About 5 years ago I was living in Canada. At the time, believe it or not, I was rather more interested in the political goings on in the country to the South of where I was (and sometimes of the country I was in, though this, believe it or not, involved a lot of cannabis legislation and a certain mayor of Toronto who was filmed smoking crack with local drug dealers.) It was a strange time and place. It feels strange even thinking back to a time when the Omnishambles, the Cameron regime, the Ed Milliband bacon scandal were just so many dispatches for my parents to deliver me via Skype once every few weeks. I was more fixated on the beginnings of the great culture war in the States, predominantly online, though rearing its head in ugly ways that would presage what we now witness. I read voraciously books on US politics, past and present. I wanted to get to the heart of this country I wasn’t even living in though the gravitational pull of which greatly affected my newfound home.
One of these books I happened on in one of those inexplicable ways we often find our favourite tomes, films, records. I probably watched my ten thousandth political video on Youtube and it happened to include the left wing activist and journalist Chris Hedges, variously introduced as communist and traitor by some adoring news debate show or other. He must have been plugging this book. It is a combination of political/socio-historical breakdown of the way America works, and graphic novel. In essence, the fantastic picture boards, produced by collaborator Joe Sacco, merely bring to life the stories Hedges tells from America.
I have read books about serial killers, werewolves, contagions and drug addiction, and I have to say this must rank as among the very scariest. You have to read it.
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt takes us on a journey through the story of American capitalism. It begins with the annihilation of an entire people, the Native American societies who inhabited tribal lands prior to their conversion to oil fields and strip mines. These were the very first sacrificial victims to the money God, and the broken, violent, alcohol rinsed lives of these peoples’ descendants in shabby, isolated reservations bear testament to a stark truth; in America, one can never hide from capitalism. It will eat you till your bones are left, and those will be sold on.
We move on to the relatively recent past, largely concerned with deindustrialisation and the destruction of organised labour. Three locations, termed ‘sacrifice zones’ by the author, are examined. These are areas of the country that, through no fault other than they began to lose their productive zeal, are now prey to speculators of the most pathologically bloodthirsty strain. The denizens of these places face lives of untold misery; the residents of a small New Jersey city blighted by poverty and corruption; the West Virginians eking out a life whilst the neighbouring coal company tries to have them killed for not selling their land; and the mercilessly exploited Latino farm labourers of Florida, who pick tomatoes and live in slave communities. I knew things could get bad, even crazy over in the States, but this pulled my eyes wide open.
The story of Camden New Jersey was told the most historically, bringing the lives of many a second generation immigrant, working on the busy 1950s docks, buying a car to pick up girls, marrying those girls, raising children on a worker’s wage, indulging in an American dream, to our time. Then it all ended. The same story as in many places, here and there, happened. The commodity, whether coal, cars or docking space for goods ships, became cheaper somewhere else. The jobs thinned, then disappeared. The politicians largely expected things to work themselves out, but they didn’t so they left for jobs elsewhere. And what was left was a man named George E. Norcross III. If this book has a Hannibal Lecter, he is it. Norcross is the king of an insurance empire, and in a city routinely heralded as the most violent in America, business is booming. He has a finger in every wound the city bears, be it the metal stripping trade, the privatised police force or the intricate system of bribery that keeps politicians within twenty miles of this hellhole. Two things to bear in mind; he is a Democrat. And he is still there.
By ingratiating himself with the party machine he has fostered a world of kick-backs, illicit lobbying and shameless misuse of the city’s legislature, all to his own ends. In 2014, 2015 and 2016 he was named the second most powerful person in the state by a New Jersey business magazine, trailing the Governor. He is entirely unelected to any office.
What really struck me was the absence of anything better on offer in Camden. Men and women with honour and integrity have simply given up on it. Almost half the population live below the poverty line. A fifth of the city’s adults can’t find work. The population has halved since those days when people could realistically find good blue collar jobs and support a family. Those who remain must survive the tightening noose of gang war, grinding poverty and a multi-millionaire insurance broker who owns their city, milking it for his own gratification whilst people starve. He is the very definition of a parasite, making things worse to enrich himself, though he is far from alone. In recent decades, 3 Camden mayors and a local State Senator have been jailed on major corruption charges, including one using public school funds to garnish his salary. This is the bar set. These are the people relied upon by starving, frightened citizens in a first world country to make things better.
