An Anarchist Terroir
Review by Rebecca DeWitt
Anarchism and contemporary academic theory ignore each other. On opposite ends of the theoretical spectrum, one tends toward universal ideas and the other towards isolated phenomena. Introducing academic theoretical advances to anarchism is both an affront and a necessity. Anarchism, let me introduce you to Food Studies. Go on, try it, you might like it! Kropotkin’s response to Malthusian sentiments in Mutual Aid, Food Not Bombs as anarchism in action, and mobilizations against biotechnology and other profiteering methods of production are the primary ways in which anarchism utilizes food. While anarchists debate the nature of nature, serve vegan food to the homeless, and protest Monsanto’s(1) conquest of the so-called Third World, is it worth expanding anarchism’s utilitarian use of food? Why this even matters is discernable in the new trend known as Food Studies. Two recent books, Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies and Slow Food: Collected Thoughts on Taste, Tradition, and the Honest Pleasures of Food attest to the new political nature of food and expand upon an international dialogue.
These days it is no longer enough to hand out free food, declare oneself a vegetarian, or shop at your local coop to make a statement about food. The emerging academic field of Food Studies invokes eco-gastronomic movements, analyzes rifts between “foodies” and “fatties,”(2) and elevates slow food over fast food to look at the means of production, transportation, cultural identity, nation building or dismantling, class warfare, and imperialism. To simply demand control over the means of production and access to food, central to anarchist thought, appears to be the equivalent of theoretical vulgarity. If anarchism wishes to take advantage of the increasingly rich fields of Food Studies, it will need to avoid such simplistic reductions while also retaining strong anarchist convictions.
Writing about food and politics brings to mind the French wine term, terroir. Although it is strictly defined as a group of lands from a certain region, belonging to a specific vineyard, and sharing the same type of soil and weather conditions, which all give wine its specific personality, the concept of terroir often also embodies the earth as a whole, its cumulative use over the years, the culture and morals of the vintner and the soul of the country, if not just the region.(3) An understanding of food as a sort of terroir makes it easier to grasp Food Studies’ conscious attempt to explore food as more than consumable items; and anarchist theory would do well to explore this terroir. While we need to also keep in mind that we need food, which means the capitalist system will profit from food at all costs, such an oversimplification of the political impact of food eventually leaves anarchism out in the cold.
The largely academic field of Food Studies has packed a variety of meanings into a simple four-letter word: food. For example, Food Studies contends that market forces have penetrated social relationships on the level of everyday life.(4) Food is a “symbolic marker of membership (or non-membership) in practically any sort of social grouping. … As with language, on many occasions people define themselves with food; at the same time, food consistently defines and redefines them.”(5)
Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer
Societies looks mostly at how people first define themselves by
food and then are redefined by the mechanisms of consumer society, often
without their conscious consent. The fourteen essays included cover
such topics as how the French learned to eat canned goods, food and
nationalism in the origins of so-called Belizean food, the donut and
the Canadian national identity, the methodical popularization of the
avocado, social tensions surrounding independent grocery stores, and
the politics of scarcity in urban Soviet Russia.
Nothing could be simpler than the donut, or so one would think. “If we believe that the dynamic of mass culture is to degrade production on the one hand, and to reduce social experiences to consumption on the other, then the donut takes on considerable analytical power.”(9) National identity, populist imagery of citizens, and anonymous meeting grounds for disconnected communities, can all be attributed to the rise of donuts in Canada. I was alarmed to read the following: “In donut capitals we are in danger of inventing a kind of industrial Folk for postindustrial times, replacing outport peasants and their songs with unpretentious blue-collar folk and their donuts.”(10) However odd the concern for Canadian donuts, the author is right. This is how McDonalds has taken over the world. American and apparently Canadian citizens, as they lose their traditional livelihoods and cultural identities, are filled up with substandard foods that sell nostalgia, a folklore, and an imagined community. If we lived in a world that prioritized intellectualism, anarchists could ditch the black flag for a donut flag and everybody would understand.
The donut example leads us to a series of practical and theoretical questions about the relationship between food and society. In her essay “Untangling Alliances: Social Tensions Surrounding Independent Grocery Stores and the Rise of Mass Retailing,” author Tracey Deutsch argues that “Chain stores succeeded not only because of low prices but also because of their ability to defuse the tense and often time-consuming negotiations between grocers and customers. Chains promised, in particular, to remake the gender norms and gender relations which had placed such pressure on grocers and their customers. In this early moment of mass retailing, social politics mattered as much as economic rationality.”(11) In effect, the richness of terroir was leveled to normalize gender and even race relations, at least when it came to shopping. Many people saw chain stores as a way to strengthen their communities, release women from the tyranny of the nosy shopkeeper, and make choices about their social relationships and desire for autonomy.
