Tag Archives: herbert hoover

The Beast

14 Oct

David Duckworth, Weapons.  Acrylic, 2012. Stencil executed by Philippe Barnoud on bridge near Paris University 8, Saint-Denis, for exhibition, Écritures en migration[s].

Reading about Smedley Butler in public can be quite engaging.  Some people notice the book in hand and smile.  Oh, Butler, the general who said no to war!  Indeed he was, once qualified.  As a military careerist, his decision to retire at age fifty from the Marine Corps in 1931 may have seemed a renunciation of war as it followed a highly publicized fracas with the State Department under President Herbert Hoover.  Butler had just given a speech in Philadelphia on the topic of the prevention of war, in which his second-hand anecdote regarding Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, running down a child with an automobile in the Italian countryside, was probably provocative, at best.  But, his stated conclusion that certain nations could not be trusted to honor disarmament agreements, during the same speech, was surely incendiary in diplomatic circles.  For the speech, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson issued a formal apology to Mussolini; Hoover, in turn, ordered house arrest and court martial by the navy for Butler.

Hans Schmidt makes clear, though, that Butler was already considering early retirement before the Philadelphia engagement.  Schmidt, in his biography Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1987; see pages 208-9 for the above account), emphasizes the issues at heart in Butler’s move to civilian life.  During Butler’s career the Marines served as a police force for the Navy.  It was during this era that the so-called gunboat diplomacy of the United States engaged the Navy in coercive intervention elsewhere in the world in order to support American business interests.  In 1898, Butler, at 16 years of age, volunteered for the Marine Corps in order to participate in the war against Spain in Cuba.  His father, Thomas S. Butler, who served continuously in Congress from 1896 to 1928, would follow the son’s interests as a member of the House Naval Affairs Committee for three decades.

In 1899, advancing to first lieutenant, Butler shipped to the Philippines where a guerrilla war based on Filipino resistance to the American colonial regime was heating up.  Not content to remain garrisoned in Cavité, Butler soon enough participated in direct fire against Filipino insurrectos in the field.  This fervor to prove his fighting mettle would characterize his service throughout his career.  Schmidt notes that with his “irrepressible zeal and warrior instincts, he was the ideal commander for colonial small wars where adept light infantry operations could be the critical factor in discouraging resistance and efficiently consolidating American domination” (38).  In 1900, he was a member of an international fleet intent on protecting interests in Tientsin and Peking in North China during the Boxer Rebellion, as Chinese peasant soldiers rose up against foreign control.  Butler assisted in toppling the Liberal dictator and nationalist José Santos Zelaya in Nicaragua (1909-12).  He was in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1914, to assert American investments and oil prospects against General Victoriano Huerta’s revolutionary nationalism.  In 1915, Butler, by this time a major, engaged in expeditionary maneuvers from Cap Haitien against guerrilla fighters, or cacos, in the interior of Haiti.  With the establishment of a U.S.-sponsored client government and a period of martial law, Butler remained to supervise the formation of a native constabulary, all the while exhibiting the racist attitudes and employing the racist language of the day.  Under Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, Butler played a key role in forcing the National Assembly to accept a new American constitution so that Haiti’s prohibition against alien land ownership would end.

Butler continued to have a colorful career, at one point even, while on leave during 1924-25, becoming commissioner of police for the city of Philadelphia, intent on applying the restrictions of Prohibition equally to all parties and all classes of society.  The Marine came to despise the ascendency of an elite, college-trained, bureaucracy within the Corps.  Schmidt shows that the distinction between Butler’s “achievements as an enterprising leader of small combat units,” valued today in its professionalism, with a class of “staff officers, desk admirals, and war college intelligentsia,” does not account for Butler’s mass leadership skills and skillful employment of contemporary mass-media public relations, qualities which have since merged with the professionalism of today’s armed services (248).

Outside of military circles, Butler is remembered today for his rhetoric denouncing war.  During the 1930s, the ex-Marine was a frequent speaker at platforms in which intervention in a looming war between European powers was addressed.  Sharing podia with isolationists and pacifists, his speech was directed from an experience uniquely his own.  “War is a racket . . . ,” begins a text that was published in 1935 (see Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler, War Is a Racket [Los Angeles: Feral House, 2003]).  He went on to write:

“. . . It always has been.  It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious.  It is the only one international in scope.  It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

“A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people.  Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about.  It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.  Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.” (23)