Things don’t improve in coal country. The coalfields of Southern West Virginia have for decades been the black lungs of the American energy sector. Coal produces fifty per cent of electricity in the country, a hundred tons of it pulled from its earth every two seconds, and most of it comes from there. It used to be pulled by coughing men, stripped to the waist and dodging roof cave-ins, thousands of them swarming underneath the Appalachians like ants.
Now those men are gone and so are the mountains, hundreds blown to smithereens by the coal company to get at the rich black veins inside. This is mountaintop removal mining, and it has a nasty habit of throwing all sorts of heavy metal and mineral deposits into the air, soil and rivers of West Virginia and neighbouring Kentucky. Hundreds of species of bird, mammal and insect are but a memory here. Humans are almost extinct too, with local populations plummeting as the poor, jobless and nerve-wracked flee the constant explosions and foul tasting water. Those who choose to stay are faced with the wrath of the coal companies, who punish the failure to sell family land at cut rates with violence and intimidation. The writers talk to Larry Gibson, who defends a thin tract of tree and grass surmounted by a cabin and a handful of wooden crosses. These denote the graves of his family going back 230 years, which the Massey Coal company has graciously allowed him to keep after bulldozing the rest of his ancestors into oblivion where his property meets their poisoned moonscape.
“This is what they do in the coalfields” says Gibson, relating how Massey employees stole over a hundred of his family’s headstones from their cemeteries to clear the way for mining. Many locals in times past, illiterate farmers mostly, were tricked by the coal companies out of their family lots. “They do what they want and then they go fight it in court because they got the money and the attorneys and the time to do it.” For defiantly holding onto the land his father passed down to him, he has had his dogs shot, his cabin burnt down, been almost run off the road by quarry trucks, survived drive-by shootings, and resorted to purchasing a bullet proof vest and turning his rebuilt cabin into a fortress. Most of the attacks, he acknowledges, are by desperate employees of the coal company, miners with no other job available in this poverty-stricken corner of the country. They see one man’s failure to kow-tow to their big money employers as a danger, a barrier to more mountains being destroyed and meals being put on tables. “I expect, somebody scared, you know, somebody who wouldn’t normally do anything wrong, seeing me up here by myself. Because of my belief and my stand. And the fact that they may lose a job. And they got a baby on the way and one at home…Scared people make dangerous people. They act without thinking. And the industry uses people like that.”
40 per cent of families in neighbouring towns live below the poverty line. 95 per cent of the coal companies aren’t even based in West Virginia, so the idea that this enormous desecration of nature and communities is somehow keeping the state in milk and honey is barely credible. If a millionaire lives in a town, is that town rich? Towns in which the mass use of people as workers has long since ended have simply fallen apart, their populations dwindling and services such as water treatment, power provision and hospitals accordingly going somewhere a buck can be made.
Which is a shame, as the rates of cancer, black lung, birth defects and painkiller addiction are wincingly high here, testament to that metallic taste you get in your mouth if you open it long enough anywhere in the region. Government agencies such as the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection have started sending back samples of putrid tap water to those who send it, entirely disbelieving the theory that the coal company is poisoning people. The DEP doesn’t work for the tax payers who keep it alive. It works for the US Chamber of Commerce, of which Massey Coal is but one proud member, which in 2010 gave 94 per cent of its campaign contributions to politicians who deny climate change. This is what happens when profit becomes more important than life.
