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Book Review: Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History

[ 15 ] May 4, 2016 |

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Scenes on a Cotton Plantation: Hoeing, engraving from Harper’s Weekly, February 2, 1867

Sven Beckert’s Bancroft Prize-winning book is a brilliant as advertised. He explores the history of cotton production to demonstrate how Europeans took control of a crop that grew widely around the world but not in Europe and used it to promote global expansion through state-sponsored violence and control over labor. In doing so, Beckert weaves together the experiences of peoples around the world and builds connections between the past and present.

For Beckert, the entire process of cotton expansion, industrialization, and the cotton fields and apparel industry to the present is backed with horrifying violence. Cotton grows in many forms around the world’s tropics. From Mexico to India, it has served as the basis of household economies for thousands of years, through weaving and spinning. But what he calls “war capitalism” changed this. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, European nations and the United States went to war to violently open lands for cotton production. Within the United States, this was the wars on Native Americans in the South that led to the Trail of Tears. The trans-Atlantic slave trade violently provided the labor for these cotton agriculture. Conquest in India and Egypt was influenced by the insatiable desire for cotton.

The growing power of the state allowed this expansion to happen. As we can see throughout the history of capitalism, talk of “free enterprise” covered up the central hand of the state in shaping markets, ensuring compliant labor, passing tariffs to protect domestic industry, and going to war to find new cotton lands or bring the world’s labor within a cotton regime. War capitalism became industrial capitalism after the conquest of land and people. The state grew to facilitate this industrial capitalism, with state power backing capitalist expansion throughout the globe.

As an Americanist, Beckert naturally enough sees the Civil War as a transitional point in the history of cotton, but in a very different way than a U.S.-centric book. With Europe largely reliant upon U.S. cotton by 1861, the Civil War placed those nations in a real crisis. The U.S. was producing so much cotton that there was a large surplus, delaying the crisis. But mills across France, Germany and especially Britain closed by 1863. By early 1862, cotton imports to Britain were down 50 percent in total, 96 percent from the United States. The state was there to help solve these problems. Britain especially sought to produce more cotton in India and Egypt. India had long produced much cotton, but largely persisted in its pre-colonial household production traditions, largely for domestic production, which consistently frustrated the British. Egypt began ramping up its cotton production, while nations such as Mexico added to the global cotton supply as well. American diplomats sought to promote cotton production around the globe as well, for they knew that if cotton supplies grew, the agitation in Britain to recognize the Confederacy would decline, as it did once the crisis passed.

Reconstruction forced American cotton farmers to figure out new ways of controlling labor to grow cotton, but this was not strictly an American process either. Rather, in his chapter titled “Global Reconstruction,” Beckert demonstrates how the process to rethink cotton labor was global and necessary for the Euro-American industrial societies reliant upon cotton production to feed their own working classes. Various forms of labor replaced chattel slavery. Sharecropping in the American South and Brazil became common. In Egypt, both sharecroppers and small owners provided family based labor. But the independence of these local economies was large gone. Instead, these farmers were now enmeshed in a system of global capitalism that often kept them in debt through sharecropping, crop liens, and merchants. This eventually led to a flood of cotton pouring into European nations. While Beckert doesn’t explicitly address this, it’s long been my contention that while the British were happy to continue using slave-made cotton from the South, it would have expanded production in the colonies even without the Civil War in order to lower the cost. Were that to have happened, the independent Confederacy may well have seen the price of its economic staple collapse and become unsustainable as an independent nation. Of course, this is conjecture and has little place in a history book, except to note that the British had long wanted to get more cotton out of India but found itself frustrated by local resistance.

By the late 19th century, the rise of imperialism became closely connected to cotton production, with European states binding the world together in an ever more intensive attempt to acquire cheap cotton. Perhaps most notorious was the Germans bringing experts from the Tuskegee Institute, some of whom were ex-slaves themselves, to its colony in Togo in order to find ways to force peoples there to grow for the German market, as Europeans states were doing throughout Africa and south Asia. The French forced peasants to grow cotton under state supervision in Côte d’Ivoire, as did the Belgians in the Congo.

