A history of Monsanto and its toxic legacy

May 16th, 2022


BOOK REVIEW — “Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future,” Bartow J. Elmore (W.W. Norton, 400 pages).

Bartow J. Elmore’s “Seed Money” chronicles the seed giant’s relentless quest to transform American agriculture.

When your main character is Monsanto, the former name for a St. Louis chemical company that, at least in some circles, is seen as evil incarnate (nickname: “Monsatan”), the Hollywood treatment calls for a rabble-rousing attorney who exposes it all. Unfortunately, environmental history and epidemiology rarely proceed along such neat narrative arcs.

Bartow J. Elmore’s book, “Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future,” opens like a typical blockbuster. Corporate suits in dark SUVs pull up outside a small-town court in America’s heartland. The case involves a farmer who claims he’s been done in financially by dicamba, an herbicide sold by Monsanto and German chemical company BASF, that is especially prone to drifting from field to field. The farmer’s crusading attorney claims the chemical has been illegally sprayed on a neighbor’s crop, damaging his client’s peach trees. But then the narrative quickly cuts to San Francisco, where a groundskeeper’s attorneys attribute a cancer diagnosis to a lifetime exposure to Roundup, the most popular Monsanto-branded herbicide. The plaintiff wins big, and the multimillion-dollar settlement soon spawns over 120,000 lawsuits.

VISUAL/Mike Mozart/Flickr

The cast of “Seed Money” soon swells, almost overwhelmingly so, with sketches of Monsanto’s founders and the chief architects of its shifting business model, as well as farmers, seed dealers, researchers, and the people who say their bodies were wrecked by an ever-growing list of products sold by Monsanto, or its current owner, Bayer, which folded the company into its holdings in 2018.

In tracing the firm’s roots, Elmore, who teaches environmental and business history at The Ohio State University, attempts to wring the juiciest bits out of a fairly dry corporate history. In the late 1800s, prior to founding Monsanto, John Queeny bought drugs for large pharmaceutical wholesalers, including snake-oily patent medicines, eventually ending up at the Meyer Brothers Drug Company; he may have calmly accepted the news that a fire ravaged his sulfuric acid plant the very day it opened, and the plant’s failure maybe “drove him to the saloon many mornings, where he downed nickel beers and sandwiches with his boss, Carl Meyer.”

There, the author speculates, Queeny and another colleague conceived of Monsanto’s foundational move: making artificial sweeteners, namely saccharin. Elmore notes the irony that, early on, Monsanto apparently backed government regulation, even garnering support from Harvey Wiley, so-called founding father of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and that Monsanto’s rise was predicated on freeing Americans from German chemical cartels, including Bayer.

Monsanto’s foundational strategy was to become a wizardly handmaiden to industry rather than going direct to consumers. The product that made the firm profitable was caffeine, launching production a few years after the opening of the plant in 1902 and selling primarily to their “milk cow,” Coca-Cola (the subject of Elmore’s first book, “Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism”). As the economy expanded into petrochemicals, so did the deleterious effects of Monsanto’s increasingly toxic line of chemicals: PCBs, DDT, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T (the latter two both herbicides and active ingredients in Agent Orange), the list goes on, followed by catastrophe, contamination, and litigation brought by people suffering from serious health problems.

It’s an unrelenting accumulation of algal blooms and skin lesions; there’s catastrophe, contamination, and litigation brought by people suffering from serious health problems. In describing remote manufacturing sites in Idaho and West Virginia, Elmore writes, “these workers’ bodies had stories to tell.” He sifts through the wreckage, deftly drawing out vignettes from primary court documents, newspapers, and scholarly journals.

The plot rarely deviates far from the trajectory one might expect: Monsanto behaving abominably in pursuit of profit. By the late 1970s, for instance, when company officials sensed a controversy brewing in West Virginia, they commissioned a study intended to disprove the health problems. Later, in the 1990s, while looking for genes for what became the company’s next pivotal product, researchers probed the heavily contaminated soil around a former Monsanto site. “In essence,” Elmore writes, “the firm was hoping to find a profitable innovation by mining its own pollution.”