If this book is an exercise in lifting the rock covering the foetid results of extreme capitalism, then the last example is simply the murky bottom layer of dirt. It is the chapter which seems to have gotten this book the attention it deserves, for what it unearths is nothing less than the existence of institutionalised slavery in 21st Century America. It is a sobering way point, one of countless in this book, that remarks early on that the right to a minimum wage was only granted farm labourers in the States 30 years after Roosevelt formalised it in 1938. As one reads on, the sense that the industry has a lot to catch up on is miserably interrupted once it becomes clear that the employment of impoverished Latino immigrants precludes rights or fair pay. This is an underclass the world rarely sees, much less cares about.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, in 1992 a tomato farmer’s share of the consumer dollar was 40.8 per cent. By 2000, that number had proportionally dropped to around 20 per cent. It goes without saying that this lost 50 per cent of the supplier’s earning had not gone to the sweating Latino migrant who coughs up insecticide in 90 degree heat on the days he is lucky enough to be chosen to work in the pre-dawn labour pools that dot rural Florida. That percentage doesn’t get a sniff of what might be outside the Walmart proprietor’s pocket, where it now stays. This is what all those articles are saying when the oft-repeated lines ‘longest period of wage stagnation in history’ come tumbling back and forth like surf on shingle till they mean almost nothing. The money’s not just there, it’s increasing. What it’s not doing is trickling down, whether in Britain or Florida. But it’s a fair shout to suggest the trickle first slowed in places like Florida, where things like this were always easier to get away with. The conditions in the tomato fields are predictably horrifying; 12 hour shifts, bent double picking chemical covered fruit in blistering heat while gang leaders verbally and physically abuse to work harder. Up until very recently the workers had to deal with methyl bromide, an insecticide directly planted with the crop and kept under plastic mulch until harvesting.
Even in small doses this chemical is lethal to humans and often found its way onto supermarket shelves. As one veteran picker relates: “You go home and you have to use Clorox to get the green dust off your skin and out of your hair..You can’t get that smell out of you. We all know we’re not supposed to be workin’ when they spray. We all have to watch a video that shows workers wearing protective gloves. But every time the growers spray around us and break the regulations we don’t say nothin’.” “You pick up that plastic and you can’t even breathe. It burns your eyes..Sometimes they give you a paper mask, but the fumes go right through it.” US Department of Agriculture studies have found traces of 35 pesticides on fresh tomatoes sold in American supermarkets. As the expose book TomatoLand by Barry Estabrook reveals, three of these are known carcinogens, six are neurotoxins, and three cause birth defects. At the point of picking the levels of respiratory ailments, open sores, nausea and ultimately cancer, affect upward of 20,000 farm labourers a year. The post-Brexit American trade deals will require all of this to be accepted by our own agricultural and food standards, as there’s no reason for the American market to co-opt ours.
In ethical terms America always blinks first, and reaps the rewards. As always with desperation comes exploitation. The workers who keep the American fruit basket providing are overwhelmingly illegal migrants from Central America. To be deported is a minor cataclysm. Back across the border they’ll trudge, shepherded by the coyotes, or traffickers, with the steep fees they incur. In reality, the United States benefit from this situation enormously, even when they decry border jumpers and bad hombres. As the book sets out chillingly, an illegal Latino tomato picker ‘is the model worker in the corporate state. He has no job protection or security, no benefits, no medical coverage, no overtime, no ability to organise, no Social Security, no food stamps, no legal protection, and when his employers do not need him he is left without income, a place to live or something to eat.’ Workers live in shanty towns erected by migrant gang bosses, where 10 people can sleep in a caravan and pay $50 a week for the privilege. When they’re not chosen by the crew leaders to work, it is not long before they are thrown out. The authors encounter an even lower rung, where dozens of workers sleep openly in the semi-jungle surrounding the camps, dodging snakes and roving bands of immigration officers. In the fields an hour’s backbreaking labour will get you $5. Some days you may not work at all, and soon it’s back to the snakes. The authors note that 18th Century economist David Ricardo insisted in his Iron Law of Wages that pay would never fall below subsistence level in the glorious free market, as workers wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves to keep working. One is reminded that without the presence of unions or enlightened legislation, the description of a worker’s life given above can become the norm for just about anybody.