Conditions in the apparel factories of Europe and the United States were hardly better than the fields of Togo or Alabama. Like today, cotton manufacturers loved to exploit young girls and the state went to great lengths to provide that labor. Beckert tells the story of a 10-year-old girl named Mary Hootton, working in a Manchester factory, who we only know of because she was chosen to testify before a British investigative commission in 1833. Her life was brutal, with beatings at home and two years in the factories already, where she would be punished for being late to work by having a 20 pound weight put around her little neck and being forced to walk around the mill while the other children made fun of her. States created legal frameworks for wage labor that could include imprisonment for leaving work without permission in Prussia or for breaking a labor contract in England. Less directly, the increased inability to make a living through household manufacturing, often due to states forcing open markets for cotton exports, forced workers into the brutal factory world of Mary Hootton. Whether in Manchester, South Carolina, Mexico, Japan, Switzerland, or Bangladesh, household workers have found their ability to maintain household production overturned by global capitalism in the last 200 years and their states have ensured access to cheap and pliable labor, with force to back up industry if necessary.

In today’s globalized cotton capitalism, how much has changed? Although Beckert covers the recent past and present relatively briefly, the answer for him, as it is for myself, is not as much as you would think. Today, cotton production is still a system of rampant exploitation, where children are forced into the fields in Uzbekistan and where factories collapse and kill over 1100 workers in Bangladesh, with the American companies contracting production there and therefore playing a huge role in creating this system facing no accountability. Meanwhile, the cotton industrial towns of the global north are gone and largely replaced by nothing, as one can see in towns around southern New England like Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and Fall River. The state still shapes cotton today, whether through forced labor, union-busting, or cotton growing subsidies in the United States. The current system of globalized labor exploitation in the cotton and apparel industry is not some great opportunity for the Bangladeshi and Chinese poor but rather part of the same system of capitalist cotton that in its previous iterations committed genocide against Native Americans, vastly expanded chattel slavery, and oppressed factory workers in Europe and the U.S.

While the writing is more adequate than literary, Empire of Cotton is definitely accessible to the general reader. You all should read it if you want a truly global history that will change the way you look at both the past and the globalized economy of the present.

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The Pirate Party

[ 38 ] May 4, 2016 |

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Fascinating political events in Iceland, where the conservative prime minister had to step down because of revelations in the Panama Papers about his tax avoidance. But the electorate doesn’t seem to trust the traditional left-of-center parties either because of its responsibility for the nation’s financial crisis. So what is the option? Something called The Pirate Party, which is likely to win the upcoming elections.

Making this political crisis even more historic is who stands to gain from it. The current center-right government coalition is thoroughly unpopular, but the main center-left Social Democratic Alliance and left-wing Left-Green opposition parties were largely discredited from their disastrous handling of the economic recovery in the wake of the financial crisis. Consequently, the nascent Pirate Party—which you won’t be surprised to learn is intensely anti-establishment—has surged in the polls and is well-positioned to lead a new coalition after the next election.

The Pirates, who have small sister parties in other European nations, have proposed a radical experiment in government transparency, direct democracy, digital privacy, and copyright reform—a platform almost perfectly suited to take advantage of the disgust over the Panama Papers revelations. While the Pirates intentionally avoid placing themselves on the left-right political spectrum, many of their other policy planks, such as support for the welfare state and reform of drug laws, put them closer to those on the left. With polls showing their support over 30 percent, the Pirates would easily have the numbers to form a coalition with one or both of the two left-leaning opposition parties, meaning Iceland could be in for a dramatic shift in policy whenever elections eventually take place.

I suppose the upside here is that in a parliamentary system, there is a chance that if these people are actually competent, they could reframe the left side of the nation’s political spectrum and reinvigorate a more populist politics that means a real leftist challenge to corporations. That’s a big ask of course, because insurgent politics are often not actually good at running the day-to-day operations of government that matter a lot. Certainly something to follow anyway.

The GOP is Not Dead

[ 282 ] May 4, 2016 |

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I do not understand this whole line of thought in the last few months that the Trump phenomenon is the end of the Republican Party. Michael Cohen writes an obituary for the GOP:

At one point, the Republican Party nominally stood on a platform of economic and social conservatism. At least that was the public face of the party. Today, with Trump at its helm, it’s a party of nativism, xenophobia, crudeness, and misogyny. Those elements were of course always present in the party — and are at the root of its modern political success. But they were generally hidden below the surface or utilized with dog whistles. With Trump, there is no mistaking the fact that what drives GOP voters is not conservative dogma, but rather resentment, anxiety, and fear, particularly of minorities, Muslims, and immigrants.

