On Bombings and Apologies

“I’m sorry,” said the captain
After killing your wife
Upon maiming your children
And wrecking your life.

“I’m sorry,” he said,
“The missile, it missed,”
Then took a step back
when he saw your clenched fist.

“That damn missile went left
when it should have gone right
–It’s so hard to see straight
in the middle of the night.”

“Dear friend, know America
did not want you dead…
“That missile was meant
for your neighbors instead.”

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On Being Human

On Being Human
by Joseph G. Ramsey

Right now
South of here
Someone is breaking the law:
Sneaking out into the desert
–trespassing private property
cutting through government wire
ingeniously avoiding ICE agents
and National Guard units
who stand spitting tobacco juice and
cradling sub-machine guns —
travelling unnoticed
without proper papers
for miles and miles
delivering jugs of water
to discreet locations
where the North-bound
–“border crossers”–
–“ illegal aliens”–
may find them
crack them open
and drink their fill,
and thereby not become
so dehydrated
so overheated
as to die
in the dust
(nor so desperate
as to lose faith
in humanity

Beside the bottles
these bearers of water plant
small red flags in the sand,
knee-high markers that can only be seen
By those who are thirsty
and know where to look.

If you would ask these water-bearers to stop
If you would make them stop
If you would give aid to those who would stop them
If you are the kind of person who would force these guardians
to disown their adopted cousins
and let them die,
clasping cacti thorns in the skeleton desert
Then I say it’s you
Who must be stopped.

Perhaps it is you who should be cast out
Into the desert.
Perhaps it is you who are the Alien
In our human midst.

What human being can feel safe

With the likes of you around?

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“One Promise, Kept”

Yes, America, we can still offer you up
a death
after all these years:
A glorious kill
For all your patience and persistence,
suffering and sacrifice,
(for half your taxes, ten million airport pat-downs, a stadium full of hometown boys
Cut to shreds, and all those human stains on your nice clean boots):
Yes, we can still make good
on a promise,
Still bring home to you that sweet spectacle of
(Not your son, it’s true.) But at least
this digitized dream:
a Special Forces play-by-play,
a broadcast autopsy
To warm your red, white, blue toes by.
“In America anything is possible,
If we set our minds to it.”

Are you not impressed?
Does the site of these sublime wounds not bleed joy
Right into your skipping heart?
Does your tongue not swell with spit
and does your throat not long to gargle
on that distant mountain blood
like popped champagne?
Patriot pulses quicken, eagle spirits rise
Tugged by the dusty beards
Of skeletons
rattling across mountain tops.
Have faith, America,
Yes. We. Can.
Still. Kill. Man (andwomanandboyandgirl)
and keep promises, too, yes:
Maybe not those concerning education, or work,
Equality, or healthcare
Or life that means something…
But we can still deliver on corpses
And that’s not nothing,
is it?

So when you’re feeling low
(low enough even to rise)
Know this: that
We are there to buffer and to buoy you up
With bodies blown apart.
These bombs can blast the paint off the canvas
and give us a fresh start,
In the name of God,
In the shadow of new tomb-towers
blocking out the sun
And all that is sacred
Of America and
doesn’t everybody love a good show
and a party too?
to that.

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What is Needed

What is Needed
Campside (based on true events)

In Haiti
there is money to build
not to house
the poor
but to block them
from view;
to lay brick
high and thick,
not to protect
the homeless
from the elements,
but to protect
the rich man’s twenty-acre
from the sewage that flows
from the camp
when it rains.

And so now
when it rains
A human stew
Bubbles backs from the base of the wall
into the camp—
deep enough to drown in
A gathering cesspool
for mosquitos
to breed
and cholera
to bloom.

The construction project
Gives at least
a few men
—from another camp across town—
hard, back-breaking work
for a few weeks
At almost three times the minimum wage
Of a dollar a day.

The wall at least
the mosquitos
a home.

These fiends thrive,
Lay their eggs in the stagnant water
Feeding by night
on what flesh they can puncture.

