The Politics of Food is Politics
In recent days, we have seen the rising price of oil and the devaluation of the dollar create two quantum shifts in the economy: the beginning of the collapse of the air travel industry and a global crisis of food-price inflation. These are related in ways that are crucial to understand — because we are seeing the outlines of an historic opportunity to change the terms of theory and practice for a politics of resistance.As air carriers have gone bankrupt, the knock-on effects on travel agents, airports, airport-colocated hotels, “package” vacation resorts, etc. are considerable.
This is how one cascade pours into another, as the manifold contradictions of our global system merge and co-amplify. Tourism, which was supposed to be a relatively benign, non-extractive industry for colonized nations — an alternative to brutal extraction and cash cropping — turns out to have been just as extractive all along due to the climate (and cultural) damage done by commodified air travel.
The end of cheap air tourism may seem like a good thing. And yet the collapse of tourism, in economies where the culture and scenery have become a last-ditch cash crop, can have effects just as disastrous as the collapse of any other external commodity market in a country that has been sucked into the undertow of global capitalism.
How much more devastating is the catastrophic cascade of food price inflation? (It’s also directly related, by the way, to the plateau of global oil production in the face of relentless expansion of “demand” — more on this below.) They’re intertwined; the downsizing of air tourism reduces money income for populations dependent on the global capitalist economy for staple foods, just at the moment when scarcity, uncertainty, and rampant speculation are causing staple food prices to spike.
It’s not a pretty picture, and the mainstream media are reporting on it with breathless alarm and utterly unjustified surprise; commentators from various perspectives (left, environmental, anti-colonialist, even libertarians) have seen this coming for a while.
Why Us? Why Now?
The airline industry has been very forthright about their problems. They are saying, “We were neither tooled nor organized for $120-a-barrel oil.” Most of us get this, because we associate transport technology with fossil hydrocarbons. We drive cars; and we buy the gas to put in those cars. Planes run on No. 1 Jet Fuel and if oil prices go up, so does the cost of jet fuel. Most of us are less likely to associate is oil prices with food prices.
We buy food at the supermarket; so we don’t generally experience — directly — the association between fuel and food. The connection, however, is every bit as central in the current food production regime as the link between aircraft engines and their fuel. Industrial monocropping for global distribution is “neither tooled nor organized for oil at $120-a-barrel.” It is not just the far-flung food transport network (much of it refrigerated and fuel-hungry) that creates the intimate dependency on oil; it is the whole scheme called industrial (or corporate, or “modern”) agriculture.
This oil/food link — during the onset of what some call the Peak Oil event — has resulted almost overnight in steep food-price inflation, hitting peripheral economies like a tsunami.
Half the world’s population survives on less than $2 per person per day. Even an increase of a few pennies for a kilo of rice can threaten survival on such a slender margin. That — on the surface — is why we are witnessing an outbreak of food riots around the globe.The unexamined assumption, however, is that it’s somehow natural for human beings to be in the position of abject dependence on cash money to obtain food.
We said that we are seeing the outlines of “an historic opportunity to change the terms of theory and practice for a politics of resistance.” In a real sense, however, we are suggesting a return to a perennial politics of resistance: the defense of “peasant” (smallholder, local) agriculture against imperial profit-takers. We are embarking upon an epoch that might best be called “imperial capitalist exterminism,” in which billions of people may be left — through calculated villainy or sheer stupidity — to the tender mercies of war, pestilence, and famine as “externalities” of the so-called “free market.”
In this new world order, the old class antagonisms across the axis of employer-employee have been replaced by debtor-creditor and producer/processor, and material “contractions” in the economy have transformed the “reserve army of labor” into “surplus people”… a darwinian nightmare leaving us nearly 7 billion souls at extreme risk.
Though the brunt — as always — is now being borne by the most marginal and fragile, the over-developed industrial metropoles are not escaping the impact of this crisis. In the United States, the culmination of a decades-long crisis of capital accumulation — which has heretofore been exported to the rest of the world — is coming home to roost in the form of a severe “credit crisis” at the same time as the oil price spike. We are entering a protracted period of stagflation: economic stagnation (recession) combined with price inflation (due in part to the impact of oil prices on virtually all economic sectors). We in the US are more deeply in debt, personally and nationally, than at any time in our history. And the key products that are driving up our cost of living — even as our net worths stagnate and fall back — are basically gasoline and food.
