A shortened version for presentation at the University of Havana on Friday, June 28th 2013, at the “Seminar on Socialist Renewal and the Capitalist Crisis: A Cuban-North American Exchange”
by Mitchel Cohen
I dedicate this talk to our comrade and teacher John “Tito” Gerassi, who died last year, and who remained to the end a true friend of the Cuban revolution.
South African freedom fighter Steve Biko observed: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Nowhere do those sentiments apply more than they do to Cuba during the special period of the 1990s and 2000s – a time that was extremely harrowing for all Cubans. But the people of Cuba refused to consider themselves victims. They responded creatively. They formed new and ecologically innovative projects that might otherwise have never gotten the chance, for unless it is disrupted, the hegemony of the capitalist industrial model for development plagues even countries aspiring to socialism.
Who would have thought 40 years ago that Fidel Castro, in his old-age, would become a stirring spokesperson for the global environmental movement, of all things? Yet, here’s Fidel: “Should we expect that densely populated countries such as China, India, Indonesia, will have as many automobiles in proportion to their population as North America and Western Europe?” He answers his own question: “Well, it’s necessary: The expansion of capital requires it. It’s also impossible; the earth cannot sustain it.”
Here’s Fidel again, this time in 1990 evaluating the effects in Cuba of the imported Eastern European machinery:
“Let’s speak clearly once and for all … We Cubans don’t export garbage. But often what we get back in trade is junk! No one else in the world buys Bulgarian forklifts. They are such garbage, only we bought them. How many hundreds, thousands of them stand idle in our warehouses? The Hungarian buses … pollute the city with fumes and poison everyone around. Who knows how many people have died from the fumes of those buses just because they put in a defective fuel pump? On top of it all, those buses have a two-speed Czech transmission that alone wastes 30 percent of the fuel! Oh, how happy I am to speak with such openness!” Fidel said. It’s been difficult to talk about these things in the past, but thanks to these new circumstances we have been relieved of our previous compromises.”
Much of that honest evaluation and many of the ecological advances emerging from it entailed what at first were experienced as enormous sacrifices by the Cuban people. Over time, however, they became NOT sacrifices but a badge of national pride, a striving by an entire people for something greater, and a rejecting of the notion that the “good life” must be based on the mass production and accumulation of commodities and the consequent massive consumption of Nature. This was an ideological advance. It was no small feat achieved by the Cuban revolution, even if in the beginning of the Special Period it was the result of making a virtue of necessity. Cuba’s example provided, and continues to provide, a revolutionary eco-socialist impulse inspiring many throughout the world to think about what we’d like to see in a new and humane society, how we should treat each other and Nature, and how we can organize our lives so that we deepen our consciousness and commitment to each other so that we can take action for social justice and for saving this god-forsaken planet.
Let me state my conclusions here, just so these points don’t get lost.
- We, friends of the Cuban Revolution, need to oppose genetic engineering of agriculture, which is fundamentally a mechanism of colonization of the living cell, and through which capitalist relations re-emerge, even in an aspiring socialist country like Cuba.
- We need to refuse to accept, and to reframe, what is promulgated as “The Good Life.”
- We need to train ourselves in how to think and plan holistically.
- We need to stop fetishizing science and technology. They are not neutral. They do not stand apart from the class struggle. They are not our saviors. They are dripping with the ideology of the dominant capitalist framework of the societies in which they develop. To say that they are “ideology free” is itself part of that dominant ideology!
- We need to reframe THE WAY we raise and fight for issues, so that we can create institutions that begin to implement solutions through our own direct action, even as we make appeals to the system to do “this or that” for us. We then fight to defend those liberated zones, and we strive to expand them until they become the new society in embryo.
- To do all that, we need to practice how to bring out the ecological dimension that is buried in every issue. We may need to actively search for it, but it is there. Make it visible. Take action.
