Exploitation of the “Other”+ Power in Collective Action

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Martin Niemöller
Martin Niemöller

Martin Niemöller’s famous quote about the Holocaust may not seem applicable to the what have learned about the industrial food system, yet it was what crossed my mind upon completing Eating Animals. Foer uses his Jewishness, a crucial part of his identity, when grappling with the ethical dilemma of eating animals. Being raised in a Jewish household and having gone to a Jewish day school I find myself doing the same when it comes to ethics. Judaism taught me everything I know about what it means to be moral, but also what it means to be “other.”

This quote deals with the implications of being a bystander and the difficulty of speaking up against injustices that we know exist, yet fail to stop. It is easy for us to say what’s wrong and what’s right, but when it comes to defending those ideals we have difficulty. We rationalize our bystander-ness through a process of othering. We exclude ourselves from the equation because we have the power to do so. It is not until we come face to face with injustice that we feel compelled to act.

The industrial food system, prays on the weak and disadvantaged within our society. The structure of our modern political system prioritizes commodities, capital, and industry over basic human rights. Marx exposes the exploitive facets of capitalism in his political critique Das Kapital. His analysis focuses on the laborer who generates surplus value that goes uncompensated by the capitalist. The capitalist’s priority is to produce surplus value and will subject his workers to terrible working conditions and unreasonable hours for the sake of turning a profit.

The workers that produce the food we eat, particularly in the meat packing industry, are treated as “animals” (I will later explore the implications of using animals as a the paradigm for the “other”). Eric Schlosser provides a detailed analysis in Fast Food Nation of the physical and mental stress caused by the inhumane working conditions in meat packing factories. However, Schlosser’s investigation is not a breakthrough or novel study of these conditions. In 1906 (110 years ago…) Upton Sinclair famously published The Jungle, an expose of factory working conditions in the United States. Yet, what concerned readers most were the health violations and unsanitary practices portrayed by Sinclair. These concerns led to the Meat Inspection Act, passed in very same year that The Jungle was published.
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This historical instance says something about the power of collective action, but also about inherent human selfishness. Readers were concerned enough about the quality of the food that they put into their bodies that a law was quickly enacted to address these concerns. But what about laws concerning the working conditions faced by the people packing the meat that they put into their bodies? Because this did not directly affect them, it was excluded from the outcry that erupted upon reading Sinclair’s expose.

Most of the laborers working in the factories studied by Sinclair were immigrants, a fact that remains to be true today of this industry. From a young age I was taught about work place hierarchies that take advantage of people who have nothing and are willing to work for nothing. My father worked for a Jewish non-profit dedicated to labor rights called the Workmen’s Circle. Often on the weekends we would attend protests for different causes related to workers rights. We always commemorated the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire- the deadliest disaster to date within a New York City factory where many Jewish immigrant workers perished due to the fact that the owners barred the doors sealing, literally, the fates of the workers inside.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Over a century later this exploitation of the weak continues to happen. Factories are organized by a system of managers that hold positions above other employees. Immigrants and women become marginalized within this system and are easily abused. “Each supervisor is like a little dictator in his or her section of the plant, largely free to boss, fire, berate, or reassign workers,” says Schlosser in his chapter titled “The Most Dangerous Job” (176). Under this structure women often face sexual harassment from their superiors and immigrants must brave abuse as well out of fear of being deported or losing their job. A scene in Food Inc. shows immigrant workers being arrested in a trailer park in Tar Heel, North Carolina. Schlosser and Pollan describe how companies like Monfort, IBP, and National Beef began to recruit Mexicans after Nafta led to a flooding of cheap American corn into the Mexican market leaving many corn farmers jobless. IBP actually created a bus service to bring immigrants to the states to work. The government “turned a blind eye” to the recruiting but began to crack down by deporting immigrants instead of disciplining the companies that recruited the immigrants in the first place. Immigrant laborers are possibly the weakest most exploited subset of the work force, and yet our culture scapegoats and places blame on this population for societal woes instead of criticizing the flawed capitalist system that generates these problems. Now the Republican presidential nominee is a candidate that wants to spend money to build a wall to keep immigrants out of our country, naively believing that creating boundaries can “Make America Great Again.”

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

“They have the same attitude towards workers as they do towards the Hog… The Hog, you don’t have to worry about their comfort, they’re going to be killed. They’re not worried about the longevity of the worker because to them everything has an end” (Food Inc, 50:00)

Although Marx focuses on the exploitation of the worker, in the food industrial system other voiceless populations are subjected to abuse and neglect. This includes the animals that are slaughtered and commoditized under this system. When we speak about human rights abuses we use animals to characterize treatment that is inhumane. Clearly, Holocaust education was very important in my Jewish day school (as I have already mentioned the Holocaust, but I’m going to do it again). I remember reading Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. Wiesenthal reflects on an instance during the Holocaust where a Nazi soldier on his deathbed asks him for forgiveness. The Nazi explains to Wiesenthal how it was ingrained into the minds of the soldiers that Jews were not people, but were in fact animals. This degradation made the hatred and killing of Jews justifiable. When we use animals in our lexicon as part of the process of “othering” we are essentially sanctioning cruel treatment towards creatures that are weaker and less intelligent.