We metropolitan Americans panic when we contemplate the possibility of becoming unable to afford our private automobiles. This is not just because of our legendary ego-attachment to the car. The primary reason we panic is because we need our cars to get to our jobs (at least one study has suggested that Americans spend 20 percent of their take-home pay on their cars, so we are working one day out of five to pay for the car so we can drive to the job). And we need our jobs.
It’s a given: people need their jobs. But why? Because without the income from those jobs, we and our children don’t eat. Our access to food is permitted only when it’s mediated by money — which we can only obtain by working (for the ruling class) or by becoming wards of the state (which, increasingly involves coerced labour).
Once again, gasoline and food are intimately entwined — in the mesh of dependencies that keeps us all obedient to the bosses of the monetized economy. Most people can’t eat without participating in the money economy because they have been driven off the land, and live in high-density “people storage” buildings without any access to living soil; or because, despite living in the suburbs or semi-rural areas with ample access to soil, they lack the skills and knowledge to produce their own food; or the soil they do have access to has been killed by industrial farming practises and can only “produce” by means of massive external inputs that must be purchased from the money economy (and the extractive industries).
The fossil/extractive industries and the money economy have built fences all around the food supply, from production to consumption. We play their game or we don’t eat. Now their game is coming apart at the seams.
Food is Not What it Once Was
Now it may be time to take a longer view and remember how these fences around food were built. The story of the last 200 years can be told many ways, but one way we can tell it is as the triumph of the extractive industries — and their mindset and methods — over all other human activities. The masters of mining and metallurgy, and of colonialist exploitation, have their fundamental premises: a reductionist approach that isolates the “valuable” in any “resource base”, separates it from the “dross”, and discards — externalizes — the “dross” while selling the “high value” extracted product for the best price possible.
With the rise of industrial capitalism (itself built on intensive colonial extraction) these premises became definitive for all human activities in the dominant imperial culture — including those where such premises would be more than merely dysfunctional, they would (eventually, if adhered to rigorously) be fatal for their practitioners. We now practice farming as an extractive industry supported by other extractive industries: mining topsoil and fossil water, growing only a handful of predetermined “high value” crops and discarding/exterminating all other cultivars, and seeking “best price” in markets regardless of distance and appropriateness (if it makes more money to grow palm trees for biofuel to ship to wealthy customers overseas, then by all means destroy peasant smallholdings that produced food for local people, or forest that maintained water circulation and climate stability, in order to establish massive monocrop palm oil plantations).
The mindset and praxis of mining has been superimposed on all other activities: fishing is now practiced as stripmining by factory trawlers, bottom draggers, etc. The “bycatch” phenomenon, decimating hundreds of species as “collateral damage” in the hunt for select high-value species, is directly analogous to the proliferation of slag piles and acid pools around mining operations.
Dairy farming is practised as stripmining, pumping external inputs (hormones and other drugs) into heifers to force maximum production and extraction of the “high value” product (milk), and discarding the “dross” (a cow burnt out as a milk producer by the age of 3 and sold for cheap meat). This extractive praxis is guaranteed to destroy biotic systems — whether it be the body of a cow, or an entire ecosystem — because no biotic system can survive being stripped for specific “high value” parts.
Ecosystems, like animals, function as a whole. The rates of return demanded by finance capitalism are inherently incompatible with the rate of solar return expressed by natural growth patterns in biotic systems. We are biological — biotic — creatures, and all our food is the product of biotic systems. The extractive mindset that capitalism requires to provide its fantastical rates of return is incompatible with biotic reality.
Capitalism and food have been on a collision course from the beginning. The forcing of higher rates of return out of biotic systems to satisfy finance capital and to conform to the extractive metaphor, requires doing such violence to individual organisms and to entire ecosystems, that very soon grotesque amounts of tinkering and external input are required to maintain (temporarily) an unsustainable “harvest.”
In animal husbandry this translates to the need for massive doses of antibiotics and other medications to enable animals to (barely) survive the cruel and pathogenic conditions of factory farming; in agriculture it translates into the systemic weakness of monocrop plantations which similarly require massive doses of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers etc. to compensate for what is effectively a sickly biotic system, with a compromised immune response, low resilience, no robustness.