Munitions makers, ship builders, manufacturers, meat packers, and speculators were the few whom Butler identified to make a profit from a war in either Europe or Asia.  He was wise enough to link the escalation of national debt to participation in war, looking back to America’s advent in imperialist ambition, in 1898, through to the effect of political alliances during World War I.  While the war profiteers profited, the American people shouldered this debt: the du Ponts accruing fifty-eight million dollars profit yearly during 1914-18, or an increase of 950 percent, while the national debt soared to $52,000,000,000, or “$400 to every man, woman, and child” (27).  Or, Bethlehem Steel’s munition-making profitability of $49,000,000 per annum, over a peacetime annual income of $6,000,000.  His figures take in United States Steel, Anaconda, Utah Copper, Central Leather Company, General Chemical Company, International Nickel Company, American Sugar Refining Company, meat packers, cotton manufactures, garment makers, and coal producers.  Last, but not least, the bankers, whose “cream of the profits” were kept secret from the American public.  The waste that Butler accounted for was tremendous.  For instance, airplane and engine manufacturers received $1,000,000,000 from the Federal government for equipment that never left the ground.  Remember that $500 hammer that made headlines during the occupation of Iraq?  During World War I, there was the case of twelve dozen 48-inch wrenches that only worked with nuts specifically manufactured for turbines at Niagara Falls.  They never found a use here nor overseas; the nuts were never produced to fit the wrenches (27-31).  (For another citation of World War I corporate profiteering, see the post “Parade of Pain,” dated June 17, 2012).

Butler devoted himself to the cause of the soldier, citing the toll war takes on the average man, including, beyond the dead, “about 50,000 destroyed men” in the eighteen veterans’ hospitals which he had visited (33).  Butler’s prescription for smashing the war racket was to conscript all individuals involved in government and industry to receive the same monthly pay as the soldier, at that time $30 a month.  (During the Bonus March of 1932 he was in Washington, D.C. to booster the spirits of World War I veterans demanding back pay [see the post “The Gifting Society,” dated May 9, 2012, for further information on the March]).  Additionally, he proposed a plebiscite to determine a declaration of war comprised only of those who would actually serve as soldiers.  Thirdly, and this is where one must understand that Butler was not a pacifist, he proposed that military force only be used in defense of the nation.  (He did not live to see the bombing of Pearl Harbor, although he understood the long term tensions that had been building in Asia over regional control.)  Later, in 1936, he went further by proposing an Amendment for Peace, to the Constitution of the United States, which would restrict the movement of the members of the armed forces to within the continental limits of the United States and the Panama Canal Zone, and a proscribed number of miles outside the nation’s coastlines (first published in Woman’s Home Companion, September 1936, the text is reprinted in War Is a Racket).

While still a soldier, Butler advanced one trajectory of the armed forces that eventually came to be known as the military-industrial complex.  During the early 1920s, while serving at Quantico Marine Base, south of Washington on the Potomac, Butler promoted aviation and numerous innovations and improvements in war equipment.  Chinese nationalism brought the Marine back to the Peking-Tientsin region in 1927, where Butler capitalized on the use of an air force, with an airdrome in protective distance of a Standard Oil compound.  Thus, his later words regarding peace contrast sharply with his earlier career:

“The professional soldiers and sailors don’t want to disarm.  No admiral wants to be without a ship.  No general wants to be without a command.  Both mean men without jobs.  They are not for disarmament.  They cannot be for limitations of arms.  And at all these [disarmament] conferences, lurking in the background but all-powerful, just the same, are the sinister agents of those who profit by war.  They see to it that these conferences do not disarm or seriously limit armaments.” (44)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address on radio and television (January 17, 1961) warned the American people that they “must guard against unwarranted influence by the military-industrial complex” (quoted in Richard F. Kaufman, “ ‘We Must Guard Against Unwarranted Influence By the Military-Industrial Complex’ ,” New York Times, June 22, 1969).  Having already engaged in intervention in Asia during the Korean War, the United States was actively involved in assisting the French government in suppressing revolution in Vietnam by the time of Eisenhower’s speech.  The expansion of that engagement soon included the commitment of ground troops for a prolonged and failed war against the Vietnamese people while the French exited their former colonial possession.  This was also an opportunity for the United States to expand its military arsenal.  One of the ways in which the U.S. deployed newer methods of destruction was through the use of chemical warfare.  During World War II, U.S. bombers first tested napalm against German soldiers occupying French civilian territory (see Howard Zinn, who was one of those bombers, in his testimony in the documentary film, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train).  In Vietnam, the Dow Chemical Company was the only manufacturer supplying the Defense Department with napalm B, a petroleum jelly that burns at 1000° F.  Its horrific propensity for sticking to whatever it burned, including human flesh, symbolized for the anti-war movement the scale of atrocity the architects of the war had devised (see Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan, Who Spoke Up? American Protest Against the Vietnam War, 1963-1975 [New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1984], page 104).  Photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths’s 1971 book-length essay on the Vietnam War included the testimony of an informant, an American pilot from 1966, on the strategic value of this chemical:

