35 Responses to Catholic Worker View of NAFTA/Immigration

  • ron chandonia says:

    EXCELLENT post! When NAFTA was passed, there were Americans who warned against this very possibility–but they were denounced as alarmists. Supposedly industry migrating to Mexico would provide jobs for all the displaced agricultural laborers. As it turned out, the only opportunities available in adequate numbers were across the border, and Americans at the time were definitely hiring. (Quite a different picture from the one the nativists paint: the one that features hordes of swarthy drug-dealer types bent on satisfying their greed by infiltrating our cities.)

  • T. Shaw says:

    NAFTA and Bush destroyed the rural economy in Mexico and points south.

    We daily read and see horrific reports of famine, mass starvation, and pestilence. It’s the Irish Potato Famine being re-played (in HD) in front of our eyes!

    Their cultures, economies and nations are ruined. Let’s wreck the US and our way of life in expiation of our sins!

    Peace and justice! The common good!!!

  • This certainly does a good job of putting human faces on the process of modernization.

    A couple point, though, at the risk of seeming heartlessly capitalist:

    - Although the constitutional reform which allowed ejido privatization was put through around the same time as NAFTA, it wasn’t actually a part of NAFTA, so much at it was part of a broader effort at economic development on the part of Mexico of which NAFTA was also a part.

    - Perverse as it may seem, one of the points of the ejido reform was precisely what is described here: reducing the number of workers employed in agriculture in Mexico. (see this brief piece from 1992 about ejido reform, written by the San Francisco Federal Reserve) Prior to the reform, as the Catholic Worker article also states, 26% of Mexican workers were agricultural workers. However, as the SF Fed article points out, agriculture was responsible for less than 10% of the Mexican GDP. In other words, farmers were among Mexico’s poorer and less productive workers. The belief was that this was that the small plots on communal land of the ejidos caused low productivity and lack of capital investment in improving the land. Mexican authorities believed that allowing privatization and selling or leasing of ejido land would allow larger farms to be established, productivity to increase, and large numbers of former farm workers to go into more productive industries. Usually, having a small percentage of your population engaged in agriculture (while having a large agricultural output) is actually a good thing for your country. For instance, the US has seen steadily increasing agricultural output from 1945 to the present, but has seen the percentage of the population working an agriculture drop from 16% to 2%.

    - Although, as the Catholic Worker article points out, the percentage of Mexican workers employed in agriculture has dropped from 26% to 16% in 20 years, the total agricultural output of Mexico has actually increased steadily throughout that period. That actually means more food, less hunger, and overall improved conditions for Mexicans overall.

    - This kind of drastic societal change always comes at a significant personal cost for those affected. The US went through this same period of increasing agricultural output, but rapidly dropping rural population. We did the 26% to 16% change between 1925 and 1945 — a period which isn’t really remembered fondly. My dad’s mother and her family were directly effected by the US version of this dislocation. They lost their farm in Ryan, Iowa, piled everyone into the Ford, and drove out to California in search of work in the early 30s. Given that Ryan now has a population of only 400, and an average income well under the national average, that may have worked out well in the end. But it was far from fun for the first decade.

  • Art Deco says:

    We did the 26% to 16% change between 1925 and 1945 — a period which isn’t really remembered fondly.

    The banking crises and associated contraction in output during the period running from the fall of 1929 through the spring of 1933 and the aftereffects thereof are why the period is not remembered fondly. These were not a necessary component of the shift from agricultural to non-agricultural employment. (One of the previous generation in my household quit farming in 1949; I cannot recall he ever said it was a wrenching experience).

  • Certainly, the rapid shift from agricultural to city labor wasn’t the only thing going on during the depression, but for a lot of families that “lost the farm” that dislocation was a major part of the story. We even got Grapes of Wrath out of it, for all that’s worth.

    It was also the motive behind some of FDR’s more idiotic policies — like destroying large quantities of food in order to keep prices up.

    After all, for rural banks, one of the main sources of bank failures was when heavily leveraged farmers got hit with falling prices and the dust bowl at the same time, and so starting defaulting on their mortgages and heading out for the coasts. (What made it a lot easier on them than Mexican peasants, however, is that they mostly had at least an 8th grade education, which amounts to rather more than a high school education these days. And they spoke the language.)

  • Phillip says:

    Darwin,

    You make excellent points. Part of the limits of human understanding is the consequences our actions will produce. Often the consequences are not what we expected and can frequently be for the worse (I think Health Care Reform will be an excellent example.) But one also has to look at what NAFTA has accomplished. There has been a human cost but also a human gain. The whole truth needs to be looked at so that it can be objectively assessed and good maintained and the bad corrected.
    I think such an approach is consistent with Catholic Social teaching. As Benedict XVI noted in Caritas in Veritate, charity must be in accord with the truth. Otherwise it becomes mere sentimentalism. So a detailed, economic analysis of NAFTA along with the personal stories is required by CST so that the truth can lead charity.