A specter is haunting this planet – the specter of biological devastation and ecological catastrophe. It is ravaging all the ecosystems sustaining life. Butterflies, frogs, bees, redwood forests – whole familiar and essential species are in sudden danger of being wiped out by pesticides and chemical agriculture, pollution, petrochemical emissions, wastes and radiation from nuclear power plants all fueling global climate change, and genetically engineered crops. Mechanisms for propagation – even seeds! – are coming under the private ownership of a tiny number of very large agrochemical corporations bent on extending their control over land – and water — and monopolizing the world’s food supply by altering the reproductive capacities of entire species.
In the U.S., this colonization is legitimized by new Enclosure Acts similar to those of centuries ago, a legal fiction codifying the shameless orgy of capitalist profit and conquest. Here’s Fidel, once again, sharply criticizing the use of the world’s available land for monocropping plants for biofuels and the resulting elimination of the world’s forests, which Fidel termed “The internationalization of genocide.”
Indeed! In the last 50 years, fully 80 percent of the world’s forests have been chopped down. One Cuban scientist told me that “trees are nice to have, but they are a secondary concern when we are talking about the needs of people, which come first” – a surprisingly un-dialectical view. Forests prevent floods; they maintain healthy soil; they defuse hurricanes and detoxify drinking water. They oxygenate the air; they serve as habitats for thousands of species. In the U.S., less than 5 percent of the old-growth forests remain. In Argentina and Brazil, huge swaths of primeval rainforest are being cut down and the land monocropped with genetically engineered soy for animal feed and biofuels exported to the United States, Japan, China and Europe. In Indonesia, millions of acres of forest have been burned for palm oil production, mining and cattle grazing. In Mexico the Lacandona forest – the home of the ancient Mayan people and the Zapatista rebellion – is under siege by international paper companies as much as by federal troops. Under Clinton and Gore more trees were clearcut in the U.S. than by any of their predecessors in recent history – COMBINED!
The destruction of forests is one of the most notorious contributors to global climate change and the pending ecocide of this planet. The NY Times cuts down 60,000 trees per week to publish its Sunday paper. Don’t expect the Times to stray too far from its mantra of corporate “rights”.
Remember, por favor, there is no ‘Planet B’! No more the once magnificent old growth forests; no more the pristine drinking water, healthy soils, non-mutated frogs, pollinating bees, seas teeming with fish – the entire North Atlantic has been “fished out,” if you can even call what industrial trawlers do these days “fishing,” scraping miles of giant steel mesh weighing 15 tons each through the most ancient and protected parts of the world’s oceans, sweeping up everything in their path. And, as we know, the polar ice caps are melting, which is already causing the oceans to rise by many meters, and threatening to wipe out not only Greenland, but New York City and Havana within the next two decades!
One hundred and sixty years ago, the 24-year-old editor of Cologne’s Reinische Zeitung wrote forceful editorials in defense of the forest against privatization, and in favor of the rights of peasants to collect dead wood from the forest floor – lands that had been unrestricted by law and used in common for millennia. The editor – Karl Marx – railed against the state’s jack-booted stormtroopers’ expropriation of the Commons. Marx named that expropriation “primitive accumulation.” He exposed the system’s legalization of such plunder as part and parcel of the emerging capitalist class’ attempts to increase its control of the State. He pointed out that by 1842, 85 percent of all prosecutions in the Rhineland dealt with a new crime: the “theft” of dead wood lying on the ground, which the State applied only to peasants while allowing wealthy businessmen and corporations to strip whole forests with impunity. It was Marx, especially, who explained how such “enclosures” came to receive acceptance socially and sanction in law.
How did it happen that people allowed public lands and early machinery to be privatized and re-shaped to serve the needs of capital? Why didn’t people revolt? (Well they did according to Silvia Federici, in her great book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation.) We can ask the same questions today: How did our once-public universities, hospitals, beaches, libraries, drinking water, parks and even prisons in the United States suddenly become privatized? Private mercenary armies now make up a large percentage of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; the water tables are so polluted that drinking water is now sold in plastic bottles, their sources owned by the world’s largest corporations, and the plastic wastes have accumulated in the Pacific Ocean forming a floating plastic island five times the size of Cuba!
