Raj Patel on Food Sovereignty, Localism, and Markets
Last March (2012) I had the opportunity to interview Raj Patel in San Francisco about his writing on Food Sovereignty for my forthcoming project Local Control, a followup to the 2010 Farm Together Now. While the documentary will not be released for a while, we hope you enjoy this transcript now. First, a bit of background on Raj:
Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He has degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University, has worked for the World Bank and WTO, and protested against them around the world. He is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First. He is also an IATP Food and Community Fellow. He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US House Financial Services Committee and is an Advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. In addition to numerous scholarly publications in economics, philosophy, politics and public health journals, he regularly writes for The Guardian, and has contributed to the LA Times, NYTimes.com, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Mail on Sunday, and The Observer. His first book was Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and his latest, The Value of Nothing, is a New York Times best-seller. He is currently working on a documentary about the global food system with award-winning director Steve James.
(Interview by Daniel Tucker; Transcription by Haley Martin; Thanks: Jerome Grand, Amy Franceschini and Stijn Schiffeleers)
DT: You’ve written that “food offers us one of the shortest, most appealing paths out of the corporate labyrinth” (Survival Pending Revolution, 2011). Please elaborate on how you see food as central and strategic to your view of positive social transformation?
RAJ: So in the eighties when I was learning about the possibilities of radical social change, a lot of the people that I was talking to in various left-wing political parties and organizations were saying essentially spreading a message of, “If you are interested in social change, that is great. Well done. Welcome comrade. But in order for this change to happen, it is going to be painful and you are going to have to give things up and it is going to be pleasureless and although the revolution is going to reunite you with your species-being, along the way it is going to be very miserable. Get over that and you’ll be fine.”
Now, I’m all for radical social change. I think we need radical social change in the situation that we are in in the moment, but it doesn’t stop me feeling that there is something a little unpleasant about being told that the route to this radical social change is going to involve deprivation of some kind. I understand that sacrifices need to be made but does it have to be unpleasant all the way is my question.
The reason that I’m really interested in food and global justice is because food offers a way of understanding why, “Yes there needs to be radical transformation! Yes, we need redistribution. Yes, we need a whole range of things. But it doesn’t need to be the sort of dower, flagellating self-abnegating pleasureless path to radical change.” In fact part of the process of getting us to a better world involves us democratizing pleasure and that idea that in fact if we are going to get to a better world, we need everyone to have pleasure I think is a really good way not only of understanding really what the struggle is for and what it is about, but also how it is that we are going to recruit more and more people to get to that world.
So, that’s why I think food gets to be a very useful way of recruiting and thinking about radical social change. It becomes a way of saying, look, are you interested in having better good? Are you interested in being able to eat better? Are you interested in your children not being succumbing to diabetes? And certainly in the United States, one of three kids born now will develop type 2 diabetes. One in two kids of color. I’m very serious about my kids not developing type 2 diabetes…but merely presenting it as a thing parents should do just adds on to the things that parents should be doing for their kids. But who has the time? If we are thinking about just making that process one that is full of pleasure and joy and community, then all of the sudden that doesn’t get to be a task, it gets to be a mission of vision. And that, when it comes to social change, less of the tasks and more of the joy is going to get us much further and that is why I think that food is important.
RAJ: So what I love about this story is that it is about food, it is about ecology, it is about healthcare, it about a community empowering itself, joy, sharing food together, but it is also about politics and democracy. And it seems to me an example of food sovereignty at work.
Now food sovereignty, is this idea that was generated by the international peasant movement La La Via Campesina, a group that has by some estimates over two hundred million members and they have for a long time been saying, “look, what we need is an alternative to the way that capitalism provides us our food. And that vision for us is food sovereignty.” Now, food sovereignty has a long definition but if you want the sort of Cliffs Notes version, it is that we need democracy in our food system. That’s the one thing we’ve really been lacking.
[How are people thinking about this] in the United States? Well, of course there are a number of responses to that.
