Blood...or Soil? Fascism, Leftism, and the Coming Food Crises
A few weeks ago I was in an old Burgundian town in central France, huddled inside a house as a suffocating heat enveloped the land.
It was 105 degrees beyond those walls, just as it had been the day before. 105 degrees was four degrees above a record high of 101, and 26 degrees above the average temperature during the traditionally hottest month of the year there. This was the second heat wave in France in the space of three weeks, notable not just for the historical temperature records those canicules broke, but also for how deeply they desiccated a generally wet country.
Bretagne, where I live, is the wettest part of France. Its climate is comparable to that the Pacific Northwest of the United States: rain all winter, short summers with only a few hot days. Yet in the news the last few weeks have been multiple debates about diverting large amounts of water from reservoirs in order to stave off a farming crisis caused by the droughts. The situation is much worse elsewhere in France, with water warnings issued in multiple departements and an unrelated (-ish) radioactive contamination of the Loire, France's longest river, affecting not just agriculture but drinking water in cities.
Perhaps those of you reading this in the United States can somewhat sympathize with these problems, seeing as something quite similar recently happened to much of the east coast and mid-west. The weather there's been “unusually" warm as well, following an “unusually" cold winter and a series of torrential rains that (perhaps you've heard) threaten a significant amount of the American food supply.
If perchance you haven't heard this last part, that's hardly surprising. Though catastrophic climate events make for interesting news stories, food insecurity isn't something the capitalist media is necessarily keen to broadcast. Besides being a matter of potential unrest (hungry people often revolt), one of the supposed victories of capitalism is that we've progressed far beyond the famines, droughts, and the food shortages which mark the “developing" and “primitive" world.
Those old enough to remember Reaganite propaganda will understand this more readily than I suspect younger folks will. Television in the 80's, particularly news and political programs, devoted intense coverage to famines in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, with particular attention to countries who were not part of what was then called “The First World" (the US, Europe, and other developed capitalist nations). [By the way, the “Second World" was communist-aligned countries, and “Third World" referred to the unaligned states over which the first and second worlds warred]
Such media became a kind of relentless litany of the failures of State Communism and “tribal" or “primitive" forms of government, all serving to reinforce within the American mind that capitalism was a triumph and the rest of the world just needed to get with the program.
Of course, this propaganda obscured food production crises in the United States. One such crisis was the widespread loss of small family-held farms throughout the country during the 1980's. The story of how this happened will be familiar to anyone who was paying attention during the housing crisis in 2009 (which nearly destroyed the entire global financial system). In fact, the mechanism was the same.
"God Bless The USA"
In the late 70's, grain prices were unusually high, meaning there was suddenly more profit to be made in growing and selling grain than other crops. Farmers who wanted to take advantage of these high profits expanded their production and moved away from other crops, greatly increasing the amount of grain on the market. Banks, seeing the potential to profit also, began lending money to farmers at cheaper interest rates. All this readily-available credit encouraged farmers to purchase more land to devote to grain production, again increasing the overall supply of grain.
Incidentally, also increasing this supply was an unexpected embargo against grain sales to the U.S.S.R., implemented as a retaliation for the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. That invasion of course is what led the United States to train and fund a young Saudi Arabian man, Osama bin Laden, to fight the Soviets. History is never an isolated narrative.
When supply outstrips demand, prices fall. This is because sellers (who in capitalism are always competing with each other) reduce their prices in order to convince buyers to purchase their goods. And since sellers are competing with each other for buyers, when one seller lowers their price, others will often lower their own just a little more. Multiply this by thousands or millions of competing sellers trying to profit from the same sort of product and you often have sudden market collapses.
A market collapse occurs when prices fall so low that sellers or producers (or in this case, farmers) not only do not profit from their sales, they actually lose money. That's what happened to farmers in the early 1980's: grain prices fell so low that farmers were selling at a loss and therefore couldn't pay back the money they'd borrowed from banks to expand their grain production.
Two figures between 1980 and 1990 will help you understand the depth of the problem. The first number is the amount of farms lost: 548,000 (just over half a million). But a more relevant number is the change in farming population between 1980 and 1990: 3,661,000. That is, 3.7 million fewer farmers existed in the US from 1980 to 1990, while only half a million farms disappeared.
This is what happened during the housing crisis as well: everyone was trying to sell houses at the same time, spurred on by initial high prices. This flooded the housing market, caused prices to plummet, and then the market collapsed. In both situations, sellers (farmers or house-owners) had gotten themselves into severe debt, betting that future profit would more than make up for their risk.
One thing not mentioned in either case, however, is what happened to all those extra properties (farms and houses) after the collapse. In both cases, finance capitalists and corporations (American and foreign) who had much more capital to draw from than average farmers or home-buyers, snatched up the indebted property for very small amounts of money. This is what has led to the concentration of massive amounts of land (in the form of farms or houses) into fewer and fewer hands within the United States.