It is worth remembering that Marx’s critique of capitalism started with his denunciation of the cutting down of forests for private profit, the enclosure of lands used in common, and the State’s criminalization of peasants taking dead wood for heating and cooking. Ecological justice was central to Marx’s outlook from his earliest writings. Today, Marx would be railing against industrial agriculture and especially the use of genetically engineered crops.
But since his death in 1883 and until very recently, Marx’s followers for the most part have ignored his writings on the environment and ecological justice, which were based on his formulation of the twin sources of value – the exploitation of Labor and the expropriation of Nature. Contra Marx, the Communist parties have repeatedly called for “developing the forces of production” at any cost, rarely analyzing the vastly destructive role played by the expropriation of Nature (a primitive accumulation which is ongoing, at all times) in the production of wealth and in the reproduction of the capitalist system, which was central to Marx’s analysis of capitalist accumulation, as laid out in The Critique of the Gotha Programme and elsewhere. In omitting or minimizing the expropriation of nature, Marxists have allowed capitalism’s – and actually existing Socialism’s – ravaging of the environment through its industrial form of production to go unchallenged.
Along with the industrial form of production comes the following: the drudgery of the assembly line and office; the inferno of rotten relationships and rancid dreams; the privatization of everything and twisting of everybody into things to be bought and sold; the reproduction and consolidation of patriarchy, hierarchy, domination and exploitation; the subjugation of Nature (and of the Nature within — our very chromosomes and cells!) to the exigencies of production and the market; the exploitation of natural and human resources; the irreversible destruction of the environment and the planet – all are embedded in industrial technology as such. Industrial technology reproduces the social conditions and ideology of the capitalist system even under Socialism. And we, who are raised in those same conditions and dependent on such instruments, can barely conceive of modern societies organizing themselves to satisfy human needs in any other way. Steeped as we are in capitalist and patriarchal ideology, industrial production seems to us to be most “natural”. Our assumptions for what constitutes “Progress” and “the good life” are shackled to that capitalist framework.
Contrary to the popular misconception, the Luddites of 1811 did NOT oppose the use of tools or machinery. They organized across England hammers in hand to dismember that new form of technology that broke up and colonized their communities — the centralized giant looms owned by a few wealthy owners. In France, they threw “sabots” (wooden shoes) into the gears (and hence the term “sabotage”). The Grow or Die system had to physically crush the Luddites and other mass movements, and then obliterate memory of their heroic example from their history texts. The new technologies and the commodities produced through their use embody an ensemble of social relations that – again, contra Marxists — do not stand outside of the history of exploitation, organization of production, class relations, hierarchies of domination and control, the desecration of the natural environment, and destruction of the Commons. Industrial production based on the assembly line and now the genetic engineering of agriculture are technologies of colonization of both Labor and Nature, no matter the kind of system utilizing them.
We Leftists must reject the “factory form” of production altogether. The Cuban revolution had begun to envision new ways for producing the things humans need and desire, but that could be made possible when we stop measuring “progress” through a striving for “efficiency” — at least an “efficiency” as measured through capitalist criteria. Where, for example, are all of those supposedly “inefficient” bicycles that had daily flooded the streets of Havana in the ’90s, streets that are choking, once again, on the lead-exhaust of GM and Ford dinosaurs of the 1950s? The charms of the old cars fade quickly when we consider that they exacerbate asthma, cause lung cancer, and increase infant mortality and health costs to society as a whole – costs that the capitalist model excludes from its measure of “efficiency”. Regardless of which class owns and controls the means of production, capitalism’s shaping of “progress” and “the good life” will inevitably end up undermining the forces of socialism and ravaging the planet.
So now, let’s get back to that “bloodlash of ‘Progress’ ” and alternatives to it.
Cuba could become the world leader in global ecology, organic agriculture, and alternative and sustainable solar energy. Even in the far more impoverished and chaotic Haitian countryside Solar Energy powers whole communities. Why not in Cuba? With planning, Cuba could become the exemplar of what socialist revolution could mean in practice. It could present not only “health care for all” but, in addition, an expansive view of complementary or holistic medicine freed from the biases of Western technological and pharmaceutical models. Imagine thousands of visitors flocking to Cuba to learn ecologically sound planning, farming, diet and health!