First of all, to observe globally the number of people of the billion or so people going hungry, sixty percent are women or girls. And in the United States there is a gender gap as we all know. You can see that from the pay differences between men and women. Women will earn seventy percent of what men earn for the same work. In the United States, one in three households that are headed by women are food insecure. There is abundant evidence that hunger is gendered in the United States as well as elsewhere.
[Secondly, there is the] idea of democracy in our food system.I was recently in Detroit where you have the Detroit Black Food Security Network doing wonderful things…. Everything from organizing farmer’s markets to looking at ways of generating income so that everyone is able to afford to shop at farmer’s markets and to be able to have access to good quality food and providing food for people who are unable to shop. The kinds of things that are happening in Detroit and throughout the United States, seem to me really exciting. So, the kinds of democracy you see at work in North America for example in Food Policy Councils, and there are over, more or less, a hundred food policy councils now in North America… And these are terrific sort of spaces where government and local businesses and local community groups are getting together to figure out how to eradicate hunger. I mean, slowly in some cases, but still broaching the question and figuring out ways together to answer that question. I think it is tremendously exciting. What that is is democracy and the food system where there was none before and I find that quite hopeful.
DT: Continuing with that, you wrote about the Black Panther party in your first book and then you continued with that research more recently in “Survival Pending Revolution,” can you say what the BPP did practically in relationship to food and then what activists today can learn from that?
RAJ: So, the Black Panther party has been abused by history and the way that it has been memorialized in the mainstream media is as a party of men in berets and leather coats with shotguns and people often forget that the Black Panther Party was also a service organization in many ways.
There were over forty what were called “Survival Programs.” And these survival programs existed because the founders of Black Panther Party realized that if they were to recruit people, they needed to address the material needs that were very much a problem to the people with whom they wanted to serve. And so, you had these sorts of survival programs that ranged from providing free shoes to escorting elderly people home at night if they were concerned about their health or their safety, to providing jobs, to providing bags of free food, to school breakfast programs.
Now, there had been some federal money for the providing of school breakfast but the federal government wasn’t taking that terribly seriously. But the Black Panthers did a terrific job of getting donations from local organizations and local businesses and turning those donations into school breakfast and those breakfasts were open to all black and poor people wherever they were open.
And so successful were these programs that at one point, the Black Panthers were feeding more kids than the state of California was. And this was a problem for the federal government and particularly for J. Edgar Hoover who saw nothing more dangerous than black people who were winning over the sympathies of the middle class by doing things like feeding kids. And so Hoover tried to undermine the Black Panther Party… the COINTELPRO and the FBI wore on the Black Panthers ultimately smashed the party.
But what cannot be lost is the lesson here and it seems to me is that there are many lessons. One of them of course is that is that if one is interested in building for social justice and social change then food is definitely a part of that. On the flip side, food can’t be the only thing that you do. And the Black Panthers realized that right off the bat. That’s why there were forty different programs. They had free healthcare. They had a rudimentary kind but nonetheless it was there. They had medical research into sickle-cell anemia because that was a disease that primarily effected African Americans and primarily does affect African American people, people from the African continent. And there was very little medical research happening around sickle-cell anemia so they set up the sickle-cell anemia research foundation.
So in order to understand and locate movements for social change within the context in which we find ourselves, you can’t just think about food and food activism can’t just be about food, it needs to be about healthcare, it needs to be about a system in which wages are so low that the only way that many people can afford to eat is at the local fast-food restaurant. If we are serious about radical transformation, food can’t be the only way… Making sure that there are farmers markets everywhere isn’t going to solve the problem because if people are unable to shop at farmer’s markets then it doesn’t matter how many there are. Similarly, if the marketing of food is so pervasive that our desires are shaped by powerful corporations then again, it doesn’t matter if there is kale on every corner. If our desires are so heavily shaped by marketing that what we want is Applebees then that’s…It won’t be surprisingly that we will end up there as opposed to making choices that are sensible to us because in many ways our instincts have been bought by the food industry.