Historical events in which large groups of people suddenly lose everything they have because of capitalist and government manipulation usually result in civil unrest or revolt. But of course, in America such events never do. No small part of the fault for this is leftist abandonment of people groups deemed ignorant or backwards. In the case of farmers (who are in the US mostly but not all white), no leftist group in the United States has given any serious attention to their plight for almost a century.
Leftists (by which I particularly mean urban, college-educated leftists) tend to think of rural populations (especially farmers) as an inherently right-leaning group of people, hopelessly Republican, Christian, and racist. Many of them indeed are now, but there's nothing intrinsic to working the land or living outside of a city that makes them so. Instead, besides leftist abandonment of their causes, the reason why rural and farming populations skew right in the US is because right-wing political groups, politicians, and capitalist interests spend a lot of money (particularly through propaganda) to make them (and keep them) that way.
If government propaganda to make farmers right-wing seems far-fetched, you probably are too young to remember the best example of this, Lee Greenwood's “God Bless The USA." Lee Greenwood, besides having written perhaps the most horrific patriotic song in American history, was also incidentally appointed by Ronald Reagan to the National Endowment of the Arts advisory council (the same NEA that conservatives wanted to defund because of Robert Mapplethorpe). While the song itself is quite atrocious, the video shows the depth and brilliance of such propaganda:
Land, Food, and Fascism
Remember: during the 80's, 3.66 million people lost employment as farmers, more than 1% of the US total population at the time. Many of those were families who'd only known farming and were living far from urban centers where other job “opportunities" existed. That's a lot of people, many of them connected by blood and community, all thrown into sudden precarity. Without sustained government propaganda, or with even a modicum of leftist organizing, many of those people might have easily become part of a revolutionary class seizing land back from the banks and agricultural capitalists (as many did during the Great Depression).
But of course no such revolt occurred in the 1980's, and the rural farming populations now lean right-wing. Not just right, but far-right, a situation quite similar to the rural farming populations in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party.
While I absolutely think you should worry about this parallel, you should know it's not fully analogous. For instance, in Germany, rural Nazi party officials organized their local farming communities towards their ideology while simultaneously pushing within the party for greater financial support of small farmers who had been devastated by post-war liberal Weimar policies. In America, the Republican party and large agribusiness mutually support each other, but smaller farmers (the few remaining, that is) get very little out of these deals. That is to say, the alliance between right and far-right political movements and rural farmers in the United States isn't yet complete, nor is it yet irrevocable.
Maybe you might be wondering, “why bother?" Especially since the territory on which most of the current crises of fascism are occurring tends to be the urban: attacks on Muslims and Jews, deportations of immigrants from dense cities, murders of queer and trans folks, and actually-existing fascist gangs like the Proud Boys roaming streets on weekends. With so many such events in cities occurring with increasing vigor and violence, why shift focus, especially with such deep cultural enmity between the “queer" city and the “conservative" rural?
Because there's a much more urgent crisis: that of food production. You probably already understand that climate change is affecting agriculture worldwide and will do so even more as conditions deteriorate. But to remind you, here are two brief summaries. First, on the American situation:
Massive flooding and heavier than normal precipitation across the US Midwest this year delayed or entirely prevented the planting of many crops. The situation was sufficiently widespread that it was visible from space. The trouble isn’t over yet: Hotter-than-normal temperatures predicted to follow could adversely affect corn pollination. Projections of lower yields have already stimulated higher prices in UN grain indexes and US ethanol. Additionally, the USDA is expecting harvests to be of inferior quality. Furthermore, the effects of this year could bleed into 2020; late planting leads to late harvesting which delays fall tilling, potentially until next spring, when who knows what Mother Nature will deliver. [Kollibri terre Sonnenblume 14/7/19]
And then on the global one:
The world’s land and water resources are being exploited at “unprecedented rates,” a new United Nations report warns, which combined with climate change is putting dire pressure on the ability of humanity to feed itself.
The report, prepared by more than 100 experts from 52 countries and released in summary form in Geneva on Thursday, found that the window to address the threat is closing rapidly. A half-billion people already live in places turning into desert, and soil is being lost between 10 and 100 times faster than it is forming, according to the report.
Climate change will make those threats even worse, as floods, drought, storms and other types of extreme weather threaten to disrupt, and over time shrink, the global food supply. Already, more than 10 percent of the world’s population remains undernourished, and some authors of the report warned in interviews that food shortages could lead to an increase in cross-border migration.
