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Frankly, It Isn’t My Feminism

Frankly, It Isn’t My Feminism

Reflections on Al Franken

H. Bradford

I haven’t weighed in publicly on the Al Franken sexual harassment debate.  I don’t have the time to engage in internet debates and I don’t want to alienate allies in the Democratic party, who feel very personally hurt and confused by his resignation.  At the end of the day,  all feminists must work together to end sexual harassment/assault.  Further, as a Marxist feminist, I am in the extreme margins of feminism.  I feel that my opinion means little to most people or that my opinion is a quaint anachronism that is tolerable so long as I do my best to work well with others.   Still, I do want to share my opinion, as I feel very frustrated by some of the ways this debate has been framed.   Thus the following is a laundry list of my Marxist feminist “pet peeves.”

1: Al Franken was a feminist/ally to women


Many people have expressed a sense of grief, loss, disappointment, anger, etc. because of the argument that Al Franken was an ally to women.   I fundamentally disagree with this statement.  He supported the Iraq war in 2003, he has supported airstrikes in Syria, voted for increased sanctions against Iran, approved the national defense budget, voted in favor of PROMESA, he supported Israel’s 2014 attacks on Gaza, against closing Guantanamo Bay, etc.   I have said this many times, but internationalism is central to my feminist beliefs.   US foreign policy is based upon promoting US interests in the world.   The US has violently exerted its power in the interest of profit making.  This has been done through countless coups and wars.  What benefits the continuation violent US hegemony does not benefit women, does not benefit working people, does not benefit oppressed nationalities, does not benefit people of color, does not benefit the environment, and does not benefit the vast majority of the world that lives in poverty.  It does not benefit our own people, who fight in these wars and who pay for these wars (at the expense of social spending towards education, health, jobs, environment, etc.).   Supporting Palestinians is a feminist issue.  Supporting Puerto Rican independence is a feminist issue.  Supporting the end to US wars is a feminist issue.  Politicians who support the status quo of US foreign policy- that is, those who do not question our right to play world police or the assumed moral superiority that nationalism grants us the right to starve, bomb, or destabilize other countries… is not in my opinion a feminist.  Women happen to live ALL over the world.  American women are no more important than women in Syria, Palestine, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, North Korea, or Iraq.

This woman in Gaza matters, along with thousands of other people who were killed/injured in Gaza in 2014.  (Image from International Business Times).

 

2. It isn’t Fair that He Stepped Down

The “it isn’t fair” that he stepped down while worse Republicans remain in office is weakest, least morally courageous argument I have heard.   If someone does something bad…something that has hurt women…isn’t the morally responsible thing to do …is take accountability, step back from public life, and quietly work to rebuild trust through atonement?  It doesn’t matter if someone is worse, has done more, or others are not taking accountability.  The “grown up” thing to do when a mistake is made is admit it, apologize, bravely face the consequences, reflect on what happened and how to prevent it again, and work towards remedying the offense.  Yes, it certainly stinks to get in trouble for something when others are evading the consequences of their actions- but if a person truly believes that what they did was wrong, then the punishment of others should be of little concern.   This could have been an opportunity to set an example of how to gracefully, genuinely handle the serious issue sexual harassment.  Instead, Al Franken’s unapologetic resignation made him look like a petulant child- the same sort of behavior one would expect from Donald Trump.


3. Victim Blaming

One of the grossest things throughout this ordeal is the amount of victim blaming.   Despite photographic evidence of Al Franken groping Leann Tweeden, her credibility was attacked because of the bawdy nature of comedy, her conservative interests, her history with Playboy, etc.   Victims who have not identified themselves have even been blamed for not having the courage to reveal themselves- which implies perhaps they are not credible.  Worse, some people bemoan the fact that Al Franken was SUCH a good politician.  Why, he might have had a chance at becoming president some day!  Oh my!  Well, Brock Turner was SUCH a good swimmer!  That pesky sexual assault got in the way of such a promising athletic career.  When people bemoan “what could have been” it blames victims for ruining the careers and futures of offenders.  It is true that groping a sleeping woman is not the same as raping an unconscious woman.  However, there has been a great deal of minimizing Al Franken’s behaviors.   Eight accusations of unwanted touching and kissing IS a big deal.  And yes, Trump’s pussy grabbing and Roy Moore’s grabbing, dating underage women, forcing an underage woman’s head to his crotch, and other allegations of nastiness also matter.  ALL of this matters.  Everyone should resign.  Everyone sucks.  But please, believe victims!!


 

4. Get a Woman into Office!

Another pet peeve has been that the solution to all of this should be the appointment or election of more women into office.  Indeed, the socialization and social position of women in society has not lent itself to the same kinds of oppressive behaviors.  Women are more often the victims of sexual harassment and assault because women it is a method of social control of all women, this keeps women in their place, men feel entitled to women and have historically been entitled to women, women are not socialized to be sexually aggressive or exert control over men in this manner, victims historically and currently are not often believed, this behavior often goes on without consequence, etc.   However, this argument is troubling for a variety of reasons.  For one, it reifies gender.  That is, men and women are different, women are naturally better or less violent/gross/terrible, and the solution must be to include more women in power.  I think that this oversimplifies the problem while reinforcing the gender binary.  It assumes that there is some evil kernel within all men that makes them sexually harass/assault people.   This also ignores transgender, gender queer, gender fluid, or the many other ways to express gender and that these individuals are ALSO often the victims of sexual assault.  It also makes the issue a matter of who is in power rather than a matter of power itself.  Returning to the first point, women in power can be just as terrible- if they are promoting capitalist interests.  The world does not need more Condoleeza Rices, Madeline Albrights, Angela Merkels, Margaret Thatchers, and Hilary Clintons.  Yes, these are women, but they all promoted policies that have hurt women.  While it is less common, men can also be victims of sexual assault and harassment.  Women can sexually harass and assault each other in same sex relationships.  So…this argument is very base to me.  It does not tackle some fundamental issues of power or broader issues of feminism beyond sexual harassment. Image result for madeleine albright starved iraqi children


Beyond this critique, this is a disempowering message to feminists.  This message says that the best thing we can do is hope for a female politician to save us!  Gross.  We should be out in the streets.  Every night should be Take Back the Night.  We should be blocking roads and walking out of our work places in protest of sexual harassment/assault.  We should make power FEAR US.  We should not accept that power should be replaced by a female face.  We should take back power.  We should become power.  Politicians of both parties should fall over themselves to resign, because they fear the rage of millions of mobilized men, women, gender non-conforming, queer, trans, etc. people in the streets demanding  not only accountability….but the destruction of patriarchy itself.   This is a great opportunity for building a mass movement against the machinery of sexist oppression.  A woman will not save us.  We must save ourselves….and this planet.  The politicians will scramble to follow our lead.  If we are smart, we won’t give them the luxury of promises.


Conclusion…

I am sure I could go on, but these are some of the main “peeves” that have angered my socialist sensibilities.   I know that everyone is struggling with these issues.  I know that activism is a path- there is always room to grow and change.  I don’t wish to shame my fellow feminists.  I just…feel like I am alone in the wilderness sometimes.  I am not a Republican or a Democrat.   I don’t have any skin in that game.  I want a new game, with new rules, and new players, and a lot more winning for everyone.  I’m tired of playing Monopoly or Risk.  We are ALL losing.  We will ALL keep losing if we can’t change the discourse and step out of the realm of elections and politicians and into the realm of building the power of mass movements…and labor movement.

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Capitalism and Witches

Capitalism and Witches

 H.  Bradford

10/14/17

The following was written for the Feminist Justice League as part of a monthly “Feminist Frolic.”  These events are a way for local feminist activists to get together and educate each other on a feminist topic while enjoying the outdoors.  This was written for an event wherein activists gathered to learn more about the history of witches followed by a fall themed night hike to a cemetery.  


Since the advent of the feminist movement, there has been increased interest in the history of witches.  In contrast to earlier scholars on the topic who often approached this history with gender blindness, feminist scholars have sought to connect the history of witches to larger issues of gender based oppression by framing the persecution of witches as organized violence targeted specifically against women.  Thus, over the past few decades there have been numerous books and articles which have explored different facets of witches and their place in women’s history.  It would take months if not years to do justice to this vast and interesting topic.  Regrettably, this paper only scratches the surface of this history by highlighting some of the research on the topic.   With that said, although there are debates on the actual numbers of people who were killed or tried for witchcraft, there were at least 110,000 people tried in the Americas and Europe between 1450 and 1750.  Historians have many different interpretations of the causes of these witch hunts, ranging from hallucinations, religious fundamentalism, to economic instability (Thompson, 2003).  However, one of the most intriguing arguments regarding the cause of the persecution of witches is the development of capitalism itself, which coincided with the dates wherein witch hunts were at their height.  Thus, while there are many ways to approach the topic of witches, the focus of this piece is to understand the economic roots of the persecution of witches.


Female Power in Early Europe:

To understand witches (in European context), it is important to go deep into European history.  While the world today is steeped in male power, it was not necessarily always so.  Feminist anthropologists have argued that women once enjoyed more power and status than they do today, though there is caution in going as far as to say Europe was once purely matriarchal.  One of the more classic texts to make this argument was Raine Esler’s (1987) book, The Chalice and the Blade.  I read Esler’s book over a decade ago, but it was eye-opening and one of those wonderfully memorable works that opens one’s mind to the possibilities of history.  Esler (1987) posited that for 30,000 years the women of Europe were important and equal members of society and that in general, European societies were more egalitarian.  One example of the evidence of the importance of women was the discovery of Venus figurines.  Venus figurines are artifacts made of bone, clay, ceramic, stone, ivory, etc. that have been found all over Europe and date from 11,000-35,000 years ago.  Esler (1987)  argued that these figures may have represented a fertility cult or fertility goddess, as their sexual characteristics were exaggerated and some of the figurines appear to be pregnant.    She also argued that Neolithic settlements in Turkey, such as Catal Huyuk and Hacilar do not have striking differences in the sizes of houses or the size of gifts used with burials.  In all, Neolithic art was centered around nature and fertility and burials were largely equal.  The book argues that European societies based upon sharing relationships, with an aversion to warfare, and gender equality were ended about 7000 years ago when nomadic Indo-Europeans spread across Europe, bringing warfare, male gods, and patriarchal social relationships.  European history since then has been the gradual destruction of the remnants of its more female centered early history.  Thus, early female goddesses from more matrifocal societies were turned into villainous, evil characters in European folklore or religions until they were wiped out entirely.  A particular example used by Esler (1987) was the Minoan snake goddess.  In Minoan culture, during the Bronze age on the island of Crete, women played an important role in society as administrators, priestesses, traders, and other occupations.  The Minoans also worshiped more female goddesses than male gods, including a Snake Goddess which appears in various figurines on Crete dating back as far as 5700 BC.  The Snake Goddess is believed to represent fertility and the earth and other goddesses associated with snakes or snake cults existed in the Near East.  Elser (1987) believed that snakes and snake goddesses were later vilified or turned into evil figures to usurp the power of women in society.

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There has been a backlash against the hypothesis that early human societies worshiped goddesses, fertility, were more egalitarian, and matriarchal.  For feminists, viewing patriarchy as a particular system that is less than 10,000 years old can be empowering because it creates space to imagine a world wherein women were not always oppressed.  In this viewpoint, most of human history was not a story of gender oppression.  It is absolutely true that we will never have all of the archaeological evidence necessary to reconstruct the many diverse societies that existed tens of thousands of years ago.  It is also true that purely matriarchal societies are not common.  The Mosuo ethnic group near Tibet features female heads of household and female lines of inheritance, with a mother goddess and ancestor veneration.  The Minangkabau ethnic group in Indonesia is the largest matrilineal society in the world, wherein inheritance is through the female line of descendants and women are the head of the household.  However, there are no examples of matriarchy in the sense that there have or are societies wherein women dominate society in the same way men dominate society in patriarchy.  Though, our ability to imagine what female power may look like is stunted by our experiences of patriarchal oppression.  Still, it is impossible to piece together complex societies with what little remains of them.  The Venus figurines may not represent goddess worship or admiration of fertility.  They could represent objects to curse women or fat shame them for all we know.  However, we can see by looking back at history and even looking at the world today, that there are differences between societies and that the oppression of women varies.

Image result for venus figurine


Marxists approach history through historical materialism.  That is, from a Marxist perspective, societies develop upon a base structure consisting of economic conditions.  For most of human history, humans were hunters and gatherers.  The nature of hunting and gathering economics means that there is little social inequality because there is little accumulation of surplus.  Hunter and gathering societies tend to have smaller populations and less specialization in roles or occupations due to the fact that specialization requires enough surplus to liberate some members of society from basic sustenance work.  Thus, in Ancient Egypt, where there were settled societies, slave labor, and agriculture, there were also people who specialized in working as priests, bakers, scribes, or any number of professions that did not require direct procurement of food or the means of survival.  To Marxists, economic conditions shape social conditions such as class relationships, gender inequalities, religious beliefs, and relationships to nature.  Thus, while we can’t know what Europe was like tens of thousands of years ago, we do know that societies are built upon a particular economic foundations.  Societies with different economic bases have different ways of treating women.  For instance, many Native American groups were matrilineal.  Colonialists particularly noted this among the Iroquois, among which when men married they joined the wife’s family or when they separated, the children remained with the mother.  Women were also involved in tribal decision making through councils of senior women who could appoint male leaders and attend meetings.  Because women provided an average of 75% of the calories consumed among Native Americans, they had a socially important role of providing the means to survival.  Native American women were not treated as property by men, had the right to divorce, and the means to support themselves.  While Native American beliefs are varied, many feature important female figures, especially in creation stories (Mays, 2004).   Women were treated differently among these societies because they were not based upon private property, amassing capital, or class inequalities.  Before Europe colonized the world, imposing Christianity and patriarchy, it colonized itself, over centuries and in various ways, until its societies became unrecognizable from its earlier hunter gatherer or agrarian traits.   The oppression of women is rooted in the social and economic function that sexism plays in supporting systems of inequality.  Patriarchy oppresses women as a way to control their reproductive power, support other social inequalities, control their labor, and ensure the continuity of private property.  Thus, understanding the persecution of witches is connected to understanding the larger economic and social conditions of patriarchy itself.


The Evolution of the Witch:

The hypothesis that women once had more power and importance in European societies is evident in the understanding of what a witch actually is.  Max Dashu’s (2016) book Witches and pagans: women in European folk religion, 700-1100 provides a detailed history of early origins of witches.  According to Dashu (2016), various European cultures had the notion of powerful women who controlled the fate of humans.  Often these mythical women were grouped as a trio and involved in weaving the future of each human.  In Greek mythology these women were called Moirai.  In Slavic mythology they were called Suddice and in Roman mythology they were called Parcae.  In Norse mythology, they were called the Norns.  Across Europe, from Lithuania, Ireland, and Italy to as far east as Tadjikistan, there were variations of the myth of three spinning women.  In Latin, they were called Fata or fatae, translating to fates.  The words fae and fairy actually come from fata, so prior to the concept of tiny winged women, fairy or fae was more connected to a woman with supernatural control of fate.  The three Fates each had a name.  In Saxon, the oldest of the sister name was Wuro.  In German it was Wurt and in Anglo it was Wyrd.  The word “weird” in English, originally meant destiny.  In old English, werding meant worship and a witch was a “weird women” which was roughly understood as a woman with control over destiny.  And, the “weird sisters” in MacBeth, which were portrayed as witches, represents a shift in how “weird women” were understood.  In the play, the women certainly have some knowledge of the future, but their “weirdness” is not their understanding of destiny, but the oddness of being haggish women using body parts in a cauldron.  The word witch itself may come from the German word wikke or Anglo-Saxon word, wiccian, which both mean wise woman.  The main point that Dashu (2016) makes is that at one time in European history, the prototype of witches were wise women or women with control over fates.  This original understanding was warped over time into the more modern notion that witches were evil women, with dark powers, and an alliance with the Devil.  In fact, a significant turning point in this understanding was the 1600s.  The example of MacBeth and the change of the word “weird” is indicative of that pivot in history, a point that will be explored later.

Image result for weird sisters


The Greeks, Norse, Slavs, etc. whom Dashu (2016) wrote about were all patriarchal societies.  However, these patriarchal societies had enclaves of female power in the form of deities and female spiritual leaders.  Perhaps these bastions of female power were the remains of much earlier female centered societies.  What is know is that witches were once understood as wise women and the process of villainizing witches was slow and uneven.  In some cases, the three sisters were Christianized, such as the Three Sisters, a trio of Belgian Saints and Las Tres Marias-the three spinning Mary’s in Italy and Spain.  Throughout the early middle ages, it was common for people to associate weaving with supernatural power, just as the Fates used their weaving skills to weave destiny.   For instance, there is a story in the Annals of St. Neots in 1105 which mentions a magical banner that shows a raven in times of war.  It was common for various cultures to use knots for protection.  Celtic crosses and manuscripts feature knots, another example of the Christianization of pagan beliefs, and the Russian word for wizard, vzol’nik means knot tier.  Before 800 CE, the punishment for witches was flogging or fines.   In 800, Charlemagne decreed that heathens and diviners could be enslaved or imprisoned, death to those who would not convert, as well as death to anyone who would not fast for lent.  In 845 CE, Ramirol, a Spanish King was said to have burned a large number of sorcerers, Jews, and astrologers.  In 873 CE, the Frankish King Charles the Bald is also said to have engaged in a witch hunt.  The first European witch whose name and execution was recorded was Gerberga, who was killed for befriending the step-mother or Prince Lothair and helping her mary King Louis with a spell.  In 853, an unnamed serf woman was killed for poisoning the daughter of a lord,  Engilpercht, who was then awarded land for his loss.  In 800, a Tyrolean Bishop decreed that if someone practices witchcraft, they should have their head shaved for the first offense, have their tongue and nose cut off for the second offense, then execution or enslavement for the third offense.  Some of the worse laws, and certainly some of the most clearly gendered laws were from Spain.  In 1176 CE the Forum Turdii Code of Aragon stated that a male witch should be banished after having a cross shaved in his head, whereas a female witch should be burned.  Death by fire was the punishment for ending a pregnancy, leaving a husband, or having sex with a Muslim or Jew.  Women could prove their innocence through the Trial by Iron, in which they had to hold a fire heated four foot rod of iron as wide as their palm and thick as two fingers, eight steps without dropping it.  Alfred the Great called for death or exile to unchaste women and witches, but there was no law against male promiscuity.  Across Europe, the notion of witches and whores were paired together.  For instance, in 1030, the Archbishop of Trier accused a nun of making him a pair of magical shoes that would cause him to lust after her.  For her lustful magic, she was banished (Dashu, 2016).


It isn’t know how many witches were killed between 800 -1100, since records were not always kept or preserved.  It can generally be said that among peasants, there were many remnants of paganism in the form of fortune telling, herbalism, or even worship of herbs through song or chants.  The control of women’s sexuality through its connection to witchcraft is a perennial trend in patriarchy.  Patriarchy is based upon private property and controlling women’s sexuality is a way to control property by ensuring the its is passed on through male lineages.  Thus, using witch accusations to control women’s sexuality comes as little surprise.  While the persecution of witches has a long history in Europe and certainly spiked under certain rulers or in certain times, full scale witch hunting did not come into being until 1500s.


According to Silvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch (2012) in the 5 th through 7th centuries serfdom began in Europe after the breakdown of slave systems.  The lot of a serf was better than a slave, inasmuch as serfs were not punished as much as slaves, were given plots of land, and were granted access to commons, or commonly held land such as forests, pastures, or lakes which were open to public use.  Of course, the lives of serfs were not that great and over the course of the feudal centuries there were various peasant revolts and heretic movements.  Movements such as the flagellants, Bogomils, cathars, and millenarians are examples of heretic movements that Federici (2012) framed as liberation theology of their day.  There were also less religiously based uprisings, such as when in 1377 clothing workers in Ypres took up arms against their employer, the Peasant wars in Germany, or the 1379 Ciompi Revolt wherein workers briefly seized power in Florence.  Women participated in and sometimes led peasant revolts.  Thus, the first “women’s movement” might be seen as some of these early expressions of resistance to feudalism.  The Black Death, which killed 30-40% of the population of Europe created the social space for peasants to advocate for themselves due to labor shortages.  This resulted in rent strikes and uprisings.  Generally speaking, between 1350-1500 prices went down, rents went down, and work days decreased.  To curtail the power of peasants, something had to change to shift the balance of power.  This shift was the development of capitalism.

