Author Archives: ConnorMcCabe

Week 13 Reflections

Before doing the reading for this week, my knowledge of the 1985 Mexico City Earthquake was quite limited. I knew it had been big, and that it took many lives, but I was not aware of the political implications of that death toll. What I found most jarring in the reading was the notion that factory owners set fire to, or otherwise demolished their buildings with workers possibly still inside. The cynicism in this is staggering: the lives of many, and at that, the many whose labor makes the world turn, are being valued at expendable by the privileged few who might otherwise be found guilty of employing faulty building practices. To borrow from Joan Didion, this strikes me as an example of the centre failing to hold. In this case, I am referring to the way in which society is effectively eating itself: in order to maintain the hegemonic class, all evidence of its faults must be erased. When the lives of the few are being valued above those of the many, a society ceases to be sustainable.

To look at this another way, maybe we can see this type of event as a sort of rock bottom. The addiction to capital sometimes seems as violent as the addiction to heroin, and can have similarly destructive effects—the difference being devestation on a macro level (a society) or a micro level (the individual). When things fall apart in a manner that no amount of capital can fix, then there is a big problem: ‘when there is no more water, you can’t drink money.’ To rebuild after disaster creates the opportunity to reinvent oneself or a society. One example, albeit maybe a bit of a stretch, is the way in which, in the post-World War Two era, the countries that had faced the most destruction via large scale bombing campaigns (Japan, Britain, Germany, France, etc.), today have some of the most advanced transit systems in the world, whereas the USA faced no bombings, and is often using infrastructure that is far past its due. Disaster is an interesting, albeit harrowing thing. The destructive effect of a disaster is compounded by state corruption, often for the sake of covering up a lack of preventative measures, or the existence of profit incentives over safety (Hurricane Katrina 2005, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster 2011, Deepwater Horizon explosion 2010), that ultimately result in a greater cost of human life, and a greater ecological impact.

Week 12 Reflections

For last week, I wrote about the question of who profited from the Terrors in Latin America of the late 20th century. This weeks reading brought me into a moment in which the economics of the War on Drugs were quite clear. The USA was sending huge amounts of military aid to countries or paramilitary groups that they had agreements with (or didn’t), and that money was largely being used to purchase military equipment from the USA. This, paired with our modern knowledge of drug addiction (e.g. that prohibition doesn’t help, nor does criminalization), and the complete and utter lack of success in reducing drug production or use, paints a very cynical picture. In reading, I realized I have no concrete idea as to what the actual goals of the War on Drugs are. Is it to end the production of dangerous drugs? Is the DEA going to invade Milwaukee? Simultaneously assault the Pabst, Miller, and Schlitz breweries  at the crack of dawn with the news cameras rolling? What about Purdue Pharma? Where’s the manhunt? The FBI’s top ten most wanted list? The whole neighborhoods being bombed in search of a single individual, a drug kingpin, if you will? They’ve made billions of dollars off of the same (well, often stronger versions of) drugs that have routinely been met with police raids, murder, and life sentences. I’m being a bit dramatic here, admittedly, but it’s hard not to when the logic of the War on Drugs falls apart as soon as you even glance at it.

The War on Drugs is basically an American institution at this point, and it’s one of the few stable options for someone without a university degree (Police, military, etc.). I remember being told (at a very young age too) that LSD would make me jump out a window, PCP would make me eat my mother’s face, and pot would lead me right down that road in the first place. I remember people getting felonies before they’d even finished high school. I remember people getting arrested AT high school. At the end of the day, these are all ingredients of the same cynical recipe. There is a lot of profit to be made from this systemic injustice that destabilizes everyday people’s lives from Northern Canada to Southern Chile, and beyond, and that’s why it’s continued to this day. This has been a bit more of a rant than a blog post, but again, it probably should be: my formative education normalized these sort of programs as a necessary means of dealing with the ‘bad’ elements of the world. Dawson even points out a Reagan quote that essentially says: “yeah some innocent people get tied up in all this, but it’s better than DRUG PUSHERS!!! RUNNING RAMPANT!!!” It’s like a Death Wish movie, it’s utterly ridiculous, and it should be criticized at every opportunity. Cheers!

