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(en) Black Flag #222 - Reviews (2 of 2)

From anarcho@geocities.com
Date Sat, 14 Dec 2002 07:07:09 -0500 (EST)


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Fast Food Nation
Eric Schlosser
Allen Lane
The Penguin Press

This is an excellent book, crammed full of useful (and disgusting)
"McNuggets" of information on the whole process of producing "fast
food." From the industrialisation of farming, to the monopolisation of
food processing, to the standardisation of food consumption throughout
whole sections of North America, Schlosser's book exposes the horrors
of modern corporate capitalism. He documents the impact of the rise of
fast food on almost all aspects of North America, from farming to
health, from working practices to landscape, and beyond.
    Like the "fast food" economy he dissects, Schlosser's work is far
ranging, covering such notable scum bags as Walt Disney (whose father,
ironically, was a socialist) and Ray Kroc (the man responsible for
making McDonalds what it is now). Schlosser, to his credit, fills his
book with interviews with workers involved in every stage of the "fast
food" process, including independent farmers and those opposed to
corporations advertising in schools and providing teaching materials.
He brings a refreshingly human look at an industry that denies in
practice individuality and humanity.
    The vision of a "fast food" world is truly horrific. It is a world
where even the smell and taste of food is mass produced. Standardised
food for a standardised society. As he memorably notes, "Millions of...
people at that very moment were standing at the same counter, ordering
the same food from the same menu, food that tasted everywhere the
same." The true banality of capitalism is exposed in all its multitude
of ramifications in Schlosser's book. The Orwellian world of modern
corporate capitalism is seen in all its "glory." A world in which the
industry group formed to combat Occupational Safety and Health
Administration regulation is called "Alliance for Workplace Safety" and
where the processed food's taste has to have the correct "mouthfeel."
It is a world where corporations feed at the public trough and then
praise the free market, where firms grow huge and exercise monopolistic
power while talking about competition, where executives talk about "the
very essence of freedom" and yet their corporation's "first commandant
is that only production counts... The employee's duty is to follow
orders. Period." For all its talk of liberty, the essence of capitalism
is wage slavery, and its most odorous aspects are well documented here.
    Fast Food Nation discusses the corporations' perspective on
independent farms, opposing any attempt to form co-operatives or
associations to improve their bargaining position in the market. As one
executive put it, "Our relationship with our growers is a one-on-one
contractual relationship" and they "want to see that it remains that
way." As with the industrial workforce, the talk of "teamwork" just
hides the reality of corporate power - the liberty of doing what you
are told, under conditions specified by the powerful. Under such
pressure, America's independent farmers are being replaced by
industrial farms.
    Schlosser places the birth of the "fast food" industry within the
1950s love affair with "progress." Technology would solve all our
problems, even the ones it generates itself. The irrationalities here
can easily be seen. For example, faced with the serious health problems
generated by the industrialisation of meat processing, the meatpacking
industry advocated yet more technology to "solve" the problems caused
by the existing technology. Rather than focusing on the primary causes
of meat contamination, they proposed irradiating food. Of course the
firms involved want to replace the word "irradiation" with the phrase
"cold pasteurisation"!
     Much of what happens today is justified in terms of "progress."
Progress is, we are assured, "neutral." As if! Capitalism is a class
society, marked by exploitation, oppression and social hierarchies. As
such, change within it will reflect the various class conflicts, social
hierarchies, power relationships and so on which exist within it as
well as the rationales of the economic system (e.g. the drive for
profits). Therefore progress can hardly be neutral. This is
particularly true of the economy. The development of the industrial
structure of a capitalist economy will be based on the fundamental need
to maximise the profits and power of the capitalists. It does not
follow that because a society which places profits above people has
found a specific way of organising production "efficiently", a
socialist society will do the same. Anarchists have long been aware
that capitalist methods are precisely that and that they may not suit a
society which replaces the profit system with human and ecological need
as the criteria for decision making. Reading Fast Food Nation brings
home this anarchist perspective and provides some modern and well
researched documentation to support it. We must never forget that
capitalism twists progress in its own imagination.
    Fast Food Nation also brings home how alienated the West is from
its food. Food production has become increasingly industrialised and
concentrated into fewer and fewer big firms. It also raises some
important questions for revolutionaries. Clearly, the Leninist idea
that socialism simply involves nationalising big business is a fallacy.
If a future society is seem in terms of nationalising McDonalds and
appropriating the "efficient" mass production generated within
capitalism, not only will it not work, it will not inspire anyone to
fight for it.
    The logical conclusion of the Leninist vision in terms of food
production would be highly centralised and extremely fragile to outside
shocks. The disruption of "normalcy" experienced in most revolutions
would quickly mean the disruption of such an industrialised food
production and distribution system. This reinforces Kropotkin's
arguments in Conquest of Bread on the importance of decentralising
production during a revolution. Not only would this ensure the feeding
of a rebellion, it would also be the first step in creating a method of
producing food which was in harmony with nature and encouraged
diversity in both production and in the final meal (as the French say,
"Non a McMerde").
    The book has its weaknesses. Like most of the so-called "anti-
capitalist" authors how being published by capitalist firms to profit
from the current wave of global mass protest, Schlosser nor his
proposed solutions are in any way anti-capitalist. While presenting a
searing indictment of US capitalism, his vision of the future is simply
US capitalism infused with a European social-democratic sensibility.
Needless to say, he is not opposed to wage labour. Indeed, he holds up
family owned businesses which treat their workers paternalistically as
an alternative to corporate capitalism. There is not even a mention of
co-operatives which would, at least, be a step forward. Schlosser's
vision of a nice capitalist is identical to that of Tolstoy's kind
donkey owner who will do everything for the donkey except get off its
back.
    Similarly, his suggested European-style America is totally
compatible with capitalism. While correctly acknowledging (in fact
basing his suggestions on) the corporate control over the political
structure, he raises the spectre of consumer power as the means of
achieving his goals. As he puts it, corporations will "sell free-range,
organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it. They will sell whatever
sells at a profit." Which, of course, is true. It is equally true that
we are not forced to buy fast food, which is why companies spend so
much in convincing us to buy their products. Even ignoring the
influence of advertising, it is unlikely that using the market will
make capitalism nicer. Sadly, the market rewards the anti-social
activities that Schlosser chronicles in his book. As he himself notes,
"The low price of a fast food hamburger does not reflect its real
cost.. . The profits of the fast food chains have been made possible by
the losses imposed on the rest of society." The idea that by using the
market we can "reform" capitalism is flawed simply because even "good"
companies have to make a profit (i.e. will exploit workers' labour) and
so will be tempted to cut costs, inflict them on third parties in the
form of pollution, and so on. Ultimately, the price mechanism does not
provide enough information for the customer to make an informed
decision about the impact of their purchase and, by reducing prices,
actively rewards the behaviour Schlosser condemns.
    Rather than see change as resulting from collective struggle,
Schlosser sees it in terms of individual decisions within the market
place. As such, it does not break from the logic of capitalism and so
is doomed to failure. After all, what is now "organic" production was
just the normal means of doing it. The pressures of the market, the
price mechanism he suggests as the tool for change, ensured the
industrialisation of farming he so clearly condemns. Ultimately, we
must never forget that the unfeeling corporate capitalism Schlosser
exposes so well, sprung from the family owned, small-scale industry he
holds up as an alternative. Indeed, one of his examples of paternalist
capitalism broke apart in the 1970s under the pressure of class
struggle and competitive pressures from less "ethical" capitalists..
This, in itself, shows the weakness of his means of change. Capitalism
has a dynamic nature that propels it in certain directions, namely
towards big business. Only when faced with a greater danger (namely a
mass popular movement which could go further than the politicians
suggest), will capitalists submit to state regulation. And as the 1960s
and 70s show, this submission will not last long.
    This is not to suggest that individual decisions on what to consume
are irrelevant, far from it. Nor are consumer boycotts a waste of time.
If organised into mass movements and linked to workplace struggle they
can be very effective. This is the main failure in Fast Food Nation. It
fails to appreciate the importance of working class struggle and
organisation (forming unions is mentioned in passing, for example). As
the book makes clear, much of the drive behind the way the fast food
industry has developed has been fuelled by fear of labour. Like the
food they produce, the "fast food" corporations want workers that are
standardised, uniform, easy to define and replace. No training is the
goal in this industry and de-skilling the means. Applying Taylorist
ideology developed in mass production, the skills of workers are
transferred as far as possible into the hands of management and into
machinery. In this way anyone can replaced, making workplace organising
and action more difficult. Schlosser presents extensive evidence of
machinery designed to reduce the power of labour, industries moved to
crush unions and, of course, the anti-union perspectives of the "fast
food" giants. Needless to say, this fear of labour is well-founded as
profits are unpaid labour extracted by management's power over workers,
whose acts of resistance can bring the whole thing crashing down.
    It is here we must look for a real solution to the problems
generated by capitalism, not in "green" consumerism. Equally, we must
also be aware that the new world we are struggling for must not just
aim to take over, without modification, the existing industrial
structure. While the expropriation of capital is a necessary step in
the social revolution, it is not the end. As Fast Food Nation shows, an
alienated society has created an alienated means of feeding itself.
Such a system will have to be transformed from top to bottom by those
who live and work in it into one fit for human beings to live in.
I.M.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
Workers Against Lenin:
Labour Protest and the Bolshevik Dictatorship
Jonathan Aves
Tauris Academic Studies
I.B. Tauris Publishers

