Thursday, July 11, 2019

Epstein, Barr, and the Treatment of Civic Fatigue Syndrome

Bonnie Honig 
Brown University
Sara Rushing
Montana State University

In 1964, British scientists discovered the first virus known to directly cause cancer in humans. The virus is a nearly universal “pre-existing condition,” affecting 90% of the world’s adult population. In the industrialized West it rarely causes cancer, appearing more commonly as mononucleosis, which causes exhaustion, sore throat, stiffness, pain, and fever. In healthy bodies, people carry the virus but typically don’t get sick. In weak bodies, the effects can be devastating and recurrent.

The virus is called “Epstein-Barr.” This week, the American body politic, weakened by two years of exposure to swampy conditions, malignant misogyny, and rank corruption, has contracted a new strain of it, a bad case of Epstein Barr.
   At the Simply Health website, the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) is said to “often lie dormant.” It might be hidden for years in New York City mansions, Florida golf resorts, or offshore islands, for example. But “when your immune system weakens, whether it is because of stress, or another illness,” or the Republican Party, “the EBV can break free and multiply,” and suddenly it seems to be everywhere, operating out in the open.
   “Given how common the infection is, it’s better to have a good understanding of the symptoms …to protect yourself and keep everything under control. As you [or your democracy] age and your immune system gets weaker, the possibility of an EBV outbreak increases.” The website doesn’t give a specific age but 250 years old, give or take, feels about right.
    The problem is, diagnosis is difficult since “EBV causes many symptoms that are commonly shared with other illnesses.” For example, what looks like voter apathy may turn out to be gerrymandering. What look like free markets may turn out to be oligarchical power structures. What looks like sex with underage women might turn out to be child rape. And what look like concentration camps on your border… might turn out to be concentration camps on your border.

Simply Health makes clear that “prolonged fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of EBV reactivation…If you feel like you have been leading a rather healthy lifestyle with a selective diet, but you just feel tired and low energy all the time for no apparent reason,” or because you are constantly watching the news, checking Twitter, going to marches, donating to candidates, texting to mobilize voters, doing public writing, while still trying to live your life, raise your kids, and do your job, then . . . Simply Health advises helpfully: “it’s time to look into the root cause of the problem.”

Worryingly, many Americans may recognize the symptoms: “You will not be able to function properly when it hits you, because of the low energy level you have. You may try different medication,” if you can afford one, “but nothing seems to work. If you have gone to the doctor, and he still doesn’t know the real cause of the issue, ask him about the possibility of an EBV test” (but first, ask her if your insurance will cover the test). Could it be Epstein-Barr? Or (GULP) is it: Epstein Barr?

Whether Epstein-Barr or Epstein Barr, you may suffer the sore throat that Simply Health lists as the next symptom. Yes, it’s hard to swallow. It may be from mono, but perhaps it’s from yelling at the news as it flies out of your TV, radio, or laptop assaulting you with the latest obscenities. The sore throat, says Simply Health, is a sign “that your immune system is being attacked.” The antibodies that once protected you from the virus are no longer up to the task: judicial institutions, the rule of law, Congress, most of the watchdog media, and others that you normally count on to preserve your system’s health have let the virus re-activate and now you are its unwitting host.

Although Simply Health instructs those infected to “avoid crowded places” so as not to spread contagion, this is actually truer for the Epstein-Barr virus than for the Epstein Barr variety, which is its own strain. Without the hyphen (and really, isn’t that the aim of Make America Great Again: to de-hyphenate America?), Epstein Barr is in fact best combatted by seeking out crowds and mobilizing people so as to infect them with your contagious horror at what is happening and with your equally contagious enthusiasm for what we could achieve together were we to find our common ground. You’ll want to take to your bed, yes. But that feeling in your stomach is telling you something. Listen to it.

Simply Health suggests that “If you work or live in a stressful environment, try to find ways to change it so you can live stress-free.” Analgesics and anti-depressants will only get you so far. You will need to address the enabling conditions that let the virus reactivate and flourish. Real change is the only solution.