That post-2012 Republican Party autopsy that said the GOP must reach out to Hispanic voters if it wanted to win a national election again is dead and buried. Quite simply, the Republican Party cannot win national elections if it doesn’t find a way to broaden the party’s appeal. With Trump as the presidential nominee, that effort will be set back, perhaps a generation or more.

Even more searing than the electoral challenges, Trump has delivered a savage blow to the GOP’s conception of itself. Armed with a mere handful of endorsements from elected GOP officials, Trump has run a campaign aimed directly against the Republican establishment. And he beat the stuffing out of it. And by taking positions on everything from taxes and trade to transgender Americans and terrorism that run directly against decades of conservative orthodoxy, he’s left the Republican establishment with no clear ideological mooring. Is the GOP a party of small government conservatism or a party of nativism and white male resentment? For decades, Republicans tried to be both, and Trump has, with a single presidential campaign, exposed the fallacy that lay at the heart of the party — namely that its voters were only interested in conservative dogma insofar as it was married to those aforementioned feelings of resentment, anxiety, and fear. But when given a choice between dogma and dog whistle, they’ve chosen this year – overwhelmingly – to go with the latter.

I think there are two ways these obituaries go. Cohen more specifically talks about the short and medium-term electoral issues. While it’s very hard to see Trump winning, the Republicans will still control the House and many statehouses. They’ve baked their advantages into the cake that the GOP really isn’t “dead” electorally even in the short term outside of the White House. Even if they lose the Senate in 2016, they may well win it back in 2018. Others seem to go farther and really think the GOP is dying as a political party and a major realignment is happening. Here I am highly skeptical. At most, the GOP is “dead” in the same way that the Republicans were in 1964 or the Democratic Party was in 1988, which means not at all. For me, all that has really happened is that the base voter for the GOP has thrown off the elites. They don’t really care about corporate tax breaks. They care about their own white nationalist resentments and figured out that they don’t need Mitt Romney or another GOP elite to give it to him. They can choose their own daddies.

There are several others examples of these sorts of essays. Here’s Robert Reich’s version. Here’s Zack Blumenfeld in Paste. There are many others. None of them make much sense. All of them suffer from short-term prognostication about the current presidential race. The GOP is going nowhere.

Quality Reviewing

[ 12 ] May 4, 2016 |

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The best book reviews are as much about the review author as the book being reviewed while at the same time being fair to the book. That’s what I strive for when I review, although probably with mixed success. Anyway, I thought of this when reading Rich Yeselson’s review of the new Tamara Draut book Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America.

The ironic truth is that when labor is strong, it doesn’t need the state to intervene so much on its behalf. That’s why labor leaders in the 1950s, like Steelworkers legal counsel and later Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg believed, naïvely if understandably, that labor did best when the courts and legislatures left it alone to resolve differences with management. But when labor is weak, as it is now, it lacks the political and economic juice required to win its own battles, much less to pass remedial legislation on its own behalf.

EFCA was worth a try, but there was never a chance that unions were going to persuade pro-business Democratic senators in low-union-density states like Louisiana, Virginia, Nebraska, let alone Arkansas, to vote against the pathological hatred of their business donors for unions, and support a law that would have made it easier to organize. A more promising avenue to assist passage of such a bill, when political conditions allow it, would be to continue to pressure Democrats to abolish the super-majority filibuster.

Throughout the book, Draut returns to what is her greatest fear—that despite the encouraging signs that this new working class is on the move, she is not certain “whether the racial, ethnic, and gender divides that have impeded solidarity can finally be dismantled.” She notes that polling shows that the less financially secure are the most worried about the economic impact of immigration. She accuses Republicans of having “deliberately used race to pursue their broader objectives of shrinking government and deregulating the economy.”