A particular danger is that food crises could develop on several continents at once, said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the lead authors of the report. “The potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing,” she said. “All of these things are happening at the same time.” [NYTIMES 8/8/19]
To say food production is more urgent a crisis than fascism is to say this: the conditions that will inevitably cause even more fascism completely overshadow the iterations of fascism we've already seen. Or as Peter Grey puts in in his essay, “Seeing Through The Apocalypse":
The results of this locust ravaged world is that ploughshares and starships will be beaten in AK47s. Our freedom will come under increasing threat as populations riot and elites struggle to keep control. Hungry people who have lost everything and have no sense of community are not a pretty sight. [The Brazen Vessel, p322 ]
The fascism that we are already seeing in the form of anti-immigrant violence by governments and individuals is, as I've argued for quite some time, a response to a larger crisis. Continuing to quote the New York Times article on the I.P.C.C. report:
Some authors also suggested that food shortages are likely to affect poorer parts of the world far more than richer ones. That could increase a flow of immigration that is already redefining politics in North America, Europe and other parts of the world.
“People’s lives will be affected by a massive pressure for migration,” said Pete Smith, a professor of plant and soil science at the University of Aberdeen and one of the report’s lead authors. “People don’t stay and die where they are. People migrate.”
Between 2010 and 2015 the number of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras showing up at the United States’ border with Mexico increased fivefold, coinciding with a dry period that left many with not enough food and was so unusual that scientists suggested it bears the signal of climate change.
Read that last paragraph again. That's the connection between climate change and immigration battles in the United States. Or if you're in Europe, read this article, describing how drought last decade in Syria triggered civil unrest and influenced the civil war, thus causing the massive influx of Syrian refugees into Europe. That in turn fueled the rise of European nationalist parties.
Climate change is making it harder for people to eat. Those people (for very good reasons) move to places where they are more likely to find food. And then the people already in those places react, often quite negatively and sometimes horrifyingly.
All of this puts stress on an already precarious food production system and puts farmers in a contradictory position. The catastrophic crises caused by climate change are already affecting farmers in the United States, farmers who also often rely on immigrant labor in order to produce their food. Those farmers and their communities currently skew anti-immigrant because of decades of right-wing propaganda, yet also are the communities who will be hit hardest if all the undocumented migrant farm workers are deported.
But the really terrifying potential crisis lies outside those farming communities. Millions of people concentrated in small geographical areas, stacked up on top of each other with little or no access to arable land, wholly-dependent upon capitalist agricultural infrastructure to provide them the means to survive. Yeah, I'm talking about most of you reading this, every person living in a city or a suburb, getting your sustenance from supermarkets and restaurants and UberEats.
Cities are far removed from all the processes which deliver food to them, so far in fact that the only way most people living in a city will ever begin to understand the collapsing food system outside their apartments is through food shortages and price spikes. Even if the capitalist media does cover food-related crises, it's not even clear most would understand what was happening until it was too late. “Harvest" is a metaphor for most of us, not an actual process anyone we know is actually engaged in (and worried about), and “yield" is something you do when entering an intersection, not a closely-watched figure that foretells whether people will eat next year.
So when the inevitable food crises occur, people in the cities will be the ones least able to understand what has occurred and, worse still, least able to find other ways to sustain themselves. As Kollibri terre Sonnenblume explains in his essay (read the whole thing, seriously), the amount of space and effort required to feed yourself is impossible from backyard or urban gardening. No one in cities except the very rich has access to the amount of land needed. Suburb dwellers might, but then also they would need the knowledge of how to actually do so and have already been doing so when a crisis hits.
So as it stands, people in cities are completely dependent upon increasingly precarious capitalist distribution and food production and have no alternative. Worse than this, the population actually involved in that production (farmers large and small, farm laborers migrant or otherwise) have little care for urban politics and have been for so long abandoned by leftist organizers that they are now solidly sympathetic to white supremacist, nationalist, and fascist rhetoric.
To Save The City, Organize the Countryside
Let me restate this simply: during the coming food production crises, unless the left also attempts to organize rural populations and farming communities, it will be the fascists determining who in the cities gets to eat. And not just the people in the cities now, but the people flooding into the United States from the Global South (those that get past Trump's wall, which is being built specifically because he knows they're coming). And also the people fleeing to larger cities from smaller towns whose infrastructure will collapse first in floods, droughts, and storms. And add to this number all the internal refugees already flooding the streets of large cities, the grey traumatized masses we generally just call “homeless."
In moments of mass urban crisis, fascism will always have immediate appeal, especially to the middle-classes and capitalists, those who benefit most from the way Liberal Democracies currently operate. For the poorest, food insecurity and other breakdowns in civilization's “services" are already written into their daily lives and so they are thus, to some degree, initially more immune to such rhetoric. To understand why, consider what a middle-class woman in Portland, Oregon might do if she suddenly had no access to clean water, and then compare this to the poor women in Flint, Michigan experiencing that very thing already.