Published in 1996 by an academic publishers, Aves book is essential
reading for anyone interested in the outcome of the Russian Revolution.
For decades Trotskyists have been arguing that the Russian working
class had been decimated during the Civil War period and was incapable
of collective decision making and organisation, so necessitating
Bolshevik Party dictatorship over them. Workers Against Lenin provides
extensive evidence to refute those claims.
    In his work Aves provides an extremely well researched and readable
account of labour protests during the period of 1920 to 1922. Rather
than the Trotskyist claim of a 'non existent' working class, workers
under Lenin were more than capable of collective action and
organisation. Perhaps it is because this struggle was directed against
the Bolsheviks that explains this blind spot? In this they simply
follow Lenin: "As discontent amongst workers became more and more
difficult to ignore, Lenin... began to argue that... workers had become
'declassed.'"
    The most famous expression of collective workers struggle during
this period was, of course, the general strike in Petrograd which set
off the Kronstadt revolt. Due to Kronstadt, this strike wave is often
downplayed or even ignored but, in fact, general strikes or very
widespread unrest took place nation-wide. Faced with this mass wave of
protest, the Bolsheviks used a combination of concessions (on the
economic demands raised, not the political ones like free soviet
elections, freedom of speech and organisation for workers) and
repression. They also called it the "yolynka" (which means "go slow")
rather than a strike movement to hide its real nature and size.
    This was hardly an isolated event. Strike action, Aves notes,
"remained endemic in the first nine months of 1920" as well. In
Petrograd province, 85,642 people were involved in strikes, which is a
high figure indeed as, according to one set of figures, there were only
109,100 workers there at the time! Rather than this being an isolated
and atomised working class, what comes through clearly from Aves' work
is that the workers, usually drawing on pre-1918 experiences and modes
of struggle, could and did take collective action and decisions in the
face of state repression.
    As the Bolsheviks clamped down on all independent working class
activity and organisation, it is hardly surprising that the workers
became marginal to the revolution. Moreover, it was during this period
that the Bolsheviks raised the dictatorship of the party to both a
practical and ideological truism. Given workers opposition to the
Bolsheviks, this was the only way they could remain in power. This
implies that a key factor in rise of Stalinism was political - the
simple fact that the workers would not vote Bolshevik in free soviet
and union elections and so they were not allowed to. As one Soviet
historian put it in his account of the "yolynka," "taking the account
of the mood of the workers, the demand for free elections to the
soviets meant the implementation in practice of the infamous slogan of
soviets without communists."
    This review cannot hope to cover all the important information
contained in this book. Aves' discussion on the intensification of war
communism and Trotsky's "militarisation of labour" is excellent,
placing it in the period of peace at the beginning of 1920 and noting
its ideological basis. Also of interest is his account of the "mini-
Kronstadt" in the Ukrainian town of Ekaterinoslavl in June 1921, where
workers raised resolutions very similar to those raised at Kronstadt,
including the demand for "free soviets" popularised by the Makhnovists.
    Simply put, its hard to claim that the Russian working class had
"ceased to exist in any meaningful sense" in such circumstances. As
such, Workers Against Lenin helps to undermine the various forms of the
Bolshevik myth and, as such, is a key resource for studying the Russian
Revolution. Being an academic book, it is expensive and will need to be
ordered from a bookshop or a library. However, the wealth of
information contained in it, the social context in which it places
protest and developments in Bolshevik policies and ideas, make it a
must-read for all people who want a revolution to be more than changing
who the boss is.
IM

