Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Thought For Food

What could the production of food be like in a society without the need for profit, without competition from big businesses, without promotional advertising, without any money changing hands?

Capitalism has been and continues to be, the cause of tens of thousands of people worldwide moving into towns and cities on a daily basis, seeking to find a replacement for income and livelihood lost in the countryside. Likewise economic decisions tempt millions into international migration in the hope of gaining access to the means of producing a livelihood in more prosperous regions. The vast majority of both internal and international émigrés, if assured of a comfortable, fulfilling life for themselves and their families in their "home" region would no doubt prefer to return to where the culture fits them like a glove. Capitalism denies or overrides local needs and wishes and is responsible for the devastation of farmers and farming communities worldwide, evidence the year on year increase in suicide by farmers in both developed and developing countries. In the present system many, many people living in cities are employed in work that is irrelevant to socialism, non-productive jobs entailing transactions with money. In socialism these will be people freed up, a huge labour resource free to live and work in a location of their choice unrestricted by commercial constraints. It is probable that demographics would change quite rapidly and dramatically, with the outflow of citizens making choices that will affect their lives positively.

One of the first tasks of socialism will be to rectify the worst effects of capitalism on populations, to ensure that local needs are satisfied in all locations. On the agricultural issue this may, at least initially, curtail the growing of (now-called) "cash" crops such as tea, coffee, tobacco or bananas whilst local populations stabilise their ability to feed all their own inhabitants. Emphasis would be placed on the quality, health and fertility of the soil, sustainability being paramount. Farmers in the developed world would be freed from the constraints of capital, quotas, restrictions and above all competition, enabling them to produce foods required by the local populace and, if need be, in other parts of the world.

The technology and infrastructure for moving food around is currently well established globally, although in capitalist hands. (Where it is not well established then it will be a priority to increase or establish it.) Processing plants, packing houses, transport vehicles from local to international, cold storage, warehousing facilities, stock keeping know-how, all the necessary components are already on hand with individuals well-versed in logistics adjusting supply to demand and ensuring sufficient supplies for each and every area, the main difference from now will be satisfying need not profit.

The local scene

Where capitalism hasn't yet forced farmers to grow cash crops for sale on world markets, local food needs are still largely met locally. This could continue in socialism, though without markets and buying and selling. For instance, here in one small, typical rural area in Turkey some distance from any large towns, small farmers are not materially rich but large, extended families live comfortably, with daily work shared. Women mostly take care of the animals – cows, goats, sheep, chickens, whilst the men do the field work – ploughing, harrowing, sowing etc. The high intensity seasonal work brings everyone out en masse, often in the hottest weather. Their own dietary needs are taken care of to a large extent. The cow provides milk for home consumption and to be turned into yoghurt, butter and cheese with any surplus being sold daily to the milkman who collects it and sends it on to the processing plant. In return the cow is fed on home grown maize, barley and wheat and in springtime taken for a leisurely walk around the lush green edges of fields and lanes. The grain from the cereals will be milled locally for producing home made bread. The hens run free range anywhere and everywhere and produce abundant eggs and chicks several times a year.

There are fruit orchards – citrus, pomegranate and olive – and greenhouses for succession crops or vegetables and salad stuff for own use and for selling to the local wholesaler. Olives can be pressed for oil locally and many are stored in jars for yearlong eating. Beehives are all around and they say the pine honey is the best in the world. One free and abundant crop is "ot" – wild herbs, vegetables, leaves and berries from trees and bushes. No one goes walking without a knife and a bag or two in hand. Meat isn't eaten daily. Rice, bulgur wheat, pasta and bread are the staples with seasonal vegetables, salads and always fresh dairy foods for the daily fare. The occasional chicken will have its neck slit and a larger animal will be sacrificed on high days and holidays. It's a way of life.

Animals are generally tethered so it's rare to find an enclosed field or orchard. Often the shortest distance between two points is across someone else's land but it is not seen as trespassing, far from it. If spotted, visitors, neighbours and even strangers will be pressed into helping themselves to whatever produce is available and, if reluctant, the owner will no doubt produce a bag and fill it with whatever is going, saying words to the effect that "my garden is your garden."

Local town markets are supplied by local and regional farmers. Very few imports are seen in this region, notably year-round bananas from Central America. What is available is an abundance of fruit and vegetables in season with cold stores to lengthen the season for fruit. These towns, populations up to 20,000, have markets once a week on different days as most of the stallholders travel the rounds between several of them, 4 or 5 days on, 2 or 3 days off. Some stalls are run by middlemen who buy from the wholesaler and sell on but the most interesting are the stalls manned by "village people" who bring their own produce which may include home produced bread, butter, cheese, yoghurt, milk, eggs, honey, dried beans, grain, peanuts, pumpkin slices, olives, oil and various items picked from the hedgerows and around the trees in the orchards. These attractive displays of produce give eating food in season a definite appeal.

