What’s more impressive than a long, elaborate fireworks show?
The OCEAN ON FIRE!
When that happens, it looks like the cauldron of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mount Doom.
An unprecedented phenomenon that was quickly dubbed “The Eye of Fire” formed in the Gulf of Mexico over the Fourth of July weekend, when a gas line ruptured and managed to catch fire underwater.
How does that happen?!
Watching the video of raging flames spouting from the Ocean was like staring down a Satan/Cyclops.
The undersea gas line, stemming from a nearby drilling rig, operated by the national Mexican petroleum monopoly Pemex, burned for five hours. That is much, much longer than any fireworks spectacle, but not nearly as loud.
Not loud in a literal sense, that is. It probably hissed like a gas grill heating up for an Independence Day cookout. But in a figurative sense, it was a deafening warning shot from the future of the Ocean.
“The Eye of Fire” is further proof, if such were needed, that the Gulf of Mexico is a mess. And by extension, so is the Ocean.
The Gulf of Mexico is where the first “Dead Zone” formed, a vast area so anaerobic that organisms other than algae cannot survive there. Annual inundations of fertilizer runoff from the sprawling Mississippi River watershed created the original Dead Zone. It has grown steadily, as years of farming and lawn care keep flushing petroleum-based nitrogen products from the brown water of the rivers into the blue water of the sea.
Now, Dead Zones are forming, or very likely will form soon, in all similar embayments around the world: The Persian Gulf, The Bay of Bengal, The Mediterranean, Black, and Yellow Seas… Also, big estuaries, where freshwater meets salt, are actively deteriorating as marine environments: The Chesapeake, San Francisco Bay, the Guayaquil River in Ecuador, the Pearl River in China…
But the “Eye of Fire” phenomenon is more closely related to a different debacle in the increasingly dystopian Gulf of Mexico: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. The benthic zone in the region around that catastrophe continues to suffer its consequences—weird mutations and population reduction among our crustacean friends, for instance. The same is true of the littoral region, where beach-walkers must beware oil blobs in the sand.
As the nation’s terrestrial infrastructure erodes and collapses (most recently, condos in Miami; not long ago, an Interstate bridge in Minneapolis), the disintegration of the subaqueous bones of the energy economy do the same.
The cause of the “Eye of Fire” is unknown at this moment, but it is likely to follow the pattern of the myopic over-reach of the Deepwater Horizon operation, drilled at a depth too far. Pipelines everywhere face the same prospect of failure. A freshwater example is the decrepit and accident-prone Line 5 through the Straits of Mackinac, which is facing long-overdue scrutiny and causing U.S.-Canada tensions that are ongoing at this very moment.
The fiery eye in the Ocean over the weekend sends the same message as the other disasters that preceded it, and which will follow: We H. sapiens must stop relying on chemical fertilizers and quit burning fossils, or the planet will not be able to sustain our species much longer.
Don’t take it from me; let the Ocean tell you!
Eric Paul Roorda is editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politicsand Professor of History at Bellarmine University. A recent review in World History Connected called The Ocean Reader “a wonderful supplement for a global or maritime history course or an interdisciplinary course that explores the Ocean on its own terms.”Save 30% on the book with coupon E20RORDA.
The start of COVID-time shuttered stores and stilled factories in untold, unprecedented numbers. Most of them have limped back to activity in the last few months or weeks.
But one industry has been shut down completely for the duration of the pandemic: the $90 billion cruise ship industry.
The Celebrity Edge left Fort Lauderdale last Saturday to become the first cruise ship to depart a U.S. port in fifteen months.
MSNBC sent veteran reporter Kerry Sanders along for the week-long, roundtrip voyage to Mexico and Nassau. It is kind of a test drive, something like the “shake-down” that a freshly launched vessel takes before its official “maiden voyage,” to work out the kinks before Show Time.
With the ship at just 40% capacity, Mr. Sanders and his shipmates have plenty of room to roam around the decks and dining rooms. The vessel is skirting the coast of Cuba as I write, en route from Yucatán to the Bahamas.
The crew must be all nerves—the Big Boss is aboard!
Richard Fain is the CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises International, known as RCL, which operates three different cruise lines: the core brand of Royal Caribbean International, with ships named Something of the Seas; SilverSea, the high-dollar, low-capacity, all-inclusive fleet of miniature cruise ships; and Celebrity, which predates them all.
Celebrity originated as Chandris, one of the storied Greek shipping lines of the post-WWII period, a boom that Aristotle Onassis booted to life. The only vestige of Celebrity’s Greek heritage is its logo, an X, the Greek letter “Chandris,” which fraternity and sorority alums will recognize as “CHI.”