She is right to be worried. And she wrote this book before the rise of Donald Trump. We understand now, if we didn’t before, how significant it is that the social democracies of Western Europe were constructed when their populations were almost entirely homogeneous. Today, right-wing parties in several countries, with much stronger labor movements than that of the U.S., wish to maintain nativist social welfare states and reject a broader social solidarity. In the United States, we know from the rage so many white working-class people have toward Obamacare—even some who have benefited from it!—that the historical weight of racial and ethno-nationalism is a great burden. Donald Trump’s campaign for president is an effect, not a cause, of this widespread ethno-nationalism of white workers who, justifiably, think they’ve been screwed, but see people of color not as colleagues and collaborators but as the cause of their distress. Draut reminds us time and again that a solidarity is painstakingly being built, but from a movement of the new working class that is “primarily, but not entirely, of people of color and immigrants.” It has the support of what I have called the new “laborism” of mostly white, college-educated union staffers and other urban, professional leftists, but less so of the white working class itself.

One of the biggest problems in writing on the left is what we might call the “predictive hope fallacy,” where writers so want a future (or sometimes a past) to be better than the present that sometimes the rational analysis goes out the window to write some sort of inspiring conclusion that will supposedly show how everything is going to work out. I actively tried to avoid this in Out of Sight by grounding my ideas in the proven (if limited) effectiveness of regulatory and export law and creating citizen access to already existing institutions like the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts. One can question whether my ideas are also too optimistic, but that was the goal anyway. I’m certainly not saying that Draut does that, despite the grandiose title, because I haven’t read the book yet. But Yeselson definitely doesn’t go down that road, which is why some of the left dislike him. Both Draut and Yeselson are right to think about the real limitations to working-class solidarity, when the white working class has so supported the xenophobic fascism of Trump.

In any case, a lot of chew on in the review and likely the Draut book.

I’ll Wear This Badge with Pride

[ 52 ] May 3, 2016 |

Given that the other option is working on this 8000 word encyclopedia article on the history of forests, I’ve naturally spent the last hour or so arguing against Rania Khalek’s ridiculous “Hillary is worse than Trump” pablum on Twitter. In case you are curious a vote for Hillary is a vote to kill everyone outside of America. Evidently, the entire world is affected precisely the same way by the United States and thus feels the same way about the 2016 election. Good to know that the Germans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, and South Africans are all the same. Trump at least gives the world a chance! Or something. It’s that kind of evening.

Anyway, there’s one person out there who is willing to console Khalek against my meanness. Thanks to TBogg for bringing this to my attention.

Freddie doesn’t like me? Oh my! How will I sleep tonight?

Yale and Calhoun

[ 42 ] May 3, 2016 |

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Yale University, an institution that won’t revoke an honorary degree even if the recipient is later shown to be a mass murderer, not surprisingly refuses to rename Calhoun College, named for the architect of secession himself. Instead, it decided to name new colleges after Benjamin Franklin and the civil rights activist Pauli Murray. The esteemed historian and Yale professor Glenda Gilmore says this is not enough and that Yale will eventually cave on this because John C. Calhoun represents evil.

To be sure, there’s something noteworthy about the contrast between these two figures who now sit across campus from each other. Although they lived in different centuries, Calhoun in the 19th, and Murray in the 20th, in many ways, she lived in — and fought against — the world that he built.

Calhoun, a Yale graduate, congressman and the seventh vice president of the United States, owned dozens of slaves in Fort Hill, S.C. Murray grew up in poverty in Durham, N. C., as the granddaughter of an enslaved woman. Calhoun championed slavery as a “positive good”; Murray’s great-grandmother was raped by her slave master. Calhoun profited immensely from the labor of the enslaved people on his plantation; Murray was a radical labor activist in Harlem during the Great Depression.

Calhoun perverted constitutional principles when he shaped a states’ rights doctrine that precipitated the Civil War and set in place a 90-year legal justification for segregation and disfranchisement. Murray fought for four decades against the regime that Calhoun authorized and published “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” the first comprehensive survey of segregation statutes across the nation. Calhoun was a patriarch who whipped his slave Aleck for offending Mrs. Calhoun; Murray was a gay woman who became a founder of the National Organization for Women.

The decision to keep Calhoun’s name overestimates his value for Yale students. Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, argues that “removing Calhoun’s name obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it,” and living in Calhoun’s shadow will make students “better prepared to rise to the challenges of the present and the future.”