So, we nee a rebellion against capitalism as well as the organizing of these sort of positive futures. But again, what seems worth learning from path of experience is you understand where people are right now and you use the organizing from where you are right now as a way forward in terms of organizing for the future and for political education. So, I think that is something that is sometimes forgotten among food activists today. That if we are interested in food justice, we need to be interested environmental justice, we need to be concerned with the housing crisis, we need to be concerned with capitalism.
I like that Black Panther story because of it is a way of reminding us in the food justice world, we have an ideological pantry that is rarely raided. There are experiences and histories when it comes to food that actually need to be recuperated. We kind of left these ideas on the shelf for a long time because of the way the food movement has in some ways come from a middle class trajectory but there has always been a radical food movement in the United States. There has always been a movement associated with farmers in the United States. There is obviously a movement associated with farm workers who are not the same thing, who are actually very different interests from farmers in the United States. And I think all of these strands are worth understanding and worth bringing together. So, you know, for example the history of farm workers in the United States and of communist organizing that is happening in the United States with farm workers, is something that is too often forgotten and is worth recuperating in just the same way as the sort of reconstructed Maoism of the Black Panthers as something we need to think about.
DT: My next question is about self-sufficiency and local control being values that you can find across the political spectrum. I had this experience where I saw a group of Maine farmers in Sedgwick, Maine (who are part of the National Family Farm Coalition) who decided to proclaim their town a food sovereignty town. This was initially an appeal that was made from my perspective under the auspices of more conventional left-wing politics, but then it got really picked up and celebrated also in conservative, libertarian and tea party related blogs… So, for example, it was written about it in left-wing and progressive publications like Modern Earth News and Grist but it was also written about in the Tenth Amendment Center and Daily Paul, which are constitutionalist news sources and then a blogger from the Daily Paul reported, “This is great! This town says that what we buy and sell here between townsfolk is private business, not the concern of the feds or the state. Makes me want to move to Sedgwick, Maine!” And so I just want you to reflect on this a little bit in terms of what you think are important distinctions between approaches to localism found across the political spectrum. What you think might sort of be held in common or what you think is a distinguishing characteristics.
RAJ: Maybe the first distinction worth pointing out is that food sovereignty is not the same thing as self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency is the idea that you are going to be having an autarchy…And very few places can actually achieve this, at a national level. But it is the idea that your property is your own and resources that flow through it are your own and always have been and in that sense self-sufficiency is quite amnesiac about history but it is fairly militant about property rights. It takes very seriously the idea that whatever history has provided and whatever injustices that happened along te way in order for what you consider to be your to be yours, well we can forget all that, what matters now is that this is mine and everyone else can just fuck off.
Food sovereignty is ultimately just a collective democratic process and the ideas behind food sovereignty are… it strikes me, quite different from self-sufficiency. Food sovereignty is the idea that what we need to be doing is having a democratic conversation about these resources and being able to democratically decide on the terms of exchange. Now, that isn’t to say that self sufficiency is ruled out, it is just that in practice in the world that we live in at the moment, it is hard to imagine a country or a territory or a city being self sufficient, but it is much easier to imagine that people can carry on exchanging but exchanging in terms where there is actually a democratic discussion first about the terms of that exchange.
So food sovereignty is much more about the democracy and much less about the self sufficiency and I like food sovereignty because it isn’t agnostic about history, it does have ideas within in about “Well, if we are going to have democracy, then we also need to be thinking about gender. We also need to be thinking about reparations. We need to be thinking about whose land this was. We can and should in many cases think about suspending property rights and to think about regimes in which we can manage resources in common as a commons.”
