“Course We Ain’t Equal”: Capitalism, Climate Change, and Corporate Propaganda

First published on ZNet, February 7, 2014

Years ago in another lifetime I went every day for a week to the Chicago Historical Society and combed through every issue published during the 1920s of The Swift Arrow, the company newspaper of the giant Chicago plant of the Swift & Company meatpacking company. It was an early lesson in corporate propaganda.

An Arrow Pointed at Workers’ Minds

Like other plant newspapers produced by management during that decade, the Swift Arrow was an instrument of company thought control meant to make and keep workers loyal to their employer and inoculated against the poisons of trade unionism and socialism. Conspicuous for its refusal to report anything that might reflect badly on the harsh reality of work in the industry that Upton Sinclair had famously portrayed as an arch-capitalist Hell for workers (and for cows, pigs, and sheep) in his widely read socialist novel The Jungle (1906), the Swift Arrowportrayed the Chicago Swift plant as “one big happy family” cared for by the compassionate Swift family and its at once highly efficient and generous managers. The paper made constant reference to vacations, employee stock ownership programs, employee purchases of consumer items (especially automobiles), company-sponsored recreation programs (including the “Swift’s Premium” baseball team), workers’ private homes and gardens, and high wages with “bonus money” (earned under the complex “Bedaux incentive wage system” that was reputed to have made Swift “the highest paying firm in the industry”) as indications of the great benefits flowing to those employed by “a great liberal corporation.”

In some cases, the Arrow’s “personal news” section was meant to exemplify the cheerful, hard-working attitude of loyal proletarians who never complained about life and labor under the rule of their benevolent bosses. A typical 1928 item introduced the smiling worker Henry Price from the shipping department. “Henry…says,” theArrow approvingly reported, “the work can’t come too fast for him!”

A Packinghouse Barber

One of the many ways in which the ambitious editors and writers of The Arrow sought to advance their corporatist message was a regular column in which a fictional company barber named Mike would gruffly answer workers’ and radicals’ complaints with pearls of corporatist, welfare-capitalist wisdom. In one “Barber Mike” column, a “Speed and Company” (the Arrow’s revealing pseudonym for Swift & Company) packinghouse worker declared that he was done working himself “to death” for his boss. Barber Mike was ready with an answer that combined the classic bourgeois notion that supply creates its own demand with the new mass consumerist spirit of the “Roaring Twenties” and the notion that Swift’s was one big united team. “Bosh!,” Mike pronounced: “The only limit there is to the amount of work to be done is what folks want, and the more they git the more they want. The faster men work, the more things they can make, and the more they make the lower the price gets so that more people can afford to by what they’re produc’n…WHEN THE TEAM WINS EVERY GUY ON IT WINS…And that goes whether it’s the White Sox (Chicago’s major league South Side baseball team) or Speed and Co.’s packing plant.”

Responding to a barber shop patron who voiced disgust at the vast private fortunes amassed by Chicago’s business elite, Mike instructed workers that those fortunes created job opportunities. “In the long run,” the fictional company barber argued, “rich folks can’t keep their pile except by putting folks to work.”

“Barber Mike” was ready when workers at his shop voiced manual workers’ venerable suspicion of those who get paid more money without “getting their hands dirty” by complaining about the surplus of “do-nothing” managerial “non-producers” at the “Speed” plant. “How do you suppose Speed & Company has come to stand at the top of the packing industry?” Mike asked. “It wasn’t no dumb luck. Them big guys that some of you fellas think don’t earn their money are thinking all the time…There’s more to the meatpacking business that just packing meat.”

One of the columns was titled “Mike Answers a Bolshevik.” When a worker dubbed “Rats Cook” announced that he had “just heard a great [left-wing] speech at the park last night,” the barber intervened to explain that “every one of us wage slaves that you’re talking about lives a dozen times better’n kings did a couple o’hundred years ago.” When “Rats” protested “but we ain’t equal,” Mike stepped in to say “ ‘Course we ain’t. Never was. Better have some rich and some poor with all having a lot that they can enjoy than to have all equal and miserable.” The company barber completed his shutdown of the Marxist sympathizer by advancing the standard bourgeois-hegemonic common sense that class hierarchy was an inherent fact of nature by wondering sarcastically if “Rats” had any complaints “‘bout the weather.’”(Swift Arrow, May 22, 1926)[1]

From Chicago to Shenzhen

Things change. Today, more than ninety years after the Swift Arrow was launched (along with hundreds of other anti-union company newspapers across industrial America) in response to the threat posed to capitalist prerogatives by unions and socialists, Chicago’s once giant meatpacking industry is a thing of the distant past. So is much of the industrial base that once provided employment for millions of American workers and the cradle for the emergence of a mass production unionism that propelled many of those workers into something approximating a middle class after World War Two.