Untrammelled capitalism rears its head anywhere morality and fraternity has vacated, and itself has no moral compass to speak of. ‘The determining factor in global corporate production is poverty. The poorer the worker and the poorer the nation, the greater the competitive advantage.’ Aside from the jungle life, there is the slave life. Once across the American border, migrants can meet internal traffickers who exploit the lack of understanding of English or existing contacts in-country to make offers of transportation to the fruit fields of Florida. These journeys in the backs of trucks can cost between 1,000 and 2,000 dollars. Payment can be made once work begins. Magically, the same men who operate the trucks also operate the caravan parks and encampments where the workers live. They take the exorbitant rents. They also sell the workers their food and drink, at hugely inflated rates. Interest is piled on. The farmers who pay these traffickers don’t say much, or anything at all, when they take these sullen workers for the day and notice black eyes or the signs of intense hunger. Some camps are surrounded by razor-wire, supposedly to keep out unwanted intruders. Some are patrolled by gunmen. In the decade before the book’s publication only 9 people in the Florida fruit fields had been convicted on charges of slavery. Workers have been discovered chained to beds in the camps, their stuttering English revealing just how much they are told they owe their employers-cum-bus drivers-cum-landlords.
Workers’ bodies have been left at the sides of Florida roads filled with bullets, having made it just beyond the razor-wire.
With the workers come entertainment in the form of prostitutes bussed into the camps from Miami, and who originally have similar stories that began in Latin America, and ended up with a man with a gun telling them how much they’d have to earn to pay him for his services in helping them once across the border. They are usually promised work in restaurants and hotels. They can be as young as 14.
All dance the same as the exhausted field workers, to the tune whistled by Walmart.
The book goes to great lengths not only to explain the brutal conditions this form of laissez-faire capitalism imposes on people, but the market forces which engender and enforce them. Small farm owners that the writers interview for the Florida section don’t appear to be rapacious or greedy. They appear just as much as victims, facing rising debts, material costs and the impossible example set by beasts like Walmart and McDonalds. It is these titans of corporatism, the real ‘market forces’, whose ethic-free approach to everything from profit margins to food safety standards dictates how the industry should work; for them. It is of course a cliché, though the book hammers home definitively the notion that the vast majority of people even tangentially involved in this economic system are net losers. Reading about the terrible poverty in the farmlands, the coalfields and the post-industrial cities, compared to the staggering opulence of a handful of modern aristocrats who own the system beneath them, it is hard to disagree. This is simply what happens, and should be entirely expected to happen, once law, order, common sense and decency are supplanted by greed and greed alone. This is not American capitalism; it is unrestricted capitalism, bordering on feudalism, and if we’re not careful, we are heading for it soon enough.
In his December 29, 2008, column for Truthdig, Hedges stated that “[t]he inability to articulate a viable socialism has been our gravest mistake. It will ensure, if this does not soon change, a ruthless totalitarian capitalism”. He elaborated upon this in a 2013 interview with The Real News, claiming that:
“(in America) the left has been destroyed, especially the radical left, quite consciously in the whole name of anti-communism”, and “we have allowed ourselves to embrace an ideology which, at its core, states that all governance is about maximizing corporate profit at the expense of the citizenry. For what do we have structures of government, for what do we have institutions of state, if not to hold up all the citizenry, and especially the most vulnerable?”
This is why I joined the Labour Party and why I want a real left-wing government in the UK; because we need a credible block to untrammelled capitalism and corporate greed, the centrist parties having simply ceased to care about either. I fear for my country, my society and the values underpinning. I fear that we may just become one more casualty in the way of people like Norcross, Massey Coal or Richard Branson, and the politicians who fail to stop them. I have gradually begun to see greed as something like bubonic plague, where even those who lie on beds of coin have succumbed and are not long for this world. The rest of us must scamper between shelters to avoid its effects.
As H.L Mencken said: “The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair”. I have not been driven there myself yet. The dual knowledge of the contents of this book, and the presence of a newly invigorated British Labour Party, keeps me fighting.