The Imperialist Economics of Blueberries

Blueberries from PeruThere was a cooler right at the front of the fruit and vegetable section of the local Walmart store packed with clear plastic containers of blueberries. Plump, dark, fresh-looking berries. And value-priced at $2.87 a container. I love blueberries on my morning cereal; these looked inviting, and so inexpensive! Who can resist such a bargain? I put a container in my shopping cart. Only when I got home did I read the label: product of Peru.

Peru lies more than 6,000 km away from me by air; more than eight hours’ flying time from Toronto, plus a two-hour drive north to here.  Not to mention the time to pick, package, sort, distribute, and shelve them. Yet here was a container of what appeared to be recently-picked blueberries selling for less than a cup of coffee, and less — perhaps less than half — than I usually pay at the local farmers’ market for a similar or even smaller amount. How can that be?

How is it possible to pick these fruit, wash, sort, package, refrigerate, ship to a warehouse, sort, distribute, ship to a store, then stock in that store for as little as $2.87? Along that route are hundreds of people, all of whom need to be paid, from pickers to loaders to pilots, drivers, and store personnel. There’s a whole chain of dependencies in getting them from Peru to my local grocery store while still edible, and a staggering cost in fuel.*

Peru, is, of course, just one South American country sending blueberries worldwide, but this year has become the largest exporter of blueberries: 165,000 metric tonnes in 2020, up from 120,000 in 2019. Half of which goes to the USA. Blueberries — native to North America, not Peru— are also grown in Mexico and South Africa. And how convenient for us here that they do so: we can enjoy these fresh fruit well outside our own limited growing season, as we do with so many other vegetables and fruit. And we can enjoy hundreds of others that can’t possibly grow here: limes, grapefruit, avocados, bananas, lychee, kiwi fruit; our grocery stores are well-stocked with all sorts of imports for our eating pleasures. And often so inexpensive.

Yet again: at what cost? Not to us, of course: our grocery and box stores are locked in a penny-pinching competition to offer us the lowest prices, to lure us in with bargains like these, understanding that while we’re here we’ll also buy more. Yet to enjoy our $2.87 package of ripe blueberries, we must accept that we benefit from the cheap labour and even poverty in the home countries where these are picked; wages we could not possibly live on here. And along with those low wages come predictable lower standards of health, quality, and safety: foods contaminated with pesticides and herbicides, or some noxious or even lethal bacteria are, sadly, rather too common (as of Oct. 9, 2020, the Canadian government site listed 4,012 food recalls; however not all of which are for imported produce).

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Socialism, Communism, and Liberalism

Trumpster fireWatching American political dramas like their presidential elections is both entertaining and frightening. Yet it is also strangely educational. it has taught me a basic tenet: Americans as a people know little to nothing about politics. Not just about international politics, but their own.

It is a commonly held belief outside American borders that Americans are remarkably unaware of the history, politics, leaders, or even existence of other nations, but are often equally ignorant of their own. There are far too many YouTube videos interviewing Americans about both the USA and the world for me to list them, but look at the site yourself to see what I mean.

Sure, many of the US politicians themselves seem to know how their government works (or should work), and may even be masters of their craft, yet from political pronouncements clearly many are also woefully ignorant of political realities. Which explains in part why the general populace is often confused about even things within their own governance system, like the racially-motivated electoral college, how the three branches of government work (or are supposed to work), how executive orders are made, or what the Constitution says (and not merely one or two amendments cherry-picked to support an ideological stance; even their president is remarkably ignorant of this document).

When, for example, Trump implements a tariff on imported goods, his supporters cry in delight that he’s “being tough” on some other nation (as if toughness and nationalism were worthier attributes than alliances and cooperation), without even the slightest understanding that they — his supporters and all other American consumers — will pay the price. Not the other nation, not some foreign government, not some third party like the WTO or UN. The USA is the most consumerist nation on the planet: it’s the consumers who will pay for tariffs because the cost of their goods simply goes up to cover the tariff. But Americans seem not to understand what a tariff actually is: a tax on the things they buy.*

It’s especially evident at election time when the Repugnicans throw around insults and accusations that their opponents are liberals, socialists, communists, and far-left radicals… ooh! Scary! As if America even had a left wing! It only has shades of right; its most moderate politician would still be considered a conservative in many Western nations. But the right will label that person radical, socialist, and even liberal because it’s a dog whistle for rightwing voters. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!