All told, Mr. Fain is the Boss of 62 ships’ crews.
Mr. Sanders interviewed Mr. Fain poolside, where an attentive crew member was serving champagne to guests in the water.
The most attention-getting sentence the CEO said was, “We are safer on this ship than in your home community.” With a vaccination rate of 99% among the ship’s company, Mr. Fain was doubtlessly correct.
Especially because, as he spoke, the novel Delta Variant of the Novel Coronavirus that arose in 2019, is establishing a beachhead among H. sapiens. More specifically, unvaccinated humans are incubating a COVID-19 mutation that threatens to be more than a match for the trio of vaccines that are available, which have proven to be miraculously effective.
The COVIDiot-American Community is standing in the way of communal immunity, exposing the whole population to the deadly Delta variant. In recent weeks, 99.1% of deaths from the COVID strains we have are among the clueless, vaxless 30+% of the population.
With Delta in mind, Mr. Fain’s words—”We are safer on this ship…”—evoked a dystopian future. A future like the one in Wall-E, the movie, where the plot vehicle is the Axiom, a cruise spaceship, perpetually orbiting an Earth over-run by pollution.
Substitute “pandemic” for “pollution” in that scenario… Is that the course we are charting?
Eric Paul Roorda is editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politicsand Professor of History at Bellarmine University. A recent review in World History Connected called The Ocean Reader “a wonderful supplement for a global or maritime history course or an interdisciplinary course that explores the Ocean on its own terms.”Save 30% on the book with coupon E20RORDA.
Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices, an arts collective that collaborates with underrepresented communities to create performances, exhibits, and media that explore difficult social issues. Her new book Right Here, Right Now, part of the project Serving Life: ReVisioning Justice, collects the powerful, first-person stories of dozens of men on death rows across the country.
Right Here, Right Now is born out of the collective you founded, Hidden Voices, and, more specifically, out of the Hidden Voices project “Serving Life: ReVisioning Justice.” Can you talk about how the “Serving Life” project came to be?
One of the men living on death row read an article about us and gave it to the psychologist who oversaw programs. That psychologist, who was very insightful and therapeutically oriented, emailed me and asked if we would develop a project for the men. At the time we were in the final stages of a statewide project called None of the Above: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline. I said if he could wait six months, we would come develop a project with the men. And I invited him to one of the performances.
Late that fall we met with six men and together worked through the “Hidden Voices Process,” the stakeholder collaboration model we’ve developed over the years. By the end of two sessions, we had a pretty good idea of the outcomes everyone wanted to see, the outputs we might create together, and the outreach—who needs to speak and who needs to listen?
All these years later, we are still working off that initial visioning. The most important outcome the men identified for the larger community was: “We want them to know we aren’t monsters.” And I think that reality becomes very clear once one reads these stories.
Other “Serving Life” initiatives have taken the form of live performances or visual art exhibitions. What do you hope will be the effect of circulating these stories in book form?
As part of every Hidden Voices project, we create a story cycle: a series of extremely short first-person monologues that bring the listener on a journey through the many perspectives surrounding a pressing social issue. These story cycles can be read aloud by any group of people, sitting in a circle in a classroom or a church or in a breakout at a conference. Each individual story offers a particular insight into the issue at hand; for the Right Here, Right Now story cycle, each story points to a lived experience with what we might label racism, family violence, hunger, failed educational policies, police misconduct, housing instability, and more. But the men who shared these stories don’t look at their experiences through this lens of conceptual labeling; for them, the stories are simply life as it is lived, whether funny or violent, sweet or troubling.
A most insightful colleague, Jayne Ifekwunigwe, participated in a reading and asked if I’d ever thought of publishing the stories. Gisela Fosado, the Editorial Director at Duke Press, asked if I could find enough stories to fill a book. So, I combed through pieces men had written, recordings of meetups, notes from phone calls, stacks of letters. I planned to choose 100 stories, but then I settled on 99. That was a number that felt unfinished, and I wanted to leave the reader with the sense that there was yet another story waiting to be told. For me, that story is the story the families hope and pray for, the story of the day these men walk through the prison doors and return to their communities.
By sharing the stories in book form, I hope the voices will reach into classrooms and book clubs, into church classes and civic discussions. I hope the stories will lend momentum to the growing movement toward abolishing the death penalty, ending life in prison without parole, and re-visioning so many of the inhumane policies and practices that prevent families and communities from healing from violence
You write, “Absent a specific image of the speaker, we more easily and viscerally allow the deeper truth of the story to penetrate.” These anonymous stories are particularly heartbreaking because they do become universalizable. In your story selection process what, if anything, had to be left out?