While we do the hard work of (re-)democratizing the U.S., maybe we can also entertain ourselves by naming diseases afterallthe wrongdoers. Here is one: Acostitis – a strange syndrome in which, though you are burning with fever, no thermometer can record your temperature. Early detection is especially key for this one, but a 10+ year lag is often suffered by patients (by which we mean victims). Or McConnellopathy, also known as swamp-foot, known for attacking the brain by way of the neck.
    Laughter may be the best medicine, but it is most effective when taken with a large dose of collective action. So ask your doctor if democracy might be right for you.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Abortion, Pluralism, and the Discourse of Genocide

Ben Meiches is an Assistant Professor of Security Studies and Conflict Resolution at the University of Washington-Tacoma and author of The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide.

On May 16th, Kay Ivey of Alabama became the latest governor to sign legislation designed to curtail and penalize the practice of abortion. The Alabama Human Life Protection Act makes performing an abortion a Class A felony with a 10 to 99-year term of imprisonment and is just one of a series of state level efforts to further eliminate legal abortions. In 2019, Georgia also adopted legislation banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected while Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio all enacted ‘six-week’ bans. Similar measures have been introduced in Missouri, Tennessee, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, South Carolina, and West Virginia.

Many commentators maintain that the goal of this legislation is not to prevent abortions per se, but to initiate the process of overturning or modifying Planned Parenthood v. Casey (505 U.S. 833), the controlling Supreme Court precedent that affirmed Roe v. Wade while justifying state regulation of abortion. After two additional Trump appointees to the Supreme Court, the logic goes, Casey and Roe may face unprecedented challenges. While these new state legislative efforts have been the focus of media attention, they represent the labors of a large network of anti-abortion activists that, at times, espouse overt hostility to pluralist values.

One of the tactics of the anti-abortion movement is to rhetorically reposition abortion as a practice akin to the worst. Amongst this arsenal of shameful tropes is a frequent claim that abortion constitutes a form of genocide and, moreover, the worst genocide in human history. This claim appears in the organizational materials of nonprofits. It mimics the structure of humanitarian projects and targets supposedly sympathetic college audiences. The rhetoric is severe enough that it has even become the subject of public dispute. Liberal and leftist responses to this tactic typically point out how this rhetoric trivializes the victims of the Nazis, Young Turks and other genocides. This is an important argument, but it fails to understand why genocide rhetoric has become such a powerful part of the anti-abortion movement and doesn’t sufficiently grapple with the implications of this discourse. Instead, it presupposes a model of contestation that presumes a shared set of norms and sentiments, which required explicit practices of memory work to construct. In addition, the trivialization response embraces a practice that has also been historically used to marginalize black and indigenous claims about genocide, a process of marginalization also entangled in the versions of this discourse embraced by anti-abortion activity. Lurking in the background of the abortion-trivialization is a foundational repression of racial and colonial politics.

Before proceeding, it is worth considering whether there is any possible link between abortion and genocide. The answer to this question is a strong affirmative. Article 2 of the United Nations Genocide Convention explicitly describes “imposing measures intended to prevent births” as a form of genocide, which could, hypothetically, include abortion. The existence of similar language was part of virtually every draft of the Genocide Convention. RaphaĆ«l Lemkin, the jurist who coined the neologism ‘genocide,’ frequently described efforts to prevent birth as a technique or form of genocide (Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, 86). However, these comments were not directed at the practice of abortion per se. Rather, they were designed to ban acts of state discrimination and control directed against the reproductive capacities of specific groups. Lemkin was concerned about strategies for reducing the birth rate of a particular people not abortion writ large. Early drafts of the Genocide Convention, such as the Secretariat Draft, explicitly discussed “sterilization or compulsory abortion,” but these comments appear alongside concerns about policies that prohibit marriage or segregate the sexes. While Lemkin and his interlocutors were guided by presumptions about sex, gender and labor that are no longer salient, the impetus to defend these institutions was based on a desire to insulate vulnerable minorities from predatory efforts to eliminate their forms of life. It is this ambition, the elimination of forms of life in the name of life’s necessity, that animates Michel Foucault’s characterization of “genocide [as] the dream of modern powers” in the age of biopolitics (Foucault, HoS vol. 1, 137). The concept of genocide was created by Lemkin to reject the extension of this power over racial, religious, linguistic, cultural, and national communities.

Hence, under international law, “preventing births” only becomes a form of genocide if it occurs with the intent to destroy a targeted group. This raises the question of how anti-abortion advocates envision the ‘victims’ of this genocide and how they go about ascribing intent to the ‘perpetrators’ of this violence? Typically, this rhetoric focuses on the ‘unborn’ as a subject or victim of this genocide. This interpretation does not have any precedent in the academic or historical literature on genocide.

