AN ABUSE OF POWER
Bellingham, WA – August 5, 2013 – The role of a well paid corporate media consultant is to minimize the high-visibility of a crisis situation, to resolve any grievances raised by labor disputes, boycotts or bad publicity in a manner that protects corporate reputations, and to address any circumstances that have the potential to disrupt business as usual, ultimately the mass accumulation of profits.
This is what Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc. expected to gain in hiring Precision Public Relations. Almost immediately, this consultant has made beholden a local newspaper, The Skagit Valley Herald, to be the voice of the corporation. How they did it, I do not know. Most likely it was an appeal to “objectivity” in favor of the firm and perhaps, a financial contribution? What I would like to address in this essay is an extension of a developing answer to “What is at stake?” in an attempt to encourage a social and cultural change away from mass accumulation and towards a more sustainable future.
To believe that what happened over the month of July at Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc. has nothing to do with the growers, but is instead, “The Symptom of a Larger Issue.” is an abstraction of reality. It is both, and much more.
In the name of “objectivity”, there are three rhetorical fictions (what media calls spin) that have been put in play in the Skagit Valley Herald article. The first is the idea that that farmworkers have not brought up their mistreatment by management to the owners before. The second is the claim that the farmworkers are “afraid” of H-2A guest workers. And the third stereotype in play is that someone who speaks a different language is literally not very bright. You may, upon reflection see my points, but for those to whom this is not immediately apparent, this series of essays will provide a deeper analysis and historical context for your consideration.
One of the most fundamental ways in which justice has strayed so far away from dignity in the present time, has to do precisely because of the way that most of us understand power. For some reason, I would venture to suggest in order to keep things the way they have always been, our understanding of power has continued to be limited to the idea of possession as opposed to agency. Agency is the capacity to choose and to act upon those choices, it is based upon french theorist Michel Foucault’s (1982) idea that power is exercised (221).
Surely, there are a lot of highly capable thinkers and theorists, or individuals who have moved an intellectual discussion forward towards the latter, but when it comes down to the shop floor, the fields and intimate family relationships of a collective U.S. national consciousness, we cling desperately to an antiquated understanding of power that limits everyone’s agency to a dichotomy of have/have not, victim/perpetrator, oppressed/oppressor and slave/liberator. Life, unfortunately, is not that simple.
Frantz Fanon in his book The Wretched of the Earth (1963) held that the curruption or “bancruptcy” of this type of bourgeoisie (capitalist) national consciousness, modeled by American settler colonialist myths such as the protestant work ethic, meritocracy, the american dream, the universality of human rights, and individualism, comes together most clearly through the modality of race (163).
Fanon argued that the capitalists came to power, “in the name of a narrow nationalism and representing a race; they will prove themselves incapable of triumphantly putting into practice a program with even a minimum humanist content, in spite of fine-sounding declarations which are devoid of meaning since the speakers bandy about in irresponsible fashion phrases that come straight out of European treatsies on morals and political philosophy” (ibid).
The pillars that American Justice are founded upon, The Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court, are thus never capable of justice for everyone, Justice is only for the settler colonialists and whomever they deem worthy of sharing it with at the moment. This unsettling truth has plagued our nation from the era of reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, suffrage, mass incarceration, mass deportation, to the denial of reproductive autonomy, to the deaths of Emmit Till, Brandon Teena, Oscar Grant, Gwen Araujo, and Trayvon Martin. Only radical social, cultural and economic changes would have the capacity to make it right.
Fanon reminds us, “When the bourgeosie is strong, when it can arrange everything and everybody to serve its power, it does not hesitate to affirm positively certain democratic ideas which claim to be universally applicable” (Ibid). Such ideas like Justice and Human Rights thus become distorted, because they are privileges made at the expense of others, and given from the privileged to the less fortunate. Fanon continues, “The Western bourgeoisie, though fundamentally racist, most often manages to mask this racism by a multiplicity of nuances which allow it to preserve intact its proclamation of mankind’s outstanding dignity,” following through towards a civilizing mission to invite the “sub-men to become human, and to take as their prototype Western humanity as incarnated in the Western bourgeosie” (ibid). This is the root of the conflict at hand.