From canned food for the French to Gerber’s baby food, people make conscious choices in buying and eating food, but the choices were never theirs in the first place. As my French grandmother would say, “Quel horreur!” Each time I go to visit her, she tells me about the latest supermarket and subsequent degradation in the quality of food. In fact, the French government has established standards for an authentic French baguette and they cost a little bit more. Quality of life becomes nostalgia and passes out of the realm of need to those who can afford it. Manufacturers of highly processed food say they are catering to what the consumer wants, but choices are clearly restricted by financial means and essentially class-based from the bottom up.
The eerie role food plays in nation building is an especially intriguing concern of Food Studies. Belizean food, author Richard Wilk argues, doesn’t really exist, and not only because Belizean society represents a melting pot far more diverse and interwoven than the great USA. “One version of national food was developed in America by Belizeans for Americans; another was developed partly by Americans in Belize, for Belizeans; but a third version of Belizean food is the one that attracts the most attention: the version developed by Belizean and foreign entrepreneurs to feed foreign tourists with a taste for something authentically Belizean.”(12) Jeffrey Charles’ essay, “Searching for Gold in Guacamole,” in Food Nations, attempts to further explain food’s role in nation building. What is clear is that food is different from run of the mill commodities: “both in the depth of meanings ascribed to it and in the complexity of the system that produces it. Some of the more centrally consumed foodstuffs, such as sugar, even helped to create the system of political institutions, economic forces, and cultural constraints that govern us to this day.”(13) In a way, an intuitive understanding of such things has led anarchists to be against many forms of food which they see as supporting an oppressive economic system. Yet, over the years, eliminating sugar, milk, and meat from our diets has spawned a new consumer marked rather than the revolution.
The Slow Food movement was founded in 1989 by Carlo Petrini in reaction to the opening of a McDonald’s at the Spanish Steps in Rome. At first, Slow Food was a “gastronomic organization dedicated to rediscovering and protecting the right to the pleasures of the table, and to using our tastebuds as our guides to seek out the highest achievements in taste.”(14) But now Slow Food enthusiasts, numbering more than 65,000 with four international offices, see themselves as an “eco-gastronomic” movement. Slow Food becomes more about the scarcity of good food, as it relates to where it comes from and who produces it, and how mass substandard production, i.e., bad food, can be stopped. Now, instead of bad vegetarian food, anarchist theory must contend with good food for the masses, which, in turn, legitimately supports small family owned businesses in their quest to survive in the global market.
Gourmets are up in arms in the eighty-plus essays covering topics such as tradition, consumerism, what it means when food is good for you, street food, the post-industrial pint, the value of time, the morality of food, transportation methods, frankenfoods, exotic animals, and leftovers. It’s not anarchism, but the philosophy does goes beyond using your wallet to effect change. It is also potentially anti-capitalist, even though some of its biggest proponents are government officials, if only because people are really trying to think about fundamental changes in society. For example, Herman Scheer, President of the Agriculture Commission of the Assembly of the Council of Europe, concludes his essay, “Region is Reason,” with the following series of demands: “Let us reflect upon the meaning of the term ‘protection.’ Protecting culture, the environment, and human values is no longer enough. We need to change something in the structure of the economy, introducing new definitions and objectives. First and foremost, we should develop direct patterns of distribution, abolish export subsidies, and use that money to support regional markets and counter patents on biogenetics. The agricultural sector must get actively involved in opposing the decrease in energy prices and the thoughtless consumption that this encourages. Individual countries should create banks in which the diversity of species can be preserved. Clean, renewable energy obtained locally from agricultural produce needs to be developed because it can considerably reduce current costs. And we must fight for the abolition of all the government directives that determine the size of apples, pumpkins and so on, since these rules only help large distributors and hinder the process of regionalization in agriculture.”(15) Food for thought.
The question of cultural differences must be brought up. Is there some significance in the fact that during the historic Seattle WTO protest French officials were the only representatives to leave the WTO assembly and join Jose Bove in blockading the McDonalds to hand out banned Roquefort cheese? In the United States, pleasure is doled out on a merit basis and food is more a product of our industrial pride rather than our palette. No American politician ever says we have the right to eat good food. Processed cheese is a staple of food banks. Good food is for those who can afford it. My French family truly feels sorry for me and all Americans for a variety of reasons, including our president, overall lack of culture, and absence of taste, but national chauvinism is obviously no more an answer than national cuisine. Is the right to good food something which anarchists could be proud to advocate and what the hell does that mean?