This is mere fearmongering akin to calling people witches or warning gullible voters that immigrants will take their jobs: it works best and most efficiently when the audience is ignorant of the facts or is already fixed in their ideology (as in a Trump rally). But like in the Dark Ages, the masses are always susceptible to simplistic rhetoric.

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Will communism as a dominant political ideology ever make a comeback

I took the title from a discussion on Quora about whether Communism is dead or will re-emerge, and if so under what conditions. I don’t believe that the author of the post (Susanna Viljanen, from Aalto University in Finland) who opens that discussion wanted to see Communism arise again, but rather is asking if it can, and under what circumstances. She clearly states at the beginning of her argument,

By now, Communism is dead and buried. Its failure was so spectacular, its achievements so appalling and its legacy so hateful and bitter that nobody in their sane minds – especially in the Eastern Europe, where it was brought by conqueror’s bayonets, want it back. The first round of Communism was the greatest tragedy world ever has seen.

I think we can all agree with that sentiment. Viljanen opens her post with a quote she says is from Karl Marx:

History has a tendency to repeat itself: first time as a tragedy, second time as a farce.

She then adds her own twist: “a third time as a melodrama.”* I won’t debate whether this is true, but Viljanen continues:

Communism and Nazism are basically each other’s mirror images. They appeal to same kind of people and they promise same kind of world – and deliver similar results. So as long as there will be Communists, there will be Nazis as well… But neither ideology can gain enough support as long as the society is a) stable and b) provides its members decent living.

By that logic I assume the reverse: as long as there are Nazis there will be Communists as well, a sort of balancing act between two extreme forms of totalitarianism. But I think that presumes a right-left axis, and I have to argue that for all the labels applied to it, Communism was not a leftwing ideology, but only masqueraded as one, just as the Talibangelists in the USA masquerade as Christians.

Viljanen continues:

…To win, both Nazism and Communism need an unstabilized society – one in chaos, civil war, bankruptcy, natural catastrophe or horribly divided.

She is suggesting, I believe, that the current situation in the USA is becoming (or has become) fertile ground for revolution (a belief shared by some researchers into income inequality; the USA is the fourth highest nation in the GINI inequality scale), but I would disagree: in a deeply consumer-oriented society like the USA, revolutions are rare. You can distract too many people from their political goals with a sale on iPhones (or, for the right, AR-15s) too easily. People in the USA will storm the breach to buy a discounted TV set in a Black Friday sale, but organize nationwide for political purposes? Unlikely (as long as that TV is working). A revolution requires a cadre of informed, dedicated ideologues at its core, and I don’t see them anywhere.

On the other hand, I think the USA is the womb of a rapidly-developing rightwing coup; more like the Nazi solidification of power post-1933 than their Beerhall Putsch. I think the alt-right which always portrays itself as the victim, as the target, as the underdog, is more likely to rise up, but in support of — not against — the totalitarian state because it supports the racist/xenophobic/misogynist ideologies of the alt-right.** But a Communist revolution? Never.

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The Talibangelist Conspiracy to Rule America and the West

trying to find the on swicth...
Talibangelists (aka (aka the pseudo-Christian, far right) would love to force everyone believe in and obey their highly-adulterated pseudo-religion, and to punish those who don’t.  Or won’t. Punishment is big on their agenda: unbelievers, those who stray, followers of a real faith, scientists, intellectuals, people of colour, gays, people with an “R” in their name — they love to punish anyone not among their small circle of authoritarian theocrats  (aka theocons, because their pseudo-religious ideology is conservative-far right) and enablers (cue the theme music from The Handmaid’s Tale).