Image result for florence workers uprising ciompi revolt

Witches and the Advent of Capitalism:

Federici (2012) noted that capitalism’s early development was made possible by such things as the exploration of the New World, the enclosure or privatization of commons, slave trade, the development of workhouses and systems of mass incarceration, and witch hunts.  These are all characteristics of what Marxists call primitive accumulation.  Primitive accumulation is the process by which the initial capital was generated to make capitalism possible.  For instance, for capitalism to work, there needs to be capital, which can include such things as land, buildings, raw materials, and labor.  Within feudalism, peasants were able to obtain the means to support themselves through small plots of land and use of commons, such as hunting, fishing, or gathering from commonly held land.   This commonly held land was also a place for peasants to meet and even organize against injustices in the world.  Any modern activist can surely relate to the lack of free meeting spaces to utilize for public events, which represents an often overlooked facet of what a lack of commons in capitalist society means.  Peasants were evicted from their land because capitalism depends upon workers who support themselves with a wage.  People who can support themselves do not require wage labor.  Thus, in order to turn peasants into workers who relied upon a wage, common land had to be privatized, rents had to be increased, and people needed to be evicted from their land.  At the same time, not working had to be criminalized.  This resulted in the passage of vagrancy laws, which criminalized begging, loitering, or non-work.  This process of primitive accumulation increased starvation and malnutrition. In the mid 16th century, population increased, food production decreased, and inflation was up across Europe  (Barstow, 1994).  Meat, oil, salt, wine, and beer disappeared from the menus of common people during the 16th century.  At the same time, work days lengthened and incomes deceased.  It was not until the middle of the 1800s that wages returned to before the Enclosure movement (Knight, 2009).

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The first witch hunts coincided with the birth of capitalism.  For instance, the Malleus Maleficarum, the famous guidebook for exterminating witches, was written in 1482,  In 1532, witchcraft became punishable by death in England.  At the same time that land was being privatized and “idleness” criminalized, Federici (2012) argued that there were important changes to how women were treated which also played an important role in the early development of capitalism.  The 16th century saw severe fines passed against women who used contraceptives, engaged in infanticide, or sought abortion.  These became capital crimes.  In the 16th-17th centuries, the number one crime that women were executed for was witchcraft, but the number two crime was infanticide.   During this time period, midwifery was banned and folk healers were persecuted (Federici, 2012).  Sollee (2017) noted that in 1556 the French Parliament ordered women to register their pregnancies and to have a witness watch their deliveries.  A woman could be penalized if their infant was stillborn or died after birth and there were no witnesses.  Judge Henry Boquet of Burgundy claimed that all witches were abortionists (Barstow, 1994).  He pronounced over 600 death sentences against witches and sometimes had them burned alive.  Witch hunting was a way to control women’s reproduction.  Witches themselves were often punished publically, through burning, hanging, or torture.  Witches were punished in front of their community, but also in front of their daughters.  The daughters of witches were also subjected to punishment.  By making witch hunting a public spectacle, all women were collectively punished and cowed into submission to the new social order of capitalist patriarchy.  Within Feudalism, women often worked together sewing, harvesting, tending to animals, or washing in common.  This solidarity between women was broken as witch hunting cultivated the fear, suspicion, and isolation necessary to divide women from one another and relegate them to atomized households (Knight, 2009).

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The transition to capitalism saw other changes to the status of women as well.  In the 16th century, women were barred from highly skilled work and relegated to part time, low investment, home related trades.  Women, unlike men, were allowed to take up more than one trade, but this was indicative of the devaluation of their work.  In the 1500s, women were also forced out of guilds (Barstow, 1994).  While women certainly worked, their public work was devalued, as evidenced from their ban from guilds and professions.  Of course, women’s work is still devalued, as evident in the wage gap between men and women but also the amount of unpaid labor that women perform.  Within capitalism, women are tasked with the social reproduction of labor.  This means that women are supposed to reproduce the next generation of workers but also care for the current generation of workers by taking care of their health, cooking, cleaning, or tending to the household.  Thus, control of women’s reproduction is a way to ensure the production of more laborers and their relegation to the household and denigration of their work ensures that women provide the free service of upkeeping capitalism.  Witch hunting served the purpose of both controlling women’s reproduction and collectively punishing women into submission.

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The Peasant Wedding-Pieter Bruegel 1567

It is no wonder then that Barstow (1994) noted that witch hunts did not simply target women, they targeted elderly, single, and poor women.  Barstow (1994) cited many examples of women who lived in the margins of society as beggars or widows who were accused of witchcraft.  For instance, two impoverished families living in the Pendle Forest selling trinkets and charms were accused of witchcraft in 1612.  The head of the Demdike family was an 80 year old woman who was believed by locals to have practiced witchcraft for 50 years and the head of the the Chattox family was also an elderly widow.   A dispute between the two families was taken to court, wherein Old Demdike’s granddaughter accused her of witchcraft along with the Chattox family, resulting in the executions of 10 people as witches.  The complicated story involved a family fued, but also overzealous judges and a landlord, Robber Nutter who accused Anne Red Fearne of the Chattox family after he failed to seduce her and threatened her with eviction.  In another example, Margaret Flower of Rutland England was keeper of poultry who was fired by the earl that she worked for in 1613.  After the firing, the earl’s son got sick and several years later, his eldest son died.  He attributed this to witchcraft and had Margaret and her two daughters arrested.  Margaret died en route to prison and the two daughters were hanged.  Barstow (1994) observed that on average, European victims of witch hunts were over the age of 50.  In New England, women who had inherited land were more likely to be accused of witchcraft.  Single women and postmenopausal women were also more likely to be accused.  Women with outspoken personalities were also more likely be accused and scolding actually became a crime in Britain.  The punishment was that a woman could be put in a scold’s bridle, an iron cage with spikes in the tongue.  While upper class women were sometimes targeted, it was often an act of revenge.  So, sexism, ageism, and class conflicts were compounded in witch hunts.  This supports Federici’s (2012) argument that witch hunts supported the foundation of capitalism, because targeting outspoken women enforced submission to the new order.  Targeting poor women who were beggars or outsiders to society enforced the virtue of work and the victimization of poor.  Even today, the poor are often blamed for their lot in life.  Targeting women without male heirs or widows also served to keep property out of the control of women.


Although Barstow’s (1994) book Witchcraze does not connect capitalism with witch hunting as clearly as Federici’s (2012) work, it supports some aspects of her hypothesis.  Barstow (1994) argued that the persecution of witches coincided with changes in systems of governance.  For instance, in the 16th century, governments became more powerful and centralized, with higher tax rates.  At the same time, secular courts had been developing since the 15th century, often based upon inquisitional courts of the 13th century.  This transition also marked a change from punitive justice, which consisted of community administered justice to less personal state administered justice consisting of fines, punishment, or execution.  The changes that Barstow (1994) outlined made witch hunting possible, but also represents a shift towards more secular, rational institutions which are characteristic of capitalism.   This is important to note since witch hunts are often framed as religious extremism, the scientific and secular minds of the day participated in and supported witch hunts.  For instance, both Hobbes and Bodin participated in witch hunts.  Most witch trials were conducted by secular courts and both Protestants and Catholics used the same arguments against witches (Federici, 2012).  While the sort of evidence used against witches, the notion of witches, the trials and punishments, etc. seem wildly irrational, the phenomenon of witch hunts was rational inasmuch as it was conducted by increasingly rational, or standardized and predictable state apparatus.  This same state apparatus made possible the centralization of power necessary for such elements of capitalism such as national banks, stock exchanges, overseeing the appropriation of commons, and the enforcement of property rights.   Federici (2012) also noted that the Enlightenment or Scientific revolution is sometimes credited with ending witch hunting, but posits that witch hunting ended when it became more of a nuisance to those in power than an effective tool in terrorizing women into submission.


Federici’s (2012) argument is both confounded and supported by the fact that Barstow (1994) found that some areas of Europe had higher numbers of deaths than others and some areas engaged in witch hunts earlier than others.  For instance, England was the first capitalist country but not the earliest or largest scale site of witch hunting.  In England, primitive accumulation began in the 15th century, but it was not until the 17th century that 70-75% of the land was under the control of landlords.  Marxists argue that capitalism began in England because that was where landlords were first successful at evicting peasants from common lands. The peak of the witch hunts in England were in the 1640s-60s which is precisely the same time that the English state transitioned from supporting the traditional rights of lords to supporting the development of capitalism following the English Civil War.  Tenant farming became common along with state sponsored enclosures (Poynton, 2011).  Most witch trials in England occurred where land was enclosed but where land remained public, there were no witch hunts.  In the highlands of Scotland and Ireland, where there was slower development towards capitalism, there were no witch hunts (Federici, 2012).  Nevertheless, it is confounding that England did not have the most witch hunts nor the earliest.  It had some significant witch hunts such as the Pendle witches killed in 1612 and the witch hunts conducted by Matthew Hopkins between 1645-1663 which resulted in 300 executions.  More research is needed to explore more precisely why England, the first capitalist country, was not the country with the first or largest scale witch hunts.  It can only be said that its witch hunts did coincide with a shift towards a more state driven effort towards  primitive accumulation.


The rest of Europe was slower to enclose land and developed capitalism later.  According to Barstow (1994) German speaking parts of Europe had the most deaths from witch hunts, accounting for ½ to 3/4s of the deaths.  Catholic areas of Germany put more witches to death, with 900 witches executed by the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg and 600 put to death by the bishop of Bamberg alone.  But, both Protestants and Catholics vigorously persecuted witches.  German speaking regions were the center of witch hunts, but also experienced the strongest peasant movements and the harshest persecution of heretics and Jews.  In the 16th century there were some enclosure laws, but the project to privatize lands was not complete until the 1800s. Barstow (1994) suggested that the Germanic witch hunts were a continuation of earlier persecutions and the newest form of social control.  However, this answer is unsatisfying because it does not connect the hunts to capitalist development itself.  German speaking areas were not centralized into a singular state, but numerous principalities, baronies, and smaller political units under the umbrella of the Holy Roman Empire.  Nevertheless, the breakdown of Feudalism in Germany was particularly painful.   100,000-300,000 peasants were killed in the Great Peasant Revolt that began in 1524 and lasted about a year.  It was the largest mass uprising in Europe until the French revolution.  Protestant reformation also began in Germany in 1517 and resulted in various social conflicts, including the 30 Years War which began in  began in 1618 and cost the lives of up to eight million people living in central Europe, broke up the Holy Roman Empire, and was ended with the Treaty of Westphalia, which set the groundwork for modern secular, pluralistic, nation states.  Witch hunting was far more extensive in German speaking areas than anywhere else in Europe and certainly these 16th and 17th social upheavals played a role, even if the economy itself was not advancing towards capitalism at the same pace as England.

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Image of the 30 Years War

France was the number two area in Europe or witch hunts (Barstow, 1994).  Yet, property rights in France were complicated.  The Feudal state in France collected taxes directly from peasants and sometimes competed with lords for their surplus.  Sometimes the state intervened at the expense of lords on behalf of peasants and often made it difficult for lords to evict peasants or obtain vacant lands (Poynton, 2011).  Scotland also had many witch hunts, resulting in around 4000 deaths, whereas Ireland had very few.  Some areas experienced witch hunts later, such as Scandinavia where witch hunting peaked in the 1670s or Hungary, where it peaked in the 1720s (Barstow, 1994).  The timeline and scale of witch hunts does not exactly follow the timeline of capitalist development in Europe, but as a general rule countries which developed capitalism sooner tended to have witch hunts sooner.  It would be useful if Federici (2012) would have accounted for these differences.  It can only be said that during the witch hunts many European societies were dealing with the contradictions of Feudalism.  The birth of capitalism was not linear or inevitable and various societies had different elements of capitalism such as merchants, lending, industry, wage labor, markets, rents, speculation, etc.  It is only in England where landlords were able to appropriate the land of peasants that capitalism got the spark that it needed to take off.  The witch hunts could be framed as a part of the general growing pain that many transitioning economies were facing, though not necessarily specific to primitive accumulation.


Witches and witch hunts are a women’s history and gender issues.  Victims of witch hunts were mostly women, who were subjected to male power in the form of male accusers, male juries, male religious leaders, male dominated state power, etc.  On average  80% of the people accused of witchcraft were women, though in some areas the numbers were higher.  For instance, in France and England, 92% of the accused were women.  However, in other areas, more men than women were accused, such as Finland, Estonia, and Russia.  The fact that some men were killed has been used by some historians to challenge the notion that witch hunts were gender driven acts of violence.  For instance, Thompson (2003) noted that although the majority of the victims of witch hunts were women, but ¼ to ⅕ were men.  There are some areas of Europe such as Iceland, Burgundy, and Normandy wherein the majority of victims were men (Thompson, 2003).  It is true that in some areas, men were persecuted in greater numbers than women.  Nevertheless, that in the majority of Europe, it was a gender based persecution.  This is very similar to how although there are male victims of domestic violence in today’s society, the vast majority are female and violence against women plays a role in the systemic oppression of women.  Still, male victims require some explanation.  In Russia, 60% of the accused were men and 40% were women.  In general, there was less persecution of witches and no cases of harsh torture, no children persecuted, and no spectral evidence used in courts.  Witnesses were allowed in the defense of witches and there were never multiple burnings of witches.  At the same time, Russia was not any less sexist than the rest of Europe.  The Orthodox church was repressive of women and sex negative and Russian society had a high tolerance for violence against women (Barstow, 1994).  It is also important to note that although Russia had fewer witch hunts and a different gender dynamic, it was experiencing social change in the form of the consolidation of the Russian state.  Ivan IV or Ivan the Terrible came to power in 1547 and centralized the Russian empire by naming himself tsar of all Russia, by creating a secret police to terrorize other nobility, by conquering various khanates and territories, and by giving positions of power to the emerging commercial class.  He also encouraged men in Russia to beat their wives and distributed propaganda that promoted domestic violence.  Still, witch hunts remained a mostly Western European phenomenon.  If sexism cannot be blamed for the differences in gender makeup of witches, then there must be other answers.  Again, one answer may be the development of capitalism.  Areas which had more men who were persecuted or fewer women, were often less developed in terms of their transition to capitalism.  Finland, Estonia, Iceland, and Russia were all on the periphery of early capitalism.

Image result for ivan the terrible

Ivan the Terrible by Viktor Vanetsov-1897

Witches Today:

Witch hunting peaked in Europe in the 1600s and declined in the 1700s.  The 1734 Witchcraft Act of Britain decriminalized witchcraft.  While some professional fortune tellers were persecuted, the punishment became less severe.  Witch hunting itself was abolished in 1736 in England, in 1776 in Poland, and 1682 in France.  Maria Theresa, the Queen of Bohemia and Hungary and Archduchess of Austria outlawed witch hunting in the late 1700s.  By the 1800s, witch hunts in Europe were rare.  Despite the end of witch hunting in Europe, there are many places in the world today where women continue to be persecuted as witches.  For instance, women in Papua New Guinea are still murdered for accusations of witchcraft.  In 2008, there were 50 people killed for sorcery, most of whom were women.  In Ghana, women accused of witchcraft are widows who are punished with exile to witch villages.  Those accused are often elderly women and widows with families who are looking to take over their property (Backe, 2014).   In remote parts of Northeast India, over 2000 people have been killed in the last 15 years for witchcraft.  Most of the victims are women who have been blamed for bad harvests or illness, but many have been accused due to land disputes (Singh, 2016).  2000 is a high number as it is greater than the number of witches killed in France, the British Isles, Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe respectively.   ISIS beheaded two women and their husbands in 2015 for using magic as medicine.  In Saudi Arabia witchcraft is a criminal offense and in 2006, Fazwa Falih was sentenced to beheading for using magic that caused impotence.  She was sentenced on the basis of one man’s testimony but died in prison before she was executed.  The entire sad story is very similar to the stories of European women who lingered and died in jail before execution and the absurdity of the accusations and evidence used against them.  Witch hunts also happen in Nepal, which target low-caste women.  Around the world, women, but especially poor women, continue to be persecuted as witches.


Federici (2012) argued that witch hunting continues in the so called developing world because this is where capitalism is still in transition.  While capitalism is certainly a global system that impacts the furthest corners of the world, the process of proletarianization is not complete.  That is, there are still places in the world where people support themselves through gathering, subsistence farming, and use of common lands.  At the same time, institutions and agents of globalization put pressure on every country and region of the world to become a part of capitalism.  An example how capitalism continues to privatize the commons is how Monsanto has sought to patent the genes of crops that have traditionally been grown by subsistence farmers.  By patenting the crops, the farmers must buy the seeds or face fines.  Because farmers must buy seeds, they must somehow earn money to grow what they once grew from saving or sharing the seeds.  This forces them to become a part of the economy as consumers, but also as workers.  Governments and international organizations adopt or promote policies which allow international corporations to restructure the economy towards the interests of global capitalism.  For instance, in 2013 in Colombia, peasants went on strike and blocked roads in protest of new laws that outlawed exchanging seeds.  In 2011, the government of Colombia actually destroyed 70 tons of “illegal” rice and raided the trucks and warehouses of rice farmers.  The places in the world which continue to persecute women for witchcraft are often the very same places where people are still in the process of being forced into the capitalism.


While witch hunts have ended in more industrialized countries of the world, the idea of witches continue to be a tool of sexist oppression.  For instance, in Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, by Kristen Sollee (2017) noted that Hillary Clinton was often compared to a witch by her political opponents.  By calling her a witch, she was associated with something feminine, evil, ugly, and old.  It was a gendered insult.  Certainly, Hillary Clinton could and should be critiqued for her support of neoliberal policies that promote America’s agenda for a more violent and impoverished world.  However, by calling her a witch, it sent the message to all women that it is not alright to be public, old, outspoken, and female.  Sollee (2017) also made the argument that the word slut today is similar to witches in the past.  They are similar because victims of sexual assault are blamed for the crime and it is a label that only applies to women.  Sluts are like witches because they are persecuted for seeking control of their reproduction.  While witches have become a part of popular culture, actual witches are still stigmatized in society.  According to the General Social Survey in 2016, just over 70% of Americans identified as Christian.  Traditionally, witchcraft has been viewed as evil by Christians.  The Bible very famously states that “Thou Shall Not Suffer a Witch to Live,” in Exodus 22:18.  Suffice to say that a majority of the U.S. population comes from a religious background that is uneasy if not hostile towards witches.  Furthermore, the idea of a witch is used as an insult and often a negative comparison.  For example, a Texas Preacher named Lance Wallnau said that the Women’s March in January 2017 was the result of witchcraft and the work of the devil.  This comparison was meant to delegitimize the protest and frame expressions of female power and solidarity as evil.  Pat Robertson said, “feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”  It is interesting that witchcraft is connected to feminism, but also associated with capitalism and abortion.  This trifecta of feminist characteristics is precisely what Federici (2012) argued that the witch hunts were all about.  They were about forcing women into submission, reproductively and socially, in the interest of capitalism.


Witches often capture the imagination of women today because feminist historians have done much to uncover the history of witch persecution and in doing so, redeeming witches as healers, midwives, and wise women.  Therefore, to many women witches can be a symbol of resistance or counter-culture.  Women may also be attracted to witches because they represent female power in the form of knowledge and defiance of social norms, but also in the more mythical and magical sense wherein witches may be depicted as actually possessing supernatural power.  Witches offer an alternative role model to young women.  Witches are self-reliant, they don’t need to be conventionally attractive, and they don’t need to be saved by men (Theriault, 2017).  It is no wonder that witches have sometimes been associated with protest.  Glinda the Good Witch from the Wizard of Oz was based upon Frank Baum’s mother in law, Matilda Joslyn Gage.  Gage was a visionary woman who was a suffragist, abolitionist, and supporter of Native American rights.  She also wrote about witches not as evil women, but wise women.  Gage lived with Baum and served as his intellectual mentor.  When he created Glinda the Good Witch, he drew from Gage’s insights that a witch did not have to be evil and thusly created a beatific and wise witch.  In another example, W.I.T.C.H or the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell was formed in 1968 as a group of thirteen women who used costumes and the imagery of witches as a form of protest.  They hexed the stock exchange on Halloween of 1968 and protested the inauguration of Nixon in 1969 and a bridal fair that same year.  They developed various chapters called covens around the country  (Sollee, 2017).  Dianic Wicca, a goddess centered form of paganism with feminist roots emerged in the 1970s, again indicating the interest that women had in reclaiming witches not only as a political symbol but spiritual inspiration.

