I think this week’s Crush has a certain 360 way of thinking about social justice: not just how issues and activism around food, women’s rights, poverty, land rights, and immigration connect and cross each other, but, like I said at the main blog, it’s almost like he’s moving toward to an almost unified theory of progressive philosophy and action.
Below is a excerpt of an 2010 interview with Up The Anti, in which Patel discusses the concept of “food sovereignity,” how capitalism causes both starvation and obesity, markets without capitalism, and why he gives side-eye to “professional revolutionaries.”
In Stuffed and Starved you write about the international system of food production and distribution. You argue that this system results in starvation and obesity. Can you elaborate?
These problems are an inevitable outcome of the way capitalism controls and distributes food. When you distribute food through a capitalist market, you’re guaranteed two outcomes: people who have money get to eat, and people who don’t have money don’t get to eat. The original imperial idea behind the creation of world food markets was that they would allow people around the world to eat. But under this model people who don’t have money go hungry, and it’s no accident that these people live in the countries where food is grown.
In Stuffed and Starved, I look at the concentration of power within capitalism and the food system, and show that corporations control a great deal of what is alleged to be the free market in food. On one end of the food system, this control allows them to underpay people who produce the food. The worst paid people on earth are farm labourers, closely followed by small farmers. That’s why in the Global South people who are undernourished and living on fewer than 1900 calories per day tend to be farm workers. On the other end of the food system, corporations have an incentive to produce food that is profitable – that is, high in fat and salt and sugar and all the things we crave. These foods are principle sources of the obesity epidemic. But the epidemic doesn’t affect everyone equally. In the Global North, overweight people tend to be food insecure. This points to a more general rule. Poverty, whether in rich countries or poor countries, means you are less able to control your diet. For the very poor, this means starvation. For the urban poor – in the Global North and increasingly in the Global South – this means food that contributes to obesity and diabetes.
You claim capitalism is central in creating and reinforcing these problems, but you distinguish between capitalism and markets. Why are you in favour of markets?
Markets are terrific. Markets are as old as human civilization – the idea is simply that people from different groups get together and exchange stuff. They’re a venue for interaction, for building trust, and for reciprocity. Exchange is vital if you’re going to live in a world that moves beyond village autarky (and there’s nothing precious about village autarky).
But markets today are typically held to be synonymous with capitalism. In the confusing conflation of markets and capitalism, many people blame markets. However, the problem is not the phenomenon of exchange, but the way in which goods are produced for the market. Most people like the idea of free exchange of goods and services, de-centralization, and of not being told what to do. But this reasonable appreciation of markets becomes a forced love of capitalism because we are denied the tools to think of other ways of producing goods for exchange. There are, however, other ways of organizing production while retaining the decentralization and absence of coercion that make markets liberating.
So you think markets can be combined with something like workers’ control?
They already are. This isn’t just some leftist pipe-dream. We already see that the largest industrial cooperatives, such as the wholly worker-run city of Mondragón, Spain for example, are nonetheless capable of operating in markets. Without wanting to oversell workers’ control as a panacea – it is possible for there to be coercion within and between workers’ organizations, after all – the Mondragón cooperatives at the very least demonstrate the possibility of large-scale worker-owned organizations. There are, of course, other civilizations in which markets prevail and capitalism does not, which remind us that markets and capitalism have been historically separate, and will be again.
What would food sovereignty look like? How do you relate progress in this sphere to broader issues of social transformation?
Food sovereignty is an idea that comes from the international peasant movement La Via Campesina. In 1995 at the World Food Summit in Rome, they tried to articulate a vision different from the neoliberal conception of food and food politics. Central to La Via Campesina’s vision was the idea that we need more than food security. Historically, the definition of food security specifies that there should be enough healthy food available and that everyone should have sufficient access to it so that they can lead a healthy life. The trouble is that this concept hinges on “access.” You can, after all, be “food secure” in prison where, if you’re lucky, you can get nutritious food three times a day, and not starve. Therefore, food security can look like someone shoving food down your throat.
“Food sovereignty,” by contrast, is the idea that people have control over their food system. Basically, it’s a demand for democracy in the food system. And that demand is intricately linked with a range of other struggles and questions.
Although “democracy in the food system” sounds vague, it rests on a series of non-negotiable foundations. Among the most important is the demand for women’s rights. At the 2008 Via Campesina summit in Maputo, Mozambique, one popular slogan asserted that food sovereignty is about “an end to all forms of violence against women.” In other words, in order to have vibrant food democracy, gender-based injustices and inequalities need to be challenged from the World Trade Organization and World Bank down to dynamics in the household. This is what makes La Via Campesina’s call for food sovereignty a twenty-first century idea. They’re not demanding a return to some sort of bucolic peasant past, but are instead insisting on a politics that we have yet to see.
At the heart of food sovereignty is the idea that ecological and political constituencies should intersect, and that democracy entails many overlapping sovereignties. Designating a state or a single body to decide things is a recipe for disaster. We need overlapping sovereignties and jurisdictions in order to have a politics that’s workable, vibrant, and democratic. In perforating the boundaries between jurisdictions – sometimes calling on local forces to shape food sovereignty, sometimes on national or supra-national forces – food sovereignty is an invitation to re-imagine the very notion of political constituency along overlapping ecological lines.
Given the interconnections between the food system and other systems (such as patriarchy, ecological destruction, and imperialism), is it possible to seriously confront any one of them without simultaneously confronting the others? How could these various struggles be tied together without something like a revolutionary party – though not necessarily a Leninist “vanguard” party?
My inner anarchist is very suspicious of the idea of a revolutionary party because within them power is typically concentrated in the hands of a few people. I’m suspicious of the idea of a professional revolutionary. The interesting kinds of social change that I’ve seen (and which I write about in Stuffed and Starved), are driven by very unprofessional revolutionaries, and are decentralized and autonomous in ways that aren’t really captured by classical ideas of the party – vanguardist or otherwise. I’m very open to the idea that there are other forms of the party that might work, and I’m keen to learn more about those.
We do need to tackle several things simultaneously. But is the party the best vehicle to be able to do that? The Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) – a movement of landless rural workers that relies on the concept of multiple fronts – is one of the most interesting initiatives addressing the food system. It’s not a party. It’s a movement in which cells of 100 families get together and figure out not only how to reclaim land but how to manage their affairs collectively: how to arrange their education, how to demand health care from the government, how to do many things simultaneously. There is a division of labour, and there are militants who help to organize the movement. But those militants are part of the communities in which they work, and the communities are firmly in the driver’s seat. Good organizing skills and organizing culture are central to the kind of social change we need to see. Organizers have a key role, and I don’t think ‘spontaneous’ organizing ever happens. Anyone who has been involved in social movements knows that a ‘spontaneous’ protest takes forever to organize. That said, I’m not convinced that a single revolutionary party is the way forward. It’s an approach of which the MST are wary, and I think their suspicions – founded on many more years of experience than mine – are worth taking seriously.