The slaughtering, rendering, and packing of animals and animal products was dispersed westward across the U.S., closer to livestock supplies and further from the once militant, Left-led unions that had held sway among packinghouse workers in the nation’s once great rail-connected packing centers (including Chicago, Omaha, St. Louis, Cedar Rapids) from the late 1930s through the 1950s.

The manufacture of non-edible commodities like cars, clothes, steel and computers has been dispersed across the world to a remarkable degree, especially to East Asia. A contemporary Upton Sinclair looking for vast production complexes in which to portray the horrors of working class life and labor would do best to travel to China. He might well visit the Foxconn’s Langhua factory “campus” in Shenzhen, China, where more than 300,000 workers make products like the Apple iPhone, Sony PlayStations and Dell Computers at wages of $175 per month. Working and living conditions in the Langhua complex are so alienating that large numbers of workers commit suicide, leading the company to string more than 30 million square feet of yellow nets to catch the bodies of employees who leap from the windows and roofs of high-rise proletarian dormitories.[2]

Global Weirding

Another change is that it is no longer absurd for a Marxist or other kind of leftist to complain “’bout the weather.” Current weather patterns are now clearly not just the result of timeless natural forces alone. Decades of economic expansion and ever-escalating consumption and production based on the relentless and wasteful exploitation of carbon-rich fossil fuels have warmed the world’s climate through the “greenhouse effect” in ways that have produced weather extremes being lived in real time right now. With the Arctic having already lost 40 percent of its ice volume over the last 30 years, with 1,600 years of ice formation having melted over the last 25 years in the upper altitudes of South America, and with signs emerging that the planet’s northern permafrost is leaking carbon-rich methane to a deadly degree, “climate change abnormalities in the Arctic are altering the jet streams, which, in turn, negatively impacts weather patterns all across the Northern Hemisphere”[3].As leading climate scientists Jennifer Francis (Rutgers), Lean Saffrey (University of Reading – UK), and Jeff Masters (Weather Underground) note, the warming of the Arctic reduces the temperature difference between the North Pole and the Equator. That reduces the speed and increases the north-south meandering of the northern jet streams (great wind streams that determine northern weather patterns at the 7-to- 9 miles top of the planet’s troposphere), creating “blocking patterns” that produce longer duration cold spells, snow events, heat waves, droughts, and floods as well an increased frequency and intensity of storms (including tornadoes and hurricanes) across the North.

The altered jet streams explain the remarkable increase in extreme and dangerous weather across the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. They lay behind numerous weather events and conditions, from the United States’ worst drought in 50 years (2012) to the by-now routine registering of record high temperatures in years that are now regularly among the hottest recorded in human history, to record snowfalls (“snowmaggedons” including one that recently stranded thousands of drivers on snow and ice-covered highways in the southern U.S. metropolis of Atlanta), to major floods (England in 2012 and Colorado and Eastern Europe in 2013) and epic tornadoes, cyclones, and hurricanes. Weather occurrences that used to be classified as “once in-100-years” and “once-in-500-years” are now taking place on a regular basis. At the same time, seemingly bizarre out-of-season weather events are part of the new meteorological reality. Dozens of tornadoes appeared in the middle South U.S. just short of Thanksgiving last fall. There have been 80-degree days in Chicago in late January (with sun-bathing and beach volleyball) in recent years.

Counter-intuitive though it may seem, the record Cold Arctic outbreak this northern hemisphere winter (2013-204) is tied to anthropogenic global warming [4]. Call it global weirding.


