The mechanics of the struggle for hegemony: a case study of Local Food (at RLS)

Lecture to the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 5 February 2015.

Good afternoon. I am very happy to be here. When I learned about how this organization works, I was surprised and delighted and excited. I am happy for the opportunity to participate and contribute what I can and to have the chance to meet you. I apologize for my lack of German speaking.

I was an activist in various economic justice movements from the year 1990, and from 1999 until 2004 in the alterglobalization movement. In all of the struggles of which I was a part, there was a lot of precision and angst and drama and conflict about ideology and about tactics. (There was less discussion about strategy than there should have been.) We replayed the 1960s’ movements storyline of boys telling girls that they weren’t militant enough.

Running in parallel, and at times interwoven with my interests in economic issues was my interest in food. It took many forms.

In 1995, I was looking for a way to teach low income students of color about economics, because they were intimidated by it, and I decided to use food as the thread. This course was called The Political Economy of Food, and I taught it for 14 years, during which it went from a non-topic in the social sciences to a popular and well-respected area, with jobs and interdisciplinary programs. The students of this class insisted that as part of the class I had to teach them to cook.

In 2005, I started an underground restaurant. There were various reasons for this. One was that the entire US anarchist left was rabidly campaigning for Kerry. The second reason was that I had heard Leo Panitch describe Jewish communities on the eastern seaboard, and the richness of political dialogue that was part of daily life. I thought “I have to start building community and politics in my neighborhood.”

Instead of politicizing people by exposing them to the violence of the police, I decided to try politicizing them by exposing them to the taste of ripe heirloom tomatoes.

 In 2008 Juliet Schor, the consumption scholar, asked me to bring her up to speed on social movements literature, and in that moment, 10 years after Naming the Enemy, I decided re-read the social movements literature. Now Naming the Enemy was resolutely anti-culture, indeed it was hardly even a social movements book. It’s a book about ideology. But after 10 years of activism in that movement and others, I had a very different perspective. And at this point, Eyerman & Jamison suddenly resonated, and Melucci. And then one day Juliet looked at me over the sandwich I had made for her and said “Is Local Food a social movement?”

Even though I had been involved with food for so many years, the work I was doing didn’t look or feel anything like what I had called activism. There was no sense of being marginal, everyone I talked to was interested, no one was accusing anyone of being a reformist, and perhaps most disorientingly, there were no cops.

But once I started trying to answer her question I recognized that a lot had changed since the first time I purchased some bulk food from a coop in 1987 and first bought something from a farmers market in 1990 (black raspberries).

By 2012, Local Food was putting $4.8 billion of revenue into small farms, which meant they could be viable again, instead of an endangered species. In the same year, a report by market research firm ATKearney (and paid for by the large grocery retailers) found 70% of respondents willing to pay more for local food (even 57% of low income respondents) – primarily because they believe it helps the economy. They also believe it offers more choice and is healthier. And this new industry was built in the ruins of Wall Street, as the US economy was in major crisis. This is an industry that’s about ethics, about integrity and respect for land, for animals, and for farmers.

So what can we learn about the struggle for hegemony?

I think we really underestimate action movies as tropes for social movement strategy. The first thing I want to talk about is how the Local Food movement has proliferated new economic institutions. These institutions do two things. One they address places where the new economy gets stuck. And second they make people feel empowered about the possibilities for social change. This is what Melucci is talking about with creating laboratories where people can experiment with new investments and commitments, new experiences of participation, different circulations and exchanges.

I call these “gadgets”.

The most familiar of these is the CSA box, where a household invests in the farm’s harvest and receives a weekly box of vegetables. There is now software designed to help manage this system, and there is a new iteration which is the multi-farm CSA which can offer more diversity and also more reliable supply. Food Assemblies are a cross between a farmers market and a CSA. 

Another recent innovation is the food hub. Recognizing that farmers need to make direct sales but that doing so is often a massive burden on their time and personnel, food hubs are a new form of middleman. But this time it’s a middleman with transparent pricing, ethical policies, and “source-verification” (the name of the farm stays on the product all the way through the transaction).

In the US, one of the most long-standing projects was Farm-to-School which is now in 44% of US public schools. That’s more than 40,000 schools affecting 23 million students.  26 US states have written procuremnt policies to support school administrators. These programs spend $385 million on local farm products.

Small-scale livestock farmers face the problem that meat for retail sale must be safety-certified by the government. But the large meatpacking corporations bought up that part of the commodity chain, and farmers had no choice but to sell their animals at whatever price the corporations would pay. In order to take control of the transaction and own their animal until the point of sale, farmers have to retain ownership through slaughter and butchery. The solution is “niche meat processing” and it involves cooperatively-owned abattoirs as well as mobile slaughterhouses, which enable farmers to share the costs of certification.