  • Yes, and if it wasn’t clear from what I wrote above: I am in favor of NAFTA (and the changes to the Mexican constitution allowing for the privitization of the ejidos) because I think that it will, in the end, be to the common good of Mexicans.

    A demand that people be allowed to remain subsistance farmers has a certain romance for moral tourists, but it’s notable that none of us choose to go be subsistance farmers. The intermediate stages may be misable, and the suffering of people who find themselves displaced against their will is real, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not in fact a road to a better situation. My grandmother’s family, for instance, was much better off as a result of losing the family farm and having to move to California. It took a good ten years or more for them to be better off, but in the end they were — and certainly their descendants are.

  • Phillip says:

    Three of my four grandparents came here from Mexico. It was very rough in the beginning. My maternal grandparents raised 13 children through the depression. All my aunts and uncles are doing exceptionally well in America. Much better than relatives who stayed in Mexico. Disruptions is sometimes painful, but in the long-term helpful.

  • Nate Wildermuth says:

    “Usually, having a small percentage of your population engaged in agriculture (while having a large agricultural output) is actually a good thing for your country.”

    As Peter Maurin put so well, a child is an asset on the land, but a liability in the city. It would be far better if most of us lived on the land, farming and making crafts, engaged in a distributist economy that put people before profits.

  • Mike Petrik says:

    Like most people I’m perfectly willing to go along with Nate’s vision as long as I’m not one of the “most” engaged in farming and craft-making.

  • Well, yeah. I don’t mean to sound like a jerk by putting this so bluntly, but if Maurin was right, why is it that even the vast majority of those involved in the Catholic Worker movement do not in fact live on the land farming and making crafts? I would assume that if this was clearly preferable at a human level, more people would be doing it.

  • Mike Petrik says:

    Darwin,
    It is, of course, because “other people” should be doing it. It always is. People with advanced degrees in social work, philosophy, etc have more refined vocations, such as organizing and leading a society that successfully requires “most people” to engage in land farming and craft-making, for their own good of course.

  • Blackadder says:

    As Peter Maurin put so well, a child is an asset on the land, but a liability in the city. It would be far better if most of us lived on the land, farming and making crafts, engaged in a distributist economy that put people before profits.

    A child is an asset when there are no child labor laws or Social Security, and a liability when there is (which is not to say that we should do away with Social Security or laws against child labor; it’s just to note that it is those laws, rather than the geographical location in which a child grows up, that are responsible for children being an economic liability vs. an economic asset).

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    I reject what my fiancee and I affectionately call “Shire” Distributism – this reactionary view that we’re all going to go back to the land and till the soil for the good of our souls.

    I support anyone who wants to do that but realistically it is never going to become the dominant economy ever again.

    There’s a reason why the Papacy never advocated such a return to the land either. The Papal view of Distributism is much more realistic, it talks about how the idea can be applied in modern society, in modern businesses and modern economies.

  • Blackadder says:

    I reject what my fiancee and I affectionately call “Shire” Distributism – this reactionary view that we’re all going to go back to the land and till the soil for the good of our souls.

    Shire Distributism. I may have to steal that.

  • To be fair, Maurin did in fact live on the agricultural Catholic Worker communes, so at least he followed his own advice. But though I’m not deeply read in Catholic Worker history, it doesn’t seem to have been an overall good for many families. I recall reading an interview a while back where Dorothy Day’s daughter talked about how intense trying to live up to that rural ideal was, and said that it was one of the reasons why she’s no longer practicing her faith.

  • Nate Wildermuth says:

    Well, friends, there are many Catholic Worker farms, and the Catholic Worker movement is still in its infancy – barely 75 years since its founding. Most Catholic Workers that I know do not have advanced degrees, and try to ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. Of course, there are elements of every movement that do not adhere to its founding vision, but those elements will not last.

    Shire Distributism! I will have to use that phrase. But Joe, have you considered that the dominant economy, that of capitalistic industrialism, will collapse one day? I am convinced that it will. And what then?

  • Nate Wildermuth says:

    Peter Maurin used a great phrase too – Agronomic Universities – a place where scholars could be workers, and workers could be scholars. Like living in the Shire, but with a great many books and a great many vocations! Love it! Someone want to donate me some land in Missouri?

  • Actually, I think the brilliant thing about “Shire Distributism” is that both proponents and opponents would like the term.

    To me, I think the thing it points out is that Tolkien’s shire was knowingly an idealized place — one which Tolkien wasn’t trying to write about as a realistic society. Tolkien was evoking an image of the English countryside which even to him was just a distant childhood memory. And so he’s not worrying about topics like: If a farmer has four sons, and just the right amount of land to support the family well, which of his sons gets to marry and have a family and inherit the farm, and which three need to work as unmarried laborer or else go find non-family land somewhere else?

    And indeed, I think the disagreement over Shire Distributism is very much one between idealism and practicality.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    “I reject what my fiancee and I affectionately call “Shire” Distributism – this reactionary view that we’re all going to go back to the land and till the soil for the good of our souls.”

