5.11.2015

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Food Issues Book Club - Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 4

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 4: Just a Cry for Bread

Summary:

The modern food system can trace its roots back to 18th century England, when free men without land of their own worked the land of the rich for low wages.  Simultaneously, imports created a taste and demand for exotic luxury foods.  For example, hot (imported) tea with milk and (imported) sugar, a beverage utterly unknown and unavailable in the western world in 1600, quickly replaced (locally grown and made) beer - which held the title as most popular beverage for centuries - as England's preferred beverage.  This was accomplished through the development of the plantation system of farming and "and endless supply of almost disposable people from the Global South."  (Table sugar, in other words, is the direct result of slavery.)

Slave labor allowed food to be sold cheaply, which in turn allowed low wages for workers in the factories of the industrial revolution.  As crops were produced on the backs of slaves, goods were produced on the backs of the working poor.  As is so frequently the case, women suffered most in conditions of hard labor and low quality and quantity of food.  By the mid-1800s, slaves and workers alike began to organize and push back against the small ruling class, some successfully, others to dire punishment.  "The solution to worker dissatisfaction in Europe involved blunting the edge of discontent," namely by ensuring a sufficient quantity of cheap food.  Without cheap food, industrial workers rebelled.  Without slaves and low paid agricultural labor, there could be no cheap food.

And thus, slave rebellions were met with ferocious retribution.  It was upon their backs that the entire industrial pyramid was built.  "The slaves mistakenly thought that the words of the American or French Revolutions, which were led in large part by the middle classes against the aristocracy, might apply to them.  That they too might qualify for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  They were not, however, the intended audience for this rhetoric, being too poor, too black, and too indispensable to the production of food for Europe...  It served not at all to have slaves up in arms, bandying the slogans of European revolution, when they had been captured and brought to the Caribbean expressly to prevent it."

After WWII, the US began sending food aid from its abundance to England, which was struggling with shortage.  When it had recovered in the mid-1950s and no longer wanted cheaper American imports skewing its markets, the US turned its attentions to the Global South.  Developing countries "might be rendered less troubled, more grateful and, in a new twist, more dependent if provided with cheap food."  Used particularly as a method of subduing socialism's increasing hold, "[a]ny US-aligned government that found itself battling worker-led organizing or, indeed, any plausibly left-wing political opposition could gain access to the US strategic grain reserve" though Eisenhower's Public Law 480.

Not accidentally, "third world" residents became hooked on US-made processed wheat products.  As explained by the infamous Earl Butz, "[h]ungry men listen only to those who have a piece of bread.  Food is a tool.  It is a weapon in the US negotiating kit."  Food aid largely ended when the price of oil exploded in 1974.**  However, [t]he donation of food as aid continues to be a strategic tool in the negotiating kits of rich and poor countries alike."

This would be hilarious
if it weren't so frightening.
Countries in the Global South sought loans from oil-rich countries which, with the high price of oil, were well situated to loan.  When, inevitably, oil prices again dropped and loans came due, interest rates soared.  Loanees, still in dire economic straits in a global recession, borrowed more money in order to pay the interest of their original loans, entering an impossible cycle of debt.  "[W]ith high interest rates and global recession at the end of the 1970s, the accumulated debt set large parts of Latin America, Africa, and eventually Asia on the route to bankruptcy."  It was during this time that the international financial institutions such as the World Bank rose to power.  "[T]he World Bank was one of the four organizations that had both the means and the will to extend credit to governments in the Global South."

The Bank, though, attached contingencies to its loans through so-called Structural Adjustment Programs.  Governments that entered such loan agreements were required to make changes to their countries' economic policies, ultimately making those economies friendlier and more easily exploited by developed countries.  Suspiciously, developed countries were following nearly opposite economic courses to those prescribed by The Bank.  Since 1995, the WTO has taken up a similar mantle, much to the detriment of the developing world.

Discussion:

To begin, can we just take a moment with the following sentence: "It served not at all to have slaves up in arms, bandying the slogans of European revolution, when they had been captured and brought to the Caribbean expressly to prevent it."  WOW.  I mean, really, wow.  I don't know about y'all, but for me this puts slavery in a whole new light.  I have always thought of it as a loosely associated group of powerful white men being greedy.  This description allows us to view slavery through a whole new level of structural violence.  Mind blown.

Another mind blown moment: the ** about Earl Butz.  I've long known that he is the "fence row to fence row" dude who transitions American farmers from being paid not to overproduce to producing as much as possible.  I also recently came to understand that this was the result of a massive sale of grain to the USSR.  What this book explained was why such a sale was made: oil!  History is like that - it's like looking at a sculpture.  You can't just look at its face.  You've got to walk all the way around to get the whole picture.

This chapter moves from discussing slavery economics to world bank-style economics.  This is not a non-sequitur.  When slavery became distasteful to the mainstream world, a new method had to be devised to continue to exploit people of color.  That may sound like some kind of conspiracy theory.  And yet, as explained in this chapter, our entire capitalist system depends on this exploitation.  Without the slaves to enable cheap food there is no cheap labor; without cheap labor there are no cheaply made but expensively sold goods; without profitable goods there are no corporate moguls.  And the corporate moguls don't like that math, not at all.  And so, what is done in the guise of "helping" developing countries is, in fact, only helping to keep those countries subservient.  This isn't done because those at the top are evil or cruel; it's done for the love of money, and a shaky enough moral compass that the ends (money) justify any and all means.

Here in the South we really, really don't like to talk about the history of slavery.  You can go down to Louisiana's River Road and take a plantation tour - they'll show you the lovely mansions and the beautiful oaks, and if you're lucky they'll wave toward where slaves' quarters used to be, moving quickly past.  At least one plantation is trying to change that: the Whitney Plantation focuses on its history of slavery. Although still slightly disorganized from what I understand, its presence creates an invaluable opportunity to confront our country's history rather than dismissing it.  Additionally, a slave ship museum has been proposed for the New Orleans riverfront.  While such a place would undoubtedly be informative, some fear that entertainment aspect added to attract tourists would trivialize the experience of slaves transported on such ships.

However it is accomplished, we must not allow this dark time in our history to be forgotten or downplayed - particularly because slavery hasn't ended.  It is not - NOT - some distant part of history that people need to "get over."  It has for the most part changed form, and yet its effects are easily seen in all corners of the earth.


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