Week 10 Reflections

One interesting aspect of this week’s chapter is the role of technology, especially when looked at in a wider context. Earlier in the semester, we read about how the telegraph, alongside barbed wire, railroads, and machine guns, ultimately found itself used as a tool of political repression. Although this is not the entire picture, we can see the way in which repression evolved through the use of these technologies. Considering this, it’s interesting to look at the role of the radio, and photograph in shaping a political landscape. The proliferation of the printing press during the Renaissance era of Europe had a sort of forced democratizing effect on the status quo. This was because it led to an increase in literacy, effectively starting to break a monopoly held by the privileged classes for centuries. Obviously this did not end state repression, political or otherwise, but it had the effect of agitating the powers-that-be and limiting their absolute domination over society.

Although the radio proved an excellent tool for political leaders, I’d like to look at the importance of the photograph instead. Dawson gives an example about how a photograph of a worker being brutalized has an effect far stronger than any that could be derived from word of mouth. The proflieration of photographic techniques blew up in the late 19th century, allowing for an entirely new way of seeing the world, previously limited to literature, and storytelling. In reading Dawson, I got the impression that the experince of seeing onself elevated to the photographic form, in this case a worker seeing another worker from a different part of the world, would create an awesome sense of solidarity unlike anything else. I’m reminded of Gustav Courbet’s The Stone Breakers, a painting from 1849-50 which depicted to peasants performing the backbreaking labor of breaking rocks, presumably in order to create a road. This painting was met with huge amounts of controversy when it was displayed at the Paris Salon, as images of its size were meant to depict landscapes, or religious scenes, certainly not a dreary depiction of hard labor. I suppose what I’m getting at is the way in which Courbet, like the later work of the photograph, opted to depict a very real scene, one that was probably upsetting to the upper-class of Paris as it depicted the labor on which their lives were built. Whereas The Stone Breakers was found in an exclusive Paris museum, the photograph was much more flexible, and had the ability to reach into the most forgotten corners of society.

Week 11 Reflections

One of the most interesting aspects of this weeks reading/video was the notion of “terrors” being a conflict between a terror state and a terrorist group. These conditions galvanized one another, with state military groups acting in a brutal and repressive manner due to the percieved threat of the terror group. This threat could find itself inflated and exaggerated in the media to great effect: in an authoritarian state, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the state, and can thius depict a one sided battle, a just cause for brutality.
This worked in the opposite direction as well: state respression often had the effect of creating sympathy for guerilla movements. Already, an ugly picture is being painted, violence compounding violence, with civil liberties and stability eroding in the name of security and revolution respectively. Making the issue worse was the ongoing cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Access to large amounts of arms, and training (for example, Contras being given training and logistical support by the CIA), furthered the brutality of these conflicts.
The shift away from democratic institutions in Latin America was a wave that had covered most of the region by 1980. Revolutionary movements around the world and within were marked as a serious threat to internal stability. This created an environment of fear, which helped give rise to numerous authoritarian regimes around Latin America, but also helped to justify the radical increase in United States military expenditure in Latin America, which largely served as fuel for various conflicts. One question, or maybe speculation, that I could offer: what was the role, if any, of the military industrial complex in Latin America? Or the continuation of the cold war as a whole?
When I think about the amount of munitions and arms that go into these conflicts, it is definitely worth considering who is profiting from that. In the Iran-Contra scandal, the US government sold arms to Iran, making a significant profit which was funneled to the Contras, which, in all likelihood, would in turn be spent on more arms and munitions. War profiteering has been around as long as war, but in the post-WWII world, we’ve seen this industry expand exponentially. A statistic that I think illustrates this quite jarringly is the fact that eight bombs were dropped every minute during the US-Vietnam war (1964-1973), more than the entire number of bombs dropped in WWII. This was done despite the fact that massive civilian casualties and detrimental ecological impact were a direct result. To this day, there are millions of un-exploded arms that continue to cause harm throughout SE Asia. Some people made a lot of money because of that, and it’s worth taking that into consideration when we consider the brutality of the Terrors in Latin America.

Short Research and Writing Assignment – Capitalizing the Countryside

Saka, Mark Saad. “6: The Capitalization of the Countryside, 1856–1884.” For God and Revolution: Priest, Peasant, and Agrarian Socialism in the Mexican Huasteca , University of New Mexico Press, 2013, pp. 83–102.