Each little blood-sucker’s life
is short.
They live for only a few weeks
Before they drop somewhere
In some unmarked speck grave—that is
if they aren’t caught first
Between the finger and the thumb–
They burst like tiny rotten berries.

Yes, any single
mosquito can be easily dealt with.
Once you know where exactly its buzz
Comes from.
But in their uncountable numbers,
an invisible, everywhere swarm
They appear utterly
You go mad at night
just swatting the sound of them .
Praying through razed blisters
for someone
to drain this godforsaken swamp
of a world.

Across the street, Food for the Poor (that’s their name)
Tells a delegation from the camp (they’re next door neighbors)
that they cannot help them;
That this is a not a distribution center;
That FFP’s funds go elsewhere
And that, besides, they wouldn’t want to start trouble by
giving food (or mosquito netting)
to people
Just like that,
Without, you know, going through all the proper channels.
Without armed guards present
to keep order
and paid clerks on hand
to track everything on official charts and checklists:
how many grains of how much rice went to whom and to where and what color it was, and who said please and who thank you (and who did not).
I mean, if distributing food to the poor was as easy as, you know, just
then, well,
You wouldn’t even need professional organizations like
Food for the Poor
in the first place,
would you?

A world away
Far beyond even the locked gates of Charity
Where “History” is made
A UN official
gets promoted
to stand behind a podium and
speak of “A risk of a pandemic” and
“A surge in infant mortality.”
Earnest euphemism
Rolls off that juicy pink tongue;
(The fluent official gargles water
Before coming on stage
with another bottle of Aquafina at the podium
Just in case
the throat suddenly dries up;
It can get hot up there,
Under all those bright lights,
With all the world watching.)

In the dark
cholera stretches it limbs across prison floors
From steel barred windows to crack-webbed walls
Where profane protests against the state
are smeared in feces
and blood.

Some walls still won’t fall.
As others go up.

And more are planned.


Tons upon tons of construction materials
Sit piled at camp-side:
Metal beams like the stacked legs of starved giants,
Head-high mounds of sand and crushed granite, rubble
Fresh-shoveled and trucked
from the wreckage of Port-au-Prince.
(There’s a fortune being made in the sale of rubble.)

Monster machines sit idle. Watched over by armed guards.
And a handful of hired workers stand and smoke, idle too,
waiting to break ground, at the boss’s order.
Their muscles itch for work.

There are building materials here
for a hundred homes, at least.


The squatters are to be
from their road-side camp
By the rightful land owner
With the official stamp.

He wants to build a factory
He needs to build a factory
there is money for a factory
obligations to meet
words to keep
(The owners, too, imprisoned, by what they must build
Though their jail-cells are air-conditioned,
And fur coats keep off the chill.)

There’s a signed contract with a foreign company
to produce: baseballs
to be exported and sold to Sporting Goods stores
who will sell them at a mark-up
to the parents of little American boys and girls
who have fields to play in
and who can afford to lose things
in streams and under fences
and buy new ones.

Hundreds of people contemplate
Scraping up the will
to struggle together, to keep their grip
on a cracked plot of ground that they never asked for
In the first place;
That was forced upon them:
A sun-baked tarp town
where they have been confined for more than a year now,
without schools or sanitation,
While the rulers make plans
That do not include them
Except as sources of
To be sealed off
Or else
cheap labor
to be mixed
with the bricks
that wall people in
and people out.

The bulldozers rumble
The manager shouts
If there’s no trouble, if you all move out,
Some of you may get the chance to sew baseballs.
You like baseballs, don’t you?”
The new boss promises two dollars a day.

A few will be hired—the rest flushed

Will the refuse of this system pick this city
of sheets and boiling shade
Of ghosts and newborns and grandparents
and toys
But no safe place to play and
Of grime and sand
and whispered rebel songs
And blanched memory
To make their stand?

The stagnant waste water by the wall
Do they think they can?