So many poignant, funny, and heart-breaking stories were left on the cutting room floor. I decided the best way to share these stories was to bring the reader on a chronological journey from infancy to execution, so the structure dictated the selection. I wanted to make sure each story was just that: a story, a personal experience, not an intellectual reflection on an issue, however passionately argued. I wanted to retain the original speaker’s “voice,” the feel of their authentic dialogue even if the story was only a few paragraphs excerpted from an hour-long conversation. I wanted the reader to feel this human being, his story, his palpable life.
Each story gives insight into a specific aspect of a much larger system and helps us understand how we create violence in our society, how we can heal the harm already caused by violence, and how we can disrupt the systems that perpetuate harm. Again, you could go back through each story and label it as “about” racism, or addiction, or under-resourced schools, or the lack of mental health facilities, and I did exactly that during the years of working with these stories. But those labels don’t offer the kinds of pathways toward embodied understanding that actual lived experiences do. Lived experience is intimate, authentic, specific. It invites us to enter another world, experience it as our own, and leave with a new, richer understanding.
You describe both “Serving Life” and the specific narratives in Right Here, Right Now as a kind of call-and-response. The book is the call; the response is up to the reader. Have any responses to the “Serving Life” project stood out to you?
We wanted to create a dialogue between public audiences and these most hidden members of our communities. But at the time, there were no phones on death row; the men were only allowed one 15-minute phone call a year, in December. Family members would drive across the state to be in the room when that call came, just to hear their loved one’s voice. The only means of communication was writing letters.
So, finding ways to connect was challenging, which is what led to the idea of a call and response. After every performance, every reading of the stories, and at each exhibit installation, we would ask the audience to write a response to the men. We would collect the letters, copy them, and send them back inside.
Here is one comment that has stayed with me. There are many hundreds of others:
Gentlemen, thank you for your story, your vulnerability, your willingness to remind ignorant and selfish people like me how beautiful each and every life is. You have taught me so much with your words, and your legacy will stay with me for the rest of my life. Your stories transformed my understanding of prison, death row, and life. The power and witness of your stories have resonated in this room. . . . You are not invisible. I feel so honored to know your story, and I will never forget.
Society renders death row inmates invisible. But context provided in the Afterword by Timothy B. Tyson about very visible instances of systemic injustice and anti-racist protest in 2020 connects the lives of the storytellers directly to our moment. Has the shape of the “Serving Life” project changed at all as the contemporary moment casts new light on old problems?
I don’t think society renders these speakers invisible. I think there’s an intentional misdirection of our attention away from these institutions and those who live there. That’s why outside access is so severely limited and facilities are typically placed far from the public eye. Out of sight and out of mind. It’s better if we don’t question the location and design of these facilities, the use of unpaid labor, the dangerous and overcrowded housing, the systemic injustices, the lack of decent legal representation, the reality of innocent people living inside, the children we’ve sentenced to die.
It’s a form of misdirection, a pointing away from these unremittingly unhealthy and stressful environments—unhealthy not only for those living there, but for those working there. It’s no surprise that correctional officers have the shortest lifespan of any police. We have managed to create a system that damages the most damaged. As one friend said, “You can’t kill all the wounded people.” And yet, we seem to be trying.
So, this moment—right here, right now. It’s an incredible time for these voices and stories to be published. For the first time, in my life anyway, there is a broad willingness to consider and question our role as the only Western country that kills its own, to wonder whether we need to be #1 in the world in incarceration. The most common response I hear to these stories is, “I’ve never thought about this before.” Even people who drive by a prison every day will say they never wondered who was there and whether there was another, better option. Now, people are starting to wonder. I think the civil rights movements of 2019 and 2020 have been instrumental in forcing us to look directly at some of the realities that shape our justice system. And once we begin to see, we can’t unsee. But we can find our way to a new vision of actual justice and a more humane, compassionate, and healthy society.
There is a conscious choice in Right Here, Right Now to privilege inmate voices rather than critical or scholarly analysis of the death penalty and the American carceral system. In the Hidden Voices model, building relationships with real people through honoring their stories is the first step. What might the next step entail?
Sharing these stories helps undermine our unhealthy “rush to judgment” as Jason Flom puts it. We seem to have two frameworks at play in our society, one that views these people as inherently broken, flawed and irredeemable—in other words expendable. But there’s also a radically different framework, a more experientially-based view, that understands humans, like all living organisms, can heal and grow. Indeed, must heal and grow to survive. Human beings are complex systems of constant change; change may be what we most fundamentally are. This framework believes we should put that natural flow to work for us.