But for that to happen, the Revolution must reach deeply into that well of its most precious waters – the creativity, high political consciousness and humor of its people – that is, its Socialism! Cubans would take pride in being the first western country to reject the industrial model of science & ecology, and in leading the charge to saving the planet. That is what socialism must become. Socialists must reject that bloodlash of ‘progress’ that whips all who stray back into the neoliberal model, with its technological quick-fix “solutions” like the so-called “Green Revolution” and Genetic Engineering. We must create a new Internationale of those who exert their self-determination as a people, as anti-imperialists, and as Eco-Warriors in defense of this planet. More than ever, the choice comes down to this: The Capitalist System vs. the Immune System – for the entire planet!
Cuba has begun experimenting with the genetic engineering of agriculture. We’ve heard mixed reports about how far along that is and what the process will be in determining Cuba’s future in that regard. Socialists should not have to ask – but I guess we still need to do so — whether manufacturing living plants to withstand huge amounts of pesticides and herbicides, or turning every cell in a stalk of corn into a mini-pesticide factory that sterilizes the soil of nutrients and life and that won’t wash off, is something that socialists should applaud, regardless of whether it would increase yield – and it doesn’t even do that when all factors are considered. Please remember, we are no longer talking about the customary technologies that at least in theory could be re-called, like a car, if a flaw is discovered. Once a genetically modified organism is released into the wild it cannot be taken back. It’s too late. It’s out there reproducing on its own. And, through drift, it pollutes the land and colonizes the local plants and natural environment.
Agro-Ecologists Fernando Funes Aguilar, Miguel Altieri, and Fernando R. Funes-Monzote convincingly show that newly available financial and material resources … “are for the most part being used to implement specialized conventional, large-scale monoculture” in Cuba. “Such industrial agriculture for export is dependent on genetically engineered corn and soy, heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, and centralized monocropping requiring the use of large machinery, non-organic fertilizer, and heavy use of water,” they write.
In fact, in 2011 the pesticide manufacturer “Juan Rodriguez Gomez” IN HAVANA, produced around 100,000 liters of the herbicide Glyphosate, according to Funes. Glyphosate is the main ingredients in Monsanto’s RoundUp, a toxic herbicide suspected by Greenpeace of causing cancer and nerve disorders, and is especially dangerous for children.
Will the drive for much-needed investments let the devil out of Pandora’s box and overrun the more socialistic aspects of Cuba’s economy and ecologically sound policies? We need to follow Fidel’s lead here and think more carefully about our acceptance of such capitalist technologies as genetic engineering, and nuclear power.
I invite our comrades in the Cuban government and the Cuban people to put an end to this deadly experiment with genetic engineering and a return to chemical agriculture before it goes any further, and before it becomes too late to reverse course, and to publicize that position at the U.N. and throughout Latin America. Imagine the powerful shot-in-the-arm to the global movement against GMOs, should Cuba join it and provide it with socialist leadership!
Cuba, POR FAVOR, stop the experimentation with genetically engineered crops and seeds now!
I close with two excerpts from poems, the first by the great Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal:
“Nothing ever comes to the sleeper but a dream.”
And the second by Percy Bysshe Shelley:
“Rise like lions after slumber
In Unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in Sleep have fallen on you
Ye are many, they are few.”
THE UNREPENTANT BATHER (90 MILES FROM FLORIDA)
My love swims alone
in an ocean of sharks
circling to starboard
circling to bow
waiting their moment
off guard, stroke falters
gnashing their teeth
flexing their jaws
wearing the defenses down
Swim for your life, sweetheart,
Swim for your life!
Don’t give up an inch,
Don’t fall for the trap!
The sharks are all circling
‘Round History’s bones
You swim there alone
My love swims alone
of lush old-growth forests
& crystalline streams
but industry dangles
gnashing their teeth
flexing their jaws
baiting the bloodlash
Swim for your life, sweetheart
Swim for your life!
Don’t give up an inch,
Don’t fall for the trap!
The sharks are all circling
‘Round History’s bones
You swim there alone