Fascism is an easily-grasped, concrete response to these crises. Fascism's emphasis on authority and order can be a welcome promise to confused people facing uncertainty and chaos. Fascism's emphasis on in/out dichotomies (which social justice identitarianism merely inverts, rather than abolishes) can provide a concrete way for terrified people to know whom they should trust and who “the enemy" is. And the direct violence of fascist state and quasi-state apparatuses (police, military, private security firms, armed “patriot" groups) will always viscerally feel more effective than any number of liberal and leftist platitudes about equality, justice, and dismantling oppression.
If talk of such state violence seems a little overblown, I'd kindly like to remind you that the US military has already been focusing on controlling the impending crises in cities:
Cities swelled with refugees competing with residents for uncertain and dwindling amounts of food being produced on land controlled by fewer and fewer capitalists, while an increasingly authoritarian government and armed groups of nationalists patrol the streets rooting out deviance and rebellion: this is not the far future of Mad Max, but the very close future of before your children graduate.
Can we stop this? Probably not, or not fully. But besides fleeing the cities to live off the land (a really good idea, but make sure you bring friends because you'll need lots of help), there are a few things that would stave off some of the worst of this.
First, a situation needs to arise within the cities where leftists are able to provide protection, assistance, and basic needs to their own communities without reliance on the capitalists. This is called a “dual power" situation, where the primary power relationship (the capitalist state) is challenged by competing internal power relationships. What is needed in the United States and other Liberal Democracies are deeply-organized and non-sectarian leftist resistance networks. These networks (parties, community organizations, armies, tribes, or gangs) will need to act like “local warlords" or religious orders, able to challenge the power of the government and rival fascist groups while proving themselves able to provide for their communities’ needs (food, safety, etc).
While this already probably seems an impossible situation, the second point will seem even more unlikely. Such networks in the cities would need either to include or be extended to the nearby rural. Imagine something like the Black Panthers running bingo halls in farming communities and you'll get an idea of what this would need to be. A ridiculous proposition, maybe, but only because we've for so long accepted that rural communities are inherently right-wing and racist that we've made sure it was the case.
While in the United States such an idea might sound ridiculous, it's a lot easier to imagine it being possible where I live in France. Every Saturday I buy my week's vegetables (the ones I'm not growing in my garden) from a massive farmer's market, where myself and several thousand other urban dwellers interact directly with rural food producers. Expanding such markets and causing the relationship between farmers and city-dwellers to extend into political alliance and mutual aid is only an absurd proposition if we accept the idea that the city is better than the rural or that farming is a sub-standard and undesirable way to live.
One key political point that could provide a strong foundation for such mutual relationships would be around foreclosures. Climate change will make it harder for indebted farmers to pay back the banks, just as unemployment in the cities causes many people to lose their homes. Building a broad-based resistance to the banks across the city/rural divide would be a highly effective way to increase solidarity and destabilize capitalist interests. Another practical possibility: organized leftist groups helping to provide labor for farmers who cannot find workers after their usual laborers are deported. Teaching urban-dwellers how food production actually happens and giving both urban and rural people a chance to interact would be two additional benefits. Such a mutual relationship could also ultimately help undocumented immigrants, who would benefit from protection networks extending between city and farm.
Again, all of this probably seems unlikely, mostly because there are currently no such networks, gangs, or parties in the United States that can even begin to challenge the capitalist's dominance or the increasing threat of fascist organizing. But as catastrophically dire as climate change will be, the chaos it will cause will nevertheless provide multiple openings for anti-capitalist groups to position themselves this way. Occupy Katrina and Occupy Sandy, two temporary movements arising out of disaster response to hurricanes, both provide examples of such potential openings.
More than anything, however, I think the primary challenge to ensuring people won't starve to the death in the cities is that of finally uprooting the anti-rural sentiment of urban leftists. “Hick," references to incest or lack of education, and all the other very common bourgeois slurs about non-urban people that leftists repeat should become as verboten as racial slurs are to us now.
Here the origins of Pagan might help a little, since paganus was an ancient Latin word the Romans used to describe rural people. To be Pagan was to cling to old ways, to refuse to assimilate to the laws and logic of the cities, to maintain local gods and local customs that never fully became subsumed by the religion of Empire. In its current anti-ruralism, the American left comes a lot closer to adopting the position of Rome against the conquered peoples than anything that could be said to be revolutionary. Ending this superiority complex and fully understanding how reliant everyone is upon the dirt-encrusted nails of those who work the earth would anyway get us closer to a leftism that doesn't destroy nature.
It will probably also be the key to our survival.