In order to bring their authoritarian ideology into public policy and ramp up the punishment machine, they must  infiltrate and then replace the governments of the world with their own theocracy. In the USA, where they are strongest and most numerous, they already have a running start: numerous Talibangelists are active in the Trump administration, close to the president, on the supreme court, and among the justice system (Attorney General Barr being one). They are close to success and have had much of their agenda made into US public policy already. They intend to rewrite the very Constitution to enable their goals, especially that irksome Establishment Clause that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” that prevents religious (or in their case, pseudo-religious) control over the government.

They can’t do it without their religious disguise. Any similar attempt to overthrown the government would be seen as what it is: a rightwing, authoritarian coup d’etat. They’d be rounded up and jailed. Charged with treason.  But by pretending to be religious, they can make everything they do about religious freedom, about biblical law, about god, and make themselves look like champions of Christians (particularly the Evangelicals and other rightwing religious sects who seem most gullible to this con). But in fact they are as deeply anti-Christian as they are anti-democracy.

Nope, no difference at all.

They would have all national laws based on or subservient to biblical laws — including, they note with anticipatory glee, stoning homosexuals. Talibangelist laws have been compared to Islamic sharia law, but the comparison is unfair: Talibangelists ideals are much more aggressive, punitive, unforgiving, and oppressive. Despite that, theocons get offended and shirty when you compare their biblical laws with sharia laws.

Of course, they don’t want all the bible’s laws enacted: only those that are convenient for them or that fit their homophobic, misogynistic, racist, nationalist ideology.  And also because, for all their codswallop about the bible and their morality, they simply can’t obey the vast majority of them (where, for example, would they even find the silver trumpets that must be sounded at feasts, at the new moon, and also “in times of tribulation, to call the congregation together”?).

They wouldn’t want, for example, the death penalty for adultery (Leviticus 20:10) because that would mean their better-than-Jesus president would be stoned to death for his many sins in that category. Or for liars to be punished as Proverbs 19:5 demands, because he’d suffer every time he tweets or holds a press conference. What about the law not to fail to repay a debt (Lev. 19:13) or not to steal money stealthily (Lev. 19:11) or not to overcharge or underpay for an article (Lev 25:14) or not to work people oppressively (Lev. 25:43), not to covet and scheme to acquire another’s possession  (Ex. 20:15), not to bear a grudge (Lev. 19:18)… Trump has broken so many mitzvot, not just the ten commandments, that even the theocons have lost count.

Nor do the Talibangelists want to obey all  laws themselves. They ignore the dietary laws in Leviticus 11 because it would mean no more bacon or shrimp. They don’t want to obey the law in Numbers 15:32-36 that forbids work on the Sabbath on penalty of death because it would mean they wouldn’t have places to dine or shop that day (it’s okay if other people have to work on the Sabbath because their deaths don’t matter). As the LA Times pointed out,

The Hebrew Bible enjoins us many times not to mistreat or oppress foreigners, and it offers provisions for the care and feeding of strangers. Leviticus says, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born,” and the book of Hebrews reminds us to “show hospitality to strangers.” I didn’t see the memo, but God must have revised his thinking on immigration before his endorsement of Trump.

So many biblical laws are just plain inconvenient to the Talibangelists, or threaten their power base, so they ignore them. Surely it’s not hypocrisy to demand others obey laws you refuse to even recognize? Or to forgive your president the same sins you would have others put to death for?

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Whatever happened to conservatives?

Neoliberalism’s Dark Path to Fascism
It’s hard to believe these days, but in many nations, conservative political parties were once actually the defenders of the nation’s interests, of the greater good, of the public, and of the state. They weren’t always the corporate shills, protectors of billionaires, privatizing libertarians, lobbyist puppets, Talibangelist lapdogs*, and racists they all seem to be today. No, once upon a time they actually cared about their country and its people, not just themselves and the firms that own them.