Undark for more

Eurasian firms see Russia sanctions as big biz chance

May 16th, 2022


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Turkey has stayed engaged in Russia’s economy despite Western sanctions. Photo: AFP / Sergey Guneev / Sputnik

As sanctions have their intended effect – getting companies from the US and allied countries to leave Russia – there’s also an unintended effect as competitors from countries led by India, Turkey and China pick up the slack.

Despite the bad news, Russians can justify harboring hope based on the actions of some countries that do not support the sanctions and are increasing their involvement in Russia’s economy.

Anecdotal evidence for this includes such hints of ambiguity as a rhetorical question from US national public radio network NPR (April 13, 2022): The West is hammering Russia with sanctions. But, do they work?

Nearly 300 American, European, East Asian and other foreign companies have completely stopped doing business in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, according to a survey conducted by the Yale School of Management.

More than 470 have suspended or scaled back their operations and more than 110 others have postponed new investments.

Prominent firms that have either abandoned or suspended their businesses in Russia include oil companies BP, Exxon and Shell; aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing; telecom equipment vendors Ericsson and Nokia; and tech companies Alphabet (Google), AMD, Apple, Cisco, Global Foundries, Intel, Nvidia, Samsung, TSMC and Qualcomm.

Will this cripple the Russian economy? Some people think so. Investment Monitor published an article entitled: Taiwan’s semiconductor ban could spell catastrophe for Russia” (March 18, 2022).

More about this later. The Mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, blogged that in his city, According to our estimates, about 200,000 people are at risk of losing their jobs.

On April 24, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and his research team at the Yale School of Management published an updated list of companies that have halted or curtailed their operations in Russia. Sonnenfeld is senior associate dean for leadership programs at the school and president & CEO of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute (CELI). 

Sonnenfeld and CELI Director of Research Steven Tian are 

 Every corporation with a presence in Russia must publicly commit to a total cessation of business there.”

Apartheid comparison

They compare their effort to the boycott of apartheid South Africa: The corporate exodus contributed to the end of apartheid, and was a remarkable display of the power that companies have. When they’re courageous enough to use that power for good, it can help topple repressive governments.

Their survey ranks companies as follows:

  • Grade A: Withdrawal – Clean break. Companies totally halting Russian engagements or completely exiting Russia (299 companies)
  • Grade B: Suspension – Temporarily curtailing most operations while keeping options open for return (364 companies)
  • Grade C: Scaling Back – Reducing some significant operations but continuing others (112 companies)
  • Grade D: Buying Time – Postponing new investments while continuing substantive business. (143 companies)
  • Grade F: Digging In – Defying demands for exit or reduction of activities. Companies that are continuing business-as-usual in Russia (181 companies)

This points to tough times ahead for Russia. But before seeing it as an unmitigated negative, we need to add another category:

  • Grade E: Eurasia – Indian, Turkish and Chinese companies seeking to take advantage of the mass withdrawal of Western and East Asian competitors from the Russian market.

Where Yale and many other Westerners see moral certitude, the non-Western world tends to see hypocrisy and opportunity. Why?

Conflicting viewpoint

The  research project conducted by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University concludes that:

Kontinent USA for more

The role of capitalism in the war in Ukraine

May 16th, 2022


PHOTO/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

To the motives for war in human history, capitalism added another: profit. That motive drove technological advancement and created a genuine world economy. It also built new capitalist empires such as the Spanish, Dutch, British, French, Belgian, Russian, German, Japanese, and American empires. Each of these countries built its empire by various means including wars against prior systems operating on their own territories, in their colonies, and in foreign “spheres of influence.” Wars likewise characterized interactions among empires. Global warfare (“world wars”) accompanied the globalization of capitalism and its profit motive. The war in Ukraine is the latest chapter in the history of capitalism, empire, and war.

Capitalism means enterprises run by small groups of people—employers—who preside over large groups—hired employees. Employers are driven to maximize profits: the excess of the value added by hired workers over the wages paid to them. Employers are likewise driven to sell outputs at the highest price the market will bear and buy inputs (including workers’ time) at the lowest possible market price. Competition among capitalist enterprises pressures all employers to plow profits as much as possible back into the business to help it grow and to gain market share as means to maximize profits. They each must do this in order to survive because competition’s winners tend to destroy and then absorb the losers. The social result of this competition among enterprises is that capitalism as a system is inherently driven to expand quickly.

