ornithologists, who also operate by tracking. The anthropology of hunter-gatherer societies allows us to reassess this figure of the hunter-tracker. The virologist isn’t just someone who observes invisible wild entities under the microscope: more than that, they seek to adopt the point of view of birds, bats, and monkeys. The virus is a warning signal that affects animals; the “hunter” follows its transmission from birds to pigs to humans, or bats to pangolins to humans. This tracking is a kind of “hunting,” and it sees uncertainty in relationships with animals. That which is hunted can also kill.

So, the hunting relationship is reversible. But pastoralism relies on what Foucault called biopolitics. Shepherds control their flocks, decide which animals are cared for, which killed or sacrificed to protect the herd. Biopolitics is the power to ‘make live’ and to let die. Now, this was Boris Johnson’s initial approach in the UK—on which he’s now reneging because it was of course an indefensible plan: to let the virus spread and to have 400,000 deaths among the old, the weak and the poor while city traders survive, with it all costing the smallest possible sum of money! Pastoralism made the modern state possible. That state is based on what I’m calling “prevention.” So today epidemiology and public health is on the side of the pastoralists.

Are we not obliged to use ‘pastoralist’ techniques when the pandemic is here ?

There is a middle ground between hunting and pastoral care, preparation and prevention: which I call “precaution.” Taken to its logical conclusion, pastoral care requires acts of sacrifice. It assumes that people must die since the most important thing is to maintain the health of the population as a whole – the so-called “herd.” But in contrast, Taiwan and Singapore quickly tracked down the virus and confined it, like hunters. Now of course if a “hunting” approach is applied badly or too late it becomes just precaution: it identifies maximum risk and shuts everything down. With “mad cows” and chickens with avian flu, all of a farm’s livestock were slaughtered if one animal was infected. Now we are the ones who are collectively confined.

What does this pandemic reveal about our relationships with animals ?

Since the 1970s, the ecology of infectious diseases, with major thinkers such as René Dubos and Frank Macfarlane Burnet, has been warning us that nature can “strike back.” Virologists have tracked Ebola (in 1976, from bats in Central Africa), AIDS (1981, from monkeys), mad cow disease (1996, cattle), avian flu (1997, chickens/migratory birds), SARS (2003, bats) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-CoV in Saudi Arabia (2012, camels). Then there’s what’s in store from the world of insects: Dengue fever, transmitted by mosquitoes, is at the gates of Europe; in 5 years we may have to adopt containment measures against that! Every four or five years a new disease emerges which comes from animals, against which we have no immunity, no vaccine.

So this is a kind of “revenge” of nature ?

Not quite. In my work, I reframe Jared Diamond’s idea of diseases of domestication. In my view, the 1970s witnessed a revolution as profound as the Neolithic revolution: industrial animal husbandry and its corollary, globalization of trade, have produced new diseases  because the relationship between humans and animals has been totally overturned.

But bats and pangolins are wild animals.

The geographies of diseases today no longer just involve places where humans and animals live together, as in the case of domestication, but to the unpredictable movements that come with industrial livestock farming, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and climate change. The “wild” has been dislodged and is forced to find other niches, including in urban areas. We Europeans have been “good shepherds,” and pastoralism has enabled us to deal with the diseases of the Neolithic period. But now we have to become hunter-gatherers again.

What kind of world is emerging out of COVID-19 ?

In the middle of a deeply unpredictable crisis, what’s certain is that China is ahead of Europe. Not because of a dictatorship capable of confining its population authoritatively and without resistance, but because of the experience of health disasters in China and in East Asia more generally. My argument is anthropological. We find it difficult to face our fear of disease-transmitting animals because we believe in a firm divide between nature and culture. Our “naturalist liberalism,” which has already done such a lot of harm to the planet, now needs to learn some humility.

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Cabin Fever: Trapped Onboard the Last Ships at Sea: A Guest Post by Eric Paul Roorda

Near the end of his own stormy passage through life, Mark Twain began an untitled story that he never finished. Its setting was an endless voyage on a sea teeming with terrors, such as the “spider-squid,” which surfaced to snatch the captain’s little boy from the deck of the ship. As it turns out, the vessel is microscopic, plowing through an ocean-like drop of liquid on a slide, under a microscope. The sea monsters that menace it are such miniscule horrors as bacteria and viruses.

