Issue 254 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
Fast Food Nation
Fast food restaurants have their origins in southern California in the 1950s. The growth of cities such as Los Angeles occurred at the same time as increased living standards for American workers and the greater use of the motor car. Chains like McDonald's started out as drive-ins at this time. McDonald's prided itself on being a family restaurant, and was one of the first places that many working class families could afford to eat out in. However, McDonald's introduced a number of changes to the food industry which have allowed them to dominate the market. Firstly, the franchise system meant massive profits without high risks. This meant McDonald's, followed by chains such as Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy's, Pizza Hut and KFC, spread quite readily first across America and then over the globe. Secondly the use of assembly line techniques in the production of food allowed McDonald's to lower costs and maximise profits.
This has been done at a cost, as the food the big chains churn out has become more artificial. McDonald's french fries were originally cooked in beef tallow, but this was changed to vegetable oil. However, in order to maintain the distinctive McDonald's flavour, 'beef extract' was used, in reality a mixture of chemicals concocted by companies such as International Flavours and Fragrances, which create the flavours for much of our pre-packaged food. Chicken McNuggets are also given this beef flavouring when cooked.
Fast food chains are also notorious for allowing poor standards of hygiene and dangerous working conditions in their restaurants. Burns are common injuries for fast food workers. The jobs themselves are deskilled and increasingly automated, making workers easily replaceable and union-building easier to defeat. Despite this union organising does sometimes occur, but the usual reaction is simply to close that particular branch down. Schlosser gives one example in Lansing, Michigan, where a restaurant was closed during a union drive, the workers sacked, and a new restaurant opened a block away, rehiring only those who hadn't joined a union. At the same time the National Restaurant Association has been quick to lobby the US government to overturn or prevent laws which might affect its members' profits.
This book also looks in depth at the effect that fast food has on the whole of US food production. The drive towards standardised, mass produced food at low cost has been a disaster for food safety. The dirty, crowded conditions in which cattle and other animals are reared has massively increased the incidence of potentially deadly E coli bacteria in meat. In summer roughly 50 percent of cattle carry E coli in their gut. The proliferation of various food-borne diseases causes 900 people to be hospitalised and 14 to die every day in the US. The slaughterhouses and packing plants which once provided well paid jobs and were well organised, before the demands of fast food and the supermarkets took over, are now usually staffed by immigrant workers who are paid poverty wages. They are potentially deadly places to work.
Schlosser's style is reminiscent of that of Naomi Klein's No Logo. The mixture of social history, the recounting of the author's personal encounters with various people and places involved in America's fast food industry, and insightful analysis of that industry's crimes make for an engaging read. Schlosser makes it clear he stands for a 'balance between the efficiency and amorality of the market', rather than a wholesale rejection of the profit system, and his solutions are mainly along the lines of 'consumer pressure' marshalled to achieve some changes in food production practices. But as he weaves the stories of other corporations such as Disney into his narrative, it's easy to reach the conclusion that it's not just fast food meat that's rotten, but an economic system in which the drive for profits come first.
|Rivera's murals were overtly political|
The artistic is not the political. But there are important connections between the two.This is the message from these four excellent short new paperbacks from Redwords. Each shows that exploring the social and political background to an artist's work can increase your appreciation of it enormously.
Paul McGarr writes about Mozart. He brings out the degree to which he was a child of the period known as the Enlightenment, that bridged the century between the end of revolutionary turmoil in England in 1688 and the beginning of revolutionary turmoil in France a century later. Mozart was one of a layer of middle class intellectuals who resented their own subordinate position in European society and who looked to reform from above to reorganise things along supposedly rational lines. This does not mean the music can simply be reduced to such social factors. It exists in its own right, as the result of a particularly talented individual using a preceding musical tradition to give vent to his own feelings as his life was shaped by these factors. And that enables it to connect with our feelings today.
What Paul McGarr does for Mozart, Martin Smith does for the American jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. In a fascinating study he shows how the successive stages in his work arise, on the one hand, from the technical development of jazz and, on the other, from the impact of the struggle against black oppression.