Chapter 6: The Capitalization of the Countryside, 1856-1884 from Mark Saad Saka’s For God and Revolution depicts the exploitation of the indigenous Huasteca population and appropriation of their historical lands at the hands of a relationship between the Mexican state and enterprising capitalists. Historically, untilled lands had served to support the peasantry: acting as grazing space, a source of firewood collection, and more. Benito Juarez’s regime saw the tide shift against this land being used to serve communal purposes. His liberal regime saw these indigenous landholdings as a barrier to progress, ultimately communal landholdings would be officially outlawed in 1856.

            This was followed by a campaign of privatization, lands could be purchased in huge swathes as long as it was deemed “vacant land”. The Huastecan and other indigenous peoples were initially given the impression that they could benefit from this campaign of privatization as well, however, this failed to take hold in local communities, with those who supported the government’s plan finding themselves shunned and shamed by their neighbors. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were no benefits for the indigenous people. The concept of “vacant land” that allowed for private purchase was a term that became extremely flexible in this era. Most local people used their communal land to grow enough food for their own personal sustenance, and maybe a little bit extra to sell at the market. Under the collusion between the Mexican state and enterprising land speculators, this too could be deemed “vacant land” and those living on it, “squatters”.

            The state enacted numerous token ways in which the indigenous peoples could defend their land claims, such as allowing people to show something akin to a deed. However, this was not something that most people would have, and as such, was another means of justifying the appropriation of land by the state. Furthermore, there were some people who were able to provide tax records dating back to the Spanish viceroys. However, due to rapidly increasing land taxes, even people with documented historical claims were forced from their land.

            This led to the expulsion of thousands of indigenous peoples from their homes, and their livelihoods. This led to a large amount of migrant labor that followed the seasons, as well as the dominant industries of the era. Most unsettling, perhaps, was the rise in sharecropping, which saw many indigenous people farming the same land that had once been their communal property, now having to pay a landlord a grossly inflated price in order to do the same thing. The government had assigned cheap prices to Huasteca land in order to make it easier for private purchase, and subsequently raised the prices radically, which further disenfranchised its original inhabitants. Before the privatization, crops such as coffee, tobacco, vanilla, cotton, chiles, beans, and corn had been grown in order to be consumed by local inhabitants, with a bit left for trade. After privatization, crops were produced almost exclusively for export, making life more difficult for farmers, and causing ecological damage due to lessened crop rotation.

            Ultimately, in 1879, many Huasteca people rose up, and revolted against the state.  

Week 9 Reflections

This week’s reading and videos were quite interesting in considering the impact of American Empire, and the waves with which we still feel today. One particularly aspect I wanted to look at was the position of figures like Augusto Sandino and Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz is, in many ways, a typical image of the tragic revolutionary. His ideas were respected and held popular approval, he stood up against an excessively powerful organization, and he was conspired against, and ultimately defeated. Arbenz’s story is one that would be repeated many times in Latin America, and around the world. What’s most interesting is the notion that American intervention is so often justified in the name of spreading democracy or freedom. Yet, when things become too democratic for the liking of American interests, they’re inevitably deposed. Democracy, in this context, becomes a word that loses all meaning. The same way ‘peace-keeping mission’ describes invasion, or ‘collateral damage’ describes the killing of civilians, ‘democracy’ is yet another word that has been abstracted to the point of meaninglessness. We can see this in American foreign policy going on, the Vietnam War being a significant example. Stephen Wright in Meditations in Green describes the way in which Ho Chi Minh was depicted as analogous to Adolf Hitler in a film he watched during basic training. This brand of hyperbole is synonymous with American foreign policy, exaggeration creates fear creates public support. As recently as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US government invented a threat of nuclear weapons in order to galvanize the public.

What’s particularly jarring about this is the manner in which corporate interests, in this case United Fruit, are projected onto the public sphere; that which will negatively affect profits are an affront to the citizens of the US themselves! The US citizen sees the price of the banana rising, and United Fruit is able to point the blame at an individual in Guatemala. It is a tactic that is unscrupulous and effective, simultaneously appearing as sympathetic to its customers (the communists are making life hell for United Fruit!), and effectively deposing its political enemies. Most bananas I buy seem to come from the Chiquita Brand, the modern successor to the United Fruit Company, what are the implications of this? How can such a long legacy of oppression be ignored? As recently as 2007, the company has been accused of knowingly violating its workers basic rights, as well as funding various terrorist groups. How far removed is this from what Sandino was experiencing in the liberal vs. conservative violence of his day?