“We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow.  The original product wasn’t so hot—if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off.  So the boys started adding polystyrene—now it sticks like shit to a blanket.  But then if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Willie Peter (WP—white phosphorous) so’s to make it burn better.  It’ll even burn under water now.  And just one drop is enough, it’ll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.” (Griffiths, Vietnam Inc. [London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2001; orig. pub. 1971], p. 210)

Sydney D. Rubbo remarked how chemical and biological warfare (C.B.W.), or “toxic warfare,” had so engaged public discourse internationally that “the sinister danger of nuclear warfare seems to be taking second place” (Rubbo, “The Lethal Knife—Chemical and Biological Warfare,” The Australian Quarterly [December 1968], page 22).  The two main units in the Western world producing biological weapons were Proton in England and Fort Detrick in the United States.  U.S. expenditure for research and development in C.B.W. rose from $35 million in 1959 to $150 million by 1964 (26).  Besides the use of napalm against human targets, the U.S. engaged in the massive use of defoliants against whole ecosystems and crop areas, with the express purpose of depriving North Vietnamese soldiers, or the Vietcong, from having access to shelter and supplies in South Vietnam.  This, of course, led in turn to depriving rural South Vietnamese from the same, forcing them to migrate or surrender to U.S.-sponsored relocation to shantytowns outside Saigon and other cities, termed “pacification” by U.S. civilian and military strategists at the time, creating a huge underclass of unemployed and underfed people without access to adequate medical care.

Kaufman outlined a U.S. Federal military budget that in 1968 accounted for 45 percent of all Federal expenditures, or $77.4-billion in Defense Department outlays, with “such related programs as military assistance to foreign countries, atomic energy and the Selective Service System rais[ing] the figure to $80.5-billion” (page SM10).  Procurement accounted for the single largest item in the 1968 budget, a term which covered “purchasing, renting or leasing supplies and services (and all the machinery for drawing up and administering the contracts under which these purchases and rentals are made)” (ibid).  About 22,000 prime contractors and 100,000 subcontractors were involved in this vast defense-oriented industrial complex, employing about four million people.  Of this, the largest share of procurement was among a “relative handful of major contractors,” the 100 largest defense suppliers receiving $26.2-billion in contracts (10-11).  Property holdings were extensive at the time, an “almost arbitrary and vastly underestimated” value of $202.5-billion in military real and personal property at the end of fiscal year 1968, of which supplies and plant equipment accounted for $55.6 billion.  Kaufman remarks upon the Pentagon’s stated value of $38.7-billion for 29 million acres of property it controlled by pointing to another $9-billion, or 9.7 million acres, under the Army Civil Works Division and $4.7-billion of unspecified additional property.  Acquisition cost ignored the cost of property acquired prior to the 1968 fiscal year, thus undervaluing property attained during a period of over 100 years (ibid).

By contrast, A.E. Lieberman attempted to counter Kaufman’s arguments outlining an active co-interest between private industry and the military in an article in which the author offered the following epitomization:

“. . . all of industry has a role in supplying defense requirements, whether as an active participant or on call.  Rather than conspiratorial gain, the element of indenture in industry’s responsibility suggests that major companies engaged in defense contracting may soon alter their business emphasis in favor of civilian markets and that the industry stake in D.O.D. [Department of Defense] as a market may soon become relatively smaller” (Lieberman, “Updating Impressions of the Military-Industry Complex,” California Management Review XI:4 [Summer 1969], page 51).

Lieberman was then Manager of Marketing Services with Dorne and Margolin and a former Manager, Market Planning and Analysis with Kollsman Instrument Company.  Thus, the immediate question arises as to Lieberman’s investment in promoting an alternative, public interest view of the matter in which military procurement contractors are characterized as good neighbor participants realizing relatively lower profit gains when compared to the profit they would receive from private industrial activity.  This is a sign along the road of what later critics would term a military-industrial-media complex.  Think the televised broadcasts of the invasion of Baghdad in 2003.

