A Marxist Feminist Ecosocialist View of a Financial Times Video about Climate Change and Migration

Screenshot from Financial Times Video on Climate and Migration
"I decided to migrate": screenshot from Financial Times Video on Climate and Migration
Sandra Lindberg | System Change Not Climate Change | December 21, 2018

No Ph.D. talking here. Just a woman who reads and studies, as Marxists recommend. I’m disturbed by a video just accessed on YouTube: “Climate change and the migrant caravan.” The news piece suggests that sympathetic and enlightened attitudes lie behind the video’s creation. Applying Marxist and socialist concepts, I hope to expose some of the assumptions, misconceptions and perhaps hidden goals contained in the video.

What it depicts: The viewer meets Jude Webber, a writer for FT (Financial Times) Rethink as she travels through Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, and to an agricultural area Valle de los Angeles an hour northeast of the city. There she introduces us to a tomato farmer whose crops have failed for the last two years due to climate change, Webber reports. She films him on the day before, and the morning of, his decision to migrate from Honduras to the US. Webber’s video describes the negative reaction of the farmer’s wife to his decision. Webber also films the moments when the farmer tells his 15 year old son that he will now be responsible for the family. His son’s only comment, “You never talked to us about this.” The farmer’s reply, “This was my decision.” A final comment from Webber sums up the tone of this video, “Ah, it’s been heartbreaking this one. As a parent I just can’t imagine how you go on a journey like this and leave a situation like this so up in the air.” And with that pronouncement, Webber is off to pursue her next story.

To delve a little deeper: Where do I start? This video is so much a part of the current system and climate change problems that I could analyze it from many perspectives. Let me begin with a little more information about The Financial Times’ stand on capitalism. FT Rethink is a project of The Financial Times. Perhaps before cheering that the institution is taking the time to cover wrenching events connected to climate change, the larger goals of the organization need to be examined.

A quick online search of “Financial Times as a tool of capitalism” yields the following: an op-ed by Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator for The Financial Times. His piece, “Capitalism and Democracy - the odd couple” (2017) has enjoyed great reach. Analysis of Wolf’s opinions in the article can be found at NY Times, Huffingtonpost, and Bloomberg News. Some news sources like his take, some don’t. But this quote from Wolf’s final paragraph should clarify the position apparently shared by his newspaper, “The aim must now be to manage capitalism so that it supports democracy and to manage democracy so that it makes global capitalism work better for all.” Hmmm. With this perspective in mind, returning to the FT Rethink video may prove useful.

Taking Wolf and The Financial Times at its word, how does Webber’s video support its goals? But first a little about FT Rethink’s intended purpose: “FT Rethink is a Financial Times video series on how the sustainability revolution affects every aspect of life and business – from healthcare to data management, transport and energy. Looking at these crucial issues from a fresh angle, it invites you to rethink how you see the world and explores the unprecedented investment opportunity.” (This author’s italics) So even on this site where climate change and global capitalism will be analyzed from fresh perspectives, the goal is to make money and to keep capitalism alive, often at the expense of extremely marginalized people.

The Financial Times may recognize that one of capitalism’s primary strategies, to maintain workers in a barely surviving existence, may have been taken too far in Honduras. Perhaps capitalists believed theories of unlimited growth and didn’t plan for hard realities like climate change. Certainly, capitalism has been happy to squeeze Hondurans for hundreds of years. Since the arrival of Europeans, Honduras has struggled with economic exploitation:        

After independence, Honduras was host to British mercantile interests and became heavily indebted to French and English banks after a failed attempt to build a transoceanic railroad during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. By the 20th century, U.S. mining corporations came to prominence; then, multinational fruit companies held sway until midcentury, prompting the well-known and (to Hondurans, deeply offensive) perception of Honduras as a "banana republic." (“Honduras: the Perils of Remittance Dependence and Clandestine Migration”)              

In addition to a long period of economic exploitation, the country experienced the devastating Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Still reeling from the hurricane, Hondurans suffered under continued neoliberal policies. The report Refugee producing countries: Honduras and Guatemala describes 2009 military activities orchestrated by the US and Canada that ousted a left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya. The coup did not improve the country’s fortunes; the Honduran economic situation has not recovered from the 2008 financial crash. The country’s economic inequality means a very few profit within the current system. Today’s elite want land for palm oil plantations and tourist enclaves, in spite of the environmental devastation they bring. Farmers with small plantations, like the man in Webber’s video, must borrow from banks for their seed and supplies only to find themselves unable to pay banks when climate change robs them of a harvest. The subject of Webber’s video apparently loses “todos”--everything--when unable to pay back a loan of $3,000. Webber focuses on the man’s failed crop and does not highlight that he lost his land as well as his crop. She is silent about the predatory banking that forces him to attempt migration out of Honduras.