Week 8 Reflections

One thing I found particularly interesting that came up in Dawson, as well as Emilio Zapata’s “Plan de Ayala”, was the association of peasant revolutionaries as being ‘bandits and rebels’.  Dawson points out that the writing was essentially on the wall after Zapata and Villa occupied Mexico City; that they had irreversibly upset the liberal middle classes, and would from then on be associated with criminality. I suppose what was interesting was the role that class plays in revolution here. Quite often, as described by Professor Dawson, members of revolutionary movements who, unlike Zapata or Villa, survive, they are sometimes able to socially elevate themselves as a result, often leaving behind their respective movements in all but name.

I suppose what this labeling made me consider, is what is the role of the middle classes in a revolutionary struggle? Dawson points out that in Argentina, the middle classes interests were largely in line with those of the oligarchs; they both profited from the same exploitation, and they both feared similar types of retaliation (the former, of course, to radically different extents). Furthermore, you have the same type of denigration applied to the working class revolutionaries, instead of ‘bandits and rebels’, now the boogieman takes on a more red-scare-esque appearance, with unionists, socialists, and egalitarians being conveyed (perhaps rightly so) as the paramount threat to the status quo.

There’s this tricky impasse that seems to come up here. If working class people fail to agitate, they are more likely than not going to fail to secure better conditions. If they agitate too much, by say, occupying the symbolic center of a state, they alienate a class of people who might otherwise have been sympathetic to their movement. I’m kind of reminded of our current moment here, in Minneapolis (where I grew up), blocking highways has become a popular tactic of protest, largely in response to police brutality and other forms of systemic oppression. I feel like I constantly hear about how protesters could be doing something more effective, how they’re ruining people’s days, and not garnering any sympathy via their tactics. Yet, these are people who otherwise wouldn’t be talking about something like this, who certainly wouldn’t be paying attention to the role that police brutality plays within our society. I suppose this might just boil down to a case where it’s impossible to please everyone. In Martin Luther King Jr’s speech “The Other America,” he claims that a riot is the language of the unheard, and as we can see from the reaction to the Argentinian unionists, the Mexican revolutionaries, and those poised against the status quo today, there are many who simply don’t want to hear anything.

Week 7 Reflections

This week’s video/reading struck me as being particularly interesting due to the enduring legacy of the quest for ‘order’. Even today, Donald Trump, like Ronald Reagan before him, and Eisenhower before him, uses rhetoric about the US military as if it’s in dire disrepair and needs to be rebuilt, needs more money. As absurd as this line is, and has always been, it strikes a key with people due to the implication that more guns, bombs, soldiers, and technology, means more ‘order’. One specific aspect that I liked was the connection between the autocratic rule of somewhere like Mexico, and the fact that in many part of America, working class people lived in a similar state of racial dictatorship. Democracy in the US has always been tenuous, with the vote of a wealthy, enfranchised, white man, historically carrying much more weight than any other vote. As J. Edgar Hoover once said, “Justice is merely incidental to law and order.” We can even see this today, in the US you cannot vote if you’re a felon/on parole. This is a situation disproportionately faced by Black Americans, the large scale incarceration of whom has historically been tied to the ever-present specter of ‘law and order’.

I felt that this section carried a pretty profound sense of hopelessness. It seemed to suggest that as we advance within our societies, we can never seem to advance horizontally, or democratically. The way something like the telegraph could so quickly become a tool of repression, and how extreme the repression of some of these new technologies could be, was quite stark. The most significant question I was left with, is how do you deal with this problem of power? As Jenny Holzer once described; “The abuse of power comes as no surprise”. There are many recent historical examples of despotism and autocracy being used to rapidly industrialize, or modernize a country. Arguably, the three greatest superpowers today (USA, China, & Russia), are built on effectively free labor, and the blood of their detractors.

A final connection I made was in response to the conclusion of the first paragraph in Dawson; where he’s describing how impressive the modernized Mexico looked on the eyes, in comparison to the chaos that was growing every which way. What popped into my head when I heard this was, for whatever reason, the Olympics. The Olympics (as well as other major, global sporting events) have a long history of making appearances in order to cover up political turmoil or shortcomings. Even here in Vancouver, the reason every bus bench now has those little rails to separate the seats was a direct response to the upcoming Olympics; it wasn’t good for business for people to see that there is a significant homeless population in Vancouver, and of course, instead of say, freezing rents, or working towards more public housing, the city decided to further criminalize homelessness, and to make our bus benches inhospitable. Far more jarring, we could look at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, where the government massacred students and labor demonstrators ten days before the Olympics; a bloody bandaid of a solution.