John Molyneux and Mike Gonzalez apply a similar approach to two very different visual artists. Molyneux's study of Rembrandt explores the connections between his achievement as a painter and the fact that he lived in the first fully bourgeois society--Holland in the first half of the 17th century. Only in such a society, he argues, could Rembrandt's art have developed as it did. This influenced how he painted and what he painted, and explains the contrast with predecessors and his contemporaries elsewhere in Europe.
Mike Gonzalez's book on Diego Rivera differs from the other studies in one important respect--his is openly critical of certain aspects of his subject's art. Rivera is probably the best known explicitly revolutionary visual artist of the 20th century. After making a career for himself as a relatively successful mainstream artist in Europe and an intimate of Picasso's Cubist circle in the Paris of the First World War, he returned to his native Mexico in 1921 at the age of 35 and embarked upon a completely different approach to art. Instead of producing individual studies and portraits for sale to wealthy individuals, he joined with people like David Siquieros and Josť Clemente Orozco in producing murals of mammoth proportions with an explicitly revolutionary intent.
So Rivera shows the whole gamut of Mexican history from the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish to the 1930s, the struggles of workers and peasants, the festivals of the country's indigenous people, life in the Ford motor company's factories in Detroit, revolutionary fighters and even Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. To see them on the walls of Mexico's public buildings is to be transfixed, and even in art book reproductions they are like little else you are likely to come across.
Yet Mike Gonzalez is critical of them despite this. For he argues--I think convincingly--Rivera had one great failing. His workers and peasants are shown as suffering, but never as shaping their own futures. As a result his murals can tell the story of the past or point to certain horrors in the present. But they fail to convey a genuinely revolutionary message, which is imposed on them from outside in a way that does damage to the art itself.
Gonzalez argues the failure arises from Rivera's acceptance of a glorified view of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20--a revolution which ended with the murder of the most authentic revolutionary leader (Emission Septa) and the establishment of a nationalist but unambiguously capitalist regime dressed up in revolutionary colours. As a result, Diego Rivera's art is that of a revolutionary nationalist, despite its reference to Marx or Trotsky and his own adherence to the Communist Party and briefly to Trotskyism.
It is better, Gonzalez suggests, not to put a message of hope into art rather than to put in a false message that compromises its integrity. This leads him at points to suggest that Orozco, who was much less explicitly committed politically than Rivera, produced the better--and socially more relevant--art. On this I also agree with Gonzalez. Orozco's work is virtually unknown in Britain, but his Carthasis or his Guadalajara mural of the Hidalgo, the leader of the first Mexican rising against the Spanish, have a power greater than anything by Rivera.
I strongly recommend all four books. They all show art can be socially relevant without degenerating into mere propaganda.
Immigration Controls, the Family and the Welfare State
Jessica Kingsley Publishers £17.95
At a recent meeting of the Socialist Alliance activists debated whether it was wise to call for the abolition of all immigration controls. Those with faint hearts would be well advised to read this book. Steve Cohen argues that all immigration controls will by definition penalise black and Asian people: 'Controls are inherently and institutionally racist.' He has harsh words for those who seek a compromise with the current rules: 'Abolishing controls would require a huge political movement. It might even require a revolution. However, attempts to reformulate controls as "fair" would require a miracle. It is as futile as King Canute's attempts to turn back the sea.'
Immigration Controls, the Family and the Welfare State is all in favour of the right of labour to migrate. The rich can always find new markets or new places to build factories, while workers are denied the same right to move. But the real interest of this book is not so much the theoretical argument against controls but practical steps campaigners, lawyers and people working in the public sector can take to defend the people who are facing deportation.
Benefits and housing workers, teachers, lecturers and social workers can all find themselves charged with the task of enforcing these racist laws. Cohen gives examples of where this has already happened, in Hackney council, University College London Hospital and elsewhere.
The author is a socialist and has a clear sense of the total framework within which the law operates. He is sceptical about the role of the family, and he develops some interesting points about the relationship between the welfare state and immigration controls (both of which have developed at roughly the same time). But such theoretical flourishes are few. This is the most practical book you could imagine. Each chapter includes case studies and suggests how a campaign around them could work.