Let's assume for the moment that we take this position seriously. If the unborn are a group targeted for genocide then this generates a host of other questions about what other practices violently intend to destroy the life for the unborn? Does racial discrimination in maternal medical care constitute genocide according to this standard? What about plastic pollution, which affects fertility or ecological destruction that leads to miscarriages? The traumas of intimate partner violence or sustained domestic abuse? Clearly, these are not a part of the anti-abortion agenda and they show the tensions that emerge if the ‘unborn’ become the group subjected to genocide. The reason anti-abortion advocates do not treat these other practices as forms of violence against the so-called unborn is because a set of religious or cosmological commitments resides in the background of these discourses. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's brilliantly demonstrated how faith and theodicy inform anti-abortion policy prescriptions. If the unborn are interpreted a priori as part of a Christian community then the category of genocide sounds different because abortion appears to constitute an attack against a specific type of religiously defined life. The legitimation of abortion by the secular state becomes, from within this perspective, an attack against the futurity of this identity. However, the underlying move here is the extension of the theocratic principles of a specific model of Christianity to all peoples, which implicitly dispenses with any other articulation of religiosity, faith, belief, etc. Put differently, a subterranean hostility to pluralism, to the contestability of belief, is crucial to making the deployment of genocide rhetoric intelligible in this context.

The tragedy is that the theocratic principles and policy ambitions expressed in this genocide rhetoric more closely resembles the practices that Lemkin and the other authors of the Genocide Convention were working to prohibit. Here is Lemkin defending his own version of pluralism: “The world represents only so much culture and intellectual vigor as are created by its component national groups. Essentially the idea of a nation signifies constructive cooperation and original contributions, based upon genuine traditions, genuine culture, and a well-developed psychology. The destruction of a nation, therefore, results in the loss of its future contributions to the world” (Axis Rule, 91). We may find ourselves discontent with Lemkin’s invocation of authenticity or nationality, terms he redefines and contests within this text, but this statement illustrates that a convention prohibiting genocide was inspired by a pluralist commitment. This commitment rejected the predatory anti-pluralist practices characteristic of fascism and sought to prevent any single theocratic or nationalist principle from dictating the value of political life. Ultimately, anti-abortion genocide rhetoric repurposes a pluralist aspiration to justify evangelical governmentality.

Given Lemkin’s aspirations for the Genocide Convention, how did this language become a resonance machine for anti-abortion advocates? The broader history of the concept of genocide, in spite of its origins as a part of an international justice movement, involves a takeover by reactionary forces. At its inception, genocide was understood to have far reaching anti-colonial and anti-racist implications. In the American context, it was the prospect of the Civil Rights Congress’ ‘We Charge Genocide’ petition and other anti-segregation struggles that demonstrated the impossibility of reconciling the Genocide Convention with a status quo dominated by white supremacist violence. To thwart these struggles and ideological distance themselves from the Nazi regime, the Great Powers crafted the Genocide Convention to limit its scope and applicability. Moreover, in the United States, these anti-racist movements were hounded, defeated, and largely erased from public memory. As a consequence, genocide became a language for criticizing state power (first totalitarian and then communist), but was later taken up by more powerful constituencies on the right to articulate how social reform endangered their identity. Unfortunately, many prominent applications of the language of genocide in international politics also ignore this complicity. What occurred was a rarefication of the language of genocide so it became about moral emergency and the state of exception rather than political justice or social struggle. Just as the prospect of international legal action on genocide became more and more remote, the ability of genocide, as a form of social discourse to incite powerful, stilling resonances grew. The notion that abortion constitutes a form of genocide not only shares a tacit complicity with what Dirk Moses calls “liberal theories” of genocide, but presupposes this capacity of the discourse to intensify, polarize and mobilize. Indeed, in general, the discourse of genocide produces is an affective reorientation of perceptions in relation to harm. It is one of the most acute methods of crystallizing processes that Wendy Brown refers to as ‘states of injury.’ As a consequence, it is difficult to discredit the connection between abortion and genocide solely by asserting competing truth claims. To do so is at best necessary, but not sufficient and at worst a dead end. The goal of this genocide rhetoric is not to have a debate. Instead, it cultivates reactionary affect and amplifies the danger associated with abortion as practiced in the United States. In this sense, it helps craft subjectivities structured around the need to prevent genocidal violence. Subjectivities also fearful of women’s lives, autonomy, and feminist movements in ways that strongly resonate with Klaus Theweleit’s exposition of fascist fears about the feminine. Does this rhetoric inspire attacks on women, abortion clinics, and doctors? Certainly not if the standard of proof depends on linear causality, but the intensities engendered by these discourses alter what is thinkable and contribute to an ecology of values that does produce this kind of violence. 