That last bit is patently absurd. Calhoun does have plenty to teach us about slavery. But renaming Calhoun College does not get in the way of teaching about slavery. Calhoun College is not retaining its name because it’s a rare opportunity to teach about slavery. It’s retaining its name on the principle of never going back on honorary naming (and no doubt there are wealthy donors who are behind this as well).

Texas Prison Museum

[ 26 ] May 3, 2016 |

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When I lived in Texas, I kept wondering if I should go to the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. It was both horrifying and fascinating at the same time. Why would someone go see an electric chair in a prison largely dedicated to celebrating law enforcement? But maybe the answer is that I would go to see who would go see that. In any case, I never actually went. But evidently, prison museums are a burgeoning set of tourist attractions across the country and the Texas Observer has what is actually a really interesting article on the Texas Prison Museum.

But while the museum may reinforce a message of humane treatment as progress, it also reflects prison administration to the exclusion of inmates, says Elizabeth Neucere, a history master’s graduate from SHSU who wrote her thesis about the museum. While panels throughout the museum explain the work inmates do, few exhibits feature prisoners’ voices. Most inmates mentioned by name were executed, tried to escape, or were considered “famous and infamous.” A photo exhibit featuring executed inmates is one of the few displays that allows visitors to hear the voices behind the bars.

“The Texas Prison Museum … inhibits the possibility for public forum by creating silences in its historical presentation through the active choices made in exhibit design or display that makes a narrative superficial or absent,” Neucere writes in her thesis. “Impropriety in the Texas prison system goes unnoticed by museum visitors, making contemporary inmate battles for human rights seem unwarranted.”

For instance, Neucere says, the exhibit on inmate punishment displays handcuffs, a ball and chain, and old padlocks, as well as the bat, a leather strap with a wooden handle legally used to whip inmates until 1941. The card next to the bat says “Used for corporal punishment on convicts until the mid 1940s,” omitting the 1909 state investigation that uncovered abusive use of the bat, debates about banning it during the 1912 governor’s race, and its temporary replacement with the “dark cell,” an early form of solitary confinement. The bat returned to widespread use in the 1930s before being banned in 1941. But none of this information is present in the display.

The museum’s selective silences, Neucere says, are partly a response to Ruiz v. Estelle, which resulted in federal oversight and major reforms to the prison system after the 1980 ruling that it was unconstitutional. “Ruiz is not remembered fondly among the prison system and this is reflected in the museum, along with any other court case against the system,” Neucere writes. The plaintiffs’ accounts of overcrowding, inmate-on-inmate violence and inadequate medical care brought negative publicity. She suggests that, consciously or not, the case likely influenced the museum founders’ presentation of the story.

Pierce, the volunteer archivist, says there’s probably some truth in that argument. Many people who helped with the museum were directly involved with Ruiz compliance issues, “and they were preoccupied with people being sued and fired,” he says. “I think the thing they liked about the museum is that it gives a sense of authenticity, history and importance: ‘Yeah, I worked at the prison system, and there were some bad things about it sometimes, but we have a history.’”

Asked if he thought some of the decade-old informational panels should be updated, Willett, the museum director and retired warden, was hesitant. “History doesn’t change, so a lot of what’s out there is, in my mind, never going to be updated other than to just refresh it from the fading,” he said. “Some of the stuff is historical, and it’s over with, and it won’t be changed.”

It won’t be changed? Now that’s some wishful thinking! In fact, the article goes on to note that Neucere is taking over as curator next year and certainly will change some things. But curators don’t have full power. Most museums has something like a board of governors. Who tends to serve on these boards? Often they are staunch conservatives, either political appointees or people who are very invested in telling specific stories. So I’d be awfully skeptical that any changes to this museum will be fast. Law enforcement’s influence is likely to remain high, not to mention that I’m guessing the average visitor to this museum does not tend to skew as a Sanders voter. Yet such a museum actually has a ton of potential to tell really interesting stories about the past and present.