Or will the machetes and machine guns
scatter them in the night
(As they have done before)
Leaving them in the ditch
Dreaming of clean streams,
a plot of land,
And a world
That’s been flushed
of walls
and the

A rash spreads across the old woman’s legs
What can she do
But bang her two pots together at half past noon
with the others,
(a daily demonstration)
that, and be ready to place her body between her grand-child
and the bulldozer, when they come:

She’s lost her shop, and her sewing machine.
Used to sew clothes for people in the city,
To patch the garments of those who could not afford to buy new.
(She had been one of the luckier few.)

There is plenty here that needs stitching.
By hand, she does what she can do.
sews rags into a quilt,
keeps a sole
on a shoe.

(Plenty that needs tearing down, here, too.)

A baby lies asleep on the bed,
a mosquito net dome, laid over his head.
Those elsewhere who can afford it use mesh like this
to protect their finger sandwiches from the flies,
when they sit out with guests in summer time.

In an alley of the cramped camp
The braids of a child
Flap in the wind
As she chases a red rubber ball downhill
Between tents
Trying catch it
Before it rolls into
the muck.

Do you want to know
What happens next?
Do you?
Or shall we just let this one go, too?
Let it go
Let it go
How much of this world are we willing to just
Let go?
How much humanity
Will we just let go
Let fall away
Like some ball
slipping through
A child’s open palm?

Or a kite forever swallowed by the sky?

Fresh watered flowers
and incense torches
line the owners’ oblivious porches,
keeping off the bugs
masking some distant stench.

And a young girl has drowned in a rain-swollen trench.

There is money in Haiti
To build with; it pours in;
the rich hire poor people with it
erect walls with it
so they don’t have to see
the sludge
That soils their green gardens.

And this too:
so the sorrow-sick souls gathered now
by the edge of the camp-side mire
still gripping pots and pans
unearthing and wiping clear the braided face of the child
Can’t see them, the rich,
sitting there in their place
out in the sun, doing what they do,
Enjoying the open air:
So well-dressed,
And so few.


More than 1.5 million are still homeless
in Haiti.
It’s not for lack of brick or steel
nor engineers
Nor hands to build with.
Not for a lack of land.
Not for a lack of money.
Not for lack of a Master Plan.

What is it, I ask you,
that is lacking here?

What is it,
I ask,
that is needed?


Joseph G. Ramsey is a teacher, writer, and activist who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. He co-edits Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of marxist theory and practice, www.clogic.eserver.org , whose special issue on “Culture and Crisis” will be out later this Spring. Joe is also a participant in the Kasama Project, www.kasamaproject.org, and can be reached at jgramsey@gmail.com.

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Rattling the Capitalist Food Chain

The following critical analysis of Robert Kenner’s 2008 Academy Award nominated documentary, Food Inc.  appeared in the recent “Feral issue” of Minnesota Review,  edited by Heather Steffens. 


Rattling the Capitalist Food Chain

“Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”

—Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

The critically-acclaimed documentary Food, Inc. seems well-prepared to enhance the cultural conversation about food: what we eat, where it comes from, how it is produced, and what that all means.  Clocking in at 93 minutes and with slick production values, the film brings together some of the most startling revelations from muckraking bestsellers such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin, 2006), organizing this material into catchy-titled chapters illustrated with clever cartoons and peopled by charismatic characters.  The sum total is a work that provides educators and activists alike with a sharp and useful—if in some ways contradictory—tool for cultivating discussion about the food-related crises we face.

While Pollan and Schlosser provide a kind of tag-team voiceover for the film, the heart of Food, Inc. rests with those who have personally suffered in the belly of the US agribusiness beast.  We get the testimony not of professional nutritionists, animal welfare activists, or environmentalists, but of bankrupt family farmers, debt-wracked chicken warehouse contractors, Mexican immigrant meat packers, food chemists, and food consumers, such as one mother who lost her two-year-old son to food-borne E. Coli. The result is a film that seeks to “connect the dots” (as director Robert Kenner has stated) intellectually and emotionally, even for those who already shop at Whole Foods, or who are well acquainted with the ethical and public health nightmare of the modern slaughterhouse.  Familiar critiques sound fresh—and suggest new possibilities—when they come from the lips of those trapped inside this food system.