    Having done a fair amount of agricultural labor in my pre-lawyer incarnation I can guarantee that most people would truly hate earning their living by “working the land”. Additionally there simply wouldn’t be enough land for “city-folk” to make a living doing it, even if they adopted an Amish life style.

    I am pretty familiar with the Amish here in Illinois.

    http://www.amishillinois.com/towns/arcola.htm

    I admire their way of life, but it is definitely only a way of life for a highly disciplined, extremely hardworking and tightly knit group.

  • Blackadder says:

    Peter Maurin used a great phrase too – Agronomic Universities – a place where scholars could be workers, and workers could be scholars. Like living in the Shire, but with a great many books and a great many vocations!

    Whenever I hear ideas like this I can’t help but be reminded of Mao’s line about how “knowledgable youth should go to the country, to be educated from living in rural poverty.” Of course Maurin was a fundamentally decent man, and never would have used the methods Mao used to bring his vision about (which may partly explain why Maurin’s views were never put into practice on a large scale).

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    I like the article linked below on shire economics:

    “Take the idea of the Shire as an ideal community. When I first read the book, I thought the Shire was the most realistic part, and that Minas Tirith, a sort of cross between Camelot and Rome on its seven hills, was artificial. But the Shire is a complete fantasy; no subsistence farming community (and as the hobbits don’t manufacture or trade much, they have to be classed as subsistence) have among their ranks people like Frodo or Bilbo. The Shire is a farming community without farmers. Frodo, Bilbo, Pippin, Merry and even the Sackville-Bagginses are all middle class, and middle classes don’t occur in close-knit farming communities. The middle class is a result of trade, surplus, commerce and an administration that needs well-educated people to run it. Middle classes are an urban phenomena.

    Even Sam is not a farmer, he is a gardener; there is a big difference, farmers grow crops, gardeners grow flowers.

    To cite the Shire, therefore, as a model community to counter the ills of modernism is very unwise. Even in the book, Frodo is regarded by the hobbits are eccentric. In a real Shire, he might be driven out as a witch for knowing Elvish. And without Frodo, would we really want to be like the Daddy Two-foots and Ted Sandymans? A community that is close-knit and anti-authoritarian can also be claustrophic and backward.

    The greatest casualty of modernity is the environment, and Tolkien and his writing appeal strongly to people who wish desperately to preserve the natural world. As Tony Shell says, Tolkien can ‘provide an extraordinarily sublime feeling of immanence and essential vitality to the natural world..’

    But would we all want to do without the trappings of modernity, even to save the natural world? I would do without a car, gladly. Even the washing machine, although beating out clothes on the river bank while exchanging gossip with the other village maidens is not really my thing.

    But doing without medicine, basic healthcare, street lighting, accessible education, juries, pcs, cinemas, freedom of speech, that is another. But these, as well as the destruction of the enviroment, are trappings of modernity. My own grandfather was a ploughman in one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland. But he died within 24 hours of pneumonia from sleeping in a damp, if picturesque, cottage. People who advocate such a return to traditional communities and ways of life are often city folk who forget that such an existence was described as ‘nasty, brutish and short’. because it was.”

    http://lotrscrapbook.bookloaf.net/essay/varda/contents/varda_paradise.html

  • The Shire isn’t exactly a rural society — it’s more an idealized English country village. Think the Highbury of Jane Austen’s Emma. But even more so than in Emma, we only see the members of the essentially idle class. Bilbo (and Frodo later) never had a Baggins estate so far as we can tell, where actual tennant farmers raise crops to produce income. Nor does one get the impression that one can make all one’s money off investments in the Shire (as the Mr. Woodhouse in Emma apparently does) — it’s a country village, with a country village’s upper class, but not London to provide more complex investment for those not actively running an estate or business.

    I’d say that’s probably because Tolkien isn’t attempting to be realistic in his portrayal of the Shire. Minas Tirith and Rohan are portrayed (in the book — unlike in the movie where these cities sit in the middle of totally empty plains) as fairly realistic pre-industrial cities with outlying farmlands and villages. But the Shire (perhaps in part because it very much dates back to The Hobbit, which is more a children’s book in its atmospher; partly because it is an intentional evocation of Tolkien’s childhood memories) isn’t thought out in traditional social structures so much as it draws on traditional characters and institutions without giving much thought to how they’d fit together.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Wow look what I started!

    “I’d say that’s probably because Tolkien isn’t attempting to be realistic in his portrayal of the Shire.”

    And neither are some Distributists in their view of politics and economics.

    Nate,

    “But Joe, have you considered that the dominant economy, that of capitalistic industrialism, will collapse one day? I am convinced that it will. And what then?”

    Well, I’m not so sure industry itself will collapse.

    The civilization we have now may very well collapse, though.

    And so I fully support people who want to learn basic survival skills, basic farming skills. I think we should all have some knowledge of these things because we may need them in the future.

    But we should also try to preserve the civilization we have and not give in totally to fatalism. Of course everyone has to make calculations based on what they think the future will hold.

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