Cohen's book has its villains. Chief among them are the men and women who run the system in which people can be denied the right to move because of where they live or where they work, because of whether they are married, because of who they have married. The following quotes are taken from an internal report published by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate in 1994: 'It's another Nigerian wedding. All Somalis are liars. Poles are white Nigerians. Turks just have a different moral code when it comes to telling the truth.'
The book also has its heroes, first among them the men and women who have campaigned to stay, and second their allies in the labour movement. The front cover shows Anwar Ditta, one of the best known figures of the first generation of anti-deportation campaigns. We see her marching with socialists and others to demand that her children should be allowed to enter Britain. The back cover shows the same woman surrounded by friends when the campaign had won.
Immigration Controls, the Family and the Welfare State reminds us that there is a tradition of resistance against racism. But the book goes further than that, offering practical advice to keep that tradition alive.
World War 3.0
Profile Books £17.99
World War 3.0 is the story of the massive anti-trust investigation into the multinational company Microsoft. In 1997 the US government took Microsoft to court for using its monopoly power to 'choke' all opposition in the global information economy, a violation of anti-trust laws. The case was deferred to the court of appeals and a final legal ruling is unlikely before 2002.
World War 3.0 is written by a journalist from the New Yorker, and reads like a courtroom drama. It follows the case in detail, which has turned out to be one of the largest anti-trust trials in US history. While the book is the 'story' of the trial and not a political analysis of the events that took place, it is still an interesting read. The lengths to which Microsoft is prepared to go to make profits are stark throughout the book. Auletta comments that the prosecutor 'sometimes seemed to be talking less about a software company than about the Mob'. The book and the court case provide a real insight into the ruthless behaviour of a multinational company: 'The company held rallies on the grass of its corporate campus at which executive vice-president of sales and service Steve Ballmer pumped up employees by leading them in a war whoop and screaming for the blood of competitors, screaming for victory.' Microsoft, dubbed the 'evil empire', is shown to either incorporate competitors into the Microsoft monolith or make them obsolete by the latest feat in software bundling.
Bill Gates also did an excellent job of humiliating himself throughout the trial. His videotaped interview given to the prosecution made front page news. The New York Times wrote, 'The William H Gates on the courtroom screen this afternoon was evasive and uninformed, pedantic and taciturn--a world apart from his reputation as a brilliant business strategist.' Outside the courtroom his behaviour is equally as bad. He is portrayed as a child who loses his temper when he doesn't get his own way. The attitude of Bill Gates played a part in the judge's ruling that Microsoft was a monopoly and abused this power.
This is a book which looks primarily at what happens within the courtroom and the personalities of those involved. The author views Microsoft's enemies purely in terms of the government which took it to court and the other companies battling for control of the market, such as AOL and Netscape. It fails to take into account the growing potential of the anti-capitalist movement to challenge monopolies like Microsoft. By looking at the behaviour of Microsoft through the courtroom you do not get a sense of the real damage caused by a monopoly company--the fact that Bill Gates has a fortune of $55 billion while a third of his workforce is classified as temporary. Nor does the book explore the limitations of the anti-trust laws themselves.
Despite these weaknesses this is a very readable book, providing an insight into one of the world's biggest multinational companies. Bill Gates, the second richest man in the world, is also exposed. As the (right wing) judge commented, 'I'd require Mr Gates...to review a recent biography of Napoleon. Why? Because I think he has a Napoleonic concept of himself and his company. An arrogance which derives from power and unalloyed success, with no leavening hard experience.'
Infections and Inequalities
California Press £11.95
Paul Farmer has practised as a clinician in a TB clinic in rural Haiti and provides extremely moving and often distressing personal accounts of the effects of poverty and lack of access to effective medical treatments. He also explains how TB kills more people than any other infectious disease despite the existence of almost universally effective treatment for 50 years.
A substantial part of the book deals with claims of causality made in much of the medical literature, which either ignore the underlying social and economic causes or are sometimes wholly unsubstantiated. Farmer shows how explanations that look to individual behaviour ignore the economic and organisational barriers that people face, not just in desperately poor Haiti but also in inner city areas of the US. Farmer is not only a clinician but also an anthropologist and he is all too aware of the limitations of much anthropology which sees cultural differences where in actual fact it is what he calls structural violence that exists.