Disputing this rhetoric by pointing to the ‘real cases of genocide’ isn't sufficient. This gesture creates its own forms of exclusion and trivialization while failing to register the productive effects of genocide discourse. Contesting anti-abortion advocates will be a complex process including multiple scales of political thought and action. A critical history of genocide makes a small contribution to this process by showing that the underlying pluralist orientation of this language is one opposed to the imposition of theocratic principles. However, it also reveals that the explicit rejection of anti-colonial and anti-racist movements was a key condition of possibility for the appropriation of this language by anti-abortion. Challenging the latter also depends on addressing the former.

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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Jeff Sessions at Amherst College: A Cautionary Tale


Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

One of the oldest buildings on the campus of Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts is Johnson Chapel, which has served as a gathering place on campus since the 1820s, when, as was true for so many New England schools, daily chapel was a part of the mandated curriculum. These days, it is used for fall commencement ceremonies, when first year students are welcomed by the faculty and president, and for senior class day ceremonies, when awards to outstanding graduating students are distributed. It is also a place where prominent speakers appear.

It is a venerated space. Portraits of all of the prior presidents of the College hang on the walls. And several luminaries among alumni, including the first Japanese graduate of a liberal arts college in the United States, Joseph Hardy Neeshima, who returned to Japan to found Doshisha University, Calvin Coolidge, a graduate of the College and a president of the United States, and the first female faculty member of the College, Rose Olver, have their portraits there.

Among the most prominent portraits is one that came about as the result of a campaign by African American alumni who graduated in the 1990s -- I recall, Willie Epps, Jr. and Chaka Patterson, of the class of 1991, being involved: Epps is now a Federal judge, Patterson a prominent attorney in Chicago. It is a portrait of Charles Hamilton Houston, who graduated from Amherst as class valedictorian in 1915, the only black member of his class. Houston went on to become a professor of law at Howard University, where he mentored such students as Thurgood Marshall and then resigned from Howard in the 1940s to help prepare the legal strategy for the NAACP challenge to Jim Crow, an effort that culminated in the 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. (Another prominent African American jurist, William H. Hastie, Jr. is also a graduate of Amherst College, in 1925. Hastie became Dean of Howard Law School. I hold an endowed chair at Amherst College that was established in his honor.)

On Wednesday, April 24, 2019, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, who until his recent forced resignation, was Attorney General of the United States of America, gave a speech in Johnson Chapel. How this racist, white nationalist, misogynist promoter of criminal immigration policies—the first prominent political supporter of our neo-fascist president—came to be standing in Johnson Chapel under the gaze of Houston is a telling story of the politics of our time, a sordid tale of power and corruption, the timidity of academic leaders, and the cynicism of the American right.

The story begins earlier this spring, when the College Office of Diversity and Inclusion—an office established to help integrate our increasingly diverse student body—ill-advisedly released a language guide, the intent of which was to educate students on how to speak inoffensively to each other about sexual, gender, class, racial and other kinds of differences. It contained overtones of Orwellian group-speak and overreach. Among other things, it chose to define “capitalism” as a system of exploitation and class oppression. This particular definition attracted the negative attention of the Amherst College Republicans (ACR), who immediately contacted right-wing websites such as the Daily Caller so as to subject the College to derision. The president of the College, Biddy Martin, withdrew the language guide, and the matter seemed settled.

But then the ARC overreached. Claiming that they wanted to meet with some transgender students to discuss elements of the guide having to do with descriptions of various elements of trans identity and sexual practices, they were caught on an internet application privately mocking the students they were about to meet. When the student newspaper, the Amherst Student, released screen shots of some their exchanges, the ACR as an organization was brought up on charges by the student government association, which defunded their activities, and in their own overreach, demanded that the officers of the ACR submit to sensitivity training. The president of the College again intervened, explaining that disciplinary proceedings of the College were the responsibility of the College, not the student government. She also issued a generic statement urging civility of discourse on campus.