Cold War ideology had driven our military prerogatives since the closing of World War II.  Surprisingly or not, ten years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the U.S. defense budget at approximately $260-billion in 1998, William Greider examined a military-industrial complex that was still operating as if the Cold War had not ended (Greider, Fortress America: The American Military and the Consequences of Peace [New York: PublicAffairs, 1999]).  With a political culture unwilling at the time to enlarge that budget and a shrinking market resulting in the loss of more than one million factory jobs, defense manufacturers continued to prosper:

“The dramatic consolidation of defense companies has left an impression that at least the industrial side of the military-industrial complex has been rationally restructured.  That belief is wildly mistaken . . . Despite a dramatic downsizing in employment, the structure of the defense industry remains enormously bloated with overcapacity—too many factories, with not enough sales to keep the factories busy.  The government pays for this surplus of productive capacity.” (xii-xiii)

Noam Chomsky identifies the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989 as “the first U.S. act of international violence in the post-World War II era that was not justified by the pretext of a Soviet threat” (Chomsky, Terrorizing the Neighborhood: American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era [Stirling, Scotland: AK Press, 1991], 19).  National consensus on the justification of this action involved, according to the State Department, both “conservatives” advocating “a violent and powerful state” and “liberals,” “who sometimes disagree with the ‘conservatives’ on tactical grounds” (20).  A rationale for military intervention developed alongside this consensus with variations in content.  For Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, actions “designed to succeed,” “vital to our national interest,” and taken as “a last resort” were appropriate.  Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis proposed his own standards for military intervention, failing peaceful means: “to deter aggression against its territory, to protect American citizens, to honor our treaty obligations and to take action against terrorists” (21).

The gunboat diplomacy that propelled Smedley Butler’s career was revealed by this 1989 invasion to be useful once again under familiar terminology, “protect American citizens” (read protect corporate interests, as in the American citizens at the Standard Oil compound at Tientsin in 1927), and newer terminology, “designed to succeed,” whereby the arrogance of the American past that all imperialist ventures into foreign territory, whether it was the Philippines or Haiti, would, without question, succeed, capitulates today to an uncertainty of success based on a world in which resistance could foil any positive assumptions, read the dragging of an American soldier’s body through the streets of Mogadishu or the burnt and hanging effigy of a transport work in Iraq.  Greider points to the invasion of Kosovo by NATO forces in the spring of 1999, with firepower principally from the United States, as an example of “the casualty-free war” (Greider, 187), where the use of industrialized, high-technology weaponry probably would have appalled the fighting instincts of a Smedley Butler (in this example, “airborne explosives delivered from a great distance” [ibid, 188]).  Today a soldier sits comfortably with hand on joystick thousands of miles away from where he directs a drone to fire its missiles at designated human targets in Afghanistan.

Understanding Greider’s text serves as a prelude to recognizing the advent of this country’s War On Terrorism for what it serves.  What better means to continue and expand a military-industrial complex, failing a clearly defined enemy such as the Red menace that was supposedly the reaching tentacles of Soviet Union and China, than to create an amorphous, non-nation state, continuous field of siting?  And what better way to deflect criticism from itself by removing the ability of the American body politic to perceive the nature of this reconstituted global beast.  Yet, in the newest incarnation of rhetorical posturing for the good of this military-industrial complex we hear a presidential candidate pounding his chest over  the nation state once again: Iran.  It would be interesting to pinpoint when “terrorism” entered the American lexicon, which I imagine has been attempted, if not by Chomsky, then by others.  Chomsky, though, observes that United States behavior during the Cold War era “has primarily been a history of worldwide subversion, aggression and state-run international terrorism . . . ,” entrenching the military-industrial complex “that was Eisenhower’s farewell warning,” or, essentially, “a smoothly functioning welfare state for the rich with a national security ideology for population control” (Chomsky, 24).

Here we are, without voice if we needed one, contemplating a withdrawal from Afghanistan and waiting for the ascendancy of our next target of aggression, unable to stop the internal beast that continues to terrorize the world.

Parade of Pain

17 Jun

Untitled, from the series Short Tales from the American Landscape, 2008. Pen-and-ink on Bristol paper, 9 x 12 in.