For Slow Food, taste is a starting point, and an easy one at that. Eventually, an unsuspecting gourmet will find themselves caught between who is at war with their environment and who isn’t. The United States appears to be perpetually at war with our environment and regularly deploys food as a weapon. Vandana Shiva, in her essay, “Genetic Freedom,” points to a contributing mindset: “Cultures that regard nature as life have always considered the divine presence in nature and seen any expression of its diversity as an expression of its divinity. A mechanistic culture, on the other hand, divorces god from creation, thus making the deity a sort of super-engineer, a watchmaker.”(16)
So, we are back to terroir, which Slow Food holds dearly and preserves as well as explores. The problem is what to do as terroir disappears. Another essay in the Slow Food collection connects this uncertainty to what may become the last frontier of this food fight. In “Transgenesis,” Arnaud Apoteker asks: “Will the food of tomorrow maintain a bond with the soil, the land, and the farmer who ‘plows the field and scatters,’ or will it simply be the product of the genetics lab, irrespective of where it is produced? Will it be a gift of nature, warts and all, or will it be an insipid, rigorously codified industrial product?”(17)
For their part, Slow Food Arcigola (the main organizational branch of Slow Food) has established the Ark (i.e., like Noah’s Ark) as a means by which to preserve, promote, and directly distribute hand-made, artisinal, slow foods. For example, in the United States, they financially support Native Americans in Minnesota harvesting wild rice in the traditional manner using sticks and canoes, Delaware Bay fisherman, and growers of heirloom apples from Oregon. It is not the one, right thing, but we should value this type of contribution as a way to avoid conformity on all levels.
Where in terroir do food and anarchism actually meet? Most political theory, even anarchism, holds pleasure, including that gained from food, at a distance. In our “democracy,” ordinary citizens have no right to enjoy themselves unless they can pay for it. It is no wonder that today’s anarchists scorn the idea of good food, much less aspirations for fine cuisine. But, as a longtime anarchist friend pointed out, it is bourgeois to not think about food. Furthermore, the anarchist comrades did eat well, she said, without compromising their politics. For the Fourth of July, during the depression, in Northern Pennsylvania coal mining country, her family and friends expropriated food that had been donated to the local police. Since was more than enough to go around, it is unclear whether the police missed the food or not. What is clear is that no one collected food to donate to the anarchists, mostly Italian anarchist immigrants, and other coal miners, who died almost daily in the mines. Eating well in a truly anarchist sense! Anarchists used to hold international picnics where the food was looked forward to just as much as the conversation. Due in part to the strong ethnic foundations of anarchism and subsequent disappearance of these groups within U.S. anarchism, the idea of “good food” remains elusive and difficult to translate politically. But there was a quality of life verging on an anarchist terroir in its view of the earth and its bounty.
Food Studies and Slow Food are helpful, as are most things. Food Nations is very well written, enlightening and more engaging than most social criticism. The Slow Food movement attacks the windmills armed with recipes and is making a dent with its efforts to preserve and promote traditional food production. When examined, the relationship between globalization and national cuisine or the concept of good food, are interesting at best. Both books help regain a little terroir but the damage done is overwhelming. It is also not enough to call for food for everyone, advocate for or against technology, or to individually attempt to assert total control over our food source. Anarchist political theory bears the burden of elevating the discussion as well as deepening its own understanding of food related issues.
A new quality of life means everything and nothing, so make the connections between donuts and the degradation of society, champion slow food appreciation and production, oppose imperialistic means of production, be anti-capitalist in your food choices, learn to cook, but don’t forget what we are after. We know that coops, vegetarianism, feeding the hungry, and opposing biotechnology (all staples of anarchism) are components that, when separated from a broader perspective, can lead to a narrowly pragmatic or quasi-religious approach to food, neither of which is particularly desirable. We also know that the academic apolitical focus on minutia has barred anarchism from its ranks and insights. Food Studies will not end the standoff but it could, like a good dinner party, enrich the conversation, if only because a certain quality of life appears to be a common goal.
Instead of ending with a boring call to think more about food, remember Marcuse’s New Sensibility: “The advent of a free society would be characterized by the fact that the growth of well being turns into an essentially new quality of life. … The new direction, the new institutions and relationships of production must express the ascent of needs and satisfactions very different from and even antagonistic to those prevalent in the exploitive society. … Freedom would become the environment of an organism which is no longer capable of adapting to the competitive performance required for well being under domination, no longer capable of tolerating the aggressiveness, brutality, and ugliness of the established way of life.”(18) More food for thought.