These events occurred in the same weeks when the Amherst Student also reported that the men’s lacrosse team had held a private party in December in which members of the team (passed out drunk?) had had swastikas (and penises) drawn on their foreheads and then other members of the team had posed for photos with them, all of which, of course, found their way onto the internet. While this incident had been referred to the College’s athletic department and the dean of discipline, it was unclear whether the punishment that a few team members suffered, being benched for a couple of early season games, was enough, given the offenses. In short, Amherst College was enduring another spring in which youthful stupidity, ignorance, and moral righteousness were blending into an ugly farrago.

Sometime during this period, the ACR was put in touch with the Young America Foundation (YAF), a right-wing educational foundation that, among other things, sponsors outside speakers to speak at colleges and universities throughout the United States. If one goes to their website, one can see people such as Ben Shapiro, David Horowitz, Dinesh D’Sousa, and others of their ilk suggested as possible speakers on the issue of campus activism. (YAF has a deep history in the post-WW II American right, having some time ago absorbed another, similarly named group, Young Americans for Freedom, which had organized libertarian and more traditional conservative students since its founding in 1960 by William F. Buckley. The Young Americans for Freedom are now described as a “project of the Young America’s Foundation.) YAF offered to pay for Sessions to speak at Amherst College. This offer was made, it seems, within two weeks of the visit, and was seen by many, including the College’s president, as a cynical response to the attack on the ACR.

The idea seemed simple enough. From the perspective of ACR, however the College responded to their request for a space, it would be a victory. Should the College allow Sessions to speak, it would be legitimating hate speech on campus, in open conflict with its own policies concerning respect for persons, and would incense students who think that such vile racist haters shouldn’t be given the imprimatur of the College. If, for any reason, the College was to decline to sponsor Sessions’s visit—for instance, the administration could have claimed that it was not given sufficient time (which, while true in one sense, would have been a value-neutral bureaucratic reason, easily seen through)—the rejection would have resulted in the sort of national publicity that attended UC Berkeley’s cancellation of Anne Coulter’s speech last year. (Coulter herself actually spoke at Amherst College a few years ago.) The one reason to reject Sessions that would have been fully consistent with the values of the College would have been the most straightforward one. The College policy is explicit in that its statement concerning respect for persons condemns hate speech. Sessions’s record is filled with examples of hatred, dating back from expressions of racial animus while he was a US Attorney, revealed in hearing when he was nominated to be a Federal judge in 1986 by Ronald Reagan. The nomination failed, and launched him on his political career in the US Senate.

Interestingly enough, rumors quickly circulated that should Sessions be denied his chance to speak on campus, the agreement that the ACR had made with the YAF would have required the ACR to pay Sessions fee, which was purported to be about $15,000. So, the stakes were high for the ACR, which would probably have had to dissolve as an organization were it stuck with a bill for that amount. 

President Martin agreed to sponsor the speech. Upon hearing this news, I sent the president an email. (It was written in haste and anger and was peppered with typos, much to my chagrin. And on my moral high-horse, I perhaps was not persuasive. You may judge for yourself.)

Among other things I said, “I hope you realize you are now sponsoring hate speech and action . . .
The luxury of being a private institution is that we can say no. Jeff Sessions is a documented racist, and he has directed national policies that have been extraordinarily cruel and inhumane, separating children from their parents, causing the worst sorts of pain, denying refugees their right, under international law previously agreed upon by the United States, to seek asylum.
This despicable man isn't coming here to speak, to try to persuade, but to collect a paycheck and to foment hate, and to troll our college . . .
I am aware of your calculations regarding the endowment of the college. . .  But those calculations, concerning who will continue to give to the college, and the people who are adding and subtracting, including you, are cowardly. . . The true endowment of this college is not the billions of dollars, but the adherence we may hold to our principles.
I, of course, never heard back from Martin. Few of my colleagues publicly condemned her decision over the next days, or called into question having Sessions on campus, or organized protests. 

