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Mad Cows and the Market



The recent news of mad cow disease in the U.S. was first reported in the nation’s mass media as a business story. Such coverage led with the countries that had refused imports of American beef.

Stories also detailed how these import restrictions sank the stock prices of some U.S. corporations. The business growth of certain fast food outlets and restaurants was at-risk.

There are also unclear health risks to people. On that note, cows are moved to the America market from foreign markets without controls, then mixed in with other cows.

As a result, slaughtered cows infected with the brain-destroying disease can show up in an unclear number of hamburger patties. What is clear is that no cure for MCD exists.

Humans do not recover from MCD. Frightening.

There is, perhaps, a silver cloud to this unfolding story. As I see it, the case of MCD at a dairy farm in rural Washington state could pave the way for working people to re-think the official view of the market.

You find that in media attention to the falling stock prices of agribusiness giants, profits of beef and diary producers, and so forth. But where is the view of the social relations that make markets what they are?

For example, consider the role of agricultural workers. They are nearly invisible in MCD reports.

Big problem. Without such regular folks on the job, day in and day out, there are no markets for dairy and beef.

In the conventional wisdom on markets, they are, by and large, things that exist apart from working people. How many times have you heard/read/seen such news about the market moving this way or that way?

The market and its movements have an almost magic-like status, one untouched by human hands. So goes the market ideology.

Want market reality? Then you should begin to look elsewhere.

Take the workers at the dairy farm where MCD has appeared in rural Washington. They, as part of the market, were no doubt following an order from their boss to give feed infected with MCD to live cows.

This is an evident fact not at first evident in the U.S. press. I mean the relations between employees and employers in the MCD story.

The heart of that relationship is obedience. No obedience equals no job for most working people most of the time.

As millions of you know, the boss does not have to be right. S/he just has to be the boss.

Thus the agribusiness market is no different then the markets for apparel, durable goods and energy. Markets by definition generate unequal relations between employees and employers.

Coercion rules the roost. Yet that does not eliminate market cooperation.

In fact, no human being in the agribusiness market or others is independent of other people. They are all market-dependent, writes author and scholar Ellen Meiksins Wood.

To survive in a capitalist economy, people are linked to each other and to the market as consumers and producers. At one point, sellers are buyers; later, these same buyers are sellers.

What market ideology fogs is the social relations at and away from the workplace that prop up the market, while focusing on the prices of what people grow and make for sale. A dead German termed this process “commodity fetishism.”

In his view, the focus on the market exchange of commodities blurs the human energy that created them in the first place. Despite humans creating the commodity form, the former is hidden beneath the surface of the latter due to the nature of the market.

Thus we know about the exports of U.S. beef threatened by MCD. But we know little about immigrant Mexican workers inside America.

They, for example, labor in the Midwest meatpacking industry for non-union wages. There, “undocumented laborers, kept compliant by INS raids and surveillance, are increasingly the preferred employees,” author Christian Parenti writes in his book Lockdown America.

In the meantime, the MCD story is unfolding, far from over. As this history happens, a re-thinking of markets may also occur.

Such a social process should partly focus on the role played by human beings in shaping their world. After all, markets are institutions that working people sustain every day they go to work in agribusiness and other businesses.

Accordingly, the market can be changed so that working people control it instead of being controlled by it. With that consciousness emerging, they can, slowly, begin the necessary work to bury MCD and other products of the market.

SETH SANDRONSKY, a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action, is co-editor of Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at:


Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild.

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