Today, a version of that nightmare has come to life onboard ships—containerships, oil tankers, cruise ships—among crew members and passengers alike, who find themselves virtually imprisoned.

Merchant ships continue to circulate around the globe, maintaining the tenuous international supply lines. From one port of call to another, cranes unload thousands of truck-sized boxes full of products from containerships, and pumps fill-up and empty-out tankers, but the mariners working on those ships are not permitted to disembark. The March 26 New York Times cited a single example: an oil tanker manned by eight sailors, plying from China to Singapore to Sri Lanka, due to go on to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with each destination having in common a prohibition against anyone coming ashore.

That means that workers on merchant ships, even those who have fulfilled their contractual terms of labor, are forced to continue doing their duty indefinitely. An estimated 150,000 individuals, mainly from the Philippines, China, India, Indonesia, Ukraine and Russia, find themselves in a nether-region of un-free employment. They have no options other than to toil on, seven days a week, for monthly pay ranging from $400 to $1,000 for ordinary seamen. Officers make more, up to $10,000 per month, but they have the same chance of going home as the greenest oil wiper: zero.

How long can that last? The situation resembles the customary abuse of maritime labor that prevailed in the 19th century, which the Supreme Court approved in its 1897 ruling in Robertson v. Baldwin, known as the Arago decision, after the name of a ship from which four sailors deserted due to brutal treatment. In that case, the justices found that the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, did not apply to mariners! This form of legalized exploitation of workers endured until the Merchant Marine Act of 1915, which afforded American sailors some basic protections. But many countries have never promulgated such a measure, leaving their seagoing citizens prey to conditions of pseudo-slavery, in particular in the outlaw world of commercial fishing in international waters.

Now, the international community is collectively shrugging and acquiescing to this backward leap in workers’ rights. Global demand for the goods the ships deliver outweighs the world’s regard for the people who deliver them.

Cruise ships have had to return to port and stay put, but there are stragglers still out there. One of them has become a disaster zone—Holland America Line’s Zaandam. The ship inexplicably left for a cruise from Argentina to Chile on March 7, more than a month after Princess Line’s Diamond Princess imported COVID-19 to Yokohama, Japan, and at the same time the Grand Princess was bobbing about fifty miles off the Golden Gate, trying to deal with an outbreak of the disease. The Zaandam left Buenos Aires just the day before the State Department’s tardy warning against such herding onto artificial islands (which cruise ships are). It got as far as the Strait of Magellan, where those among the 1,243 guests who were ambulatory went ashore to see the faded grandeur of Punta Arenas, while most of the 586 crew members cleaned their rooms, prepared their food, and maintained the manifold operations of the ship. That was their last port of call. That was March 14. The cruise was supposed to end on March 21.

Since then, Zaandam has made its way up the west coast of South America, from one potential refuge to another, denied entry to all of them, while the deadly novel coronavirus has spread throughout the ship, without discrimination, from roomy penthouses to kennel-like crew quarters. Zaandam reached the Panama Canal with four corpses in a walk-in refrigerator. Another 138 people had reported feeling sick—53 paying “guests” and 85 employees. Two of them had tested positive for the coronavirus in the brief interim since test kits arrived on the ship.

After an initial delay, Zaandam gained permission to transit the isthmian passage, but now has been denied entry into any port in Florida.

Holland America Line is a cruise industry cliché—it caters to the most elderly segment of the market. It is the Geriatric American Line. Anyone a few years short of qualifying for Medicare will feel like a young whipper-snapper on a HAL cruise.

HAL’s Zaandam is a huge ark of wealthy, vulnerable elderly, and relatively penniless, vulnerable servants.

Micky Arison is the Chairman of Carnival Corporation, which his father founded and ran for decades, before expatriating himself, along with his vast, virtually untaxed wealth. Carnival includes a dozen brands, including Princess and HAL.

Micky Arison failed to bring his fleets to port before the inevitable nightmare scenario came to pass—that COVID-19 would hijack a cruise ship like a legion of invisible pirates. While that was happening, Arison offered the idled vessels of Carnival Corp. to the federal government, for use as hospitals—charging a rental fee to cover costs. The president has praised Arison’s proposal as a patriotic, selfless gesture.

In truth, the audacity of Arison’s gambit to salvage revenue at this moment of crisis defies description, if not divine judgment.