While Food, Inc. began as a film about food, Kenner has remarked, it quickly “became a film about unchecked corporate power.”  This resulted largely from entrenched industry resistance encountered during the making of the film. (Apparently, the food company executives did not respond positively to Kenner’s invitation to participate in a “fair and balanced” investigation of their operations.)  Yet the film shows an uneven course of radicalization.  In its best moments, Food, Inc. encourages viewers to follow the food chains down to their roots in corporate domination of people, land, animals, media, and scientific knowledge.  But at other moments the film, like a number of recent progressive documentaries, compromises its clear-headed critical vision for the sake of an “empowering” conclusion.  Proclaiming that the “people have the power,” particularly through the way they “vote” at the check-out counter, the film forgets its own insights.  It obscures the systemic problems—as well as the openings—created by corporate capitalism, dulling prospects for a political agency capable of radical social transformation.  While the film aims to “lift the veil” on food production and so to reveal the structural violence and social costs hidden behind the pastoral fantasies of modern food marketing—just as the opening credits dissolve the red barns, lush green valleys, and white picket fences of supermarket dairy aisles into the horror of real livestock standing knee-deep in factory farm filth—in the end Food, Inc. does not remove this “veil” so much as move it from one aisle of the supermarket to another.

Criticizing Your Burger and Eating It Too

The film opens at a roadside diner where none other than Eric Schlosser salivates at the sound of sizzling hamburger.  Sinking his teeth into a juicy patty, Schlosser confesses to us that for all his meat-raking journalism his favorite meal is still a “burger and fries.”  “I was raised on this food,” he explains, gripping his half-pounder with both hands.  The gesture places Schlosser within the culture that he is criticizing, an apt emblem for how Food, Inc. reaches across the aisle to those not frequenting the organic section while simultaneously inoculating itself against charges of “un-American” meat-hating.  The film quickly moves beyond the facile behavioral moralizing that oozes from works like Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004).   Food, Inc. clearly considers meat and fast-food eaters a legitimate part of its audience, not merely the object of critique.  Thus Kenner, as he’s reported, left out of the film the most stomach-turning footage of animal degradation.  Perhaps for the same reason, the film excludes the voices of veganism and vegetarianism altogether. 

In the same vein, Food, Inc. introduces us to the working-class Gonzalez family just as they order a bag of burgers from a drive-thru.  They explain that while they know fast food is not good for them, they feel forced to choose between eating healthy at a greater expense and affording the medicines Mr. Gonzalez needs to treat his—of all diseases—diabetes.  Moreover, the Gonzalezes both work second jobs to make ends meet, so they lack the time to cook meals at home.  Ironically labeled “The Dollar Meal,” this segment then follows the family of five through the produce section of a supermarket, where they survey, handle, and weigh lettuce, broccoli, and potatoes, noting their relative expense.  They are hard-pressed to find a deal on fresh produce that compares favorably to the hamburgers they can buy for a buck apiece.  A simple but crucial point emerges: in the US today, many people do not have the time nor money to make “healthy choices” when it comes to the food they eat.  Food is a function of social class.  Pushing further via Pollan, Kenner uses this family’s dilemma to raise the question of why unhealthy foods are often much cheaper than healthy ones.  This leads to an exposé of how US government subsidies for corn, soy, and meat production determine supermarket prices at the expense of healthier choices, and thus of the public health.  As if that wasn’t enough, Pollan’s argument that food companies systematically (and scientifically) “press our evolutionary buttons”— our cravings for salt, fat, and sugar—makes an appeal to “individual responsibility” ring hollow.  “Corporate responsibility” is just as empty a notion, for, as Pollan elaborates, even when faced with serious public health threats like E. Coli outbreaks, the corn-based food system, rather than implement structural reforms, seeks out quick fixes like feeding cattle antibiotics, leaving its problematic basic practices, such as overcrowding and corn-feeding, unaddressed.  The system here trumps calls to act “responsibly.”