Look at the Republicans in the USA. It the Republican party under Lincoln that fought racists and went to war for equality in the 1860s. It was the Republicans under Eisenhower who created NASA, expanded Social Security, passed the Civil Rights Act, and enforced integration. It was the Republicans under that arch-villain/Republican Richard Nixon who brought the Environmental Protection Agency into existence. And early Republicans added important amendments to the US Constitution.

But then came President Ronald Reagan (1981-89), whose twisted vision of the USA and its government was radically different from anything before (at least within the mainstream of US politics). This wasn’t a new vision: he had voiced it as early as 1964 in his speech “A Time For Choosing” when he said,

“…the full power of centralized government” this was the very thing the Founding Fathers sought to minimize. They knew that governments don’t control things. A government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.

Reagan despised government, despised public service and public assets. He was determined to hand America over to private corporations, to the capitalist elite, and reduce government to the role of rubber stamping or denuding laws to met corporate needs. He would vilify government again and again in his career and laud private enterprise as better, more efficient.

Reagan believed in an economic fantasy spawned by an arch-conservative economist named Art Laffer called “trickle-down economics” (sometimes disguised in the innocuous-sounding “supply-side economics” – see Jonathan Chait’s book, The Big Con).

Reagan assured the voters that tax cuts to the rich and to corporations would be used to fuel the economy and create jobs rather than what they actually did: line the pockets of the CEOs and shareholders, while making the rich richer. Nor did it matter to Reagan that many of these corporations moved their HQs overseas to avoid paying American taxes or having to obey American labour laws, and then moved their jobs overseas to take advantage of cheap foreign labour, all for the sake of profit.

In 40 years since Laffer’s wild ideas became public policy, in those states they have created deficits, massive economic inequality, and financial disasters. As Morris Pearl wrote in The Guardian:

Each and every time state or federal governments have tested Laffer’s trickle-down theory, deficits balloon, rich folks hoard their wealth at the top, and average Americans suffer.

Not that neoliberals care if anyone “average” suffers from their policies. They only care about how these policies benefit the rich. In 2019, Donald Trump risibly awarded Laffer the “medal of freedom” — further debasing the medal’s credibility in his tiny hands — as he and the GOP continue the long-debunked fantasy of “trickle-down economics” by cutting taxes to the rich and corporations again and again, at rising cost to the masses of American people. The economic inequality in the USA is at an all-time high as a direct result of neoliberal policies.

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Stalin’s ghostly influence today

I recently finished reading the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s magisterial biography of Josef Stalin: About 1,700 pages so far, with another 400 or so in small-type notes. Brilliant stuff, but a lot to absorb and consider. A bit of a slog if you’re not at least somewhat familiar with the history – there are many events, places and people to keep track of.

Volume one ran from Stalin’s birth to 1928, the year of the first Soviet show trials and when Stalin had fully established himself as undisputed leader. The second volume in the trilogy picks up there with the “wreckers” trial, runs through the decade of show trials, the purges, the decimation of the army leadership, the solidification of the police state, and ends on the day after the Germans invaded: June 22, 1941.

There is still more than a decade of material to cover, through the Great Patriotic War, the post-war reconstruction and the beginning of the Cold War, until Stalin’s death in 1953. I eagerly await the final volume in the trilogy. (NB: if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you watch the movie, The Death of Stalin, a dark comedy but very close to the actual historical events. Available on DVD and Netflix).

While I have previously read several biographies of Stalin and related books on Soviet history, none can match Kotkin for the sheer volume of information, the astounding depth and breadth of his narrative. It’s not simply about the man, the collapse of tsarist Russia and the rise of the Soviet Union under Communism: it’s about the world at the time, what was happening, and how other nations responded to the events and the personalities.

Kotkin’s work weaves together many strands of contemporary history and politics, and provides considerable insight into the workings of the Soviet bureaucracy and Stalin’s developing and hardening ideology. It’s brilliant stuff, and I eagerly look forward to his third and concluding volume.

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