Academic journal article New Formations

A Natural History of 'Food Riots'

Academic journal article New Formations

A Natural History of 'Food Riots'

Article excerpt

All men are intellectuals ... but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals

Antonio Gramsci

In the first half of 2008, 'food riots' were much in the news. The streets of the global South and the television screens of the North were filled with angry protesters as the price of grains on world markets doubled or even tripled, pushing staples out of the reach of vast swathes of populations already struggling to get by. Nearly all commentators agree that the price rises that led to these disturbances were an effect of global forces, not merely local ones, such as drought or corruption, on which such unrest is typically blamed. Competition for oil, the cost of commercial seed, fertiliser and pesticide, speculation in commodities markets, shifting of grains to use for fuel rather than food, or for livestock rather than people, all have been identified as culprits. Thus, food riots raise anew - and emphatically at a global level - the question of the limits of the market in mediating the distribution of the most basic resources. At the same time, they remind us that food is still - despite the shift to 'immaterial labour' in many sectors of the post-Fordist economy and the continuing decrease in the percentage of the human population engaged in agricultural labour - a particularly volatile site of social struggle over concrete planetary resources. Not only does the concept of sugar not taste sweet, as Althusser was fond of saying, but you can't put an advertisement for it in your coffee.1 Even as virtualisation technologies become ever more sophisticated, the World Food Program reminds us that 25,000 people still die in the physical world every day from hunger.2 In this context, food riots can be seen as a critique of the current determination of global priorities for the dissemination of resources, the development of technologies and the deployment of labour, as well as the failures of the market in establishing them justly. As such, they are a praxis whose theoretical implications - in addition to their practical ones- must be recognised.

This is particularly the case because Neoliberals emphatically claim that the poor want what they have to offer, and that human - and even planetary - welfare is vastly improved when regulated by markets. Starving people would be starving in any case, they shrug - or never would have been born - and the poor who are herded into sweatshops, or converted to 'modern' agricultural practices, are 'better off' to have made it onto the lowest rung of the 'value added' ladder as they start the path toward ostensible economic Nirvana. 'The problem of the poorest,' they insist, 'is not that they are exploited, but that they are almost entirely unexploited'.3 Since they assume that there are evolutionary stages from low to high 'value added' production that every people must pass through on the road to prosperity, they argue that concern with the lot of the poor as they make this ascent is misguided. Global trade, if but allowed to function fully everywhere, in contexts of good governance, will eventually effect a general - tiiough not, of course, equal - prosperity. It will also stave off ecological disaster as GDP rises -and the (putative luxury) of environmental concern increases - because 'negative externalities' such as pollution will be, progressively, 'internalised.' In sum, the neoliberal market is not only the best that we can hope for, but, in the influential assessment of Jagdish Bhagwati, it already has a 'human face'.4

While readers oí new formations probably do not need much encouragement to see these claims as doubtful, my purpose in drawing attention to 'food riots' as themselves a refutation of capitalism's 'human face' are two-fold: first, to recognise such resistance from below as an important mode of critique in its own right rather than merely a spontaneous expression of rage requiring post-hoc theorisation by recognised intellectuals, and, more specifically, to return to an appreciation of the importance of globally coordinated collective conscious struggle at a time in which even the left in the métropole has been floating models of political praxis that might be seen, in effect, as variants on isolationism: take, for example, the emphasis on the 'weapons of the weak' as diffuse, the fragmentation of subjectivity that (supposedly) undermines the potential for conscious alliances, and, especially, an uncritical affirmation of 'decentered' politics. …

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