These massive external inputs are all fossil-based: they come from the extractive/chemical/synthetic sector (the sector of human endeavor that, in the “advanced” West, has dominated culture and industry since the early 1900’s). That sector in turn is the product of — is wholly dependent on — cheap fossil energy.
The maintenance of factory farms and feedlots like terminal patients on perpetual life-support has proven very profitable for the chemical/fossil sector. It has proven, temporarily, profitable for agribusiness which reaped record returns. And it has, as a side benefit, “improved the efficiency” of farming to such a startling extent that fewer than 2 percent of Americans still work on the land producing food. This means — from a capitalist boss perspective — that 98 percent of the population can be held to ransom for money, being unable to produce their own food. (And even those two percent of Americans who still farm often get all their household food from a corporate supermarket, since what they grow on their vast overcapitalized monocrop spreads is not edible by humans but merely the feedstock for industrial processes.)
The Official Story
Why do we tolerate it — and the near-totalitarian control exercised over our food supply by a handful of giant agribiz combines? In part we tolerate monopoly and lousy quality in our food economy because the public believes industry propaganda that (in Margaret Thatcher’s infamous phrase) There Is No Alternative. The industry has cranked out a relentless barrage of propaganda for the last 50+ years, the gist of which can be summarised as follows:
* Industrial farming (aka the Green Revolution, one of history’s more painfully ironic misnomers) has increased yields per acre
* Given the pressure of present and future population growth, only industrial farming can feed the world
* Industrial farming is hygienic, scientific, smart and safe; all earlier farming techniques were dirty, primitive, ignorant and inferior
However, present circumstances impel us to ask what is smart or safe about a farming praxis that destroys topsoil and depletes millennia of subterranean water accumulation in a matter of decades; what is hygienic about a farming praxis that notoriously contaminates soil and watersheds with industrial chemicals, or creates “lagoons” of unmanageably concentrated animal urine and manure, or produces food that routinely generates “health scandal” headlines; and what is scientific about a farming praxis that routinely disregards the most basic principles of ecosystem theory and management. Add to the mix the fragility of a farming praxis utterly dependent on a fast-depleting finite resource like fossil fuels, and it looks more and more like folly … or a con game.
According to the industry propaganda line, only industrial farming can feed the world because industrial farming increased yields, and previous methods of farming were inadequate. Therefore, according to industry propaganda, the solution to the present food crisis is to throw more technology at it — namely, genetic modification to produce organisms that can somehow survive or even thrive in the cruel and pathogenic conditions of factory farming. (The fact that intellectual property law related to GMOs could then be used to extend the centralized control of food production into a completely enclosed monopoly is, of course, merely coincidental.)
To deconstruct this seamless “no alternative” story we have to return to the first big lie: that the Green Revolution (chemical/factory farming) improved agriculture, increasing efficiency/yields, reducing pest losses, making the best use of land, etc. In the short term some of the claims appear to be true: you can grow larger vegetables if you salt the soil with artificial fertilizers, and this appears to improve yields per hectare.
However, several studies confirm that foods produced biotically (“organically” in the somewhat confusing US idiom) are more nutritious than the larger and more cosmetically perfect factory-farmed equivalent; not only are they uncontaminated with chemical poisons, but they are more nutrient-dense, ounce for ounce, than the industrial product. In this case, what “yield” means to the industrial ag-nexus is not food — not nutritional value for people to eat — but hundredweight of marketable commodity.
In terms of “efficiency,” industrial agriculture does indeed look efficient from the finance capitalist point of view: using large mechanised devices to plant, harvest and process uniform, engineered monocrop from vast regimented plantations means that labour can be minimised: fossil fuels and machinery substitute for human labour, so that the wages/subsistence of workers/peasants are eliminated as an “operating cost”. So long as fossil fuels are dirt (so to speak) cheap, this is efficient (in terms of realizing maximum profit on a hundredweight of commodity); and it creates a large alienated, captive labor pool of people who at one time had some kind of food self-sufficiency as agricultural laborers and smallholders, but are now thrown into the industrial/money economy in utter dependency. But in the long term, it seems patently absurd to call any farming method “efficient” if it invests 10 fossil fuel calories to produce one calorie of food; or if it uses up a inch of topsoil for every 13 years or so of farming the same fields. (F. H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries documents practices which permitted Asian peasant farmers to plant and harvest on the same land for 4 millennia without exhausting the soil; North American topsoil 21 inches deep or more prior to European colonization is now down to 6 inches or less in many areas after only 200 years.)