 Image result for Glinda the good witch

Interestingly, the modern idea of witches can also be oppressive to women.  The word witch is a gendered term and several branches of modern day neo-paganism were developed by men (Gardnerian/Alexandrian/Crowleyan) and reflect the worldview of men drawing from medieval texts and 19th century British esoterism.  For instance, the moon was envisioned as female and the sun male or masculine fire and feminine water (Theriault, 2017).  Some Dianic Wiccans have been criticized for being trans-exclusionary.  Beyond this, while witches appear in the media, the mainstream media is mainly controlled by men.  Thus, the witches that appear in popular culture are not examples of positive, feminist role models.  For instance, in Hocus Pocus, the witch characters receive their power from a man (a book), are trying to kill children, and are motivated by anti-aging.  The Craft involves a plot line of social outcast teens engaging in witchcraft to punish an attempted rapist, but stopped by a middle class white women who practices a kindlier magic.  Both films were directed by men (Dommu, 2016).  Finally, just as feminism has been commodified by t-shirts and product advertisements, the image of witches and practice of witchcraft has also been tamed by the market.  As a testimony to the money making potential of witches, Etsy has 28,000 results for the query of witchcraft.  Searches for witchcraft were up 30% and witchcraft related purchases were up 60% between 2105 and 2017 (Faif, 2017).  Salem, Massachusetts has cashed in on its history of witch persecution through tourism, gift shops, and specialty shops.  While witches may represent subversive female power, the market often seeks to subvert the subversive if it is profitable.  Thus, in an odd contradiction of late capitalism, we live in a society which disdains witches as evil and uses them to denigrate feminism while at the same time profiting from them and taming them into something more benign.

Image result for the craft

Conclusion:

Witches can inspire feminists today as a both a symbol of resistance and victim of persecution.  We live in a disenchanted world.  That is, capitalism destroys all that is sacred in the name of profit- family relationships, solidarity, dignity in work, relationships to the environment, leisure time, the time and autonomy to pursue passions, etc.  Like witches that were denuded, poked and prodded in search of birthmarks or devil’s marks, the market economy strips us bare of our humanity and connections.  Naked, cold, and alone, we live and die as workers in the home and public workplaces with little protection from the ups and downs of wages, costs of living, the economic strain of endless war, inflation, recession, and depression.  At the same time, poverty is punished and punishment breeds poverty as formerly incarcerated individuals often serve as auxiliary labor as unemployed and contingent workers.  Women are still cloistered in their homes and devalued in the public sphere.  The great witch hunts of the 17th century have ended in the industrialized world, but continue in the impoverished, socially strained, and economically exploited regions of the world.  There is no magic to fight this.  There is no actual “hexing” of Wall Street.  Everything magical in the world is long dead.  But, there is solidarity.  Witch hunts served to pit women against women and entire communities against their more vulnerable members.  The worst horrors inflicted by the state and the economy are often those that we have internalized and inflict upon one another.  If there is a lesson from history it is to stand against the persecution of the outsiders, the poor, the different, the elderly, women, the mentally ill, the marginal, the Other.  An injury to one is an injury to all.  By reclaiming our solidarity we can stand against the injustices of society, many of which are very similar to those faced by witches in the 17th century.  Our criminal justice system can be just as illogical.  Victims are still blamed.  Public enemies are always socially constructed.  The tragedy of the witch hunts is that no one organized against them.  In one instance, in Basque country in Spain, a group of women were to be executed as witches but when their husbands and brothers, who had been fishing returned, they stopped the whole ordeal.  It goes to show that the persecution of witches could have been stopped.  All that is needed is the will and solidarity to do so.


 

Sources:

Backe, E. (2014, December 20). Something Wicked This Way Comes: Witches and Modern Women. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://thegeekanthropologist.com/2014/07/25/something-wicked-this-way-comes-witches-and-modern-women/

Barstow, A. L. (1994). Witchcraze: a new history of the European witch hunts. San Francisco, CA: Pandora.

Dashu, M. (2016). Witches and pagans: women in European folk religion, 700-1100. Richmond, CA: Veleda Press.

Dommu, R. (2016, October 20). Witches on screen: good for fashion, bad for feminism? Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://mic.com/articles/157194/witches-on-screen-good-for-fashion-bad-for-feminism#.soR3gmPwI

Eisler, R. (1989). The chalice and the blade: our history, our future. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Faife, C. (2017, July 26). How Witchcraft Became A Brand. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://www.buzzfeed.com/corinfaife/how-witchcraft-became-a-brand?utm_term=.heA0yv6ANY#.cc2N940VY3

Federici, S. (2014). Caliban and the witch. New York: Autonomedia.

Knight, A. (2009, November 05). Who Were the Witches? – Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://endofcapitalism.com/2009/11/05/who-were-the-witches-patriarchal-terror-and-the-creation-of-capitalism/

Mays, D. A. (2004). Women in early America struggle, survival, and freedom in a new world. Santa Barbara (Calif.): ABC-CLIO.

Metcalfe, T. (2016, July 18). Black Magic: 6 Infamous Witch Trials in History. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://www.livescience.com/55431-infamous-witch-trials-in-history.html

Peoples, H. C., Duda, P., & Marlowe, F. W. (2016, May 06). Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12110-016-9260-0

Poynton, D. (2011, August 08). The Rise of Capitalism. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/2010s/2011/no-1284-august-2011/rise-capitalism

Singh, V. (2016, February 24). Fighting Modern-Day Witch Hunts in India’s Remote Northeast. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/25/world/asia/india-assam-state-witch-hunts.html

Sollee, K. (2017). Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive. Consortium Book Sales & Dist.

Theriault, A. (2017, February 16). The Real Reason Women Love Witches. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://everydayfeminism.com/2017/02/real-reason-women-love-witches/

Thompson, D. (2003, March 16). The victims of the witch hunt history would rather forget. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3591284/The-victims-of-the-witch-hunt-history-would-rather-forget.html

Counting Countries

Counting Countries

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H. Bradford

9/26/17

I like to count things.  I keep track of the number of books I read in a year.  I count the number of species of birds I have seen.  I track the number of activist events I have attended and blog posts I have written.  Numbers provide a snapshot of life and data that can be analyzed over time.  The meaning should not be overstated, but keeping track of things is useful for goal setting.  It therefore seems logical that I should also count the number of countries I have traveled to.  Other travelers have mixed feelings about this.  Some have traveled widely and simply don’t care how many countries they have been to.  They may even feel that keeping track of countries is pretentious.  Others may focus more on quality, visiting a few countries for longer periods of time or paying repeated visits to a few favorite places.  And then, there are some who indeed count, but try to do this modestly.  Like many things, there are social norms about travel and counting countries might be seen as arrogant or “the wrong way to travel.”  At the same time, there is an entire club of globetrotters called “The Traveler’s Century Club” wherein members must have been to at least 100 countries (per their list) to join.  While I sense there is debate about the travel etiquette of whether or not a person should count countries, there is actually little debate over…what exactly is a country?!

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It’s one big happy world full of 195 countries…or is it?


I shamelessly count countries.  But, with counting everything, there must be rules and the “thing” must be operationalized.  Take birds for instance.  A person can count a bird for an official count if they make a positive visual or auditory identification.  There is wiggle room, since honesty is required when adding birds to the list.  Listing a bird also depends upon correctly identified the bird (so error is possible).  I try to photograph the birds as evidence that I can later check against a bird guide, but this is not always possible.  Birds are feathered, warm blooded, egg laying, beaked animals.  There is little ambiguity today of what a bird is, though if we went back millions of years in history bird identification would be more difficult.  Since birds evolved from dinosaurs, there are birds with teeth and tailbones or dinosaurs with feathers.  Where does bird begin and dinosaur end when looking at the therapods in the lineage of bird evolution?  All aves are therapods, but not all therapods are birds.  Birds are small, feathered dinosaurs but there are many gradiations of birdlike dinosaurs that are not birds.  Whatever a “bird” is or might include in a broader, evolutionary sense, today I don’t have to puzzle over it much as there are clear parameters of what counts as a bird.  However, a kiwi bird is considered an honorary mammal because of its mammal like characteristics such as heavy bones, hair like feathers, and lower body temperature.  But, kiwis aren’t related to mammals, they simply evolved mammal like traits.  Despite the uniqueness of kiwis, there is no debate of if they should be counted as birds.  The main debate in counting the 10, 000 or so species of birds today is what constitutes a separate species.  There may be as many as 18,000 species depending upon how species are defined (for instance, two birds may look similar enough to be thought of as the same species, but actually have different evolutionary histories ).    The big idea is that counting something is never as easy as one, two, three….  http://www.audubon.org/news/new-study-doubles-worlds-number-bird-species-redefining-species Image result for feathered dinosaur

Heeeey, want to add me to your birding list?!

 

Zhenyuanlong suni


Like birds, counting countries can also be confounding.  However, this is a stickier issue as the definition of countries is often a matter of power.   For instance, a country might be defined as a sovereign state – or a self-governing political entity that has diplomatic recognition of the international community (i.e. the UN).  According to the US State Department, there are 195 independent states in the world.   Independent state is often conflated with “country” so it is often said that there are 195 countries in the world.  The UN counts 193 countries plus two permanent observer states, Vatican City and Palestine.  There are many problems with this understanding of “country.”  One problem is that it relies upon international consensus to define what a “country” is.  However, because countries are political constructs- often constructed by more powerful countries that sought to colonize, acculturate, absorb, or otherwise control other territories, the independence status of a country is often a question of successful struggle against power or a matter of interests of some powers against others.   For example, around 135 UN member countries recognize Palestine as an independent country.   Interestingly, almost all of the countries of Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and Asia recognize Palestine.  Countries of North America, Western Europe, and Australia are among those who do not recognize Palestine.  Countries that often have less political power and a history of colonization seem more inclined to recognize Palestine than countries such as the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom (who are allies of Israel and often played a role in the construction and sustenance of the state of Israel).  If countries that are recognized by some UN members but not others are added to the country list, there would be 206 countries in the world.   This is the same number of countries recognized by the International Olympics Committee.   Other countries with partial recognition include Kosovo (recognized by 100 countries), South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Northern Cyrprus.   Whether or not a country is recognized is related again to power.  Russia and a handful of other nations recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but most countries do not.   On the other hand, most of Western Europe + the United States recognizes Kosovo, but Russia and a hodgepodge of countries in Africa, Asia, and South America do not.  The question of recognition of countries is a diplomatic question of how countries relate to players in a particular struggle.  In the case of Kosovo, Russia had close ties with Serbia.  In the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the United States is more closely aligned with Georgia than Russia.  However, Russia’s intervention in those break-away regions of Georgia was justified by the same logic that the United States and NATO allies used to support Kosovo’s independence: namely the threat of ethnic violence and need to keep peace.   In general, the quest to figure out what exactly should count as a country needs to move away from statist and often imperialist definitions of what a country is.  After all, the definition that a “country is a country when other countries define it as so” sounds like a tautology.   Aside from this logical issue, this definition gives powerful entities, with different stakes in the definition, the right to determine the nature of a country’s independence status.

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South Ossetia’s flag- which is pretty cool looking.


Rather than relying on State Department or UN recognition of countries, a more nuanced approach might be to evaluate the history, politics, and culture of a country in question.   The central idea would be to determine if a particular region, territory, semi-autonomous state, or recognized country has been historically oppressed by another country.   Do the people of this area consider themselves an oppressed nationality?  Did they fail to gain independence or concede to colonial power?  Have they or do they have an independence movement?  Are they treated as a colony today?  What is their power relationship to other countries?  By this criteria, there are many territories that could be considered countries.  For instance, Puerto Rico could be considered a country.   The territory does not have the full rights of a U.S. state, has had an independence movement, and was once a Spanish colony that the United States gained from the Spanish-American war.   Its colonial relationship to the United States has been highlighted by Hurricane Maria, which knocked out power to millions of Puerto Ricans.  Power outages may last months and even up to a year.  The struggling utility infrastructure (and infrastructure in general) of Puerto Rico is the result of its debilitating debt and austerity imposed upon it by the U.S.  Elsewhere in the Caribbean, in 2009  Great Britain removed the government of Turks and Caicos due to allegations of corruption and appointed their own governor of the islands.  Voting rights of citizens of Turks and Caicos is limited to about 7000 people out of a population of 38,000 on the basis of individuals who were locally born on the islands.  Although this reeks of colonialism, small countries such as Turks and Caicos may not have strong independence movements because of the economic challenges of being a micro-state (without a diverse economy).   Other countries such as Curacao, Sint Marteen, and Aruba are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but have their own governments and autonomy outside of military matters and foreign policy.   Aruba in particular had made an agreement with the Netherlands to work towards full independence by 1996, but this process has since been postponed (per the request of the Prime Minister of Aruba).  Again, these countries exist in a gray area, wherein they do not have full sovereignty and maintain a relationship with a colonial power.   Supposing that a person counts all of the dependencies or territories in the world, this would add about 61 “countries” the the list.  But that is pretty generous- since some of these territories are not even inhabited!  Though, I suppose if someone travels to Baker’s Island, an unincorporated island in the Pacific that was claimed as a guano island in the mid 1800s, a traveler may as well count it.  Uninhabited territories aside, there are plenty of former colonies that could be counted as countries as a matter of recognizing their right to self-determination.  Thus, I would count any former colony that has not achieved full independence on my “country count.” Image result for hurricane maria puerto rico

An image of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico


Beyond counting territories, there are other nations of people who have been oppressed by imperialist relationships.  A nation is not synonymous with a state and there are many nation states that consist of various nationalities.  I believe in the right of self-determination to oppressed nationalities (i.e. groups of people with shared history, culture, customs, etc. who are oppressed by another nation within the context of capitalism).  Nations within nation states are often oppressed on the basis of their nationality (unable to learn their language in school or speak it in public life or face other cultural restrictions).  They often also serve as cheap labor or military fodder.  At the same time, their region may not be as economically diverse or prosperous.  Thus, aside from territories and former colonies, there are oppressed nations within nation-states.  For instance, today the people of Kurdistan voted on an independence referendum.  The referendum does not grant or even create a process for independence, but can serve as an example of a nation within a nation (in this example Kurds within Iraq, though they also live in Turkey, Iran, Armenia, and Syria).  In the example of the Kurdish people, the reason they lack a “country” or state of their own is a matter of history.  Many modern countries today were constructed by imperialist powers.  After the break up of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, Kurdish people were promised their own state by the Allies, but this did not happen.  Rather, French and British diplomats established the boundaries of modern Turkey, Syria, and Iraq from the former Ottoman Empire, dividing Kurdish populations between these countries.  In this sense, is a person travels to Kurdish regions of any of these countries, it may be perfectly legitimate to count “Kurdistan” as a country.  After all, its claim to country status and call for self-determination is no less legitimate than any other nation state.   With a population of 30 million people, they are the largest oppressed nationality in the world.  In another recent example, the government of Catalonia is moving forward with an (illegal) independence referendum on Oct. 1st.   Catalonia has been a part of Spain since the 1500s but Catalans want independence on the basis of their economic prosperity compared to the rest of Spain, history of oppression under Franco, and on the basis of shared history and language.  If a person travels through Spain, visiting Basque Country (in both Spain and France) or Catalonia, both of which have had nationalist aspirations, it seems reasonable that a person might count these as “countries” in solidarity with their struggles and recognition of the factors that have thus far stymied autonomy.

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A rally in support of Kurdish independence


Considering all of this, a person has to revisit the United States.  The United States grew out of our own colonial conquest of Native Americans.  There are 562 federally recognized tribal groups in the United States.  However, there are also around 250 unrecognized tribal groups.  This means that the United States consists of over 800 nations within our nation.  All of these groups have been and continue to be unquestionably oppressed by the United States.  All of these groups deserve self-determination, including the right to succession.  They are a part of this country because they were exterminated into submission.  A person might count legitimately count visits to Native American reservations as a visit to a “country” though I think that this should probably be discouraged as it might encourage unwelcome tourism to people who have struggled to protect what remains of their land and culture.  But, supposing one travels as a welcome visitor, it seems legitimate that this too could be counted as a “country.”  At least theoretically, a person could visit 800 nations without even leaving the United States! Related image


The Traveler’s Century Club is a club for someone who has traveled to 100 countries or territories.  Their list is fairly generous, as it includes 325 countries and territories.  Inhabited territories are included, as are island portions of Sovereign nations with populations of over 100,000 people, and regions with disputed autonomy but common culture.  The list does not make mention of issues like self-determination, but does include such places as Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and even Hawaii.  Some of the entries on the list are places I have never heard of, such as Lampedusa, an Italian island of about 5,000 people and Umm Al Qaiwain, one of the United Emirates.  The list includes Abkhazia, Trans Dniester, but does not include Nagorno Karabakh, a break-away territory of Azerbaijan nor does it include South Ossetia.  Kurdistan, Basque land, and Catalonia are not counted, but Jeju Island in South Korea is!   The list is a bit hit or miss when it comes to including the regions of oppressed nationalities that could be counted as countries.  In all, it has a heavy emphasis on islands, which sometimes do correlate to areas nationalist struggle (at least historically).   But, since it is a travel club for people who want to claim they have been to a 100 countries it at least creates some sort of parameter for counting countries.  And, since it includes 325 countries and territories, it is more inclusive than using State Department or UN standards.


Counting countries is a political question and one I do not have a precise answer for.  It also raises the question, how many countries HAVE I traveled to?  I don’t know!  I haven’t definitively developed a standard of how to count countries.  But, if you are curious, here is my list- by my own standard.  I came up with 62 countries (which I listed in the order that I have traveled to them).  This list does not include Hawaii and Jeju Island, which can be included on the Traveler’s Century list.  Hawaii seems like it could be an independent country and certainly exists as a state as the result of colonization, but I am not sure how to include oppressed nationalities within the United States on my list.  I wanted to reach 80 countries by 40, but I suppose that depends upon my ability to save and take time off of work.  I also don’t want to share this list to in any way glorify travel.  I do think that homebodies are far more ethical than myself, since they aren’t destroying the environment through travel nor are they directly interrupting the lives of other people  (especially poor or oppressed people) as a tourist.  I also think that while there are some countries that I have explored for longer periods of time (like Russia, Ireland, or South Korea) many of these are brief visits on account of my lack of time and trust fund.  Still, it is interesting to think about!

  1. USA (well, I’ve been here quite a bit…)
  2. Canada
  3. Mexico
  4. England (I tend to break up the UK into its four countries, but am open to including islands such as the Isle of Man or Channel Islands)
  5. France
  6. Switzerland
  7. Italy
  8. Vatican City
  9. Austria
  10. Germany
  11. Belgium
  12. Netherlands
  13. Russia
  14. Denmark
  15. Ireland
  16. Wales
  17. Scotland
  18. Venezuela
  19. Cuba
  20. Finland
  21. Cayman Islands
  22. Honduras
  23. Belize
  24. South Korea
  25. Japan
  26. China
  27. North Korea
  28. Czech Republic
  29. Poland
  30. Slovakia
  31. Slovenia
  32. Hungary
  33. Croatia
  34. Bosnia
  35. Serbia
  36. Bulgaria
  37. Turkey
  38. Greece
  39. Montenegro
  40. Albania
  41. Ukraine
  42. Belarus
  43. Estonia
  44. Lativia
  45. Lithuania
  46. Sweden
  47. Puerto Rico
  48. Barbados
  49. St. Kitts and Nevis
  50. St. Lucia
  51. Grenada
  52. Trinidad and Tobago
  53. US Virgin Islands (St. Thomas)
  54. South Africa
  55. Namibia
  56. Botswana
  57. Zambia
  58. Zimbabwe
  59. Turkmenistan
  60. Uzbekistan
  61. Kazakhstan
  62. Kyrgyzstan

 

http://www.polgeonow.com/2011/04/how-many-countries-are-there-in-world.html

http://www.economist.com/node/14258950

100 Political Events in 2017: A Reflection

100 Political Events in 2017: A Reflection

H. Bradford

8/16/17

Yesterday, I attended my 100th political event of the year.   The 100th event was a solidarity vigil for Charlottesville at the Clayton, Jackson, Mcghie Memorial in Duluth.  The event was attended by several hundred people.  So many people flooded the plaza that there were people in the the street.  It was large enough that the police blocked off the street to passing traffic during the event against white supremacy (but framed generally as hate).  We are just three years shy of the 100 year anniversary of the the lynching of three innocent African American men in Duluth.  Yet, 100 years later so little has changed.  Activists 100 years ago might be terrified to peek into the future and see that we are still fighting imperialist wars, hate groups like the KKK not only still exist but is actually gaining popularity,  union membership is less than it was in 1920 and almost a third of what it was at its peak in 1970s, we are killing our planet, and basically…every oppressed group is …still oppressed.   It would be pretty demoralizing to look ahead in time.  In this long view into the future…this century long parade of violence, misery, drudgery…Trump would probably not stand out as the worst of the worst but just the latest terrible thing in the procession of suffering.  Yet, I would hope that this activist of the past would see some hope.  There are moments when humanity unites and fights against the tide of suffering.  There are slow gains from the struggles of mass movements to rage against everything that destroys and diminishes us.