Instead, a few colleagues suggested providing some counter-programming at the campus center to coincide with the time of Sessions’s speech. A few of us professors gathered outside of Johnson Chapel, one colleague with a sign that simply quoted from the College’s policy concerning respect for persons. We waited outside, knowing that some of the student inside would stage a walk-out (the College closed the event to allow only students, faculty and staff of the College to attend, preventing other members of the Amherst community from attending; campus police were supplemented by town police, who took photos of some of us. I took photos of them in return.) Eventually, about 100 students walked out (apparently, about half of the audience), and gathered on the main quad nearby, chanting anti-hate slogans and listening to each other speak. Inside, Sessions asserted it was time for the country to move past the Mueller report, implying that it was the report itself that had divided the country, and expressing his worry for conservative students on campus, who he claimed felt threatened by political correctness.

And so it went. 

The reluctance on the part of my colleagues to directly confront and condemn the purveyor of hate on our campus seemed to stem from a worry that we were being “trolled” by the Right, and that to condemn Sessions would be to “Play into their hands.” Such reasoning seemed to be based on the idea that there is a point at which placating, rather than condemning, will allow us to proceed in peace with our work, so that the hate machines and institutions of the far right will move on. But as has been becoming increasingly clear, we are being confronted in the United States with a major political party that embraces tactics of earlier fascist parties—of intimidation, voter suppression, personal threat, using the internet not only to troll but to dox those who speak against them, issuing death threats against public opponents of their hate, using instruments of state power to threaten defunding of programs. They will continue these tactics regardless of any placating tactics we may adopt.

These neo-fascists members of the Republican Party know that one of the strongest sources of opposition to their rule is, in fact, the professoriate of our universities and colleges. Political theorists such as William Connolly, in these pages and in recent books, and Jeff Isaac with his ongoing stream of analysis of the right on his website, are but two examples of the many in our community who have been raising the alarm against this rising authoritarianism. (Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, provides a useful frame for understanding the core anti-democratic thrust of this far right.) But even so, too many others are trying to pretend that Trumpism represents the last gasp of a fading movement, on its way out of power, employing, for instance, the theory of presidential cycles advanced by Stephen Skowronek to suggest that Trump represents the end of a political cycle that is quite normal, that the machinations his administration has undertaken is a sign of weakness. Trump, in this reading, is merely the latest disjunctive president, a new version of Jimmy Carter. But this reading ignores the fact that it is not only Trump, but the entire Republican Party at the national level that has at this point embraced lawlessness as the core of its governing strategy, breaking the cycles of ordinary politics by breaking with the laws and norms that have in past succeeded in somewhat constraining those who desire to retain power exceeds their adherence to any democratic ethos. 

These neo-fascists must be countered, confronted, loudly opposed, not appeased. For the tactics used by the far right are in service of a deep anti-democratic agenda, one that calls into question the very values of equal justice that is at the core of democratic values. We do not simply negotiate justice. We fight for it. Against the trolls, against the racists, against the haters. We call them what they are, and we fight against the ignorance they foment. Especially as professers of truth—let’s say professors of truth—that’s our job.


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Monday, April 29, 2019

Neoliberalism Down on the Farm

John Buell is is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and teaches at Acadia Senior College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

Farming has always been a risky business. Even when the land is lovingly tended flood, drought, or disease can wipe out a whole year’s crop. Corporate media usually term such events “natural disasters.” Climate scientists are more likely to cite the role of human- induced climate change in increasing the severity of such events. But just which humans and what agendas are most guilty of squandering our natural capital? It turns out that one of the key culprits is our modern financialized agriculture. The damage that unregulated finance has done to our banking system is being steadily replicated in agriculture. Finance itself is a force increasing climate challenges and reducing the ability of the land and its human tenders to absorb and bounce back from trauma.
Jennifer Clapp’s and S. Ryan Isakson’s Speculative Harvest: Financialization, Food, and Agriculture tells a complex story in a concise, readable fashion. In many introductory econ texts, agriculture is portrayed as part of a true competitive market where supply and demand determine price. No one buyer or seller has enough of the market to influence price. Yet that is not the case now and has not been so for decades. In the years following WWII, governments in both north and South employed buffer stocks as a way of mitigating wild price swings in domestic markets. But with the crisis of New Deal liberalism in the late sixties and seventies, governments were under increasing pressure to deregulate both agricultural commodity markets and financial markets. Deregulated markets, however, were not perfectly competitive. As manufacturing profits were on the decline, finance increasingly became US capitalism’s fastest growing source of profit. And one of its most vital sectors was agriculture.
Trades in commodity futures contracts, promises to deliver certain quantity of a product on a certain date, had always been part of agricultural economics. But with this important limitation: Those who were not involved in or directly dependent on these commodities were limited in the number of positions they could take in the market so that outside investors could not corner the market.
Banking deregulation led agricultural policy down a dangerous path. Investment banks crafted and then sold large numbers of commodity index funds, funds pegged to the value of a basket of diverse commodities. However, concerned they might have to make large payouts if commodity prices rose sharply, investment banks requested and gained the right to invest directly, no position limits, in agricultural commodity markets.