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In Eating Animals Foer compares industrial farms to historical atrocities such as the Holocaust or slavery. These comparisons may seem extreme; it’s difficult to allot equal importance to the suffering of animals when injustices against people within our own species still occur. However, such comparisons are effective. It theoretically frames our treatment of animals in a more relatable way. Instead of saying that we treat animals, as well, animals, Foer instead substitute the word machines. We treat these living creatures as expendable assets/liabilities. Before they are slaughtered, animals are genetically mutated so that they can no longer carry out the basic natural function of reproduction. Animals are cramped into dark and crowded sheds that are not cleaned or maintained. Animals are fed food that their bodies aren’t built to process as a solution for the industrial food system’s corn surplus (Pollan, 64). Entire species of animals are being wiped out for our gastronomic pleasure.

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These practices sound exactly like the description of Nazi cruelty in the Holocaust, yet through a process of cognitive dissonance we justify this treatment utilizing a series of “rational” arguments. One of such arguments is the alleged contract that animals have with farmers who can provide them a better life and death than what the wild offers. Consequently animals choose to stay on farms, knowing that they will be eaten, because they will be better off. Due to the standard practices of factory farms previously described, this contractual theory no longer holds. Another argument that is commonly espoused is that it is natural to eat animals; it is something that humans have done since the dawn of time. This traditional argument makes little sense when we consider the many practices that we have given up in the name of progress (slavery, for example). “Is it not possible that future generation will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way way we now view Nero’s entertainments of Aztec sacrifices?” questions David Foster Wallace in his article “Consider The Lobster.” Ultimately we know that there is something immoral about our treatment and subsequent eating of animals, yet we continue to do so because frankly animals do not fight back. Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless — it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another,” says Foer (267).

Thus far I have explored the production component of the industrial food system and the implication of commoditizing not only the laborers packing the meat that we consume, but also the meat itself. I would now like to turn to consumption and the exploitation of disadvantaged consumers. Food justice is a class issue and therefore by the transitive property a racial issue. Certain races are kept below the poverty line through structural violence. The U.S. food system is flooded with cheap and low quality options that become a crutch for people living in poverty who cannot afford alternatives. When you have to worry about putting food on the table it becomes increasingly difficult to take the time to look for and cook healthy meals, especially when processed junk is made to be so convenient and affordable.

This crutch becomes easily exploited and the affects are mapped out on to the bodies of those that fall victim to the convenience of processed food. Julie Guthman comments on the discourse surrounding the U.S.’s obesity epidemic within her article Neoliberalism and The Constitution of Contemporary Bodies. We attribute this “health crisis” plaguing our nation to lack of awareness and believe that through education we can prevent consumers from making unhealthy choices when it comes to food. Instead of framing obesity as a choice, Guthman points to neoliberalism as the source of the problem. Consequently, claims Guthman, neoliberalism generates the quick fix as well by commoditized dieting and weight loss solutions. Not only are low-income individuals more susceptible to obesity and other health issues correlated to weight, such as diabetes, but they are also excluded from the solution to such issues.

“This double fix of eating and dieting, in other words, is not epiphenomenal; it has become a central piece of the U.S. economy. That these variant solutions tend to map onto social class, such that the relatively rich buy themselves weight loss while the relatively poor do not, helps explain thinness and fatness but in no way controverts the overall point,” says Guthman (191)

Guthman delves further into this issue of exclusivity within our foodscape by examining how alternative movements that work to counter the consumption of processed food are coded in “whiteness.” She studies public markets that offer fresh and affordable produce and social justice organizations geared toward promoting alternative food options. Many of these institutions adopt the “if they only knew” and “color blind” principles, believing that education is enough to motivate people to jump on the alternative food train and that focusing on specific ethnic and cultural groups is not necessary. This glosses over the inherent whiteness of these spaces making alternative food options exclusionary or unappealing. Welcoming people of color does not just mean locating markets in non-white neighborhoods, but also emphasizing African American culture by incorporating culturally specific colloquial terms and cuisine. (The Rochester Public Market exemplifies an inclusive space in my opinion. The RPM is located in a diverse neighborhood. I worked with SNAP at RPM last year and conducted customer evaluations. Many customers were satisfied with the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, but also the availability of culturally specific products).