Graffiti in the National Parks

[ 73 ] May 3, 2016 |

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One of the bad sides of social media’s domination over the universe is that has incentivized graffiti and stunts that promote individuals or allow them to show off to their friends by desecrating monuments and places of natural beauty. There was the graffiti artist a couple of years who decided to make her mark in national parks across the country. There was the Chinese tourist who decided to write his name on the Temple of Luxor in Egypt. Now we have this terrible incident in Arches National Park when a couple of idiots decided to go hog wild and carve their names so deep into the delicate rocks of the region that it can’t be fixed.

Graffiti etched into one of the popular red rock arches in Utah’s Arches National Park may be too deep to be repaired, the park’s superintendent said on Thursday.

The vandalism, which was discovered by park staff last Saturday and includes names and numbers, spans about six feet on the so-called Frame Arch, park superintendent Kate Cannon said.

The site of the graffiti is near a hiking trail to one of the park’s main attractions, Delicate Arch, a 64-feet high sandstone structure that has been known to draw hundreds of visitors at a time.

Authorities have not yet identified any suspects, Cannon said. In a post on their Facebook page, park officials appealed to the public for information that would lead them to the culprits.

Defacing a national park can lead to a sentence of six months in prison and a $500 fine, according to the website for the U.S. Department of Justice.

How about 50 years in Supermax for something like this? What’s really frustrating is that this took so long that others must have seen it. How could you not intervene if you saw this? Walking up and punching them would be a good start.

The Ultimate Trump Supporter

[ 84 ] May 3, 2016 |

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A friend posted this on Facebook the other day. It is an excerpt from Brenda Elsey, “Cultural Ambassadorship and the Pan American Games of the 1950s” just published in the International Journal of the History of Sport.

“The death knell of the Pan-American Games may have sounded in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on 8 July 1979. at evening, the Brazilian women’s basketball team entered the gymnasium to begin their practice. To their surprise, the US men’s basketball coach Bobby Knight barred their entrance. Knight claimed that the Brazilians arrived early and asked a police officer to eject them. The Brazilian women reported that Knight called them ‘prostitutes’. When the officer refused to eject the Brazilian squad, an altercation ensued. According to the police officer’s testimony, Knight punched him on the left side of the face and yelled, ‘get your dirty hands off me, ni**er’. The officer arrested Knight, but sports delegates orchestrated his release in time to coach the men’s final game. Knight justified his behaviour as a patriotic reaction to the anti-Americanism among the rest of the continent. A judge convicted Knight of assault in absentia and sentenced him to six months in jail. Knight refused to appear in court for the trial or sentencing, stating, ‘the only f__king thing they know how to do is grow bananas’. Puerto Rico’s delegate to the International Amateur Basketball Federation, Genaro Marchand, called Knight, ‘an ugly American’. Despite his behaviour, Knight received support at home. The president of Indiana University refused his resignation and he continued to coach the US Olympic basketball team.”

In other words, Bobby Knight is the perfect Trump voter.

This Day in Labor History: May 3, 1965

[ 44 ] May 3, 2016 |

On May 3, 1965, Gene Bernofsky, JoAnn Bernofsky, Richard Kallweit, and Clark Richart bought a 7-acre piece of land north of Trinidad, Colorado. This would become known as Drop City, among the first and most important of the countercultural communes that dotted the American landscape during the late 1960s and 1970s and continuing, in a much diminished form, to the present. While itself not a particularly important day in American labor history per se, we can use this date to serve as a window into how work was organized in the counterculture, which is a meaningful topic on the subject.

Both then and now, there is a stereotype that hippies avoided work. The reality was far more complicated. Sure, many in the counterculture relied heavily on the welfare state to supplement their income. But most, including many of those who qualified for state benefits, valued hard work very highly. What the counterculture by and large rejected was work within the system of corporate capitalism. They weren’t going to be The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, for instance. They didn’t want to work for wages, be union members, go into middle management. But there are many forms of work. Many in the counterculture wanted to labor for themselves, often in the beautiful nature of the American West, either regenerate both the natural world and themselves through labor. One chapter in my book Empire of Timber, details the Hoedads, a group of countercultural reforestation workers in the 1970s. These people took up some of the hardest work imaginable–planting trees on the steep slopes of the Pacific Northwest. Both men and women engaged in this work that was often back-breaking. They felt they were contributing to a more just and sustainable natural world by planting trees while working for themselves outside of capitalism. This work did not make them very much money, usually less than minimum wage, and it was extremely strenuous. But it was work nonetheless.

