Food, Food, Food, Food, Food
Does everyone here remember the ending of the Wes Anderson film Fantastic Mr. Fox? After Mr. Fox and his family have endured numerous misadventures and a long sojourn confined to the sewers, they poke their heads up into a supermarket. This desert of linoleum lined with row upon row of artificially flavored, processed nutrition will enable the animals to survive. Though we rejoice that the displaced animals no longer have to scrounge a living from what you can find scurrying around in pipes, there is a note of sadness in this as well. Their woodland life is over: no more living in pine trees, no more derring-do, no more of the old. Now it’s hard flooring and stolen human surplus. It’s thievery without the romance, squatting without the rustic mise-en-scène that gave it some dignity.
I spend more time than I care to strolling around under harsh fluorescent lights and exposed ceilings trying to choose between twenty-six different kinds of toothpaste. I waste my time trying to find affordable packaged fruit juice that isn’t packed with sugar or corn syrup. Retail stores are loci of capitalist desire, with the best being glossy buildings where smiling is obligatory for the employees and the awkward ritual of market exchange is the core liturgy. We supposedly enter through the automatic doors as free agents, consumers armed with information and set free into a free-floating zone of infinite choice. How can we not be happy, considering the abundant necessities and chaotic proliferation of luxuries?
While this is starting to sound like a nostalgic paean to the good old days, and in some ways that’s what Wes Anderson films do, I want to reject that kind of thinking right here. Nor am I going to call for a straightforward return to a “simple” life, full of hard labour off the land and subsistence living. The abundance that flows outward from the industrial revolution represents a bright hope. Through increasingly complex and complete mastery of science and its application in engineering, agriculture, communications, and manufacturing, we can now not only provide for ourselves but live beyond what our bodies require. The pain I experience doesn’t originate in the artificiality of the environment or in the superfluous variety of body-destroying products and expensive organic deluxe foods. It doesn’t originate in the bright tile, the colors, or the way employees have to put up a brave face and endure torrents of abuse from customers.
I hate all of those things, but the real anger comes from the realization that all of this is a just a symptom of commodification. It’s a treasure trove of imperialist exploitation, capitalist profit-making, and the transformation of the basic stuff of life into another way the ruling class can squeeze profits out of those who have to sell their time and bodies to survive. What’s worse is that there’s no way to negotiate a better deal out of this situation. No amount of “fair trade” shopping or conscious consumerism is going to make a tittle of real difference. Those who believe otherwise are almost as frustrating as the endless, arid wastelands of commercial strip malls not a few blocks from my front door. It’s strange that some liberals can revolt over the idea that healthcare isn’t something we provide for people as a society, but refuse to recognize that food is the same way. Their solutions, often in the form of handouts or charitable causes–food banks and the like–are short-term, ineffective, and humiliating. It’s no good to moralize and pontificate about the terrible evils of our food production system (which are many) without a comprehensive solution that can feed everyone. That can only mean the end of capitalism.
Of course, the fact that people in certain countries have this excess and decadence is a result of imperialism and the stratification of nations and peoples into the oppressor and the oppressed nations. I will in no way deny that dealing with overwhelming choice is a privilege compared to subsistence agriculture. But it’s only in recognizing this, and finding a concrete strategy for the elimination of concrete structures of oppression that these insights have any use. Proletarian revolution is going to be painful when and if it thunders to the gates of the centers of capitalism. It’s going to entail a great deal of sacrifice from those of us who are accustomed to eating beyond what’s necessary. But don’t people, even the most politically unaware, often lament that they want to simplify? Isn’t this often preached from pulpits? Don’t the politicians foist “austerity” onto the proletariat in the name of the greater (bourgeois) good? Surely the dictatorship of the proletariat, which I expect will entail the logical rationing of food surpluses rather than their senseless concentration, will have to make similar demands of the old ruling classes?
Under capitalism, our desires are not our own. They are created, bought, and paid for by our so-called betters. And when someone panders to our debased tastes and preferences, we are supposed to be flattered. People often mock the Soviet Union for the long bread lines and cramped housing. In reality, though, waiting in a long line for guaranteed rations will be a gigantic step up for most of the world’s population. Long live the revolution! Solidarity with rural and urban proletariat the world over!