And I think this is a very important idea that we are too often cavalier about. The idea of a commons is a idea that we are often taught about as the tragedy of the commons. Here is an example. If we are members of a village and we have a forest around our village and the idea of the tragedy of the commons would say because we are all selfish and because no one owns this forest around us, the following will happen: we will go out to the village, we will chop down trees, we will shoot squirrels, we will forage for nuts and berries and we will all do it as much as we want. No one will stop us because we are greedy. And therefore, we will do this and the tragedy will be that we will destroy the forest from which we depend with eyes wide open, even though… until the last tree is chopped down because we are propelled by nothing other than our selfish interests. And the only thing that can prevent a tragedy of the commons in the ownership of the forest by someone who has an interest in stewarding it. Now, that model is not historically true. If you look at the commons, if you look at the rise of capitalism in Europe, in order for capitalism to happen, in fact, commons needed to be privatized. People are very good, as it turns out, as human beings. Yes, we are greedy, obviously we are greedy, but we are also other things. We are sociable; we are capable of averism and generosity and cooperation and we can create rules and live by them. I mean, imperfectly, but we do it anyway. And those ideas of managing resources without resorting to private property are ones that are still happening around the world that have happened in the past and to which we, I suggest, might want to return.
And those are ideas that are possible within a food sovereignty framework… And it is less easy to imagine that happening within a self sufficiency framework just because historically the idea of self-sufficiency has been one that has been wedded to the idea of private property rights and of marshaling and protecting borders and of sort of non-democratic means of achieving self-sufficiency. There is no necessary connection between self-sufficiency and democracy where there is a necessary connection n between food sovereignty and democracy.
DT: Continuing with the theme of resource management, I want to talk about markets. So you wrote in “Value of Nothing” that “you and me are also part of market society” (p.85), that you are “not arguing for a world without markets” (p.22) and that “Exchange itself might not be the source of the problem in explaining our current economic crisis – the problem likes in the system that surrounds the acts of exchange” (p.31, Value of Nothing, 2009) but that you also believe that markets are not the only way of “valuing the world”. My basic question: What is a market? And how is that distinct from the kind of capitalism that currently dominates the world economy? What is the difference between markets and democracy? I have read an essay by Charles W Johnson called “Markets Freed From Capitalism” in which he identifies a broad definition of markets, not as simply a “cash nexus” or as the corporate-state status quo, but as the site of free and voluntary exchange and consensual social experimentation. What do you think of this definition?
RAJ: In some ways, markets are as old as civilization and the idea two people can mutually exchange to their mutual benefit is something that I think is actually really powerful and quite wonderful. And I think the idea of uncoerced voluntary exchange for mutual benefit is something that we ought to be celebrating. We ought to have more of that. The trouble is that what we live in at the moment, what capitalism is, is kind of the anti-market. And this is an idea from the French historian Fernand Braudel that, in fact, what capitalism involves in the removal of the sort of consensual quality of exchange and in many cases the removal of mutual benefit. And that part of modern capitalism, the part that hides behind the idea, this wonderful and I think very powerful idea of what free markets, of uncoerced exchange, of no one telling you want to do.. and cowering behind that very attractive vision instead [is] what capitalism actually does, [which] is coerce us. And if you look at food markets, for example, most of the global food markets and controlled by four or five companies that are very happy to coerce and to be able to shape our tastes and be able to shape the terrain on which that exchange happens. So, I think there is an important distinction between markets, on the one hand, and capitalism on the other.
Now, what capitalism has done is insert itself into the fabric of society. The Hungarian social philosopher Karl Polanyi talks about market society, this idea of the way in which capitalism and societies are deeply enmeshed. Although it you watch Fox News you might believe that markets are god given. In fact, they are very much human creations. And the process of making markets is something that is often very violent.
And what we are seeing in the history of capitalism is that things that weren’t previously considered things that ought to be part of markets became market commodities…So, land for example. Still, in many civilizations, land is not considered the kind of thing you can buy and sell. It is the kind of thing sometimes to which you belong it is not the thing that belongs to you, you belong to it. And conceptually, there needs to be a great deal of violence done. The commons needs to be smashed. The private property rights need to be created in order for there to be market transaction of than land. Similarly, the way that you think of oneself and one’s body and the things that we do with our time… For that to become a commodity, we need to transform the way we think about our relationships to one another.