That expansion, inside every capitalist nation, inevitably overflows its boundaries. Capitalist enterprises seek, find, and develop foreign sources of food, raw materials, workers, and markets. As competition becomes global, competing capitalist enterprises seek help from their nations’ governments to expand. Politicians quickly learn that companies in their nations that lose in global competition will blame those politicians for insufficient support. Meanwhile, companies that win in the global competition will reward such politicians for their help. The social result of this is that capitalism entails national competition alongside enterprise competition. Wars often punctuate capitalism’s national competition. The winners in those competitions thereby often tended to build empires, historically.

For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, wars helped British capitalism to build a global empire. In the 19th century, more wars punctuated the completion and consolidation of that empire. Empire growth had itself stimulated all manner of challenges and competition, eventuating in more wars. For example, as capitalism took root and grew in Britain’s American colony, colonial enterprises eventually encountered obstacles (limited markets, taxes, and limited access to inputs). These obstacles eventually grew into a conflict between them and their colony’s leaders, on one side, and Britain’s capitalists and King George III, on the other. The war of independence resulted. Later, British leaders went to war against the United States in 1812 and also considered siding with the enslavers in the South against the capitalist North in the American Civil War.

The 19th century saw countless efforts by other nations to compete with, challenge, undermine, or reduce Britain’s empire. Competitive capitalist enterprises engendered competitive colonialism and many wars. The United States and Germany grew into the major national competitors for Britain. Wars punctuated the growth of capitalism across the 19th century, within the United States and Germany, as well as elsewhere across the globe. As capitalist enterprises combined, centralized, and grew—resulting from the competition among them—so too did many nations consolidate into fewer numbers of nations. Wars became larger too, culminating in the devastating first of the two world wars.

The British Empire fought the German Empire in World War I. That destroyed them both as contenders for global dominance. Having been far less damaged by World War I, U.S. capitalism grew fast in replacing the global capitalist positions that Britain and Germany had lost because of the war. World War I also established capitalism’s responsibility for the tens of millions who died, were injured, and were made refugees in what was then considered the worst war ever. Germany tried to regain its global dominance a few years later, allied with the newest capitalist empire, Japan, to undo the results of World War I. It failed, as the United States defeated Germany and Japan to demonstrate its economic and military (nuclear) superiority. A consolidated U.S. global empire prevailed from 1945 until recent years.

Brave New Europe for more

Weekend Edition

May 13th, 2022

Spies now embedded*

May 13th, 2022


NBC News correspondent David Bloom PHOTO/NBC News/Transcend Media Service

time there was
when US reporters many
were CIA agents
on their own
risking their lives
sleeping who knows where
and with whom
would gather information

hard work of theirs
has borne fruit for others
now US reporters
are embedded with the Pentagon
same bed same tank same ship
similar dreams similar news similar views

B. R. Gowani can be reached at brgowani@hotmail.com

(was written on April 9, 2003)

Ruthless criticism

May 13th, 2022


Cornelia Mittendorfer, Double Alienation (2012)

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The first five posts (herehereherehere, and here) will serve as the basis for Chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The next six (hereherehereherehere, and here) are for Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics. This post is a draft of the first section of Chapter 3, Toward a Critique of Political Economy.

The Marxian Critique of Political Economy

In the first two chapters, we looked at some of the major differences between Marxian economics and mainstream economics, both in Marx’s time and in our own.

But where did Marx’s critique of mainstream economics come from? It certainly did not emerge in one fell swoop, as a ready-made theory of capitalism. And it wasn’t produced in isolation, independently of the society within which it was first produced and then further elaborated.

Quite the opposite: we can trace the development of Marx’s critique through a variety of texts—many of them now quite famous, even if they are rarely mentioned or discussed within economics. There, we can see Marx’s ideas developing and changing, until he began to work on his critique of political economy, finally presented in Capital.

Moreover, Marx’s critical appraisal of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism was, like all theories or discourses, a product of its time—of the economic and social structures as well as of the ideas that were prevalent when he was writing. In turn, once they were produced, Marx’s ideas participated in changing that same intellectual and social environment—as they continue to do, right up to the present.

In this chapter, we will examine some of the influences on Marx’s critique of political economy. These include the larger economic and social environment of capitalism in the middle of the nineteenth century as well as Marx’s intellectual heritage, especially the politics of utopian socialism and the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel—in addition to classical political economy. Without having a basic sense of those moments, it is impossible to understand where Marx’s critique came from.