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(I did not take this photo, it was posted to the Charlottesville Solidarity Vigil and I believe it was taken by Jordan Bissell)


Today was my 100th political event.  Activism is not a numbers game, but I do like numbers.  I know how many books I have read this year, new species of birds I have seen, the number of blogs that I have written, the number of countries I have visited, the calories I have consumed in the last 25 days, spending on food for the last several months, and many other things.  So, tracking my activism is just one thing of many things that I like to keep tabs of.   Numbers do not tell the whole story, but they do provide a piece of a puzzle.  What can be said about 100 political events?  Well, yesterday was day 227 of the year.  That means that 44% of the days this year have been spent at political events such as meetings, protests, or educational political presentations/films.  If I subtract the time I was out of the country on vacation- not at all engaged in politics- the number increases to 50%.  That means half of my days are spent at a political event.  This does not count times I spend writing political blog posts, preparing for political events by making event pages, putting up fliers, or creating fliers, having political conversations, or other political activities.  Of these 100 events, approximately 46% were feminist, 13% were against racism, 10% were socialist specific, 8% were LGBTQ, 7% were non-labor specific economic justice events, 6% labor related, 5% were environmental,   4% were anti-war or anti-imperialism, 3% were criminology related, and 2% were miscellaneous.  These numbers are imperfect, as some events were related to more than one category.  The previous year, I attended 80 events for the WHOLE YEAR.  So, it is safe to say that the election of Trump has resulted in an upsurge of political activity and opportunities to participate in social movements.  I think it is also fair to say that this year has seen the emergence of far more feminist activism.  While I tend to prioritize feminist events, there are far more events than I am able to attend.  Locally, the most consistent and robust area of activism this year tends to be feminism…though there are plenty of opportunities in other kinds of activism as well and my numbers do not reflect the actual number of events against racism or for the environment, for instance.  The numbers tell a bit more about myself than the political situation…but the general increase in activities certainly is indicative of an increase in opportunity.   People are fighting back on many fronts.

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What else can be said about the 100?  I can say that I am a little tired!  I feel accomplished.  It helps keep me motivated.  It also feels like hiking up a mountain and reading the elevation signs or the KM to the top.  When I went on my vacation and entirely disengaged from activism and politics, it was hard to come back.  I can see the appeal for the people who can’t be bothered to become engaged in social change.  I can feel the hopelessness that nothing will become better so we may as live for whatever pleasures we can eke out of this existence.  It isn’t always fun to go to meetings.  It feels like a second job sometimes.  It can feel like responsibility, stress, pressure, annoyance, etc.  I feel a lot of conflicted feelings, really.  I feel that it is mostly thankless and misunderstood.   At the same time, I do feel a sense of accomplishment and a sense of need.  I feel enough passion to continue.  I feel very angry.   It is anger that motivates me the most.  I feel so angry that the world is so shitty for so many people.  I feel angry that there are violent, horrific people who want women to live in the social equivalent of a whelping box as they breed the next generation of soldiers and workers.  I feel angry that the ignorance of America’s atrocities over history and today.  The stupid fear mongering over North Korea.  I feel angry that white people feel victimized by a system built upon slavery, genocide, racism, and imperialism.  I feel angry that there are so many people with the means to do more, but they don’t because it isn’t respectable to protest or in their immediate interest to make some waves.  I wish I had more time for other things, yet I actually usually do get a lot out of activism.  At the same time, I often wonder how normal people live.  What do they do with their time?   Then, there are some super activists who have probably been to 200 things this year!  I am sure that comrades, Adam and Lucas, have probably been to more events than I have.  Adam might have been to 150.  They don’t write it down like I do.  It isn’t a contest, of course.  Activism feels a bit like a Sisyphean task.  Most of the time, the results are not immediately obvious.  OR, in the worst case, the stone of social change actually rolls down the mountain.

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Activism isn’t always fun.  Sometimes it is cold…and boring…or disappointing.  Though this event actually was engaging and left me feeling hopeful.


All activists must have some sense of optimism that things can change.  Even without optimism, things always change.  More than optimism, activists have to believe in a sense of efficacy.  That not only does change happen, but humans can and often influence this change.   I have to assume that the imagined activist from 100 years ago would be disappointed if not terrified, but I would also hope that the activists today could give them hope.   I suppose that it where I see myself in history.   I hope that whatever future 100 years from now is better.   Wouldn’t it be nice if there weren’t prisons, hunger, homelessness, or wars?  What if everyone had enough?  What if the planet wasn’t dying?  How do we get from POINT A (this shit hole world) to POINT B (a better one)?   I believe it is by trying to build movements that will change the world.  I am a very minuscule part of that.   But it will be made by millions of minuscule parts.  So, I am telling you that I have been to 100 things so that maybe someone…out there…. will think that it is time to attend one thing.  The past, present, and future might appreciate it.  And, you can take it from me… one thing is not so much to do.

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Just keeping the flame of hope alive…

Intersectionality as a Tactic

Intersectionality as a Tactic

H. Bradford

7/18/17

Both the Feminist Justice League and Pandemonium have met this month to discuss the important topic of intersectionality.  I myself have read dozens of articles in an effort to clarify this concept so that it can be used to strengthen these organizations.  However, even the most basic questions about intersectionality remain elusive.  Is it a theory?  Is it a metaphor?  Is it an action tool?  Is it a methodology?  Is it all of these things?  If so, how it is in defined?  What do critics have to say about it?  In short, what is intersectionality and how can it be used in organizing?  The following is based upon my recent readings, but also conversations with activists such as Adam, Lucas, Jenny, Chris, and Pamela.

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To begin, I first heard about intersectionality in graduate school about five years ago.  I was a latecomer to the concept, probably owing to the fact that I had never taken Women/Gender Studies courses in college or plainly hadn’t been paying attention.  I heard about it at an LGBTQ event on campus.  I didn’t care for the concept at the time, since although it addressed interlocking oppressions, the speaker explained it as if these oppressions exist in an ether of power.  The concept of power was so diffuse that the analysis did not connect these interlocking oppressions to capitalism or any particular institution within capitalism.  Since then, I have encountered intersectionality many times.  Sometimes I have felt that it is a buzz word or a badge that activists can hide behind to see more legitimate and inoculate themselves against “white feminism.”  Other times, I have scratched my head, waiting for something more.  I want a meatier definition than what I am offered.  This has finally sent me on a quest to figure out intersectionality.


My readings have made it very clear that intersectionality originated with Black feminists in the late 1970s and 1980s.  These feminists believed that mainstream feminist analysis at the time did not address how racial oppression intersects with gender and class oppression.  Of course, there were considerations to gender and race by feminists earlier in history, but through a genealogy of concepts such as interlocking systems of oppression, borderlands, and multiple jeopardy, intersectionality was brought to birth.  It was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, a legal professor at UCLA in response to Degraffenreid v. General Motors.  In this case, five black women sued GM for discrimination.  However, they had trouble demonstrating in court that they had been discriminated against since not ALL female workers had faced discrimination and not ALL black workers had faced discrimination.  Thus, the discrimination they faced was the outcome of both their gender and race, yet the legal system did not recognize these compounding oppressions.  The heart of the concept is that oppressions interlock with one another.  Kimberle Crenshaw herself said that it was meant to be a metaphor and not a complete theory.  Of course, this creates a challenge for me, as I am used to operating in the world of theories and actions based upon theories.

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I have felt frustrated and befuddled by the vague and incomplete nature of intersectionality.  I want to understand it because I don’t want to fall into the trap of “white feminism.”  For instance, many activists and organizations call for intersectionality, but don’t actually define it.  When it is defined, it is usually very simply, again referring to interlocking oppressions faced by individuals of multiple identities.  Identity is an important word that is often used in the definitions that I have seen.  This has led some activists to write off intersectionality as an extension of identity politics or incompatible with a materialist world view.  In my own opinion, of course identities are socially constructed, but they have real world meaning and consequences.  Identities are not incompatible with a materialist world view.  After all, if someone wants to organize the working class, it certainly helps if people identify with and as members of the working class or workers in general. (As opposed to “middle class” as is the common, watered down, socially encouraged identity.)  Identity helps individuals to see themselves as having common interests and develop demands based upon these interests.  Has there ever been social change without identity of some kind?  The important part is rooting identities in history and economics.  Thus, the aspect of framing intersectionality that I struggle with is that identity is more than a label.  It is also a social position or place within a system of power.  Therefore, a person is not oppressed because they identify as female or bisexual or both, but because being female, bisexual, or both disadvantages one in a patriarchal capitalist society that empowers men while promoting heterosexuality in the interest of maintaining control over property and reproducing labor.  This is why I have felt that some of my readings on intersectionality have been an incomplete sentence.  Alright, oppressions intersect.  I agree.  But, why?  How?  By what mechanism?  By what institutions?  Complete the sentence.  Oppressions intersect because of systems of power within CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY.   They could intersect because of feudal patriarchy.  They could intersect in a slave based economy.  But, since we are living in a capitalist system, it makes sense to connect oppressions to their place and role in capitalism.

Image result for capitalism and racism angela davis

In an overview of my readings, there are a range of critiques of intersectionality beyond identity politics.  Some activists find that intersectionality had radical roots, but was tamed over time by white feminists.  The Black feminist history was forgotten and it has become a meaningless buzzword.  Other critique has suggested that it has sucked up all of the air in academia for other feminist theories.  Some activists feel that the strength of the theory is that it is incomplete, since that lends itself to debate, discussion, interpretation, etc.   Others argue that it is postpositivist, making it hard to study or measure.  On the other hand, I read an article which used multiple regression to tease out how self-reported identities (as variables) correlate to particular political actions.  In this case, intersectionality was measurable in a statistical sense.   Perhaps the best response I read to the whole debate was one from an anarchist feminist group in the UK.  The group (sorry I forgot the name), admitted that intersectionality is debated and has some limits.  They approached intersectionality tactically.  It is a popular word.  It means a lot to many people and in the simplest sense, it means considering how oppression is interconnected.  Keeping in mind how some groups may feel excluded, unwelcome, forgotten, or unsafe in a social movement or social movement organization, only serves to strengthen and broaden the power of an organization/movement.  I completely agree!

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Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional March in Pittsburgh

Of course, approaching intersectionality tactically is not without its challenges and problems.  For one, no organizations can be everything to everyone…at one time.   The point of social movement organizations is usually to organize around an issue that impacts a particular group of people.  For instance, the Homeless Bill of Rights Coalition is organizing around passing an ordinance that would give more protections to people experiencing homelessness.  Surely, homelessness is connected to many intersections such as race, class, family status, criminal background, disability, health, etc.  I think that the group does a good job, since meetings usually occur at a location that houses homeless people and free food is always provided.  But, child care it not provided (to my knowledge) nor is there sign language translation or Spanish translation.  There is no mini van that roams the city, picking up people to attend the meeting.  By not providing these things, it is very possible that someone in the community could be excluded.  This is not the fault of the coalition, but should demonstrate that social movement organizations are limited in both their financial and personnel resources.  There may not be enough members for childcare, not enough money for a van, not enough members to provide everyone with rides, etc.  While in a perfect world it would be wonderful if social movement organizations could provide supports so that every single interested person can participate in the movement, in practice, this puts demands on individual activists which are better directed at the state (with far more resources).  You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.  Perfect intersectionality in the context of capitalism is impossible as few of us have the financial wherewithal to make it possible.  But, this creates new possibility for new intersections.  We need social movements to fight for free daycare, socialized health care, and public transportation to make it possible for the broadest swath of society to participate in capitalism’s overthrow.

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Another tactical limitation of intersectionality is that it is alright for there to be autonomous social movements/organizations.  It is alright for there to be a black feminist group.  It is alright for there to be a trans group.  It is alright for there to be an environmental group that focuses on mining or another that focuses only on fighting pipelines.  Again, there are so many issues and so many ways that people are oppressed that it makes sense to divide up the work.  Not only is this practical, it benefits those involved.  A bisexual/pansexual group is useful since it helps build identity, leadership, and demands (which helps strengthen the larger, broader struggle against heterosexism).  Of course, all of these individual groups should be mindful of how their issues intersect.  Forming coalitions, working together, planning broader events, co-sponsoring, pooling resources, etc. are all benefits of working intersectionality.  But, at any given moment, a group that fights pipelines does not have to address agism, sexism, racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, and every other ism in one fell swoop.  Sometimes it is enough just to fight pipe lines.  Yet, any effective organization will make an ongoing effort to address some of these things.  This builds power in the movement.  Again, a single organization cannot be everything to everyone all at once.


I have said it before but the biggest barrier to intersectionality is capitalism.  Those who are the most dedicated members in the Feminist Justice League face multiple oppressions.  We are all working class.  Many of us are women.  Some of us are survivors.  Some of us have disabilities.  Some of us have criminal backgrounds.  I know that I personally make an effort to connect gender oppression to other oppressions.  I know I have failed.  I also know that our organization does not perfectly create space and opportunities for everyone.  We are activists, but we are also oppressed.  We operate within the limits of capitalism.  We have no budget as an organization.  I personally do not have time or the emotional resources to be a taxi, nanny, or nurse to a social movement.  I am a socialist, but I am not socialism.  Certainly our failures to be intersectional can be attributed to some personal and organizational failures, but I would say that the biggest barrier is the lack of access to resources in capitalism.  Capitalism itself divides various sectors of the working class.  It obscures class politics and the meaning of class.  Capitalism divides people along racial lines.  It incarcerates and kills in the interest of profit and property.  Capitalism creates gender roles that ensure that no profits are diverted into caring for children or the elderly.  It limits access to abortion.  Everyone woman will produce the next generation of workers and soldiers, or else.  It destroys the environment and makes us believe that we are its chosen people, so that our Have Nots fight the global Have Nots.  This is the power of capitalism, which impacts us all in different ways and to varying degrees, but, the bottom line is that it impacts us all.

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Feminist T-Shirts: Severing the Thread between Capitalism and Feminism

 

Feminist T-Shirts: Severing the Thread between Capitalism and Feminism

H. Bradford

7/5/17


I’m not going to lie.  I like to wear things that advertise my politics.  It’s terrible.  It’s hypocritical.   But, it is also a way to tell the world that I am weary of the status quo and sometimes it’s a way start a conversation.  It is also an expression of self (which itself should not be idealized) and a message to others like me that they are not alone.  Recently, when I saw a really cool feminist t-shirt at a store at the mall, I really wanted to buy it.  I didn’t.  Still, I am not a saint and my wardrobe is made from the blood and sweat of exploited workers.  Thus, this piece of writing is not a call for people to be perfect.  Certainly, I have a lot of room to grow.  Instead, it is a call to analyze a disturbing trend in feminism with the hope that this knowledge can shape our organizational tools and demands.  The trend this piece examines is the rise of the feminist t-shirt and the accompanying ideology of corporate feminism.  To this end, this topic is July’s educational component of the Feminist Justice League’s “feminist frolic.”  Many topics have been discussed over the past year and it seems appropriate to explore how feminism has been appropriated by capitalism, while doing some small act to combat this trend: making our own t-shirts.


This year has seen an increase of feminist activism.  Locally, there has been an explosion of feminist events to partake in.  Nationally, between three and five million people in the United States participated in the Women’s March, making it the largest single protest in American history.  More people participated in the Women’s March than are members of the U.S. military.   This burst of feminist activism is certainly a welcome development.  Feminism is cool right now.  As a result of the rise in popularity of feminism there has been an increased demand for feminist t-shirts.  T-shirt with slogans such as “Feminist AF”, “The Future is Female”, and “Nevertheless, She Persisted” are a few examples of popular mantras this year (Spinks, 2017).  While it is great that feminists proudly wear their politics on their sleeve or chest, the trend is problematic in that it may ignore the working conditions behind the production of these shirts and reduce feminism to a profit making fashion statement.  For instance, in 2014 women at a sweatshop in Mauritius were paid 80 cents an hour to make t-shirts that said, “This is what a feminist looks like.”  In all, they earned less than $155 a month working at a factory which produced over 40 million t-shirts a year for Urban Outfitters, Next, and Top Shop.  Further, women who did not produce the quota of 50 shirts a day were subjected to discipline (Ellery, 2014).  At their meager wages, it would take the workers about 72 hours to buy one of the shirts produced at the factory.  The workers themselves share a cramped room with 15 other women.  The women often lived in the dorms for months without seeing their families overseas.  The iconic shirt was worn by celebrities and politicians, and was even featured in Elle magazine.  Astonishingly, the shirt itself was used by Fawcett Society, a nonprofit that promotes the labor rights of women.  When confronted by the conditions of the Mauritius factory, the non-profit argued that the garments were ethically produced (Bianco, 2014).

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The case of the “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt is appalling, but it is far from an isolated incident.  Beyonce, a self proclaimed feminist, also came under fire because the clothing in her company, Ivy Park, was produced at a sweatshop in Sri Lanka.  Workers made less than 65 cents an hour and would need to work over a month to afford the leggings that they produce.  Similar to the women from the factory in Mauritius, they worked 60 hours a week and stayed at a boarding house, as many came from rural areas (2016, Euroweb).   Dior sold a $710 t-shirt with the slogan, “We should all be feminists.”  The quote was from an essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer.  Some proceeds from the shirt were donated to the Clara Lionel Foundation founded by Rihanna (Ngabirano, 2017).  The investment of some proceeds of an over priced shirt to a celebrity foundation should raise some eyebrows.  All of these examples illustrate how corporations have sought to profit from the popularity of feminism, but also offer insight to the troubling nature of clothing production. Image result for dior feminist shirt


Globally, around ¾ of all garment workers are female (Spinks, 2017).  The garment industry has historically been dominated by women and has traditionally been very dangerous.  In the United States, one of the deadliest industrial accidents was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which took the lives of 123 women and 23 men.  The accident occurred on March 25, 1911 when a fire erupted in the 11 story building near the end of the workday.  A fire that is believed to have originated in a scrap bin quickly consumed the building.  There were no alarms in the building and the doors were locked to prevent theft.  Many people jumped to their death on the streets or elevator shaft, as the tallest ladder from fire fighters only reached the seventh floor.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is noteworthy because it radicalized the labor movement, generated demands for more safety regulations, and was important in the founding history of International Women’s Day.  Yet, little has changed since 1911.  While clothing production has shifted away from industrialized countries like the United States, the working conditions are is inhumane as a century ago.  The Tazreen Factory Fire of 2013 in Bangladesh illustrates this point.  The massive fire killed 112 Bangladeshi workers at the Tazreen Factory which produced clothes for Walmart, Gap, and Disney, among other companies.  Walmart refused to offer compensation to the survivors and families of victims.  Just like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the factory doors were locked.  Victims had to break windows to try to escape the inferno.  When a foreman told workers that there was a fire, a manager told the workers that there was no fire and they should continue working (Survivor of Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory Fire Urges U.S. Retailers to Stop Blocking Worker Safety, 2013).