After the summer heat, when choice dwindles to three or four varieties of peppers, aubergines, courgettes, umpteen varieties of beans, masses of salad greens, cucumbers, red, juicy tomatoes, peaches and melons, nectarines and grapes, it's time to look forward to the autumn vegetables – new potatoes and onions from the yayla (high meadow areas), spinach, leafy greens and huge cabbages (if they're too big then pickle some or give half to a neighbour), caulis, broccoli and radishes the size of turnips. Now the summer vegetables are offered as a course soup mix after being baked in a dough mixed with yoghurt, dried in the sun and ground into crumbs. And dried food of all kinds is available, legumes, fruits, aubergines, peppers, okra, nuts, figs, etc. The winter will be well supplied. When shopping the trick is not to go with a specific shopping list, just a loose idea of veg, fruit, salad, then wander around to see what looks good and plan menus after the event rather than before as you can't guarantee you'll find all your requirements every time. Buying local is almost an imperative. The best broccoli, figs and walnuts come from four hours north, bananas four hours east, potatoes and apples from the high land three hours away. Rice has possibly the longest journey – from the northeast. Meat is local, beef, goat and lamb except for factory chickens – fresh, live ones are available at a premium price.

The wider world

Out in the wider world, different hemispheres and different climates yield different crops and different staples and according to the United Nations Food Organisation (and other studies) all but the most hostile regions are capable of sustaining their populations. In areas where there are sometimes crises causing malnutrition for some and starvation for others the problem is not lack of food but lack of will to transport food into these areas because the customers have no money. In many areas there are food shortages because farmers have become trapped in the cash-crop market for economic reasons. Without the burden of having directly or indirectly to produce crops for bio-fuels, heroin, cocaine, flowers and unnecessary food crops for elite markets people would have ample land for meeting their own and others' needs. Without coercion from state governments millions of people would continue to farm their land and feed their families rather than move to make way for mega-dams or building projects to house the newly rich or create vast new factory complexes.

Taking care of the environment is what farmers (not agri-businesses) are all about. Protecting the health of the soil to ensure sustainability and putting local needs first. Which is better for both human health and the environment – fresh food or processed? local foods or transported in food? Whilst it may be useful and even advisable to process certain types of foods to preserve them, fresh foods are generally more health giving and place less stress on the environment. Local foods will always be fresher and therefore healthier than transported food – and transportation is one of the biggest problems for the environment.

Consider the production of food in a society without the need for profit, without the competition from big businesses, without promotional advertising, without any money changing hands. How might eating habits change? Without sponsorship and freebies as at sports events, music festivals, even some educational establishments, how could tastes change? In some areas there is already a rejection of the fast-food syndrome with a renaissance of the appreciation of good food in the form of the 'Slow Food Movement', started in Italy a few years ago and now sprouting up in various other countries. Farmers markets are expanding in numbers in Europe and US, more people are demanding fresh, home produced, organic foods with a groundswell of opinion pushing the movement against genetically modified food, use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

People are deciding what they want to eat and feed to their children rather than be dictated to by big name manufacturers pushing their profitable lines. It is these same companies which are responsible for dreadful waste and rape of the planet with excessive packaging simply to catch the eye of the customer. Not to protect the item, simply to make it more appealing, more marketable. In fact packaging could be reduced enormously and will be when people decide it will be so. Certain foods, for instance rice, lentils, sugar, dried food of all kinds could simply be dispensed from huge, hygienic hoppers directly into one's own reusable containers, standard sizes not necessary, just let the individual take what's required for their particular situation.

With emphasis on quality of environment and quality of life rather than on the rat-race, with more opportunities and choices open for all in how to contribute to society rather than scramble for dead-end jobs or work that takes over life rather than enhances it, maybe food would have a different emphasis for vastly more people. No one would go without. There would be absolutely no reason to. More would see it as a necessary route to a healthy life. Cooking and eating as a social activity to be shared and enjoyed. You are what you eat after all. It's food for thought.

Janet Surman

Re: Are you an optimist or a pessimist? (1999)

A bit of a departure for the page. The following is a contribution to the WSM discussion forum on yahoo, and dates from the summer of 1999.
I thought it was worthwhile posting because I've always admired the knowledge and writing style of the author, but also because it addresses questions that I'm sure many regular readers of the page have asked themselves down the years.

It also doesn't let the political tradition that the Socialist Standard is a part of off the hook, by asking the pointed question of what we as socialists can we do in the here and now, and also acknowledging that at times our longstanding commitment to revolutionary socialism can sometimes lay us open to the charge that we are unnecessarily off putting to those workers were are trying to reach out to.

For the record, at the time of writing, Len Wallace was a long standing member of the Socialist Party of Canada, but in recent years has been a supporter of the World in Common group. Then, as now, he was an activist in the IWW.

- Darren

From the World Socialist Movement Forum, Wed Jun 16, 1999 6:04 am
Hello comrades!

Thought I'd put a few words in concerning optimism and pessimism.
I consider myself a "cynical optimist". Cynical about the way the world stands and the so-called "solutions" and reforms proposed to supposedly change it. I am optimistic that, in the end, workers will make the right choice and choose Socialism.