As late as 1986 articles in serious scientific journals attempted to explain high rates of HIV in Haitians by voodoo rituals, despite a complete lack of supporting evidence. Scientists who argued this looked for explanations in Haiti's isolation and difference, not recognising that myths about disease transmission were often the consequence and not the cause of poor medical services. Haiti's differences masked its position as a centre for international prostitution and one of the world's poorest countries.
Another important tenet of international ruling opinion that he consistently rejects is 'appropriate technology' for the poor. Effective treatment is labelled 'cost ineffective' due to 'limited resources' and poor social infrastructure. Yet Farmer shows that successful treatment of even drug resistant TB is possible among the very poor. Yet policies based on cost effectiveness are now endangering the gains that have been made against TB and have allowed multi-drug resistant disease strains to become widespread. To argue that provision of effective treatment must wait until economic and social development has been achieved is often to sentence the very people necessary for economic development to death. Policies that fail to tackle infections among the poor mean that disease is always waiting in the wings for the rich. Even if scientists and policy makers pretend the worlds we live in are really separate, diseases pay no respect to national boundaries.
Although this is not a book about how we can challenge neo-liberalism Farmer is a firm believer that the role of a doctor is to be an advocate for the poor. Perhaps the only criticism I can offer is that because it is a series of essays it can be slightly repetitive. However, this is a fascinating and moving book, in a very readable style, from someone who recognises the fight for social justice and the fight against disease go hand in hand.
In the Blue House
In 1937 the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia arrived in Coyocan, Mexico. This was to be their final place of exile, having been driven from Russia by Stalin and refused entry to every state in Europe. Still pursued by Stalin's agents, they lived at the house of the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the famous Casa Azul, or blue house of the title of this book.
Delahunt has taken the rumoured affair between Trotsky and Kahlo as the starting point for the novel, but it rapidly moves beyond this. The different chapters give voice to different characters--sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third--and the dates in which these chapters are set vary between the 1880s and the 1950s. They also weave the views and experiences of these individuals with the historical events of the time.
So you hear from Rosita Moreno, friend of Freida Kahlo, who makes 'Judas' figures for festivals; Trotsky's secretary, Jordi Marr, on working for him, along with a period Marr spent fighting for the Poum in Spain and his anger at Stalin's role there; and the motivations of Ramon Mercader, Trotsky's assassin, are touched upon as he plans the assassination. You also hear from Stalin as a young man in a seminary in Georgia escaping abuse by betraying other students, and then later in life as a dictator; Stalin's wife, Nadezha Alliluyeva, living in the Kremlin, where just remarking about a conversation with a friend can lead to their disappearance. The paranoia and fear around her eventually drives her to suicide.
There is also Mikhail Kosrev, a Communist Party member working alongside oppositionists on the Moscow metro in 1932, who believes if he stays loyal and works hard he will get a better flat; the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who is driven to suicide by the restrictions placed on his creativity by Stalin; Trotsky's father on the run during the civil war, from White pogroms and typhus, reminiscing about his son; Dr Vishnevsky, Stalin's doctor, who gets a good career by covering up Stalin's wife's suicide, but who in turn falls victim to the purges; Frida Kahlo and Natalia Sedova about Trotsky and their relationship with him; and there is also Trotsky writing his diary in exile, and on the train he travelled during the civil war.
Many sections of the novel are beautifully written with very striking images. The problem with the style of the novel, however, is that whilst it has many characters in different times and places, none of the characters are covered in any depth or developed to any extent, and often have very little to separate one character from another. This left me wondering why some were included at all, and wanting others to be developed more.
The novel has as its historical backdrop some of the most important and turbulent events of the 20th century. Through these voices the novel tries to tackle questions about what events shape individuals, and how great historical events in turn affect the individual. It does not, however, really resolve the question of the relationship between the individual and the great historical events that surround them, and the characters often seem to be totally prisoners of events or almost completely separate from them.
However, Delahunt has produced a well researched novel. She has been a member of Trotskyist organisations, and while she appears to have mixed feelings about Trotsky as an individual, this is a book that is hostile to Stalinism and shows its cost at a political as well as an individual level. It is politically sympathetic to those like Trotsky who opposed Stalin.
This is Delahunt's first novel, and it's an interesting and challenging one worth reading.