In the long term, even the initial successes of the Green Revolution (GR) are hollowed out by diminishing returns and inconvenient facts: losses to pests are now higher per hectare than they were before the GR, despite the application of more and more costly high-tech pesticides. Monocrop plantations are simply too sickly, and pests are too rapidly-evolving and adaptive, for anything other than an endless treadmill of escalating cost and increasing toxicity. The artificial fertilizer and heavy machinery treadmill is very similar: for the first few years, yields may seem to improve, but soon the application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides kills the soil, over-irrigation and heavy equipment compact it into hardpan, and what was fertile farmland becomes, essentially, semi-desert — a near-sterile growing medium requiring more and more chemical inputs to support plants in a kind of gigantic outdoor hydroponic garden.
The Happy Ever After story of the Green Revolution and Better Living Through Chemistry is not wearing well. Moreover, contrary to industry claims, there is an alternative; and the alternative has — potentially — profound political implications (which is precisely why the finance capital/extractive nexus wishes to eliminate it from public discourse).
Another Agriculture is Possible
Many well-substantiated studies show that intensive biotic polyculture — that is, the cultivation of many species of food plants in a small footprint, using biotic soil amendments and nutrient recycling — produces far more food per hectare than factory farming; uses far less water; and builds, rather than destroying, topsoil.
Although more human ingenuity, care, and attention are required, the adoption of permaculture principles and techniques reduces the drudgery of food production considerably; the permaculturist is assisting food to grow rather than forcing it to grow (or more hubristically, “growing” it), which is much less work all round than our cartoon cultural memory of dawn-to-dusk backbreaking peasant labor (which became backbreaking to pay “tribute” and debts to people with weapons and ledgers, not survive).
What intensive biotic polyculture does not do is maximise money profits, minimise labour inputs, or facilitate large-scale extractive cash-cropping.
For these reasons — not for any failure to produce food for eating — it is derided by industrial agribiz “experts” as impractical, inefficient, inadequate, etc. In fact, poly/permaculture’s abundant success in producing food for eating is one of the things that makes it a frightening prospect for those who control people by controlling people’s access to food.
What they don’t want us to know is that it works. Eisenia hortensis — the European nightcrawler (earthworm) — under ideal worm-farming (vermiculture) conditions double their volume through reproduction every 90 days. Each individual worm can eat approximately half its body weight each day. A pound of E. hortensis, then, can consume a half-pound of non-oily, vegetable kitchen scraps each day. The majority of that mass is excreted as an extremely high quality compost, with a bit of fluid (worm tea) left over (considered by many to be the organic uber-fertilizer). So, potentially, one pound of worms can convert around 180 pounds of kitchen scraps each year into the highest quality organic soil additive. Every five pounds of worm-castings can convert one-square surface-foot of soil into a super-producer for a four months. So one pound of worms can sustain 12 square surface-feet of garden throughout the year for the highest levels of productivity.
My own [Stan's] anecdotal evidence, without using worm castings but using simply composting mulch on organic compost over non-compacted soil, is that in 12 square surface-feet, one can grow three species of food, with six plants each… producing okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, peas, bush beans, etc. Mixing them, and adding a couple of marigolds and aromatics (like mint or parilla) seems to keep the little critters from taking more than their share. Last summer I had one cucumber vine that produced around 50 mature cucumbers, totalling well over 20 pounds of food, for around three months. By rotating seasonals, it is easily conceivable to take a 12 square-foot plot in a temperate zone and raise 100 pounds of food a year… being very conservative. Neither Syngenta, nor Cargill, nor Archer-Daniels-Midland want you to know this.
They want to sell you mass-produced food, for money… which you have to work for. Let us not forget that Enclosure (forcing people off the land, or separating them from their land) was the method used to compel people into the monetized industrial economy in the first place. A 12-foot garden bed is three-feet by four-feet. How many of these can you build on a half an acre? The key is always in the design.