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While there are many accidents each year in the garment industry, another startling example of the horrors these workers face was the Rana Plaza collapse, also in Bangladesh.  On April 24, 2013, the eight story Rana Plaza in Dhaka Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 workers in the largest garment industry accident in history.  JCPenny, Walmart, Benneton, and other brands and stores were connected to the garments produced at the factory.  Since then, North American companies signed a safety plan that they call Alliance to ensure safety standards in Bangladesh.  However, the accord has been criticized as industry driven and not transparent.  Companies must pay for inspections, but are not obligated to pay for upgrades related to safety concerns.  Instead, Alliance signees have financed loans to suppliers for safety improvements (Kamat, 2016).  This is surely a boon to brands who can make more money from loans than they can from investing their profits into safety improvement.   The safety issues are not a matter of bad luck, but characteristic of capitalist production.  Bangladesh is one of the cheapest places in the world to make garments.  It is number two to China in garment exports and employs 5 million people in the garment industry (Kamat, 2016).  The low cost of production comes at the expense of safety.  Since October 2015, 3,425 factories in Bangladesh have been inspected, but only eight have passed the inspection (Tomes, 2017). Image result for rana plaza collapse


Many feminists are mindful of the horrific conditions of the garment industry.  Officially, merchandise for the Women’s March was made and printed in the United States, but there were knock offs or other organizations which made have produced garments not made in the United States.  However, simply because a t-shirt was made in the United States does not mean that it was ethically made, since a t-shirt has many inputs (Spinks, 2017).  At the same time, Made in the United States does not necessarily mean sweatshop free as 50% of sewing shops in the United States fit the definition of sweatshops, i.e. they break one or more federal or state labor law.  85% of sweatshop workers are women aged between 15-25 years old (Feminists Against Sweatshops, n.d).  To make matters worse, even if a person purchased clothing from an ethical source, the cotton used in the clothing itself is made with extremely exploited labor.  In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, hundreds of thousands of citizens are mobilized to pick and grow cotton under the threat of loss of land, punishment, and public humiliation.  The governments of these countries maintain monopolies on cotton production, selling it at under the cost of production to remain competitive (Skrivankova, 2015).  US cotton is heavily subsidized, as US cotton farmers receive a total of about $490 million dollars in subsidies.  The Chinese government offers 8.2 billion dollars in subsidies to cotton farmers.  The large subsidies makes it harder for poorer countries to compete, which in turn increases the level of exploitation to maintain profits.  Beyond the human cost of this, there is an environmental toll.  Although cotton is grown on only 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, it uses 16% of the insecticides and 7% of the herbicides used in agriculture.  It also requires huge amounts of water.  In central Asia, this resulted in the destruction of the Aral Sea, once the 12 th largest lake in the world and now 10% of its original size (Organize Cotton, n.d.).  In India, where cotton has been cultivated for thousands of years, 400,000 children under the age of 18 work in the cotton industry.  Children are often employed in pollinating the cotton by hand to increase yields.  The children are said to have nimble fingers and girls are preferable to boys, as they require less punishment to work. (Neal, 2014).  Of course, these same arguments have been used to justify the exploitation of women in the garment industry.

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It is difficult to know the conditions under which a t-shirt is made or all of the inputs that went into the t-shirt because we are alienated from labor.  That is, in Marxist terms we are not in control of how things are produced.  A t-shirt might have labels that offer clues to the working conditions, but because we are estranged from production, we never see the entire process.  This makes it easy to mindlessly consume.  It also makes it challenging to ethically consume goods.  At the same time, consumers are individuals who exist in a social world.  Focusing on consumption atomizes social problems to a matter of consumer choices.  Thus, while it is important for feminists to consider where and how a shirt is made, it is also important to consider the dynamics in the world which produce exploitative labor conditions in the first place.  This is where the situation becomes far more complicated.


To begin to unravel this, let’s first examine the role of women in the labor force.  The vast majority of garment workers are women.  This is the case in 2017 as much as it was in 1917.  The relationship between women and labor is complex.  On one hand, women’s access to waged labor is a basic demand for gender equality.  Women’s entrance into the labor market has allowed women to support themselves without male support.  This was a historical gain for women, as it allowed women to access such things as divorce, their own housing, their own careers, etc.  That is, wage labor has allowed women to be something more than just the property or dependents of men.  However, it has also subjected women to harsh working conditions, sexual harassment, and lower wages than their male counterparts.  Women can participate in society, but they are still not equal and still dependent upon men.  Work alone did not liberate women, it simply subjected them to the oppressions that wage workers face, combined with the gender oppression of patriarchy.  Within capitalism, women continue to perform a larger share of unpaid labor, which has resulted in a second shift for women as they do unpaid household labor as well as paid labor.  Since paid labor is well, paid, it is given more value in society.  Unpaid labor is invisible and taken for granted as part of the role of women.  Thus, paid labor has also created a dichotomy between labor that matters and labor that does not.  The problem is not with wage labor, but the conditions of labor in capitalism and the challenge of connecting the struggle with women with the struggle for worker’s rights.  To make matters worse, wage labor v. unpaid labor has sometimes created an antagonism between women who work at home and those who do not.  These sorts of antagonisms are useful in blinding people to their common oppression.


Some writes such as Leslie Chang and Naila Kabeer have argued that waged work, even in third world sweatshops, liberates women.  It allows women to contribute to their families and find economic independence.  Schultz (2015) argued that this position ignores the dynamics that create the exploitative conditions in workplaces of the global south.  Free trade policies create a race to the bottom for wages and conditions, generating pressure for countries to have the cheapest labor or production costs.  Longer hours, lower wages, and greater environmental destruction are all outcomes of fast, flexible production.  At the same time, because of the lower social position of women, they have less ability to resist and organize for better wages or make demands.  Thus, they often make much less than men and find themselves discriminated against without much option for social mobility.  These exploitative conditions grant super profits to capitalists, while denying the most basic human rights to the workers (Schultz, 2015).  This dynamic answers why women are part of the garment industry to begin with.  It is an industry that seeks to profit by seeking out the lowest wage workers.  Women are not equal to men in society, which puts them at a disadvantage in the labor market.  Women in some developing countries may even be new to wage work, having instead grown up in communities that still earn a living from farming.  Since its origin, capitalism has pushed farmers off their land into wage work.  This dynamic is still at play in the developing world and will only increase with climate change.  Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change as it is a low-lying country that is often battered with powerful cyclones.  This creates pressure on rural populations to move to cities and seek work there.  Bangladesh was not always a major producer of clothing, but became one due to free trade agreements which incentivized a focus on exports, ended textile quotes, and set up export processing zones in the country.  This combined with war, famine, and natural disasters resulted in the development of its sweatshop economy.  So while sweatshops may provide women with jobs, the working conditions are not the inevitable growing pains of development.  They are instead constructed by trade organizations, trade agreements, and the larger dynamics of global capitalism.  The working conditions within the garment industry can be analyzed, understood, organized against, and changed. Image result for bangladesh union fight

(Bangladesh workers struggling for a union at the Orchid Sweater Factory)


While the right to paid labor is a basic feminist demand, this demand has also been used by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to justify women’s employment in export processing zones.  Export processing zones are free trade zones wherein businesses are exempt from taxes, tariffs, health and safety regulations, etc.  Since the 1960s, these special economic zones sprung up in Asia, spreading to Latin America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.  Once again, some feminists have argued in favor of work in EPZs as a means of escape from patriarchal family dynamics.  This argument is unfortunate because it accepts the inevitability of capitalist oppression.  EPZs do nothing more than replace the patriarchy of their family with the economic exploitation of capitalism.  Women who work at Haiti’s Ouanaminth free-trade zone making Levi’s jeans, face verbal abuse, beatings, interrogation, and threats with guns.  Women who work at EPZs in Mexico are subjected to health screenings for pregnancy, personal questions about their sex lives, short term contracts.  EPZs are only liberating in the same way that capitalism is liberating compared to feudalism (Eisenstein, 2015).  As absurd as it seems for a feminist to support sweatshops and EPZs, many feminists did not make the connection between Hillary Clinton and the exploitation of working women.   This is either symptomatic of the lack of anti-capitalist analysis in mainstream feminism or the fear wrought by the lesser evilism and abysmal candidates of the two party electoral system.  Hillary Clinton’s first high profile job was on the board for Walmart at a time when the company was enmeshed in a lawsuit over gender discrimination (Barrett and Kumar, 2016).  Yet, she was endorsed by NOW and viewed by many as a feminist candidate.  ⅔ of Walmart employees are women, and yet, during labor disputes, Clinton kept quiet while serving on the board.  She also accepted campaign donations from the Walton family which were much higher than the average wage of a Walmart employee.  She also bragged that welfare rolls had dropped 60% while her husband was in office, but this was not because of an accompanying decrease in poverty.  Clinton also supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement to open new markets for American business in Asia (Young and Becerra, 2015).  Bill Clinton supported the passage of NAFTA, which forced Mexican farmers from their land into maquiladoras, or sweatshops along the border with the United States (Barrett and Kumar, 2016).  Despite her support of policies which create the conditions for sweatshops and service to Walmart, which actually uses sweatshop labor, Hillary Clinton was viewed as a feminist candidate.

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Hillary Clinton was not elected president and perhaps it is unfair to target her more than any other ruling class candidate.  She is simply an easy target because she exemplifies “corporate feminism” so well.  “Corporate feminism” wants to see more women in board rooms and as leaders.  But this brand of feminism can never be intersectional and can never truly liberate women because it encourages women to partake in the exploitive mechanisms of capitalism.  Capitalism will never allow the feminist struggle to be intersectional as capitalism itself pits men against women, white workers against people of color and immigrants, etc.  The problem with the “Girl Boss” feminism is that girl bosses exert power over other women.  Consider the “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall street, wherein a young girl stands up to the iconic bull of the market.  The statue is meant to depict female power and send a message that there should be more female leaders in Wall Street.  Yet, this panders to the basest, most atomized version of feminism.  Feminism is not simply about girl power.  Bell hooks very simply defined feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” (Sow, 2017).   Feminism envisions women as leaders on Wall Street lures and distracts women from connecting feminism to other social struggles to end oppression.  One such struggle was the Occupy Wall street movement wherein thousands of protesters occupied parks and other public spaces in protest of the growing economic inequality in America, wherein the wealth of the top 1% increased 450% since the 1970s.  It was movement in protest of bank bailouts and costly wars.  Corporate feminism with celebrity endorsements and a women equality that is based upon an equal share in capitalist leadership, feeds into the oppression of women.  Of course, a simple t-shirt is not a statement of alignment with the ruling class, but it is a subtle and insidious expression of the corporate appropriation of feminism. Image result for occupy wall street


What is to be worn?

A woman should not be shamed if she choses to wear a feminist t-shirt.  Many people are new to feminism, may like the message, may not know about the labor conditions, may not have the money or access to other clothes, or any number of other reasons.  Feminism should not be a war against each other, but a war against capitalist patriarchy.  To this end, there are a number of things that are far more productive than policing the clothes worn by others.  Feminist organizations can certainly be mindful of where and how their t-shirts are produced, but the alienation of labor makes this rather difficult.  Feminist organizations can host events that involve crafting, clothing swaps, or DIY t-shirt making as an alternative to buying clothes.  This is a way to use recycle clothes while building community.  However, this is limited because it does not do much to challenge the conditions of capitalist production.  To broaden the impact, feminists can connect with anti-sweatshop groups or labor organizations.  This tactic can amplify the impact of feminists and feminist groups by challenging institutions through boycott and protest.  Connecting with labor organizations can broaden the impact as some may have connections to workers in other countries and may even be involved in organizing them.  The global organization of the working class is a key to improving global working conditions, as capital is extremely mobile.  Factories can easily move in search of the lowest paid, most complacent workers if workers try to organize for their rights.  The goal must be to make this difficult through solidarity and fierce organizing.  Beyond this, feminists can challenge free trade agreements and organizations and the status quo of American imperialism.  The ruling class should fear putting the word feminist on their shirts.  The word will not be a trend, but will spell their doom as part of the untamed, un bought, intersectional expression of the unyielding power of working people to create a better world.

 

 

 

Sources:

 

Barrett, P., & Kumar, D. (2016, November 4). The Art of Spin: Feminism, Privilege Politics and the Clinton Campaign. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Feminism-Privilege-Politics-and-the-Clinton-Campaign-20161104-0005.html

 

Bianco, M. (2014, November 05). There’s a Horrifying Secret Behind Those Trendy Feminist T-Shirts. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://mic.com/articles/103260/the-truth-about-these-trendy-t-shirts-reveals-the-biggest-problem-with-mainstream-feminism#.DTtsefqYW

Eistenstein, H. (2015, July 17). The Sweatshop Feminists. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/06/kristof-globalization-development-third-world/

 

Ellery, B. (2014, November 01). 62p An Hour: What women sleeping 16 to a room get paid to make Ed and Harriet’s £45 ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirts. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2817191/62p-HOUR-s-women-sleeping-16-room-paid-make-Ed-Harriet-s-45-Feminist-Looks-Like-T-shirts.html

 

Feminists Against Sweatshops. (2014). Retrieved July 4, 2017, from http://www.feminist.org/other/sweatshops/sweatfaq.html

 

Kamat, A. (2016, December 15). Bangladesh’s Factories Might Have Safer Buildings Now. But the Conditions for Workers Are Still Deadly. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.slate.com/articles/business/the_grind/2016/12/bangladesh_s_apparel_factories_still_have_appalling_worker_conditions.html

 

Neal, J. (2014, February 23). The task of protecting India’s child cotton pickers. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-26294513

 

Ngabirano, A. (2017, March 22). Are women being played by ‘feminist’ ads? Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/03/22/have-companies-taken-over-feminism/98706852/

 

The risks of cotton farming. (n.d.). Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://organiccotton.org/oc/Cotton-general/Impact-of-cotton/Risk-of-cotton-farming.php

 

Schultz, E. (2015, March 24). Exploitation or emancipation? Women workers in the garment industry. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://europa.eu/eyd2015/en/fashion-revolution/posts/exploitation-or-emancipation-women-workers-garment-industry

 

Skrivankova, K. (2015, October 02). Why you could be wearing cotton picked by forced labor. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/02/opinions/uzbekistan-turkmenistan-cotton/index.html

 

 

Sow, A. (2017, January 19). Buying Feminist Merch Is Not Political Action. Racked. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from https://www.racked.com/2017/1/19/14317912/feminist-merch-political-action

 

Spinks, R. (2017, March 7). Was Your Feminist T-Shirt Made by Factory Workers in Exploitative Conditions? Slate. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/3k8bav/was-your-feminist-t-shirt-made-by-factory-workers-in-exploitative-conditions

 

Survivor of Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory Fire Urges U.S. Retailers to Stop Blocking Worker Safety. (2013). Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.democracynow.org/2013/4/25/survivor_of_bangladeshs_tazreen_factory_fire

 

Tomes, J. (2017, April 24). Why cheap fashion remains deadly. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.dw.com/en/why-cheap-fashion-remains-deadly/a-38565592

 

Young, K., & Becerra, D. (2015, March 9). Hillary Clinton’s Empowerment. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/03/hillary-clinton-womens-rights-feminism/

Young and Becerra, 2015

Asleep on the Deserted Sea

Asleep on the Deserted Sea

H. Bradford

7/1/17

One of the draws of travel to Central Asia was the opportunity to visit where the Aral Sea once was.  I learned about the Aral Sea eons ago.  It was one of the few things I remember reading in my “Weekly Reader” as a first or second grader.  I am sure that I have learned about the Aral Sea in every environmentally focused science class since.  Decades have passed since the sunny autumn days at Wright Elementary School, but the sea continues to disappear.   I believe that the sea was about 40% of its original volume when I was in the first grade.  Today it is less than 10% of its original volume.   I was told by a fellow traveler that the sea continues to shrink by a yard each day.   Really, it is sad to think about the death of a sea.  Living next to Lake Superior (the second largest lake in the world by area to the Caspian Sea), it is hard to imagine a giant body of water just disappearing.   It would be as if in a few decades, someone from Duluth would have to drive to Marquette, Michigan to see the shoreline of Lake Superior.   While I did not spend a long time visiting what was once the Aral Sea, the sea shaped several days of my trip.

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My trip began in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, a city lush with trees and fountains.  The many fountains and white marble create the illusion of serenity and coolness in the midst of the punishing heat of the Karakum Desert.  The miracle of endless water for fountains, well watered trees, and shiny clean cars and buildings is made possible by the Karakum Canal.  The 850 mile canal was built by the Soviet Union to divert water from the Amu Darya River to the hungry fields and cities of Turkmenistan.   Apparently 50% of the water the passes through the canal vanishes to evaporation.  Still, the canal is large enough to be navigated by boat for most of its length.  Ashgabat requires its own blog post, but suffice to say that my journey to the Aral Sea began with a visit to a water hungry and water wasteful city in the desert.  The city served as a brush stroke in the painting of a vanished sea.

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Between Ashgabat and Uzbekistan, there was little water at all, spare a salty lake en route to the Darvaza Gas crater.   However, as we neared the border with Uzbekistan, the landscape began to change.  The sandy, white blonde desert morphed into a less arid desert made of sage scrub.  This gave way to fields and trees along the legendary Amu Darya River.  Beyond this, hours along bumpy roads brought us closer to the sea itself, or where the sea once was.  We stopped at Moynaq, which was once a fishing town on the Aral Sea.  The fishing and canning industry in Moynaq employed over 30,000 people at its peak.  Art at the Savitsky Museum in Nuukus depicted various scenes of Moynaq in its heyday.  Paintings of fishermen, burgeoning nets of fish, and pastel sunrises over the pier decorated the walls of the museum.   However, when I visited, the town seemed small and empty, with just a few thousand residents remaining.   There was nothing pretty, pastel, or burgeoning about Moynaq.  The city reportedly has high rates of cancer and respiratory disease from the polluted remains of the sea and all of the chemicals used to grow cotton and other things.  None of this was apparent from a brief visit.  The people did not roam about like zombies, but carried on like any other village or town we had visited.  My traveling companions munched on five cent ice cream bars from a shop with a hodgepodge of supplies.  We’d intended to visit a museum to the Aral Sea, but much like the sea and most of the people, the museum was gone when we arrived.

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At first I was disappointed, as I didn’t see any sign of the sea or anything unusual in the dusty town.  However, once we boarded the truck, we set off for a memorial to the sea and the sea bed itself.   Just up the road we came upon an expansive basin- an empty bowl of sand and brush that extended to the horizon.  It was a dramatic crater that spread over 200 kilometers to meet the muddy shoreline of the shrinking sea.  The rusty wrecks of ships dotted the landscape.   Cows trod along, stomping over grass, sand, and broken seashells.  When I finally saw it, I was impressed by the astonishing melancholy it invoked.  After somehow negotiating with the local police, we managed to camp in the ship graveyard.  This did not prevent the fire department from paying us a visit to check on our campfire.  Otherwise, the camping was without incident, spare the swarms of mosquitoes.  Camping in the sea bed was certainly surreal.  In an alternative history, it might have been a beach resort and in the near history, it was a way of life.  I couldn’t help but feel angry.  It has to be the worst thing that humans have done to the planet.  At the same time, it is a cautionary tale of what could happen if climate change is not stopped.  We will see the Aralization of the planet.

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Seeing the Aral Sea certainly made me angry at the Soviet Union for prioritizing cotton production over the environment.  Of course, it also made me angry at the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia for continuing to grow cotton…(and now rice!) at the expense of the sea.  It is a tragic loss for the planet.  The sea is only 24,000 years old, young in geological time, but it vanished in less than 50 years.  Of course, it is easy to blame the Soviet Union and post-Soviet countries.  Since I have no control over history and these countries are impoverished, it is hard to blame them for continuing what is cheap, easy, and provides income.  Thus, it raises the question of what I can do as an American.  Really, there is precious little I can do for the Aral Sea.  However, rather than blaming the Soviet Union or Central Asian countries, it is more useful to draw lessons from the Aral Sea which can be extended to current water use practices in the United States.   For instance, aquifers in the United States have been depleted by about 25% over the last century.   56,900 million gallons of water are used each day in the United States for irrigation.  32% of the depletion (over the last century) of the Ogallala Aquifer in particular occurred between 2001-2008.   Someday, we might look upon the loss of the Ogallala Aquifer as a tragedy like the Aral Sea…something entirely preventable, wasteful, and irreplaceable.   Corn (and beef fed by corn) could easily be our cotton, something that future generations will look upon as wasteful and too thirsty for the landscape.  The truth of the matter is that all countries pursue easy profits over environmental sustainability.  It is the nature of the system and dooms us to environmental catastrophe and economic instability.   One of the greatest ecological mistakes seems to be the assumption that resources are endless.  While we are drowsy, we consume too much water, too much oil, too many passenger pigeons or Greak auks.  So, while the Aral Sea is particularly sad, it should be a wake up call to continue to organize.

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The Politics of Travel to North Korea

The Politics of Travel to North Korea

H. Bradford

6/29/17

I was recently on a vacation.  During this time, I avoided social media and the internet in general.  I wanted a break from my life.  So, I didn’t get much news while I was away.  The only piece of news that I heard about while I was gone was that Otto Warmbier was returned to the United States in a vegetative state.  I didn’t even know that he had died until after I returned.  This news haunted me.  It was horrific and mysterious.  What happened to him?  Why hadn’t he been released sooner?  Would he recover?  In a way, I became haunted by the fragments of the news story.  At the same time, now that I have returned, I have been able to read the news regarding his release and death as well as how it has been politicized.