“Parade of Pain” is a term journalist Thomas Ewing Dabney, the former Financial Editor for the New Orleans States, introduces in a chapter of the book, Revolution or Jobs: The Odenheimer Plan for Guaranteed Employment (New York: The Dial Press, 1933).  Three years into the Great Depression, Dabney wrote this piece of boosterism advancing a proposal of Sigmund Odenheimer to increase general employment.  The numbers of unemployed were staggering.  Four million were without jobs at the beginning of 1931 with that number doubling by the end of the year, representing a truer number of twenty-four million when factoring in the number of dependents (ftn. 2, pg. 27).  Efforts to address the problem had been ineffectual.  In 1930, with 2,429,000 unemployed, President Herbert Hoover appointed a Committee on Unemployment.  The presiding Colonel Arthur Woods, former committee chairperson under President Warren G. Harding’s Conference on Unemployment from 1921-22, created a proposal for “a billion dollar highway-reforestation-public works development” (96-7).  When the number of unemployed hit the ten million mark in 1931, Hoover put  Walter S. Gifford, President of American Telephone & Telegraph, at the head of a newly created Unemployment Committee, who served for one winter season.  Gifford favored private business expansion over any new public works projects (see quotation p. 98).  Curiously, projects earmarked from the $332,000,000 voted by Congress in fall 1932 for emergency measures included: 1) $1,500,000 improvement to Chanute Field, Illinois (later Chanute Air Force Base), 2) $55,000 improvement to Charleston navy yard, and, 3) $130,000 improvement to Boston navy yard.  None of these projects were deemed necessary by either the War Department or the Navy Department.  According to Dabney, all construction in 1932 dropped to half of the 1931 output (100).

By the time unemployment reached 11,420,000 in February 1932, Congress created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).  The first action taken by the RFC was the “shovelling [of] money into the banks, and into Big Business, to pay off the banks and bolster bonds” (100).  Between February 2 and November 30, banks received $806,750,000, the greatest portion to a few large institutions — $90,000,000 was awarded to the Chicago Central Republic Bank and Trust Company (also known as City National Bank and Trust) a few days before bank board member, Charles Dawes, resigned as head of the RFC, while Amadeo Giannini’s San Francisco-based Bank of America received $64,000,000.  “Half a billion” went to railroads, and smaller amounts were doled out to crop-marketing organizations and farmers for crop production.  Of the $146,535,000 earmarked for construction projects, and thus, job creation, not a dollar was put into effect by the end of 1932 (for statistics, see pp. 101-3).

These large amounts of money, for their day, mean nothing without translating that legislated funding into actual benefit to the lives of ordinary people.  Dabney cites the case of Louisiana, the first state in the Union to receive unemployment-relief loans.  There the day’s pay was set at a maximum of $1.50, with four days the maximum number of days for the work week.  Total wage could not exceed $6.00, and that was limited to one person per family, no matter the size of the family.  Average employment was one and a half days a week.  The Mississippi bridge at New Orleans was the first such public works project under this funding.  The wage-rate on that job was 25 cents an hour, with a ceiling on hours worked at 30 per week.  Thus, the maximum a worker could receive was $7.50 per week (105-6).

Odenheimer was the president of Lane Cotton Mills in New Orleans.  He had been with the company for forty-six years.  During Odenheimer’s studies at University of Karlsruhe, in Germany, he came under the spell of socialism, perhaps suggesting, for Dabney at least, an unusual concern for the plight of the worker on the part of an employer.  He was a firm capitalist, though, during his rise in American commerce.  Early in his career, Odenheimer invented a cotton bagging made of cotton fiber at a time when the “jute trust” had doubled the price of its product.  By obtaining a patent and then offering the right to manufacture this product to others without royalty, he managed to defeat the jute trust.  He continued to innovate and engage the cotton industry in new methods of manufacture and distribution.  He was one of the few cotton manufacturers to weather the onslaught of the Great Depression.  Odenheimer first proposed his idea on unemployment at an Association of Commerce luncheon in November 1932.  Simply put, he sought an amendment that would authorize Congress to legislate on hours of labor.  With a congressional “Hours of Labor Commission,” any employer with, say, five or more employees would not be allowed to exceed a total number of hours per week, determined by the Commission on an economically dynamic scale (137).

While distributing worker hours to those unemployed by scaling down hours held by those employed seems simple enough, Dabney chose to stay clear of “the economic riddle”: “…foreign debts, business cycles, tariffs, debtor-and-creditor nations, budgets, the farm situation, the gold standard or armaments” (17).  Dabney cites the collapse of purchasing power as the cause for the crash of 1929, with too much invested in profits and new capital investment and too little in wages, or consuming power.  The author uses a frequently recurring equation that results in the phrase “purchasing-consuming-producing power” (70).