But what exactly is meant by system here?  Rather than the capitalist system, we hear a lot in the film about the industrial, corporate, modern “food system.”  To its credit, Food, Inc. goes to great lengths to sketch something like the totality of this system.  The film attends to an impressive number of links in the corporate food chain—production, transport, processing, marketing, purchase, consumption, government regulation, public health, and environmental impacts—causing one critic to note that there are in fact “a dozen documentaries tucked inside” this one (Dargis).  The food movement would seem to be one of few places in the US today where such a process analysis—“from seed to supermarket”—shows prospects of reaching a mass audience. (Why this is the case is a question that warrants another article.) Yet the film’s understanding of its object as a food system—rather than as a capitalist system—has serious, and ultimately disabling, implications. By capitalism here I mean not only a world-saturating system of commodity production, but a system that is characterized by the contradiction between increasingly concentrated private ownership and control of the means of production on the one hand and increasingly socialized organization of production itself on the other, a system in which the dominance of exchange-value over use-value renders issues like public health and ecological sustainability external to the drive to maximize profits.  Certainly, Food, Inc.’s theory is powerfully descriptive, but it is not adequate in explanation: it often mistakes effect for cause, and it finally leaves transformative agency hopelessly narrowed to shoppers’ terms. Class analysis flattens to a portrait of victimization.

While Food, Inc. draws its most penetrating insights and moving pathos from the testimony and the struggles of food production “insiders” who are often trapped and still working for agribusiness, it tends to reduce them to victims whose suffering may move outsiders—us!—to change the system, not through joining, for example, a farmer-worker alliance for land and agriculture reform (let alone revolution), but through our enlightened consumer choices.  The political self-alienation is profound: the workers and farmers who know how to grow and prepare food, who have lost faith in the system, and who see and experience its abuses most clearly are left appealing to us, the consumers, to “change the world with every bite.”  “People have to start demanding good wholesome food of us,” demands the hearty Midwestern corn farmer who closes the film (himself a victim of Monsanto’s GMO monopolization), “and we’ll deliver, I promise.”  Demanding healthier food remains the linchpin of the call to action.

Consider another of the film’s striking portraits: Joel Salatin, the bespectacled organic farmer from Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, who offers some of Food, Inc.’s most sparkling wisdom, and whose grass-based, open-air Polyface Farm represents one of the beacons of hope in the film.  Salatin closes an early segment with a philosophical reflection on modern society, which he characterizes as full of “technicians” concerned only with the “how” rather than the “why” of things.  He then hypothesizes that people who view pigs disrespectfully, as nothing but manipulable proteins and genetic material, are likely to also view other people “with disdain, disrespect, and a controlling mentality.”  To exemplify his point, the film shifts to a segment exploring the abuse of meat packers at Smithfield, Inc. in Tarheel, North Carolina, juxtaposing the workers’ treatment with that of the pigs they are paid to kill and disembowel.  The employers “treat the workers just like the hogs,” says one anonymous voice; they are all “temporary” and headed for a quick end.  Set against a screaming sea of pigs and the bloody work of the disassembly line, the parallel is searing and serves as an opening for a more extended and at times quite radical discussion of the economic and social forces that affect the  workers at Smithfield, who are largely immigrant and often “illegal.” 

But the thrust of the film here poses a kind of food determinism, suggesting not only that there is some parallel between the (dis)respect of hogs and of human workers, but that the causality flows from food production outward, in a kind of dystopic literalization of the famous phrase: “You are what you eat.”  It suggests that if we could just stop treating hogs (and other animals) badly, then the lot of workers would improve; in standing up for the animals we would be standing up for…ourselves!  One could then extend this line of thinking in a vegetarian or vegan way to argue that only by abolishing the killing or exploiting of animals for human food altogether can we keep this sort of mistreatment from befalling our own species. 