Rochester Public Market
Rochester Public Market

Ron Finely illustrates how non-exclusionary food alternatives should function with his “gangster gardener” rhetoric. Fighting or coping with the effects of the industrial food system seems to be directly proportional to the power that an individual holds within our society. Navigating this system is like a labyrinth for the weaker and more disadvantaged subsets within the United States. Despite barriers, innovative initiatives exist that aim to offer alternatives or promote awareness of the capitalist exploitation involved with food consumption. Finley lives in a food swamp in South Central, L.A. where fresh vegetables are not easily accessible. He took matters into his own hands and created an urban garden on his own property. Finley initially received push back from the government, but after positive publicity his initiative became revered. By characterizing gardening as gangster Finley not only codes alternative food initiatives in non traditional terms, but also empowers the act of gardening as rebellious and somewhat dangerous. “The drive- thrus are Killing More People than the drive-bys,” says Finley  (February, 2013)

Similarly the “Food Fight” music video utilizes rapping and popular cultural references (the Matrix) to reframe and recode food politics. New Message Media created this music video to explain how processed foods are poisoning neighborhoods through a nuanced medium. The caption title encourages viewers to share their video to teach kids who is responsible for the poisoning and how to escape. This method varies greatly from commentators such as Pollan, Schlosser, and Guthman who provide very analytical and academic analyses of the industrial food system. The “Food Fight” music video creates a cultural and kid-friendly discourse to explain ideas that have otherwise been painted as complex or highly theoretical.

These initiatives tackle the consumption end of exploitation, but initiatives exist as well to hinder or spread awareness about the production end. Farm Sanctuary combats the conceptualization of animals as abusable and dispensable commodities. They rescue animals from factory farms and give them a space to live out the rest of their lives in a comfortable and health way. Farm Sanctuary does not slaughter the animals they take in for meat and advocates for a vegan lifestyle. What was most effective about our visit to Farm Sanctuary was the inability to push the fact that animals are treated cruelly to the back of my mind. I came face to face with a truth that I already knew and was reading about in class, but could avoid. The turkeys we played with had white feathers; a genetic mutation that has been made to cater to our preference that the meat we eat looks spotless. I also remember that Belinda the cow was completely bruised, but most importantly Belinda the cow had a name. All the animals in Farm Sanctuary have names and their Facebook page will often share a picture of them along with their story. This action contests speciesism. By giving animals names and personalities they are putting them on par with humans.

Finally, worker initiatives exist as well to protect workers from being treated as commodities. One example of such initiatives is the Campaign for Fair Food by the Coalition of Immoklee Workers. This campaign aims to educate consumers about the exploitation faced by farm workers. They’ve made agreements with companies such as McDonald’s, Walmart, and Subway to establish more humane practices and fairer wages in their tomato suppliers’ operations. The CIW is now turning their attention to the major supermarkets in the United States (Trader Joes and Whole Foods have already complied). Organizations such as the CIW work to give voices to the voiceless, much like Metro Justice does here in Rochester. Metro Justice organized the large fight for 15 protests that began at the University of Rochester last year and culminated across the street from McDonald’s on Mount Hope. Protestors gathered to fight for fast food workers to make a living wage and now a year later New York State has passed legislation stating that the minimum wage will be raised to $15 within the next year.

A piñata of Ronald McDonald being beaten at the Fight for 15 Protest
A piñata of Ronald McDonald being beaten at the Fight for 15 Protest

In sum….

Many of us stand idly by because we believe that one person cannot make a difference. We feel meek and powerless going up against these giant corporate entities that are protected by the government, a political body that is supposed to be protecting us. We use a slew of justifications and rationale to placate our anxieties of the injustices that are occurring around us. It is not until we come face to face with reality that the gears begin to turn. These initiatives demonstrate that it is possible to push back. The CIW and Metro Justice specifically expose the power in collective action. Separately we are weak, exploitable, and subject to the whims of the industrial food system. When like-minded people get together to fight for what they believe, then change is possible.

 

Works Cited

“Campaign for Fair Food.” Coalition of Immokalee Workers. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2016.

Finley, Ron. “Ron Finley: A Guerilla Gardener in South Central LA.” Ted.com. N.p., Feb. 2013. Web. 06 May 2016.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.

Food Fight. Dir. Ben Zolno. Food Fight. New Message Media, 26 Feb. 2013. Web.

Food, Inc. Dir. Robert Kenner. Movie One, 2008.

Githman, Julie. “”If They Only Knew” The Unbearable Whiteness of Alternative Food.” Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. Ed. Alison Hope. Alkon and Julian Agyeman. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011. N. pag. Print.

Guthman, Julie. “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies.” The Fat Studies Reader. Ed. Esther D. Rothblum and Sondra Solovay. New York: New York Unviersity, 2009. N. pag. Print.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “Consider the Lobster.” Editorial. Gourmet Aug. 2004: 50-64. Print.