While it is true of this nation’s history that workers have always had to bear the brunt of recurring cycles of national depression since 1817, the idea, inherent in Dabney’s argument, that production and consumption are factors of unlimited quantity when unharnessed, does not accord with the concurrent history of corporate profit motivation.  Louis Adamic provides a set of questions of what profit motivation produces in the cycle of manufacturing and distribution in his book, Dynamite: A Century of Class Violence in America, 1830-1930 (London: Rebel Press, 1984; first published in 1931 and revised by the author in 1934).  In looking at racketeering and sabotage, two elements that rose hand-in-hand with industrialization in the nineteenth century and had been professionalized at the time of his writing, Adamic asks from the workers’ point of view:

“…have not [the capitalist class] laid waste the country’s national resources with utter lack of consideration for their human values — forests, mines, land and waterways?  Did they not dump cargoes of coffee and other goods into the sea, burn fields of cotton, wheat and corn, throw trainloads of potatoes to waste — all in the interest of higher incomes?  Did not millers and bakers mix talcum, chalk and other cheap and harmful ingredients with flour?  Did not candy manufacturers sell glucose and taffy made with vaseline, and honey made with starch and chestnut meal?  Wasn’t vinegar often made of sulphuric acid?  Didn’t farmers and distributors adulterate milk and butter?  Were not eggs and meat stored away, suffering deterioration all the while, in order to cause prices to rise?” (205)

Adamic relates the case of the Pacific Northwest Lumber Trust and the demand for lumber in 1917.  After the entry of the United States into World War I, the demand for lumber in various industries skyrocketed.  In consequence, lumber companies took advantage by boosting their prices: “…some increased them from $16 to $116 per thousand feet in a few days, and before the end of 1917 were selling spruce for government airplanes at $1200 a thousand.  And most of that spruce could not be used for airplanes.”  By comparison, workers’ wages increased only slightly where strikes were successful in coercing employers into raising wages (168).

The corporate landscape is the same today, witness oil spills destroying natural ecosystems, fracking for natural gas polluting natural water tables, or factories and mining polluting natural waterways.  The profit motive in manufacturing has not changed.  When pressed or when seeking to maximize profit, corporations have simply moved operations overseas where concerns for environmental degradation and worker health and safety do not exist.  I recommend viewing the film, Last Train Home (2009), directed by Lixin Fan, which documents the movement of 130 million Chinese workers during New Year to reunite with their families only several days out of the year.   It is heart rending with its focus on the cumulative effects upon the individual worker and the dissolution of family.  Or, come to see the screening of Dust: The Great Asbestos Trial (2011), directed by Niccolo Bruna and Andrea Prandstralle of Italy, in its San Francisco premiere on Friday, July 6th.  Besides exploring the “first great criminal trial” against asbestos manufacturers, which opened in Turin in 2009 and resulted in convictions in 2012, the film offers a look at the plight of asbestos-related work in India and Brazil.  For further information on this and other LaborFest events for the month of July, visit: http://www.laborfest.net.  A booklet for the complete programme is also available around the city, including The Green Arcade bookstore, 1680 Market Street at Gough.

Revolution or Jobs is still a useful guide to the economic landscape of the early years of the Great Depression.  Through this reading, one finds a palpable sense of the scope and detail of human misery from the time.  It was a time when people believed revolution could happen.  Adamic shows how the press only reported on unemployment and hunger when, starting in 1930, communists organized hunger demonstrations and parades, which often resulted in mounted police riding down upon demonstrators and clubbing them, causing much bloodshed.  It was the bloodshed which made headlines.  And it was those headlines that gradually forced Hoover to publicly acknowledge the seriousness of the unemployment problem.

The Gifting Society

9 May

“The idea of a productive protest is happening and I believe it is the start of a new paradigm in collective action.  The urban gardening and guerrilla gardening movements are some more obvious examples of this new trend.  It seems difficult for many to see the political nature of gardening, but for the people involved in these approaches, it is a gesture to raise awareness of what a piece of industrial waste ground should be.  Choosing to plant life and feed people in a neglected area is a way of publicly and productively making an opinion heard in an attempt to influence public opinion or government policy.  It is also a community attempting to directly enact desired change themselves.  This is protest.” — Robyn Waxman, “Rethinking Protest: A Designer’s Role in the Next Generation of Collective Action,” FARM, 2011, page 30

On April 13th, a young woman held up a copy of this publication from The Future Action Reclamation Mob (F.A.R.M.) during an evening of song and spoken word at the reception for The Green Arcade bookstore’s art exhibition, A Night of Surreal Superstition.  She explained to the audience the project’s overall aims bringing together students of California College of the Arts San Francisco and the homeless of the vicinity.    Her call was an invitation for others to join in this act of revolution.  Not only does the farm aim to produce crops for anyone in need of food, but it does so by participating outside of a capitalist system of commodity and exchange.  Thus, gifting becomes the exchange medium wherein the individuals of the community involved carry equal status.