The combination of index funds indirect and direct investment by lightly regulated banks made commodity markets more volatile, with especially harmful effects on the poor. Poor farmers cannot simply accumulate and store food stocks when prices are low.
Neoliberalism, however, if nothing else is resilient. If commodity markets are volatile by reason of weather and if poor farmers are too technologically backward, offer environmental insurance packages and/or loans for upgrading and/or consolidation of farms. These, however, have unfortunate side effects. Qualifying for these services required cultivation of a limited number of crops, ones for which the derivatives and international markets exist as well as adherence to standard industrial farming techniques. In the process the role of these crops on the farm and in the halls of Congress is only strengthened.
Biodiversity is a major casualty Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder and director of Local Futures (International Society for Ecology and Culture), points out: “Most farm subsidies in the US go to five crops — corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice — that are the centerpieces of global food trade.” The IMF estimates these subsidies and ignored environmental costs at $5.3 trillion per year
Clapp and Isakson show that at all points of the food chain investments are made to enhance shareholder value rather than the quantity or quality of the product. Neoliberal agriculture is a self-reinforcing system. Reducing farmland to a simple numerical quantity abstracted from its history and social context facilitates opportunities to play financial games with land and encourages shareholders to treat corporate decisions solely in terms of profit and loss. The belief—accurate or not-- that land can be quantified and sound models of risk assessment fashioned helps these markets escape regulation and grow. Their growth in turn adds to their political power and ability to continue to extort government subsidies. In a similar fashion sophisticated value at risk models and their underlying faith in predictability helped banks expand the market for the arcane securities they pedaled in the years preceding the Global Financial Crisis. 

To advance short term profits, mergers and acquisitions, which increase profit margins---often at the expense of workers and consumers—are widely practiced throughout the food chain. Nonetheless, displaced workers and consumers are offered the chance to invest in food through 401(k)s. In the process finance becomes a staple of everyday life. The whole dynamic depends on and reinforces the concentration of both economic and political power. In this context, the authors might have discussed the role that the virtual elimination of anti-trust law played in this process. 

If neoliberal agriculture is a self -reinforcing ecology at the political and economic level, it has analogous tendencies from topsoil to table to gut. Even at the level of the consumer, who may think he or she is getting high quality cheap food, the neoliberal food chain is not so beneficent. The authors point out: “Financial demands have influenced the… food that manufacturers make available to consumers. Food manufacturers have focused on growing markets for snack foods laden with salt, sugar, and fat, which encourage overeating, thereby maximizing profits” (120).
The assault on the diet is further aided by a nutritional “science” bought and paid for by the food giants. Jane Brody cites a recent example: “Coca-Cola has led an effort to undermine the contribution of sugar-laden carbonated water to the nation’s obesity epidemic….The company funded a study of childhood obesity that, without looking for a possible link between overweight and sugary soft drinks, concluded that low physical activity, inadequate sleep and lots of television watching were most important. To make such conclusions appear valid, Coca-Cola enlisted the participation of university-based scientists all of whom stood, directly or indirectly, to profit financially from their association with the research.”
The relative popularity of fast food also reflects one of the singular constraints of contemporary US capitalism, the war on free time. Fast food appeals because it is fast, and substantial umbers of US workers have multiple jobs or long hour jobs they dare not give up. It is also clear that many of the most successful corporate giants in high tech have succeeded by virtue of one of the oldest corporate techniques, the speedup and intensification of the work process. As in many other areas Amazon has used its immense market power to enhance its power over the human body. One journalist points out: “Twenty-five of its warehouses in North America use…robots. Of course, humans work at the… warehouse, too, 2,500 of them. Technology dictates their work in a different way. Computer screens are ubiquitous, giving workers information about their tasks and running updates on their rate per hour.” Bathroom breaks are timed. Workers who fail to achieve the desired rates are disciplined or fired. 
Workers in such a situation are inviting targets for the neoliberal food chain. The right combination of fat and sugar eases some of the strains of daily life—at least temporarily. There are reasons why agribusiness promotes Twinkies and not fresh broccoli. 