But by design, we mean learning — as in the design philosophy of “permaculture” — how to work with nature, and not to attempt the vain conquest of nature. The key to that design — aside from the mechanical tricks of trellising, water catchment, etc. — is to create the conditions for increasing dynamic biotic complexity, beginning at the micro-level with the soil itself.
We are not accustomed, especially on the political left, to thinking about such practical activities as “political.” We are still trapped in a strategic-theoretical model that equates power with policy, and policy is then undertaken as a purely ideological struggle. The persuasion of the word and the concept is given primacy over the persuasion of actual conditions and deeds. Metaphorically, we have constructed a line, running from left to right, and we use a constellation of policy-issues to place both people and discourse along that line.
The system, however, reproduces itself most earnestly through “facts-on-the-ground.” Fighting a system with nothing more than ideas is the most Quixotic, and ineffectual, form of struggle. Before we can suggest ideas, we must first have some facts-on-the-ground of our own to point to. Fortunately, we do. Some of them have just been recited above. We just need to point to them with more urgency now. Because the facts-on-the-ground of the present capitalist system, as we can see, have slammed into something like the end of an unexpected cul-de-sac. The epidemic of dollar hegemony has torn through the world like a plague; but plagues burn themselves out when all who are susceptible have been wiped out.
The airlines have run into the deep impasse of tooling and organization… and so has our food system. Our system has arrived decisively at what Ivan Illich called its second watershed: all our “cures” have become the disease. We are in a state of accelerating iatrogensis. The capitalist/extractive/technomanagerial system can only prescribe more of the same medicine that is killing us… or new medicines to treat the symptoms of the last medicine. This is not a metaphorical treadmill, but a downward spiral… and there is a bottom.
This may look gradual and incremental in the daily chronos of our lives; but in the larger sweep of historical kairos — a time that punctuates and disrupts chronos — the convergence of a crisis in dollar hegemony with the energetic limits to “growth” (a wicked bit of misnaming if ever there was one) has been concentrated on the reality of food — a reality from which no one can escape. Those in the commanding heights of the world food regime are watching their edifice begin to crumble.
Meanwhile, we already have our facts, our examples; and we have an opportunity — through sheer necessity driven by empty bellies — to expand those facts while the toppling food regime falls into its inexorable disarray. This is a teachable moment if ever there was one.
What is a Food Issue? Why Do We Need a Politics of Food Praxis?
At the policy level, because we would never eschew that, there is a nascent opposition to the “Farm Bill” — a massive annual government giveaway to agri-business. The left is not alone in its oppositon to this. Libertarians oppose it, too. Does it matter why?
The grotesque dysfunctions and injustices of the Farm Bill are visible to people across the political spectrum: more importantly perhaps, so is the unsatisfactory quality of the food and pseudo-food produced by the agribusiness cartels coddled by the Farm Bill. This is a food issue.
Free-trade agreements are ultimately designed to convert foreign economies into dollar-generating export platforms; and agriculturally this means monocropping at the expense of peasants, the urban poor, and the globe’s disappearing forests. This is a food issue.
US agricultural “dumping” is facilitated by massive government subsidies to agribusiness, which also facilitate the competitive destruction of local small producers. This same dumping introduces patented and GMO foods and seeds into the Third World to extend the reach of intellectual property lawsuits (a prime weapon of the extractive nexus against small producers). That is a food issue.
36 million households in the US are “food insecure,” because food is largley available only on the monetized economy; and poor people have very little money. This is a food issue. The food we do eat is filled with chemicals and contaminants — because the regulatory agencies (like the Food and Drug Adminsitration) have been converted into industry advocates by the determining role of money in politics (Ethanol, for example, is a vote-buying scheme, with ADM behind the scenes.). And because the industrial methods of farming require chemicals and contaminants to compensate for their pathogenic and violent treatment of creatures and biotic systems. These are food issues.
Health authorities increasingly acknowledge that the “western diet,” especially the western/industrial junk-food diet, is associated with the onset or the exacerbation of many debilitating diseases and conditions. Meanwhile, our medical care system is in crisis, in an endless death spiral of increasing demand and increasing cost. Our hospitals contain McDonald’s franchise outlets. These are food issues.