I traveled to North Korea in 2010 without incident.  I was impressed with how clean the country was and how the sky was blue and free of air pollution (at least in places that I visited).  The roads were empty.  The country seemed empty.  I was there for over a week and saw many monuments, the mass games, Kaesong, the USS Pueblo, the DMZ, etc.  It was a memorable, amazing time in a very unusual and misunderstood country.  I felt extremely safe the entire time.  Of course, it was an enormous privilege to travel there, just as all of my travels are an astonishing exercise of privilege.  2010 was the first year that Americans were allowed to travel to North Korea year round.  I felt privileged to go there just as the doors to tourism were expanding for Americans.  I also felt that as an American, I could break some stereotypes about us.  After all, I am anti-war and anti-capitalist….anti-American.  When North Koreans learned that I was American, they seemed shocked, curious, and confused.  I sang The International on the bus with the guides.  The other tourists treated me like I was one of “them” (a communist), even though there is a enormous political difference between North Koreans and myself, a Trotskyist.   Nevertheless, I wanted to see what North Korea was like.   After studying in South Korea, I wanted to see the other side of the story.   I am eager to visit any country that has experimented with/experienced socialism in one form or another. No automatic alt text available.


Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea as well, but with a much different outcome.  We were both similar in that he probably also went there out of curiosity, a sense of adventure, and bragging rights.  Though, unlike me, he was not anti-capitalist or anti-American.   He wanted to be an investment banker, was a Zionist, and was athletic and popular.  I am a tee-totaling, socially awkward, socialist.  He and his tour group went drinking and celebrating the New Year.  One member of his group even went missing for several hours.  I would have spent the New Year quietly reading or journaling.  He took a sign and was detained on his way out of the country.  I left without any incident or perception of danger.  Although I was very careful to follow the rules, it might have happened to anyone.  And, even if he did make a mistake by taking the poster, the punishment of 15 years of hard labor and his ultimate death is grotesquely unjust and deeply disturbing.  I feel terrible for him and his family!  I feel horrified by the mysterious circumstances of his death.


His death has resulted in some controversy and debate.  On one hand, the Left has been accused of hating Otto Warmbier for questioning his privilege and treating him like an ignorant, white, frat boy.   Interestingly, his career goals in investment banking and Zionism has not been as central to criticisms about him.   It is frustrating that so much discourse is focused on privilege, but does not connect this to the larger mechanisms of capitalist exploitation.  At the extreme of the privilege discourse, he is believed to have gotten what he deserved.  Those words cost Katherine Dettwyler, a professor at the University of Delaware, future employment with the college.  While it is not a kind thing to say, it is disappointing that the college did not honor academic freedom.  Personally, I don’t think that anyone deserves to come home in a vegetative state or get sentenced to hard labor for any offense.  Surely, there are more compassionate ways to express frustration with racial and class privilege.  But, at the same time, oppression is real and does not express itself with kind words.  We live in a brutal, violent, frightening, world wherein the majority of humanity has been immiserated by systems that grant power to a few.  For most humans today and throughout history, life is not a hedonistic quest of self-actualization but a struggle to meet basic needs.   Unfortunately, travelers such as myself,  are looking for a distraction, indulgence, or adventure.  The cost and context of this is often ignored.  Even to those who might be a bit more socially minded, must compartmentalize any modicum of pleasure derived from travel as it most surely has negative impacts either on the planet or other humans.   In any event, there should be the social space to speak freely about privilege, even if it is expressed in unpretty ways.


On the other hand, the right has called for banning American travel to North Korea and some kind of action against the country.  In this narrative, the Trump administration is viewed heroically for securing his release and taking more initiative on the matter than the Obama administration.   Americans should avoid North Korea because we are hated there.  This narrative portrays North Korea as a brutal, horrific pariah state which deserves a dose of American retribution (a.k.a regime change, liberation, etc.).   While certainly North Korea is a frightening dictatorship, this narrative does not uncover why we are disliked and feared by North Koreans.  It ignores the fact that during the Korean War, the United States killed 20% of the population.  The United States targeted refugee populations during the war and General McArthur ordered the destruction of every village, means of communication, factory, and city in the north.   Long before the famous famines that North Korea faced in the 1990s, the United States starved the country by flooding farmlands through destroyed dams.   The United States dropped more bombs on North Korea during the Korean war than it dropped in the entire Asian theater of World War II.  The country was punished with bombs and napalm in a destruction more complete than Germany and Japan faced as a result of WWII.  So, North Korea does have rational reasons to dislike the United States.  Our foreign policy since the Korean War has not done much to dispel the notion that we are not a peace loving nation.

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This raises the question of if Americans should travel there at all?  Assuming that one believes in travel, I don’t think that Americans should impose a ban on travel to North Korea.  Each year, around 6,000 Western tourists travel to North Korea, but around 100,000 in total (mostly from China).  For the most part, these tourists, like myself, travel there without incident.  While Americans have been detained in the past, this has typically been for religious activity or illegal entry into the country.   Of course, our own foreign policy plays a role in the safety of travelers there (just as it plays a role in the safety of travelers to many countries).  Our foreign policy regarding North Korea seems particularly aggressive at the moment.   I have no illusions that somehow travel opens minds or spreads peace.  Travel can be colonizing and damaging to the planet.  So, I don’t believe that travel will somehow liberate North Korea by introducing new ideas or new people, nor should it.  Yet, at the same time, I think it can be useful in seeing The Other and learning something new, even if it is skewed by minders and propaganda.  In a way, it also normalizes North Korea.  Normalizing North Korea is useful in creating an anti-war movement that can stand against U.S. foreign policy.  This isn’t to argue that human rights abuses should be normalized, but rather that U.S. aggression against sovereign countries should not be normalized.  Recognizing the right of other countries to exist is important to thinking against the norms of U.S. imperialism.  Of course, a person does not have to travel to North Korea to come to that conclusion.  A travel ban distracts from the “why” of U.S. and North Korean relations.  All travel involves some risks.  A traveler should consider these risks, of course.  A dark skinned traveler to the United States could be shot by the police.  An American traveler to North Korea could be detained for political reasons.  While there are plenty of compelling reasons not to travel at all, travel is a part of normal relations between countries.  If the government is concerned about the safety of Americans, our safety is best ensured by scaling back our military power around the world. No automatic alt text available.


The death of Otto Warmbier is terrifying.  I hope that someday there are more answers regarding what happened to him.   I don’t think that he deserved to die any more than a woman who drinks too much deserves to be raped.  The world is made unsafe by many things.  Crimes such as theft, sexual assault, gun violence, etc.  Preventable disease.  Terrorism.  And, in Otto’s case, detainment by a repressive regime.  Yet, all of these things…sexual assault, terrorism, preventable disease, etc. have causes and solutions.  While the solution for North Korea is complicated and not something that the United States can or should solve, admitting our own role in history as well as the political landscape of the present is important to understanding why Otto Warmbier died.

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Exploring Frida: The Sexuality, Gender, and Politics of Frida Kahlo

Exploring Frida: The Sexuality, Gender, and Politics of Frida Kahlo

H. Bradford

5/18/17

Each month, Pandemonium meets up for a discussion and pizza.  Pandemonium is a bi+ group in Duluth/Superior.  Past topics include bisexuality and domestic violence, different bisexual identities, bisexual poets, and other topics related to sexuality and gender such as homophobia and the plight of transgender prisoners.  This month, the topic is Frida Kahlo.  Frida Kahlo is an artist who captures the imagination of many women.  Like many people, I became familiar with her from the 2002 film starring Selma Hayek.  Perhaps she captures the imagination of women and feminists because of her iconic fashion, her relationship struggles, her rebellion against social norms, the personal nature of self-portraits, her physical and emotional pain, etc.  She captures my imagination because she was bisexual and a communist.  Because of my interests, the presentation will focus on her political, gender, and sexual identities.  The presentation itself draws heavily from Hayden Herrera’s (1983) biography “Frida, a Biography of Frida Kahlo.”  The nature of Pandemonium is to educate one another on a topic for the purpose of growing as a bi+ community and in these identities.  These presentations are peer to peer in nature and none of us our experts on the topics that we explore.  Hopefully the following provides some insights, but should be treated as an informal community presentation.  With that said, Frida Kahlo was a very political and sexual person and these two facets of her identity were both deeply intertwined, sometimes inconsistent, and often revolutionary.

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Frida was born and died in the Blue House, a house build by her father in 1904.  Her father was a photographer who was a Jewish Hungarian born in Romania, but who grew up in Germany.  Her mother, Matilde, was a devoutly Catholic Mexican woman from Oaxaca.  Frida was born in 1907, but changed her birth date to 1910 so that she could shared her birth date with the year that the Mexican revolution began (Herrera, 1983).  The fact that she changed her official birth date indicates her nationalism, or love of Mexico, which was evident in her artwork and fashion sense.  Frida wanted to be associated with the Mexican Revolution.  The revolution itself stemmed from various classes who were upset with the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.  Diaz came to power in 1876 after decades of foreign intervention and warfare in Mexico.  He is credited with creating a powerful centralized government in Mexico and ushering in an era of capitalist development.  Mexican exports increased by six times under his rule, the country went from around 600 km of railroad tracks to over 20,000, and the money in circulation in the Mexican economy increased by twelve times.  Mining industries, oil exports, and banking saw explosive expansion during this time period.  At the same time, middle class Mexicans were frustrated by corruption, cronyism, and lack of opportunities.  While Mexico became much more developed under Diaz, 70% of the population was engaged in agricultural work.  The countryside was heavily taxed, denied regional or local autonomy, and often subject to corrupt governance which arbitrarily fined and punished the population, often with forced labor.  In 1883, a law was passed with allowed landed elites to easily buy commonly held lands or lands without official titles.  This denied peasants the ability to support themselves, turning many into renters, servants to landlords, resident laborers, and sharecroppers.  At the same time, the working class grew with the development of the country, but like all workers, suffered harsh conditions.  The workers were often paid in scrip and also suffered the same harsh taxes and arbitrary law enforcement that peasants did (Easterling, 2009).  The full history of the Mexican revolution is too complicated and lengthy to explore in depth, but basically, Portofino Diaz re-election in 1910 but was challenged by Francisco Madero, a reformist candidate from a wealthy landowning family who won the support of the liberal middle class.  Diaz feared Madero would win the election, so he had him arrested and went on to win the election.  Madero was sprung from prison and escaped to San Antonio, where he promoted a more revolutionary message that promised land reform with the hope of inciting an uprising against Diaz.  The call for revolution was taken up by rebels such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who organized peasant farmers to fight the regime.  In May 1911, Diaz resigned and later that year, Madero was elected.  This did not end the revolution, as Madero quickly befriended members of the old regime and expanded the military in the interest in maintaining the status quo and curtailing rebellion for land reform.  Later, he ordered the destruction of land through scorched earth policies and war against the Zapatistas, or followers of Emiliano Zapata.  The U.S. actively supported anyone who rebelled against Madero, hoping to return some semblance of order to the country.  A 1913 coup against Madero thrust General Huerta into power, but his regime was short lived.  He was ousted from power in 1914, while various rebel factions continued to fight each other.  The next six years consisted of fighting between Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Obregon Zapata.  Carranza was elected president in 1917, created a constitution which tried to appeal to peasant demands, but was assassinated by Obregon in 1920.  Pancho Villa agreed to stop fighting after 1920, but fighting continued in various parts of Mexico until 1934.  In short, the world in which Frida spent her childhood was tumultuous and politically charged as various rebels and social classes vied for power.  This would have informed her early political views and shaped the opportunities available to her as a woman and artist.

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Painting of Zapata by Diego Rivera


Frida Kahlo grew up in a very political world, but had the privilege of growing up in a middle class family which encouraged her personal growth.  According to Herrera (1983) Frida enjoyed a close relationship with her father, who lent her books, taught her painting and photography, and encouraged her to learn about nature and archaeology.  Frida contracted polio at age six, so her father encouraged her to play sports such as boxing and soccer to strengthen her leg.  Her father had no sons, so it is possible that he looked to Frida to fulfill the role of a son.  Thus, she benefited from her father’s non-traditional expectations regarding gender, which allowed her to express herself through education and art.  Perhaps because of he lacked a son, Frida’s father encouraged her to attend the National Preparatory School.  At the same time, Frida benefited from opportunities in art and education that arose after the Mexican revolution.  Under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, Mexican intellectuals and leaders looked to Europe for cultural and economic inspiration and disdained indigenous Mexican culture.  The Mexican revolution sought to return Mexico to Mexicans through land reforms, nationalization of natural resources, and embracing native culture.  Frida attended the National Preparatory School just a few years after girls were first admitted.  While studying there, she was a member of The Cachuchas, a very loosely Marxist organization (Haynes, 2006).  This was her first introduction to socialism.  Interestingly, it was not art that she pursued as a student.  Rather, she studied natural sciences with the intention of becoming a doctor (Mataev, n.d).  While at school, she was described by her friends at the school as tomboyish.  Her closest friends were members of the Cachuchas, seven boys and two girls, who were interested in socialism.  However, they were better known for causing pranks at the school, such as bringing a donkey into a classroom and setting off firecrackers during a lecture.  The students were also voracious readers who discussed Hegel, Kant, Russian literature, and Mexican fiction.  This indicates that at a young age, she expressed her gender in non-traditional ways and was politically minded.  Her love life as a student also indicates the political nature of her early life.  While she was in school, she dated Alejandro Gomez Arias, the leader of the Cachuchas.  At the same time, according to her mythology, she was immediately smitten with Diego Rivera when he came to paint the amphitheater of her school.  Although she was a young teen, she told her friends that she would have his child and reportedly tried to trip him by putting soap on the stairs and stole a sandwich from his lunchbox (Herrera, 1983).  Rivera himself was a product of the time, a muralist who created political scenes of Mexican history, social movements, and workers.  If the mythology is true, Frida became infatuated with Diego Rivera when she was 15 years old and he was 36 (Collins, 2013).


In Herrera’s (1983) account Frida’s first relationship was with Alejandro Gomez Arias, but this biography offered scant details about her bisexuality.  Collin’s (2013) posited that Frida’s first sexual relationship was when she was 13 years old and unable to participate in phy-ed due to her earlier bout with polio.  Her health teacher, Sara Zenil, initiated a relationship with her, which was ended when Frida’s mother found her letters and transferred her to a different school (Collins, 2013).  This affair may have been true, as indeed Frida was suddenly transferred from a teacher preparation school to the National Preparatory School.  The letters indicate that Frida believed she loved the teacher and she was exited from the school.   Originally, her mother wanted her to attend the school as she wanted Frida to become a teacher, as it was a traditional job for women (Ankori, 2013).  According to an account from Alejandro, Frida was later seduced by a woman who worked at a library for the Ministry of Education.  Frida was looking for a library job to support her family, who had fallen onto harder times due to her father’s inability to find photography work.  Her parents found out about this and Frida reportedly told a friend that the experience was traumatic (Herrera, 1983).  It is possible that she was involved with two older women, both of which were discovered by her parents.  In both cases, her introduction to same sex relationships was embarrassing, traumatic, and unequal in power.  This history therefore isn’t a positive example of bisexuality, but an example of older women taking advantage of a financially and physically disadvantaged youth.


Trauma and suffering are prevailing themes in Frida’s life.  On September 17th, 1925, Frida was involved in a bus accident.  She was impaled in the pelvis with an iron rod and her spinal column was broken in three places.  She also broke her pelvis, some ribs, and fractured her foot and hand (Herrera, 1983).  She took up painting after the accident and said that she chose self-portraits because she felt so alone during that time period and because it was a subject she knew best (Haynes, 2016).  In reference to the trauma of the accident, she said she lost her virginity to the handrail.  She spent a month in the hospital and several months at home recovering.  During this time, she continued her relationship with Alejandro, but it grew strained as he accused her of being “loose.” In her letters, she admitted to kissing and dating others (Herrera, 1983).  This is an early indication of her flexibility concerning traditional monogamy.  During this time she dropped out of school due to her health and medical costs.  She began painting after the accident and her first painting was a gift for Alejandro entitled Self Portrait.  The two parted ways when Alejandro continued school and traveled to Europe.  Frida was briefly involved in a relationship with German de Campo, who was an anti-militarism and anti-imperialist student organizer.  He was president of the National Student Confederation and fought for academic freedom, a new exam system, but was killed while giving a speech in support of presidential candidate Jose Vasconcelos.  Germain de Campo introduced Frida to some of his friends, including Julio Antonio Mella, an exiled Cuban communist.  She became friends with Tina Modotti, a photographer, model, and communist friend of Mella’s, who later introduced her to Diego Rivera.  Once again, Frida’s love interests were often deeply political individuals.


In the 2002 film Frida, Tina Modotti was portrayed by Ashley Judd.  Frida and Tina shared a dance in the film.  According to DeMirjynn (2011), the audience, along with Diego Rivera’s character, watch the dance in approval, locating her sexuality within the male gaze.  The dance followed a drinking contest, which could be seen as a way to dismiss the legitimacy of her sexuality, as it was alcohol fueled.  The film highlighted her affairs with men, with little attention to her female attraction.  Diego Rivera actually played a larger role in the 2002 film compared to the 1983 Mexican film, Frida, Naturaleza Viva.  In the 2002 film, Rivera reacted negatively to Frida’s affair with Trotsky, but not at all to her affairs with women, rendering her queerness invisible or unimportant according to DeMirjyn (2011).   Herrera’s (1983) biography of Frida supports that Rivera indeed acted either indifferently or supportive of Frida’s affairs with women, but the book gives little attention to these relationships, also rendering that history invisible.  Rivera himself was amused by Frida’s lesbianism, as he called it.  Diego believed in free love and had many affairs, but he did not tolerate Frida’s affairs with men.  He encouraged or was open about her affairs with women.   Nevertheless, Frida did sneak men into her home, warning them that Diego might kill them.  For instance, Frida had an affair with the sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, but it ended when they plotted to get an apartment together for their rendezvous, but the bill for the furniture was accidentally delivered to Frida’s residence with Diego.  In Noguchi’s account, Diego threatened him twice with a gun and on one occasion he had to jump out of a window to avoid getting caught with Frida (Herrera, 1983).  Diego’s reaction Frida’s sexuality as well as how it is framed by some historians shows the trouble with how bisexuality is understood and treated in society.  Garner (2000) argued that men may not be threatened by female relationships because female sexuality is framed to exist for them or because women are inferior in society, they are not viewed as threats.  The relationships between women can therefore more easily be dismissed.

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The dance scene from the film, Frida


There is no denying the importance of Diego Rivera in Frida’s life.  Diego Rivera was a well known artist and communist when she met him.  Frida was a communist in her own right as well.  She was a member of the Young Communist League and while she is remembered for her feminine dresses, ribbons, flowers, ruffles, and indigenous styles, she actually had periods in her life when she wore more militant clothing.   After joining the Communist Party in the 1920s, she started wearing black or red shirts with hammer and sickle pins as well as blue jeans.  She also gave speeches, attended secret meetings, and attended rallies.  Diego actually depicted Frida as a communist militant in a panel of his mural Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution.  He portrayed her as a tomboy, with a man’s shirt with a red star on the pocket and short hair, handing out rifles and bayonets (Herrera, 1983).  This more masculine version of Frida demonstrates her flexibility in expressing her gender and openness about her political beliefs.  Her views of marriage were also less traditional.  Rather than a traditional ceremony, Frida married Diego in 1929 in a small civil ceremony in which she wore street clothes.  Her mother opposed the marriage, since Diego was an atheist communist and she was Catholic.  Her father supported the marriage, perhaps because Frida was his only single daughter, had massive medical bills, and the family could no longer afford their mortgage.  After the wedding. Frida moved into Diego’s mansion where two other communists lived.  Around this time, Diego had a strained relationship with the Communist Party over taking commissions for his artwork, relationship to government officials, his critique of communist trade unions, and his skepticism that countries would attack Russia.  His friend, Tina Modotti, who introduced the couple, remained a member of the Communist Party but denounced their friendship and called him a traitor (Herrera, 1983).   In a theatrical protest of his expulsion, Rivera attended the 1929 Communist Party convention, gave a dramatic speech, and smashed a clay pistol in a dramatic exit from the party (Morrison and Pietras, 2010).   Frida also left the party when Rivera was expelled.