In the meantime, Holland America Line’s Zaandam has reached Miami, with nine people onboard having tested positive for COVID, and another 200 showing symptoms, and those four corpses still onboard, maybe in the freezer by now. The Carnival Corp. COO has called Florida its “port of last resort.” At this writing, Governor Ron DeSantis is denying Zaandam’s bid to find shelter in this viral storm. In the interim, the chorus of coughing along its narrow corridors grows louder, coming from behind more and more closed doors, with every passing hour…

Eric Paul Roorda is the editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics. He is a Professor of History at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, where he specializes in the diplomatic and naval history of  the Caribbean Sea. During the summer, he directs the Munson Institute graduate program in Maritime Studies at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut. He regularly lectures on cruises on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager. He is the author of The Dictator Next Door and co-editor of The Dominican Republic Reader, both also published by Duke University Press.

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The Plague, A Guest Post by Amy Laura Hall

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Amy Laura Hall is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University Divinity School. She is the author of Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich.

I am writing from Texas. It is Lent, and I am surrounded by Christmas decorations that need to be sorted. My mom, the amazing Carol Hall, teacher of generations of West Texas teens, had her heart cut open and her brain rudely interrupted as the great plague of 2020 began. She suffered a heart-attack and stroke the last week of January.

My dad, the amazing Reverend Robert Hall, has been married to my mom for more decades than I’ve been alive. I do not understand them. Their love confuses me. They have developed a means of communicating that I imagine as a geriatric version of the cant that twins are rumored to have. I’ve been intruding on them regularly since the crisis. Today, I just wanted to go to the grocery store.

Cedar Park, Texas was a small town a half hour from Austin. Now it is Nordstrom Rack, Hobby Lobby, local barbecue, old-timers remembering before Lakeline Mall, and multi-generational families speaking another language. We all exist outside AUSTIN, TEXAS, travel destination of the stars. South by Southwest, now an international phenomenon, was cancelled this year, due to the plague of 2020, and people who were already working three jobs for a living are driving through Cedar Park trying to figure out how to make ends meet. And everyone is converging on their H.E.B.

If you are reading this from North Carolina, H.E.B. is the Piggly Wiggly of Texas. People are loyal to their local H.E.B., and, even if there are other spots to shop, I swear that Cedar Park people are going there for a sense of normalcy. Maybe that is projection. I have shopped there almost daily every visit. Back in North Carolina, I carry H.E.B. reusable shopping bags from each season as if they were Prada.

My mother’s car has a radio function that allows me to shift from the 1940s to the 1980s. I’ve been doing the Charleston to the Hustle between stop lights. Two refrains have stuck in my head. “The things we do for love.” And “Freak Out!”

Laughing at the Devil

I have rarely walked in the rain or the snow, but “the things we do for love” makes for good prayer. When dealing with depends and diapers and tampons and anything else that is “down there,” including all the dog poop I pick up when I am home with mutts, I sing, to myself, “The things we do for love . . .” Here in Cedar Park, this week, looking at all the people standing in line around the corner at the H.E.B., because the store management is doing their best, I thought, yes. The things we do for love.

Yesterday, facing the line around the corner, I gave up and went to buy barbecue at a place that shares the parking lot and has the name Moe. (I am afraid I will get the name wrong, but I recommend everything they serve.) I promised my dad I would not come within 4 feet of anyone. A man about my dad’s age saw me trying gently to avoid him and said “Don’t worry! I don’t have it!” No worries! I am also trying not to scare anyone by my mere presence! Then, over the radio, “Freak Out!”

The barbecue spot is small, and less than a dozen people were there. But we decided, awkwardly – from old Cedar Park and tattooed new Cedar Park, and with at least a few couples venturing to the Hill Country – that “Freak Out” could be a theme song for the great plague of 2020. At least a few of us danced. Mr. Moe, who I have never caught off-guard, cracked a smile.

Here is what I know for sure. It is Lent. I am trying to remember how to eat, not to fast. The birds in Cedar Park are singing their hearts out. The plague of 2020 reminds me that we matter, each of us. Every sparrow. Every mockingbird. Every grackle. Everyone. Each one of us matters. Call me what you will. I am clear that God’s omniamity (yes, I coined that word) does not fit within a primary or an election year or a nation. And . . . and, Julian of Norwich saw all of this. She was a visionary during what is indisputably known as the Great Plague. She lived through proclamations of God’s wrath. She saw people declared as mere peasants rise up together bravely. They were mowed down like mice. I have not forgotten. I will continue to see.

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