Our children are subjected to crap-food propaganda in school; and they eat crap food there. Corporations are behind this; and they intentionally addict our kids to crap-food. Some schools have begun to grow their own food; and the gardens are used as practical pedagogical tools as well as a source for clean food, with great success. Behavioral problems drop dramaticaly when kids eat clean, fresh food. These are food issues.
Anal-retentive white homeowners associations, who “associate” (pun intended) vegetable gardens with (eewwww) immigrants and dark-skinned folks, prohibit vegetable gardens in their neighborhoods (in the belief that veggies lower property values). This is a food issue. The agribusiness cartels are already trying to “crack down” on CSAs, farmers’ markets and other direct producer-to-eater convenyances of real food, usually under the banner of “public health”. They have already managed to leverage well-meaning public health and safety laws as weapons against small dairy and meat producers, and are even now trying to leverage the E Coli scares into a weapon against organic salad greens producers. This is a food issue.
One of the imperial fiats issued by Proconsul Bremer during the early occupation of Iraq was Order 81, the imposition of US intellectual property law on the subjugated nation; and one of the earliest “aid” initiatives was the marketing arm of the GMO seed vendors, attempting to force Iraqi farmers to use US patented GMO strains of wheat and barley. The American invaders may or may not intentionally have destroyed Iraq’s premier national seed bank of traditional, varietal cultivars. This is a food issue.
There is no aspect of our existence, locally, regionally, nationally, or globally, that does not have a direct connection to food. We are what we eat. What we eat is who we are. Resistance is Fertile In India, there are already mass movements of farmers against agribusiness. In Brazil, there is a mass movement of peasants against agribusiness. Even in Europe, there is mass resistance to genetically-modified crops and US monocrop dumping. Other regions will evolve their own forms of resistance, out of their own cultures.
The job of Americans is to work with other Americans; and the more locally, the better. This is where we know each other culturally. This is the belly of the beast. This is where we can make some facts-on-the-ground; where we can break out of the impasse created by these agribusiness behemoths and create practical alternatives… first cell-divisions of new social forms in the interstices of a decaying system. Practical alternatives, skill sets and designs — not alternative abstract ideologies — can give us the wherewithal to resist control when the ruling class tries to bully and bluff its way out of the crisis unfolding aroung us. Moreover, the fact of food independence is something tangible that people can — and will — defend.
Food dependency has always been the most essential weapon of the oppressor. That applies to the abused wife who will be cast into penury if she leaves her abuser (we ask, “How will she eat?”); and it applies to the alienated suburban technodrone, who knows — deep down — that he doesn’t know how he would eat without money. It applies to the indigenous population forbidden to grow their traditional crops by colonial masters; kicked off the best arable land by colonial masters; made dependent on second-rate food exports from the colonising nation; etc. It applies to the yeoman farmer deprived of common land and forced into the pool of desperate, hungry, deracinated wage-slaves who staffed the first industrial factories. It applies to citizens of Zimbabwe forbidden by President Mugabe and his political clique to keep vegetable gardens in the yards of their urban and suburban homes.
“Self-determination,” that shopworn phrase used by right and left alike, is not practicaly feasible — in any guise whatsoever — without food independence. If someone else controls your access to food then you have, by definition, no self-determination. You can’t hold a strike without a strike fund. Why do you need a strike fund? So you can eat. Food independence — food autarky — is not possible without greater separation of food from the monetized economy: (money is a weapon of control, an entitlement against others).
There is quite simply no independence, and little hope of a sustained resistance, without food security. Nor is there any way to get there (to a state of food democracy or food security) without relocalization as our most fundamental precondition.
What is To Be Done?
This is primarily a design-task, and only secondarily an ideological one… which bears the truth historical materialism should teach us above all others. In the United States and the other metropolitan nations, there is an emerging — if not terribly vocal — food movement. It involves everything from fighting prohibitions on raw milk to farmers markets to community-supported agriculture to community gardens.