“An Unavoidably Radical Future”

More than merely dangerous, uncomfortable, and expensive (I have replaced one roof thanks to a [2006] tornado and have never shoveled more snow than I have in the last three years), the new weather patterns threaten the world’s food and water supplies. They raise the real specter of human extinction if and when terrible “tipping points” like the large-scale release of Arctic methane (a potential near-term context for truly “runaway global warming”) are passed. The related problem of ocean acidification (a change in the ocean’s chemistry resulting from excessive human carbon emissions) is attacking the very building blocks of life under the world’s great and polluted seas.. Thanks to climate change and other forms of toxic human intervention in global ecosystems, we most add drastically declining biodiversity – a technical phrase for the massive dying off of other species –to the list of “ecological rifts” [5]facing humanity and other living and sentient beings in the 21stcentury.

The findings and judgments of the best contemporary earth science are crystal clear. As the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (UK) concluded last year: “Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical future…We either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions: No longer is there a non-radical option. Moreover, low-carbon supply technologies cannot deliver the necessary rate of emission reductions – they need to be complemented with rapid, deep and early reductions in energy consumption.”[6]


The Deeper Disease: Capitalism

Sadly, however, the Tyndall scientists failed to raise the question of the deeper social-systemic cancer behind the spreading disease of human-generated climate change. The disease is capitalism[7], for whose masters and apologists the answer to the venerable popular demand for equality has long been “more.” They answer is based on the theory that growth creates “a rising tide that lifts all boats” in ways that make us forget about the fact that a wealthy few are sailing luxuriantly in giant yachts while most of us are struggling to keep afloat in modest motorboats and rickety dinghies.

As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled book The Rich Are Destroying the Earth(2007), “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explained, “would allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without—and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite]—any need to modify the distribution of wealth.”[8]

“Growth,” the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”[9]

To repeat Swift & Company’s 1926 counsel to its workers through Barber Mike: “Course we ain’t equal…[but]every one of us wage slaves that you’re talking about lives a dozen times better’n kings did a couple o’hundred years ago…. Better have some rich and some poor with all having a lot that they can enjoy than to have all equal and miserable.”

Of course, growth is more than an ideology under the profit system. It is also a material, economic imperative for investors, managers, workers, and policymakers caught up in the disastrous competitive world-capitalist logic of what John Bellamy Foster calls “the global ‘treadmill of production.” Capitalism demands constant growth to meet the competitive accumulation requirements of capital, the employment needs of an ever-expanding global class or proletarians (workers dependent on wages), the sales needs of corporations, and governing officials’ need to legitimize their power by appearing to advance national economic development and security.[10] This system can no more forego growth and survive than a person can stop breathing and live. It is, as Joel Kovel notes, “a system built on endless growth”, the “eternal expansion of the economic product,” and the “conver[sion of] everything possible [including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil and plants] into monetary [exchange] value.” It is therefore wired “to destroy the integrity of the ecosystems upon which life depends for food, energy, and other resources.”[11]

Consistent with this harsh reality, the system’s leading investors have invested massively in highly wasteful advertising, marketing, packaging and built-in-obsolescence. The commitment has penetrated into core processes of capitalist production, so that millions toil the world over in the making of complex electronic (and other) products designed to lose material and social value (and thus to be dumped in landfills) in short periods of time.[12]

 Merely to Save the Planet: On Asset Inertia

Along the way, U.S. capital has invested huge amounts of fixed capital in the existing fossil fuel-addicted energy system – “sunk” capital investments that make giant and powerful petrochemical corporations and utilities all too “rationally” (from a profit perspective) resistant to a much needed clean energy conversion. As leading environmental author and activist Bill McKibben explained in his 2010 book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:

“Sunk costs…it’s a phrase we need to know if want to understand why all the big companies are not jumping aboard the clean energy train. The journalist Paul Roberts figured earlier in the decade that ‘the existing fossil fuel infrastructure, from power plants and supertankers to oil furnaces and SUVs,’ is worth at least $10 trillion, and scheduled to operate anywhere from ten to fifty more years before its capital costs can be paid off. If we shut it down early, merely to save the planet, someone will have to eat that cost. Given such ‘serious asset inertia,’ no owner or investor in a power plant is likely to accept the write-down without a ‘nasty political fight’” (emphasis added).[13]


The Blame China Syndrome/U.S. Responsibility

Big U.S. carbon capital and its many allies in government and politics like nowadays to observe out that China is now technically the world’s leading national carbon emitter, painting that coal-devouring and pollution-ravaged nation out as the top contributor to climate change. The charge omits the still unmatched per capita carbon consumption of the U.S., the still unmatched historical contribution of the U.S. to accumulated carbon in the atmosphere (now past the long-feared tipping point of 350 parts per million), and the massive investment of U.S. capital in Chinese fossil fuels and manufacturing. JPMorgan Chase and Citibank invested $17 billion and $14 billion, respectively, in new coal plant construction abroad between 2006 and 2013.[14] “American” corporations have been outsourcing their industrial carbon emissions – and visible air pollution – to China to no small degree.

