Saturday, March 24, 2018

Down on the Farm: Nostalgic Ideological Hegemony in the Service of Agribusiness, Big Data, and AI, or, Capitalist Agriculture and Country Music

By Nick Murray (March 12, 2018), for Viewpoint Magazine 

“The town of Maricopa may be surrounded by Arizona desert, but a small plot of land near its northern border may qualify as the most closely studied piece of farmland our planet has ever produced. Here stands the LemnaTec Scanalyzer. Weighing some 50,000 pounds, the device sits on a steel gantry that moves back and forth along tracks that line the field. It monitors the growth of every plant below it, and by the end of the day it generates five to eight terabytes of data. What it records could help scientists develop the next generation of genetically modified seeds. The University of Arizona, the company LemnaTec and the U.S. Government, which funded the project through the Department of Energy, all agree: this could be the future of agriculture.

‘Culture in all its early uses was a noun of process,’ Raymond Williams says in Keywords. It described ‘the tending of something, basically crops or animals.’ Eventually, by way of metaphor, the word was ‘extended to a process of human development.’ But the roots run deeper still: for much of human history, culture, in the sense of ceremony and arts, has been tied closely with cycles of agriculture, from work songs in fields to celebrations of harvest. In America, this tradition sees some of its most potent representation in country music. The genre has produced countless songs about life on the farm, but few are as straightforward as Alabama’s ‘American Farmer,’ from 2015. ‘They’re out there every morning, planting those seeds in the ground/Riding those big wheels, until the sun goes down,’ sings the group’s frontman, Randy Owen. Owen tells a familiar story, paying tribute to the wholesome grit of the farm tradition. Yet with the nature of farming accelerating rapidly into the future, the labor he describes could soon be obsolete. Not many farmers will ever have access to a 50,000 pound robotic field scanner, but if the corporations that dominate the agriculture industry get their way, farmers will see their work transformed by smaller devices like drones, automated tractors, and mini-robots that crawl the ground.

At the front of this shift is the German company Bayer AG. We usually associate the name Bayer with aspirin – or heroin, which it trademarked in the late 1800s – but the pharmaceutical giant has steadily grown into one of biggest names in agriculture. In 2014, its market capitalization – the value of its outstanding shares – stood around $112 billion. This should soon rise: Bayer is now in the process of acquiring the American seed and pesticide firm Monsanto, itself worth around $66 billion. Now, on Bayer’s ‘Crop Science’ website, the company promotes technological upgrades geared to the future. One article mentions another ‘scanalyzer’ that ‘allows an automated measuring of crop growth.’ But planting those crops can be automated too, and to this end, Bayer promotes a robot called Prospero, an ‘agricrab’ that scuttles across fields, drills holes and deposits seeds.

Prospero’s inventor, David Dorhout, imagines a small army of these on every farm, a ‘swarm of autonomous robots’ doing all the things Alabama’s American Farmer used to do. So what happens to the farmer? Dorhout has already considered this: ‘The farmer acts like a shepherd, giving his swarm instructions,’ he says. ‘Then his robots carry out these orders by communicating with each other through infrared signals.’ In bigger picture, robots like Prospero will ‘change the role of a farmer from being a driver to an instructor, which robots will pick up,’ Dorhut continues. They will ‘alleviate the physical work of farmers, which gives them more time to focus on the economic part of their business.’

If country music gave voice to many American farmers during the 20th century, what does it have to say about the fundamental shift in farm labor that is coming to define the 21st? If farmers become robot herders, spending more time in Quicken than in the field, what will that mean for the culture that grew out of it? Will representations of farm work, like those in country music, keep pace with its realities?

The ongoing process of automation affects jobs in just about every sector of the economy, yet for farming, the shift toward robots creates a unique ideological problem. That’s because in American culture, the farmer usually represents self-sufficiency, both personal and national – the ability to live with two hands, connected to the land, without the need for modern devices like robots and computers. In country music, no song makes such a claim quite as forcefully as Hank Williams, Jr.‘s ‘A Country Boy Can Survive.’

A Number Two hit in 1984, ‘Country Boy’ beings by foretelling an apocalypse: ‘The preacher man says it’s the end of time, and the Mississippi River she’s a goin’ dry.’ The resulting environment of scarcity and conflict divides urban from rural, businessman from farmer. You can guess which side adapts quickest. Though as Hank tells it, the rural country folk barely need to adapt at all. They already know how to plow a field, harvest heirloom tomatoes and ferment wine. ‘I got a shotgun, a rifle and a 4-wheel drive,’ he sings. What more does one need?

Williams’s country folk are drawn from myth as much as fact. Subsistence farming was once common in regions like Appalachia, but by 1984, the practice was nearly extinct. In the coal mines that the singer mentions, subsistence farmers were violently incorporated into the markets of capitalism. Those still in business tend to grow one crop, like wheat or corn, as nodes in a supply chain that extends around the globe. If ‘Country Boy’ is an indignant song, some its fire seems to come from this fact: the singer has missed the first era of American household agriculture, so he eagerly anticipates the divine providence that will bring about a second.