We are asked by the Skagit Valley Herald to think of the good stewardship that corporations like Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc. have in providing “jobs” for the local economy. That the regions farmers are well meaning people, driven by diligence, hard work and frugality, as opposed to greed. One of the myths that is deployed here is the linkage between the yeoman farmer (one who no longer exists) and the protestant work ethic as the model of morality and rural society in Skagit County and Whatcom County. First coined by Max Weber in 1904, the “protestant work ethic” is defined by a moral order that links hard work and frugality to social success and wealth.
Embedded in this cultural shift that occurred during massive industrialization in the United States, is a history of utopian white separatist settler colonies founded on the ancestral lands of displaced indigenous societies, where regional rural identity first developed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Among these are the Washington Colony in Whatcom County that existed from 1881-1884 and The Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth that existed in Skagit County from 1897-1907 (Morris, 2009, 320).
The problem with the protestant work ethic as it is deployed by the social reformers who made these utopian rural societies is twofold. The first has to do with the omission of the brutal loss of indigenous land holdings through a genocidal war in the name of manifest destiny, that made it possible for yeoman farmers to settle in what would come to be known as the western United States. The second is that yeoman farmers were a necessary fiction advanced by the Union after the civil war, to produce settlers, which helped drive the industrialization of the U.S.
U.S. industrialization, could not have advanced had it not been for the creation of a breadbasket that could be depended upon while the south was in the middle of reformation post-civil war. U.S. Yeoman Farmers depended from the beginning upon government subsidies, land grants to later crop subsidies, yet maintained the idea that they embraced the spirit of capitalism and lived the protestant work ethic, earning their way to subsistence.
Thus, U.S. Yeoman Farming was a capitalist (bourgeoisie) endeavor from it’s beginnings, based upon mass accumulation made possible by displacement. Primitive accumulation occurred even before any individual farmers set foot upon the land. The second mass accumulation occurred as capital investments by Yankee land speculators for choice land in large swaths, in particular in California. The third stage, which was a major force that shaped the settlement of Washington, was made possible by the U.S. Land Act that literally gave away land to U.S. male citizens who were willing to live as settlers in its far reaches.
The myths of meritocracy and individualism were born of a great lie based upon the Protestant Work Ethic. U.S. Yeoman Farmers were about as independent from the beginning as suckling pigs, and had about the same kind of table manners when it came to dealing with first nations populations on the periphery of what would come to be known as the United States of America.
This national and regional culture that we have inherited is not sustainable. It is not sustainable to farmers, who spend a fortune trying to hang on to that which they have been able to accumulate, and it is not sustainable for those upon whose poorly compensated labor and stolen land has subsidized that mass accumulation. The mass accumulation of wealth is driven by greed, it is not hard work, it is not diligence, it is not frugality, and it is definitely not freedom. No one can empower another human being, that is patronizing. Human beings must exercise their own power, and through that exercise they can transform the world around them, dispersing power.
Only through dispersing power to people in community is liberation truly possible. According to Raul Zibechi (2010), “community does not merely exist, it is made,” he argues that transformation occurs in the context of community struggle where there is a “tension to overcome limits” (6). Zibechi continues, “potency is never realized, it is a thing that does not materialize, it is always unfinished becoming” (ibid). Thus the tension of what could be, is what drives social movements forward, Zibechi reminds us that, “potency expands as it forms and creates relationships—which are manifestations of emancipatory power. It is the only thing we can call power, and it depends only on itself. To enhance, to strengthen, is therefore to deepen the fabric of relations to avoid freezing them into forms of domination” (ibid).
Our mission thus, as communities invested in dispersing power with other communities, is to rebuild the fabric of community that capitalism has destroyed through its myths and injustice, by whatever means necessary.
Even César Chávez (Levy 1975) understood, to an extent, that the future required a dispersal of power. For him, this hinged upon economic indiependence, he said “We have to participate in the governing of towns and school boards. We have to make our influence felt everywhere and anywhere. It’s a long struggle that we’re just beginning, but it can be done because the people want it” (537).
Having read Fanon and other contemporary scholars, Chávez asserted, “I’m not advocating black capitalism or brown capitalism. At worst it gets a black to exploit other blacks, or a brown to exploit others. At best it helps the lives of a few. What I’m suggesting is a cooperative movement” (ibid). He held that,
we can develop economic power and put it into the hands of the people so they can have more control of their own lives, and then begin to change the system. We want radical change. Nothing short of radical change is going to have any impact on our lives or our problems. We want sufficient power to control our own destinies. This is our struggle. It’s a lifetime job. The work for social change and against social injustice is never ended (538).