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..........There's a reason you probably haven't heard much about this aspect of the heartland [the blight of Emporia, Kansas]. This kind of blight can't be easily blamed on the usual suspects like government or counterculture or high-hat urban policy. The villain that did this to my home state wasn't the Supreme Court or Lyndon Johnson, showering dollars on the poor or putting criminals back on the street. The culprit is the conservatives' beloved free-market capitalism, a system that, at it's most unrestrained, has little use for small town merchants or the agricultural system that supported the small towns in the first place. Deregulated capitalism is what has allowed Wal-Marts to crush local businesses across the Midwest and, even more importantly, what has driven agriculture, the region’s raison d’etre, to a state of near-collapse.
People who have never lived in a farm state often think of all agricultural interests as essentially identical: farmers and huge agribusiness conglomerates want the same things, they believe. But in reality the interests of the two are more like those of the chicken and Colonel Sanders of backlash lore. And Colonel Sanders has been on an unbroken winning streak now for twenty-some years, with farm legislation, trade policy, and a regulatory climate all crafted to strengthen the conglomerates while weakening farmers. For shareholders and upper management of companies like Archer Daniels Midland and Tyson the result has been miraculous; for town like Emporia it has been ruinous.
Whereas farmers are naturally disorganized, agribusiness seeks always to merge and acquire and choke off competition. And so, like other industries, it was finally permitted to do these things in the deregulatory climate of the Reagan-Clinton era. In the eighties, according to William Heffernan, a sociologist at the University of Missouri, agriculture experts generally agreed that if four companies controlled more than 40 percent of market share in a given field, it was no longer competitive. Today, Heffernan estimates, the four largest players process 81 percent of the beef, 59 percent of the pork, and 50 percent of the chicken produced in the United States. The same phenomenon is at work in grain: The largest four process 61 percent of American wheat, 80 percent of American soybeans, and either 57 percent or 74 percent of American corn, depending on the method. It is no coincidence that the internal motto of Archer Daniels Midland, the grain processing giant notorious for its political clout and its price-fixing, is reported to be, “The competitor is our friend and the customer is our enemy.”
The admirers of farm deregulation – and there are plenty of them, in economics departments as well as in the Bush Administration Department of Agriculture – see in it not some hideous power grab but a heroic “restructuring” of the food industry. Cargill, ADM, and the rest of the giants are bringing order out of chaos; if we finally have to say goodbye to the Jeffersonian fantasy of the family farm – if we have to transform the prosperous farmer into a sharecropper and turn the countryside into an industrialized wasteland and destroy the small towns – maybe it’s all for the best.
One thing unites all these different groups of Kansans, these millionaires and trailer park dwellers, the farmers and thrift-store managers and slaughterhouse workers and utility executives: they are almost all Republicans. Meatpacking Garden City voted for George W. Bush in even greater numbers that did affluent Johnson County.
Not too long ago, Kansans would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline. When business screwed the farmers and the workers - when it implemented monopoly strategies invasive beyond the Populists’ worst imaginings, when it ripped off shareholders and casually tossed thousands out of work – you could be damned sure about what would follow.
Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land and the next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed – unions, antitrust laws, public ownership – and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.
Let us pause for a moment and gaze across this landscape of dysfunction. A state is spectacularly ill served by the Reagan-Bush stampede of deregulation, privatization, and laissez-faire. It sees its countryside depopulated, its towns disintegrate, its cities stagnate – and its wealthy enclaves sparkle, behind their remote-controlled security gates. The state erupts in revolt, making headlines around the world with its bold defiance of convention. But what do its revolutionaries demand? More of the very measures that have brought ruination on them and their neighbors in the first place.
This is not just the mystery of Kansas: this is the mystery of America, the historical shift that has made it all possible.
In Kansas the shift is more staggering than elsewhere, simply because it has been so decisive, so extreme. The people who were once radical are now reactionary. Although they speak today in the same aggrieved language of victimization and although they face the same array of economic forces as their hard-bitten ancestors, today’s rebels make demands that are precisely the opposite. Tear down the federal farm programs, they cry. Privatize the utilities. Repeal the progressive taxes. All that Kansas asks today is a little help nailing itself to that cross of gold. ………
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