Certainly during earlier depressions, in an unending recurrence of depressions which constitute the life of capitalism, jobless and starving American citizens have sought the means to produce and consume outside the capitalist system.  The Hoovervilles of 1931, so-called because of President Herbert Hoover’s continued denials that an economic depression would last, involved people who had become homeless building structures from discarded materials.  The aggregate structures were shanty towns where homes tended to be built in rows and the pathways between took on the form of streets with given names.  The inhabitants were people who had become jobless.  A large self-help movement developed in California where, at various times, 500,000 families were affiliated.  By the end of 1932, thirty-seven states followed the example set by California.  In Seattle during the summer months of 1931, an organization called the Unemployed Citizens League (UCL) began organizing a self-help movement that centered around mutual aid.  Its membership rose to 80,000 in 1933 as it spread through the state of Washington.  The UCL negotiated with the fishermen’s union to lend boats for fishing.  Farmers were persuaded to allow UCL members to harvest fruit and potatoes that would not go to market, borrowing trucks to transport the food.  Bartering became widespread and highly organized.  By the winter of 1931, it was apparent that mutual aid would not be enough for the needs of the jobless  (Franklin Folsom, Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed, 1808-1942, pages 277-81).

Whether or not today’s economic crisis has initiated current experiments in collective action based on alternative economies, the fact that a growing number of people seek non-capitalist solutions for the exchange of goods and services is notable.  Bay Area Community Exchange (BACE) (http://timebank.sfbace.org/) offers a system of time exchange in which one member may “buy” an hour’s time from another member, receiving a particular service, giving the service provider an hour that can be used elsewhere.  This system values everyone’s hours equally, eliminates the use of paper and coin currency, and builds relationships between participating members.  “…This is a system for people who are undervalued in [the] traditional marketplace,” according to co-founder Mira Luna.  One off-shoot of the BACE model is the effort by People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER) SF to serve residents of the Mission and the Excelsior with a similar program.  Where BACE has perfected digital and Web-based mechanisms to enhance operation, PODER prefers community gatherings where people meet face-to-face (see Yael Chanoff, “Bank Your Time,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 2-8, 2012, page 9).

Around the time I read Novella Carpenter’s Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (2009), a humorous and endearing narrative of a guerrilla farmer cropping on a vacant lot in an economically depressed neighborhood of Oakland (Carpenter maintains a blog at http://ghosttownfarm.wordpress.com/), I became involved as a volunteer at Hayes Valley Farm.  Located on 2 1/4 acres where a set of freeway ramps once absorbed toxic waste from heavy traffic, the Farm was begun by a group of visionary permaculture enthusiasts who contracted from the City of San Francisco at no cost for 3 1/2 years.  I could no longer afford the cost of courses at City College of San Francisco’s Environmental Horticulture department, an excellent Associate of Arts degree program where graduates are guaranteed employment in the field.  Volunteering at the Farm, the roof garden of California Academy of Sciences (a native flora laboratory), and Bay Native Nursery, run by Geoffrey Coffey and Paul Furman, provided an excellent alternative education.  Hayes Valley Farm operates upon the principle of regenerative farming.  In this case, soil is built rather than shipped in; urban gardeners do not consider the fact that when they buy soil they are robbing another environment of its most precious commodity.  We started with recycled cardboard.  Upon that we dumped and mixed donated waste chipping from regional horticultural activity and donated horse manure from a San Francisco stable.  The next stage involved planting the nitrogen-fixing plants fava bean and clover.  Once the fava bean was harvested and its stems and leaves returned to the ground, other crops were planted.  Marigold was used as a natural pest repellant.

Life has not been as kind as I would like it to be, so I could not continue indefinitely with the Farm because of a changing employment situation.  But the time I did spend there was invaluable.  Anyone was welcome to join in the creation of the farm.  The food that was harvested was shared amongst volunteers and given to people in need.  Since that first year the Farm has built a greenhouse, compost pits, sheds, a stone and cob community meeting area, and conducted classes on permaculture and bee keeping in a straw bale seating area (http://www.hayesvalleyfarm.com/).