Week 6 Reflections

One important thing to considering when thinking about the legacy of slavery today is the fact that it was primarily an economic system; a system of free labor. Shifting too far away from this would have been severely damaging to the status quo, as such numerous ways of continuing to exact free or cheap labor have been employed in the meantime. One of the most glaring ways this is achieved, most notably in the United States, is through the prison system. The 13th amendment states that slavery is illegal except in the case of an incarcerated person. As such, we see a significant prison boom during the early Jim Crow era, with similar occurrences happening under Nixon, Reagan, through to today, where the US has the largest prison population on the planet. Furthermore, even after being released, many people are felons, or are on probation, meaning they are unable to vote, to leave the country, to collect food stamps, etc. This has an extremely disproportionate effect on black communities. Although the means have changed, this system echoes much of the state of affairs under slavery.

Another post-slavery legacy we see in the Americas is a significant resistance to the labor movement in its many forms. This manifests itself in numerous ways. For some background: many workers in an industry like mining will find themselves living in a company town, buying from a company store, going to a company doctor, etc. Often they receive wages that barely cover these expenses, and either fall into debt with the company, or are unable to save (as one would try to do in an ideal system of social mobility). Some would consider this to be ‘wage-slavery’, meaning that, while a worker is getting paid, their agency largely amounts to being able to decide whether or not they/their family would like to starve to death, which one could argue is not much of a choice. Furthermore, when workers movements have gained momentum, we frequently see the entire apparatus of the state being employed in order to crush these movements, often violently.

Perhaps we could say that the legacy of slavery in the Americas today manifests itself by continuing to deny the worker, and thereby society, the fruits of its labor. Instead this labor disproportionately benefits the individuals and organizations that enjoy a monopoly over the means of production.

Week 5 Reflections

The rise of the caudillos can be understood in the powerlessness of the average worker during the post-independence era. Pre-Independence, the interests of the ruling Creole elites were kept in check by the Spanish Colonial establishment. However, once these protections were stripped away, indigenous peoples, poor, working, or otherwise disenfranchised people had to look elsewhere for protection against increased exploitation and displacement. Within this context, many groups opt for different solutions, which ultimately means aligning with larger political entities that can provide protection.  It is these decentralized conditions which led to the rise of the caudillos. It’s worth noting, there was a substantial degree of anxiety among all walks of life during this period. War and national tragedies were commonplace aspects of life in 19th Century Latin America. These are the conditions in which political/military strongmen thrive; a status quo that builds upon itself the less checks and balances exist.

The appeal to the poor and powerless in particular can, in part, be understood by looking at the colonial system which had previously subjugated such people. As previously mentioned, many disenfranchised people enjoyed certain protections under the overarching colonial leadership of the Spanish system. This sort of detached god-king role similarly meshed with the role of Catholicism in the region, and the worship of idols or symbols that were thought to represent some sort of otherworldly power. The sum of these factors was such that caudillos fit quite nicely into the power vacuum left by the Spanish; offering similar protections and fitting into a similar authoritarian role. It’s worth noting that many of those who supported caudillos likely lacked any real agency of their own, and one of the primary ways of attaining land or other sorts of wealth, was fighting for one of these warlords, who would sometimes split up the spoils of war with their soldiers. I suppose I’m trying to say that it seems as if the caudillos were often the best option around in terms of attaining prosperity, or even simply survival.

It’s difficult to say whether Echeverria held any degree of respect for the caudillos themselves. However, in “The Slaughter Yard,” he demonstrates a small degree of flexibility within their system that allows for recognizing human needs rather than focusing on structural ideals. For example, instead of letting the bull go to the dogs, the judge looks the other way as its meat is used to feed a starving populace. While this is certainly not high praise, it’s a small slice of ‘benevolence’ within an otherwise depraved moment. Should we look at this as Echeverria displaying a small silver lining of the caudillos? Or is it simply a image of humanity in a moment when it’s hard to come by?