We are innately creative, curious, and hard-wired to explore. Trying to shut down those innate impulses is an unwinnable strategy. We need to look for ways to increase and strengthen healing and growth by supporting relationships—between families and their loved ones, between those living inside, between those of us on the outside and those currently living behind bars. We need to increase opportunities for emotional healing, for learning and exploration. There are other carceral systems where correctional officers serve as mentors to prisoners; they eat together, recreate together; work on life goals together. There are systems where prisoners (including those who have been convicted of murder) live together in group housing and learn new ways of relating to their environment, their families, their own self-care. Even here in the US, some of the most successful programs for men living inside prison have been programs where the men tend other living creatures, from training service dogs to rehabbing horses to gardening. In other words, we need to ask how our natural tendency toward growth, healing, and change can be allowed to flourish and thereby strengthen all our communities.
Because, isolating people into prisons doesn’t just affect those who live and work there—it affects their children, parents, grandparents and grandchildren, their neighbors, teachers, faith leaders, the health of community economies, and on and on. Keeping such an unhealthy, stressful, damaging system alive costs us all.
Now through May 7, 2021 you can get 50% off Right Here, Right Now and all our in-stock titles with coupon SPRING21. After May 7, you can save 30% off the paperback with the coupon E21HARRIS.
Global maritime traffic, stilled for a year due to a pandemic that hobbled the world economy, was taking baby steps back, when it toppled like a toddler, and hit the corner of the world’s coffee table, the Suez Canal. One of the biggest ships ever built is wedged in that narrow waterway. The Great Suez SNAFU is upon us.
Fifty ships a day, many of them among the largest on the planet, transit the 120-mile ditch through the desert daily. The shortcut, dug in 1869, saves tankers full of Mideast oil and Chinese widgets and whatnots from having to pitch and roll 12,500 miles around the often-hopeless Cape of Good Hope.
The good ship Evergreen Ever Given, one of the ten most capacious container ships afloat, is the pride of the Taiwanese merchant fleet, launched less than two years ago. It is capable of carrying 20,124 “containers,” those metal boxes one sees going by on semis on the highway and on trains at RR crossings. The biggest container ship ever, brand new, can handle 24,000.
The Ever Given is about a quarter mile long. A healthy person walking at a brisk pace would take five full minutes to go from stem to stern. It will be interesting to learn exactly how the captain managed to go aground sideways, blocking that crucial maritime chokepoint.
Already, 150 vessels have queued up due to the SNAFU. But no one knows how to pry Ever Given loose. It’s stuck like Pooh Bear; it needs to get unfatter!
That will involve unburdening it of some of those 20,000 containers in a spot with no infrastructure to do so. It will require creative thinking to accomplish that. If it is botched, the ship will capsize. Then what?
At the same time, the cruise industry is trying to baby-step its way back to its pre-COVID-19 vigor. Most of the fleet has been anchored, with skeleton crews, in Manila Bay, for a year.
But COVID-19’s multivalent “variants”—mutations—known by their apparent place of origin—the UK, South Africa, Brazil—bedevil the industry’s effort to innovate its way out of the crisis. Two bastions of cruising, Great Britain and Italy, have had to batten their public health hatches yet again, threatening any hoped-for cruise ship resurgence this summer.
Eric Paul Roorda is editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics and Professor of History at Bellarmine University. A recent review in World History Connected called The Ocean Reader “a wonderful supplement for a global or maritime history course or an interdisciplinary course that explores the Ocean on its own terms.”
Trump supporters crowding the steps of the Capitol after displacing police shield wall preventing access, January 2021. by TapTheForwardAssist
Demonstrators in Leipzig.1991. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1113-048
Five years ago, I began writing a series of essays and short stories to reflect on the upcoming centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution. I wanted to better understand the contemporary legacies of 20th century state socialism in Eastern Europe. At the time, I was living in the city of Jena where the long, dark days of the Eastern German winter kept me huddled indoors listening to David Bowie’s Blackstar on autorepeat.
I’d been reading about the post-WWII denazification process and comparing it to the later de-communization programs that allowed government officials of newly reunified Germany to purge thousands of former members of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) from their jobs after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. These state-organized lustration efforts targeted professors in East German universities, and even mathematicians and natural scientists found themselves summarily dismissed and replaced by West German academics considered untainted by the Marxist politics of the previous regime.
At stake was the moral standing of professors who had either actively or passively collaborated with totalitarianism and whether they could be trusted to educate the next generation of East Germans into the habits of mind necessary for liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Many East German scholars had only joined the SED because they had no choice; professors and academic researchers were expected to be party members in good standing. But during the lustration process, West German leaders insisted that no educators tainted by the previous ideology should have an opportunity to corrupt the minds of the young.