The task is even more germane because those influences are so different from those of our own own time, when you are reading this book. Capitalism has changed a great deal in the intervening period, and the ideas we take to be relevant today are quite different from those that influenced Marx’s work. How many of us, for example, know about or read Hegel today? Instead, in recent decades, postmodernism has been much more of an influence on contemporary interpretations of Marxian economics.

Once we have accomplished that goal, we will turn our attention to some of Marx’s most famous writings before Capital. These include such texts as The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology, as well as the copious notebooks, the Grundrisse, Marx kept as he first started delving into classical political economy.

For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing

So, where to begin? Perhaps the best place is one of the letters Marx wrote to his friend Arnold Ruge.

Marx was 25, just two years beyond completing his Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Jena. He had recently married Jenny von Westphalen—but, seeing that working in his native Germany was becoming increasingly difficult, he was already planning to leave and move to France. Police reprisals had forced Marx to resign from the editorship of Rheinische Zeitung (Renish Newspaper). During that time, Marx corresponded with Ruge, and their eight-letter exchange was eventually published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (German-French Annals), which appeared in Paris in 1844.*

The most relevant piece of that correspondence is the letter Marx composed in September 1843, which eventually acquired the title “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing.”** With those words, Marx announced the task confronting him and other “young Hegelians” at that moment:***

Monthly Review Online for more

“Justice at the necessary scale”? An interview with Olúfemi Táíwò

May 13th, 2022


Olúfemi Táíwò on Zoom

History is moving again. The past two years have felt like an avalanche of breaking news — from the onset of a world-altering pandemic, to a protest movement that upended the public conversation on race and the carceral system, to wildfires and larger-than-ever storms. Meanwhile, power and money continue their seemingly inexorable rise to the top, and the government (Democratic or Republican) advertises its bumbling incompetence on a near-daily basis. It’s hard to keep track, let alone know how to respond.

To think it all through, we talked to Olúfemi Táíwò, an Assistant Professor at Georgetown, where he teaches social and political philosophy with an emphasis on climate justice, racial justice, and the Global South. His first book, Reconsidering Reparations, is out this month, and his second, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), will be published in May. 

Over Zoom, we asked Táíwò about the climate crisis, the Covid-19 response, the ruling class, woke capitalism, and what to expect from analytic philosophy. 

You use the concept of reparations in your work. Why is it the right way to think about climate change? 

This concept comes from the long history of activism for reparations. For centuries, people around the world who were enslaved, displaced, abused, exploited, and owned by the people and organizations at the top of the global social order have pushed for reparations. And many have put forth a vision of reparations that wasn’t just about transferring dollars from the wrongdoers to the wronged. It was also about a broader transformative vision for eliminating the kind of social system that would exploit people in the first place and building the kind of social system that was just and characterized by self-determination for everybody who lives in it. And that is the vision that we should have in the struggle for climate justice, because that is a vision of justice at the necessary scale.

The Drift for more

The great years of Bertrand Russell: The philosopher in his own words, 1967

May 12th, 2022


Lover of wisdom: Bertrand Russell, 1967.

The Observer Magazine has never again featured an extract from the autobiography of a philosopher on its cover after ‘The Great Years of Bertrand Russell’, 26 February 1967.

But then Bertrand Russell was no ordinary philosopher. ‘Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life,’ he wrote. ‘The longing for love, the search for knowledge and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.’

Russell had his share of death to deal with – his mother, father and sister all died before he was four and his grandfather (a former prime minister) when he was six. His grandmother was the most important person to him in his childhood, although ‘by the age of 14, her intellectual limitations became trying to me, and her Puritan morality began to seem to me to be excessive’.

He must have been equally trying as a child. Sample anecdote: ‘“Auntie, do limpets think?” To which she answered, “I don’t know.” “Then you must learn,” I rejoined.’ He taught himself ‘enough Italian to read Dante and Machiavelli’. For secrecy, he wrote in Greek in his journal.

Russell writes: ‘Throughout my childhood I had an increasing sense of loneliness and despair of ever meeting anyone with whom I could talk. Nature and books and (later) mathematics saved me from complete despondency.’