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1929, the year that Diego and Frida married and left the Communist Party, was the same year that Stalin exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union.  Diego sided with Trotsky and pressured Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas into accepting Trotsky into the country after the revolutionary had been forced out of Norway and no other country would accept him (Tuck, 2008).   Rivera presented Mexican president Cardenas a petition for Trotsky to have sanctuary in Mexico, provided that he did not meddle with Mexican political affairs.  However, due to Rivera’s poor health at the time, it was Frida who met the Trotskys along with Max Shachtman and George Novak on November 21, 1936.  Trotsky reportedly refused to leave the boat until he saw friendly faces.  Trotsky and company took a secret train to Mexico City to avoid the GPU.  The arrival was complete with a fake welcome party at Rivera’s home.  Trotsky did not speak Spanish, nor did his wife, so Frida served as an advisor and escort.  Cristina, Frida’s sister, acted as a chauffeur.  Frida also had several of her trusted servants serve her guests.  Frida’s father had the impression that she esteemed Trotsky, as she described him as a companion of Lenin and a man who made the Russian revolution.  Time magazine reported that Natalia had malaria in January 1937 and Rivera had a kidney ailment (Herrera, 1983).  Perhaps these illnesses provided the opportunity for an affair to grow between Frida and Trotsky.  Revenge against Rivera for his affair with Frida’s sister may also have been a catalyst for the affair.

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Trotsky’s secretary Jean van Heijenoort noted that Frida and Trotsky’s relationship was obvious to many around them.  They would meet at Frida’s sister’s home and Trotsky exchanged letters to her through the books he loaned her.  They spoke in English to one another, excluding Trotsky’s wife from the conversation (Zamora, 1991).  Frida attended the Dewey Commission and sat closely with Trotsky as he defended himself against the accusations of the Moscow Trials.  Aside from this, the Riveras and Trotskys spent a lot of time together, doing picnics and excursions.  Trotsky began collecting cacti and horse riding.  Trotsky trusted Rivera, who was one of few people he saw without the company of another.  Trotsky and Frida likely began their affair after the Dewey Commission.  During this time, Frida was reportedly left out of theoretical discussions between Trotsky, Rivera, and the surrealist, Andre Breton.  This may indicate that she was not taken seriously as a socialist or dismissed as a woman.  She said that she didn’t care much for theory and that Trotsky didn’t like it when she smoked.  The affair ended in July 1937 and Trotsky moved out of the house.  He may have felt that the affair might discredit him and it certainly depressed his wife of 35 years.  Frida visited him at the new residents, which again hurt his wife, but Trotsky underplayed the visit in his letter to Natalia (Herrera, 1983).


Trotsky moved outside the city for a time in July 1937.   In recognition of the twenty year anniversary of the Russian revolution and Trotsky’s birthday, Frida gave Trotsky a portrait on November 7, 1937.  The title was Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky- Between the Curtains.  (Zamora, 1991).   Herrera (1983) believed that this portrait was a gift to Trotsky after the affair and represented a shift in Frida’s vision of herself.  The painting is seductive, mature, and confident.  In it, she is depicted in a butterfly printed robe.  She also completed a painting called I belong to my owner which depicts a rose and dry prickly flowers.  Herrera (1983) suggested that this painting may also represent the affair and how despite her flings, Diego owned her sexuality.  The affair with Trotsky marked a new period in her life, wherein she became more independent as an artist.  In 1938, coincidentally the year that the 4th International was founded, Frida came into her own as an artist.  She made her first significant art sales, selling four paintings for $200 each.  Upon making the sale, she said that she was happy that she could travel without Diego’s support.  In 1939, she traveled alone to New York for her first exhibition and began an affair with the photographer Nickolas Muray.  She also traveled to France, where she stayed with Andre Breton and became involved in the surrealist art community.  Despite the fact that she and Trotsky were no longer a couple and she never officially joined the 4th International, Frida attended Trotskyist meetings in Paris as a representative from Mexico.   She also had an affair with an unknown French Trotskyist.  It is also during her time in Paris that she met Trotsky’s future assassin, Raul Mercador (Herrera, 1983).

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Frida’s aversion to Trotskyism may have been more practical than political.  Herrera (1983) suggested that this is because the Trotskyist movement in Mexico was small, poor, and active in trade unions.  No one joined it unless committed to working for it full time.  Rivera joined the movement, but this may have actually strained his relationship with Trotsky.  There are several accounts of how Trotsky and Rivera had a falling out.  According to an account from Alfred Bildner, who stayed with Frida when she was hosting Trotsky and did some translation work for him, Diego and Frida had violent arguments with Trotsky in 1939, as they had adopted Stalinism.  Trotsky left their residence and moved a few blocks away (Bildner, 2004).   In another account, Rivera worked with Trotsky and in February 1938 signed a manifesto for the creation of an International Federation of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, for the purpose of resisting Stalinist domination of the arts.  In this version of the history, the political disagreements between Rivera and Trotsky were over the 1940 presidential election in Mexico.  Rivera supported Juan Almazon, a right wing candidate backed by Mexican fascists.  Rivera denounced Cardenas as an accomplice to Stalinists, which upset Trotsky, who did not want to antagonize the president who had offered him asylum.  The argument caused Trotsky to move out.  Yet, Trotsky described Rivera as fair minded and artistically genius, despite his political shortcomings (Tuck, 2008).  In Herrera’s (1983) version of their falling out, Trotsky sent a private letter to Frida asking for her help.  He said that Rivera was upset with him because he had suggested that he focus on his art rather than politics.  Trotsky had suggested this because Rivera wanted more responsibilities as an organizer, but did not answer letters or other mundane responsibilities needed in party life.  In the letter to Frida, he asked her for help in mending the relationship as he felt that Diego was an important part of the movement.  It is plausible that Rivera, who had a big personality and ego was personally offended by Trotsky’s lack of faith in his political abilities.  Whatever the case, Rivera’s relationship with Trotsky deteriorated.  He even gave Trotsky a sugar skull with Stalin’s name on it.

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Rivera and Frida’s marriage deteriorated not long after.  In November 1939, the two of them divorced.  This may have been due to Frida’s affair with Muray or any number of their affairs.  Frida returned to Mexico, painted prolifically, but also suffered from bad health.  In May 1940, Trotsky was attacked in an attempted assassination.  Following the attack, Rivera fled the country with the help of some friends, moving to San Fransisco.  On August 21, 1940, Trotsky was assassinated and Frida spent two days in jail with her sister Cristina.  They were believed to be suspects in his assassination.  Indeed, Frida had met Raul Mercader twice, but police did not find evidence of her involvement in the assassination (Herrera, 1983).  Following the assassination, she phoned Diego and said, “They killed old Trotsky this morning,” she cried. “Estupido! It’s your fault that they killed him. Why did you bring him?”  (Rogers, 2014)   A month later, Frida traveled to San Fransisco for medical treatment.  She later moved to New York and began an affair with a twenty five year old art dealer named Heinz Berggruen.  The two spent two months living together in a hotel.  Meanwhile, Diego Rivera proposed to Frida several times, wanting to remarry her.  In December 1940, she married him and returned to Mexico, as both of them had been cleared as suspects in the assassination of Leon Trotsky (Herrera, 1983).


Despite her initial upset over Trotsky’s death, Frida became increasingly pro-Soviet as World War II progressed.  At the same time, Stalinists shunned Rivera for his previous association with Trotsky.  Rivera tried numerous times to rejoin the Communist Party.  He applied again with Frida in 1948.  Frida was accepted and Rivera was rejected.  Rivera remained embittered against Trotsky and even asked Frida to sign her membership paperwork with a pen she had given Trotsky.  Frida refused to do this.  In her diary, she said that denouncing Trotsky was unthinkable, but she denounced him publicly anyway.  She called him a coward and a thief.  Diego even boasted that he only invited Trotsky to Mexico so he could be assassinated (Herrera, 1983).   Rivera’s connection to the assassination as been a matter of some controversy.  Rivera was friends with David Siqueiros, a fellow muralist who attempted to kill Trotksy in 1940.  It is also suspicious that Diego Rivera went into hiding following the attack.  He framed it as though he feared for his own life.  Rivera may have been a collaborator with the United States, according to research by Professor William Chase of Pittsburgh University.  According to FBI and State Department documents, while identifying as a Trotskyist, Rivera provided the United States with lists of communists and communist activities.   It is unknown if Diego actually collaborated with the FBI, but it is known that he was wire tapped by them while he was staying in San Francisco (Davidson, 1993).   In any event, the shadow of suspicion hangs over Diego Rivera, though Frida has not been identified with historians as complicit in Trotsky’s murder.


The remaining years of Frida’s life were marked with profound illness and a stronger association with communism.  Frida began teaching art and leftist theory to students of the Ministry of Public Education’s School of Painting and Sculpture.  She was said to treat her students as equal and recommend Marxist texts to them.  Some of her students were called Fridos and went on to found the Young Revolutionary Artists.  In 1944, her health continued to erode and she was diagnosed with syphilis.  In 1945, she wore a variety of medical corsets and could not sit down or lay down in them.  In 1950, she spent a year in the hospital.  As she grew more closely connected to the Communist Party, her art style changed.  She began painting still lifes and adopting realism.  She said she wanted her art to be useful and even boasted that she was a better communist than Diego, as she had been in the party longer and always paid her dues (Herrera, 1983).   In 1953, Frida had her first solo exhibition in Mexico, but was so sick that she had to be taken there in her bed.  Her leg was amputated later that year, which brought her tremendous despair.  She attempted suicide numerous times after her amputation.  Diego continued to have affairs with other women, including Raquel Tibol, whom Frida tried to kiss when she visited her bed.  Tibol was shocked enough to push Frida away.  At the same time, she developed a very close relationship with her nurse, Judith Ferreto.  Judith would sleep in her room, lay beside her in bed, hold her cigarettes for her, and sing her to sleep.  While the relationship may not have been sexual, it was one of her closest relationships during the time period, since her mental health, suicide attempts, pain, anger, and abuse of others alienated her loved ones (Herrera, 1983).   Frida created a painting called Marxism will give health to the sick, which was one of her last paintings and never fully completed.  The painting depicts her in her leather corset, near two large hands, an image of Karl Marx, a dove, and a hand around the neck of Uncle Sam.  Towards the end of her life, she tried to be more overt in the political content of her paintings.  The painting is meant to represent the healing power of Marxism, as she is holding a red book instead of crutches and healed by two large hands.  The original title of the painting was Peace on Earth so the Marxist Science may Save the Sick and Those Oppressed by Criminal Yankee Capitalism.   (Marxism will give health to the sick, n.d.).  Frida also painted a portrait of Joseph Stalin and became distraught when he died in 1953.  On July 2nd 1954, Frida attended a protest of 10,000 people against the U.S. supported coup against Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala.  Diego pushed her in her wheelchair through the crowd, where for four hours, she shouted “Yankee assassins, get out!”  She said that she wanted three things in life: Diego, to be a communist, and to paint.  The demonstration taxed her health and she died on July 13th (Herrera, 1983).

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When Kahlo died, her coffin was covered with a red flag with a hammer and sickle imposed on a star (Helland, 1992).  The International was sung at her funeral along with The Young Guard, the song played at Lenin’s funeral (Herrera, 1983).   Her life and death leave many questions.  She is remembered for her femininity, but she also wore her hair short and dressed up in suits and the clothes of workers.  After her divorce with Rivera and after he cheated on her with her sister, she cropped her hair (Herrera, 1983).  At the same time, her masculinity should not be attributed simply to the emotional states caused by Rivera.  After all, she had been remembered as a tomboyish child.  She was a girl who wanted to be a doctor and who enjoyed politics and her father’s company.  She wore men’s clothes in a 1926 family photo.  Thus, her gender expression was more than shadow puppetry in the darkness Diego created in her life.  While she is more well known for her affairs with men, she also loved women.   In her diary she wrote a love letter to the painter Jacqueline Lambda (Haynes, 2006).   Frida also had relationships with actresses Dolores del Rio and Paulette Goddard.  Frida flirted with Georgia O’Keefe at Stieglitz’s gallery.  Diego Rivera reportedly supported Frida’s affairs with women, but felt threatened by those with men.  Garber (2000) suggests that this may have been because he was turned on by the idea of two women together or because he was insecure that he was twenty years older than her and could not satisfy her sexual appetite.  Whatever the case, her sexuality is always understood in the context of men.  In her own words she said, “Men are kings.  They direct the world (Herrera, 1983, p. 250).”  Trotsky and Rivera were certainly give more attention in this research.  They were masters of the world of politics and art.  Further, Frida’s relationships with women are less known.  They are left out of the narrative of her life for lack of information.  After Frida died, her friends edited and destroyed parts of her diaries.  It is possible that this aspect of her life was destroyed or edited out of history or because of biphobia and homophobia, for decades it was underplayed and under researched.  Beyond sexuality and gender, is her troublesome association with Stalinism and her affair with Trotsky.  She denounced a man who she both slept with and offered safety to.  While it seems that her political decisions were certainly connected to Diego, she was a communist before she met him and it insults her intelligence to suppose that she blindly followed him politically.  Surely he influenced her political life, but she had enough agency to declare herself a better communist and paint Stalin from her deathbed.

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Haynes (2016) noted that one theme from Frida’s life was duality, which is seen in both her art and her life.  An example in her art is the painting, The Two Fridas wherein she depicts two versions of herself, each sharing a heart.  They are dressed differently and in different poses to represent her European identity and the other her Mexican identity, as she was the daughter of a German/Hungarian Jew and a part Native American catholic mother.  The image also represents her emotional side and rational side.  Frida’s gender expression and sexuality may also be described as “in between.”  While her clothes are often feminine dresses, her unibrow, facial hair, and stern expression may be seen as masculine.  As a young adult, she wore suits and after a split with Rivera, she cropped her hair and resumed wearing suits (Haynes, 2016).  Frida actually depicted herself as more masculine during the 1940s, darkening her mustache in portraits of that era (Garber, 2000).  Another duality is her bisexuality, or betweenness in regard to her attraction to men and women.  Bisexual themes have been interpreted in Frida’s art.  For instance, Two Nudes in the Forest, depicts two naked women in the forest.  A darker skinned woman has her hand on the neck of a lighter skinned woman, as a monkey watches from the forest.   The painting was created for Dolores Del Rio, a Mexican actress, around the time she was going through a divorce with Rivera (Collins, 2013).  Delores Del Rio, like many of the women in Frida’s life, was powerful, beautiful, non-conventional, and pioneering.  She was the first Latina actress to become famous in Hollywood, though less political than many of Frida’s other love interests.  Josephine Baker was another love interest, and again, a pioneering woman.  She was the first Black woman to become a world famous entertainer.  She had communist sympathies and performed in Cuba on the 7th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and later in Albania and Yugoslavia.  She also was a leader in the NAACP and an organizer in the Civil Rights movement.  Certainly, Baker more politically interesting and historically important than Diego Rivera.  But, specific details regarding their relationship is harder to find, likely owing to the fact that they lived in a world that was hostile to same sex relationships.  Finally, in a way, Frida’s relationship to Diego might be seen as a relationship between two gender non-conforming individuals. Diego Rivera was woman-like in Frida’s eyes.  He was a large man and Frida said that he would have been welcome on the island of Lesbos.  She said she loved his large breasts and pink, oversized underwear, which he wore due to his enormous girth (Herrera, 1983).

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Politically, Frida’s life was full of duality.  Not only was she at varying times pulled between Trotskyism and Stalinism, according to Helland (1992) she was pulled between Marxism and nationalism.  Frida lived in a time where Marxism and Mexican nationalism were both popular.  Mexican nationalism consisted of an idealization of Aztec culture, an interest in Mexican history, mixed with anti-Spanish and anti-imperialism.   Kahlo used Aztec inspired images in her artwork, such as hearts and skeletons.  Unlike Rivera, she did not identify with the internationalism of Trotskyism and did not create as many traditionally socialist styled pieces of art.  Nationalism may have been why she identified with Stalinism.  Many of her paintings critique the United States, such as her Self-Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States, wherein the United States is depicted as highly industrial and robotic, and Mexico is depicted as agricultural and and pre-industrial.  Frida died with an unfinished portrait of Stalin on her easel and near her bed were pictures of Marx, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, and Engels (Helland, 1992).  While she did not overtly call herself a feminist, feminists admire Kahlo because of the themes of female experience in her paintings, such as birth, miscarriage, and unhappiness in love.  Frida might be looked upon as a feminist for her experiences with abortion.  While she later described the incident as a miscarriage, in 1932, she wrote in her diary of a self-induced abortion using quinine.  She also sought a medical abortion due to concerns for her reproductive health after her accident and experienced a miscarriage.  She was denied an abortion, so she sought to self-perform one.  Dr. Pratt informed her that she could have a child and deliver it through c-section.  Interestingly, her abortions have been reframed by historians as miscarriages.  While she is believed to have regret not having children, she may have cultivated this belief in order to conform to social norms of the day and because motherhood was central to Mexican woman identity at the time.  Her poor health may have been used to legitimize this decision.  Abortion was illegal in the United States and Mexico at the time (Zetterman, 2006).  A duality was her longing for reproduction, her love of children, but her inability to have them.  Finally, she is quoted as saying that she detested surrealism as bourgeoisie art, but she also rejected the socialist realism sanctioned by the Soviet Union  (Helland, 1992).  Thus, her art is another duality.  She was embraced by surrealists, but also had elements of realism.  Finally, her art itself contrasts with her politics, as she was a socialist who was deeply interested in herself or own individuality.


Frida Kahlo was a complicated and fascinating person.  The magnetism and mystery that drew people to her in her own time continues to attract audiences to her art and history.  There are so many facets of her life and personality to uncover.  This piece barely explores her political life, faintly reviews her sexual life, and only hints at her gender.  Like others, this research makes the mistake of focusing too heavily on her relationships with men.   Of course, bisexuality does not necessarily mean equal attraction to men and women.  The emphasis on her male relationships is not a problem with Frida’s sexuality or does not in anyway diminish her bisexuality.  Rather, it is a problem with the male focus of society and by extension, historians.  As a bisexual Trotskyist, I was certainly interested in that aspect of her life.   But, this focus runs the risk of creating a narrative that relationships with women or women themselves are unimportant.  Despite these shortcomings, it is my hope that it offers a few tidbits of insight to those who attended our monthly meeting and raises new questions about her.


Sources:

Ankori, G., & A. (2013). Frida Kahlo. London: Reaktion Books.

Bildner, A. (2004). Diego, Frida, and Trotsky. Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies.

 

Collins, A. F. (2013, September 17). Frida Kahlo’s Diary: A Glimpse Inside Her Tortured, Scribble-Happy World. Retrieved April 06, 2017, from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/1995/09/frida-kahlo-diego-rivera-art-diary

 

Davison, Phil. “Diego Rivera’s Dirty Little Secret.” Independent 25 Nov. 1993

 

DeMirjyn, M. (2011). “The Queer Filming of Frida”: Creating a Cinematic Latina Lesbian Icon. Praxis, 23(1).

 

Easterling, S. (2013, March). Mexico’s revolution 1910–1920. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://isreview.org/issue/74/mexicos-revolution-1910-1920

 

Haynes, A. (2006). Frida Kahlo: An Artist’In Between’. In Conference Proceedings–Thinking Gender–The NEXT generation.

 

Helland, J. (1992). Culture, politics, and identity in the paintings of Frida Kahlo. The expanding discourse: Feminism and art history, 397-408.

 

Herrera, H. (1983). Frida, a biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: Perennial.

 

Garber, M. B. (2000). Bisexuality and the eroticism of everyday life. New York: Routledge.

 

Mataev, O. (n.d.). Frida Kahlo Biography. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://www.abcgallery.com/K/kahlo/kahlobio.html

 

“Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick – by Frida Kahlo.” Frida Kahlo.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. <http://www.fridakahlo.org/marxism-will-give-health-to-the-sick.jsp&gt;

 

Morrison, J., & Pietras, J. (2010). Frida Kahlo. New York: Chelsea House.

 

Motian-Meadows, M. (n.d.). Kahlo As Artist, Woman, Rebel. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/2782

 

Rogers, L. (2014, April 30). Frida’s Red Hot Lover. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from https://lisawallerrogers.com/2009/06/10/fridas-red-hot-lover/

 

Tuck, J. (2008, October). Rebel without a pause: the tempestuous life of Diego Rivera. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/306-rebel-without-a-pause-the-tempestuous-life-of-diego-rivera

 

Two Nudes in the Forest. (n.d.). Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://www.fridakahlo.org/two-nudes-in-the-forest.jsp

 

Zamora, M. (1991). Frida Kahlo: the brush of anguish. Tokyo: Libroport.

 

Zetterman, E. (2006). Frida Kahlo’s abortions: With reflections from a gender perspective on sexual education in Mexico. Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, 75(4), 230-243.

