BY DOUG JENNESS
Nearly 100 workers and students participated in the two sessions of the class, "Working farmers in the whirlwind of capitalist crisis: From Mad Cow Disease to Round-up Ready Beans - The scourge of nationalism and the fight for a worker- farmer alliance," that Tony Harris and I presented at the International Socialist Conference in Toronto over the New Year's weekend.
We took up several challenges facing the working class and working farmers resulting from the intensified competition between the capitalist rulers and their deepening pressure to draw working people into collaborating with them using the ruse that toilers and the capitalists have common "national" interests in each country.
One of our goals was to show how well-founded concerns about health, safety, environment, new technologies, etc. are used as mechanisms for seducing working people into accepting the chauvinist trade policies and practices of all imperialist countries.
We focused on two examples:
1) how capitalists in Germany, France, and other European Community (EC) countries used the fear about "mad cow disease" to impose a ban on British-grown beef and deal a sharp blow to the beef industry, particularly working farmers, in the United Kingdom;
2) how the decade-long conflict between some agribusinesses in EC countries and U.S. grain exporters over trade in soy beans has been exacerbated by the introduction of genetically engineered soy beans from the United States into the European market.
In the first case Tony detailed how hard hit beef growers have been in the United Kingdom (UK) as they have been forced to slaughter tens of thousands of head of cattle with only meager compensation. He also explained how the Communist League (CL) in Britain, in attempting to support working farmers - many devastated by the beef bans - initially slipped into supporting chauvinist actions by farmers calling for a ban on the import of beef from Ireland and France. He pointed out that in correcting this error the CL explained that the enemy of working farmers in the UK is not Irish or French farmers, but the capitalist profiteers and their government in that country.
Tony also had some useful information on the class structure of agriculture in Britain that showed that the proportion of working farm families in UK agriculture is greater than many people are aware of. This material itself would be useful to get into a Militant article.
In the second case I explained how the various protests by Greenpeace and other environmentalists against genetically engineered soybeans, in the context of the current stepped-up capitalist rivalry and price competition, end up supporting the nationalist and protectionist schemes of those European capitalists that want to limit U.S. soy bean imports into Europe.
I also addressed the importance of the fight to defend the Canada Wheat Board against the attempt of big grain merchants in the United States, the richer wheat farmers in Canada, and the U.S. government to weaken or destroy it. Participants from Canada elaborated on this.
During the discussion period many participants from Canada related information and opinions about the Maple Leaf packinghouse workers strike taking place in that country. It was clear that the obvious intersection of this strike with agriculture had renewed interest among some of them in the problems facing working farmers and in finding ways to advance united action of workers and farmers.
Discussion around the Maple Leaf strike also led to discussion about the structural changes in the hog industry in the United States. These center around big corporations like Murphy Farms setting up a core of one or more large factory farms using wage labor and then contracting out to working farmers most of the hog production. We discussed how this represents a deeper penetration and domination of big capital in the production process on the land. Despite these structural changes, however, family labor, rather than wage labor, remains predominant in the raising of hogs.
Several people asked whether independent fishermen with their own boats are producers like farmers. There was also discussion about the recent "salmon war" between U.S. and Canadian fishermen in the Pacific Northwest. We pointed out that independent fishermen, and in some places in the United States independent woodcutters, were exploited much like independent working farm families. This is in contrast to the larger fishing boats, where capitalist owners hire and exploit a crew of wage workers.
In the second class someone asked how the economic crisis in Asia would affect farmers in the U.S. and the exports markets for U.S. traders. I said that I thought it was too early to tell. I noted that by far the biggest market in Asia for U.S. agricultural commodities is Japan and I didn't expect there would be a big change in this market in the immediate future.
One questioner asked if farmers are a different class than workers. We responded that farmers are a spectrum of classes that includes big capitalist farms and smaller capitalist farmers that exploit wage labor, independent producers using only family labor, and semi-proletarian farmers who farm with family labor but supplement their income with a wage job.
In informal discussion following the classes, several people asked why the capitalists don't just set up all agricultural production on a wage labor basis and why, for the most part, they organize to more deeply exploit the labor of "independent" farm families. I explained that they can squeeze more surplus value out of farmers in these conditions and can also unload more market, weather, and other risks on "independent" farmers. The introduction of contract farming into some sectors of agriculture is an attempt by big capital to intensify their domination over the production process while still using family labor rather than wage labor. Some 97 percent of poultry production is done through contract farming and an increasing proportion of hog production is moving in this direction. This is not so much a conscious policy of agribusiness as it is the lawful workings of the capitalist system as the capitalists attempt to follow the channels that will lead to maximizing their profit rates.
A weakness in the first class (rectified in the second) was not reviewing the basic programmatic approach to establishing a worker-farmer alliance that is laid out in the book, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, by Leon Trotsky and the article, "The Crisis Facing Working Farmers," in New International, No. 4. Both are available from Pathfinder Press.
Doug Jenness is a member of the United Steelworkers of
America in Roseville, Minnesota.
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