The sad truth is that things are just not that simple.  Avoiding mass-produced meat does not mean your food is not, in a sense, stained with blood.  For one thing, as Eric Schlosser pointed out long ago in his first food exposé in Atlantic Monthly  (“In The Strawberry Fields,” 1995), fruit and vegetable production are associated with some of the most horribly exploitative labor conditions in the United States.  (Fruit and vegetable production are all but absent in Food, Inc.)  And as Felicia Mello has written in The Nation (“Hard Labor,” 2007), organic agriculture, far from being less exploitative and abusive of workers, is often compelled to be more so.  For one thing, non-reliance on pesticides requires that acres of fruits and veggies be weeded with back-breaking hand labor.  On top of this, organic firms struggle to maintain competitive prices (and profits), despite their extra-costly methods, placing even more pressure on owners—and labor contractors—to “control costs” where they can.  This often means getting more for less out of their unorganized, often undocumented, super-vulnerable fieldworkers. As Schlosser wrote in “Strawberry Fields,” “Nearly every fruit and vegetable found in the diet of health-conscious, often high-minded consumers is still picked by hand: every head of lettuce, every bunch of grapes, every avocado, peach, and plum,” and this at wages often sinking far below the legal minimum, by workers whose life expectancies average around fifty years.  In the interview that opens the Food, Inc. book, a “Participant Guide” to the film, Schlosser puts it starkly: “I don’t see any point of having heirloom, organic tomatoes if they’re harvested by slave labor.”  But in focusing on better food and more humane treatment of animals as the seed of change, Kenner’s film ends up turning actual human agents into passive victims, capable of voicing pain, but not of resisting or organizing to challenge a system that is not just feeding them but feeding off them (as well as us).  Human beings, ironically enough, are here reduced to their basic “animal” functions of feeding or flight.  Either that or they become entrepreneurs.

Let Them Eat Organic Yogurt

 The only time the word “capitalism” actually appears in Food, Inc. is when organic food CEO Gary Hirshberg—euphoric and fresh off his recent $23 billion sale of Stonyfield Farm yogurt to the multinational food conglomerate Danone—exclaims, “We’re not going to get rid of capitalism!”  At least, he adds, not in time to avert the climate crisis coming our way.  Thus, Hirschberg argues, we must focus on changing the world through business, not by working against it.  Rather than thinking of ourselves as Davids facing Goliath, we must “become Goliath.”  Certainly, as his recently-signed contract to have Stonyfield Farm yogurt carried by Wal-Mart indicates, Hirschberg seems well on his way to becoming a market heavyweight—though one wonders how that helps to “save the world” (his words).  It merely raises to strategy the cliché, if you can’t beat them, join them.  The film barely poses the question of what will happen to all the small organic farms and “natural” labels now being rapidly acquired by international food conglomerates deeply entrenched in non-organic practices.  Instead Kenner settles for Hirschberg’s naïve claim that “the jury’s still out” on this one. 

Quite to the contrary, it’s clear that as “organics” come under the control of institutions motivated not by a mission of social change and long-term sustainability but by the irrepressibly short-term of the fossil-fueled bottom line, “organics” will be contained as a market niche rather than the mass movement they would have to become to have any significant environmental impact.  Contrary to Hirshberg’s impatient anti-anti-capitalism, isn’t it long past time to call this derelict jury in for the verdict?

Unfortunately, Food, Inc.’s uncritical valorizing of Hirschberg, this billionaire who would save the world by selling it organic yogurt, is no mere blip.  It expresses the ideology of its filmmaker.  In the “Participant Guide” book, for instance, Kenner quips that he is “not anticorporate on any philosophical level” but “put companies like Stonyfield and Wal-Mart into the film because I believe that they can be part of the solution” (40).  Yet one need only look to the recent spectacle of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey sounding off from his heart-healthy pulpit in the Wall Street Journal in favor of “individual responsibility” and market fundamentalism to be filled with doubts on this score (Mackey).  Food, Inc. does not do much at all to inoculate its viewers against such capitalist wolves in organic sheep’s clothing.