But it is a mark of how deeply enmeshed we are in market society that we think it is perfectly normal to pay rent and to get a salary. And yet, what is rent? Rent is a return on the private property of land. What is a salary? Salary is a money exchange for our labor power. Now, these are not natural god-given things. These are things that are very much part of modern capitalism. And yet we are so enmeshed in it that it is impossible that perhaps there are things that shouldn’t be commodities…Perhaps there are ways that we can rethink the way in which we govern these resources…Our own time, our own bodies, and certainly the land and resources beneath our feet in order…that we don’t find them afloat in a market where the highest bidder is able to control them but rather that we govern them in ways which are actually much more democratic.
Now, what this is to say is that, yes, markets are terrific…But they are terrific where it makes sense to have uncoerced exchange between individual people to experiment but when you have markets that created in large part so that powerful financial entities can become more powerful, that is probably a place where you don’t need markets. It is not even a case of too big to fail… These banks are dangerous entities and need to be smaller. It is a case of do we need markets in certain things at all? You don’t want markets in everything. It seems to me that a free and uncoerced exchange of a private property right to pollute is a stupid idea [proposed by] many, including many libertarians. The idea of [using] private property rights in the atmosphere [as] the way that you fix climate change. There is an abundance of evidence that that is actually not going to work.
DT: Continuing with that train of thought, you wrote that government shapes the terrain of the market (p.73). Give some examples of what the most powerful governments do and do not do in relation to the economy, as you elaborate on in Chapter 5 (p74-84, Value of Nothing, 2007).
RAJ: So this is the market society point isn’t it? That actually, in order for us to have land and what have you, governments need to be able to legislate that.
DT: I want you to get at the integral kind of relationship between markets and the state. You say the “terrain”…the sort of supportive relationship that exists.
RAJ: If you look at some of the crazy right-wing stuff about markets and government, it appears as if these markets appear magically and they self-police and that they require none of the infrastructure of government in able to be able to keep them rolling. And of course, that is precisely the opposite of what happens. In order for markets actually to exist, you do need regulation. You do need infrastructure. You need police to come and prevent violations of private property rights, for example. The whole idea of a private property right is premised on the idea that if it is violated, someone will come and haul you away. Now that someone is usually going to be from the state. Otherwise, it is not a private property right in any way that makes sense, in a strange libertarian calculus. You do need a role of some sort of police. This is the role of the liaison, right? And that often gets forgotten.
And so the idea that the government should just vacate itself from the business of markets is to wish for markets not to exist. There is an amnesia where people are saying, “Let governments remove themselves from free market.” Because it order for markets to exists, governments need to maintain them and police them. And so, that is why I find it is like ludicrous that people would want government out of markets whenwouldn’t be able to be maintained without the assistance of a government that is ready to regulate and to police.
DT: You just said governments support markets and I understood you to be talking about markets as they currently exist…but in the previous question you made this distinction between capitalism as we know it and markets as an idea.
RAJ: What is a way of clarifying that? We have the sort of ideal idea of the market as a space where uncoerced exchange can happen. And that is terrific. And that is over here in.. You can occasionally find it in a marketplace where there is, where you are in a bazaar or something like that but in general the kinds of markets that you hear talked about in the newspapers when you hear, “The markets were up today!” or, “the markets were down today!” That is the opposite, right. The markets that were up and down today are not the markets where you are free and uncoerced. The markets that were up and down were the markets run by capital. Or rather, the markets through which capitalism is achieved and perpetuated.
Now, some people say, “Well, those markets are terrific and they are efficient and they ought to be left to their own devices. And markets work best when government is absent.” Now, at one level that is a preposterous idea because in order for these markets to exist, historically, as we’ve said, for land to be transformed into the kind of thing that can be bought and sold for labor to the kind of thing that can be bought and sold… You needed legislation. You need an architecture that is provided by the government. To have a private property is precisely to evoke some power that will come when that private property right is violated and will come and police it and will haul away the violator. So, the idea of governments existing separately from these kinds of markets, from capitalist markets, is absurd.