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In the communes, the work was often quite different but was still work. People such as Stewart Brand promoted countercultural work norms through the Whole Earth Catalog, focusing on self-sustaining economic and environmental projects that promoted people working for themselves. In 1971, the Whole Earth Catalog sold over 1 million copies. Believing that rural spaces were unspoiled, unlike the polluted corporate cities, many young people sought to establish themselves in the country, working on the land. The problem with this is that this work was tremendously hard and most were not ready for it. Disasters struck frequently. Communes would save money and buy a piece of relatively expensive farm equipment and then ruin it because they didn’t know how to use it. They would build unstable structures that would collapse. That they eschewed many western farming methods and instead sought authentic Native American practices, often attempting to contact Native Americans to show them the way did not help their material conditions much. Poverty was often the result. But being in touch with the earth through planting seeds by hand, harvesting farm animals, weaving, or planting trees was work well worth the effort for thousands of people during the years, despite the economic hardships they often faced.

But for all the potentially world-changing implications of countercultural work norms, one thing that is striking is how gender traditional it all was. The counterculture broadly speaking, and certainly many if not most of the communes, internalized traditional gendered work norms. In the communes, men did most of the outdoor labor of constructing buildings, killing hogs, or plowing fields, while women both planted seeds in those fields and worked inside the buildings, cleaning, cooking, and taking care of the children. Women who tried to lay bricks with men reported being ignored and facing huge social pressure to return to the house. Over time, this did begin to fade in some communes, with men being forced to take on some childcare and women doing more physical farmworking tasks.

But this depended on the commune. On The Farm, in Tennessee, founder Stephen Gaskin, considered a guru by many of his followers, set up a traditional gendered world. Because Gaskin believed in the sacred power of women’s reproductive yin and men’s creative yang, Gaskin created a sexual division of labor that largely replicated an idealized past of what was considered 19th century rural gender roles. Quickly realizing that they were in over their heads in terms of the physical creation of community and self-sustainability, 12-14 hour work days with highly specialized roles became common. When they couldn’t make enough money, men hired themselves to local farmers for cash. Women on the other hand created collectivized childcare and worked in cottage industries, financing the enterprises, cooking, farming, taught in the commune’s schools, and other tasks deemed feminine because they were seen as reproductive. In particular, the commune valued midwives as the highest form of female labor and they often played important social and political roles in these groups. Gaskin’s teachings reinforced these ideas, calling men “knights” that needed to protect and provide for women. There was an attempt to reject an unproductive animalistic masculinity in exchange for what be called the creation of the New Age sensitive man, but the gendered norms remained powerful and deeply connected to labor.

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By the late 1970s, the commune movement was fading fast for a variety of reasons. Hippies were becoming old people and out of touch with the youth, or at least that’s how both the hippies themselves and young people saw it. Continued hardship and poverty was not appealing to a lot of men and women who were highly educated and even if they had taken a decade off from the rat race, still had Vassar or Columbia degrees and a lot of racial and cultural capital they could turn into future careers as lawyers or other professions. The revolutionary work ideas of the commune movement would largely go untapped, but their influence can be seen today in the organic farming and DIY work movements, both of which remain vital.

I borrowed from Tim Hodgdon, Manhood in the Age of Aquarius: Masculinity in Two Countercultural Communities, 1965-1983 and Ryan Edgington, “‘Be Receptive to the Good Earth: Health, Nature, and Labor in Countercultural Back-to-the-Land Settlements,” published in Agricultural History in the Summer 2008 edition, to write this post.

This is the 177th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Eagle Cam Shows Nature in Real Life

[ 96 ] May 2, 2016 |

This is one of my favorite stories in some time. People love watching cute animals. Except that those cute animals are often brutal, whether they are male ducks engaging in what to humans looks like gang rape of female ducks (I have witnessed this with my own eyes and it was horrifying) or osprey that attack their own young, or some bald eagles snacking on little Fluffy.

Cat owners have been warned of the dangers their feline companions face when venturing outdoors after video emerged of bald eagles feasting on the body of a dead cat near Pittsburgh.