As Marx writes in “Wages of Labor” (1844), “In labour all the natural, spiritual, and social variety of individual activity is manifested and is variously rewarded, whilst dead capital always keeps the same pace and is indifferent to real individual activity.” In the case of the Honduran farmer, loss of his crops and his land means his family will starve. That the banker who loaned him money for seed and his institution will feel a pinch but will continue nonetheless would be no surprise to Marx: “In general we should observe that in those cases where worker and capitalist equally suffer, the worker suffers in his very existence, the capitalist in the profit on his dead mammon.”

What is unfolding for the Honduran farmer relates both to climate change and over three hundred years of capitalist exploitation. To focus only on landslides and drought as the reasons for the Honduran farmer’s desperate circumstances conveniently ignores the system that has brought climate change to the man’s land.

Meanwhile, Webber’s farmer faces all of this alone. In the video the man is so isolated that he cannot even talk with his wife about the true extent of the family’s economic peril. She receives the news of his decision to migrate on the day he intends to leave, as does his son. While the specific reasons for this farmer’s sense of atomization remains unknown, countless Marxist and socialist writers describe the usefulness of alienating workers not only from the fruits of their labor but from each other, too.

[C]apitalists have appropriated a greater share of profits by disinvesting from the reproduction of labor power. They have decimated the conditions for wage growth by moving production to low-wage regions, introduced automation, and reduced pensions, health care, welfare payments, and expenditures on public infrastructure and education. All these measures shift the burden of social reproduction onto the individual worker’s wage, drive its average level downward, and destroy institutions of collective solidarity to create a precarious, atomized worker. (Unity and Struggle)

In 1989 at the end of the Cold War Honduran trade and cooperative organizations were steadily suppressed, while neoliberal strategies and the NGO’s took over any attempt at rural and social condition improvements. Where farmers attempted to maintain agricultural cooperatives, investment, banking and military interests fought them, often using violent means. The 2016 assassination of activist Berta Caceres is just one example of this violence.

While this article could continue to dig into the underlying assumptions of Webber’s video, ending this exploration with the wistful sadness she conveys as she’s whisked to the airport perhaps will have to be enough. While Webber worries how the farmer feels as he heads for the border, even more deserving of attention is the plight of his wife/partner and their son still facing precarious lives in the Honduran countryside. She holds a job of some kind, but also provides the unpaid reproductive labor to maintain the household. Her son does not seem to have a job at all. If her husband ever succeeds in getting into the US and begins to send money back to her, she will join the ranks of those who manage to survive in Honduras with the help of remittance money they receive from family members who migrate out of the country. The single largest source of the Honduran economy is built on remittance funds. The farmer’s wife also supports her husband by providing care for a son and herself that would be far more expensive in the US. This dynamic has been termed transnational reproductive labor by Miraftab.

In Global Heartland, Displaced Labor, Transnational Lives and Local Placemaking, by Faranak Miraftab ( 2016) the author recounts many stories of workers who travel to a meatpacking facility in Beardstown IL but leave their children behind in Mexico or Togo, where they will be cared for by relatives. In the same way, low-cost reproductive labor will care for US migrants injured on the job who return to birth countries to heal. Additionally, migrant laborers who become too old to work in the US often return to original homes where the costs of aging are more affordable for them. All of this reproductive, caregiving labor supports the ability of the US meatpacking plant to remain profitable. What the community and the company refuse to provide--health care, affordable childcare and housing, even affordable food--families and friends in countries of origin provide to support the workers. This unrecognized and uncounted labor also does not enter into the video portrayal of the farmer and his family’s situation. Instead, his departure from Honduras is depicted as if the man will expect the US to support him, should he ever succeed in getting there.

So why would The Financial Times bother to send Webber to Honduras and tell this farmer’s story? As a member of the capitalist intelligentsia, Webber’s job is to portray the atomized farmer as an unlucky and perhaps ignorant peasant who either continues to grow tomatoes in an unsustainable environment, or runs to the US to be taken care of. This video supports the status quo as much in what it doesn’t describe as in what it does. To claim an interest in the dangers of climate change without recognizing how hundreds of years of capitalism--now running into the wall--have brought about this man’s misery helps the investors who read The Financial Times. They can note the fleeing migrants and send representatives to buy up abandoned land for palm oil fields or tourist businesses, while squeezed workers struggle harder with each passing day.

If the reader follows the links provided by this article, s/he will see the extent of organizations and news sources that do not accept what this little video is selling. The only way to counteract the dynamics depicted by Webber is to organize for socialist change--everywhere.