Now, certainly there are those who say, “Well, once capitalist markets are up and running, through the magic of the state, that then the state should take a step back.” But again, in order for markets to function everyday, you do need that regulation in order for price signals to effectively and clearly to be communicated you need regulation about what it is that is shared, the information that is available. And again, that is why I find it slightly weird… That the requirement to be more transparent about information, the regulations that are required in order for environmental costs, for example, to be communicated effectively, those kinds of regulations are considered burdensome whereas in fact that is kind of the way that the markets can and should be working in this weird capitalist fantasy…which again, has not much at all to do with the wonderful world of uncoerced exchange. In this world, we have a world of powerful people and powerful entities and powerful corporations that have a great deal of money. And it is weird, right. We often hear about the free market but there is… There is not much liberty in the free market in any sense.
There is a thought experiment that I really like that was put forward by a great philosopher Jerry Cohen. Jerry Cohen has this idea that, imagine a world where we don’t have money and we don’t have markets and instead what we have is a lottery of tickets and all these tickets are freedoms. You are free to go visit your mother, you are free to have three meals a day, you are free to have a car or healthcare, and we distribute these tickets at random. Some people have a lot of tickets and some people will have one or two tickets. And we would say in this world, “Well, the person with more tickets has more freedom.” And then Jerry Cohen says, “Well, look, that is like a free market but instead of tickets we have money.” And in a free market, free just means you have a lot of cash. If you don’t have cash then you are in many ways not a free person. In other words, in a free market, freedom is just another word for what poor people can’t afford.
Now that idea of liberty and the free market is sort of over here but it is not about uncoerced exchange. It is about an entitlement of liberty in a meaningful way that is denied to you if you are poor. I would like to have that uncoerced exchange, but in order for that exchange genuinely to be uncoerced there needs to be equality before that and there needs to be a certain amount of democracy before that…. Whereas, a free market can exist quite happily without either democracy or equality.
DT: While you are talking about democracy and economies…Can you talk about what you perceive to be a relationship between local food and local politics?
RAJ: So, when he hear a lot about local food, “Buy local! Buy Seasonal!” Whatever it is… “Eat kale, it is good for you.” The idea of local control… It is very exciting. I am excited by the idea that we would have generally democratic control in our food shed. Now, what that means is from wherever our food comes there would be the possibility of a democratic conversation. That means we would have a democratic conversation that includes labor, for instance. That would include the unpaid work that supports modern capitalism. The often gendered work that allows capitalism to function, that allows to certain labor to be sold in the market while other reproductive labor, often women’s labor, is necessarily unpaid.
Now, that kind of local control is very different from the buy-local. The buy-local is entirely compatible with capitalism as it now stands where workers are exploited, the environment is spoiled. Even here in California is it possible for me to buy local and organic and still participate in a system that exploits workers. There was a case a year or so ago where a woman worker, a farm worker, in the Central Valley here in California died for want of access to water. She was working on an organic farm. If you see the packaging it looks local, it looks environmentally sustainable, and people died in the making of that. So local control seems to me is about a genuine sort of democracy as opposed to the kind of consumerism that is more oriented to circulating dollars in our local economy, but keeping that economy fundamentally capitalist. I think that again this is the distinction between a sort of genuinely food sovereign local economy and one that is merely going through the motions of shopping in a window dressed kind of way.
DT: Karl Hess suggests that if the poorest neighborhoods had state regulations and constraints lifted, that people would immediately start creating wealth. So, the poorest neighborhoods in the U.S. get state regulations on small business licenses, and things like that, were sort of eliminated…. That all of the sudden people would spontaneously start creating wealth. Can you alleviate poverty through the market?