This practice, which is coalescing into a movement, constitutes the original facts-on-the-ground referred to above. It is a hungry movement (another pun intended); and it craves expansion… not into a bureaucratic behemoth, but through organic expansion (another pun intended) at the local level. It is connected, through inextricable chains of implication, with a commitment to social justice, to environmental responsibility, to community-building, to fair labor practice, to fair trade. It connects people to these issues through the positive attraction of hedonism — good food tastes better — and the pleasures of engagement in community: it connects people to these issues through their urgent concerns about their own food security and the cleanliness/honesty/safety/responsibility of their food supply. And it cannot — by its very nature — fail to critique industrial capitalism as a system.
The argument from the archaic left, i.e. that the Food Underground is simply individualistic voluntarism, has copped to the idea that all practical palliatives are somehow the realm of the individual. This is premise-shifting and a deeply fallacious correlation. It means we still see the world exclusively through our left-to-right, linear continuum; and we still see politics as the persuasion of the word, our deeds being limited to symbolic expressions of resistance. And so, as counterpoint to the overwhlemingly overdetermined facts of the system, there is no concrete alternative we can show. We can only tell, or consult the historical archives. We need less telling and more showing. Food autarky and relocalisation are not symbolic acts of resistance, but actual resistance… the basis of resistance, the precondition of resistance.
Past revolutions began not with ideas in isolation; they began with facts-on-the-ground. By the time the French overthrew their aristocracy, that aristocracy was already moribund except for its political power. In every other realm, the businessmen who led the revolution were already dominant. The revolution evolved through the Kairos of history — through slowly maturing metatrends — which then interjected itself into the here-and-now Chronos of politics. The Kairos of history, in our time, is the long arc of fossil fuel depletion and the inevitable collapse of intricate profit-taking systems and hyper-extraction strategies predicated on unlimited cheap energy. “Just throw petroleum at it” is not going to work any more, This means that deep contradictions and crises papered over by desperate energy-intensive bandaids will become visible and painful (and they are, already).
The industrial food system is riddled with such crises and contradictions, barely papered over by throwing ever-more petroleum at it. It has reached a breaking point, and popular discourse is not unaware of this (as we may infer from the groundswell of popular nonfiction books highly critical of the system). The exposure of these fault lines — and the intimate nature of food, for us social primates — can be highly politicizing for large numbers of people; and whatever the ideological effects, the praxis of food autarky and community-through-food can only enhance our chances of survival and resistance during a period of (potentially) extreme dislocation.
The kitchen garden — the “victory garden” — represents not only the ability to sustain resistance (or aggression) against a foreign enemy, but the ability to resist domestic authority and to withdraw, at least partially, from the money economy and the wage-slavery and debt on which it is based.
Capitalism began by kicking people off their land and forbidding them to grow their own food; the end of capitalism may come when people who grow their own food and share it with neighbors are able to say a resounding No to capitalism’s end-phase exterminism.
We need not start from scratch in order to “return to a perennial politics of resistance: the defense of “peasant” (smallholder, local) agriculture against imperial profit-takers.”
The Food Underground is already here. It has been invisible to many of us, because our eyes were fixed on “higher” ideological struggles… while the basis of effective counter-ideology — skill and design — quietly passed us by. It is time to change that. Political resisters need to learn and apply the skills and designs of the food underground; and the food underground needs deeper, more focused and intentional politicization.
The Left may even learn something about organising and social change from the permaculture principles; it may be that in the long run, we do not “grow” revolution any more than we grow plants; it may be that social change is not forced, but is assisted to happen by creating the preconditions for an explosion of vitality, diversity and robustness in our (counter)culture. It may be that successful social change is more like gardening, and less like war, than our rhetoric and our habits of thought assume.
In summary, the Left and the food underground need each other; because history’s Kairos has interjected itself into our Chronos and opened a path, a teachable moment for all of us. It is an unfamiliar path, perhaps, but not nearly so perilous as standing still.
De Clarke is a radical feminist essayist and activist living in the United States from 1980 to 2008. She now lives in Canada on her old boat. Much of her writing addresses the link between violence against women and market economics. While in the US, she raised vegetables and kept bees.
Stan Goff is the author of "Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti" (Soft Skull Press, 2000), "Full Spectrum Disorder" (Soft Skull Press, 2003 He is a Methodist and an organic gardener. He has written about the military and militarism, and about masculinity-constructed-as-conquest.
They can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org