A flawed catalogue of crimes

November 17, 1993

Bushwhacked: Life in George. W. Bush's America
By Molly Ivins & Lou Dubose
Allison and Busby & Wakefield Press, 2004


In a well-known passage of the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels comment on how the capitalist mode of production dehumanises those who work under its yoke: "Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the worker. He becomes an appendage of the machine."

In describing life in the world's richest country, Ivins and Dubose build on their experiences of US President George Bush's time as governor of Texas to paint a vivid picture of what it is like for those forced to become appendages of the machine. They spell out how in today's USA, 6000 people are killed at work every year, 165 people die each day of occupational diseases, and 1.8 million people annually are disabled by work-related physical injuries.

In a chapter that describes how the Bush administration killed off legislation designed to protect workers from repetitive strain injury and the like, we are introduced to Sherry Durst, a 22-year-old worker in the Freshwater Farms catfish processing plant in Mississippi: "For eight to ten hours a day, Durst grabs a catfish off the conveyor belt, presses one of its sides against a set of blades mounted on a high-speed rotor, then flips the fish and repeats the process. Then she grabs another, and another, and another."

In the space of one morning Durst skins "between thirty-six hundred and four thousand catfish ... In order to keep her job at Freshwater Farms, Durst has to skin a minimum of twelve fish a minute". In a 40-hour week, Durst will skin between 50,000 and 60,000 catfish, in return for $240, a wage that puts her just marginally above the federal poverty level.

Most people on the left believe that Bush is a corrupt, warmongering, bible-thumping menace. Ivins and Dubose do a good job of detailing the reasons why such an assessment is common, and warranted. They take us through Bush's record of insider trading, his involvement in the Enron scandal, his slashing of government regulation of big corporations, his assault on public education, his attempts to stall food-safety regulations developed by former president Bill Clinton and his connection with the lunatic religious right.

Much of this is delivered with great gusto and caustic humour. For example, in a chapter detailing how the Bush administration ensures that big chemical companies have free reign to plunder and despoil the environment, they write: "Reporters who covered his campaign in 2000 asked the wrong questions. Bush has a chemical dependency problem, but it's not cocaine. It's Monsanto, Dow, and Union Carbide. They wrote the cheques that put him in the Texas governor's mansion."

This is all very good, and I doubt whether anyone on the left would fail to learn something new from the catalogue of Bush's crimes. But in many ways, this is a disappointing and frustrating book. It becomes clear very rapidly that, for all their invective against Bush, Ivins and Dubose are quite happy to support the economic system that spawned him. For example: "The free market is a wonderful thing — but it functions well only within a nest of law and regulation."

They lament, "All of us are responsible for our magnificent political heritage winding up in a system of legalized bribery". Their political heroes are heroic defenders of the oppressed such as Democrat politicians Ted Kennedy and Clinton, and despite a few mild gestures of disapproval towards the latter, they think that US capitalism was basically AOK until Bush turned up.

"Magnificent political heritage"? Trying telling this to the people of Argentina, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Chile, Korea, Columbia, Palestine and all the other countries that the USA or its agents plundered and raped long before George.W. sobered up and bought his way into the White House.

Many of the facts that Ivins and Dubose turn up indicate that Bush is only a symptom of the disease that underlies the US political system, not, as they imply, the disease itself. For example, they point out that between 1996 and 1998 (when Clinton was president), the following big companies paid zero taxes: AT&T, Bristol-Myers Squib, Chase Manhattan, Enron, General Electric, Microsoft, Pfizer, and Philip Morris.

Predictably, Jimmy Carter isn't portrayed as the sanctimonious hypocrite whose secret orders led to the Taliban taking power in Afghanistan, but rather as a president who "based his public policy" on "emphasising human rights". If that isn't enough to make you weep, the advice that Ivins and Dubose give to Sherry Durst on how to change the system is: "Lost your job? Need health insurance? Child care? Try voting!". Unfortunately, those of us who are not US citizens don't have that option. But, fortunately, we do still have Marx and Engels.

From Green Left Weekly, August 11, 2004.
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