RAJ: No. And that seems to me to not understand how poor neighborhoods work. Wealth is being created all the time in poor neighborhoods. In fact, it was very interesting to see what is happening in West Oakland right now where there’s a friend of mine Brahm Ahmadi, who is part of the People’s Grocery. And of course capitalist don’t seem to be ready to give him any money. His problem isn’t government regulation… The problem is capitalism. And so I think that capitalist markets are generating poverty. They are not alleviating. Obviously, they are making some people very rich. But the problem in poor neighborhoods isn’t government regulation. It is a range of other things, ranging from racism to insufficient protection from environmental hazards.
In the sort of conventional way of thinking, if only businesses were allowed to flourish or if only people were given the right to own their own land and then all of the sudden they would turn into capital and they would thrive…. These are ideas that are also you can find in Hernando deSoto who wrote a book called, “Mystery of Capital, ” who was saying that basically, look, poor people are sitting on land in slums throughout the third world, and if only we gave them title everything would be fine. Now, title is important…security of tenure is very important, but we can do that without resorting to markets. And by keeping… by merely providing title to land but while keeping everything else the same, all you do is provide a mechanism to suck yet more resources out of a poor community.
So, I dispute quite deeply what Hess is saying. I don’t think the problem is government regulation. I think that histories of exploitation and alienation are much more important. But I think in many ways people have been denied the opportunity, despite a great deal of organizing to organize their local resources. Looking at again at the history of the Black Panthers, what were the Black Panthers trying to do? They were trying to organize their resources. They were smashed by a government in the name of preserving order. Now, the same government at the same time promoting these ideas order is promoting capitalist markets.
I am certainly attracted to the idea of people organizing to manage their own resources, I think that is terrific idea. But to do that without a sort of understanding that there may be other claims on those resources, I think there might be a problem with people organizing to manage oil resources, for example, when those oil resources have externalities that effect the entire planet. I’m not cool with people organizing to burn as much oil as they can or burn as much coal as they can just because it happens to be in their backyard. I think that because we live in a world where we share the global commons, we need to be figuring out ways in which we organize understands and respects the environmental constraints which we find ourselves.
I find libertarianism insufficient. It is necessary in terms of people organizing together and taking… and that sort of anarchist principle… but I am much more in tune with libertarian socialism. I think that that is recognized that the playing field is not level, that people to not get to organize as they choose. That when you are born you may be born with nothing as other people may be born with a great deal. Is that fair? I don’t think it is. And a certain amount of community intervention to make sure the playing field is level is a good idea.
Similarly, making sure that we do manage these global externalities I think is important. It will do people very little good at all to organize their resources in a world where we have global change of 2 or 3 degrees at minimum and much more than that at some places. We do need mechanisms in order to be able to collectively address these problems. But one of the ways we do that is by, firstly, moving beyond capitalism. And I don’t think that the kind of libertarianism that he advocates is serious about piercing the idea of private property rights. I think we need to move beyond private property rights in thinking about the climate, in thinking about resources, and thinking about land. And there’s not enough of that in this idea of libertarianism to make me feel like it is truly like liberty.
Does that make sense? Because when it comes organizing and people being free to be able to organize themselves, that’s terrific. But there are also ways in which constraints are necessary. I think we can collectively agree that there are domains in which free and uncoerced exchange is a good idea but there are also ways in which we can agree to bind our hands before that exchange happens so there are certain things we don’t do because it just damages us or degrades our environment or it is an insult to our collective sense of who we are that that not happen.
DT: That makes sense. These kind of questions are things I’m thinking through myself, which is ultimately why I do most projects to try to publicly or constructively think through challenging questions. I want to get beyond left-wing vs right-wing libertarianism overly particular debates… Which is why I’m interested in talking to you about food because I feel that these aspirations of localism are more broadly desired… And seeing them expressed in popular ways by the Tea Party, by Occupy Wall Street, by these movements of disenchantment, essentially…Is there anything else you have to say that is related to the local control and disenchantment?
RAJ: Also something that I am wrestling with is what scale works? We can sort of understand that our community of fifty families or whatever there is can get together and do democracy but what about at a regional level and at a national level? What about international level? It just seems impossible to get democracy to work properly there, which is why capital and corporations seem to be very good at hijacking that process.