The land will revert to the city.  The city will then turn it over to commercial development.  There is sadness in endings, especially in a case like this, where an idyllic but achievable dream will be replaced by housing units for the more affluent.  I was speaking to an acquaintance named Kevin about the Farm recently.  Committed to the redistribution of wealth, his imagination of late has been fueled by theoretical acts of taking.  He condemned the organizers of the Farm for not resisting the impending commercial take over.  He also dismissed these same individuals for being from a social strata of the privileged (he had concluded this after working for one month only at the Farm).  We had a heated discussion about it; I could not agree and we are both passionate debaters.  I happened to tell Todd, a work colleague at a temporary job site, about the argument.  Todd is the conservative type.  He loves statements like, Name a Communist country that hasn’t failed!  (His father served as a public relations man, not a soldier, in Vietnam during the late 60s, so I can guess his indoctrination to authoritarian views began early in life.*)  Todd was impressed that I had a “conservative” side myself.  But I corrected him to an extent stating my belief that any conservatively minded person would simply laugh at a project like Hayes Valley Farm, where everyone is on equal footing and the fruits of this collective labor is equally shared.  After all, the conservatives of this country love the capitalist system for its sheer competitiveness and some-people-will-win-over-most-others rewards.

The Hooper Street garden siding California College of the Arts was also begun in 2009.  Like Hayes Valley Farm, the ground was toxic, in this case from what was once a Greyhound facility.  Waxman’s husband terms the project a “Slow Protest” (“Rethinking Protest,” 34) because FARM is remediating an environment that took decades to form.  Waxman set out to determine how the youngest generation, the so-called Millennial Generation, would respond to such a project as a form of protest; she observes the California College of Arts participants’ background as part of “a generation who has lived a fairly comfortable life…young, educated, upper/middle-class students, who perceive no obvious change in their civil rights” (ibid).  Looking at generational use of forms of protest is one of the  more interesting aspects of Waxman’s essay.  Like Mark Bauerlein, whom Waxman quotes — “…we’re about to turn our country over to a generation that doesn’t read much and doesn’t think much either” (“Rethinking Protest,” 12) — I have not put faith in this newest generation’s ability to challenge the world, because of my perception that they are additionally apathetic and self-absorbed with the consumption of social media and gadgetry.  Waxman finds positive attributes: a preference for group-oriented activities, participation as opposed to spectatorship, and a desire for experience as authentic.  Waxman believes that Millennials “could be strong participants in collective political action and social movements” (13).

It is the form of protest that must be addressed in terms of effectiveness.  With the Hooper Street project in focus: “[g]rowing a farm is a prolonged engagement through time, not a one-hour vigil at the trolly car turn-around on Market Street.  While both activities merit credit, building a farm is arguably more sustainable, more productive, and more engaging” (“Rethinking Protest,” 35).  Folsom cites historian Clark Kerr’s finding of California’s self-help organizations or “productive enterprises”  in 1932 (Folsom, 278).  And I do believe it will be the necessary enterprise of collective hard work and example that will lead us to a desired state of justice for the environment and the social world.  Capitalism is a dead-end in terms of the betterment of this world.

* Because I did not want to open discourse on nation states and political ideologies while at the job site, I did not engage Todd in clarifying how communist states had all failed.  But the implication is that anywhere communism is attempted it does fail.  Perhaps he meant that today’s communist states have integrated some form of capitalism into their structure.  If that were true, then I would have to say the reverse is equally true: all capitalist states have failed.  After all, our own country has integrated progressive forms of socialism in order to ensure health and well-being for some of its inhabitants.  And corporations are unable to profit, as obscene as those profits may be, without forms of governmental assistance and subsidy.  A pure state of economics exists only on paper.  The relationship between corporations and government over citizens and their government are as true today as they were at the opening of the Great Depression.  Observations about Hoover’s expulsion of the Bonus Marchers from Washington, D.C. in 1932 still resonate with meaning.  The approximately 20,000 World War I veterans had marched on the Capitol to demand payment for a promised and Congressionally legislated supplement to their $1-per-day service during the Great War.  Congressman C. Wright Patman reminisced about the expulsion to Studs Terkel: “Who were the so-called bonus marchers?  They were lobbyists for a cause.  Just like the ones in the Mayflower Hotel.  They didn’t try to evict them (italics in place).  Why the poor come to town, and they’re put in jail for stepping on the grass.  The Mayflower crowd, they don’t have any problem at all.  They’re on every floor of every building of the Capitol Hill all the time.”  Heywood Broun also wrote of the expulsion, contrasting the reception of business lobbyists and their success in garnering massive aid to banks and businesses by Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the use of tear gas against the veterans: “For the banks of America Mr. Hoover has prescribed oxygen.  For the unemployed, chlorine.” (Both quotations appear in Folsom, page 321.)