At the same time, no national government has done more to deep-six increasingly desperate international efforts to reduce global carbon emissions than that of the United States – a record that has continued with depressing vengeance through the supposedly “green” Obama presidency. And no nation has invested more heavily and powerfully in the political, ideological, and military promotion and defense of the at once carbon- and growth-addicted profits system than the United States. The U.S. is headquarters of the corporate carbon-industrial-complex’s giant lobbying and propaganda war on the increasingly dire findings of modern climate science – including those of NASA. Almost alone among the world’s nations, as Noam Chomsky has noted, the U.S. is moving backwards on the climate issue, with policy driven to no small extent by corporate-led denial of the dire findings and warnings being advanced by the preponderant majority of earth and life scientists. [14A]

The U.S. carbon-industrial complex’s propaganda war on climate science would elicit awed admiration from editors of the Swift Arrow and numerous other company newspapers through which corporations advanced the art and science of thought control (pioneered and carried to globally unmatched levels in the U.S [15]) during the 1920s.

“A Free Market Success Story”

The problem of petro-capitalist carbon-industrial eco-cidal asset inertia has deepened in the “homeland” in recent years as untold billions are now invested in the arch-toxic process of hydraulic fracturing, whereby gas and oil are extracted through high-pressure horizontal drilling processes that involve the massive exploitation and poisoning of already endangered freshwater supplies and the forcible underground injection of toxic chemicals. Touted by both of the major U.S. business parties as the source of a glorious new “American Energy Independence,” the highly carbon-intensive extraction of shale gas and oil through “fracking” fuels further exterminist Greenhouse-warming. The global gassing project is also furthered also by the corporate-captive U.S. State Departments’ recent granting of a green (as in petro-corporate money) environmental light to the Keystone XL (tar-sands) pipeline.[16]

Fracking is sold by its leading corporate investors as a great “free-market success story: a natural gas boom created by drilling company innovation, delivering a vast new source of cheap energy without the government subsidies that solar and wind power demand…But,” as the Associated Press’s Kevin Begoss had the decency to note in the fall of 2012, “those who helped pioneer the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, recall a different path. Over three decades, from the shale fields of Texas and Wyoming to the Marcellus in the Northeast, the federal government contributed more than $100 million in research to develop fracking, and billions more in tax breaks.”[17]

This hypocrisy is of little concern to many thousands of workers who have found desperately needed employment in hundreds of new fracking sites in Texas, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota. Capitalism creates a giant popular default demand for growth (however attained) among the billions it has removed from self-sufficiency and communal support through its ongoing assault on the natural and social commons and the social state. Poor and property-less multitudes who possess little or nothing beyond their labor power cannot be expected to agonize over corporate welfare – or the environment for that matter – as they struggle to put food on the table and clothes on their children’s bodies by renting their work capacity out to those who own the means of production, extraction, distribution, finance, and communication.

Animal Agriculture

As the vegetarian Upton Sinclair would certainly appreciate (and the editors of the Swift Arrow would not), however, it’s not all about fossil fuels. According to a recent report published by the Worldwatch Institute, a stunning 51 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture – that is from livestock and their byproducts (human inventions no less than the internal combustion engine and the automobile). According to the United Nations, raising animals for food is “one the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems…from local to global.” Clearly, animal agriculture is one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide and the single largest supply for both carbon-rich methane (20 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere) and (300 times more potent) nitrogen oxide emissions. (You can almost hear Rush Limbaugh (a modern day Barber Mike of sorts for the airwaves) guffawing in disbelief, between bites, perhaps, of a hamburger hacked out of a sick cow raised in a brutal Colorado feedlot).“By itself,” the Worldwatch Institute eports, “leaving a significant amount of tropical land used for grazing livestock and growing [animal] feed to regenerate the [tropical rain] forest [currently under massive capitalist assault in the developing world] could potentially mitigate as much as half (or more) of all anthropogenic Greenhouse Gases.”[18]

The once great black soils of the formerly Great U.S. Plains are dominated by the ubiquitous industrial “fencepost-to-fencepost” planting of corn and soybeans for animal consumption. Converting that land from growing animal feed to the direct organic production of food for human beings could (properly managed) significantly cut U.S. carbon emissions and U.S. hunger at one and the same time.