Financialized agriculture is headed for crises both at the level of individual and national budgets. Deteriorating health and explosive increase in obesity-related disease impose budgetary obligations even current neoliberal governments cannot completely evade. Ultimately exploitation of the soil and the surrounding biomes is socially destructive’ Since neoliberal agriculture is a complex, surprising assemblage of political and economic power, policy agendas, personal tastes and insecurities, and philosophical understandings of nature and human agency, we need interconnected action and conversation on several fronts.
Here are some preliminary thoughts: 

1. Articulate in clear language the ways financial capitalism works along all points of the food. Special attention should be paid to the fallacies and failures of the predictive models in finance as applied to agriculture. It is vitally important to start this discussion now. Clapp and Isakson have made an excellent contribution to this project.
2. Presenting alternatives is equally crucial. Alison Rose Levy suggests: “As part of a New Food Deal, we could erase these inequities by shifting land use, investment, and subsidy patterns away from corporate giants and towards regenerative agriculture’s local networks of farmers and food growers. Building food security across the country region-by-region will better address future climate disruption than expecting unresponsive monopolies with cheap food and expensive advertising to do it. Rural economic development has the added benefit of putting a safety net under rural populations maligned and rendered invisible by neoliberal policies and politicians.”
3. If finance plays such a role, reforms beyond mere re-regulation of futures markets will be necessary. Why not seek financial sovereignty as well as challenging corporate finance’s excesses? One fundamental aspect of sovereignty is the right to print one’s own currency. Nations lacking that right are forever at the mercy of bond and currency markets. The US prints its own currency, but under the sway of conservative finance theory acts as though it were constrained by the 19th century gold standard. Future work by scholars and activists might address the role that public banking or a Fed and Treasury liberated from a more repressive role could play in a reconstituted agriculture. These could address the rural anxieties that are central to some of the worst world politics.
4. On a more philosophical level activists might challenge the hubris inside modern neoliberal agriculture. Not only is its understanding of the magic of markets tragically flawed, its very conception of the exclusivity of human agency is dangerously limited. Several alternative philosophical traditions raise this pint. I am inspired by the vital materialism espoused by Johns Hopkins political theorist Jane Bennett’. More than fuel for us, gut and soil bacteria help enable our action in the world through their complex interactions. She puts the case as follows: “My flesh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners… the bacteria in the human microbiome collectively possess at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome… we are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of microbiomes. If more people marked this fact more of the time, if we were more attentive to the indispensable foreignness that we are, would we continue to produce and consume in the same violently reckless ways?” (112–13) 
5. Since neoliberal agriculture is sustained by the gut as well as a calculating brain the response to neoliberalism might endorse and draw sustenance—and food choices-- from the Slow Food movement, a theme Bennett and Brown University political theorist Bonnie Honig have analyzed in depth. The movement began as a protest against the first McDonalds in Italy. It called on citizens to resist the bland homogeneity of fast food on behalf of diversity of taste.
Hardly a nostalgic movement, Slow Food relied heavily on the speed of global communication even as it used that knowledge base to foster the local and the homegrown. The movement’s proclamation of a “right to taste” highlighted even as it acknowledged the distinctiveness, even absurdity of this claim from the perspective of the usual schedule of rights. Intending to defend the masses from the hegemony of fast food by making diversity available to them, the movement soon found that this seemingly elitist goal could only be sustained in conjunction with other not so elite goods including animals raised slowly without antibiotics, meals prepared and eaten slowly. 
Realizing, however, that they would need to appeal to a constituency hardened by a fast food taste and life style world they offered events and classes to nurture sensitivity to diverse complex and subtle flavors to which they had been desensitized. They also publicized and advanced their cause by awarding Ark Prizes to those who helped preserve vanishing fruit, animal, and vegetable species too delicate to survive commercial agriculture (See Bonnie Honig,, Emergency Politics and “Three Models of Emergency Politics,” Boundary 2). 

Our diet is hardly a manifestation of consumer sovereignty. Diets often reflect monopoly power, cultural expectations, a history of taste, and the millions of bio agents within and around us. There are grounds for hope and despair in this recognition. It is up to us to decide. 
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