Creating spaces and events where food is a destination is a way to get people to think about the pleasure they get from food and to convince them to invest in quality producers. Here in Berlin, in addition to farmers markets that I was thrilled to discover run all year, we have the Markethall Neun, with the Breakfast Market, and the Nasch Market. Massively successful. Supporting small food businesses as a form of entertainment! In Australia and New Zealand there is so much interest in artisan food, but very little tradition and skill. So the quality and expertise has to be developed. This is a photo from Rootstock which is an innovative natural wine festival where wines cannot be represented by salespeople, only by the winemakers themselves. Half of the festival is devoted to closed sessions for the winemakers to taste and teach one another. European winemakers are invited to participate in the festival for free, as educators. 

A major problem in this movement is that people have forgotten how to cook. This is one of the biggest barriers for CSA projects. People are into the idea, but they don’t know how to cook what’s in the box and they don’t want to waste food, so they quit the program. Kochhaus in Berlin is one of many versions of a model which offers a recipe-centered approach to food retailing. This coach people into cooking again, while keeping the costs low by selling every ingredient in exactly the quantity you need for the recipe, so there’s no waste.

Underground Restaurants are places which are about decommodifying dining. They have a variety of agendas, but in general they are trying to expand how people think about food, cooking, eating, dining …(To find underground restaurants in Berlin and other cities, check FindaSupperClub. To learn more, check out my book.)   

There is so much innovation that the US department of agriculture has even developed the “Compass” interactive map to help people find local food projects.

So the next thing I want to talk about is Heros.

Eyerman and Jamison emphasize how social movements generate new roles. Some of the most important and influential intellectuals today are farmers, chefs, and artisan makers. Will Allen, an urban farmer, received the McArthur Genius Grant a few years ago. Young people are going into butchering, and becoming educators about nose-to-tail eating. 

Good Food Jobs lists opportunities in farming and artisan production to help connect the generation of young people who want to do this kind of ethical, meaningful work. They currently have 20,000 listings.

Celebrity chef Alice Waters has led a moral crusade that chefs have to do more than cook great food and run a lean business, they need to understand and create sustainable cuisine, They need to innovate in their communities to teach people to love healthy food and to cook. Waters does this through her Edible Schoolyard Project. 

Artisan producers are deciding how they want to run their businesses. What values they want to have. And they are not the values that are presumed to be inevitable for businesses. They are defining how they want to use natural resources, they are deciding how they want to work, and how much. (This is Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. He makes 175 loaves of bread a day. That’s the right number. He spends the rest of the day teaching people how to make their own bread.)  And they are defining how they want to make transactions and relate in the marketplace. See my story about mozzarella.

The third topic I want to touch about today is the hero’s quest. 

Eyerman and Jamison say that the purpose of social movements is to create and spread a new idea – a new cosmology. And Melucci says it is to change the culture. I think these are pretty damn close. But more interestingly, in my personal experience I find that ideas and culture are quite different from ideology as I experienced it in Leftist activist circles.

The cosmology and culture of the local food movement is food as community, not as commodity.

But what I think is really interesting and important for leftists to learn from this movement is that the ideas are developing without any kind of central control. And as each concept gets coopted, as organic was coopted by corporations, the movement generates new concepts. The word ‘artisan’ is unregulated, and it’s become a huge marketing word in corporate food retail. So people are always taking these ideas deeper, and developing more language and ideas, like “small-batch”. 

The last point I want to make is that every single person I interview –whether a part of the Local Food movement or artisans who make Local Objects–– says the same thing. I ask “why do people buy from you?” They say “the story”. People are willing to pay more, make extra trips, go further, be inconvenienced, not get exactly what they wanted …. because more meaningful than the commodity itself is the story. And this is very cute and very obvious in some ways, but it’s also very powerful. Because global commodity chains are all about making the story invisible. And symbol schemes like bio or fair trade don’t give us the story, they just tell us that the story is ok. What’s powerful about Local Food is that the whole experience of food, cooking, and eating is different when you are part of the story.

And to finish the story, I was looking in this wonderful website about food stories, the Lexicon of Sustainability. I was trying to choose one of the images to use in the presentation, and I realized that this farmer in this image is Jeff Broadie, who was part of my activist community in the early 2000s. He was a punk rock anarchist who lived on cigarettes and pizza and beer. But he took my food class, with a puzzled look on his face the whole time. And now he’s a farmer. And this image is about how a couple (called the “farm fairies”) decided to invest in Jeff’s farm, instead of putting their money in Wall Street.