The relevant contemporary socialist project of producing democratically and for the common good is not simply about placing existing forces and means of production under workers’ and citizens’ public and popular control. Many of those forces and means of production have long been rendered useless, harmful, and even exterminist in essence. They cannot be put to decent use in a world beyond the rule of capital. Factory farms and killing floors and SUV assembly lines and have no more place in an ecologically balanced, egalitarian and participatory peoples’ future than do nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons and bomber plants – or than giant coal-fired industrial complexes dedicated to the manufacture of millions of I-phones and video consoles designed to become obsolete within a short period of time. When and if – as now clearly must occur if humanity and other livings things are going to have any chance of a decent future – the relations of production are democratized and socialized, old forces of production will have to be swept into the dustbin of history. New forces will emerge and not-so old pre-class forces and methods ones will be re-invigorated, consistent with the late Marxist historian Chris Harman’s observation that “societies…characterized by competition, inequality, and oppression” – by class – are “the product of…rather recent history.”[19]

Paul Street is the author of “Capitalism: The Real Enemy,” Chapter 1 in Francis Goldin et al., IMAGINE: Living in a Socialist USA (New York: Harper Collins, January 2014). Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2014).


Selected Notes

1. Original citations can be found in Paul Street, “A Company Newspaper: The Swift Arrow and Welfare Capitalism in Chicago’s Meatpacking Industry,” Mid-American: An Historical Review (Winter 1996), Volume 78, Number 1.

2. Frederick Balfour and Tim Culpan “The Man Who Makes Your Iphone,” Business Week, September 9, 2010 at http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_38/b4195058423479.htm).

3. Robert Hunziker, “the Inevitability of Radical Climate Change,” Z Magazine (January 2014), 38.

4. Terrell Johnson, “Is the Record Cold Arctic Outbreak Tied to Global Warming?” The Weather Channel (January 6, 2014) www.weather.com/news/science/environment/arctic-blast-linked-global-warming-20140106

5. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on Earth(New York: Monthly Review, 2010), 14-15.

6. Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, “The Radical Emission Reduction Emission Reduction Conference, December 10-11, 2013,” http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/radical-emission-reduction-conference-tyndall-centre-event-confronting-challenge-climate-change

7. See the incisive reflections of historian Richard Smith in “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism,” Real World Economic Review, issue 53, June 26, 2010, reprinted with revisions at Truthout (January 15, 2014), http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/21215-beyond-growth-or-beyond-capitalism

8. Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007)70, 73.

9. Wallich is quoted in William Greider, Come Home America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country (New York: Rodale, 2009), 202.

10. John Bellamy Foster, “Global Ecology and the Common Good,” Monthly Review (February 1995), read online at http://clogic.eserver.org/3-1&2/foster.html

11.Joel Kovel, “The Future Will be Ecosocialist Because Without Ecosocialism There Will be No Future,” Chapter 2 in Francis Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA(New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 27-28

12. John Bellamy and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review, Vol. 54, Issue 7 (December 2012), http://monthlyreview.org/2012/12/01/the-planetary-emergency

13. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Time Books, 2010), 55.

14. Phillip Gaspar, International Socialist Review (January 2013]).

14A. “Noam Chomsky at 2013 Left Forum,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yvHMtgac0Q

15. Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty(Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 11-84.

16. “State Department Moves Keystone Closer to Approval, But Does Conflict of Interest Taint Report?”Democracy Now! , February 3, 2014,http://www.democracynow.org/2014/2/3/debate_state_dept_moves_keystone_xl

17. Kevin Begos, “Fracking Developed With Decades of Government Investment,” Associated Press (September 23, 2012) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/23/fracking-developed-government_n_1907178.html

18. Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change,” World Watch(November/December 2009),http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf ; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, “Fight Global Warming,” http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/global-warming/

19. Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium (London: Verso, 2008[1999]

Facebook Comments
By | 2014-02-10T14:42:11+00:00 February 10th, 2014|Articles|