Then there was his eccentric friend McTaggert, at Cambridge. ‘I used frequently to go to his breakfasts, which were famous for their lack of food.’ Under McTaggert’s influence, he became a Hegelian. ‘I remember the exact moment during my fourth year when I became one. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco and was going back with it along Trinity Lane, when suddenly I threw it up in the air and exclaimed: “Great God in boots! – the ontological argument is sound!”’ Hold the front page.

The Guardian

The debate – why economists get Africa (really) wrong

May 12th, 2022


In a debate on radical political economy, economics and economists working on Africa, Franklin Obeng-Odoom and Morten Jerven look at the use of statistics, mainstream economics, power, imperialism, patriarchy, and structural inequality. Both think that mainstream economists get much wrong about Africa, but they differ considerably in their diagnosis of the problem and the way forward.

On 3 December 2021, the University of Bayreuth hosted an Event Called “Africa: Why Economists get it (Really) Wrong”. This was our last instalment of a series of interventions organized by Stefan Ouma and Christine Vogt-William to make visible other ways of thinking about the economy beyond Western economic orthodoxies, centring radical African and African Diaspora scholars’ perspective. The event was staged as a debate between the Ghanaian political economist Franklin Obeng-Odoom,  and Morten Jerven. It was moderated by Abena D. Oduro and Stefan Ouma.

The event

Why did we choose this title for our event? Obviously, it is a reference to the title of Morten Jerven’s widely read 2015 book, Africa: Why Economists Get it Wrong. On the other hand, Franklin Obeng-Odoom devotes substantial attention in Property, Institutions and Social Stratification in Africa (2020) to Jerven’s book, as well as his previous book Poor Numbers (Jerven 2013). Few other authors get so much space in Obeng-Odoom’s book. On the one hand, Obeng-Odoom shows a clear appreciation of Jerven’s work for scrutinizing mainstream economic models and the use of statistics when it comes to explain growth patterns of African economies in historical and comparative perspective, but he also offers a strong critique of it.

As organizers, we think a fresh take on the original title of Jerven’s 2015 book helps us open up a few things to debate: What is the purpose of the category of “Africa” in our study of African economies? Is it a vehicle for Pan-Africanism and Black Empowerment? Is it a geographical space in which we do research? Is it a statistical unit? What do we understand by economics? Do “All economists” really get “Africa Wrong”?

Review of African Political Economy for more

American progressives join the War Party

May 12th, 2022


The new Squad includes first-time Democrat representatives: Jamaal Bowman of New York (third from left) and Cori Bush of Missouri (second from right). IMAGE via Twitter/@CoriBush/The Americano

Russia’s war on Ukraine has, among many other things, highlighted a consequential, indeed historic, shift taking place in American politics with regard to foreign policy. 

A recent vote in the House of Representatives helps tell the tale. On April 28, Congress voted by an overwhelming majority of 417-10 to pass Republican Senator John Cornyn’s bill that would revive Lend Lease and apply it to Ukraine. 

As is well known, Lend Lease was the brainchild of Franklin D Roosevelt as a way to get around the series of Neutrality Acts passed by Congress in the 1930s, in order to help supply the British war effort against Nazi Germany.

One might be forgiven for wondering if such legislation is really necessary today; after all, according to numbers released by the State Department, the US has provided more than $6.4 billion in “security assistance” to Ukraine since 2014. And last week President Joe Biden put forward a request for another $20.4 billion in “additional security and military assistance” as part of a $33 billion aid package to Ukraine.

So what was the actual point of reviving Lend Lease? Well, it was in part, as is the case with many things that happen on Capitol Hill, performative: a way to signal to US arms manufacturers that constitute much of the political donor class that the money spigot will remain wide open for the foreseeable future.

But the Cornyn bill also tells us that the center of gravity of the anti-war movement is shifting away from its traditional home on the progressive left. 

In the century since the US embarked on its journey to global hegemony with the Spanish-American War of choice in 1898, it was most often progressive Democrats who rallied under the banner of peace.

Jeanette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress, was one of 50 dissenting votes against American entering the First World War. Progressive magazines such as The Nation were a thorn in the side of proud American imperialists like Henry Cabot Lodge, Brooks Adams and Theodore Roosevelt.

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