The film, however, in its more sober moments outstrips and undercuts Kenner’s and Hirschberg’s rickety proposals about what is to be done.  These closing injunctions call for people to scrutinize their purchasing and eating habits, calling us to exercise our “freedom of choice” as enlightened consumers (and secondarily as citizens) to alter corporate behavior, rewarding “good” firms and punishing “bad” ones.  Fair enough.  Except that Food, Inc. also calls attention to the way that the practices and prices of the food system in the US (and, increasingly, worldwide) are rooted not merely in consumer “choices,” but in US governmental agriculture policies, which are in turn rooted in the political-financial influence of US food corporations at all levels and branches of government.  All of which radically affects the field of “choices” that appear to us in the marketplace. That is to say, one of the strengths of this film is that it helps us to see how the terrain of “choices” on which we are taught to exercise our precious “freedom” is itself structured, constrained, and shaped “behind the scenes.”  One is tempted to say that the individual freedom we experience in the supermarket is merely formal.

Perhaps the most radical segment of Food, Inc. is its surprisingly deft “behind the scenes” treatment of NAFTA and immigration.  The film efficiently outlines the effects of NAFTA in expropriating and proletarianizing millions of Mexican small farmers, tracing how the same companies who lobbied for NAFTA, companies whose cheap, federally-subsidized corn production has driven these Mexican farmers out of business and off the land, have aggressively recruited these now displaced, desperate ex-farmers to labor “illegally” in US meat-processing plants, where their lack of proper documentation leaves them especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.  Adding a sickening irony to the massive injury, the film shows us how Smithfield bargains with the Department of Homeland Security to hand over a regular tithe of “aliens” for deportation in a way that will not disrupt production hours.  This sequence suggests how imperialist globalization undermines the food security and sovereignty of billions of people across the global South, while simultaneously turning their dislocation into a source of profitable surplus labor.

But even as Food, Inc. helps us to map “accumulation by dispossession,” the workers remain passive victims, harbingers of the doom that awaits if we do not change our eating ways.  Yet, as the editors of Monthly Review recently pointed out, citing the World Health Organization, “close to half of all humans are either perpetually hungry and malnourished or suffering from varying degrees of food insecurity.”  How are we to integrate them into our portrait of the modern food system?  How can they make “better choices” when they lack the resources to procure food at all?  Moreover, how does including these hungry masses in the picture change the way we might imagine a social agent capable of implementing revolutionary change to our food system?

Unfortunately, Food, Inc. doesn’t connect these particular “dots.”  To be fair, the film’s trouble imagining a social agent that transcends the realm of market activity is far from unique.  It is, rather, a persistent symptom of the neoliberal ideology that continues to plague social thought in our contemporary moment, even on the left.  Useful as it is, then, we should reflect on the ways that Food, Inc. represents the opportunities, but also the limits, and the dangers of food-based social activism, of consumption-oriented critiques of society that not only begin but also end up in the supermarket, and of “system” analyses that do not bear in mind the insatiable hunger of capital. 


My understanding of this film has been enhanced substantially by conversations with Danielle Herget, Heather Steffen, Steve Dooner, Carl Martin, and Benjamin Balthaser.

Works Cited

Dargis, Monohla.  “Meet Your New Farmer: Hungry Corporate Giant.”   New York Times 12 June 2009.

Mackey, John.  “The Whole Foods Alternative to Obamacare.”  Wall Street Journal 11 Aug. 2009.

Magdoff, Fred, and Brian Tokar, eds.  Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal.  Spec. issue of Monthly Review 61.3 (July-Aug. 2009).

Schlosser, Eric.  “In the Strawberry Fields.”  Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Weber, Karl, ed.  Food, Inc.: How Industrial Food Is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer—and What You Can Do about It.  New York: Participant Media, 2009.

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Fault Lines — Eleven Months On



The Earth has traveled almost round the Sun

Since the day it shook and sucked them down.



and Down

Everything fell:

Shacks and churches smashed through sewers;

Palace collapsed—an empty shell.

Three hundred thousand (counted, fewer;

Thousands buried never found).

A nation ruptured; catacombs

Unleash the walled up winds of hell.

La Terre Tremble. 


Who could forget what that shaking ground

Revealed for all to see, who cared to look?

The way the streets filled up with bloated bodies;

The way the troops drove on,   and let them cook?

The ‘Aid’ delayed, as if for fear of zombies

rising from their rubble graves to run–

White eyes blazing bloody memories

of how white masters came and took by gun.