Thus ‘Country Boy’ is at once nostalgic and millenarian. It claims to speak for the working class yet it rejects solidarity with the urban poor. Over 30 years later, it remains one of country music’s major points of reference. We hear its title spoken at the end of tracks like Montgomery Gentry’s ‘Daddy Won’t Sell the Farm’ and looped throughout Blake Shelton’s ‘Boys ‘Round Here.’ Search its title alongside the name of just about any male country star and there’s a good chance you’ll find shaky cell phone footage of a live cover.

So what happens when even farmers lose the skills that Hank Williams, Jr. is counting on? We can begin to trace this shift even in the multiple versions of ‘A Country Boy Can Survive.’ On songs like the anti-gay, anti-disco ‘Dinosaur,’ Hank Williams, Jr. proudly proclaims his obstinacy, his refusal to change with the times. But when it comes to ‘Country Boy,’ even he has twice amended his own tune. In 1999, Williams collaborated with George Jones and Chad Brock on a ‘Y2K Version’ of ‘Country Boy Can Survive.’ The update emphasized the country boy’s distance from Wall Street; a new line proclaimed that ‘if the bank machines crash, we’ll be just fine.’

Yet two years later, after the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, Williams returned to the studio to record a new version called ‘America Will Survive.’ The original had seemed to imagine a world after America, and took its own shots at downtown Manhattan, hardly acceptable in late 2001. But this latest iteration attempted to reconcile the earlier contradictions – urban and rural, farm and finance – in defense of a nation that will now triumph together. As Hank sings: 

Our flag is up since our people went down
And we’re together from the country to town
We live back in the woods
, you see
Big city problems never bothered me
But now the world has changed and so have I

A changed world needs changed country stars. Enter Luke Bryan. [….]

[And now, the article’s conclusion.]

Harlan Howard famously described country music as three chords and the truth.’ This connection-turned-cliché is one reason why companies like Bayer work so hard to become associated with country music. There’s reason to doubt the political efficacy of benefit concerts, and one may certainly hesitate to call for more, but in the 1980s and ‘90s Farm Aid somewhat successfully used music – especially rock and country – to link farming with liberal politics suspicious of big business. These politics may be milquetoast, but for corporations like those described above, that link can pose an existential threat – a bigger threat even than the money that Farm Aid raises for charity, the organization’s nominal purpose. The Here’s to the Farmer campaign should be understood in part as an intervention responding to this particular problem. Its purpose is not just to build brand awareness in the United States, but to break this chain: to encourage country listeners to identify less with a political position than with the brands themselves.

This state of affairs is troubling, but there is no reason to assume it should be final. A corresponding intervention might not just attempt to undo the advances of companies like Bayer, but rather to raise the stakes further, beyond even the bourgeois politics of organizations like Farm Aid. Such a move only seems far-fetched if we fix country to descriptors like ‘conservative’ and ‘traditional’ while ignoring the antagonisms that take shape in the music itself.

One such antagonism lies between the desire for autonomy or self-sufficiency and growth of capitalism, which requires people to submit to the market. Country music may be used to reinforce this submission, but intervention in country music might also attempt to change the way this desire is articulated within the genre, linking its fulfillment to a new anti-capitalist politics. Something like this can only happen through engagement with country music and the spaces in which it takes place. If it doesn’t happen, we might expect to hear more songs like Upchurch’s revanchist rap. Lacking anti-capitalist politics, this same desire for self-sufficiency can produce not socialism but nativism and fascism.

Meanwhile, many of the farmers that country music claims to be speaking for continue to engage in their own forms of cultural resistance, in Raymond Williams’s pre-industrial sense. After the ratification of NAFTA in 1994, indigenous farmers in Mexico, often aligned with the Zapatista movement, rejected hybrid corn seeds, arguing that they displaced native plants and destabilized local economies. In 2010, a group of Haitian peasants promised to burn hybrid seeds that Monsanto shipped into the country in the guise of earthquake relief. Now, back in the United States, two new varieties of open-pollinated corn seed have been bred specifically so that farmers can save their seeds without risking cross-pollination from hybrids or GMOs in neighboring fields. Their names ‘Rebellion’ and ‘Revolt.’”

The full article is here. (Nick Murray is journalist based in New York City. He is a former editor at Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, and has contributed to the New York Times, Pitchfork, and Vice.) 

Image: Prospero – “This micro planter from Iowa cultivates fields in a swarm: Its six legs provide the necessary stability for uneven farmland. Prospero checks whether a certain section of the soil has already been planted. It digs holes, places seeds, marks the spot and if required also sprays fertilizer or herbicides.”


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