I understand the depression one can feel by not seeing things move fast enough, arguing with other workers, feeling they haven't and indeed sometimes cannot grasp the issues.

The problem with being a Socialist is that we view the world differently. Once one becomes a Socialist it is as if a "click" happens, a light comes on and that viewpoint or understanding colours everything we look at. And, too often, we are alone. Simply, there are too few of us right now and we have to build the movement, make it vibrant so that we can at least have a community of like minded people around us to share views, meet, communicate our ideas. Alone and isolated, it is a struggle.

I spend a lot of my time studying the movement, its early years and historical formation. Every time I do this, I see the need for more organisation, more members so that we can carry on our important work.

It is essential that more people are brought into the movement. In Canada at least there are too few and the space between members so geographically far. I would give my eye teeth to have ten people in my hometown of Windsor, Ontario who are party members so that meetings could be held, publicity worked out, more contacts made. It is in that kind of work that people can feel optimistic.

As far as "world politics" is concerned, I do indeed see signs of hope. Of course workers worldwide demonstrate for reforms, hold many illusions, have seemed to accept the wage system as "natural", but my feeling is even though they have not yet become politically (socialistically) conscious, their very acts of resistance indicates that they are grappling to seek ways out. They may not understand the system, but many do learn to understand that they need not accept the world the way it is. And we have to be there with them - at the demos, at the rallies, on the strike lines, talking with them, handing out leaflets, publications, listening to what they have to say.

I feel that sometimes we almost speak as if from an ivory tower, talking down to the workers. We cannot get our ideas out to the working class unless we are there with them. They won't buy our publications off a news stand or wherever by the mere fact that we call ourselves Socialist.

I am a musician and am often called to perform for workers on strike lines. Almost every time, I come away feeling a sense of hope. One example - a few years back the Public Service Employees went on strike here in Ontario and were out for many weeks.

Here in Windsor, the strikers were predominantly women, never really involved in the union, never really thinking of themselves as "working class", thinking workers and employers were "friends", never ever having been on a picket line or thought much about other workers ever being on strike.

I sang to them on the line and spoke to them. Although far from becoming socialists, I can recall so many telling me - "You know, I never thought it
would come to this . . . but I look at things a bit differently now. I realize I'm a worker like every other. I will never cross a picket line again in my life. I understand the need to support the union and other workers."

You could almost see a lightbulb light up above their heads as they talked this out. Again, they did not become Socialists, but it was a small victory. I may have seen it as only a small step forward in becoming class conscious, but it was a big step for them.

I have also written in this past year for the University of Windsor student newspaper. Twenty years ago, as a student there I wrote a similar column and was consistently seen as someone from another planet because of my explicitly socialist views. Twenty years later, I am amazed at how many people have come up to me and exclaimed that "Ya know, I never looked at the world in that way before! There's some stuff that I really have to think about, but I agree more and more with what you have to say!"

People are searching for answers . . . Our role is to provide them. And I agree that they have to be done in a positive way.

And that positiveness means we cannot put forward the idea that offers no hope for the workers. I myself am turned off by those articles which hold no hope for the working class - We do offer hope - and that is to join in the fight for Socialism.

We simply have to get the word out again and again. Workers have to hear our ideas. Doing it once won't do it, it means consistently being there with them. We understand that our ideas make sense. We have to prove it to them. That means prying through the muck of ideas they've been taught all their lives.

To reiterate one last point, I think we can present things in a positive light. Much too often I feel that we look upon worker's struggles as hopeless to the point that it almost appears as if we are saying - "Sorry, there is no hope for the working class as long as you don't agree with us. And, you're struggle is laughable."

We don't have to agree with the movement for reform, or hold out illusions - our role is to explain in a way that it supportive of them as a class and as individuals, to help them understand. That help cannot be done in a negative way as if we come from an ivory tower of superior knowledge.

Let me end with these two quotations:

"Critical communism does not manufacture revolutions, it does not prepare insurrections, it does not furnish arms for revolts. It mingles with the proletarian movement, but it sees and supports the movement in the full intelligence of the connection which it has, which it can have, and which it must have, with all the relations of social life as a whole. In a word it is not a seminary in which superior officers of the proletarian revolution are trained, but it is neither more nor less than the consciousness of this revolution and especially the consciousness of its difficulties." - Antonio Labriola, "In Memory of the Communist Manifesto", from his Essays on the Materialistic Conception of History, Charles H. Kerr, 1908
"Let us develop new principles for the world out of its own principles. Let us not say to it 'Cease your nonsensical struggles, we will give you something real to fight for.' Let us simply show the world what it is really fighting for, and this is something the world must come to know, whether it wishes it or not. The reform of consciousness consists only in the world becoming aware of its own consciousness, awakening it from vague dreams of itself and showing it what its true activity is . . . Then it will be seen that the world has long been dreaming of things that it only needs to become aware of in order to possess them in reality." - Karl Marx to Ruge, 1843

For the cause that never dies,

Len Wallace

Further Reading:

  • Socialist Party of Canada

  • Len Wallace's Personal Website