At the same time, I watched the American presidential primaries from afar. An ever-sinking premonition had me convinced that Donald Trump would win the Republication nomination. My German colleagues chastised me for being paranoid and opined that Americans would never be so reckless as to elected someone like Trump to the White House. But by March 2016, when only Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich remained in the race, I had recurrent nightmares about my country under a Trump presidency even as my German and American peers continued to roll their eyes at my alarmist predictions.
I began writing “Interview with a Former Member of the United States Democratic Party” as a way of working through my political despondency. I imagined myself as someone being judged for their lack of resistance to (and thereby tacit collaboration with) a political regime which had been subsequently deemed “evil.” I set the story in 2029, make-believing that someone named Daniel Drumph, Jr. had passed a constitutional amendment allowing him to remain president indefinitely. National Guardsman massacred peaceful demonstrators in Washington and a wave of American intellectuals and anti-Drumph dissidents were seeking political asylum in Germany.
I sat in judgment on myself the way I imagined so many East European intellectuals might have been judged after 1989. The story takes the form of a letter written by a representative of the “Federal Ministry of Immigration and Resettlement” who is reviewing my case. Based on two interviews with me, he works up a recommendation about whether I should be allowed to hold an academic post in a German university even though I was a “former member of the United States Democratic Party.”
I included the story in the manuscript submitted to Duke University Press in May after Trump had clinched the nomination but most observers still believed that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. The reactions to the story by the anonymous reviewers were mixed. One reviewer felt that the story painted a dystopian and apocalyptic scenario. Although this reader shared my “dark, neurotic forebodings” and “the same creepy Weimaresque feeling” about current political events, they also felt that the story would be “very controversial.”
The second reviewer felt the piece did not fit well into the overall collection. Although they agreed that the story provided “a useful tool for revealing how easy it is for a citizenry to be complicit with state actions,” they felt it also ran “the risk of apologism” for state socialism.
After a thoughtful conversation with my editor, Courtney Berger, I decided to cut the story. We agreed that it was perhaps too controversial and that no one would remember that Donald Trump was the Republican nominee by the time the book came out in October 2017. Scholarly prudence demanded that I keep my “dark, neurotic forebodings” to myself.
Then on November 10, 2016, I emailed Courtney this note: “So as I crawl out from under the mountain of despair, I am thinking about my “Interview” story. I know the book is already in production, but is there any possible way to reinsert the story, even as an afterword? Just feeling like this nightmare is going to get a whole hell of a lot worse before it gets better.”
Last week, almost exactly five years after I began writing Red Hangover, I watched live footage of a pro-Trump mob storming the Capitol building in what felt eerily reminiscent of the colored revolutions that once brought regime change to Eastern Europe. When I look back at the “Interview” story today, I think we are even closer to regime change in the United States than we were then. My forebodings remain decidedly dark and neurotic. For those of us who study the histories and societies of state socialism in Eastern Europe, we know that superpowers can collapse without warning and that the human costs of these collapses are severe.
Lately, I’ve been listening to Pete Seeger’s “My name is Lisa Kalvelage” on autorepeat, still struggling with that “creepy Weimaresque feeling.” If our democracy collapses and these United States of America cease to exist as a unified and functioning country, I will be forever grateful to Courtney for letting me slip the “Interview” story into the book at the last minute.
I think it highlights the importance of ethnographic fiction, a genre that allows us to enrich our critical imaginations by conjuring potential futures through the creative interplay of history, politics, and cultural interpretation as a supplement to theoretically driven empirical analyses. Duke University Press has kindly agreed to make this story freely available on its website. I hope it inspires other ethnographers to write more experimentally (and that we’ll all be granted political asylum somewhere when the time comes).
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.
Lithium Industrialization in Bolivia after the Coup – Mark Goodale
With the return to power of the MASin 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.
Midday sun reflects on a lithium evaporation pool, Salar de Uyuni, August 2019. Photo by Mark Goodale.
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 companyYacimientos 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
Over the past fifteen years, Bolivia has emerged as aworld 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 toAndean 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.
The relative success of the model does not mean it comes easy. There aredebates 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 growmore 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 ahard-line stance to drug control and threatened a return toforced 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 onhigh levels of trustbetween the local coca growers’ organizations and the state, but the violence enacted by the police and military following last year’scoup – including themassacre 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
The 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.
Rally in Support of the MAS in 2014, Cochabamba. Photo by Thomas Grisaffi.
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.
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.
For 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 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.
Anastasia Kārkliņa is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Literature at Duke University, specializing in American cultural studies and black cultural theory.
Sanford 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.
Given 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.”
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.