And one of the ideas I’ve been really excited by has been from Andrej Grubačić, the Balkan sociologist. And he has this idea of Balkanization from below. Now, what we often hear about Balikanization where it is basically people who hate each other that they split up into tiny little countries and they don’t get along… But if you look at the history of the Balkans as Andrej does, he has this wonderful grassroots vision of democracy where communities are in fact getting together at local levels, and then at regional levels, and then at national levels. And that is why from the outside it looks as if there is a lot of instability. And certainly in the twentieth century, with the advent of twentieth century states that certainly become much more evident… but the history of the Balkans, from democracy from below, where you can have local regional and sort of greater than regional kinds of interactions between people and people get along just fine, that vision of democracy I think is very, very exciting. I’m excited just for us to figure out ways for us to do that in the twentieth-first century. I think that something that we need to be recuperating. And it is another sort of think from our ideological pantry that we ought to be pulling off the shelf, I think.
DT: In conclusion, I just want you to unpack some of these metaphors you use in the Value of Nothing. Let’s start with your interest in Kafka’s Metamorphosis and then you can go into some of the medical metaphors that interest you.
RAJ: I am happy to read it…
“One morning after a night of bad dreams, Gregor Samsa awoke to find himself transformed into a bug. He was lying on his hard, as it were a armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff, arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position, was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his ideas. What has happened to me, he thought?”
That image of waking up to find yourself in the body of a bug… I use it as a metaphor in the “Value of Nothing” to talk about how we woke up in 2008 and we are in the middle of a recession and we’ve been told by economic betters that things were going just fine and as long as we liberalize markets, everything was going to be terrific. And so waking up in 2008 to find that we were in fact in recession, it was strange. In fact, our reaction was the same as Gregor Samsa because what happens in the Metaphorphsis is Gregor Samsa doesn’t then ask, “So, What happened to me?” He doesn’t ask, ” What am I going to do?” He is like, “How am I going to keep my job?” The first thing that Gregor Samsa worries about is his job. It is not about the deep processes that resulted in his transformation. It is much more about, “How am I going to survive this?” And that was our response in 2008. It was much more about “How do we survive? “How do we overcome the situation that we are in rather then… So what the hell… What am I going to wake up as tomorrow? Today I am a bug… What exactly has happened?
And I think that it is hard for us to ask those deep questions because we are so mired in the economy, right? We spoke a little bit earlier on about how things that historically that are very weird like rent and salaries are perfectly natural to us, that we are already in the process of selling rights to pollute the atmosphere, we have these carbon markets. And these are bizarre ideas historically! It would have been absurd to any number of civilizations proceeding ours that we would do such a thing.
But nonetheless, we are sort of caught up in the market because actually we’ve kind of ceded to the market the ability to value things. And there is an interesting sort of medical metaphor that is useful here, it is called Anton’s blindness. Anton’s Blindness is the name of a condition that you get after a traumatic brain injury, it might be a stroke or a car accident or something like that. But if you have Anton’s Blindness then here are your symptoms. You believe that you can see… You bump into things, because in fact you are blind. And so they will bump into things and they will crash around… And then they will have to make up stories about why it is that the world that they believe to be the case is different from the one where they find themselves. And so they will make up stories, it is called confabulation. They will make up a story about how…” I was careless. I didn’t see that table there!” or, “Who moved the chair?”
But that confabulation is what we are doing right now, when we talk about the economy being the result of Bernie Madoff’s greed or the feckless Greeks…. If only they hadn’t lied about their accounts then everything, we wouldn’t be in this mess. That is a confabulation because really what we are missing is the much deeper problem of the fact that we are relying on markets, on these capitalist markets, to tell us what things are worth rather than us to engage in a democratic process of actually deciding where it is we want a price signal and where it is that a price signal is entirely inappropriate. And in that sense we have advocated a great deal of democracy to the markets and the people who are kings of those markets are not in any way democratically-minded.