Footage from a live web camera mounted at the Hays bald eagle nest, located a few miles from the center of Pittsburgh, showed the eagles serving up the cat to hungry eaglets. Concerned cat owners bombarded the local Audubon Society about why the eagles had preyed upon the cat.

“After reviewing the footage, we believe that the cat was dead when brought to the nest,” the Audubon Society of western Pennsylvania in a statement. “While many may cringe at this, the eagles bring squirrels, rabbits, fish (and other animals) into the nest to eat multiple times each day.”

“To people, the cat represents a pet but to the eagles and to other raptors, the cat is a way to sustain the eaglets and help them to grow. While seeing a cat in the nest was difficult for many, we’re hopeful that people will understand that this is a part of nature, and nature isn’t always kind or pretty.”

In other cat news, here’s a cat who has not been eaten by eagles. His name is Torvald, he was born under my house in Albuquerque on May 1, 2003 and he turned 13 the other day. You can see he is already entering his teenage punk phase.

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I know some people like this site because we don’t post cat pictures very often. Well, tonight’s an exception.

Verizon Strike

[ 28 ] May 2, 2016 |

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As many of you know, Verizon’s line workers are on strike. Basically, Verizon is looking to bust its remaining unions. It has invested heavily in wireless, but still has the remains of land-line workers. Those workers have good union contracts, unlike its vast workforce of nonunionized and thus poorly paid wireless employees. Verizon wants to crush those unions. This is a good overview of the problems, from the perspective of a striker. They range from Verizon not willing to accept what concessions CWA and IBEW have already offered because the company wants more to real and important issues around work/life balance and Verizon demanding that crews be away from their families for long periods of time.

This strike has received almost no media coverage. But there is this odd New Yorker piece by Mark Gimein that seems to fall into the frequent pundit trap of “I’m uncomfortable actually seeing strikes so they don’t work and instead unions are dead and workers should just vote if they want to see change.” After a strange beginning where he compares Democratic politicians love of a picket line to evangelicals love of a revival meeting, because of course Democrats have totally been all over picket lines in the last 30 years or something, he goes on to talk about Verizon’s business model and say that the unionized workers are probably doomed. Well, maybe that’s true, I don’t know. But it’s the conclusion that is jaw-dropping.

If, nationally, this is the endgame for unions, a lot still hinges on how that endgame will be played. It’s useful to think in the brutally reductive terms of Wall Street. The gains to be made from the legacy business of picket lines are limited, but there is still plenty of capital built up for unions to spend in the legislative arena. That effort has already started. Not long ago, policy-makers talked about raising the minimum wage by a dollar or two an hour. Now New York and California have approved a fifteen-dollar hourly minimum wage, and Fight For $15 has gone national.

That’s a bigger success for the labor movement than anybody would have anticipated five years ago. The way forward now is less in getting people to join unions and more in taking seriously the question that Sanders raised: what can be done for the millions of workers who don’t have a union and never will?

Oh yeah because the recent minimum wage struggle is the first time unions have played the legislative game???? The major leftist critique of organized labor since World War II is that unions have been too comfortable in the legislature and have rejected direct action tactics that put power in the hands of workers. We certainly know the limits of unions focusing on legislatures, including, among many other things, the Employee Free Choice Act dying almost as soon as Obama took the presidency. I don’t blame unions for playing the legislative game and I largely reject those who just say “forget politics and organize!” It doesn’t make sense.

But now journalists are coming along and saying that if only unions stopped with their silly strikes and instead just lobbied in legislatures, they could win real gains! Yeah, I don’t think organized labor needs to be told by journalists how to use legislatures to their advantage. Gimein also just assumes that unions are completely dead and always will be. That leads him to two conclusions. One, evidently, is that unions should use that supposedly endless capital for gains for all workers through legislative action. Again, they already are, but also, if the unions are busted, then they don’t exist and there is no voice for any workers in American politics as all of that capital disappears. Second, since these workers will never have a union, why try to organize them? That’s not only a defeatist attitude for organized labor, it would mean that his supposed desire to see real gains for workers would never come to fruition and we would see an endless supply of exploitable labor in the United States. Maybe that’s what will happen, but it’s hardly something we should just assume and therefore stop trying to organize.

In conclusion, publications need to have people write labor articles for them who actually know something about organized labor.

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