 

Socialism, Feminism, and the Plight of Pollinators

Socialism, Feminism, and the Plight of Pollinators

H. Bradford

5/11/17

The Feminist Justice League meets once a month for a feminist frolic.  These events involve an educational presentation and an outdoor activity.  This month, the Feminist Justice League will meet to do some seed bombing and learn about pollinators.  The goal of the event is to learn more about the challenges faced by pollinators and do something small to benefit them.  In preparation for the event, I researched the history and troubles facing pollinators.  However, since it is a feminist group, I wanted to add a theoretical component.  It is not enough to learn about pollinators.  To grow as feminists, it is important to analyze them from a lense that is critical of patriarchy and capitalism.  I am not a scientist nor am I an expert on this topic. Nevertheless, I hope it offers some insight to the history of pollinators and how this history is deeply connected to economic and social trends in human history.  Understanding this history can help us understand the present plight of pollinators as well as solutions of how to move forward in protecting nature.


A Feminist History of Pollinators:

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Both flowers and humans depend upon bees and other pollinators for survival.  One third of our diet consists of food that requires pollination by bees, though it should be noted that beetles, ants, birds, bats, flies, and butterflies can also act as pollinators.  Bees themselves are believed to have evolved 140-110 million years ago during the Cretaceous Era, which is around the same time that flowering plants appeared (Cappellari,Schaefer, Davis 2013) .  It is astonishing to think that flowers and bees are relatively new in evolutionary history.  Turtles, sharks, frogs, and fish have hundreds of millions of years of evolution before the appearance of flowers and bees.  Even mammals and birds predate bees and flowers by tens of millions of years.  Butterflies also evolved about 130 million years ago, also appearing after the advent of flowering plants.  Since plants cannot move around in search of a mate, they evolved to attract pollinators to spread their pollen, or the male gametophyte of plants.  Pollen could roughly be described as something akin to the plant equivalent of sperm.  Plants produced pollen before the evolution of flowering plants or angiosperms, but prior to this, all plants were pollinated by the wind.  Angiosperms or flowering plants evolved nectar, attractive colors, or fragrances to attract pollinators.  Millions of years of natural selection has produced very specialized relationships between some flowers and particular pollinators.  For instance, some flowers are red and tubular to appeal to the beaks of hummingbirds.  Some flowers are so specialized that only certain species of hummingbirds can pollinate them, such as the sword-billed hummingbird of South America which has a ten centimeter bill (and a 4 cm body) that can reach the nectar deep within the tubular petals of the Passiflora mixta.  Hummingbirds are relative newcomers, which evolved from swifts and tree swifts over 22 million years ago, flourishing in South America (Sanders, 2014).


All pollinators are important, but bees have been particularly important in human history.  Humans have a long history with bees.  Even our closest relative, chimpanzees, are known to use sticks to obtain honey from hives (Kritsky, 2017).  Interestingly, both male and female chimps collect honey, with female chimps able to collect honey with babies on their back.  However, humans are less proficient at climbing, so it might be assumed that collecting honey was historically men’s work.  For about five million years of hominid evolution, humans and their ancestors hunted and gathered their food.  Modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but it is only in the last 10,000 years that some human societies moved away from hunter-gathering.  From a Marxist feminist perspective, hunter-gatherer societies were likely more egalitarian and placed more value on women than societies that existed after the advent of private property.  These societies were small and there there little social stratification, since there was less ability for individuals to accumulate significant wealth.  Although there is little stratification in hunter-gather societies, there are gender based divisions of labor.  As such, women likely had a different relationship to pollinators, and bees in particular, than men.  In a study of 175 modern hunter-gatherer societies, women provided four fifths of the food to these societies.  Typically, the food gathered by men is further away and harder to obtain.  Thus, men may have been involved in collecting honey as this would involve travelling larger distances and climbing trees.  This seems to be true in some modern examples of hunter-gatherer societies.  In Democratic Republic of Congo, Ngandu women and children would look out for hives, which men then collected honey from.  Some honey hunting societies ban women from gathering honey, such as the Ngindo tribe in Tanzania and the Bassari in Senegal.  Hunter-gatherer men have been observed eating honey when it is found, but bringing some back to home to be divided and then stored by women (Crane,2000).  Rock paintings in Spain depict humans stealing honey from bees 7000-8000 years ago (Kritsky, 2017).  The paintings do not clearly depict a man or woman, so it is hard to know the exact gender roles of men and women concerning bees.


Some societies moved away from hunter-gathering and adopted settled agriculture.  The development of agriculture allowed for private property to arise as well as larger populations and cities based upon stored and surplus food.  The first agrarian societies emerged 10,000-8,000 years ago in the Middle East.  Thus it is no wonder that the first evidence of beekeeping arose in civilizations of the Middle East.  In contrast to previous hunter-gatherer societies, agrarian societies developed classes and specialized occupations.  The oldest evidence of actual beekeeping is from Ancient Egypt, where pyramid artwork depicts beekeeping in 2450 BCE.   In Egyptian society, it appears that beekeeping was an established profession.  Likewise, in 1500 BCE, various Hittite laws were passed regarding stealing hives and swarms of bees.  The oldest bee hives themselves have been found in Israel.  Early hives were made from straw and then later pottery (Kritsky, 2017).   The oldest record of beekeeping in China dates from around 158 CE.  A relief at Angkor Wat in Cambodia depicts beekeeping and dates from 1000 CE.  Mayans also raised bees, which arose independently from Western Culture.  They depicted bees in art, hieroglyphs, and developed cylindrical, ceramic hives.  It is interesting to note that honey bees had gone extinct in North America, but the Mayans encountered stingless tropical bees (Kritsky, 2017).  Stingless bees do not produce as much honey as honey bees, but modern Mayans continue to cultivate them.  Deforestation has caused these bees to become endangered.

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From a Marxist feminist perspective, the status of women fell with the invention of agriculture.  Thus, in all of these examples, the status of women would have been less than the the status that women enjoyed during the long history of hunting-gathering.  The development of private property marks the origin of patriarchy, as the exchange of property from one generation to the next required monogamy and close control of female sexuality.  These societies were often based upon slaves, which were used to build monuments, but also required warfare to obtain.  Because agriculture created surplus, it resulted in more specialization and stratification.  There emerged groups such as scholars, priests, kings, etc. who could live off of the labor of others.  Laws and written language were also developed for the purpose of managing property.  However, many of these civilizations continued to worship female goddesses, some of which were connected to bees.  For instance, the Minoans worshiped a nature, birth, and death, which was symbolized by a bee.  In Greek mythology, a nymph named Melissa discovered honey and shared it with humans.  She also is credited with feeding baby Zeus honey and was later turned into a bee by Zeus after his father tried to kill her. The Greek myths probably were drawn from the stories of nearby societies and societies that predated the Greeks.  Lithuanian, Hindu, Mayan, Greek, and Minoan societies had bee goddesses, though there are also examples of bee gods in other cultures.


Moving along in history, bees were kept during medieval times, and it was even ordered by Charlemagne that all manors raise bees and give two thirds of the honey produced to the state.  In the middle ages, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and the Baltic states were engaged in less formal beekeeping in the form of forest beekeeping.  This involved hollowing out trees to encourage bees to form colonies in them, then seal up the tree once the colony was established as a sign of ownership and to protect it from bears.  Early hives could not be dismantled.  Therefore, obtaining honey meant destroying the hive and the bees (Kritsky, 2017).  In Poland in 1337, a statute said that women and men had equal rights to in buying and selling honey.  Husbands and wives were both able to own land related to forest beekeeping and both a son or daughter could inherit this land.  Some evidence suggests that tree beekeeping was done by women.   Nuns and monks were known to raise bees.  In one story, Saint Gobnait, a nun from county cork in Ireland, is said to have sent away cattle thieves by unleashing bees upon them.  Hildegard of Bingen, also wrote about bees.  Examples of artwork from the 1400s and 1500s depict both men and women involved in beekeeping.  In the 1600s in England, there are literary references to housewives as beekeepers and that beekeeping was commonly done by country women.  The first use of the word “skep” in the English language appeared in 1494 and referred to female beekeepers (Crane, 2000).  Perhaps during European feudalism, women were more involved in beekeeping than in other periods of history.  It is hard to know why this might be, as the status of women in feudalism was no better than earlier agrarian societies.  Women were controlled by the church, had limited opportunities, were controlled by their husband or father, and were burned as witches.  Perhaps women’s involvement in beekeeping could be attributed to various wars or plagues that would have decimated or occupied the male population or the role of women in general food production.  Interestingly, when European thinkers saw a single ruler bee, they assumed it was male.  Aristotle called this ruler bee the king bee, and through the middle ages, bees were seen as entirely male.  Through the 1500s and early 1600s, queen bees were referred to as King Bees or Master Bees (Crane,2000).  So, even though women may have had an expanded role in beekeeping during European feudalism, the imagined social organization of bees themselves reflected a very masculine and feudal worldview.

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Capitalism arose in the 16th century in England with the privatization of public lands.  The enclosure movement turned former peasants into workers, driving them off the land into cities for paid work.  Landlords maintained the best lands, which were rented, again, requiring paid labor.  New laws were passed against vagrancy, again encouraging paid work.  The invention of the working class and increased agricultural production of paid farm workers, laid the groundwork for capitalism.  Of course, capitalism really took off with the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s.  It was not until the 1800s that hives with removable frames were developed.  Until the invention of modern hives in the 1800s, both the bees and the hives were destroyed to obtain honey.  Large scale production of honey also coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the invention of a centrifugal honey extractor in 1865.  The 1860s also saw the commercial sale of honey.  Prior to this, it was produced and sold locally.  Honey was shipped in wooden drums at the end of the 1800s, but switched to 60 lb metal cans.  Specialized honey packing plants emerged in the 1920s (Oertel, n.d.)   In the U.S., women mostly worked to assist their husbands in beekeeping, but in 1880 Mrs. L Harrison of Illinois was a commercial beekeeper in her own right who later published a book about beekeeping.  In the early 1900s, work related to beekeeping was gendered, with women participating in extracting, selling, handling, and bottling honey and men tending to the hive and bees.  Today, 42% of the membership of local beekeeping clubs is comprised of women.  Women make up 30% of state beekeeping organizations and around 30% of national beekeeping associations as well.  However, women are not often in leadership roles and often serve as secretaries or supporters in the clubs.  Some clubs do not allow women as leaders or women as leaders do not last long.  A few clubs even have auxiliaries just for women.  As such, women make up less than ⅓ of the leadership of beekeeping organizations.  As a whole, in the United States, about 31% of farmers are women (Calopy, 2015).


 

Capitalism and Pollinators:

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Capitalism will be given special attention from hereon.  Despite the beauty and importance of pollinators, as well as their long history with humans, they are in peril.  According to a UN report, 2 out of 5 invertebrate pollinators are on the path to extinction.  1 out of 6 vertebrate pollinators like birds and bats are also facing extinction (Borenstein, 2016).  There are over 20,000 species of bees in the world and 17% of them face extinction.  Pollination is important as without it, plants cannot reproduce.  75% of the world’s food crops require pollination.  Without pollinators, there will be no food.  87% of the money made globally comes from food crops that require pollination (Okeyo, 2017).  More than half of the 1400 species of bees in North America are facing extinction (Worland, 2017).  Monarch butterflies have also garnered attention as over the past several decades their population has declined by 96.5%.  There are several reasons for this, including deforestation of their habitat in Mexico, climate change, loss of milkweed plants, and pesticides.  Habitat has been turned into farmland.  Nevertheless, there have been efforts to restore monarch butterfly populations such as planting $2 million of milkweed at 200,000 acres of land administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service.  In Mexico, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a project to expand their winter habitat (The Monarch Butterfly is in Danger of Extinction).  There are many factors related to the decline in pollinators, such as loss of habitat and biodiversity, pesticides, farming practices, diseases, and climate change.  97% of Europe’s grasslands have disappeared since WWII, often turned to farmland.  Pesticides containing neonicotinoids have been found in some studies to reduce the chances of bee survival and reproduction (Borenstein, 2016).  Aside from pesticides, bees are vulnerable to climate change.  Whereas butterflies can migrate to new areas with climate change, bees have difficulty establishing themselves in new areas.  In the north end of their range, they have failed to move towards the north pole.  At the south end, they have died off.  Together, bees have lost a range of about 200 miles on their north and south ends (Worland, 2015).  Disease and parasites can also be blamed for the decline of bees.  The Varroa Mite first appeared in the United States in 1987 and within ten years spread across bee colonies across the US.  Bees infected with the mite may be deformed, have shorter longevity, less ability to reproduce, and lower weight.   Pesticides used in mosquito control have also been linked to colony collapses.  Additionally, some scientists believe that pollen from transgenic crops can be harmful to bees as the pollen itself may have insecticidal proteins (Status of Pollinators in North America, 2007).

Image result for monarch butterfly

The rusty patched bumblebee was the first wild bee listed as endangered in the continental United States, when it was added to the endangered species list in January 2017.  The bee was once common in 28 states and now can only be found in small populations in 13 states. In September 2016, several species of yellow faced bees were listed as endangered in Hawaii.  Once again, neonicotinoids are blamed since they are commonly used in agriculture, forestry, and lawn care, and are absorbed into a plant’s leaves, nectar, and pollen (Gorman, 2017).  The problem with neonictoninoids first noticed in 1994 in France, when the country first began using neonicotinoids.  The pesticide was produced by Bayer and first used on sunflower crops.  Bees that collected pollen from treated sunflowers showed symptoms of shaking and would abandon their hives.  One quarter of a trillion bees perished before French farmers protested the use of the pesticide, which resulted in its ban.  In the United States, the symptoms were first observed in 2006 and coined Colony Collapse Disorder.  There was confusion over the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, but a prominent theory suggests that beekeeping has shifted from being centered on producing honey to using bees to pollinate cash crops.  2.5 million hives are trucked around the country each year.  The bees are transported to farms and fed corn syrup rather than wildflowers.  The corn syrup may be laden with neonicotinoids, which results in Colony Collapse Disorder.  Almonds, apples, blueberries, avocados, cucumbers, onions, oranges, and pumpkins are just a sample of some of the crops that could not be grown without pollinators (10 crops that would disappear without bees, 2012).  Of course, there are some crops, such as soybeans, corn, cotton, alfalfa, beans, tomatoes, pecans, and peanuts which do not require honeybee pollination.   Nevertheless, our diets would be much different without pollinators.  Entire ecosystems would be quite different.


The plight of pollinators can largely be connected to industrial agricultural practices.  The key challenges to pollinators: loss of habitat, loss of wildflowers, use of pesticide, and agricultural monoculture are all broadly connected to agriculture in the context of capitalism.   Pollinators have been around for millions of years, so it is startling that it is only the past few decades that have pushed them towards extinction.  This begs the question of why agriculture happens as it does and what can be done?  Karl Marx was a critic of agriculture in capitalism.  Marx observed in Capital, that capitalism divides the city from the countryside.  Capitalism itself emerged as the result of the privatization of common land.  When people were pushed off their land, they were separated from their ability to feed themselves.  That is, they had to work for another person to earn the money needed to buy the things that are needed for survival rather than grow or make them themselves.  Capitalism depends on workers, who Marx called wage slaves because of their dependency upon wages to survive.  The birth of capitalism meant the death of a certain relationship to the land.  This connection is part of the Marxist concept of metabolic rift.  Just as workers are alienated from production and one another, they are alienated from nature and human nature.  Humans are deeply connected to the environment, but according to Marx’s belief, it is capitalism which severs this connection (Williams, n.d)  Marx  also observed that capitalism reduces the rural population while expanding the urban population (Westerland, 2015).  Human societies always depend upon the natural world to exist.  In this sense, humans metabolize nature.  For most of history, nature has been experienced in terms of its use-value, or the ways in which it is useful to our existence.  However, capitalism have commodified nature and separated humans from it.  Our economy is dominated by exchange value rather than use value.  This has resulted in metabolic rift, or a separation from our place in ecosystems (Foster, 2015).


Aside from the original sin of moving people off of public land and the privatization of land, Marx was a critic of how land was used in capitalism.  He noted that capitalism resulted in the exhaustion of the soil in the interest of profits.  Marx believed that it was possible to increase the productivity of soil through good management or use of manure, but that it was not profitable to do so in capitalism.   He observed that when land became exhausted it was often abandoned in search of new lands to exploit (Saito, 2014)  Capitalist agriculture not only robs the laborers but the soil (Westerland, 2015).  Oddly enough, despite the surplus of human and horse manure in cities, countries like Great Britain and the United States scoured the globe in the 1800s for fertilizers for their over exploited agricultural land.  Wars were even fought to obtain guano as fertilizer.  Capitalism is so wasteful and illogical, that it made more sense to colonize empty islands for their bat manure than sustainably manage agricultural land or obtain manure locally.  But, capitalism is not driven by what is sustainable, rational, or healthy.  It is driven by profits.  It is the pursuit of profits that results in the vast environmental destruction the world experiences today and the agricultural practices that imperil our food supply by destroying pollinators.  As such, around 75 billion tons of soil wash away or is blown away each year after ploughing.  320 million acres of agricultural land is salinated due to agricultural practices.  40% of the world’s agricultural land is in someway degraded.  Over half to three fourths of all industrial inputs return to the environment as waste within one year.  At the same time, pollinators are worth over 14 billion dollars to the US economy.  Despite their use value, the profit motive trumps sustainable agricultural practices which might protect pollinators.  As a result, farmers in China have actually had to pollinate their own apples with brushes and pots of pollen due to the decline of bees (Goulson, 2012).


Industrial agriculture in capitalism could be described as not very diverse, pesticide intensive, and wasteful.  Agriculture is not very diverse since crops are grown to make a profit.  Therefore, a few reliable varieties of crops are planted because they will grow predictably, ship easily, have uniform qualities, or other desirable traits.  This means a loss of biodiversity, as heirloom varieties of crops go extinct because they are not grown widely.  At the same time, since its beginning, capitalism has needed to divide people from their ability to sustain themselves.  This forces individuals into the economy as workers.  Farmers around the world are drawn into the economy when their seeds or agricultural inputs are privatized and sold on the market.  Farmers who may have once saved seeds have found that the seeds are not patented and they must buy them.  Again, this leads to a loss of biodiversity as old farming practices are replaced by paid farm labor and commercialized seeds.  In pursuit of profits, capitalism over uses fertilizers, as the land is overexploited.  Pesticides are also used because it is cheaper to dump chemicals on plants than practice sustainable, organic agriculture with natural pest control.  Fertilizers and pesticides themselves are often the product of chemicals developed for war.  After World War II, factories which produced nitrogen for bombs were converted to fertilizer factories.  DDT, which was used as a pesticide with devastating effects on bird populations, was actually used in WWII to protect soldiers from fleas and mosquitoes.  Capitalism requires war to open up new markets, destroy competitors, and access new raw materials and cheap labor.  But, it also develops new technology and weapons.  Agriculture’s chemical age in the 1950s was the peacetime application of war technology.  Finally, capitalism is wasteful.  It is wasteful because the drive for profit requires more production.  Production occurs to create more value, from which profit is derived.  Pollinators are in trouble because of the destructive, wasteful, and polluting nature of industrial agriculture within the context of capitalism.

Image result for chemical fertilizers

There are many things that can be done to help pollinators.  However, most solutions are individual solutions.  This is a flaw with the environmental movement, as it often focuses on consumer choices or individual behaviors rather than the larger issue of dismantling capitalism.  These small scale activities are not useless, but must be coupled with movements that challenge industrial agriculture within capitalism.  Individuals can plant gardens that attract pollinators.  Community groups can plant milkweed plants or seed bomb for pollinators.  Individuals and communities can partake in beekeeping.  Partaking in community gardens, visiting farmer’s markets, buying locally, saving seeds, etc. are all small scale actions that can be done.  However, these activities will not tip the scale towards saving the planet as they do not challenge capitalist production.  Capitalism must be overthrown so that giant agribusinesses can be dismantled, food production can be more locally centered and worker controlled, and rational choices can be made of how, what, and where to grow food.  The environmental and labor movement must work together towards empowering workers to take control of the economy in the interest of a sustainable future.  Agribusinesses and the fossil fuel industry donate millions of dollars to both of the major capitalist parties.  Neither can save pollinators or the planet as they pursue free trade and market solutions to environmental problems.  The anarchy of capitalist production could result in the destruction of pollinators we depend upon for survival and which have inhabited the planet for millions of years.  But, each society contains the seeds of its own destruction.  For capitalism, it is its instability and the immiseration of workers.  It is my hope that social movements that can seriously challenge capitalism will emerge and that the labor movement can be reinvigorated and mobilized towards ecosocialism.  Anything less will condemn the planet to a hotter, less biodiverse, more socially strained future.

Image result for rusty patched bees

 

 

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