And yet, and yet, poor Haitians did not riot;

            worked to pull each other from the ruins.

Carried those who died, and those who wouldn’t

for a while,

And those who lived.

Gave until they had no more

to give.

(Meanwhile,“Security,” guns in hand; Guarded the gates that no longer could stand

Protecting the property of those that command. ) 


A sudden eruption

of broken heart blisters

oozing, drying Live on TV

far flung news anchors aim for the ripe wound,

peeling it back, letting us see

seeking the perfect angle to capture

“the inexplicable-horror-of-it-all,”

(with just a dash of sugary hope thrown in for the folks at home)

finding that juicy spot where the latex glove meets the bandage

meets the hand

meets the ballot box

meets the sky

Where it hurts to look.  Where it makes you cry.

            (But never lets you find out Why?)

From this fastened hook

America hangs

Prepared to unleash its charity thang

Solemn Celebrities claim center stage:

And all that sit are moved.

Millions shut their eyes in prayer

(secretly thankful that they’re not there)

Yet ready to do what good people should do:

                                    today, tomorrow, even next week.

But do they ever let the Haitians speak?

What do the people there have to say?

When they look at us what do they see?   

Who will dare to take a peek today?


Caught in the sun, the pocked eye turns away.

How much can the blinded stand to see? :

Band-aids slap where barricades should be.




                                       They say there are a dozen cities

                                       With around a million people each

                                      Lying, waiting, sleeping on a fault line;

                                       Slum-dweller flesh to feed the breach.

                                           For each year, the Earth, it shivers

                                                In the endless cold of space;

                                           Quakes and quivers, like an ox

                                                         whose skin

                                            must knock flies from its face.

                                               The fault is not the moving Earth’s

                             –We know that quakes will come, and even where–

The problem:

a world-wide class affliction

Razes mounds

of contradiction;        

Bubbling boils that break the skin,

Seeping hot pus, sweat and blood —    and liquid gold

That tumbles up to ruler’s lips ice cold.

Parasites suck membranes thin:

Digging nails cleave craters for trails,

So healthy flesh is cut

to scabs and scars,

to fit the scales;

                            Plow the farmers off the land

                            Build estates on bone and sand

                           Spill the poor in pavement cracks

                           Stitch the workers into seams

                           for rulers’ flowing cloaks

                           —Breaking their backs—

                          letting them choke

                           gasping for air–

                           stripping them down to their dreams,

                           then bare.

The earth, we know, will quiver;

the brittle surface, tear.


Such a plague has no plan

for poor people

except for the juice

to be squeezed

from their veins

to quench its viral thirst.

Markets will pressure

 and hearts burst.

                                  So long as endless profit reigns.

(The heads of state remain aloof:

Crisis = opportunity, after all

Helicopter blades

give the world a roof.

And there’s plenty of sweat to catch,

as they fall.) 




Outside Port au Prince:

Refugee Cities–

Rain soaked sheets

Flap on and on,

But only the bugs can fly.

The people gather, asking


Eyes peer out through fraying holes;

Fingers point

At jet-liners tearing the sky.

       Aboard corporate jets:

Thirsting agents

Ties loosened,

Clinking drinks in hand,

Toast to the future they’ve left behind,

Traveling home,

to milder climes:

If they look down

                 through parting clouds–

see only some

dirty laundry lines.

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Post Pastoral

It’d be nice to write poems

about simple pleasures:

Humming birds,



thirsty first kisses.

But the way things

Are going–

                        can’t do it.

Drought chokes the throats of my long lost lovers

And bombs buzz where the bees should be.

The kindly sun-warmed shepherd,

            Tending his flock

Has been made to submit

to a mutton clerk,

            Who coldly keeps the clock.

I’ve no green garden,

no gate to lock—

            Like you,

             I wander the aisles of a store

Picking out the peasant thumbs

from the racks of prunes and plums;

Trying not to kick some unseen

skull across a floor. 

Yet asked to fill a rattling rolling cage with more

and more…

Who could stock such gaping shelves

            With words of light and love?

The world has drained the last coo

            From this dove.

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