------------------------------------------------------------------------
Direct Action, memoirs of an urban guerrilla
Ann Hansen
Between the Lines / AK Press

This quite a stressful book to read, despite the fact that we know how
the story ends. Living 'underground' means a constant stream of crimes
- from shoplifting for food, stealing cars for transport as well as the
'actions' themselves - any of which could have meant disaster.
    The focus is exclusively on the active period when Direct Action
where making things go bang in Canada: part of an electricity
megaproject, a cruise missile component factory and (as the Wimmins
Fire Brigade) a series of outlets for violent pornography. The people
involved definitely didn't want to carry out purely symbolic actions:
as Hansen herself  has said "the bomb we used at Litton building [where
cruise missile components were built] was too big..."
    'Damn, Ann Hansen can write!' says one of the reviewers, and it's
true; however, as well as a straight first person account you also get
a 'reconstruction' of what the 'forces of law and order' were up to -
which is just as fascinating. Part of the quality of this book is its
personal nature - the dynamics of the individuals are scrutinised as
clearly as the political context of the times. This makes you wonder at
times how these events would look through the eyes of the other people
involved, but that's inevitable with a book which steers clear of empty
phrases - either celebratory or repentant - which it could have been
written in.  This book gives some 'pitfalls to avoid' kind of hints:
getting arrested for shoplifting, not taking notice when you're
obviously under surveillance etc. but more than that it raises some
interesting tactical questions. A non-symbolic approach to blowing
things up marks you out as serious - and also inevitably increases the
scale and urgency of the state response. How can 'the underground' and
'the movement' safely talk to each other? That connection - different
methods, similar ends - is something that is vital in current
discussion of tactics.
    The big question which many will ask (and not only the dyed-in-the-
wool non-resisters) is 'was it worth it?' Does defeat equal failure?
Few political activities produced immediate and lasting results on
their own; guerrilla activities are no exception - they are merely
another part of the struggle, and the more closely connected they are
to that struggle, the more effective they'll be. In an interview about
the book, Hansen has said she would like to see a discussion of "going
beyond legal protest" and that she wants to "inspire more militancy,
not less". Overall the book gives a good guide to the potential and
dangers of underground activity: a worthy companion to Baumann's 'How
it all began'.
JT



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